"I didn't really have business obligations in New York."
heads immediately turned towards Nick, but Theresa was the first to speak. "You what?"
"I didn't really have business
obligations in New York," Nick repeated, a hint of a tired smile on his face. "I requested that they move me to the New York
"Why?" Aaron balked.
"Honestly?" Nick began. "The fifteenth anniversary of Backstreet hit, and I realized
that I wasn't any less lonely or miserable than I was at the end of it all." He chuckled hollowly. "I mean, at the end of
the day, we ended things so we'd all be happier, and I wasn't happy. In fact, I couldn't even remember the last time I had
been happy." He shook his head incredulously, suddenly immersed in the memory. "What sucked the most was that I didn't have
anyone to call to remind me what happy felt like because you're right, AC. I had pushed everyone away."
heavily, and all traces of his anger vanished. "Nick...you know you could've called me."
"I did," Nick replied with
a small smile. "You told me you were looking for work in New York because you wanted to go into theater. You were all psyched
up about becoming a serious artist, and you reminded me of everything I used to love about the business." He chuckled dryly.
"I hung up and got insanely, obscenely drunk that night."
"Why?" Aaron asked in confusion. The quiet answer came not
from Nick, but from Cara.
"Because it reminded him of all the things he wanted to forget." Nick glanced over at her,
and the two shared a small, understanding smile.
"She's right," Nick admitted. "Hearing about Backstreet hurts because,
every time I think about it, I have to acknowledge what was lost, you know?"
To Nick's surprise, Aaron nodded. "Yeah,
that makes sense."
"I just...you sounded so happy, Air, and it made me miss you." He chanced a small smile in his brother's
direction. "Outside of the fellas, you were the one person I could always count on to make me smile. So, the next morning,
I called the Jive offices and asked them if I could relocate to New York."
Aaron's brow furrowed in confusion, and
he held up a hand. "Whoa, wait. You wanted to move across the country because of one conversation?"
"Kind of," Nick
agreed with a laugh. "I wanted to move across the country because I missed you. I mean, every time we get together, I feel
like a better person. You have this habit of nudging me in the right direction, and until we spoke that day, I don't think
I'd realized just how far in the wrong direction I'd managed to travel." He sighed. "You and I...we used to connect, AC. We
used to know each other backwards, forwards, and fucking sideways, and I realized that I didn't know you anymore." He shrugged
nonchalantly, and his gaze returned to the floor. "I guess I wanted to move across the country because I wanted an excuse
to get to know you again."
"So I take it the company pulled a few things and got you here," Theresa interjected pointedly.
Nick shot her a small, sheepish smile.
"Yeah, they did. It took awhile to square things away, but eventually, they
agreed to let me transfer." Nick's gaze shifted back to Aaron. "By that time, you guys had already started working on the
Aaron nodded. "And you were still chain-smoking."
Nick heaved a sigh at the mention of one of his
many drug habits. "Yes."
"Is that all you were doing?"
Nick bit back the bitter laugh that threatened to surface.
Fuck, I should've known that he wasn't going to let me off easily. I deserve it, too. I knew the cross-examination was
coming. At this point, it's way overdue, and I definitely owe it to him to be honest.
"I got stoned every so often,
and I'd definitely been drinking more than my share, but I wasn't into coke again. Once I got out of rehab, I really did leave
"How the hell do you explain your appearance at the meeting tonight, then?" Aaron asked pointedly, eyebrows
raised expectantly. Nick grimaced.
"Coming here hurt a lot more than I thought it would."
Aaron frowned immediately.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean? We've been nothing but nice to you!"
"Exactly," Nick returned firmly.
"Nothing but nice. You haven't been real with me, Aaron! I didn't know that I made you uncomfortable until Theresa
slipped one afternoon and told me. I had no idea how much of our relationship got lost in my mess. I was so caught up in everything
that was going on with the fellas and our stupid-ass family that I didn't even notice that you and I weren't close anymore.
Tonight, with you yelling at me just now...you realize that's the first conversation we've had since I got here in which we
were both totally fucking honest with each other?"
Aaron rolled his eyes. "Don't pin this on me, Nick. That's not my
"Not all your fault, no."
"Not any of my fault!" Aaron shot back. "God, you haven't changed
"Forgive me, AC," Nick returned pointedly, "but you weren't exactly knocking on my door every night for a
"I didn't see you leaving your door open," Aaron snapped.
"I was waiting for you to come to
me," Nick said quietly.
Aaron snorted in disgust. "Right, 'cause you were so easy to talk to. Fuck, Nick, I love you,
but...after all your shit, you can't honestly say that you expected things to go back to the way they were. Believe me, no
one misses our relationship as much as I do, but I'd be lying if I said that I'm not pissed to high heaven right now. I mean,
you can't expect me to stand by you each time you decide to fucking destroy yourself." He paused to take a deep breath, fighting
back the tears that threatened to surface. When he spoke again, his voice was soft and tearstained. "It...it destroys me too,
Nick could feel tears welling up in his own eyes at the sight of his younger brother. Fuck, Nick, pull yourself
together. Make this up to him.
"I'm so sorry, AC." He leaned back and heaved a sigh, fighting against the part
of him that so desperately wanted to bolt. "I wish I had more words, but...I just...I can't explain it, okay? I get so fucking
overwhelmed, and I handle it in all the wrong ways. The first time, I was so fucking sick of juggling everything with Backstreet
and Mom and Dad that I needed an escape. The second time, I was so saturated with your disappointment in me that I needed
a way to escape myself." He closed his eyes against the reality of his own self-loathing. "I fucked up. I let go of the one
substantial relationship I had left. I let myself believe that the drugs were easier because they took less energy at the
time, and I'm sorry for that." He paused to release a bitter laugh. "Believe me, I don't think I've ever done anything I regret
"You're not the only one who regrets it," Aaron remarked quietly. "I just got to the point where I didn't know
what else to do. I tried to get things back to the way they were, Nick, but you never fucking met me in the middle."
talking about the first time," Nick clarified.
"Does it matter?"
Nick leaned forward and placed his elbows on
his knees, looking imploringly at his younger brother. For a moment, he was so amazed by his brother's emotional display that
he forgot his own anguish. "I never even apologized for the first go-around, did I?"
Aaron shrugged, suddenly way too
interested in the carpeted floor. "You had a lot going on, and everyone you knew was busy walking away. On some level, I knew
you appreciated having me around. I kept telling myself that you wanted me there."
Nick shook his head slowly. "It
wasn't enough. Even I know that. Aaron..." He trailed off, trying to get his bearings. In his mind's eye, his brother was
still thirteen, and Nick hated what he had done to that cute, blonde, innocent little kid. "I'm so sorry I put you through
all of that."
Suddenly, Aaron was the one blinking back tears. "It's okay, Nick. You needed a friend."
it's not okay. That's the problem. It's been five fucking years since all of that happened, and it's still not okay. I didn't
realize that until I came back here and saw how much energy you put into avoiding me, but...I really, really fucked things
up, and I'm sorry." He smiled tentatively. "I know it sounds like a cop-out, but I really am trying to change things between
Aaron closed his eyes, and a single tear made its way down his cheek. "I know," he answered quietly. He felt a
pair of arms weave around his waist, and he exhaled in relief as his forehead found a shoulder to rest on. Cara.
They still had a lot to talk about, but he was comforted more by her presence than he cared to admit. At that moment, he needed
"I'm especially sorry for tonight," Nick added with a heavy sigh, "because I feel like we were finally getting
Aaron looked up from Cara's shoulder, his eyes wet with tears. "We were," he whispered, locking
eyes with his brother. "That's why..." He hiccupped. "God, Nick, that's why I don't get it! Why couldn't you just
have been honest with me? It's not like I would've judged you. I helped you through it the first time."
lightly. "Cara kept telling me that I should tell you, but I didn't want you to have to go through everything again. I wanted
to get better without causing you a bunch of pain and anguish."
Aaron shook his head. "Not an option, bro. All niceties
aside, you've been causing pain and anguish since you got here."
Nick nodded, smiling ironically. "Yeah, I get that now."
interjected, "I know it sounds fucking corny, but sometimes the pain and anguish makes us stronger."
"I second that,"
Theresa intoned quietly. Sometime during the conversation, she'd managed to steal Cara's armchair. Nick glanced sideways at
"Yeah, you would, huh? This whole addiction thing is old news to you."
"Only because I chose to make it
old news," Theresa pointed out with a sigh. "In order to move past something, you have to make an effort to keep it in the
"You didn't, though, did you?"
Aaron's tiny voice, though gentle, shot straight to Nick's heart.
I didn't," he admitted quietly. He was done lying. "I wish I had an excuse for you, but I'm still not sure exactly what part
of my brain let 'just one line' sound reasonable."
For a moment, all conversation ceased in the silence of contemplation.
Nick looked up in surprise at the unexpected question. "What?"
"You said in the meeting that the death
of a friend forced you to recognize the dangers of the path you'd taken," Aaron reiterated tentatively. Truth to tell, he
was almost afraid of the answer he was going to receive. "Who died?"
Against his better judgment, Nick glanced to Cara
with a fearful expression. She smiled sadly and sympathetically. Recognizing the inevitability of the conversation that was
suddenly looming over him, Nick cleared his throat and prepared to relinquish his dignity to the gods of consequence.
girl I met at the club. She..." He closed his eyes as the memories rushed forward, vigorously permeating his sense of stability.
"She and I got together a few times with her friend to have some really illegal fun. She was the one who made the coke available
to me again. When I got back from LA, I went to a club and ran into her. After a whole lot of tequila, we decided it would
be a good idea to call her drug dealing friend and go hang out at her apartment. We got drunker, then Jason pulled the cocaine
out and we started doing lines." He took a deep breath and forced his eyes open. Regardless of how painful the memories were,
he knew his brother deserved eye contact while the story was being told. "I don't know exactly what happened after that, but
I remember my vision getting fuzzy. When I woke up, the room smelled like a hot box, Jason was passed out on the couch next
to a bunch of empty bottles, and Esmerelda, the girl..." He trailed off and bit his bottom lip to halt its trembling. He wanted
badly to stare at the carpet, the wall, the back of his eyelids--anywhere but Aaron's frightened face--but he didn't. He owed
his brother that much. "She was dead."
Nick had expected the story to stop there, but the words kept coming.
was frozen on the floor with her skirt around her waist, and there was all this blood around her nose and...and I didn't know
what to do because I knew that she'd overdosed, but I didn't know how much they had done after I passed out. Then I saw how
her skirt had been shoved up and I realized my own pants were unbuttoned and I couldn't remember whether or not we'd done
anything because I was so fucking blitzed. All I knew was that she was dead and there were drugs everywhere and I...I
was so fucking scared," he finished in a whisper. His eyes were pleading with Aaron's. He could see tears on his
brother's cheeks, and he wanted so badly for Aaron to understand. "It shocked me sober, Aaron. The thought that so much had
happened and I had no idea how anything had gone down...it was enough to make me realize how ridiculous it was for me to keep
running from things. I mean, when Backstreet ended, I thought it was the end of the world, so I just kept using and using
to block out how much it hurt. When I came up here to live with you guys, it hurt so much to see what I did to our relationship
that I just reverted back to old habits because it was easier than owning up to how badly I'd fucked up."
"So you fucked
up again," Aaron continued quietly, shaking his head in disbelief. "Shit, Nick..."
Nick couldn't take it anymore. He
dropped his gaze to the floor. "I know, AC, and I'm sorry. God, I'm SO fucking sorry..."
Aaron's eyes widened as he
tried to wrap his mind around the story. "Fuck...someone died, Nick. That girl died, and you couldn't even
remember if you'd slept with her?"
The tears came of their own accord, running unchecked down the older Carter's
cheeks. "I know. Believe me, I know. I...I..."
"Did you at least call an ambulance?"
Nick's head jerked up in
surprise. "Of course! I'm a shit, sure, but I wouldn't leave some girl dead on her own living room floor without calling someone.
Fuck, Aaron, I have a conscience! Give me a little credit."
"You make it hard sometimes," and there was no
malice in the remark. It held only resignation, and that killed Nick more so than the anger ever would have. Even after
all these years, Aaron's the only one to effectively force me to face myself.
"I know," Nick answered with a bitter
chuckle. "Why do you think I didn't say anything to you? I know you think very little of me, Aaron. I didn't want you to think
"But you weren't using the drugs anymore," Aaron countered. "You said you stayed sober after that, but quitting
cold turkey is hard regardless of what inspires the change. You must have been talking to someone."
Nick admitted quietly.
Above Aaron's head, a throat cleared. "He was talking to me."
out of Cara's embrace so that he could stare at her in disbelief. "He was talking to you? That's how you
know about all of this?"
Cara hung her head at the anger in Aaron's voice. "I found him asleep on the couch the night
that his friend died. When I woke him up, he was pretty torn up about everything, so we agreed to talk about it later."
tried to get me to tell you everything," Nick cut in seriously. "I just...I was afraid you'd hate me if you knew everything."
he's risking a lot of dignity to be this emotional for this long, so tread lightly," Theresa interjected with a wry smile.
The joke was inappropriately timed, sure, but she was hoping to diffuse some of the tension that had been building.
Aaron turned to Nick with a desperate countenance. "Why Cara?"
Theresa exchanged a glance with her female roommate
and sighed heavily. "I think that's my cue to leave."
"Wait up," Cara called, stretching. She turned to Aaron with
an earnest expression. "I'm heading out as well. This is a conversation that you and Nick need to have alone."
nodded his understanding. "We'll talk later?"
Cara bobbed her head in agreement. "Of course." She began to make the
trek towards her room, but stopped for a moment to glance back to her significant other. "I really am sorry, A. I know you're
feeling angry and betrayed right now, but I was only trying to help you get things back to good."
Aaron sighed heavily
and dropped his gaze to the carpet. "I know," he answered quietly. Cara recognized the statement as sufficient closure for
an emotionally difficult evening.
"Good. Sleep sweet, boys."
The lock on Cara's bedroom door clicked, and the
two brothers were alone. Aaron heaved a wistful sigh and closed his eyes for a moment to regain his composure before turning
to face his brother.
"Seriously, Nick," he said, his voice whisper-soft. "Why Cara?"
Nick offered a small smile.
"You have to ask?"
Aaron leveled him with a warning look, and it was Nick's turn to heave a sigh.
bro, I had no idea you were romantically interested in her. I wasn't trying to encroach upon your territory. I just...she's
understanding, you know? She's easy to talk to, and she...she listened to me. She didn't judge. I...I think I just needed
someone to tell me in no uncertain terms that there was still a possibility that things could be okay between us again."
laughed lightly. "Nick, we're brothers. There's always going to be a possibility that things could be okay between us again."
For the first time that evening, Aaron allowed his brother a genuine smile. "Especially now. Everything's out
in the open now."
Nick sighed again, this time from relief. "You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that..."
leveled his brother with a warning look. "I'm not done."
Nick groaned. "Man, I knew there was a catch."
is," Aaron remarked with a small smile. "Seriously, though, the fact that we have the possibility of a good relationship doesn't
mean that I'm not still pissed off at you for keeping all of this shit from me...because I am. You lied to me, you hid things
from me, and you made it blatantly obvious that you didn't trust me not to judge you. At the end of the day, Nick, you really
fucked me over."
Nick heaved a third sigh. "I know..."
"But you fucked yourself over, too," Aaron finished quietly,
pushing himself into a standing position, "and I'm really glad you were able to pull yourself up out of that hole you'd been
digging. Just...just promise me that you'll tell me if you ever start digging again, okay?"
Nick nodded solemnly. "I
"We'll be okay if we're honest with each other."
Nick walked gladly into the hug his brother offered,
realizing somewhere in the back of his mind that it was the first hug he'd gotten from Aaron since his arrival in New York.
Maybe things really are going to get better.
"Yeah. Yeah, we will be."