Nick leaned on his elbows and looked down at the party. He was alone. Howie was with AJ back at the hotel. No one wanted a repeat of last time. Brian, Kevin and Nick had split up as soon as they walked through the door, spreading out to cover as much ground as possible. But Nick had tired quickly of the sympathetic hands on his arm, the concerned eyes, the oblique questions. Like anyone cared about it, except as the latest gossip. 'I heard it straight from Nick Carter...' Nick had put up with it all day, but he couldn't take any more. Evading Kevin's watchful eyes with a skill honed by years of practice, he'd coaxed a bottle of Jack from a starstruck bartender and holed up in this closed-off balcony to drink it.
Nick laughed and took a swig from the bottle. Ever since AJ, he was supposed to be - what was the word they used - circumspect about his drinking. Well, hiding out in the dark far above the festivities was certainly circumspect. Lame was another word that could describe it.
He sat cross-legged on the floor and twirled the bottle restlessly between his hands. He could still glimpse the crowd through the railing, but there was nothing he really wanted to see. He closed his eyes, tilted his head until his forehead rested on the cool metal. He tried to figure out how much longer he had before he could leave. It was his own fault he was here. Howie had stopped Nick on his way out, gentle fingers on his shoulder, and said, "You sure you don't wanna hang here, Nick?" And he could have. He could have stayed at the hotel, confined to a suite that had had the bar emptied out, pretending it was friendship rather than fear that kept him at AJ's side. But he couldn't hack it, not again, not tonight. Besides, it wasn't fair to make Kevin and Brian do all the dirty work, schmoozing and gladhanding, reassuring the world that Backstreet was back and better than ever. Nick wasn't exactly sure how he was helping, huddled here on the floor with his whiskey. But helping them out had been his plan when he came here. That, and avoiding the chilly hotel rooms overflowing with Howie's nervous chatter and AJ's sullen silence.
A small commotion below him drew his attention and he opened his eyes just in time to see 'N Sync make their entrance, laughing and bouncing off the walls and each other. Nick's lips curled into a tight smile. He could remember when they had been nothing more than a pale reflection of Backstreet, wannabes, forced to defend themselves constantly against charges of copying. Now they were the kings of the world, gleaming brightly even amid the party's glitter, and Nick was left crumpled in a corner.
Nick watched Joey wave a statuette in the air, saw Chris leap onto his back and knock them both to the ground. He felt a sharp bite of want, deep in his chest, and wondered why. He had awards, too, and gold records, dozens of them, tumbled together in a box he took down sometimes to show Aaron.
He saw JC shimmy up behind Justin and put his hands on Justin's shoulders. Justin tipped his head back, smiled, said something that made JC laugh and hook an arm around Justin's neck.
I want that, Nick thought with a clear pure thrill of longing, a single string plucked and echoing endlessly in the hollow of his chest.
Nick pushed back from the railing and swallowed guilt with his whiskey. It wasn't that he didn't love the guys, he did, was proud of them even, proud of the way they rallied around AJ. They were always at their best that way, shoulder to shoulder, back to back, Backstreet against the world. It was only when they turned inward, toward each other, that things started to fall apart. They could barely look at each other's faces now. AJ stared at the ground, angry and ashamed and hurt somewhere deep down, far beneath, where the others couldn't follow. Brian's gaze slid over him, bland and smiling, eyes calculating exactly how much longer this would be worth his time. Nick thought his own face probably looked a lot like Howie's, except that Howie's fear was tinted with grief instead of fury. Kevin just looked tired.
Nick knew how they all looked because he glared defiantly at their faces, silently daring them to meet his eyes, to say the words that would bring everything tumbling down around him. No one did. But he knew someday someone would.
Usually he thought it would be Brian, businesslike, sitting them all down to discuss the pros and cons. Sometimes in his dreams it was AJ, doing it not with words but with a needle or a handful of pills or a succession of bottles. In his worst nightmares it was Kevin, shaking his head, saying, "All right. That's enough," and walking away.
Nick slid back toward the railing again, hauled himself up to his feet. He could see Justin dancing with Britney. He remembered seeing Justin around when Justin was just a cute kid with weird hair and looks he hadn't grown into yet, fidgeting around Nick, a little nervous, a little jealous. Nick had joked with him just to see Justin blush, to see Justin's tentative smile mirror his own cool grin. Now people blushed and smiled at Justin's glance. He was the prince of pop, with solo deals and movie offers tossed at his feet like confetti, while Nick was a has-been at twenty-one, with bad skin and worse prospects. Justin dipped Britney, and she giggled and kissed his nose. Nick bet that she adored him, admired him, treated him nicely. She'd never break his heart, and if she did, she wouldn't steal his TV and sell her story to the tabloids and mock him on TRL.
He saw Kevin raise his head, eyes scanning the crowd. He knew Kevin was looking for him, and he stepped back a bit, until he was completely in shadow, and waited to see how long Kevin would keep looking. It was only a few minutes before Kevin shrugged slightly and turned back to his conversation. It figured. Nick's maturity had seemed to bring him only limitations, clouded futures and curtailed dreams, but he thought sometimes that it had set Kevin free. Kevin had been saddled with him, a baby brother he'd neither wanted nor particularly liked, and had been expected to keep him happy and healthy and out of trouble. Or at least out of any trouble the papers might pick up, and healthy enough to keep up with whatever schedule they wanted to set, and happy enough to pretend to be perfectly happy when he sang and danced.
Kevin had been good at it too, patient and calm and reflexively kind. Nick thought he did a better job than Nick would have; Aaron was a lot sweeter than Nick had ever been, and Nick didn't see him all that often, and Nick still yelled at him sometimes, shoved him away and then felt bad at the look on his face. Kevin had never done that. He had coaxed Nick out of shyness, sheltered him when the other guys grew too rough for him, tolerated any tantrum Nick threw in private. Kevin lost his temper with him only a very few times; Nick could count them on one hand. Nick didn't blame him. Although Kevin had seemed practically ancient at the time, he was barely more than a kid himself, exhausted and overworked and pushed to the breaking point. Nick had been there himself, many times, and he had no idea what he would have done if he'd had a brat hanging on him, whining and crying.
It was the crying that set Kevin off; it took Nick two times to figure that out, and another two times to teach himself how to keep from crying in front of Kevin. He learned quickly because he was terrified. Kevin didn't yell at Nick, or hit. Kevin just shook him once, hard, and while it would have been nothing from AJ or even Brian on a bad day, Kevin was always careful with him. Nick had frozen, instantly, but his chest still heaved with sobs and tears still ran down his cheeks. Kevin had leaned in close to him and hissed, "Stop it. You've got no right. You've had it easy compared to the rest of us," and the unfamiliar chill of his voice had stilled Nick's sobs and dried his tears. Kevin watched him for a minute, then shook his head, said, "All right, that's enough," and walked away.
Nick had asked him later what he'd meant, and Kevin's forehead had creased as he ruffled Nick's hair and claimed he didn't know what Nick was talking about. Nick kept asking him for a while after that, choosing his moments, catching Kevin when he was drunk or half-asleep, but he never got an answer.
He stopped asking right around the time he got old enough that Kevin might have told him. He stopped crying altogether then too.
Nick wandered along the back wall of the balcony, bottle still in hand. Kevin had mellowed even more as he'd gotten older, and of course Nick had gotten older too. He couldn't expect Kevin to keep watching out for him. He knew Kevin was fond of him, loved him, even, in a casual, automatic way. Nick had had a stuffed bear once, a long time ago, that he'd dragged with him from city to city until he got too old and they thought it would look weird if anyone saw him and they took it away. There wasn't anything special about it. He couldn't remember where he'd gotten it. He had never even bothered to give it a name. He just hauled it around with him, bringing it everywhere because it belonged to him. He'd missed it a little bit when it was gone, but just a little, and soon he couldn't even remember what it looked like. It was kind of a relief not to have to find room for it in his bag any more. Sometimes he caught Kevin watching him, after an argument about music or Nick's new tattoo, and he wondered if Kevin wasn't looking forward, just a little bit, to the day when he wouldn't have to find room for Nick any more.
Nick leaned against the wall and looked around him. The balcony was larger than he'd originally thought, looping around the entire perimeter of the building. He followed the patterns on the carpet below him, walking aimlessly, until the music receded, replaced first by kitchen noises and then by the quiet regular steps of a security guard. A few doorways divided the balcony into tiny rooms back here, stuffed full of extra chairs and abandoned lamps and dusty furniture. Nick tucked himself into the corner of a battered sofa and devoted himself to his bottle.
He didn't know how much time had passed when he heard noise below him. A door opening, street sounds, a girl's tinkling laugh. He stumbled toward the edge of the balcony, feeling the whiskey, and looked down. Through the open door he could see a few large men, alert and impassive, standing beside a limo. In the car's polished side he glimpsed a reflection, the glitter of diamonds, the shine of blonde hair. Britney. She laughed again, waved at someone Nick couldn't see, then turned to look at a man behind her. He was older than she was, not Justin, no one Nick recognized. Britney tipped her head back, said something, and the man kissed her.
Nick leaned closer and grinned as Britney slid into the limo, the man following her, a possessive hand on her hip. Things weren't as perfect as they looked, Nick thought. He wondered what other secrets 'N Sync's shiny surface concealed. He wondered if Justin knew. He wondered what Justin would do when Nick told him.
Nick heard someone else approaching and ducked back into the darkness instinctively. He saw the top of Justin's head, and he smiled and moved in for a better view. This was going to be good. But before he reached the edge of the balcony, he knew something was off. There was no charge, no change in the room. The air shimmered with luxury, but not with tension. Something was missing - the long slow stretch of time before everything happened at once, like a rubber band just before it snaps. He'd been living in that stretch for a long time, and in the snap, and he felt its absence on his skin.
Justin walked toward the open door, and Nick noticed Chris standing just behind him, a hand on Justin's back. Justin leaned into the car and said something. Nick could see the reflection of his laughing face, strangely distorted as he swung the car door shut.
Nick didn't know what was going on. He saw Chris' eyes dart around the room, and he pulled back, but Chris didn't look up. Nick saw Justin turn, and laugh, and sway toward Chris. Chris kissed him on the mouth.
Nick gaped. A string inside his chest stretched taut and sung.
Below him Chris and Justin were kissing. They should have looked awkward, there was the height difference, and the looks difference too, Nick thought viciously. But Justin's forearms were balanced against Chris' shoulders, a graceful sloping plane, and the upward tilt of Chris' head cast his severe profile into sharp relief. In the soft dim light Chris' pale skin glowed almost as golden as Justin's. Chris ran a hand slowly down Justin's back, and it seemed to Nick as if that hand had been designed to curve against that long slender line. They fit together perfectly.
I want, Nick thought, and stepped back and squeezed his eyes shut before the sentence was complete. I want.
When he looked down again, Chris was murmuring something to Justin, and they broke apart. Chris brushed his knuckles against Justin's bicep before he turned back toward the party. Justin watched Chris go and smiled, loose and lazy, his mouth a little open. Justin pulled a finger along his lower lip, still smiling, and Nick traced the same path across his own mouth.
Justin started up a staircase that led, Nick realized with panic, up to the balcony. He retreated almost all the way back into the recesses before he caught himself. He wasn't the one with something to hide. He sat down on the couch, drew his feet up under him, propped the bottle of whiskey against his stomach. A tall figure peered through the doorway into the darkness. "Hello, Justin," Nick said, and Justin jumped.
"Oh, hi, Nick," Justin said. "I. Um. Didn't know anyone was up here." He smiled at Nick a little warily. For a long time now, Nick's casual jokes with Justin had been replaced by a barbed wit.
"I bet you didn't," Nick said evenly.
"Yeah, well, I'm just gonna -" Justin turned to go.
"Saw Brit leave," Nick said, and Justin froze. Nick saw the sudden tension in Justin's shoulders, and felt its echo in the room. He felt time stretch. He felt an elastic pull, tighter and tighter, in the air that surrounded him. This was what he had been missing earlier. Justin turned slowly back toward him.
"Saw you too," Nick said. "You and Chris." He didn't recognize the emotion that played across Justin's face. "Faggot," he said, and watched. Now there was an emotion he recognized.
Justin took a few steps toward him, then stopped. "Fuck it," he said. "You're not worth it."
When Nick stood up, he was closer to Justin than he'd anticipated, just a breath away. "You know," Nick said, "you can do a lot better. I mean, Chris? That may have been how you got into the group, but let me give you a little piece of advice. They need you now. You don't have to keep sucking Chris' dick."
"Shut the fuck up, Carter," Justin growled, right into Nick's face. Nick felt the rush, felt everything spinning around him, faster and faster, closer and closer. He smiled, and kissed Justin. When Justin pulled away his eyes were wide, shocked, and he said, "Nick?" But Nick didn't answer. He tripped as he stepped back and landed on the couch. His lips were working, just a little. He was confused. That wasn't what he wanted.
Justin put a hand out toward him, steadying him, and Nick realized he was shaking. The feel of Justin's fingers on his arm melted his confusion into something more familiar. Justin said softly, "Oh, Nick." The string inside him snapped.
Nick stood up and pushed Justin, not too hard, just backed him up a step. Then he backhanded him, hard this time, and watched as Justin fell back a few steps more. He followed fast, shoving Justin, slamming him into the wall. He should have been able to take Justin down without any trouble; he was heavier than Justin, and meaner, and he knew how to hit. But he guessed he was drunker than he thought, or something, because Justin grabbed his hands easily and held on.
Nick struggled for a few minutes until he felt Justin's hands slipping down to his shoulders. Justin was no longer holding him off, but simply holding him. He fell to the floor and huddled in a clumsy crouch. Justin slid down and knelt beside him, his hands on Nick's shoulders keeping him close. Nick heard something he didn't recognize, something that sounded rusty and harsh, ugly, and realized it was his own voice sawing through his throat. Justin winced when he heard it, and pulled Nick's head into his chest. Justin's shirt muffled the sound but Nick could still hear it, raw and dry.
"Nick," Justin said, "it's okay, it's all right," his hands rubbing light circles on Nick's back, "shh, it's not so bad." He brushed Nick's hair back and Nick tossed his head quickly so his hair fell back down and hid his face. "'S okay, 's okay," Justin crooned, and rocked back and forth. Nick didn't move, didn't relax into Justin's arms, but hunched tense and tight on the floor.
"What the hell is going on?" Chris' voice snapped through the room. Nick looked up. Chris was standing in the doorway, a bottle of champagne dangling from his hand.
"Chris, go get Kevin, okay?" Justin said, his arms still around Nick. "I don't want to leave him alone."
"Justin," Chris said, and Nick never thought he'd hear such menace in Chris' high girly voice, "you're bleeding."
Justin put a hand to his lip and looked at the blood on his fingers absently. "It's nothing, he didn't mean it, could you please go now?"
"What the fuck is going on here, Justin?" Chris said. "Did he hit you?"
"It's nothing, I think maybe he's on something, now would you please go get Kevin please?" Justin sounded calm and in control.
"He better be on something," Chris muttered, but he shifted uncertainly in the doorway. "You sure you're all right?"
"Yeah, fine, I'll tell you about it later, just please fucking go already." Chris left.
Nick sank back into Justin, relieved. Then he thought about what Justin said, thought about the pitying look he'd see on Justin's face from now on, the smug smile on Chris', and he pulled back. But Justin didn't let him go, just buried his face in Nick's hair and said, "I won't tell him, don't worry, that's between you and me." Nick stayed where he was, Justin wrapped awkwardly around him. Justin was humming, he could feel the vibrations in Justin's chest, but he couldn't hear it. All he could hear was the small rasping sound he couldn't stop making.
"Nick," he heard. It was Kevin's voice. Nick didn't make a sound.
He looked up. Kevin was standing in front of Chris. He was furious. "Jesus Christ, don't we have enough trouble with AJ -" Kevin said, and stopped.
"Oh, Nick," Kevin said softly. Nick thought about how happy he'd be if he never heard his name said in that tone of voice again. He thought there was very little chance of that happening.
Kevin knelt beside Justin and nudged him. Justin untangled himself from Nick and Kevin tangled himself, put an arm around Nick's shoulders and his waist and leaned in. "Do me a favor, guys," he said, his face against Nick's hair, "get out of here, all right?"
"Hey, you're welcome," Chris said bitchily. Nick watched Justin curl a hand around Chris' arm and lead him away.
"Oh, Nick," Kevin said again when they were gone, and Nick pulled away. Kevin let him go, and when Nick sat on the floor with his back to the couch, Kevin sat next to him. "What is it, Nick?" Kevin said, carefully not looking at him.
"I don't," Nick said, his voice hoarse. It hurt his throat. "I want." He stopped. Kevin sighed and laid a gentle hand on Nick's knee. Something about it infuriated Nick. He felt that rush again, everything spinning sickeningly, racing toward him at a speed he couldn't withstand, and he said, "It's ending. It's ending."
Nick was surprised that the world still looked the same. No walls had tumbled. At least no walls outside him. Kevin sighed again and rubbed a rough fist over his mouth. "Yeah, Nick," he said quietly, "I think it is."
Nick bent his head and drew his knees up to his chest. In all his thoughts, all his dreams and nightmares, he had never imagined it like this, Kevin sitting quietly beside him while his own voice chanted, so low it was little more than an ache in his throat, "over over over over."
"Stop it, Nick," Kevin said gently, and then sharply. Nick couldn't stop. Kevin put a hand on each shoulder and shook him hard, just once. Nick stopped. Kevin shook his hair out of his eyes and said, "All right, that's enough." Nick closed his eyes.
When he opened his eyes, Kevin was still sitting beside him, watching him closely. "Nick," Kevin said, "is it really so bad? Has this been so good for any of us?"
"Easy for you to say," Nick said.
Kevin laughed, short and bitter, a laugh Nick knew very well. "No," he said, "it's not."
"You have somewhere to go," Nick said accusingly.
"Nick," Kevin said soothingly, and Nick closed his eyes again. "You have plenty of places to go. You can stay with any of us - Howie would love to have you while you get settled, or Brian. You can stay with me."
"I don't belong there," Nick said. "I don't belong anywhere."
"You belong with me," Kevin said. Nick opened his eyes.
"It's not the same," he said. He watched Kevin open his mouth. He watched Kevin's forehead crease into the look he'd worn to tell Nick that if he just behaved for the next interview, he could have the afternoon off. The look he'd worn to tell Nick that even though Lou was ripping them off, they'd beat him in the end. The look he'd worn to tell Nick that AJ would get better and everything would be the same as before.
It was the look Kevin wore to lie to him.
Then Kevin's forehead smoothed, and his face settled into lines Nick didn't recognize. "No, it's not," he said, and Nick made that raw rusty sound again. He couldn't stop, even when he clamped his mouth shut and bit his lip hard. "It's not the same," Kevin said, "but it's something. It's something, Nick, isn't it?" And Kevin wasn't consoling him, wasn't reassuring him. Kevin's eyes were dark and pleading. Kevin was asking him.
"Yes," Nick said, and his voice was the same as ever, clear and fluid and beautiful. It felt like ground glass in his throat, but no one would know. "Yes."
Kevin smiled at him, and Nick smiled back. "We should get back to the party," Kevin said. "Brian's probably looking for us." He stood and held out a hand so Nick could haul himself up from the floor. He curled a hand around Nick's arm and led him around the dark balcony, back to where Nick had started. Just before they descended the stairs, Kevin let go.
"You all right?" Kevin said.
"Yes," Nick said.
"Smile pretty for the cameras," Kevin said, and Nick did.