Aaron was able to get CJ in to visit with Nick, but the hospital wouldn't let Lexie in because she wasn't family. Brian seemed to be the only exception to that rule. CJ was upset Sunday morning when Lexie was getting ready to leave to pack up in Seattle. Lexie promised she'd only be gone one day, but CJ clung to her crying. The poor baby was so confused. She wanted to be with her Daddy, she wanted to be in her own home and she wanted to run away to Uncle Howie's.
Lexie suggested to Aaron privately that they ask Nick to let CJ come to Seattle with her, but Aaron said it was too much of a security risk. Considering Lexie was living under an assumed name with no visible connections to Nick Carter or the Backstreet Boys, she figured they would think it would be safe. She offered to let AJ hire a bodyguard or two, but Aaron refused to ask Nick.
Lexie kept her promise to CJ and was throwing her few meager belongings onto AJ's plane with Jake the same Sunday she flew in. She had given notice to the gallery weeks ago and had moved her records back to USC. She had a two-week difference between the two schools' spring schedules that she had planned to spend with Jake.
"You're sure in a hurry." He laughed at her eagerness.
"I've got to get back, I promised CJ I'd have a new cell phone number for her to call tomorrow." She smiled as he put down the last box and plopped down in one of the plane's plush seats.
"Are you going to be able to see her or Nick any time soon?" he asked.
"I have no idea. I think I might be able to get into Aaron's house to see them. I overheard Aaron and Brian talking about bringing Nick there after he was released."
"When are you guys going to have time to talk?"
"I just don't know. He knows how I feel. I can only hope he'll remember that as time slips past us." She sighed seriously. "I'm sorry I can't stay like I said I would."
"Naw, no problem. This is what I wanted for you. A chance to get out there and get on with your life."
"I just wish I knew how. I wish I knew what was going to happen when AJ and my dad find out about what happened in Detroit."
"Are you going to tell them?"
"If it works out between me and Nick, we'll have to tell them." She said, sitting across from him. "I've almost told AJ a couple dozen times. He's great, you know? He's funny, quick, and he sings all the time! Even when we're talking on the phone. He's working on some new songs and he wants to do another album."
"So full of hope." Jake muttered, getting to his feet.
"What?" she laughed.
He pulled her to her feet and into his arms. "That's what I'm going to tell my Dad, next time he asks how you're doing."
Lexie was able to keep her promise to CJ. Lexie called Brian who took her new number and gave it to CJ. CJ called within the hour and they chatted up a storm. AJ came to L.A. to visit on Wednesday, once she was settled down. He got her another car and offered to rent her an off-campus apartment once he saw the cramped dorm she lived in. She told him she preferred the campus life and that she was happy there. He did take her clothes shopping instead, and after he left she ended up returning more than half of what he had bought. He never said anything, if he even noticed the charge backs on his credit cards.
Nick was released on Friday, but Brian said he insisted on going to his own home with CJ. Nick was excused from court for another week, which he spent playing with CJ. He only lasted another 6 weeks before he collapsed again, this time at home. He blacked out on the tile stairs leading to the front entry and was there for two hours before anyone found him. CJ found him lying in a pool of his own blood when she came in from playing outside. There was no help around the house. She ran outside past the press and got a security guard down at the gate. Lexie saw it splashed across the evening news just as Brian was calling her.
"No, Brian, this can't be happening! I've got to see him!" she demanded.
"Honey, I'm sorry. I can't get you in. . ." he apologized.
"Talk to him for me, please. He still hasn't called me. Did you give him the new number?" she asked for the hundredth time.
"Yes, I know, Lex. He's a mess. . ."
"You don't understand, Brian! If something happens to him, we'll never get the chance to say what we want to say to one another. I know you understand. Brian, please, I love him so much. You have to do something!" she said, beginning to cry.
What could he possibly do? He had heard the same pleas from Nick for weeks now. Nick floundered back and forth about the possibilities, the impossibilities. His hopes, his dreams, his fears and his reality. Jive had screwed security down so tight on Nick, he couldn't sneeze without someone being there. Even Brian had to make prior arrangements to see Nick before he could actually see him. CJ had been permanently living with Aaron by mid-May. Nick only saw her on the weekends.
Brian had asked Nick hundreds, no thousands, of times to call Lexie. He never did. He tried to force an answer out of Nick, but Nick would only tiredly wave him off. Right before this final collapse, Nick could only speak in two or three word sentences.
"Lexie, please don't cry. I don't think I could take that." Brian sighed. "I've talked to him over and over. I don't know why he won't call. I know he still loves you, but he's just not himself anymore."
"Try again, please."
"Of course I will." He sighed, not believing it would make a difference.
Nick was unconscious for two days and when he was released a week later, they took him straight to Aaron's house without even asking him. AJ, Kevin and Howie flew out. It was Aaron and Kevin who helped Nick into the house and into bed, in the very guestroom Lexie had used.
Howie held CJ in his arms as she watched the drama unfold. He was worried about her being so deathly quiet, watching as Kevin, Brian and Aaron tucked Nick into bed.
"Uncle Howie?" she whispered.
"Can I see my Daddy?" she whispered again.
"Of course." He said.
"Is he dead?" she asked.
Howie's heart tightened in his chest. AJ appeared from nowhere and took CJ from him when Howie froze. She was only six and there was no way she would be able to understand the gravity of what was happening.
"No, CJ. Your Daddy is just fine." AJ whispered back.
"Uncle AJ? I'm scared. If Daddy dies, can I come live with you and Uncle Howie?" she asked.
"No one is dying, honey." Aaron said, reaching for her. She didn't move from AJ's arms. She only looked him up and down. Aaron looked remarkably like Nick. The resemblance became much more marked the older Aaron had gotten. Now, they were similar in look and size. CJ's eyes went back to Nick.
"Do you want AJ to hold you?" Aaron asked her. She reached out, grabbed Howie's shirt, and pulled him close too. Howie wrapped his arms around the both of them. The entire time she never took her eyes off of Kevin as he lifted Nick's legs onto the bed and leaned him back into the pillows. Brian lifted the linens and tucked them around Nick.
"Uncle AJ? You and Uncle Howie won't leave me, will you?" she asked, turning her eyes to his.
"No, CJ. Me and Uncle Howie are going to be right here for you." He said. She laid her head down on his shoulder and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.
"I love you, Uncle AJ." She whispered.
"I love you, too." He said, looking over at Howie with CJ between them.
Howie could see the fear in AJ's eyes. He was afraid he wouldn't be able to keep his promise not to leave. He was afraid he would fail her, just as he felt he had failed Lexie.
"We're going to be right here. AJ and I aren't going anywhere." Howie said, smoothing her errant curls down. His fingertips quickly wiped the tears that silently ran down AJ's face. "It's going to be all right." He said it for AJ, not CJ.
Nick woke to find AJ sprawled out in the bed next to him and with CJ dead to the world across his chest. He smiled for the first time in weeks.
AJ's designer clothes were wrinkled and in disarray. Tattoos peeked out from his sleeves as one arm flopped between them and another was wrapped around CJ to keep her from falling off. CJ had begun to drool on his expensive silk shirt.
Nick looked to his left and saw that Howie had collapsed in a chair, one leg on the floor, the other hanging over an arm. Howie's snoring had woken him up. He sat up and could see Kevin on the floor by the door, an old quilt thrown over him as he hugged a pillow. Brian was right next to him, his head resting on the small of Kevin's back.
Nick laid back and turned on his side to look at AJ and CJ. He reached up and touched her baby cheeks. How lucky he was to have her. His only true reason to live at all any more. That and the hope that one day he would get one last chance to see Lexie again.
AJ's head rolled toward him and AJ wiped his eyes as they adjusted to see Nick watching them. Nick lifted a finger to his lips. AJ didn't say a word; he just hugged CJ closer and lifted the arm between them, inviting Nick closer.
Nick felt 13 again.
How many times had he slept with AJ like this when they were touring? Nick would get homesick and AJ would let down that bravado of his and let Nick sleep with him when they sometimes shared a room. It hadn't been just AJ. It has been Brian, Howie, and Kevin. Here they were again, Nick thought as AJ's arm enveloped him and he rested his head on AJ's shoulder. We're together again.
Well, he did it. Howie thought as he woke and saw Nick nestled against AJ and CJ. It's not the best of circumstances, but we're here. All five of us.
AJ got out from under Nick when CJ woke up and said she had to go to the bathroom. Kevin, Brian and Howie followed him out of the room with her and left Nick alone to sleep. CJ scampered off to the bathroom and the guys headed downstairs for some coffee. Aaron, his wife and the other children got up a little while later. Aaron padded into the kitchen with them and poured himself a cup of their coffee.
"You guys should visit all the time. I like having coffee when I first get up." He laughed over his steaming cup.
"Well, Howie is the only domesticated one of us." Brian laughed.
"You make a good cup of coffee, D." he joked.
"I got skills." He laughed.
"What are your guys' plans for today?" Aaron asked.
"We'd like to stick around here, wait for Nick to wake up and see how he is." Kevin said. "Brian made us all reservations at his hotel for tonight."
"You guys can stay here." Aaron said. "I have plenty of room."
"I might be staying." AJ said suddenly. "I owe him. He was there for me when Alex was sick."
"I'm sure Nick will appreciate it." Aaron nodded.
"Like seeing your ugly faces every morning is good for me." Nick muttered as he came into the kitchen behind Aaron. He was still slightly taller than Aaron as he stood next to him.
"Well, you look fab yourself." Kevin laughed.
"Daddy?" a little voice asked behind Nick. He turned around and reached down to pick her up. His vision began to swim; he stumbled and almost fell. Aaron caught him before he fell on top of her. "Daddy!?!" she screamed as Aaron lowered Nick to the floor. Howie scooped CJ up and tried to calm her as she started to cry. Nick leaned against the kitchen cabinets, looked up and held out his arms for her. Howie put her down and she ran to him. Nick buried his face in her curls.
"Shhh, CJ. It'll be okay." He soothed her.
"Are you okay?" Aaron asked.
"Just a little woozy, that's all." He sighed. "Calm down, honey. I'm okay."
"She was really scared last night, Nick." AJ said, kneeling down beside them. "We all had to promise to sleep in your room last night. She wouldn't let us out of her sight."
Nick just closed his eyes and held her closer. As the color returned to Nick's face, Howie helped CJ up and Kevin and Aaron got Nick to the kitchen table. Aaron's wife, Jillian, and Howie cooked up breakfast and everyone helped eat it. CJ recovered during the meal and was laughing and playing with her cousins within the hour. Aaron and Jillian took all the kids upstairs for baths and clean clothes afterwards.
Nick's head rested in his hand as Brian cleared the breakfast dishes.
"Are you going to be okay this time?" Brian asked, pulling Nick's napkin out from under his elbow.
"I just thought I was stronger than this." Nick sighed sadly.
"Don't be ridiculous!" AJ admonished him. "Nick, you're just having some bad times, that's all. We've all had them and we're going to be here for you."
Nick never answered AJ, he just continued to stare at the glass table. AJ had no way of knowing that Nick felt he didn't deserve any concern from AJ, especially after what he had done to Lexie. If only AJ knew. . .
"You know, this may sound kinda stupid now, but I've very proud of the man you've become, Nickolas Carter. When Christine became pregnant with CJ, you were there for her. When Alex was sick, you were there for me. When Howie was in the hospital, you were there to take care of his family. You were the only one of us to reach out to Lexie. You helped heal the peace between Howie and me." AJ said. "Look around you, Nick. You've done it. You've brought the Backstreet Boys back together. We're right where we're supposed to be."
Nick's hollow eyes scanned the room and he saw AJ sitting next to him in his rumpled, slept-in designer suit. He saw Kevin across from him in a simple green cotton shirt and jeans. Howie was next to Kevin, looking nearly as wrinkled as AJ. Brian stood at the kitchen sink with a damp dishtowel thrown over his shoulder. They were here. Here with him. Right where he had wanted them for years. How he'd missed them. He bowed his head and slowly slumped sideways into AJ's arms.
"Thank you, AJ. You don't know what that means." He said quietly as AJ wrapped his arms around him. Without warning, Howie's cell phone began to ring.
"Hello?" Howie answered after he turned it on.
"Hi, Dad? Mom said you were at Aaron's." Lexie said.
"Hey, Lex." He smiled, looking across at AJ and Nick. "Yeah, we're still here. We just ate. You in town?"
"No, I'm still on campus. I've got a 10:00 class and then I've gotta go to work. Is Nick there? Can I talk to him?"
"You want to talk to Nick?" Howie asked, so Nick would know. Nick just waved him off.
"He can't come to the phone right now."
"How is he? Is he okay?" she asked.
"He looks better this morning. He ate and once he gets some clean clothes on he'll feel even better." Howie said.
"How's CJ? She must be worried sick."
"She had a rough night, but she's better."
"Oh! Before I forget, can I talk to Kevin?" she asked.
"Uh, sure." Howie said, handing the phone to Kevin. "She wants to talk to you."
"Me?" Kevin asked taking the phone. "Hello?"
"Kevin? Oh, hey, look. Jake called last night and his mom couldn't get through to Aaron's so she needs you to call home." She said.
"Well, thanks, I'll call her right away."
"Great. Hey, is AJ up yet?" she asked.
"Sure. Hang on." He smiled, handing the phone to AJ. "She wants to talk to you now."
"Yes, babygirl?" AJ laughed as he answered the phone.
"Howdy, AJ. How's my Dad? Is he okay? Mom's a little worried he isn't resting enough." She asked.
"He looks okay. Smells kinda bad, but we'll wash him up good enough to send home to her." AJ joked, helping Nick sit up and pointing at Howie.
"How are you? Where's Alex?"
"I'm doing great! Alex is at home with the nanny. I'm still working out the details of my trip here."
"Cool, can we have dinner or something before you go back? You can bring the other guys if you want."
"I'm not sure what plans the others have, but we can still get together." AJ said.
"Great. Can I talk to Brian, now?" she asked. She heard AJ laugh and call out.
"Hey, B-rok, she wants to talk to you too."
"Hey, Lexie." She heard Brian laugh.
"He's there, isn't he? He doesn't want to talk to me, right?" she asked.
"I think that's true." Brian said.
"Tell him I love him, Brian. I'm counting on you."
"I will. I promise." Brian smiled.
"Thanks, Brian. Can I talk to my Dad?" she asked. He handed the phone back to Howie and she could hear them all laughing in the background.
"Hi, honey." Howie laughed.
"Hey, Dad. Mom's worried about you. She said your last check up wasn't very good."
"Shush, I'm fine." He said, aware the others were looking at him suddenly.
"Dad." She scolded him.
"Lexie." He scolded back.
"OKAY! She made me say it." Lexie teased.
"I know all about the tricks you two play on me. You better get to class."
"I will. Tell everyone I love them." She laughed.
"I love you, too. Bye, Lexie."
"See ya, Dad."
Howie hung up the phone and put it on the table.
"Lexie sends her love to everyone." Howie smiled.
"You send it right back to her." Kevin smiled, getting to his feet.
"Is your health okay?" AJ asked Howie suddenly.
"Yeah, I'm fine. They just worry too much." Howie said.
"You'd tell us if anything was wrong, wouldn't you?" Nick asked.
"Of course. You guys, please! I already have one wife and one daughter fussing after me." Howie laughed. "I'm just glad it'll be a long time before the new one can talk!"