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Justin was relatively sure that if he ever looked up the word 'love' in the dictionary, there would be a video attachment of Brian goofing off on the basketball court. Justin loved the game, in that way that a significant portion of the American male population did -- as a past time, a continued nostalgic remembrance, a hobby. He imagined Brian loved it the way women who played professionally did, with that extra-exuberance of working for something that had been denied to them so long. Brian hadn't been born with either the physique or the endurance to play the game, but he was all heart and in the end, Justin enjoyed watching that more than any classic Michael Jordan game or close college match.

Justin had fallen for Brian on a basketball court. At first he had felt sorry for Lance, getting traded to the enemy, but by the end of the game Justin had been jealous. He hadn't talked to Lance for three days until Chris had smacked him upside the head and told him to get over being a sore loser. It wasn't the problem at all, but still, Lance's eyes had gone oddly opaque when Justin had approached him to apologize, and Justin had felt like a dick.

Justin had once told Brian that being totally back-asswards for him had almost cost Justin his friendship with Lance. Brian had snorted and said, "Only because you were both toddlers. No communication skills." Brian had made Justin wait until he was legal to kiss him the first time, even though Justin had batted his eyelashes and flirted with Brian at every single event they had both attended in the years after the basketball game. When Justin had been panting in the dark of the small alcove in the alley behind the club, biting his lip to keep from begging for more, Brian had asked, "Was it worth waiting for?"

Justin had managed to squeak out, "Fuck. Yes."

Justin had discovered over the years that Brian was tiny but comfortable in his skin. Like on the basketball court, he knew perfectly how to control his own body in everything he did. Justin had never been precisely sure when something that had started as mostly intense mutual lust and a little bit of appreciation for each other's skills, goals and lives had become something much more intense and less spoken of. Justin hadn't been exactly sure why, when Nick had said, "Please you guys, I know I thought that this was forever, but now I think I was wrong," at the end of recording what became Backstreet's final album, Brian had shown up at Justin's house and told him, quietly, with the absolute trust that Justin would understand and never tell anyone else, "We always promised each other we'd let it be Frack who made the decision."

Justin had let him stay for as long as he could without it being noticed by someone who wasn't allowed to notice these things. After Brian had left, Justin had called Chris and asked him, "I think I might have a boyfriend."

Chris had sighed. "Really? So, that's what being basically monogamous for almost four years means, huh?"

Justin had realized that maybe he had been fooling himself for longer than he even knew. He had been okay with that.

*

"We're going back into the studio," Justin informed Brian while shooting hoops on his once-avowed enemy's driveway. Avowed until Justin had realized that it was more work to be mean to Nick than to be nice. Justin's shot bounced off the rim and into Brian's waiting hands.

"I'll play the part of the rest of the world and announce that it's about frippin' time." Brian's shot sailed through the net and he ran to make sure he was the first to reach it.

Justin put up enough of a fight to land them both on the pavement. "Like you care." Brian didn't listen to much pop when he wasn't recording it himself, he'd burned out on it somewhere in Europe.

Brian stood up and dusted himself off. "You're not ready to let go yet. I care about that."

Justin looked toward the house where Nick had disappeared with the promise of ice cream sandwiches. He didn't resent Nick, or even his decision, his fervent need to shed old skin and grow knew layers, but he thought he might have been a little angry with the other guys for not recognizing exactly how much Brian had put himself through so that Backstreet would never end. Justin knew he hadn't seen it at the time, hadn't understood that Brian was lying to himself about Leighanne in the same way that Justin had been lying to himself about Britney. But at least with Britney, Justin had been lying for his own sake, his own desperation to look in the mirror and see what he thought everybody else saw. Brian had stayed with Leighanne out of the sense that if he could make himself "right" that there could be no other possible threats to Backstreet. Brian trusted other people too much.

Justin didn't trust other people enough. Which, he admitted to himself, was probably why Britney had thrown expensive glassware at him when he had clumsily tried to explain that even though he hadn't really known it, he'd mostly just been using her. And why Leighanne had been the one to gently tell Brian, "You need to go find something real," before stepping out the front door with packed bags. Leighanne had called when she had gotten to where she was going to tell Brian she was all right. Britney had stopped speaking to Justin for a year until she could explain to him calmly that being Justin Timberlake didn’t give him the right to consider others less important than himself. Justin had told her then that she had understood him wrong, and she had listened a second time, and not stopped talking to him after that.

Brian always understood Justin the first time around.

Justin sat up on the gravel, squinting into the sunlight. "Do you know what you're going to do?" It was the first time he had asked since the break-up. Everyone else with the exception of the other Boys had asked non-stop, but Justin had waited until everyone else got tired of it, until Brian had been given some room to think.

Brian smiled secretively. "It's not gonna sound like much of an answer."

Justin propped his elbows on his knees and supported his chin on a bridge formed by his hands. "So?"

"I'm gonna just…be, for awhile."

Justin tilted his head so that it was resting on his hands and closed his eyes. "Be?"

"Be your boyfriend, be Nick's friend, be Brian Littrell, not of the Backstreet Boys."

"I'd be scared," Justin admitted.

"I am." Brian dribbled the ball, speaking in between resounding bounces. "But I trust you to watch out for me."

Justin didn't open his eyes. He didn't want Brian seeing his fear.

*

Brian came to a few of their recording sessions. He brought food and listened to JC talk about how the producing was going when the other guys needed a break from doing just that. He played practical jokes on Chris who, in turn, gave as good as he got. The day Kelly got sick and Joey had to bring Briahna in the studio without warning, Brian sat where her talking wouldn't interrupt anything and kept her happy for hours.

Justin recorded the words to their ballads while looking at Brian. JC refused to let him redo any of it.

*

Brian was the happiest person Justin had ever met, happier even than Joey, who, away from the cameras worried about things like his weight and his relationship with Kelly and how good a father he was. Brian didn't worry about much. He was of the opinion that, "If I started worrying about one thing I'm not sure where it would stop. I would have to worry that AJ might fall off the wagon some day or that Nick's next album will get torn to pieces by critics and he'll snap in two or that my heart, which is supposedly fixed, will get all screwed up again…there's just too much, y'know? I'd rather just…not."

In principal, Justin agreed, not worrying was much more fun if given the choice, but Justin couldn’t help it, and he thought it was immensely enterprising of Brian to have worked his way past his own worries.

It was so rare that Brian was anything other than positively buoyant that Justin wasn't quite sure what to do with the Brian who kept peeking out intermittently, the one who desperately missed knowing that there would be more music and that he would see the four other guys as a group sometime in the near future. Justin knew how the latter felt, remembering his taste of it during the hiatus acutely. JC had recorded everything that the guys had done during that period for Lance to watch or listen to upon returning. The two of them held a party at JC's place, seeing as how Lance hadn't left there once since returning stateside. Justin had come, to be with all of them again, only to leave, tired of hearing himself be a person he didn't know, someone formed by loneliness and uncertainty over all the things he had once considered to be basic truths. He had called Britney to apologize for being an ass, even though they weren't talking. She had hung up on him so he had called Brian, who had admitted, "You're a lot more fun when you're not psychotic."

Brian wasn't psychotic, or even what Justin could validly describe as depressed, just subdued. His laugh at being tickled while Justin was undressing him was half-hearted and he squirmed so violently that Justin apologized. Brian kissed him and said, "No," but didn't object when Justin made it up to him with a rim job before making love to him over the side of the bed.

Brian was sleeping more than usual. Justin figured this out the third time he brought coffee and cheese Danishes over to Brian's place before going into the studio and had to leave both items with a note, "Wanted to have a quickie, will settle for saying I love you," or something similar, because Brian was still too deeply unconscious to have woken up to his door being unlocked and opened.

Worst of all, when Brian showed up at Justin's place with a basketball in hand on a Thursday night when the weather was just the right side of cool and the sun had hours before setting, Justin won with almost no effort. Brian laughed as Justin came down from a slam dunk, Brian tangled around his waist. The ball bounced onto Justin's lawn and came to a stop. Brian said with a picture perfect smile, "C'mon winner-boy, I'll give you a victory blowjob in the shower."

Justin squinted, sweat-rolling into his eyes. "You lost on purpose, bottom-boy."

Brian opened his eyes wide, guilelessly. Justin felt like being contrary, "What if I wanna be the one to blow you, huh?"

Brian rocked back on his heels and his smile faltered a little bit, uncertain, "Sure, if you want that, I guess."

Which made Justin feel mean, so he shook his head and started toward the door, "Just giving you shit, little man."

"Beware my revenge, vertical freak of nature."

Justin chuckled, glad his boyfriend seemed to have returned to his body for the moment. "I think I heard a noise coming from the ground, do I have a speaking grasshopper on my lawn?" Justin cupped his ear and tilted his head so that he was evidently listening to the ground.

Brian jumped on Justin's back, nearly toppling the both of them, but Justin had been trained well by Chris and, later, by Howie, Chris's partner-in-crime. He kept walking. Brian's laughter vibrated sweetly against his back and Justin promised himself that he would worry later about all the tiny things that seemed like they might mean something big.

*

Brian left town for a few weeks, taking advantage of the fact that he had nobody scheduling his time by pretty much refusing to do it for himself. He checked his car's oil level, refilled his tires, made sure he had a full tank of gas and set off in the direction of Kentucky, intent on visiting his family.

Justin made it a full day and a half before calling Brian's cell and leaving a message, "Howie says hi. At least, I think that's what he said. Chris was sitting on him. You need to call me when you get in, so that I know you aren't road kill. I miss you already and you suck for leaving me here with these people, especially Bass and Chasez who aren't even trying to make me miss my boyfriend but just have no earthly clue, and I can't even get mad at them, because, hi, they've done this for a lot longer than a few lousy weeks. Okay, okay, rambling. Um, tell your mom hi and give her a kiss for me and make some firewood for her so that she doesn’t have to pay strangers to do it, and uh, yeah. Call me."

Brian did call, mostly just to laugh at Justin, because, "My mom has a gas fireplace. They're easier."

"Oh." Justin wished he had seen Brian's mom's place for himself and knew things like that, but he had never really even been to Kentucky outside of a day or so at a time when NSYNC had played there. "I guess that makes sense."

Brian snorted. "Besides, she's got another son to take care of that year-round."

"I'm sure that's what she was thinking when she conceived too, 'ah, this shall be my useful child.'"

"Watch it, Timberlake," Brian responded lightly.

Justin caught him off guard by observing, "You sound about to crawl out of your skin."

Brian took several beats to answer, "Experiencing a bit of severe 'you can never go home' trauma."

"Kentucky isn't your home, baby. I mean, I know it was, but Memphis was for me at one point and I don't much expect it to be if I ever get back there long enough to find out." Justin flexed his fingers, as if by sheer will power he could reach past the miles and smooth his knuckles over the soft skin of Brian's lower back.

"You don’t have family there anymore, it's different."

"Fine, it is, but you have a home. Orlando has Nick, when he's not jet-setting, and Howie and Chris and me. We're family, you know that."

"If you and me are family, Jup, how come we both still live alone?" Brian's voice was low, like he might be crying and trying not to alert Justin to this fact.

Justin knew how to listen, though. "Baby-"

"Don't, okay? Don’t placate me right now. I need something more and you can't give it. I understand, but I don't wanna be treated like some kind of stupid child who doesn't know what’s best for him." Brian didn't sound as angry as the words would indicate, just tired. "I'm gonna go, Jup. Love you."

Brian hung up before Justin could say he loved him back. Justin didn't want to think about Brian's motivation for doing such a thing.

*

Brian returned after nearly two and half weeks with from-scratch blueberry pies and stories about eleven-foot tall weeds and the mad need for a blowjob. Justin would have tied himself to his own bed for a day and a half at that point if it meant having sex with Brian, so he obliged readily.

Afterward, when Justin was congratulating himself for scotch-guarding the couch, Brian noted dolefully, "Time was I could go months without seeing hide nor hair of you and not turn in a ravenous sex-crazed monster."

Justin repeated, "hide nor hair," not really out of agreement so much as the inability to come up with anything on his own. Brian had a tendency to pick what Justin saw as completely inopportune times to have seriously important conversations.

"Justin." Brian also had an innate ability to sense when Justin was less than fully mentally present.

Justin let his head flop to the side so that he was facing Brian. "Hide nor hair," he said the words with emphasis this time, to prove he'd been listening.

Brian shook his head. "I'm breaking up with you."

Justin sat up. "Okay, no."

"I'm serious."

Justin nodded. "Right, I know. But I'm under strict orders not to let you."

Brian frowned. "Strict orders?"

"Technically, your cousin and my bandmate and his sneaky-no-good boyfriend who happens to be a friend of yours might have strongly suggested that they would kick my ass if I allowed such a thing to happen, but in truth, they wouldn't get to said ass any quicker than I could and I would be on the job far far ahead of them. So, I'm sorry, you're SOL on this one," Justin informed him sadly.

"I didn't tell anyone I was thinking of breaking up with you."

"No, but I probably freaked out after our conversation a few weeks ago and told Chris who has a mouth bigger than Texas and told Howie who told Kevin, both of whom think they know you better than I do, even though they don't because I already know that you're freaking out about not being part of Backstreet and feeling left behind and that you would try and dump me before I could dump you because you were thinking it was the only sensible thing because, quite honestly, you've been kind of stupid since the break-up, no offense or anything."

Brian mumbled, "None taken. Much." He stared at Justin. "If you break up with me now, you realize I will be able to call down wrath and hellfire upon you with a single telephone call."

"Trust me, I considered letting you break up with me now just to mitigate the consequences of it possibly happening later."

Brian considered this. "Did not."

"Did too."

"Not."

Justin gave, Brian could win against even Chris at this game. "Maybe not."

*

Someone, Justin suspected Chris until Chris looked into his eyes and said, "I would've, if I'd thought watching Brian squirm right now was funny," started a rumor that Justin and Britney were secretly getting back together. Justin knew they had made themselves an easy target, meeting up the week before because they were both in the same place at the same time after nearly six months, but he let himself feel a bit of righteous indignation that he couldn't have an afternoon with a friend without everything getting blown straight out of proportion.

He called Britney's camp and managed to get hold of Fe, who told him, "Oh, honey, she didn't call you? Yeah, Darren confessed." Darren was Britney's dancer and on-and-off boyfriend who was sweet but sometimes not the brightest bulb on the tree. "Reporters are a lot nicer to her when she's dating you than just some shmo on the tour, Ju, you know that."

He did know it. He thought maybe it was half of why he'd lied to himself for so long, the public aspect of the lie had worked out really well for both of them. For all of a second Justin had the mad desire to tell Fe that if Darren opened his mouth again Justin would set his very jealous boyfriend on him, but he kept silent. Instead he told Brian of his evil plans for Darren, "I'm going to have pond wildlife introduced into his swimming pool."

"Very creative of you," Brian told him admiringly.

"There's nothing going on between me and Brit."

"Yes," Brian agreed, "you're gay. And you told me this. Twice today and four separate times last night."

Justin nodded, feeling stupid, because Brian wasn't really so much jealous as unsure of his place in the world right now. He hadn't stopped trusting Justin though, and when Justin had reacted with a, "Oh yeah, right," and a little laugh to the gossip column in the paper that Brian had brought over, Brian had folded the paper up, "Just making sure," without a fuss.

Later, when neither Brian nor Justin had mentioned the situation in hours, Justin quietly started a wholly different conversation. "I, uh. I talked to my guys the other day. Well, Howie was there. Howie's always there-"

"Justin." Brian cut him off. "Point?"

"I talked to them about how they would feel if I decided to come out."

Brian didn't say anything.

"Because, I mean, you know that it's not really my decision right now, not in the way it is yours, even with me, which takes it a little out of your hands, but not in the same way it was when Backstreet was still around." Justin sat on his hands to make himself stop waving them around uselessly.

"You don’t have to do that. I was being selfish." Brian dug one of Justin's hands out from underneath Justin's leg and curled his own around it.

"Well, I just thought you oughtta know that if it gets around to where that's really important to you that I would be right there with you. Hell, I get the sense that if it comes to that, we're gonna have to lock Chris and Howie and Lance and JC away until it's all over or else our next album is going to be titled the 'Rainbow Connection' out of sheer necessity and sold only in gay neighborhoods."

"I like 'Queers for Fears' better."

"I'll suggest that at our next meeting."

Brian leaned into kiss Justin. "Thanks."

Justin mumbled, "Not a problem," before kissing back.

*

Brian made Justin feel normal in ways that nobody else, not his mom or the other guys or Britney, had ever managed. He didn't really do that much that was different, it was just that when Brian suggested that Justin get his ass to church every once in awhile, because it was good for the soul, or when he burned a meal and made Justin eat the okay parts anyway, Justin felt more real, more solidly grounded. He forgot that a fourteen year old girl had been picked up by the police that morning for camping outside his gated community.

Brian was better at remembering to buy toothbrushes every six weeks and clipping coupons and spot-cleaning the laundry than Justin was. He was sweet, though, and didn't laugh when Justin cut out three of the same cereal coupon, even though the coupon specifically stated that only one could be used per customer. Instead he took one of the three and told Justin, "We'll shop separately, use two in one go."

Brian sent out holiday cards to practically everyone he knew at Christmas and didn't have anyone else do all the dirty work, like addressing them, for him. He sent thank you cards to people who sent him gifts for any given occasion. He remembered to leave what time it was when he recorded messages on people's answering machines. Justin had concluded fairly quickly after starting to get to know Brian that Brian was good at living life. Had Brian never gotten a call from Kevin, Brian would have gone to college and taken better care of his roommate than the roommate took care of himself and graduated and lived a totally fulfilling life without any of the commotion.

Fortunately or not, Kevin had called, and Brian had learned a different rhythm of living for over a decade and was now trying desperately to readjust. Justin did little things to try and make it easier, like buying Brian a coupon organizer that was a shiny blue and easy-to-use, or remembering to sort out his laundry before throwing it into Brian's carefully organized piles. Still, there were too many nights when Justin would wake up at three to being the only person in bed, Brian downstairs watching reruns of fifties sitcoms and trying to think up something useful to do. Until the break, Brian had kept fairly regular hours when given the chance. In bed by twelve, up by eight or nine.

Most nights Justin, who had lived around Chris and Lance -- both insomniacs of a different variety -- for far too long, got up after waking and joined Brian. Brian relaxed a little bit when he wasn't alone, staring at a screen. Sometimes he relaxed enough to tell Justin, "I'm going stir crazy, and I haven't got a clue as to what to do about it," and Justin didn't suggest anything, because Brian would ask if he thought Justin had the answers. Sometimes Justin made love to Brian on the floor, the TV the only thing in the room giving off light.

Sometimes Brian quoted the shows he'd already seen to Justin and laughed in all the right places. "I feel…don't laugh, out of sync."

Justin didn't laugh. "Maybe a little."

"I forgot to turn the stove on today when I was trying to boil water."

"I do that."

Brian nodded. "I know. I'm not you."

"Worse things to be." Justin wasn't hurt.

"Much. But I'm used to being me. I miss…me, but me with them and there is no me with them and there won’t be and I don't know who me is without them."

"Maybe someone who forgets to turn the stove on, stays up late at night and sleeps in a lot." Justin rubbed at Brian's back. "Maybe this is okay."

"It doesn't feel okay." Brian leaned backward.

"It's new."

"It's wrong," Brian stated definitively. "Believe me, please."

"We'll find what's right," Justin assured him.

"What if I found what's right and it's over and now I just have to live this out?"

Justin wrapped his arms around Brian, "You're more than just part of a whole, baby. You're a whole in and of yourself."

"How do you know?"

"Because I couldn't have fallen in love with anything less than a complete product," Justin's tone left no room for Brian to argue.

*

Kevin came in town with Kristen and their son, Jerry, on the pretense of having some kind of meeting for his organization, but it was pretty painfully obvious that he just wanted to catch up with Brian, Howie and Nick, who was in town for the time being. Brian attacked his cousin the minute he stepped out of the car and dragged him back into his house, where Justin was that particular day. Justin offered to leave but Brian told him to stay. And that, Justin thought, was love, because Brian hadn't gone a day without mentioning Kevin twice since the older man and his wife and kid had begun spending most of their time in the Appalachians.

To show his appreciation, Justin scooped Jerry up by his feet and swept the floor with the kid's hair until they were in the next room over, where Justin could regale Jerry with an entertainment center that was so complete, Justin suspected certain aspects of it were illegal.

After several lower-rating Playstation games at which Justin allowed his ass to be thoroughly kicked, Justin put the movie '101 Dalmatians' on, and waited patiently for the kid to fall asleep predictably less than half-way through. He crept into the kitchen, where he had heard the other three adults in the house gather about an hour back. "Jerry's out."

"Disney does that to him," Kevin said. Kristen snorted. Kevin enjoined, "Pretty much anything that flashes moving pictures in front of him does that."

Justin shrugged, sitting down next to Brian. "Not surprising, Jon was the same way until he was like, twelve or something."

Brian ruffled his hair. "Thanks."

"I miss anything good?"

Kristen announced, without preamble, "I'm pregnant again."

Justin held up his hand for a high five. She acceded.

"Nick's dating a guy," Kevin told them, obviously still in shock from having heard this the day before.

Justin made swishing sounds, "Water under the bridge. We even like him, he treats Nick well." Justin was mostly mimicking Brian's words, but he left it up to Brian to approve or disapprove of his ex-bandmate's decisions. "Besides, it totally wouldn't be fair if more 'Syncers were gay than 'Streeters."

"Um." Kevin lifted a finger.

Justin could see Brian shaking his head minutely out of the corner of his eye. He sighed. "I know, you still have us beat on the heterosexuality front. But only because AJ was a freak coincidence. I mean, c'mon, you cannot tell me that anyone expected him to actually be straight."

Brian and Kevin answered in time with each other and it occurred to Justin just how many times they had probably responded to this very accusation, "No, but we respect his right to identify in that manner, all the same."

Justin laughed into his hand. Brian kissed the back of his neck. When Justin looked up, Kevin was watching him closely, his eyes thoughtful. Justin fought between the urge to reassure him and the urge to tell him angrily, "At least I'm still fucking here." He got up to get himself a glass of water. "Anybody want anything?"

*

Kevin cornered Justin in the pantry while Justin was looking for the extra bottle of tomato sauce Brian swore up and down he had in the house. Kevin loomed in the door until Justin reminded himself not to use his bitchy-diva voice while inquiring, "You need something?"

Kevin leaned his head against the doorframe. "My cousin is out of sorts."

"A lovely euphemism for sad. Don’t try telling me it's a Southern thing, I have the market cornered on Southern things."

"You gonna tell me why you're pissed off, or just waste our time and your bile dancing around?" Kevin didn’t even sound mad, just patient, the way JC was when they left him the task of mediating a fight between Chris and Justin or Justin and Lance.

"Look," Justin started, pushing bottles out of the way, still searching, "I appreciate the whole it-was-Nick's-decision thing. But don’t you think, that when Nick turned twenty-one and you were all full-fledged adults, that maybe you should have rethought that? That maybe you shouldn't have just said okay and left Brian on his own with nowhere to go and nobody to be with? Maybe you thought that I was enough, and if that's the case, I'm flattered, but you should have known it wasn't true. Brian would have fucking died for any of you, but mostly he would have died for the five of you, as an entity, and left without that, he hasn't got a fucking clue of what to do with himself. Of late, the only things Brian puts on his calendar are dates when he might get to see one of you guys. If there's going to be more than one of you there, the date gets colored in all psychedelic-like. I'm waiting desperately to see what a day when he gets to see all four of you looks like, but so far, neither of us has gotten that lucky." Justin tried his hardest not to slam the glass bottles that he had unshelved in his search back into their proper places.

Kevin thought for a moment before replying, "I think, mostly, we thought that he was as tired as the rest of us."

Justin stopped looking to turn to Kevin but didn't say a word.

"You know about us, Just. We love each other, of course, but there was so much other shit. And maybe Nick wanted to stop because he had other parts of himself to get to know, but mostly it was because he was exhausted of waiting for the eighty-third shoe to drop. We all were. Or at least, we thought we all were. It wasn't until after the damage was done that I suspected Brian might not have been, but fuck, Just, he didn't say anything."

"No," Justin knew that was the truth. "He wouldn't have, if he thought it was what y'all wanted. Needed. 'Specially Nick."

Kevin sighed and rubbed at his forehead. "Tell me what I can do."

Justin tipped his head back against a shelf. "I don't know. If I knew, I would have called and told you to do it already. He just needs to see y'all more, as a group, alone, but more. He needs to know that he can have you as friends without having you as business associates. I'm hoping when he knows that that he'll start figuring out what to do with himself, what exactly he wants out of life without the rest of you."

Kevin nodded. "Fair enough. I'll see what I can do."

Justin smiled slightly, because whether or not Backstreet was a group, Kevin was still the older brother of the five guys and he did the things he said he would do. "Alrighty then." Justin righted his head, and just as he was about to leave and tell Brian that there was no extra bottle of tomato sauce, a fragment of red caught the corner of his eye and Justin reached up a hand to sweep aside several cans. "Ah hah!" He grabbed the bottle and strode back to the kitchen with Kevin at his side.

*

When Kevin, Kristen and Jerry were safely ensconced in the guest quarters, Brian fixed Justin with a pointed stare and asked, "Were you bullying my cousin?"

Justin didn't bother to deny it, things were bound to come out in the long run, "A little. But he deserved it."

Brian settled onto the floor, unlacing his shoes. "I don't suppose the 'he's a guest' lecture would do any good in this circumstance?"

Justin rolled his eyes. "He's not a guest, Bri. He's your cousin, ex-bandmate, best friend, Kevin, but he's not a guest."

Brian tried another route. "What'd you say?"

"That you needed to see him and the other guys more," Justin replied honestly.

"They can't up and rearrange their lives around me anymore. That's part of what not being a band means." Brian told Justin this like it was something he had recently worked out and thought that other people -- people like Justin, who didn't need to know -- were probably still in the dark about.

"It's not that simple. I know it probably seems like, because they haven't been around, and I'd need to reason my way out of that if it were me too, but their still your best friends, there shouldn't have to be some sort of title binding you all for that to be the truth. So, yeah, they kinda do have to up and rearrange their lives if you need it. Because you would for them, and best friendship is a two way street."

"In an ideal world," Brian pointed out.

"I can't sit back and watch it be anything less for you, not if I can help," Justin knew his words were attempted justifications for his actions toward Kevin, but he also thought he was in the right in this instance. "You wouldn't if it were me. The boyfriend thing, kinda two way street as well."

"Kinda." Brian stood, having peeled off both of his shoes. He leaned his face up to kiss Justin. "Thanks for caring."

"I wasn't really mean to him," Justin defended himself.

"He would've said something if you were."

"He didn't say anything?" Justin frowned.

"Not a word."

"Then…how'd you know?"

It was Brian's turn to roll his eyes. "The two of you disappear into the pantry for twenty minutes, tense as mice stuck in a trap and nothing gets said? Uh huh. Pull the other one, Timberlake. Besides, I know you, your basketball shots always stray to the left when you're worried and we've been playing lopsided games for weeks now. Who else are you gonna unload onto?"

"That's freaky, how you know that shit."

Brian smirked. "You know that shit about me too. Just different."

Justin thought about the way Brian always chose to mimic Curly over Larry or Moe when he was nervous or upset about something. "Yeah, okay, I guess."

"Which is why you're one of the only people I trust to do my bullying for me," Brian grinned.

Brian was one of five people in the world that Justin would allow himself to be played by and not even really mind all that much.

*

Kevin was as good as his word and suddenly, Brian's calendar was a lot more colorful. With Nick touring more often than not and catching up to Aaron's tour in most of his downtime and Kristen pregnant out in Kentucky, there still weren't any dates that included all five of them being in the same place at once, but it was a huge improvement over the way things had been.

Brian started sleeping through the night more, which was reassuring to Justin, even if one morning upon waking up, Brian had rested his chin on Justin's chest and told him, "I feel like I'm suspending reality."

Justin had combed a hand through Brian's hair, "Are you happy?"

"Kinda. But there's just that lingering knowledge, y'know, that I'm content living in a house of cards, or something."

Justin had sat up, pulling Brian up with him. "The plan was mostly for you to have a support system while you were building something real. A house of cards can stand for a reasonably long time if nobody comes along to knock it down."

What tore Justin apart about the whole situation was the fact that he came home regularly to Brian curled up with his guitar, playing listlessly, trying to find a song that was his own, a tune that caught him up in it and took him somewhere that he hadn't expected to go. Justin woke up mornings to find Brian on the phone, talking with studios, forcing buzzwords and business catchphrases past his lips. Justin knew Brian was trying to make things work for himself, but for whatever reason, nothing made Brian smile like Justin knew Brian could smile when the world was coming together for him.

Brian hung up the phone one morning and explained, "It's like this. You were Justin Timberlake, beauty queen, star search contestant, yada yada before you were Justin Timberlake of Nsync. I was Brian Littrell, member-in-good-standing of his high school and church choirs. Music for you can be a group thing, has been a group thing for quite awhile, but it's not a requirement. When I hear me by myself I can't help but think something's missing. I'm not really getting anywhere on this front."

Justin went against every instinct he had and instructed Brian, "Cut the music out of the picture then. There's gotta be something else you wanna do. I mean, Howie's all DLF all the time now, maybe he's on to something. You could get more involved with the inner workings of Healthy Heart Club, that's an idea. It's not the only one, though. You just need to look further, obviously, since this isn't working."

Brian wasn't a quitter, but he also wasn't obstinately stubborn on most issues. "I like kids," he said.

"Yeah," Justin agreed, because Brian loved kids.

"Healthy Heart, huh?" For the first time in well over a week, Brian looked like there was something going on behind his eyes other than the sheer struggle to think his way through another chord or another business phone call.

"Or whatever," Justin added, so that Brian would know he could keep looking if this didn't work out.

Brian was flipping through his phone book; he still preferred writing the numbers down manually to recording them inside a palm pilot. He glanced up at Justin, hand still turning the pages, "And there's a lot of whatever out there."

Justin hoped there was.

*

Howie and Chris were over the Sunday that Brian came back from church and nearly ran straight into the coffee table, he was coming into the living room so fast. Justin blinked and Howie mumbled, "Woah there, boy."

Brian ignored both of them and told Justin to, "Guess what happened today, guess! Guess!"

Justin stammered, "Um. Uh…the, um, choir of heavenly angels paid a visit?"

"You know you're going to hell, right?" Brian calmed down enough to inquire.

"I called ahead for a pamphlet and everything. Chris and I booked a spot so that we can roast next to each other for all of eternity." On the couch off to the side, Chris nodded somberly at Justin's words.

"Good planning," Brian commended, "but I want a serious guess."

"I don't know, Bri. You got a new priest? Something big, I guess, what?" Justin was almost curious enough to whine.

Brian must have sensed the danger because he filled everyone in, "The programming director caught up with me after the service had finished and asked me if I would be interested in helping out with the boys choir a couple of times a week."

"Really?" Justin got out of the lazy chair and bounded up to Brian, putting his hands over Brian's hips and drawing the two of the them together.

Brian beamed up at him. "Really."

"That's awesome, Rok." Howie's head was in Chris's lap and he had his eyes closed as if asleep.

Brian leaned into Justin's chest and Justin let his hands slip along the smaller man's hipbones until Justin's palm was resting in the small of Brian's back, the other one covering it. "I think I might have been overenthusiastic. She seemed kinda scared."

Justin would have been surprised if Brian had been able to hold back his excitement at an offer like that after months and months of pursuing a career it turned out he didn’t even want and another month of learning the rather bureaucratic ropes of the non-profit sector. Brian enjoyed being more intimately involved in Healthy Heart Club's decision-making process and he loved getting to visit the kids the organization benefited, but it was new and overwhelming and frustrating more often than not. Something this perfect, involving kids and music and no financial strings whatsoever had to seem like divine intervention. All things considered, Justin wondered if it wasn't just that, literally. "Yeah, well, she didn't tell you the offer was rescinded, so I wouldn't worry."

"It just," Brian sighed, giggling a bit on the end of the sigh, "seemed like an answer to my prayers."

Justin sneaked a peek over at where Chris was watching them, trying to pretend like he didn’t think they were adorable. Justin brought a hand up to tangle in Brian's hair, "You're starting to read my mind," he told him, Chris's presence keeping Justin in check enough not to say, "It only seems fair, seeing as how you're the answer to mine."

*

Brian stopped by the studio close to noon one day with the same look that he got every time he had something serious to say. Justin finished up with the patch of vocals that he had been working through and told JC, who was working on the soundboards, "I'm gonna take lunch now." He headed out before JC could pout or squawk or do anything else that might have a chance of convincing him to stay.

Brian took him to Burger King because Justin liked their hamburgers better but always felt like a traitor taking himself there. Justin grinned gratefully at Brian, who went so far as to treat. Justin slid into a booth, took a sip of Dr. Pepper and asked, "What's got you nervous as a cat on a trapeze?"

"Where do you come up with these sayings?" Brian wanted to know. "Seriously."

"You're one to talk. Bri, c'mon. You didn't go all fancy-treating-boyfriend person on me just to ask about my language patterns."

"That studio called, the one in Nashville that was pretty excited about the thought of me doing an album with them." Brian had been pursuing more of a low-key country type sound for his solo career. He didn't need to sell albums for either a paycheck or his self-confidence, so if he was going to make an album by himself, he was going to do it the way he wanted to.

Justin snagged one of Brian's fries. Brian smacked his hand. "You have your own."

"Yours taste better. What did you say?"

"I said 'thanks, but I don’t have it in me to give you a worthwhile album for your time and money right now."

Justin choked on the fry.

"Poetic justice," Brian commented.

Justin glared at him. "You're as calm as you sound about this, right? I mean, you're not freaking out on the inside and just repressing it until it works its way out by you running to Vegas and becoming the latest in a long line of ever-changing Roys?"

"I don't think that's where my life path is leading me, no," Brian looked thoughtful, "but you never know."

Justin stole another fry. Brian didn't even bother to reprimand him, knowing when to fight his battles. "You sound relieved."

Brian stole three of Justin's fries in one go. "I think that when I first started calling studios, working deals, I was mostly considering what I would tell everyone if I didn't do that. Then you told me that it was okay to pursue other options, and Howie literally squealed at the news that I wanted some tutoring on the inner workings of non-profit red-tape, and Nick just asked me if I was getting any happier. I worried about what people would say for about a second after all of that and then realized that most of the people that I cared about had already said what they were going to say. So, no, this isn't the decision that everybody expects me to make, and that's huge and people are probably gonna say shit about me not coming out with an album and post-Backstreet failure to make anything happen and all that stupid stuff, but you and I and the guys will know that I'm making plenty happen and that I wake up in the morning wanting to do what I do. If that doesn’t spell relief, then I have the wrong definition of the word memorized."

Justin grinned stupidly.

"What?"

"I'm just…taking a moment to be proud of us." Justin admitted.

Brian raised his eyebrows.

"Well, I mean, there was a problem and then there was communication and we fixed the problem, so, I think this means that we're probably going to work out after all," Justin posited.

"You had doubts?" Brian's eyebrows went higher.

"No, Mr. I-tried-leaving-you-less-than-two-months-ago. I was completely sure of our stability the entire time. What the fuck do you think, Bri?"

Brian scoffed. "That was me having an insane-psycho moment. Brit must've had those. You have them."

"Brit and I broke up."

"But not because of insane-psycho moments," Brian pointed out forcefully.

"No," Justin agreed. "Still, it was a little touch and go there, okay? You were upset and I was freaked."

"You weren't freaked."

"I was freaked," Justin reiterated.

"You did a good job of hiding it."

"I didn’t want to freak you out on top of the whole not-really-sure-what-the-fuck-my-life-is-about angst."

"In other words, you were putting me ahead of yourself," Brian translated.

"I love you," Justin pared down the situation to three words.

"Have a little faith in the strength of that," Brian suggested.

"You're the one with faith," Justin responded.

"Maybe I'm rubbing off on you."

Justin said, with as much machismo as humanly possible in the given situation, "I wouldn’t mind that at all."

*

"Stickers?" Justin asked.

"Stickers," Brian confirmed, as he stuck red and gold and blue stars on the date set for Kris's second baby to be born, the date all the ex-Boys were convening on rural Kentucky. He labeled it, "Family Reunion."

"Were you hording those?"

"I wasn't hording them, I just knew that there would be a date that would need to be marked as special. That's all."

"Mm," Justin replied, noncommittally. Lance's palm-pilot sang Reba songs to him on days that he was looking forward to something, so Justin wasn't about to make a big deal over shiny star stickers.

"You're coming with me, right?" Brian sauntered over to the computer. "I'm pretty sure I have enough frequent flyers from the last six months or so to get us both there for free."

Justin wasn't particularly worried about the expense, he had Brian to worry about things like that for him. "I dunno, Bri. You haven't been with them in awhile, I think that's something you should probably do on your own."

"You're kidding, right?" Brian turned around so that Justin could catch the full effect of his eye roll. "Do you think for a minute that Aje is gonna up and leave Sarah while he heads off to Kentucky for a week? She'd have him castrated."

Justin made a face. "Right, but I'm not Sarah and you're not AJ and we're not unable to live without each other for longer than three minutes."

"Are you calling AJ McLean co-dependent?" Brian faked shock. "Seriously, though, okay, they're kind of surgically attached, but c'mon, I was too right after the group broke up, it’s his way of coping. He's not bringing her because he can't leave her though, or because she's holding the future use of his sexual organs over his head. He's bringing her because…because there is no Backstreet anymore. There's just family, and she's part of that family. You're part of that family."

There was soft hurt in Brian's voice at the words, but not the desolation that had colored everything for so long. Justin whispered, as if saying it too loud would screw things up, "You sound pretty okay about that."

Brian walked over to Justin. "Getting better."

Justin stepped in close enough that he could feel Brian breathing.

Brian's words rippled against Justin's collarbone, "A year ago, if I'd gone through something, they would have been there, the people I would have had to thank for getting me through it in the end. You're the person I have to thank now. I still love them, I would still call them in an instant if I needed someone to talk to and you weren't around, but you're as much a part of me now as they ever were. I could go and spend a week with them and it would be great, but not as great as if you were there. Come with me," Brian pleaded.

Justin leaned in and dipped his head slightly, licking along Brian's lower lip. "Will you add a star to the calendar?" There were currently five stars.

"What color do you wanna be?" Brian mumbled through lips that felt about twice their regular size.

"I'll let you pick," Justin allowed, completely trusting Brian to pick a color that would make Justin happy.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile