God, if he had a dollar for every time he'd heard that over the past year. Everyone, yes, EVERYONE had said it to him in some varying degree of either astonishment or scorn. The media had either blasted him or praised him. They'd said he was doomed to failure, they'd compared him ad nauseum with another boy band knockoff when there really was no comparison.
Idiots. They couldn't seem to see that his own label was playing one end against the middle for their own twisted reasons. What those reasons were was anybody's guess. It had all sounded so good, a dream come true. Time away from everything familiar and mundane; a chance to spread his wings and try new things; a chance to get back to the roots of his music and call all the shots. All by himself.
In retrospect, he wasn't so sure that had been such a good thing.
Calling the shots had been difficult, more so than he'd imagined. More than once he'd secretly wished he could play the 'kid' again, default to someone older and wiser and sit back and go with the flow. If his venture failed, it would then have been easy to smile and point the finger of responsibility elsewhere. But he hadn't. He'd taken control, and from somewhere deep within himself he'd found the resolve to grow up, both as a musician and as a person. A person worthy of respect and accolades, a person who could blow off the criticism with the j'e ne se quois attitude of one much older and experienced.
But it hurt. Deep inside, every insecurity he'd ever had lurked in tiny dark corners, just waiting for that lousy review in some hometown, podunk newspaper. What did they know anyway? Certainly not him. Only his family knew him, his closest friends.
Friends. He laughed as he thought back to the reactions of his 'brothers', his band mates. As varied as their personalities had been their outcry at his venture. Or, more pointedly, their lack of outcry. 'You're doing what?' 'You can't do that now, what about the group?' 'Oh. He's off doing what? I hadn't really noticed. Been busy, you know.'
The rain pelted the windows of his penthouse room as he paced by the fireplace. If only the glow of the burning logs would warm and dissolve the ache in his heart. He poured himself a drink and smiled as he remembered the one open display of support he'd received. The soft-spoken older man had appeared out of nowhere, lending his welcoming hug as the cameras had rolled and captured the emotion for eternity. It made everything better.
The one gesture he'd needed, the supporting embrace he'd craved, had been instead a hearty handshake, a soft wistful smile and a whispered 'good luck'. That was it. There was no 'call me if you need me'. There was no 'what can I do to help? 'There was no 'when will we see you again?' But most of all, there was no 'I'll miss you.'
Bad reviews? They were nothing compared to the loneliness of the road. Single hotel rooms instead of adjoining rooms and water balloons; dinner for one instead of a banquet for many. Had they followed his efforts as he spread his wings and soared into the unknown? Were they proud? Were they appalled? Did they give a rat's ass? But most importantly, did he?
There it was, the bottom line. Only one opinion really mattered, only one opinion ever had. While he'd been out there carving a new name for himself, the others had gone their own ways. Real estate, new families, club dates and broken relationships kept them all occupied. Vaguely he wondered if this was what high school graduation would have been like? To bond with people for over half your life only to suddenly be handed a piece of parchment and nudged out into the world to fend for yourself.
Happy graduation, he thought with a wry smile. Here's to the future, he said to no one and lifted his glass in an empty toast to the silence.
He was here, you know. Right here in this very city, carving out his own niche. Treading the boards and garnering his own surprising reviews and accolades. It had been tempting, so tempting to go see him; to sit in a room full of adults who weren't waving glow sticks, and to watch. To just watch and see what his oldest mentor had become. In the end he played it safe, opting instead to keep a respectful distance and allow him the spotlight he so richly deserved. After all, he'd been the cute one, the front man ... boy ... long enough. Now it was someone else's turn.
A last glance at the rain streaked balcony doors, and he padded barefoot across the plush carpet to answer the almost hesitant knock on his door. Crystal blue eyes met deep emerald green, and breathing ceased.
"Come in," he said almost formally.
"Nice place, very nice."
"How are you?"
Silence, deafening silence, shrouded the space between them. Their eyes held each other's, the older expecting the younger to break as always and look away. Surprise. Neither did he shift restlessly from foot to foot, as had been his habit from day one. Silently the younger man he watched and waited, waited for some sign, some reason why 'he' was here. Why now?
"I thought maybe you'd come see the show." Ah, there it was.
He smiled softly. "I almost did," he shrugged, "but it was your night, not mine."
Finally. For once, those dreaded words held something new. Surprise. Pleasant surprise. And ... respect?
"I like it, Nick. It suits you."
"I guess because-"
"No," he shook his head. "Why didn't you call me? Offer to help me?"
"You needed to do this on your own, Nick. If I'd been there like always ..."
"You mean ..."
"You don't get it, do you."
No, he hadn't, but he was beginning to. And for once in his life he prayed his instincts were right. "Why don't you explain it?"
"Can we sit first?"
"No, Kev. I need to know."
"I had to let you go, Nick. I couldn't keep you to myself forever if I ever wanted you to come back."
"What?" He was certain he'd never been this speechless ever before.
"It was time." The smile that lit his face as he spoke warmed the room far more than any fire ever could. "I had to unlock the ivory tower and set you free, Nick. The longer I kept you there, away from your heart's desires, the more I knew you'd resent me."
"Kev, I'd never-"
"Yes, Nick, you would have. It's human nature."
Speechless, he sighed. He looked away, then looked back to find those haunting eyes still pinned on him. "Why?"
"They say if you love something set it free. If it comes back to you, it was meant to be. If it doesn't ..." His voice broke and he cleared his throat. "I was afraid to take that chance, so I came to you."
"So you're saying?"
"I missed you, Nick."
"No, the other part," he prodded with a smile.
"I'm proud of you, Nick."
God, the words he'd wanted, but- "No, the *other* other part."
"You've changed, Nick. You've grown up and you did it on your own, and I can't tell you how that makes me feel."
"Try. Please." Their voices had lowered, and when did they move closer together?
"You said that one already," he grinned.
"Happy. Happy for what you've achieved. Validated, because I knew you had it in you, and vindicated. Vindicated because of the jerks who said you couldn't do it. I always knew you could, and I always knew it might kill any chance I ever had with you."
"But you let me go anyway." He reached for the angular face of the man who stood a mere breath away. "Kev, that's-"
"If you love someone, let them go, Nick." He opened his arms wide.
"And if it was meant to be ..." He closed the distance between them, wrapping his arms tightly around the one person on earth whose opinion had ever truly mattered.
"If it was meant to be," he whispered against his soft lips, "they'll come back." Slowly, sweetly, they kissed, igniting something that had lain dormant for years, awaiting just the right time to awaken. "Welcome back, Nick."
"I know we have changed but, change can be so good..."
"Time" BSB, "Black & Blue" (c) 2000