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The next day AJ joined them for their final rehearsal before the big Christmas Eve performance which was keeping them all from their homes for the holidays. When the guys saw how refreshed he looked they all couldn’t help but feel a little bit jealous.



Especially Nick who took an I’m going to be pissy to you all day for no good reason approach to AJ. Actually going so far as ‘accidentally’ tripping him as he walked by.



AJ ignored it all day but towards the last hour of rehearsal when Nick rolled his eyes at the kid for the umpteenth time it finally led to an explosion.



“What the hell is your problem Carter?”



“You’re my problem AJ”



“You’ve been a punk ass to me since I got here this morning”



“Guys enough” Kevin said giving them both a warning glare while their choreographer looked on.



“Don’t look at me Kev; this little shit has been on my back since this morning”



“Do we have to do this now kids?”



“Don’t call me a kid! I hate when you call me a kid”



“Okay sorry AJ...but let’s just do what we need to do so we can all go home okay?”



“Fine just tell him to stay out of my face or he’ll regret it” To which Nick answered with a middle fingered salute.



Kevin tried his hardest not to be embarrassed when the two youngest acted up like that but he still felt his cheeks flush when he saw Fatima and her assistants exchange looks. Somehow he knew that was going to come back and bite him on the ass.



They decided since they had such an early call and hadn’t all been together as five AJ would spend the night at the apartment with the other four and all go to the concert together.



An idea that Kevin was regretting as soon as they walked in the door and Nick shoved AJ aside so he could get into the apartment before him. “What the Hell is your problem?”



“You are my problem!”





“Oh my God can we at least have ten minutes of peace before the fighting starts again?” Howie said under his breath wishing he had decided to go home for the night.



“How am I your problem you have been a little piss ant since I saw you this morning”



“Enough!” Kevin stood in between both boys before one tore into the other. “Nick go play your game and cool off! AJ living room”



“Don’t bark orders at me Kevin, you’re not my babysitter like you are his”



“Shut the hell up AJ he’s not my babysitter”



“Yes he is…because that’s all you are Nick… a big baby”



Nick started walking towards AJ and was literally picked up almost sideways by Kevin before he had a chance to attack. Brian found that highly amusing and started laughing as Nick flailed his arms trying to scratch at Kevin like some kind of wild animal.



AJ stood there next to Brian and began to laugh as well because he knew that would irk Nick which it did when the kid started spewing four letter words like they were a natural part of his vocabulary.



“Cool off!” Kevin demanded shaking his head and trying not to lose his grip on the teen.



“Get the Fuck off me!”



“Enough with the profanity”



“God are you like possessed or something?”



“I hate you AJ!”



“Right back at you asshole!”



“AJ you’re not helping!”



“Let me down!!” Nick said once again furiously kicking at Kevin, “If I let you go will you calm the hell down?”



“Yes” He said suddenly stopping his legs and arms and just hanging there limp like a sack of potatoes.



“Okay then” Kevin loosened his grip on the young one until he was lying on the floor. Unexpectedly Nick grabbed AJ’s ankle trying to get him to fall.



“You son of a whore!” He said kicking Nick right in the head which caused Nick to roll over into a ball and suddenly stop moving.



“Nick!” Brian ran over to Nick and got on the floor, “You okay?” Now Kevin was by Nick’s side as well, “Nick say something buddy”



Brian tried to roll his friend over but Nick refused to move, “You okay? Answer us!”



“GO away”



Brian looked at Kevin as relief washed over both of their faces. Howie came running with a bag of ice in hand, “I thought we might need this” He handed it off to Kevin who felt the need to glare at AJ.



“I didn’t mean to kick him so hard” He looked like he felt so bad, standing there staring down at Nick, Brian and Kevin, unsure of what to do. “It was just a reflex; I swear I didn’t mean it”



“I know AJ” Kevin smiled up at his friend, “He’s okay”



“Nick, come on sit up so we can make sure you’re okay” Brian said in his calm Kentucky way. “Leave me alone”



“Okay fine” Brian said standing up and moving towards the living room, “He wants to be left alone”



“What are you just going to lie on the floor all day Nicky?”



“Yes Howie that’s exactly what I’m going to do” Kevin and Howie shrugged at each other as Howie stood next to AJ and Brian now. Kevin was the only one left on the floor beside Nick.



Part of him wanted to just grab the kid, throw him in a car and take him to the nearest loony bin while the other part of him felt the need to hug him. He had no idea how this child worked. One minute he was the happiest kid ever, playing his video games, smiling and cracking jokes while the next moment he was lying on the floor like a blob, sad and angry.



“Nick I’m sorry I didn’t mean it really”



“He knows AJ” Kevin said nodding at the kid who obviously felt terrible. Kevin placed his hand on Nick’s back as he just continued to ignore everyone. “He’s just in a bad mood”



“Uh that’s an understatement Kevin”



“Why don’t we go watch some TV” Howie suggested to the two boys since he could tell that Kevin wanted some alone time with Nick. “I think Christmas Story is on”



“I love that movie! You do too don’t you Nick?”



“Yeah” He mumbled from the floor which caused Brian to smile.



“Well maybe when you pick yourself up off the floor you can come and watch it with us”



Kevin rubbed at Nick’s back and just looked up at his cousin and winked at him and then mouthed, ‘he’ll be okay’



Once the rest of the guys walked away Kevin directed his attention at Nick. “You want to talk about it lil man?”



“Go away Kevin okay?”



“No, I’m not going away so you might as well tell me about it. Why are you so mad?”



“I’m not mad” Kevin couldn’t help but laugh. “You know Nick, you’re a lousy liar”



“I hate…” Kevin couldn’t quite make out what Nick said after the word hate, “Who do you hate?”



He knew the answer; it was so obvious it was practically slapping him in the face. Of course it was his parents he hated. Kevin hated them too but he was a bit surprised when he heard the answer, “Me…I hate me”



“Nick never say that” Boy that brought back memories of his own boyhood tantrums. Kevin would often get so angry he’d lose control of that anger and do something really dumb, much like what Nick did today. It was his father that would pull him aside and ask him what was wrong and once Kevin’s answer had been that he hated himself.



“Son I love you to death but if I ever hear you say that again I’ll lock you in the basement and throw away the key” Kevin turned towards his father surprised by what he said.



“Seriously when you say you hate yourself you are saying you hate me and your mother. You’re saying you hate your family and all of the wonderful things God placed inside of you. Hate is such a strong word son…you should never say it but especially not talking about yourself or the people you love”



“But dad I…”



“No butts about it Kevin, besides I love you and so does your mom so no matter how much you claim to hate yourself our love overrides that! Do you understand?” Kevin thought about it for a few minutes before finally nodding.



He had never said it again.




“Why? It’s the truth” Kevin sighed, “Nick why on earth would you say that?”



“Because I do okay?”



“No, not okay, now come on let’s at least sit up so I can make sure you’re in one piece” He gingerly grabbed Nick’s arm and started pulling him into a sitting position, grateful that he wasn’t met with resistance. Once fully sitting up Kevin noticed the big black bruise forming around Nick’s left eye, “Oh great” He said grabbing Nick’s chin and further examining the damage.



He couldn’t even begin to imagine what his manager was going to say when he saw this. Kevin grabbed the bag of ice that Howie had brought over earlier, some of it had already turned to water but for now it would have to do. The faster he got something on that eye the better the chance they had of making the bruise go away. Kevin wasn’t dumb tough, he realized that the bruise was going to be another part of their outfits come tomorrow.



“I’m such a loser, it’s bad isn’t it?”



“It’s pretty bad yes”



Nick took the bag of ice offered to him by Kevin and placed it on his eye. “I’m sorry” He whispered.



“It’s not me you should apologize to”



“I always mess everything up”



“No you don’t” He grabbed Nick and pulled him closer.



“Yes I do, look at me I’m a mess!”



“You let your emotions get hold of you all the time, that’s all” Nick nodded.



“So you gonna tell me what brought all that on in the first place?”



“I’m…it’s not fair”



“What’s not fair?”



“Just stuff” Kevin looked up to see AJ walking over towards the two of them. Nick noticed to and his whole body tensed up as a result.



“Hey” He said looking down on both Kevin and Nick

“Hi AJ” Kevin smiled but Nick just looked away.



“Have a seat, the floor’s pretty fine” AJ plopped himself on the floor next to Kevin but facing Nick, “Wow sorry about the eye Nick”



“S’okay”



“I really didn’t mean to kick you so hard”



“I know”



“You want to tell me why you’re so mad at me or what?”



Kevin glanced over at Nick who refused to make eye contact with anything but the floor. “You were just making me mad”



“Yeah I got that part but why?”



Nick shrugged.



“You know I was really sick Nick, I had to take those days off”



“So? What the hell does that have to do with anything?” Just by the way he answered both Kevin and AJ realized it had everything to do with it.



“Because I think you have a problem with the fact that I had off and you didn’t” AJ’s voice was rising to a slightly more agitated state and Kevin hoped he wouldn’t have to come between both kids again.



“I was sick too probably more sicker than you!”



“Just sicker no reason for the word more there” Nick glared at Kevin’s correction.



“You were sick, I know Nick, but it’s no reason to get all mad at me!”



Nick nodded and once again looked at the floor. “I should have had a few days off too. When I was sick none of you even believed me. I had to almost cry to prove my friggin point and all you have to do is sniffle and you get two days off and everyone totally understands”



“You are purple with envy!”



“It’s green AJ” Now AJ glared at Kevin who shrugged, “I’m just sayin that’s all it’s green with envy”



“Whatever the hell color it is, it was still no excuse to take out your anger on me”

“I know”



“What?” Both boys said at the same time.



“I said I know and I’m sorry” AJ wasn’t sure what to do, it was clear to Kevin that he had expected world war three to happen, not an apology.



“I’m sorry too munchkin”



“Don’t call me a munchkin! I hate when you call me that!”



“I know! That’s why I do it…Duh!”



Kevin laughed as Nick stuck his tongue out.



“So you gonna come and watch Christmas story or what? They’re at the part where dad gets that lamp” Nick giggled and jumped up to his feet leaving his bag of ice on the floor. “I love that part!”



Kevin grabbed at Nick’s leg, “Keep that ice on your eye please”



“Okay” He said grabbing the bag from Kevin who just sat on the floor wondering what the heck went on in that child’s mind sometimes and knowing that as soon as he got up he was going to put in a call to Nick’s mom and make sure she at least called her son on Christmas. Lord it was something he didn’t want to do but after seeing how sad he has been and now with the black eye, he had to do it.



So he stood up and headed for the bathroom to make his call, hoping to be undetected as he did so.
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