Breaking away from the others was the worst thing I could’ve done. I didn’t find myself like everyone led me to believe. Instead I lost what little sense of self I still had and found myself surrounded by the same demons that chased AJ. Only with me, I knew how to hide it better. No one knew that I was already drowning right before their eyes.
Nick sat down beside, well, himself. The differences weren’t as drastic as this was only four years ago and he remembered this far better than he wanted to admit. Grace was on his other side and there they observed completely unbeknownst to anyone else. Apparently there must only be a danger when someone isn’t completely lucid as was the case with AJ during the last stop. Nick glanced at the Guardian curiously.
“This day? Why?”
She shushed him and motioned for him to listen.
Jive’s CEO, Barry Weiss, smiled charmingly at the twenty two year old Nickolas Carter as he slid a stack of papers towards him. Nick looked at everyone, evidently a bit confused. “Where’s the others? You guys said you wanted a meeting.”
“We do.” One of the female executives replied, patting down her curly black hair. “But with you.”
A brow quirked as his fingers tapped the table impatiently. Why the hell would they want a meeting with him? He was the one the executives tried to avoid. Mainly because of his recklessness and his attention span. He got chewed out immensely last month when he got arrested at that nightclub. He didn’t see the big deal. Nick had been out with Bean and a few others, they partied and when this guy gave him hell for being a Backstreet Boy, he hadn’t backed down. How was he supposed to know he’d been friends with security and they’d have him arrested within the hour? The cop had been a jerk too, purposely keeping him in holding longer so they could mock the “pathetic washed up ex-backdoor boy”. Even now it made him want to hit things.
Instead of voicing his thoughts he just shrugged. “Why?”
Barry chuckled to himself. “Why? Because Nick, you’re the star of the Backstreet Boys. You know that, don’t you?”
He found himself frowning. “There’s no star…we’re all equal.”
“Are you sure?” The female, Janet, asked as she twirled a curl around her finger. “Nick think about it. You get the most media, the most attention; merchandise with your face attached sells the most. Face it doll, you’re the most popular.”
It felt hard to believe. Despite everything he still felt like that poor kid from Ruskin, Florida who lived out his car for a short while. That kid everyone loved to pick on and beat up if they got the chance. Awkward Nick who’d get lectured on getting the dance steps right, or always too fat like he’d hear in the past couple years. Nick who just couldn’t get it together. He was the one who hated being on break from performing. The others seemed so damn happy. AJ was working on himself, Brian was happy cause it meant more time with Leighanne, Howie was going around buying buildings, and Kevin was auditioning for Broadway last he heard. Then there was him. He’d party around with Bean and a few others and crash at his house. Every day the same thing but the difference between that and touring is that he didn’t feel alive. None of it felt real to him. He was simply going through the motions.
“You’re really offering me a solo deal?” He asked again.
Barry grinned at him, sliding a contract down the table. “We insist.”
“What about the group? We were supposed to start recording…” In two months. Nick was practically counting down the days.
“You can do both.”
Nick started looking through the contract having learned the basics of what he dubbed as “legalese”. He grinned to himself cause so far everything was looking really good. “You know I can’t sign this without my man lookin’ at it.” He’d learned from Lou how easily it was to get screwed over.”But you’re gonna fund a tour and everything?”
“What’s the point of doing it if you don’t do it right? You’ll have six months to get your album together. We can find you a backing band or you can put one together, we’ll start putting your music video together as soon as we decide on the tracklist and a single.”
“It sounds fucking awesome.” Suddenly, it was like he’d found the answer of how he’d survive without the Backstreet Boys.
Grace turned to her charge. “You look really happy here.”
The other Nick snorted. “Because I didn’t know what I was doing. It sounded great. I could make the music I wanted and hadn’t been able to do, because I loved what we did as a group but I could show another side ya know? I thought the fellas would be proud of me and I’d find a way to get my shit together. I wasn’t drinking or anything when I toured cause I got my highs naturally. I didn’t think about much else.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I should’ve.”He shifted his gaze away. “I thought the record company really believed in me. All they saw was a fucking cash cow to put up against Afro-Boy.”
“So you stopped binging that night?”
He snorted, walking out of the office while the meeting continued, knowing the angel would follow. “Hell no, I partied till five in the morning cause I wanted to celebrate.”
Her voice was gentle. “You didn’t see anything wrong with that?”
“Everyone parties. I’m not AJ. AJ couldn’t keep a handle on it. He was performing high, he was showing up drunk to photo shoots and shit. It’s incredible no one caught on till we admitted it. And we were backed into a goddamn corner. We knew he had to do rehab and we couldn’t tour without him.” Nick sighed, gazing up at the clear blue sky. “I wondered sometimes if we admitted it for the fans or if we admitted it because we knew we didn’t have another choice, that bullshitting wouldn’t work.” He shrugged. “I still wonder why Kevin didn’t quit then. Why did he wait so damn long?”
Grace took his hand. “Come on, there’s something else you should see.”
Somehow, someway, she had to make him understand. To see what he’d been blind to for so long.
Immediately they appeared in Kevin’s room and Nick pulled away. “I know what you’re doing and hell no. I don’t want to see this.”
“I want you to trust me.”
He plopped on to one of Kevin’s creamy leather couches and watched as his younger self walked through the door. Kristin led him to the kitchen area not too far from where the other two were watching, only to see the other four members of the group waiting for them. Instead of being angry though, Nick smiled at them. He looked excited and energetic.
“I know, I know, I’m late.”He was a little twitchy, unable to keep still. “So, the next album. Are we still thinking like we were last year?”
Brian however didn’t look happy. None of the others did. Howie looked as neutral as possible, his expression calm and thoughtful. “No we can’t do the album. Jive put us on hold!”
The other blonde blinked with surprise. “What? Why? We’ve had this planned for months?”
AJ rolled his eyes, almost slamming his coffee cup on the counter. “Because their prized pig has a solo album to put out first! When the hell were you gonna tell us you were recording behind our backs?!”
“Hey fellas, we agreed we’d be calm about this…”
“To hell with calm Kevin, I wanna know too.” His cousin retorted.
Nick was hurt; those who knew him best could see it clearly. But it was as if a mask went over him because that look was wiped out of his eyes within an instant. His face contorted with rage. “I wanted to surprise you guys when it was done! I was told we’d be able to do the group album as I wrapped up my album which I’m doing right now! How was I supposed to know they’d pull this?!”
Howie took a deep breath before answering. “We filed a lawsuit and you refused to be a part of it. That’s why we thought you knew about this. Why didn’t you join when we sent it to you?”
“Maybe because I don’t see a problem. Management is handling me just fine. No one asked my opinion. Y’all think I’m some little kid who can’t handle himself. Oh Nick the fuckup here he comes, better not ask Nick, he’s too stupid! Isn’t that right?!”
“Maybe you are that stupid if you really believed Jive wanted you to do a solo album for your own good! It’s pretty damn easy to see they’re using you to break us up.”
“Forget it AJ.” Brian said. “He’s gotta learn the hard way. Always does. Maybe we won’t be there to fall back on this time when you screw up again Nick!”
“Why don’t you get your wife some more plastic surgery instead of blaming me for everything!” Nick glared at him. “Hell we used to be friends till she decided she’d hop on your ass and play gold-digger. She’s a fucking Yoko. I ain’t gonna break up the group, she is!”
“What did you just say?” Brian shook his head before Nick could respond. “Forget it, why don’t you just grow up! The world doesn’t revolve around you no matter how many fans tell you it does!”
Kevin stepped between them before things got ugly. “Look, calm down. Nick, maybe you should just back off the solo record, just for a bit. That way we can get things settled and then…”
Nick glared at the man he once looked up to more than anyone. “You really agree with them don’t you? Fuck it, I don’t have to be here and hear this!” He headed for the front door. “If you want an album record without me! I don’t give a damn!”
“DON’T CALL ME NICKY!” He shouted and the next thing anyone would hear was the door slamming with a sense of finality behind him.
The remaining Nick went to follow but Grace pulled him back. “No, this is what you should’ve seen.”
Kevin whirled around on Brian and AJ. “What the hell was that? The plan was to figure out how he got pulled into this. Not to accuse him right off and get him angry. What good did you think that was gonna do?”
“Oh come on Kev, you don’t honestly believe he had no clue Jive was using him to screw us over.”
Howie was leaning against the wall, shaking his head. “I did. Come on, this is Nick. He goes crazy when we’re not touring. Jive offering him a chance to keep himself busy with music is like a golden ticket. Did you see how happy he was to be here cause he thought we’d be starting to work things out again for the next album?”
Brian rolled his eyes, taking a sip of coffee. “I also saw how defensive he got when you brought up the lawsuit. He knew. He’s just being a selfish asshole. The way he’s been ever since the world stopped revolving around him.” He swallowed some more before continuing. “He got that way about me because of Leighanne, he got the way when AJ went into rehab…”
“He didn’t get like that when I married Kristin.” Kevin pointed out.
“And he’s getting like it again cause he got what he wanted and hates that we’re mad.” He continued, ignoring Kevin.
“He’ll fail and then he’ll come back.” AJ said smugly.
“You want him to fail?” Howie asked with a brow raised. “Why would you want that?”
“It’ll teach him a damn lesson.”
“I hope he succeeds.” Kevin told the others firmly. “Maybe then he’ll finally see what we always did. God, you guys better find a way to support him.”
“What about the album?” It was a valid question, even if Kevin was in no mood to hear it from Brian. He considered pointing out the fact he completely ignored the thought of supporting Nick but decided to let things cool down first.
Howie answered instead however, forever the peacemaker of the group. “How about we start getting songs together and working, but we don’t finalize anything till Nick’s ready.”
“We could do it without him.”
A pair of intense jade green eyes met AJ firmly. “We didn’t move on without you and to hell if we’re gonna do it without Nick.”
“I say we keep our options over it.”
“Why don’t we talk about this later when your head isn’t up your ass?” Kevin finally snapped at him. “Right now all we’re gonna do is fight and be stupid.”
Some grumbling followed but the subject finally shifted to something else and Grace watched Nick curiously. “You look surprised.”
Nick shook his head, staring at the scene with surprise as AJ and Brian left soon after. “I didn’t know Kevin was that defensive of me. I always thought that Dirty Little Secrets album was their way of showing me that they didn’t need me. When I learned about it…” He laughed but it wasn’t a happy sound. “I went home and did a shitload of stuff to try and forget that no one really needed me.”
“Kevin saw you as his little brother, that never changed. They all loved you. AJ and Brian were just hurt.”
“The day my album came out, I was so proud even with Jive meddling with the tracklist behind my back. Because I did it all on my own. Then I heard the interviews Brian did calling my album a joke. During the tour AJ showed up and I heard him at a club after saying how he didn’t think I’d be so bad.” He looked broken, so broken, in that moment. “But on my release day Kevin called me up, left a message of him singing I Got You and telling me how proud he was. Howie surprised me on the set for Help Me.”
“Families fight, but they stick by you.”
“Not my family.”
Grace smiled at him. “Like we’ve both learned, it’s not always blood that makes a family.”
Before Nick could answer, Kevin and Howie got his attention once more. Kevin had pulled out a bag of potato chips and the two were snacking. Somehow this had turned into a secondary meeting now that the other two had left. Now or Never had damaged his once unbreakable friendship with Brian almost beyond repair. Nick knew to his own present day that damage hadn’t been undone. He wondered if it ever would be.
If he planned to live, anyway.
“So what do we do about this?”
“We support him as best as we can. I’m worried about him.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“Now if the other two could stop seeing beyond themselves they’d realize Nick needs this. He needs us. No matter what he says.”
“Fat chance of that, they’re too mad.” Howie sighed. “This is a mess.”
“You’re telling me. But we can’t help if he doesn’t know we’re there. So we gotta keep reminding him that we are, and that we’re not going anywhere.” Kevin smiled. “He’ll never admit it, but it’s what he wants most.”
Kevin, you always knew. Nick thought as he started to leave. Always.
And he missed that feeling more than he’d ever realized before.