"Tell your boy I'm sorry about Aaron and his mom," said Justin.
"Yeah, man. Thanks," said Chris. "I'll talk you to you soon. Bye."
Chris hung up and went looking for Nick. He found him in the pool, doing laps. Chris watched Nick's body cut through the water: even, measured strokes from one end of the pool to another. It was a meditation for both of them. He came back to himself when Nick started up the stairs at the far end of the pool.
Chris didn't go pick up Nick's towel for him, even though it was in plain sight, draped over a deck chair. Chris watched Nick dry himself off, waited for Nick to pull on a robe. Then he said, "J told me to tell you he was sorry about your brother and your mom."
Nick ran a hand through his hair, muttered something Chris couldn't make out. Then he jogged towards the house, to Chris. "I'm sorry, dawg. It just happened real fast."
"Fuck that noise, Nick. You have been here and I have been here, and I'm finding shit out because somebody read it in the papers." Chris turned and stalked into the house. He slowed down when he was out of Nick's field of vision, walked normally to the kitchen. He pulled out a bottle of Gatorade for Nick and a bottle of water for himself. He waited.
Five minutes later, Nick walked in with a ratty t-shirt and cut-offs on. He grabbed the Gatorade and chugged half the bottle before turning and looking at Chris. "My mom stole Aaron's money, so he's firing her as a manager and moving in with dad. Maybe gonna do that emancipation thing."
"Fuck." Chris tried to imagine, tried to see what it would be like if Lou were his dad. Then he tried to think what he'd do if his mom had stolen his sisters' money. "Sucks to be you."
"Yeah," said Nick. "I didn't think it'd get out yet. I mean…I hadn't heard any papers had been filed. He's been—"
"He didn't want to believe she'd done it?"
Nick shook his head.
Chris put down his bottle and walked across the kitchen, put his arms around Nick and squeezed. "Whatever I can do…."
Nick laughed, the bitter, disappointed chuckle that had almost disappeared since he'd started writing Now or Never. "You wanna get Aaron a new mom for Christmas?"
Chris reached up and pressed a kiss to the side of Nick's neck. "He's got you, and your sisters, and your dad. That was enough for you to become a fine human being." He squeezed Nick's ass when he said 'fine'.
Nick laughed again, and it was clearer this time, more real. "You of all people know that I didn't just have the sane Carters, I had the fellas. And that's one thing Aaron can't get." But he wrapped his arms around Chris and dropped a kiss on the top of Chris's head.
Chris called his mom the next day. When he got off the phone with her, he called Nick's dad. Then he called Johnny to check everyone's schedules. The hard calls came after that.
"Joey, you know I love you."
"Chris? Did you break something you can't afford to pay for?" Chris heard a thump and a cry, then some muffled Joey noises. "Sorry about that. Briana just dumped a pitcher of iced tea on her head."
"No prob. Look, I didn't break anything yet, but you know how we said we were all getting together in LA for Three Kings Day?"
"Chris, man, you cannot bail. The five of us have been apart for far too long."
"I can't go to LA. I've got man troubles."
"Shit. I heard something was going on with Aaron and Jane. Is Nick up in it too, or is he just messed up 'cause it's his brother and his mom?"
"It's just Aaron's money, but the whole situation is family drama hell. I want to make it a little less crazy for them. Help me out?"
Chris pulled up the next number on his cell with a lot more trepidation. It had been in his phonebook for as long as he'd been with Nick, but he'd never called it before. Howie was his expert in all things Backstreet, and he looked to Brian to explain things about Nick he couldn't puzzle out for himself. Hell, he'd even called AJ once or twice to deliver an ass-kicking, and that had been crazy and surreal. But he'd never actually used the
KSR listed in his phonebook before.
"Hello?" Kevin's accent was out in force. Nick had told Chris Kevin was spending some time with his parents through New Year's, but Chris had forgotten.
"This is Chris Kirkpatrick."
"Nick's Chris?" The accent was gone now, but there was still something soft and homey and low in Kevin's voice.
"You heard about Aaron, right?"
"Of course. I got a call from WEG when it hit the papers."
Chris made a mental note to find out how to get on that call list. "Yeah, well, Nick's really unhappy, and I can't begin to imagine what Aaron's going through."
Kevin hmmm'd softly. "If you want Backstreet to ride to Nick's rescue, it's a little early for that."
Chris snorted. "I didn't meet him yesterday. I know he's not ready for a talking cure yet. But I was thinking that two weeks before Christmas is a really shitty time for Aaron's family to fall apart, and maybe we can do something about that."
"Two weeks before Christmas, and my boys' holiday plans are pretty firm, Kirkpatrick."
"I figured as much, Richardson. Just listen to what I have to say."
The phone calls were over, even the hard ones. Now came the scary part. Chris went to find Nick. He wasn't in the house, so Chris went to the marina. When he saw Nick's green "I'm being anonymous" Taurus in the lot, he walked out to Nick's slip.
The deck was empty, so Chris stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly. Nick popped up right away, tight white t-shirt, light blue cargo pants, and messy hair all a little damp. "Hey, man. Was I supposed to meet you for lunch or something? I totally spaced."
Chris shook his head and opened his mouth to launch into his spiel when he saw a second blond head appear. "Hey, Aaron."
"Chris." Aaron waved. "Sup?"
Chris nodded. "Things are okay on my end. You holding up?"
Aaron nodded, too, but he also sidled over closer to Nick, put a hand in his brother's back pocket.
Chris smiled, then spoke to Nick. "No, we didn't have plans for lunch. I just wanted to see you, but if you're having some Nick and mini-Nick time, don't let me get in the way." Nick stuck out his tongue at the mini-Nick remark, but Aaron giggled like he did every time Chris said it. "But what are you doing the week after New Year's, Aaron? My sisters are coming down, I got some people coming over. You should hang with me and your brother."
"Yeah?" said Aaron, standing up a little straighter.
Chris nodded, then stage-whispered, "Joey's mom bakes the five of us each four pounds of cookies for Christmas. They're great cookies, fabulous cookies, but Nick and I got no business eating them all ourselves."
Aaron's jaw dropped. "She bakes? Twenty pounds of cookies? Oh. My. God."
Aaron showed up on the second. Chris's family was there until the fourth. *NSYNC arrived on the fifth and had cut out again by the seventh. When Backstreet showed up on the eighth, Aaron helped everyone get settled in a guest room, then cornered Chris in the basement.
"You set me up, didn't you?" Aaron's voice was scratchy and he talked too fast.
If he were Nick, Chris would know what to say, but having spent the last week with him, the difference between Nick and mini-Nick had never been clearer. "Yeah. I invited you and I invited a bunch of other people."
"Because of my mom. This doesn't fix the shit with my mom."
Chris shook his head. "It's not supposed to. I fixed my problems with Lou with a bunch of lawyers. You're going to need a bunch of lawyers plus a herd of therapists or something."
"So what did you bring me here for? You want to show me your great life, with your great family and your fabulous friends and your beautiful boyfriend who doesn't have time to be my brother anymore? 'Cause that doesn't really help with shit, Kirkpatrick." Aaron turned, walked away from Chris to a beanbag chair, but he didn't sit down on it. He stood there with his chest heaving, breathing hard.
Chris walked up behind him, put a hand on his shoulder. Aaron shrugged it off. Chris said, "You don't really think I was trying to show you something you can't have, right?"
Aaron shrugged again, more gently this time.
"I'm trying to share it with you. And show you, too, that there are people in the world who treat the people they love right." Chris shrugged. "I'm sorry if I did it the wrong way."
Aaron turned around. His mouth was working the way Nick's did to hold back tears. "No, it's just, I wanted to spend time with my brother, man. I mean…you're always around unless he's on tour or doing promo. And now, there's just more people here." Aaron ducked his head and scratched his shoulder. "Sorry for being, you know."
Chris laughed, pulled Aaron to him one-handed for a man hug: two solid claps to the back. "Nah, mini-Nick, you're right. I fucked up. But look, Nick's not doing anything after the fellas are supposed to leave, and you'll still have time off then. What if I go bug JC on tour and leave you two here?"
Aaron looked up, the first real smile on his face that Chris had seen since Halloween.
Chris woke up, reached for the lamp. When it wasn't where he expected it, he realized he was in a hotel room and his cell phone was ringing. He reached under the pillow, where he kept it when he was on the road, and pressed the
TALK button without looking. "Hello?"
"You already in bed, dawg?" Nick's voice was clear and warm and he was giggling. "Me and the kid just got back from the boat."
"Yeah? How was the water? How's the weather?"
"Pretty good on both counts. Beautiful, even."
"And how's Aaron?"
"He's, god, he's a thousand percent better, man."
Chris smiled and yawned at the same time. "Good, I'm glad. Look, I'm sorry I tried the parade of family cure."
Nick laughed. "Hey, Chris, don't apologize. You did it to help him, and if it had been me, it probably would have worked."
"But he's not really a mini-Nick, is he?"
"Well, not exactly. I mean…we have been on the boat every day since the house cleared out, and I think that helped. That would have helped me, too. But no, parade of family was not for him."
Chris didn't say anything, just sighed.
"Baby, you tried to fix my brother. I love you for trying, you know?"
"Yeah, well, I did it because I love you so much, so I guess we're even."
Nick laughed again. "I guess so. Look, I gotta go. Aaron's glaring at me 'cause I'm holding up our Charlie's Angels double feature. I love you, man."
"I love you, too. Have fun." Chris thumbed the
OFF button and went back to sleep.