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The One That Brings Me Back

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August 24th, 2000 - Jillian

The summer was flying by too fast. Previous summers, through elementary and middle school, had dragged on like rakes through wet sand, making deep ravines to hide memories in. August always felt like a moment for change. This August was nothing like the ones that had come before.

Jillian was seventeen and a high school graduate. She had gone through the motions, attending the senior breakfast and picnic, singing at the baccalaureate service and walking up the long aisle of the auditorium in a ridiculous hat and praying that gravity would cooperate. She had sat somewhere in the middle of the sea of classmates; a perfect representation of her time in high school: in the middle. In her four years at Blake High School in Tampa, she never stood out, making acquaintances and average grades. She excelled as a theatre major, but was never one to draw attention to herself. She watched over her sister, Evie, who was a freshman and made an impressive go at it, joining the cheer squad and finding a classmate of Jillian’s to date. All eyes were on Evie and Jillian got to stand back and wait with the safety net. She was comfortable waiting in the wings.

This August, all the attention had shifted to her. Her father couldn’t stop telling everyone how proud he was of her two-year full ride to the local community college. Jillian would cringe every time he brought it up. This wasn’t how she pictured her college experience. She had always imagined she would audition into an artsy school up north, where she would hone her acting skills, then merge them into dance and performance art. She would drink lattes and write slam poetry and date guys who wore turtlenecks. She would tell everyone about how her mother freaked out and abandoned her and her three young sisters, leaving behind a bitter disdain for all things, but especially matriarchs.

In reality, she was headed to Hillsborough Community College, staying close to home and sisters and father. Her father was doing his best and had been for the 8 years since his wife checked herself into a mental institution and left him with the bill. He worked from home and kept his daughters fed, clothed, and out of relative harm.

As Jillian ran down the carpeted staircase, she could hear her sister Mira screaming. She rounded the corner at the bottom of the steps and sprinted into the den, where Mira was standing, arms spread wide, in front of the television set. Her cheeks were puffed and red. Even at a scrawny 10 years old, she was imposing when she was angry. She was staring down her twin, Iyla, who had the TV remote in one hand and a dusty, overstuffed pillow in the other.

“What... what are you doing?” Jillian asked.

“Mira won’t let me change the channel!” Iyla’s whine had a special timbre. It made Jillian’s ears ring instantly.

“Mira, move away from TV. You two need to work this out because I gotta go!” Mira looked at her defiantly, but Jillian shot her a look only a big sister can master. Mira slid her slender body down the length of the entertainment center, falling into a crumpled heap on the floor.

“Where are you going now?” asked Iyla, as if Jillian had been scampering off to god-knows-where on the regular. The truth was, she rarely left her house for anything other that school. Someone needed to watch the girls while their father worked and shopped and cleaned. This night was different, though. Jillian would turn 18 in just a few weeks and her father had procured a used Honda Civic from a church friend. He presented it to her as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“Now you can give your sister’s rides everywhere!” he had said, grinning as if he had won some sort of cruel parental sweepstakes.

Jillian was grateful for the car, but knew how much he really did need her help. She did what she could, running errands and taking Evie to and from cheer practices. Tonight, however, she was taking the car out for some fun.

Jillian met her best friend Molly in 8th Grade. They were both cast in their school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jillian was overwhelmed when she was cast as Helena, a leading role she hoped for but also secretly feared. Molly McKenney was a fresh faced and vivacious 6th grader who didn’t know the word ‘fear’. Jillian would watch her in rehearsals, belting her fairy songs to the heavens, not a hint of insecurity in her diminutive frame. Her voice was clear as a bell and just as loud. Jillian was an instant fan and told Molly so, sparking a friendship the two of them never expected. Molly was the only person Jillian ever talked to about her mother. She was the only one she trusted with her secret thoughts and longings. Molly was the only one who knew Jillian’s true self.

Jillian also knew everything there was to know about Molly; namely her undying devotion to the band Hanson. To most of their peers, Hanson was a bubbly boy band with one big hit a few years previous. Their moment came and went, replaced by the latest single by Britney Spears or Jay-Z. For Molly, however, Hanson remained her steadfast favorite. She knew every lyric to every song on both their studio albums. She made sure Jillian listened to her fair share as well. Jillian didn't mind. She genuinely liked their music. She especially loved how happy they made her best friend. Watching Molly sing along to her favorite Hanson song was like watching the sunrise on Christmas morning. Jillian couldn't help but enjoy it. Which was why she agreed to tag along to the concert that evening.

Molly had entered a trivia contest on the radio and won tickets and backstage passes. The band was on tour with their second album and would be playing the Tampa Performing Arts Center downtown. When Molly invited her, Jillian had quickly agreed. The prospect of watching her friend lose it backstage was too enticing. And it was a chance for them to get away, just the two of them, driving far from the looming autumn and the changes it would bring.

Jillian tossed a final look at her siblings, who were clearly waiting for her to leave so they could solve things their own way.

“Evie, I’m leaving”, she shouted toward the stairs, slipping on her favorite black sandals. “Watch the twins please.” She got no verbal response, but didn’t expect one either. She threw her backpack over her shoulder, snatched her car keys from the wall by the phone, and bounded out the back door. She couldn’t wait to pick up Molly and start the adventure.

***

Molly had been waiting on her front porch when Jillian pulled the Honda clumsily into the driveway. Jillian laughed to herself, imagining the frenzy Molly must be feeling if she was willing to sit in the oppressive summer sun until her ride arrived. The car was hardly in park when the passenger door flung open and Molly threw herself into the seat.

“Hi!!” she stated in what could only be described as a squeal.

“Excited?” Jillian asked, suppressing the giggle that was tickling its way up her rib cage. She was just as excited, but she wanted to give Molly her moment to gush. Good friends always know when the other needs their moment.

“Can you believe we are about to see them IN THE FLESH?!” Molly was already carefully navigating the CD player, pushing This Time Around into the slot as if it would unlock the answers to the universe. As soon as she heard the familiar whirring of disk, she pulled both hands back and watched the digital screen light up. The first track began to play. “Sorry boys,” Molly shouted as she pushed the skip button. Jillian knew that Molly was looking for the second song on the disk, If Only. Molly had made Jillian listen to this album so many times, she knew the track order by heart. She also knew that Molly chose If Only because Jillian really liked it. Good friends always know which songs to play first. The song kicked off with its signature blast of frenetic harmonica and Molly was already dancing in her seat, making Jillian laugh out loud. She loved how freely her best friend experienced life, but especially her favorite music.

Jillian backed out of the driveway and put the car in gear. They were off. The dusk air was hot as it poured through the windows, mixing with the frigid A/C that was turned all the way up. Jillian let her left hand hang from the driver’s side window, moving up and down with the breeze as she drove too fast down Bayshore Blvd. The music blasted as loudly as the aging sound system would allow, rattling with every bump of the bass. Jillian tossed a glance at her best friend, who was singing in perfect harmony with Taylor, the lead singer. Molly’s curly brown hair flailed wildly as she shook her head to the beat. For a moment, Jillian felt a profound sense of finality. As if this moment was a bookend on this chapter of her life. Molly still had two years of high school to go. Jillian felt jealous of her for that. She didn’t want things to change. She didn’t want to start college. She didn’t want to grow up. She wanted to stay with Molly in the car, speeding down Bayshore forever.

“I love that song!” Molly shouted as the track faded out. She turned the music down and flopped back into the seat, her feet no longer reaching the floor.

“You love every Hanson song, Moll,” Jillian replied with a giggle.

“I mean, you’re right,” Molly guffawed, shoving her hands into her hair.

“I’m honestly excited about this concert. Even if it just means watching you FREAK out the whole time. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Jillian! We have backstage passes!! You can’t say ‘no’ to backstage passes.”

“I still can’t believe you won. I never win anything.”

“I think it was meant to be. I was meant to win and get backstage tonight so that Zachary Walker Hanson can finally meet his future wife.” Molly spoke matter-of-factly, and then turned a cheeky smile toward Jillian, who figured she could let the lecture on the futility of celebrity crushes go just this once.

“Oh! Well then, I must drive faster. For destiny!” Jillian pushed the gas petal, lunging her old Honda forward, barely clearing a yellow light, mid-change. Molly twisted the volume knob all the way up.

As the title track spilled out of the open windows, Jillian suddenly felt completely overwhelmed with anticipation. She didn’t understand how, but somehow she knew this night would change her life forever.

Chapter Text

August 24th, 2000 - Molly

As soon as Jillian put the car in park, Molly threw the passenger side door open and bounded down the street.

“Hold on,” Jillian called out to her, still rummaging through her purse to make sure she had everything. That was pretty typical for the two of them. Sometimes Jillian was Molly’s best friend, and sometimes she was Molly’s older sister.

“Holding!” Molly yelled back from half a block away. She could see the Performing Arts Center from where they parked the car. She had been waiting for this day since the moment Hanson announced their tour dates, and she didn’t know if she could wait any longer. She needed to be inside that building. She danced in place, too excited to stand still, as she waited for her friend.

“When do you think the doors will open?” Jillian asked, once she caught up with Molly and they began walking quickly to the doors of Morsani Hall.

“I don’t know, what time is it now?”

Jillian checked her watch, “4:30.”

“Probably six.”

“Ugh, it’s so hot out here.”

“Do you want to be close to the front or not? C’mon Jill, we gotta make sacrifices.”

“You’re lucky you’re my best friend because you’re acting crazy.”

“Love makes us crazy, my dear Jillian,” Molly said sweetly, causing her friend to finally join her in giggling.

Molly loved Hanson. “Middle of Nowhere” had come out three years ago and she scooped it up at the Disc Jockey at the tender age of twelve, falling into the world of being a fan quickly and effortlessly. Before she knew it, her walls were plastered with posters of the three brothers (mainly Zac, her favorite...they were the same age, after all). She would run home from school every day to watch TRL, hoping to catch a glimpse of a video or, better yet, see an interview with the band. She set her VCR every time she knew there was going to be a TV appearance of any kind, and spent her evenings listening to that little orange CD over and over again.

Molly was an only child, brought up by parents who fostered her love of music and passion for certain bands. They gave her all the tools necessary to become a successful musician. They gave her her first guitar when she was only twelve, they dropped her off every Tuesday for church choir practice, and they drove her to the audition for Blake High School’s magnet program, where she played the piano brilliantly and passed the theory test with flying colors. She started as a piano major at Blake the following fall, where she would thankfully be at school with Jillian once again. When she left middle school and was suddenly a high school student, loving any boyband seemed to be completely out of vogue. She kept the posters up on her wall, thankful to have parents who didn’t tell her to snap out of it, but she didn’t broadcast her obsession to the world. She focused on other things, and tried to have every high school experience possible.

Jillian was well versed in Molly’s obsession with the band, so of course, Jillian accepted the invitation to come along to the concert. Molly squealed with delight, excited to have all her favorite people in one room together. She squealed even louder when she stayed home all day to win a radio contest for tickets and backstage passes. It wasn’t based on caller number or chance, but rather on your knowledge of the band, which Molly had. She won without even trying. The questions were easy, and her casual answers caused the DJs to laugh. She shrugged and told them to ask harder questions next time.

She looked forward to the concert all summer. School was only days away, and she wasn’t excited to face her junior year without her best friend in the same building. Jillian would be at community college and Molly would be forced to cling to the band and their music even harder, a constant she could count on. But she put that out of her mind as they took their place in line outside of Morsani, a theatre she had played in with her youth orchestra countless times.

“There are already a lot of people here,” Jillian said, checking her watch again. There were quite a few fans already in line, but Molly wasn’t worried. She was small and overly confident, so she was sure she could weasel her way up to the front, Jillian in tow.

Sure enough, when they made their way into the concert hall, they were right in the middle of the crowd. Molly immediately started scanning the people in front of her, figuring out their path.

“I think this is fine. We can see the stage, we’re close enough. We can see them fine.”

“Right, but they can’t see us. Wait until the music starts, then grab my hand and follow me. Don’t be annoying.”

Jillian groaned audibly, already slightly uncomfortable in the sea of bodies surrounding them.

When Neve took the stage, Molly held her hand out and kept her eyes on the crowd in front of her. Jillian knew her friend was going to make her way to the front with or without her so she reluctantly took her hand and followed. There was some resistance, but somehow, Molly made it all the way to the lip of the stage. She turned and saw Jillian looking at her in awe, and smiled back proudly.

“I’m good at what I do,” she said with a shrug.

“Apparently!”

Molly slung her arm around Jillian and squeezed, just happy to be spending this time with her best friend before the golden promise of summer faded yet again. Just as she loosened her grip, she heard three voices start singing in perfect harmony.

“Oooh, oooh, oooh, you don’t know.”

***

In the years to come, Molly would go to plenty of rock concerts, but there’s something special about the first time you see your favorite band. She had never seen the boys live, and was insistent on making this opportunity perfect, not only for herself, but for Jillian as well. Jillian was a casual fan, mostly just by association, and would always allow Molly to stuff her “This Time Around” CD into the car stereo of her Honda Civic. Molly was certain that the magic of live music would convert her friend into a die-hard fangirl. “You Never Know” transitioned seamlessly to “Where’s the Love” and Molly was fairly certain she had never been happier. Three faces that looked down at her from every imaginable angle of her bedroom were now in front of her, singing and playing and smiling and laughing, their energy feeding off of the audience’s and vice versa, creating an electric loop. She was positive she would never wipe the smile off of her face after this night.

She jumped and screamed along with the rest of the audience, lassoing her arm during “round and round” and laughing loudly when she saw Jillian’s bewildered face. She grabbed her friend’s hand and yanked it around in a circle, showing her the move that every Hanson fan seemed to just know.

“Are you having fun??” She yelled directly into Jillian’s ear, checking in. She wanted her friend to be having as good of a time as she was.

“Yeah!” Jillian shouted back, with a genuine smile. Molly knew that her love affair with music was often a source of disconnect between her and Jillian. Molly would choose music over just about anything, except maybe her best friend. But the joy on Jillian’s face put Molly’s mind at ease.

Only hours before, Molly had been babbling in the car about how the boys could play anything they wanted, as long as they played “Runaway Run”, which was her favorite song from the newest album.

“Not Zac’s song? You love him, though.” Jillian asked, with a smirk.

“Runaway Run is a better song,” Molly responded matter of factly, ending the playful argument before it even began. And then, only three songs into the set list, she heard the first few chords. She could have screamed wildly, but she stood there looking at the stage, wanting only to soak in the music. She closed her eyes briefly and when she opened them her gaze was, by fate or coincidence depending on how you care to look at it, trained on Taylor.

He was looking right back at her.

She smiled shyly, suddenly incredibly self conscious. There was no mistaking it. He was looking right at her and grinning while he launched into the second verse. She held his gaze until she felt her cheeks flushing, causing her to look down at her feet for a moment, unsure of what exactly had just happened.

There are moments that define the entire course of our lives, and there are people that spin our world off its axis. Molly was only fifteen. She didn’t know much about love or pain or even the inevitability of growing up. She didn’t know that nothing in life is easy, or that joy often comes with a price. She didn’t know that every good story has a beginning. She didn’t know that this was hers.

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August 24th, 2000 - Taylor

Taylor was used to girls screaming in his face, tears falling down their cheeks for no reason he could find, faces flushed, limbs shaking. He was used to girls losing their ability to make completely coherent sentences. What he was not used to was anyone walking towards him with the brazen over-confidence that he saw in this girl striding towards him, a look of pure determination in her eyes. He wasn’t even sure she saw him yet, but he recognized her from the show that had just ended. They had locked eyes more than once.

He ducked into the green room, high fiving Isaac as he shed his soaked through tank top, nodding towards the venue manager who had just congratulated him on a great show.

“Well that was fun,” Zac said flatly as Taylor slid into the dressing room, making him wonder whether or not he meant it.

“Yeah, it was.”

“Hey, Dad?” Zac yelled out the door at their father, Walker. “Do we have a meet and greet tonight?”

“Yeah, so hurry up, please,” he responded, causing Zac to roll his eyes. If Zac had his way, they would never have meet and greets. They would get back onto the bus and drive away quickly, leaving all the fans to swoon to themselves. Taylor chalked Zac’s reluctant nature up to his age...maybe he would grow out of it and actually like talking to fans. After all, they were the reason that Hanson was able to make music and tour the world, right? Taylor changed quickly and made his way out to the hall, where the meet and greet winners were congregating.

Taylor was shy, there was no denying it. He fought his shyness every single time a fan ran up to him on the street, or every time the band had an interview. The one place he was never shy was onstage. There, nothing could touch him. But here, in this hallway, he felt the urge to close in on himself. He smiled sweetly to each girl, signed their cd or poster, and took a quick picture. The small talk wasn’t too terribly insufferable, and the nervous laughter from both sides almost sounded genuine.

This isn’t so bad. I can handle this.

Taylor noticed his brothers join in the throng, Isaac smiling broadly and talking to each girl for way longer than necessary (Taylor often wondered why he couldn’t have that talent; Isaac could carry on a conversation with just about anyone), Zac basically hiding behind his hair as he made his way down the line.

“Do you guys always cover the Stones or was that just for us?”

The question made Taylor’s head turn quickly, focusing his gaze on that same girl. He laughed. That wasn’t a question he usually got. Most of his fans probably thought “Can’t Always Get What You Want” was just another Hanson song.

“We haven’t done it much. Why? Did you like it or did you hate it?”

“I liked it. I mean...it’s hard to go wrong with the Stones.”

“Maybe we’ll add it to our set list more often then.”

Who was this girl? Taylor narrowed his gaze at her. She had to have been younger than him, maybe just a year or two. She was petite, and had an incredibly young face with freckles spattered across her nose and a determined sparkle in her dark green eyes. Her brown hair fell around her shoulders in loose ringlets, fuzzy and wild from the night of jumping and sweating in the pit. She was small, and yet she somehow filled up the room. She wasn’t holding anything for him to sign, so he awkwardly shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He didn’t want this conversation to end yet. If only he had Ike’s knack for discussion.

“Molly is a musician, too,” a voice from his left said, causing him to realize for the first time that this girl was not alone. So her name was Molly.

Molly looked at her friend, clearly annoyed at the assist, and turned back to Taylor.

“Oh yeah? What do you play?” He asked, grateful for the new topic.

“Piano...and guitar and...other things.”

“She’s one of those weirdos that can play anything,” her friend interjected.

“That’s not even true,” Molly said quietly, slightly embarrassed that the focus had shifted away from Taylor and onto her. “Mostly piano.”

“Cool. Me too….obviously,” Taylor responded sheepishly. Molly and her friend were the last girls in line, but he wasn’t ready to stop talking, a feeling he was incredibly unfamiliar with. An idea struck him. “Hey….um...I don’t think the crew has started loading out. Do you want to go see the stage? And the instruments?”

Molly’s face broke out in a huge smile. “Yeah!!”

“Wait...what about…” Molly’s friend nodded her head towards Zac.

“Say hi for me!” Molly called back to her friend, trailing behind Taylor. He looked back and gave her an apologetic smile.

***

“When did you start playing?” Taylor asked Molly, who was standing behind his keyboards, pretending to play. Looking out at the empty theatre was humbling.

“Ummm...I don’t really remember. My dad is a musician too, so I think it was just kind of in my blood.”

“I understand that. I don’t remember when I started either. I swear we were always just singing in three part harmony. I don’t remember being taught how.”

Molly’s fingers trailed over the keys and the effect buttons. She didn’t even turn to look at Taylor when she spoke next. “You’re so happy when you’re on stage.”

He was taken aback, but for some reason he didn’t recoil from the attention. She’s good at this, he thought, even though he wasn’t quite sure what this was.

“Yeah, I am. It’s...it’s actually where I feel most comfortable, which doesn’t really make sense. But it is where I feel the best, not just the happiest. The best. The most...in my skin. Sorry, I’m rambling.”

“No, I understand,” Molly replied, now walking over towards the drums and taking a seat on Zac’s stool. She smirked.

“What about you?” Taylor asked, shocking himself with this unexpected wave of confidence.

“What about me?”

“When do you feel the best?”

“Probably...probably when I’m writing. I’m a music major in school so, we have to learn a lot of pieces and perform a lot...but writing my own music is like, my favorite thing.” He could see the sparkle in her eye. That’s when you know the love is real, you can see it on their face. “And arranging! Sometimes my theory teacher will let me arrange pieces for show choir...that’s really fun...sorry...I’m going off on a tangent.”

“It’s okay. Most people my age I meet can’t even string a sentence together so trust me, I don’t mind.”

A loud peal of laughter escaped Molly’s throat, echoing loudly through the empty theatre. “Oh come on, I’m sure you bring a girl on to the stage after every show.”

“I don’t...well…” Taylor stopped himself, making Molly laugh even louder. He had met a girl two days ago in Georgia. Another petite teen with dark curly hair and a comically loud laugh. She was incredibly sweet. He was taken aback by her intent listening, as opposed to being taken aback by Molly’s self-assured sentences.

“Ha! You do!!”

“No, I promise I don’t,” He said, joining her in her giggles.

“I wouldn’t blame you if you did,” She said with a shrug, sitting on the lip of the stage and looking out into an imaginary crowd. “God, this is so cool.”

“You wanna play something? Ike’s guitars are still out.”

“Do you have a lot of friends?” Molly asked, out of nowhere.

“What?”

“Do you have...you’re always travelling to different cities, taking girls onstage after shows,” Taylor chuckled again, “I just feel like...I don’t know I feel like it could get lonely. Even with all the people around.”

“Oh...yeah it definitely does. I guess I’m used to it though. And I have my brothers.”

“I’m an only child.”

“Weird.”

“You’re tellin’ me. I can’t even imagine this though. I don’t know, you just...you just must get sick of girls always screaming in your face and even if you meet someone cool and, say you hit it off, you still have to leave. You’re always leaving. That’s...gotta be tough, right?”

“Always leaving. Yep, that’s me.” He wasn’t sure why he was opening up so readily to this girl who he knew virtually nothing about. “Who was your friend you were with?” he asked, remembering that Molly had not come to the concert by herself.

“Oh...CRAP. That’s Jillian. I left her completely by herself...that...Yeah, we should probably…”

“Head back…”

“Yeah…”

Molly turned quickly and started walking towards wings. When she got out into the hallway she pivoted back around to face Taylor, and ran straight into him. “Oh...GOD, sorry. Um...do you want...do you want my email address? We could talk about music and stuff.”

Taylor couldn’t stop himself from grinning. “Yeah, sure!” He watched as Molly pulled a small notebook out of her purse. “Do you always travel with a journal?”

“Yes, actually. I never know when inspiration will strike,” she responded with a gleam in her eye. She tore out the page and handed it to him, her name scribbled hastily. He pocketed the page and continued down the hallway.

He didn’t have many friends, but maybe he had just made one more.

Chapter Text

August 24th, 2000 - Zac

Zac signed what felt like the millionth glossy copy of his face, blocking out the high pitched squealing of the throngs of young girls trying to make eye contact with him. He didn’t understand them and he had stopped trying. Maybe if they were screaming for his impressive drum skills, he could wrap his head around it. But he knew better. So, he shook his hair to cover his face and made his way to the end of the meet-and-greet line, staying close behind Isaac, who kept stopping for every pretty girl who wanted a picture. Taylor was already at the end of the line, smoothly navigating the crowd with a smile. Zac knew how hard it was for Tay to feel comfortable at these things but he was always able to make it look easy. At least Taylor could appreciate the fans, no matter how excited they got.

Zac snuck behind Ike, as he posed for a picture with a blonde who was literally sobbing and telling him how much she loved him. Ike grinned from ear to ear, trying to comfort her. Zac felt a twinge of anger pinch his belly but he took a deep breath, knowing this was no place for a breakdown. He bounded quickly past a section of the line that was surely shouting at him to come back, but he pretended not to hear them. He stopped a couple of feet from Taylor, grabbing a magazine and scribbling his name across the cover. He looked up just in time to see Tay lead a tiny, curly-haired girl from the line, toward the stage.

“Tay…Taylor…” Zac shouted, but his brother was gone. The crowd was starting to disperse as security ushered the fans toward the exit. Zac felt relieved, but also pretty overheated. He pushed his hands through his long blonde hair, pulling it back into a low ponytail. When he looked up, he noticed a girl still standing near the end of the line, arms crossed, clearly unhappy. Security was asking her to leave, but she said something about her friend still being there somewhere. Without thinking, Zac leapt up to the guard.

“Her friend is with Taylor. It’s okay, she can stay.” The guard backed off and moved away to herd the rest of the crowd. Zac turned to face the girl and found himself struck by her. She was about his height and slender, with long hair, the color of dark chocolate. Her olive skin was shimmering somehow. He had never thought about a girl’s skin, or anyone’s for that matter. She finally turned to look at him and he met her gaze, unable to stop the smile that spread across his face.

“Hey, thanks…Zac, right?” Her deep brown eyes sparkled and he realized she was making a joke. Of course she knew who he was, but she wasn’t screaming at him. He liked her immediately.

“Zachary, actually. A serious name for a serious rockstar.” The moment the words left his mouth, he wanted to swallow them back again. But then, she chuckled.

“Um, my friend went with your brother somewhere. I can’t leave without her. I’m her ride.”

“You drive?” He nearly shouted, realizing she must be at least 16. She gave him a look that he could only interpret as amusement and he figured she was judging him. Did he have to make it so obvious he was such a doofus? “I mean, that’s cool. I can’t wait to…drive…cars.”

“Yeah, cars are pretty cool,” she replied. To his surprise, she was smiling. Her smile lit up his world. He forgot to speak and, instead, stood there staring at that smile. He snapped out of it when her smile faded into discomfort. “I’m Jillian,” she said, holding out her right hand.

Zac shook her hand too eagerly, feeling simultaneously thrilled and ridiculous. Her skin was soft. Again, with the skin! What was wrong with him?

“Do you…want to come wait in the Green Room? Until Tay and your friend come back?” He was still holding her hand. She wasn’t pulling it away.

“Yeah…sure, okay.” She let him lead her to the Green Room door. He became extremely aware, once inside the small room, that he had sweated through his tee shirt during the show. He wished he had changed it. He ushered Jillian over to the rust colored sofa that sat in the middle of the room and finally released her hand. His felt clammy and he wiped it on his jeans discreetly. She sat down on the end of the sofa and looked up at him. His heart tried to jump out of his chest.

“So, did you…like the show?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah, it was…it was amazing, actually. You guys are really impressive. Its too bad that…” She stopped short and blushed.

“That what?” He took a seat on the other end of the sofa, leaving a large cushion of space between them.

“Um…well…that other people don’t appreciate your music…the way they should” she explained. He could tell she was choosing her words carefully. And he knew exactly what she meant. For a major part of the world, Zac and his brothers would only ever be that 90’s band that sang Mmmbop. He resented that fact.

“Thanks,” was all he would let himself say. A look of humiliation suddenly changed her whole face and she started to backpedal.

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean…I mean, it was a compliment…I didn’t...”

“Woah, hey, it’s okay. As long as you liked it…” He felt his cheeks burn red and put his head down to avoid her gaze.

“I did. I really did.” He heard her take a deep breath and let the silence between them settle for a moment. He picked at the callouses on his hands, which had begun to peel during the show. He could feel her looking at him. “So, is all of this weird to you?”

“All of what?” he asked, meeting her gaze. She smiled.

“This. Screaming girls, playing for huge crowds...needing a bodyguard…” She looked toward the door of the Green Room and for the first time, Zac noticed that they were alone.

“Oh, that,” he said, making a funny face he immediately regretted. “To be honest, it gets pretty...old. I mean, I love playing and performing. I love the music. The screaming is what’s weird. Thanks for not...screaming.”

“Well, I would have but my throat is already dry from the concert…” She flashed a big smile at him and he felt a sudden urge to move closer to her. He resisted, but couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him.

“How old are you?” he blurted out, too loudly. Smooth, very smooth, he thought to himself, bracing for what would certainly be her running exit.

“Seventeen,” she answered calmly. “You?”

“I’m...fourteen...almost fifteen…I’m the baby Hanson" he said, giving her the obligatory air quotes.

“I can’t imagine you like being called that. You’re clearly just as talented as your brothers. I don’t know that much about music but I know I was impressed.” Zac felt himself blush.

“Um, thanks...yeah, I don’t know who said that. It’s just a constant thing for people. Ike’s the oldest and wisest. Tay is the heartthrob lead singer. And I’m the little baby, banging on the drums to support my Lego habit.” He had said too much.

“Legos! That’s funny! You’re funny, Baby Hanson…” she teased him, giggling in a way that make his skin buzz. He didn’t dare tell her how much truth there was to his statement. “So, you’re, what, a sophomore?”

“Umm...well, I’m homeschooled…” He was feeling more and more self-conscious.

“Really? That’s cool. I never met anyone who was homeschooled before. I just graduated.”

Zac set aside his own anxiety when he saw a familiar flash in her eyes. It was fear. He knew that feeling all too well. He didn’t want her to have to feel that right now. He needed to change the subject.

C’mon think of something, you idiot, he thought, feeling panicked.

“You okay?” she asked, breaking his downward spiral.

“What? Oh! Yeah, I’m great! Never better!” He felt like the dumbest person on the planet. How could he possibly hope to impress this girl, who clearly wasn’t interested in a little boy with no game. How could he be so stupid? He wanted to leave. He needed to go back to the bus, where he could curl up with his GameBoy and forget he ever met this girl.

“Hey…”he heard her say, and felt her hand on his knee. He felt very warm...all of his focus rushing to the spot where her palm met his jeans. He looked up at her and was surprised to see she had moved to close the gap between them. “Did I say something...wrong?” she asked carefully.

Zac breathed a sigh of relief. He felt a sudden surge of confidence. She was touching him. She must not think he was a total loser. Without thinking, he placed his hand on top of hers. His held his breath, his heart pounding so hard he was sure she could hear it. He waited. She didn’t pull her hand away. Instead, she was looking at him with concern.

“No...no, you’re just...you’re really...pretty…” He was suddenly unable to control what he was saying. He felt his cheeks burning again and sweat beads forming at his hairline. There was nothing he could do to stop what happened next. She was too close and her touch was too exciting.

He put his free hand on her face and pulled her in, putting his lips to hers softly. He half expected her to recoil in horror. Instead, she relaxed into him. He wondered how such a simple act could stir up so many intense feelings. He was afraid to make any sudden moves and just held her there in a moment that seemed endless. His mind was exploding with all kinds of insane images and longings...things he wasn’t even sure he understood...when she jerked away in a swift and jarring motion.

Zac opened his eyes to see Taylor standing in the Green Room doorway, eyes wide, jaw practically on the floor. Beside him stood Jillian’s friend, staring with matching shock.

“Hey, Jill...let’s go, okay?” the friend said with a tone that Zac could only assume was amusement mixed with judgment. He dropped his face into his hands, eternally embarrassed.

Jillian leapt from the sofa and ran toward the door. Zac picked up his head in time to watch her turn around and throw him one last look, her cheeks flushed and eyes, weary. She vanished through the doorway, friend in tow.

Taylor sauntered into the room, then propped himself up against the doorframe, arms crossed.

“How did the meet-and-greet go, Zac?”

Chapter Text

August 24th, 2000 - Jillian

Molly didn't say a word the whole long walk back to the car. Jillian was certain her best friend was livid. After all, Molly was never speechless. Yet, here they were, sitting in the Honda, buckling their seatbelts in silence.

Jillian had spent the walk, which was brisk..urgent even...replaying what had just happened. She never should have moved in so close to him. But he looked so scared. So nervous. She didn’t want to upset him. He was so sweet and earnest. He had made her feel comfortable, like she had known him her whole life.

She shook her head and jammed the key into the ignition, feeling stupid for getting wrapped up in his puppydog eyes. Molly was never going to speak to her again. No one knew better than Jillian, how much Molly loved Zac Hanson. She had what seemed like hundreds of images of him hanging on her bedroom walls. She talked endlessly about his long, blonde hair and toned arms and perfect lips…

Jillian felt something in her stomach jerk and flip. She had to catch her breath. His lips. On hers. And she LET HIM DO IT. She felt like such a fool. She let this fourteen year old boy be her first real kiss. A boy her best friend was completely obsessed with. She was certain there had never been anyone as stupid as she was in the history of the world. She glanced over at Molly to gauge her state of mind. To Jillian’s surprise, she was smiling ear to ear, as if someone had just payed her a compliment. Jillian tried to let it go. That lasted about 4 seconds.

“What are you smiling about?”

“What?” Molly replied, staring out through the windshield.

“You can tell me if you’re mad at me, you know.” Jillian figured it was better to rip the bandaid off now, rather than let the wound fester. “I wasn’t what it looked like.”

“You and Zac Hanson in a liplock is what it looked like, but, please enlighten me.” Jillian tried to detect the specific emotions Molly was expressing in her statement, but to no avail.

“He’s just...a young kid who’s probably never been that close to an actual girl before.” Jillian was unsettled by how easily she spit the words out. She felt a twinge of guilt for trying to paint him as pathetic or desperate. But she needed Molly to be okay.

“Jillian...I don’t care that you kissed him.”

“He kissed me,” Jillian spouted in protest. Molly sighed. “You’re mad at me and I don’t blame you. He was the one person you came here to meet and I…”

“Jillian!” Molly shouted, cutting her off. “I said, I don’t care. I mean, I care, but I’m not mad.”

“You’re...not?”

“No! I’m actually….I actually think it’s really funny.”

“Funny?” Jillian was having a hard time processing this new information. Molly wasn’t mad about the kiss. She thought it was funny? Something wasn’t making sense; least of all the toothy smile plastered across Molly’s face. Something had definitely happened. Jillian suddenly felt silly for having skipped the most important detail of their evening. Molly had disappeared for quite a while with Taylor. Jillian spoke with renewed conviction. “Maybe if you hadn’t ditched me for Taylor, nothing would have happened.”

“Woah! What?” Molly was shaken but Jillian didn’t care. She found herself wanting a fight if it meant an end to the silence.

“You left me there all alone. Security tried to kick me out. I was so embarrassed, but Zac stepped in and told the guy to let me stay and wait for you. I had no idea where you went or when you would come back. This concert was supposed to be about us spending the last days of summer together and you go running off with some boy!” Jillian found herself shouting. Molly sat stunned, staring at her from the passenger’s seat. Jillian was grateful for the darkness that masked her shame at her outburst.

“Some boy was Taylor Hanson, Jill...and it didn’t look like things worked out too badly for you in the end…” Molly’s response was steady and controlled. She hardly moved and it made Jillian more insecure. Several beats of silence wedged their way through the car, as Jillian pulled out of the parking space toward the exit. Finally, Jillian spoke.

“So...where exactly did you and ...Taylor go?” Molly’s smile returned, unrestrained, giving away her inner monologue so freely, Jillian felt the tension lift away.

“He took me to the stage to see all the instruments. We talked about music. About performing and composing.” Molly trailed off, making Jillian gasp.

“You like him!” She knew her best friend better than anyone on the world,but this was something she had never seen before. Molly’s face was different, somehow. It was brighter. More radiant. Her eyes were sparkling even more than they usually did. She was emitting a bubbly lightness that was infectious. Jillian found herself giggling.

“I mean...he was really cool! And sweet...and shy,” Molly stopped short and shoved both her hands into her dark curls, bunching them up at the crown of her head. She let out a heavy sigh. “I don’t know, I mean I think we could be really good friends!”

Jillian flashed back the the Green Room sofa again, Zac’s clammy and trembling hand on her’s. His deep brown eyes, meeting hers. His mouth moving closer…

“Tonight...is crazy,” she said, shaking away the shadows of her memory. She needed to focus on driving after all. “So, you’re sure you’re not mad...that I kissed Zac?” Hearing herself say it out loud made it seem more absurd.

“Ahhh, so you did kiss him?” Molly teased. Jillian kept her eyes on the road. “No, I’m not mad. I kind of think...everything went the way it was meant to tonight. I can’t explain it. But it all just feels...right.”

Jillian tried to take in what Molly had said. Did it feel right? The feeling of Zac’s lips on hers jumped back into her brain and for a split second, she thought maybe she knew what Molly meant. Then, it was back to reality and the road and real life.

“Moll...this is all insane. They’re famous musicians who tour all over the world. They must meet so many girls, it’s ridiculous. We should just...hold on to tonight as a crazy adventure we had before everything has to change and move on with our lives.” Jillian waited for Molly to argue with her. Instead, she saw her collapse back into the seat, resigned.

“You’re right.” she sighed. “I did give him my email, but he probably won’t write.”

“Well, I doubt Zac will even remember my name tomorrow, so we’re in the same boat, my dear. Not that I care...”. Jillian felt a sense of relief, saying such things aloud. The odds were stacked against them and that made her feel safe. There was nothing to hope for so there was no chance for disappointment. She took a deep breath and pushed any idea she may have entertained into the recesses of her brain.

Molly smashed the power button to the CD player, causing it to pop on suddenly. Molly did her usual track skip; the ultimate show of solidarity. Taylor’s harmonica solo soared from the speakers as If Only started to play again. They listened a bit and then Molly tossed her head to the side, making a goofy face at Jillian.

“You kissed a Hanson. You can never wash your lips again.” They both laughed as the lyrics to the chorus kicked in.

If only,
I had the guts to feel this way.
If only,
You'd look at me and want to stay.
If only,
I'd take you in my arms and say,
I won't go, 'cause I need you.

Jillian didn’t tell Molly, but the lyrics resonated in a way they never had before. She cranked the volume button all the way up and rolled down the windows.

Perhaps this summer was the end of the book. That could only mean the next one was ready to be opened.

Chapter Text

September 10th, 2000 - Molly

It was only two weeks into junior year and Molly was already feeling slightly slaughtered by school work. She had turned 15 in August, making her an incredibly young eleventh grader, thanks to the fact that she had skipped the fourth grade. And now, it was the middle of September, and she wished desperately that she could go back to sophomore year, where things were a little less overwhelming.

“Maybe you should think about dropping one of your ensembles,” her dad suggested one night at dinner when Molly was being exceptionally quiet. Molly rarely stopped talking, so when she was that silent, it was pretty obvious that something was up.

Her dad had a point, she supposed. She was in Jazz ensemble, played piano for the school’s show choir, and was the alto section leader for Chorale and Madrigals. She didn’t march, but she helped with the marching band arrangements and played for concert band. Not to mention her two periods of music theory (required for music majors) and of course her academic classes. But there was a reason for all of this, and she had to keep telling herself that. She had to keep telling her parents too, apparently.

“I can’t drop anything. I need my resume bursting at the seams when I start applying for music conservatories, and you know it,” she shot back at her father’s suggestion.

Molly was a big dreamer, there was no denying it. She wanted to go to Juilliard.

Her dad had gone there as a young violinist in the 70’s, and colored her world with stories of his time there. She loved hearing about the late night practice room gatherings, the subway rides home while the sun was coming up, the adventures, the music. She had never even been to New York. The city existed as the stories her father told her, but they were still real. She belonged there. She knew it.

But to get there she had to somehow get through her junior year in one piece.

It didn’t help that she no longer had her best friend at school with her. Since she was young for her grade, and had a proclivity to love boy bands, she didn’t have many friends outside of the music rooms. But, maybe that was for the best. She didn’t really have time to socialize these days anyway. Jillian still lived at home, so they still saw each other regularly. It just...wasn’t the same. Molly was constantly stressed and focused and Jillian was working on her college classes. It seemed like they were in two different worlds that barely overlapped. The night of the concert already felt like it was years gone by.

The concert. Still the strangest and most thrilling night of Molly’s young life. She thought about it a lot. The rush of the music; the pure adrenaline she felt. The ease with which she carried a conversation with Taylor and the fact that, for some reason, her friend had ended up kissing Zac. She smirked to herself as she unloaded her backpack onto the desk in her Dad’s office, where she was setting up to type a paper that was due the next day.

She thought about Taylor, but not as much as she had expected. Their conversation had been so nice, but there was so much more to talk about. So much she wanted to ask him. A couple days after the concert, she had taken down all the posters from her wall, much to her parent’s surprise. It felt wrong seeing Taylor, who she now considered a friend, looking down at her from every angle. Except now it had been two weeks and she had officially given up hope. If he wanted to contact her, he would have. She shrugged it off. She would still keep that night in her back pocket. A story she would tell at college some day. An anecdote. You guys remember the band Hanson?

Molly wiggled the computer mouse and the screen sprang to life. She looked at her watch. If she finished this paper now, she could still get in practice time before dinner. She groaned to herself, thinking about how much she didn’t want to write the assignment. She couldn’t wait until she was at Juilliard, where the classes would all be music classes. No history papers to write, no algebra 2, no chemistry. “You have two more years of this, McKenney,” she muttered to herself as she spun around in her dad’s chair. She needed to start this paper, and yet now she was thinking about the concert, and couldn’t switch her brain back over to the founding fathers.

“Hey Dad?” She called out to nowhere specific.

“What?” It sounded like he was in his studio, in the basement. Lucky, she thought.

“Can I get on the internet?”

“...What??”

“Can I...get on...the internet???”

“Yeah, just make sure your mom isn’t expecting a call.”

Molly let her head fall back onto the chair and continued to spin. She took a deep breath and yelled even louder. “HEY MOM??”

She heard footsteps and suddenly her mother was at the door. “You can get online if you and your father stop yelling,” she said seriously, although Molly could tell she was trying not to laugh. Molly flashed her mom a smile and booted up the internet, exing out of the word document. “I’ll write the paper after dinner,” she said to herself.

She browsed around some of her favorite Hanson sites for a few minutes, scrolling through concert photos and setlists, when suddenly her fingers froze on the mouse and her heart sped up significantly.

Has anyone else seen those two girls that went backstage? I think they’re dating Taylor and maybe Isaac? One of them seemed very close to Taylor, anyway.

Molly’s face crinkled in confusion. She scrolled through the responses.

I did see them last month. They were at the show I went to. One of them is definitely dating Taylor, the other one might be with Isaac or Zac...She just seemed around. I think they’re friends who saw the show together.

Joke’s on them, Taylor is my future husband!

Don’t believe everything you hear.

No, I definitely know who you’re talking about. I was wondering if they were girlfriends we hadn’t heard about yet.

Molly closed her eyes and went back through the night in her head. There had been a handful of girls at the meet and greet, but most of them were dispersing by the time she and Taylor scurried away, and anyway that was totally innocent! He was just showing her instruments! And she was sure everyone was long gone by the time Zac planted one on Jillian. No one could have seen that, except maybe a PAC staff member. A PAC staff member who was a huge Hanson fan and posted regularly on forums? That was crazy...right?

But...someone, in fact more than one person, had apparently seen her and Taylor and just assumed they were together. She stifled a smile. Nope. She wasn’t allowed to feel hopeful like that. There were no emails in her inbox from him. She logged offline and ran into the kitchen, grabbing the phone and rushing up to her room. Her fingers knew the number by heart and in a matter of seconds Jillian’s phone was ringing and Molly was flopping down on her bed, her heart racing.

“Hello?”

“JILL?” She practically screamed into the phone.

“Molly?”

“Yes of course, who else would it be?”

“Wow, thanks Moll.”

“Oh my God, shut up okay. So...I was just on a Hanson forum.”

“Shocking. Also, why are you out of breath?” Jillian asked with a laugh. Molly knew she was being overdramatic, but the situation called for it.

“Jill, shut up for a second and let me talk. Okay. I was on a Hanson forum and there were posts talking about us.”

A few moments of silence passed between them.

“...What?”

“I swear, there’s a whole thread about these girls that went backstage and everyone is speculating about whether or not we are their girlfriends. I mean...it has to be us right?”

“I don’t know…”

“It said they showed up last month. And that one is definitely dating Taylor.”

“Molly…”

“No, I swear...ugh, get online and see for yourself.

“Fine.”

Molly hung up and ran back downstairs. She, once again, got online and signed on to AIM, immediately emailing Jillian the link to the thread.

JillyBean82: Hey.
MollyDoll85: Did you read it yet?
JillyBean82: Yeah I got your email. Hold on, lemme read.
JillyBean82: This could be about anyone.
MollyDoll85: I’m investigating further. I’m gonna look for other threads.
JillyBean82: Me too. Do we definitely know they DON’T have girlfriends?
MollyDoll85: I would KNOW.
JillyBean82: There were a lot of girls at that meet and greet.
JillyBean82: Wait…
JillyBean82: Molly…these girls are from Georgia, not Tampa.
MollyDoll85: What?
JillyBean82: Yep. This isn’t about us.
MollyDoll85: So wait...who are they?
JillyBean82: Keep reading.
MollyDoll85: I clicked out of the thread.
JillyBean82: Go back.
JillyBean82: And keep scrolling.
MollyDoll85: Atlanta.
JillyBean82: Yep.
MollyDoll85: Crap.
JillyBean82: Crap?! Did you want it to be about us??
MollyDoll85: NO! I don’t know.
JillyBean82: What did I tell you the night of the show? That night wasn’t REAL, it was just a crazy adventure.
MollyDoll85: Atlanta was the show right before ours.
JillyBean82: So…
MollyDoll85: So they do this at every stop, don’t they? Find a couple girls and make them feel special?
JillyBean82: Probably. They can, so why wouldn’t they?
MollyDoll85: Ugh.
MollyDoll85: I knew I wouldn’t hear from him.
MollyDoll85: Sorry.
JillyBean82: For what?
MollyDoll85: For freaking out about this!!
JillyBean82: LOL it’s okay, I’m used to your freak outs.
MollyDoll85: Hey!!
JillyBean82: Kidding, kidding. Okay, I seriously have to get some work done.
MollyDoll85: Yeah, I have to write a paper. Call me later?
JillyBean82: Yep!
MollyDoll85: Bye!
JillyBean82: TTYL.

Molly clicked out of AIM and let her head fall onto the desk. She felt so stupid. Jillian had warned her not to hold out hope for Taylor Hanson, the object of so many girl’s affection, and yet here she was, legitimately disappointed that some stupid online rumor hadn’t been about her. She needed to pull herself together. She needed to write this paper, and practice her pieces for jazz ensemble, and look over her sight reading exercises, and….

“You’ve got mail.”

Molly’s head snapped back up, and she clicked the little mailbox icon in the top left corner of her AOL homepage.

 

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
September 10th, 2000

Hey Molly,

You said it would be okay to email you about “music or whatever” so I’m taking you up on the offer. I hope that’s okay. :)
I’m so glad you came to the concert and I hope you enjoyed it. Tampa was fun but it’s really hot there. We’re in New York now, only for a couple of days though. Have you ever been? I love it. I think it’s my favorite city on earth, but then again, I haven’t been to all of them. Just most of them.
I think you would really love it here, based on the very little I know about you.
So how has life been since the concert? Let me know. My life is just the tour bus, so I’m starved for entertainment. That sounds sarcastic, since I’m on tour and really my life is pretty exciting, but I promise it’s serious.
I guess this wasn’t really about music at all. So...this is more the “whatever”, I suppose.
-Tay

Chapter Text

September 12th, 2000 - Taylor

It was moments like these that Taylor listed all the things he had never done in his head. First days of school, going to a football games, school choir, recklessly driving in a car with friends...he could think of plenty of examples. He kept a running list in his brain and added to it whenever he felt completely unprepared for a social situation much like the one he was in right now.

His first real date with a girl.

He was in New York City and his parents had flown Natalie there, all the way from Georgia, because they had seen the two of them hit it off after the show. Natalie was a sweet, smiley girl from Newnan, who had tagged along to a Hanson concert with her friend Kate. They ended up backstage, and Taylor talked to Natalie for at least twenty minutes, excited to have someone who wasn’t screaming or shoving a CD into his hands to sign. His heart leapt at the prospect of a friend outside of the band, one whom he could talk to. She was so nice. Isaac immediately swooped in and took Kate on a tour of the backstage area, while Taylor and Natalie talked about her summer and her plans for the coming year. He was fascinated by the idea of high school. They exchanged numbers and Taylor was sure that Natalie went home that night trying to convince herself that rock stars never call.

As luck would have it, his mom and dad were in Georgia with them, at the very same show they met a couple of nice girls with nice families. Girls they approved of. Taylor should have seen all of this coming. He had seen it happen to his cousins over and over, and it always ended with marriage.

So here he was, in the middle of an arrangement he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to be a part of, but he supposed there were worse things. Dinner with a nice girl could be fun. At least they could talk without feeling rushed.

“So, how’s school going?” Taylor asked after they had exhausted conversation about her flight to New York and the whirlwind of JFK airport. She had never flown before, and he could still see the excitement and anxiety on her face.

“It’s good! We’re not too far into it, you know. It’s only September.”

“Oh, okay.”

“But it’s good. I’m taking a few hard classes. AP Chemistry.”

“Do you like science?”

“It’s my favorite! I want to major in it when I go to college. Probably Chemistry.”

“Wow.”

Natalie giggled softly and took a drink of her soda. Taylor wished they had food in front of them. Something to do with his hands. He fiddled with his Hanson ring under the table.

“Do you play any instruments?” He asked, hoping he could latch onto a musical conversation.

“I don’t, actually,” Natalie answered, her eyes apologetic, as though she was hoping for some topic to grasp onto as well.

“Oh, that’s okay. It’s overrated,” Taylor said with a smirk. He couldn’t help but think about the conversation he had with Molly, how easy it flowed from music to life and back again. Molly. He wondered what she was doing right now.

He shook his head quickly, trying to rid his mind of the thoughts about the girl that was not sitting directly in front of him. He had never been on a date, but he knew enough about human decency to know that was rude. Besides, he had emailed Molly two days ago and he hadn’t even gotten a response. Maybe that friendship was over before it began. Whereas this date was happening and he was a part of it...and it wasn’t a complete disaster. As their entrees arrived, he made a decision to try his best.

“The concert was so fun,” Natalie blurted out in between bites. He smirked. She was nervous. So was he.

“It was a good one. The audience was great that night.”

“Oh come on, you don’t remember the audience from every show.”

“Maybe not every show, but I remember that one,” he looked up at her and noticed her face reddening quickly. He hadn’t even meant that to be a flirtation.

Once again the conversation halted for a few agonizing minutes. Taylor wracked his brain for content. Why couldn’t he think of anything to say?

“When are you flying back?” Great, he thought, Make her think you’re excited for her to leave.

“Tomorrow night. I was thinking maybe we could like...go sight see or something tomorrow. If you wanted.”

Taylor absolutely didn’t want to. Luckily, tomorrow was a travel day.

“We’re heading out tomorrow,” he didn’t mention what time. They were only going to Pennsylvania, but he was sure there would be a few hours in the morning he could spare. But that was ridiculous. A first date wasn’t supposed to last two days in a row.

“Oh.” He watched her face fall, and immediately felt guilty.

“I’m sorry…”

“It’s okay!” She replied, attempting to regain her chipper demeanor. “Maybe I’ll do some exploring myself. My parents would kill me if they knew I was going off alone, but I don’t have to tell them.” The mischievous smile that formed on her lips made Taylor smile back earnestly.

“There ya go,” he encouraged, finishing up his meal and wiping his mouth with the fancy cloth napkin. This place was way too nice for him, but he hadn’t made the reservation. That was all his parent’s doing. After he paid the bill, he walked Natalie back to her hotel. He entertained visions of himself asking her back to his room, so they could make out for a couple hours and fall asleep spooning in his bed. But...the urge didn’t pull him hard enough to actually form the words. They stopped outside of the hotel lobby and he kissed her chastely on the cheek.

“Night, Natalie.”

She looked up at him with wide, awe-filled eyes. They were almost too eager, and it made his stomach clench with guilt.

“Goodnight, Taylor. Safe travels tomorrow!”

“Thanks. I’ll um...I’ll call you.”

***

“Well you’re back early,” Isaac remarked when Taylor walked into the hotel room. Zac was on his gameboy on the bed and Isaac was reading. Pizza boxes lay between them, picked clean with only a few scraps left.

“Yeah well...there wasn’t much to talk about.”

“Bummer.”

Taylor stripped off his dress shirt and pulled a clean t-shirt over his head. He made his way towards the door again, telling his brothers he was going down to the lobby to check his emails. They both grunted in acknowledgement.

When he signed on, his face lit up. Molly had written back.

 

To: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
September 12th, 2000

Tay (I’m guessing it’s okay to call you that since you signed your email that way),

Hi! New York sounds amazing. No, I have never been there, but I hope I can go some day. I want to live there. It might be silly to dream about living in a place I’ve never been but it just seems like where I’m supposed to be. I would love to visit sooner rather than later. What about it makes it your favorite place?
Let’s see...since the concert...school started (blah). I’m a junior this year. Jillian graduated in the spring so my best friend isn’t at school with me anymore which kind of sucks. But that’s life, I guess. I’m taking a lot of hard classes this year because I’m insane, but luckily I have choir and music theory and band to split it all up. I don’t march but I help with arrangements and I play piano for concert and jazz band. Band is a cult at my school, I swear. It’s ridiculous. There, I added some music to the “music or whatever.” Just to balance it all out.
Where to next after New York?
-M

 

He immediately hit “reply” before taking a moment to question himself. This email had just hit his inbox. Was it too soon to respond? Was it too late to be emailing? He checked his watch. It was only 8pm. That was a lame date, he thought to himself.

He decided he didn’t care, and began typing back furiously.

 

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
September 12th, 2000

Molly,

Next is Pennsylvania, we head out in the morning. We actually didn’t have a show tonight, and I went on a date with a girl (gasp)! It wasn’t that exciting, so don’t press me for details. Or do, but there will be none to speak of.
Anyway, that does suck that Jillian is off at college. Is she? I guess you didn’t say, I just assumed. I don’t know how this whole school thing works, I’m just a stupid home-schooled kid.
I’m glad you have some music to break up the monotony of class.
So New York. It’s electric. It’s exhausting. You have no time to slow down. You can be alone in a crowd of hundreds. Let me know when you visit. Maybe I can make a trip (I’m always looking for an excuse to be here...I already don’t want to leave in the morning). It’s overwhelming in all the best ways.

-Tay

 

There was something so thrilling about having a friend to talk to that he wasn’t his brother. His brothers went everywhere with him, so there wasn’t really that much of a need to talk. But Molly had so much to share! She was in choirs and bands and wrote music in her free time. He hoped she would email him back as he logged off for the night, hopping on the elevator back up to his room and feeling lighter than air. He felt a vibration in his pocket which brought him back down from his strange high. A text. From Natalie.

"I had a great time tonight, Tay :)"

Chapter Text

September 16th, 2000 - Zac

Zac threw himself onto the mattress, face down and let out a loud groan.

“Tired?” Ike asked, letting the heavy door slam behind him.

Zac didn’t look up, but he could picture the exact expression on his oldest brother’s face. He called it “dad face”, much to the pique of Isaac, who would always throw back some comment about immaturity or laziness. Zac didn’t really care. He was always fighting with his brothers because they were always together. Now, in the middle of their tour, they were all in need of a little space. Unfortunately, space was limited in the hotel room he and Ike would be sharing.

He rolled himself over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. He felt Ike tugging at his shoes.

“At least take your shoes off, man. You’re gonna get the sheets all dirty. I call the shower.” Ike snatched up his duffel bag and disappeared into the bathroom. Zac sat up and caught his reflection in the mirror on the wall. He looked just like he felt: completely exhausted. The show that night was great, but his heart hadn’t really been in it. Instead, he was busy trying to process everything that had happened in just a short month’s time. Taylor and Isaac had been spending some time talking to two fans whom they met at the Atlanta show. Zac didn’t see it as anything serious. The girls were pretty and didn’t act like the droves of rabid animals some of the fans did. They were nice enough, coming from conservative southern backgrounds. Zac even remembered Ike repeating a joke one of them told and he thought it was genuinely funny. Still, it bothered him that he kept hearing his parents make comments about these girls having potential. Potential for what, he thought.

Zac knew his brothers all too well. He knew what it looked like when Tay was inspired or truly happy. He could tell when Ike thought someone was special or exciting. He couldn’t deny that they both seemed attracted to the girls, but he just didn’t see a spark that warranted parental attention. He felt uneasy about it, but couldn’t explain why.

“I’m too tired for this,” he said, out loud, flopping back onto the bed.

“What?” Ike called from the bathroom and Zac noticed the shower had stopped running. He kicked off his shoes, which flew in opposing directions. He pulled his sweat-soaked shirt up over his head and threw it toward the foot of the bed.

“Hurry up!” he shouted back. Ike flung open the door, releasing plumes of steam from inside the bathroom.

“It’s all yours,” he said, crossing the room to get out of the way. Zac hauled himself up and into the misty bathroom, closing the door with feigned irritation. He turned the shower back on, allowing the scalding water to produce more steam. He turned the knob to cool it a bit, then removed the rest of his clothes and climbed in.

The water pressure was strong and felt soothing on his muscles, which were tired from performing. It felt good to wash the grime from his skin. He squeezed all of the lime-scented hotel shampoo into his hand and scrubbed it through his long hair, letting it lather up and bubble on his scalp. He let his mind wander.

His thoughts settled on the same image they did every time he’d set them free since Tampa. The girl with the chocolate hair who let him kiss her. There she was, plain as day, sitting in his mind’s eye, staring at him with those eyes of hers. He closed his eyes tightly, and tried to picture her more clearly. Her hair. Her face. Her hand under his. Her lips…

He felt a tightening in the pit of his stomach and that familiar rush he got from his mom’s Victoria’s Secret catalogs. He imagined Jillian leaning toward him, pushing her lips onto his. Putting her hands deep into his hair. Pressing her whole body onto his. Her hands, moving from his hair to his chest, then down to the button on his jeans. He let his own hands mimic the vision he was creating. Imagining her touching him softly, gently...then applying more pressure, moving faster, until…

“What are you doing in there?” Ike’s voice was like a bucket of ice water crashing through the bathroom door, dousing the fire Zac had set for himself. Startled, he jumped, then felt his feet slip on the shower floor. Desperately, he grabbed at anything he could to stop his fall.

The curtain, the rod, and the screws that kept it attached to the wall came plummeting down around him, as he landed in a heap in the tub.

“What...why...Ike, what is wrong with you?!” he shouted at his brother, who was convulsing with laughter in the doorway. “I hate you!” Zac didn’t mean it, but his pride hurt more than his body. His brother continued to laugh as he started to exit the bathroom.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry. Just...are you okay?” Zac hoped his brother hadn’t been spying on him this whole time.

“Yeah, I’m fine, just...you scared me is all…”

“I thought you maybe fell asleep,” Ike sounded apologetic, but Zac knew this would be the first thing he told Taylor in the morning. Lucky Tay, who got his own room that night, thanks to his superior rock-paper-scissors skills. Zac wished for a rock to fall from the sky so that he could hide under it for the rest of the tour. “Get rinsed off and I’ll help you clean this up, okay?”

Ike left the bathroom and Zac stood up carefully. He rinsed off all the soap, trying not to splash water everywhere. He imagined Jillian again, but this time, she was laughing at him. What was he thinking? As if a girl like her would ever think about him again. He couldn’t even pleasure himself without breaking everything in the room.

He shook her from his imagination, turned off the water and dried off briskly. He threw the towel around his waist, took a deep breath and prepared for further ridicule as he stepped into the bedroom. Ike was already under the covers of the far bed, sitting up against the headboard with a travel magazine he must have found in the room.

“I’m fine, really.” Zac barked, grumpily. He tossed his bag onto his bed and dug out a pair of old boxer shorts and a t shirt.

“I’m really sorry, Zac. I didn’t mean to...interrupt.” Ike’s words made Zac’s heart sink. He quickly pulled on the shorts and shirt, and threw back the bed covers. He couldn’t even look at his brother. “Hey, Zac? It’s...okay, you know. It’s not like you’re the only guy to ever get caught…”

“SHUT UP ISAAC!” Zac couldn’t help the forcefulness of his statement. He didn’t want a pep talk. He wanted to pretend it never happened. He climbed into the bed and layed down, putting his back to the other bed. His hair was still soaking wet, but he didn’t care. He listened as Ike sighed heavily, then reached over to turn out the light.

“You know those girls we met in Atlanta?” Ike asked quiety after several minutes of silence.

“Uh huh,” Zac answered, not ready to talk. Still, he was curious where the question was leading. He remembered Taylor's date with one of them only a few days ago in New York.

“I think Mom and Dad really like them.” Zac expected Ike to say something else, but when he didn’t, he rolled over to face him.

“That’s cool, I guess.”

“Yeah, they’re nice. I think Tay really likes the one girl…”

“What about you? Don’t you like the other one?” Zac tried to read Ike’s face in the darkness but he could only see his silhouette.

“I don’t know if I like her enough to marry her,” Ike blurted out, his voice thick with contempt.

“Marry her? Who said anything about that?” Zac couldn’t understand this new melodrama from his usually level-headed brother.

“No one...no one did...I just...forget I mentioned it.” Ike laughed in an attempt to change the subject and Zac decided to allow it. He didn’t want Ike to feel uncomfortable, so he said the first thing that popped into his head.

“I kissed a girl last month.” Zac was instantly struck by how juvenile his statement sounded. Like a brag more than a confession. And to Isaac, whom Zac was sure had kissed plenty of beautiful women. He held his breath and waited for a response.

“I know. Tay told me.” Of course he did. Zac cringed, imagining them making fun of him together, behind his back. “That’s really cool, man.”

“Wait, it is?” was the only answer he could muster.

“Yeah, Zac. A first kiss is a big deal. So...you wanna tell me about her?” Ike sat up in the dark, hanging his legs over the side of the bed. Zac couldn’t help but sit up too.

“Her name was Jillian and she was beautiful and seventeen and had the softest lips…” Zac paused his enthusiasm to make sure Ike wasn’t laughing at him. No laughter yet. “...and she really listened to me when I talked…”

“Sounds like you might have a crush! So, when are you going to see her again?” Ike’s enthusiasm made Zac feel ten feet tall. He felt his courage building and his guard coming down.

“I...I don’t know when. I didn’t get her number or address. She sort of just ran away when Tay and her friend walked in. I have no way to contact her.”

“Oh, man! Rookie mistake,” Ike teased. “So, you say that her friend and Tay were together?”

“Yeah, they went off somewhere and that’s how I met her...waiting for her friend to come back. You don’t think..?” Zac realized he was thinking the same thing Ike was.

“Taylor always gets a number or email or something. Girls practically tattoo their numbers on him if they get close enough! We can ask him if he can contact this girl’s friend for you.”

“I don’t know…” Zac was thrilled and terrified at the same time. “What would I even say?”

“Say whatever, but say something! You never know where things could go. I say, it’s always better to do something and possibly regret it later then to do nothing and regret that forever. You gotta try, man. Right?” Zac thought for a moment about what it would be like to get to see Jillian again. He supposed that possibility was worth the risk. She would probably reject him. But there was a small chance she wouldn’t. That small chance was enough.

“Yeah...okay, let’s ask Tay tomorrow.”

“Yes!! This is great! Look at you, becoming a man,” Ike stated in a low, silly voice that Zac found familiar and endearing.

“Shut up,” he replied, lying back down on his wet pillow. “And thanks.” In the darkness, Zac began to doze off to sleep. They would be back on the road tomorrow, heading to Detroit for a show.

At that concert, Zac would be playing his heart out during Wish I Was There, when he would spot a girl in the third row with chocolate hair and deep brown eyes. His heart would leap out of his chest, causing him to miss a few beats and earn a glaring stare from Taylor. He would be sure for a few seconds that it was Jillian. He would let his mind fill with all the hope and promise he had been avoiding since they met. He would formulate a plan to have security pluck her from the crowd at the end of the show and bring her backstage, where he would be smooth and charming and all the things he hadn’t been upon their first meeting. He would stare at her intently until she met his gaze a few songs later...only to discover that it wasn’t her. But at least by then, he would have an email address and the guts to use it.

For now, he surrendered to the fatigue that was dragging him down into a deep sleep. Just as he was about to lose consciousness, he heard Ike’s low mumble.

“We gotta fix that shower curtain tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

October 23rd, 2000 - Jillian

It had been over a month since the day that Molly called with the news about the Georgia girls. Jillian had laughed at her plenty of times since then, watching her pour over any article or picture she could find. So, it was strange to her when the constant searching stopped suddenly. Jillian didn’t dare bring it up, at the risk of opening old wounds.

The oddest thing wasn’t that Molly had stopped looking...it was that Jillian started. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something going on and it fascinated her.

Since the concert, she had started college and was trying to adjust to her new schedule. She felt out of place, surrounded by new people of all ages, clearly in very different stages of their lives than the one she was experiencing. She missed getting up and heading to school, knowing Molly would be there, waiting by her locker, jabbering about the latest gossip in the music department. She missed the routine. She missed the safety.

She wanted desperately to hold on to the familiar. Somehow, that translated into a vested interest in the secret life of the awkward boy who kissed her last summer. She started wondering about what he was doing at random moments of the day. She wondered if he had met anyone backstage, like it seemed his brothers had. She wondered if he sat on a couch with any of them, trying to be smooth, breaking down their resolve, flashing those puppy dog eyes…

She had just managed to get past Evie, who was trying unsuccessfully to make dinner for the twins as they played catch over the kitchen table. She slipped into her bedroom and shut the door, tossing her backpack onto the bed and dropping into the chair in front of her computer. She had convinced her dad to install a modem in her room so she could study and use the internet in peace. She hit the spacebar and woke up the screen, barely waiting a second before pulling up the internet browser.

She had a research paper due in psychology and a presentation for her English class that was due in two days, but she did the only thing she could think about all day and clicked on the “search” tab.

Zac Hanson girlfriend, she typed and punched the return key. After several moments of loading, she stared at a short list of the same vague articles she always found with this search. Nothing conclusive. Nothing about Zac. Just a lot of rumors like the ones Molly had linked her to a month ago.

She sighed, feeling a surge of embarrassment. Why should she be embarrassed? She was alone in her room. No one had to know what she was doing. No one knew that she was secretly dying to know about the love life of a 14 year old boy in a travelling band who played the drums and kissed like he was much older. No one could ever know! The realization that she was judging herself made her feel worse so she closed the browser window and let out another sigh. She was going to stop doing this. She was.

She wasn’t.

She opened the browser and sat through the dial up tones again, intending to try a new keywords in her search. The static cleared and her home window popped up again.

You’ve Got Mail…

Jillian jumped a bit from the notification. She didn’t get many emails, mainly because she never gave anyone her email address, outside of Molly and some family members. She opened the mail tab and stared at the message in her inbox. The subject was blank, but the sender was unmistakable.

ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net

She froze, her jaw falling open in disbelief. She didn’t know what to do next. Open it? Delete it? Leave it alone until she was ready? She didn’t know. She logged out, raced out of her room and into the kitchen, grabbing the cordless phone from its charger. She frantically dialed Molly’s number, ignoring her sister’s shouting questions at her.

“Shhh” she ordered, as she put the phone to her ear. She prayed Molly would answer but the phone rang and rang. Finally, there was a click and she heard Molly answer.

“Hello…”

“Molly, I need you to come over right now. Please!” Jillian felt like she was shouting. Her sisters were all glaring at her like she was crazy.

“Is everything okay?” Molly sounded genuinely concerned. Jillian took a deep breath, trying to be less of a spaz.

“Yeah, I just...need you to see something and I can only show you here. Please, Moll!”

“Okay, yeah, let me just ask my mom for the keys. Bye” The line went dead and Jillian collected herself as she placed the receiver down.

“As you were,” she said dramatically to her sisters. She left the kitchen and shut herself in her room, where she logged back in and stared at her inbox, waiting for her best friend to arrive.

***

Molly arrived in record time, likely lead-footing it all the way to Jillian’s house. She entered the house without knocking and burst into Jillian’s room, out of breath and wild-eyed.

“Oh my god, look!” Jillian commanded, pointing at the computer monitor. Molly dropped her backpack on the floor and leapt into the office chair, rolling up to the computer. Her face, lit with a blueish tint of the screen, broke into a smile that spread from ear to ear. She started giggling uncontrollably.

“I KNEW it!” she shrieked so loudly that Jillian shushed her. The last thing she needed was a squad of sister-spies invading her room and poking around for details.

“Knew what?” she half-whispered, then thought better of it. “What do I do?”

“Umm...Jillian...you read it,” Molly said dryly, finally noticing that the email was still marked ‘new’.

“I couldn’t... not without you.” Jillian was disgusted by how whiny she sounded, but if anyone would allow her this moment, it was Molly. “Please, can you open it and read it?”

“Of course, but first...can I just ask you why you’re freaking out? You haven’t so much as mentioned what happened that night in weeks. I thought you didn’t care.” Jillian bristled at the accusatory tone she heard in her best friend’s voice.

“Maybe I didn’t think I did, until this...Can you please...just read it?” Jillian did her best to stay calm and Molly turned back to the computer, slowly clicking the mouse. “Out loud, please!!” Jillian was trying not to lash out but her anxiety was soaring. Molly shot her a look that begged patience then turned back and read aloud.

I wish that I was there. I wish that I was there. When you’re not here, I wish that I was there. Z. They’re lyrics. To a song he wrote.” Molly seemed nonplussed.

Jillian sat in silence, baffled. She remembered hearing the song many times in her car with Molly. It had never struck her as a favorite in any way. She couldn’t recall him bringing it up that night. The song had no meaning to her in any way that she could place.

“Is that it?” she asked Molly, who nodded.

“This is actual the dorkiest thing I’ve ever seen” Molly said, still staring at the open message. “You should write him back!” She started to laugh and then turned to sing the lyrics to Jillian in a mocking tone. She rolled closer in the office chair, arms outstretched, serenading and spinning around in circles. Jillian stood up sharply.

“Would you stop it?” she shouted, causing Molly to stop short. Jillian felt her cheeks flush and her ears get hot. She was losing her temper. “Does everything with you have to be a joke? You’re so immature.”

“Jill, I was just kidding. Relax…”

“Relax?” Jillian felt her embarrassment take the place of her rational mind. “You’re the one who needs to relax; acting like these stupid kids want anything to do with us. They probably email a dozen girls a night, hoping one of them is dumb enough to think it’s real and respond. Like a bunch of rich, famous boy band idols are going to pick up some plain, messy girls like us and parade us around on stage saying ‘Ooh, look at my amazing girlfriend. I like for her personality and respect for my music.’ It’s a fantasy world, Molly, That stuff doesn’t happen. The rock stars hang out with other rock stars and make fun of girls like us for obsessing over them. And you and me get to just keep on living our boring, meaningless lives, wishing there was something better and KNOWING there isn’t. Sorry if you think that’s okay, but, for me, IT’S NOT!”

“Wow...okay. That was actually pretty horrible, Jill.” Molly hung her head and spoke softly. “I’m going to go.”

“Great, please, go. I have an email to delete.” Jillian spit the words at Molly, hoping they were the last thing needed to get her out of the room. Molly stared at her for a moment, but she averted her eyes. From the corner of her eye, she saw Molly stand and collect her backpack from the floor, then turn toward the door. She stopped and Jillian braced herself.

“Its no big deal if you like him, Jill.” She resumed her exit and Jillian snapped into action, slamming the bedroom door behind her. It was in that moment she realized the truth of what transpired. She had just lashed out at her best friend because she felt ashamed of a little crush. She felt the insurmountable weight of guilt overwhelm her and sat down on the floor, pulling her knees to her chest. She tried her best to disappear but to no avail. Despite her best efforts to hold it in, she started to cry.

What was her problem? Why was she so defensive? Was she really ashamed of Zac and the kiss and the fact that she liked it? The fact that she had been hoping so hard that he would still be thinking about her like she was secretly thinking about him? Or was it something else?

Jillian had a sudden epiphany as she tried to muffle her sobs. She was angry that the email gave her hope. She was angry that Molly saw her for what she was: a girl with a crush on someone so out of her league, it made her feel small and foolish.

She picked herself up and shuffled over to the computer, looking at the body of the email for the first time. She ignored the little flip she felt her heart perform and clicked ‘delete’. Her life was already set; her fate, sealed.

She was done with hope for good.

Chapter Text

October 25th, 2000 - Molly

To: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
October 25th, 2000

Tay Tay (I know you love it when people call you that, specifically ME),

Okay so, funny story. I went over to Jillian’s the other day and your brother had emailed her. Three guesses which one. Um...the best part was that the body of the email was just lyrics. Not even new ones. Just “Wish I was there” lyrics. Smooth, Zac. Very smooth. DON’T tell him I told you that, it was just too funny not to share. Honestly, I told Jillian to respond to him but she wasn’t having it. So I guess that’s that, then. Oh well. (I was wondering why you asked for Jillian’s email address...now this all makes sense…you’re such a good wing man!)

Tell me what’s new! I’m terribly bored right now. Hmmm, maybe bored isn’t exactly the right word seeing as I have a ton of homework I should be doing instead of emailing you. I don’t know why I decided all these AP classes were a good idea.

Wanna come back to Florida and go to homecoming with me? I simply refuse to go alone, sigh.

Email me back, loser.
-M

 

Molly felt emboldened by the last few sentences of her email, and clicked the “send” button with fervor. Her recent interactions with Jillian made her hold her friendship with Taylor even closer to her chest than before. A few weeks ago she would never have hesitated in calling Jillian her best friend...but now…

She wondered if her parents were worried about her. She spent a lot of time in her room, emailing and instant messaging Taylor on her Dad’s old desktop that they had relocated up to her room (“I have so much computer homework, and Dad’s getting a new one anyway…”). She was grateful to have some privacy when talking to her new friend. New friend. That felt wrong. It seemed as though she had known him for years. She would often find herself spilling out stories about her childhood to him on AIM, followed immediately by him detailing his day, his interactions with his brothers, his moments alone. He would always make sure he wasn’t distracting her from her homework, because somehow, in the month they had been talking, he had also become her biggest cheerleader.

“Oh, homecoming is coming up?” Her mom had asked casually at breakfast that very same day, while perusing the school newsletter Molly had brought home. It was the first time either of her parents had pushed anything social on her, and she immediately felt herself recoil.

“Yeah…” she responded.

“Are you gonna go?”

“Um...probably not,” She couldn’t help it. Her first thought was Taylor. How fun it would be to go with him. She berated herself internally and attempted to banish the thought.

“Why not? You have plenty of friends...surely some of your choir or band people are going as a group or something.”

“Yeah probably but...I don’t know, I feel like that’s prime homework and practice time, don’t you?”

“Well sure, but I don’t want you to kill yourself and miss a fun event. You went last year with Jillian!”

And now here she was, waiting for a response from Taylor, who definitely would not be able to come to Tampa to take her to her homecoming dance. It was okay. The thought was nice enough, she supposed. She scrolled back through her emails and realized that the boys were currently on stage in Mexico. She snorted. Sometimes the juxtaposition between her life and the life of her virtual pen pal’s was staggering.

Every single day she waited for one of her parents to confront her about all her computer time. She played it out hundreds of different ways in her head, and she had plenty of excuses to dish out if the moment called for them. Homework, talking to a friend who moved away, talking to a friend from piano camp a couple summers ago, writing a paper, messing around on her composing software that she hated deeply compared to old fashioned staff paper and pencil.

But they never asked. Thank God, she thought as she clicked out of her inbox.

***

Molly woke up the next morning with a message from Taylor.

 

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
October 25th, 2000

Molly,

I do love it when you call me Tay Tay.

When is homecoming? I’ve never been to a school dance. And...sorry, are you asking me out?

Zac is an idiot.
Let me know. I would love to be your date. <3
-Tay Tay

 

Molly didn’t date boys. It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in the male species (after all, she had been obsessed with three very specific boys for three years at this point), she just...didn’t really think about having a boyfriend. She was always busy. She took hard classes. She was constantly practicing and writing and any free time she had was dedicated to Jillian or her parents. Besides, no one at school really looked at her that way anyway, at least not to her knowledge. She had a couple of tiny crushes in her time, but nothing as extreme or all consuming as her love for Hanson, so they usually dwindled and fizzled out as soon as some news about the boys popped up on TV or the internet. She had never been asked out and had never been kissed but those were not things that bothered her. Because she had composed a concerto and arranged multiple pieces for an SSAATTBB choir and basically took her music theory class for fun because she could easily test out of it.

Boys her age were not on her radar. Except for her first real crush, Zac Hanson.

And now...his older brother.

But no, that was silly. Taylor was just her friend, even if they did playfully flirt via email. This wasn’t anything real, just like her online Hanson friends weren’t necessarily real outside of her computer screen. This is just like that, she attempted to convince herself.

Molly was not a daydreamer by nature. She lost herself in music easily enough, but she was hyperfocused (a facet of her personality that made her obsessive nature spike at the most inopportune times). At this moment, however, she couldn’t help but let herself fall into a fantasy...Taylor in a tux pulling up outside of her house, taking her to her high school dance, her band friends gawking. They wouldn’t stay long. A few dances before they both realized they didn’t care about anyone else in the school gym. They would give each other a look and decide collectively to leave. They would go back to her house and lay on her trampoline under the stars, with a bottle of contraband wine and nothing but hours to kill.

The fantasy drove her to respond before shifting her focus back to real life and the school day ahead of her.

 

To: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
October 26th, 2000

It’s tomorrow. I already know you can’t go, so don’t tease me like that. Besides, don’t you have a girlfriend? C’mon, T, get it together.

For the record, yes. I was absolutely asking you out.

-M

 

She pressed send before she could second guess herself. Zac’s boldness towards Jillian made Molly feel even more confident than usual. Besides...she had no bad experiences with boys to stifle her brashness. She didn’t know what could go wrong yet.

She stuffed her backpack, looking at her watch and realizing that she was now running a few minutes behind in her morning routine. Her heart was racing. Molly wasn’t shy. No one who ever met her would dream of accusing her of being shy or soft spoken. Taylor on the other hand, was. It was probably the first thing she noticed about him - the difference between how open and giving he was onstage versus how reserved and skittish he was off of it. He was different than she had imagined...although he wasn’t the brother she had imagined the most. She giggled out loud at the thought of how her alliance had shifted.

“Molly, you want breakfast, or what?” She heard her dad yell up to her from the kitchen.

“Coming!!” She called back, before realizing she hadn’t shut down her computer. There was already a response. She felt her whole being expand; the feeling you get when you know the person you’re thinking about is also thinking about you. Molly chased the high of music constantly, and knew its side effects by heart. This was a completely different kind of intoxication.

“ARE you coming, though?” She could picture her dad at the foot of the stairs, waiting patiently with two pop-tarts in his hand. He still drove her to school every morning. They would listen to classical music and pick apart every measure. She lived for that twenty minute drive, in which her father was hers and only hers.

“Just a SECOND!!” She rushed to click through to the new message, and read it quickly, devouring the words as though they could sustain her just as efficiently as food.

 

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
October 26th, 2000

M,

If you can believe it, we DON’T have a show that night, but it is a travel day. We’re in Mexico today and Arizona the day after, so I don’t think a quick trip to Tampa is in the cards. Rain check? I don’t know if I would call Natalie my girlfriend, we’ve been on one (kind of lame) date. I can’t see it going much farther than that, haha.

You should send me your address, I want to write you a letter. I know I pretty much tell you everything anyway in emails but I like letters, too. Call me a hopeless romantic.

-T
PS- I’m very serious about the rain check.

Chapter Text

December 20th, 2000 - Zac

Being home was a huge relief. It wasn’t that Zac didn’t enjoy touring but there was something about being home for the holidays that made him feel like he could breathe again. He could drop the act he often felt like he was holding up. One of these days, he was sure everyone would catch on that he was just a big nerd masquerading as a rock star. At home, this was common knowledge, so he didn’t have to try. He could kick back and play video games all day, shoveling handfuls of junk food into his face, and no one would want anything from him.

His fantasies of a normal, relaxing break were dashed when his mother announced that they would have a visitor for the next few days: the girl from Georgia was coming to visit. Zac had looked around frantically at his brothers for any sign of resistance, but there had been none. Taylor had actually looked pleased in his own reserved way. Zac felt instantly irritated and made up his mind to avoid this visitor at all costs. He wanted nothing to do with any of it.

“I don’t understand why everyone wants to mess up our Christmas,” he whined at Taylor as they closed themselves in their room for the night.

“She’s only coming for a couple of days, Zac.” Taylor spoke calmly and it made Zac angry. He didn’t understand how his brother could want that girl around after spending months with screaming fans at every stop.

“Well, you better get something out of it is all I’m saying!” The statement came out more crassly than Zac intended but he didn’t correct himself. He watched Taylor turn several shades of red, then climb into bed and turn away. “Night!” he barked sarcastically. He jumped up and flicked the light switch down, plunging the room into darkness. He carelessly threw himself into his bed and tried to calm the boiling feeling in his veins.

He felt foolish. He wasn’t angry at his mom for inviting a stranger for the holidays. He wasn’t even angry at Taylor for allowing it to happen. He was angry because he couldn’t control any of it. He couldn’t keep his brothers from meeting girls and going on dates. He couldn’t control his parents pushing those plans along. He couldn’t control that they were all getting older and things were changing. He was angry because he was afraid.

When he sent Jillian the email months ago, he had agonized over what it should say. Ike had procured the email address like a masterful sleuth, delivering it with the cheesiest smile and a boisterous ‘You’re welcome’. Zac had felt a knot in his stomach form in that moment and instantly, he regretted getting Ike involved, knowing he would have to follow through.

He had started typing the email dozens of times, performing the same ritualistic type-and-delete pattern over and over. One particularly frustrating night, he had opened a new message and aggressively pounded on the keyboard for what felt like forever, pouring out his every thought and feeling. When he looked at the screen, the message was blank. He hadn’t placed the cursor properly.

He had basically given up, when Ike asked suddenly over breakfast the day of his birthday, “Hey, did you ever send that email?” Zac had mumbled some lame excuse, knowing Ike wouldn’t let him off the hook. “Dude, you have to do it. Otherwise, you’re always going to wonder what might have been.”

That night, feeling slightly more secure in himself now that he was fifteen, Zac had quickly typed up the lyrics to a song he wrote. The girls at his concerts always seemed to like it, so he figured it was the coolest way to get Jillian’s attention. He hit ‘send’ without hesitation and heard the swooshing sound as the email sailed away into the ether. His reaction had been instantaneous: total, soul-crushing humiliation. He had done it; he had sent her an email. He couldn’t take it back. All he could do was wait until he forgot all about it.

Now, here he was, months after the fact, still afraid that she would never write back. Of course she won’t, he thought, because you sent her song lyrics like an idiot. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling trying to turn off his brain. He laid there for what felt like hours but sleep wasn’t coming. He decided to wait out his insomnia in the kitchen with a late night snack.

He had almost turned the corner, when he noticed the glow of the open refrigerator and a dark figure standing in front of it. Somebody beat him to it.

“Ike?” he whispered too loudly. His older brother jumped, startled, and hit his head in the handle of the freezer door.

“Jes...don’t DO that, Zachary!” he hissed, trying to keep his voice down. His arms were filled with deli meat containers and a large jar of pickles.

“I’ll grab the bread?” Zac offered, hoping that was apology enough. Ike nodded and dumped his items on the counter in a heap. Zac pulled a stack of bread slices from the bag and joined Ike at the counter. They silently assembled their sandwiches, passing cheese and meats and condiments wordlessly and according to tastes. Zac found it fitting that they knew each other well enough to perform such a task with precision. Some things would never change and that was comforting.

“So...whats got you up this late?” Ike asked, before taking an gargantuan bite of his concoction. Zac froze before her could partake. He suddenly felt very full.

“You know, stuff…” He looked at his brother, hoping to appear sincere. He could see from Ike’s expression that it wasn’t working.

“Stuff, huh?” he answered, still chewing. “Anything to do with a certain girl and an email? You sent it, right?”

“Yeah...I did..” Zac was grateful for the dimly lit kitchen so Ike wouldn't see him blushing.

“Nice! So what did you say?”

“Ummm...well, I…” Zac couldn’t make himself say it. The only thing more embarrassing than sending it was hearing it explained aloud. But, Ike was staring at him expectantly and he knew it was now or tomorrow in front of everyone. “I send the lyrics to Wish I Was Th….”

“You what?!” Isaac stood straight up, the contents of his sandwich slipping out onto the counter. Zac dropped his head into his hands, willing himself to disappear somehow. He tried to melt into the floor or meld with the counter, anything to avoid the mortification he was feeling. “Oh man….buddy… that’s so…”

“I know...” he groaned, keeping his head buried in his arms.

“Why didn’t you ask me for...help, or something?” Ike sounded like a disappointed parent. Zac lifted his eyes and was met with ‘dad face’ in all its glory.

“I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t know what to say. It had been so long since the concert and wanted it to be perfect and I kept overthinking…so I just sent the first thing I could think of. She’s never going to respond, is she?” Zac gave his brother his most defeated look.

“You need to write again.” Ike had reassembled his sandwich and took another large bite, glaring matter-of-factly at his hapless sibling.

“Are you serious? Why would I do that?” Zac tried to keep his voice down.

“Why not? It can’t get any worse, right?” Ike finished his meal and wiped his mouth on the hem of his shirt. He crossed to the kitchen door, then clapped a hand on Zac’s shoulder. “Just write something...normal. Say hello; something human, for once. G’night.” He left Zac sitting in the dark with his uneaten sandwich and a new knot in his stomach.

Something human, huh? he thought. He trudged quietly back to his room, doing his best not to wake Taylor, dozing softly on his side of the room. He climbed into bed, suddenly exhausted. Before slipping off to sleep, he resolved to send the email first thing in the morning, before Tay’s Georgia girl arrived. That way he would have plenty to distract him from the inevitable anxiety.

Maybe this visitor would turn out to be a good thing after all.

Chapter Text

December 23rd, 2000 - Taylor

The girls had been there for two days, and Taylor could tell he wasn’t the only one feeling the strain of having two extra people around. He knew they would be leaving in the morning, and he also knew that it would be a while until he saw his girlfriend again, but seven children was enough for one house without adding more people into the mix.

Girlfriend. He rolled the word around in his mouth cautiously.

As much as the general population believed that Taylor was the quintessential nineties heartthrob who could get any girl he wanted, he had never actually been in a real relationship. He had kissed a few girls and apparently knew how to flirt pretty well (he once watched in horror as he smiled coyly to a girl at a meet and greet and she fell to the floor in a heap, passing out right in front of him). And now here he was, seventeen and only a day out from asking Natalie if she wanted to make a go of it and be his girlfriend. She had turned her eyes up to him with a pathetic look and asked if he was going to forget about her, making his stomach clench in guilt. So he did the only thing he could think of. She responded with a shy giggle and a huge smile. He took it as a yes.

When the boys arrived home from tour at the end of last month, his mother asked him casually if he would like Natalie to come visit. He wasn’t sure what she had up her sleeve, but he had been talking to Natalie sporadically since their date in New York and liked her as much as he could without being in the same room. She was sweet and made him feel safe. All her sentences ended in exclamation points. He nodded, because he wasn’t sure what else he was supposed to do, and his parents arranged the rest. He had no idea that she would be showing up with Kate in tow, or that Isaac would have to awkwardly explain to their parents that he and Kate had been over for months. In fact, they had barely gotten started before calling it quits, leaving Isaac single and available to flirt with as many girls as he possibly could after shows.

It was nice having Natalie around. She got along with his mom shockingly well, helping her in the kitchen and picking up Zoe whenever a cry escaped the little one’s mouth. Kate sulked in corners until Zac made her laugh loudly one evening during a round of monopoly. She latched onto him quickly, following him around the house and out into the yard when the living room got too crowded.

“There you are,” Natalie said, interrupting Taylor’s thoughts. He was hiding out in the room he shared with Zac whenever they were home, trying to get a few moments of peace before family dinner that night. Last time he checked, Natalie was chattering happily with his mom, mixing ingredients for her and cleaning dishes as they went.

“Yep...sorry, I needed a second.”

“That’s understandable. There’s a lot of you,” she said with a quick smile. He wondered if she ever didn’t smile. It seemed like she always did, around him anyway.

“Yeah well...I’m used to it. As long as I can get away every once in awhile.”

They sat there silently, Taylor at his desk and Natalie sitting on his bed, her hands in her lap. He thought back to the night in New York, when their conversations kept screeching to a halt. He just assumed it was because they barely knew each other. It will get better, he told himself. Not knowing what else to do or having anything else to say, he leaned forward and kissed her, and he felt her lips smile against his. Without breaking the connection, he scooted over to the bed and put his hands on her face, deepening the kiss. She leaned into him with her whole body.

“Hey you guys...whoa sorry…” Zac appeared at the door, Kate on his heels, to let them know it was time for dinner. Natalie broke into a fit of giggles, and ran out the door and down the hall with her best friend, causing the boys to look at each other in confusion.

“Sorry, man,” Zac repeated bashfully.

“It’s um...it’s okay.”

“So you and Natalie.”

“What do you mean, so me and Natalie, I told you I asked her to be my girlfriend.”

“You know I don’t listen. Anyway, that’s cool. Are you gonna stop emailing Molly then?”

Taylor’s eyes snapped over to his brother, the mention of Molly’s name grounding him back to the moment. “Why would I?”

“Isn’t that kind of weird? Talking to another girl while you’re dating Natalie?”

“Molly’s not...another girl. She’s...it’s different. We’re not...we don’t like each other, we’re just friends. She’s my...we’re really good friends.”

“Right…”

“Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Zac snorted, “Okay, dude. But don’t come crying to me when Natalie makes you stop.”

“She wouldn’t do that. Stop...stop being weird. This is different,” Taylor shoved Zac into the wall as he walked passed him and out the door. So much for a moment alone, he thought.

***

December 24th, 2000

Hey Doll,
Merry Christmas! This letter probably won’t get to you until after Christmas so I hope you had a good holiday. I thought it was a good excuse to write a letter instead of an email.

It’s been nice being home. The tour is OVER and I think we were all ready for it to be. I love touring more than anything and even I was about to fall down from exhaustion there at the end. Christmas at the Hanson house is always insane since there are so many of us, and this year my parents invited Natalie and Kate to join in the festivities for God know’s what reason. First of all, Ike and Kate never even made things official, but luckily that hasn’t been too awkward. Kate and Zac seem to be getting along pretty okay, but maybe that’s just because he’s her only other option for a friend at the house. All the other kids are still pretty young and annoying.

I guess things are getting more serious with Nat. She asked where all of this was going and if I was gonna be her boyfriend or just forget about her. So...I guess I’m her boyfriend. She’s really sweet and I like her. My parents LOVE her. They’ve already planned another visit for next month, and then I’ll probably go to Georgia soon after that. Not being on tour really frees the schedule up, so we’re gonna give it the old college try, even though neither of us are in college. Might as well.

I hope it’s okay if I keep writing you and we keep emailing each other. Let me know if it’s not. I wish we could sit down and jam together right now, since I’m pretty sick of playing with my brothers (joking...kind of...for now). I bet our piano duets would be out of this world. Come to Tulsa. You. Me. Songs. Could be fun. Anyway, I gotta go wrap approximately one thousand presents. Talk soon.

-Tay

***

Taylor unloaded his armful of presents under the tree, making sure they were arranged nicely. He always went a little crazy with gifts, but he was sure his family members didn’t mind. He had given Natalie her gift right before they dropped her off at the airport - a bracelet with a delicate turquoise inlay.

“Turquoise! My...that’s my favorite color!” she exclaimed when she opened the box.

“I know! I remembered,” he replied sheepishly. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek, sliding the bracelet onto her tiny wrist. “Oh...crap, it’s too big, isn’t it?”

“No, no, it’s okay!” She said loudly, trying to take his attention off of the fact that it definitely did not fit. “It’s fine, all my bracelets are too big for me. Small wrists, small fingers.”

“I’ll have it sized or...I’ll get you a new one.”

“No it’s fine, Tay, I promise. I love it.”

He furrowed his brow at the recent memory. He hated not being able to fix that simple mistake for her, but she had been adamant. Why would she want something that didn’t fit? Oh well, he thought to himself, and pulled on a jacket. He needed to get out of the house, so he decided to walk down to the post office to mail his letter to Molly. As he was making his way out the door he stopped in the hallway, voices coming from his father’s office. His mom was in there, and his curiosity got the better of him. He leaned his ear towards the door, a posture he often caught his younger siblings in, and strained to hear what they were talking about. He heard his name, and Zac’s. He nudged the door open a centimeter, holding his breath and hoping his parents wouldn’t notice.

“They seemed to get along,” his mother said matter-of-factly.

“Don’t you think Isaac would care?” His father responded before she even finished her last syllable.

“He didn’t seem to care that she was here this time. I don’t think it was anything serious.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“I think they would be an excellent match. She comes from a good family, Walker. And she is Natalie’s best friend...I think it could be good for them.”

“For who, the boys?”

“Yes, of course the boys. Who else would I be talking about?”

“I don’t know...don’t you think they’re a little young?”

“They’re old enough to have girlfriends. Taylor asked Natalie to be his the other night. She’s so lovely, I’m happy for them. They seem happy.”

“They do, you’re right. Should we send them both to Georgia when Tay goes to visit her?”

“I think so, yes. Let’s see what happens but I think...yes.”

Taylor realized he was gripping the letter so tight that he had creased the paper, and that he hadn’t breathed in several moments. Did his parents always talk about them like that when they weren’t around? It almost made him want to call Natalie right then and there and break up with her. But no, that was ridiculous. His parents knew what they were talking about. They always wanted what was best for him.

So Natalie was what was best for him.

He supposed it made sense. She had a natural gift with Zoe and Mac, calming them down effortlessly, entertaining them with toys and books so they didn’t spend one moment of their day in front of the TV screen. She helped his mother happily. She was very clearly smitten with him.

He looked down at the letter in his hand. Molly McKenney...Tampa, Florida. One stop after Atlanta. Just like the bracelet that was now precariously dangling from Natalie’s wrist, something didn’t fit.

Chapter Text

December 29th, 2000

“I hate college!” Jillian shouted to no one in particular. She leaned back in her desk chair, spinning away from her computer screen and the long list of credits she needed to acquire over the next year and a half. Evie came skipping into the room, her blonde hair piled high atop her head.

“What are you yelling about?” she asked in her special way, that made Jillian feel simultaneously annoyed and amused.

“Nothing, I’m just being dramatic” was all the explanation she could muster.

“Can you drive me to a party tonight?” Evie didn’t even try to butter her sister up. Jillian sighed.

“Where?” she asked dryly. She saw hope spring into her sister’s eyes.

“Near downtown, Brent Miller’s house. You know him?” Jillian knew Brent was a sophomore, like Evie. She also knew he played percussion in the marching band; which meant that Molly was probably invited.

Jillian had hardly spoken to Molly since their fight. Things had gotten busy with her college courses and before she knew it, two months had passed. She had sent a quick text on Thanksgiving, saying “Happy Turkey Day”, to which Molly responded, “You too”. Then the obligatory “What are you doing over break?” and “Nothing, you?” happened, with neither party trying to make any real plans. Things were broken and Jillian didn’t know how to fix them.

What she did know was that she missed her best friend.

“Okay, sure, if Dad says you can go, I’ll drive you.” Evie jumped up and down, clapping her hands with glee. Jillian couldn’t help but smile. At least someone was happy with her. Evie bounded out of the room and Jillian logged out of her AOL account. She thought about Molly and the party. There was a very big chance she would be there. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt for Jillian to pop in quickly. Maybe if Molly saw her in person, looking happy and responsible, she would want to rekindle their friendship. Maybe she could forget how crazy Jillian had acted that night and they could go back to normal.

It was worth a shot.

“I can go!” she heard Evie shout up the stairs. She felt a rush of adrenaline. She was actually excited to go to this party. There was bound to be plenty of people there she knew. After all, she had only been out of school for a semester. How much could have changed?

She jumped into action, throwing open the closet doors. She needed something to wear.

***

Brent’s house was huge. Jillian remembered hearing about the parties he threw his freshman year; extravagant pool bashes with hired DJ’s and fully stocked bars. She had never attended, mostly because the idea was terrifying to her. That same fear came crashing down on her as she parked a few houses down on his street.

Evie was dressed in a tight spaghetti strapped dress, with her blonde curls still piled on the crown of her head. She had smashed her feet into tall, strappy heels and Jillian wondered when she learned to walk in them. Her sister looked far too grown up for her 15 years. She skipped ahead, toward the thumping music and bright lights of the party. Jillian didn’t ask her to wait. She planned to take her time, summoning the courage to walk through the door like she belonged there.

For a moment, she considered yelling up to Evie that she would come back to pick her up later, blaming a sudden sour stomach or a headache. She moved forward swiftly to catch up when she caught sight of Molly, standing in the front lawn. She was doubled over in laughter, solo cup in hand, surrounded by several boys from her grade. She looked up just in time to lock eyes with Jillian, who wanted to disappear. Instead, she managed an awkward smile, followed by a goofy and completely involuntary wave. Molly looked startled, then uncomfortable. She shot a half-hearted smirk back and reluctantly approached. Jillian froze.

“Hi...what are you doing here?” Molly said with as much enthusiasm as she could fake. Jillian’s mouth was completely dry and she wished she hadn’t come. This was not going to go well.

“I was just...dropping Evie off,” she answered. Molly gave her the once-over, noticing the frilly sundress Jillian would only wear for special occasion. Even though they hadn’t been speaking for a while, they still knew each other by heart. Jillian knew her appearance spoke for itself.

“You going to come in?” Molly asked graciously.

“Umm...yeah, sure,” Jillian replied, despite every nerve in her body telling her to leave. Molly turned toward the house and Jillian followed, feeling every eye on her as she walked through the door and into the cavernous foyer. They weren’t looking at her with admiration; they were judging her. She could feel it.

She followed Molly into the kitchen and took a solo cup from the counter, already brimming with beer. She took a large gulp, hoping it would take off the edge. A few people she recognized from choir waved to her, then continued their conversation. She rubbed her arm nervously, wondering what she was thinking, showing up here. Glancing at Molly, she remembered. She missed her friend.

“So...how are...how have you been?” she asked. Molly squinted and moved closer.

“What? Sorry, its loud in here…”

“I said...how have you been?” This time, Jillian shouted too loudly, making Molly and several others jump.

“Oh! Uh...good. Busy...with school.” A long pause. “You? How’s college?”

“Honestly, it’s terrible. I hate it. It’s really lonely and sometimes..” Jillian stopped short when she noticed Molly looking around, presumably for a way out. “Anyway, it’s good to see you. I’m going to go.” She put down the solo cup and started to walk toward the door, fighting the growing crowd.

“Jill!” she heard Molly yell. She stopped and turned around, unsure what she was going to see. Molly was standing in the middle of the foyer, her face stern and eyes afire.

“I’m leaving, Molly” she started, but her former best friend was poised for a tirade.

“Why did you come here? We haven’t really talked in months and now you just show up at a high school party asking me how I am? How do you think I am, Jillian?”

“Um...can you just calm down?” Jillian knew instantly, based on the deep breath Molly took, that that was the wrong thing to say.

“Calm down? Are you serious? Jillian, how about you call me when you’re ready to apologize for how you talked to me. Don’t just show up to a party no one invited you to and act like everything is fine. It’s honestly creepy.” Molly turned on her heel and marched away, leaving Jillian alone in a sea of judgmental stares. She hoped Evie wasn’t anywhere nearby.

She tried to fight back the tears that were forming and made a beeline for the door. She broke into a run once she hit the driveway, no longer able to control herself. She sobbed as she ran to her car, feeling humiliated and broken. When she finally reached the car, she fell into the driver’s seat and slammed to door.

“You’re so STUPID” she shouted out loud at herself, banging her hands against the steering wheel. She should have known she will mess this up.

***

When Jillian got home, the house was dark. She crept in, grabbed the cordless phone from the kitchen and walked upstairs to her room, careful not to make a sound. She didn’t need anyone asking questions. Her eyes felt puffy and her chest hurt from sobbing. She just wanted to crawl into bed and pretend the party didn’t happen.

Once safely inside her room, she dialed the number for her dad’s cell phone, which he had given Evie for the night. No answer. She left a whispered message, instructing her sister to call the house when she was ready to leave.

She hung up the phone and collapsed into her desk chair, kicking off her shoes. She figured Evie wouldn’t be ready to leave the party for hours. She could already feel the heavy blanket of sleep coming for her and decided to log on to AOL for something to keep her awake.

The screech of the modem was louder than she anticipated and she hoped it wouldn’t wake the twins, or worse...her dad.

You’ve Got Mail, chirped the robot-voice from her home screen. Who would be emailing her this late on Friday night? It wasn’t like she had any friends anyway.

She clicked the mailbox icon and waited for the page to load. What she saw made her pulse quicken.

It was from Zac.

Somehow, seeing the message sitting there in her otherwise empty inbox, was the most comforting thing in the her world. She had never felt more lonely than she did that night, but Zac was thinking about her. At least someone didn’t hate her, despite how good she was at screwing things up. She opened the email, promising herself she would be more open-minded. Whatever he had to say, at least he was saying it.

 

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
December 29, 2000

Jillian-

Hey

-Z

 

Jillian sighed deeply, trying not to be disappointed. She was not going to pick this apart. She wasn’t going to read into it or let her own insecurities get in the way. She clicked the ‘reply’ tab and typed her response. She didn’t look back or edit. She pressed send and logged off, throwing up her hands, focused on the screen as the robot-voice bid her a cheerful goodbye.

Jillian felt proud of her boldness. She felt strong, like she had overcome something big with one simple email. Her surge of confidence was short-lived, though. One thought squashed it wholly, filling her brain and bringing up her tears again.

I wish I could tell Molly.

Chapter Text

January - July, 2001 - Taylor and Molly

January 23rd, 2001

Taylor,

You’re lucky that you never went to high school, just know that. I am absolutely swamped with homework, which isn’t fair seeing as it’s only January. The semester just started (And don’t lecture me about writing you a letter instead of writing a paper, I’m aware that this is an awful use of my time...and yet here I am)!!

Guess what else I get to do this semester? Start auditioning for colleges. Can’t you just sense the excitement dripping from my pen onto the page? Can’t you just hear it in every word I write? Uuuuuugh, why did I think this was ever a good idea?? Why did my parents make me take piano when I was five years old?!

Okay, okay, enough whining from me. How are you? How’s California? How’s the new album coming along? Tell me everything, so I can pretend that I have no responsibilities over here on the other side of the country. How is Ike? How is Zac? How is Natalie? Can you tell I’m stalling because I really don’t want to write this paper? Hmmm?

Don’t even try to ask me about my social life because I have none at the moment. Okay, a guy from choir asked me out and took me to dinner. It was fine, but I don’t know if this dating thing is for me. I should probably try to make more friends because I’m pretty sure Jillian still hates me after the party debacle last month. Okay write me back so I can put off my homework the day I get a letter from you.

-Molly

***

February 1st, 2001

Molly,

Wow, you sound a little crazy there, kid! But I can’t judge, I don’t know what high school can do to a person first hand. So keep rambling. I benefit from your procrastination so I for one will never make you do homework. Auditioning for colleges sounds terrible, but I know you’ll do great. Where are you auditioning? I’m sure you’ll want to go to New York, right?

I’m good!! We’re working on some new songs right now, cutting demos and seeing what happens from there. I feel like our label isn’t really as involved as they were for the last record which is...maybe a good thing? I can’t really tell yet. We’ll see. I do like being in California, though. It’s completely different from NYC and definitely different from Tulsa, but I like it. I’m writing a lot, so I can’t complain. Ike and Zac are Ike and Zac. We always get along better when we’re on the road, it’s just how it is. But no, it’s fine. As I said, a lot of writing.

Lyrics for you to look at and tell me how to fix:

I've told you a thousand times
She is the end of, the end of the line
You ignore every sign
Cause you're blinded by the sparkle in her eyes
You don't even love her
You need to find another
How could you love her when you're not set free

Probably not enough for a verse and a chorus, huh?

Natalie and I called it quits because of the distance, it’s just a little crazy being on opposite coasts, especially when neither of us were...super committed to it anyway. She is in your grade so she’s just as swamped as you are. And I’m trying to get a record made. Neither of us really wanted to put that much effort into it and I don’t think we were ever in the cards anyway. Life goes on.

That being said, I would make the effort for some people. Namely you. But it seems I missed my chance. Who’s this boy?

-Tay

***

February 9th, 2001

T,

I’m sorry to hear about you and Nat, even if it was amicable, it’s still a break up. And those aren’t fun. “This boy” is just some kid from choir, don’t get overprotective, weirdo. As I said...dating? Not that fun. Maybe it could be fun if the person was already someone I talked to all the time but alas...you are on the other side of the continent and I am drowning in college audition pieces.

I do want to go to New York for school, but it’s expensive. We’ll see what happens. For now, I’m just trying to get my life together enough to start the applications. I want to major in music composition and you know what that means? I have to compose some music.

Valentine’s day is coming up. Are you doing anything special? If you are, wanna cancel your plans and sit on AIM with me? (You know you do) We can talk about that song. I wonder who in the world it could be about.

You don’t even love her
You need to find another
How could you love her when you're not set free
You don't even love her
But you keep it undercover
You don't even love her but you make believe

That’s a whole chorus, bud. Call me so I can hear the melody.

-M

***

March 1st, 2001

Molly,

You think if I told anyone we were on the phone for five hours yesterday, they would believe me? And here I am, writing you a letter, too. Although, we all know that Hanson boys are long winded. Anyway, thanks for the marathon phone session. It didn’t seem like it was that long of a conversation, but when I’m talking through lyrics sometimes time ceases to exist. Which I know you can relate to. If you weren’t so busy with school I would just tell you to come out here and write with us for a week or two.

What are you doing this summer?

I’m already completely over this label drama. I just want to get this record made.

Conversations from 4 o'clock 'til 9
Confrontation, she'll never compromise
My new religion
Is written in her eyes
I disbelieve it
But I know it if I try

Thoughts? You might know the girl it’s about? Maybe?

I think you’re my favorite person but don’t get cocky about it.

Call me.
T

***

March 7th, 2001

Taylor,

Conversations from 4 o'clock 'til 9
Confrontation, she'll never compromise
My new religion
Is written in the song
I disbelieve it
But I can't believe it's wrong

Maybe that, instead? Let’s finish this one, I like it for completely biased reasons. This summer I am spending at music camp because I am a DORK. But!!! It’s in...New York!! I’m so excited I could cry. All summer out of smelly Florida. Cannot wait. You could visit me, if you wanted.

I finally finished one of the compositions I think I’m gonna use for the programs I’m applying to, which is exciting. Next year, I’m doing a concert of the stuff I’ve written for my senior recital. Pretty cool, I guess. I’m hoping to get a lot more written this summer when I’m completely immersed in music and horny band kids.

Speaking of horny musicians, that kid asked me on another date. His name is Corey, by the way. I guess...I’ll go? It can’t hurt and my parents are starting to worry because my best friend is a mysterious boy I write letters to and talk on the phone with for hours at a time. If only they knew, right?

I wrote another verse:

We spend the weekends
Shopping the five and dime
We spend the evenings
Making up for lost time
I'm liberated looking in her eyes
I can't believe it
I can't believe she’s mine

So none of that is based in reality, but it’s stuff I like to think about anyway. Use it or lose it, but I would like to make up for lost time at some point. You still owe me that rain check.

-M

***

April 29th, 2001

Molly,

School’s ending soon, right? Finals? I don’t know how any of this works. What are you doing? I feel like I haven’t talked to you in months (I know that’s an exaggeration but I miss you, buddy, where are you?). Are you going to Prom this year? That could be our rain check...

Anyway, I’ve written about a thousand new songs (again, an exaggeration) and our label hates every single one. We keep trying and failing, which is really cool and makes us feel really good about ourselves. I’m not really sure what to do at this point, so I guess we’ll just keep pushing. I refuse to give up, but that’s just because I’m stubborn.

You’re gonna have the time of your life this summer. If I get a free moment in all this ridiculous bullshit we’re dealing with, I’ll be on a flight to NYC to see you. Do you want me to call your parents to prove that I’m a real person? Or do you just want me to fly to Tampa and take you to your prom? Either are reasonable, I think. Anyway, call me, I miss you.

-Tay

***

May 5th, 2001

Taylor,

Hi! Sorry, I know I’ve been kind of unreachable lately. School. Choir concerts. I’m playing in the pit for the school musical. And yes, finals are a thing that start in about two weeks and I’m not looking forward to it. Prom is also a thing, and it’s actually tonight. I should probably start getting ready. I’m going with Corey. He’s cool. You’d like him, I think? Anyway he’s really funny and I’m excited for tonight.

Um, that record label crap sounds awful. So many of your songs lately have been great! At least the ones you’ve sent me the demos of. They clearly don’t know what they’re talking about, or they just don’t have properly functioning ears. You have plenty of album worthy songs ready to be recorded...that’s so odd to me. Well, keep me updated, please.

I would love for you to come visit me in NYC. I’m so stressed out lately and maybe I’ll be a little more normal this summer when all I have to focus on is music camp. But who knows, I’ll probably stress myself out with that, too.

Don’t call my parents, weirdo.

-Molly

***

May 15th, 2001

M,

I think we both know I would have made a much better prom date than this Corey fellow. But I guess that’s not completely fair. He’s there and I’m not. I get it. I don’t like it, but i get it.

You know, I was going to be really polite and accept defeat gracefully but that’s not who I am as a person so...nah.

The other night I had a dream that you were with me and I hated waking up. I know that this friendship isn’t based on much, but...I feel a pull towards you that I can’t really explain very well. I know that things haven’t played out in our favor and the timing was never quite right, and I know that we are on opposite coasts, living vastly different lives, but I just don’t want to give up on this yet. I think about you all the time. I am so incredibly jealous of this boy that got to take you to prom and probably got to hold your hand and fall asleep with his arm around your waist and his cheek against the back of your shoulder. That might be hypocritical of me to say but I want you to be with me, not him. I want you to be here in California, writing songs with me, and falling asleep next to me.

This is all really forward but...I guess I’m really forward. Which comes as a surprise to me, as well.

I wrote this for you.

Tell me that you love me
You say you don't but you don't know
See you in my dreams
And you are so fair
I tried so hard to find you
But you were never there
You're my dream girl
And none can compare
You're always with me
In our kingdom far away
You will be her majesty
And together we will reign
You're my dream girl
It'll always be that way
Whoa whoa whoa whoa yeah
Whoa whoa whoa whoa yeah
Walking into the night
Just waiting to hear you say
Everything will be alright
And I will be okay
You're my dream girl
It'll always be that way
You'll always be that way
No matter what they say
You'll always be that way
You're my dream girl
You'll always be that way
Wear you down
you say you don't
wear you down
you say you don't
You say you don't want to tell me
that you love me
You say you don't but you don't know
You'll always be that way

 

-T

***

May 21st, 2001

Tay,

I don’t think it’s really fair for you to be jealous of anyone. You’ve dated people too, you know. Also, he was an excellent prom date and I had a great time. He’s a very nice, very sweet boy who planned the whole night out and made sure that I was having fun. He even let me ride on his back on the way to the car after the dance because my feet were absolutely killing me.

And you’re right, that was incredibly forward. We barely even know each other, and I’m not even sure that you can chalk this whole thing up to the timing being off. You’re a famous musician who is trying to get an album recorded in LA and I’m a high school student in Florida who is just trying to survive her junior year. Your parents flew Natalie to your house for Christmas. These are all just facts.

I broke up with Corey, by the way, if you can call it that. There’s someone else. He’s annoying the crap out of me right now but I like him a lot...it’s hard to date someone with that on your conscious.

Be a gentleman and call me.
-M

PS- Love the song.

***

June 10th, 2001

Molly,

Are you all settled in at the dorm? I thought I would make it feel a little bit more like home and send you a letter. I hope this is the first one you get there. Tell me everything. How’s your roommate? How are classes? And most importantly...how are you liking the city?

Bullshit continues to be bullshit here. I hate this a lot. But I also like you a lot, so it’s okay I guess.

Spare a few moments to write me a letter in your crazy New York life.
-T

***

June 20th, 2001

Tay,

Hi!! Sorry it took so long to get back to you. Every day is scheduled down to the minute and by the end of the day I’m so exhausted I usually can’t even think straight, so I go right to bed.

It’s crazy, I’ve spent my entire life in Tampa, but I’ve never felt more at home than I do here in this city. Weird, huh? I love it so much. I never want to leave. I wish you were here with me. Let’s have a New York day some time when we are both here. That would be fun, right? We could go to a coffee shop and walk around the park and go listen to music at some jazz club where they still dance. People don’t really dance anymore, but on one of our nights off, my new friend Robert took me to a speak-easy. He’s from here so he knows a bunch of cool places like that. Anyway, we had to give a password to get in, and people were inside smoking long cigarettes and dancing and everyone was dressed like they were from the twenties. It was like something out of a movie. So...needless to say I love this place. Is it possible to fall in love with a city? I think I am definitely doing just that.

A day here is nuts. We have breakfast, then usually it’s theory for the morning, sectionals, lunch, full orchestra rehearsal, more sectionals, individual practice time, dinner, small ensemble rehearsal, then stumbling back to the dorm to fall into a deep sleep.

I’m having the time of my life. Talk soon. <3

-Molly

PS - I had to rip open the envelope to add this, but my roommate saw this sitting on my desk, addressed to you, and asked me why I was writing Taylor Hanson of all people. I told her it was fan mail.

Chapter Text

August 26th, 2001 - Jillian

Summer was almost over but the Florida heat was showing no signs of relenting. Jillian had spent most of her time taking a few summer classes and working her first real job at a coffee shop downtown. The pay was terrible, but she pushed in all into a savings account, building up a decent balance.

Living at home was becoming unbearable. She found herself to be much less willing to spend every weekend with the twins while her dad worked and Evie taught cheer camps. She was ready for her own place.

She found an apartment listing in the newspaper that seemed affordable and sat down to email the contact provided. She felt like such a grown-up, emailing someone about an apartment. She logged in and opened a new message, carefully typing the email address from the ad. As she composed the body of the email, the ‘new message’ icon lit up. Jillian’s first thought was that it was from Zac.

Since she replied to his email over the holidays, the two of them had become regular pen pals. All of the anxiety and fear Jillian had felt about Zac’s expectations had been quickly extinguished by how awkwardly funny she found him. Conversation came easy somehow, so she continued to respond. She found that she actually looked forward to his rantings on family and fame.

She told him all about her favorite tv show, so he started watching it too. She complained about an overly flirtatious co-worker at the coffee shop and he offered to show up one day in her defense. She whined about having too many little sisters and not enough personal space and he validated her feelings, regaling her with tales from his adventures with four younger siblings who did not understand boundaries. Somehow, Zac had become her closest friend.

That position had been left vacant for too long and it felt good to fill it again, even if it was just via email.

She typed her email quickly, then read it over, ensuring that it sounded mature and responsible. She took a deep breath and hit sent, crossing her fingers in case it might help her chances. As she clicked on the new message icon, her heart dropped into her stomach. It wasn’t from Zac at all. It was from Molly.

Jillian froze for a moment, unsure if she was excited or terrified. She hadn’t tried to reach out to Molly since the party last winter. She did know that, by now, her former best friend was spending the summer at an intense music camp, choosing a summer of studying over beaches and rest. Typical, Jillian had thought, when she overheard some of Molly’s classmates chatting at the coffee shop. Molly was always ten steps ahead of everyone else.

The surprise email was one of those ten steps. Just seeing it on the screen made Jillian regret the months she’d spent talking herself out of texting or emailing. She decided to rip off the bandaid and clicked on the message, waiting a few seconds for it to load.

 

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: Hi
August 26th, 2001

Hey Jill,

Long time no talk. Hope you’re well. I’m actually in town this week and I was hoping we could get together. Call me?

--Molly

 

Jillian was overcome with emotion. The email was simple but the weight of it hit her hard. She felt a warm tear fall down her cheek and she instantly felt silly for being so dramatic. She realized that she had given up hope of a reconciliation, assuming she wasn’t worthy of forgiveness at this point. Molly certainly knew that because she knew Jillian better than anyone, and had taken the first step. There was hope!

Jillian felt a giggle bubble from deep down in her gut and she let it escape as she wiped her tears away. She grabbed her phone and quickly dialed Molly’s number.

***

The coffee shop was a natural meeting place for an afternoon chat. It wouldn’t be too busy and Jillian could procure endless cups of iced coffee for free as an employee. Part of her thought Molly might find it impressive.

She sat at her favorite table, in the corner by the window, and waited nervously. The sky was turning an ominous shade of gray and she hoped the rain would hold off until Molly was inside.

The phone call had gone well enough, despite Jillian’s initial stuttering. Molly had quickly extinguished the tension with her usual flair and it left Jillian more than excited for their reunion.

She checked the time, then glanced out the window, in time to see Molly jogging up to the cafe door, her curls bouncing with each step. She was smiling. Jillian couldn’t help but do the same.

“Hey!” she nearly shouted, as Molly came through the door. She couldn’t suppress the awkward two-handed wave her arms performed, like a flailing child on too much sugar. Molly smirked and shook her head as she moved toward the table and sat down.

“Hi, Jill,” she chuckled.

“I’m really….happy to see you.”

“Yeah...it has been a while.” Molly suddenly seemed uncomfortable and that was not a thing that happened often. Jillian squirmed a bit in her seat and cleared her throat.

“First...can I just say….I’m so...sorry? For….everything.”

“Thank you for saying that.” Molly pushed her hair behind her ear and looked down at her hands resting on the table. “All I really wanted was an apology. But after that party, I figured you didn’t get it. Then so much time passed and some things happened....”

“I have missed you so much!” Jillian blurted out, again using a volume too high for the tiny cafe. She had to swallow the lump that formed in her throat. Why did she always feel like crying, even in happy moments? She waited for Molly to get up and leave. Insead she looked up, her eyes welling with tears too.

“Jill, I have missed you too!” Molly wiped a falling tear away and laughed heartily. “Look at us crying at your JOB!”

Jillian laughed along, feeling relief she had needed for months. She felt ridiculous for waiting so long to apologize. In that moment, however, none of it mattered anymore. She had her best friend back.

“Let me get you a coffee! You want your usual?” Jillian skipped to the counter and Molly nodded. Everything felt right with the world again.

The girls talked for hours. Molly gushed about New York and how much she loved it compared to Tampa and high school. Jillian talked about applying for apartments and looking into universities in the fall. They fell right back into their natural banter, as if no time had passed.

“So, here’s something funny,” Jillian quipped, sipping her third coffee. “Remember when I got that email from Zac Hanson?”

“Um, how could I forget,” Molly replied, equating that night with their initial falling out. Jillian sighed heavily in acknowledgement, knowing she might never shake the guilt she felt. She pushed it way down deep, pretending for the moment, that it didn’t exist.

“Well, after I deleted that first one, he sent another a few months later and I responded. We’ve been writing back and forth for awhile now.” Jillian tried to downplay it, but her voice let out a telltale squeak that betrayed her cool exterior. She waited for Molly’s inevitable I-told-you-so tirade. Instead, she was met with an uncomfortable smile and a look she couldn’t place. “You okay, Moll?”

“What? Oh! Yeah, sure. That's cool, Jill. I’m glad.” Molly flashed a forced smile.

Jillian wasn’t sure what had happened, but she convinced herself that Molly might be jealous. She had always loved Zac the most, and the last thing Jillian wanted was to cause another fight.

“Yeah, its no big deal...just funny.” She was determined to change the subject. “Tell me more about your fancy big city life!”

Molly’s face broke into a huge smile, masking what Jillian could only speculate was her complete adoration for New York. Years later, this moment would come to make a lot more sense and Jillian would laugh about how simple things had seemed to her.

For now, she felt only relief at having her best friend back.

Chapter Text

January 12th, 2002 - Taylor

The night was chilly but Taylor couldn’t stop tossing and turning and throwing off his sheets. He kept glancing over at the sleeping girl next to him, her mess of dark curls strewn across the pillow case. She was not the first to be in his bed, but she was the first to make his stomach feel like it was trapped in the vice of guilt. He knew this was not going to be some mindless hook up that he could forget about in the morning. He knew this one would stay with him, in one way or another.

Earlier that morning, Natalie had surprised him at the rental home. He was heading out to the studio, up much earlier than his brothers, to get some solo writing done. He worked better with others reigning in his sky high ideas, but sometimes his brain still needed a break from Isaac and Zac’s criticisms. He scooped up his guitar case and poured himself a mug of coffee to take with him on the road, his head screaming from last night’s endless rounds of drinks.

She was standing on the stoop when he opened the door.

Natalie, timid but eager, with a duffel bag slung over her shoulder.

He nearly spilled his coffee.

They hadn’t spoken much since the break up (if you could even call it that). Pleasantries, some AIM conversations, a couple emails to catch each other up. He made it clear that they should remain friends, since Zac and Kate were now becoming closer, and remaining in each other’s good graces would be much easier than not.

“What are you doing here?” He asked. He knew that wasn't the best greeting in the world, but the shock took over his voice.

“I was in the area?” She said, attempting to make a joke and failing miserably.

“Wait, really?”

“No. I wanted...I wanted to visit you.”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Who are you, my dad? It’s the weekend.”

“So you came to California?”

“Yes…”

For many years, this visit would confuse Taylor. It would make him question Natalie’s entire personality. She wasn’t a girl who just dropped everything and flew across the country for someone. For anyone. She planned. She wasn’t spontaneous. Years later, Natalie offered the the kernel of information that he had always needed. His parents had caught wind of his partying. They knew he was hooking up with girls and bringing them back to the house. They needed to put a stop to it. They bought Natalie the plane ticket.

“Well, come in I guess…”

“It looked like you were heading out, though.”

“It’s nothing important. I was just gonna try and get some writing done. But...you’re here now,” Taylor said, trying his best not to sound upset with that fact. He wasn’t a monster.

The whole thing was so painfully awkward that he could feel his whole body cringe, and knew she was doing the same thing. “I’ll go with you! I can just sit and watch," she suggested, trying to sound positive.

Taylor grimaced reflexively. That sounded like the last thing he wanted, but he supposed that Natalie was his guest now, whether he had invited her or not.

“You sure you don’t mind?”

“Of course not! I would love to see you work.”

“Um...okay.”

“Lemme just put down my bag.”

“Oh, of course sorry.”

“It’s okay...um…where can I…”

“You can put it in my room. Here...here I’ll just take it.” Taylor grabbed her duffel bag and swung around recklessly, knocking his hip bone on the counter. When he came back to the kitchen, he found her leafing through his notebook, which was stuffed with lyrics and song ideas scribbled aimlessly.

“Are these some of your new songs?” She asked innocently.

“Um yeah,” he replied, grabbing it from under her hand, trying his best not to look too possessive. “Come on.” He winced at his own tone, knowing that he sounded agitated. He made a mental note to be kinder. Natalie had done nothing wrong. She was just being her sweet, kind self.

When they got to the studio that had been booked for the day, Natalie sat attentively on the couch while Taylor took his place at the piano, but try as he might, he couldn’t focus on any song. He was hyper aware of Natalie’s presence, and desperately wished his brothers were with him to ease the tension. He shot a text to both of them, letting them know to come when they woke up to work.

“I thought we weren’t writing til later this afternoon?” Zac responded.

“I thought you were still asleep in your room lol” Was Ike’s contribution. Taylor rolled his eyes, trying his best to telepathically plead with his brothers, and obviously failing.

“This is lame,” he said, turning to Natalie, who was looking down at her hands. “Don’t you want to do something fun while you’re here? This is so boring.”

“It’s not boring! Keep playing, it’s fine.”

“I can’t focus. My head hurts,” he said, definitely not lying. “I don’t want to keep you cooped up in the studio all day. Have you eaten?”

“I ate during my layover but I could definitely go for something.”

“Come on, let’s go.”

***

Taylor looked over at Natalie swaying a few feet away from him and chuckled. Since moving to LA, he had definitely built up a very strong tolerance to alcohol, and was barely feeling buzzed after a couple drinks. Natalie, on the other hand, looked as though she had been copy and pasted from an American Girl magazine into this loud, LA club. The lights were bright and neon, the air was filled with haze, and the music was so loud that you could feel it in your bones. After a day of awkwardly trying to fill the time, followed by working well into the night at the studio with his brothers (and snapping at them plenty of times without meaning to) Taylor had run out of ideas. On a frustrating night like this, he would go out. So he asked Nat to come along, and she agreed.

“Will we be able to get in? We’re not twenty one!”

“We’ll be fine,” he replied with a smile.

He weaseled his way over to the bar and got another round, making his way back to Natalie’s side. When she saw him return, her face broke open into a huge smile, the likes of which he had never seen.

“You’re adorable,” he said right in her ear, finally feeling the alcohol creep into his blood stream.

“What?!”

“You’re adorable!!” he screamed back, causing her to dissolve into a fit of giggles. She grabbed the drink and gulped excitedly. “Whoa, there…” he tried to slow her down, but she clawed his hand away playfully. He was pretty sure she was already drunk. He would have to do some serious damage to get to her level.

Luckily, he had no problem acquiring drinks when he went out. People either recognized him (“Oh my god, is that Taylor Hanson?? I was in love with him in middle school!”) or they saw his delicate, elfin-like features in the crowd and felt generous. Men, women...it didn’t matter. There was just something about him. He accepted every drink that night, because Natalie was there, and he had been stressed out all day by her unexpected presence alone. He needed to relax. He needed to know what it felt like to smile as hard as she always did.

Now, here he was, Natalie fast asleep on the left side of the bed. His head was pounding already. The two of them had found their way to a cab after he noticed Natalie beginning to stumble. She wasn’t even making sense anymore, and grabbed his face when they got outside, kissing him sloppily. They kissed more in the cab, and Taylor, inhibitions lost a few drinks ago, slid his hand up her skirt, hooking his index finger around the top of her underwear. He felt her lean into him, wanting more. By the time they got back to his bedroom, they both knew what was going to happen.

He looked over at her, regret washing over him. The alcohol was still in his bloodstream, and the world was still spinning. He needed some fresh air. He pulled on his his pants and stood up. He felt the contents of his stomach creeping up his throat.

He ran outside and threw up in the grass right outside their back door. He sat down heavily on the stoop, resting his head in his sweaty palms.

How could he do that? Natalie was a nice girl. He got her drunk and fucked her. Damnit, Tay.

It was almost five in the morning, but he dug in his pocket for his phone. He dialed Molly’s number without even thinking it through.

“Hey, it’s Molly. If this is Jillian, just come over ‘cause I’m probably at home. If this is my parents, calm down! I’m probably in my room anyway!!! If it’s anyone else leave me a message.”

Taylor smiled and breathed out a half hearted laugh. This must be an old message that she hadn’t bothered to change. He knew she and Jillian had grown apart, and probably were past the point in their friendship where they could just show up at each other’s houses unannounced.

Hey. You’re probably not awake yet. Um...call me when you wake up or after school or whatever. I miss you. Um...bye. Oh, it’s Taylor.”

***

To: JTaylorHanson@hanson.net
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: Morning, Princess!!
January 13th, 2002

Hey, sorry I missed your call, I was still FAST asleep. But it’s morning now so call me back whenever. It’s been a couple days, so it would be nice to hear your voice. I’m free all day after school (surprisingly).

-M

Chapter Text

February 13th, 2002 - Molly

Molly took a deep breath and closed her eyes, blocking out the image of the keyboard in front of her. It was getting late, and she had been working on the same measure for what seemed like hours. She was in the basement, where her dad kept all of his instruments in his home studio, with headphones plugged into the electric keyboard so as not to disturb her parents who had long since gone to bed. She checked the time. Closing in on midnight.

She always came to this point when composing. About three quarters of the way through it would feel like everything she had ever learned about music had dropped out of her skull and was gone forever. A songwriter? I’m not a songwriter. Surely I have been mistaken this entire time. And yet she knew that if she just kept pushing, just a little farther, that moment of complete self doubt would be worth it. It was part of her process, and yet every time she was in the thick of it, it was hard to see a way out. She was so tired. After a full day of school and choir practice, she came straight home to finish this composition, the final puzzle piece in her portfolio. Her auditions were all scheduled for the next few weeks, and she tried her best to tell herself that if anyone could get into Juilliard, it was her.

In moments of doubt, Taylor always seemed to know what to say to make her feel like she could conquer the world. She smiled at the thought, letting her mind wander for the first time that evening. She wondered what Taylor was doing right now. He was probably at a keyboard not unlike the one she was sitting at, trying to finish a song with his brothers. She drifted away from the complicated rhythms she was working on and started playing a simple but pretty chord progression, thinking of what it would be like to sit at a piano with Taylor, instead of being at different ones on opposite sides of the country.

She talked to him nearly every day, in one way or another. They talked on the phone or chatted on AIM for a few hours a night, and on days one of them was busy there was usually at least an email. It wasn’t like they were sending each other professions of love back and forth. Mostly it was just updates about their day...music...what they had written...what they had scrapped. Every so often they got carried away, and would talk about what they would do if the other was there with them. Once Taylor called her after a few late night beers with Isaac, and told her how badly he wished he could kiss her. Her face flushed, and she was extremely relieved that it was a phone conversation. Boys didn’t say stuff like that. At least not to her.

She slid her headphones off, too entrenched in her silly thoughts to get any more work done. It was too late to be up anyway. She took her phone out of her pocket to shoot Taylor a text message.

Before she even finished composing the message, her phone started buzzing with a call. It was Taylor.

“Hey, I was just texting you!”

“Oh, you’re up.” He sounded...she couldn’t quite pin down the word she was looking for to describe it. His throat sounded tight, his tone thin as though it had been worn down. Maybe he had been singing all day.

“Yeah, I’m trying to finish this song.”

“Oh, okay.”

“What’s up? How was your day?”

“Um...I um...I need to talk to you.”

Molly stopped rifling through her sheet music and turned away from the piano.

“Are you okay, Taylor?”

There was silence on the line. Every second that passed, Molly swore she could hear Taylor’s pulse quicken. But maybe it was just her own heartbeat drumming in her ears.

“Tay?”

“Yeah um...yeah. I’m trying to like...figure out how to um…”

“Taylor, seriously are you--”

“Natalie is pregnant.”

When Molly was a freshman, she was the youngest person in Chorale, a choir usually reserved for upperclassmen. She spent two weeks in Singers before Mr. Crowley, the choir teacher, pulled her aside and asked if she wanted to move up. She nodded furiously and spent the next few days learning the music she had missed. She had a tendency to overwork herself, even that first year of high school, and the first day she walked into Chorale, bleary eyed with lack of sleep, she locked her knees in focus and watched as the edges of her vision blurred out, her senses wrapping themselves in wool. She collapsed onto the ground, passing out for only a few seconds before regaining consciousness and insisting that she was fine and ready to finish the song they had been singing.

“I...I think I need to finish this song,” Molly muttered. There was a ringing in her ears. She thought about how when your ears ring, it’s your brain forgetting how to hear that specific note. It’s the last time you’ll ever hear that frequency.

“What?”

“I was right in the middle of it.” Everything was getting blurry. Her peripheral vision went fuzzy. Even her hearing was bottoming out.

“Oh...okay...um...do you want to call me tomorrow?”

“Is it yours?”

“What?”

“The baby, is it yours?”

“Yeah.”

“Did she come to California?”

“She came to visit me last month.”

“And you had sex.”

“That’s...typically how it works, yeah.”

“Did you use protection?”

“We were pretty drunk.”

“So, no?”

“No.”

“What are you going to do?”

Taylor took a deep breath and Molly swore she could hear his heart break.

“I have to marry her.”

Years later, Taylor would tell her about the conversation he had with his parents. How they sat him down at the kitchen table and told him that he had to marry that girl. That he couldn’t just leave her, that it was now his responsibility. He tried to argue. He tried to say that he was only eighteen and he had never really dated. They promptly told him that leaving her wasn’t an option. That he had to do the right thing. That Hansons always did the right thing.

In this moment, however, he said none of that. Molly felt tears form behind her eyes, and willed them not to fall. That was silly. She had seen Taylor exactly once in her life, almost two years ago. They had one conversation face to face. They spent ten...maybe fifteen minutes together.

And yet, the last two years were filled with memories of him. Letters and emails and rushing home to hop on AIM to tell him about rehearsal. Talking on the phone for hours, hashing out lyrics and chord progressions until they were so tired they couldn’t stop laughing. Surely that had to count for something, right?

Maybe not.

She couldn’t think of a single word to say to him. If this were a movie or a book or even a song, she would have told him she loved him. Because she thought she did. The seventeen year old version of love, anyway. The version that still dreamed about him taking her to prom and watching her graduation from the stands, sitting with her family and beaming. The version that was supposed to be filled with night drives with the windows down and holding hands between classes and staying up too late on a school night. But she couldn’t quite form the words.

“I’m sorry, Molly.”

She hung up the phone.

***

At four in the morning, she took her headphones off and powered down the keyboard. She was done with the song.

Chapter Text

February - June, 2002 - Zac and Jillian

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
Subject: Craziness in Hanson land
February 17, 2002

Hey!
So if you haven’t watched this week’s episode, you should because it can only be described at the greatest moment in television history ever. I’ll be honest, I have had doubts about his show since you basically bullied me into watching last season, but tonight…I admit….you were right.
Don’t let it go to your head.
Stuff here is pretty crazy. Taylor got a girl pregnant. (It feels weird to type that out.) But anyway he did and so the whole family is flipping out. Its pretty annoying. Everybody is being so dramatic and whispering to each other all the time. I just can’t understand how Tay could be so stupid. He’s really messed things up and it seems selfish to me. I feel bad for feeling that way but it’s true.
Wow, I’m a huge bummer right now. Tell me something fun! How is Molly?

-Z

***

To: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: RE: Craziness in Hanson land
February 18, 2002

Hi!
I have watched it and I TOLD YOU SO. I love being right. The Unexplained is the best show on television and you’re lucky I got you into it in a very gentle, non-coerced manner. You’re welcome.
More importantly, that’s crazy about Taylor! I can’t imagine getting married and having a baby right now. Just living on my own has been a challenge. Is it the same girl you mentioned before, with the friend who likes to follow you around? I understand why you would feel that way about it. Still I’m sure no one intended for this to happen. Maybe just be there for him, if you can? I don’t really know. Never been in that situation. And I don’t think you’re a bummer.
Molly is good! I finally told her that you and I have been emailing and she got weird so I dropped it. You know, she always had the biggest crush on you. (Don’t ever tell her I told you that!! I will end you!) Anyway, I’m sure there’s something going on with her but I don’t know what. We’re chatting on aim tonight so maybe I can get to the bottom of it then.
Any news on the new album? ;)

-J

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
Subject: Writing back FINALLY
March 4, 2002

Hey!
I can’t even talk about the album right now. Mostly because there isn’t one. Correction: we have plenty of music (including some songs I wrote), just no album to release. The details are boring and at this point, I just put on my headphones and drown out all the stress and negativity. Having this band was supposed to be fun. Things are getting way too serious and I can think of a million other things I’d rather be doing.
Like emailing you! So here I am! Thanks for understanding about Tay. Yes, it’s the same girl, Natalie. He’s pretty messed up about it all and I’m not feeling as mad as I did at first. I’ve just been trying to find ways to cheer him up. Turning on the old Zac charm, telling jokes, being all-around awesome. You know, normal stuff. I’m sure he’ll thank me one of these days.
I’ve been spending more time with the girl “who likes to follow me around”. Her name is Kate and she’s kinda growing on me. She acts really interested in everything I’m into. She’s pretty too. It’s not the worst thing to have her around, paying attention to me, especially when everyone else is so fixated on Tay and all. I didn’t tell her about you so don’t worry.
Gotta go, this email is rambling. Enjoy your sleepovers and stuff with Molly, or whatever girls do when you hang out.

-Z

***

To: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: I HATE SCHOOL!
March 6, 2002

Hi,
Sorry the albums a sore subject. I almost didn’t even ask and now I wish I hadn’t. Anyway, school is getting so crazy. No time for girly sleepovers! Just tons of homework all the time.
I’m glad things are getting better between you and your brother! Kate sounds nice. Are you thinking you might ask her to be your girlfriend? And why would I worry about you telling her about me? Weirdo. It’s not like I could do anything about it, right?
Anyway, sorry this is short but I have two essays to write. Know anything about the French Revolution?

-J

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
Subject: RE: I HATE SCHOOL!
March 6, 2002

Hey
I don’t know if I would go so far as to call Kate my girlfriend. She’s okay I guess. She isn’t really my type.
By the way, what would you consider “romantic”? Just looking for pointers, don’t worry. Lets chat in aim sometime?

-Z

***

To: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: RE: RE: I HATE SCHOOL!
April 2, 2002

Hi,
Romantic? I would have to say I love when a guy sends me cheesy song lyrics. Works every time. And I’m not worried. See you on aim! ;)
-J

***

RoboBeatz: JillyBean82 Instant Message
April 30, 2002 8:34PM

RoboBeatz: hey
JillyBean82: Who is this?
RoboBeatz: Zac…sorry aim name keeps me incognito
JillyBean82: lol I see
RoboBeatz: so its been a little while
JillyBean82: Yeah, sorry! School is crazy, FINALS!
RoboBeatz: sounds fun
JillyBean82: Its not! lol How are u? How’s Kate?
RoboBeatz: great, my parents love her
JillyBean82: So you asked her out then?
RoboBeatz: if you’re asking if she’s my girlfriend, then yes
JillyBean82: Congrats!
RoboBeatz: you’re just…cool with that?
JillyBean82: With Kate?
RoboBeatz: right
JillyBean82: Should I not be cool with it?
RoboBeatz: i don’t know….
JillyBean82: What do you want me to say?
RoboBeatz: nevermind
JillyBean82: Are you mad?
RoboBeatz: mad isn’t the right word
JillyBean82: Well, what then?
RoboBeatz: i guess i thought you’d care more?
JillyBean82: Are…are you joking right now?
RoboBeatz: no, why would you ask me that
JillyBean82: I do care….that’s why I asked about her
RoboBeatz: I didn’t mean…forget I said anything
JillyBean82: You got a girlfriend. Good for you.
RoboBeatz: i gotta run.
JillyBean82: We just got here.
RoboBeatz: i don’t feel like talking anymore
JillyBean82: Sorry….
RoboBeatz: its fine
JillyBean82: You gonna be okay weirdo?
RoboBeatz: i’m awesome, totally cool
JillyBean82: Okay then
RoboBeatz: has logged off

***

To: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: Hello?
May 12, 2002

Hi weirdo,
Where have you been? Busy with Kate, I suppose? Anyway, I miss your Unexplained recaps. Did you watch the season finale?! I was on the edge of my seat! I don’t know how I’ll make it until the fall premiere. Time to scour the internet for spoilers. Lol.
Finals are done at last! I think I passed. Now, I’m not-so-low-key FREAKING OUT waiting to hear back from NYU. I haven’t even told Molly I applied. If I don’t get in, I don’t know what I'll do with my life. I need to get out of Tampa.
In other news, turns out you’re not the only one with an admirer… This guy from Biology class named Justin has been calling me. He’s cute and a drummer. I feel like you would like him. I know I like him.
I miss talking to you, so write me back if you’re not too busy!
-J

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
Subject: RE: Hello?
May 20, 2002

Hey
Sorry I’ve been MIA. Kate likes to keep a tight schedule since I don’t have a ton of free time. It’s hard to email when she’s always looking over my shoulder anyway. I spent a whole day playing this cool computer game a couple weeks ago and didn’t call her, so now she’s always checking up. If I’m being honest, it’s not something I like about her.
Justin sounds like a creep. Take it from a drummer, he’s probably a slacker. Sorry, just my impression.
Kate’s going on a trip with Natalie to some wedding convention next weekend. I didn’t even know that was a thing girls did? You want to meet up on aim to talk about the finale? I’ll pencil it in. Kate would be proud. Lol
-Z

***

RoboBeatz: JillyBean82 Instant Message
May 31, 2002 6:48PM

RoboBeatz: hey!
JillyBean82: You should really consider a new screen name! lol
RoboBeatz: whatever, this one is cool
JillyBean82: Uh huh lol
RoboBeatz: its not?
JillyBean82: You’re so weird lol
RoboBeatz: well you’re here chatting with me on a friday night so what does that make you?
JillyBean82: About that…
RoboBeatz: its just a joke jillybean lol
JillyBean82: No, I know. I just have plans tonite. Can’t chat long.
RoboBeatz: what plans?
JillyBean82: Justin’s band is playing a gig and he asked me to come.
RoboBeatz: oh. justin
JillyBean82: What?
RoboBeatz: nothing
JillyBean82: You don’t want me to go?
RoboBeatz: you can do whatever you want
JillyBean82: I know that…and he’s not a creep.
RoboBeatz: you want know the truth?
JillyBean82: Yeah, of course.
RoboBeatz: i want you to stay home and chat with me
JillyBean82: Zac
RoboBeatz: you wanted the truth so there it is, stay and chat with me
JillyBean82: i told him i would go
RoboBeatz: does my finale recap mean nothing to you?
JillyBean82: lol it does
RoboBeatz: then stay!!!
JillyBean82: Why are you being so intense about this?
RoboBeatz: because…i like you jillian. i really like you
JillyBean82: What do you mean? You like me?
RoboBeatz: you know what i mean
JillyBean82: Does Kate know what you mean?
RoboBeatz: don’t do that
JillyBean82: Do what? You’re the one making things awkward.
RoboBeatz: you know what else?
JillyBean82: What, Zac?!
RoboBeatz: i think you like me too
JillyBean82: You’re my friend
RoboBeatz: nope, I think you like me as more than a friend
JillyBean82: Where would you get that idea?
RoboBeatz: you’re telling me i’m wrong?
JillyBean82: I don’t know.
RoboBeatz: i’m trying really hard to be honest here and that’s not easy for me, you know that, you should try it
JillyBean82: You’re being kind of mean right now. I’m going to go.
RoboBeatz: no!! please just stay
JillyBean82: Why don’t you go call your girlfriend??
RoboBeatz: because I would rather talk to you. i’d always rather talk to you.
JillyBean82: And yet…. you asked HER to be your girlfriend.
RoboBeatz: its way more complicated than that
JillyBean82: I don’t know what to say.
RoboBeatz: tell me to dump her
JillyBean82: What? You don’t mean that.
RoboBeatz: i’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and say you’re just scared
JillyBean82: WOW! Scared of what??
RoboBeatz: you tell me….
JillyBean82: You made your choice and I’ll make mine. Justin’s waiting.
RoboBeatz: fine, i’m an idiot, just stay!
JillyBean82: I need to go.
RoboBeatz: i wish you wouldn’t
JillyBean82: has logged off

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: ZacLuvsDrums@hanson.net
Subject: Please read this!!
May 31, 2002

Hey,

So that didn’t go exactly how I planned it. I’m sorry if you’re upset. That wasn’t my intention at all. I just wanted you to know how I felt. Ike’s always telling me to go for it or whatever and so I guess that’s what I thought I was doing. Can we just go back to how we were?
There’s a lot you don’t understand about my life. My family. But I meant what I said and I’ll stand by it.
Well, I made this about as awkward as it can get so please don’t stop talking to me. Even though I’m stupid and sound pretty desperate at the moment. Please just write me back, k?

-Z

Chapter Text

June 8th, 2002 - Molly and Taylor

Tay,

I’ve started this letter a few times now and each time is harder than the last so I’m not going to start over this time. I’m just going to write, and see what happens. That’s what I have to do when I’m writing music and I get stuck. Which I know you understand. I’ve always been better with notes and melodies than I will ever be with words so, bear with me I guess.

Today you’re not even that far away from me, much closer than you usually are, and you’re starting a life with another girl. You have no idea how many times I’ve looked out my window today and calculated what time I could be in Newnan, at the church, bursting through the doors. I even got in my dad’s car at one point. I made it to the end of the block and turned around. That wouldn’t be fair. To anyone. So I stayed home, instead of being the one yelling when the preacher says “speak now.” You have to admit...it’s something I would do.

I’ve written you a lot of letters in the past two years, and I guess I just want to thank you for your friendship. I’ve never been able to talk to anyone the way I talk to you. Is that crazy? Maybe it’s crazy. I’ve only talked to you face to face once so yeah...it’s definitely crazy.

Here’s another crazy thing to say. I think I love you. I think I probably always will, in some way at least. I can't help but feel like something is ending.

I read this thing once that said that every person is like a puzzle piece. There are things in your life that happen, and maybe they carved parts of you out, hollowed you in a way. But if you look for people, maybe some of them might just click right into those empty spaces. I don’t know why I am telling you this, but it seemed appropriate. Sorry for being crazy.
Love,
Molly

***

M,

Whenever anything big or exciting or important happens in my life, I write you a letter, so right now I’m hiding while my wedding reception continues to go on, and I’m writing you a letter. I’ve had a little too much to drink (when you’re the groom it doesn’t matter if you’re twenty one yet), and I’m feeling a little bit too hard, so I’m sorry if this letter is confusing or too forward but every guard I’ve ever put up is down so here goes.

It’s strange to think that I’ve only actually seen you once in my life. Have you ever thought about that? The first time we met. It’s the only time I’ve seen you with my own eyes and touched you and felt you next to me. And yet, I feel like you know me better than anyone. How is that even possible? I’m not sure, but here we are, living it. I thought of you all day today. I know that isn’t fair to anyone, especially that little life growing inside of Natalie, but it’s the truth. I’m so sorry. I know you told me not to apologize, and I know that nothing is ever going to change at this point. The ring is on my finger and vows have been said.

I think I love you? How's that for forward.

If you want to stop writing to each other I would completely understand. I don’t want you to want that. If that makes any difference.

-T

Chapter Text

June 8th, 2002 - Zac

The third shot of whiskey was probably a bad idea but Zac didn’t care. The spicy brown liquid was doing a bang-up job of blurring everything around him and for that, he was grateful. He still couldn’t believe he was at Taylor’s wedding reception. It seemed absurd.

During the ceremony, Zac had tried to focus on the positive things; the pretty red flowers, how happy his mom looked as she entered the chapel, or the fact that his shoes weren’t hurting him as much as he expected. He remembered thinking his brother looked too young for a tux and too somber for a party. When the chapel doors opened and Natalie entered, all eyes were on her.

Zac made it a point to watch Taylor.

If there was one thing he would take away from that moment, it was how skillfully his brother had masked his fear with a smile. To the layman, Taylor was in awe of his bride’s beauty and overcome with all the emotions a wedding can bring. To Zac, his brother was doing all he could not to run for his life. Zac recalled tossing a glance over to Isaac, standing proudly as the best man, who nodded back at him as if to say it would all be okay. No matter what, they would all be okay.

The moment was suddenly so heavy, he felt it pressing down on him. He zoned out for the rest of the ceremony.

After the receiving line, which reminded him of the meet-and-greets during tours, he had made a beeline for the limo, popped a bottle of prosecco and chugged a third of it before the rest of the wedding party piled in.

More prosecco and some whiskey shots later, Zac was leaning against the end of the bar trying his best to avoid Kate. She had spent much of the day catering to Natalie’s every whim, but still found plenty of opportunities to mention her own wedding.

“I’ve been imagining it since I was a little girl!” she had squealed into his ear in the limo. “And thank god you got your hair cut! I never pictured my groom with a ponytail.” Zac shivered at the thought of that moment. Kate was always making comments about his hair and how much better he looked when he wore it short. She kept telling him how people would take him more seriously.

He looked down at the empty shot glass in his hand and turned it around, feeling his eyes cross. Three shots was definitely too many. When he looked up, he was startled to see Taylor sitting on a bar stool and swigging a beer from the bottle, watching the dance floor.

“You’re hammered,” Taylor said between sips, never even looking over.

“Yep,” Zac said too loudly as he dropped onto the stool beside his brother. “What about you?”

“I’m on my way.”

“Dude, you’re….married” Zac said, trying not to look disgusted.

“That…I am.” Taylor spun around to face the bar, holding up the bottle he’d drained. The bartender, who was also one of Natalie’s cousins, nodded and passed him a new one. He looked to Zac, who thought for a moment, then nodded, thinking a beer would be good for a belly full of whisky. He took the icy bottle and put it to his lips. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotting Kate in her red bridesmaid’s gown, surveying the room sternly.

“Tay, you wanna get outta here?” he barked, grabbing his jacket from the bar a throwing it over his shoulder.

“More than anything!” Taylor replied, finally meeting his brothers glassy gaze.

They both leapt from the barstools and made for the closest exit, a door with a push bar just behind the DJ booth. Zac held the door open, letting Taylor slip through, then pushed it shut as quickly as it would go.

They found themselves in a stairwell, so they stumbled down the steps and out through the door at the bottom and into the parking lot, laughing at their clumsiness. The hot Georgia air was oppressive, even after sunset, but it felt better than the tension inside the reception hall.

“You doing okay?” Zac asked as his plopped himself down onto the curb, holding the beer bottle up to keep it from shattering. Taylor laughed and sat down beside him.

“Remember that time we went to Gina’s wedding?” he asked, avoiding the question. “You know, Gina, our second cousin from Idaho… Iowa? One of those… You probably don’t; you were really little.” Zac wasn’t sure what his brother was talking about but he didn’t care. The whole world was spinning around him in a fuzzy blur. He took a quick sip of his beer, hoping for some focus.

“How did you know you loved Natalie?” Zac blurted.

“Wh…what do you mean?”

“I mean…how did you know you loved her enough to…you know….do it?”

“Zac…that’s not…I don’t…” Taylor sighed deeply. “Why are you asking me this?”

“I think I might be in love,” Zac said, surprised at his matter-of-fact tone. Taylor laughed gently.

“With Kate?”

“No, not with Kate. With the girl from the concert. Jillian.” Zac couldn’t believe he was saying it aloud but the booze made it impossible to stop. The floodgates were open. “Ike convinced me to keep trying to contact her. She finally answered and we’ve been talking over email for months and I never stop thinking about her. The only reason I even asked Kate to be my girlfriend was because I thought it would make Jillian like me.”

“Well, that’s really stupid,” Taylor exclaimed, laughing again.

“I know that…Tay…thanks,” Zac chuckled, happy to see his brother’s real smile, even if it was at his expense. “Anyway, I told her how I feel and she turned me down. She hasn’t talked to me in a week. I messed it all up, I think.”

“I’m sorry, man,” Taylor said softly. “That’s rough stuff. But trust me when I say I know a thing or two about messing stuff up.” Zac watched his brother drop his head into his hands and hoped he wasn’t crying.

“Tay, are you doing okay?” he repeated, putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“No…no I’m not,” Taylor replied, looking like he was near tears. Zac suddenly felt nervous and unsure what to do next. Taylor never asked for help or advice, especially not from him.

“You want to talk about it?” It was all Zac could think to say and he secretly hoped the answer was ‘no’.

“There’s someone else, Zac.”

Taylor’s words hung in the thick summer air. Zac replayed them over and over in his head to be sure he heard correctly.

“What do you mean?” he asked carefully.

“I mean I’m in love with someone that’s not Natalie…not...my wife.” There was a long silence as Taylor drained the rest of the liquid from his bottle and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

Zac exhaled and rubbed his eyes. He wished for some sudden words of wisdom or comfort, but they didn’t come. He looked down at his shoes and fiddled with the laces.

“Who is she?” he finally asked.

“The girl from the concert,” Taylor said with a chuckle.

“The girl with the curly hair…Jillian’s friend?”

“Her name is Molly and if it weren’t for this mess with Natalie and that one stupid night…” Taylor stopped short, struggling to catch the lump in his throat before it turned into a sob.

“We…we gotta get you two together!” Zac said passionately, accentuating his drunken slur. “So, you got into a situation you didn’t have much say in. It is what it is. The thing we can do is get you to Molly. No one has to know, right?”

Taylor looked at him in a way that made him feel ten feet tall. For the first time in months, Zac felt like he was doing something to help. They had told each other their deepest secrets. They would find a way through this together.

“Don’t give up on Jillian, Zac. You’ve got a lifetime to make her see what a great guy you are. If you really do love her, then you need to keep trying, okay? And do NOT get someone else pregnant in the meantime!”

They shared a long overdue laugh. Taylor always had a knack for making everything better, even when he, himself, was hurting. Zac nodded his head and then threw his arm around his brother’s shoulders.

“Now tell me more about Molly.”

Chapter Text

July 4th, 2002 - Molly

July in Florida was never exactly pleasant, and this year Molly could feel the oppressive heat cover her already sticky skin. The air conditioning went out in her house for a couple weeks that summer, and she spent her time off from school laying in front of an area fan, drinking iced tea that her mother made every morning and piling her dark curls on top of her head. She flipped through books, attempting to retain the narratives, but nothing stayed in her brain long enough to comprehend.

It had been almost a month since Taylor’s wedding and everything was a bit fuzzy. She received his letter a few days after the ceremony, and she wasn’t sure if it made anything better. She had quite a few emotions swirling around her insides when she saw his handwriting on the page. First of all, she was ecstatic to hear from him. She was worried their letters to each other had come to an end. But underneath that initial happiness was profound melancholy. He was thinking of her on his wedding day? How was that fair? To anyone?

It wasn’t.

She read the letter so many times that she was sure she had it memorized by this point. She dissected every word, wishing she had a copy of the letter she had sent him, so she could compare and contrast the words, the syntax, the tone.

God, she missed him. Which was ridiculous. He said so himself, they had only ever actually seen each other once in their lives.

He said he would understand if they never wrote again, but she didn’t want their correspondence to end. And yet, she hadn’t written him back. She didn’t have anything to say. No, that wasn’t right. She had too much. Mostly she wanted to call him and tell him she was going to Juilliard in the fall, the dream they had discussed at length on the phone countless times. He knew how much it meant to her. He knew how hard she had worked. He didn’t know, however, that the song she had finished the night of their last phone call was what had sealed the deal on her admittance.

She was interrupted from her heat soaked thoughts when the telephone rang. Her parents were out at a 4th of July barbeque, which Molly adamantly declined her invitation to. She heaved herself up from her floor, her t-shirt sticking to her stomach.

“Coming!!” She yelled, as though the person on the other end of the line could hear her screaming, “Myello,” she said when she picked up the receiver.

“Hey is your AC still broken?”

“...Is this a prank call?”

“No, weirdo, it’s Jillian.”

Molly burst into laughter. Even though there was an ever present sadness behind her eyes, she couldn’t help but be delighted to hear her best friend’s voice.

“Yeah, it’s broken.”

“Are you like...gonna get it fixed?”

Molly flopped down on the couch and propped her feet up on the arm rest. “It’s gonna be really expensive. We had someone come and look at it a couple days ago. I don’t know but I’m delirious.”

“You probably have heat stroke.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Well I’m going to the pool if you wanna --”

“YES.” Molly hung up and ran upstairs with new found energy. The pool! Of course. She and Jillian could stay in the pool all day and that would make her forget about her house turned sauna...and maybe she could forget about Taylor for a few hours too.

She arrived, locked her bike outside of the neighborhood pool, and saw Jillian leaning against the gate, waiting patiently. She had all three of her little sisters with her, and Molly smiled broadly when they locked eyes. “Thank God you called me,” she said as they found lounge chairs to lay their stuff on, “I was about to fall asleep on my floor when I heard the phone ring.”

“Yeah we were all getting pretty restless,” Jillian responded, while she applied sunscreen on Iyla’s back. She was wearing a red swimsuit with white polka dots, perfect for the holiday. Molly remembered Taylor mentioning his family always celebrated the 4th with a huge get together. She sighed as she pulled off her cover up, then ran towards the water and dove in, the cool water a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat that she couldn’t seem to escape. When she resurfaced she saw Jillian at the edge of the pool, yelling, “You didn’t even put on sunscreen!”

A few hours later, the two girls were laying in the sun (after Jillian had convinced Molly to apply sunscreen with a concerned look that only an older sister could pull off) while Jillian’s younger sisters splashed each other playfully in the shallow end. Molly’s eyes were closed but she heard Jillian shift her weight, probably propping herself up to look over at her friend.

“Hey. Are you okay?” Jillian asked plainly.

Molly kept her eyes closed. “What do you mean?”

“What do you mean, what do I mean? Are you doing okay?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you sure?”

“Why are you interrogating me?”

“Because I know you and I know when you’re off. You’ve been acting weird all day, and...kind of all summer. You’re being incredibly morose. Which is fine but that’s not who you are, and we both know it.”

“I’m being morose?”

“Yes! You barely leave your room…”

“That’s not fair, I’m always lazy in the summer. You know better than anyone that I can sleep in until 3pm if left alone.”

Jillian giggled, but wasn’t hindered by her best friend trying to make everything a joke (like always). “Come on, you know what I mean.”

Molly sighed and finally opened her eyes, shading her face with her arm. She propped herself up on her elbow so she was eye to eye with Jillian. She wanted to tell her friend everything. Taylor, their correspondence, his phone call to her in February, the way she felt her heart literally crack open inside her chest, how she didn’t know what to do with those feelings, how she didn’t understand why she was still feeling them, even now. But she couldn’t bring herself to form the words. She was too embarrassed by the whole thing. Too ashamed.

“I’m just...nervous about leaving...I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Except for like...two weeks in New York last summer.”

“I understand. College is scary.”

“I feel like you’re finding your groove though. You’re happier than I’ve seen you in like...two years.”

“Yeah, but it took me a while.”

“I’m just...I don’t know. This is going to sound incredibly cocky but...I’m kinda...used to being the best? But all of us coming in this fall...we were all probably the best at our high schools. I’m just scared I’ll fail. As usual.”

“Wait, is the usual like ‘I usually fail’ or ‘I’m usually scared of failing’?”

“A little of both?”

“Oh, come ON.”

Molly hadn’t even realized that these feelings were also lurking somewhere inside of her. But apparently here they were, tumbling out of her mouth with barely any forethought. She made a mental note to talk to her dad later. Maybe he could ease some of her fears with a fun story from his time in the city.

A few moments passed and the two girls laid back down. If Molly had her way, she would never leave the pool. She would spend every moment with her best friend, submerged in chlorinated water, until she had to fly away at the end of August.

“Are you excited to go to New York, at least?”

“Well duh, Jill, who do you think I am? I have a countdown on my wall!”

“Okay cool because...I have to tell you something.”

Molly propped herself back up and narrowed her gaze at her friend, trying to read her expression. “Go on,” she coaxed.

“I’m going to NYU in the fall. It’s official. It’s actually….actually happening.”

“....What?!”

“Yep.”

Molly erupted into delighted shrieks, pulling her best friend up from the chair and practically tackling her with hugs. The pimply blonde teenager acting as a lifeguard blew his whistle; Molly turned towards him and stuck out her tongue before pulling Jillian into the pool, where they dissolved into giggles.

A flash of joy blinded Molly from the strange summertime sadness, and they stayed in the pool until the sun went down and the gate was locked up.

Chapter Text

October 29th, 2002 - Taylor

Taylor knew the timing could have been better. He knew in the back of his mind as he boarded the plane that his whole family would talk behind his back about how he was abandoning his teenage wife and running away to New York for the weekend. They would talk about how irresponsible and impulsive it was, just like him. Natalie was full term and Taylor had to get out of the house, where he felt everyone breathing down his neck and asking him if he was ready to be a father.

The answer was no, of course.

He had wondered if after the wedding, things might be a little different...a little easier. The hard part was over, maybe. He only had to tell a few lies and repeat a few vows and now it was done.

But it wasn't. Now he had a family, as well as a band, that he inexplicably felt like the leader of, who was still trying to get their record made. Always trying to get that fucking record made. And there was the baby.

And then, forever lingering in his mind, there was Molly.

So one night, on a whim, he came to Natalie with a half baked plan that took shape only as he was began saying it out loud. He would go to New York to look at apartments, taking charge of an idea that the band had to move to the city and start their own record label. It could work. It would have to work. Something had to change.

“You're gonna go now?” She asked incredulously, panic evident in her voice.

“Well yeah, I can't go after the baby is born. It'll just be a couple days.” He had a point. Once there was a kid to deal with, he would never be able to get away. There were only a few days of freedom left before early morning diaper changes and spit up running down his neck. He shuddered at the thought.

“Are you ready to be a father, Taylor?” he heard time and time again. The question haunted all of his waking hours. No. The answer is always no. Stop asking me.

So he boarded the plane, coffee in hand, sunglasses covering his face so that no one would stop him (not that people really did, anymore). He knew what building Molly lived in, thanks to their letters back and forth, which had thankfully resumed. Once she started at Juilliard, she had sent him a letter on the school’s official letterhead (which she stole from the admissions office), telling him she had made it safely to the city and this was her new address, just in case he wanted to write. It was the first letter they had swapped since the night of Taylor’s wedding. Opening it made his entire body shudder wildly.

As he got closer to the dorm, his heartbeat betrayed his usually calm demeanor. He felt a flutter in his chest and stomach, and began to question everything. Would she even want to see him? He married someone else. But that letter he got right after his wedding...and the one she would have received from him. Those weren't words you exchanged with someone you hoped to never see again. This whole trip was a huge gamble, and he knew it. But he had to try.

He got to the apartment building full of Juilliard dorm rooms around noon, with his second coffee and one for her, too. Iced, with lots of milk and lots of sugar. How did he know that little detail about her? He searched his memory bank for the exact moment she told him how she liked her coffee. He couldn’t come up with the instance, just like he didn’t remember why he knew that she had a voracious sweet tooth or that she listened to Mozart to fall asleep or that she sometimes wished her laugh wasn’t quite so loud. He took a seat on the steps leading up to the apartment building. He had no idea when she was coming or going, so he supposed he would just have to wait.

It hadn’t even been 15 minutes when he looked up from his hands and saw her rushing down the street. He snorted quietly to himself, for a few reasons. First of all, she looked pretty much exactly the same as she had two years ago backstage at Morsani Hall. Her hair was in her face and she looked personally offended by it. She was carrying two bags as well as folders stuffed with what he was sure was sheet music. Always stressed out, he thought with a shake of his head and a knowing smile. But then, the hair blew all the way out of her face, and he caught her eye. Suddenly, the harried girl with too much to do found stillness, and time seemed to slow, if only for a moment.

She stopped in her tracks and, if he could hear the thoughts in her head, he was sure he would hear her asking herself if he was real...or maybe just someone who looked enough like Taylor to make her look twice. But he knew the ending of this scene, even if she didn't.

He stood up quickly, causing him to almost knock over the coffee he had gotten especially for her. She was still at least half a block away from him, and wasn’t moving a muscle. He started walking towards her, abandoning his sorry attempt of a gift. He was still unsure with how she would react to him being here. She had every right to be upset, to tell him to leave, go straight back to Oklahoma to be with his wife. He steeled himself for the worst.

He saw her drop her bags and her folders of music. Any other day, any other moment, that would have caused her to descend into a panic, running around the street hopelessly, clutching at the loose sheets and pencils spilling out of her bag. But right now, it didn’t matter. She came running towards him, abandoning her possessions and slamming into his body, knocking the air out of him. Appropriate, he thought to himself with a smirk.

“You’re here,” She squeaked from underneath his embrace.

“Yep.”

Taylor wasn’t sure he could smile any harder.

***

They didn’t talk about the wedding, or Natalie, or the baby. They didn’t talk about how this was only the second time they had ever seen each other, and the first time they ever held hands. After grabbing Molly’s scattered possessions and Taylor’s coffees from off of the steps, they hurried upstairs, their hands brushing each other's excitedly. It was almost too much to bear. Taylor felt like he might explode at any moment.

Molly, with a flair for the dramatic even though she wasn’t the one that went into the theatre, flung her belongings into a corner and did the thing they had both been wanting to do for two long years. She grabbed his face and, after looking into his eyes for just a second (to make sure he really was real), kissed him deeply. Taylor hands went immediately to her hair, intertwining his fingers with her dark curls. He scooped her up so that her legs wrapped around his waist. It was like they couldn’t get close enough, no matter how hard they tried.

Taylor pressed her up against the door, her legs still around him, and kissed his way down her neck. She rested her head against the sturdy surface and breathed heavily, overwhelmed with the onslaught of feelings that they both had crammed down into the deep recesses of their beings. His lips found their way back to hers, and he kissed her like he was searching for something.

Taylor had never felt like this before.

He carried her over to the bed. They were close, they were touching, they were together, but it still wasn’t enough. They both knew it.

No words were exchanged but clothes began to come off, and Taylor’s fingers found their way into Molly’s underwear, making her whimper almost immediately. He kissed her. He couldn’t stop kissing her. He always imagined their first kiss as a simple but sweet moment between high schoolers. Certainly not accompanied by smashing her back against a door. But this was good too. This was better than good.

***

The sunlight was streaming into Molly’s apartment window, threatening to set at any moment. The two of them lay in her bed, Taylor’s body wrapped perfectly around the small comma of her’s. He was sure she had about a million things to get done, and yet, they laid there peacefully, their breathing in perfect sync.

“Can we pretend this is how it is? Just while you’re here,” Taylor heard Molly whisper timidly. He wasn’t sure if she was sleeping or not, but her words answered his question. She flipped around so that they were face to face. He grabbed her hips and pulled her closer, erasing the inches of space between them. She nuzzled her face into his neck. “Please?” She reiterated.

“Of course,” He replied, placing a kiss on the top of her head.

In the morning they got up and, without discussing it any further, both made the decision to do just as Molly had said - pretend this was their reality, if only for a few days. Molly sheepishly introduced Taylor to her roommate, a quiet girl from Russia who played oboe and barely ever spoke named Galina. They got dressed and walked to a diner for breakfast. To any passer by, they surely looked deliriously happy and in love. They held hands and paused at corners to sneak kisses. They couldn’t stop smiling. They were both sure they looked like idiots.

Molly, finally finding her voice after the shock of seeing Taylor again, rambled happily about Juilliard over her eggs and coffee. She told him all about her classes and how high school had just been a warm up to how hard she had to work now.

“Everyone coming in was the best at their high school,” she explained, pausing every few moments to take huge gulps of her coffee. “It’s all music all the time, and when we’re not in class, we’re expected to be practicing. It’s ridiculous. I mean, I love it, of course, but it’s still super intense.”

“Do you have classes today?” He asked. It was a Wednesday, after all.

“I’m allowed a few skips every semester.”

“Molly McKenney...I never thought I’d see the day,” Taylor responded with fake wonder, making her peals of laughter echo across the diner.

“It’s been more than two years. I’m allowed.” And that was that. “So what do you want to do today? You’ve been in this city more than me, so I can’t really show you around or anything.”

“Well, that’s kind of what I wanted to ask you. The band is looking for an apartment.”

“In New York!?”

“Yeah. We...okay don’t tell anyone this…”

“...Who would I tell? Galina? She looks at me like I have three heads no matter what I say, so I’m pretty sure your secret is safe with me.”

Taylor laughed and continued. “Okay well, me and the guys are trying to start our own record label.”

“What!?” Molly exclaimed, garnering a few looks from around the room. “Sorry...go on.”

“Yeah. And we’re thinking it would be smart to be in New York instead of LA. Also I think we’re all kind of burnt out on LA in general. So...I’m gonna look for apartments I think. Wanna come?” He looked at her expectantly, hoping she would read his mind and understand that they could pretend they were looking at apartments for the two of them. It was silly, but it could be fun.

“Yes!”

The apartment hunt was exciting and tiring. Luckily, Taylor had come prepared, with a few specific buildings to take a look at. The two of them easily slipped into the fantasy, imagining how they would decorate and where the music room would be (“We’d have to have two pianos”). They never dropped each other’s hands, letting the landlords believe that Taylor’s wedding band had been placed by the tiny but incredibly opinionated girl at his side. They looked at each other like they were the only ones left. People that passed them on the street surely must have thought, look at those college kids, more in love now than they ever will be.

That night they sat on Molly’s floor and decided together which apartment would be the winner, before losing all focus and once again dissolving into a heap of sweaty bodies and flushed faces. The day before, Molly had admitted sheepishly that she was was still a virgin, but now she seemed to have a renewed confidence, which made Taylor smile despite himself.

The next morning, Taylor got up early to place a few calls and sign the necessary paperwork to lock down the apartment. He had no idea when the three of them (sorry, the five of them. Natalie would be there and...the baby too) would be moving, but he wanted to scoop up the apartment now before it went off the market. Also, he figured if he had the apartment already leased, it would give them even more of a reason to move. He could be closer to Molly. She would only be a few subway stops away. He left her a note saying where he was going, and that once he signed the lease, the apartment could be hers for the time being. He would rather someone live there than not, since he would be paying rent. She could get away from Galina and they would have a private space to stay when he came to visit. He didn’t mention that eventually, he would be living there with his family - Natalie included.

When Molly got up, she shot him a text message:
"Hey, got your note. I’m gonna go to class, but I’ll meet you at the coffee shop near my building at 11? That’s when I get out."

Taylor checked his watch. It was only 9:30am...he could go to the coffee shop and wait for Molly to finish up. He had a book with him. He opened his phone to respond when it started ringing. It was Isaac.

“Hello?”

“Hey, you might want to come home.”

“My flight isn’t until tomorrow.”

“Nat’s in labor.”

Chapter Text

November 1st, 2002 - Jillian

“Try the scene again, and this time, suck less.” The professor was shouting at a blonde girl who stood in the center of the black box theatre while the rest of the class squirmed uncomfortably. Jillian watched the girl fight the tears that were threatening to fall and look to her scene partner, who stood with his arms crossed. His name was Adam,a sophomore, and he was seemingly unphased by the tension in the room.

He was the only one.

The scene began again and Jillian released the breath she’d been holding. When she began the semester at NYU, she was most excited for the studio class. She couldn’t wait to dive in and tackle new characters and grow as an actor. On the first day, the professor entered and immediately announced that each of them, at some point, would need to be broken down to “worthless scraps of nothing” before they could “rebuild themselves as people and as artists”. Jillian giggled at this and he had looked her straight in the eye. That was all it had taken to terrify her into silence for the rest of the term. She performed her scenes and had been generally successful, but she knew her “suck less” moment was coming.

She looked up from her doodling, watching the blonde girl visibly shake while she recited her lines. The professor was rubbing his face in frustration. Jillian looked down at her watch. Two minutes left. She quietly gathered her things so she could bolt for the door. She wanted to try calling Molly again.

She had already called once that morning, like she had every morning for nearly a week, but to no avail. Since moving to the city, Jillian and Molly had made a point to see each other several times a week, grabbing coffee or walking through the park. They were both enamoured with their lives as city girls. They had spoken or emailed everyday. Jillian didn’t know what to think about this sudden radio silence. She was worried.

The professor stopped the scene abruptly and announced the end of class so Jillian practically leapt from her seat and headed for the door. She had the cell phone her father bought her already in her hand. She was about to exit when Adam stepped into her path.

“In a hurry?” he asked, flashing her a disarming smile. She looked around to make sure she was the person he was asking. He laughed confidently and tilted his head to catch her eye again.

“Um, yeah...I just...I have something I need to do.” She smiled back politely and moved toward the door again. Again, he stopped her.

“Jillian, right?” She nodded, avoiding his gaze. “You were good in the Seagull scene the other day.”

“Oh...thank you,” she replied with surprise. Jillian allowed herself to make eye contact and was struck by how intensely blue his eyes were. She couldn’t say she hadn’t noticed him from the very first day of classes. He was strikingly handsome, with short, dark hair and dimples. He had an charismatic confidence that naturally attracted people to him. It also helped that he was an accomplished actor and singer, easily besting the rest of his class. And here he was, complimenting her.

“A bunch of us are going out tonight. You should come.” His tone could only be described as commanding.

“Yeah, okay,” Jillian heard herself say, despite the strong urge to run away. Why was she smiling like an idiot? Be cool, she told herself, What is your problem?

“Sweet, here’s my number. Call me around nine and I’ll give you the details” He passed her a sheet of paper and she looked down at the large, neatly-penned numbers. She was suddenly thrown back into the real world where Molly was missing and she needed to know why.

“I...I will. Gotta go.” She smiled as casually as she could and ducked out of the room. As she headed down the yellow hallway, she noticed a group of sophomore girls glaring at her, including a girl she was pretty sure was Adam’s girlfriend. Their clear disapproval made her feel powerful in a way she couldn’t explain. She tucked Adam’s number into the pocket of her jeans and dialed Molly’s number. No answer.

***

That night had not gone the way Jillian expected. She had spent the day in class and studying, trying hard not to worry about her best friend. She stopped at their favorite coffee shop on her walk back to the dorms, hoping the need for caffeine outweighed whatever was keeping Molly from responding and that she would be there, pouring over some sheet music. No luck.

She spent the rest of the evening waiting for 9 o’clock to rolled around, but when it did, she decided not to call. She had just put on her favorite hoodie and was about to settle in, when there was a knock on her door. Seeing Adam on the other side had been a complete and total shock. She ended up letting him talk her into going out after all.

During the seven block walk to the restaurant, Adam had asked her a lot about where she was from and her family. He also went on about how acting is a “craft” that requires work and dedication. He spoke passionately and it made Jillian feel excited. She couldn’t tell if it was him or the subject matter that quickened her pulse. She had attempted a few cheesy jokes, but he didn’t seem to appreciate them. He was a serious man. He was a man.

She asked him about his girlfriend and he let out a cavalier laugh.

“Who, Charlotte? She’s not my girlfriend. She’s nobody.”

He spoke with confidence and Jillian believed him, despite having witnessed their full-on makeout session a few days prior. She decided to take his words at face value. Maybe he was just really affectionate.

They were the last to arrive at the restaurant. Their arrival had not gone unnoticed by the large group of upperclassmen from the theatre and dance departments. Jillian felt the odd surge of power again, but this time it was accompanied by a rush of dread. This is how drama starts, she thought.

Dinner was informal, with people coming and going, driving the restaurant staff crazy. As the only freshman, Jillian had spent a lot of time introducing herself and trying to blend in. Adam spent all of his time running the conversation. He was, without questions, the leader of this pack. At chosen moments, he would throw his attention toward Jillian. Adam was treating her like she was important, so they all followed suit. She had never felt so popular. It was exhilarating.

At one point, while everyone was shouting about something that happened in dance rehearsal that day, Adam had turned to look deeply into her eyes. She looked back for a mere second, before her self consciousness took over and she looked away.

“What?” she giggled, trying to hide that she was blushing.

“Nothing,” he replied. “You’re just pretty so I was looking at you.”

He looked away, took a long swig from his water glass, and rejoined the conversation. In the moment, Jillian wanted nothing more than to have his gaze on her again. It was like she needed another fix. She knew he wouldn’t give it to her.

She wondered if he knew what he was doing. She wondered why she couldn’t turn off the rush she was feeling. Her thoughts froze when she felt his hand rest on her leg, just above her knee. She looked at him. He was still fully engaged in animated conversation with the others, making no acknowledgment of his intimate gesture.

Jillian was sweating. She liked that no one else knew what was happening under the table. It was thrilling. She had no idea what it meant or what he intended, but she liked it because it felt dangerous. She willed her own hand to move toward his when her cell phone began to ring loudly, making everyone stop.

It was Molly.

His hand was gone. Everyone stared as Jillian excused herself and moved outside to take the call.

***

She had stayed on the phone the whole cab ride to Molly’s dorm. She had never heard her best friend so distraught. She was sobbing and just kept saying that she couldn’t calm down. Jillian felt helpless, urging the driver to go faster.

By the time she arrived and made her way to Molly’s door, her phone was dead and she was desperate for answers. She found her friend curled into a ball in the middle of her bed, her whole body shuddering as she sobbed.

“Moll, what is it? What’s wrong?” she asked, moving quickly to the bed, gathering Molly up into her arms. She reached awkwardly over to a box of tissues on the side table, and attempted to catch the tears pouring from Molly’s eyes. “Okay, deep breaths, deep breaths” she whispered and Molly did her best to comply.

Jillian couldn’t imagine what had brought this on but she knew it didn’t matter right now. She just needed Molly to calm down before she hyperventilated.

“It’s going to be okay...whatever it is. I’m here and I’m not going anywhere.” She put a pillow into her lap and guided Molly’s head down, pushing sopping wet tendrils out of her face. The tears continued to flow but the heavy sobs were subsiding. Jillian desperately wished there was something more she could do. She wanted to hurt whoever, or whatever, did this to her best friend. She racked her brain for any clue as to what may have happened. Her imagination ran wild.

Molly was visibly exhausted. She didn’t need to answer any questions. She needed to rest. Jillian pulled the comforter up over them and gently stroked Molly’s hair until she drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

November 27th, 2002 - Zac

The morning air was crisp and dry. Zac shoved his hands into his jean pockets, wishing he had grabbed his jacket before leaving the apartment. He’d been in NYC for a week and a half, staying in Tay’s apartment, which he liked to call “the secret hideout”, much his brother’s chagrin. Only the two of them knew what that meant, but Taylor was never one to take teasing lightly. Zac couldn’t help it; he liked having a secret with his older brother, even if they could only talk about it in code.

It was the day before Thanksgiving and it was Zac’s last day to wander the city. He promised Kate and his family that he would be back for the holiday but the truth was he didn’t feel ready to go back home at all. Things were in complete upheaval there, with his nephew’s arrival, Tay missing the birth and the family making a huge fuss about all of it.

On top of that, Kate hadn’t stopped gushing about Natalie’s wedding and how she couldn’t wait to plan her own. Even his mother had started using the word ‘when’ in place of ‘if’. He couldn’t find the time or the space to process any of it. Several times, he’d planned to call things off, his conversation on Tay’s wedding night ringing in his ears. Each time he thought he was ready to end things, something would come up that kept her around. She was always around.

He had announced one night, after a particularly hectic day, that he was taking a trip. He didn’t know where but he knew he was leaving and needed to be alone. Everyone shrugged if off, chalking it up to Zac being Zac. So, when Taylor offered his place in the city, he booked the ticket that night.

He had spent every moment of the trip alone. He woke up early, walked for hours across Manhattan and wrote feverishly into the night. He listened to music and sketched in the park. He spent hours in arcades, playing old video games. Anything to clear his head.

He jogged through the crosswalk and hung a right, toward a coffee shop with a sign that read The Beans Talk. He had noticed the sign a few days earlier and had to see the inside before he left for Tulsa. He opened the door and stepped inside.

The shop was tiny and dark. The walls were papered with hundreds of handwritten poems, letters and song lyrics, some of which had clearly been there for ages. A man with a heavy beard and handlebar mustache greeted him from behind the counter, which looked more like an old saloon bar than a countertop. Zac maneuvered his way past the small round tables and a worn arm chair, where a tabby cat was sleeping soundly.

“Just a black coffee?” he asked the man, who nodded and turned away to fetch his order. The hot liquid would help him shake off the chill. He dug into his pocket for his wallet but it wasn’t there. He searched the other pockets, but came up empty. He became aware that several people were now lined up behind him and he started to panic. “Hey, man! I..umm...nevermind, I forgot my wallet” he spouted, just has the guy returned with his cup. He was about to apologize, when the woman behind him stepped forward.

“I’ll get it,” she said, without looking up.

“Hey, thanks that’s…” Zac stopped suddenly, his words failing him. He knew that hair, those eyes, that face. He gulped and ran a hand through his hair. “Jillian?”

She looked up at the sound of her name and, for a second, he could see her trying to place him. After all, they hadn’t laid eyes on each other since the concert over two years ago. She looked nearly the same but he knew he had changed quite a bit.

“Oh...my god...Zac?” she asked, her eyes fluttering with recognition.

“Yeah! Yeah...hey…” He was completely speechless and couldn’t stop smiling like a doofus. She gave him a polite smile, which was followed immediately by an expression of utter confusion.

“Hey..um, hold on.”

She turned to the counter, ordered another coffee and laid down the cash for both of them. She passed him his cup, took her own and gestured for him to move out of the way of the counter. He felt like his whole body was out of control; clumsy and bumbling. And he still couldn’t stop smiling. He cleared his throat, trying to gain some semblance of normalcy. She sipped her coffee carefully and looked up at him. He couldn’t believe it was her. Here. Standing in front of him. What were the chances?

“So...how...what are you doing here?” she asked. He couldn’t tell yet if she was happy to see him.

“I...I’m just spending some time in the city, you know, writing and...stuff.” He realized the cup he held was burning his hands and quickly set it on the counter. She watched and cracked a smile. “You never wrote me back.” He couldn’t believe he’d said that. Her smile vanished and she took a breath. He braced himself.

“Sorry about that,” she replied, fidgeting with her cup. “You look...older.” She was looking him over and he felt exposed.

“Well, I am...older,” he said. “You look the same.” She blushed. Something about this chance meeting and the way Jillian was looking at him suddenly filled him with confidence. “You wanna get out of here? Go somewhere and catch up?” She shifted her weight and looked toward the door. He never took his eyes off of her.

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good,” she said, flashing him a true smile that made him feel like writing a hundred new songs.

***

The sun was high in sky when Zac and Jillian sat down on Umpire Rock. They had walked all the way to the park as morning turned to noon. The conversation had started slowly, with awkward moments of silence that neither of them knew how to fill. Zac asked about school and that was enough to carry them a few blocks. She asked about his family and that carried them a few blocks more. They continued that way, swapping subjects back and forth, until the awkward silences filled up with laughter and little anecdotes about their lives.

Jillian had stayed in the city for Thanksgiving, since she planned to head home to Tampa for Christmas break. She mentioned she had made some friends at school, but most of them had gone home during the break. Her only plan for the day, after some coffee, was to study lines and order take out.

“I really love Central Park,” Zac said as he sprawled out on the bedrock, closing his eyes against the sun.

“This is cheesy...but I think it’s pretty magical, all this quiet and green in the middle of the bustling city.” She laid down next to him and the wind blew her hair over his arm. She smelled like coconut.

“Not cheesy,” he said, keeping his eyes closed, taking in the moment and her scent. They laid there for what seemed like hours, comfortable in the white noise of the park. After a while, he spoke up. “Were you ever going to write me back?” He heard her sigh.

“Sure, I was....”

“You weren’t. It’s okay.”

“No, I was, I just….I don’t know. You said a lot of things that night.” He sat up and turned toward her. She brought up that night and now he was ready to run with it. He had played the conversation out in his head a million times. This was his chance to say it all. He could tell her how he meant every word and he wouldn’t take it back because fate would always bring them back together. How this day had solidified everything he believed about destiny and what it meant for them. “Anyway, I’m glad we’re here, doing this today. I didn’t realize how much I missed my friend.”

Zac felt a knot form in his chest. Her friend. Here he was, daydreaming about fate and she was regaining a friend.

“Yeah...yeah, me too,” he said with a halfhearted smile.

“Want to get some food?” she asked, giving him a playful nudge. He wanted to shake off the feeling that was gripping his heart. He nodded and stood. “Race you!” she shouted and took off running down the footpath.

Startled, he sprinted after her, sending a few pigeons into the air as he ran. He finally caught up at the edge of the park, panting and laughing as she jumped around, bragging that she had beat him. They grabbed a couple hotdogs from a cart, frolicked like kids at F.A.O. Schwarz and made their way downtown to Times Square as dusk approached. It was as if they were making up for all the time they’d lost with this one day.

Zac spent time memorizing the little things, like how her nose crinkled up when she laughed, how she pulled on her hair when she didn’t know what to do with her hands, or how her eyes changed color with the light.

They talked about things they never had before, like favorite colors, foods and Star Wars characters. They stopped for ice cream and climbed the steps of the TKTS Booth, looking out over Times Square, glowing brightly as the sun set. There were barricades set up for the parade the next day and foot traffic was heavy, with people already trying to stake out good viewing spots.

“I can’t believe tomorrow is Thanksgiving!” Jillian said, taking another lick of her ice cream cone.

“Okay, favorite holiday!” Zac asked, trying to steer the conversation away from the next day. He never wanted this day to end.

“That’s easy! It’s my own birthday” she answered with conviction. He stared at her, waiting to see if she was kidding.

“Wow!” he laughed when he realized she meant it. “Well, you stole my answer.” He gave her a smirk and she laughed and shook her head.

“You’re something else, Zac Hanson.”

“What does that mean?” He asked, feeling giddy.

“I’m having a lot of fun with you.” she said, sheepishly. The lighted steps bathed everything in crimson, but he could swear she was blushing. “You’re really...different than I thought, I guess.” She was speaking softly so he leaned in closer.

“Yeah, I’m a lot less smooth in person,” he teased. She laughed and put her hand on his arm. Her touch was searing, sending a shock through him that caught him by surprise. She must have felt something too, because she pulled away and pulled on her hair.

“I meant...you’re not that little boy I met at the concert. You’re...different.” She still wasn’t looking at him.

“Different good? Or…”

“Yeah, good!”

As if on cue, a group of men seated across from them broke out into an acapella version of In The Still Of The Night.

“Gotta love New York” Jillian quipped, looking past him at the quartet. He couldn’t explain what came over him, but Zac set his ice cream aside. He stood up and dramatically held out his hand to her. “Wh...what are you doing?”

“Dance with me, Jillian Santoro” he said, trying to keep a straight face. She was motionless for a moment. “I dare you.” He knew it would work. She tossed her ice cream and stood up, determination in her eyes.

“You dare me?”

“Yep, I do.”

She grabbed his hand and struck her best ballroom pose. He laughed and led her in what he was sure was the most uncoordinated tango in history. They laughed as they twirled around and he dipped her dramatically. Somehow, her arms ended up resting around his neck so he cautiously wrapped his arms around her waist. He felt her body tense up, then relax. They had stopped swaying to the music and stood there in a timeless haze, bodies pressed together, heartbeats pounding against each other.

She looked up at him and all Zac wanted to do was kiss her. He thought maybe it looked like she wanted him to do it. The song ended and she was still there, in his arms. The moment was perfect. Uncomplicated. Kissing her would almost certainly ruin that.

Zac pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear and she slid her hands from his neck to his chest, dropped her head and moved away.

“When do you leave?” she asked quietly.

“Tomorrow, 6am,” he sighed. “I should head back to my place I guess.” She nodded, and the started down the steps.

“I’m going to hop on the train here,” she said. “My feet are pretty tired from walking all day.”

“I think I’ll cab it myself.” They both stood in place, not sure what to do next.

“I’ll see you…” she stammered. He gave her little wave and a smile. He liked that she didn’t seem to want to go. “Email me? When you get home?” She smiled brighter than all the lights that surround them, then bounded down the station steps and was gone.

Zac was reeling. He couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day. He felt hopeful for the first time in months. He wanted to call Ike and tell him right away.

He had his cell phone in his pocket, but realized he hadn’t looked at it all day. He hadn’t even turned it on. He fished it out and pressed the power button, humming In The Still Of The Night under his breath. The phone powered up and instantly began dinging at him.

He had fourteen voicemails; all but one from Kate. The last one was from his mother. He pressed play on the first one and settled in for the storm.

Chapter Text

August 13th, 2003 - Molly

Molly checked her watch for what seemed like the millionth time since she took her place in line. She still couldn’t believe she was doing this. Once again, the urge to abandon her spot overwhelmed her, and she could feel her entire body pulling away from the place she had claimed an hour before. And yet she stayed. Sometimes she liked to press on old wounds.

A few days prior, she burst into Jillian’s apartment unannounced (she had her own key, of course) and flopped down on her best friend’s bed. She and Jillian had stayed in the city that summer, mainly because Tampa made them both feel restless and bored and unproductive. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t allowed to move into her dorm until the academic year started, because she stayed in Taylor’s apartment. He hadn’t been to visit her once since he started renting it. Nothing had been discussed, she just...kept using it. She made herself incredibly comfortable there and used it as a private studio. It was nice to get away and be able to practice without other musicians ambling around the hallways. She kept wondering if and when the band would actually move to the city.

It’s not like she and Taylor had stopped talking altogether. She waited at the coffee shop a few hours that sunny October morning, patiently checking her phone every few minutes while she got some theory homework done. Finally she gave up and went back to her dorm, confused and worried. She called him a couple times, but he didn’t answer. Her obsessive thoughts got the better of her. She combed through every possible reason as to why Taylor would leave her there, alone, sipping iced coffee nervously. None of the reasons were good. Something is wrong, she muttered until she fell asleep that night. Something is wrong.

She woke the next morning to her phone buzzing violently, her face and eyes puffy from crying herself to sleep. It was Taylor.

“I’m sorry Moll. I had to get back. I um...I missed it. Natalie was furious.”

“Missed what?”

“Jordan. He was born. Last night. I had to leave right away because Nat went into labor.”

“Oh.” She looked around the room for something to focus on. She realized they didn’t even have any pictures together. “So that’s what you named him? Jordan?”

“Jordan Ezra. We’ll probably end up calling him Ezra. It’s a weird Hanson thing. Middle names.”

“Cool.”

“I’m really...really sorry. I should have called you sooner.”

That night she called Jillian sobbing and fell asleep with tears falling into her hair.

It had been almost a year since that day and there had been some emails and plenty of aim conversations. A few phone calls. He told her all about the album and the new record label and she kept him updated on her classes. They avoided the elephant in the room. Things normalized. She thought maybe they could just be friends. Penpals.

“Okay I have a crazy idea,” Molly said as soon as Jillian looked up from her script. Molly could tell that her friend hadn’t taken a break all day.

“What is it?”

“Remember three summers ago? When we went to that concert?”

“....The Hanson concert?” Jillian said incredulously, as if to say “Yeah, how could I forget, you idiot?”

“Well they’ll be here in a few days. And I think I’m gonna get tickets.” Molly couldn’t believe the words were spilling out of her mouth. The thought of being at another Hanson concert made her hair stand on end. She looked at Jillian expectantly, trying to gauge her reaction.

“When is it?”

“The thirteenth.”

“Let me see,” Jillian reached over to her desk and pulled out her rehearsal schedule. She was playing the leading lady in Romeo and Juliet, and was taking it more seriously than Molly had ever seen her take anything. “I have rehearsal that night.”

“You can skip it!”

“Molly!”

“For your best friend and her favorite band?!”

“Hanson is still your favorite band?”

It was a fair question. After that first concert, and after her friendship with Taylor started blossoming, Molly stopped talking about the three brothers for the most part. She still planned on getting their new record, but there was something about the secrets she kept that made her obsession feel wrong.

“I guess so…”

“Hmm. And no I can’t skip it. I’m Juliet, and I’m not trying to sound cocky but I really can’t just not show up.”

“Ugh, fine I’ll go by myself.”

“You really want to go that badly?”

“Yeah, kind of!”

“You have to admit this is completely out of the blue, Moll.”

Molly sighed and threw herself back onto the pillows. Jillian rolled her eyes. “I just...I just miss them, is all.”

She wasn’t lying. She missed loving them from afar. She missed looking up at her walls and seeing them smiling. She missed being in high school. But most of all, she missed Taylor.

Jillian came over to the bed and laid down next to Molly. “Hey Moll…” she said timidly.

“What?”

“Can I tell you something?”

“...Yeah…”

“So you asked if I remember that concert and like...obviously I do. Zac kissed me for Christ’s sake.”

Molly snorted with laughter. God, that was so awkward. The kiss, the emails.

“Well...it didn’t end there...I guess…”

“Right, he emailed you song lyrics,” she responded, still stifling giggles. “I know all of this Jillian. You kept emailing him and you were super weird about it.”

“Yeah. I saw him last winter.”

“What?!”

“He came to New York…”

“And you didn’t tell me?!!” Molly shrieked, and immediately regretted it. It was hypocritical of her to be angry about that, seeing as Jillian knew nothing about her and Taylor. But that was different. She had spent hours convincing herself that it was different. It was not the right time to tell her...it was never the right time.

“Yeah. We um...we spent the day together.”

“Where was I?”

“I don’t know, locked in a practice room?”

“Fair.”

“Anyway, it was a really great day! We’ve been emailing and stuff since then. So I guess we’re friends?”

“Friends or more than friends?” Molly asked, wiggling her eyebrows and not wanting to let on to the fact that she knew everything there was to know about Kate, thanks to being Taylor’s confidante.

“Oh God, just friends. Just….just friends.”

Molly wanted so desperately to tell Jillian everything. She wanted to tell Jill that Taylor had taken her virginity last fall. She wanted to tell Jill that they had walked hand in hand through the city as though nothing could touch them. She wanted to spill every morsel of information onto the bedsheets, but she just...couldn’t. At the end of the day, she was in the middle of an affair with a married man. A married man with a child. She knew how much those facts would upset Jillian. She knew better than anyone about Jillian's past. She couldn’t do it. Not yet.

“So you don’t even want to go see Zac?” Molly asked.

“No I think it’s better if I don’t. I don’t want him to...I don’t know. Get the wrong idea?”

“Hmm…”

“Are you mad?”

“What?! Why?!”

“I don’t know! You...You were always a Zac girl.”

Molly couldn’t contain her laughter any longer. She broke out into giggles, mostly because of how wrong Jillian was at this point in time. She was hopelessly in love with a Hanson brother, but it definitely wasn’t Zac.

The line started moving and Molly was ripped from her thoughts. She could still bail if she wanted to. She didn’t have to stay and see the band. And yet her feet carried her into the club and she took a spot in the middle of the floor. She didn’t want to be too close to the stage. She wasn’t sure why, but being up front felt dangerous.

It was surreal hearing so many songs that she had heard demos of. She recognized some of her own lyrics, and melodies that she helped Taylor tweak. About half way through the set they played a song she had never heard, called “Penny and Me.” The lyrics made her breath catch in her throat. She knew they were about her. They had to be. She was all over that song. The chords sounded like the way they walked around the city. Free. Nothing but two kids who didn’t know how to not be together, their love too big for the spaces between buildings. They needed an open road, an endless sky, aimless conversations ‘bout the better days. She gathered up all her mental energy to will Taylor to look in her direction. Please just see me here. Like that first time. Look over here.

And then, inexplicably, he did.

His fingers fumbled and he played a few foul notes, imperceptible to anyone who’s ear wasn’t trained as intensely as Molly’s. Ike looked over at him, a flash of concern on his face, but he recovered gracefully, getting back in the groove of the song. It was Taylor’s turn to wonder if he was actually seeing her. He kept glancing up and locking eyes with her, his eyes pleading. She couldn’t wait to see him after the show and tell him how much she loved the new songs, even though her favorite part was the frenetic energy of “If Only”. It made her feel just as happy as she had felt at 15.

***

“I’m a friend of Taylor’s,” Molly said confidently, attempting to make her way backstage to see the guys.

“You’re acting like that’s going to work,” the guard responded, putting his hand on her shoulder.

“You can ask him if you want…”

“You don’t have a pass. You can wait by the bus like everyone else.”

“But --”

“Sorry miss. I can’t let you back there.”

Molly sulked away, and navigated her way through the crowd of fans. She found a place close enough to the bus that Taylor would definitely see her when he came out. The fans around her chattered excitedly, high on the concert and ready to swarm when the band came outside. If only they knew, Molly thought to herself. She was looking down at her phone to text Jillian when the crowd started shrieking, signalling the boy’s exit from the club. She saw Isaac smile widely and immediately start signing autographs and taking pictures. She saw Zac walk up to girls with a new confidence. She couldn't help but smile stupidly when she saw him. You never forget your first crush.

Then finally she saw Taylor, followed immediately by Natalie, who was holding Ezra. Of course. They were on tour with the band. Why wouldn’t they be? Ezra wasn’t even a year old.

Taylor looked visibly upset and beelined to the bus. He glanced over at Molly and they locked eyes. A million words zoomed between them. She smiled, because it was the only thing she could think of to do. Natalie saw her grinning face and smiled sweetly back, unknowingly. She held up Ezra’s little hand and waved it.

Molly thought she could feel her ribs cracking. All breath left her lungs.

Chapter Text

August 13th, 2003 - Taylor

Taylor felt the bus door slam behind him but didn’t hear it. He had seen her in the crowd but for some reason he was able to keep telling himself it wasn’t her. Then, her face broke out in a huge smile and there was no denying that the girl in the crowd was, in fact, Molly McKenney. He told himself that there was no way she would wait by the bus to see him. There were always too many fans out there. She would see the crowd and go home. Maybe send him a text or email once she got back to the apartment.

“I’m exhausted, I’m just gonna go to my bunk,” Taylor announced to the room. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at Natalie.

“Okay,” she said quietly, readjusting Ezra on her hip. It had been over a year since the two of them awkwardly exchanged vows, and the strange newness of it all hadn’t exactly worn off. They tried. They really did. Taylor tried to do nice things for Natalie all the time, but she always seemed to run off to spend time with his mom or his sisters. She was clearly more comfortable hanging around the oldest Hanson girl Jessica, who was 15 and already great with babies. The two of them became fast friends, thanks to Taylor and Nat living at home with the baby before heading out on tour. When she didn't run away she would become screechy mean; picking fights and blaming him for every single thing that went wrong. Taylor felt as though he couldn't win, and desperately wanted to get on the road.

But then tour was a whole other problem. Taylor was exhausted most of the time. Not from the shows, he could do those forever, but from having to make sure Natalie was okay and taking care of Ezra in order to give her a break and fumbling around hotel rooms awkwardly when he wished he could just kick back with his brothers and play video games in the next room. Nearly every other day he caught a glimpse of Natalie looking horribly sad, and fought the urge to ask her plainly “Are you happy?” But he knew the answer. Anyone with eyes knew the answer.

He knew she tried too, but their efforts never seemed to line up. She would thank him politely for taking the baby for a few hours to let her nap, as though he was a babysitter instead of her husband. He breathed a sigh of relief every time he had to get up early to go do a promo or an interview, and it would just be the three of them again. This is how it should be, he would think to himself every time, looking over at his brothers. Then he would return and she would hand Ezra over with an annoyed look on her face, and reality would come crashing down once again. Every interviewer brought up the fact that he was now a dad, as though he needed reminding.

And then, like a fucking vision, he had seen the girl he loved in the crowd. He got out a notebook and pen before climbing into his bunk. He pulled the curtain closed dramatically and hoped no one would bother him for the rest of the night. He felt like such a loser; the last thing he needed was Zac ripping open the curtain and trying to make him laugh (something his younger brother seemed to take on as his new job, since Taylor had become so melancholy lately).

 

August 13th, 2003

Molly,

At the risk of sounding completely ridiculous, let me start this off by saying that I look for you at every show.

I think about which songs I’ll play so that you’ll have the best time possible. I think about what I’ll say to you after the show, and how our reunion will be everything we’ve ever hoped. I think about where we will go after the concert and what we will do. Obviously nothing went the way I planned it out in my head, seeing as I didn’t even get to say a word to you. I hope I said everything I needed to say in the songs that I sang tonight, since you know the meaning behind every lyric I’ve ever written.

I wish so badly that things were different. You always tell me there’s no use in wishing, but I can’t help it. You're the only thing that tells me what is happening is okay, that things will work out, when every other thing in this world points to the fact that I made a huge mistake. I miss talking to you every day, even if it was just a short IM message about your homework.

I've had a lot of awesome days in my life, but the one we spent together last year might have been my favorite. Repeat? Please? Some day? I'm passed the point of apologizing for sounding desperate. Hopefully you're passed the point of caring.

I loved having you in the audience tonight.
-Tay

PS - Did you like Crazy Beautiful? That one’s about you. ‘Cause you’re definitely both.

 

He sighed as he read over his words. He wondered if Molly would read it and think he was a huge doofus, seeing as that’s how he felt writing it. He sounded so needy. But, everything he wrote was honest. At least there was that.

He heard Ezra crying from the next room, and Natalie gently cooing, trying to get him to stop. He closed his eyes tightly, willing his child to quiet down, but no relief came. He folded up the letter and slipped it into the notebook, with plans to mail it in the morning when they arrived at their next stop, before heaving himself out of his bunk to take the baby and rock him to sleep.

Chapter Text

September 19th, 2003 - Jillian

Jillian was sprawled across a bench in the lobby of the theatre building, trying to cool off. It’s September, she thought. It shouldn’t be this hot outside. Summer in the city proved to be just as torrid as in Florida, but without the sea breeze and central air conditioning. She fanned herself with her script and closed her eyes, hoping the lobby would remain unpopulated until she stopped sweating.

Opening night was just two days away and her anxiety was at an all-time high. She still couldn’t believe she would be playing Juliet, one of the most iconic characters of all time. Rehearsals had been grueling, but she felt she was as ready as she would ever be. After all, she had devoted her entire summer to preparing for the role. She’d enlisted Molly’s help in cramming lines nearly every night for a month, before her best friend gently declined, claiming she couldn’t look at another line of verse without losing her mind completely.

Jillian had missed parties, trips and even a chance to see Zac on concert.

After their fateful meeting last fall, she and Zac had exchanged regular emails, before she finally broke down and gave him her phone number. Most of the time, they played phone tag, leaving each other voicemails, their schedules never quite matching up. Jillian hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that night and their dance. She would flash back to the moment when she was sure something was about to happen, their arms around each other, their eyes locking and soul-searching…

Her cell phone rang loudly. Her eyes shot open and she looked down at the screen. Speak of the devil…

“Zachary, I’m sweating!” she whined into the phone, skipping a traditional greeting, as always.

“You answered! And...I’m sorry..?” he replied, with a laugh. “I only have a couple minutes, but I was wondering...umm...what’s the name of the place where you’re performing?” Jillian could tell by the tone of his voice that he was up to something.

“It’s the Delancey Street Studio Theatre” she answered, suspiciously. “Why?”

“I was..umm...just looking for, uh..you know, where it was,” he stammered. “Anyway, how was dress rehearsal?”

“Good! My costumes are gorgeous. I think they helped me get even more into character.”

“I wish I could see you in them...I mean, see the show and you...in the show…”

“You okay, Zac?” She couldn’t help but notice that he was uncharacteristically tongue-tied. He was definitely up to something.

“Oh yeah! Just trying to multi-task over here. I better get going. I hope tonight goes great!”

“Thanks,” she said, unable to stop smiling. “I’ll call you later.”

“Maybe I’ll answer!” he teased, and hung up.

Jillian could tell he was up to something. She found it so easy to lose herself in the idea of their friendship turning into something more and it scared her. She knew he was still dating Kate. She knew that was what his family wanted. She knew she needed to keep things platonic if they had any chance of staying in each other’s lives. Still, she couldn’t stop her heart from skipping a beat or two whenever he crossed her mind.

“What are smiling about?” Jillian heard Adam’s voice and looked up from her phone. He was standing against the wall, arms crossed, and she wondered how long he’d been there.

“Oh, nothing, just a friend…”

“You wanna run Act 2 lines before we head into class?” Adam cut her off. His signature move.

“Sure thing,” she agreed.

“My Juliet?” He flashed her a smile and held out his arm.

“Let’s go, Romeo.”

***

Opening night. This was it. Jillian stared at herself in the cloudy mirror, trying to drown out the cacophony of her cast mates’ voices filling every corner of their tiny dressing room. She tried to remember that she loved acting. She loved becoming someone else on stage. She loved connecting with an audience and telling a compelling story. But she was also terrified.

She looked at her phone. 7:46pm. The audience could be heard over the monitors, filing in and chatting excitedly. Jillian was sure she had heard Molly laugh loudly, probably making friends with everyone sitting around her. There was some comfort in the fact that Molly was there to see the show, especially since Jillian’s dad and sisters wouldn’t be able to make it at all. The trip was too expensive and the twins couldn’t miss school.

She looked at her phone again. 7:47. Why was time going to slowly? There was a knock at the dressing room door.

“Everyone decent?” shouted Shiva, the boisterous diva who was playing the Nurse. No one answered and door was opened, letting in a musty, cool breeze from the hallway. Jillian was still staring into the mirror when a collective gasp engulfed the room and she heard her name announced. She turned to see a delivery man, holding out an enormous vase of roses.

“You Jillian Santoro?” he asked in a thick Bronx-dialect.

“Thats me,” she replied, her throat dry. She was acutely aware that all eyes were glued to her. She could swear she heard someone whisper with disdain, They’re from Adam, of course. The man crossed to the counter and set the flowers down. They were the most beautiful roses Jillian had ever seen. They also looked like they were expensive. “Thank you,” she said to the man, who couldn’t escape the room fast enough.

The door shut and the ladies crowded around, waiting for Jillian to open the card that was sticking up from the top of the arrangement.

“Looks like Juliet has a real life Romeo,” teased Shiva.

“You’re so cheesy!” said another girl.

“Open the fucking thing already!” yet another shouted. They were all way too invested in this for Jillian’s liking and she wished she could ask them all to leave. She sighed and reached for the card, her hands shaking slightly.

If it was from Adam, she knew everyone in the room would be simultaneously jealous and nonplussed. He was a shameless flirt and it was no secret that Jillian had been the object of his attention all year.

She ripped open the small envelope and read the card to herself.

Wish That I Was There….(You’re going to be awesome)
-Z

She felt her heart explode in her chest. She tried to suppress the hard blush that was forming on her cheeks. She was fighting off the urge to laugh and the need to cry at once. She hugged the card to her chest, trying to regain some composure.

“Well?!” Shiva was shouting, causing her to snap out of it for a moment. Jillian looked up at the expectant crowd.

“They’re from my dad and sisters.” she lied. She didn’t know why she lied but it just fell out. The girls all deflated in disappointment and scattered around the room. Jillian let out a sigh of relief. She looked at the card again.

She thought about that perfect day last fall. She thought about how different he had seemed that night. How different she had felt. She looked at her cell phone again. 7:54pm. She quickly stepped outside the dressing room and dialed his number.

“This is Zac’s voicemail! Leave me a message and maybe I’ll call you back. If you’re lucky.” Jillian’s heart was fluttering and she felt breathless. She waited for the beep.

“Hey, its me...um...thank you for the flowers. I love…” Her words caught in her throat and her mind began to race: backstage kisses and unanswered emails and aim conversations and Kate and dancing in Times Square. “...them. I love them. Okay, bye.” She hung up.

“Five to places,” called the stage manager. Jillian took a few deep breaths. She tucked the card into the waistband of her dress. She needed to pull herself together. She walked back into the dressing room, the smell of roses overwhelming the usual aroma of Aquanet.

“You okay, Jill?” Shiva asked when she saw her come in. Jillian smiled at her.

“Yeah, yeah I’m good, just nervous.”

“That’s normal. Just remember to have fun. Juliet’s just a normal girl in love!” Shiva gave her a big hug, then went through the door toward the stage. The other girls followed, leaving Jillian alone with her flowers.

“Just a normal girl…” she repeated to herself. “...in love.”

***

The cast party was in full swing and Jillian was nursing a watery cocktail. She sat on the sofa in the smoke-filled Park Slope apartment, watching a few of her cast mates attempt a keg stand to no avail.

The performance had gone off without a hitch. The audience had been incredibly invested and responsive. Jillian had never felt such a rush before. She couldn’t help but think that Zac had something to do with it.

Molly had basically attacked her as she emerged from the stage door, gushing about how proud she was. She couldn’t come to the party but told Jillian to soak up every moment.

“Remind me to tell you something…something good...later on.” Jillian bubbled as she ducked into a cab to Brooklyn. “Talk to you later!”

Everyone at the party cheered when she entered and lauded her performance, making her feel comfortable enough to let loose. She danced for what seemed like hours, finally landing on the couch for a breather. She felt so happy, she could hardly keep from smiling.

“Be honest. This is your first time getting drunk, isn’t it?” Adam was suddenly sitting beside her.

“Drunk? No, I’m not drunk” she insisted, looking down at her nearly-full solo cup.

“You were really on tonight” he said, smoothly. “Our love scene was especially…enthusiastic.”

Jillian could feel her cheeks flush. She had, despite her best efforts, been thinking of Zac throughout the show. She had imagined him in Adam’s place, entertaining her fantasies in the safety of her own imagination. Adam passed her a fresh cup.

“I guess I’m just a good actor!” she heard herself say, sipping the sour drink he’d given her.

It burned going down and left a funny aftertaste. She took another sip to be polite and instantly regretted it. She looked up at Adam but suddenly found it hard to focus. He was laughing at her joke. Or was he just laughing at her in general? Her head felt light and her fingers went numb.

“You wanna go somewhere and talk?” he asked, flashing her a disarming smile.

“Yeah, sure” she replied, trying her best to stand up as the room was spinning in circles. He took her by the arm and she was simultaneously grateful and embarrassed. “I guess I’ve had more to drink than I thought.” Her speech was slurred so she tried to pass her drink to him, but he pushed it back at her.

“Nope, that’s yours! This is your party so drink up!” Jillian felt his arm around her waist.

She looked around but couldn’t focus on anything. She only saw shapes and colors swirling around her. She started to feel afraid. Her hands and feet felt tingly. She had no choice but to put all of her weight on Adam, who propped her up against him. His breath smelled like sweet liquor and cigarettes and it made her stomach turn.

She didn’t like this. Adam was talking to her and taking her somewhere, but she couldn’t make out any details. She wondered what had been in the drink. Her fear intensified, as did her tunnel vision.

Snap out of it, she told herself. She struggled to grasp any information about where they were going. She felt like she was being lifted and was suddenly aware that she was lying on her back. She looked up and could make out a twirling ceiling fan. The light was low, but she could see a silhouette standing over her. She tried to speak but couldn’t make the sound come out. Her arm was tucked uncomfortably under her body, but her tingling fingers brushed the cell phone hanging out of her pocket.

“I…need…call someone…” she managed, but her voice was barely a whisper. Adam pulled her arm from under her body, prying the phone away with little effort. Before she knew it, he was on top of her, pressing his lips on hers. She tried to will her arms to move, to push him off. They felt like they were filled with cement.

This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. She wanted to scream for help but was mute. He was fumbling with the button on her pants and she felt like she might be sick. Why couldn’t she move? Why was no one coming to help her?

Jillian felt his hand slide into her pants, between her legs, and her stomach lurched. He moved his mouth to hers again, his breath thick and heavy. Her throat filled with acid and she heaved, rancid liquid spewing out, causing him to jerk away in horror.

“Ugh…bitch!” He lurched backward, wiping her vomit from his chest.

Jillian suddenly felt a surge of adrenaline and she rolled herself over the edge of the bed. She crawled to the door and somehow managed to get it open. She pulled herself into the hallway, Adam coming up behind her and pulling her to her feet.

“She’s fine, just drank too much” she heard him say to someone. She was starting to black out, but fought to stay awake as he lugged her down the hall and into the living room. “Call her a cab?” He hollered and she felt her body connect with the sofa in a crumbled heap. He leaned down until he was face to face with her. “No one will believe you if you tell them,” he whispered.

He was gone. She could smell her own sick but was powerless against the darkness that was closing in. She could hear the crowds of people around her but she had never felt more alone. Her eyelids were so heavy. She stopped fighting them and let them close.

Chapter Text

September 22nd, 2003 - Zac

Zac checked his phone for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. Still nothing. He’d been calling Jillian and leaving messages all weekend. He was dying to know how the show had gone and if his flowers had left the impression he was hoping they would. Her voicemail that night had given him a glimmer of hope. He looked around the living room, and seeing that he was alone, cued up the message and listened to it again.

“Hey, its me...um...thank you for the flowers. I love….them. I love them. Okay, bye.”

He couldn’t help but smile. She sounded so happy. And he had made that happen. He had tried to call her back that night after their show, but she didn’t answer and he assumed she was out celebrating. He thought for sure she would call him back the next day, but when she didn’t he started creating insane scenarios in his head where she was swept off her feet by some fancy New York actor and would never speak to him again.

When Monday rolled around, his insecurities had turned to genuine worry. He double checked the volume on his ringer and shoved the phone back into his pocket. He flopped down onto the couch and picked up the remote. He needed a distraction. He flipped through the channels aimlessly, unable to stop his racing thoughts.

The phone’s ring was so loud it caused him to jump to his feet. He scrambled to retrieve it from his pocket and gave a quick glance at the caller ID. Please be Jill, he thought.

Kate.

“Hey.”

“Zac, can you pick me up from the hotel and take me to Natalie’s? I’m stranded here and I’m bored.”

“Um...I guess…”

“Seriously, what else are you doing right now? It’s not like you want to hang out with me.” she barked.

“I’m coming. Gimme a few minutes.”

“Hurry up, I have a lot to do today.” She hung up. Zac sighed and searched around for his keys. The phone rang again and he answered.

“Kate, I’ll be there, just gotta find my keys…”

“Zac?” It was Jillian. Zac was suddenly breathless.

“Jill? Jillian...hey! Oh..my god, I’m sorry...I was just…”

“It’s fine. Can you talk?” She sounded exhausted. He forgot all about his keys and Kate and sat down.

“Yeah, of course. Are you okay?”

“Something...happened. And I need to tell someone.”

Zac was reminded of all his crazy jealous fantasies where she met someone and was madly in love and she was never going to waste another moment on their stupid, childish flirtation. He was sure that this was why she was finally calling after days of silence. He braced himself, awaiting the blow.

“Are you still there?” she asked, barely above a whisper.

“Yeah...yes, I’m here. What’s up?” He tried to sound cool but his voice was shaking.

“I think I was drugged...at a party.” Her words didn’t make sense at first. They certainly weren’t what he was expecting.

“Okay….”

“This guy, he...um...he took me somewhere and tried to...um...he tried…” She was crying.

“Oh, no, don’t cry, Jill…” he cooed, as his thoughts began to clear. As he processed what she was telling him, he felt his stomach tighten, rolling into knots. “Are you saying...he tried to...?” He couldn’t say the words aloud. Her sobs confirmed it for him and he felt his blood begin to boil. His pulse was racing and he had to take a deep breath before he spoke again. “I’m coming there.”

“No...no, you don’t have to do that,” she stated emphatically. “I just needed to tell someone not...here. Someone who doesn’t know him.”

“Who is he?!” Zac shouted, surprising himself. He felt his face grow hot with rage. He needed to know who this asshole was so he could murder him.

“It doesn’t matter, okay,” she insisted, but that made him angrier. It did matter. He wanted to end him for making her cry. For doing something so heinous, he couldn’t think of anything else but hunting this animal down and pummeling him into oblivion. Jillian cried softly into the phone and he realized that his anger was doing nothing for her in that moment.

“I am so, so sorry,” he managed, suddenly choked up himself. “What can I do?”

“This is enough. Just knowing that you know and you’re listening...that’s enough.”

“I’m here! I’m listening. I promise you, I’m always here.” There was a beeping sound coming from the earpiece and he pulled the phone back to investigate. Call waiting. It was Kate again. He pushed his hand through his hair and ignored the tinge of guilt he felt as he put the phone back to his ear. “I’ll be here. As long as you need me.”

***

“I need to fly out now.” Zac was lying on his back on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Taylor sat next to him, cross-legged and listening.

“You can’t. You know that.” Tay was right, he knew. He just felt so helpless, stuck in Oklahoma while Jillian tried to cope alone in NYC. She told him she couldn’t tell anyone else. Not yet. He understood but he also couldn’t imagine her dealing with something like that by herself.

“I want to murder that guy. I should have been there.”

“Zac, you can’t take that on yourself. You were playing a show. This isn’t your fault.”

“Then why do I feel like it is?” Zac propped himself up to look at his brother, whose face was twisted into a concerned pout.

“Because….because you love her, Zac.”

Zac saw something in his brother’s eyes that he couldn’t name. He wondered if Taylor was willing to sit with him and listen to his ramblings because he knew exactly how it felt to be kept away from the person you love. Things had been especially strained for Taylor on the band and home fronts. The only thing that ever seemed to make him smile was Molly and he hadn’t mentioned her in a while.

“How did you know?” Zac asked, carefully.

“Know what? That you were in love with Jillian?” Taylor looked like he was about to launch into a speech but Zac cut him off.

“No, with Molly.” He whispered her name like a dirty secret. His brother’s face suddenly came to life, eyes squinting into a smile.

“Oh...I guess…” he grinned, resting his head in his hands. “I guess at some point I just couldn’t not say it.” Taylor’s face changed again, his eyes downcast and grin falling.

“Don’t feel bad, Tay. This stays between us. I know you love Ezra and I know you’re doing what’s right for him.” Zac rested a reassuring hand on Taylor’s shoulder.

“You need to tell Kate, Zac.” Taylor’s words were sharp. “Tell her you’re in love with someone and you need to let her go.”

“I...I know…” Zac felt like he was being scolded in a way. He knew his brother was right but he also knew it wasn’t that simple. The thought of upsetting Kate and his parents on the chance that Jillian might feel the same way was daunting.

“Hey!” Taylor forced Zac to make eye contact. “Snap out of it! Don’t worry about everything else right now. Trust me. Just...just do it. Choose a life that makes you happy and not everyone else. Please, Zac.”

Zac thought about the last time he saw Jillian, happy and dancing under the city moon. He had never felt so comfortable with anyone who wasn’t family. He’d never felt more free to be himself. He wanted to feel that way everyday. He didn’t want to deal with the pressure from his mom whenever Kate came up in conversation. He didn’t want to deal with the guilt trips Kate was prone to dish out whenever he fell short of her expectations. He wanted to be able to fly to New York without anyone freaking out. Taylor was right.

“I’m going to do it, Tay,” he said with resolve. “I’m going to tell Jillian I love her and I’m going to dump Kate and everybody can just...deal with it.” It felt amazing to say it aloud. Taylor was smiling again. A real smile; a Molly-smile. “I’ll do it right before we head back out on tour.”

“Perfect! That’s just in time for our move to the city. You’ll be close to Jillian. It’s all going to work out.”

The excitement in Taylor’s voice made Zac laugh. He’d never done anything to make his brother so tickled. Zac pulled his older brother into an awkward hug, expecting to be shoved away. Instead, Taylor returned the hug earnestly. “I’m proud of you, kid.” They held their embrace for another second, then Taylor left the room.

Zac felt butterflies form in his stomach. He would need to find the right time and place to tell Jillian everything he wanted to say. It was going to take time. Luckily, he felt like he had all the time in the world.

Chapter Text

December 17th, 2003

Jillian felt incredibly uncomfortable as Zac ushered her around the apartment. She would have considered it palatial, if she didn’t know it housed Zac, his brothers and Taylor’s wife and baby. They had all lived in the city for over a month, but this was Jillian’s first peek behind the curtain. She had decided to stay in the city for Christmas, telling Molly and her family she booked a part in a holiday play. In reality, she just needed time to regroup.

She followed Zac around silently as he presented the living room, then the kitchen, making silly jokes as he went. He was positively giddy to have her there, so she put on her bravest face for his sake. After all, he’d been incredible to her since she told him about the cast party. The least she could do was try to seem interested.

“The place isn’t always this tidy, but I tried to pick up for you.” He flashed her a killer smile, clearly very proud of his efforts. She looked into the kitchen; sink filled with dishes and counters strewn with baby food jars.

“You didn’t have to do that,” She smiled back. “Where is everybody?”

“Oh, Ike went out with some friends and Nat made Tay take her and Ezra to meet Santa at Macy’s.” He made a face that Jillian could only identify as disapproval.

“Not a Santa fan?” she asked, teasingly.

“Uh…” He was searching for a way around the question. “Santa..yeah, that guy’s so creepy. Always coming down chimneys and asking kids to sit on his lap.” She laughed to let him know he’d ducked the subject for the time being. He relaxed a bit, then waved her down the hallway. “There’s a bathroom here, if you need it. And here’s Ike’s room. This one is Tay’s and this is mine.” He pushed the door open with one hand, then stood in the doorway, looking in. Jillian moved closer to look in, but he spun around and put his arms out to block her.

“Why can’t I see?” she asked, squinting at him suspiciously. He was blushing.

“I didn’t get a chance to tidy up in there...and I forgot...um…” He was trying to grab the doorknob, which was behind him, but kept missing. Jillian saw her opportunity and ducked under his arm and into the darkened room.

It was definitely a mess. There were clothes and shoes strewn across every surface. There were multiple game consoles stacked in front of a boxy TV set, wires and controllers branching out in every direction. The bed was unmade, the bright green comforter knotted into a ball at its foot. On the bed, however, sat the real reason he hadn’t wanted her to enter.

A large slab, wrapped in shiny silver paper and a big red bow. Jillian moved close enough to read the tag. It was for her.

“Good thing I got it wrapped at least,” Zac quipped, now leaning against the doorframe. “Merry Christmas.”

Since he had arrived in the city, they had made a point to meet up at least once a week. They would grab coffee or take walks through the park. Jillian always felt guilty for bogging down the conversation with her stupid drama, but he would assure her that she needed to talk about it.

“I’m here for you. Talk about it as much as you can,” he would say. She wanted to believe him so badly, but there were moments in their talks where she was sure there was something else on his mind. At their last meeting, she had almost called him out, but decided perhaps it was better not to know.

As she stared down at his gift to her, she was reminded of the feelings she had about the roses he’d sent. Those feeling had been robbed from her that night and their resurgence came as a surprise. She felt her heartbeat quicken.

“What is it?” she asked, trying to keep her cool. She could feel her cheeks flushing, and hoped he couldn’t see in the dim room.

“Well...I guess you should open it, now that we’re here.”

“I didn’t get you anything.” She felt exposed, like he could hear her every thought. He stepped into the room and stood beside her, looking down at the parcel. For the first time, she felt nervous being this close to him.

“Just go on and open it!”

He sounded nervous too. She reached down and pulled at the edge of the paper, making a small tear. She looked up at him, then smiled slyly. She tore the wrapping off excitedly. He laughed at her as she tossed the bow across the room.

When she looked back at her gift, she felt tears pool in her eyes. Zac had painted her portrait. His work was delicate and beautiful. It captured her in a way she could only describe as soulful.

“I did it from memory...from the night I met you.” He was looking down at the floor, his arms crossed defensively. Jillian’s heart felt like it would explode. She didn’t know what to say. She felt so entirely undeserving of such a gesture. She needed to refuse it. She needed to tell him to take it back because she would never be the girl in his painting.

“Zac…” she started.

“I broke up with Kate.” He spoke so bluntly, it made her jump.

“Wh...what?”

“I broke up with her. For you.” He turned to face her and she searched his eyes for the inevitable joke. It didn’t come.

“Why would you do that?” she cried. Jillian couldn’t believe how she sounded; like a wounded animal, whining for mercy.

“I love you, Jillian.” His words hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. She felt every wall within her start to fortify. He must have seen it happening because pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. “I don’t need you to say it back and I know this timing sucks, but I just had to take the chance. I had to let you know.”

Something about his embrace was sobering. Here he was, pouring his heart out and she was struggling to believe he was saying these words to her: messy, dramatic, fucked up Jillian Santoro. What was she so afraid of? She pushed her thoughts aside and embraced the bursting feeling in her chest, throwing her arms around his waist. It felt good. It felt right.

He moved his hands to her face and she looked up at him. He brushed her cheeks with his thumbs and she stared into his eyes. She couldn’t believe she was here. This was happening. She was letting it happen.

He kissed her softly at first; slow and gentle. She wondered if he was making sure it was real. She pushed a hand into his hair and pulled him closer, which was all the reassurance he needed. His kiss deepened and Jillian felt her knees wobble. Their lips, tongues, and bodies pressed together like long-lost puzzle pieces. She never wanted it to end.

Suddenly, there was a loud crash from the front of the apartment that shattered the moment.

“Woah…” Jillian stammered, unable to form words.

“Zac?” Taylor shouted from the entryway. Little Ezra was crying loudly and Natalie could be heard trying to calm him.

“Sorry…” Zac whispered, still holding her face. They shared a silent laugh, then Zac hopped toward the bedroom door. “In here, Tay. Jillian’s here.” Taylor appeared in the doorway, still wearing his hat and winter coat.

“Hi,” he said casually to Jillian, who waved, trying to regain some stability. She couldn’t believe how surreal this all was.

“I was just heading out,” she said, wondering if she looked as flustered as she felt. The slight flicker in Taylor’s eyes as he nodded to her was a little too knowing.

“I’ll walk you out,” Zac chirped, grabbing her hand and pulling her out into the living room. She walked past Natalie, standing in a pile of shopping bags, trying to pluck the baby out of his stroller while he screamed. Jillian was struck by the look Natalie shot her, then remembered that she and Kate were best friends. Surely, any girl being dragged out of Zac’s bedroom would be on the blacklist at this point.

“Bye,” Jillian shouted, trying to be polite, but sure she sounded glib. Zac led her out the front door and into the hallway, closing the door carefully.

“My painting!” Jillian remembered.

“I’ll bring it to you tomorrow,” Zac said. “So...are we doing this thing?”

“If you mean seeing where this goes, then yeah...I think we are.” Jillian shrugged and giggled, still amazed at the turn the day had taken.

“Wow! Yes!!! Okay!!” Zac was bouncing off the walls. She pulled him to her and laughed again.

“Calm down!”

“I’ll call you tomorrow.” His smile was unstoppable.

“Okay.” She sighed and he leaned in to kiss her again. It was quick and sweet. She pulled away left him there. She floated all the way home.

Chapter Text

January 3rd, 2004 - Molly

“You’re back!” Jillian yelped through the intercom when Molly buzzed up to her apartment.

“Yes, I’m back, now let me in, it’s freezing! My Floridian bones need to thaw!” The front door unlocked and Molly bounded up the stairs to Jillian’s small apartment, shedding her coat on the way. She had gone home for Christmas and now was back in the city. Coming back to New York made her feel conflicted. She was excited to be back at school, but she knew that at any moment she could run into a certain set of brothers who had finally moved into the apartment she had been secretly using for the past year, taking away her special hide-out and practice area. She shook the thought away as Jillian opened her apartment door and beckoned Molly inside.

“Okay tell me everything,” Jillian said, as she took Molly’s stuff and threw her coat on a hook by the door.

“Wh...what do you mean?”

“What happened at home? Any Christmas drama? Did you go to any parties and see high school people?”

“No, I just hung out with my parents. I barely even talk to anyone from high school anymore. Except you.”

Jillian had stayed in the city for Christmas, telling Molly that she had a holiday gig that she didn’t want to pass up. Molly had the suspicion that her gig wasn’t the only reason she had stayed in New York. Something had been different about Jillian for a few months now, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

They sat there in silence for a few moments, a skill they had acquired through years of friendship. Molly picked up one of Jillian’s magazines and Jillian descended back into a script she needed to finish reading for school. They didn’t have to be always talking, they were happy to just be in each other’s presence. But, as usual, Molly broke the silence.

“Hey Jill, a couple years ago you asked me if I was okay out of the blue and now I’m returning the favor. So, yeah...are you okay?”

It was a fair question. Jillian had been a bit distant and skittish for a few months. Since Romeo and Juliet, really. Molly knew she had no room to talk when it came to secret keeping, but she couldn’t bear to see her best friend in distress. Jillian’s eyes filled with unexpected tears which seemed to surprise both of them equally.

“Hey...hey…” Molly cooed, immediately regretting her question, “It’s okay, Jill.” She pulled Jillian from her desk chair over to her bed and rubbed her back gently while she cried. “You don’t have to tell me, it’s okay.”

“No I...I want to tell you. I feel awful for not telling you or anyone for so long. I’m just letting it fester inside of me and it’s awful.”

Molly’s eyes widened and she became a bit nervous at Jillian’s reaction to this conversation. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Jillian nodded and took a deep breath, wiping her tears. “Remember when I was in Romeo and Juliet?”

Molly shivered. Not because she was cold, but because she had predicted the timing of Jillian's shift so precisely. It was about that stupid play, and she knew it. “Of course…”

“The guy who played Romeo…”

“Oh, GOD, I’m sorry Jill I know you guys were friends and you kind of liked him or whatever but he gave me the heebie jeebies when I met him after the show, I’ll just tell you that right now.”

“Let me FINISH, Moll!”

“Right. Sorry.”

“Well we went to a party after the show one night and...stuff happened.”

“Good stuff or bad stuff?”

“Bad stuff.”

“Oh, shit.”

“He...he was really aggressive and intense and it was...it was scary, Moll. I...I was terrified.”

Molly looked into her best friend’s eyes. She knew she had the tendency to make everything a joke, but suddenly nothing was very funny. “Jillian. Did he rape you?”

“No! No...I mean...I think he would have. Which is even scarier. But I um….I puked on him…”

“Holy fucking….Jillian! That was a few months ago! And, we’ll get back to you puking on him in a second.”

“I know…” Jillian whimpered, dissolving into a fresh round of tears.

“Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“I don’t...I don’t know okay?”

“Did you tell anyone? Evie? Or like...I don’t know, anyone?!”

Jillian looked up at Molly silently. The answer was obviously yes, but something was keeping her from saying it. Molly, in her protective anger, had stood up and was now pacing the room wildly, but Jillian’s abrupt silence made her stop and zero in on her friend. She waited, raising her eyebrows and silently pressuring Jillian to answer the question.

“I told Zac,” Jillian finally responded, her voice barely above a whisper.

Molly saw Jillian prepare for impact, but she just started giggling. “Sorry...I’m sorry I’m laughing, but you know me, so really you shouldn’t be surprised.”

Both girls seemed relieved that the tension had finally broken, even if the laughter was slightly inappropriate.

“So wait...you and Zac are still talking?”

“Yes...yes and I still feel shitty about it.”

“Jillian!! Why!?”

“Because...you know…”

“I don’t. I really do not know so please enlighten me.”

“You! You always loved him so much and here I am talking to him all the time and confiding in him and it’s not fair! That should be you!”

“My dear, sweet Jillian,” Molly sighed as she flopped down onto the bed.

“I know we’ve already had this conversation too many times--”

“Exactly! And shouldn’t that be a sign, or something? Zac kissed you when we were stupid teenagers, and you’re still talking to him all these years later. And I’m still not mad about it! If anything, I’m mad that the two of you haven’t just gone for it.”

“Well…”

Molly froze and eyed Jillian suspiciously. “Oh my God, are you going for it?”

Jillian looked guilty. “Maybe...I think so...I just don’t know if it’s that easy.”

“Why not?!” She yelled, standing back up and taking the floor as though it were a stage.

“It’s just that--”

“Whatever you’re going to say I absolutely do not buy. He’s not married. As far as I know he’s not even seeing anyone, and if he is, he has a funny way of being faithful to them since he still apparently talks to you all the time. Seems fairly easy to me.”

“Molly…”

“Do you want to be with him?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Then just be with him!!! It’s not that hard, Jillian. It doesn’t...not everything has to be complicated.”

Jillian narrowed her gaze at Molly, who was becoming more and more flustered at her own words.

“Okay, my turn to ask. Are you okay?”

“Yeah I’m fine, sorry. Just went a little mama bear on you.”

“Will you please sit down and stay there.”

“Fine.”

“I’m sorry. Not for talking to Zac since apparently you don’t care, but for not telling you sooner.”

“It’s okay. I forgive you. Don’t feel bad, that was a...horrible thing to happen to you. I’m the one that should feel bad for not being there for you sooner.”

“Hey can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“I feel like...ever since that concert. The first one. I don’t know, you were so obsessed with Zac and then you weren’t. You took down all the posters. You stopped talking about him. You weren’t mad that he and I became...friends. Did something happen?”

Molly shrugged. "I grew up, I guess."

Jillian flopped back onto her pillows and gazed up at the ceiling. "I think about that concert a lot."

“Yeah, me too," Molly giggled. "Literally all the time. Okay so you puked on him?!”

***

“Hello?”

Molly was stunned silent. She knew she was taking a risk, calling Taylor in the middle of the day, but her conversation with Jillian had shaken her to the core, and she needed to hear his voice. She needed to make sure he was still real.

“Molly?”

“Sorry. I just...um…”

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, it is.”

She immediately felt guilt crash over her. She didn’t need to be calling him right now, or maybe ever. It was just that she wanted to shake her friend by the shoulders and say “Zac isn’t married you idiot, you still have a chance. I’m in love with his brother who is married and has a child and nothing is ever going to be normal between us! Ever!” She wondered if maybe she should have just let herself spew out the words she was keeping inside of her.

“You sound--”

“Can I see you?”

“Um…”

“Sorry. I just um…”

“Molly. You’re freaking out," he observed with a knowing chuckle. "What’s wrong?”

She found a bench and sat down, resting her head in her free hand. She took a few deep breaths before continuing.

“I hate going this long without seeing you. You’re in New York and I haven’t seen you since the concert I went to. Which sucked, by the way…”

“Wow.”

“You know what I mean, it sucked that I couldn’t talk to you. Obviously….obviously this isn’t going to happen. You and me, but….I really really hate the fact that we can’t even talk to each other. Can’t we just like...try to be friends? Normal friends who play music together and hang out and don’t sneak around. Natalie could even know about me!”

There was silence on the other end of the line. She could almost hear Taylor thinking.

“Please, Tay. I miss you.”

“I miss you, too.”

“Coffee. We can just get coffee and catch up.”

“Okay.”

They made plans to meet up that evening, and as soon as they saw each other, they both had to stop themselves from running into each other’s arms. Molly silently berated herself for feeling so pathetic and needy, and was sure that Taylor was thinking the same thing.

“So...how’s it going?” she asked, always the one to break the silence.

He blew on his coffee while she slurped down her iced latte (“it’s never too cold for iced coffee” she said with a smirk when the barista questioned her), and looked around nervously. “Um...it’s…”

“I miss that apartment,” Molly said, giggling. Taylor’s face couldn’t hide the smile creeping to his lips.

“You can probably have it back soon.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no way we’re staying here. We’re all miserable.”

“...Oh.”

“It was a stupid idea. We’re probably going to be going back to Tulsa next month. All of us and the baby? In New York?! It was dumb.”

“Right.”

They both took a sip before Molly continued. “So I guess this plan was kind of pointless. I was thinking you would be around. We could play and write together. You know...in person. Not over the phone.”

Taylor finally allowed the smile to take shape on his face. He looked across the small table at Molly, regret clearly shining in his eyes. “Yeah…” he said, his voice cracking.

“How are the guys?”

“I think good?”

“You think?”

“I’m kind of preoccupied with...everything.”

“I miss you, Tay. I know I said that on the phone earlier but it’s true. I feel like an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot.”

“I am. I’m holding out hope for this friendship and I don’t know…”

“We’ve been friends, Molly, we can still keep being friends. Just because I’m married doesn’t mean I can’t be your friend.”

She bit her lip nervously and looked at him, wondering what he was thinking.

“So…”

“So.”

“Can we just walk around? I’m nervous and sitting here isn’t helping anything.”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

It started snowing as they walked the few blocks back to Molly’s dorm. With the added distraction of movement, the tension dissipated and Molly told him about going home for Christmas but how she was happy to be back and couldn’t wait for school to start. They got to the door of the building and Molly heaved a deep sigh.

“I don’t want it to be another two years before I get to see to you again.”

Before she knew it, Taylor’s mouth was on hers, his arms wrapped fully around her small frame. Her hands flew up to his face, cradling his cheeks and snaking their way into his hair. Fuck, she thought as every inch of space between their bodies disappeared, this isn’t what I was going for. But she couldn’t help it. He was here, and so was she. They were starving for each other.

She fumbled with the door and they stumbled up the stairs, trying their best to maneuver while still keeping as much of themselves touching as possible. When they burst into her room, she was relieved to see empty beds. She realized that she had no idea when Galina would return home from holidays.

Molly pushed Taylor down on the bed and he reached for her waist, maneuvering her to his lap. His hips instinctively rolled up into hers and she sighed heavily, holding his face and deepening the kiss that they still hadn’t fully broken. Molly returned the movement, rolling her hips down into his and smirking into the kiss when she heard him gasp. They kept going, back and forth. Molly whimpered as she felt him beneath her.

Taylor’s hands found their way to the hem of her shirt, causing her to shiver even though sweat had sprung to her temples fairly quickly. She helped him guide the shirt off and continued to roll her hips into his. Suddenly they caught each other’s eyes.

“What are we doing?” She asked.

“I don’t care.” He flipped her over and tugged his jeans off. She reached up and pulled him down over her, not wanting to be away from his touch for even a moment.

“I don’t think this friends thing is going to work, is it?”

“Nope.”

Chapter Text

July 16th, 2004 - Zac

Zac followed Isaac’s lead as they took one last bow to the screaming fans packed into Irving Plaza. He looked out at the sea of people, gave a wave and made a beeline for the backstage area. Ike was shouting something after him, but he wasn’t listening. He bounded into the dressing room and grabbed his phone.

“Zachary!” Ike shouted at him as he entered the room.

“What?!” Zac looked his oldest brother in the face, in no mood to be scolded.

“We gotta get to the bus. We need to be in Lancaster early tomorrow.” Ike wiped his face a towel and Zac rolled his eyes.

“I told you I need to do something first,” he mumbled. He finally looked down at the cell phone in his hand. It was dead. “That’s just great!”

“What is it you need to do, buddy?” Ike teased. Zac felt like punching his brother in the gut.

“He’s going to see Jillian!” Taylor exploded into the room, still high from the concert. Zac wished he could feel as charged up as Tay after playing. Sometimes he did. But sometimes, he had other things on his mind he couldn’t shake. They had been in New York for three days and he hadn’t been able to think of anything but seeing Jillian again.

After the day they kissed, things had been perfect. They had seen each other nearly everyday. Between Jillian’s shifts at the restaurant where she started hosting and the constant rehearsals Taylor would schedule, Zac would rush to her place and whisk her off to explore the city. They visited the top of the Empire State Building and took pictures in front of the tree in Rockefeller Center; all the silly tourist traps Jillian insisted she would never have visited alone.

Zac would tuck her hands into his coat pockets when they got cold and she would nuzzle into his neck, breathing him in. Sometimes they would make out in her doorway or on a bench in the park. They would hold hands as they walked and goof off in the snow. To Zac, she was perfect. She let him be romantic and tender, but played along when he would pull faces or start a snowball fight in the middle of the street. She would let him complain about his family and the band and he would listen to her frustrations about school and her acting career. Everything had been good. Too good.

The same could not be said for life in the apartment. Taylor and Natalie fought all the time. Isaac managed to avoid it by running out at every moment to see friends. Zac hated spending time there, hiding in his room. The worst days occurred when Jillian was working and Taylor would disappear into the city, leaving his young wife home alone with Ezra. On those days, Natalie would call Kate and carry on long conversations over speakerphone about how much she hated living there and how “these Hanson boys don’t know what they want”. Kate would always agree.

He knew Natalie was doing it on purpose, hoping he would hear. It always made him feel badly, like there was something he had fundamentally missed when it came to dealing with girls. He thought he had done the humane thing, letting Kate go. But she didn’t sound any happier. Luckily, the apartment was a temporary arrangement and they all moved back to Oklahoma after the new year.

The night before they left, Zac had gone to Jillian’s apartment and promised he would still call or email everyday. She had seemed anxious, so he was surprised when she led him to her bed.

“Can we just lay here?” she had asked, her eyes searching.

“Of course,” he had answered, climbing into the bed, facing her. They had stayed there, wordlessly, for what seemed like an eternity. Zac wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it but didn’t dare ask. If she needed him to lay there with her, then that’s what he would do. His body was urging him to move closer, to touch her, to press in but he remained still. Finally, he had to go.

She had watched as he pulled himself up, shoved his shoes back on and threw on his jacket. He had leaned down and given her one lingering kiss.

“I love you,” he had said, for the first time since that day in his bedroom. She looked at him with those searching eyes, which he swore found what they were looking for in that moment.

“I love you too,” she whispered. The moment burned into his memory, like a brand. He would never be the same. He thought of nothing but her for days after.

The months passed like waves, starting slowly, then crashing onto the next. Tour dates piled up leaving time for little else. Somehow, Zac’s parents had managed to conspire with Natalie to keep Kate around, despite his protestations. Even Ike had chimed in at one point, trying to explain that having an ex-girlfriend around might not be the best thing for his young brother. The only thing to come of that turned out to be a lecture from their mom about personal character and following through.

“Kate is a wonderful fit for this family, Zachary,” she had urged, in her way that walked the line between soothing and threatening. “I don’t know what you think you see in this other girl. She’ll never give you the life you want.”

After months of the same, Zac felt it begin to wear him down. After all, his mom was right about Jillian. She wasn’t exactly the settle-down, stay-home type. He knew what his family wanted from him and their disappointment was never lost on him. He felt the weight of it on his heart everyday. He told Jillian all about it and she’d be understanding, if a little bit hurt.

His family didn’t know her the way he did.

He had been waiting for months for the New York shows and he refused to let anything prevent him from seeing her. He looked to Taylor, who was darting around the room, searching for the spare shirt he brought.

“Tay, I’ll make it back in time. Just tell everyone, okay?” He heard Ike sigh loudly, but ignored him and started for the door.

“You better be! Or we’ll leave without you!” Taylor shouted after him.

***

“Who is it?” Jillian’s voice blared through the speaker.

“Me.. it’s Zac,” he said cheerfully, hoping she could hear him over the noise of the street. The buzzer sounded almost instantly. He pushed the door open and was up the stairs in seconds. Jillian was standing in her open doorway, looking bemused. He couldn’t help but smile, breathless from the climb.

“You’re here,” she said, smiling back.

“I’m here!” He stopped at the top of the steps, taking in the sight of her. She looked effortlessly beautiful as always, but there was a tiredness in her eyes. He knew she’d been working more at the restaurant and trying to balance that with summer classes. He felt bad for showing up unannounced. “My phone died or I would have called.”

“Did you come straight here from the show?” He realized he must look like a sweaty mess. He hadn’t even changed his clothes. He shrugged at her and she moved out of the doorway. “Get in here then!”

He practically ran inside, kicking off his shoes. There was a candle burning that made the apartment smell like cinnamon. The lamp was on in the corner, but otherwise, the room was dark.

“Sorry, I’m gross,” he shrugged again. “I just...couldn't wait to see you.” He suddenly felt incredibly uncomfortable. Should he have called first? Something seemed off, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. “Is that...okay?”

“Of course it is! I’m sort of floored that you’re standing here right now.” He noticed she was wearing pajamas.

“Did I wake you?” He felt embarrassed. He shifted his weight back and forth, unsure of what to do with his hands. He looked at the floor and then back at her, then back at the floor again. What was wrong with him? He had thought about this moment for days, but now that he was there, he was at a loss. He became acutely aware that she was staring at him. He looked up and met her gaze.

She lunged at him, throwing her limbs around him. He caught her in his arms and she grabbed his face, pulling him into a kiss that made him dizzy. He fell back into the sofa, her legs straddling his lap. His body was on fire. Every sense was heightened. He never wanted the moment to end, but at some point, they would both need oxygen. She broke the kiss and sat back.

“Wow…” he managed and she laughed.

“I guess I missed you.” She ran her hands through his hair and her smile faded. She seemed deep in thought, somewhere far away.

“What is it?” he asked. She rolled over to sit beside him, picking at her fingers. He turned toward her, trying to think about anything other than her in his lap…

“I’m dropping out of NYU” she answered plainly. “I can’t do it anymore. It’s too hard. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. I’m going back to Tampa next month.”

“Jill...that’s great, if that’s what you want.” Zac was confused by her somber tone. He didn’t see any shame in moving back home. If anything, he thought it would be good for her to get away from everything and everyone that reminded her of what happened.

“I just feel like I’m letting everyone down.” She pulled her knees to her chest and stared at the candle burning on the window sill.

“Come on tour with me!” he blurted.

“What? Zac, no, that’s crazy.” She gave him the side-eye and he saw a glimmer of a smirk.

“No, it’s not. Think about it. You can leave all of this behind; the job, school, this city…” He checked in to see if he was making any headway. She was still staring ahead, motionless. “Please just think about it.”

“It sounds…” He braced himself as she spoke. “It sounds perfect.” Zac had to stop himself from leaping off the sofa and packing her bags for her. Instead, he took a deep breath and let it out in an attempt to steady his pulse. “But…”

That word. He didn’t like the sound of that word.

“But what?”

“Your family will never let that happen and you know that.”

“Screw that!” Zac stood up, unable to contain the rush of frustration that washed over him. He had spent the last few months hearing all about how wrong he was for loving this girl. He regretted ever telling her about it in the first place, because now he was hearing it from her.

“Zac, please sit down. I’ve been thinking about this a lot and…”

“I don’t care what anyone says. I know I want this. I know I want you! All you have to do is say you want the same and it’s done. It’s simple. I’ll deal with my family forever if I have to!”

“Forever, Zac...listen to yourself.” She stood and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Do you know what it will be like for you? For your brothers? For me?”

“I’m willing to go through all of that for you, Jill.”

He had never meant anything more in his entire life. He wanted to scream it out until the world understood how much he meant it.

Her chin quivered as she tried to keep from crying. He pulled her close to him and she wrapped her arms around his waist. He was always struck by how perfectly their bodies fit together, like they were made for each other. He felt a lump forming in his throat. He imagined the moment he arrived at the tour bus, Jillian and her bags in tow. He knew he would have to fight for them every step of the way.

He placed his hand on the top of her head and she looked up at him through watery eyes. He leaned down and kissed her tenderly. Her hands moved up to his neck and he felt her tongue push into his mouth. His stomach did an adrenaline-fueled flip as he followed her lead. Her hands were in his hair, sending chills down his back. He let his hands roam, finding their way under her shirt and around her bare waist. She was trembling.

He pushed her shirt up over her head and tossed it to the side, not wanting to break their kiss for more than moment. Her eyes were heavy with desire and it made him feel empowered. He picked her up and placed her into the sofa. She pulled him down onto her, kissing his neck and jaw line. His mind was racing. He had never been with anyone like this, let alone with her. His body was beginning to take over; he was losing himself in the moment.

He wanted her more than he had ever thought possible. Slow down, slow down, he urged himself, and he felt the tightness in his jeans increase. He fumbled with the string on her pants, sweat forming on his forehead.

She helped him pull her pants off, then went to work on his fly, her hands trembling. He made her moan as he kissed her neck; the sound turned him on even more. He got his jeans down as far as his ankles before she pulled him back into a slow, searching kiss. He pressed his pelvis into hers, only the thin layer of their underwear between them. He moved his hands down to her hips, needing to remove the barrier between their bodies. He needed to be inside her.

“Zac…” she whispered, putting her hands on his chest. “...I can’t.”

His world turned black. He replayed her words in his head, wanting to believe she said something else. She scooted out from under him, sitting up and putting her head in her hands. He felt shattered, embarrassed, betrayed.

“What are you saying?” he barked.

“I’m saying we can’t. I can’t. I won’t be the thing that ruins your life.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“Ruin my...is that what you think? I just told you that you’re what I want. What don’t you understand about that?” His groin was sore and he felt like there was steam coming out of his ears.

“Trust me, Zac, it won’t work. You just think it will because you haven’t had to fight for anything yet. You don’t understand what it will take...”

“I do understand, Jillian! They’re my family! They’ve always been this way. They will get over it!”

“I don’t want to be something they have to get over!” she screeched. Zac felt disgusted.

“So this is about you. You’re not willing to fight for me. You’re not willing to do what it will take. Just admit that! IT’S YOU!” He couldn’t believe he was shouting but his anger was in control now.

“Yeah….you’re right.” She stood still and let her words sink in. “Its me. I’m fucked up. And you’re...You don’t need this...me…”

For the first time in his life, Zac didn’t like Jillian. Her self-pity sickened him. She knew better. He was about to make love to her there on her sofa and she was telling him she wasn’t worthy of it. It made him feel powerless and confused.

“Maybe you’re right,” he spit through gritted teeth. “I don’t need this. I can go home and marry Kate and be my mom’s perfect boy and never have to deal with any of this ever again. I’ll be fine.”

He was lying as he shoved his shoes on. He was doing all he could to keep from crying.

“Where are you going?” she asked, standing up and placing herself between him and the door.

“I’m going back to my tour bus, Jillian.”

“You don’t...oh my god...I just...please don’t go!”

“You’re dumping me! Tell me why I should stay!”

“I...I don’t know…”

“Right. Get in your car and go on back to Tampa. Go! Because I have done all I can, and I’m done.”

He flung open the door and ran down the flights of stairs. He burst through the front door of the building and was met by a torrential downpour. He didn’t care; he just wanted to be out of there. He got to the corner and and hailed a cab.

“ZAC!” Jillian was running toward him in the rain, screaming after him. “ZAC, I’M SORRY!”

He ducked into the cab and gave the driver directions. The car hung a left and Zac watched her stand there as it pulled away. Once they were far enough away, the lump in his throat exploded and he cried all the way to the bus.

Chapter Text

August, 2004 - Jillian and Molly

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: HELLOOOOOOOO
August 15th, 2004

JILLIAN SANTORO HELLO IT’S ME MOLLY.

How’s Tampa? How’s life? Tell me everything. It’s the first week of school and I’m already swamped and over it. And now that you’re back home I literally have no friends (unless you count Galina, lol). Distract me from my part writing exercises.

Have you talked to you know who? Lemme know if I need to beat anyone up.
-Moll

***

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: Hi Molly!
August 17th, 2004

HELLO! You’re so weird! Anyway, sorry for the delayed response. My dad has got me running the twins all over town since I got back. I’ve had a couple of leads on some jobs, mostly restaurants, but nothing solid yet. I’m hoping something happens soon because living at home is NOT working out. As for life, I don’t have one either so don’t feel bad. Nobody stayed here, not even Evie’s friends!

Is school good? Any fun classes? Tell me something that makes me feel like less of a loser!

As for your last question...I’m afraid it’s radio silence. I’m telling you, I really messed this one up, Moll. I’m a mess.

Miss you!

<3 Jill

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: Re: Hi Molly!
August 17th, 2004

I am so weird, thank you for finally noticing. Tell the twins hi from me! I think a restaurant job might be a good idea, actually. You can make a shit ton of money and still have time to audition for shows! I don’t speak from experience, of course, but everyone I know here has a restaurant job. Or had one. Anyway it’s junior year so my class schedule is actually a little more fun and a little less thousands-of-hours-of-music-theory every day. I have an independent study to just work on my own compositions AND a class where I get to work in a studio and mix and learn how to produce and all that jazz. I know you like, barely care, but I’m really excited!

Uuuuugh, I don’t think you really messed anything up. I think that Zac is just confused and not really aware of the consequences of everything. I mean, you made a good point. You should never have to be something people have to “get over.” Of course, I’m just analyzing here. I’m sorry, but I’m Team Jillian. Let me be your protective best friend for once in your life, okay?

I need to go to the practice room. Surprise…..sur…..PRISE.

Miss you too <3333
-M

***

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: PLEASE PROTECT ME!!! HELP! LOL
August 18th, 2004

Seriously, lately I’ve been needing my over-protective best friend! I feel like I’m going through the motions over here. I’m doing what I need to, but it all feels...empty? I dunno, tell me to shut up.

I have an interview at that diner we used go to all the time with the really good desserts. The one where you flipped out at Cameron and threw your drink at him?? God, those were the good old days. Anyway...hope they hire me because I’m broke.

Glad your class load is more fun. Writing anything I would like??

The twins say hi and they miss you! So do I! Thanks for always being Team Jillian, even when I’m not.

OH! I almost forgot to ask...any hot guys in your classes this semester? LET ME LIVE VICARIOUSLY THRU YOU PLEASE AND THANK YOU!!

<3
Jill

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: I’m the worst
August 25th, 2004

Gah, sorry it took me like a week to write you back! School is already insane! Remember all those fun stories my dad told me about Juilliard? Those were all bullshit.

My studio class is my one shining light through all the madness! I look forward to the three hours I spend in that tiny control room every Tuesday and Thursday. Plus we all get to take turns actually recording some of our own stuff, so I’ll be sending you some demos soon. Hmmm hot guys? You know I don’t notice that kind of stuff! I guess Jacob is cute, but he’s an oboe player and that just seems annoying to me. There’s one guy that I’ve liked for a while. He plays piano too but he’s been taken since day one. Oh well, unrequited love is good for the writing brain, right? (That sounded pretty pathetic)

Omg omg omg I hope you get that job! I love that diner! I also love that we used to go there after every school performance and that I’ve always been too over dramatic for my own good. But MAN Cam’s face when it had Pepsi running down it was really one of the highlights of my young life. What were we even fighting about? He was probably just being a dick.

I miss you and my family and how easy it always is in good ol’ FL
Tell me that’s just my lazy side talking, and that this is my dream, and I need to just push through. Thanks.
-M

***

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: You’re never lazy!!!
August 27th, 2004

Guess what?! I got that job!! I just got off the phone with the manager and I start in two weeks. THANK GOD! I’m so broke! Also, I have no life so at least now I have a reason to leave the house. But enough about me…

I CANNOT WAIT to hear the demos!! I love gushing about how proud I am of my best friend!! At least one of us is making good, right?! Of course you’ll push through. You’re you!

Now for the real reason I’m writing you back….who is this piano player you’ve liked for a while and why am I just hearing about this? Tell me everything! Who is he seeing? What does he look like? How did you meet? Please spill because I need a distraction from my own stupid...well, you know.

Anyway, I miss you. Call me this weekend? AND SEND ME DEMOS!!

<3 Jill

PS: You threw that Pepsi at Cam because he told people you were secretly in love with him and that you guys made out after spring concert, when in reality HE was in love with you and YOU would never have touched him with a ten-foot pole!!! God that guy was such a loser!! Good times! :)

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: knock, knock, you home?
August 28th, 2004

I attached some songs to this email!! Give me your honest, BRUTAL, opinion. Stakes are high here, Jill.

I’m so happy you got the job! It’ll be great to make some money and get out of the dang house.

You’re just now hearing about Piano Player because it never came up! You know I crush on pretty boys. I can’t help it! It’s who I am! He’s been in a very serious relationship for about two years and trust me when I say serious. He has long blonde hair. My type ;)

Okay serious question, are you gonna be home next week? I’m gonna come visit. I know, it’s super last minute but I want to see my family. And you! Let me know.
-M

***

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: Why is life so unfair?
August 28th, 2004

MOLLY!! I cannot believe you’re coming home and I’M NOT GOING TO BE HERE! Dad wants us all to go help move Evie into her new dorm in Miami. I don’t see why we all have to be there for her to move a few feet across campus….but I guess it will be nice for all of us to be together. Anyway, next time you’re coming, give me more notice! I MISS YOUR FACE!

I’m pretty excited about the job, honestly. I hope I make some serious money so maybe I can come visit you!

Long Hair Piano Guy sounds dreamy, but if he’s taken, that’s that. You don’t wanna be a homewrecker! LOL Wow, we’re really doing great on the romance front, huh?!

Most importantly, these songs you sent are so good. You’re incredible.

Love you!
Jill

Chapter Text

September 3rd, 2004 - Taylor

“Hey, wanna go grab some food?” Isaac asked from the doorway. Taylor had left his hotel room unlocked while he was watching the news. The weather in Florida was bad and getting worse by the second. It was the afternoon but it looked like night outside thanks to the dark storm clouds.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Cool. Zac’s waiting in the lobby.”

By the time they got downstairs, rain had started to pour once again. They stood near the sliding glass doors and wondered if they could make it to the strip of restaurants across the street without getting completely soaked.

“Do you want to wait it out?” Ike asked.

“No man, I’m starving. Can we just eat here?” Zac replied, gesturing to the hotel restaurant across the lobby. The three of them shrugged and made their way over to it, Taylor checking his phone twice between the door and the table.

“Who are you expecting?” Ike asked inquisitively, raising his eyebrow.

“No one.” Taylor immediately berated himself, thinking how easy it would have been to just say he was expecting a call from Natalie.

“You’re jumpy.”

“No I’m not.”

“Oh wait, we’re in Florida!” Zac exclaimed.

Ike and Taylor looked at each other in disbelief. “Um...yeah Zac. We’ve been here for two whole days now,” Taylor said slowly.

“No I mean….we’re in Florida. Is Molly home?”

“Dude!”

It was too late. Ike leaned forward interested. “Who’s Molly?”

Taylor stared daggers into his younger brother, but the damage was done. The way Taylor had reacted made it obvious that this was a secret he cared about keeping, and yet he knew keeping information from Zac or Isaac was completely pointless.

“Zac, I swear to God I am going to kill you.”

“Sorry, I thought he knew!”

“Knew what?!” Isaac attempted again, waving his hands to try to get Taylor’s attention from across the table.

“You never think before you speak, do you?” Taylor shot at Zac, before dramatically storming back to his hotel room.

“Will someone please tell me what is going on here?” Taylor heard Ike say as he made his way to the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time. He hoped that, at the very least, Zac would tell Isaac everything so maybe he would be spared the conversation.

***

The last time Molly and Taylor had been together, Molly suggested they try to just be friends, and they had ended up fucking in her twin bed. Later, they lay curled around each other, subsisting on each other’s body heat. Neither of them wanted to move or leave or break the spell that always seemed to be cast when they were together.

“What if...what if we come up with a system?” Molly said, heaving herself up and placing her body at the foot of the bed.

“What do you mean?” Taylor reached out his hand, not quite ready to not be touching her anymore. She took it and scooted herself closer, playing with his hand mindlessly as she spoke.

“Well we have two options here. The first is to say thank you, it’s been fun. Let’s pack it up. And...you know...never see each other again.”

“I don’t like that option.”

“Listen, neither do I, but seeing as we can’t even just grab a cup of coffee together without ending up in my bed...we need to keep that as an option.”

Taylor sighed. He wasn’t enjoying this conversation one bit. But he knew Molly, maybe better than anyone. She always had a plan. She was always thinking ahead.

“The other option is to come up with a system. Something that makes this...well...I don’t want to say that makes this okay but…”

“Something that makes it less confusing?”

“Yeah...at least for us. On paper this is all a mess but…”

“I don’t want this to be over.”

“Neither do I--”

“I love you, Molly.”

“I love you too, it’s just that --”

“I love you, Molly. I’ll tell you that every day if I have to.”

Molly realized how tightly she was holding Taylor’s hand in her lap and loosened her grip. “Alright. So we make rules.”

“Like?”

Molly took a deep breath. “Well okay, first of all I think we should be completely open and honest with each other. No secrets. We can’t do the whole ‘no talking about wives and kids when we’re together’ because that’s just begging for disaster. We tell each other everything. Like we used to.”

“Okay.”

“Okay!” Molly felt the tension in her shoulders ease. That was the point that she was most worried about him agreeing to. “So...I say that we have to see each other once a year.”

“That’s not very often.”

“I know but...I’ve thought about this.”

“Of course you have.”

“I just think less is more...maybe. I mean…”

“In case of emergencies, we can make it more than once a year.”

“Sure.”

“Can I do one?”

“One what?”

“A rule.”

“Oh! Yeah, go ahead.”

“You can see other people. I can’t...I’m not allowed to be jealous of that or to fool myself into thinking that you’re all mine. That would be stupid of me, not to mention hypocritical.”

“Oh, finally I can call Corey and see what he’s been up to since high school.”

“Shut up, I hate Corey.”

“You don’t even know Corey!”

“That was a dark time for us. Okay, but does that sound good?”

Molly sighed and looked at the boy lying in her bed. His hair was dirty and he had too many necklaces on. His eyes looked tired but content. She loved him more than she thought possible. Sometimes she would think about Taylor and it felt like her heart was literally going to burst out of her chest. She hated how hard he made her feel.

“Yeah, I just don’t think it’s going to happen,” she finally replied.

“I want you to have the option though.”

“Okay, fine. I um...I kinda just want to be with you.”

Taylor sat up and took her face in his hands. He kissed her forehead tenderly and gathered her up in his arms, laying back down against the headboard so that she was nuzzled into his chest.

“There’s one more rule,” she said from the cocoon of limbs.

“Hit me.”

“At any point, for any reason, either of us can call this whole thing off.”

The words hung in the air.

***

“Surprise!” Taylor said from underneath his umbrella when Molly opened the door. The moment she saw him she jumped into his arms, making him drop everything and catch her. The rain was relentless, and the few moments they were on her porch kissing caused them to get soaked but they didn’t seem to care.

“What are you doing here?” Molly asked, once they broke the kiss. She ushered him inside and took his jacket.

“Our show tonight got cancelled because of the storm. This weather is insane!”

“Yeah, welcome to Florida. It's hurricane season!” Molly said as she tied her now wet hair up in a bun on top of her head. Like usual, she couldn’t stop touching Taylor. She pulled him to the couch and sat so close she was practically on his lap. “So wait, you don’t have a show tonight? I have you all to myself?”

“Looks like it.”

Molly squealed and kissed him again, thankful that her parents were at work. “I guess I’ll give you the grand tour!” She pulled him up off the couch and started showing him around.

“You seem really happy…”

“You’re here!”

“I mean in general.”

“It’s good to be home. I never realize how much I miss it until I come visit for a few days. Everything is so simple. New York is hard!”

“You’re telling me, why do you think we all moved back to Tulsa. Everything is so fast.”

“And I love it, I do. It’s my favorite place it’s just...sometimes you feel so invisible there. It’s hard, I don’t know,” she said with a shrug.

“Trust me, I understand completely.”

Molly smiled at the person that always did seem to understand her, no matter what she said.

“It’s not fair, ya know,” she said, changing the subject with no warning. Even so, he followed her train of thought. He knew exactly what she was talking about. Their life. Their lives, plural. It wasn’t one that had grown together, but rather two branches who reached towards the sky in different directions, desperately trying to intertwine.

“I know,” he said with a sigh. They were in the hallway right outside her room, and he was irrationally excited to see inside. This was where Molly was every night when they talked on the phone, or chatted online, or wrote letters to him. He wondered if she had any posters of his band still up.

She swung the door open, clearly a little nervous, which made him laugh. Molly didn’t know what fear was, but she got embarrassed about the silliest things.

“So this is it,” he said, surveying the yellow walls and white trim, the desk that was still overflowing with papers and notebooks and loose music even though she didn’t live here anymore. “Looks like you.”

“Looks like me?” She said, her loud laugh escaping her throat and travelling through the house. He loved that stupid laugh.

“Yeah. It’s messy but bright. I’m a little disappointed that there are no Hanson posters up though.”

“Oh God.” She replied, rolling her eyes. “Shut up!” She threw a pillow at him, descending into a fit of giggles.

“I guess that would be uncomfortable, though. Don’t want to fuck you with my brothers watching.”

“Oh my God.”

“Yeah that was gross, but it’s true,” he said with a shrug and a hunger in his eyes.

“Well, let’s go then,” Molly teased from the bed, holding out her hand and beckoning him over.

***

They were laying in Molly’s bed when they heard the garage door open.

“Shit,” Molly said under her breath, popping up from under the tangled sheets and searching for her bra, which she had flung with fervor only half an hour before. Taylor looked at the alarm clock on the bedside table and saw that it was 3:30.

“Who is that?” He asked, not as flustered as Molly clearly was.

“My mom. Dad won’t be long after her. They both teach.”

Taylor knew that, but didn’t correct her. Her mom was a history teacher at a middle school and her dad was the violin professor at USF. “Do they know...about me?”

“Ummmm...define know.”

“Molly.”

“Sorry, um. They know you’re in a band called Hanson!”

Molly.”

“What!! You think I just go around telling my parents about the affair I’m having with nineties heartthrob Taylor Hanson who also happens to be married?” She said in a vicious whisper. They heard the back door open.

“Do they know I’m married?”

“I don’t know!”

“Well I’m in their daughter’s room so we should probably think of something pretty soon!”

“I know, I know, I’m thinking!!”

“Molly!!” Molly’s mom’s voice drifted up to the room.

“Hey Mom!” She called back down. There were footsteps on the stairs. “Shit, shit, shit,” she whispered.

“It’s awful out there, I bet they’re gonna cancel school tomorrow,” she opened the door and both Molly and Taylor froze where they were.

The three of them looked at each other with wide eyes. Taylor could feel his pulse thumping in his throat, but he knew that Molly probably couldn’t even form words at this point. He broke the silence. “Mrs. McKenney! I’m Taylor, I’ve heard so much about you,” he said loudly as he reached out his hand.

The confusion on her face melted when he said his name. “Oh! From the letters!”

“What?” Molly asked, horrified.

“He’s the boy that wrote you all the letters.”

“How...how did you know that? I hid those from you! And I always got the mail so that you wouldn’t see them!”

“Oh please, I let you get the mail but I always checked first. It was habit. But you seemed so adamant, so I left the mail in the box until you got home from school.”

“Oh my GOD,” Molly dropped her head into her hands, the embarrassments coming one right after the other. Taylor couldn’t help but start laughing.

“Calm down, Moll. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Taylor.”

“Likewise,” he replied with a huge smile on his face.

“It’s awful outside, so I hope you're planning on staying for dinner. I can’t let you go back out in that.”

“Um, sure if you’ll have me.”

“I’m so happy you guys finally got to meet up!” Molly’s mom said cheerfully as she made her way back downstairs, Molly right on her heels, clearly not finished with this conversation.

“Wait, that’s it? That’s all you’re going to say? You’re not going to even question the fact that Taylor Hanson is in your house right now? Or that we wrote letters back and forth for years and you knew this whole time?”

“Well what do you want me to say, Molly?” They had made their way all the way back to the kitchen, Taylor watching with amusement in his eyes. “You’re...you. Honestly, it never really surprised me that somehow you weaseled your way into your favorite singer’s life.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Taylor said with a smirk.

“You, shut up,” Molly fired back at him, making him cover his mouth so that she wouldn’t see his grin. She turned back around to her mother, who looked at her triumphantly. “Okay, FINE. Fine. This isn’t weird then. Taylor’s staying for dinner. I can’t believe this is happening.”

Suddenly, all three of them heard the garage door open yet again.

“Well, your father’s home.”

Chapter Text

December 2004 - Molly and Jillian

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: Hiiiiiiii
December 8th, 2004

Jilliannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn,
Hi! What’s up! I’m trying to be a normal human and NOT get sucked into my usual end of the semester hermit lifestyle. We’ll see how it goes! Juries and finals are next week so, can’t wait to die!! Exclamation points!!!

Please for the love of all that is holy, be in Tampa for Christmas. It was so weird being home without seeing you. Not like I was able to do anything when I was there because it was a freakin’ hurricane! I have great timing. Let me know.

I attached the songs I’m performing for my juries. AGH!! Listen to them and then tear me apart so I’m ready for when my teachers do it.

LOVE YOU!
-Moll

***

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: YOU’RE A LITERAL GENIUS
December 9th, 2004

Molly.

Molly, those demos. My god, I don’t even know what to say. The last one had me in tears. I can’t wait until you’re famous and I can ride your coattails to success! Can I be your manager or something? Wait, what about your PR person? Let’s talk! You’re going to ACE your juries. I’m not worried. You’ve got this.

Also...I’m in Tampa for Christmas!!! I cannot wait to see you!! Hurricane or not, we’re hanging out! Be ready!!

Some weirdness really quick...I did something kind of dumb. I emailed a certain drummer from a certain band you used to be obsessed with. I wrote this whole thing about how I’m sorry and how I just missed his friendship...all this embarrassing stuff. Anyway, the email came back. He deactivated his email address I guess. So that’s that. I don’t know why I’m still thinking about it. Whatever.

Anyway, I can’t wait to see you so let me know when you have an itinerary! I’m going monopolize A LOT of your free time!!

LOVE YOU MORE!
Jill

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: Re: YOU’RE A LITERAL GENIUS
December 10th, 2004

Haha you’re such a dork!! But thank you! I’m nervous but also I’m feeling pretty good about my pieces, which is all I can hope for I guess.

Waaaaait, he finally retired ZACLUVSDRUMS???? How DARE he. You’re thinking about it because it wasn’t that long ago. It’s not that weird, Jill. Honestly, I probably would have done the same thing. Emailing him was just your brain screaming at you for closure. Do you feel better now that you’ve written the words down, even though you didn’t actually send the email? Do you still want to send it to him? Send him a PM on Hnet, lol. Just kidding, don’t...don’t do that. Lol.

You can always talk to me about Zac stuff. I know you so I know you think you’re being annoying about it, but you’re really not. Talk all you want. Except on Wednesday and Friday of next week because that’s when I have juries so I’ll be buzzing from nerves and probably too much espresso. I’m attaching my flight schedule, you lunatic!

-M

***

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: Break all your legs!!! <3
December 14th, 2004

Sorry I’m just getting back to you. Crazy weekend at work. Someone walked out and I pulled two doubles. I’m still recovering. Anyway, thanks for making me feel less crazy. To answer your questions: yes, I feel better having written the words and some days I feel better about NOT sending them than others. Last night, I had this crazy dream about him being trapped in NYC during a hurricane and he called me to come get him. Before I could get any more info, my phone died. Even dream-me can’t communicate. Great!

Thanks for being the only person in my life who encourages my most annoying traits. I don’t know what I did to deserve you, lady.

Enough about me...Know that I am thinking about you and sending you all the love and positivity I’ve got tomorrow! You’re going to be great! They’re going to love you! Please be prepared to tell me all about it afterwards!

THEN GET YOUR BOOTY DOWN HERE AND HANG OUT WITH ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!

LOVE YOU THE MOST!
Jill

***

To: JillyBean82@aol.com
From: MollyDoll85@aol.com
Subject: Take me home, country road
December 18th, 2004

*Collapses on a heap on the floor* I’m DONE!!!! And in less than 24 hours, I will be in Tampa! And walking into your house without knocking, just like the old days.

A few things of note before I throw a bunch of shit into a suitcase because I haven’t even started packing.

1. I had my usual break down, right on schedule, the Tuesday before my first jury. I was in a practice room all by myself sobbing because I didn’t get enough sleep *shocker* and I was suddenly convinced that all my pieces were crap. You know who calmed me down?! Long hair piano guy. Just...throwing that out there.
2. After all of that, my juries went GREAT. I was so nervous, but everything was fine. Then of course my theory and piano practical finals were a breeze. The head of my committee told me they were “lucky to have me at Juilliard.” And then I died. No big deal! I wish I could like...once in my life...not stress out about stuff.
3. We should have a bff christmas celebration where we drink too much wine and exchange gifts and talk about boys. JUST AN IDEA!

ONE MORE SLEEP!
-Molly

***

To: MollyDoll85@aol.com
From: JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: Re: Take me home, country road
December 18th, 2004

I need so much more information and I can’t wait to get it in person while we enact #3 on your list.

The door is open! See you!
Jill

Chapter Text

March 7th, 2005 - Taylor

“Alright I’m calling it,” Isaac said, lifting his guitar over his head and placing it back in it’s case. The band was working on a few songs for the member’s EP, and the guys had come to blows over lyrics. It wasn’t a rare occurrence; this was just how they wrote. It was a strange process that, for whatever reason, worked. But they always needed time to cool off.

“Yeah, I’m done,” Zac agreed as he came out from behind his drums.

“I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” Ike clearly wanted to get out of the studio as quickly as possible.

“Why the rush?” Taylor inquired with a smirk.

“I have a phone date with Nikki, thank you very much,” Isaac replied, making his way out into the early spring evening. Taylor rolled his eyes but his smile remained. It was good to see his older brother happy, which he very clearly was with Nicole. She didn’t quite fit into the Hanson mold, and Taylor wondered how long it would be until his family forced her out of the picture. He didn’t want that to happen. He really liked Nikki.

“Hey, I know we’re done for the night, but can I play you something I’ve been working on?” Zac asked, pulling Taylor out of his thoughts.

“Yeah sure, I don’t have anywhere to be.”

“Isn’t Natalie expecting you?”

“Maybe,” Taylor shrugged. Life at home had gotten hard. It kept getting harder, no matter how he tried to rectify it. They had been fighting a lot. Way more than he ever thought any married couple should. No matter how hard they both tried, something just didn't fit. He wondered if his brothers noticed how much time he had been spending at the studio, taking all of his frustration out on the piano keys. And of course, he and Natalie fought about how he was never home. It was a vicious cycle.

Taylor got up from the piano bench to let Zac take a seat. He went to the fridge and grabbed a beer while Zac got settled and played a few chords to warm up his fingers, which were still swollen from drumming.

“Deep brown eyes watch me as I sleep
Long dark hair that washes over me
Like a ray of sunlight
Warms me as I wake
'Cause I need you now
But nothing ever goes the right way
Got to live life day by day
Hearts will bind you
There to remind you of where you stay”

Taylor took a few gulps of beer. The lyrics and melody were simple, but sometimes that was when Zac’s genius shone through the most. His little brother had a tendency to over-complicate things. Isaac was constantly telling him to trim the fat, say what needs to be said, simple can be better.

“Freckled nose, nudge me as I sleep
A heart of gold that holds me as I dream
Tucked away in silence
Wake me when you come
'Cause I need you now
But nothing ever goes the right way
Got to live life day by day
Hearts will bind you
there to remind you of where you stay
I'll never see you home
Cos then I'd sleep alone
Each morning as I wake
The sun is always brighter when you stay”

Zac let the last chord ring and looked up at Taylor expectantly.

“Zac, that was beautiful. We could have just recorded that take and put it on the EP.”

“...Really?”

“Yeah. Is it about Kate?” Taylor asked. Zac had gotten back together with Kate when they came back from New York last July. He wasted absolutely no time in the matter. In the course of only a few days they were right back where they had been.

Zac’s eyes darted around the studio, trying their best not to meet Taylor’s. “I don’t really write about real people,” he lied.

“What’s up with you guys now anyway? Everything going okay?” Taylor called from the kitchen, where he went to grab Zac a beer. He came back and pulled up a stool, handing Zac the cold bottle.

“Yeah, everything’s good. I think um...I think I’m gonna ask her to marry me.”

Taylor nearly spit out his beer. “What?!”

“What….”

“You’re going to propose to her?”

“That’s….what I just said, right?”

“I mean, yeah, but don’t you think that’s a little sudden? Is she pregnant?”

“No! No, I mean...we haven’t even had sex yet.”

Taylor took a huge swig of beer. He figured he would need a few more bottles to get through this conversation.

“Then why the rush?” He asked, realizing he had asked his other brother the same question only a few moments before.

“I...I don’t know. I feel like we’re ready.”

“Really?”

Taylor thought back to his own proposal. He flew to Georgia a few days after Natalie told him she was pregnant. It wasn’t as though it was a surprise. They were walking through a park near her house and he couldn’t stop fiddling with the ring in his pocket. He had bought the first one he saw. He almost chickened out when he felt a huge gust of wind push him towards her. So he got down on one knee and slid the ring on her finger. She cried, and he still didn’t know if they were happy tears or just confused ones.

He flew right back to LA, locked himself in his room, and wrote Dancing in the Wind. “Thought that I’d figured it out at last, but you can’t change the past, and it’s closing in so fast.”

As though he was reading Taylor’s mind, Zac asked, “How did you know you were ready with Natalie?”

“Are you kidding me, Zac? I’m still not ready to be married to Natalie, and it’s been three years since our wedding.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah.”

“Cone of safety?” The brothers often invoked a safe space, where they could say anything they wanted without the other two getting mad. Sometimes it was pointless, because no matter what, they knew how to push each other’s buttons. But often it was necessary when one of them knew something was off about a song but didn’t want to hurt the other’s feelings.

“Sure.”

“Do you regret it?”

“What, marrying Nat?”

“Yeah.”

Taylor sighed. They both knew the answer to this question, but he had never said it out loud. “Yeah, I do.”

“Do you think if you all had just dated a little longer, you would get married anyway?”

“...No, I don’t. Natalie is great. And I do love her, in a certain way, I mean we have Ezra together. We’ve been through so much, she’s...she’s one of my best friends, you know? No one but she and I know what all of this was like. Is like. But...no, probably not.”

Zac winced. Taylor hated being the one to crush his brother's idea that marriage was infallible. That people make mistakes.

“I’m telling you, Zac, there’s no rush. If she’s not pregnant just...just be with her for a little while and see where it goes. I don’t want you to regret your marriage as much as I regret mine. Plus...if that song you just sang is about anyone other than Kate, then you have no business marrying her anyway.”

“It’s not about anyone --”

“Right.” Taylor replied, with a knowing look. He got up, wondering if anything he had said had actually gotten through to his little brother. “Hey Zac?”

Zac turned around on the bench to look at Taylor.

“Do you love her?” Taylor asked. Zac fidgeted with his beer bottle, taking a full minute before even breathing in to form an answer. “If it takes you that long to answer the question, then you don’t.” He threw his bottle away and grabbed his jacket, leaving Zac alone at the piano.

***

“I was wondering where you were!” Natalie exclaimed when Taylor walked through the door. She was smiling widely, which was markedly different than how she usually greeted him after a long day at the studio.

“Where’s Ez?” Taylor asked, looking around.

“Your mom took him for the night. I made you dinner! Are you hungry?”

Natalie was wearing a new maternity dress, and her hair was washed and curled. She was pregnant. Again. He still hadn’t told Molly. In fact he hadn’t heard from Molly in weeks.

He felt a little fuzzy from the beer he drank on a completely empty stomach. He realized he was ravenous, and took a seat. The food looked delicious. Natalie poured him a glass of wine but didn’t give herself one. He had to admit that she tried sometimes. It often included cooking him dinner and pouring him wine. The last time she did this was when she told him she was pregnant. He sighed at the memory.

It was all shockingly similar. The new dress, her hair, Ezra with his parents. A few days after a huge blow up.

“Nat, what’s going on?” He had asked last August, feeling confused by the gesture.

“What do you mean, what’s going on? Can’t I make a nice dinner for my hardworking husband? Now take off your jacket and sit at the table.”

“Nat.”

“What?”

“Why aren’t you drinking?” He knew the answer before he even asked the question.

She looked up at him and smiled. “Are you ready to be a dad again?”

Did she have to word it like that? Are you ready to be a dad, Taylor? The answer was still no. He had a three year old and the answer was still no.

“I thought you were on birth control,” was all he could muster.

Natalie’s face fell. “I...was but...sometimes...it’s not a fool-proof system.”

“Right.”

“Aren’t you excited?”

“You didn’t even consult me.”

“I didn’t know it was going to happen!”

“Why do I feel like you’re lying to me?”

Great, another fight, Taylor thought to himself as he stood up from the table, anger coursing through his veins at a rapid rate.

Now he was sitting across from his pregnant wife, panic clutching his internal organs. He wanted to call Molly. He wanted to call Zac and tell him to get out while he still could. He wanted to run away. He wanted a lot of things.

None of which were another round of people asking if he was ready.

He wasn’t.

Chapter Text

March 26th, 2005 - Zac

“I’m fine with whatever you want,” Zac said into the phone, feigning as much interest as possible. He hadn’t realized that asking a girl to marry you meant nightly phone calls to discuss venues, flowers, napkin colors…

Kate had been more than thrilled when he called her to tell her he’d made a terrible mistake letting her go. She had cried and told him that, deep down, she had always known he would come back to her. He couldn’t pretend it didn’t feel good to be wanted. He focused on that feeling as he dove, head-first back into their relationship. She acted as though no time had passed and never asked any questions, so it was easy for him to pretend that this was how things had always been. How they were meant to be.

Taylor had tried to talk him out of proposing. As much as Zac respected his brother’s opinion, he also knew that they were very different people. Taylor made a big mistake that impacted the rest of his life when he slept with Natalie; a mistake he regretted. Zac never wanted to feel that kind of regret.

He would think about that night at Jillian’s place, when he was so close to making a similar mistake. He would never let that happen again. He would never let lust cloud his mind and break his heart again. He started to wonder if he ever really loved Jillian at all.

Every time he thought of her, it pushed him closer to Kate. Safe, acceptable, uncomplicated Kate. She wanted him. She needed him. He could make her happy and give her the life she wanted so badly. Proposing to her was, in the end, his only choice.

“I’m emailing you some photos I took of the centerpieces tonight. Take a look and let me know what you think,” Kate ordered with a smile he could hear through the phone. Zac was starting to feel more and more grateful that they were on tour.

“I will, babe. Okay, I gotta go” he replied, wanting to end the conversation before another wedding detail popped into her mind. It was the day between shows and he needed some true down time.

“Okay, well….I love you! Be safe out there!” Kate sounded tense and he knew it was because he was away. She would never say it but he knew it to be true.

“I will. Love you too. Bye!” He hung up before she returned his goodbye. “Zac, you’re an asshole,” he said aloud to himself.

“I agree wholeheartedly!” Ike said, coming up behind him and making him jump.

“Hey, thanks..”

“Any time, bro.” Ike clapped him on the back forcefully. “We’re all checked in and I’m starving.”

The hotel lobby was mostly deserted, save for their entourage and few scattered guests and staff. Taylor was snapping pictures of a sculpture in one of the corners. Zac shoved his phone into his back pocket and put on a smile he didn’t mean.

“Let’s get some grub, boys!” Ike said loudly, making everyone in the lobby look in their direction. Taylor wandered over, clearly distracted by the opulence of the room.

“Everything in London is so...grand” he exclaimed. “I’ll never get tired of this place.”

Zac rolled his eyes and zipped up his jacket. Isaac led them from the lobby into the frigid air, in search of the nearest diner. It was nearly 8pm but Zac was still not adjusted to the time change. He couldn’t tell if he needed lunch or a nap.

“C’mon, Zac. Quit dragging your feet!” Ike shouted over his shoulder. Zac sighed and caught up to Taylor, still clicking away with his camera.

“How are the wedding plans going?” Taylor asked, not even looking at him. Zac hated the tone of the question. He knew his brother didn’t approve of the engagement and he was in no mood to discuss it on an empty stomach.

“It’s great!” he exclaimed, too eagerly. He looked over to Taylor, who hadn’t bought it but smiled anyway.

“Good, as long as you’re happy,” he said, giving him a gentle punch in the arm.

“I’m very happy, actually. Proposing to Kate is the best thing I’ve ever done. I can’t believe it took me this long.” Zac couldn’t stop himself from talking. He knew that his brother could see right through him and it frustrated him.

“I wouldn’t say you wasted much time, Zac,” Taylor scoffed.

“I wasted a lot time, Tay, but thanks for your opinion.” Zac quickened his steps, catching Isaac as he approached the door to a bustling cafe. He wanted to be as far away from his brother’s judgement as possible.

***

Avoiding Isaac and Taylor had proven more difficult than Zac had expected. He’d barely spoken since dinner the night before, prompting more prodding than indifference. What ever happened to the days when his brothers ignored him so hard, he had to do backflips for attention?

He’d played along during their radio interview that morning and smiled for the fans and the cameras on their way into the Astoria London. He had tried to fill up the time between with writing and gaming; anything private and solitary. Instead of respectfully keeping their distance, his siblings had opted to interrupt at every opportunity with questions. What do you want to eat, Zac? What do you think of this change to the setlist, Zac? Why are you being so moody, Zac?

He was relieved when the show started and he could spend some time alone behind his drum kit. Somehow, playing shows had become an escape for him; alone time even as he performed in front of hundreds of people. He could clear his head. There were no questions, no phone calls, no pending decisions. Just music.

The show was winding down and he had managed to pull himself out of his head enough to enjoy it. The crowd was buzzing with sweaty energy and reaching their hands up into their air, jumping and singing along. Zac looked out at them as he played, wondering if he would ever get used to it all. He felt simultaneously enthralled and afraid. It was a welcome mix of emotion since it was the only thing he’d felt in weeks that wasn’t anxiety.

He surveyed the crowd. Almost all women. He noticed one girl, no older than he was, sobbing uncontrollably as she gazed up at Taylor. A few rows back from her, a woman was screaming and flailing wildly while her boyfriend stood beside her helplessly. Across the aisle were three ladies who clearly chose their tops based on how little they left to the imagination. He stared at them for a while, before another girl a few rows behind them caught his eye.

In the dimly lit audience, she stood singing along, looking so much like Jillian it shook him. He knew that it wasn’t her, but that didn’t make any difference. He still felt his stomach drop. He felt his anxiety rise up again and consume everything else.

He missed a beat and Taylor shot a glare at him that made him so angry, he wanted to throw a drumstick at him. Zac forced his anger down and tried to focus on the song. What was wrong with him? He had moved on. He was engaged to be married. Was this going to happen every time he saw a pretty girl in the crowd who looked a little like Jillian? Was he really that pathetic?

He played the rest of the show, using every beat of the drums to beat his thoughts into submission. He didn’t want to feel them. He didn’t want to feel anything. He took his bows and smiled and waved, knowing every bit of it was pretend.

They returned to the hotel and he went straight to his room, blaming a headache for his despondency. He called Kate, but she didn’t answer. He left a message, saying he was going to bed and would call again when they got to Paris the next day. He turned his phone off and dropped onto the bed, kicking his shoes to the floor.

He laid there, staring at the ceiling, finally truly alone for the first time all day. He needed to shower and his stomach ached with hunger. He took a deep breath, hoping his sore arms would relax. Instead, he felt his eyes well up and a lump form in his throat.

He sat up in frustration, ashamed of his tears. He wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands and pressed the power button on his phone again, watching as it lit up. He pulled up his contacts and searched until he found what he was looking for.

Jillian S.
(813)555-4357

Zac stared at the blue glowing screen for a moment. His thumb hovered over the keypad. He pressed a few keys and the screen glared at him.

Delete Contact?

He clicked ‘YES’. He could hardly see the screen through maudlin eyes.

Contact Deleted.

Chapter Text

April 19th, 2005 - Molly

“Just one more time through,” Molly muttered to herself as she flipped the pages of her score back to the beginning. She had been in the same practice room all evening, stopping only to sip her iced coffee. Well, it had been iced. All the ice was melted now. She glanced at her watch and saw that it was closing in on midnight. Oh well, she thought, rubbing her eyes aggressively and cracking her knuckles. She had juries coming up. She didn’t have time for sleep. Her stomach rumbled loudly.

This semester had been difficult. The school work was intense, and Molly felt like she was constantly trying to get ahead. She had always been a little obsessed with being the best. She would call her dad in tears about once a week, and he would assure her that this was the third year slump. Everyone felt like they were slipping this year. Even him. He would talk her down and then she would head to a practice room, ignoring all other texts or invitations to hang out. Her social life was left abandoned. She hadn’t even talked to Taylor all that much since he finally told her that Natalie was pregnant again.

“Fuck,” she whispered viciously as her fingers slipped. She was so tired. She knew there was no use trying to try to get the piece exactly right because she was running exclusively on caffeine and fumes. “Come on, McKenney, you can do this.”

She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. The practice rooms had a distinctive smell to them - old carpet and rosin. She had spent so many hours of her life in rooms like these. And for what? She wondered if her dad was up. She felt crazy. She felt like she was actually losing it. She could almost hear Jillian’s voice in her head “It’s just because you’re hungry.” Sometimes she would go over to Jillian’s house after being kicked out of Blake High School’s practice rooms by the janitors attempting to lock up. She would be ravenous and irritable and annoyed that she couldn’t even get a few measures right. Jillian would disappear and return with a snack. “You can practice more tomorrow.”

But this was more important. This was Juilliard. She couldn’t just mess up a few measures at spring juries and expect to be okay. She couldn’t be cut from the program. Not now. She couldn’t let down her family, or her piano teacher from Blake, or Jillian, or….”FUCK!” she said, louder this time, as she started to hyperventilate. She braced herself on the piano. She needed food. She needed sleep. She needed to talk to….

She felt her phone vibrate.

A text. From Taylor.

“Baby girl is here.”

She put her phone down and stood up, shaking her hands out and breathing as deeply as possible. Water. Water would help. And fresh air. The rooms were always so stuffy. Not great for anxious musicians who are terrified at the thought of not being good enough.

She grabbed her water bottle and her phone and went outside to sit on the steps. “You’re okay,” she whispered to herself, closing her eyes against the cool spring breeze. “You’re fine.” She looked up at the city lights. It made her think of a lyric that Taylor had written a couple years ago.

Staring at a million city lights….

She had spent hours pouring over that song after the concert. There were so many things about it that made her think it was about her, but she had never just come out and asked him. The song sounded like freedom, in a way. It sounded like the feeling of sitting in the passenger seat, hair blowing wildly in the wind from the open windows, singing loudly with your best friend driving….Jillian. The reckless abandon of loving music so much that all you can do is belt it out with your best friend on summer afternoons driving home from school, wishing you were as free as you felt in that moment.

So much had changed.

She sighed and reopened Taylor’s text message. Baby girl is here. She let her finger hover over the button, hoping for the best as she pressed call.

“Hey!!” He sounded tired. Tired but happy. Relieved.

“Hey! So...a daughter!”

“Yeah! Natalie wanted to be surprised. I was dying to know, but it was pretty exciting. Pacing around the waiting room with my brothers. I felt like it was the seventies or something.”

Molly couldn’t help but smile. He sounded so giddy. He probably was also running on caffeine and fumes. The thought made her feel strangely comforted.

“What did you name her?”

“Penny. Well...Penelope, technically but...she’s Penny. Penelope Anne.”

“You named your daughter after your own song?!” She was smiling like an idiot. She couldn’t help it.

“I did. Felt right, though. That’s my favorite song I’ve ever written.”

“What? Really?”

“For sure. It just feels like...I don’t know. Freedom. Or something.”

“Yeah, it really does.” Molly let out a soft chuckle. He was reading her thoughts over the phone at this point. She had a feeling that he was smiling just as big as she was. They were both so tired and so hungry and so...she couldn’t even find the right words anymore. Her brain was fried.

“I’m so happy for you, Tay.”

“Thanks, Doll.”

Molly felt tears spring to her eyes. She didn’t even know what they were for. Was she sad? Was she sad that she wasn’t the one having Taylor’s daughter? Surely not. She had so much she needed to do. She was in her third year at Juilliard, she didn’t have time to pop babies out. But tears were falling...maybe she was just tired. She always cried when she was tired.

“Um...I’ll let you go, I guess.”

“Yeah…”

“I…”

“I know. Me too.”

She hung up and let the sobs come. She couldn’t help it. They burst out of her throat and she didn’t even try to stop them. She rested her head on her knees, her body shuddering. She did some quick math in her head, realizing that Natalie must have conceived right before Taylor came to visit her in Tampa. They had talked so much those few days. He talked about how hard everything was, how much they had been fighting, how they were just always at two different speeds, they never quite lined up. They never quite fit.

Had he known then? That Natalie was pregnant? And if he did know, why didn’t he tell her? He told her everything, even the messy stuff.

He always said that if it wasn’t for Ezra, he probably would have just ended it. They gave it a try, and it wasn’t for them, and that was okay. But there was a baby to think about. And now there were two.

Everything just seemed so impossible. Passing her juries. Getting over Taylor. Moving off of this step.

Chapter Text

October 10th, 2005 - Jillian

The diner was dead, even for a Monday night, and Jillian hadn’t had a table in almost an hour. She wiped the counter again, looking around for her manager, who had a knack for vanishing whenever he was needed.

“You seen Marco?” she asked Steve, the cook. He was hunkered over the pass window, clearly bored at the lack of orders. He shook his head at her and retreated into the depths of the kitchen. She rolled her eyes. She’d been serving at the place long enough to know that this night was a bust.

Marco suddenly materialized, acting more suspicious than usual. He was concealing something behind his back.

“Marco, can I be done now? I haven’t had a table in a while and I’m sure Ricki can handle this herself.”

“Sure, sure,” Marco stuttered, his Long-Island accent thick and slow. “Just, uh, take this first, okay?” He passed her a plate with a chocolate chip cookie with a candle, unlit, shoved into it.

“What is this?”

“Its for your one-year anniversary of working here!”

“Marco, that was like a month ago.”

“Well, uh, better late than never, eh?” He pushed the plate toward her across the counter.

“Thanks, Marco. I’ll take it home.” Jillian moved behind the counter to grab a small to-go bag. Marco riffled through the register for her cashout.

“Home?” Marco asked. “You’re not going home. You’re going to Ybor.” Jillian sighed and dropped the cookie into the bag.

“It’s a Monday.”

“That’s never stopped any of you before. You’re young. Go have fun!”

Marco took the plate and candle and walked into the kitchen. Jillian could hear him talking loudly to Steve, probably about the crazy kids who work for him. She untied her apron and wrapped it up.

“Bye, Ricki,” she hollered toward the other server, who was filling water glasses for her only table. She looked at her phone and the collection of text messages telling her where to meet up. She practically ran out the door and got into her car. She pulled her diner t-shirt up over her head and reached into the back seat, trying to find the extra top she’d brought. After all, she couldn’t got out dancing in her work shirt.

She spent at least a few nights a week in the seedy clubs of Ybor City, dancing and drinking with her coworkers. She had never really partied in high school and felt like she needed to sow some wild oats. Or whatever it was called. Jillian liked that she had a group of people to hang out with, even if they were all a little bit crazy.

She also liked the attention she would get when she got all dressed up. She never acted on anything, but there was something exciting about being pursued by prowling men. She would dance with them and flirt, letting them buy her drinks, then skip off into the night. It made her feel powerful. There was no attachment. No complications. Nothing real.

When she finally found the strappy camisole top, slightly wrinkled, she pulled it on and adjusted her hair in the rearview mirror. She had never cared much about her appearance before, but her new friends were always going on about her great figure and which lipstick shade would be best on her. It just sort of rubbed off, leading her to max out a credit card on makeup, clothes and shoes.

Her phone buzzed in the passenger’s seat and she answered it as she started the car.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s Daniela! Are you on your way?” Club music pounded loudly in the background.

“Yeah, I’m leaving now! Don’t go anywhere, okay?” Jillian laughed as she pulled out of the parking lot. “See you soon!” She hung up the phone and clicked on the radio, turning it all the way up.

***

The club was packed when Jillian arrived, but she knew the bouncer and he let her skip the line.

“They’re all in there somewhere,” he said as he stamped her hand. She thanked him and walked into the darkness.

“JILL!!” Someone was shouting at her from the bar, but her eyes were still adjusting and she couldn’t see who it was. She moved carefully through the tightly packed crowd until she was close enough the make out some familiar faces.

Daniela was standing up, sporting a skin-tight dress and four inch heels. She was a server at the diner but spent most of her time at bars and nightclubs, spending her tips and picking up men. She had a cocktail in one hand and a shot in the other, which she shoved at Jillian.

“Drink, bitch. You’re late!” she teased. Her thick dark hair was frizzy from the humidity and her cheeks were flushed from alcohol. At the bar stools behind her, sat Izzy, Lauren and Maya. They were also servers who spent their time doing whatever Daniela told them to do. Jillian hadn’t particularly liked these girls when she first started the job, but now they had become her closest friends.

“How was work?” Lauren asked, mindlessly running her fingers through her long blonde locks.

“Dead!” Jillian whined, throwing back the shot in her hand. It was straight tequila and burned her nose and throat as it went down. She played it off, not wanting to let on that she was much less experienced at drinking than the rest of them. They never asked and so she would never tell. It was sometimes funny to her how her closest friends knew so little about her. Not that she really knew much more about them. They had the restaurant and partying in common. That seemed to be enough for now.

“Alright, let’s get our asses out there. These boys have waited long enough,” Daniela slammed the rest of her cocktail and led the way to the dance floor.

The music was so loud, Jillian couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. She let the tequila seep its way into her head, breaking down her inhibitions. Izzy and Daniela were already in the center of the crowd, grinding on each other, much to the pleasure of a group of frat boys nearby, who were practically drooling. Jillian felt like she might throw up at the sight of them.

She pushed her college memories aside and let the pumping bass and the alcohol take over. She stayed close to her friends and perused the crowd. There were so many people there for a Monday night. Some of them seemed really overdressed, in suits and cocktail gowns. Maybe it was a birthday party?

A new song started and the DJ ordered everyone onto the dance floor. Most of the ladies in gowns were already there, but they split off to pull their suited counterparts in with them. By the time the chorus of the song dropped, the whole floor was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder. Jillian stepped back and felt her heel connect with the top of a foot. She spun around, horrified.

“I’M SO SORRY” she shouted over the music. It was one of the suits. He was tall and lean, with eyes so blue, she could see them in the dark. She felt herself blush. Of course she would stomp of this man’s foot. If there was one thing she was good at, it was embarrassing herself.

“IT’S FINE!” he shouted back, flashing a smile that was brighter than his eyes. She suddenly became aware that she’d stopped dancing and was staring at him, mouth agape. She shook her head and tried her best to play it off. He laughed and shouted something to her but she couldn’t make it out.

“WHAT?” she yelled, putting a hand to her ear. He leaned in to her, too close for a stranger but she didn’t mind. He smelled like sandalwood, rustic and masculine. He put his lips close to her ear.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

“Yeah...yes, sure…” she nodded, failing to keep her cool. His confidence was incredibly attractive. He grabbed her by the hand and began to lead her from the dance floor. She looked back at the girls, who were cheering her on. She followed him to the bar, where he ordered for her. She didn’t care what it was. She couldn’t stop staring at his perfect jawline and perfectly coiffed hair and the way his suit fit his body…

“I’m Nick,” he quipped, passing her a pink cocktail in a martini glass.

“Jillian,” she said and sipped the drink. It was strong.

“You’re gorgeous,” he said, staring her in the eyes as he sipped the brown liquor in his own glass.

“Oh, wow...thank you…” she said, nearly spitting out her drink. She started to laugh and let out a snort, loud enough to be heard over the music. She couldn’t help but throw her hand over her face in humiliation.

“That…” he said, pointing at her with his highball in hand, “...was adorable.” He laughed, throwing around that smile again, making her knees weak. She wasn’t used to being out of control like this. Plenty of guys had bought her drinks and told her she was pretty. She would just giggle and play along until it was time to leave. This time, however, something was different.

This guy was different.

Chapter Text

April 6th, 2006 - Molly

“Hey buzz me up, I have two bottles of wine and a crap ton of take out.”

“Jill, I told you I was busy!”

“Yeah well, I flew to New York for you, so you’re gonna let me into your dorm room.”

Molly sighed heavily and buzzed her friend in, heaving herself up from the bed and leaving the door open for Jillian’s impending arrival. She flopped back down on the bed, right in the middle of a few piles of sheet music.

“Hi, best friend!” Jillian said cheerfully, in complete contrast to how Molly was feeling at the moment.

“Hi, best friend,” Molly imitated, sounding defeated.

“You’re taking a break.”

“What?! I can’t, Jill it’s...I don’t have time right now.”

“You can take an hour to eat and talk to me.”

“Ughhh…” Molly groaned as she looked at the sheet music in front of her. She had so much to do, as always. Pieces to finish composing and arranging, musicians to select and teach her songs to, and then her senior recital. The work made her feel alive, but sometimes she dove a little too deep. “Fine,” she said, sliding off of her bed and joining Jillian on the floor in front of the barricade of Chinese food boxes.

“You’ve lost weight,” Jillian said matter of factly, without even looking up from her lo mein. Molly felt exposed, and continued to stab her chopsticks into the rice in front of her.

“Maybe,” she said, shrugging.

“You’re too focused on school and you’re forgetting to eat. You’re also forgetting that I’ve known you since sixth grade. I know how you get at the end of school years. You’re not sleeping enough either.”

“How do you know?”

“You have dark circles under your eyes. Also your hair's a mess and this room looks like you only ever leave to go to class and practice rooms,” she said, motioning towards the mountain of Starbucks cups by the bed. “Have you done anything fun this semester?”

“You’re not my mom.”

“No, but you don’t have a big sister so I feel like I have to step up and be that for you. So answer my question.”

“You’re being mean!”

“I’m really not. I haven’t even raised my voice. So?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Figures.”

Molly breathed in to argue but realized she didn’t have anything else to add. Her life had been school, school, and more school. Some things never change.

“Sorry for snapping,” Molly mumbled into her rice.

“It’s okay. Want some wine?”

“I shouldn’t.”

“Do you want some, though?”

“Kinda, yeah. Okay, so...can we change the subject? I know I’m a garbage person and I can’t do anything right.”

“Molly! I didn’t say that!”

“I know but let’s talk about your life. How’s Tampa? Tell me everything, distract me from the key of E for like a second, please.”

Jillian chuckled and tossed her hair as she handed Molly a plastic cup of wine. “I feel pretty lost, to be honest. But...people keep telling me that this is what adulthood is like. So that’s great.”

“Oh, God.”

“I know. Ummm…” Jillian started giggling, “Stuff has been going well with Nick, though. I really like him.” She took a big gulp of wine. Molly couldn’t help but notice the subtle grin that crossed Jillian’s lips whenever she talked about her boyfriend. It was good to see her get over the strange fling with Zac that had transpired, even if “fling” wasn’t really the right word. Molly was a little jealous. She wished she could just get over Taylor and move on; find someone who wasn’t married, find something that wasn’t complicated.

“Wow, dating a boy. What even is dating?” Molly asked, her giggling increasing as she lapped up more wine.

“HA. Great question. Oh! How’s Long Hair Piano Guy?! You haven’t talked about him in ages.

“Oh please,” Molly answered, shifting uncomfortably. She knew that every time she brought up her “classmate”, she was treading in dangerous waters. And yet, every once in awhile, she would find herself slipping him into conversation, just to gauge Jillian’s reaction.

“Please what?! Is he still with that girl?”

“Yep.”

“Ugh, of course. Well, don’t do anything stupid. You can't start a relationship with cheating, that’s just begging for disaster. Once a cheater, always a cheater, ya know?’

“Jill!”

“What? Just trying to save you some trouble.”

“It’s not like I’m throwing myself at him or anything,” she said with a laugh.

Jillian snorted and leaned back against Molly’s desk. “I do like my friends at the restaurant, they’re just insane. They party like there’s no tomorrow every single night. I try to keep up with them, and I do a pretty good job, I guess. I wish I could have that kind of reckless abandon.”

“Yeah, you’re telling me,” Molly said, still chuckling. Tears were leaking out of her eyes from the growing laughter. They couldn’t seem to stop. “I literally don’t have any friends. Well, okay that’s a stretch, I have friends, but we’re all so fucking stressed out we don’t do anything but practice. I have never once stayed in Brooklyn until sunrise drinking and singing with my fellow comp majors. I call bullshit on my high school fantasies of what this would be like.” Now she was laughing at her regular volume, which was too loud.

“So you weren’t kidding about the ‘what is dating’ thing…”

“No, no I um...was not kidding,” she said, finishing off her first glass with fervor and handing it back to Jillian to refill. I wasn’t kidding at all and actually the man I’m in love with is expecting his third child by another woman. Isn’t life funny and terribly depressing? That made her think of something… “How’s Zac?” She blurted out before censoring herself.

She saw Jillian’s face fall and immediately regretted her question, but the sadness only stayed in her eyes for a few seconds. “He’s getting married in a couple months.”

Molly almost spit out her wine. “WHAT?!” Taylor hadn’t told her that, but she figured that was her fault. She was, once again, being an end of the year music student hermit. She barely even talked to her own family.

“Yep.”

“Kate?!”

Jillian stopped mid sip and narrowed her gaze at Molly. “Yeah, how did you know that? Did I tell you her name?”

“I’m not an idiot, Jillian, I still read all those stupid forums,” she replied, without even missing a beat. That was obviously not how she knew about Kate, about her friendship with Natalie, about her long brown hair, about her history with the family.

“Of course you do.”

Molly chuckled and realized she was already feeling the effects of the wine. She had gulped down that first glass too quickly, and Jillian was right, she had lost weight. She couldn’t remember if she had lunch that day, which means she probably didn’t. No wonder her head was already feeling fuzzy.

“I can’t even imagine getting married,” she said, shaking her head.

“Really? Don’t you ever want to?”

Molly thought about the pictures she had seen of Taylor and Natalie’s wedding. They both looked terrified, trying their very best to put on brave faces. There was a clip that had circulated of Natalie looking up at Taylor, tears streaming down her face. Had they been happy tears? Or ones full of terror? Now, pictures had surfaced of Taylor and Natalie from their recent trip to Africa. They looked like a completely different couple. They looked comfortable with each other, their fingers intertwined, their bodies pressed together like they belonged there. It wasn’t a great feeling, from Molly’s end.

“I don’t think so. You know I have a problem with being tied to anything.”

“Well that’s true.”

“I’m just too independent, and I care about music more than I care about anyone in this world...no offense,” Jillian shrugged, it wasn’t like she didn’t know that fact about Molly. “I know that if I started dating someone...I don’t know. I feel like they wouldn’t be okay with how much time I spend writing or composing or practicing.”

“That’s kind of sad, Moll.”

“I don’t think it’s sad! It’s just...how I’m wired.”

“I guess so.”

Molly couldn’t help but think back to the first time she met Taylor, how only a few days before, he had met Natalie for the first time. She had spent hours of her life lamenting the fact that their Tampa concert had come second. But suddenly, clarity washed over her. Even if he had met her first, he probably wouldn’t have been allowed to pursue her. She didn’t want to get married, even to him. She wanted to be with him, sure. But she didn’t want three babies. She didn’t want to be in Tulsa while he was travelling the world with his band. She wanted to be in the band. She wanted to be on the tour bus.

“Maybe everything happens for a reason,” she said out loud.

“I don’t even know what you’re referencing, but I hope you’re right,” Jillian replied.

Chapter Text

June 3rd, 2006 - Taylor

“Now presenting, Mr. and Mrs. Zachary Hanson!” Isaac announced to the crowded reception hall. Taylor looked up from his drink to catch his younger brother enter the room with his new bride. Kate was beaming. Zac was smiling too, at least, if not nervously. Taylor drained his beer and let out a loud belch as the crowd was cheering, catching Natalie’s disapproving eye as he exhaled.

“Excuse me.”

He had been drinking all day. He and his brothers had shared a toast as they were getting ready, and he had also brought a flask in his pocket, which was now empty. And now he was on his fourth (fifth? He wasn’t completely sure) beer of the night. He wondered how Zac was handling all of this with no alcohol in his bloodstream. Maybe now that he and Kate had entered the reception, he would share a few drinks with Taylor.

“I’ll be back,” he said quietly to Natalie, who rolled her eyes and nodded. He needed to get another beer, or maybe something stronger. He looked around for Ike. Ike always drank with him. He needed to find Ike.

“Big brother!” he exclaimed when he found Isaac schmoozing with Kate’s family. Taylor had definitely gotten better at small talk and interacting with fans, but Isaac would always be the best at it. Especially at functions such as this. Family weddings were what Taylor imagined his own personal ring of hell would look like.

“Hey Tay...are you okay?” Ike asked as Taylor slapped his back forcefully.

“I’m great. Do you want a drink? I’m going over to the bar.”

“I don’t know if you need anything else quite yet.”

“What do you mean, I’m fine.”

“Mmmhmm.” Ike looked at Taylor suspiciously, or maybe Tay was just paranoid. He needed to switch to something other than beer. It was making his stomach feel swimmy. “You wanna sit down? You could probably use some fresh air.”

“No, Ike, I’m fine! Leave me alone.”

“Tay, you came over to me…”

Taylor walked away grumpily, and asked the bartender for a whiskey neat, shoving a couple dollars into the tip jar. He was annoyed, and he wasn’t even completely sure why. A few months ago he had told Ike everything about Molly, after an outburst in the studio over lyrics. He had been in a foul mood for weeks, about the same amount of time that he hadn’t heard from Molly. Ike knew enough of the story from Zac to garner why Taylor was acting so pissy, but he wanted to know the details. He wanted to hear it from Taylor himself.

“So this has been going on for six years?” Ike asked as they sat in the studio, finally giving up on making music for the night. Zac had been called away by his fiance, leaving the oldest Hanson boys to discuss Taylor’s mess of a love life.

“Pretty much….”

“Mom and Dad would have never let you go after her, you know that right? It wasn’t just timing. It’s...Hanson.”

“Oh, I’m very aware of that.”

“They’re already trying to get Nikki out of the picture,” he sighed, sounding defeated.

“What?”

“Yeah, come on Tay, we all saw that coming.”

“You love her though!”

“I do. It’s ridiculous how much I do. I want to marry her and have a million babies with her.”

Taylor smiled at his big brother. He had never seen him talk about anyone like that. His whole face changed.

“Hey, Ike?”

“Yeah.”

“Crazy idea. Um...but...there is something you could do that trumps mom and dad’s wishes. Hansons marry well but they also always do the right thing.”

Ike looked up from his hands and narrowed his gaze at his brother...surely he wasn’t talking about…

“Get her pregnant,” Taylor said, shrugging. “You want to have kids anyway, right? They won’t let you not marry her."

“You’re a genius.”

“I’m not, I’m just a guy that knocked up his teenage girlfriend.”

He thought about that night bitterly as he sipped his whiskey. Ike should be thanking him for the rest of his life for that suggestion. Now, Ike and Nikki could get married and be happy forever. Forever. Forever is so long, he thought as he saw Natalie marching up to him angrily.

“Hey,” he said, nonchalantly, trying to focus on Zac and Kate who were dancing like two reckless teens on the dance floor. That wasn’t much of a stretch. After all, Zac was barely out of his teenage years.

“What are you doing?”

“Standing.”

“Tay, you’ve had so much to drink tonight and it’s not even...dinner hasn’t even been served yet and you’re already wasted.”

“I am not, Nat come on. It’s a wedding.”

“Right, I know. You’re little brother’s wedding. And, once again, you’re making it all about you.”

“I am NOT. I’m just standing back here minding my own business.”

“Sure, but I saw you over there fighting loudly with Ike, it’s just a matter of time before you’re fighting with Zac, and apparently right now it’s my turn.”

“God, Natalie, put a pin in it,” he said as he rolled his eyes and gulped down the rest of his drink.

“I can’t believe you.”

“I can’t believe me either,” he said, a bit too loudly. A few heads turned to see them in the middle of an argument.

“What is that supposed to mean?!”

“Doesn’t this wedding remind you of anything, Natalie?! You can’t tell me you can’t see it.”

“What, our wedding? No, it doesn’t remind me of that because my husband isn’t looking at me like I’m a princess, he’s drunk and yelling at me in the middle of the reception.”

“Shut….STOP IT. I…” Taylor looked around wildly. Everyone was watching. Zac spotted him from the dance floor and was coming over. Ike was getting up from his table. He had to get out of there…

He stumbled around the church grounds for a few minutes until he found a bench. He sat down heavily and pulled out his phone. He didn’t even think before dialling Molly’s number.

The phone rang three times before she picked up.

“Tay?”

“Molly! Hi!”

“Hey, what’s up.”

“I’m um...I’m at Zac’s wedding.”

“Oh shit, that’s today! How’s he doing? Was it good?”

“It was fine, I don’t know...I hate weddings,” he said, finally giving away his state of being with a few slurs.

“Why? Also, are you drunk?”

“No.”

“Tay…”

“I’ve had some alcohol.”

Molly chuckled, “Okay, go on.”

“This wedding reminds me of my wedding and I feel like my heart is going to pound out of my chest.”

“Maybe you should stop drinking for an hour or two. That might help that feeling.”

“Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Hey! You’re a mean drunk!”

“Am not.”

“Are too! Go be with you’re family.”

“But I want to talk to youuuu,” he whined. She laughed loudly at that. God, he would never get over that laugh. “I love you, Moll.”

There was a pause on the other end of the line. A hesitation. He didn’t like that. “Go inside and be there for your little brother, Tay. You shouldn’t be talking to me.”

“But you’re the one that should be here with me. It should be you, it was...it was always you,” he said, stumbling over the consonants. All guards were down at this point. Nothing was being held back. “I love you so much. I think about our life together constantly. Nat and I...we fight all the time and it just...I can’t believe how many mistakes I’ve made and how this is my life now. I miss you. I miss you so much.”

“Tay…”

“It’s not fair. And here I am at this wedding, in Georgia, watching my brother marry my wife’s best friend and it’s like what the fuck is going on here? Do we have any control over our lives? I love you, Molly. This isn’t fucking fair.”

“I don’t have time for this.”

The line went silent. She hung up.

“FUCK!” He yelled into the darkness.

“Language!”

“Ike?”

“Yep. Come on. Let’s go get you some water.”

Chapter Text

June 11th, 2006 - Zac

The room was dark, except for the moonlight casting its glow over the bed. Zac stared up at the ceiling, unsure what to say. The window was cracked open and a warm breeze fluttered the curtains. He pulled the thin sheet up over his naked body and turned his head to look at Kate. She was already sitting up, her back to him, pulling on the shirt he had discarded moments ago. He felt cold.

They had been married for one week. The night of the wedding, there had been an endless stream of jokes about “consummating the marriage” and “popping out the little ones”. He had laughed along, making cracks about how Kate was a sure thing, now that she was stuck with him.

After the reception, they had retired to a sweet, quiet room in the finest bed and breakfast. Zac threw open the door and swept his new bride up into his arms, insisting he carry her over the threshold. He tried to seem confident, but he had never been more nervous.

He knew what he was supposed to do. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t been thinking about it. Kate was beautiful, especially that night, in her fitted gown. Since they’d reunited, they had spent plenty of time kissing and touching and fooling around over their clothes. Kate was a traditional girl and always insisted they save themselves for their wedding night. Zac respected her devoted conservatism and even agreed with it to an extent. Still, waiting hadn’t been easy. Nerves, be damned, he was ready.

Kate, however, had claimed she was too exhausted from the day.

“What’s one more night?” she has asked, looking up at him with puppy dog eyes. He was tired too, but he was prepared to rally. He thought about begging but that seemed pathetic. So, they’d changed out of their wedding attire and climbed into the bed, Kate falling asleep almost instantly.

The following days had been filled to the brim with family obligations, opening gifts, writing thank-you cards and moving into the new house they would share as man and wife. In the evenings, Natalie would come over and she and Kate would spend hours arranging cabinets and sorting through paint swatches.

Zac had tried to participate, but was quickly bored and even more frustrated. Was she avoiding him? Finally, he had devised a plan to get Kate all to himself.

“I’m taking you to dinner and movie,” he announced to her. “For our one-week anniversary!”

She had been delighted at the prospect, calling him romantic. He couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. What would she say if she knew he was doing it to get her in bed?

The night had been great. She had worn another formfitting dress and strappy heels. She’d been affectionate and flirtatious. He had never wanted her more. When they finally got home, she turned to him with a wicked flash in her eyes.

“How about tonight?” she growled. That was all it had taken. He was on her like a wild animal. Leaving her dress somewhere on the floor between the door and the bedroom, he’d ravished her all the way to their bed. He tried to slow down but he had no control anymore. His lust was in the driver’s seat, there was nothing he could do but enjoy the ride.

And it had been enjoyable. For him, at least. He’d lost himself completely, experiencing pleasure he never thought possible. He finally understood what all the fuss was about. He was in the club. He finally felt like a man, instead of a little boy.

After he’d finished, he looked down at Kate, expecting her to be blown away by the moment. Instead, she was looking away, a look of fear mixed with sadness on her face.

“Y..you okay?” he whispered. She looked up at him and nodded, forcing a grin that make his heart ache. Did he hurt her? Was she upset? He felt confused. He rolled over onto his back, trying to reconcile his feelings.

How had he messed this up?

***

Summer moved by like a wildfire. The memory of that night faded into the smoke and everyone was faced with the flames of planning another family wedding.

Zac loved Ike and Nikki together, but when they announced they were expecting, he had felt some of the same embarrassment he’d felt for Taylor. Or was it for himself? It seemed everyone was getting some but him.

Since the first time, now two months ago, he’d had sex with Kate twice. She had initiated both times and he’d decided that things were easier that way for now. At least things had improved since the first try. Kate had seemed to actually enjoy it. Zac spent too much time wondering if this was how all married couples were, but he didn’t dare ask anyone, especially Taylor. Taylor clearly had no issue getting laid.

Zac looked across the living room at his brother. He was sitting on the sofa with Ike and their father, looking relaxed and happy. Zac tried to fight the surge of envy he felt, but it was no use. He was getting tired of feeling alone while surrounded by his own family.

This warm August night, they had gathered at Taylor’s house on Nikki’s request to assemble party favors for the wedding guests. Everyone enjoyed Nikki’s “wedding prep” get-togethers because the girl knew how to make a party out of anything. Once the favors were complete, they sat around playing cards and looking at old photo albums, telling as many cringeworthy stories about Isaac as possible.

It was getting late and Natalie went to tuck the kids into bed. Zac watched Kate follow her. He was well aware that his wife told her best friend every detail of their private lives. Whenever they had a spat, Kate would bring up something Natalie had said about the issue. It made him crazy, but he didn’t see the point in arguing about it. It wasn’t going to change.

Zac didn’t feel like talking. He grabbed a soda from the fridge and stepped out onto the back porch. The night air was sticky and heavy. A large moth rammed itself into the porchlight over and over.

“I feel ya, man,” he said aloud to the moth, laughing at himself. A house full of family and he related most to an insect. He sat for a while, looking up at the dark sky, too clouded for stars. The sound of the porch door sliding open made him jump.

He looked up to find Natalie, looking tired and very pregnant. She was due any day with her third child. Zac wondered what she would do if she knew Taylor had someone else. It made him sad for her, but part of him also wondered if she would actually mind.

“What are doing out here alone?” she asked him with a sleepy smile.

“Well...watching this stupid bug for one,” he joked, gesturing toward the moth, as it bumped against the light again.

“Ah, fascinating,” she laughed, taking a seat next to him. “I’m so ready to meet this one!” She rubbed her belly and propped her feet up on the small table between them.

“Is that your way of saying you want him out of there?” Zac raised an eyebrow at her and she laughed and nodded. “You hear that, guy? You’re being evicted!” He talked to her belly, suddenly struck by the thought that, one day, he would be talking to his own child like this. Kate barefoot and read to pop; him, leaning over her, talking to a little life about to begin. He leaned back in his chair, simultaneously exhilarated and terrified.

“So, are you and Kate trying yet?” Natalie asked carefully. He shifted uncomfortably.

“Uh...yeah, I mean...I guess we are.”

“Look, I know you know we talk about it,” she said confidently. “Let’s not pretend otherwise. Kate actually asked me to talk to you.”

“Great,” Zac sighed, pushing his hands through his hair. He liked Natalie and he knew she was only doing what she thought was best for Kate. Still, there was nothing about this talk that felt appropriate.

“It’s nothing bad, Zac. It’s just that Kate wants you to take more initiative. In the bedroom.” He wanted to crawl under a rock and die. Natalie never broke eye contact. “She wants to feel like you want her. You know?”

“She couldn’t tell me this herself?” he asked sharply. He felt humiliated, being lectured by his brother’s wife about his sex life. Natalie took a deep breath, realizing she’d crossed a line.

“You two haven’t been married long. It takes time and work to get things right. That’s why she asked me to talk to you first, to get the ball rolling.” Zac could see that Natalie was struggling to make the situation sound less awful. She put her feet down in front of her and fidgeted with her bracelet. They sat in silence for a few endless moments.

Zac thought over the last few months, wondering what he had done to make Kate go to Natalie first. Had he been so focused on what he wanted that he missed what she needed? He felt the old, familiar flood of failure.

“Thanks,” he finally muttered. “I know it must be weird for you to do this.”

“Anything for you guys,” Natalie replied, clearly relieved by the break in silence. She tried to stand, her rounded tummy making it difficult. He stood and helped her up. She faced him and placed her hands on his shoulders, looking him square in the eye. “You can do this, Zachary.” She gave him an encouraging grin and padded back into the house.

Zac looked through the window at his family, jammed into the room, loving just being together. He wanted to be a part of that so badly. He watched Kate scoot over to make room for Natalie on the sofa.

He wondered what was wrong with him. Of course he wanted her. She was his wife. She had always been there for him, despite what he had put her through. She was the one that loved him and put up with his moodiness and indecision. He had been acting like a child, expecting her to make it all work.

He resolved in that moment to make up for lost time. She wanted to feel wanted? He would show her exactly what it was like to be wanted.

He threw open the sliding door with such force, it caused everyone to turn and stare at him. He didn’t care. He marched straight up to Kate and pulled her up from the sofa. Before she could protest, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her passionately. He heard a clamorous chorus of cheers and boos but he didn’t care about that either. He was making out with his wife and he didn’t care who saw.

At once, he felt her push against his chest, pulling away from his embrace. She stumbled backward, pushing her hair behind her ears.

“Zac...what are you doing?!” She glared at him, cheeks flushed with humiliation. “Your mother is sitting right there!” She was shouting. She was angry. Zac froze, not sure what to do next. He looked to Ike, who shrugged and tried to suppress a laugh. Taylor wouldn’t even look at him.

Kate ran from the room and Natalie moved to follow her.

“No,” Zac said to her, putting up a hand. “I’ll go.”

Chapter Text

July 8th, 2006 - Jillian

“How about here?” Jillian asked, holding the framed print up against the wall. Nick stood back and grimaced.

“It’s too much. Do we have to hang something on every wall? It’s going to look cluttered.”

Jillian sighed and pulled the frame to her chest. She and Nick had moved into the apartment three days ago and it still looked bare and cold to her. She had never shared her space before and knew it would be an adjustment. She hadn’t anticipated Nick would have such strong opinions about decor.

Since meeting in the nightclub, he had pursued her, despite her hesitation. He had taken things slowly and patiently, waiting for her to come around. When she finally broke down and accepted a date, the rest fell into place. He was confident, driven and mature. He was almost unrealistically attractive. He treated her like a princess, showering her with gifts and taking her on extravagant dates.

They had been intimate for the first time three months in and Jillian was pretty sure she fell in love with him that night. He’d been understanding, romantic and respectful; everything she had ever wanted for her first time.

When he asked her to move in with him, she jumped at the chance. He found a beautiful two-bedroom in a high-rise downtown and filled it with brand new furniture. It was tidy and modern with big windows, overlooking the bay.

Jillian never imagined she would live in a place like this, so if it meant letting Nick decide how to decorate, she could deal with that.

“How was work last night?” she asked, putting the frame onto a pile of others he’d rejected. He’d come home long after she’d gone to bed.

“It was busy! We had a few large parties with special menus, so I was running around putting out fires all night.”

“That’s what happens where you’re the big man in charge,” she flirted, wrapping her arms around his waist.

“I should have had you work. It was good money and Cara and Mark are shitty servers, turns out. That’s what I get for giving the new kids a shot.”

“You know you can’t just schedule me to work all the private events. What will people say?”

“That you get all the private events because you’re screwing your manager?” he teased. He put his hands on her face and kissed her sweetly.

“That’s exactly what they’ll say!” she laughed, poking him playfully in the chest.

He started tickling her and she squealed, trying to escape. He picked her up and tossed her into the loveseat, goofily pretending to attack her with a pillow.

“You’re gonna get it now!” he said, putting on a funny voice and raising the pillow triumphantly above his head.

“Stop! No, don’t!”

She was laughing so hard, she had tears streaming down her face. He collapsed onto her and wiped her tears away. She was still giggling, looking into his clear blue eyes. She couldn’t believe this was her life.

Her phone rang loudly from the coffee table and she moved to grab it, but he got there first.

“Its Molly,” he said, his whole demeanor changing from joy to irritation.

“Gimme!” she tried, still giggling. She knew he could be moody sometimes, especially if something interrupted their time together. She’d grown accustomed to just ignoring it.

“Do you have to answer it?” he whined. He was holding the phone just out of reach and something in his face made Jillian feel anxious.

“No...I can just call her back.”

He got up silently and she watched as he powered her phone down and placed in on the table.

“This is our only day off together. It would be nice if i didn’t have to share it with anyone else.”

His tone made her feel like she was in trouble. Jillian hated being in trouble. She spent most of her time avoiding trouble at all costs. She needed to diffuse this.

“I said it’s fine! I’m not going to call her today. Today is just for you and me.” She flashed him a smile and held out her hand to him. He reluctantly took it and she pulled him back down next to her.

“You understand, right?”

“Of course I do,” Jillian assured him. In the back of her mind, she pictured Molly, looking bewildered at her phone. It wasn’t often Jillian didn’t answer when she called. She was sure she would have a frantic email waiting for her.

And it would have to wait because Nick wanted her all to himself.

“How did you two even meet?” he asked much to Jillian’s surprise.

She had told him about Molly of course, but he had never shown any interest in the finer points of the their friendship. Jillian could tell that there was a part of Nick that was jealous of it. She had made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of time she spent talking about Molly to him, hoping to avoid any awkwardness. His question made her feel alive. Perhaps she could finally convince him to meet her.

“Well, I told you we met in middle school. We were both weirdos so we hit it off. She became a part of my family, I guess.” Jillian was flooded with memories of she and Molly as hopeful, silly kids, running the halls in high school, staying up all night on the weekends and seeking out their adventures.

“Weirdos, huh? Tell me more.” Nick rested his cheek on his hand and seemed genuinely interested. Jillian stared at him in disbelief.

“For real? You want to hear more about this?” she asked. He nodded. “Okay, well I, for one, was a theatre kid, which you know. I was awkward and bad at making friends. I got obsessed with weird stuff…”

“Like what?” he prodded.

“Uh….well, tv shows and stuff. Molly was obsessed with Hanson.”

“Who?”

“Hanson. The band...”

“Oh, wait, is that group of little boys from the 90’s who had that really annoying song?” Nick laughed, appearing very pleased with himself that he’d figured it out.

“Yeah, that’s them…” she smiled nervously, realizing she would have to elaborate. She lived with this man; the least she could do was tell him the truth. “I actually….um...sort of...dated one of them.” Nick’s face dropped. Jillian couldn’t believe she was telling him. Hearing the words aloud sounded like a different language somehow.

“Wait, you dated Hanson?”

“One of them, kind of. The youngest brother, Zac..” Jillian’s throat was dry. She looked to Nick, trying to gauge what he was thinking.

“Were you, like, a groupie or something?”

“No! God, nothing like that. Molly dragged me to a concert my senior year and we met them backstage. He...I mean Zac...and I kept in touch. Then, while I was at NYU, he moved to the city and we…”

“Sort of dated.” Nick finished her sentence. “Wow, that is...really embarrassing.” He was laughing. She didn’t know what reaction she’d expected but it wasn’t this. She felt her defenses go up. She felt a rush of dread come over her. She wanted to take her words back and shove them away someplace deep, so they could never resurface again.

“Embarrassing?” she asked, tentatively.

“Yeah! I mean, I wouldn’t tell anyone else that, Jill. You dated the little baby kid from a one-hit, nothing band. What did you guys do on dates, hold hands and drink milk shakes?” He was laughing harder. Jillian’s face was hot with shame.

“He was really sweet to me, Nick.” Her tone was enough to make him pause. He looked at her, his eyes watery from laughter. He put his hands on her knees and leaned forward.

“I’m sure, Jill. But at least now, you’ve got a real man and instead of sort-of dating you, he’s given you all of this.” He looked around the apartment proudly. “I want to meet Molly.”

“Really?” Jillian replied. “That’s great! Let’s have her over for dinner or something. I know she’s dying to meet you.” She was overjoyed when he agreed, but she also knew that if Molly heard him speak to her the way he just had, it wouldn’t end well for him.

“You know what? Go ahead and call her back. It’s okay just this once.” He flashed her that smile she couldn’t resist and handed over her phone. The importance he was placing on the moment was not lost on her and she made the active decision to be grateful. She opened up the phone and powered it on.

“Thanks,” she managed.

“Hey,” he said, laughing again. “Ask her if her favorite song is still MmmBop!”

***

It hadn’t taken much to convince Molly to come over. She had questioned Jillian incessantly about why it had taken her so long to ask. The week before their carefully planned dinner had dragged on. Jillian vacillated between anticipation and anxiety. Nick seemed relaxed and confident, setting out a menu and high-end wine pairings. Jillian tried to impress upon him that her best friend had no interest in such things, but he hadn’t listened. She figured there was nothing wrong with allowing him to show off a bit and she was flattered.

The night had finally arrived and Molly walked into the apartment, her eyes wide. She dropped her backpack on the floor and Jillian quickly retrieved it and placed it on the coat rack.

“Nick, come out here,” she called to him.

“Jill, this place is crazy!” Molly was already halfway into the living room, making herself at home. Jillian couldn’t contain her happiness. Molly was finally there, seeing her new life.

Nick entered the living room, wine glasses in hand. He stood beside Jillian, giving Molly the once-over. Jillian was suddenly and inexplicably uncomfortable. She took two of the wine glasses from him and breathed deeply.

“Nick, this is Molly. Molly, Nick.” She held a wine glass out to her best friend, with her hair wild and smile like the sun. “My two favorite people in one room? I’m so happy about this!” Jillian looked at Nick, then back to Molly, who still hadn’t taken her glass. They were staring each other down. Finally, Molly spoke.

“Nick, this is a crazy apartment. I can’t wait to be here all the time.” Jillian knew that tone. Molly was testing him. Nick predictably bristled and Jillian held her breath.

“It’s nice to meet you, Molly.” Nick took the glass from Jillian and put it into Molly’s hand. He clinked the glasses together and took a sip. Jillian looked at Molly, who looked at the glass, crinkled her nose, and put it down on the coffee table.

“I don’t like red wine,” she shrugged. “But thanks.” Jillian looked at Nick, who made a sound of disapproval. She moved to the coffee table and quickly shoved a coaster under Molly’s glass.

“Dinner will be ready in a few,” Nick announced crisply and marched back into the kitchen, leaving the girls alone in the living room.

“I didn’t mean to offend him,” Molly chirped.

“Oh, no, he’s not offended. It’s fine!” Jillian was so on-edge, she was struggling to be herself. She knew that Molly could tell. “Nick just likes people to be impressed.”

“Well, he should want to impress me because I have to make sure he’s worthy of you.”

“He’s really great, Moll. He’s taking really great care of me.” Jillian took a large swig of her wine, hoping it might calm her nerves.

“Jill, you can take care of yourself.” Molly plopped down onto the sofa.

“Well...yeah, I know, but….you know that I mean.” Another gulp of wine. Jillian could feel it making its way into her belly. She looked at Molly, who was clearly beginning to catch on.

“You’re happy, right?”

“Yes, Molly, I’m very happy.” She spoke with as much conviction as she could muster. Molly’s eyes narrowed for a moment. Almost on cue, Nick appeared, a heavy pour in his wine glass.

“Dinner is served. Here, we eat at the table like civilized adults.” Jillian knew this was Nick’s attempt at humor, but she also knew that Molly wouldn’t appreciate the condescending tone.

“I guess that means you’ll expect me to use a fork, too?”

Jillian glared at Molly, who was avoiding her eyes. Nick feigned a laugh. They all took their places around the dining room table. Jillian kept telling herself that they would get through this one awkward dinner and then Nick and Molly would hit it off. They both loved her so it only stood to reason that they would love each other. Right?

“So, Molly…” Nick started, draining half of his wine in one swig. “Jillian tells me you two were 90’s boy band stalkers.”

Jillian watched Molly’s face change. She shot a look at Nick, who was grinning with satisfaction.

This was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

September -- November 2006 - Molly and Taylor

September 10th, 2006

Molly,
We haven’t done letters in a while, have we? We also haven’t seen each other in a while, but that’s a topic for a different paragraph. I had to do some very mild stalking to figure out that you’re not in New York right now. You’re back in Tampa. How’s...that going? I can only imagine, because you’re you, that you’re wandering around your house bored out of your mind and pulling your hair out. I know when I stay at home between tour legs I want to die. So...I’m sure you’re having a great time.

I am, surprisingly, not dying of boredom at this moment even though we aren’t touring this year. We were in Africa a few months ago and it was, at the risk of sounding completely cliche, life changing. It inspired about a thousand songs. I cried myself to sleep every single night we were there. I can’t wait to go back. Sometimes I feel like if this whole touring musician thing doesn’t work out for me I could just move there and teach music to kids in the village we were staying in because I have never seen happiness quite like what I saw in the eyes of those kids when we sang with them. So...back up plan, I guess. It was amazing. I wish you could have been there.

Then of course, we are working on the new album. I can’t believe Underneath was 2 years ago. So much has happened since then, it feels like ten. This process is surreal because we’re our own bosses now. We were at the end of the last album, too, but now it’s all us. The whole time. It’s crazy and overwhelming and pretty exciting. I’ll probably be sending you lyrics to help fix. You’re better at it than me.

My son River was born a few days ago. I named him River because I’m apparently Hanson’s biggest fan and name all my kids after songs. Gross, huh? He looks a lot like his sister.

Talk soon,
Tay

***

September 19th, 2006

T,
You’re right, it has been a while since letters were our main form of communication. I miss it. I still have a lot of your letters from high school because I thought, even though no one knew I was getting letters from Taylor Hanson, I was the coolest because I was getting letters from Taylor Hanson. I know that I still have those letters because I am currently living in my childhood bedroom and I want to die. Not because I hate Tampa or my family, just because I keep finding things from my formative years that are highly embarrassing. Like all the Zac Hanson posters that used to hang on my wall, that I apparently have not thrown away, but instead stored in a pile in my closet. I’m just glad I don’t have any of my letters to YOU because I’m sure those are even more embarrassing than the ones you sent me. God, we flirted so hard and SO shamelessly. Anyway, being home is fine. You’re right, I am bored out of my mind, but I couldn’t afford to keep living in the city after graduation. So here I am, using my parents for free room and board. It’s a bit of a culture shock after being in Manhattan for four years. But the good news is that Jillian is here too! Thank GOD.

I have a few gigs going. I play piano at a church every Sunday for three services. I’m music directing the musical at my old high school. You know...putting that degree from JUILLIARD to really good use.

Africa sounds amazing. I would love to go visit you once you become the music teacher there. Sounds right up your alley. I’ll hopefully be able to travel again once I’m done paying off my debt from school. Oh wait, that will be never. Send me songs! As we’ve established, I’m dying of boredom, so I would love something to take my mind off of the job search/the void. I miss writing music with you. Well...our weird email/letter/phone call version of writing.

Write back, I’m happy you didn’t forget about me in all the craziness.
-Molly

PS - I can’t believe you named your kid RIVER. Well, actually I can because I know who you are as a person. But still. You’re ridiculous.

***

October 2nd, 2006

M,
Why did you have so many Zac posters? I don’t know how to feel about that.

Sorry I haven’t sent you ANY music to listen to. It’s been a crazy few months in Hanson-land. Ike just got married a few days ago! It was a great little ceremony. It was a much different feeling than the palpable tension at any other wedding this family has had. Oh, I haven’t even told you about Zac’s, have I? Well...it was a day that happened. But anyway, Ike and Nikki seem really happy and in love and all the things you expect to see from a bride and groom. I’m so happy for them. She’s pregnant (we are so predictable, aren’t we?) and Ike couldn’t be more excited to be a dad. It’s really sweet.

In other news, now that we’re officially all married off, we can really dig into this new record. It’s going to be awesome, and I can’t wait to actually get going. I have way too many ideas. We started writing for the album at the beginning of the year, when we had a bunch of songwriter friends come to Tulsa to hang out and make music. I’ll send you songs to listen to as soon as I actually sit down and play some. I can’t believe how little time I have spent at the piano these days. I guess that’s what having three kids will do to a man.

I could never forget about you, and you know it.
Write back, I’ve missed the letters.
-Tay

***

October 12th, 2006

Tay,

I had Zac posters because I was a self professed Zac girl. He was my favorite brother, what can I say? It was weird though, when I first went to see Hanson, he didn’t really give me the time of day. Then some other boy pulled me away from him...so rude. Anyway, definitely thought I was gonna marry him when I was 12. Damnit, Kate.

You haven’t told me about Zac’s wedding whilst sober, but you did call me that night and fill me in a little bit. Do you remember? I would not blame you if you didn’t because you were pretty drunk. Which immediately caused ME to get plastered so it was definitely a really classy night for both of us. Tell me more about it though, I’m starved for gossip. Do you like Nikki? How far along is she? Do each of you want seven kids, or what? Sheesh.

Sorry we haven’t really been talking much until these letters lately. I was trying to graduate and I got extremely stressed out and busy (You know me!!)...and it sounds like you were pretty busy too. I also definitely had the thought that since you were all getting married and having kids and going to Africa and getting on with your lives, it was time for me to fade away gracefully. Sometimes I wonder if this is all just a disaster waiting to happen. But then you write me a letter and I’m overwhelmed by how much I love talking to you and how much I miss you. Wow, that’s quite enough sentimentality for today, yuck. It’s been what...two years? Can I see you soon? Now it’s my turn to sound a little desperate.

Send me songs, weirdo. My email is MollyMcK@gmail.com in case you don’t have it. Miss your face.
-M.

***

To: MollyMcK@gmail.com
From: JTaylorHanson@3cgrecords.com
Subject: Be nice to me and my songs!
October 27th, 2006

I attached a few recordings of songs. It’s just me and piano, so be kind.

I was going to respond to your letter with a letter but I’m already sitting down and typing so I’ll just email you. You were a Zac girl?? Why am I just now hearing about this? You would think it would come up. How dare I ever get in the way of what was clearly the great love story of our generation. Maybe there’s still time. We all know that his marriage is doomed anyway (did I say that? Whoops. You didn’t hear it from me).

Oh GREAT, I even asked Isaac to keep my phone away from me that night because I knew I would call you. How did I not realize I did that? How did I get it from him? I have...so many questions. I sincerely apologize for anything and everything I said that night. Unless it was a beautiful and honest and heartfelt profession of love, because then I completely remember it. But I highly doubt it was. So...sorry.

Ummmm...gossip. Well. I really DO like Nikki a lot. She’s awesome and Ike is still head over heels. I was actually really afraid that somehow my family would sabotage their relationship and they wouldn’t get married but...now they’re married! So yeah, I’m really happy for them. Other than that, Zac and Kate have been married for a couple months and it’s all painfully familiar. Zac doesn’t seem particularly happy and honestly, neither does Kate which reminds me a lot of the first few months of my own marriage. Also, Kate and Natalie tell each other everything, which is...interesting. Natalie probably told her that when they fight, just get pregnant. That seems to be her solution, anyway. I’m surprised Kate isn’t pregnant already. Wow I feel like I’ve been talking a lot about my life, tell me about yours. Please?

And hey, it’s okay that you got busy. I clearly did too. I would love to NOT have seven children. Three is nearly doing me in. Sleep? What is sleep.

It’s been about two years and if it wasn’t for these letters I would be going absolutely insane. We just talked about doing that songwriter’s weekend again this coming year. Want to come? You’re a songwriter...right? Come to Tulsa. February. Let’s make some music. ;)

-Tay

Ps- that was an innuendo.

***

To: JTaylorHanson@3cgrecords.com
From: MollyMcK@gmail.com
Subject: Makin' music
October 27th, 2006

T,
That does sound fun. Innuendo or not. Maybe I could carve some time out of my incredibly busy schedule and...come to Tulsa! I’ve never been, you know.

I’m so happy for Isaac and Nikki! And you realize how scary it sounded when you said you thought your family would sabotage that relationship. What the hell? Are you all the mafia or something? Weirdos.

YIKES about Zac and Kate. I will make a point to...NOT tell Jillian about that little detail. Between you and me, I think she’s still in love with him. What is with you boys and best friends. It’s weird, and frankly I think you should look into it. My life is NOT EXCITING SO I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU’RE ASKING. I have to go to rehearsal. Rehearsal for a high school production of Once Upon a Mattress. This is my life now.

I HAVE A DEGREE FROM JUILLIARD.
Bye, love you. I'll call you to discuss the songs...if that's cool.
-M

***

To: JTaylorHanson@3cgrecords.com
From: MollyMcK@gmail.com
Subject: :)
November 1st, 2006

Just bought a plane ticket. See you in February. <3
-M

Chapter Text

February 7th, 2007 - Taylor

“Welcome to Tulsa,” Taylor said loudly when he saw Molly descend the escalator into the baggage claim area. He spread his arms open and she bounded towards him, her backpack bouncing and her hair streaming behind her wildly. She crashed into him, their hug garnering looks from a few passers by. They both knew they couldn’t assault each other with kisses, but the hug would do for now.

“It’s so good to see you!!” She said, her face still buried in the crook of his neck. How had it already been this long? They had to get better at this.

“It’s good to see you too! I missed you. A lot.”

They held each other at arm's length, too excited to to do much else but look at the other. Taylor knew Molly had been looking forward to this week for months and, honestly, the moment he got the email saying she had bought her plane ticket, his whole world started shining a little brighter.

“Um...let’s go get your bag!” He said, finally pulling them out of their lovesick trance. “Then we have to go straight to the house. Everyone’s already there and Ike is probably already drunk.”

“It’s only 5pm!”

“Your point?”

They grabbed Molly’s suitcase and headed out to the parking lot.

“Hey…” Taylor said, when they finally got into his car. Molly was already strapping herself in, but she turned to look at him excitedly.

“Yeah?”

Taylor leaned forward and kissed her deeply as a response. She leaned into it, his stubble tickling her cheeks and chin.

“Sorry I couldn't do that sooner,” he said when they finally came back up for air.

“That’s okay. I understand.”

“I really...I really missed you, Moll.”

“I...missed you too, we’ve been over this.”

“I know. I just...need you to know that I mean it.”

“I know.” She grabbed his face with both hands and kissed him back.

They spent the next fifteen minutes or so making out in his car like the teenagers they were when they first met. Taylor thought about it a lot. Probably way too often. How if they had just been in the same place during their teenage years, if Molly had been from Tulsa, if they went to the same church or frequented the same coffee shops, if they had shared their first kiss under the bleachers of the baseball field, if they had more time...

“You’re thinking too hard,” Molly said after breaking the kiss yet again.

“How did you know that?”

She shrugged and nodded towards the steering wheel. “Let’s go.”

***

Taylor closed his eyes as sweat began to form on his temples. This was maybe his favorite thing. Sitting at the piano, his friends behind him, creating something out of nothing. He smirked when he saw Zac and Carrick making faces at each other, Zac carrying his bongos to every person in the room, getting in their space, and acting like a hyper child. Zac was always so happy when he got to spend time with his best friend. It was a marked difference from his home life.

“So are nightly jam sessions gonna be a thing, cause I could get used to that…” Molly yelled over the instruments as she brought Taylor another beer. He nodded furiously, and pulled her down to the piano bench so that she was seated next to him. She took a swig of one of the gin and tonics Ike kept making for her and cracked her knuckles, fire in her eyes. A grin started spreading on Taylor’s face. He watched in awe as she took the chords he had been pounding and wove them into something completely new. Her fingers flew up and down the keys, and soon the song was hers. She took control.

He watched her, forgetting how to play for the first time in his life. He realized he had never seen her play music, not really. Not like this. Her head bobbed and thrashed. It was like watching a possession, her entire being becoming one with the melody. She flung her hair back wildly when it got in her face, which was often. Taylor would soon learn that when she wrote, she tied her hair back, but when she performed, it became part of the music. He would also learn that a few drinks made her abandon any self consciousness she ever possessed, and if she knew how to do one thing, it was play that keyboard. He would learn that she wrote her best stuff in the morning, and that she drank coffee like the world was running out of it. He learned that she paced when she wrote, and shook her hands out when she messed up. She slashed through space. She tore pages. She flung her body around recklessly. God she’s good, he thought, pulling his own fingers away from the keys and watching her.

“What are you doing?!” She yelled, looking over at him without missing a beat.

“You’ve got this, I think,” he chuckled, looking back at his brothers to make sure they were fully aware of this force at the piano.

“Keep playing those chords, weirdo! This isn’t a solo.”

The night grew older and more than enough alcohol was consumed by everyone in attendance. Ike made sure no one’s glass was ever empty, for better or for worse. Molly ended up drumming by the end of the night, kicking Zac off of his kit.

“It’s a leftie kit!”

“And?” She said, raising one eyebrow at him as she began to drum.

“Damnit, of course you can do that too.”

“I went to Juilliard, bitch!” she yelled over the din of the music. Taylor’s stomach hurt from laughing so hard. He hadn’t felt this light in...well years, he guessed.

“Who is she?” Carrick asked, as he set his guitar down. It was closing in on three in the morning, and the only people still playing were Molly and Zac, fighting over the kit and laughing so hard they could barely breathe. They were putting on quite the show, and she was surprisingly giving him a run for his money.

Taylor shrugged and finished the dregs of his beer. “A musician friend of mine. I met her a while back. In um...during one of our tours.”

“Did she open for you guys?”

“Nah, it was a chance meeting.” He caught Molly’s eye and she stuck her tongue out at him.

“Taylor, get your woman off of my drums!” Zac shouted. Taylor winced, hoping no one would realize what he meant, but everyone seemed too deliriously loopy to really care. She had already charmed everyone, anyway. In a matter of hours, she had the whole group smiling like idiots, most of all Zac who was already teasing her like a little sister. How did they become friends so fast? Taylor shook his head in wonder. Weaseling her way into all of our lives.

“C’mon Moll, let’s wrap it up,” Taylor said, unable to stop chuckling.

“Noooo, I just got on the drums!!” She whined, sticking her lower lip out and giving him puppy dog eyes.

“You can play more tomorrow. Zac, tell her she can play more tomorrow.”

“No, dude, get your own drum set!”

“Zachary!!” She yelped as he pushed her off the stool, causing her to topple to the ground in a heap of hair and giggles. “You’re the worst!!”

“Shut up, you love me. Taylor told me you were a Zac girl.” He kicked her playfully, tears of laughter in his eyes.

Molly stayed on the ground laughing as Zac picked the beat back up. “Play us out, Tay!” He called over to his brother, who was looking at the scene with delight sparkling in his eyes.

“No, no, let me do it!!” Molly shot up from the ground and nearly crashed into the piano, ending the night with a grand, dramatic, plagal cadence, which...Taylor would learn...was her favorite kind.

***

“Will we make it through this time?
In the space between this moment and the first concession,
I will always be here standing in the doorway.
Please don’t say you don’t want to try
I’ll be waiting in the space between”

Taylor and Molly had written plenty of songs on speaker phone, singing the same phrases back and forth to each other. They would send each other lyrics or demos, or even just snippets of melodies asking “what do you think?” or “should I change that word?” Molly had a knack for fixing Taylor’s part writing. Taylor had a knack for finding just the right word. It was an ebb and flow that they they had only ever experienced over the phone or behind screens. But here they were, Molly at the piano, Taylor with a guitar.

They were both buzzing. From caffeine, from excitement, from their racing hormones (they felt like sixteen year olds in heat the whole week, they couldn’t keep their hands or mouths to themselves). Taylor’s hands were shaking on the strings, and he kept getting nervous when he looked over at the girl at the keys. She looked so at home there.

“I feel like this is summer camp. Even though it’s February,” she blurted out, laughing at herself. Loudly. As usual.

“A little bit, yeah.”

“I mean...it feels like a music camp, which I have been to many. But don’t you feel like there’s something...I don’t know. I feel like I’m in high school again, or at least college. My dad would tell me all these crazy stories about his time at Juilliard and the drunken escapades and the late night jam sessions but that literally never happened for me at school. I practiced constantly. I was never not stressed out. But this,” she motioned around to the empty room, signifying the entire experience, “I feel like this is what I was looking for that whole time. Playing into the night just for the love of it. Getting high on melodies and bleeding songs out of your fingers for hours until you can’t see straight just because you can.” She was getting incredibly worked up, which made Taylor’s mouth twitch into a smile. “This is what I want to do, this is what it’s about.” She threw her head back and closed her eyes. When they popped open she looked at Taylor. “Okay I got that out of my system, let’s go on.”

It wasn’t surprising that they were writing a song about them. The two of them, the messy but beautiful thing that they called their love. A lot of waiting, a lot of unwarranted trust, a lot of hoping the other wouldn’t forget what it felt like when they were together. A lot of space in between. Taylor was positive that everyone there knew they were fucking. Surely they could smell it on them. He was mostly worried about was Carrick, since he was close to the family. He didn’t want any rumors getting started…even if they were true.

“Want to switch?” Molly said, ripping Taylor out of his thoughts. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What? Oh nothing. What?”

“Do you want to switch? I feel like you want to be at the keys.”

“Oh...yeah sure.”

Taylor slid onto the bench and handed Molly his guitar. She strapped it on and started strumming, humming a bit of melody that neither of them could get out of their heads.

“I think that’s the verse…” Taylor mumbled.

“Yeah, for sure.”

“Morning lingers till the coffee cools my fingers
I’m still hoping for some answers
Floating with unknowing waiting as the glowing day
floods quiet through the blinds”

“Ugh, I love internal rhymes,” Molly said as she paced behind Taylor.

“I have more…”

“Go!”

“Waking, I can hear the freeway like an instant replay
I’ve been trying to forget
I meant to tell you that I’m sorry
Now my hesitation fills me with regret.”

“Taylor…”

“What?”

“That’s really sad.”

“Well it’s kind of a sad song, Moll.”

“I know. Sorry. This is all very new to me. I’ve never...written a song about a person with that same person. Also writing the song. It’s…”

“Yeah, it’s wild.”

“Do you really feel that way?”

“What way?”

“That you want to tell me you’re sorry and that you’re filled with regret?”

“...Yes.”

He realized he was still playing the chords. It was like a buffer. If he was playing music, maybe saying the words wouldn’t be so hard.

“For what?”

“For...I don’t know, for everything? I’ve treated you like shit! I...I wrote you on the night of my wedding to tell you I loved you. But I still married her, Molly. I still...I still fucking married her and now I’m in too deep. I just...I want to be with you. I see you play out there with my friends and it’s like you’re...you’re not an angel, Molly, you’re a fucking hurricane.” He let his fingers drop from the keys and turned around to face her. “You’re a force of nature on the piano and with every other instrument you pick up. You...you’re the only person I’ve ever actually been nervous to play around. I can barely catch my breath when I see you play.”

He saw her face twitch. He needed to quit stroking her ego, but he couldn’t stop rambling. We’re made for each other, he thought to himself. Neither of us ever shuts the fuck up.

She sat down on the bench and kissed him. If this was summer camp, then they were the two high school seniors, relishing their last summer before college and getting caught making out in the pool shed and…

“Keep playing,” she said, practically growling.

“Wh...what?”

“Keep playing the song.”

Taylor furrowed his brow but placed his fingers back on the keys. His eyes widened as she slid down from the bench, planting herself between his feet, right in front of the sustain pedal. What the fuck is she -- “Oooooh my God.” He said, gasping as she unzipped his pants. “Fuck, Molly.”

“Keep. Playing.”

“Demanding.”

“You love it.”

Taylor blushed (He blushed. What was wrong with him?!) at her words, but obeyed her command. His eyes fluttered and rolled back in his head as he felt her lips on him. “Fuuuuuck,” he threw his head back in ecstasy, hoping years of playing the piano would help his hands go on autopilot as he became entranced by a completely different rhythm. His hips lifted every so often to match her pace. His mind was reeling. He couldn’t believe this was happening. Here. Now. With Molly. He was getting close (Calm down, Tay, you never come this fast) but he couldn’t help it. It was almost too much…”Fuuuu--”

“Hey Taylor?” Carrick flung the door open and Molly immediately hit her head on the underside of the piano. Taylor yelped, hopefully covering up the sound, tears in his eyes.

“S….sorry Care. You um...you just surprised me. I was really getting into it there.”

Molly snorted softly and Taylor kicked her. She squeezed his leg, trying her best not to laugh.

“Oh, no problem. Um...I thought you were writing with Molly today.”

“I am...was… she um...stepped out for something.”

“Oh okay. Well we could use her on keys for our song if she wants to stop by after you finish.”

Another snort. Goddamnit Molly, Taylor thought, convinced that Carrick now believed him to be certifiably insane.

“I’ll let her know.”

“Okay. Thanks. Um...Thanks, Tay.”

“No problem.”

“Oh and Tay?”

“Yeah?”

“We all know you’re fucking. I also know that she’s under the piano. You’re cool. Zac told me everything. My lips are sealed.” He chuckled and closed the door behind him.

“Oh my GOD!” Molly shrieked, immediately dissolving into a fit of laughter.

“I’m going to kill you.”

“You are not!! Oh my God that was so funny. HA!!” She toppled over onto the ground and wriggled her way out from underneath the keys. She clutched her stomach, trying her best to catch her breath.

“You owe me,” he grumbled, laying down next to her on the ground.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll give you like three blow jobs tonight but wow, that was worth it. That was WORTH IT. Oh man. I’m dying. I’m dying, Taylor, I’m dying.” Finally her giggles got to him, and before they knew it they were both crying from laughing. “I feel like I’m going to throw up I’ve been laughing so hard,” she said, wiping her face. “I never want to leave.”

Taylor’s whole body was sore from happiness.

“Me either.”

Chapter Text

March 26th, 2007 - Zac

Ike pulled the car up to the door and threw it into park. Zac reached around the passenger’s seat to grab his backpack, then took his coffee from the cup holder.

“Thanks for the ride, Ike.”

“You’re welcome as always. Same time tomorrow?” Zac’s oldest brother was perfecting his pity-stare during the daily rides to and from the office.

“Sure, man,” Zac answered, avoiding eye contact. He reached for the door handle as Ike spoke again.

“You...you alright?”

“Here we go!” Zac barked, sitting back in his seat. He figured he might as well let this conversation happen. It was an inevitability and Ike wouldn’t let it go until it happened.

“Woah, I’m not giving you a lecture here. I just want you to know that I’ve noticed.”

“Noticed what, exactly?”

“I’ve noticed that you’re different. Last month, at Fool’s Banquet, you were relaxed. You were having fun. Hell, you were even happy! And now that we’re home…”

“Ike, can I ask you something?” Zac interrupted. His brother froze for a moment, unprepared for what was coming.

“Anything.”

“What do you think about Taylor’s….situation?”

“You mean Molly?” Ike asked carefully and Zac nodded. They both stared through the windshield, the sky filled with the vivid pinks, purples and blues of dusk. “I think we all have moments in our lives where we made choices that turned out not to be the right ones. Sometimes those choices were based in things in or out of our control, but they are choices we made, either way.”

“I don’t need a life lesson, Isaac. I’m asking you what you think about our brother having an affair.” Zac was trying not to sound overly emotional. “Because, I gotta tell you, I’m really jealous of what Tay and Molly have.”

Hearing his words aloud made him feel a mixture of relief and guilt. Fool’s Banquet had been a glorious reprieve from everyday life. He had been free to do what he wanted to do, without dwelling on regret. He played music into the night, goofed off with his best friend and watched Taylor come alive with Molly by his side. Now that he was home, things were worse than he had left them.

Ike was speechless, holding the steering wheel with both hands, his head bent in contemplation. Zac wanted out. He grabbed the door handle and hauled himself out of the car.

“Zac!” Ike finally spoke. “I’m here whenever you want to talk.”

Zac nodded at him and shut the door. He threw him a wave and watched the car pull away. He let himself into the house and jumped when he noticed Kate sitting on the stairs, waiting for him.

“Is there something you want to tell me?” she asked. She looked like she had been crying.

“What?!” He was utterly confused. Had she heard him in the car? Not possible.

“I know there was a girl at your little music retreat.” She glared at him and he felt exposed. He didn’t dare confirm her statement. He wondered how she even knew. He wondered what she knew.

“I...I don’t…” he stammered, not sure what he should say.

“Just tell me nothing happened.” She was standing, facing him, her arms crossed tightly.

“Happened? What do you mean?”

“Tell me nothing happened between you and her, Zachary.”

“Wow!” He was stunned. He’d been racking his brain, trying to place how she would know about Taylor and Molly, when she was assuming he was the one being unfaithful.

“Tell me!” she shouted, tears in her eyes.

“Kate, nothing happened! The girl was just a musician friend. She was there writing music, just like the rest of us.” He waited for her expression to change. Did she believe him? He couldn't tell. “I can’t believe you would even ask me that.” She rolled her eyes, making it clear to him that he had chosen the wrong words.

“It’s something I have to ask, Zac.” She pushed her long, dark hair behind her ears, fighting back tears. “You’ve been back for days and you’ve barely touched me.”

She was right. Since returning, he’d been moody and distracted. A lot of it had to do with Molly. Watching her with his brother made him feel profoundly sad. It had confirmed for him that marriage was fallible. Everyone always talked about doing “the right thing”. But it seemed that the “right thing” led to many more “wrong things” in the end. He didn’t want to have to look outside of his marriage for happiness.

Zac pulled his wife into his embrace and she wrapped her arms around him tightly. She buried her face in his chest and sobbed.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, petting her head gently. “I really suck at this.”

She looked up at him, her face red and puffy. He wiped her damp cheeks, his heart heavy with guilt for making her cry.

“I’m sorry too.”

She hugged him closely again. She was letting him off the hook and he knew it. He didn’t deserve it. He knew it was up to him to make this work. She was doing her part. He needed to get out of his head and grow up. He was a married man and it was time he started acting like it.

He caressed her back and kissed the top of her head. She looked up at him with watery eyes and he pushed his hands up the back of her sweater. She shivered and pulled him to her, kissing him urgently. He was prepared to take her right there, on the staircase, but she stopped him.

She tore off her skirt and top, tossing them onto the floor. She turned and scampered up the stairs into the bedroom. He ran after her, determined to make things right this time.

***

Zac awoke to the smell of bacon wafting through the house. He rolled over and rubbed his eyes against the sunlight peeking through the blinds. Kate’s side of the bed was empty. He wondered how she always managed to be up and about so early.

He managed to get up and trapsed to the bathroom. He looked, bleary-eyed, at his reflection in the mirror. He had sex hair. He tried to pat it down, but it had a mind of his own. He relieved himself, then pulled on a shirt and a pair of boxers and headed to the kitchen.

Kate was dressed, her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. She was stirring scrambled eggs on the stovetop. There was a bowl of fresh fruit salad and full pot of coffee on the counter. He wondered how long she’d been up.

“Morning!” she cooed. He moved to stand behind her and nibbled on her neck. She giggled and swatted at him. “Stop, I’ll burn the eggs!” He smiled and crossed to pour himself a cup of coffee. He felt like a different person. Something about the night before had changed things. He felt happy. Kate was beaming. He felt like he’d finally gotten something right.

They enjoyed the breakfast spread, making eyes at each other between bites. Zac couldn’t wait to finish, drag her back into bed and mess up that ponytail. He formulated a plan and watched her as she finished the last bit of fruit salad on her plate. She wasn’t even done chewing, when she jumped up from the table, ran into the other room, and returned with a large desk calendar.

Zac started looking for a plan B, unconcerned with whatever she was doing. Maybe he would tackle her right there, clearing off the table with a swipe of his arm, not bothering to pull the blinds closed.

“Hello?” She was staring at him and he realized he hadn’t been listening.

“What?” he asked, innocently.

“What do you think about the calendar?” She waited expectantly.

“Its...it’s nice,” he shrugged. “What is it for?”

“Like I said,” she said, clearly a bit annoyed to be repeating herself. “It’s so we can keep track. We can call it 'date night'.” Zac stared at the calendar. He looked at Kate. He wasn’t following.

“What is 'date night'?” he asked, suddenly feeling uneasy.

“The nights we reserve for making love,” she answered bluntly. She was grinning proudly and pointing to a square exactly one week away. She had drawn a little red heart just below the date. “Lots of couples do it, Zac. This way, we’ll always be sure to make time for each other. No matter whats going on in our lives, we’ll have these days.”

It wasn’t like it didn’t make sense. Zac knew it was important to maintain their sex life. After all, things were finally off to a good start. He could make a schedule work. He could. Perhaps it would even make things easier.

“Great. That’s great, babe.” He smiled and she looked pleased with herself. She crossed over to him and sat on his lap, wrapping her arms around his shoulders.

“I’m so glad you like it!” She kissed him playfully on the cheek. “Anyway, a schedule can be really useful when you’re trying to make a baby.”

With that she hopped up and began cheerfully clearing the table. Zac felt the familiar well of anxiety bubble deep within. He looked down at the calendar she’d left on the table, the little red heart taking on a whole new meaning.

Chapter Text

July 24th, 2007 - Molly

“Shit, sorry...SORRY!!” Molly yelled at the car she cut off, as though the driver could hear her through both of their windows. She tried her best to look apologetic as she pulled into the parking spot that wasn’t rightfully hers. She had been counting down the days until Taylor’s new album came out, hoping that some of the songs written during the Fool’s Banquet would make their way to the record. She knew that would be cutting it close, but it wouldn't be the first time they had squeezed last minute songs onto an album. She couldn’t wait to rip open the CD, look at the booklet, and see her name there next to Taylor’s.

She flung open the doors to the record store, where she spent more and more time these days, trying to find any reprieve from bumming around her house. “Hey Molly,” Dave said from the register without even looking up. He probably saw the flailing limbs and wild hair out of the corner of his eye and knew it was Molly on a mission.

“Hey.”

“We literally just opened, you know that right?”

“I do. Where’s your new shipment.”

“Paxton is putting it up back there,” Dave said, motioning with his shoulder. He was reading the paper and drinking a fresh cup of coffee, clearly not ready for any customers quite yet. “Wait, what are you looking for? We only got a couple things.”

The Walk. It’s Hanson’s new record.”

“Oh right, I forgot. You’re one of those,” Dave replied with a smirk. He had owned this record store for over a decade, and could remember a gangly Molly Mckenney banging on the door at 8am asking if she could could in an nab a copy of This Time Around. “Yeah it’s back there.”

“Thanks, Dave, you’re truly a national treasure.”

“I try, ya know. I really try.”

Molly practically skipped to the back, where she found Paxton placing copies of The Walk on the shelf of new releases. She grabbed the CD out of his hands and squealed involuntarily. “Thanks, Pax!”

“...Hanson fan?”

Paxton had been working at the shop for about a year and wasn’t as well versed in Molly’s musical tastes as Dave. He tried his best to flirt and had a band that he desperately attempted to bring up whenever Molly was in the store. She had yet to go to a gig, even though she often promised she would try her best every time. Molly couldn’t help but fixate on his long blonde hair (even though it was clearly bleached) and the fact that in some light his green eyes looked blue, so she always made up an excuse not to go.

“I am! Have been since the beginning.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that.”

“I’m a complicated woman, Pax.”

“I guess so. You’re here early.”

“I had to get this CD! Do you mind if I open it here? HEY DAVE??” She yelled up to the front, “I’M GONNA BUY THIS I PROMISE.”

“Mmmmhmmm…” she heard him reply as she tore at the plastic wrap and opened the case. She scoured the booklet quickly. Surely Taylor put in the song they wrote together. She didn’t see it on the track list. Maybe he changed the title, she thought, or they reworked the song completely. She knew how the guys got when they were locked in the studio together for days on end. Things always changed.

“So what are you doing this weekend?” Paxton asked, attempting to sound casual as he continued to unload the box of CDs.

“Ummm..not much, I guess,” Molly replied, pouring over the lyrics of each song. Great Divide, okay he wrote that about Africa. Been there Before, I remember him talking about that...a song about songs, Taylor’s favorite. Georgia…

...you know that you’ve been on my mind, Georgia...we’ve both learned to compromise, I’ll be there for you when everybody’s coming unglued, I’ll be there for you, I won’t say you have to choose...cause I don’t want to let you go.

“My band is playing tonight if you wanted to stop by. Molly?”

“...What?”

“You should come to my gig tonight.”

Molly looked up from the booklet, meeting Paxton’s hopeful gaze. “Um...Yeah. I could do that.”

***

After spending the rest of the afternoon combing over the lyric booklet for any hint of the memories she and Taylor made earlier that year, Molly threw the CD case across her bedroom and cranked up music that was not Hanson. She changed into something other than her daily t-shirt and shorts and attempted to make her curls lay in a orderly manner. She thought about texting Jillian to see if she wanted to go to this gig with her, but she second guessed herself. She needed some alone time with music.

“I’m overreacting,” she mumbled to her reflection. “I’m definitely overreacting. This isn’t even about you, Molly. Stop making it about you.”

She had listened to the CD once all the way through. It didn’t really have any love songs on it. Not even sad ones. In any other context, Molly would have liked that. She wasn’t super sappy. When she and Jillian listened to music, Jillian would always yelp and frown when Molly skipped over all the slow love ballads. But after Underneath, where she could find herself hiding in nearly every track, this new batch of songs was a shock to her system. No love songs...except Georgia, and Molly wasn’t an idiot. She was a lot of things, but she wasn’t ignorant enough to miss the fact that this song was clearly written for Taylor’s wife - I just want to let you know that it’s only just our little back and forth lately.

But it was fine. She needed to get out of the house, and then it would be fine. She couldn’t let herself stay in and obsess over every lyric. Because she would. She absolutely would if given the chance. She couldn’t really pinpoint how she was feeling. There had to be a word for it, but she hadn’t found it yet. Overwhelmed? Angry? She couldn’t quite place it.

“Where are you off to?” Her mom asked as she made her way towards the front door.

“Going to a friend’s gig. Don’t wait up.”

“Call me if you need a ride home.”

“I’ll be fine, Mom.” Molly rolled her eyes and shut the door, taking a deep breath. She needed this. She needed to go to a rock show (even if it was just a lame gig at a bar) and feel the drum beats shaking her core. Shit, what does Paxton even play? She asked herself...>Surely guitar right? Every guy that looks like that plays guitar.

She got to the bar and immediately ordered a drink, even after telling herself not to on the way there (You can’t get drunk when you’re sad, you just get more sad). She glanced up at the small stage, expecting to see Paxton front and center with a guitar strapped to his body and leaning into the mic, but instead he was seated a keyboard.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t he be a piano player?” she said out loud, the music thankfully drowning out every word. She took a seat at a high top near the back and nursed her gin and tonic, looking up at this rip off version of the man she loved. It was almost comical. If she squinted...she could almost fool herself. He was good. Not spectacular or even great, but he could play. She ordered another drink as soon as she finished up her first.

When the set finally ended, she saw him approach. He had caught her eye not long after she arrived and she stuck her tongue out at him playfully.

“You came!”

“I did!”

“How are you liking it? Do we suck?”

“Wow what a lead off. No, Pax, you do not suck.”

“Well I don’t know, Miss Juilliard over here.”

“Shut up!”

“I’m gonna get a drink, you want another?” Molly looked down at her glass. She hadn’t meant to finish her third but here she was, only one set in and buzzing. She felt reckless, a side effect of the complete lack of control she had in her life currently. Yeah, reckless. That’s how I feel.

“Yeah, why not. How long is your break.”

“As long as we want. I’ll be right back.”

She watched as Paxton got himself a beer and brought back the drinks. He was nice. He had to be younger than her. She realized with horror that she really didn’t know anything about him.

“So, Miss Molly, tell me something about yourself,” he said when he returned.

“Um...well….I play piano.”

“No shit, Sherlock. How was that CD?”

“What?”

“The CD you got today.”

“Sucked,” she said, gulping down her drink. It did not suck, but she wanted to be bitter for a few minutes, at least.

“Wow I thought you loved Hanson.”

“I do, it’s just...I don’t know.”

“When I was younger everyone said I looked like one of them. The one with long hair.”

“They all had long hair.”

“The main one with long hair. Um...the middle one.”

Molly nearly choked. “Taylor?”

“Yes, Taylor. I got called Taylor Hanson a lot until I cut my hair in high school.”

“That’s funny…” she said, with a halfhearted smile. “I can see it, though.” Another gulp. “We used to be pen pals.”

Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was just the fact that she had kept this secret for seven years or maybe it was because a few months ago everything felt okay. They were together and nothing could touch them. And now…

“Wait, who? You and Taylor Hanson?”

“Yeah, I swear to God.”

“You’re lying. It was probably some kid with a fake screen name on the internet.”

“Nope. Me and Taylor. We were pen pals. Swear on my life.”

Paxton chuckled, which caused Molly to laugh too. “You’re so weird.”

“Oh, I’m very aware of that.”

“Alright, I should get back up there. Don’t leave.”

“I won’t,” Molly replied with a smirk. Reckless, she thought, I’m feeling reckless.

***

Molly stirred, attempting to untangle herself from rough sheets without opening her eyes. Her head was killing her. She cracked her left eye open and saw that she was on a mattress on the floor. What the fuck…

“Oh, you’re awake. Um. I made coffee…”

Paxton.

Great.

“Th...thanks. Can you just um...can you take me back to my car. I need to get home.”

“Yeah sure.”

Molly looked around and found her shirt, pulling it on and rubbing her eyes. She kept drinking last night and had ended up making out with Paxton for a while before going home with him...that was all that she could remember. That and the fact that she kept squinting enough to make herself believe that she was with someone else. Shit, she thought, seeing this boy who kind of resembled Taylor walking towards her and pulling on his jeans. Where was she? She groaned as she looked out the window. It was way too bright out there. She could see the river, and a bit of the Tampa skyline.

“Oh God…”

“What is it?”

“Is this...is this your dorm room?”

“Um..yeah. I go to UT.”

“How old are you?”

“...Eighteen. I’m a freshman. I thought you knew that.”

Molly buried her face in her hands. Her head was pounding, and the sunlight wasn’t helping. “Okay, fuck, I just...I need to go home. This was really stupid, I’m sorry. I was feeling crazy last night and I sucked you into it, that was my fault.”

“C’mon Molly, it’s fine. It was my fault too, I don’t think it’s a secret that I have a crush on you. Also we were both like...really drunk. It’s not a big deal. We can pretend like it never happened.”

“You...have a crush on me?”

“...Are you joking?”

“Okay fine but I really um...I...I have a boyfriend.” Molly could hear her phone ringing, and she rifled through the sheets trying to find it.

“You do?”

“Yeah,” a bent truth, but one nonetheless. “Where the fuck is my phone?!”

Paxton turned around and saw it lying on the table, the name TAYLOR blinking across the screen. “Is this it?”

“Yes, thank you. Oh. Um...I’ll call him back.”

“Is that him?”

“What?”

“Your boyfriend. Taylor? Wait...Molly…”

“Yeah?”

“Is that…” Molly looked up at him, apologetically. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Um...yeah, probably.”

“What the hell?”

“Penpals...ya know?”

Paxton took her back to her car and she found herself unloading everything on him. Maybe she was still a little drunk from the night before, or maybe she just really needed to spill it all out, at least once. “So yeah, I am um...I’m Taylor Hanson’s mistress, I guess,” she finished as he pulled up next to her car. She laughed, because that’s just what she did, at the absurdity of it all.

“Well, that took an unexpected turn.”

“Welcome to being my friend.”

He laughed loudly at that, his green eyes sparkling. “You called me Tay last night, so now I know why.”

“Jesus Christ, I’m a mess.”

“Nah, you’re just in love.”

She got into her car and took out her phone before driving away. She needed to call Taylor back, but instead she dialed Jillian’s number. She looked at the clock and hoped her friend was awake already. It was already afternoon, anyway. She would be fine.

“Hello?”

“Hey. It’s Molly.”

“I know.”

“So um...I fucked the record store boy.”

“WHAT?! MOLLY MCKENNEY COME OVER RIGHT NOW.”

Chapter Text

July 25th, 2007 - Jillian

I’m on my way up.

Molly’s text came through just in time. Jillian was pacing the floor, trying to prepare her speech on making better choices. She’d been waiting for over an hour, while Molly stopped home to shower away her shame. She grabbed her phone and texted back.

Hurry the fuck UP!

She was shaking and took a seat on the loveseat, her phone buzzing wildly.

I’m coming!!
Calm down, mom!

Jillian was grateful that Nick would be at work late into the night. It would give her plenty of time to get to the bottom of this. She checked her phone again, just as the door burst open, dumping Molly into the entryway in a mess of hair and hangover.

“Wow, look at you!”

“Jill...please don’t,” Molly pleaded, looking like she needed to sleep for a few days. Jillian forgot all about her speech and ran to the fridge, grabbing two bottles of vitamin water. She ushered Molly into the living room and let her collapse onto the sofa.

“What….happened?” Jillian asked, after a moment, passing one of the bottles over.

“That’s a loaded question.” Molly answered, rolling onto her back to look at the ceiling.

Jillian flashed back to her childhood living room, Molly sprawled in the same position, going on about how a sixth-grade boy in jazz band had tried to kiss her. Jillian had listened intently, trying to understand, although she’d been secretly envious. No one had ever tried to kiss her and she didn’t think she would have minded.

Now, it seemed so surreal; sitting in the apartment she shared with the man she would probably marry. She smiled to herself and Molly caught her.

“I fucked up, Jill,” she lamented. “He’s only eighteen!” Her voice echoed through the apartment and Jillian couldn’t stifle the giggle that escaped her. “Don’t laugh! It’s so awful! He said he had a crush on me!”

“Honestly, I think you should give yourself a break,” Jillian said, through her giggles. “It’s not like you get laid, like..ever. So, you did something dumb for once. I think you’ll survive.”

“Gee, thanks,” Molly sighed.

“So, can I ask what brought on this wild streak?” Jillian teased, opening the water bottle and placing it into Molly’s hands. Molly took a long pull from the bottle and sat up to face her. She looked miserable, a greenish tinge to her complexion that gave Jillian a sympathy headache.

“Remember Long-Haired Piano Guy?”

“How could I forget?”

“Well…” Molly steadied herself against the arm of the sofa. Jillian started to see where this was going and she didn’t like it.

“You’re seeing him!” she accused. Molly shrunk into the sofa and covered her face. “Molly!, You didn’t tell me?! How long has this been going on? How long has he been single? I have so many questions!” She was shouting, but it was the only way she could accurately express what she was feeling.

“He’s not single, Jill.” Molly was still covering her face. “He’s married.”

Jillian felt her stomach lurch. She had another flashback of her childhood living room but, this time, she was sitting on the floor, listening to her mother explain how she had met someone else and was leaving them forever.

She glared at Molly, trying to subdue the fire that had started in her gut. But it was already burning out of control. There was nothing she could do.

“How could you?”

“It just...happened. There’s more to it than….”

“It doesn’t matter, Molly.” Jillian was resolute. She looked over at her best friend, who clearly needed more than righteous indignation. She wanted to be there for her, she really did. She swallowed hard and steadied her pulse as best she could. “I’m sorry. Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“It’s complicated but...I love him.”

Molly’s words hung in the space between them. Jillian had never heard Molly talk that way. She needed to push her own feelings aside and be there for her friend. Her sister. She got up and joined Molly on the sofa, throwing her arms around her and patting her head.

“Should I open a bottle of wine?” she asked, rocking them back and forth and making Molly giggle.

“White, for the love of god!”

***

“Remember when you had that crush on Tucker?” Jillian was giggling so hard, her stomach hurt.

“Tanner. His name was Tanner. And it wasn’t a crush,” Molly insisted, slurring heavily. “It was a momentary lapse in judgement, thank you.”

Jillian tipped the large wine bottle toward Molly’s glass, but there was nothing left to pour. She looked to Molly, who shrugged. They dissolved into a pile of giggles again.

“We haven’t done this in a while!” Jillian was sure she had consumed more than half of the bottle herself. Nick was quite the wine connoisseur and she had built up a tolerance, but she had long since passed that limit. Molly was seated, cross-legged on the floor, pulling her curls into a knot on top of her head.

“I can’t believe I’m drunk again,” she exclaimed. “You’re a bad influence, Jilly!”

“I know, I know,” Jillian clasped her chest, proudly. “So, can I influence you to join me as I open the champagne?” Molly waved her arms in protest, but Jillian gave her a mischievous smirk.

“Fuck it!”

Jillian hopped up clumsily and padded to the kitchen, pulling a random bottle from the wine fridge. She squinted at the label but she couldn’t focus. She struggled with the cork until it finally popped, bubbly foam spilling everywhere. She laughed at herself and ran back into the living room.

“I just made the biggest mess!” She found Molly rummaging through her backpack, on a mission. “You should really get a smaller bag, you know?”

“Do you have a CD player?” Molly pulled a jewel case from the backpack and held it above her head.

“Yeah, we do...what is that?” Jillian crossed to her, setting the champagne bottle down on the coffee table.

“It’s The Walk.”

Molly tossed it at her and she barely caught it. She was suddenly very aware of just how drunk she was. She knew what it was. Molly had mentioned that she was excited for the new album several times and each time, Jillian had insisted she had no intention of listening to it. Yet, here it was, in her apartment. And she was just drunk enough to hear it.

“Well, great,” she sighed. She carried the disk over to the stereo and dropped it into the tray. She let herself glance over the jacket, then flipped the case over. She pretended to read through the track listings, but she was fixated on Zac’s image staring back at her. She felt like her heart might leap out of her chest. She shoved the case onto the shelf, out of sight, and turned to Molly, who was watching her carefully. Nothing got by her and Jillian knew it.

“It’s stupid and I hate it.”

“Wow, you hate it?” Jillian was skeptical. Molly had never hated anything about Hanson for as long as she’d been alive. Something was definitely up. “Why are we listening to it then?”

“I want you to hear how stupid it is!” Molly threw herself, face down, onto the throw pillow in her lap.

“Molly, what is going on with you? Is this about Piano Guy too?”

“Maybe….”

“Does he hate Hanson?!” Jillian threw herself down next to Molly in mock-horror.

“No!” Molly sat up, tossing her head back. “I guess this album just...gives me feelings about him. Our situation. This mess we got ourselves into…” Molly trailed off as the first track ended. Jillian didn’t fully understand but she was too drunk to press any further.

The two of them listened in silence to the next song. Jillian could tell Molly wanted to say something but she was holding back, sipping directly from the champagne bottle. When the fourth track started with a robust piano-led melody, Molly jumped straight up and punched the skip button. She offered no explanation. Jillian was at a loss.

“Okay, so you really don’t like that song?”

“Nope!”

“You’re really weird right now.”

“I know, and also, I’m drunk, so…” Molly sat back down and rested her head on Jillian’s shoulder.

“Me too…”

“Zac sings a lot on this album.” Molly stated plainly. Jillian felt a heaviness come over her. She wanted to turn it off. She hated that she still felt that way. She was with Nick and she was happy. She didn’t need to waste anymore time on old feelings. Still, as she heard Zac’s voice, something happened to her insides. It felt like someone picking at the scab that formed over her heart.

“Molly?”

“Yeah?”

“What is wrong with me?”

“What are you talking about?”

“How did I let myself get so...nevermind.” Jillian wasn’t going to talk about it. Not now. She was hammered and so was Molly. “So, was the record store boy any good?” She started to laugh and Molly joined her.

“Honestly, I don’t remember!” They laughed even harder, rolling on the floor like kids. Finally, Molly rolled over and sat up. “I gotta pee!” She struggled to stand and Jillian watched her stagger to the bathroom, just as the next track started to play. Zac’s voice again.

 

For all the love we’ve made
Just one thing stays the same
The lamp gets dusty
The pipes get rusty
But I don’t wanna wash my hands clean

Well you say you love me too
Then why won’t you go through
With the nightly kisses
With the hits and the misses
Well if you can make it on your own…

 

Jillian was frozen in place. She couldn’t breathe. Her face felt hot and her head was swimming She tried to will herself into sobriety. Molly returned from the bathroom in time to see the tears begin to fall. She rushed to Jillian’s side, trying to assess what was happening.

 

Then go, if you wanna go
But stay if you wanna know the way
Through the mess we made
Then lie in the bed you know or go…

 

“Oh, Jill….oh shit, I’m sorry,” she mumbled, trying to calm Jillian down.

“Oh my god, why I am crying?!” Jillian sobbed. Molly did her best to comfort her, but it was no use. The song had broken something open. The heart-scab was ripped off. All of the feelings she’d been hiding away since the night Zac disappeared in that cab were rushing the the surface. She felt so stupid.

She had never talked about that night at all, except to Molly after it happened. Zac, however, went and wrote a song about it. A song that anyone could hear if they wanted to. Of course, she knew that no one would know it was about her. But she knew. She knew.

She continued to sob and Molly stayed with her until the song ended. They stared at each other, bleary eyed. Jillian didn’t know what to say but she knew she didn’t have to speak for Molly to understand.

Suddenly, the front door swung open and Nick appeared, looking confused. He was home early. Jillian looked up at him, then at the mess around her. The empty wine glasses, the open champagne bottle, the blaring Hanson song, and she and Molly in a weepy mess on the floor. This wasn’t going to be good. Nick threw his keys onto the coffee table and looked down at them, disapprovingly.

“What the fuck, Jillian?”

Chapter Text

November 15th, 2007 - Zac

When Zac woke up, Kate was already gone. He remembered she had mentioned a doctor’s appointment, and since it was already after 11:00am, he figured she’d not wanted to wake him. He’d been especially exhausted lately. The band had been on tour for the better part of the year and he was struggling to manage that and his regimented personal life.

Kate had plotted out their “date nights” for the entire year, working around the grueling tour schedule and his long hours at the office when he was actually home. At first, he hadn’t minded it too much. It was something to look forward to. While they were travelling, throngs of women would throw themselves at him. He was never interested in tapping into the groupie-pool, but was hard to deny that some of them were especially tempting. He needed “date night” to ensure he could release his pent-up tension.

On the downside, “date night” became the only time they had sex. Kate would fill the rest of his downtime with family activities, leaving little time for the two of them to be alone. She made it very clear that she was the one in charge. She ran a tight ship, limiting his TV and gaming time to one hour a day. They had breakfast time, shopping time, cleaning time, family time...All carefully planned and all according to schedule.

He knew that she meant well. She knew how little time he spent at home and wanted to make the best of it. And he loved being with her. She was always smiling, finding the positivity in every situation. She didn’t mind his goofy antics and laughed at even his worst jokes. She never asked for anything more than his cooperation with the schedule. It was the least he could do to comply.

Still, something was missing.

Zac dragged himself to the kitchen and started the coffee maker. He pulled his phone off its charger and dialed Kate’s number. No answer. He waited for the beep.

“Hey it’s me. I guess you’re probably out running errands. And I think you mentioned a doctor’s appointment? Anyway, let me know when you’re heading home. I need to head out for a bit too. Love you, babe.”

He showered, dressed and grabbed his coffee to go. He got a text from Kate, explaining that she was out with Natalie and she would be home after her 4:30 appointment. He dialed Taylor’s number.

“Hello?” Taylor sounded tired as he talked over the sounds of his children in the background.

“Tay! Wanna hit up GameStop?”

“Oh, hey, I can’t Zac. Nat is out and I have the kids.”

“Right, okay...well, maybe I can come by?”

“I don’t think so. River’s got a fever and I’m trying to keep the other two calm so he can sleep.”

“Welcome home, dad!” Zac teased, trying to hide his disappointment.

“Right?” Taylor laughed. “I better go but I’ll see you.” He hung up, leaving Zac alone with his thoughts. The house was too quiet. He picked up his phone again and dialed Ike.

“Zachary!” Ike answered after one ring.

“What are you doing?” Zac asked.

“Nikki and I just finished brunch. Have you been to Bailey’s? It’s superb!”

“Superb? Who even says that?” Zac pictured Isaac in a suit and tie, delivering a verbose review of every dish on the menu, Nikki playing along like a champ.

“I do, Zachary. I love Bailey’s!” He was shouting and Zac could hear Nikki giggling loudly.

“You two are drunk, huh!?”

“What? No….just tipsy from the bottomless mimosas!” More shouting and laughter.

“Good for you, man. Have fun. Tell Nikki I said hi.”

“Later!” The line went dead. Zac had no one else to call. He felt profoundly lonely. He needed to get out of the house immediately. He grabbed his phone and keys and bolted for the door.

***

He’d wandered around downtown for over an hour before popping into a corner bookstore. He’d walked or driven past it a million times, but never bothered to stop in. It was small, with dark wood shelves and the unmistakable smell of paper and ink. He strolled over to the art section and scanned over the collection of book titles.

He felt someone walk up next to him. At first, he ignored them, picking up a random book and flipping the pages.

“Excuse me?” It was a woman’s voice. Zac tensed up, preparing for an uncomfortable fan encounter. He turned to face her, ready to politely decline whatever request she had planned.

“Yeah, I’m just trying to read…” he started, finally getting a look at her. She petite, with white-blonde hair cropped to her shoulders. Her eyes were emerald green and caught him completely off guard.

“Yeah, no, sorry, I was just wondering if I could get by you?” she asked, then carefully stepped forward into his space. She reached around him to pull a book off the shelf, then stood back and nodded. “Thanks.”

She smelled like wildflowers. Her dress was gauzy and sheer and he could almost see through it. He tried not to stare.

“Its cool,” he said with a cheesy grin. She smiled back at him and his heart fluttered. “I’m Zac.” He held out his hand and she took it, staring right into his eyes.

“I know who you are,” she snickered. “I’m Ava.” They were still holding hands. Zac broke her gaze and released her hand. He turned back to the bookshelf, pretending to be interested in anything other that her. “Are you an artist too?”

“I dabble,” he answered, still not looking at her.

“Ah, a dabbler. Is sketching the female form your specialty?” she asked, gesturing toward the book he’d been flipping through. He felt his face turn four shades of red.

“Oh! No, um...cartoons mostly.” He flashed a bashful smile and she giggled. “I like to paint too.”

“Painting? That’s my thing!”

She was so cool. Zac wondered how anyone got that comfortable with themselves. He studied her face and noticed a tiny silver stud in her nose. She must have felt him examining her, because she turned her head to show it off.

“Looks good...on you” he blurted. Was he flirting? Walk away, he yelled internally. Walk away before this gets weirder.

“Thanks,” she answered, confidently. “You have any?”

“Any what?” He was shaking.

“Piercings?”

“No, not...no, I don’t,” He shoved his book back onto the shelf, but managed to knock down the whole row. The books hit the floor with a thunderous echo. Great, he thought, sighing heavily and looking down at his mess. Ava let out a throaty laugh. They both crouched down to collect the fallen books.

He grabbed a few and stood up to place them on the shelf. When he looked back, he caught a clear view down the front of her dress. She wasn’t wearing a bra. He felt his knees wobble and looked away before she noticed.

He tried to curb his arousal, but she stood up next to him and placed a hand on his arm. Shit, shit, SHIT. His mind was racing and so was his blood. He grabbed the last book off the floor and placed it casually in front of his lap. She didn’t seem to notice.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m a klutz too. I won’t tell anyone.” She winked at him.

“Thanks for that,” he struggled, smiling like a fool.

“Hey, I’m showing a few of my paintings at the gallery down the street in a few weeks. Maybe you can come check me out?” She looked down at his book shield and then back at him, a knowing look in her eye. Then, she rifled through her purse, pulled out a scrap of paper and scribbled her phone number across it. “In case you want more info?”

She pushed the paper into the pocket of his jacket and gave it a pat for good measure. He nodded to her, unable to think of anything to say.

“Bye, Zac,” she said softly and walked up the aisle and out the shop door. He tried to say goodbye but his voice refused to work. He stood in the aisle for a long while, waiting until he could walk again.

He felt bad. He had definitely crossed a line somewhere. Married men didn’t flirt with strange women in bookstores. Yet, here he was with a strange woman’s phone number in his pocket. He wouldn’t call her, of course. Still there was something utterly exhilarating about the whole thing. He hadn’t felt that since…

He didn’t dare think about the last time he had felt that. It had been one of the worst nights of his life.

His phone buzzed and he looked down to see a text from Kate. The girl had some timing. It was 4:57 and she was heading home from her appointment. He needed to hurry if he was going to beat her home.

***

The whole way home, he’d let his imagination run wild. Meeting up with Ava in her art studio. Ripping that see-through dress off her. Doing things to her that Kate would never allow.

He got himself so worked up that he wasn’t sure he could control it. He thought about running into the house and sweeping his wife off her feet, date night or not, and trying out some of the things he’d imagined. She would wonder what had gotten into him. She would protest. She would refer to the calendar. He would feel like a pervert, using her to reenact his fantasies about another woman. He took the only option he had left and finished himself in the car.

“Where have you been?” Kate was waiting for him at the door. He tried to ignore the shame he felt. She pulled his jacket off of him and he felt a rush of panic, remembering the phone number tucked inside.

Kate seemed anxious and he illogically chalked it up to his illicit encounter. She couldn’t possibly know, of course, Still, his guilt was doing a number on his nerves, Telltale Heart-style. He thought about telling her.

Hey, guess what! It’s the craziest thing but this girl was totally hitting on my in the bookstore today. Nope, he definitely shouldn’t tell her.

“Come sit down, okay?” Kate dragged him into the dining room and pulled out a chair. She stood in front of him and rubbed her hands together.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. He was sweating.

“Nothing, nothing is wrong.” She took a deep breath.

“Kate, what?” He was sure he was caught. He didn’t know how or when, but he was sure she knew. She had seen him in the shop, or worse, in the car. She knew. He was trembling.

“Are you ready?” She asked, breaking into a smile, her eyes welling up with tears.

“Just say it,” he said, resigned and ready for a fight.

“I’m pregnant!” she squealed, looking at him with admiration he didn’t deserve.

He felt numb.

Chapter Text

January 27th, 2008 - Molly

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!!” Molly sang as she bounded down the stairs, suitcase in hand. She was taking a week off of work at the high school to attend her second Fool’s Banquet. She tripped on the last step and stumbled into the kitchen, laughing at her own clumsiness. Nothing could bring her down. She had been looking forward to this since she got home from last year’s banquet.

“You ready, Molly Doll?” Her father asked, also chuckling at her flailing limbs.

“Yep, yep. Let’s go!”

Last year Molly had inundated her dad with stories from the songwriter’s retreat. She talked loud and fast about how every night they would jam for hours, then in the mornings they would wake up and drink copious amounts of coffee, take walks around the grounds, see their breath in the air, talk about music and nothing but music for the rest of the day. She wanted to live inside the six days of songwriting and recording. She told him how she finally felt like she was having the magical musical experience she so longed for.

“You excited?” He asked as they drove towards the Tampa airport.

“I am, I am, I am!”

“Silly me for even wondering.” he replied with a smirk. “I’m so proud of you, kiddo.”

“What? Why? Dad, I live at home and I work at a high school.”

“You’re a musician, Moll! This happens to all of us. I lived at home for three years after Juilliard when I was getting my Masters. Then another year when I was working at an unpaid internship. It’s what we do. You’ll be fine.”

“What’s been your favorite thing you’ve done, though? As a musician.”

“Mmmm probably teaching violin at USF.”

“Dad.”

“What?!”

“That can’t be your answer.”

“Why not?”

“You played in the New York Philharmonic.”

“And? That was a very stressful time for me! I wasn’t eating well, I was barely making rent, I was actually a starving artist. It was an adventure, sure, but a terrifying one. I was the youngest person, I was constantly practicing. I feel like I had no social life at all because I was practicing every waking moment of every day.”

Molly chuckled. “Sounds familiar.”

“Yeah, you definitely take after me. But I’m serious. Now I have a steady and wonderful job, I love my students, I love teaching, I love my family. My house is pretty great. I can afford to eat something other than ramen. I have a social life. And I have a pretty awesome daughter who I am proud of.”

Molly looked over at the man who taught her everything. She almost wished he could go with her to Tulsa. He’s a better musician than I’ll ever be, she thought.

***

“You want anything before we get started?” Zac asked, standing up from the front stoop where he and Molly both sat drinking coffee and watching the sky grow lighter as the morning progressed.

“Mmmm, more coffee please!”

“Crazy woman. You’re gonna buzz out of your skin.”

“I won’t. I’m immune. But I do need it to function.”

“You and Tay are made for each other,” Zac said as he grabbed her mug. Molly couldn’t help but smile at his remark.

It was the third day of the banquet and she and Zac had been paired to write a song. Each day, groups of two or three were created by pulling names out of Taylor’s hat, and a song was written and recorded by each group. It was a demanding schedule, but they all seemed to thrive. Molly had never worked with Zac, even though they had become close last year. They texted a lot, much to Taylor’s chagrin, mostly just stupid jokes or things that reminded them of the other.

“Okay so now that we’re locked in a room together….how’s Jillian?”

“Wow Zac, that took like...half a second. Impressive.”

“It’s been actual years since we talked. I just...I just want to make sure she’s okay.”

“Yeah, she’s good. You really fucked her up with “Go” but...”

Zac grimaced at her remark. She couldn’t help but be defensive when it came to Jillian. Sometimes she wondered why she let herself become close to Zac in the first place.

“Yeah…”

“She moved in with her boyfriend.”

“Oh?”

“Yep.” Molly fidgeted with her pen before looking back up at Zac, “I really, really hate her boyfriend.”

Zac barked with laughter, clearly thankful that some of the tension was broken. “Why?”

“Because he’s the certified worst!! The last time I was at her apartment was right after The Walk came out and I haven’t been allowed back since that day.”

“You’re not allowed?”

“Trust me, I know how bad that sounds. I don’t really know what to do...I need to get her out of it but I feel like she never listens to me anymore.”

“Shit, Molly.”

“Wow, she would kill me if she knew I was telling you all this. On the outside her life looks great. I just...I don’t trust him. And I’m usually not wrong about people.” She sighed and took a sip of her coffee. “You miss her, don’t you?”

“Yeah. Is that stupid? It might be stupid.”

“It’s not stupid. It’s not stupid at all! I miss you guys all the time when I’m not with you.”

“That’s different, you and Taylor are in love.”

“...How is that different, Zac?” Molly asked with a gleam in her eye.

Writing with Zac was drastically different than writing with Taylor. She and Taylor practically finished each other’s musical phrases, which was not the case with his younger brother. It was definitely more a challenge. Zac was stubborn. Molly was stubborn. They both had the unquenchable need to be right all the time.

“Oh oh oh
Trying to move on
Oh oh oh
The magazines keep piling up
Oh oh oh
Happiness is gone
I've got to pull myself together
Letters in the mailbox for you”

“Alright chorus is done, I’m calling a break.” Molly said, visibly annoyed. Was this what Taylor was talking about when he said the brothers had to fight in order to get a good song written?

“Okay. I think that first verse is ready, too.” Molly shot him a glare. “Or...not.”

“I already don’t want to go home,” Molly remarked as she took a sip of her now cold coffee.

“Oh God, me either. Are you kidding? I would stay here forever if I could.”

“Me too! I love this more than anything. Writing and recording,” Molly looked over at Zac thoughtfully. Should she push him? She had a bad habit of instigating things…”How’s Kate?” She watched as his eyes clouded over with something. Anger? No, it was a little too passive for that. It was more like regret.

“She’s pregnant.”

“Oh. Shit.”

“Yup. Hansons, ya know?”

“I do know,” Molly replied with a grin. She definitely knew.

“You want to know the really fucked up thing?” He asked. Where was this coming from? Molly looked over at him, shocked at how defeated he looked. He obviously needed someone to unload all of this on, and Molly happened to be sitting across from him on a piano bench.

“Um, sure,” she replied.

“Right before she told me she was pregnant, like literally moments before, I was thinking about cheating on her.”

“Oh shit,” Molly said for the second time.

“Yeah. I met this woman at a bookstore. I was being super flirty with her and...you know, turning on the Zac Hanson charm.”

Molly rolled her eyes.

“I don’t know, I just feel like such a garbage human,” Zac said, hanging his head.

“Wow, thanks Zac.”

“What?”

“You’re right though, we’re garbage too, I guess.”

“Oh God...no that’s not...that’s not what I meant.”

Molly chuckled and got up from the piano bench, taking a seat on the floor next to Zac. “Listen, it’s okay. It happens. You’re unhappy, and people do reckless things when they’re unhappy.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Since we’re spilling secrets...right when The Walk came out, I slept with a guy who looked kind of like Taylor. This kid that works at a record store. Gross, huh?”

“That’s not gross! But probably don’t tell him, he’ll go crazy.”

“Why?! I’m not the married one!”

“I know, but he like...really loves you, Molly. It’s ridiculous. And now that I know the whole story, and now that Isaac knows the whole story, he can talk about you to us and it’s like wow we get it Tay, you think the sun shines out of her ass…”

Molly erupted with laughter.

“But I think he would try to kill anyone else you slept with.”

“One of the rules says I can though. I’m just following the agreement,” she shrugged, still stifling laughter.

“Yeah but he’s a passionate guy. He lets feelings get away from him. Which is good, I mean, that’s why we write the songs we do, but...yeah.”

“I was thinking about telling him this week.”

“Molly.”

“What?!”

“You’re such a trouble maker!”

“I know, I know. Shit, we’re never going to finish this song.”

“You’re right. Alright, let’s do this.”

***

She knew that Zac hadn’t meant to let it slip. She couldn’t even be mad at him. They were all more than a few drinks in and almost everyone had gone to bed - except Molly and the three brothers. The four of them sat outside on the stoop while Isaac smoked a cigarette and handed it to Taylor for a few drags. Molly crinkled her nose, but didn’t say anything. Only Zac saw her and snorted at her reaction.

“Molly and I don’t want to leave. Also, we didn’t finish our song today,” Zac said, causing Molly to giggle at his outburst.

“You had all day!” Isaac replied.

“We’re not great collaborators,” Molly said through bubbling laughter. “We did our best!”

“We are not good at collaborating, no. We just gab. Gab, gab, gab, like two girls. Gab about record store boys.”

“Shut up! You talk more than me! You all talk more than me!” Molly said defiantly.

“First of all, you cannot prove that. Second of all, you just talked instead of writing your song?” Taylor said, trying his best not to join them in the laughter.

“I need to go to bed…” Molly said, standing up and swaying.

“Whoa there,” Taylor stood up quickly to steady her. “Here I’ll walk you.”

Molly slung her arm around Taylor’s neck. “Carry meeeee…” she whined. He grunted and picked her up. She kissed his cheek sloppily and nuzzled into his neck. She was drunker than she had initially thought.

“Hey Moll?”

“Yeah?”

“What did Zac mean about record store boys?”

“What?”

“He said you all were talking about record store boys.”

She nuzzled further, burying her face further and avoiding the question. She was too drunk to lie.

“Moll. C’mon.” He set her down gently on the bed and kneeled in front of her to take off her shoes. She bent forward and rested her head on his shoulder. “You gonna answer me?”

She groaned and sighed, finally finding her voice, “I have this friend who works at a record store and he’s in a band and I slept with him. Just once. It wasn’t even...I can’t even really remember it, honestly.” She collapsed down on the pillows.

“...What?”

“Don’t make me repeat it, Tay, I’m so sleepy.”

Taylor bristled, the new information very clearly stinging him. “Why would you do that?”

“Taylor, you’re not allowed to be mad,” she said, heaving herself back up to a seated position. The room started spinning. “We...we have an agreement, you’re not allowed to be...to be mad.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” His voice started to raise.

“Because now we’re about to fight!” She never backed down from a fight, even if she did feel like she was about to pass out.

“This isn’t a fight, Moll, this is just me being…”

“Angry.”

“That’s not what I said!”

“You’re mad that I slept with someone else. I know you, I know what you’re thinking.”

“Okay, yes maybe I am.”

“Zac said not to tell you, I should have listened to him. This is ridiculous. YOU’RE MARRIED. You’re just mad because you’re jealous and you don’t want to be. You’re just mad because you KNOW I’m right.”

Taylor stood there, stunned.

“I’m going to bed before I get sick. We’ll talk in the morning. Or not, whatever, I love you,” she flopped back down on the bed.

***

The next day after dinner, Molly walked into the booth just in time to hear Taylor lay down the vocals for the song he had written that day. He asked for a day by himself to write, and Molly had barely seen him, save for handing him a mug of coffee that morning.

“She's the type of girl that loves it when you're wrong
She devastates me when she t-t-turns it on
The girl's on fire, but leaving me out in the cold
It's getting tired, but I can't let her go

You make me sick, you lead me on
Ooh, you use me up, I keep on holding on
You do the trick like the days are long
Girl, you're killing me, but I keep coming back for more
Coming back for more
Coming back for more”

Molly grinned wildly. They would talk that night and everything would be okay. For no reason other than they both kept coming back for more, and couldn’t seem to stop.

“Well, I know I've been here a thousand times before
But every time I think that this is it for sure
I don't know why I try to make it work so hard
'Cause she don't mind so we're right back at the start

You make me sick, you lead me on
Ooh, you use me up, I keep on holding on
You do the trick like the days are long
Girl, you're killing me, but I keep coming back for more
Coming back for more
Coming back for more
I keep coming back.”

She met Taylor’s eyes in the iso booth and he smirked back at her. They would be fine. They always were.

Chapter Text

May 30th, 2008 - Jillian

“Good night!” Jillian called after her father, as he herded her sisters down the hallway toward the elevators. They were all chattering excitedly, waving and blowing kisses. She waved back and closed the apartment door.

“That went well!” Nick pressed her up against the door and kissed her lustily, his eyelids heavy with wine.

“I’m exhausted,” she groaned, wiggling away from him. “I didn’t think we could fit that many people in here, honestly.” She began to collect the empty plates and cups from the dining room table.

“All in all, a successful engagement party, I’d say,” Nick quipped, helping her clear. She stopped and looked up at him, bemused.

“We’re engaged!” she squeaked, still in awe of the sound of it.

Nick had popped the question the previous weekend. He had planned an extravagant ruse, scheduling her to work a party for a mysterious VIP. The whole restaurant had been in on it and she hadn’t had a clue until she walked into the empty banquet room. It was filled with candles, a lone cellist in the corner playing something flowery. The entire staff and many of the guests filed into the room behind him, bearing witness as he dropped to one knee and presented her with the biggest diamond she had even seen with her own two eyes.

She accepted, embarrassed that she was crying in front of everyone. Still, she had been so caught up in the romance of it all. The room erupted in cheers. She felt like a princess. They had taken the rest of the weekend off and drove south to a private beach bungalow he had rented. When they returned, Jillian began scrambling to tell everyone who needed to know.

Her dad’s reaction had been predictably bittersweet. He had met Nick a few times and liked him well enough. Still, no one would ever be good enough for his baby girl. Evie and the twins had been more enthusiastic about being bridesmaids then about the engagement itself. Nick’s parents flew in from Cape Cod to throw them the fanciest party of Jillian’s life and promised they were happy to help with any wedding expenses her father couldn’t cover. Everything was falling into place.

Nick stacked the remaining plates and winked at her.

“Too bad nobody ever stays to do the dishes,” he joked. “If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen for the next three days!”

“I can help!”

“Jill, you never do it the right way. I’d rather do it myself.” He rolled his eyes and started toward the kitchen. “How about you take a shower? Your hair smells like roasted snapper!”

“Well, that’s what we had for dinner, so your’s does too-”

“Jillian! I said take a shower. I don’t need any back talk.” His face was stern and she knew she’d crossed a line. Nick was very particular. He didn’t like clutter. He had a thing about smells. He liked everything in its place, including his fiancee. Jillian loved so many things about him that she could ignore his idiosyncrasies. She knew she had won some sort of lottery, landing a guy like him and she wasn’t about to mess that up over a few little quirks.

“Sorry, Nick.” she replied, softly and with a coy smile. His face softened again and he vanished into the other room. When she could hear the sink water flowing, she bolted into the bedroom to check her phone. She swiped it from the charger and mashed keypad, lighting up the screen. No new calls or texts. There never really were.

Since the night Nick found her sobbing over a CD with her best friend, he hadn’t been keen on letting Molly come over again. Jillian didn’t push the issue because she knew she couldn’t win. She figured that this was what happened after an engagement. She would have to sacrifice a lot of what made her happy in order to find new happiness she could share with Nick. She stopped talking about Molly to him, never telling him when he met up with her for lunch or a movie. She eventually started waiting until he was busy or not a home to text or call her.

Jillian opened her text messages. The last time she had reached out to Molly had been the night of the proposal. She stared at the thread.

Friday 05/23/08
9:57pm Nick proposed and I said YES!
9:57pm Molly: Oh wow okay congrats
9:59pm Thanks! I can’t believe it. Im engaged!
10:00pm Molly: When can I see you? It’s been a while!

She hadn’t answered. She had sent the texts while hiding in a service hallway and Nick had discovered her, insisting she get off her phone and come back to the banquet room.

She felt a surge of guilt. Molly should have been invited to the engagement party. She should have been included in the gathering of the families. It made Jillian sad. She knew Nick just needed some time to get over their drunken foolishness. She could give him that time. Still, she missed her best friend. She clicked the keypad hurriedly then clicked the phone back into it’s charger. The phone buzzed its reply almost instantly.

Friday 05/30/08
10:13pm Molly: Miss you too, Jill

***

The tornado ripped through the field, sending clouds of dirt and debris into the air. Jillian was trying to run but her legs felt like they were filled with cement. She could hear Molly’s voice, shouting at her to hurry. She looked around frantically as the funnel gained on her. She spotted a door and dragged herself toward it, fighting the wind and the heavy gown she was wearing. She pulled the door open and clamoured inside.

“Jill?” a voice called to her. She couldn’t hear the wind anymore. She stepped further into the room, which was so dark, she could hardly see.

“Molly?” she called out. She heard footsteps behind her and she whipped around to see who it was. A man’s form emerged from the shadows and she squinted to make out his face.

“What are you doing here?”

She knew his voice. He stepped closer to her and she could see his face. He pulled her to him and held her in a strong embrace. She whispered into the darkness.
“Zac…”

Jillian bolted up from her pillow, breathing heavily. The dream had been so vivid. She looked over at Nick, who was sleeping soundly beside her. Thank god, she thought. She didn’t feel like listening to him lecture about how “nightmares are the direct result of not having your life together”.

She slowly rolled off the bed and grabbed her robe off the back of the door. There was no way she could go back to sleep. This was not the first time she’d seen Zac in her dreams. She always chalked it up to coincidence or some subconscious need for closure. He had been a big part of her life at a point, so it was only logical that he would show up once in a while. Wasn’t it?

She snatched her phone and closed the bedroom door, tiptoeing her way to the computer. She figured she would comb through wedding blogs and message boards until the sun came up or until she finally felt sleepy again. Her browser page opened and she noticed the new mail icon. She had an email from Molly.

 

To:JillyBean82@aol.com
From:MollyMcK@gmail.com
Subject: Have you seen this?
May 30th, 2008

JILLIAN! Where even are you? Can I see your face sometime? Anytime? Also...you should really let that AOL email address go. It’s a relic. It’s vintage.
Anyway, I just wanted to share this article with you, you know, in case you didn’t know.

People.com: Zac Hanson and His Wife Have a Boy!

Crazy, huh? Call me soon, k? Engaged lady!
-M

 

Without thinking, Jillian dialed Molly’s number. It rang twice before she answered.

“Jillian?” Molly’s voice was thick with sleep but she sounded concerned.

“Why are you awake? Its like 4 in the morning?” Jillian whispered.

“Why are YOU calling me at 4 in the morning?”

“I got your email…”

“Shit….” Molly sighed heavily and Jillian could hear her shifting around in her bed. “I almost didn’t send it, but...I figured it was better coming from me. You know?”

“Yeah….” Jillian sat still, afraid that any sudden movements might jostle her true feelings and send them spilling out into the ether.

“Are you okay?” Molly asked, probably already knowing the answer.

“I’m happy for him.” Jillian was shocked by how natural her lie sounded. She felt sick to her stomach. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You tell me, Jillian.”

“I better go,” she whispered after a long pause. She hung up, sure that she’d left Molly at a loss. She tried not to think about it and instead, clicked in the link in the email. She stared at the photo of Zac and Kate, showing off their beautiful new baby. They looked so happy. He looked so happy. She felt like screaming.

What is wrong with you? She yelled inside her own head. You’re engaged to the perfect man. You’re planning a perfect wedding and a perfect life. He’s moved on! He’s a father. You’re an idiot. Get a hold of yourself…

She shook her head, trying to end the diatribe she’d unleashed. It wouldn’t stop. She felt her blood pressure increase, so she raced to the refrigerator and grabbed the bottle of Pinot Grigio from the door. Her eyes were stinging and she felt like she might explode out of her skin.

You’re such a loser, she thought as the put the bottle to her lips and drained the liquid from it quickly. She was lightheaded. She stumbled backward in the dark and bumped into the dish rack, filled to capacity with Nick’s carefully hand washed china. The whole rack fell to the floor with a crash. Jillian tried to catch it by throwing her arms out. As the china hit the floor, it shattered into a shower of porcelain shards which ripped the skin on her arms and face.

She didn’t feel a thing. She only saw the piles of smashed china and the endless map of bloody scrapes along her hands and forearms. The kitchen light switched on. The whole world shifted into slow motion, like a movie. She felt her body being lifted off the floor. She was being forced to stand and turn around.

Nick was screaming, red-faced and spitting, but she couldn’t hear him. Every sound was muffled. He shook her so hard, her head whipped violently back and forth, but she didn’t feel it. She just watched him as he pulled back his hand, then swatted it toward her, connecting with her jaw like a battering ram. She was thrown to the floor by the force of it.

This is a dream, she whispered in her head. You’ll wake up soon. She pulled her knees to her chest and closed her eyes, not caring about the coldness of the floor or the stinging glass she way lying on.

You’ll wake up soon. You’ll wake up soon. You’ll wake up….

Chapter Text

July 9th, 2008 - Taylor

If Taylor had his way, they would never take breaks in between tours. On tour, he was happy. He could get lost in that part of his life, where he was a musician first. He could get high on performing and then crash every night on the bus or in a hotel room. He could call Molly from every city and smile like a lunatic at the sound of her voice. He could laugh with his brothers and drink without anyone’s judgmental looks.

But, the fact that all three of them were married with children meant that coming home was an inevitability. Zac and Kate were busy with their new addition, Shepherd, and Nikki had just given birth to her second son. He brought the kids over to Ike’s house one night after dinner, claiming it as a favor to Natalie (“You could use some alone time”) when really it was more for him than anyone else. Nikki was beaming with new motherhood, holding baby Monroe as she opened the door.

“Oh thank God!” She said with a giggle when she flung the door open. “I’ve been going stir crazy. Come in, come in! New faces! IKE YOUR BROTHER’S HERE.”

Isaac came out of the kitchen, a dish towel on his shoulder. “Hey Tay!! Let me finish these dishes. Isn’t he awesome?”

Taylor already had Monroe in his arms, who was bigger than he was even a few days before when Taylor had last seen him. Ezra was standing on his tip toes trying to see his new baby cousin. “Definitely awesome.”

Once the dishes were in the dishwasher and the food was put away, Ike, Nikki, and Taylor (who was still holding the baby) retired to the family room while the kids played in Everett’s playroom. Taylor couldn’t get over the tiny new life in his arms. “How’s Nat?” Nikki asked, handing him a glass of iced tea.

“Pregnant.”

“Well, I know that.”

“Um, she’s fine, I guess. She doesn’t really talk to me all that much.”

“When are you all going to file for divorce?”

Taylor looked up, shocked. Nicole was definitely the most outspoken of the family. He still couldn’t believe she was one of them. She reminded him of someone, which made him smirk. “Um, well she’s pregnant, Nikki. Also we have three other kids.”

“So? People get divorced all the time for less. You’ll figure the kids thing out.” He couldn’t believe how nonchalant she was being about it. She definitely was not cut from the same cloth as the other two wives. “You both are so terribly unhappy. Plus, you got married at nineteen, Taylor. No one would blame you for getting divorced. It was a shotgun marriage.”

“Yeah but then we had two other kids, and we’re about to have another one.”

“You’re in love with another woman,” she fired back.

“Ike!!” Taylor shot at his brother, shocked that Nikki knew.

“What?!” Ike responded, “She’s my wife, I tell her everything.”

“Hmm...that’s a novel idea…” Taylor mused, looking between the two of them and wondering if they had discussed this intervention before he had come over. “It’s just...it’s not that easy. We’re both unhappy, but every time I want to bring it up, she tells me she’s pregnant again. And...Hansons always do the right thing. I can’t leave her with a new baby.”

“You wouldn’t be leaving her!! I’m sure she would stay in Tulsa, you both would still be raising the kids...you just wouldn’t be married! I’m trying to explain this to you, Taylor, people do this all the time.”

“Listen,” Ike interjected, taking a deep breath to signify that what he was about to say was important, “all I know is that you’re my little brother and my best friend, and I hate to see you as unhappy as you are when you’re home. It’s not fair. I know you think what you have going with Molly is great and sustainable, but...I think it’s time, Tay. You guys can’t keep sneaking around like this. Something’s gotta give. It’s not fair to any of you, and life is too short to deny yourself this for much longer.”

Taylor looked from his brother to Nikki, defeated. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Of course I’m right,” Nikki responded, smiling triumphantly. “I only talk about things when I know I’m right.”

“God, you and Moll would get along great,” he said with an eyeroll.

“Ike told me a little about her. She sounds like a firecracker.”

“That’s one word for her,” Taylor said, unable to stop the grin that was spreading on his face.

“See!! There! Right there! Look at your face! Oh my God, you’re such an idiot for this girl.”

“Just...I have to wait until the baby is born, you know that,” Taylor said, bringing them back to reality.

“Okay, I get that. But then, please...promise me you’ll talk to her.”

“You’re relentless, Nikki.”

He felt his phone buzz in his pocket. It was Molly.

“Fine, fine, I promise. I gotta take this.” He ducked into the hallway and sat on the stairs before opening his phone. “Speak of the devil.”

“Tay?”

Something was wrong. She was crying. And scared.

“Moll? What’s wrong?”

“Tay I can’t do this, I can’t…...I can’t do this,” She sputtered in between sobs, doing her best to form words. He had heard her upset before, but not like this. This was different.

“Molly, breathe. Breathe okay? Tell me what happened.”

“He’s gone….he’s um...my dad. He had...he had a heart attack…He’s gone,” He could tell she pulled the phone away from her face as a fresh wave of sobs erupted from her throat.

“MOLLY? Molly, listen to me,” He had to get to her. He had to go. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“No, Tay, I don’t….”

“I know, but I’m coming. I love you.” He hung up the phone and sprung to his feet, his blood pumping. He had never heard her cry like that. It shook him to the very core. “Ike watch the kids, and take them home, I have to fly to Tampa.”

“What?!”

“You heard me,” he said as he bent over Ezra and kissed him on the head. “Daddy will be back soon, guys.”

“What should I tell Natalie?”

“Make something up.”

***

It was morning by the time Taylor got to Molly’s front door. The air was thick and the Florida heat was already pressing on his skin, even though the sun was still rising. He texted her to make sure she was awake. He half hoped she had finally dozed off after what had to have been a fitful night, but a few minutes later she was flinging the door open and falling into his arms.

“You’re here.”

Taylor remember the second time they had seen each other with their own eyes. This moment mirrored it; even the words Molly muttered were the same. But it was different. The words six years ago were full of joy and excitement; the words now were laced with exhaustion and relief that she finally had a place to rest her head, even if it was on his shoulder.

“Yep. I am. Did you sleep?”

She looked up from where her face was nuzzled into his chest. She had bags under her eyes, and he could tell she had been crying on and off since she called him. She shook her head shamefully, and he watched as tears formed in her eyes yet again.

“Hey...hey it’s okay. Come on, let’s go inside. Does your mom know I’m here?”

“I told her you were on your way.” Taylor took her hand and kissed it, before leading her back up the stairs to her bedroom. “She’s still asleep, I think.”

“Great, well that’s what we’re gonna do now.”

“Tay, I can’t. I’ve tried all night but I can’t do it. I keep seeing his face as he was collapsing.”

“You can try, come on.”

“Please…” she whined as he kicked off his shoes and climbed into her bed. She was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, probably the same ones from the day before. Her hair was in a sloppy ponytail. Her face was raw from crying.

“Come on.”

She crawled into the bed and curled herself into him, closing her eyes tightly and dissolving into sobs. He held her tighter than he thought possible, which made her cry even harder.

“Moll?”

She took a shuddering breath. He could tell it was difficult for her to form any words, but finally some came. “I wish Jillian was here.”

“Where is she?”

“She and….she and Nick took a trip and she didn’t even answer the fucking phone when I called. She doesn’t even know. That piece of shit won’t even let her talk to me.” Her sobs shook her whole body. “I hate him so much...I…”

“Shhhhh. It’s okay.” He squeezed as hard as he could. He wanted her to believe that nothing could touch her there. That she could sleep. That he would protect her.

“I’m sorry…”

“For what?”

“I can’t stop crying…”

“That’s okay. Cry all you want. I’m here now.” He rubbed her back gently as her tears gathered on his shirt. Eventually, her gasps subsided and she fell asleep.

***

Taylor watched in awe as Molly stood from the pew and took a seat at the piano in the front of the church. The day had been difficult, to say the least. He had helped Molly and her mom with the funeral arrangements, taking charge and making calls, meeting with the funeral director and the priest. Molly was a wreck. He knew better than anyone that her dad had been her hero. It was heartbreaking to watch this woman that he knew only as a loud, outspoken, hurricane of a girl crumple. This morning she sat stoically after getting ready, holding Taylor’s hand.

“You ready to go, Moll?”

She nodded, almost imperceptibly. “I don’t know if I can get there,” she whispered, cryptically.

Taylor shrugged. “Then I’ll carry you.” His statement made the tiniest hint of a grin creep to her face.

Now, she was sitting at the piano, looking at the keys as though she had suddenly forgotten how to play. She cleared her throat timidly, and looked out at the congregation.

“My dad was a musician. Which is um...why I’m one too. Every day, on the way to school, we would listen to classical music. Mostly Mozart...that was...that was his favorite. He played this for me a lot when I was little so...um...yeah.” She took a deep breath and started playing Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria. Taylor smirked, remembering the story she told him about her dad playing this and singing along in a goofy falsetto. He couldn’t believe she was up there playing. Even in the face of tragedy, she wanted to make a statement. She wanted to make sure that her father was remembered correctly. She wanted to be heard. She started off, her right hand crossing her left effortlessly, and then continued on to the next section. She was about to get to the unmistakable staccato portion of the melody when her fingers faltered and she messed up. The light staccato became heavy and pounding. She slipped again. He could see the panic in her eyes.

To anyone else, the errors would not be a big deal. But Taylor knew Molly better than that. He could see the change in her posture and breathing. He stood up quickly and joined her at the piano bench.

“Just play the left hand, okay? I know the top well enough,” he whispered.

“I can’t…”

“You can, come on. I don’t know the ending though so take over when I tell you to.”

Molly looked terrified, but she leaned against him and closed her eyes, letting the music take control of her hand. When the song ended, she let her head fall forward with exhaustion. Taylor took her hand off of the keys, the piano still ringing, and led her back to the pew.

Molly was glued to Taylor’s side for the rest of the day. He knew he would have to head back to Tulsa that night (there was only so long that he could get away with rushing off to help out a “musician friend”...but he couldn’t blame Ike for the lame excuse, he hadn’t given him much of a choice) but he didn’t want to. Ike’s words rang in his head loudly. Something did have to give. They couldn’t keep doing this.

She cried when they said goodbye, and he held her face in his hands, trying not to dissolve into tears himself.

“Thank you for everything...you didn’t...you didn’t have to do all of this.”

“All of what?”

“Taylor…”

He shrugged, and pulled her into a tight hug. “That’s what you do when you love someone. You hold the weight part of the time.”

“That sounds like a song.”

“Yeah well, you know me.”

“I’ll see you at the next fool’s banquet?”

“I’ll be waiting.”

Chapter Text

December 25th, 2008 - Zac

“Is that…?” Kate stared at Zac like a chicken with two heads as he held up the contents of the gift box he opened.

“It’s a tiny little stormtrooper onesie!” He held it up to his son proudly and Kate laughed graciously.

“You wanna be a bad guy, Shep?” she cooed at the baby, lifting him high into the air.

“They’re not bad gu-”

“Woah, this stormtrooper needs a change,” she interrupted, starting to get up.

“Let me take him,” Zac stood and took the baby. She didn’t fight him and busied herself gathering the torn and crumpled gift paper into a mountainous pile. He left her to it and brought his son upstairs to the nursery.

He placed him gently on the changing table. It was crazy to think it had been seven months since he had become a father. Kate’s pregnancy had flown by and he had missed most of it, touring for the new album. She said throughout that she understood, but that didn’t stop him from feeling like a deadbeat.

Once Shepherd arrived, he’d spent the summer at home, adjusting to his new role. He and Kate barely saw each other, sleeping opposite hours and tag teaming parental tasks. Luckily, they had a ton of help along the way. Just as things began to normalize, he was back on tour again for the fall.

The one thing he knew for certain, as he looked down at his wiggling little boy, was that he had never loved anyone more. His son was his most important accomplishment and his purest joy. He loved to watch him sleep and rock him when he cried. Zac loved how the world looked through Shepherd's eyes. He was constantly in awe.

Kate had nearly choked when she saw all the Christmas gifts under the tree. Zac had definitely gone over board. He’d had plenty of time to shop as he travelled. He had barely slept the night before, too excited to watch his little one experience his first Christmas.

He finished the diaper change and hoisted the baby onto his shoulder.

“He should nap before we head to your mom’s” Kate was standing in the doorway.

“Nah, let him stay up and party,” Zac protested, tickling the baby’s sides and prompting a fit of giggles.

“Zachary, put him down. If he doesn’t nap, he’ll be screaming by lunch time.”

She crossed to him and snatched the baby away. He watched her and she placed him in this crib and babbled at him, playfully. He didn’t know why, but he felt like he was in trouble. He felt a rush of panic. They were going to fight. He didn’t think he had it in him. Not on Christmas Day.

“What time are we supposed to leave?” he asked cautiously. She didn’t look up, turning the knob on a device that played lullaby music softly into the crib. She lightly petted the baby’s head and he closed his eye. Zac followed her as she moved silently out of the room. Without a word, she headed down the stairs, so he chased her.

“Hey, did I do something?” he asked once they were both in the kitchen.

“I’d say it’s more what you didn’t do,” she jabbed. He recoiled, unsure what she was referencing. He knew he’d put out the garbage the other night. And the gifts for the family were wrapped and in bags, ready to go. What could he have missed?

“I’m sorry…?” He didn’t mean for it to sound like a question but he also had no idea what to say.

“Did you ever think that maybe I’d like to be a part of things like buying our son’s first Christmas gifts?” She looked at him with eye full of hurt. “Also, I know you’re not here a lot and that you’re trying to make up for lost time, but I would appreciate...I dunno, a minute or two that are just mine? With you.”

She looked like she was choking back tears and Zac instinctively went to her. He wasn’t sure he completely understood where she was coming from, but he’d been married long enough to know you should never be the reason your wife is crying.

“What can I do?” he asked. He held her, trying to connect somehow, but he felt nothing. He just knew he was supposed to hold her when she was sad.

“You can try not to be so obvious.” She sputtered, giving in to her tears.

“About..?” He sounded so callus. He searched himself for that guilty feeling he knew so well. For the part of his heart that had always felt a bit sad for as long as he could remember. For the voice in his head that loved to remind him how bad he was at life. There was nothing.

“Its obvious you’re avoiding me. Its obvious that you use our son as a buffer, a distraction from the things we need to work on. It’s incredibly lonely for me.” She was sobbing, clinging to his tear-soaked shirt with balled-up fists. “Did you hear what I said?”

He heard her words. He wanted to feel sympathy, but that didn’t come. He waited for anger and defensiveness to take hold, but still he was cold. He took two steps back and she looked at him, bewildered.

“I need a shower,” he muttered and walked calmly up the stairs, to the bathroom. He could hear Kate crying softly to herself as he went. In the bathroom, he locked the door and turned to look at his reflection. He looked like himself, albeit a more sleep-deprived version. Still, something was different inside. Like a switch had been flipped.

It was like he was looking at himself from the outside. He could see it all: his family, his band, his life. But he couldn’t feel it. Something was broken.

***

“Whatcha doin’ there?” Ike sat down and nudged Zac, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor by the fireplace.

“Writing,” Zac answered, keeping his head bent toward the notebook in his lap.

“Care to share with the class?” Ike tried to sneak a peek, spilling some of his beer on the floor in the process. Zac looked up at his brother, who was clearly intoxicated.

“I don’t think so,” he balked, closing the notebook and tucking it away. “Having fun?”

“Oh yeah! Cheers!” Ike raised his cup but Zac had none.

“I’m always amazed by how many people we can fit into this house,” Zac exclaimed, looking around at the crowd of Hansons filling the living room. There were so many little ones now, the noise level was at an all-time high.

“Isn’t it weird…,” Ike started, raising an eyebrow to be sure Zac caught the reference, “that we were all kids in this house. And now our kids are here?” Usually Isaac was much more eloquent, but the alcohol was taking its toll.

“Where can I get one of those?” Zac gestured to the cup.

“Yes, Zachary! Get this man a beer!” Ike shouted and the rest of the house cheered. Seemed everyone was caught up in the holiday spirit. Zac followed Ike to the counter, catching Kate’s eye on the way. She looked away quickly and went back to chatting with Natalie.

Typical, Zac thought. Good thing I don’t care anymore. That thought struck him and he rolled it around in his head for a moment. I don’t care anymore.

“Here’s something better than beer!” Taylor’s voice broke through his thoughts and he turned round. Taylor was holding out a shot, brimming with clear mystery liquid. Zac was a firm believer that nothing good ever came from a shot glass. But he didn’t care anymore, right? He threw the shot back and it burned all the way down.

“Merry Christmas!” Ike said, laughing.

“You’re trashed, Isaac,” Zac accused him, grabbing a beer can from the counter and cracking it open.

“Yes, I am sir. And you’re a downer.”

Zac rolled his eyes and chugged his beer. Taylor shifted uncomfortably between them.

“C’mon guys, it’s a party. It’s Christmas. We’re with our families.”

Zac knew that Taylor was trying his best, but he didn’t feel like helping his cause.

“Isn’t there somewhere you’d rather be, Tay?” He took another swig and watched as his brother blushed.

“Zac, what’s your problem?” he asked in a hushed tone, glancing toward that table where their parents sat. Ike stepped between them, his buzz quickly dying.

“Zac, how about you get some air?”

“I don’t need any air, Isaac, but thanks.” He finished his beer and grabbed another from the counter. He looked at Kate and popped the can open, letting fizz all over his hand. She stared back, daring him on. “It’s the MOST wonderful time of the year!” He sang loudly, feeling the effects of the shot in an instant.

Everyone laughed, except his brothers, who watched him intently. Kate stared at him, then looked to his parents and pretended to laugh with them. They all started to sing along and he felt his stomach turn. He slammed the beer in his hand and smashed the can on the counter as the carolling came to an end.

“Okay, let’s take a walk.” Ike threw his arm around him and dragged him from the room, up the stairs and into his childhood bedroom. Taylor was on their heels and he shut the door behind him.

“What is up with you?”

“I don’t even know, Tay,” he replied, flopping down onto his old bed and rubbing his face. He felt like he was going be sick. But at least he felt something.

“You know you can come to us with anything,” Ike offered.

“I don’t care anymore,” Zac said, causing his brothers to look at each other with concern.

“Care about what, Zac?” Taylor asked softly.

“This bullshit!” Zac exclaimed. “It’s like everybody thinks that they know me and what I’m supposed to be doing but they have no idea and I just don’t care anymore. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t care!”

“We can give you a minute, okay?” Ike nodded to Taylor and they left the room.

Zac looked around. Things had made so much more sense in that room. He had been happy there. How had things gone so far?

He fished the notebook from his pocket and looked down at what he’d written. No one would ever understand it. The words were just his rambling thoughts; the things he knew he couldn’t say. Even his brothers wouldn’t understand.

He threw the notebook away and it landed on the desk, their old clunky desktop computer still sitting there like a beacon of times past. He got up and sat down in front of it. He pressed the power button and was surprised when it whirred to life.

There was something cathartic about sifting through his old files. There were documents filled with bad lyrics and song ideas, endless digital doodles and saved video game cheat codes. He was overcome with nostalgia. It felt good, like waves of memories rocking him gently. Of course, the alcohol had something to do with it too.

He clicked the internet browser and mindlessly logged on to his email account. He started a new message, typing feverishly, getting it all out. When he was finished, he look at his handy work. He couldn’t really focus his boozy eyes and he felt empty.

"Somebody let me down, Somebody show me love,
I wouldn’t care much either way
I’d rather the sticks and stones, then dragging the ball and chain
Of ‘what if the world won’t save me?’
Even if the hull should crack
Even if the blood flows red
Nothing could be worse than numb
So please use me up
I just want anyone to use me up, cause no one ever does

I’ve carried it all too long, the fear of the pain it brings
Feeling the panic building up
I’d rather the broken heart, then live in the emptiness
Of ‘what if the world won’t take me’.
Even if the bow should break
Even if the blood runs cold
Nothing could be worse than numb
So please use me up
I just want anyone to use me up, cause no one ever does

Treat me someway cruel
You can throw me away as long as I feel it
Show me something true
You can deceive me
I am yours to use"

He sat back. He took a moment. He reached out and filled in the recipient's email address

To:JillyBean82@aol.com

He pressed send.

Chapter Text

December 31st, 2008 - Molly

“Wow, classy,” Nick commented sarcastically as a gaggle of girls in tight and revealing outfits scurried past. Molly immediately rolled her eyes and gulped her drink. They had only been out for an hour and she already wanted to offer Nick a swift kick to the shins. “I’m glad you don’t dress like that, babe.”

“You know I never would,” Jillian replied with a giggle.

Wow how many times can I roll my eyes tonight? Molly asked herself. She was going for the record, apparently. It had been weeks since she had seen Jillian, and she knew it had everything to do with the fact that Nick was doing his best to put an end to their friendship. She was shocked when Jillian texted her asking if she had any New Year’s plans. She didn’t, so here she was, ringing in 2009 with the man who was, quite possibly, her least favorite person on earth.

She had tried to like Nick. She really had. She loved watching Jillian’s face light up when she talked about him, and she couldn’t help but notice how Jillian’s whole demeanor had become lighter. Almost bubbly. But then, one afternoon they got coffee together and Jillian’s shirt sleeve rode up her arm ever so slightly, revealing a forest of scrapes and scabs. Molly snatched her friends wrist quickly, and pulled it close.

“Jillian what is this….”

“Oh my God it was the stupidest thing. I fell with a wine bottle. I’m so clumsy.”

Molly narrowed her gaze. She always knew when Jillian was lying, and she wasn’t one to drop any topic of conversation.

“Really?”

“Yes really. It’s embarrassing.”

After that day, Molly saw less and less of Jillian. She wasn’t sure if it was Nick controlling her time, or if it was Jillian doing her best to avoid Molly’s knowing gaze. Molly tried every tactic in her arsenal to get Jillian to slip up and admit that something was wrong. She was known for making friends in a matter of minutes; for charming people into submission, but Jillian seemed to be immune. Any prying question she posed was met with a smile and a shake of the head. That’s ridiculous, Molly.

Molly didn’t see much of Jillian but she saw even less of Nick, who made it a point to keep his distance. She liked to believe that it was because she scared him, or at the very least annoyed him enough to keep him away. The first time they met he accused her of stalking Hanson, which would have been enough to blacklist him from her life forever. After reading him the riot act about how making fun of people for what they love is the lowest form of mockery, she challenged every single thing he said for the rest of the night, leaving Jillian as the awkward middle man. She wasn’t even surprised when Jillian asked Evie to be her maid of honor for the impending wedding. It’s hard to be the one right next to the bride when you don’t even try to hide the fact that you hate the groom.

Now she was sitting across from him at a high top, trying her best to tune out all the remarks he was making about how ridiculous every girl looked and how they should be ashamed to be in public like that.

“Haven’t they ever heard of leaving anything to the imagination? That’s much sexier than whatever it is they’re doing.” He shivered with disgust.

“Right, because they’re really trying to impress you, Nick.” Molly finished the dregs of her gin and tonic and popped an ice cube in her mouth, crunching angrily.

“What’s that?”

She spit the half eaten ice cube back into her glass and glanced around for a server to come offer her another round. She needed it. “Have you ever thought...I don’t know...that maybe, just maybe women like dressing like that for...themselves?”

“Oh, Molly…” He said with a chuckle, as though he knew her and all her strange little quirks.

“Oh, Nicholas…” She held his gaze until he broke away, uncomfortable. She chuckled and heaved herself up off her stool, in search of another drink. “You want another, Jilly?”

“Sure!” There she was again, exuding an effervescent happiness that made Molly’s stomach turn with its falseness.

She walked up to the bar and ordered the drinks, checking her phone for what felt like the hundredth time. Seeing Nick and Jillian together made her miss Taylor even more. She sighed and pocketed her phone, after noticing that it was already 11:30pm.

“Okay, we only have half an hour before midnight so drink up!” She said as she delivered the drinks back to the high top. “Ooh!! Let’s tell each other our resolutions!”

Nick rolled his eyes, “I don’t believe in resolutions, I think you should be constantly trying to better yourself.”

“I don’t believe in resolutions,” Molly mimicked, mocking Nick’s condescending tone. “That’s cool, but ‘tis the season. Okay, I’ll go first. My resolution is to….hmm... demand what I want, and get it.”

“Well, you’re plenty demanding,” Jillian said with a smirk.

“I know right! Okay, Jill.”

“Oh, I don’t think I have one.”

“Come on, play the game! It’s almost midnight!”

“Fine. Um, I guess my resolution will be to take care of myself and...you know, be happy!” She put her arm around Nick’s shoulder and leaned into him. He kissed her hair softly.

“Great! Cheers to that!” The girls clinked glasses. It had been a tough few months for Molly, after the loss of her dad. She had stayed at home, helping her Mom, and felt guilty even thinking about leaving. She could make her life good here in Tampa. She would figure it out. Plus, at least here she had Jillian.

“So what about you, Molly, are you seeing anyone?” Nick asked. She knew that he was just making small talk, but it still made her want to argue.

“Wait, seriously...are you seeing someone?” Jillian added. Molly remembered confessing to Jillian the affair she was having with a married man (even though she didn’t specify which married man) back when The Walk came out.

“No, no, I’m not,” she stuttered, her whole demeanor changing. She pulled out her phone, desperate to see a message from Taylor. There were still none. They had been in a really good place since this past summer. After he got back from Tulsa they talked on the phone nearly every day, and still sent letters back and forth. She sent hers to their studio, just in case.

“Well, that’s okay,” Jillian said, leaning over and touching her arm sympathetically.

“That’s okay? Jillian when have I ever dated anyone?”

“You’re right. Molly doesn’t really date,” she explained to Nick, who chuckled.

“I’m shocked.” he said, the words dripping with sarcasm.

Molly flashed a smile at him, hoping it would shut him up. She was already so over it. He’s your best friend’s fiancee, Molly, be nice, she kept telling herself. But he was making it so hard. Also, the alcohol in her system was making her sassier than usual. She looked impatiently at the countdown on the TV. Fifteen more minutes. She could do fifteen more minutes.

***

Molly stumbled into her childhood bedroom and flopped down on the floor. This feels familiar, she thought with a chuckle as she opened her laptop and began composing an email to Taylor. Soon after she watched Jillian and Nick kiss at midnight, she was feeling way drunker than she wanted to, so she called a cab and went home early.

“Stay!” Jillian pleaded.

“Naaah, I’ll just let you two love birds celebrate. I need to be productive tomorrow anyway,” she lied, hoping that Jillian wouldn’t challenge her any further.

The light from her laptop illuminated her face as she typed furiously, hoping that Taylor was awake and brooding on his computer as he was want to do in the early morning hours.

 

To: JTaylorHanson@3cgrecords.com
From: MollyMcK@gmail.com
Subject: HELLO?
January 1st, 2009

Tay Tay,

Happy New Years. It’s literally very new. I just got home from going out with Jillian and her fiancee, Nick. He’s cool I guess, but I wish I could have had someone with me since they were fawning all over each other the whole time. It’s good to see her with someone though. Let’s get this out of the way, I am very drunk right now. I would drunk dial you (trust me I WANT TO) but I think that might be a bad idea. I also thought writing you a letter but I like INSTANT GRATIFICATION. Typing drunk is my special skill. Now you know.

Do you ever think about how you’re married and have 4 children and I’m drunk by myself in my childhood bedroom hahahahaha. What even. It’s so much more fun to drink when you’re around, that’s what I’ve discovered. What are you even doing right now? ARe you home? You’re my favorite person. Once you said that to me in a letter like very early on in our friendship and I hope it’s still true. It’s probably not because you have four little ones who like...have to be your favorite people. I want to meet them. That’s impossible. I’m drunk, don’t take any of this seriously.

It hasn’t really been that long since I’ve seen you but are you doing Fool’s again this year? This is me inviting myself. Get ready!!!

I wish you were mine.

I’m tired, GOOD NIGHT!!!!
-MOLLY

***

“Fuuuuuck,” Molly groaned as she rolled over and looked at the clock by her bed. It was already noon. She had wanted to start the new year off with a whole morning of writing, just to set the tone for the coming months. She was sick of wallowing in her bedroom, which reminded her every day of her hopeful teenage years.

She rubbed her eyes and looked around, noticing her laptop, dead and open on her floor. “Great,” she muttered, assuming that she had done something stupid. She vaguely remembered emailing Taylor. She heaved herself off of her bed and plugged in her computer, waiting impatiently for it to spring to life. She checked her phone.

Happy New Year princess! Wanna get brunch when you wake up?

Molly smiled. Jillian was such an angel, even after Molly had been ridiculously stubborn with her boyfriend.

Just woke up but yes. Gimme a few.

The screen turned on and she navigated to her outbox, reading the drunk email she had sent in horror. She sighed, shaking her head at herself, and sent her second email of the day.

 

To: JTaylorHanson@3cgrecords.com
From: MollyMcK@gmail.com
Subject: Whoops
January 1st, 2009

Aaaaaaaaand that was embarrassing. I barely remember writing this. I’m just going to pretend like that never happened and I would love for you to do the same. Don’t invite me to Fool’s, I don’t deserve it haha.

Anyway, hope you had a good Eve. I apparently did.
Love you
-M

Chapter Text

February 9th, 2009 - Taylor

Taylor had been counting down the days until the next Fool’s Banquet since the moment he returned home from Tampa the previous summer. Natalie had been upset, and rightly so. He tried his best to smooth things over with her, but nothing seemed to be working. Every time he did anything, he was regaled with criticisms and insults, pushing just the right buttons to make him snap. This wasn’t the sweet girl he met in Georgia. This was someone completely different.

Months passed by in agonizing silences and loud, over dramatic screaming matches. The kids started noticing. Natalie pulled away more than ever, only speaking to him when absolutely necessary. She spent ample time with the children, taking them on trips to art galleries and history museums all over the area, but no time was spent with Taylor. Not that he particularly minded. Whenever they were together, they fought, and he hated fighting. He packed his bags with enthusiasm and waited patiently for the moment Zac would come barreling up the driveway in his truck and honk the horn, signalling the beginning of his welcome reprieve from married life.

He was finishing up packing his suitcase when Natalie came into the bedroom quietly, watching him zip up his bag before he even noticed she was there.

He turned around to place the suitcase by the door when he saw her. “Hey, what’s up.” He was sure she was going to criticize something, or tell him he couldn’t go to the banquet, or something equally frustrating.

“I want a divorce.”

The words hung in the air. Seconds ticked by, the air thick with tension and questions.

“...Nat..”

“No. No, let me talk. I think we both know how unhappy I’ve been for years. I hate this, Taylor. I hate how hard this is. I love the kids so much, and I’m so happy when I’m with them but, God I hate how hard we have to try to keep this marriage afloat. I talked to Nikki the other night…”

“Oh...”

“Yeah, and she brought it up and I just started crying so hard. I know you’re unhappy too. I see your face fall every time you come back from tour or the fool’s banquet or recording in California and it’s just heart breaking. But honestly, my face falls too. We tried. We tried really hard, but...some things just aren’t right. No matter how hard you try.”

“Natalie…”

“I know you want this too. I’m not an idiot. I know you’ve never been happy in this marriage. I remember how scared you looked the day of the wedding and how hard I tried to look brave, but there was a baby in my stomach that I didn’t even want. And, it’s seven years later and I still feel guilty for thinking that. I love Ez with my whole heart, and I love you too. We’ve been through so much together. But the few moments of ‘wow, look at our family, look what we did’ aren’t enough to make up for the months I’m here by myself knowing you’re on the road playing shows and...it’s just too much, Tay. I can’t do this anymore. I’m miserable.”

Taylor looked at his wife, who just looked so tired. That was the only word he could think to describe her. Tired.

Just as he took in a breath to speak, a cry erupted from the next room. They looked at each other, and Taylor knew that the divorce couldn’t happen quite yet. Viggo wasn’t even two months yet. They heaved matching sighs and both started towards the door.

“I’ll get him,” Taylor muttered.

***

“Natalie wants a divorce,” Taylor said flatly one morning, after he and Molly had taken their piping hot coffee out into the yard. Molly had thrown herself into songwriting that week, months of intense emotion bubbling to the surface. Taylor wondered if she would be her normal, goofy self this year since the tragedy had flipped her world on its side. Luckily, she did not disappoint. She laughed harder than ever at the nightly jam sessions, throwing her hair around and smiling up to the ceiling.

“Oh, shit,” she replied.

“That’s your response?”

“Um...okay what response do you want?”

Taylor sighed. “I don’t even know. I mean, yeah we need to get one. Like we really do. It’s just...I...you don’t know my family.”

“I know your brothers. I feel like they would be very much on board.”

“Right but you don’t know the rest of my family. You don’t know my parents. They mean well, they really do. But...they would have a conniption. Hansons always do the right thing, and I have four kids.”

“I’m keeping my mouth shut.”

Taylor looked over at Molly, stunned. “I’ve never once heard you say that.”

Molly laughed, slapping her hand over her mouth after she heard the laugh echo off of the trees. “Yeah, I know. But I’m opinionated --”

“What?! You?!”

“Very funny. Yes, me, and if I start I won’t stop and this isn’t about me. This is about you. Take me out of the picture completely.”

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Mmkay, I know you’re trying to be sweet but seriously, just...take me out of it. Do you want a divorce?”

“I don’t want Natalie to be out of my life, she’s the mother of my children.”

“That wasn’t the question.”

“...Yeah, I do.”

“Okay, then there’s your answer. Come on,” Molly snaked her arm around Taylor’s waist, “let’s go see who we’re writing with today.”

***

Coming home was never easy, but this time it was even more difficult. Taylor had rehearsed his speech to Natalie over and over in his head, and still he was sure that when he said it out loud, he would mess it up. He would probably make her cry or something, not that that was difficult to do. The fights always ended up with one of them crying (she could be downright nasty, and he wasn’t immune. Tears often formed in his own eyes).

Zac dropped him off and he opened the door cautiously. The house was quiet. Where are the kids? He dropped his suitcase on the ground.

“Nat?” He called out into the silence. It was almost eerie. “Where are you?”

A shadow appeared on the landing above him.

“Come up here, please,” Natalie said, calmly. It sent a shiver down his spine. He mounted the stairs, his heart pounding. When he reached their bedroom, he saw Natalie, her back turned to him, a piece of paper in her hand.

A piece of lined paper, torn from a notebook, with Molly’s handwriting on it.

Molly’s handwriting.

Fuck.

“Nat, I can explain.”

“How long have you been writing to her?”

“Natalie…”

“Answer me.” Taylor couldn’t help but notice she was using her mom voice on him.

“Like...nine years.”

She finally turned around, the look of complete exhaustion back on her face. It made Taylor want to crumple.

“You love her, don’t you?”

He nodded his head timidly. “Yeah, I do.”

He watched as rage flashed on her face and immediately melted away, once again replaced with exhaustion. She walked towards him and handed him the letter. How could he have been so careless? It wasn’t like he kept her letters here at the house. They were tucked away safely in his office downtown.

“Natalie, I’m sorry.”

She shook her head, “Don’t. You don’t...you don’t have to be sorry. I mean, I appreciate that you are. But I think this just confirms it, yeah? Something’s gotta give. It’s not even like that letter was mushy or romantic just...just the way she talks to you. You can just tell. We’ve never had that.”

“No...” he whispered.

“And that’s not fair. For either of us. Or for her.”

“Nat, I...you’re one of my best friends and I’m not just saying that. We’ve been through so much together. You’re the mother of my children. I don’t want...I don’t….”

“I don’t think we have to get divorced yet. I know you’re scared shitless because of your family and your fans, and trust me I get it. Do you know the hell I went through when we got married? They all hate me, Taylor. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over it. Being a Hanson wife is not all it’s cracked up to be. Anyway, it’ll be a nightmare. Also, Viggo is just a baby. Let’s wait. But…”

“We’re…”

“Yeah. It’s done.”

Taylor opened his arms and Natalie fell into him. They stayed there for what seemed like hours, their tears falling silently, both of them relieved and sorry and tired. They were both so tired. They didn’t speak, not even when Natalie wriggled herself out of the hug. The front door was opening. The kids were home.

Chapter Text

February 14th, 2009 - Jillian

“You look incredible, Jill.”

Molly was standing behind her and they locked eyes in the mirror. It felt surreal. Jillian had called Molly her best friend for well over a decade. Still, as they stood there on Jillian’s wedding day, she still saw the same goofy middle schoolers they’d been when they met.

In the months leading up to the wedding, Jillian felt like everything she knew had changed. She had never told anyone about the fateful night in the kitchen. She tried hard never to think of it at all. She knew Nick hadn’t meant to hurt her. It was dark and he’d been startled. He had simply reacted. She shouldn’t have been up in the middle of the night, losing sleep over her ex-boyfriend.

He gave her the week off afterward, allowing time for the bruising to subside. She did her best to clean up her shredded arms, but there were still a few visible scars, that served as her daily reminder.

After that night, she hadn’t called Molly for over two weeks. Nick had pulled their cell phone records from that night, sure she’d been talking to some guy.

“I pay for your cell phone, so you only use it the way I want you to use it,” he had shouted at her, his eyes wild. She watched him search through the call history, then turn to her with a sneer. “You want to talk to Molly? You’ll need to clear it with me first.”

Jillian had started to cry, and he’d cradled her, insisting that he needed her to make him the most important thing in her life. She shouldn’t need anyone else. They were going to be man and wife. He wouldn’t accept anything less than her complete devotion. And she could count on the same from him.

Lying in his arms, emotionally raw and utterly exhausted, she figured he was right. She was the one who didn’t know how to be a good fiancee. She was the one who fucked things up. He was right.

Jillian looked at Molly, all dressed up in a gown she would never wear otherwise, her curls piled neatly on the crown of her head. She looked so beautiful. Jillian wanted to gush about how insane the whole thing was, but nothing about it felt easy to put into words.

“You should be my maid of honor,” she blurted, trying not to let Molly hear the wobble in her voice.

“It’s a little late for that,” Molly grinned, pulling at Jillian’s veil until it looked perfect. “Besides, it seems more proper to have Evie do it. She’s your sister.”

“You’re my sister!” Jillian spun around and threw her arms around Molly.

“You’re gonna mess up your makeup, crazy!” Molly laughed, unable to shake Jillian off.

“I miss you so much, Moll.” Jillian couldn’t stop the word vomit. Perhaps it was all the emotion of the day or the relief that it was finally here. “I miss you all the time.”

“I know, me too,” Molly mumbled, hugging her back. Jillian didn’t let go for what seemed like forever, the silence between them weighed down by the words she couldn’t say. Finally, she pulled away and inspected herself in the mirror. She needed to pull it together.

“I can’t believe this is actually happening.” She tried to brush off her emotional outburst, hoping Molly would let it go. But Molly had never been one to let anything go.

“It doesn’t have to.”

Jillian spun around and glared at her best friend. She wondered if she’d heard her wrong.

“What did you say?”

“I said...this doesn’t have to happen, Jillian. You don’t have to do this.”

“Wh...why would you say that, Molly?”

“Because I know you. I know that look in your eye. You’re smiling and you look like a fucking Barbie Dream Bride, really! But I know there’s something going on. You’re not the same anymore. You and I have barely spoken since you got engaged and I know that’s not your decision.”

“Molly, stop…”

“No, I won’t, because I need you to know that I know. I see you. I’ll always see you, no matter what happens after today. You don’t have to do this. No matter what you think will happen or what people will think of you, you can walk away…”

“Stop! Molly…”

“And if you stay and go through with this and things get better or they get worse, I will still be here. For you. Okay?”

“You’re amazing,” Jillian managed after a heavy exhale. “I’ve been the worst friend, Molly. We barely talk anymore, I never see you...I missed you dad’s funeral to lay on the beach in Cancun, for god’s sake.”

“You had no way of knowing-”

“That doesn’t matter. I should have been there.” Jillian hung her head, an unwilling slave to the long-suppressed emotions now forcing their way out of her.

“Does he hit you?”

Molly’s words hit her like a ton of bricks. She felt her thoughts begin to spin, searching for a viable escape. She felt fear.

“No!” she blurted. Her whole body was shaking, as she stared Molly in the face and lied to her. “Why would you even ask me that? You really believe that I would marry someone who did that?” She turned away and steadied herself on the counter. Images flooded her memory; her bruised jaw, her slashed arms, Nick’s eyes as he shook her. “Can I have a few minutes alone?” She asked, without looking up.

Molly sighed. She turned and walked out of the dressing room, the door banging loudly on the frame as it closed. Jillian looked up to face herself in the mirror. She didn’t recognize the face staring back at her.

The face of a liar. The face of a coward.

She stood there for what seemed like ages, until there was a knock at the door. The wedding planner popped her head in.

“It’s time, sweetie!” She was smiling like an idiot, her red lipstick leaking onto her teeth. Jillian’s heart dropped. She forced the corners of her mouth upward and did a spin. “You look just perfect! Now, let’s go. Everyone is lined up for the processional.”

Jillian moved toward the door. Her legs felt heavier with every step. She thought about the room full of people waiting to see her walk down the aisle. She thought about all the money Nick’s parents and her dad had spent to make the day everything she had ever dreamed. She thought about how much she had sacrificed to make this life she was living. There was no turning back now.

She followed the planner down the hallway, where her dad was waiting. He looked overwhelmed at the sight of her. She felt her eyes well up. Her dad took her arm.

“Breathe,” he reminded her, gently. “You look beautiful.”

She hugged him and looked forward. Her sisters looked like angels. They stood beside their groomsmen-escorts, giggling with excitement. She locked eyes with Molly, who nodded at her reassuringly.

There was music playing and she struggled to listen. The wedding planner was chattering about how they should all watch her for the signal to go. Jillian ignored her, trying to make out the melody she was hearing. It was so familiar. Finally, she caught a few of the lyrics wafting faintly from the doors to the hall.

In the still of the night
I held you, held you tight…

She felt her knees buckle. She wondered if it was some kind of joke. That wasn’t possible, of course, because no one there would understand the song’s significance. Maybe it was the universe, calling to her in a last ditch effort to wake her up? It was working. She looked nervously at her dad as the song faded out and the processional music began. He patted her hand and stood up straight.

The doors to the hall swung open. Evie and the best man took their first steps into the hall.

What am I doing? What am I doing? Jillian repeated over and over in her head.

She closed her eyes and tried to calm down. Could she run away? Her dad’s grip on her arm was tight. She opened her eyes and watch Iyla follow Evie up the aisle, then Mira. It was Molly’s turn and she glanced back at Jillian.

The look they exchanged in that moment held all the words they could never say.

Molly headed up the aisle and the hall doors closed. Jillian took slow deep breaths. Her dad was trembling nervously, holding back tears. She wanted to turn to him and ask if she was doing the right thing. She wanted him to tell her it was normal to feel afraid. It was normal for couples to fight. It was normal to completely lose yourself in someone else. Instead, she took one last deep breath and tried to clear her mind.

The first notes of “Here Comes the Bride” sounded and the doors flung open again. Jillian felt dizzy. Her dad said something to her but she didn’t hear him. They took their first steps forward, into the hall. There were flashes from cameras going off all around her. She felt hundreds of eyes on her, watching as she walked the aisle. She looked up and saw Nick waiting for her, his perfect smile and perfectly tailored suit making him look like a prince in a fairytale.

A particularly bright flash made her blink suddenly, impairing her eyesight for a moment. The haze finally cleared and she put her focus on the man at the end of the aisle. She released an audible gasp.

It wasn’t Nick’s face she saw. It was Zac’s.

She shook her head to clear the vision, but it wouldn’t disappear. She saw only Zac; his hair, his eyes, his lips. She felt crazy and looked around to see if anyone else was seeing it too, but she knew she was all alone. She looked back and the vision remained.

She couldn’t hold back the waterfall of tears that streamed down her face. She stared at the man she was walking toward, knowing it wasn’t real. None of this was real. She’d built herself into a perfect little box that looked so pretty from the outside, but she knew that the inside was empty.

She felt her dad move aside and pass her arm to the groom. She felt something deep inside her heart shut down.

She was making a terrible mistake. And there was no turning back now.

Chapter Text

October 15th, 2009 - Zac

The tour bus rambled along the open highway. The sun had begun to rise, but Zac had yet to find sleep. He was used to long bouts of insomnia, especially on tour, but this time felt different. He didn’t want to sleep. Sleep meant he was alone with his subconscious, weaving dreams that brought him face to face with issues he’d rather ignore. Sleep meant he might not want to get up again.

He’d developed a routine. They would play a show, do the obligatory greetings or after-parties, and head to the bus. Everyone would spend an hour or so decompressing, making phone calls home and cleaning up, and then they would head to their bunks. The bus would fall silent, except for the rumbling engine and the white noise of traffic and city, and that’s when Zac would roll out of his bed and climb onto the cushioned bench in the back.

He would throw on his headphones and listen to hours of music or play entire video games, wasting the hours of the night on mindless diversions. Sometimes he would write lyrics to songs no one would ever hear. If sleep did come, he’d allow it for a few hours, setting alarms to interrupt the nightmares.

He knew he didn’t feel good. He was exhausted. Everyday was a constant struggle between responsibility and crippling apathy. He wanted to feel happy. He wanted to feel anything, really. Instead, he was going through the motions, being “crazy Zac” for his brothers and “funny Zac” for the fans; “attentive husband” for Kate and “professional musician” for the press. Nothing within him came without effort.

He gazed out the back window of the bus, watching the road fall away behind him. The playlist he’d been listening to came to an end and he looked down at his phone to choose a new one. The bus slowed and he looked up to see that they were passing through a toll booth. The lights of the New York City skyline appeared in the distance.

He pulled off his headphones and watched Manhattan creep closer. He had loved it there once. He remembered feeling the energy of the streets in his bones as he walked block after block in the crisp winter air. He remembered wanting to experience everything the concrete jungle had to offer; all the sights and sounds, the ups and downs...The city was a song he’d wanted to write.

From where he sat now, it was the emptiest place he had ever seen. He looked back at his phone, searching for something to take his mind off of the past. He noticed the little red icon on his mail badge and sighed. Work was never ending, now that email was always in the palm of your hand.

He pressed the badge, opened his inbox and nearly fell on the floor. It was from Jillian.

He had all but forgotten the message he’s sent her back in December. He’d waited for a response for several weeks, but when none came, he figured it was a lost cause. Now, here it was, her name in his inbox. He sat up straight and took a moment before opening it.

 

To:ZacharyHanson@3cgrecords.com
From:JillyBean82@aol.com
Subject: Hi
October 15th, 2009

Hi Zac,

I apologize that I’m just responding now. Frankly, I’ve been really busy and hearing from you was one of the last things I expected at this point. I got married in the spring. I’m really happy. I know you’re a father now, so congratulations on that.

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what you want me to say. I’m sorry that you’re hurting. It turns out that growing up and moving on is a lot about pain and sacrifice. Sometimes we end up making choices we can’t take back or settling for the easiest solution instead of the right one. Sometimes, those choices aren’t even in our control.

Anyway, I wish you all the best. It would be nice to hear from you again sometime, when you have more to share than song lyrics.

Be well, Jillian

 

Zac didn’t know what he expected. Did he think she would write back and profess her undying love for him? Did he expect her to tell him to fuck off? The only thing he knew for sure is that he felt angry. Adrenaline pulsed through his entire body and he lept to his feet and chucked his phone toward the front of the bus.

He heard it crack as it connected with the floor, which made him angrier. His blood was boiling and it was exhilarating. He embraced the first emotion he’d felt in months, allowing it to surge through his veins. His muscles tensed and he wheeled around, sending his fist into the wall.

The wall material buckled and popped, sending a loud crunching sound throughout the bus. Zac could hear movement. He turned around to see Taylor standing in front of him, bewildered.

“What?!” he shouted at him, prompting Ike to emerge from his bunk to investigate.

“Zac, what’s your problem?” he mumbled, barely awake.

“I don’t have a problem, Isaac!” Zac was amped and ready for a fight. He didn’t care that it didn’t make sense. He just wanted to ride this rage-wave to its crashing point.

“Zac-” Taylor whispered and reached out a hand to him. Zac swatted it away.

“Don’t touch me, Taylor!”

Ike was standing now, looking concerned. Taylor didn’t flinch. He just moved closer and tried again to place his hand on Zac’s shoulder.

“It’s okay…” Taylor spoke in a slow and even tone. “Zac, you hurt your hand.”

Zac looked down and noticed the deep red liquid covering his left hand. Somehow, seeing it made it hurt. His hand was throbbing and looked like something out of a horror movie.

“Oh, shit….” he stammered, trying to identify where the blood was coming from. Taylor helped him sit down and Ike approached watchfully, passing Taylor a balled up towel.

“It’s fine, let’s just see what you’ve got here.” Taylor work steadily, using the towel to clear enough of the blood to locate a small laceration between Zac’s first and second knuckles.

Zac sat still, watching his brother work. The rage had subsided and been replaced with another emotion he hadn’t felt in a while: sorrow. He hung his head and didn’t speak, while Ike retrieved the First Aid kit and helped Taylor bandage him up. His hand looked like a marshmallow when they were finished.

Zac sat silently, flanked by his older brothers who were waiting for an explanation. He wasn’t sure he had one to give. Taylor threw his arm over Zac’s shoulders. Ike did the same from his side. The three of them sat there wordlessly until the bus pulled into Times Square.

***

The show had been great, despite the pulsing pain in Zac’s hand as he played. He’d had the wound looked at and it didn’t require stitches, just rest. That would be impossible considering the fact that he had shows to play almost nightly through the end of the year.

He was ashamed to admit that there was something about the pain that he liked. He wondered what that meant. He wiped his face and hair with the towel as he navigated the bustling backstage area. Taylor and Isaac were already in the green room and when he entered, they both turned to look at him.

“Talking about me?” he asked and their guilty faces gave them away.

“How’s your hand?” Ike asked, trying to sound nonchalant. Zac held it up, a spot of blood peeking through the gauze.

“Ta-dah! Still attached!” He waved it in Ike’s face until he turned away, in no mood for dog and pony show.

“You don’t have to come out tonight,” Taylor stated, pulling on clean shirt. They had made plans back when they finalized the tour schedule to visit a the pub they’d frequented when they lived in the city.

“Oh, I’m coming,” Zac insisted, peeling his sweat-soaked shirt off. He grabbed a fresh t-shirt from his bag and shoved it on, bumping his hand on the chair. He winced and shook it off. He hated the way his brother’s were looking at him. Like a bomb about to go off. He pulled his hair back and gathered his things. “So let’s go!”

Ike and Taylor hurriedly followed him out of the green room and out the back door. Fans screamed and waved, begging for autographs and photos. Zac ignored them all, bolting to the car that was waiting. He waited for the others, who were fulfilling their duties and apologizing for him. He just wanted to go.

When they finally arrived at the pub, Zac practically leapt from the car and landed at the bar. He waved at the bartender, who was busy with another group.

“Hey!” he shouted. “Excuse me!”

“Settle down, we just got here,” Taylor came up behind him and clapped a hand on his shoulder, forcing him onto the barstool.

Ike took the seat next to him and looked around.

“Some things never change,” he said, referring to the bar and, Zac figured, to his behavior. The bartender made her way over to them, a look of recognition on her face.

“Welcome back, boys!” She gave them a wink. “What’ll it be? First round’s on the house!”

“Lemme get a shot of Jack and that IPA on draft,” Zac blurted. He felt reckless, like he could say or do anything and no one could stop him. The pain in his hand egged him on.

“Wow, you’re really going for it,” Taylor said, then leaned forward and asked for a lager.

“Same for me,” Ike added, looking down at his phone. Zac watch him as he texted Nikki. He was smiling like an idiot and Zac hated him for it. The drinks arrived and he slammed the shot, throwing the shot glass down with a bang.

“Look what’s still here,” Taylor gestured toward the faded dart board on the wall.

“Yes!” Zac shouted, jumping up from the barstool, already feeling the effects of the whisky. “I’m first!” He raced to the board, forcing several people to jump out of the way. He grabbed the darts and turned on Taylor. “ You’re in, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Taylor agreed, reluctantly. He watched as Zac threw the darts too hard at the board, missing the bullseye by a mile.

“Take it easy, there,” the bartender shouted at him. Zac rolled his eyes and waited for Taylor to retrieve the darts. While his brother took his turn, he chugged half his beer and looked down at his hand. The bloody spot on the bandage had grown. He felt Isaac’s eyes on him and looked up.

“You really should go back to the hotel,” he smirked.

“I don’t need you to tell me what to do, dad”. Zac drained the rest of his beer. He had to steady himself, already dizzy from the booze. He looked to Taylor, who threw his final dart right into the center of the board.

The patrons at the surrounding tables cheered loudly for him and he grinned at Zac, gloating.

“Did you see that?”

“Whatever-”

A man with a thick beard high-fived Taylor and they started chatting about something. Zac stumbled toward the men’s room, suddenly needing to be away from everyone and everything. He should have gone back to the hotel; Ike was right.

When he got to the bathroom door, he pushed it but it didn’t move. He tried again and still, it remained closed.

“Its locked.” He heard a voice behind him. He turned around to find a girl standing against the wall, glaring at him. She was slightly shorter than him, with wavy brown hair and dark eyes. Her dress was short and low-cut. She looked him up and down, making him uncomfortable.

“I guess it is,” he answered, trying to maintain some dignity.

“You can use the ladies. I’ll keep watch.” She was purring. He tried to blend in with the wall but it wasn’t working. He shuffled past her to the women’s rest room and peeked in. “Go on, I won’t tell.” Her eyes flickered and he glanced around. No one else was paying them any attention.

“Fuck it,” he joked, feigning confidence and stepping through the door. Somehow, she snuck in behind him and shut the door, latching it closed. She turned around and stared at him. “What are you-?”

“What happened to your hand?” She cut him off and pulled his hand up to inspect it.

“Nothing...just a dumb…”

“Uh huh.” She moved her body close to his and looked up at him, hungry.

“What are you doing?” he asked, as she ran her hands over his chest.

“What? You don’t like it?” she pouted.

“I don’t know...I mean, I do…” He had been backing up and felt the wall come up behind him. He was trapped. He looked at his captor and something came over him. He would later blame it on the alcohol but he knew it was something much darker.

This girl thought she could control him. She thought he was some stupid drunk boy who would give in to any girl brave enough to try. She had him up against a literal wall, like a lamb to slaughter. He was so sick of feeling like a fish in a barrel, waiting for his fate.

She must have noticed a change in him because the look in her eye shifted. Was that fear he saw? A fleeting glimpse of what bolder men must see when they take what they want. He jammed his fist against the wall, pain shooting up his arm into his shoulder. He hated how much he liked the feeling of it. He hated himself for what he was about to do.

He took a step forward and she remained steady. She wasn’t afraid. She liked it. He switched off his brain for the first time in his whole life and grabbed her, lifting her onto the counter. He jammed his tongue into her mouth and she groaned, urging him on. She spread her legs and pulled him close. Her fingers found his fly and he opened his eyes, catching his reflection in the mirror.

He watched himself pull her shirt over her head and madly entangle his fingers in her hair. Her hands were in his pants and she guided him to her. He braced himself, pressing a hand on the mirror above her. He didn’t care anymore. There was only this moment. His aching hand. His swimming head. This stranger he was fucking in the bathroom.

This was the choice he couldn’t take back.

Chapter Text

December 9th, 2009 - Taylor

Taylor couldn’t believe the difference in his house now that he and Natalie had officially called it quits. He moved his stuff into the guest room downstairs, which was right next to his office, and let Natalie have the master all to herself. A weight had been lifted and for the first time since he married her, he felt some semblance of happiness. He felt light.

Of course, there was still some sneaking that had to be done. His family, save for Zac and Isaac, still believed them to be happily married. He knew the holidays were coming up and that there would be plenty of functions to attend as a couple, but he and Nat had discussed it in great detail. It wouldn’t be too difficult. Honestly, the new arrangement had brought them closer than they had ever been in the past, and he was starting to realize what a good friend he had in her. They just weren’t in love. And that was okay.

One night, after the kids were in bed, the two of them stayed up in the kitchen talking about their day. Taylor had been at the studio for a solid ten hours, and he was exhausted. He knew they needed to hire a few more musical hands to help out with everything, but he and his brothers were certified control freaks.

“I don’t trust anyone enough, I guess,” he lamented as he dried the dish Natalie had just handed him.

“Isn’t Molly a musician?”

It was still jarring to hear her say Molly’s name out loud. Taylor chuckled.

“To say she’s a musician is an understatement. The girl lives and breathes music.”

“So...hire her?”

Taylor nearly dropped the plate he was holding. That would mean that Molly would live in Tulsa. With him. They could get their own place and walk to the studio every morning, coffee in hand. They could spend countless hours together in the control room, making every track sound absolutely right. She was just as much of a perfectionist as he was.

“I don’t know...I would have to talk to the guys.”

“You still really haven’t told me that much about her,” Natalie said, drying her hands and hopping up to sit on the counter. “So…”

“So what?”

“Tell me something!! I want to know about the girl that stole my husband!”

“Natalie…”

“I’m just kidding,” she responded, giggling playfully. There she was. That was the girl that he had met backstage. “I’m waiting.”

“Um okay...well...she’s the best piano player I’ve ever met. Seriously, she’s insane. She makes me nervous,” he said with a smirk. “And...she’s been helping me write since I was seventeen? I would send her little snippets of songs and she would tell me what I should do differently and...we would do this over the phone for hours when we were teenagers. Literal hours.” He felt his eyes cloud over, picturing her. “She’s really loud. Like, you know how Zac is loud? That’s nothing. She’ll be in a room full of people and somehow make everyone shut up and listen to her. And she’s a perfectionist. She’ll stay in a practice room for hours until it’s right. She won’t sleep...it’s crazy.”

“You love her!!”

“I know, it’s ridiculous.”

“It’s cute.”

“It’s still very surreal to talk about her to you. I’m still not really sure why you’re okay with this. You should be like...throwing my stuff out into the lawn.”

“Well, I’ve suspected it since we started dating. Dating.” She held her fingers up and made air quotes. “Did you know that your parents bought my ticket out to California?”

“Wait…”

“Yeah. Apparently they talked to my mom and begged her to let me go. I think they were worried you were partying too hard.”

“Joke’s on them, got you pregnant.”

“I know, right? Truth time?”

“This whole conversation has been truth time.”

“I really didn’t want to get married. I was a kid...we both were. It was so scary. I cried so hard at our wedding and everyone thought I was happy but really I was just terrified. And then...I don’t know, it was all such a mess. I knew you didn’t love me, so I didn’t get mad when I knew there was someone else.”

“How long did you know? Like actually know?”

“I noticed you were missing at our reception and found you in the church. You were writing a letter.”

“Natalie…”

“I knew it was to someone else. I just knew. But, like I said, I was a kid!! I thought it was too late,” she shrugged.

“But look at us, now.”

“Yeah...I guess it’s never too late, huh.” They smiled at each other and started laughing.

“Can I meet her?”

“Meet who?”

“Molly, you idiot!”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea…”

“Come ON Taylor, I only have like one female friend, and she’s your brother’s wife. Just...think about it? I don’t want this to be a Natalie versus Molly thing.”

“Maybe.”

***

“Oh, Natalie wants to meet you,” Taylor said into the phone with a chuckle. It was his nightly call with Molly, who always listened to his rantings about the studio and how frustrating it could be with patience. She would offer solutions where she could, and then tell him about the hours she spent in her late father’s home studio in the basement. He figured that alone was what kept her living at home.

“Wait, seriously?” It had been almost a year since Natalie and Taylor decided to be married without really being married, and Molly was still getting used to the fact that she could call Taylor whenever she wanted to. She claimed she needed to be at home because her mom was still having a rough time since her dad’s death, but Taylor had a sneaking suspicion that there was something else holding her back.

“Yep. She brought it up last night. Trust me, I almost choked when she said it.”

“God, that’s so weird,” Molly started to giggle. “I don’t know...I don’t know!!!”

“Well we have Fool’s coming up. Maybe I can pick you up from the airport and we can swing back by the house.”

“This is so weird.”

“I know.”

“Who in your family knows? Your brothers?”

“Yeah. My parents are oblivious. They think all their boys are happily married,” Taylor snorted ,”I think Jessie caught on because she’s at the studio all the time and we forget to censor ourselves there, so she’s probably figured it out.”

Molly yawned loudly into the phone. “Okay, bud. I have to get to bed, school in the morning.” Taylor knew how much Molly hated waking up early, but how she had to do it for her teaching job at the high school.

“Sleep tight. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Taylor thought of the flash of fantasy he had when Natalie suggested Molly come work at the studio. Together, in Tulsa, making music. Being together.

Maybe someday, he thought.

Chapter Text

April, 2010 - Molly

“Moooollyyyyyyy??”

Molly looked up from keyboard and saw Jillian descending the basement stairs with two cups of iced coffee in hand. Both of their faces broke out in a smile. “Hey, weirdo!”

“I called your landline and your mom said you were busy down here so I thought I would come distract you.”

“You’re the only person that still calls my landline and talks to my mom,” Molly said with a loud laugh.

“Yeah well, old habits die hard. Here,” she said, handing over one of the cups to Molly. She took a seat at the controls and spun around in the chair aimlessly. “What are you working on?”

“Just some random tracks. This studio is great, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t really have all the equipment I want, or need, to do the things I hear in my head. I wish I had more money to buy some new stuff, but I can’t really afford it right now. Contrary to popular belief, being a high school music teacher is not super glamorous.”

“Wow, I had no idea,” Jillian responded, sarcastically. “You don’t pay rent though...I bet you could scrounge up enough for some new equipment.”

Molly shrugged. “Juilliard was expensive so I have this fun little thing called student loans to pay off. And I like to save money for travelling.”

“Oh right, your mysterious songwriting retreats.”

“Hey, those are really important to me!!”

“I know, I know. Well...do you think you have some travel money for a trip with me?”

“What?! Where?”

“New York?”

“Whoa, why?” Molly was floored by her friend’s enthusiasm. Sweet Jillian, who never did anything out of the ordinary...especially now that she was married to Nick. Frankly, Molly had given up on any dreams of alone time with Jillian. She had resigned herself to the fact that this was their friendship now. Occasional coffee dates. Sporadic text conversations. Emails like the old days.

“We never do anything fun, just the two of us. We used to hang out all the time. Just us. Jillian and Molly against the world.”

“Well, there’s kind of an outside force that keeps us from doing that now.”

“Right, I know. He likes to have me all to himself, but I’m putting my foot down. I want to go. I miss you. Let’s go on a girls trip. C’mon Moll, pleeeeeeease?”

Molly looked at her friend and couldn’t help but smile. She missed Jillian more than she could even explain. The old Jillian. The pre-Nick Jillian. The Jillian that went along with all of Molly’s stupid ideas and snuck into the pool at midnight, even if she did protest. “Of course, Jill. When do you want to go? Spring Break is coming up, anyway.”

“Next week maybe? Around the 30th.”

“...That’s...specific. But also, surprisingly during Spring Break. So that actually works. Since when have you been spontaneous?” Molly narrowed her gaze at Jillian.

“Since now, I guess. Great! Well, that was all, I’ll leave you alone to finish…” she waved her hand around aimlessly, “whatever it is you’re working on.” She made her way halfway up the stairs before she turned around on the steps and called down to Molly. “Oh and we’re gonna go see the Hanson concert on the 30th, okay bye!!”

“WHAT?!”

Jillian ran up the rest of the stairs, giggling.

“Jillian Santoro, get back here!!!” Molly yelled, finally catching up with her friend by the front door and practically tackling her.

“Okay don’t get mad…”

“Oh my GOD Jill, for the last time, I’m NOT MAD AT YOU.”

“I just think it could be fun! Like...like the first show we went to.”

“Are you sure you’re okay to...ya know...see Zac?” Molly slid down to the ground and sat cross legged on the hardwood floor.

“Yeah, I think so,” Jillian responded, joining her friend and leaning against the wall. “I think...I think I want to.”

“Really?” Molly looked at Jillian incredulously. She felt as though this was just begging for disaster, but maybe a disaster was actually what Jillian needed.

“Yeah! I mean, I’m with Nick and I love him. We’re married for fuck’s sake!”

“LANGUAGE,” Molly’s mom yelled from the living room, where she was calmly reading a magazine and not even flinching at her daughter’s outburst.

“Sorry Mrs. McKenney!” Jillian said sheepishly.

“Hey mom?”

“...Yes?”

“Jill and I are gonna go to New York next week.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

“So that means you’ll go with me?!” Jillian asked in a fierce whisper.

“Yes, but let me handle the tickets,” Molly replied, mocking Jillian’s conspiratorial tone.

“The concert tickets?”

“Yeah.”

“Why? I can buy them.”

Molly shrugged. “I know people.” She smiled impishly at her friend, maybe hoping that Jillian would press her for details. Instead, they both just squealed, feeling as though there were fifteen and seventeen again, respectively.

***

“No!”

“Yes! I think...I think this might be when I tell her.”

“I still can’t believe you’ve never told her. You’re...a weird friend.”

“Thank you! Just, trust me, Tay. The moment was never right. There’s just been a lot of stuff happening.”

“For the past ten years?”

Molly giggled into the phone, and could practically hear Taylor smiling into the receiver. As soon as Jillian had left, she called him and told him their impulsive plans. He was ecstatic.

“Okay, well I’m getting you tickets for every night.”

“What?! Tay!”

“Why not?! It’s a concert series, we're playing through every album. And...selfishly I want you there for all of it. Is that so wrong?”

“No, but what am I supposed to tell Jillian?”

“Well you could tell her the truth…”

“Taylor.”

“Or just say you found some deal for getting all five nights. C’mon it’ll be fun. Five of Five! Five nights of Hanson! Your dream come true!”

“Oh my GOD, shut up, shut up, shut up.” Molly started giggling, giddy on the idea. Finally, she relented. “FINE, put us down for all five nights.”

“Great! Wow...I’m...I’m really excited for you to be there, Moll.”

“Me TOO!! I know it hasn’t been that long since I’ve seen you but...I don’t know. Ever since -”

“I know…”

“I feel like…”

“Me too…”

“We’re so close. It’s almost…it’s almost right.”

They sat in silence for a few seconds, both of them grinning like idiots. Molly was getting used to talking to him on the phone for hours, just like they used to do when she was fifteen and they were first becoming friends. First falling in love. They would text constantly, always in each other’s back pockets. She gushed to her mom about how much she loved him, never mentioning his marriage and separation, just letting her mom believe that it had really taken them this long to actually get together.

“Well great, that’s settled,” Molly said, breaking the silence. “What else is new?”

“Other than practicing for this monster concert?” Taylor had told her about the idea (his idea, not surprisingly) behind these upcoming shows. They would be playing five nights straight, a different album, played top to bottom, every night.

“Yeah, I guess that’s pretty much sucking all your time up, huh?”

“Basically. Oh! Nat is seeing someone!”

“Shut up!”

“I swear. She met him at a trivia night...I’m not kidding. Not in Tulsa. He lives in Oklahoma City which is...probably for the best. Everyone here knows who she is.”

“That’s awesome, though.”

“I know. She’s like...giddy. It’s pretty adorable.”

“How are the kids taking it?”

“I think okay. At this point I feel like they’ve accepted the fact that they’re part of this weirdo family.”

“What’s his name?”

“Jason.”

“I’m so happy for her! I don’t even know her!” Molly giggled into the phone, more emphatically than the situation called for. “Sorry, I’m just so excited!”

“Me too. I can’t wait for you to hear all the new songs live.”

They were both breathless, and she didn’t even know why. Adrenaline, impulsiveness...the promise of what was yet to come.

“You’re all over this new album, Moll.”

“Oh, shut up…”

“I’m serious. All over it. But there’s one song that’s like...yours completely.”

Molly didn’t know if it was normal to feel butterflies while talking to the same person she had been wasting hours on the phone with for ten years, but her stomach was full of them.

“I love you so much.”

“Love you too, Doll. Talk tomorrow?”

“Yep.”

Molly hung up and did a little dance around her room, before shooting a text to Jillian.

Got the tickets. I got them for all five nights, because anything worth doing is worth doing right. Don’t be mad. :P

Chapter Text

April 26th, 2010 - Jillian

Middle of Nowhere - 5 of 5

The landing gear bounced onto the tarmac and Jillian finally let the air out of her lungs. She had always been a nervous flyer, but this trip was particularly intense. She looked over at Molly, who didn’t even look up from her book.

“We’re here,” Jillian squeaked. Molly pulled out her earbuds and beamed at her. It was crazy to be back in New York City together. The weight of the moment wasn’t lost on Jillian and she could see it all over Molly’s face as well. If only Molly knew the truth.

Jillian hadn’t worked at the restaurant in over three months and she spent most of her time at home, alone. Nick had moved them into a house in an upscale neighborhood, filled with moms in yoga pants and their overworked nannies. Jillian hadn’t seen any of them since move-in day, when they’d given her the once-over and decided she clearly wasn’t one of them. She didn’t have many friends left and Molly worked during the day. She had plenty of time to ruminate on the things she’d tried her best to ignore; her loneliness, her fear of Nick’s temper, the tiny voice inside of her, screaming for freedom. She started to notice the abnormal behaviors she’d been treating as normal, making a list of excuses for every grievance.

He kept her from her family, but only because he worked a lot and wanted her around when he was off. He expected her to cook and clean, but only because he made all the money and it was the least she could do. He went through her phone and email sometimes, but only because he wanted to be sure she was all his. He tracked her every move using her cell phone and the odometer on the car he bought her, but only so he could be there if something happened. He hit her sometimes, but only when he’d been drinking or if she did something stupid.

Just over a week ago, she had waited patiently until Nick went off to work. He tended to work most of the day, leaving around 11am and coming home around six or seven in the evening. On that day, she knew he had a meeting at 5pm, that it would last about one hour and that he would head home right after. She had watched the clock patiently until it was two minutes to four, then sent Nick a text that she was running to the store for a few items for dinner.

She shoved her bicycle into the car and drove to the grocery store. She left her phone inside the glove compartment and locked the car, then biked to Molly’s house, stopping off at their favorite coffee shop along the way. She hadn’t minded the ride, aside from trying to keep the coffees from tipping over in the basket. She felt strong, finally enacting her carefully crafted plan.

Luckily, Molly hadn’t asked many questions. Jillian had made it home, showered and had dinner on the table just in time. She even remembered to delete Molly’s text about the tickets. She had gotten away with it and she felt emboldened.

Now, she had landed at JFK with Molly for a week long stay in the city. And Nick had no idea. She had crept out of the house at 3am, grabbed the bag she’d secretly packed and kept in her trunk, and taken a cab to meet Molly at the airport. She switched her phone to airplane mode and flew away, her heart pumping with the thrill of it all.

She didn’t let herself think about the consequences. She didn’t tell Molly a thing. She just went.

Molly practically leapt from her seat, tearing her backpack from under the seat in front of her. Jillian couldn’t help but laugh. She had always loved how excitable Molly was. Her energy was contagious and Jillian caught it ever time.

“Let’s get off this plane,” Molly shouted, causing other passengers to stare.

“Molly!” Jillian was laughing so hard that she could hardly hoist herself out of her seat. She felt drunk, woozy from the rush. Her plan had worked. There was no turning back
now.

She followed Molly off the plane, feeling more free than she had in a long time.

***

The Gramercy Theatre was packed, wall to wall. Molly had insisted they arrive early, which paid off, because they landed two spots up front, against the barrier.

“Let’s stand on Ike’s side,” Molly had ordered. Jillian thought it was on odd choice on Molly’s part, but she also figured it was best not to stand directly in front of Zac. He didn’t know she was coming, after all. She wasn’t even sure she wanted him to know.

When she heard about the concert, she felt compelled to go. She wasn’t sure precisely why, but something inside of her woke up. She chalked it up to needing an escape. That first show, a decade ago, had been a formative moment in her life. She often thought of it as a turning point; a time when every choice she’d made brought her to where she was. And where she was was not where she wanted to be. The concert seemed like the only place where she might be able to start again, to find the next path.
She looked at the stage and then at Molly, who was texting feverishly.

“What are you doing?” she asked. Molly jerked her head up and tilted her phone away from Jillian’s prying eyes.

“OH! Just texting a friend...from school.” Molly tucked her phone away and Jillian decided to ignore her suspicious behavior. The lights suddenly dimmed and they looked at each other, wild-eyed.

“This is happening!” Jillian gasped.

“I KNOW!” Molly shouted over the now-screaming crowd.

The band was walking onto the stage and Jillian felt like her heart might leap out of her chest. She hadn’t laid eyes on Zac in years. The first song began and the lights began to flash. The moment felt so surreal, she had to pinch herself to focus.

She looked up at him, sitting behind his drum kit, smiling so big it made her giggle. He looked good. Really good. She had to remind herself to breathe.

She tore her gaze away from him and surveyed the stage. Right above them, Isaac was playing and singing, clearly caught up in the moment. Taylor was fully engaged with the crowd, playing just ten feet from them. Molly was jumping up and down, singing along, tears streaming down her face. The energy in the room was undeniable.

Jillian felt relief. She forgot about Zac for a while, losing herself in the sound and the moment. She didn’t have to hold back. She didn’t have to worry about how she looked or what others were thinking of her. She was finally right where she wanted to be.

The crowd exploded as the band played MmmBop and Molly and Jillian joined in, singing every word. They swayed and waved their arms during the next song. Jillian felt more and more at home. She watched Zac, beaming at the audience, tickled by their energy and adoration. She loved seeing him so happy. That was all she wanted for him, to be happy. She could move on knowing he was going to be okay.

Jillian’s thoughts were interrupted by Molly’s tightening grip on her forearm.

“I LOVE THIS SONG!” she shouted as Yearbook began. Jillian noticed that Molly’s gaze was fixed on Taylor. Sure, he was great at bringing the audience into the song, but Molly was looking at him with something more in her eyes. She was enthralled, lost in the music and in him.

Jillian was about to ask questions, when the next song began and Taylor tossed a glance in their direction. He looked directly at Molly and his whole face lit up. Jillian swatted Molly’s arm and she turned to face her.

“HE’S LOOKING RIGHT AT YOU!!” Jillian screamed. Molly smiled coyly, then shook her head.

“NAH HE’S JUST ALWAYS MAKING EYES AT THE CROWD.”

Molly went back to singing along, but Jillian was struck by her composure. Ten years ago, an eye-lock with Taylor Hanson would have sent Molly spinning in circles until she floated away. Jillian put it out of her mind and went back to enjoying the show.

They were so far off to the left, it was hard for her to watch Zac the entire time, but she didn’t mind. She listened as he crooned through Lucy and watched the girls around her eat their hearts out. Molly was watching her but she didn’t look over. She didn’t want to think or talk about anything. She just wanted to be in the moment, song by song, finally remembering who she was before her life got complicated.

She laced her arm around Molly’s and they swayed in unison to I Will Come To You. Molly leaned over to her, speaking into her ear.

“I really miss you, Jill” she said, unable to mask the sadness in her voice.

“I know,” Jillian replied. “Me too.”

The lights went dark at the end of the song and they just stood there, arm in arm. Jillian knew in that moment that she had make the right choice. If Molly knew what was going on with Nick, she would never stand for it. Jillian knew it wasn’t okay. She knew she needed to break away before it was too late.

Ike’s guitar cut through the dark and Jillian started to jump up and down, overcome by the first few notes of Minute Without You. It was her favorite track on the album and hearing it live for the first time was overwhelming. She watched as Ike played joyfully. The song progressed and Jillian began to notice that he was singing her direction. Was he looking at her?

She watched him closely and followed his line of sight. He was looking at Molly. He was looking at and singing to Molly like the two of them were old friends. Molly noticed her and shrugged, playing it off like it was nothing. But something was going on.

She kept a close eye on Molly for the rest of the show. She had sobbed through With You In Your Dreams. When Jillian asked her what she was so emotional about, assuming it was her dad, but Molly had insisted that she just loved the band so much. It wasn’t unusual for Molly to cry about her love for something, but this felt different. It was like the guys were in on it too.

The final song began and Jillian did her best to focus on Zac, despite the playful looks Taylor was sending toward Molly. She didn’t know what was going on, but she decided not to care. She just wanted to enjoy how happy and at ease Zac seemed as he played. She wondered what she would say to him if she had the chance.

The show came to an end and the crowd roared as the brothers took a bow. Zac whispered something to Isaac and the looked in Jillian’s direction. She felt a sudden rush of nerves, but quickly realized he was looking at Molly. Jillian was baffled.

Zac jumped off the edge of the stage and jogged up to the barrier, his eyes locked on Molly. Jillian felt the urge to run away but it was too late. Zac handed his drumsticks to Molly, who winced and turned to look at her.

Jillian froze. She offered Zac a shy smile and watched his whole demeanor change. He looked shocked. She couldn’t bring herself to speak. All of the happiness and confidence she’d seen in him onstage had drained out of him. She felt terrible.

He gave Molly a look that was fraught with desperation and bolted away, disappearing backstage. Molly finally spoke.

“Well, that happened.”

***

“That was awful!!” Jillian was crouched in the corner of the lobby. “I should have told him I was coming. Oh my god, I’m a bad person!”

“Jill, please stand up. You’re being really dramatic.” Molly was standing beside her, trying to keep her from getting trampled by the exiting masses.

“Did you see his face?!” Jillian whined loudly, looking up at her best friend.

“Oh, trust me. I saw it.” Molly seemed distracted but Jillian couldn’t think about anything but Zac. She jutted her hands up toward Molly, who grabbed ahold and hauled her up off of the floor.

“He hates me,” she pouted. Molly rolled her eyes and sighed.

“Let’s go back to the hotel, I guess. Wow…” Molly was over it. Jillian decided to let it go. After all, what had she expected? That he wouldn’t spot her over the course of the week? That he would be thrilled to see her after all this time?

“Yeah, okay…” she agreed, following Molly through the exit.

“Don’t you need to call Nick anyway?” Molly asked, resuming her frantic texting from before the show.

“Oh! Um..yes, yes I do!” Jillian hadn’t even thought about Nick since they got off the plane. She pulled her phone from her pocket, still safely on airplane mode. “I’ll call when we get back to the hotel.”

“Uh huh….” Molly’s attention was entirely on her text conversation.

“Molly, if you want to go out tonight, I’ll understand. I know you have friends you want to see while you’re here.” Jillian figured it would be easier to pretend she was calling home if Molly didn’t come back to the hotel right away. Instead, Molly shook her head and tucked her phone away again.

“I have plenty of time for that this week. Tonight, you need me.” Jillian knew that was true.

“Thanks…” Jillian mumbled, as they hopping into a waiting cab.

“I’m sure he doesn’t hate you.”

“I guess I thought that after all this time, things would feel...different.”

“Jillian, do you think this is good for you? Seeing him?”

“I do!” Jillian insisted. “I think it’s good for me. I just wonder if maybe it’s not good for him. He was so happy before he saw me.”

“Things aren’t always what they seem, you know.” Molly’s statement was cryptic.

Jillian remembered all the knowing looks between Molly and the guys. She remembered how Zac had sought Molly out specifically, gifting her with the coveted drumsticks. She had a lot of questions and the only way she was getting answers was to see this thing through.

“I’ll be okay,” she sighed.

“We don’t have to go to the rest of the shows, Jill….”

“No, I want to. I think I have to.”

They sat in silence for the rest of the cab ride. When they arrived at the hotel, they got into their pajamas and huddled onto Molly’s bed.

“Thanks for doing this with me.” Jillian laid her head on Molly’s shoulder.

“I couldn’t be any happier, honestly.” Molly took her hand gently. “Don’t forget to call home.”

Jillian didn’t move or speak. She considered spilling the truth to Molly right then and there. She took a breath to speak, but paused. This wasn’t the time. She wasn’t ready to face that truth just yet.

“I’ll just call him tomorrow.” She lied, knowing that Molly wouldn’t buy it.

Chapter Text

April 27th, 2010 - Molly

This Time Around - 5 of 5

This is crazy, right? Molly thought to herself as she looked over at Jillian, giving her a reassuring smile. This is insane. We can’t be at all five of these shows and expect nothing to happen. The previous night had been electric. Every nostalgic feeling she had for the band she fell in love with when she was twelve came rushing up to the surface as they sang through their first album. Molly and Jillian screamed and sang along, getting carried away at the front of the audience. Molly kept asking Jillian if she was sure she wanted to go back for a second night, but Jillian was adamant. Molly convinced her that instead of being on the floor like crazy fangirls, they should take advantage of their VIP tickets and sit in the box, further back and to the right of the pit.

Earlier that afternoon, Molly and Jillian were walking through Central park, coffee in hand. They still felt high on concert adrenaline, and were giggling at everything the other said. After cracking a joke, Molly turned to her best friend, asking her why they really came to New York.

“Wow, queen of segues,” Jillian responded, defensively.

“You know non-sequiturs are kinda my thing.”

“True. I don’t know...I wanted a girls’ trip. I wanted to do something with...with just you.”

“And Zac.”

“Molly…”

“Seriously, Jill...you have to admit this is fishy. You’ve been avoiding Zac for years. You’ve gone to serious lengths to get over him. You’re...married to another man. And then you come to my house having this crazy half baked plan to come see Hanson in New York and when I say I got tickets to all five shows, you barely put up a fight. No offense but...this isn’t really who you are. You get that, right?”

Jillian sighed deeply and sat on the nearest bench, pulling her sweater tighter around her. It was a sunny spring day, but the wind was chilly in the shade. Molly joined her, making herself comfortable by sitting cross-legged and looking straight at Jillian, letting her know that they wouldn’t be leaving the bench until everything had been discussed.

“I wish I could really answer you but I don’t...I don’t even know what my plan was. I thought maybe seeing him again would make me realize that I love Nick, and it would be closure. Like oh, here’s this person I used to have feelings for but I don’t anymore. I can just be a fan of his band again. ”

“And?”

“And...I don’t know…” Jillian buried her face in her hands.

“Hey! Hey, it’s okay. And...listen. Concerts probably aren’t the best place to prove to yourself that you don’t have feelings for someone. Everything is so heightened. Last night was so fun.”

“It was! I don’t think I’ve been that happy in a really long time. And I know Nick hates me being away…”

“Hey, Jill?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you happy with Nick?”

Molly watched as Jillian’s eyes filled with tears. She put her arm around her best friend, allowing her to cry, which inevitably turned into laughter at the fact that there they were, ten years later.
“Some things never change,” Molly said, through her laughter.

She repeated the phrase when she felt her heart nearly beat out of her chest as the brothers took the stage and began singing.

Oh, oh, oh, you don’t know…”

“SOME THINGS NEVER CHANGE!!” She yelled into Jillian’s ear, over the roar of the music and the crowd. The lights glowed red, casting the entire theatre in a deep ruby haze. Molly grabbed Jillian’s hand, her face breaking out in a huge grin. This was all too familiar, and they both knew it, but on some deep level, that fact made them feel like maybe everything was going to be okay. At least for tonight.

Taylor scurried around the stage, looking happier than Molly had seen him since that very first night in Tampa ten years ago. She giggled to herself at the fact that he was once again wearing suspenders, after texting him the night before to tell him how good he looked at the first concert. It’s not like he had to impress her or anything, but she wasn’t particularly mad about it. The song ended and Taylor swooped down to grab his harmonica, sending Molly’s stomach into a fit of excited flutters. She started screaming, causing Jillian to look at her, surprised, but only for a moment. Molly was, after all, still the same girl Jillian had known from day one. She didn’t mind being heard.

“IT’S OUR SONG, JILL!!” Molly yelled, jumping in rhythm to Taylor’s wild harmonica solo.

“I KNOW!!”

Flashes of that magic summer of 2000 filled Molly’s head as the concert continued. Driving around Tampa with Jillian, going to the movies and being surprised when it was still light outside when they emerged from the theatre, Saturdays spent at the pool, wearing out her This Time Around CD within the first few months of owning it, trying her very best to slow time down so that she wouldn’t have to go back to school in the fall. All of those memories were colored with yellow and gold light, the kind that only seems to seep into the happiest memories of youth and recklessness. She closed her eyes and let the music wash over her. It was amazing. Her entire existence was dedicated to melodies and rhythm, to chords and the meticulous process of fitting all of it together. And yet, she could still so easily get swept away by it. She could hear a song on the radio and be moved to tears, or hear a certain drumbeat and feel like she could conquer the world. She could hear a specific pattern of notes and be transported. She could hear Taylor sing the words “and I waited,” and feel her entire body buzz with the excitement she felt when they first locked eyes, all those years ago. They had no idea, back then.

She opened her eyes and saw him grinning, his eyes scanning the audience while he played. He was looking for her. She knew it. She wished she was down in the front, right at the lip of the stage, her face turned up to the bright lights.

She knew he would find her. He always did.

Run, run, runaway run...maybe some day I will find someone to run…”

The entire theatre, the packed crowd, the stage, the lights...it all fell away. He found her as he launched into the first chorus and sang the rest of the song straight to her and it was as if they were the only ones left. Everything that had happened - the bad timing, the panicked calls in the middle of the night, the over dramatic wedding night letters, the periods of silence, the stupid fights, the wondering - all of it seemed unimportant. It was just them and the song. Just like it was. Just like it would be.

“Um...Moll?”

As the band transitioned to the next song, Molly shook her head slightly to bring her back to reality. Jillian was looking at her quizzically, her brow furrowed in confusion.

“Yeah?”

“What just happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“Taylor was looking at you through that entire song. Which wouldn’t be weird if we were in the front but...we’re like...definitely not in the front. He did it last night too.”

Molly shrugged, trying to hide her guilty smile. “I don’t know, I...I was probably just in his line of vision.”

“Taylor looks so happy,” Jillian observed as the next song began. “And then there’s Zachary…”

Molly had to admit, her eyes had been trained on Taylor since the very first note. She couldn’t help it. He was so magnetic on stage that she always had to remind herself to watch the other brothers when they took the lead. Plus, she was overwhelmed with the small fact that he was the love of her life and he was singing straight to her. But she took a moment to glance over at Zac and did see the absolute annoyance on his face. She wondered if Taylor had told him that Jillian was going to be there. Based on his demeanor, she would assume that he had no idea until the night before. She kept catching him glancing over to them and looking away quickly, pouting, even rolling his eyes. She dug her phone out of her pocket and quickly texted him “What’s wrong with you, dude?” She knew she wouldn’t get a response until later but he was acting like a petulant child.

Molly braced herself for the next song. She knew this album backwards and forwards and knew that the next track was “Wish I was There.” It wasn’t a song she had ever really cared about until that fateful email that sent Molly and Jillian into their first real fight. She had brought it up to him one drunken night at the Fool’s banquet, and he had turned bright red at the memory. She assumed that he never thought he would ever have to sing it to an audience containing Jillian. They almost never performed it anymore and, frankly, Jillian was long gone. Or so he thought.

Molly watched as the panic set into Zac’s face. He glanced around the stage wildly, searching for help they both knew would not come. She had watched these brother’s long enough to know when they were trying to communicate with each other without words, and usually it worked, but there was no way that Taylor was going to take the lead on an eighth track song. Those were Zac songs. There would be a riot in the pit. As the chorus came along, she could feel Jillian freeze up next to her. What the fuck are we doing?!! Molly’s brain was going a mile a minute. This was a bad idea. This whole thing was such a bad idea.

“Jill, let’s get out of here. We can go...we don’t have to come to the rest of the nights.”

“Molly…”

“This was such an awful idea, I’m...I’m a shitty friend. I should have said no as soon as you suggested we come to a concert.”

“Molly, it’s fine.”

“No! It’s not fine! This,” she motioned to the space between Jillian and Zac, “is not fine!!”

“Stop…”

“Let’s GO, c’mon we can go get a drink or something.”

“MOLLY. Stop causing a scene! I swear, it’s fine.”

The song had ended and they were on to the next one, Zac still pouting and barely looking up from his drumset. For the rest of the show, Molly couldn’t help but notice how much Zac was affected. She wanted to watch Taylor, but she kept glancing over to Zac, who seemed to be getting more and more emotional with each passing song. Molly was almost thankful when they left the stage after In The City concluded, and she felt her phone buzz with a response from Zac.

"Someone could have warned me."

Molly angled her screen away from Jillian, hoping to hide the incoming message from ZH. She had spent the second half of the concert constantly looking over at her best friend to make sure she was okay. She still felt completely to blame for all of this. Jillian shouldn’t be here. It wasn’t fair to her or Zac.

"I’m sorry. I should have told you." Molly fired the message back just as the brothers came back out to the stage to finish up the night.

“Goodbye four leaf clover...hello gone awry…”

***

“Hey I’m gonna go back to the hotel and crash. I….yeah...,” Jillian said frantically after checking her phone and seeing what time it was. Molly grimaced. She figured Jillian wanted to check in with Nick, who she very openly hated. She didn’t even censor herself anymore. She hated him and she didn’t care if Jillian knew that.

“Is it okay if I meet up with some Juilliard friends? If you want me to come back with you I totally will.”

“No, that’s fine. I’m exhausted anyway.”

“Sure??”

Jillian rolled her eyes and gave Molly a hug before scampering away from the theatre. Molly ran to the bathroom to splash some cold water on her face after the last song of the night had left both her and Jillian furiously wiping tears from their faces. When she emerged back into the theatre, which was now illuminated brightly by the house lights, she elbowed her way through the lingering fans back to the front of the stage and got the attention of the guitar tech.

“Hey...hey!! Can you go tell Taylor to come get Molly?”

“Um...no, I can’t.”

“Oh, shit you think I’m just a crazy fan don’t you? I’m serious, I’m his girlfriend. You can ask him.”

“I’m...not doing that, I’m sorry. I would say I believe you but his fans are rabid, and I don’t want to take any chances.”

“Ugh, fine.”

She took her phone out and texted Taylor. “Hey come get me, I’m stranded! And the guitar tech thinks I’m insane!!

“Go to the stagedoor, weirdo.”

She smiled down at the screen and made her way outside, through the crowd of excited fans. The door cracked open the tiniest amount, showing a single blue eye. “Psst.”

“Hey! Let me in !”

“Password?”

“Taylor…”

“I can’t let you in without a password.”

“Um...you, me, and a hotel room?”

“That works.” He swung open the door, allowing her to practically fall in and land in his arms, kissing him deeply - both of them high and charged from the electric, post concert buzz. He was sweaty from laying it all out on stage for their second performance of the series, but Molly didn’t mind at all. She entangled her fingers in his soaked through hair and pressed her body up against his hungrily.

“Whoa, get a room,” Ike said loudly as he went to make his way out of the stagedoor.

“Hey, that’s just what Molly was suggesting!” Taylor responded without looking away from Molly, who giggled.

“You guys are...cute. Disgusting, but cute.” Ike shook his head and entered the throng of fans, leaving Taylor and Molly behind.

“Let me just change really fast. Then, trust me I’m very excited for that hotel room proposition but first, can we got some food? I’m starving.”

“Yes, please. Me too. I was so nervous about telling Jillian everything that I couldn’t eat before the show. And then I didn’t even tell her! So yeah, food sounds good. And probably alcohol.”

Taylor laughed loudly and pulled her in for another kiss.

“Go change!!” She ordered, sending him running. She smiled after him, delirious from lack of food and inhibition.

“MOLLY.”

Molly’s head whipped around, meeting Zac’s angry eyes straight on. He was coming down the hallway, rage etched on his face, making her smile fade quickly.

“Zac...I can…”

“What the fuck were you guys thinking pulling that? I look up last night and I see JILLIAN?! Who knew? Who knew about it and didn’t tell me. Did Taylor know?!”

“I don’t…”

“Answer me, McKenney -- ”

“HEY. No. No, you’re not gonna talk down to me like that Zachary. I know you’re used to always getting your way, and I’m trying to tell you that I’m sorry for not warning you. That was my mistake, and I apologize. But NO, you are NOT gonna talk to me like that. It isn’t all about you.”

“Except when it’s my concert.”

“You mean your band’s concert?”

“Wh...what did I just walk into,” Taylor said as he cautiously approached the two most stubborn people he knew.

“Did you know, Taylor?” Zac asked his brother.

“Know what?”

“That Jillian was gonna be here with Molly?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“What the FUCK.” Zac turned around angrily, his hands in his hair. Molly had never seen him like this. She felt Taylor’s hand on her shoulder, clearly attempting to stifle her next outburst.

“Okay well first of all you need to fucking figure out why her being in the audience made you this upset. She came to these shows to get some closure because she has moved on. She’s married, Zac! Did you know that? She’s over you. She wanted to see you and just be...a normal person! But clearly, you’re not ready to do that yet. Clearly there is something still in there that is messing you up so badly.”

“Shut up.”

“Not gonna happen, dude,” Taylor offered, making Molly snort. He was right.

“Listen. I’m sorry, okay. I’m apologizing. I realized halfway through the concert that this probably wasn’t a great idea. Jillian got...pretty emotional, too.”

Zac looked up, meeting Molly’s gaze, tears collecting in his eyes. “She did?”

“Yeah. Now can we please, for the love of God, go get a beer...and talk about the show, and...I’ll talk to Jillian tonight and tell her we shouldn’t see the rest of the concerts.”

Taylor sighed, seemingly annoyed that his brother had to go and ruin this for him.

“What? No I...I didn’t mean…” Zac stumbled over his words.

“It’s fine...we’ll talk about it later. I need food.”

Molly hung back as Taylor and Zac made their way through the fans, waiting patiently with Isaac at the end of the line. It was the first time that she didn’t really care if anyone saw her or wondered who she was. For all they knew, she was just a musician friend they had met ten years ago on tour.

They headed away from the theatre, Taylor reaching out and pulling Molly close to him once they rounded the corner and were out of sight. As they ducked into the first bar they saw, Molly looked up at Taylor with a sly smile, remembering a bit of stage banter from earlier in the night.

“Now...let’s talk about that ‘cheating women’ remark you made after Hand in Hand…”

***

They were all a few beers in when Zac turned to Molly, his eyes bleary and his face apologetic.

“Moll, I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier. I just felt like...I don’t know...attacked.”

Zac was sitting on the other side of Taylor, who had his hand protectively on Molly’s thigh. She leaned over him to speak with his younger brother. “I wasn’t attacking you! Also can I have some of your fries?”

Molly could practically feel Taylor roll his eyes, which made her giggle. He stood up and moved her over to his seat so that she and Zac could speak (and share the scraps of his burger and fries) uninterrupted.

“Listen,” Molly said, dipping a fry into the puddle of ketchup on Zac’s plate. She had finished her own meal but was still ravenously hungry. And a little tipsy. “I already said I was sorry, and I am, but...I don’t know...I still can’t decide if this was a good or bad thing. I mean, selfishly, I love being at all of Taylor’s shows. But Jillian…”

“Be honest Moll. Is she really over me?”

“No,” Molly blurted out before she could stop herself. She immediately looked up at Zac, panic in her eyes. “Shit. Um…” She watched as a spark of hope flashed over his face.

“Really?”

“Okay, well...I’m not gonna try to tell you to lay off because she’s married because obviously,” Molly nudged Taylor, who was deep in conversation with Ike, “that would be hypocritical of me. But I do think that there is some shit that needs to be resolved. For both of you. I don’t know what that will take, but I’m guessing you’re gonna have to talk. Face to face.”

“I was worried you were gonna say that.” Zac drained the beer in front of him and turned back to Molly. “Are you mad?”

Molly nearly choked on the last french fry from Zac’s plate. When she regained her composure she muttered, “You’re made for each other.” She realized Zac hadn’t heard, and was still looking at her expectantly. “At you?” She said with a smirk. “Never.”

She felt a buzz in her lap, and glanced down to see it was a text from Jillian.

Are you coming back to the hotel or crashing with Juilliard people?

“Hey, Tay?”

“Yeah?”

She showed him the text message. He looked from the phone to her and grinned mischievously.

“You’re crashing with Juilliard people.”

Chapter Text

April 28th, 2010 - Taylor

Underneath - Five of Five

Out of all the shows he was playing this week, Taylor was looking forward to this night the most. There were so many songs from Underneath that he felt like were painfully extracted from the very depths of his soul - lyrics and melodies that bled from his fingertips onto the page. It was the album that felt the most personal, and the one that was the most cathartic to play from.

That morning, after Molly had scurried away back to her hotel room, Taylor dove back into his bed, only to be awoken by a knock a few moments later.

“DADDY!!”

Taylor couldn’t help but smile as his daughter leapt into his arms. He looked at Natalie, who was standing in the hallway grinning, and laughed bewilderedly.

“She wanted to come surprise you,” she said with a shrug.

“Well I’m definitely surprised! Come on, come in!”

Taylor spent the rest of the morning with his daughter, taking her to breakfast at Alice’s Tea Cup on the east side, where they gave her fairy wings to wear while she ate and all of the hosts were too young to know who he was. He snapped a picture of her and sent it to Molly. He couldn’t wait for them to meet.

“Mommy said I could go to the concert tonight,” Penny said matter of factly as she crumbled the rest of her scone into her mouth.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yep! Cause you’re playing my song!”

“I sure am!”

Now, here he was, backstage and sweating nervously through his clothes. He kept peeking out through a small gap in the curtain, watching the VIP box like a hawk. It was only a matter of time before Natalie and Molly were right next to each other. He had already had way too much caffeine, and he felt like he was about to buzz out of his skin.

“What’s wrong with you?” Isaac asked, coming up behind Taylor and noticing the jitters that have overtaken his body.

“What?! Nothing.”

“Suuuuure. You haven’t left that spot since soundcheck ended.”

“Natalie and Molly are both gonna be here.”

“Whoa…”

“I know. These are uncharted waters…”

“It’ll be fine. Hey, at least they know about each other at this point, right?”

“True.” Ike was right. If it was gonna happen, now was the time.

***

Taylor closed his eyes and let the blue stage lights wash over him as the final chord of Dancing in the Wind rang out into the crowd. When he opened his eyes, he saw Natalie in the box applauding. He was always nervous to sing that song when she was around, but for once the lyrics felt joyful. We can dance all night…

The whole night felt like a celebration, which was ironic considering how morbid some of the songs on the record were. But, Taylor supposed, at the end of the day, this album was celebratory. It was a symbol for all they had been through as a band, all they had overcome. He took a seat back at the piano, shaking out his hands after taking a turn on guitar. He looked up at the VIP box and caught his daughter’s gaze. She was smiling so hard.

“This one goes out to a special little girl here tonight. The one and only.”

He saw Penny turn to Natalie, pure delight and awe on her face. Taylor could see her say “That’s me!” which caused Natalie to giggle with glee. As he began the intro, he glanced over at Molly, who was a few seats down from his wife and daughter. She was smiling widely, and her eyes were filled with tears. He had to look away because as he continued to play he felt as though his heart was going to burst right out of his chest. It was so full.

He had written so much about happiness in his life. About reaching for it, about how it was only a step away. He sang up to the rafters every night about searching, looking, trying to find something. And finally...it felt as though he had found it.

“Well I finally found what I’m looking for…”

The night was racing by. Taylor blamed his heightened emotions and the fact that he had downed an excessive amount of caffeine (even for him) before the concert. As soon as When You’re Gone ended, he saw Natalie heave a sleeping Penny up off her seat. She waved at him from the box, and he nodded letting her know he had seen.

He had been trying his best not to look directly at Molly, after being scolded by her playfully last night (“Jillian thinks you’re insane!”) but he couldn’t help himself. This collection of songs had her all over them. She helped him write most of them, after all, even the plethora of tunes that didn’t make the record. Swapping verses and chord progressions back and forth through letters and emails and phone calls and AIM conversations was how it all began. Molly in her bedroom, Taylor in a hotel lobby or scribbling a handwritten note in the back of the tour bus. That seemed like decades ago. It was overwhelming how much they had gone through; the storms they had weathered. He decided to throw caution to the wind and sing “Crazy Beautiful” to the only girl in the room who needed to hear it. The girl it was about.

***

Taylor sprinted out into the lobby while Zac took the stage alone for the encore. He found Molly there, phone in hand. She had texted him to come meet her and he happily obliged (because apparently they couldn’t wait ten more minutes).

He rushed over to her, cradling her face in his hands and kissing her.

“I met Natalie!” She blurted out when they finally came up for air.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah! And Penny, oh my God I’m obsessed with your daughter. She’s you.”

“I know, it’s ridiculous.”

“It’s amazing.”

“Did it...go okay, though? I was so nervous about tonight.”

Molly snorted, her arms still around Taylor’s waist. “Yeah I could tell. How much coffee did you drink?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“It was great. A little awkward at first...especially ‘cause she recognized Jillian first. They’ve met, you know.”

Taylor’s eyes grew wide. The apartment. Of course. He had totally forgotten.

“Wow...I forgot they overlapped there for a second…”

“Me too. She came up to the box and saw Jillian and then saw me and was like oh you’re Molly...oh YOU’RE Molly. It was actually kind of hilarious. Then she introduced me to Penny, who was so sweet, it was...it was way less of a big deal than I ever thought it was going to be. Jillian was confused but I think she chalked it up to my ability to make friends really quickly. You know...weasel my way right in…”

“You gonna tell her?” Taylor asked with a smirk.

“Timing, Tay! Timing.”

“Right, cause that’s your strong suit.”

Taylor sighed with relief. A moment he had been dreading for a decade and it was over, and he hadn’t even really been there. But of course it was fine. These were two of the strongest willed women he knew. If they wanted it to be fine, it would be fine.

He heard the crowd roar and kissed her forehead.

“Hey, thanks for helping me write this album. Couldn’t have done it without you, Doll.”

Chapter Text

April 29th, 2010 - Zac

The Walk - Five of Five

Zac felt like shit.

When they began the week, the idea of playing all of their albums back to back was exciting. They would play some songs they rarely played, while reliving all they’d been through as a band and as brothers. The first night had been like therapy.

Playing Middle of Nowhere felt like a homecoming. He had come unhinged with happiness, remembering what it was like to watch his dream become reality. He could forget about all that had happened since and just relish in the music that started it all. It was liberating.

And it was short lived.

Seeing Jillian was like ramming head-first into a brick wall. It hurt physically. He’d done the only thing his body would let him do and run away. He went straight back to the hotel and locked the door, shutting out everyone and everything until the show the next day.

He was sure she wouldn’t return; she wouldn’t be that dense. Of course, then he’d learned that Taylor and Ike knew all along that she and Molly had tickets to every show.

Everyone had known but him. He felt completely betrayed. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t told him, except that Taylor wanted it that way. He wanted Molly there, so Zac’s feelings didn’t matter.

Typical, he’d thought, watching Taylor croon shamelessly to Molly during the Underneath concert. Zac resented his brother for how he’d maneuvered his life to work out just right. Everything was so easy for him and it wasn’t fair.

Zac pulled on his jacket and looked at himself in the dressing room mirror. He looked like he felt. He glanced down at his phone and noticed a text from Molly.

You’re sure you okay with this?

She’d asked him this same question several times throughout the day. He kept telling her that he didn’t care, which wasn’t entirely true. He cared a lot. He hadn’t imagined, writing for The Walk, that he would ever be singing the songs to Jillian in person. Hearing Molly talk about her reaction to Go had given him an intense and unexpected sense of satisfaction. Still, the task of performing it live was daunting.

He began to text Molly back, then decided he’d given her enough validation for the day. He shoved his phone into his backpack and headed to the backstage area. The audience was already in place and their energy was filling the room, creating a buzz that made him more anxious.

Taylor was waiting behind the curtain, adjusting his earpiece and smiling like an idiot.

“What’s your deal?” Zac spat at him, already annoyed.

“Can you at least try not to be a giant baby tonight?” Taylor smirked at him and Zac felt his fists clench.

“Fuck you, Tay” he mumbled. His brother shot a scolding glare at him and shook his head.

“Listen, I know you’re going through something right now, but I’m not going to let you take it out on me and I’m definitely not letting you bring me down before a show.” He looked out at the stage as it went dark. The crowd began to cheer wildly and Taylor smiled to himself.

“I can’t do this” Zac blurted, feeling his cheeks flush. He knew that looking for sympathy was a long shot. Still, he couldn’t hold it in. He couldn’t face this night alone. Taylor turned slowly and placed his hands on Zac’s shoulders.

“You can and you will.”

Taylor walked out onto the stage and Zac used every bit of willpower he had to follow him. He sat down at his drums and peeked out at the VIP box. It was too dark to see, but he knew she was there. He could feel her watching. Waiting.

He took a deep breath and started the first song. It was happening and there was no way out. And if it was a show she wanted, that’s what she was going to get.

***

The first few songs were already over by the time he started to feel present. Zac wasn’t sure where his mind had gone but it wasn’t there. He simply went through the motions, avoiding the VIP box at all costs. At one point, he made the mistake of looking over, only to see Jillian staring at him.

He hated the way she was looking at him; like he was a sick puppy that needed rescuing. He hated that even now, she looked disarmingly beautiful. He didn’t want to think about it but everything about the album reminded him of her and of the great lengths he’d gone to, trying to forget.

Watch Over Me ended and Taylor took the microphone, addressing the audience. Zac felt breathless and lightheaded. He always felt a bit nervous before singing a lead, but this feeling was much worse. It made him angry.

He played Running Man like an argument between himself and his drums. Taylor glanced over his shoulder several times; silent warnings to get it under control. Zac didn’t care. It felt good to hit something. It gave him courage. It gave him control.

As he began the next song, he forced himself to look into the VIP box. He wiped the sweat from his face and found Jillian’s eyes. He let all the anger and hurt he felt pour out in the lyrics as he sang. He could feel his brothers holding him together by some force of will. They knew what the song meant to him. They knew that singing it to her was the hardest thing he could do. He held Jillian’s gaze.

You can’t leave with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em
I never thought I’d want to let you go….

He watched Molly lean over and put her arm around Jillian, tipping him off that he was getting to her. He looked away and finished the song, feeling a little lighter than before. He’d been so angry for days because he’d let Jillian get to him. Now, he felt like he’d returned the favor, giving her something to cry about for a while.

He wasn’t proud of his vindictiveness, but he couldn’t deny that it felt good in the moment. It certainly made the next song easier to sing. Ike gave him a look of relief, like they’d gotten through the worst of it.

Zac knew he needed to apologize to his brothers. He had barely spoken to them over the last few days and he’d been unbearable to work with. There was just so much he couldn’t say. He tried to imagine their reaction to what he’d done in that bathroom last fall. Just the thought of it made him sick to his stomach. He was sure they’d never understand.

He thought about Kate, carrying their second child, oblivious to what he’d done to their perfectly planned life. He felt like shit because he was shit. Plain and simple. He didn’t deserve to feel angry anymore.

I’m not a wise man, but I see the haze
And this is what I’m gonna do.
Tearing it down...

He sang the words like his own personal mantra. He was tired of feeling like a victim. This mess was his and he needed to clean it up. Somehow, someway he needed to make things right.

The last few songs were over before he knew it and he left the stage, Taylor and Ike on his heels.

“You ready for the encore?” Ike asked him, passing over a bottle of water. Zac chugged half the liquid and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.

“As I’ll ever be,” he replied. “And thanks”

“What for?” Taylor asked.

“For getting me through that show.”

“You did that on your own.”

“No, Tay, I didn’t. I’m an asshole and a moron. But I’d be worse without you guys.”

Ike and Taylor exchanged a look, waiting for him to take it back or crack a joke. He drained the rest of the water bottle and walked back onto the stage, leaving his bewildered brothers behind him. The last song of the night would never mean more to him than it did in that moment.

***

“Hi,” she said, halfway between a smile and scowl.

“Hey Jillian.” The backstage area was nearly empty, with only a few crew members milling about, packing up for the night.

Molly had bounded through the stage door, pulling Jillian behind her. She had then promptly disappeared, leaving her best friend unattended. Zac could tell he was being ambushed.

“Molly had to run to the restroom and,um...make a call, so….” She shifted nervously, barely able to look at him.

“The restroom, huh?” he asked, realizing that Jillian still didn’t know anything about Molly’s true whereabouts. He marveled at how Molly could keep such a huge secret for so long. It struck him how many things would be different if it weren’t for the things they’d never told each other.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was coming.” Her face was riddled with guilt.

“It’s okay.” He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m sorry I didn’t handle it better.”

“You look good,” she said with a smile. He felt his heart twist around itself.

“You too,” he said, blushing. “Uh...I need to go. We have dinner reservations.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course, go.” She pushed her hair behind her ears and crossed her arms in front of her. He noticed she seemed different, more guarded. It gave him an odd feeling, but he was too tired to speculate.

“Would you…,” He cleared his throat and looked her in the eye. “Would you want to talk after the show tomorrow? You are coming, right?”

“Wow, how did you know that?”

“I just...I assumed. You know, you came to all the others.”

“Right…”

“You have plans after.”

“No! No, I don’t have plans. I’d love to talk. We need to talk.”

He glanced down at the giant diamond on her left hand. She noticed and tucked her hand behind her back.

“Tomorrow,” he said and she nodded.

“I better go find Molly. She’s got a thing with her college friends tonight, but I’m exhausted so I’m heading back to the hotel.” She gave him a little wave and skittered away.

Once she was out of sight, Zac went back to the dressing room for his backpack. He threw open the door to find Taylor and Molly making out on the sofa.

“Jillian just went to find you,” he hollered, as Molly jumped up and tried to compose herself.

“Oh my god!” Molly giggled, trying to tame her hair. “I’ll meet you guys in a few! Keep your phone on, Tay.” She bolted from the room and Zac turned to Taylor, who was grinning with pride.

“What are our plans after the show tomorrow?” Zac asked, trying to erase the mental image of his brother and Molly sucking face like teenagers. Not that he wasn’t getting used to it.

“We’re wide open,” Taylor sighed, still in his hazy love stupor. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” Zac quipped. For the first time all week, he looked forward to tomorrow.

Chapter Text

April 30th, 2010 - Molly and Jillian

Shout it Out - 5 of 5

If Molly had her way, she would live inside this week forever. She knew that was selfish, not to mention impossible, but she couldn’t help having the thought. She was with all of her favorite people at once. The last time that had happened was ten years ago at the Tampa Performing Arts Center.

It’s not as though this week hadn’t been emotional. Molly watched in horror as her best friend basically dissolved while Zac sang “Go” straight to them, and she witnessed Zac go through a whole spectrum of pain behind his drums. But the happiness she felt knocked the wind out of her. There’s only one thing that could make this all better, she thought to herself as they made their way into the theatre for the fifth time that week. She glanced over at Jillian, who looked anxious, if not a little tired. Molly grabbed her friend’s hand and flashed a mischievous smirk her way.

“What…” Jillian said with an eye roll.

“What do you mean what?!”

“I know that look Molly.”

Molly shrugged playfully and surveyed the crowd spilling into the theatre. “I just think we should be up front.”

“Molly! There are already so many people there.”

“Just...don’t let go, okay?”

Molly pushed her way through the throng until they were front and center. She giggled with delight at her achievement. “Much better,” she said, as she rested her arms on the barricade. The lights dimmed just as Jillian took her place on Molly’s left hand side, their hands still tightly clasped together.

The previous night, Molly had slipped into Zac’s hotel room, much to Taylor’s dismay, to give him a pep talk for the final night. She knew he still felt attacked, and she knew she still felt horrible about it...even if she thought it was all ultimately for the best. Molly seemed to have the uncanny ability to show up in Zac’s life right as he was at a breaking point. It had happened at the Fool’s Banquet and it was happening now. He began spilling everything. Every feeling that had been blocked up inside of him for years, his regret, his pain, his numbness. He told her about the woman in the bathroom, and how every time he thought about it, he thought he was going to be sick. Then the feeling would pass, and he was left with pure anger. And when the anger passed, he was left with nothing. She sat there on his bed and let him cry, something she could tell he was embarrassed about doing, but she didn’t care. He could cry all he wanted. She knew how it felt to be hopeless, and she didn’t want him to feel that way ever again. She would make sure he didn’t feel that way ever again.

Zac looked a little nervous at the drums for the first song, but he caught Molly’s eye and she gave him a huge, encouraging smile, which he returned. He seemed lighter, like maybe he just needed to clear out a few of those blocked passageways that were clogged with fear and regret. Now if only I could get Jillian to tell me the truth about Nick, she thought, immediately feeling guilty. She needed to stop meddling. If Jillian believed she was happy, then maybe she was happy, no matter how fishy it all seemed. Molly shook her head and focused herself back to the present. It was the last night. She needed to soak it in.

“You may give me gray hairs before my time
I'll be happy just sitting on the passenger's side
Cause I live for you and me and a lonely drive”

Molly beamed up at Taylor as he began singing the next song. He had shared the demo with her, claiming her as the inspiration. She mouthed along quietly, not wanting to sing out loud since no one else in the crowd knew the words to the new album. Jillian glanced over at her, and then looked behind them.

“How do you know these words? No one is singing along...”

Molly shrugged, trying her best to keep her face neutral. She swayed in time to the music and slung her arm around Jillian, trying to distract her.

The song ended and Taylor took a deep breath as he reset and began to play in a new key.

“This is a song we started playing for you a year ago almost, a little song about what we’ve done for each other in one way or another...a song about picking up a little weight along the way.” He glanced over his shoulder and looked at Molly. Her heart fluttered.

“Well I don't care what you say
I don't have use for your words anyway
You don't need a Cadillac
'Cause I'll be waiting with my bare back
To carry you there

Try, you don't have to be afraid to just rely
'Cause I want to hold the weight part of the time
It's all right
It can get too much to handle by yourself
And if you can't do it alone I know you will say
I don't know what's at stake
Or what it takes”

The whole week, Molly had been preoccupied with other people’s feelings. She spent every waking moment making sure Jillian felt good and safe and excited. She sat with Zac for two hours while he cried, letting him know that everything was going to be okay, to sing through it, to use the pain. She texted Taylor every hour to see how he was feeling, was he tired, did he need anything? She had ignored every twinge of emotion that welled up inside of her, aside from white hot joy she felt shooting through her at every concert.

She ignored the fact that she felt guilty for keeping a secret from Jillian for ten years. She ignored the fact that she felt like she was failing her younger self, and being back in New York made her life in Tampa feel slightly worthless. She ignored the the urge to turn to Taylor and say “Ask me to move to Tulsa with you. Ask me and I’ll do it.”

She ignored the fact that whenever she felt joy beating against her heart, she inevitably felt the echo inside the hole left by her father’s death. It was always there.

On the day of her father’s funeral, she felt like her whole world was collapsing on top of her. But Taylor said that he would help carry the weight. Not all of it, because that was an impossible task. But some of it.

“Um...Molly….” Jillian was looking from Molly to Taylor and back again, realization slowly creeping over her face. Molly didn’t even care. She was too overwhelmed. She let Taylor sing to her as silent tears streamed down her face. She was surrounded by the people that had helped carry her through her entire life thus far. Life was tough, but she was tougher. Because of them.

The song ended and she let out a huge sob, immediately followed by Jillian flinging her arms around her and squeezing tight.

“Okay, I promise, that’s the last time I’m gonna cry!!!” She yelled over the din of the crowd.

“Oh, please!”

“I swear!!”

The two girls danced recklessly through the next two songs, flinging their limbs like over confident teens who didn’t care what anyone thought. Molly wasn’t sure of much. The world had an uncanny way of flipping her life upside down at the most inopportune moments. But she was sure of one thing.

Tonight was the night that she would tell Jillian everything.

***

Something about the night made Jillian feel happier than she had in years. Perhaps it was the new music, so joyful and infectious. Maybe it was how profoundly happy Molly seemed. Whatever the reasons, Jillian relished in the freedom the night had gifted her.

As the last song came to an end, Jillian felt Molly staring at her. She knew it had everything to do with the very obvious connection between Taylor and her best friend. Jillian had spent the last four nights trying to explain away the little looks and gestures between them, but they weren’t even trying to hide it anymore. Jillian wasn’t that naive; she knew there was something Molly wasn’t telling her.

Not that she had much room to talk. She had very successfully hid that fact that she was basically a runaway, escaping a violent husband. She also failed to mention the she made plans to meet up with Zac after the show. Whatever Molly was hiding, it couldn’t hold a candle to Jillian’s secrets.

The next song was starting and Jillian pushed her thoughts aside. She was having so much fun, dancing and losing all inhibitions. She didn’t want to think. She just wanted to be in the moment.

"Is there something wrong with the way you feel?
‘Cause you’ve been acting like you’re overloaded.
You’re going on like you got something to prove
You better keep it in mind.

Maybe it’s too hard out on the blacktop
Nobody else is gonna save you
You’re pretty up tight for being downtown
I’ve been up all night."

Zac wasn’t holding back. Jillian started to feel uncomfortable, glancing at Molly for reassurance. Molly gave her a supportive smile and a nod. Jillian took a deep breath and grounded her feet. They were front and center and she could see Zac clearly. If they were going to hash things out tonight, the conversation might as well start now. She watched him until he made eye contact with her. She held his gaze confidently.

Something about him was different. He still seemed emotionally raw and even a bit angry, but he was open, somehow. She watched him carefully and thought about what she might say when they were finally face-to-face. It was staggering to think how little time they’d actually spent in person over the last decade and even more so to think about all the things she’d left unsaid.

Taylor moved to the center of the stage and Jillian watched Molly literally melt. She giggled and shook her head, to which Molly shrugged. Taylor told the crowd they were slowing it down for a bit and Jillian felt Molly take her hand.

“You good?” she asked. Jillian nodded and watched Zac take a seat at the piano.

As he began to sing, she immediately recognized the lyrics as the ones he’d sent her out of the blue over a year ago. It was surreal to hear them set to a melody. She’d never told anyone about the email, but she’d read it too many times to count.

She had felt vindicated the first time she read them. She’d thought about all the sleepless nights she’d spent crying over him, wishing he had given her another chance. Her response had been carefully crafted; painting a picture of her perfect life filled with mature decisions and wisdom. The truth was that Nick had slapped her that night for leaving water spots all over their bathroom mirror.

She watched Zac as he left everything on the stage, bearing his soul to her and the crowd. She was overcome with admiration. She could never be so unabashed about her feelings. She couldn’t even tell her best friend the truth.

Zac brought the song to a close and his head dropped to the keys. He turned his face away and she knew he was concealing tears. He lumbered back up to his drums, looking drained. He looked up and found her. He was choking back tears as the next song played.

"These walls are too hard to climb
And that ladder is too hard to find
I don’t wanna be here anymore..."

“Molly?” Jillian tugged her arm.

“What it is?” Molly asked, over the music.

“I think I just realized something. About why I wanted to come here.”

Molly’s face broke into a huge smile.

“It’s about time!” She laughed and Jillian did too.

Molly knew her so well, she didn’t even have to explain. They threw their arms around each other, a decade of walls between them beginning to come down. Molly finally pulled away as Taylor played the first few notes of the next song.

“You’re going to want to hear this,” she said. Jillian stared at her, wondering once again how Molly could possibly know the song. All she could do was comply.

“We need to talk, McKenney,” she teased, as she turned her attention to the stage.

"Come on this musical ride with me.
It might just change the life you think you’re gonna lead.
If I’m right you might just stop and see..."

Zac’s voice was ringing in her ears and she felt the dam in her heart burst. She was flooded by all the feelings she’d held back for so long. Suddenly, everything became clear. She knew exactly why she ‘d come all the way to NYC. She knew why she’d been so afraid for so long.

"I see it taking you hold, you must let go before it starts
This confrontation you keep feeling is your heart…"

She looked up at Zac as he sang to her. She felt as though they were the only two souls in the room. He was doing all he could to keep from crying. She let her tears flow freely, alone with him in the moment.

"Its simple, but somehow, letting go’s the hardest part."

The song had ended and the next one started before Jillian could compose herself. She looked at Molly, her face wet with tears of joy. Jillian felt a rush of adrenaline, knowing the show must be ending soon. There was so much she wanted to say to Molly and to Zac; she could hardly wait.

The band finished up and began to leave the stage to prep for the encore. Taylor looked directly at Molly and made a heart with his hands, sending Jillian reeling.

“Oh my GOD!” she screamed. Molly just threw her head back in laughter.

“You wanna go to the lobby?”

“But, what about the encore?” Jillian asked. It wasn’t like Molly to want to skip out on a song.

“I’ve already heard it,” she announced, dragging Jillian through the densely packed theatre toward the exit.

Jillian didn’t resist. For the first time in her life, she let her heart lead her. It was like she was always meant to end up here with Molly at this show. Everything in her life that she tried so hard to control led up to this night. She was ready for the hardest part. She was letting go.

Chapter Text

April 30th, 2010 - Taylor

After months of planning, weeks of rehearsing, and five electric concerts...it was over. Taylor felt like he had run a marathon, but was simultaneously rejuvenated and ready for more. He gave both of his brothers huge, tight hugs after they took their final bow, and immediately started praising the horn players. He was buzzing with adrenaline, coasting on the post concert high of a lifetime.

Everyone backstage was all smiles. Even Zac seemed giddy. Isaac beamed at his younger brothers with pride. Everything they had ever done, every struggle they had gone through as a band, every song they had fought over, every tense moment...everything led up to this. And so, he let himself bask in the moment. He was just missing one thing…

“TAYLOR!!!”

He heard her yell his name from just inside the stage door, and before he knew it, Molly was leaping into his arms, curls flying wildly. He caught her and she latched her legs around his waist, kissing him with absolutely zero inhibitions. A different version, a past version, of himself would never let anyone see this public display of affection, but he was passed the point of caring. He loved this woman, and he wanted the world to know it.

The little crowd assembled just offstage whooped and clapped, and he broke out of the kiss laughing loudly. “Someone get this rabid fan off of me!!” he teased, sending Molly into a fit of giggles that rang out through the backstage area.

Molly slid down and hugged him tightly, then turned around so that he was holding her at the waist from behind. He felt her body shuddering with stifled giggles.

“Um so Jillian….this is my boyfriend, Taylor.”

Jillian looked at the two of them in complete and utter shock. He saw the confusion melt away, replaced by realization.

“How long?” She asked, timidly.

“Ummm…” Molly started.

“TEN YEARS!!” Isaac shouted from a few feet behind them, sending Molly into another wave of laughter.

“Thanks, Ike!” She said, barely able to catch her breath. It was all incredibly overwhelming. Taylor buried his face in her hair and smiled secretly to himself. He felt like he was going to burst open at any moment.

“Molly Elizabeth McKenney,” Jillian scolded playfully, trying her best to hide a grin. “All these years I thought you were mad at me for stealing your crush.”

Taylor heard Zac bark with laughter. Molly’s old obsession with Zac was something that none of them would ever let die, apparently.

“I have….I have so many questions…” Jillian stuttered, still laughing with slight disbelief. Taylor had to admit, the whole thing was pretty crazy. The letters, the meet ups, the way that Natalie had eventually found everything out. The way he hid messages to her in song lyrics, the way he felt like he couldn’t write without her in the back of his mind.

“I will answer all your questions, I...I promise,” Molly replied, squeezing Taylor’s hand. He squeezed back, reassuring her that this was right. Telling the truth. Finally.

“But first, I have something for you in my dressing room. I’ll bring her right back, Jillian.” Taylor said, causing Molly to jerk around in surprise.

“What?”

“A present. Come on.”

Taylor pulled Molly away and they stumbled down the hallway towards his dressing room, still giggling like drunk teenagers.

“What are you doing?!” She asked, impatiently.

“You’ll see, be patient!”

“I’m NOT PATIENT, you should KNOW THIS by now.”

When they got to the room, he yanked her inside and slammed the door, locking it, just to be safe. Once they were inside, he smashed her against the wall and kissed her deeply, shoving his hands into her hair.

“Oooh,” she said, as he started kissing his way down her neck and pulling his bright red shirt off his body. “Your present is your penis.”

“Oh my GOD, Molly, just shut up and let me fuck you.”

She took his face in her hands and looked straight into his eyes. “Gladly.”

***

“Well, I’m gonna sleep well tonight…” Molly remarked as she heaved herself up from the mess of discarded clothes on the floor. “How did you do that after doing a show?” She said, looking down at Taylor, who was still laying down, eyes half closed. They had fucked up against the wall, then again on the dressing table, then again right there on the floor. Even he was impressed by their stamina.

Taylor shrugged and started laughing lazily, trailing his fingers over Molly’s thigh. “I could go three more times if you gave me the chance.”

“Taylor!!”

“What!?”

“Oh my God, I need a beer. Do you have any?”

“Of course I have some, check the fridge. Bring me one.”

“Demanding.”

“Please?”

Molly rummaged through the fridge and opened two ice cold bottles. Taylor propped himself up on his elbows, knowing that they probably needed to get dressed and vacate the dressing room, but they were living in their own little slice of paradise. They could have one beer, right?

“Cheers,” she said, as she clinked her bottle against his. He maneuvered himself up to a seated position, leaning against the wall, Molly reclining against him. He held her tightly, never wanting to let go.

“So did you like the show?”

“You’re an idiot.”

“How am I an idiot?!”

“Did you see me blubbering my eyes out in the front row?! I was a mess!!”

“Sorry, I should have warned out about that one.”

“It’s okay. It was perfect. I loved it so much. I love the whole album.”

“You just like it because there are so many songs about you.”

“Yeah, maybe. Who knows?”

“And now Jillian knows everything.”

“FUCK. JILLIAN. Oooooh my God, oh my God.” Molly leapt up from their post-coital heap and started pulling her clothes on in a hurried frenzy. “What is my PROBLEM oh my GOD.”

“Molly, relax.”

“No, I do this...I do this every time!! I just leave her and go run off with you! Oh my God, I’m literally the worst friend. She should break up with me.”

“Molly…” Taylor started chuckling at Molly’s panic. He caught her by the shoulders as she was hopping around the room, hiking her jeans up her legs. He held her at arm’s length and looked at her, smiling.

“What?!”

“I love you.”

***

“She’s not picking up her phone, Tay!” Molly said, after searching every woman's bathroom in the building. “I’ve sent her texts too, and she hasn’t responded.”

“Do you think she left?”

“Without me? I mean, I guess it’s possible. God, I’m such a shit friend. Just abandoning Jillian, 24/7!!”

“Molly, we’ll find her, chill out.”

“How can you be so sure? It’s a huge city, Tay!! She could be anywhere!”

“Let’s go back to the hotel...I think that’s probably where Zac went. We can ask him if he saw her leave and regroup. We’ll find her, Moll...it’s gonna be fine.”

He rubbed her back gently as they hailed a cab and sped towards the hotel. He held her hand so that she could fiddle with his Hanson ring. She checked her phone compulsively, but there was no response.

“Have you heard from Zac?”

“No, he’s probably already asleep.”

Fuck, okay,” she muttered under her breath.

They pulled up to the hotel and Molly burst out of the taxi, scrambling up to Zac’s room as quickly as possible. She felt like her heart was going to burst out of her chest - with nerves, with guilt, with panic. She pounded on the door, just as Taylor was emerging from the stairwell at the end of the hall.

“Zac?!? ZAC ARE YOU IN THERE??”

Taylor joined her at the door and shoved a keycard into her hand. “We always have keys to each other’s rooms.”

“Zac must love that,” Molly said with an eyeroll, her hands shaking too much to swipe the card properly. Taylor took her hand in his and steadied her fingers, allowing them entrance into the room.

Molly barged in, Taylor on her heels. He knew when she was on a mission. He knew that she didn’t care if she was disturbing Zac’s rest or completely invading his privacy. He knew that finding Jillian was the only thing on her mind.

They didn’t have to look any further. As they stepped into the room, they saw Zac and Jillian intertwined on the bed.

“Well...we found her…” Taylor offered with a shrug.

Chapter Text

April 30th, 2010 - Zac

“I’m going to get out of here before this gets any weirder,” Ike exclaimed, slapping Zac on the back.

Taylor and Molly had vanished, leaving Zac and Jillian in an uncomfortable standoff. Ike turned on his heels and marched through the backstage area, his hands high in the air.

“I LOVE TONIGHT!” he shouted, then turned a corner and was out of sight.

Zac took a moment before looking up. Jillian’s eyes were puffy from crying but her smile let him know she was okay. And so was he. She took a few steps toward him and he pulled her to him and held her tightly. She seemed surprised at first, but then wrapped her arms around him too.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said after a moment and she looked up and him and nodded. He grabbed her hand and led her out the back door. Neither of them were concerned with telling anyone else where they were going.

Zac certainly didn’t want to hear it from his brothers. Anyway, Taylor would be wrapped up in Molly for the rest of the night and Ike would already be saddled up to the hotel bar, entertaining the room. He’d had the entire day to plan what he would say to Jillian. He’d waited long enough.

They spent the cab ride telling each other how strange it was, to be with each other in person. Zac told her she looked the same and she was quick to tell him that he didn’t. He knew he looked older but he also wondered if she was seeing the toll the years had taken.

When they finally arrived at the hotel, he led her to his room. He grabbed two beers from the mini-fridge and passed one to her. She was sitting awkwardly on the edge of his bed, nervously pushing her hair behind her ears. She still looked like the girl in his memory, but something inside of her was markedly different.

“So..” he started, but found himself without words.

“So.”

She patted the bed beside her and he took a seat, twisting the cap off of her beer bottle and then his. They sat, staring into space in silence, sipping from their bottles. He could feel her look over at him, expectantly. He had called this meeting, after all.

“I have been a mess all week,” he blurted. “Seeing you on that first night, Jill...it brought up a lot of stuff that I’ve been working hard to ignore.”

“Like what?”

Her question struck him. She had clearly had time to prepare as well. She wouldn’t be pulling any punches. He turned his body toward her and crossed his legs.

“How much giving up on you messed me up, for one.”

“I didn’t give you much of choice in that.” She was still looking down at the floor.

“Maybe not,” he agreed. “But I sorta took the whole rebound thing too far, didn’t I?”

She looked up at him and laughed. He felt relieved to see her relax a bit, pulling her legs up under her and turning to face him.

“About that,” she said in a tone that made him feel uneasy. “You’re married. You’re a father. You’ve got a whole life to live now.”

“Yeah, we’re actually expecting another little one before the year ends. It’s too soon to be public knowledge but it’s happening.”

“Wow, congratulations.”

“Thanks…” he sighed. “And you...you’re married now.” He gestured toward the ring on her finger.

“Yeah…that’s a thing I did.” Her tone was thick with subtext and he was tempted to let it go. But that wasn’t why they were here.

“Are you happy with him?”

She huffed once and he watched her twist her ring around her finger.

“Are you happy with her?” He didn’t answer her. He didn’t have to. “Can I tell you something?”, she continued. “Something that isn’t going to make anything any better? In fact, it might even make things worse…”

“Jillian, just tell me.”

“On my wedding day, it was your face I saw at the end of the aisle.”

Zac felt like the air had been knocked out of him. She was staring right into him, waiting for a response. He started to panic, too many thoughts spinning in his brain.

“I cheated on Kate.”

He heard himself say the words and expected to immediately want to take them back. Instead, he looked at Jillian and saw something he hadn’t expected: understanding.

“We’ve really made a mess of things, haven’t we?” She shook her head shamefully.

“Jill, when I met you, I thought it was simple. You were the person I was going to be with forever and everything else would fall into place. I didn’t care what anyone thought. Including you. I had built you up into this monument of my ideal life, expecting you to play along. The moment it became obvious that it wouldn’t be simple, I ran away. I’ve been running away ever since, I think.” He paused and waited, letting his words sink in. “I was just so angry at you for so long. You broke my heart.”

“I never wanted to hurt you,” she said softly, a slight wobble in her voice. “I realized something about myself recently. I realized that I never felt like I deserved you.” Zac laughed and she reached out and swatted him on the knee. “I’m serious!”

“I’ll tell you right now, no one deserves me. I wouldn’t wish me on my worst enemies!” He knew self-deprecation was his go-to defense mechanism, but it made her smile so that felt like a win.

“What I’m saying is….I was afraid I could never live up to the way you saw me.”

Her chin quivered. Zac let her words roll around in his head. For years, he’d thought it was something he had done. He’d been too pushy, too childish, too needy for her. He had spent so much energy being angry at her and at himself, he’d missed the truth. It had nothing to do with him.

“God, I’m an idiot,” He rubbed his face with his hands and took the last, long swig of his beer.

Jillian chugged the remainder of her bottle and looked at him intently. He saw a flicker of something that both excited and terrified him. He got up and grabbed two more beers while she waited, unmoving on the bed. He passed her a bottle and chugged half of his, needing a little liquid courage.

“There’s something else I need to say.” She spoke carefully and held his gaze. “Something I just realized tonight. I mean, I think I’ve always known but couldn’t say it until now.”

Zac swallowed hard and looked at this girl he’d known for over a decade. This girl he’d shared his secrets with, who had seen his best and his worst, whom he’d imagined in his bed a million times or more. He wondered how he’d ever convinced himself he could get over her. She stared back at him, her eyes shiny with welling tears.

“What is it?” he asked, hoping she couldn’t hear his pounding heart.

“I’m in love with you, Zac. I think I always have been.”

His hands started shaking uncontrollably. He felt a cold sweat form on his brow. Her words had shaken him to his core. He felt elated, relieved and profoundly sad all at once. She sat across from him, her gaze firm and her face calm, save for a single tear that rolled down her cheek. He couldn’t stop himself from responding.

“I’m in love with you too. I always have been.”

Zac knew he should say something about spouses or consequences or the effects of the beer. Instead, he leaned his face toward hers. She slid slowly forward, closing the distance between them, and brushed her lips against his. An electric shock ran through him and he pushed his hands into her hair, pulling her into a passionate kiss.

Every fiber of his being came screaming to life. She pushed herself on top of him and he fell back on the bed, running his hands down her body. He wanted to feel every part of her at once. Her hands were on his face and in his hair and on his neck.

He grabbed her ass and rolled her over, never breaking their kiss. She shoved her hands up under his shirt and her touch was like fire on his bare skin. A tiny voice in the back of his head was screaming at him to slow down and think this through. There was a loud pounding sound that he thought was his pulse, growing with intensity and driving him deeper into his desire. He never even heard the door.

“Oh my god, I’m sorry!” Molly shouted, covering her eyes. Taylor stood behind her, his face red from laughter.

Zac scrambled backward and Jillian rolled off the bed and jumped to her feet. Her hair was a mess and she looked at Zac for some backup.

“Hey...hey guys…” Zac stammered.

“Well, frankly, it’s about time.” Taylor chortled, consoling a humiliated Molly. “Anybody wanna find the pool?”

Chapter Text

April 30th, 2010 - Jillian

Jillian sipped cautiously from the cup Taylor had passed her. He had designated himself the bartender for the night, raiding the minibar and keeping their glasses full.

“This is really strong!” she said, giving Taylor the side eye. He gave her a wink and finger guns, sending Molly into a giggle fit. They were all a few cocktails in and the embarrassment of what happened earlier was all but forgotten.

Jillian was grateful to Taylor for taking it in stride. He hadn’t teased or shamed his brother, despite the fact that neither of them had any business doing what they were doing. He turned the whole thing into an impromptu party. Once they all had fresh drinks, he’d ordered Zac to fill his arms with whatever was left in the bar and they all dashed to the hotel pool.

They passed the front desk, where the two clerks turned a blind eye. Jillian felt like a kid again. She’d finally been honest with herself and with Zac and the result was a whole new, brighter outlook. Seeing Molly so incredibly happy also had an inspiring effect. No matter what happened after this night, she could always look back and remember what true joy felt like.

Taylor held open the door to the pool deck and Jillian followed Molly in. They found a little table and set their drinks down, giving each other giant, cheesy grins.

“You guys are so cute, it’s disgusting,” Jillian said, making Molly’s smile increase.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. For ten years.”

“Yeah, we’ll talk about that someday. For now, I just want to be deliriously happy for my best friend!”

“The feeling is mutual,” Molly gushed, leaning forward, trying to keep a certain person from overhearing. “You wanna tell me what happened?”

Jillian sat down in one of the chairs placed around the table. Molly plopped down next to her, bubbly with love and alcohol. Their attention was suddenly drawn to a clamorous tussle between Zac and Taylor, racing each other to the poolside and doing nearly synchronized cannon balls.

“I WON!” Taylor shouted triumphantly, breaking the surface of the water with a splash. Molly rolled her eyes and looked at Jillian, who was giggling uncontrollably. They watched Zac burst from beneath the water and pull his brother down, rough-housing like two kids.

Jillian took another long sip from her cocktail and felt her head spin.

“Your boyfriend is a generous pourer,” she quipped, the newness of the phrase not lost on her. Suddenly, she had an epiphany. “Molly! Is Taylor your long-haired piano guy?!”

“Quit changing the subject,” Molly insisted. “Tell me what happened tonight before I can’t stop myself from jumping into that pool!”

“I told him I love him,” Jillian stated and Molly’s mouth fell wide open. “He said it back. We shouldn't have taken it as far as we did, but…”

“Jillian Santoro!” Molly was screaming and the guys had stopped what they were doing to investigate. “You’re a badass and I love you!” Molly jumped up and threw her arms around her.

“Can you get your ass in this pool, Molly?” Taylor was a sassy drunk.

Jillian dissolved into a fit of giggles as Molly ran full speed and performed a perfect belly flop into the pool. Taylor retrieved her from the depths and the two of them clung to each other, in their own little world. Jillian met Zac’s gaze and he waved at her to come in. She grabbed her drink and walked carefully to the pool’s edge.

“No belly flop?” he joked.

“Shut up, Zachary!” Molly screeched, still hanging off of Taylor, who was trying to manage her and his drink.

“I think I’m actually too drunk for a belly flop,” she said, lowering her legs into the warm water.

“Oh, no no no,” Zac shook his head with a mischievous grin. He swiftly grabbed her around the waist and pulled her in, Molly and Taylor cheering him on.

The four of them splashed and chased each other and Jillian was having so much fun, she never wanted the night to end. They played until their drinks were dry and they were too cold to stay in the water.

Taylor and Molly cuddled up in a lounger, chattering to each other and looking drowsy. Zac wrapped Jillian in a towel and they took a seat, side-by-side, dropping their feet into the hot tub.

“Where do we go from here?” he asked her quietly after a moment.

Her thoughts were muddled by liquor and chlorinated water. She didn’t know the answer to his question. She only knew how good it felt to be with him.

“I don’t know,” she answered finally. “I know that I shouldn’t be married anymore, that's one thing.”

“That is one thing,” he sighed.

“I know that I want to keep you in my life,” she said, scrunching up her nose at the sappiness of her statement. But she meant it. The future had never appeared more unclear, but she knew for sure that she needed Zac to be a part of it, in any way possible.

“I want that too,” he whispered, lacing his fingers between hers. She marveled at how something could seem so simple and so complicated all at once. “You know, it’s a good thing Tay and Molly showed up when they did tonight.”

“Is it?” Jillian laughed.

“Oh yeah!” He nodded and smirked. “It wouldn’t have been right. If...or when...it happens, I want it to be right. I mean, I waited this long...”

“When, huh?”

She looked him over, making sure he was really there and that this night wasn’t just some dream she’d conjured up. She was filled with a sense of peace. She didn’t know how or when, but she knew everything would work out. Whatever that meant for the both of them. It would work out.

Jillian looked up to see Taylor and Molly taking their places around the hot tub. She rested her head on Zac’s shoulder and squeezed his hand, still tangled up with hers.

“No sleeping!” Taylor shouted. “Let’s play a game!”

“How do you still have this much energy?” Jillian asked him, giggling again.

“He’s always been like this, trust me,” Zac replied. “He’s a wild man!”

“I know!” Molly joked, prompting an explosion of laughter from the others.

“Ooh, I know, I know! Let’s play Truth or Dare!” Taylor stood up proudly, as if the idea was a stroke of genius.

“YES!!!!” Molly loved Truth or Dare and Jillian knew there would be no avoiding it.

“Whew, okay…” Zac agreed, despite looking nervous. “Who’s first?”

“Taylor, Truth or Dare?” Jillian figured there was no sense in waiting. She wanted to start this thing off right. Taylor looked at her, pleasantly surprised.

“Dare,” he said boldly.

Jillian looked to Molly, who shrugged happily.

“I dare you to do an impression of Isaac.” Zac laughed loudly and Taylor jumped up onto the pool deck, apparently ready to perform. Molly buried her face in her hands and they all wept with laughter. Taylor’s impression was spot-on. He sang Love Song, complete with air guitar. The other three erupted in applause as he took a bow and sat back down next to Molly.

“My turn,” he said turning to his brother. “Zachary, Truth or Dare?”

“In keeping with the theme of my night, I’m going with truth.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes, Tay. Gimme your best shot.”

“Is it true that you thought sending Jillian the lyrics to Wish That I Was There was the way to win her heart?” Taylor was trying so hard not to laugh, his face was red.

“Really? You had to bring that up?”

Jillian gave him a playful nudge but he was too bashful to look at her. Taylor rolled his eyes.

“Okay, you’re right. That’s not a good one. We all know you did that.”

“I have one,” Molly piped up. She leaned over and whispered in Taylor’s ear. Jillian felt nervous, not sure how much truth she was ready to hear just yet.

“Have you two admitted you’re in love with each other yet?”

Taylor and Molly sat back, enjoying their wrench they’d thrown into the game. This was precisely why Molly loved this game and Jillian should have warned them. She was about to tell Zac he didn’t have to answer, when he looked right at her and spoke.

“Yeah, we did.”

Jillian felt her heartbeat quicken. She liked the idea of an alternate universe where they had never made their stupid mistakes and today would be the first day of the rest of their lives. She looked at him in amazement. They wouldn’t have any secrets left after this night. She could feel it.

“Okay, loverboy, it’s all you,” Molly winked at Zac, who cracked his knuckles, ready to dish out some revenge.

“Molly, Truth or Dare?”

“Truth! I don’t even care!” Molly crossed her arms, ready for a challenge.

“Tell Jillian about your “music writing retreats.”

Jillian looked at Molly, quizzically. She watched her best friend squirm, then stick her tongue out at Zac.

“Yes, tell me Moll,” she insisted.

“Well...I’ve been attending the Fool’s Banquet and I might have helped write a bunch of songs. It’s not a big deal.”

“And?” Zac glared at her.

“What?” Molly was getting annoyed and Jillian couldn’t stop laughing.

“Jillian, Molly’s like a secret member of our band. She and I text all the time. We’re all like family in a way and she never told you any of this. She’s a terrible friend!”

Molly sent a wave of hot water at Zac, causing Jillian to jump out of the way. They engaged in a splash-war until Zac called a truce.

“I guess I should say that I’m not mad.” Jillian looked at Molly and sighed. “I think it’s all working out exactly the way it was meant to.” She sent a final splash at Zac. “And she’s a wonderful friend, as I’m sure you know!”

“Thank god, it’s finally my turn!” Molly looked like she was ready to burst. “Jillian!”

“Here we go…” Jillian pulled her knees to her chest and prepared for the question.

“Truth?” Molly announced. “Or Dare?”

“Truth, Molly,” Jillian figured Molly would ask her something cheesy about Zac or something humiliating from their younger years. Whatever it was, she would be ready.

“Okay, tell me why you haven’t called your husband the entire time we’ve been in New York.”

Jillian froze. The boys both sat up, suddenly very invested in the moment. Molly gave her a look that assured her there was no place to hide. Molly knew. She always knew. Jillian put her feet back into the water and took a deep breath.

“Well...because he doesn’t know I’m here.”

Chapter Text

May 1st, 2010 - Molly

Molly pulled into Jillian’s driveway, putting the car in park and yanking on the emergency brake.

“Why do you always do that?” Jillian asked.

“Do what?”

“The emergency brake. You do that every time you park.”

“I don’t know…” Molly shrugged, “My dad used to do it.”

“Oh.”

“Hey Jill?”

“Yeah?”

“That was the best week of my life, I think.”

Jillian looked over at Molly, her eyes all at once joyful and glazed with fear. “Me too.”

Molly reached across to the passenger side and hugged Jillian tightly, attempting to transfer some of her inherent courage into her best friend’s shaking body. “You don’t have to go in there, Jill,” she whispered, referencing the house looming in front of her car, “Say the word and we can go to my house. It’s late anyway, it’s almost midnight. What’s one more night…”

“No, no…” Jillian said, pulling away and shaking her head. Her voice quivered. “That would just delay the inevitable. I gotta go in. It’ll be fine. He’ll be mad for a couple hours and then he’ll just...he’ll be happy to see me,” Jillian plastered a smile on her face as though she was trying to convince herself just as much as she was trying to convince Molly. Molly narrowed her gaze at Jillian as she collected herself and her bags. Nothing added up. No one who was happily married would run away to New York to profess her love for the boy who kissed her ten years ago. There was something else happening behind the very same door that Jillian was about to walk through.

“Well...bye, I guess,” Jillian said, poking her head through the passenger side window, laden with her bags.

“I can help you carry those in…”

“No, I’m good. I love you, Molly. You’re my best friend. The secrets...they don’t matter, okay? Meeting you at Midsummer rehearsal was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Followed closely by last night.”

“Jillian, what’s with the sap fest?! Jesus!”

“I just wanted you to know that I’m grateful for you, okay?!”

“Okay! Okay, weirdo. Love you too. Text me in the morning, I’ll need coffee.”

“You always need coffee.”

Molly watched Jillian go to the door and take a deep breath. She flipped on the radio and dug her phone out of her pocket, realizing that she had forgotten to text Taylor when they landed at the Tampa Airport nearly half an hour ago. She started composing a message, letting him know they had landed and that she was loading her Underneath CD into the stereo for the drive home. She reached over to the glove compartment and dug out the CD case, smiling at the memories from the past week playing in her mind’s eye. She was sliding the disc into the stereo when a flash of movement caught her eye. She jerked her head up reflexively, her eyes finding the source of the motion. They were drawn to the kitchen window, just to the left of the front door. The kitchen was brightly lit, decorated in yellows and blues, sunflowers in the vase in the breakfast nook. Stainless steel appliances, white tile, clean lines, Nick raising his fist above his head and bringing it down quickly, making contact with something below the windowsill, just out of her line of vision.

Her brow furrowed, her hand hanging in front of the play button, suspended in mid air. She watched as he reached down and grabbed something, pure rage in his eyes. He pulled Jillian up by her neck, spitting words in her direction before thrusting her back down onto the floor. She watched as his face turned a deep shade of red, his mouth contorting, his eyes wild. She flung the car door open, not even bothering to kill the engine, and scrambled up to the front door.

“Please be unlocked, please be unlocked, please be unlocked,” she muttered as she bounded up the stoop, taking all the steps at once. She turned the knob, thankful that Jillian had been too distracted to lock it again. Her heart was pounding, blood drumming loudly in her ears. She heard Jillian shrieking. She heard a slap. She heard Nick screaming obscenities, followed by a sound that could only be described as heavy boots making contact repeatedly with a stomach clenched in fear.

She ran into the kitchen without stopping at the doorway to survey the scene. She knew she was small. She knew Nick could easily take her down physically, since he obviously had no problem hitting a woman. She knew that she wished she had three certain brothers behind her to help finish off this piece of shit in front of her. But she didn’t. She was all alone, and that was going to have to be enough.

She barrelled towards him with all the strength she could muster, knocking into his stomach with her shoulders, tackling him like a linebacker. He wasn’t expecting it, and he toppled to the ground, Molly falling on top of him. She heaved herself up and sat on his chest, reeling her arm back and punching him in the face. Adrenaline surged through her body, focusing her energy and strength.

“Get. Your. Fucking. Hands. OFF. OF. HER.” She punched wildly, unable to stop now that she had started. She felt his nose crack and watched the blood begin to trickle. She felt her knuckles start to split, but the pain was absent. All she cared about was hurting this man beneath her.

“Molly!!! Molly, stop...that’s...that’s enough!” Jillian sputtered behind her, the words choked with sobs.

“NO. IT’S NOT ENOUGH. IT WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH. HOW DARE YOU HURT HER LIKE THAT, YOU PIECE OF SHIT.” She grabbed his collar and heaved his head up, whispering viciously in his face. “I hope you never fucking forget this. I hope you’re haunted every day for the rest of your life by the image of me running towards you and making you bleed, just like you made her bleed. I hope you know that no matter what happens, everyone will know what you did. You’ll never be able to escape this. Everyone will know. Every single person you meet will know that you married a beautiful, incredible girl and then you beat her like the fucking scumbag you are. Everyone will know. I’ll make fucking sure of that.” She let go, his head dropping back down to the tile floor.

She picked herself up and tossed her hair back from her face, attempting to come down from the primal anger that had surged forward when she saw her best friend in danger. She held her hand out to Jillian and helped her to her feet. Jillian already had a black eye blooming, and she couldn’t quite stand up all the way. Molly helped her hobble towards the front door.

She heard Nick rustling on the ground and turned around, a vindictive gleam in her eye. She walked back over to him and picked her foot up, bringing it down swiftly on his groin, causing him to shriek in pain.

“You will never put another finger on her, or any other woman, you disgusting piece of shit.”

***

“Here, I brought you some chamomile. Did you find jammies?”

“Yeah, I did,” Jillian said with a weak smile. “I’ll go down to the couch.”

“You’re crazy, get in,” Molly motioned towards her own twin bed. “I’ll tuck you!”

Jillian sighed and winced in pain as she sat down on the bed. Molly rushed to put the cup of tea down and helped her swing her legs up and under the covers.

“I feel like I was hit by a semi truck.”

“Do you want ice? For your eye?”

“I probably should…”

“I’ll go get some hold on, don’t move a muscle.” Molly turned quickly to go back down to the kitchen.

“Molly, wait just...stop running around and tending to me.”

“Sorry,” Molly said with a giggle, “You know I love a task.”

“I know.” Jillian motioned to the foot of the bed, and Molly hopped up, careful not to disturb any of Jillian’s aching limbs. “Thanks.”

“For what?” Molly asked with false innocence.

“You’re insane, you know that right?”

“Yeah but...it came in handy! For once in my life!”

The girls started giggling at each other as Jillian looked around at the bare walls. “I miss the posters, honestly.”

“Oh my GOD.”

“I’m serious!”

“I had to take them down when Taylor and I...ya know...started talking. It was too weird.”

“Oh yeah, I bet.” Jillian took a sip of her tea. “Hey Moll?”

“Yeah?”

“That wasn’t the first time he hit me. It’s been going on for a while.”

“I figured.”

“I was...it was like I was brainwashed or something. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I should have told someone. I should have told you!”

“It’s okay, Jill. You did what you thought was right. I...I understand that.”

Jillian’s eyes welled with tears. “I’m such an idiot,” she said meekly.

“Hey...hey, no you’re not! You’re so brave, Jill. Meeting you at the Midsummer rehearsal was the best thing that happened to me too, you know that right? Why do you think I went Rambo on his ass? I saw someone hurting my best friend.”

“You literally almost killed him…”

“I know, it was...it was an out of body experience to be perfectly honest with you.”

“Oh my god…” Jillian started laughing through her tears, still tickled by her best friend’s antics.

Molly wiggled herself up to the head of the bed, laying down next to Jillian. “We used to fit better in here,” she said, remembering the nights Jillian would sleep over and they would stay up way too late talking about middle school gossip and stupid boys who didn’t hold a candle to Molly’s true loves. They would share Molly’s bed and laugh too loud and inevitably be shushed by Molly’s dad. Then morning would come, and they would make their way downstairs where Molly’s mom would be scrambling eggs and humming, the promise of a new day upon them.

“Everything is gonna be fine, Jill,” she said as her eyes slammed shut. “It’s all gonna be okay.”