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The cabin was Kevin’s idea.

“We keep talking and talking about doing this Christmas album, but we’re never gonna get anything done this way, with all of us in different places,” he had complained back in May, during one of the Backstreet Boys’ weekly Zoom calls. “These virtual meetings are fine for brainstorming, but we’re missing the magic that happens when we all get into the recording studio together. We can’t recreate that on Zoom.”

As Kevin ranted, Brian, AJ, Howie, and Nick all nodded in agreement. After two months of being quarantined in their respective homes as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to rage across the country, they were becoming more and more restless and eager to get back to work. But with the DNA tour postponed and the recording studios shut down, they could only work from home, which seemed almost impossible for a group that had always performed together.

“I wish we could just rent a little cabin in the mountains or something,” Kevin went on, “somewhere we could quarantine ourselves together, just the five of us, and really work on this album.”

To everyone’s surprise, Nick had been the first one on board. “Why can’t we?” was his response.

AJ, Howie, and Brian had all raised their eyebrows, considering the idea. “Well, for one, we’d be breaking the rules, wouldn’t we?” replied Howie. “We’re not supposed to be within six feet of people outside of our own household. It’d be pretty hard for five guys to stay socially distanced within the same small cabin - and can you imagine trying to record with a mask on?”

They had all laughed at the thought of that. “I dunno about y’all, but we’ve started seeing friends again in small groups. I played golf with a couple of guys the other day, and Baylee’s had some of his buddies over to swim,” Brian admitted with a shrug. “As long as we all got tested beforehand to make sure none of us have the virus, I don’t see any harm in it. But only if everyone feels comfortable, of course.”

“I’m in,” AJ immediately volunteered, holding up his hand. “You know I love being home with my girls, but I need to get out of this house.”

“Me too,” Nick agreed with a wide-eyed nod. “I’m goin’ stir-crazy over here. I love my kids, but I dunno how many more times I can watch that damn Sonic the Hedgehog movie before I snap and smash my head through the TV screen.”

They all laughed again. “Yeah, both my boys went through that phase of wanting to watch the same thing over and over again,” Kevin said knowingly. “They’ll grow out of it, and before you know it, you’ll miss those days.”

Brian and Howie both nodded in agreement, while AJ gave the camera a commiserating look, as if to tell Nick, I’m in the same boat, buddy.

“But going back to the cabin idea… Do you think RCA would want us taking that risk just to record an album?” Howie wondered.

“Are you kidding?” Brian snorted. “I think our record company would be more than happy to hear we were ready to get back to work. Anything to make money, right?”

“Sad, but true,” said Kevin. “So are you guys really serious about renting a cabin?”

Nick nodded. “I am. It’s killing me that we’re not on the road right now.” He raked his hand through the dark roots of his hair. “Don’t get me wrong - I’m grateful for this extra time I’ve had with my family, but I’ve been ready to get back to work for a while now. I can’t get anything done around here; Saoirse always wants to be held, and Odin always wants me to play with him. By the time they go to bed at night, I’m so tired from chasing them around all day, I’m not far behind them.”

“I hear you, bro,” AJ agreed. “I can’t tell you how many tea parties I’ve been to since the start of quarantine. It’s exhausting.”

Everyone laughed.

“Well, y’all know I’m a homebody, but I wouldn’t say no to getting back to work if everyone else was on board,” said Brian. “What about you, Howie?”

Howie had been the most hesitant about the idea, but in the end, he came back with, “If you guys are in, then so am I.”

They started making arrangements at once, looking into cabin rentals in various mountain ranges across the country. Kevin suggested the Sierra Nevada region of California, while AJ wanted to go to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Nick loved Tennessee, too, but was more inclined to rent a cabin in the Colorado Rockies to record a Christmas album. Brian preferred the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky, not far from where he and Kevin had grown up. It was Howie - or, rather, his wife Leigh - who came up with the perfect place: a little town called Bethlehem in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “My wife took a vacation there with her family when she was a kid,” he told the others. “She says it’s beautiful and feels remote without actually being too far from modern conveniences, like Wi-Fi and recording equipment.”

No one could argue with working on a Christmas album in a place called Bethlehem, so they’d booked a luxury cabin in the mountains overlooking the village. The record company had helped arrange the delivery of recording equipment and larger instruments the Boys couldn’t easily bring on a plane themselves, like a keyboard and drum set, so the makeshift studio would be ready when they arrived.

Just as Brian had predicted, the record executives had hopped right on board with the project the moment they were promised new music, which meant more money in their pockets. And so, guitar cases on their backs and bags in hand, the five Backstreet Boys flew to Boston, where they planned to meet, rent a car, and ride the rest of the way to Bethlehem together.

As the only two still living in L.A., Kevin and AJ reserved a couple of first class seats in the same row for the long flight from LAX to Logan International. By the time they landed at the airport, Brian had already arrived from Atlanta. They found him waiting by baggage claim.

When he spotted them, Brian stood and started to approach them, automatically holding out his arms for a hug. Then he thought better of it and, after a moment’s hesitation, slowly lowered his hands to his sides.

Kevin gave his cousin a knowing smile before he remembered it couldn’t be seen beneath the mask he wore. Though he didn’t mind wearing a mask when required, he couldn’t wait to rip the pesky piece of cloth off in the car so he could feel fresh air on his face again. “Hey, cous,” he greeted Brian, who could tell by the twinkle in Kevin’s green eyes that he was grinning. “Long time no see.”

“Tell me about it,” replied Brian, shaking his head in disbelief. When they had said goodbye at the airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the end of the South American tour in March, they had naively still expected to be back together by May for the Australian leg. But it was already June, and the end of the pandemic that had forced them to postpone the rest of the tour was nowhere in sight. Most parts of the world had managed to slow the spread and flatten the curve, but the masks covering their mouths and noses were a constant reminder that the coronavirus remained a threat - especially in the United States, where cases were still on the rise.

“I don’t care, dude, I'm gonna give you a hug, damn it,” said AJ, throwing his arms around Brian. “Brothers gotta hug!”

Brian laughed at the Tommy Boy reference and patted AJ’s back in relief. Personally, he thought people had a tendency to overreact with their response to the pandemic, but he wasn’t sure the rest of the group felt the same way he did. They all leaned toward the liberal left side of things, while Brian remained a right-wing conversative, in spite of the crap he got from the others for his political beliefs.

“Besides,” AJ added, “we all got tested before we came, right? We’re clean.”

“True,” Brian agreed, grinning at AJ as they pulled apart. “It’s good to see ya, Bone.” The world was a weird place right now, but he didn’t want it to be. That was part of the reason he had agreed to Kevin’s cabin idea. Though he usually hated being away from his family, he was craving normalcy, and for him, traveling for work was normal. He regularly referred to a plane seat at his “office chair.” Besides, it would be good to get out of Georgia for a few weeks.

“You too, Rok,” replied AJ as he released him. Though they couldn’t have been more different in some respects, he and Brian shared a unique bond, a bond which had only been strengthened as the group dynamics had shifted over the years. In the early days of the Backstreet Boys, AJ had been closest to Howie, his first friend in the band, while Brian and Nick were the best of buddies. But as “Frick and Frack” had grown apart, Nick and Howie had gotten tight, and Brian and AJ had connected over the surprising number of things they had in common besides music - a similar sense of humor, a love of golf, and their growing sneaker collections, to name a few. “Hey, check out my new Jordans,” he said, lifting his foot to show off one of his “gym red” Air Jordan 14s, the latest release in the line of retro-inspired sneakers.

“Those are sweet, dude,” said Brian as he admired them.

Kevin cleared his throat. “Did y’all watch that Bulls documentary, The Last Dance?”

Brian looked up, raising his eyebrows. “Do you know me at all, cous? Of course I did.” His blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he grinned beneath his mask.

“I caught some of it between episodes of Friends with the wife,” admitted AJ with a shrug. He had never been as big of a sports fan as Brian, Kevin, and Nick were.

“Hey, speaking of Jordan… here comes Pippen.”

AJ and Kevin followed Brian’s line of sight across the terminal until they noticed Nick loping toward them on his long legs, which were clad in his favorite camouflage shorts. He had both straps of his backpack slung over one shoulder, his guitar case on the other, and was dragging his suitcase behind him. “Need some help with that, bro?” Kevin offered, reaching out a hand to take one of his bags.

“Nah, I got it,” said Nick. He glanced at Kevin’s lack of luggage. “Where’s all your stuff? Airline didn’t lose it, did they?”

“I hope not.” Kevin tipped his head toward the empty baggage carousel. “AJ and I are still waiting on ours. We just landed a little while ago.”

Nick nodded. “Gotcha. Hey, it’s good to see you guys,” he added, greeting AJ and Brian.

“You too, bro,” replied Brian, giving him a playful punch in the shoulder. “How’s Vegas been?”

“Hot,” said Nick without missing a beat. He started to make a face, intending to stick out his tongue like a panting dog, before he remembered no one would be able to see it behind his mask. He hated wearing the damn thing, especially in the desert heat. “I dunno about y’all, but I’m lookin’ forward to some cool, fresh mountain air.”

“Amen,” agreed Kevin. “New Hampshire should be beautiful this time of year.”

“Yeah, as weird as it will be recording Christmas songs in the middle of summer, I’m glad we’re not going there in the winter. Too freaking cold,” said AJ with a shudder. “Can you imagine how much snow they must get there?”

“Especially in the mountains,” said Brian, making his blue eyes widen.

“Hey, you think there’ll still be any snow left on the mountaintops?” Nick wondered.

“I doubt it,” said Kevin. “The White Mountains aren’t anywhere near as tall as the Rockies. But I bet the weather will still be a lot cooler once we get up to the cabin.”

They all nodded. “We just need Howie to get his ass here already, and then we can get on the road,” said AJ, rubbing his hands together eagerly. “Anyone remember when he said his plane was supposed to land?”

“Soon,” said Nick, checking his watch.

“I already rented us an SUV,” said Brian, holding up a key ring, “so as soon as he’s ready, we can go.”

“Sounds good, dude,” said AJ, as the baggage carousel began to rotate. He and Kevin collected their suitcases and sat down with Brian and Nick. They didn’t have to wait long for Howie, who made his way over to them less than ten minutes later, his luggage already in hand.

“Let’s get outta here, guys,” said Brian after they’d all finished greeting Howie. He led the group to the parking garage and found the black Range Rover he had rented. Popping open the hatchback, he put his bags in the trunk first and slid behind the wheel while the others loaded their luggage.

“I call shotgun!” Nick shouted, scrambling into the front passenger seat before Kevin could claim it. He lowered his mask and gave the oldest member of the group a gloating smile as he stretched out his legs.

Kevin, Howie, and AJ were so relieved to be able to remove their own masks that none of them complained about being stuck in the back seat. Even with five people, there was plenty of room inside the full-size luxury SUV.

“You got the address of this place, Kev?” asked Brian. Kevin gave it to him, and he plugged it into the navigation system. “We’ll be there in two hours and twenty-eight minutes,” he announced to the others, as he pulled out of the parking space.

They were on their way.