As he pulled up to the towering black iron fence and lowered the window, AJ didn't expect an answer when he reached out and pressed the bell that would make his presence known to whoever was within the expansive household ahead of him. The silence thickened as he continued to sit there and wait, but with no surprise, he never received a response. He pressed the button several more times before finally entering the code against the keypad. The heavy gate immediately began to swing open and AJ directed the car slowly forward, peering up at the mansion through the windshield with a sigh of annoyance. Everything appeared in order and if he wouldn't have known any different, he would have suspected that nobody was home. But he knew better; they all did.
Rough gravel crunched under the soles of his shoes and he stepped from the vehicle and into the blazing warm mid afternoon air. AJ pressed his sunglasses further up the bridge of his nose and slowly moved towards the steps leading up to the front door. He contemplated his next move for a moment before raising his fist and slamming it against the door multiple times. Like before, he received no answer and he growled in frustration, knowing more then likely his friend would be unwelcoming.
There was an oddly placed small flower pot stowed in a shadowed corner to the right of the door and AJ crouched before it, studying it carefully. He rolled his eyes seconds later as a memory sparked and he reached toward the uneven potting soil piled inside. He moved the soil around for a moment, making a hole several inches deep until he finally uncovered a tiny metal box which he immediately removed from the pot and pulled towards him. AJ unhooked the small latch on the front and lifted the lid, grinning slightly when he found what he was looking for inside. He grabbed the key and stood, allowing the box to fall to the step with a loud clang, which he ignored. The key slid perfectly into the lock and clicked. AJ twisted the handle and pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The air was considerably cooler and made way for a dead silence. AJ kicked the door shut with his foot and tossed the key to the small table beside him. He looked around, listened. Not a sound registered in his ears. He walked through the front foyer, across the white marble tiles and entered the living room. It was empty just as he had expected. "Where the Hell you at Carter?!" he called out, wincing as his voice echoed through the seemingly empty household. He crossed the threshhold of the living-room and began to ascend the large staircase, dodging randomly placed items of clothing Nick had semed to of just carelessly thrown about. His friend's lack of cleanliness came as no surprise. Nick had never held much regard for order in his life when he was at home. AJ couldn't blame him though. He himself failed miserably when it came to housekeeping.
A long dark hallway loomed at the top of the stairs and AJ hesitated for a slight moment before climbing the final step and trudging along the soft carpet. The floor padding cushioned each step as he made his way closer to the room at the end of the hall. The door was semi closed and he peered in silently, squinting at the darkness shadowed vicinity. With the drapes drawn AJ could hardly see a thing. He stepped in and moved towards the bed where he could barely make out the crumpled form of his friend buried beneath a heavy pile of blankets. Without a second thought he reached for the nearest pillow and sent it slamming down onto the top of Nick's head with as much force as he could possibly manage, producing a muffled, disgruntled groan. Immediately Nick began to shuffle within the tangle of blankets, yelling a string of obscenities as the pillow came slamming down once more.
"What the flying shit?!" Nick spat as he roughly threw the covers away from his body and struggled to sit up. He fought wildly to untangle the blankets from around his ankles, unaware of the bewildered stare coming from the culprit of the pillow attack. It was only when he finally stopped thrashing around that he noticed AJ standing beside the bed, clutching the pillow tightly in both hands. "AJ! What the fuck is your problem?! Better yet, what are you doing here?! No, how did you even get in here?! Breaking and entering is a felony!"
"Shut your flapping trap, Nick," AJ replied non-chalantly as he sent the pillow sailing to the bed. He walked over to the floor to ceiling bay window and withdrew the drapes before turning back around to face his speechless friend. "Don't pull the breaking and entering bullshit card on me. I'm not the retard who, while drunk, told everyone where he hides his spare key. Besides-"
Nick groaned in disgust and collapsed back against the mattress, rubbing at his temples. "What the Hell are you even doing here? It's seven in the morning," he interrupted, dragging a pillow to shade his face from the glaring rays of the sun shining through the window.
AJ was at his side in a second pulling the pillow away. "Try one thirty in the afternoon," he glared.
"Well thanks for the wake up call. Now get out!"
"I came here to get your lazy ass out of this place and to the hospital where you should be."
Nick stared at him stupidly for a moment. "Get out of my house, AJ. I'm not going," he finally answered, his eyes turning a murky shade as he pinched the bridge of his nose in concentration. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and moved to stand up, but AJ defiantly blocked his path. "What is your problem?!"
"My problem is you and your selfish attitude," AJ growled, crossing his arms over his chest and planting his feet firmly against the floor.
"Be your opinion as it may. But I'm not going," Nick repeated. He brushed past AJ and bent to retrieve a crumpled tshirt from the floor, pulling it down over his head. "I can't go there."
"Why the Hell not?" AJ asked, watching him carefully. "He needs you there."
Nick scuffed with a sarcastic nod. "Needs me there? I'm sorry but I disagree."
"Are you even listening to yourself right now? How can you just stand there and turn your back on him like that?"
"You're wasting your time, AJ," Nick sighed. "Just go away and leave me be."
"I'm not going anywhere until you give me a damn good reason why you are giving up on B," AJ gritted.
"Why shouldn't I give up on him when he has already given up on himself?" Nick argued, although his voice didn't project nearly as strong as he had planned. It faltered with each word until he finally blew out a strangled breath.
"No! You don't understand! I was there in his room the other day when he was refusing help and I was there when he damn near had another heart attack! I saw the death in his eyes, AJ! You didn't!"
"How do you think Kevin felt when he watched his cousin collapse and nearly die right before his eyes?" AJ suddenly burst, shoving Nick backward onto the bed. He towered over him dangerously, pointing an accusing finger in the man's face. "Did you stop to think that maybe he was scared then and still is? Yet he's at the hospital supporting Brian like he should be. Like we all should be. We weren't there for B like we should have been the first time he had problems with his heart. But I for one don't plan on making that mistake again. What's happening to B is serious Nick...very serious and you're just going to shun him away?"
"Because if that's what you're going to do, then I'm not sorry to say that you're a pathetic excuse for a friend and you disgust me!"
"T-that's not fair..." Nick stuttered.
"No?" AJ clarified with a raised brow. He began to back step towards the door. "Then you have five minutes to get dressed and prove me otherwise. I'll be waiting in my car." He slammed out the bedroom door, leaving Nick laying there in a stunned silence.
The ride to the hospital had thus far been completely silent, minus the constant dull hum that came from the vehicle's engine. AJ kept a steady grip on the steering wheel, training his focus straight ahead while Nick hadn't shown any signs of life since slumping into the passenger seat. AJ would periodically steal a glance in the blonde's direction, but chose not to speak a word. He wouldn't admit it right then, but he felt guilty for the dejection reflecting in Nick's eyes. He just couldn't understand Nick's reasoning when it came to the matter of what was happening to their close friend and he wasn't so sure he would ever be able to understand it. For the time being, AJ figured it would be better if the subject was laid to rest. Maybe forcing Nick to face Brian once more would be enough to get the younger man to open up. AJ could only hope.
The interstate was clogged heavily with commuters that afternoon. AJ could feel the impatience radiating from every vehicle around him as he found them stuck in stop and go conditions for nearly the entire duration of the drive. So when he finally sent them sailing freely down the exit ramp, AJ let a sigh of relief escape his lips. Mainstream traffic along the city streets proved to be an improvement from the flow of traffic on the freeway. They encountered only the occasional back up and found navigation to not be a problem. If only the dense blanket of silence could be broken, then he would have found the drive to be rather relaxing. AJ decided to try his luck and attempted to strike up a conversation. "So, uh...you still seeing that one chick?" he asked lamely.
There was a subtle clearing of Nick's throat. He kept staring out the passenger window. "The tennis coach?"
"No, the other one."
"The kindergarten teacher?"
"The Hooters waitress?"
"Yeah right, Nick. You? Dating a Hooters waitress?" AJ snickered, surprised for once that Nick had broken his vow of silence without putting up any sort of fight.
"Ok, maybe we didn't date," Nick shrugged casually. "But we did have a really steamy one night stand."
AJ chuckled. "Just admit it. You're single right now."
"So what? Maybe I am enjoying not being tied down. Besides, you're in the same boat as I am. I haven't seen a girl hanging on your arm anytime lately."
"Point taken..." AJ trailed, watching Nick sink back into his silent pit. He stared forward once more, ignoring the various buildings and signs that seemed to fly by in a blur of undistinguishable colors. "Would you stop slumping in that seat like a pile of trash? You're making my car look like shit!" AJ blurted before he had even realized he had spoken. He slammed roughly on the brakes as they sped up to a red light, sending Nick flying into the dashboard with a grunt of displeasure. AJ paused for a moment, inhaling deeply. He glanced to his right, seeing Nick gripping the dashboard, puzzled. "Sorry," AJ mumbled, slowly moving them forward. "Listen...I'm sorry for how I acted earlier, alright?"
"I don't want to talk about it," Nick answered flatly.
"Nick," AJ sighed, "We're all in this together-"
"Damnit J, I don't want to talk about it!"
AJ pursed his lips as he directed the car into the hospital parking lot. Pulling into an empty slot, he killed the engine and they sat there in silence for a second. Without a word, they both stepped from the vehicle and into the afternoon blazing heat. AJ slipped the keys into his pants pocket, keeping a steady eye on his younger friend. Nick slumped in posture even as he walked. The blonde kept his eyes focused on the pavement, leaving AJ to wonder. It appeared as if he were fighting back something he wished none in the world be able to see. "Nick-" Before he could say anything further, AJ felt the breath catch in his throat as a rush of foot steps came towards them quickly from behind. Nick gasped out as their path faltered and they were stopped just short of the entrance doors.
"AJ! Nick! A moment of your time!"
"Shit..." AJ hissed beneath his breath as he slowly turned. He felt himself stumble backwards as a camera flew near his face, the flash blinding his vision temporarily. He blinked, catching a glimpse of Nick who appeared just as baffled and taken aback. A slew of reporters congregated around them eagerly. "Please, we need to get inside," he attempted to force his voice strongly, but it hardly projected.
"Is it true that Brian has been admitted as a patient at this hospital?" one reporter called out.
"Brian has been admitted for medical treatment-" AJ started to answer, however he was almost instantly interrupted by another reporter.
"A source has informed us that Brian is on his death bed and will not live much longer! Is this true?"
"Brian is not dying!" Nick burst, moving to take a threatening step forward. AJ grabbed his arm in a tight grip.
"We have no more comments right now and we really must get inside," AJ stated, pulling Nick back.
"And when can we expect an official statement from the group regarding Brian's condition?"
"A press conference will be held soon."
"When?" the reporter pressed. There were more flashes from the cameras.
"When we fucking feel like it! Leave us the Hell alone!" Nick spat. AJ withheld a groan as he dragged Nick through the automatic revolving doors, leaving a flurry of questions unanswered as they hurried from sight.
Kevin watched over Brian's son in an absentminded manner as the small child busied himself with the new electronic car his mother had presented him with as a returning gift. The toy sufficed enough to hold the boy's attention and allow the three adults in the room to keep their minds geared towards more pressing matters. A small smile curled upon Kevin's lips as he felt Kristin reach out and grasp his hand. "I'm ok..." he mumbled, wondering if he was saying it more for Kristin's benefit or his own. He peered across the room to where Howie was standing upon one of the chairs, attempting to switch the channels on the television set. Kevin almost let loose of a humored laugh towards his friend's height disadvantage until he saw Howie abandon the task and sink down into the seat with a troubled frown. He hadn't realized just how much they had worn thin over the past couple of days from the current situation. Kevin could only imagine how he himself must have appeared, considering he hadn't made much of an effort to stop and look in the mirror lately.
"Look Uncle Howie! I can make the car go super fast!" Baylee spoke up, hoping to grab the older man's attention. As Howie turned to look at the boy, Baylee moved his fingers wildly over the buttons on the remote control, grinning in concentration. The small car sailed across the floor in Howie's direction before spinning out of control at the last second and colliding roughly with Howie's feet. Baylee's mouth formed a tiny perfect "o" as Howie cried out in surprise. "Uh oh Uncle Howie..." Baylee whispered in awe. "Car crashed..."
"It hurt too," Howie grumbled, reaching down to massage his sore foot through the material of his shoe. But he managed a smile for Baylee's sake, seeing the sudden frown and hint of tears that had appeared.
"Good, you're both here!" AJ raved as he came storming quickly into the room, Nick following in tow a few steps behind.
"Where's the fire?" Kevin questioned, noticing the bewildered expression his friend was sporting as he paused just a foot in front of him. However, AJ stood there not answering as his chest heaved in and out to catch his breath. "What is wrong, J?"
"Seems someone leaked to the media that Brian is here," AJ finally answered.
Kevin frowned, pulling himself to sit fully erect in his seat. "Why do you say that?" he asked hesitantly, even though he knew it was a pointless question before he let it slip from his mouth. They all knew it would happen eventually.
AJ removed his sunglasses hastily and took a seat. "Nick and I just got bombarded by a group of reporters outside the entrance of the hospital," he said.
Kevin pondered the revelation a moment. "Was it bad?" he questioned, releasing Kristin's hand to rise and move towards the window. He looked out but was disappointed to find they were facing away from the entrance. "What was said?"
"They wanted to know if B was here."
"What did you tell them?"
"I told them yes," AJ started to answer when he watched Kevin's frown deepen. "They're not stupid, Kev. And they're wanting a press conference from us and an official statement."
"And you said what?"
"Nick basically told them to shut the fuck up and leave us the Hell alone."
Kevin grimaced towards AJ's choice of language, seeing Baylee's ears instantly perk up at the sound. "Baylee's in the room so watch your mouth."
"Uncle AJ said a bad word," Baylee gasped in amazement.
"Sorry kid," AJ apologized.
Howie, who had been silent up until that point, spoke. "So where does this lead us-"
"We need to tell B," AJ interrupted.
"Not right now," Kevin answered as he turned back around to face the three pairs of eyes watching him. "Brian's got enough to worry about as opposed to a media frenzy over what is happening to him at the moment."
"What about a press conference?"
"We're gonna have to schedule one. We knew it would happen eventually...just don't think we were planning ahead from when it did happen."
"I'll call management and get a time for a press conference set up," Howie offered distractedly. He rose from his seat and quickly excused himself from the room.
"Kevin," Kristin called out. "Come sit down."
"I'd rather not," Kevin replied shortly.
"Uncle Nick?" Baylee spoke meekly as he tiptoed up to stand in front of Nick. When he didn't receive an answer, he lightly placed his hands upon Nick's knees and patted to grab his attention. "Uncle Nick?" he repeated with a small whimper.
"What's up lil' man?" Nick croaked with a rough voice. He looked down just as Baylee climbed clumsily into his lap and threw his arms around his neck.
"You sad and scared?" Baylee questioned.
"I..." Nick tried to answer, but he found himself at a loss for words. "Yeah...I am..."
"It's ok to be sad and scared, Uncle Nick," Baylee replied and rested his head carefully against Nick's shoulder. "Daddy is sad and scared too."
Nick's jaw dropped at Baylee's words. The four year old couldn't possibly comprehend the meaning of what was happening to their family, yet he had all the ability in the world to comfort those struggling with the reality with such simple words that stung Nick deep in his soul. All he found himself capable of doing at that moment was hold Baylee close and allow the despair to pull him further.