An Old Family Recipe

A Backstreet Boys story by Grainne

Because the pill bottle was already empty (if chalked with chemical)
Because I spent all afternoon reading the personals
Because Rhode Island smelled damply (because my house smelled damply)
Because I attempted to resist the sky with tinfoil and string (an old family recipe)
  - from Escape (Cliffhanger) by Joshua Harmon


Disclaimer: Nothing in this story is true. Don't believe any of it. No actual insult to Rhode Island intended.


Some days were better than others. On the bad days, Nick had learned to remind himself that there would be good days again. That for every ache and throb, a day would come when the act of standing up or climbing stairs was routine again.

Today was going to be a bad day. As soon as he woke up to the sound of rain pattering against his window, he knew it would be rough. Cold and damp settled into his bones and made the pain worse.

"Fuck," he whispered, and set about the slow process of getting out of bed and getting his brace adjusted for walking. His whole leg seemed stiffer in the mornings. His back was starting to complain, too, from the constant compensations he had to make in order to walk. He felt like an old man as he hobbled to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

Next to the coffee maker was an orange prescription bottle, empty and lidless, with a fine residue of white powder lining the inside. Nick frowned when he saw it. He'd been meaning to throw it away. He picked it up, looking at the trash can across the room. Then, with a defeated sigh, he set it back down and turned on the coffee maker.

One of the 'perks' of renting the cottage was having a town paper delivered to his doorstep every morning. When the realtor had listed that as one of the cottage's charms, it had seemed insignificant next to the fact that everything, even the front porch, was on ground level, and that the deck in the back was built out over the beach. But as the days passed with almost no contact with the outside world, Nick had started to look forward to reading it. It was small-town news, world events mixed with local gossip. Nick's favorite section was the local sports section and *Aunt Hattie's Kitchen Table," an advice column that often threw in Aunt Hattie's favorite recipes and gardening tips for no extra charge.

Armed with coffee and the paper, Nick eased himself down on the couch, stretching his bad leg out across the cushions and shoving a Playstation controller out of the way in the processes. The local Patriots had won the district high school baseball championship, each detail described lovingly by the paper's sports reporter. Aunt Hattie recommended telling your best friend kindly that her dress made her look like a tramp rather than letting her go out in public in it, and putting tin foil on pie crust edges to keep them from burning. Nick briefly contemplated telling AJ that his clothes made him look like a pimp, but really, he wanted to live past his next birthday. Although, knowing AJ, he might just take it as a compliment.

Sipping at his coffee, he skimmed the world news section. The comics got more attention, and he frowned for a minute over the daily trivia--"Which U.S. president was the first to be born in a hospital?"--before finally turning to the column he'd been saving for last. As usual, the Celebrity News made no mention of any of the guys, although there was a paragraph about *NSYNC heading back to the studio. Nick pushed down a sharp rush of envy. He was happy for them, he really was. Really.

Abruptly restless, he pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the glass doors leading out to the deck. Within the past few minutes, the rain had stopped. The tang of brine drifted up from the ocean on the newly cleaned breeze. Nick had a sudden, fierce aching for the water. He could make it down the long, shallow stairs leading to the beach, but the sand was too treacherous for him to walk down to the water's edge. He hadn't actually been near the ocean since the accident.

Still, the walk would give him to do, and he'd be worn out enough by the time he made it back up that he'd be able to sit and play Playstation for several hours without feeling like he was going to climb out of his skin. Feeling better now that he had a plan, he went back into the house for his windbreaker. The beach stairs were on the side of the house, at the end of a path that ran through overgrown bushes. Almost the whole route from the house was shielded from the road. Nick had appreciated that fact all the more the first time he came back from a walk, dripping in sweat, shaking from exhaustion, and barely able to make it the last few yards to the house. He didn't really expect to run into any fans, but the thought of a neighbor seeing him so wrecked didn't appeal much. And, the way his luck had been going, that neighbor would know just enough about pop culture to recognize him, and would have a cousin who just happened to be an entertainment reporter. *Nick Carter, All Washed Up* was not what he needed to see when he opened the newspaper of a morning.

Over the days he'd been making the walk, it had slowly gotten easier. He'd learned to stop for rests and to use the handrails to take some of his weight onto his arms. He had to focus on each step, particularly on days like today when the wood was wet. It had become almost like meditation. There was no room for thoughts of his mother or all the commitments he had bailed on, for worry about the guys, for wondering if his leg would heal completely. It was just one step at a time, a careful balancing act, and the low throb in his knee that kept time with the roar of the waves.

At the bottom, he sank down on the stairs and stretched his legs out across the sand. Leaning back with his elbows on the stairs above him, he took a deep breath of the ocean air. No humans in sight, but a pair of cranes investigated the water's edge and a kingfisher soared overhead. It was quiet, peaceful.

Lonely, a little voice whispered in the back of his mind. He shook it off. If loneliness was the price for escaping the constant nagging and demands, he could stand to pay it. It wasn't like he didn't know how to entertain himself. He grinned. It sounded like a self-help book. *How to Be Your Own Best Friend*. Maybe he ought to write it, just as a back-up in case the whole popstar thing fell through.

That last thought wiped the smile off his face. It hit a little too close to home. Dr. McKay had been optimistic about his chances for a complete recovery, but she had admitted that there was a chance he'd never regain full strength or mobility in his leg. And if he couldn't dance . . .

Sighing, he turned away from the thought. He wouldn't know for weeks how well he was going to heal. There was no point in torturing himself about it now.

As if in agreement, thunder rumbled across the sky. Nick looked up, noticing for the first time how much darker the clouds had gotten in just the past few minutes.


He used the hand rail to pull himself up and started the climb, moving as fast as he dared. It started to drizzle before he reached the halfway point. He kept on, ignoring the sharp pain stabbing at his knee and the cramp starting in his thigh. The stairs were already slick. If he didn't get to the top before the real downpour started, he was going to be in trouble.

Finally, gasping, he reached the top of the stairs. Collapsing right there seemed like a good plan, but dry clothes, hot coffee, and an ice pack for his knee called to him from the house. Focusing on those things, he pushed himself forward.

Clearing the last of the hedges, he started around the side of the house, stopping abruptly as he realized that a car was parked in his driveway. It was a late model grey sedan that he didn't recognize. Which was hardly surprising, since he only knew about three people in the entire state, but that didn't make him feel any more welcoming to whomever had decided to invade his privacy. He'd picked this place for its seclusion, damn it. If he'd wanted company, he would have stayed home.

His heart gave a little jump as he realized that his visitor was sitting on his porch in the swing he'd never used. There were a few people whom he would have known at first sight no matter how far away they were or how long it had been since he'd seen them. The man standing on his porch, impatience in every line of his body, was one of those people.


Stepping off the porch, Kevin walked toward him, squinting a little at the drizzle. Kevin was frowning, and Nick could feel his shoulders tightening with a familiar, "I'm in trouble now" sensation he had thought he'd outgrown.

"Nick." Kevin stopped in front of him and looked him up and down. "You look like shit, kid. Are you okay?"

"Nice to see you, too, Kev." Except Nick wasn't sure it was. "What are you doing here?"

"Door-to-door Bible sales. Looking for you, doofus. Trying to make sure you weren't lying dead in a ditch somewhere, which for all I knew you could be, since you didn't bother to call and tell anyone you were planning on falling off the face of the earth."

Nick winced. Being chewed out by Kevin was hardly a new experience, but it had never been on his top ten ways to spend his free time. And Kevin was truly mad, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed, paying no attention to the fact that his clothes were getting soaked.

But it was Nick's house, at least until the lease was up. He hadn't invited anyone, and his leg was killing him. He could do mad, too.

"If I'd wanted to call anyone, I would have. I was looking for a little privacy. You know, that thing where people don't butt into your business when they're not wanted?"

That scored, but not quite in the way Nick had intended. Kevin flinched. His jaw relaxed, leaving him looking a little sad.

"Nick, wait a minute. I'm sorry. I didn't come here to yell at you." He gripped Nick's shoulders with both hands, pulling him into a tight hug. His voice dropped, just loud enough to hear over the distant waves. "I was worried."

Eyes burning, Nick let his head drop to Kevin's shoulder. Kevin stayed quiet, rubbing Nick's back slowly as the rain started to pour in earnest. Water trickled down Nick's neck. He shivered, and Kevin gave him a last squeeze before pulling back.

"Let's get inside."

Rain had made the rock path slippery. Nick gritted his teeth and tried not to lose his footing. All he needed was a rock to slide out from under his foot to set him back three or four weeks. He thought he was doing a good job of walking normally until Kevin took his arm.

"I'm okay," Nick protested.

"Sure you are."

They had reached the porch by then and Kevin had taken his hand away, so Nick let it drop. He dug in his jacket pocket for his keys, raising an eyebrow at the large duffel bag Kevin had left by the swing. Nick had traveled many miles with that bag, and had never ceased to be amazed at how much Kevin could stuff inside it.

"Planning on staying long?"

Kevin gave him one of those "not taking any shit" looks. "As long as I need to."

Nick couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't break the fragile peace between them. Avoiding the whole conversation, he let them in and pointed toward the hall.

"My room is on the left. The guest room is on the right. It has its own shower if you need one."

In his own room, he collapsed onto the bed, raking his fingers through his wet hair. He should get up and change clothes, maybe even shower, but he didn't have the energy just yet. The walk down to the beach always took it out of him. And the surprise of seeing Kevin, the sudden rush of emotions, had left him more than a little shaken. Even now, he couldn't decide if he was happy or angry or some weird combination of the two. On the one hand, Nick had come here to be alone, to deal with his shit in his own way and his own time. He didn't *need* Kevin's help or hovering. But on the other hand, it was sort of a relief to know that Kevin was worried enough to come find him and that he *was* there if Nick wanted his help.

With a sigh, Nick pushed himself into a sitting position. He eased his leg out in front of him. Against his skin, his sweats and the brace were wet and clammy. The sharp ache that had started on the stairs had taken on a throbbing rhythm that he knew from experience wasn't going to let up any time soon. He needed to get his leg up and get some ice on it, but not until he'd gotten into something dry. If only he could find the energy to move.

"Need some help?"

Kevin was leaning against Nick's open door, dressed in dry blue jeans and a green sweater that looked a lot warmer than Nick was at the moment.

"I got it," he said, but without much conviction. He wasn't surprised when Kevin came into the room and started digging through one of his drawers.

"Sweats okay?"

"What, you're going to dress me now?"

Kevin tossed a pair of grey sweats and a Broncos jersey at him, smirking. "What, you can't dress yourself?"

Nick considered throwing the clothes back at him, but then he'd have to walk across the room to get them. But hell, as long as Kevin was here . . .

"You want to help me loosen up this brace? The ankle straps are a bitch when you can't bend your knee."

"How's that doing? Your knee, I mean," Kevin asked as he knelt to deal with the straps.

Nick shrugged. "It's getting better. At least I'm not in a cast anymore. Hey, how did you figure out where I was?"

Kevin gave him a sharp look, but to Nick's relief, went along with the change in subject. "I have my ways, little bro."

Which was true. Kevin had always had a freaky way of knowing exactly where everyone was at any given time. When Nick was young, he'd thought Kevin was psychic, or possibly had sold his soul to the devil. As he got older, he was more inclined to believe that Kevin bribed security to report to him every hour or so. But this little trip hadn't been business, so Nick hadn't told security anything about it. In fact, he'd only told one person where he was going.

"You talked to Aaron, didn't you."

Kevin just raised an eyebrow. "I don't reveal my sources."

"Fucker. What did you threaten him with?"

"Me? I don't threaten people. Besides, Aaron likes me."

Nick tried to imitate Kevin's eyebrow. He'd never quite got the hang of that. "How much did it cost you?"

"Permission to use my cabin for a week and a package of Milky Ways. Apparently your mom's on him about his complexion again." Kevin loosened the last strap and stood up. "And I promised to make you call him. He's been a little worried, too."

Okay, so maybe he should have been a little less antisocial. But he wasn't a baby anymore. He didn't need people to solve his problems for him, and that's exactly what certain people, present company included, would try to do as soon as he said anything about being stressed and needing to get away. He hadn't intended to worry anyone, though. The truth was, he'd been so intent on getting away that he hadn't thought about telling the guys where he was going. Aaron knew where he was in case of emergencies, and he'd figured that was enough.

Of course, he'd also figured Aaron wouldn't sell him out. Or, at least, would have held out for a better bribe.

"I'll call him when I get done changing, okay?" he said finally. "Which, by the way, get out so I can strip, dawg."

Kevin grinned. "You think you've got something I haven't seen? Yell when you're ready to put the brace back on."

Trying to pull off wet sweats was never fun, but the fact that Nick couldn't bend his knee very well made it close to torture. At least the bruising and swelling had gone down enough that he didn't have to wear shorts all the time. Leaving his legs bare had been comfortable in Florida, but it was too early in the year not to wear pants here.

Finally he was dressed. The only thing left was the brace. He could get it on himself, he'd done it enough times before, but he was tired to the point of shaking from his faster-than-usual climb up the stairs. Kevin was just in the other room. Nick knew he wouldn't mind helping, but felt stupid asking anyway. Sure, the ankle straps were a bitch, but it wasn't like he hadn't gotten them tightened before. He wasn't a baby.

Sighing, he grabbed the brace and got it positioned around his leg, adjusting the straps one by one so that they were tight enough to give support without cutting off circulation. When he stood, the muscles just above his knee seized up. He grabbed for the wall, cursing softly as he waited for the pain to pass. It looked like he'd overdone things a little.

By the time he walked out to the kitchen, he thought he'd rearranged his expression so that nothing seemed wrong. Either Kevin really was psychic, or Nick was a worse actor than he thought.

"Nicky, sit down before you fall down. Come on, sit on the couch, you can put your leg up. Where are your pain pills?"

Having experienced Kevin in mother hen mode, Nick didn't argue as Kevin took his arm and helped him over to the couch. He was actually tired enough that the support was welcome. He sank back into the cushions, letting Kevin slide a pillow under his knee while he focused on not looking like his muscles wanted to shake.

"Thanks, Kev. I'm okay, just need an ice pack. There's some in the freezer already made."

The "no bullshit" look was back. "You've got pain medication, right?"

Nick looked down at his hands. "I kind of ran out."


"A week ago?"

"Shit, Nicky, you're hurting. Have you talked to the doctor? I can't believe she wouldn't give you at least one refill. It's only been a month since you got hurt."

Kevin had the same look he'd gotten when he decided Lou was cheating them. If Nick didn't confess, Dr. McKay would find herself looking at a lawsuit she didn't deserve.

"There's one refill left. I didn't want it. An ice pack will take care of it, really, Kev."

"Okay, I've got ibuprofen in my bag. How about that?"

"All I need is an ice pack. Look, I'll get it myself, okay?"

Kevin sat down on the coffee table next to the couch, effectively pinning Nick in. His jaw was clenched and his voice dangerously reasonable. "Nick, why don't you want to take pain medication?"

Nick winced. He never won when Kevin used that voice. "I don't need it. The pain's not that bad. I can handle it."

Kevin stared at him, eyes narrowed, until he wanted to squirm. "What are you not telling me, little man?"

"Nothing! Damn it, I just don't want to take the pills. I don't need them. It's my choice, isn't it?"

Kevin stared at him for another moment, then sighed and stood up. "I'll get the ice pack."

Nick frowned at his back. Kevin never gave up that easily. He had to have something up his sleeve.

But Kevin didn't say another word on the subject. He brought Nick an ice pack and a Mountain Dew, then sat down to make out a grocery list.

"There's more to life than TV dinners," he said.

"Yeah, popcorn, chips and dip, delivery. Except there's not really any place that delivers out here."

Kevin shot him a dark look and scribbled something on the list that Nick was pretty sure wasn't popcorn or chips. In fact, he wouldn't put it past Kevin to buy some sort of green vegetable-y thing. Well, Kevin buying it wasn't the same as Nick eating it.

Once Kevin had left, Nick grabbed his PS2 controller. As the game was loading, he leaned back and closed his eyes for just a minute.


By the time Kevin got back from the little mom'n'pop grocery, the sun was out. The wind still had a damp, cold feel to it, but Kevin wasn't one to be ungrateful for small favors. He carried in the groceries, pausing just long enough to see that Nick was asleep on the couch. Which was probably for the best, he thought as he put away the groceries. He hadn't seen Nick looking that rough in a long time. Between the dark circles under Nick's eyes and the pain lines that cut into his face even as he slept, it was pretty obvious he wasn't doing nearly as well as he tried to appear.

Kevin had been afraid of that. When he'd talked to Nick right after the accident, his little brother had seemed in good spirits. A little shaken and loopy from the drugs, but basically okay. He'd been a pissier the next week, but when Kevin had offered to come visit, he'd sworn he was fine. Years of experience had taught Kevin that Nick's version of fine wasn't always the same as other people's. Nick could be prickly about things, though, so Kevin had put off visiting him for a couple of weeks, not wanting it to look like he was checking up on him.

Then Nick had disappeared. Kevin hadn't found out for over a week. When he had finally gotten the news, a nagging worry had started. Sure, Nick was grown up. Yes, he probably did just need some time to rest up. And no, there was no reason to believe something was very, very wrong just because Nick hadn't called Kevin to say he was taking a vacation. Nick had quit reporting his every move to Kevin years ago. But even after rehashing the issue with Kristen a thousand times, Kevin still couldn't shake the feeling that he needed to find his little brother, and soon. Even if that did make him an interfering worry wort according to his wife.

Now that he was here, he didn't think he'd made the wrong decision. Nick looked like he'd been run over by a semi. The groceries Kevin had bought filled almost empty cupboards and refrigerator shelves. And then there was the matter of the empty pill bottle on the counter, which Kevin intended to get to the bottom of before he left, even if he did nothing else the whole trip.

Groceries finally deposited in their proper places, Kevin went back over to the couch. The ice pack Nick had asked for had slipped off his leg, merely cool now. Kevin grabbed it, then pulled the afghan off the back of the couch to spread over Nick. Not wanting to wake him, Kevin brushed the hair off his forehead gently, feeling for temperature--a routine gesture, born of freezing European nights and bodies too exhausted to fight off whatever germs came their way. Nick sighed, relaxing at the touch, and Kevin smiled. Yeah, he was right to come.

Leaving Nick to sleep, Kevin put the ice pack back in the freezer and went out to the deck. It was a broad expanse of weathered oak with a wooden picnic table, benches, and deck chairs all painted a fading blue. With the house set on the side of a hill, the deck was positioned over the beach, giving a clear view of the water. Kevin sat in one of the chairs, enjoying the familiar smell of sea air for a moment before pulling out his phone.

Brian answered on the second ring, saying, "Did you find him?" before Kevin even had a chance to greet him.

"Yeah. He's . . . " Kevin trailed off, not sure how to describe Nick's appearance. "I don't know, I just got here. He looks pretty rough, though."

Brian sighed. In the background, Kevin could hear Bailey babbling something, and Leighanne laughing in response.

"Where are you?" Brian asked finally.

"I don't know if you should come out here, Bri. He wasn't too happy to see me."

"Where are you?"

Hearing the stubborn edge in his cousin's voice, Kevin told him. "But don't blame me if he kicks your ass for invading his privacy."

"That won't be till after I kick his for running off without telling anyone."

Brian sounded determined, but Kevin knew better than to believe him. Brian couldn't hold a grudge to save his life. He also couldn't stand to see any of his brothers in pain.

Kevin shook his head. He'd let Brian and Nick sort it out. "Hey, as long as you're coming, I need you to do me a favor . . . "


The breeze coming off the ocean was a little cool, but Nick was enjoying it. He could only stand being cooped up in the house for so long. After the exertion of the morning, he didn't want to chance another walk, so he had to settle for the deck. One of the benches that went with the picnic table was just the right height to prop his leg on when he sat in one of the straight-back chairs. Kevin had frowned at the arrangement and gone inside for a pillow to stick under Nick's knee, which Nick had to admit helped.

They'd moved out there after Nick had called Aaron and Kevin had fixed lunch. Kevin was reading a paperback spy novel that looked like an airport giftshop special. Nick shifted his attention from comics to drawing and back. The throbbing in his knee made it hard to concentrate on any one thing for long, but there was always Kevin to bug when he needed to distract himself. Kevin, for his part, had been remarkably patient. He'd gotten up to get drinks, the latest issue of X-Men that Nick had forgotten in his room, Nick's pastels, and a jacket all without complaint. When Nick had interrupted his reading four times to comment on the insanity of one of his comics' story lines, Kevin had acted like he was really interested. Nick had dropped his eraser, his pillow, and his pencil three different times (the last two on purpose), and Kevin hadn't even made a comment about Nick's clumsiness when he picked them up. And through the entire afternoon, he hadn't once brought up the subject of why Nick was there or why he wasn't taking the pain pills.

It was kind of freaking Nick out. Kevin might be one of the most kind-hearted people Nick knew, but patient, he was definitely not. He was more the type to go yell at management about giving you time off when you were hacking up a lung than sitting by your bed, handing you tissues and water bottles. Nick had started to wonder if he should sneak into Kevin's room and check for suspicious pod-like things.

"Something on your mind?" Kevin asked suddenly, looking up from his book.

Nick realized he'd been staring. But as long as Kevin was giving him an opening . . . "What's going on, Kev?"

Kevin frowned. "With what?"

"You. You're, like, all mellow or something. No lectures, no yelling, no forcing me to pack up and get on a plane back to Florida. What's up with that?"

"You want me to yell at you?" Kevin's eyebrow went up. "That's a first."

Nick sighed. "Dude, no. Except then I'd know you weren't taken over by aliens, but no. I just want to know why you aren't telling me how much I've screwed up."

Setting his book aside, Kevin leaned forward. "Who said you screwed up?"

That wasn't the conversation Nick had been trying to have. Sighing again, he grabbed one of his comics and flipped it open to a random spot. "If you're just going to avoid the question . . . "

Kevin snorted. "Talk about the pot and the kettle."


"You, little man, have been avoiding damn near every question I've asked you since I got here. Which is okay, because I didn't come out here to give you the third degree or a lecture. You're a grown up, Nicky. If you feel like you need some time away from whatever's going on in your life, then you need some time away. That doesn't sound like a screw-up to me."

Okay, definitely checking for a pod later. "What happened to being pissed 'cause I didn't tell you where I was going?"

Kevin shrugged. "Okay, so I wish you'd called someone, me or one of the other guys. The fact that you didn't made me worry. Still makes me worry. Any one of us would have given you a place to hang out till you were rested up, no questions asked. You know that, don't you?"

Nick nodded, looking away. The breeze was kicking up tiny whitecaps on the water. The familiar, fierce longing came over him to be out there, to feel the waves crash against his ankles and the sand beneath his toes. Just to be able to walk freely to the water's edge without fear that the sand might shift under his feet and leave him crippled for life.

"I needed to be alone," he said finally. "I just . . . I really needed to be alone for a while."

"Do you want me to leave?"

Nick looked back at him quickly, startled by the quiet concern in Kevin's voice and by his own reaction to the question. He had needed the alone time, desperately, but now that Kevin was here . . . "No."

"Okay." As simple as that, Kevin picked up his book and settled back in his chair.

Feeling oddly relieved, Nick turned back to his comic, where the villain was outlining his plot to take over the world. Or possibly destroy it, or turn it into a theme park for aliens. Nick frowned, his concentration shot as he tried to change the position of his leg without knocking the pillow over. After weeks of dealing with it, he would have thought it would get easier to ignore the pain, not harder.

"You okay?" Kevin asked, looking up from his book again.

"Yeah." Nick shifted again, but it was no good. "Probably just need to get inside for a while. The cold kind of gets to me after a while."

Kevin got up and offered Nick his hand, holding on until Nick was steady on his feet. "You want to try the couch again, or your bed?"

Before Nick could answer, the doorbell rang. Nick jumped, grabbing on to Kevin for balance. "Shit. Who the hell is that? I never get visitors."

"I'll get it."

Kevin was off for the door before Nick could answer, leaving Nick to follow at his slower pace. He'd just made it into the house when Kevin opened the front door.

In retrospect, he probably shouldn't have been surprised to see the rest of his band mates pour through the door, Howie and AJ in mid-argument and Brian looking supremely pissed. Brian dropped his bag and stalked straight over to Nick, eyeing him with an expression Nick had learned to fear.

Nick winced, but stood his ground. He'd gotten off light with Kevin, but he probably deserved everything Brian had to say.

"You," Brian snapped as he stopped in front of Nick. He looked Nick up and down, then shook his head. "Remind me to kick your ass later."

He grabbed Nick in a hug that was almost painful. Nick didn't care. The feeling of Brian's arms around him, the familiar scents of his shampoo and aftershave--it was *Brian*, and he hadn't known how much he needed him until just this moment.

"Hey, man, you need to share."

Nick wasn't quite ready to let go of Brian, but then he had his arms full of Howie, which made up for it. And then AJ, who gave him a hug almost as hard as Brian's before stepping back abruptly.

"You look like shit, dawg. And what the hell are we doing in fucking Rhode Island, anyway?"

Howie smacked the back of AJ's head. "Be nice. I know your mama taught you better manners than that."

"And your mama taught you not to hit, but that didn't work, either."

"What are you guys doing here?" Nick interrupted. "How did you know . . . "

As the obvious answer struck him, he turned to Kevin.

"I only told Brian, I swear," Kevin said, raising his hands defensively. "I didn't know he was bringing the moron twins with him."

"They insisted." Brian shrugged. "Apparently they wanted to explore the wonders of Rhode Island."

"No, we *wanted* to explore the wonders of Costa Rica. Or any other place where it isn't fifteen degrees below zero and raining." AJ poked Nick in the side. "If I wake up covered in frozen algae, I want you to know I blame you."

"Hey," Howie said suddenly, smacking Kevin's arm. "I am not his twin. I'm a whole lot better looking."

"My ass. Which, incidently . . ."

"Shut up, both of you," Kevin snapped. "Go make yourselves useful and get your bags put up. There are two bedrooms at the end of the hall. Howie, you don't kick, so you can go in with Nick; his room is on the left. Brian and AJ can fight over who gets to share with me and who ends up with the couch. Nick, sit down and get your leg up. Brian, there's a pillow on that bench out on the deck for Nick's knee. Go get it and help Nick get situated. Go on, all of you, move."

They moved, just like they always did when Kevin got that tone. When Nick was younger, he'd hated having to obey Kevin's orders even though he'd learned better than to ignore them. There was nothing quite like having your band mate sling you over his shoulder while you were still in your underwear and carry you out into a blizzard to throw you on the bus for making you pay attention when he said to get moving.

Today, Nick was just grateful that someone was willing to take charge. He really did need to sit down, and not just because his knee was aching. The overwhelming rush of energy and noise that had come in with his brothers had left his head spinning. Was it really just that morning that he had been alone in a virtually silent house? And now, he could hear AJ and Howie still bickering cheerfully in one of the bedrooms, with Kevin interjecting comments every few insults. Probably critiquing their technique, he thought as he sank down onto the couch.

"Hey, scoot forward a little." Brian stood over him, holding the pillow. As Nick complied, Brian slipped the pillow under his knee and then sat down beside him, pulling him back to where he was leaning against Brian's side. "Sorry about the circus."

Nick wiggled a little, getting comfortable, until Brian poked him. "Sorry." He listened to the voices in the bedroom--quieter, with Kevin doing most of the talking. Probably about him. "Why did y'all come?"

"Why do you think?" He could feel Brian shrug. "You disappear, then Kevin finds you and says you're not doing so great. Where else would we be?"

"I'm fine," Nick said, more out of pride than conviction.

"You look tired."

He was tired. He could only sleep so long before his leg started cramping and woke him up, but he wasn't going to say that to Brian.

"I'm fine."

Brian shrugged again. "Whatever you say, little bro."

If it had been anyone else, Nick would have gotten irritated. With Brian, there was something reassuring about the fact that he could still see through Nick's bullshit. Even if Nick had no intention of admitting to that.

"Kevin had the tour doc write you another prescription for the pain pills," Brian added, casually enough that Nick knew he was waiting for an explosion. "I've got them in my bag if you want them."

"Fuck." Nick sat up, the calm that had started to settle over him completely gone. "Damn it, I told him I didn't need them. I'm doing fine without them. Fuck. Kevin!"

Brian grabbed his arm. "Nick, listen, no one's saying you have to take them. They're just . . . "

Kevin came back into the living room, raising an eyebrow when he saw Nick's expression. He looked at Brian. "You told him about the pills."

"Kevin, damn it, I *said* I didn't want any fucking pills." Nick jerked his leg off the pillow, wincing as his heel hit the floor. He couldn't do this sitting down, not with Kevin towering over him. "Who the hell gave you the right to get them when I said I don't fucking need them?"

He shoved himself to his feet, only to fall back again as his knee spasmed. He grabbed for it, trying to stop the white-hot agony shooting up his leg. As if his hands could ever be enough to hold back that flood. "Shit, shit, shit. Get away from me!"

Brian and Kevin both had reached for him, and they both jerked back with almost identical expressions of hurt. He didn't care. They weren't the ones with their legs being tied in knots from the inside out. They didn't have to deal with this fucking pain every day and try to be strong and calm and so fucking careful about every move they made. They just went behind his back and did exactly what he'd said he didn't want, like he shouldn't have a say what went into his own body. Like he was a fucking baby who couldn't be trusted to make his own decisions.


It was Howie, and Howie was hard to be mad at even when he was in the wrong, so Nick let him wrap his arm around Nick and pull him close, rocking slightly.

"Give us a minute, okay, guys? J, see if there's any ice in the freezer, would you, please?"

"There's those blue gel things in the door," Kevin said. His voice sounded strange. Nick couldn't quite make himself care.

After what seemed like a long time, Nick felt something cold press into his thigh above his hands.

"Let go now, Nicky. Let me get where the cramp is."

Lying back on the couch, Nick pressed his arm over his eyes and let Howie ease his leg out straight. The ice felt amazing; he could actually feel the muscles unknotting themselves. He concentrated on that, blocking out the voices buzzing around him until he couldn't hear them at all.

He awoke to the sound of metal clanging in the kitchen and a game show announcer on the TV. AJ was sitting on the floor beside the couch, holding the ice pack on Nick's knee with one hand while he stared at the TV with a rapt expression.

"Hey." Nick poked at his arm. "How come you got babysitting duty?"

AJ turned and blinked at him as if just remembering he was there. Shrugging, he tilted his head in the direction of the kitchen. "They didn't want me to cook."

"Wise decision." Nick yawned. "What's on?"

"Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Shut up, you're making me miss the questions."

"You're already a millionaire. And anyway, they show them on the screen."

AJ held up the ice pack. "You want this down your shorts?"

Nick shut up. AJ rarely made a threat he wasn't willing to back up.

They ate in the living room, the sound of the TV and Howie and AJ's chatter not quite filling the tense silence between Nick, Kevin, and Brian. Midway through his hamburger, Nick was starting to feel guilty. Not so much because he was wrong, but because Brian looked like a puppy who'd been scolded too harshly, and Kevin had that blank look he got when he didn't want people to know he was upset.

Suddenly not hungry, Nick set the rest of his food down on the coffee table. He wanted to make up some excuse to escape to his room, but the thought of trying to struggle up from the couch, climb over AJ, and walk all the way down the hall was too exhausting. So he sat through the argument over who had to do the dishes and what movie they were going to watch, letting the conversations swirl around him without getting involved. Kevin and Brian both relaxed as the night went on, acting as if nothing had happened.

Nick started to feel a little better himself when Kevin walked past and reached out absentmindedly to ruffle his hair. Then after the movie, Brian challenged him to a round of Grand Theft Auto and told him to scoot over and quit hogging the couch, since it had the best view of the TV. Nick knew everything was okay again.

Several hours later, Nick had his head on Brian's shoulder and was watching the brightly colored blurs race across the TV screen. He almost asleep, too tired to make sense of what he was seeing. He had gotten in the habit of staying up late, knowing that he'd spend most of the night staring at the ceiling, but the excitement of the day had worn him out. If he let his eyes close, he knew he'd be asleep in an instant, but he wasn't quite ready to give up. Not with Brian running gentle fingers through his hair with one hand while navigating the route of the game with the other.

"Falling asleep on me, little bro?" Brian asked, his voice hushed.

Nick nodded, the movement waking him up a little.

"Sorry," he said around a yawn.

"It's late. We should both be asleep."

But Brian didn't move. Nick looked up at him, and was surprised to see that Brian was looking back at him with an expression that was almost sad.

"Bri? What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Brian patted his back. "Come on, bed."

But something wasn't right, and Nick didn't want to go to bed without finding out what. "Brian?"

Brian sighed. "It's just, it used to be, when something bothered you, I was your first call. I was trying to figure out when that stopped. When did you stop calling anyone, Nick?"

Nick frowned, too tired to come up with a decent explanation. "I was just . . . I just needed to be alone for a while. Needed to think. I didn't . . . "

"It's okay, Nicky." Brian pulled him close, just holding him for a long moment. "Just as long as you know you can. Me, Kevin, any of us. You just have to call."


Howie didn't kick, but he did cling like a leech. Nick woke up to dawn streaking the sky outside his window and Howie half on top of him, face pressed against his shoulder. It had been years since they'd had to double up beds on a regular basis, but the feeling of being Howie's teddy bear was so familiar that Nick almost thought he could get back to sleep. The muscles in his leg were starting to give warning twinges, though, so he unwrapped Howie and got up.

Next to the coffee maker on the kitchen counter was an orange prescription bottle. This one was full.

Nick hesitated, staring at it. He didn't need it. The pain was still bad at times, but it had been worse. He'd borne it then. He could take it now. He didn't need any help.

He stepped forward, reaching for the coffee maker. A shot of pale fire, the ghost of pain from the night before, erupted from his knee. Grabbing for the counter, he swore under his breath. The last thing he wanted was to wake any of the other guys and have them find him like this.

Ignoring the prescription bottle, Nick turned on the coffee maker and dropped into the nearest chair. Caffeine would make everything better. Caffeine and a walk to limber up his leg. Then he'd be up to showing his brothers he was fine, really, even if he was a little slower than usual.

Armed with a steaming travel mug, Nick walked as quietly as he could through the living room where Brian snored peacefully on the couch. He thought briefly of waking Brian up and dragging him along, but decided to take pity. Anyway, Brian tended to be grumpy when he didn't get enough sleep.

Following the familiar path to the stairs, he started the careful descent. The view at the bottom--dark water just beginning to glow with pinks and golds--was worth the effort of the climb. Nick sat and sipped his coffee, letting the quiet of the morning seep into him.

It lasted less than five minutes. Then the low thud of footsteps on the stairs told him he was about to have company.

Howie dropped down beside him, shivering. "Dude, you're like a furnace. No fair getting up and leaving me to freeze."

Nick grinned and slung an arm around him to pull him closer. "Sorry. Here, have some coffee."

Howie took a sip, then cupped his hands around the mug and held it where the steam could touch his face. They sat quietly, passing the coffee between them and watching the sunrise until it had cleared the horizon.

"You know," Howie said finally, "I was serious when I said you could come stay with me if you wanted."

Nick started to pull back, but Howie was leaning against him and didn't seem inclined to move.

"I know."

"Then why are we in Rhode Island?"

"Because you're one of the first places people would look for me and this is pretty much the last?" Nick grimaced. "At least until my little brother ratted me out."

Howie twisted to look at him. "Who are you hiding from?"

Nick shrugged. "Just people. You ready to head back? Your fingers are turning blue."

Grabbing his arm, Howie fixed him with his own version of the "no bullshit" look which, in its own way, was more powerful than Kevin's. At least with Kevin, you could get him sucked into a yelling match and distract him for a while.

"Something's got you tied up in knots, Nicky. Now tell me the truth. Does it have to do with me or the boys?"

"No." Once they'd hashed out the issues that had come up over him going solo, his relationship with his brothers was one of the few strong, healthy areas in his life. Which thankfully Howie seemed to read from his expression, saving him from having to put it into words.

"What about your knee, then? Did the doctor give you bad news?"

"No, it's all good." That wasn't as true as his first answer, but Howie seemed to buy it.

"Is everything okay with your family?"

Nick sighed. "Howie, man, really. There's nothing going on that I can't handle. I missed you, I'm really glad you're here, but there's nothing wrong I can't take care of myself, okay? Quit worrying so much."

Howie closed his eyes for a second. "But that's the point, Nicky. You don't have to take care of it by yourself. That's why we're here."

"I thought it was to see the wonders of Rhode Island." Nick smiled, trying for a lighter mood.

"According to AJ, the only wonder is that the entire state isn't one huge popsicle." Howie studied him for a minute, then sighed. "When you're ready to talk, any one of us will listen. Or all of us, if that's what you need. Just don't forget we're here for you, okay?"

Nick nodded, pulling him close for a second. Feeling warm, even if the entire state was about to turn into a popsicle. He grinned against Howie's hair. "Want to race to the top?"

Howie just shook his head as he stood and pulled Nick to his feet.


AJ hadn't ever considered himself a morning person. So when he finally forced himself out of bed, ignoring Kevin's mumbled protest at the disturbance, he headed straight for the deck to have a smoke and put his brain in order before he inflicted himself on other people.

Luckily, the weather was a little warmer and a lot drier than it had been the past few days. Of course, after being pretty much house-bound for two days while it rained like the second coming of Noah, AJ was ready to accept almost any weather that didn't involve a downpour. Particularly since the guys didn't want him smoking in the house. He'd seriously thought he was going to go nuts, between being trapped in the house and trying to deal with Nick's weirdness.

Nick tended to be clingy when they'd been separated for a while, but this was taking it to an all new level. Ever since they'd arrived, if one of them was in the room, Nick found some way to latch on. The other guys didn't seem to care. When Nick walked up behind Howie and wrapped his arms around him, Howie just leaned back into the embrace. Brian kept grabbing Nick before Nick could grab him, poking him or ruffling his hair or tickling him or just rubbing his back, and it wouldn't be long before Nick had him pulled into a loose hug. Kevin just slung an arm around Nick whenever he got close, and Nick leaned into him so automatically that AJ doubted he knew he was doing it.

It drove AJ nuts. Partially because he had missed it, the constant touching, and partially because the thought of having someone hang on him like that made his skin itch. One of the side effects of sobriety seemed to be claustrophobia, or whatever you'd call it when what you really couldn't stand was being surrounded too closely by other people. It was hard enough keeping himself together when he was alone. The more other people crowded in on him, the harder it was to keep his cool. Even when those other people were the guys.

AJ took a deep drag on his cigarette, holding the smoke inside for as long as he could stand it before letting it out in a long, cleansing stream. He was here to help deal with Nicky's shit, not his own. Another side effect of sobriety seemed to be a conviction that your problems were the only problems in the world. His therapist had suggested he practice getting over himself.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the glass patio doors sliding open. Nick stuck his head out.

"Yo, dawg, Howie's cooking. You want breakfast?"

"What's he making?"

"Huevos Rancheros."

"Sounds good."

Nick yelled something over his shoulder, presumably at Howie, before coming out onto the deck. He moved so slowly and painfully that AJ couldn't help but wince as he walked across to lean on the rail next to AJ. Like an old man, AJ thought, and didn't let himself flinch back when Nick's arm brushed against his.

"I like it out here in the mornings," Nick said after a while.

When he didn't say anything more, AJ looked up at him. His eyes belied his words, sadder than AJ had seen them recently.

"Yeah?" he prompted softly.

Nick shrugged. "It's all still fresh, you know? Just nature, no one around to mess things up. Quiet."

"That why you came here?"

Nick nodded, his expression almost guilty. AJ understood, though, better than Howie or Brian or probably even Kevin could. Sometimes the only way to get your head straight was to get to a place where the only thing you could hear was your own thoughts.

"It's nice," AJ said. "Middle of fucking nowhere, but nice."

Nick grinned and kind of leaned toward him. AJ automatically put a hand on his back, then left it there as he realized it didn't make him nearly as itchy as when people grabbed on to him. And it seemed to make Nick happy; AJ could feel his muscles loosening under AJ's hand. After a short time, Nick shifted. Not away from AJ's hand, but just enough to take some of the weight off his leg.

"You need to sit down?"

Nick shook his head, even though AJ could see his hands whitening where they gripped the deck rail. AJ gave a mental shrug. If Nick wanted to be stubborn, no force on earth was going to move him. Although what he thought he had to prove by pretending he wasn't hurting was beyond AJ's ability to understand. Kind of like the deal with the pain pills; why not take them if he needed them? Unless maybe he was scared he'd end up like AJ.

Shit, was that it? AJ glanced at Nick, searching for . . . something. Proof he was wrong, because if Nick was making himself suffer because of AJ's screw up, AJ was going to kick his ass. Hard.

"Nick." He kept his voice even with an effort. "Nick, look me in the eyes and tell me you're not avoiding those fucking pain pills because you're scared you'll get hooked on them."

The look on Nick's face was almost shocked enough to set AJ's mind at ease, except he'd been there as Nick had learned how to lie to interviewers.

"God, J, no. I never thought . . . "

"Then why? And don't tell me you're not hurting. I'm not blind."

Nick sighed, a sound of pure exasperation. "Because, like I keep telling you guys, I don't *need* them. It hurts, yes, but I can handle it without them. I don't fucking *want* to take them, okay?"

"You're not convincing me here, buddy. You never had a problem taking any kind of medicine before. Why are you all weird about it now?"

Pushing away from the rail, Nick limped across the deck, stopping at the other rail with his back to AJ. It was as clear an 'I don't want to talk about it' message as if Nick had said it out loud. AJ shook his head. Why Nick thought that would work now, when it never had back when they were kids, AJ would never know.

"Talk to me, kid. You know I can still take you down."

Nick folded his arms across his chest--covering, AJ couldn't help but notice, AJ's traditional first line of attack. Nick's ribs were notoriously ticklish.

"I'll tell Kevin you're picking on me."

"I'll tell Kevin you were the one who broke his phone the last time."

Nick twitched, but didn't cave. AJ came up behind him, close enough to touch, and pulled out the big guns.

"Nick, come on. I've fucked you guys up enough. If this is about me, I need to know."

It worked, just like he'd known it would, even though it left him raw in the process. Nick sighed, hugging himself tighter.

"I promise, Bone, this is all about my fuck-ups, not yours, okay?"

Hating the defeated tone in Nick's voice, AJ stepped closer, resting a hand on his back.

"When I broke my leg, the doctor told me it would probably heal all right. But she also said there was a chance it wouldn't, that I had some sort of fracture where the muscle tore away from the bone and I could mess it up more by putting too much stress on it during the first few weeks, so I needed to be careful. But management wanted to take advantage of the press I was getting for being a klutz, and my mom kept saying, 'you need more face time, Nick. You can handle this.' So I was trying to do the interviews, the appearances--you know the drill. And my leg fucking *hurt* all the time because all I could take was over-the-counter crap during the day because the other stuff knocks me out. But it wasn't exactly the first time I'd performed when I felt like shit, so I was doing it, you know?"

AJ nodded, but didn't say anything for fear of breaking the mood.

"Then I went back to the doctor. She looked at my x-rays and stuff, and then she sat me down and asked me if I still wanted to be able to walk when I was forty. She said if I kept going the way I was, the muscle around my knee might heal in the short run, but in the long run, I was going to have some permanent damage.

"It scared me, J. I went to management, sat them down and told them I was going to have to take a couple of weeks off. I told them what the doctor said, and they all just sat there and looked at me like I was speaking a different language. One of them said I needed a second opinion, another started listing all the appearances I couldn't get out of, and the last one told me if I couldn't handle a little discomfort, I had no business *in* the business. They all fucking thought I was trying to get out of work just because my leg hurt. Or maybe they just didn't care, as long as I kept making them money now, it didn't matter what happened in the future. One of them offered me some pot, said it would take the edge off."

Nick laughed, but there was more anger to the sound than humor. AJ could feel the same anger shimmering at the back of his mind, but he didn't let it out yet. Nick needed him listening, not trying to punch holes in random walls.

"And, you know, fuck them, right? They pay the bills, but their pockets stay empty too if I don't show up. I could handle them. But then my mom shows up, and she's all 'you're strong, Nick, you don't let pain get you down.' I tried to tell her it wasn't about the pain, it was about not screwing my knee up permanently. But she just told me I could do interviews sitting down and I couldn't afford to lose this opportunity, because it wasn't like my last album had done that great, so I needed every break I could get on this one. And anyway, Justin Timberlake performed with a broken foot, so I couldn't let myself do any less, could I?"

"Fuck, Nicky." AJ didn't trust himself to say any more than that. He pulled Nick closer, wrapping both arms around him. Nick was quiet for a long time, just leaning against AJ.

"I was . . . The management assholes were bad enough, but I couldn't take it from my mom, too. I told her I wasn't fucking scared of a little pain, but I wasn't going to ruin my life for her or anyone else. And I took the pain pills the doctor had given me that I'd barely even used and ran them through the garbage disposal right in front of her." Nick shook his head. "Which was stupid, I guess, but I wanted to show her. I wanted her to see I wasn't just being weak. But she just shook her head and told me when I was done with my tantrum, I could come find her and we'd work out the schedule for the next few days. So when she left, I got online and found this place and got a ticket on a flight that night."

And knowing Nick, he hadn't taken anything for pain ever since, still trying to prove something to his mother even though she wasn't here. There were a lot of things AJ wanted to say about that, but most of them would have hurt Nick more than they would have helped AJ. So he took a few deep breaths and hugged Nick a little harder, and finally settled on, "I wish you would have called one of us. You shouldn't have been going through that alone."

Nick sighed shakily. "You guys keep saying that. But don't I have to learn how to handle this stuff on my own?"

AJ pulled back, twisting around so that he could see Nick's expression. It was one of exhausted bewilderment, like he honestly didn't get it. AJ shook his head. Well, hell, he'd had to hit bottom and go through rehab and months of therapy before he got it, so he couldn't exactly blame Nick for not having figured it out by himself.

"Nick, listen to me. You *can* handle it on your own. You did handle it on your own, and pretty damn well from what I can see. But you don't ever have to handle it *alone*. Okay?"

AJ could see the moment when it sunk in, when some sort of tension that had been in Nick since before they'd arrived finally eased, and he smiled.

It wasn't until Brian stuck his head out and yelled at them to come eat that AJ realized he'd been wrapped around Nick for a long time and hadn't thought about itching once.


Some days were better than others. When good days came, Nick tried to remember not to take them for granted. He'd seen the bad ones, and knew how easily they could come again.

Today was a good day. The guys had found a well-used Monopoly game and were seated on the floor around the coffee table, playing it. Or, more accurately, Howie was pursuing Boardwalk domination with his usual intensity while AJ cackled about having a master plan, but bought and sold every property that came his way too quickly to get anywhere. Brian had taken a break to call Leighanne, leaving his piece to Kevin, who wasn't really paying attention and kept moving his own piece when it was Brian's turn and Brian's when it was his. Nick suspected he might be doing it just to see how many shades of purple Howie's face could turn. Howie took Monopoly very seriously.

Nick had given up early on. His body seemed determined to make up for all the sleep he hadn't gotten in the previous weeks, and he was too comfortable leaning against the couch with Kevin's arm over his shoulders and AJ randomly tickling his toes with a string to concentrate on who owned what. Okay, maybe the tickling wasn't comfortable, but it was familiar. Give him another few minutes, and he'd be gone.

Then his knee twinged, and he made a face as he shifted his weight. That was a familiar feeling, too, but one he could live without.

"I could get you something for that," Kevin said quietly.

Nick sighed. Kevin kept trying, even though Nick told him no every time. As annoying as it was, it was also a little reassuring. It meant Kevin was still Kevin, completely incapable of not trying to take care of his brothers.

"Hey," Nick said, and waited until Kevin turned away from the game to look at him. "Kev, seriously. I've already got everything I need."



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