It wasn’t as if Chris had been actively avoiding Backstreet’s new CD, it just wasn’t really on his radar. He was busy with other things, important things, his life was full and satisfying, and he didn’t need to seek out new pop music just to see how that scene was hanging these days. It wasn’t like the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were rivals anymore, either, because as JC said, NSYNC was high school and none of them were ever going back. Whatever music Backstreet chose to release out into the world was no longer any of Chris’s concern.
But eventually, inevitably, there came a day when the dulcet tones of Nick Carter over-emoting and managing to drown out everyone except AJ reached his ears. It was Joey’s fault, of course, as Chris had always known it would be.
“Dude, what the fuck are we listening to?” Chris yelled, ducking as Briahna did a cannonball off something that resembled a miniature version of an Aztec pyramid, at least Chris thought that was what it was supposed to be. She landed in the pool two inches from his head.
“Watch your language around my kid, asshole,” Joey yelled back, tossing another random child into the water, from what looked to be a replica of the Great Wall of China. Chris loved Joey’s pool.
Chris grabbed Briahna around the waist and held her high in the air. She squealed and kicked, narrowly missing his nose, and he shouted, “Tell me what this music is, or the kid gets it.” Bri kicked again, this time grazing his ear, and he decided the kid was gonna get it whether Joey spilled or not. He threw her as far as he could, which was about two feet, and she surfaced directly in front of him, spluttering and giggling.
“Do that again,” she demanded, launching herself at his chest, wrapping her arms and legs around him like the monkey she was. >
“Watch the package, kid,” Chris muttered under his breath as he pried her arms away from his neck. She kicked out away from him as he threw her again.
“It’s the new Backstreet CD,” Joey said, peering down at him curiously from high atop the cliffs of his chlorinated kingdom. “Haven’t you heard it yet?”
Chris shook his head, not meeting Joey’s eyes. “Nope. Why would I have?” He feigned nonchalance, which made Joey snicker mockingly. “Is it any good?”
Joey shrugged. “I like it alright. It’s got some good tunes on it. They sound good, yeah.”
Chris didn’t answer him, just dove under the water and swam over to the biggest waterfall, and on into the grotto. There were a couple of little girls playing in there, their voices echoing off the rock walls, drowning out the music. He stayed there until he heard the original cast version of The Lion King, which Joey cranked up so loud it scared the birds out of the trees, and then he poked his head out to see what Joey was cooking for dinner. He hoped there were ginsu knives involved.
But the damage was done, and Chris went hunting around online until he found a place where he could download Never Gone. There was no way he was actually walking into a store and paying for it.
Then he felt guilty, boyband solidarity and all that, so he bought it off iTunes.
He waited until his house was empty, which didn’t happen very often of its own accord, and he might have had to ask some people to leave, which earned him several indignant glares, but he just flapped his hands in a yeah, yeah, whatever kind of way and ignored Eric’s frown as he shut the door in his face.
He jammed headphones on his ears, just to be safe, in case someone came back because they forgot their car keys or their stash or their sunglasses or something. It was bad enough his friends knew he’d been in NSYNC, they’d never let him live it down if they caught him listening to the Backstreet Boys. He made a playlist, set it on shuffle and hit play.
The first few tracks were okay. Chris thought AJ sounded fabulous on Incomplete, but then AJ always sounded fabulous. After Kevin’s solo on Safest Place to Hide, when Nick belted out “oooooooohhhhhh!!!!!!!” with true Carter abandon, Chris laughed so hard he had to put his beer down and take a break to go piss.
He came back from the bathroom and considered ditching the whole thing, but then he figured since he’d paid for it, he might as well see it through to the end. As he listened to the rest of the album, he let himself remember some stuff. He didn’t want to be maudlin, but maybe it was time to sit down and think about what he wanted. He remembered Germany, and being in the hallway of a half-forgotten venue, where Lou had scheduled NSYNC and Backstreet to try and beat each other senseless at basketball as a way to demonstrate their lack of boyband competitiveness.
“What the fuck, Kirkpatrick? What the fuck‘s the matter with you?” Chris had looked in surprise at the pissed off teenager shoving his way into his personal space, and tried unsuccessfully not to smile.
Nick’s face darkened and his blue eyes flashed. Chris felt an unexpected jolt of heat in the pit of his stomach, and he abruptly stopped smiling, peering around to check that Kevin wasn’t lurking anywhere nearby. Nick’s blond hair flopped in this eyes and he impatiently tossed his head and shook it back.
“Leave my brother alone, asshole! He’s just a little kid!” Nick shouted. There was no way this, this child should be so hot when he was mad.
Chris swallowed on his suddenly dry throat. “Relax, Carter. We didn’t hurt him.” He shifted his gaze to Joey. Joey wasn’t the least bit hot, even when he was mad, which made him safe to look at, kind of boring even.
Nick got up in Chris’s face, spit flying as he yelled, “You can’t treat people like that. You need to show some respect!”
“Hey, at least Aaron has fun with us,” Chris shot back, starting to get annoyed, in addition to being intrigued. It wasn’t like they’d done the skinny little kid any permanent damage or anything.
“Yeah!” Aaron’s voice piped up from where he was hiding behind Joey’s legs.
“Fun?” Nick screeched. “You put him in a trash can! Then you tied him up with a fire extinguisher!” He whipped his head around as he heard his brother. “And you! What were you thinking, going off with these clowns!”
“We didn’t turn the fire extinguisher on,” Chris informed Nick virtuously. “JC wouldn’t let us,” he added sadly, hiding another smile.
“He’s nine years old!” Nick roared, obviously not listening. “What the hell is the matter with you people?”
“Jesus, Carter, relax. He’s fine.” Chris shook his head and turned to walk away, leaving Nick to fume behind him. It didn’t matter how hot Nick was, Chris was done being yelled at. He had better things to do. Aaron started to follow him.
“Aaron! Get back here!” Nick bellowed. Chris wondered if Nick was always this high-strung. If so, he felt kind of sorry for the rest of the Boys. They certainly had their hands full.
“Awww, Niiiick. Joey says he and Chris are gonna show me how to-”
“No!” Nick’s shout interrupted Aaron’s whine. “They’re not gonna show you anything!”
“Let’s go, Joe,” Chris said. “Later, AC,” he tossed back over his shoulder. He was surprised to see quite a crowd gathered in the hallway at this point, no doubt attracted by all the yelling Nick was doing.
“Later, CK,” Aaron said glumly.
“There’s not going to be any later!” Nick hollered, his face red.
Kevin threw a glare in Chris’s direction at the same time he grabbed Nick by the shoulders and manhandled him back towards Backstreet turf. Lance looked at Chris with betrayal in his eyes as he slunk off with them. Chris didn’t blame him. He was only glad he hadn’t been the one chosen to switch teams with AJ, and he wondered yet again what Lou had against poor little Lansten.
As the two groups went their separate ways, AJ sidled up to Chris and said, “Aaron needs a bit of fun,” in a deceptively friendly tone, studying his fingernails. Chris wasn’t deceived in the least, but he went along with it, nodding in agreement. “He’s stuck here with all these grownups, no one to really play with. But,” AJ went on, and it was kind of an ominous but, “Nick doesn’t need to have any more fun than he’s already had. Which is to say, almost none at all. If you get my drift,” he finished pleasantly enough, but Chris found himself vigorously nodding his head, even though at the same time he was thinking reeeaaallly. That was interesting.
“Yeah, I get it. Don’t worry. He’s a little too high-strung for me, anyway, not to mention barely past puberty.” He looked at AJ curiously as they entered the locker room. “Tell me, McLean, is he always that…excitable?”
AJ laughed, apparently reassured that his veiled threats had worked, and that Chris didn’t harbor any indecent designs on Carter. Chris didn’t feel the need to tell AJ that he wasn’t really interested in Nick that way, no matter how hot he thought Nick was, which he was also not going to tell AJ. Chris had enough high-maintenance teenage boys in his life, he really didn’t need another one. Nick might be hot when he was worked up about something, but then again, Chris hadn’t yet seen him when he wasn’t worked up about something. Maybe he wasn’t hot when he wasn’t pissed off, and then Chris would have to keep him pissed off all the time, which, while that was something he was perfectly capable of doing, sounded like it might be a lot of work, even for someone with Chris’s energy.
Besides, it was all moot anyway. The age difference between the two of them was an unbridgeable chasm, and he wasn’t stupid enough to go there, and he thought he might be insulted that random, unnecessarily protective members of the Backstreet Boys wouldn’t know that.
It didn’t improve his temper that AJ sucked mightily at basketball and NSYNC lost.
“Hey.” It was after the game, and the party was in full swing. Chris was busy giving Lance a hard time about the fact that Backstreet had won, in spite of Lance’s non-existent basketball skills.
Chris turned, a beer in his hand, to find himself face-to-face with Nick. He smirked. “Carter.”
“Is it true? Is it true what you said before?” Nick looked like he was trying to appear seductive, but mostly he looked like he was terrified at his own boldness. It was an oddly endearing expression.
Chris cocked his head and smiled in a friendly way. “Is what true? I said a lot of things before.”
“Are you guys more fun? Aaron says you are.” Nick seemed a bit wistful, and for a second, Chris was tempted. Then he considered how he would react if Kevin all of a sudden started to encourage Justin, and he shook his head regretfully, his eyes gently mocking Nick. “Nope. Not at all, Carter. We’re no fun at all.”
Nick dropped his eyes and nodded. “Okay. Um, good luck and stuff.”
Chris had watched him slouch away with a pang. Joey clapped him on the shoulder, and said in his ear, “It’s for the best, man. That’s trouble, right there, that is.”
Chris had jumped about a foot. “Jesus, Joey, don’t sneak up on me like that.”
Chris sighed as he listened to the harmonies in I Still. Not bad. Joey had been right, which wasn’t something that happened very often, at least not that Chris was willing to admit. His and Nick’s relationship hadn’t been an easy one. It had maybe been too much to expect that it would be. They’d had an awful lot of strikes against them, what with being in rival boybands who had to preserve an image of available heterosexuality and all.
The next song on the CD started. Wait, Siberia? My heart did time in SIBERIA? Who the fuck wrote this stuff? Chris could instantly visualize fake snow drifting down onto the stage while they sang, sparkling in the lights, landing softly in Nick’s hair. He instinctively knew just how it would look. He sighed. He’d been a popstar for too long, it was apparently permanently embedded in his genetic material for all time.
It had been sweet that Nick had tried to look out for Aaron, but it had been unnecessary, and Nick’s anger had been out of proportion to the situation, Chris knew that now. Aaron had been a skinny little thing, and had gotten bored hanging around Backstreet. Chris couldn’t say as he blamed him. NSYNC was way more fun, at least in those days. AC had particularly liked hanging out with Joey, because Joey was big enough to toss Aaron around like a sack of potatoes.
That is, he liked hanging out with NSYNC unless his mother was around. Then no one seemed to have any fun, not even Chris and his guys. Jane Carter’s very presence was like a stormy black cloud, albeit one with a sweetly fake smile and eyes that were coldly calculating, especially when they contemplated her eldest son.
Chris sighed, not wanting to remember that part.
Another venue, another German music festival. Sometimes Chris wondered if Lou thought they were the von Trapp Family Singers or something. Backstreet was headlining, of course, with NSYNC just another group on the list of supporting acts. But it seemed to Chris that lately, Johnny had been giving NSYNC almost as much attention as he was giving Backstreet, which was obviously pissing them off, Kevin in particular. He had totally snubbed Justin yesterday, which had Justin rethinking his ill-advised crush.
Chris envied Kevin that.
“Chris! Hey, man, good to see you!” Nick came bounding up to him, all clumsy and golden, like a Labrador puppy. Chris was relieved to see that he wasn’t slobbering.
“Hey, Nick. Where’s your posse?”
Nick laughed uproariously, like Chris was the funniest guy he’d ever met. Chris looked around for some support. “They’re eating lunch. But I was done, and I saw that you guys were here, so I thought I’d come say hello. So, how ya doin’? Another concert, yeah? This is so cool.”
Jesus, the kid was enthusiastic. His lips were a nice shade of red, too, and he paused briefly in his chatter and licked them quickly, his tongue flashing out over his lower lip, and then he grinned at Chris. “So, wanna shoot some hoops? We’ve got a few hours before the show.” The expression on his face implied that if Chris was mean enough to say no, it would destroy Nick’s faith in humanity forever, and that Nick would never recover from the blow. Also, that playing basketball with Chris would be the coolest thing Nick had ever done in his whole life.
It was all much too impossible to resist. Chris wondered how Kevin did it.
Chris shouldered Nick out of the way and shot a lay-up, missing and coming down on Nick’s foot. The kid wasn’t easy to push around, he was more solid than he looked, and Chris thought that some day he’d grow into his feet and his smile and then he’d really be something. But Chris was trying not to think about that right now. Right now, he just wanted to beat him at basketball. Really.
Nick had his arm wrapped around Chris’s neck in retaliation for the foot stomp, pulling Chris back into his chest, laughing in his ear, his breath coming fast and warm on Chris’s cheek. Chris elbowed him solidly in the ribs and Nick laughed again before letting go. They stood there,
both of them bent over with their hands on their knees, catching their breaths, grinning at each other, and then Chris saw Nick go pale, looking stricken. He stared over Chris’s shoulder at the door to the backstage area where they were playing.
Chris straightened up and turned around, having no idea what could possibly account for the tense expression on Nick’s face.
Nick’s mom stood in the doorway, and her eyes were glacial. She fastened them on Chris, and he could practically feel the chill creep up his spine. “Nick. You’re late for soundcheck.” She didn’t even look at her son when she spoke.
Nick flushed. “Sorry,” he mumbled, looking at the floor. Then he gazed dumbly around, holding the basketball helplessly in his too-big hands, and Chris took it from him gently.
“I’ll guess that means it’ll be our turn next,” Chris said with a friendly smile, trying to dispel some of the tension. It didn’t work. Mrs. Carter just transferred her gaze from Chris to Nick, and Nick ducked his head again. “Later, Carter,” Chris said quietly as Nick moved slowly toward the door.
Mrs. Carter started hissing in Nick’s ear the minute he got close to her, as she grabbed his arm and steered him out the door.
Chris stared after Nick and his mother. What the fuck was that about? He needed to find JC.
JC was eating, of course. When wasn’t JC eating? Chris stalked up to him, pulled the sandwich out of his hand and dragged him away from the craft services table. Chris was almost sidetracked by a huge plate of chocolate cookies, but he shook himself sternly and concentrated on his mission—getting information out of JC.
He ignored Howie, who stood there looking extremely confused, staring at Chris in mid-chew.
“Chris! What the hell?” JC squawked indignantly as Chris propelled him out into the busy corridor. “I was eating that!”
“What the fuck is up with Nick’s mother?” Chris demanded over JC’s protests. JC trailed off, peering furtively up and down the hallway. It was full of people bustling around in the usual pre-concert frenzy, but after a moment JC seemed satisfied there was no one too dangerous out there. Chris shook his arm impatiently. “What?”
“Okay, I’m not saying how I know this-” Chris rolled his eyes and JC hastily said, “Okay, okay, Howie’s been talking to me. Bitching, really. I guess no one likes it when Nick’s mom is around. I guess she’s um, not very nice, at least not to Nick. And then Nick acts all weird, but no one wants to tell her to stay the hell away. I mean, she is his mom.” He stopped and thought for a minute. “Howie said something about it being worse when Aaron’s not around. Like, she holds Aaron over Nick’s head, or something, like a weapon, or whatever.” He picked up Chris’s hand and removed it pointedly from his arm. “And that’s all I know. Can I get back to my sandwich now?”
“Yeah, sure, thanks, give Howie a kiss for me,” Chris answered absently, digesting this information. JC blushed, which, SCORE. It was one of Chris’s goals, to make JC blush at least once a day. It was almost too easy when Howie was around.
And then it was NSYNC’s turn for soundcheck, and Chris stopped thinking about anything but singing.
There was a big party after the festival, because there always was at these things, with lots of beer, lots of girls, but no Nick. Chris caught JC’s eye over top of Howie’s head—not a hard thing to manage--and JC shrugged.
Justin was trailing around behind Kevin like some sort of duckling imprinting on its mother. If Chris didn’t know that the attraction was completely physical, and mostly based on height, instead of any real coolness factor, he might have felt a slight twinge of jealousy. As it was, he kind of wanted to go up to Justin, thwap him on the back of the head and tell him to stop acting like a love-sick dork.
He didn’t though, because he suspected that he was mostly feeling a bit let down that his own love-sick duckling wasn’t there to follow him around. He sighed. JC and Howie were nowhere in sight, and if he just happened to be curious about Nick’s whereabouts, he was going to have to approach another actual Backstreet Boy on his own. He immediately ruled out AJ. They’d already had that conversation, and skinny motherfucker though he was, AJ kind of scared Chris. At the very least, he could talk him to death.
Kevin was determinedly ignoring Justin, which Chris wanted to encourage, so he figured it was better not to call Kevin’s attention to any member of NSYNC right then. That left Brian, who was at present talking earnestly to Johnny over by the food.
Chris worked his way slowly towards them, giving them time for what Chris was sure was a lot of reassurance on Johnny’s part that of course the Backstreet Boys were still his number one priority. When Brian appeared to relax a little, Chris sidled up to the food table and grabbed a piece of cheese. He stuffed it into his mouth and said around it, “Hey.”
“Hey,” Brian responded with a tight smile. Johnny seemed pleased that they were being civil to each other, and he patted them both on the shoulder and nodded encouragingly.
“Um.” Suddenly Chris had no idea what to say. Where’s Nick? seemed a little too direct, and what’s the story with Nick’s psychobitch mom? seemed a bit over the top. “Um.” He looked around at all the partiers and finally just blurted out, “I don’t see Nick anywhere. Is he all right?” Johnny and Brian were both staring at him. “It’s just, well, we were playing basketball earlier, and um, his mom-” he broke off as Brian scowled and Johnny looked away. “What?”
Johnny didn’t say anything, which left Brian to explain, somewhat unnecessarily, “Nick’s mom is visiting the tour.”
“Yeah, I got that part. But-”
“Just leave it alone, man, okay?” Brian frowned. “Don’t—it’ll just make it worse, especially if she thinks-” Brian pressed his lips together in a thin line. “Just don’t, that’s all.”
Brian held Chris’s gaze for a moment, while Johnny cleared his throat nervously. Finally Chris nodded and Brian visibly relaxed. Chris wasn’t going to ask any more questions, but he had every intention of pumping JC for any more information Howie may have let slip. Not that Chris thought those two did much actual talking when they were alone.
Later, much later, Chris was almost asleep when he heard a soft tapping on his hotel room door. Joey let out an extra-loud snore and turned over in his bed, but didn’t wake up. The knocking came again and Chris glared in Joey’s direction. Joey could sleep through anything, especially if it meant someone else had to get up and answer the door.
He should probably ignore it—opening hotel room doors in the middle of the night wasn’t something he wanted to have to explain if it all went wrong. But whoever it was was damned persistent, so Chris clambered out of bed and cracked the door open an inch or two. He found himself face to face with Nick, whose eyes were wide and scared, but who had a determined set to his chin. He threw a quick glance up and down the hallway, where everything was quiet and peaceful.
Nick didn’t seem to know what to say, now that Chris had the door open, and Chris really had no idea what he was doing there. Taking pity on him, Chris said, “Hey, Nick.” Nick swallowed. Chris decided to just go ahead and say what he’d been thinking earlier. “I missed you at the party tonight.”
Nick blushed and stared at the floor, a small smile playing around his mouth. Before Chris could say anything else, Nick darted forward and kissed him, right on the lips. It was a soft, hesitant kiss and Chris kissed him back just as softly, then gently pushed him away. He grinned and was relieved to see an answering smile in Nick’s eyes.
“Call me when you’re just a little bit older, Carter. You know, like, legal and shit,” Chris said.
Nick looked disappointed for a minute, but then he brightened. “That’s gonna happen sooner than you think, Chris. You’d better be ready for me, dude.” Then he smiled his sunny smile and moved away. Halfway down the hall, a door opened quietly, and Chris caught a quick glimpse of Brian beckoning to Nick and yanking on his arm, before Nick disappeared inside and the door closed behind him.
Chris slipped back into his own room, making sure the door was locked before getting back into bed. He settled on his side, pillow smushed under his cheek, and closed his eyes, smiling. There was a muffled chuckle from the other bed.
“Shut up, Joey.”
Nick finally caught him sometime in 1998. There was a benefit concert in Orlando for something, a tornado or hurricane, some kind of force of nature. Nick was a different kind of force of nature, completely irresistible when he decided he wanted something.
And for some reason, he wanted Chris.
“I’m eighteen. I’m legal. What other lame arguments do you have?” Nick had him pinned up against a wall in the bathroom, against the door, actually, so no one else could come in. Maybe he did this kind of thing often, because he was damn good at it. He was tan and his nose was sun burnt, and his eyes danced with laughter. Florida obviously agreed with him.
“My arguments are never lame.” Chris said loftily. “I suppose the whole what if it gets out, what if Johnny discovers us, what if Kevin kills me thing isn’t going to impress you?” Chris tightened his hold on Nick’s upper arms and smiled.
Nick shook his head. “Nope.” He leaned forward and kissed Chris, and it wasn’t tentative and gentle like the time in Germany. It was confident and he meant it, and Chris kissed him back like it was something he’d been waiting to do for a long time.
Nick pressed against him, hard and eager, and Chris pushed him back and shook his head. “Not here. Later, okay? We live in this town, Nicky. We can find someplace better to do this than a public bathroom.”
Nick groaned, but let him go. “Okay, okay.” He swiped a hand across his mouth, which only made his lips look redder. Chris closed his eyes and hung onto his self-control with both hands.
“Come on, we’d better get out of here before we get in trouble.” He gave Nick a shove away from the door so they could open it. Joey and AJ were outside in the hallway, and they both smirked as Nick and Chris emerged from the bathroom.
“Shut it, Joey,” Chris said menacingly. Joey just laughed.
They tumbled onto the bed, tugging at each others’ clothes, trying to get their shirts off without breaking their kiss, trying to get their pants off without letting go. They weren’t completely successful, and Nick ended up fucking Chris with his pants half on, and Chris still had one arm through the sleeve of his shirt, but really, it didn’t matter at all. It had totally been worth the wait, Chris decided.
Once Chris finally gave in, once he’d allowed as how their age difference wasn’t so perverted when Nick had turned eighteen, he’d given in completely. Whatever Nick wanted, Chris couldn’t say no. Nick truly was a force of nature, one that Chris was apparently incapable of denying. It was something that provided the guys with hours of entertainment, watching Chris try to say no, listening to him on the phone, making convoluted and impossible travel arrangements, trying to come up with reasons that Johnny would accept about where he was going and why.
“Dude, why don’t you just tell Johnny?” Joey asked him, as if Joey didn’t have his own secrets to keep. But Lou had trained them well, and they all knew how to keep secrets, even secrets that did more damage when no one knew about them.
Secrets like AJ.
They’d barely gotten on the bus when Chris’s phone rang. He checked to see who it was, making sure it was Nick before he answered it. He was too tired to talk to anyone else.
“Hey, Nicky.” Chris moved to the back of the bus, where it was relatively quiet. He could still hear JC and Justin arguing about something. They’d been at it all night, but Chris had been too tired to pay them much attention, letting the rise and fall of their voices wash over him. Whatever it was about, they’d stop soon enough without any input from him.
“Hey, Chris. Are you on the bus? I didn’t call too early, did I?” Nick sounded agitated. Now what, thought Chris, and then he felt bad and immediately tried to unthink it.
“No, you’re fine. You timed it just right.” Chris paused. Sometimes the way you approached Nick made all the difference in the world. Chris decided to try simple and cheerful. “What’s up, man?”
“Nothing. I just—we’re in New York, you know, TRL and stuff, and we went out and, it’s just, you know, AJ got really drunk, and he said some shit, and it was pretty nasty, and I don’t know why he has to fucking do that, and now Kevin’s all mad and Howie’s all hurt and he just pisses me off so fucking much.” Nick paused to take a breath, and Chris took advantage of the momentary lull.
“Who’s Kevin mad at?” he asked carefully, having read between the lines of Nick’s diatribe with the ease of long practice.
“AJ! Why, who else would he be mad at?” Nick sounded defensive, and Chris knew he’d guessed right.
Chris made his voice gentle when he said, “What did you do, Nicky?”
Silence. Finally, a sigh. “I didn’t mean to. And I didn’t really hit him, I don’t care what Kevin says, it was just a shove, just a little push. And he totally deserved it, he’s such a fucking asshole when he drinks,” Nick finished defiantly.
“I know he is, Nicky. But you can’t-” Chris stopped. Nick didn’t need a lecture from him. He was sure Kevin had covered all the relevant points of how wrong it was to touch people in anger. It wasn’t something Nick hadn’t already heard before, anyway.
“I miss you,” Nick said miserably. “We have to figure something out soon. I need to see you.”
Chris certainly never expected to end up in a relationship where he was the mature one, and it surprised him every time he came up against the reality of just how young Nick was. “I know. I’m working on it. What are you guys doing after New York and TRL?”
“How the fuck should I know? No one ever tells me anything,” Nick snapped. God, could the kid be any moodier? He was like Justin times ten.
“Nick,” Chris said patiently, biting his tongue to keep from yelling. “We can’t make plans if you don’t know where you’re going to be. Work with me here, okay?”
“What, now you’re going to sulk? None of this is my fault, and if all you called for was someone to bitch at, nice try, but go find someone else.” That was it, the end of Chris’s patience. He was too tired for this, and if he wanted to listen to people bitch, he could go up front with Justin and JC. At least whatever they were arguing about could conceivably be Chris’s fault.
“I’m sorry.” Nick’s voice was subdued. “I know it’s not your fault. And I didn’t call to yell at you. I called so you could make me feel better.” Now he sounded like he was all of twelve years old, and Chris felt like a crabby old man.
Chris wondered how long it was going to be before things with AJ completely fell apart. There wasn’t a thing he could do about it, though, except try to cheer Nick up. He imagined that would make life easier for everyone all around. Kevin might even want to send him a fruit basket.
Chris squared his shoulders and headed toward his bunk. He knew what he had to do. “Nicky, where are you right now?”
“In my room, why?”
“Are you alone?”
“Yeah.” Chris could practically hear the smile.
“So tell me what you’re wearing.”
It was pure luck that Chris caught Entertainment Tonight when they showed Nick surprising Aaron on stage. It just so happened that he had a nasty cold, and he was parked in front of the television with a cup of tea, liberally laced with whiskey. He’d left out the lemon and honey part of his grandmother’s cure-all recipe, so he figured he was justified in doubling the amount of booze he poured in it.
The clip was a surprise, because he hadn’t talked to Nick in at least a week, and he didn’t know that Jane had finally given in. Nick and Aaron’s tears alone were enough to make Chris forget his cold, but when he saw Nick’s bleak face, standing there on camera next to his mother, while she talked about going on a fucking family vacation, he got so mad he threw the cup of tea across the room.
He found his phone and tried to think where Nick was right now. It was getting harder and harder for them to keep up with each other’s schedules. Finally, he just hit Nick’s number and hoped he was somewhere he could answer.
Apparently not, and so Chris left a voicemail. Your mother is a fucking bitch didn’t seem like a helpful message to leave, so he contented himself with “Hey, Nicky. I saw ET tonight. AC looks good. I’m glad you got to see him. Call me when you have a chance.”
It was late, long after Chris’s second attempt at his grandma’s tea had knocked him out cold, when his phone rang. “I hate her,” Nick said in a small voice.
“I know, Nicky,” Chris told him. “It’s okay. You’re allowed. Did you hug Aaron for me?” And Chris lay quietly in bed in the middle of the night and listened to Nick talk about spending time with his little brother.
Chris loved Nick’s boat. He loved the way Nick was when he was on his boat. They didn’t often get an opportunity to take it out, what with having to keep the fact that they were seeing each other a secret from practically everyone they knew. Sometimes, Nick had trouble doing that. It was just one more part of his life that other people controlled, one more thing that made him angry.
More than once, Chris thought about giving up, just letting him go, if only to make his life less complicated, but then they’d actually spend some time together, and that idea would go right out the window. When he was actually with Nick, he remembered why he wanted to be.
Joey and Howie knew they had taken the boat out, because someone had to, but that was it. There were days when Chris reveled in the lies he told in order to be with Nick. It made him feel as if he were somehow winning a battle that he he’d never anticipated fighting.
The sunshine bounced off the sparkling blue water of the Gulf of Mexico, reflecting in Nick’s eyes as he laughed at Chris. As always when he was in Florida, he looked terrific. Chris felt pale and worn-down next to him.
He smiled back though, because he couldn’t help it, Nick’s smile was too infectious to resist.
“I know this place where we can drop anchor, it’s got a great beach, and no one else ever comes there,” Nick said. “It’s fucking fantastic.” He smiled happily as he maneuvered the boat away from the dock.
It was gorgeous out on the water, and Nick was gorgeous in the sun. He handled the boat like a pro, which Chris found really hot. He loved to watch people do things they were good at, and Nick was damn good at this. Chris thought Nick was happiest when he was on his boat.
The cove where they spent the afternoon was all that Nick said it would be. They didn’t see a single other boat the whole time they were there. Chris was still nervous about fucking on deck out in the open, but Nick insisted.
“Come on, Chris.” He waved his hand to indicate the beautiful day. “I don’t want to miss any of this.” Nick pulled Chris’s shirt up over his head.
“My ass’ll get sunburned,” Chris said, taking one last look around at the empty horizon to make sure they were alone.
“If it does, I’ll rub aloe on it, I promise,” Nick laughed. His hands were everywhere, taking away Chris’s ability to think. The sun beat down, warming Nick’s shoulders, and Chris’s fingers skimmed over them, feeling their heat. He pushed, just a little, just enough, and Nick was on his knees, moving Chris’s shorts out of the way.
Chris closed his eyes, feeling light-headed from both the midday heat and Nick’s mouth. He guided Nick back, then spread him out on a towel on the deck, and fucked him in the hot Florida sunshine.
Chris’s eyes skimmed the room again. He’d been doing that since they’d arrived, Lance quietly sympathetic at his side. He had no idea what to expect. It had been a month since AJ had gone into rehab, and he hadn’t seen Nick in all that time. The Teen Choice Awards were the first time they’d been anywhere near the same city since it had happened.
Chris didn’t hesitate when he saw Nick’s head above the crowd, he just banged right up to him and grabbed him in a fierce hug. Nick clung to him for an instant, then pulled back, smiling tiredly as he turned to greet Lance.
That was the last real smile Chris saw from Nick that night. The fake grin he showed people for the rest of the evening hurt Chris to look at. For just a second, Chris hated AJ for being the one to put that look on Nick’s face. And he knew Nick would never forgive him for even thinking that, so he smiled at Nicky and kept his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself for once.
He almost missed it when Nick left the party. If he hadn’t been looking futilely for Lance, who seemed to have mysteriously disappeared, he never would have noticed Nick bouncing impatiently on the balls of his feet by the entrance, peering outside every two seconds and glaring at his watch.
Chris got himself over to the door in a hurry, leaving Lance to his own devices. “Hey, Carter,” he said, “Were you going to just leave, without a goodbye kiss, or anything?” he asked, trying to keep his voice light, not looking for a confrontation.
“I’m not very good company tonight,” Nick said, frowning at Chris. “I’m just gonna go.” He indicated the black-windowed SUV that had just pulled up to the curb. He pushed open the door and headed out into the night air. Chris stood there indecisively for a moment, then propelled himself after Nick, who was climbing into the back of the SUV. Chris grabbed the door handle of the car as Nick reached to shut it behind him.
“Nice try, Carter.” Chris shook his head. “You’re losing your touch. You used to be able to give me the slip a lot better than that.” He hopped into the backseat next to Nick, shut the door and said, “So. Where’re we goin’?”
Nick looked at him with amusement, momentarily diverted from his bad mood. “I never tried to give you the slip. I think you have us mixed up, dude. You were always the one running away from me.” The car glided away from the curb and slipped into the late-night traffic.
“No way, man. Hey, remember that time in Orlando, when you guys didn’t know we were in town, and there you were, at the Hard Rock, acting like you owned the place, and then we came in, and all the girls were like, finally, the cool band is here and Kevin was all let’s go and Howie said no and you tried to hide behind Brian so I couldn’t see you and AJ was really dru-” Chris wondered how it was that sometimes his mouth could get so far ahead of his brain. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Nicky. Damn.”
Nick didn’t say anything for a moment, he just shrugged. “It’s true. AJ was really drunk that night. And a lot of other nights,” he said flatly. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. And I hope he’s okay.” Wow, could that sound any more lame? Nick slumped down in his seat, staring out the window. “So, where are we going?”
Nick turned his head and just looked at Chris. Chris nodded.
If Chris thought sex would somehow make Nick feel better, he was wrong. He’d let Nick pin him down, let him run his big hands over him, holding him where he wanted him, holding him open, and Nick had fucked him grimly, without a word.
There was something very wrong with that. One of the things Chris liked best about their relationship was that they almost never had sex without laughing, and this was just wrong.
Nick rolled off Chris and lay still, his arm flung over his eyes. Chris pulled himself up on wobbly elbows, watching Nick and trying to catch his breath. “Hey,” he said hoarsely. It didn’t take much time with Nick for Chris’s voice to be trashed, something Justin often took great pleasure in teasing him about.
No answer. Chris reached out and gently tugged Nick’s arm away from his face. Nick resisted for a moment, then gave in, letting his arm fall down at his side. Chris kept his hand firmly on Nick’s arm, and rolled onto his side, scooting closer. Nick sighed deeply. Chris started kissing the tattoo on his shoulder. Nick sighed again, then said, “Fuck.”
Chris looked up from Nick’s warm skin and nodded sagely. “Yep. We just did.”
“No, not-” Nick broke off and suddenly he was up off the bed, waving his arms around and ranting about ten different things at once, his mom, Kevin’s apparent belief that he was God, Howie’s hair, everything except the thing he was really upset about. Chris waited patiently, something he normally was shit at, and eventually Nick ran out of things to bitch about. He looked sadly at Chris and said, “They want me to go see him. I can’t. I’m still too mad at him.”
Chris nodded. There was nothing helpful to say to that, so he actually managed to keep his mouth shut. He held out his hand and Nick looked like he might get stubborn for a minute, but then he took it and let Chris pull him back to bed.
“Give it time,” Chris whispered after a while, as he felt Nick relax sleepily against his back. “Give yourself time.”
Chris knew he’d made a mistake, letting Nick go a whole month after AJ went to rehab before seeking him out. For the next few months, Chris dogged Nick’s every move, at least as much as he could when he was able to finagle them being in the same zip code at the same time. The VMAs in September and the United We Stand concert in October were very helpful in that regard. AJ seemed okay, although Nick worried about going back out on tour. They didn’t have much choice, they were pretty much locked in, contractually, according to what Nick said.
Nick was partying hard, even when Chris was with him. He was reckless and angry, drinking too much, saying things, picking fights about stupid shit.
He was also great fun, exuberant and the life of the party, inviting people to his home, his hotel, his boat, wherever.
Chris was exhausted. When Jane started calling Nick, telling him he had to spend Christmas at home with his family, Nick’s partying got even more frenetic.
Chris’s mom didn’t think much of Jane Carter, to say the least. “Get him here for Christmas, Christopher. I don’t care what you have to do. Don’t make him have to spend the holidays with That Woman.”
It was obvious to Chris that Jane was really doing a number on Nick. It was also obvious that trading in the dysfunction of the Carter family for the dysfunction of the Eustace/Kirkpatrick clan was what he really wanted to do. He just needed some persuading.
“Don’t make me have to pull out the big guns, Nick,” Chris said, swiping his tongue up the underside of Nick’s dick, swirling it around the tip once, and then swallowing him down, pinning his hips to the bed and sucking relentlessly until Nick came, writhing beneath him.
“If that’s the little gun,” he panted, “then I wanna see the big one.”
Chris leered at him and slid a condom over his own cock, rolling Nick carelessly onto his belly and saying, “Here’s the big gun right here, baby.”
Nick giggled helplessly while Chris fucked him into cooperating with his holiday plans.
Chris’s family was extra loud at Christmas, but in a benign way that made Nick smile like sunshine. Bev was the calm center of the tinsel-filled storm, and she treated Nick with a matter-of-fact acceptance that left him looking pretty mellow by the time he and Chris had to get back to their respective craziness. Chris found himself looking forward to MTV’s Rock ‘n Jock basketball game with so much excitement that even Justin noticed.
“It’s a basketball game, you ass, of course I’m excited.”
“Keep telling yourself that, dude.” And Justin snickered and hung up, probably so he could go back to hanging out with Nelly, the big hypocrite.
Chris had the time of his life that weekend. The game itself was terrific, made even better by the fact that he and Nick were on opposite teams. That made for a lot of full body contact and Chris made sure to commit lots of egregious fouls on Nick’s person. Nick just grinned and committed them right back, draped over Chris’s back, sweaty and breathless with laughter.
The afterparty was something else, and Chris had such a good time that he didn’t remember parts of it. Especially the part where he and Nick apparently didn’t go to bed alone.
Chris woke up because someone was snoring in his ear, while at the same someone was nuzzling at his groin. He had no idea where he was, and he didn’t think he wanted to open his eyes and find out. He was sure there was daylight waiting to blind him, to stab at his head and make the pounding worse. His tongue seemed to be stuck to the roof of his mouth, and his stomach rumbled ominously. He couldn’t believe he was about to think this, but he really wasn’t sure he was in any condition for a blow job. He was impressed that Nick was being so thoughtful, though, and tried to smile appreciatively without actually moving any of the muscles in his face.
Except, wait. If Nick was down there under the covers, who was snoring in his ear? It was an awfully familiar snore, and surely Nick’s head couldn’t be in two places at once? And surely Chris couldn’t still be that drunk.
Christ, how much had he had to drink, anyway? Those last couple of shots probably hadn’t been a good idea. They never were, in Chris’s experience.
He didn’t have a choice, he was going to have to open his eyes. The snoring had changed to snuffling, and a heavy head shifted on his shoulder. Whoever had his dick in their mouth was doing a very good job. He hated to interrupt, but he really wanted to know who it was, if only so he could thank them.
Umm, that was nice. They had a light touch, and it felt vaguely feminine. Chris was beginning to remember long blonde hair and a short black leather skirt, and breasts spilling out of a silver halter top.
The snuffling in his ear changed to licking, and when a warm tongue flicked around the shell of his ear and a hot mouth engulfed his dick completely, he drew in a sharp breath and came, shuddering.
Soft kisses on his neck, and then Nick laughed as a blonde head emerged from under the covers and smiled smugly at him. “Um,” he said.
The blonde slipped from the bed and stood up, and okay, wow, she was tall. Tall and slender, with large breasts, and she threw a bright smile over her shoulder as she walked naked to the bathroom. Chris waited until the door closed behind her, then he hissed at Nick, “Okay, who the fuck is that?”
Nick laughed again. “You don’t remember? I think her name is Jody. She was at the party last night.”
“And why is she here? Not that I’m really complaining, or anything.” Chris looked blearily around the hotel room. “And where are we, anyway? Your room or mine? I can’t tell.”
Nick shrugged. “Mine, I think. She just kind of ended up here. You really don’t mind?” He looked uncertain for a minute.
“Nah. It’s cool. As long as she’s cool, you know. About keeping her mouth shut.”
Nick nodded. “She’s cool.”
Jody was indeed cool. She chattered a lot, and of course she was an aspiring singer, and she didn’t seem to care who did what to whom while they were fucking. During the next month, leading up to the start of the Celebrity tour, Chris had ample opportunity to discover just how cool she was.
“Is there a reason she’s always here?” Chris demanded irritably. He could maybe manage to see Nick one more time before they left for Portland, if he told at least seven lies and skipped one group meeting, which JC would bitch about until they got to LA, if not longer. He really didn’t know why Jody had to be with them every fucking time they got together. She was beginning to get on Chris’s nerves, he didn’t care how good she was with her mouth.
Not to mention, why was there suddenly a third person in this relationship? Because no matter how sporadic it was, it was a relationship, the longest-lasting one Chris had ever had.
Nick looked startled, as if it had never occurred to him that Chris might mind. “Did you not want her here?”
Chris shook his head. “Not really, no. She’s a nice enough girl,” for a starfucker, he thought, but was smart enough not to say, ”but I’d rather spend some time with you alone before we head out on tour.” It was possible he was being a little unreasonable, but he wasn’t in the mood for threesomes and sex games, or whatever. Things were kind of weird with NSYNC right now. None of them was really up for another tour, and there was weird shit going on in both Lance and Justin’s heads. Chris was tired before they even got started.
Nick shrugged like it didn’t matter to him one way or another. “I’ll tell her to get lost.”
And that was that.
Chris didn’t miss Nick as much as he thought he would once the tour started, at least not at first. Nick was in the studio, working on his solo album. About once a week, Chris would think, oh, right, Nick and give him a call.
“Oh, hey, Chris,” Nick would say, in a surprised voice, like he, too, had just remembered Chris’s existence.
They found they didn’t have much to say to each other any more, for some reason. Nick was busy and Chris was exhausted. Hi, how’s it going? became the mainstay of their conversations. Chris wanted the old Nicky, the boy who had laughingly chased him all over Germany, but that boy was getting harder and harder to find.
The guys didn’t notice anything, because Chris was still on his phone a lot. They all were, they were all trying to find somewhere to be, something to do, when the hiatus started.
Then Busta died, his grandmother died, and FuMan went under.
And Chris stared at his phone a lot, and it was so tempting. He knew Nick’s laugh would make him feel better, there was nothing better in the world than being with Nick when he was happy, watching him throw his head back and laugh, all golden and bright.
But he didn’t trust Nick anymore not to make things worse.
When NSYNC’s hiatus started, Chris took a nap. A long nap, one that covered several months and took him forever to wake up from. He’d thought it would leave him feeling refreshed, but that was the thing about naps. They were risky critters, sometimes leaving you feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world, but other times making you groggy and stumbling around in your own life, barely able to keep your eyes open.
Naps were a crapshoot and Chris lost this one.
When he finally woke up completely, Nick was on tour, promoting his solo album.
And although some people tried to make it a competition, it never really had been. There was no way Now or Never was ever going to sell like Justified, and Nick’s “tour” was a handful of small clubs. The kind of thing Justin ended up doing for fun after his sold-out arena shows. Justin was really busy.
So Chris called to see if Nick wanted company. He wasn’t doing anything else, maybe he could go hang out with Nick.
Nick seemed happy to hear from him, and Chris wondered how long it had been. He couldn’t remember the last time they’d gotten together. He shook his head to clear the last of the cobwebs out. “I want to see you, Nicky.”
“Sure, okay. Come on out.”
Chris didn’t know what to expect, but Nick was having a blast. He was free for the first time in his life. He didn’t have to answer to anyone. Jane had washed her hands of him, the rest of the Boys were preoccupied with their own shit, to one extent or another, and Jive had no expectations of the album, so numbers weren’t hanging over Nick’s head.
Chris didn’t do the whole tour with Nick, but he joined him often enough. It was almost like being with the old Nick, although Chris was smart enough to have figured out by now that the “old Nick” hadn’t been quite as carefree as he had seemed on the surface.
But then again, neither had the old Chris.
Then Nick’s parents got divorced, Aaron sued his mom, and several Carters ended up in jail, although Chris was never quite clear on which ones.
2003 was turning out to be one hell of a year, almost as bad as 2002. And Nick got inexorably darker and it got harder to make him laugh, and one day, inevitably, the storm broke.
They were in LA for some business reason of Nick’s that Chris totally didn’t give two shits about. When he walked into the club and saw a girl with long blonde hair and large, overflowing breasts sitting on top of Nick, he almost turned around and walked back out again.
He should have, and he should have just kept walking.
“Hi, Jody. Been a while. How ya doing?” Chris kept it polite, although he was pissed. He didn’t care if Nick wanted to drag ten people into their bed. It wasn’t that kind of a relationship anymore, the kind where either one of them really cared who the other one fucked. He just didn’t like Jody, and Nick knew it.
Chris went along with it for a night, then another one. And that was enough. “Nick. Explain to me again why she’s here.”
Nick bristled at Chris’s tone. The pugnacious set to his jaw wasn’t a good sign. It was an expression Chris had been seeing a lot of lately, and he was seriously getting tired of it. He didn’t care how fucked up things were with Backstreet, or AJ, or Aaron, or Jane, or whatever the hell it was this week. He had shit of his own, and he was tired of dealing with Nick’s.
“I want her here,” Nick stated flatly. “She’s fun.”
“Sure she is. I just thought it would be nice if once in a while, we could manage to fuck without her. Or did you forget how? You know, with just two people.” Chris heard the bitter sarcasm in his own voice, and it made him wince. But his life wasn’t so goddamn perfect right this minute, either. And maybe he did care who Nick fucked.
“Fuck you. It’s not just about fucking.” Nick’s face was red.
“What, she’s not, or you and me aren’t?” Chris stood up and looked around for his pants. He didn’t see them anywhere, but he did see his shirt on the floor, so he walked over and picked it up, pulling it on over his head.
“She’s not.” Nick got up, too, shoving back the sheets angrily. “I mean, she’s interested in the business, in maybe breaking in, getting someone to listen to her songs-”
“Jesus, Nick, how stupid are you?” Chris spied his pants over in the corner, under Jody’s skirt and panties. “And does that mean that you and I are only all about fucking?” He started across the room, but Nick caught his arm.
“I’m not stupid, asshole. And no, of course we’re not.” Nick’s fingers were tight around Chris’s wrist, and Chris tried to pull his arm out of his grasp.
“Then what are we about? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, I sure as shit can’t figure it out anymore.” Chris jerked his arm back again. This time Nick let go and Chris got his pants. He tossed Jody’s clothes back on the floor.
“We’re just us,” Nick shrugged. ’’Why do we have to call it anything?”
“We don’t, but us doesn’t mean the three of us. I’m a little confused by that, and I don’t think I like it.” Chris shook his head. He heard the sound of the shower stop. “You know what? It doesn’t matter. I’m going to Miami for Challenge, and then Jody can have you all to herself. Maybe you can get her a record deal. Yeah, that’s it. You get her a record deal, man, and maybe she’ll let you sing on one or two of the tracks.”
And then Nick was in his face, shouting fuck you and shut the fuck up and crowding him, using his shoulder and his height to shove, and Chris pushed back and said, “How many women are you going to let screw you over, Nicky, for the business? Wasn’t your mom enough for you?,” and then Nick punched him.
Chris staggered back and sat down on the bed abruptly. His hand went to his nose, and he wiped away blood, staring down in fascination at his red fingers. He realized it had been a long time since he’d thought Nick was hot when he was angry.
Nick didn’t move, just stood there breathing hard, holding his fist in his other hand, cradling it to his chest like it really hurt. Chris hoped it hurt as badly as his nose did. Fucker, he had a charity event to go to in three days.
There was a noise from the door of the bathroom, which had opened just as Nick’s fist connected with Chris’s nose. Jody stood in the doorway, wrapped in a towel, a look of shock on her pale face. Without makeup, she looked really young, and suddenly Chris felt ancient. He dabbed at his nose with the hem of his t-shirt and shook his head. “This isn’t fun any more. This is too much work.”
Nick stood in the middle of the hotel room, naked and suddenly looking awkward. He started to say something, but Chris cut him off. “Don’t, Nicky. There’s not much point to this anymore.”
Nick took a step or two towards Chris. They both ignored Jody completely, as if she weren’t there. “I’m sorry, man, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that, I love you, man. Chris, don’t go, please.” His eyes were wide and Chris felt a rush of sympathy for him.
“I’m sorry, too, Nicky. I shouldn’t have said that.” Chris patted his pockets, making sure he had everything, his wallet and sunglasses, his phone, so he didn’t ever have to come back to this room. He reached the door, but before he opened it to leave, he said, “Someday you’re gonna have to stop hitting people, Nick.”
So Chris went back to Florida, and tried really hard not to lose himself in another long nap. He thought vaguely that he was becoming somewhat eccentric, a crazy old coot who used to be famous. He surprised himself by missing Nick, and he started avoiding his phone, losing it in the oddest places, like the freezer or in the toe of an old sneaker, so that he wouldn’t be tempted to call.
And then one night he hit Nick’s number, and made himself stay quiet while Nick said, “Chris?” in a hopeful voice until Chris hung up. He only did that once, but it helped.
Nick called him a lot, but Chris never answered, and eventually the calls stopped. Chris didn’t know whether he was relieved by that or not.
And then life just kept going, as it had a way of doing, and when Chris, feeling a bit adrift, read about Nick having to sue himself because of his solo album, he thought that was one of the funniest things he’d ever heard.
Chris only had one or two more songs to go. He thought Weird World sucked, and he wondered how it had made it onto the album.
And then the next song had him sitting straight up in his chair, reaching for the phone and dialing before he had a chance to stop and think about what he was doing.
“What the fuck, Carter?” Chris was so mad he wasn’t sure it was even Nick who had answered, or if he still even had the right number programmed into his phone. For all he knew, Nick could have changed his number ages ago.
Silence. Then an uncertain, “Chris?”
“Jodie liked to shoplift in stores? Make love on the floor till the camera made us? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Yeah? Jodi wishes she could be a porn star? Taking all her clothes off in LA? What’s your point, Chris? Poster girl, porn star, I don’t see much difference, do you? She’d have been happy with either one,” Nick snarled into the phone. Chris could hear voices in the background, and he wondered for a minute where Nick was and who he was with. He used to know.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Chris was up and pacing in his living room, the music forgotten.
“I didn’t write the fucking thing, Chris. Can you say the same?” Nick said belligerently. “I just sing it.”
“Fine, believe what you want. You always do.” Chris waited for the inevitable explosion. It wasn’t a long wait. “You asshole. I don’t hear from you in what, two years? And you call me to give me shit about a fucking song? What’s the big deal, anyway? So we both did a song about Jody. Who the fuck cares?” And then Chris was listening to dead air.
Well. Chris hadn’t really expected Nick to stay on the phone and chat with him about old times. He sighed and contemplated the phone in his hand. Joey would listen sympathetically, make all the right noises, tell him to come over and swim.
Maybe he should call JC. He and Howie still talked once in a while.
In the end, he got himself another beer and settled back on his couch to listen to the album again, and think some more.
There was just a week or two between Chris listening to Never Gone, and what was probably going to be their last Challenge For the Children, which was in Chicago this year. When he found out that Aaron was going to be there, he contemplated not going. But Justin was having none of that. “If I have to go, you have to go.”
Chris managed to avoid Aaron for almost a whole day before they had a conversation, which basically consisted of Aaron saying, “Nick’s a dickhead, but then so are you,” and Chris answering, “Shut up or I’ll have to go get my duct tape,” and Aaron responding,” I’d like to see you try.” After that, any awkwardness Chris had expected from hanging out with Nick’s brother completely disappeared.
Aaron, it seemed, had grown up to be quite a handful. Chris had his own shit to deal with that weekend, what with keeping his mom away from Justin, and having heart-to-heart talks with Lance about how very gay he was. Now that was a real shocker, but Chris kindly let him off the hook and didn’t tease him too badly about it. It was very brave of him to finally say it out loud, especially to a man who’d been in an on-again, off-again relationship with Nick Carter for seven years. Chris just smiled, kissed him on the cheek and said, “Good for you, Lansten.”
Aaron managed to get very, very drunk Saturday night, in spite of the best efforts of his put-upon handlers. He cornered Chris at some point, Chris wasn’t sure when, being was a little hazy on the details of that night himself, and shouted over the music, “Call him, asshole!”
While he himself frequently dispensed drunken advice, he tried to make it a policy not to ever follow any from other people. That never ended well. But in this case, it was something he wanted to do anyway, so if it all went wrong, he could always blame Aaron.
He wasn’t sure Nick would answer the phone, not after their last conversation. Caller ID wasn’t always Chris’s friend, so he toyed with the idea of using Joey’s phone. Nick wouldn’t be fooled by that, though, and Chris decided using his own phone could be a test of sorts. If he called, oh, say, a dozen times and Nick didn’t answer him, Chris would know that Aaron was full of shit. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
He had found it much easier to call Nick when he was pissed off. He tried to work himself up, to be mad, but he realized that being mad at Nick had become nothing more than a habit a while back, and that there was no real passion behind it any more. Nick probably still needed some anger management classes, if People magazine were to be believed, but Chris still wanted to see him, talk to him. He still missed Nick’s laugh.
It wasn’t like he was the king of healthy, stable relationships himself. Just ask his mom.
It took him a week. He spent most of that week in Joey’s pool, until Joey kicked him out and told him he couldn’t come back until he’d gotten his shit together. Brianha pouted about the loss of her daily swimming pal, but Joey stood firm. He was tired of the moping. He didn’t care about the end results, he just wanted Chris to do something, anything. No call to Nick, no access to his pool.
“Christ, Joe, anyone ever tell you what a pushy bastard you are?”
“All the time, Chris. Go.” Joey folded his arms resolutely across his chest.
“Overbearing pain in the ass,” Chris muttered as he drove away.
And then JC added himself to the list of people Chris could blame when it all went to hell again.
“Chris, hey, man, what’s up?”
“Hi, C. Where are you?”
“New York, dude. I went to Backstreet’s concert last night.”
“You did what?” JC was so weird sometimes. “Was Howie there?”
“Yes, Chris,” JC said patiently. “Howie was there. So was Nick.”
Chris ignored that. “So how was the show? Lame like always?”
“No, dude, it was cool. They sounded great.” JC’s voice held a bit of a wistful note, and Chris didn’t blame him. He felt that way himself once in a while, missing it all fiercely at the most inconvenient times. Like when he was awake.
“So.” He waited.
“So. Nick seems happy. Less, you know.” Chris could picture JC waving his hand around vaguely. “Things are good right now. Calm.” JC was not the most subtle guy Chris knew. “He asked about you.”
“Did he”?” Chris stared at his feet, watching his toes play in the carpet.
“Yeah, man. I told him what you’d been up to. He said he actually heard some of your music, said he found it online.” JC was using his encouraging voice.
“Yeah, right, I kinda knew that,” Chris said dryly.
“Well, whatever, dude. Just thought you’d like to know.”
Apparently, having his pool privileges cut off was just the incentive Chris needed to act. He fortified himself with a couple of beers, waited until his house was fairly quiet, and hit dial. He had no idea where Nick was, East coast, West coast, or somewhere in between. He could be in Tahiti for all Chris knew.
It turned out he was in a time zone somewhere in between, which was probably a good thing, since it was 3am in Florida.
“It’s one o’clock in the morning, man. What do you want?” Chris could hear noises in the background, loud bursts of laughter, and someone yelling Nick’s name.
“Oh, like you were asleep,” Chris snapped. Then he took a deep breath. He hadn’t called Nick so that they could fight. He’d called Nick because it was quite possible that he missed him. “So, um, what are you doing? Sounds like you’re having fun. I should let you get back to it, I’ll call another time. Later, man.” And he quickly hung up.
His phone rang back immediately. He smiled. “What?”
“Don’t be an ass,” Nick said impatiently. “I assume you called for a reason?” Chris could have sworn he detected a smile in Nick’s voice, too. He could just picture it. Nick was probably at a party, or a club, his hair gelled and spiked and golden, or maybe artfully floppy, bangs in his eyes, and his smile would be big and uncomplicated. Nick’s life may be complicated, a tangled mess of family and bandmates and lawsuits, but Nick wasn’t. Nick was simple and easy to read, at least Chris had never had any trouble with it.
“So, I was thinking. Are you going to be in Florida anytime soon? Like Orlando, maybe, or Miami? Tampa? Am I getting warm? Or am I gonna have to fly out to LA, where all the beautiful people are? Or at least Justin and Lance. And JC. JC’s beautiful, but I never know where he is.” Chris heard Nick snort, but he kept going. “Because I’d really like to see you. Listening to you guys’ CD—and dude, Siberia?—I just, well, I kind of, you know, started thinking about you.” He said that last part really fast so that Nick maybe wouldn’t hear him. There was silence on other end, so Chris took a deep breath and started talking again. “And because Joey won’t let me swim in his pool until we make up. I have no idea why, except that he likes to boss people around. He always has.” He was running out of things to say, something that rarely ever happened to him, and he hoped Nick decided to jump in pretty soon.
Nick laughed and Chris sagged with relief until he heard Nick say, “Later, I’ll be there later, okay?” and he realized he wasn’t even talking to Chris.
“Hey, asshole, are you listening to me at all?” Chris demanded indignantly. Chris didn’t often bare his soul like that, and the least Nick could do was pay attention.
“Yeah, fucker, I’m listening.” There was silence, and Chris couldn’t stand silence. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, when Nick said conversationally, “You know, Chris, we’re on tour right now. You did know that, didn’t you? I’m not in LA, so there’s no point in you going there. Unless you really want to visit Justin.”
“Haha. I might have heard something about a tour somewhere, yeah. How’s it going?”
“Great, it’s going great.” Another pause, and Chris heard another raucous burst of laughter. He thought it was AJ. “Um,” and now Nick sounded uncertain. “We each have our own bus this time around. You wanna come ride on mine for a little while? We could talk and shit.”
Chris rolled his eyes, but his smile was as big as he had imagined Nick’s to be. “I could probably tear myself away from Joey’s pool long enough to do that.”
“Okay, I’m gonna go now, or Kevin’s gonna kill me. We’re at a thing and he wants to leave. He’s so old, man.” He ignored Chris’s indignant hey! “I’ll give you a call tomorrow, and we can decide where to hook up.”
“Okay, sounds good.”
“Okay, good night. And, Chris.” Another pause. “I’m glad you called, man.”
“Me, too.” Chris started to hang up, but then he thought of something. “Hey, wait! Nicky, I’ve gotta know. Do you guys do Siberia in the show?”
“Yeah, why?” Nick sounded puzzled.
“Is there fake snow?”
“Yeah, there is.”
“I knew it!” Chris crowed triumphantly.