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1993
*

Brian showed up that first day golden blond and not yet out of high school and Howie had to resist the urge to check behind the kid's ears for signs of wetness. Howie's skepticism wore off quickly, though, when faced with Brian's voice. He could handle a little naivety in exchange for an honest-to-goodness heartthrob.

Howie was nice to Brian, if a bit removed, held off by Brian's insistence that he get to church weekly and his tendency to turn everything into a joke. It took Howie about a week to realize that humor was Brian's coping mechanism. Brian was actually mind-numbingly homesick and lonely for his friends. He'd evidently been something of a Big Man On Campus back at home, all five feet and six inches of him.

Howie -- returning home from a double shift one night -- found Brian curled up on the couch, flipping channels. It was a Wednesday, so Kevin was still at the park doing an evening show. Howie flopped himself unceremoniously down next to Brian and said, "You're not gonna get any taller, right?"

"Mm, haven't since ninth grade."

"Good, I wouldn't want to be the only genetic deviant in the group."

"My mom says I'm not deviant, I'm pixieish."

"Wow. Bet that makes you feel ten times better about the situation."

"Yeah, well, she seems to think it'll help and I don't wanna disappoint her."

"So you don't think 'The Pixie Stix' is a good name for the band?"

"Kev's a little big for that, and if the size of Nick's feet is any indication, he will be too."

"Good point, we'll just have to keep looking." Howie got up to go take a shower and crawl into bed.

Brian's voice stopped him as he walked behind the couch. "I'm not really sure if I have a say in the name."

Howie turned cautiously, but Brian was still watching television, his back to Howie. "Why wouldn't you?"

"Oh, just. I mean, I wasn't really part of the band's creation, so much."

"Nobody's blaming you for living in Kentucky and trying to finish out high school like any normal human being."

"I don't feel blamed."

"Just left out, then."

"I'm not…it's not something anybody is doing-"

"As much as something everybody is doing?"

"You guys just know each other better than you know me."

Howie sighed. "You're too sweet for your own good, it's gonna get you eaten alive."

Brian turned his head a bit and nodded. He looked like he'd heard those words before.

"Look, next time we're together, discussing something important to the group, you speak up, or I'm going to kick your scrawny ass so hard you won't know what happened."

Brian was unimpressed. "I'm bigger than you, D."

"Ah, but you have not the wisdom and technique gained with my years."

"My intimidation knows no bounds."

"That's what I thought."

*

Kevin, Howie and Brian would sometimes keep AJ and Nick for the night when practice ran too late, so that Jane and Denise wouldn't have to come pick them up. On Friday or Saturday nights, this often meant a call to the local pizza joint and a few rented videos.

At AJ's behest, Kevin and Howie sometimes allowed for liquor. Kevin harbored a deep belief that if AJ wasn't allowed to do stupid and illegal things in their company he would find other places to do it. They all suspected the consequences of that wouldn't be good for anybody.

It was one of those nights, after Nick had thrown back his mandatory shot and passed out comfortably against Kevin's leg, that AJ managed to sneak four shots past Howie, Brian and Kevin, all reasonably mellow themselves. After the fourth shot, AJ looked the three members of the band who were still awake squarely in the eyes and announced, "I'm bisexual."

The pronouncement was followed quickly by another shot. AJ scrunched his face up as the alcohol found its way down to his stomach. When his face straightened out, all three guys watching noticed a decidedly greenish tint to his skin tone.

Brian, who had only had one shot, and had a surprising ability to hold his liquor, was on his feet instantly, guiding AJ to the bathroom with one hand on his lower back and another wrapped around his elbow.

Kevin looked at Howie. "I'm gonna go put Nick in his sleeping bag. Can you handle this?"

Howie nodded, unsure if he was lying or not. While everyone knew that Brian was religious, they had all been carefully skirting any issues that might cause upheaval for the group. Brian had seemed pretty calm, but his concern about AJ vomiting all over their living room carpet may have superceded any phobias for the moment being.

Howie went to grab a glass of water from the kitchen before heading to the bathroom. He held it down to Brian, who was stroking AJ's back silently. When Brian was relatively sure that AJ was done, he made him stand up to rinse and spit in the sink a few times before drinking the water. Howie went to go get a refill when AJ was done. They repeated the whole process a few times before supporting AJ between themselves and taking him to be tucked into his own sleeping bag.

Assured that AJ was safely asleep, Howie ushered Brian back into the kitchen. He washed the glass and set it on the dish drainer before asking, "You okay?"

"I'd really, really like a shower right now."

Howie winced. "Um, okay, you having problems with him might-"

"Huh?"

"Touching AJ will not infest you."

"No," Brian said the word slowly, as if Howie were drunk himself, "but I just spent half an hour assisting him puke. I feel nasty."

"Oh." Howie scratched his head. "So, it's um, not a problem?"

"Okay, I'm not drunk, so this is probably not going to come out as smoothly as it did with him, but, A) I'm religious not stupid. You think my church didn't warn me about you 'entertainin' types'? B) religious does not equal intolerant, which you, Catholic-boy, should well know, and C) it'd be kinda hypocritical of me to go all beserk on AJ, seeing as how I skipped bisexual right onto boysexual."

"Boysex-?" Howie looked at Brian oddly for a moment and then laughed more at his own release of tension than anything else. "Cute."

"You too, right?"

Howie's eyes widened slightly.

"I grew up in Kentucky, dude. Finding my own kind was a matter of survival. I'm like the homosexual equivalent of a hunting dog."

"Right." Howie pulled himself together. "Me too."

"Okay then."

Howie shook his head, still slightly in shock. "Go take a shower."

"He says like it was his idea to begin with."

*
1995
*

Jane left Europe to go manage Aaron's life a couple of months into the Boys's first touring circuit and Nick wilted. Kevin sacrificed the candy bars his mom sent from America to the cause and AJ hooked Nick up with a fan who was only a year older than him, but the youngest member of the group just took the gifts in the spirit they were intended and went back to looking like someone had told him his dog died.

It was Brian who came up with a plan to cheer Nick up. Brian, though five years older, often understood Nick far better than the other members of the group. Howie referred to it as a "blond solidarity pact." AJ bleached his hair. Howie scoffed at his effort. AJ let his natural color grow back.

Brian had been whispering about this and that backstage at a venue while they were waiting to perform. Howie almost missed the switch in topics when it came, since Brian kept his voice at the same decibel level and didn't change his tone. "I think I've got an idea about a way to cheer Nick up. It's not a permanent fix, or anything, but it's something."

Howie was silent for a moment before he realized that Brian was waiting for a response. "Go on."

"Well, he hasn't gotten to play basketball in a while, since there aren't a lot of random available courts over here, and we all know how much he loves the game, so I was thinking we should figure out a system of having a traveling court. Like, I think if we could just let off some steam together that way we’d have a much much happier Cute One."

Howie thought for a moment. "Supply-wise, this means a hoop, a ball and somewhere to use both of those things."

"I talked to my mom about sending a deflated ball. I figure we can pick up an air pump somewhere, there are more bicycles over here than people. I'm still a little stuck on the hoop, but there are usually alley ways behind our hotels."

"Bri, you can't play in the alleys. People here don't drive, they wield automobiles as Insane Death Machines."

"You figure out somewhere better."

"The back lots at most of our venues."

"We don't stick around long enough afterwards."

"The parking lots where they keep the bus."

Brian was silent for a second. "You may be on to something."

"I'll ask AJ about the hoop." Howie had long since recognized AJ's ability to find things in the most unlikely of places.

"Sometimes I worry that we're encouraging delinquency in him."

Howie snickered. "I rest assured in the knowledge that Denise will be here in a few weeks to kick his ass back into shape."

Brian smiled knowingly. "Yeah. You think this'll help? I mean, I hate seeing Nick like this."

Howie wrapped an arm around Brian's shoulders and squeezed until Brian squeaked in protest. "I think you're brilliant."

It was dark, but Howie knew a blush when he saw one.

*

They were back in America early that summer, experiencing the disorientation that came with being insanely popular at one end of a plane flight and completely unknown at the other. Orlando was sweltering, so Howie didn't find it terribly surprising when Brian suggested one evening that the two of them go out for smoothies after being in practice all day. Howie stated his opinion that smoothies sounded heavenly. He offered the option to the rest of the guys, but Nick and AJ were being picked up shortly and Kevin was set on going home to crash. Howie shrugged at Brian, "You and me, B."

Brian wished everyone a good night and hopped in Howie's car. They drove to a coffee house about ten minutes from the studio that catered mostly to students and, as a consequence, was dirt cheap. They ordered their smoothies before sitting down, enjoying the overwhelming blasts of air-conditioning raking over their skin.

The girl behind the counter brought their smoothies to them shortly and for awhile they were lost in the sensation of tiny multi-berry and mango flavored ice shards infiltrating their bodies through the jumbo straws the place stocked. Brian gave up on his straw shortly, as it was slowing down the imbibing process and went to drinking straight from the rim of the cup. When Howie put his drink down for a moment to prevent brain freeze, Brian looked at him with lips shiny and deep red both from the cold and the berry-inspired coloring of the smoothie.

Brian tucked his hands beneath the table. He spoke very suddenly and rapidly, as if afraid of being interrupted. "I've been thinking about this a lot, and I decided that it was in the best interest of the group that I be honest, and you know what's on my mind right now so that if it's going to screw things up then we can be aware of that and possibly avert the catastrophe."

Howie narrowed his eyes a bit in worry. "Hey. Hey, what's wrong?"

"I'm nineteen, which, I think you would agree, is old enough to know myself and not be questioned about my own decisions."

Howie nodded, "Sure, B."

"I say this, because I don't want to hear that this is just me being a kid and that I'll get over it. I mean, I probably will get over it, but that's not really of any use to me right now."

"Okay, no using the 'you'll get over it' reassurance tactic. Duly noted."

"I have a crush on you. I obviously didn't mean for it to happen, and really, I think you know that you don't have to worry about me taking you against your will or even pestering you about it, but it's making me edgy trying to hide it all the time."

Howie was silent and still for a moment, wanting to process what he had just been told without making Brian repeat any of it. When he was ready to speak he tried, but all that came out of his mouth was helpless laughter. He was shaking with it before Brian said in a small voice, "Um-"

Howie held up a hand to cut him off and attempted very hard to speak without proper oxygen. "Not…laughing…at…you."

Brian took in that knowledge with no change in his expression, but he waited for Howie to come back from the edge of passing out. Howie straightened up in his chair when he was able and asked, "Would you be willing to try not getting over it?"

Brian frowned. "Why would I-" He caught Howie's eyes momentarily. "Ah. Were you ever going to say anything?"

Howie shook his head.

Brian grinned. Suddenly, he understood what Howie had found so funny. "I think I could be persuaded to perpetuate my interest."

Howie's eyes settled on Brian's lips, still puffy and raspberry red. He knew just how he was going to go about being persuasive.

*

AJ was pissed that they couldn't, as he termed it, "be a little progressive and allow him to close the circle;" Kevin just asked if Brian had told Harold and Jackie yet; Nick had to be reassured that this didn't mean Brian and Howie wouldn't be spending time alone with him anymore. When all the pseudo-trauma of them informing the guys was over, though, things weren't all that terribly different.

Brian made Howie laugh even more often than he used to, using physical humor as a screen for physical affection. Howie didn't complain when Brian used Howie's utensils, mostly due to the fact that he figured the point was moot. They both began waking up earlier to spend a little more time alone together than usual.

Howie was a romantic. He was convinced that every song that came on the radio while they were in the same room together was meant to be their song. Brian finally picked Boyz II Men's "End of the Road," and bought Howie the CD so that he could stop obsessing over it. Howie made Brian dance to it with him.

They each watched after the other one a little closer than before, but not enough to interfere with the regular patterns of day-to-day life. They were circumspect around Lou or anyone else who would use it against them and only a little less so around family and friends.

Kevin, who Howie suspected had been secretly worried that Brian was being drawn into the idea of being with an older man, relaxed and bought them smoothies to celebrate their one month anniversary. AJ decided he was going through a "girl phase" and hooked up with one of his neighbors, who had evidently become hot over night. Nick caught on to the fact that Brian and Howie were both being very careful to spend time with him and finally set them off to go have fun without him.

Howie knew he was biased, but if anything, most days he felt the only change that had occurred was that Backstreet functioned more smoothly like this than it had before.

*
1996
*

They were in Paris for Brian's twenty-first birthday. Howie found a bakery three blocks from their hotel and walked the entire way at six in the morning through the cold of late-February France in order to wake Brian up to fresh-baked chocolate croissants. By the time Howie got back, he couldn't feel large sections of the mobile parts of his body.

The sound of the door woke Brian, who had a fairly decent inner alarm clock and tended to sleep lightly in the mornings. "D?"

"Yeah." Howie's voice shivered in time with his body. "Just me, babe." He sat on the edge of the bed. "Happy Birthday."

Brian smiled dazedly. "Where were you?"

Howie held up the bag. "Breakfast."

"D." Brian tried his hardest to form a stern facial expression. "It's freezing out there."

"Yeah." Howie agreed. "It is."

Brian held out his hand. "C'mere."

Howie peeled off his coat, gloves, hat, scarf and shoes before latching onto Brian's hand and allowing himself to be pulled under the covers. Brian laughed huskily against Howie's cheek. "Y'know, because you getting frostbite was just what I always wanted for my twenty-first birthday. I'm sure I put it on my list."

Howie burrowed closer to Brian. "I love you."

Brian squeezed the arm that he had wrapped around Howie's waist tighter. "Oh yeah, I love you too. More every day."

"In three seconds you are going to get out of this bed and eat the food that I risked life and limb to get for you."

"You got hot chocolate, right?"

"Ordered some up from room service. Should be here any second."

"You shouldn't do this, y'know. If I get spoiled now, I'll be a hellion when we become huge in America." Brian's tone was light, but Howie could hear the worry behind it. After nearly two years of almost straight touring, they were all beginning to wonder if Lou's constant promise of American recognition was true or a projected delusion.

"I'll keep you balanced. What else are boyfriends for?" Howie reached up to ruffle Brian's hair.

There was a knock at the door. "Room service."

Brian threw Howie his most plaintive look. "Getting their boyfriends breakfast-in-bed?"

*

They all went out to dinner together that night. Nick was still too young not to have to be snuck into clubs and Brian wasn't that big of a partier to begin with, so the celebration was pretty low-key. Brian opened his presents from the guys and those which had been sent from home at the table, and they all ordered desserts, sharing everything.

Howie had ordered an Irish coffee to go with his dessert because he had found out through a complete fluke that Brian liked the taste of it on his breath. They got back to the hotel late and Nick and AJ split off to their room immediately, exhausted. Kevin took a few seconds to wish his cousin another happy birthday before going on his way as well.

Brian pounced on Howie the moment they were behind a closed door. "Mm, coffee and liqueur."

Howie licked swiftly along the roof of Brian's mouth. Brian caught Howie's tongue and sucked on it gently. They made out against the door, taking their time enjoying the taste of each other. Brian pulled away slightly after a bit, resting his forehead against Howie's, panting. "Babe?"

"Unh?"

"I'd. Um, I was thinking. Maybe tonight, you could, um, makelovetome."

Howie brought his head up to look into Brian's eyes. Brian had had a couple of boyfriends previous to Howie, but they had been short-lived and unimportant, according to Brian. When Howie and he had first started the furthest he had ever gone was a few mutual masturbation sessions. He had been nervous telling Howie this at first, looking much the same way he had when announcing that he had a crush on the older man. Howie had just shrugged though, "Okay, what do you wanna do?"

Having Howie be inside of him was the only thing they hadn't done at this point. Howie smiled at the request. "Sure."

Howie walked to the bed, shedding clothes as he went. Brian pushed himself away from the door and followed suit. When they were both naked, Howie sat on the edge of the bed and pulled Brian in between his legs. He angled his face up, bringing Brian's mouth down to his. He said the words, "Happy birthday" into the kiss. Brian kissed deeper.

Soon enough, Howie pulled them backwards onto the bed. He rolled over so as to be on top of Brian. He lowered his head to nip along Brian's jaw line, then onto his shoulder. Brian arched slightly against the touch of Howie's teeth. Howie brought his fingers to Brian's nipples, pinching just enough to illicit a moan before letting go, rubbing at them slightly. Brian squirmed and pressed his body into every square inch of Howie that he could manage contact with.

Howie pushed himself lower on the bed and took one of Brian's balls into his mouth. Brian put a hand in his mouth so as not to scream. Howie took a few minutes before moving onto the other ball. Brian threaded his free hand in Howie's hair, trying desperately to remember not to pull.

Howie went down on Brian's cock in one fluid movement. When he reached the base he swallowed, contracting his throat muscles. Brian sobbed, "Howie."

Howie swallowed again before coming back up, his tongue dragging against the lower side of Brian's cock. Brian bucked, trying to find Howie's mouth again. Howie gently rolled his lover over so that Brian was lying face down on the bed. Howie placed a hand each on Brian's hips and dragged them slightly upwards, placing a pillow in the space created. Brian shook his head slightly, trying to clear it. "You don't wanna see me?"

Howie ran a hand firmly from Brian's neck to the base of his spine. "It'll be better for you this way. We'll do that another time."

Brian seemed satisfied with this answer, either that or he just couldn't think clearly enough to come up with a response when Howie tugged with his teeth at Brian's right earlobe. He kissed his way, alternating between tiny pecks and deep, wet swipes all the way down from the ear to Brian's ass. Brian shivered when Howie licked over one cheek. "Oh."

Howie grinned and bit Brian lightly in the same spot. Brian jumped. Howie reached over the side of the bed to the bag that he kept there with supplies in it. He fished out some lube. They had stopped using condoms after getting tested six months into the relationship. He squeezed some onto his fingers and teased his way into Brian's asshole. Brian made the same noises he had every time since the first time Howie had fingered him, low and breathy. Howie never got tired of those sounds. Howie stopped stretching Brian when he was squirming rhythmically and making desperate noises against his pillow.

Howie pushed in slowly, wincing when Brian stiffened, even if he had known it was going to happen. He found Brian's hands and intertwined his fingers in them. Brian squeezed them almost painfully. Howie spoke into Brian's ear, "Breathe, baby."

Brian listened, exhaling immediately. Howie whispered to him as he went, "Push out, babe. Yeah, that's it. You're doing great, keep breathing."

Howie waited a bit when he got himself all the way in. Brian's grip loosened and Howie pulled out slightly, angling himself carefully. Brian's fingers tightened again and he moaned loudly into the pillow. Howie kissed the back of Brian's neck, "Good?"

"Good?" Brian sounded slightly incredulous, and slightly like he wasn't sure he understood the question. Howie sank back in. He took his time with each thrust, enjoying the motion of Brian below him, the high-pitched moans that sounded suspiciously like Howie's name. Eventually, he brought Brian up slightly onto his knees and brought Brian's right hand, still wrapped in Howie's, to wrap around Brian's cock.

They both came shortly after that, Brian practically singing into the bed, Howie plastering himself over the length of Brian's back. They fell to their sides, still connected in three places. Brian untangled his fingers gently, the skin sticking together in certain places. "We. Uh. Have to do that again."

Howie was not one to disagree.

*
1997
*

Howie and Brian shared smiles as Nick got excited about hearing "Quit Playing Games" on the radio for at least the fourth time that week. It wasn't that they had never heard their stuff on the radio. In Europe, they usually avoided listening, because they would get sick of their own stuff, quickly. America was different though, and after three years of non-stop touring in places where it was hard to remember how to ask for a bathroom and constant work, everyone thought Nick deserved to be a little excited about getting some airplay in his hometown. Howie was pretty excited himself, just past the point in his life where he felt the need to tell everyone about it.

He settled for mouthing, "hey," to Brian as their eyes met.

Brian mouthed, "hi, you" in response before being snatched up by Nick in a flurry of the teenager's excitement.

AJ collapsed down next to Howie. "Kevin checked the Billboards. We're still rising."

Howie ruffled AJ's hair with too little force to muss it. "We're gonna be huge, remember?"

"I'm starting to. Now."

Howie nodded, admitting, "I know the feeling."

AJ folded his legs into a pretzel. "You and Brian are gonna be okay, right?"

Howie looked over to AJ. "Sorry?"

"Well, I mean. America's like… more complicated, right? We're supposed to date other starlets and pretend that we're pretending not to be too into the fans because they're young, but really, as blue-blooded American boys-"

Howie put his hand over one of the ones that AJ was using to gesture with. "I get it."

"You've thought about it too?"

"He's the band leader, of course I've thought about it. He's blonde and blue-eyed and he grew up in fucking Kentucky."

"But?"

Howie released AJ's hand. "But I love him. And he loves me. And we're just gonna have to trust each other."

"That's, um," AJ rocked a little in his sitting position, "brave, I guess."

Howie didn't think there was anything brave about taking what he felt was his only option. "That's one word for it."

*

Brian was pumped about the Disney Christmas performance. They were singing "As Long as You Love Me," which was Brian's favorite song from the album, on the Castle Stage. Howie practically had to keep his eyes forcefully averted for the entire length of their set. Brian tended to wake up with a some kind of inner-glow the morning after Thanksgiving that stayed with him all the way through to New Years. It had freaked Howie out at first, thinking that maybe Brian had watched too much TV as a kid and been brainwashed into experiencing the holiday season psycho-symptomatically. After they had started dating, Howie had pieced together through conversations with Brian and some use of his observational powers, that the mood was really a combination of Brian's desire that everyone around him have a good month and a half or so during that period and the fact that he just loved the way the world became decorated in that stretch of time.

The fact that Brian was getting an extra dose of happiness from their steadily growing American popularity and his love of and loyalty to all things Disney, meant that the glow was pouring out onto other people without them even having to come in direct contact with Brian. Howie knew if he made eye-contact in front of other people, all would be tragically lost in some kind of bizarre radioactive Litrell-based life-form explosion. From the looks Kevin was giving him, Howie thought he probably wouldn't be far in following.

They made up for the lack of interaction later that night, over at Howie's place. Howie's parents were putting Harold and Jackie up for the holidays so that their children could spend time together without having to choose one household or another. With their schedule, the choice would have had to have been the Doroughs, because there was no way Brian could have made a flight back to Kentucky in time.

It worked out fine, though, since both families had known about the two boys almost since the beginning and had long ago begun building relationships of their own. Harold Jr. and Angie had dated for a bit before figuring out that they were much better as friends; Jackie and Paula had joined an online book club together and spoke weekly over the phone about what was going on in the latest novel; Hoke and Harold had found a common interest in fishing, even if Harold preferred fly to Hoke's fresh water.

Caroline had brought her newest boyfriend and Paula had invited several branches of extended family members to come, so the house was far too full, much too loud and filled with exactly the right amount of Christmas-time chaos.

Howie and Brian were only out to their immediate families, so all PDA had to be strictly in the form of what they would be willing to show their fans until only those two parties were left. They were fine with that, having gotten used to it for the most part. Brian took charge of helping out with all the younger Dorough cousins, getting them to eat all their food and teaching them the correct way of ripping paper off presents. Howie helped cleaned up the mess from each afterward, earning him the everlasting affection of his mother and aunt.

Paula, with the assistance of Angie, ushered everyone but the Littrells out by midnight. With the children gone, Brian was more than willing to help straighten the remnants of the household back into its former glory. Paula shook her head at him fondly and called him a troublemaker before kissing him on the cheek, "We got Howie and you a joint present."

Brian kissed her back. "Didn't have to."

"It's in his bedroom."

Neither Brian nor Howie had been in the bedroom since landing in Florida late the night before. They had all crashed at Kevin, Howie and Brian's bachelor pad before the appearance the next day and then gone home to wherever they were spending the holiday afterward. Howie gave both his parents good night hugs and headed wearily up the stairs.

Brian heard Howie's laughter as he himself was heading up the stairs and managed to force his tired body to put a little more effort into reaching the top. He came up behind Howie, resting his chin on the shorter man's shoulder, about to ask what was so funny, when he saw their gift.

Howie's bed, formerly a rather skimpy double, had magically transformed into a very decent-sized queen with a gargantuan red bow on top. Brian giggled. "Merry Christmas to us."

"Can we just, uh, get in and enjoy it before I have to think of the larger ramifications of my parents having given this to me?"

"I think that would be best for everyone involved." Brian pushed Howie into the room.

*
1998
*

Howie climbed onto the bus couch and wiggled his way to where he was sitting behind Brian, with Brian's back resting against his chest, settled in the V of Howie's legs. Howie brought his hands to work at the muscles of Brian's neck. "You okay?"

Brian groaned at the sensation of Howie working on a particularly stubborn knot. "A little tired, but, y'know, who isn't?"

"You sounded kinda breathless in the last set."

"I felt like the show was longer tonight than it usually is. I don't know what that was about."

Howie stopped massaging for a moment and hugged Brian to him, "Did you wake up last night, or something? Because I got like nine hours of sleep while we were on the road."

"I think I may've actually gotten more, I woke up after you."

"And I know you ate all three meals yesterday. Did you get enough water?"

"Drank more than usual, I was really thirsty today. Still kinda am." Brian looked over to where there was a glass with less than a third of its water contents still on the table.

Howie leaned forward a little and pressed his lips to Brian's forehead. "You're not warm. I mean, a little, but probably just from the shower."

Brian nudged Howie a little with his right elbow, "You're being a mom."

Howie chuckled against Brian's ear. "I know, I can't help it, I worry about you guys."

"'S'probably nothing. Maybe I've got what's going around. In which case, the tour doctor will make me take a whole bunch of meds and get really pissed off at you for having been so irresponsible as to catch it from me."

"Yeah." Howie made no move to get away from Brian's evil, germ-filled body. "Well, I wouldn't want you to suffer alone."

"Sweet of you." Brian fell asleep in Howie's arms.

*

Three weeks later, when the tour doctor was still insisting that Brian was experiencing exhaustion, regardless of the perfectly acceptable amounts of sleep all four of the other guys were enforcing upon him, Howie suggested to Kevin that they get a second opinion.

Having to help Brian to the bus after a show was now part of the Backstreet routine. By the time they made it up the stairs, Brian would be wheezing, his arms folded tightly over his chest, biting his lip to keep from crying. Howie would sit with him, stroking his hair and rocking him back and forth until he could stand long enough to take a quick shower and then would tuck Brian into his bunk, more often than not staying the night with him, regardless of cramping.

Kevin had called Harold and Jackie the first time Brian had gone to the doctor to talk with them about the diagnosis. They had both sounded worried but been willing to trust someone with an M.D. Now, two and a half weeks later, that willingness was long gone. They gave Kevin the name of Brian's heart doctor at home, who in turn gave Kevin a list of doctors around the country that he would recommend. Kevin found one for the next city they were in and called ahead to make an appointment.

They were supposed to be at an interview at the time of the appointment, so they snuck Brian out with the help of the bodyguards, but he had to go on his own. They met up with him at the venue for the show later that afternoon. Brian looked pale and worried, but when Howie showed up he put on his very best smile. Howie wasn't fooled, "What'd he say?"

Brian shook his head, "Later, D, okay? I have to perform now. We have to perform."

Howie dug up his own no-way-in-hell-am-I-gonna-let-everyone-know-the-world-is-coming-to-an-end smile.

*

Brian had wanted to tell Kevin and Howie first, but AJ refused to be left out which caused Nick to get uppity about not knowing as well. Brian conceded and they held a group meeting on the bus. He laid out what the doctor had said to him for the guys and waited for a reaction.

"There's something wrong with your heart." Kevin was the first one to speak after a lengthy silence.

"Yeah. He'll probably have more details in a few days, like I said."

"There's a way to fix it, though, right?" Nick was smiling the way he did right before walking into a crowd that would most likely maul him.

"We'll know that when we know what's wrong. But, I mean, it's not all about what the doctors say, because really, they've said I was gonna die before and it didn't mean anything."

"Yeah." Nick's smile relaxed a fraction, becoming slightly more real.

Howie had been next to Brian throughout the entire discussion, rubbing his back. He spoke up suddenly, "We should probably talk to Lou. I mean, regardless of diagnosis, things are gonna have to change for you."

Brian leaned into Howie. "I know, but I'd like to wait until we know more."

Howie and Kevin caught each other's eyes. Kevin looked back at Brian, "He said a week at the longest?"

Brian nodded.

"I'll set up a time to meet with Lou next week."

*

The way things ended up working out, Kevin and Brian had to meet with Lou alone and Howie was left waiting to learn the outcome. The meeting took place in the morning, but between the photo shoot they had to attend, a scheduled meet and greet and the concert, Howie didn't really get to talk to either Brian or Kevin until after the show. He took his time helping Brian get ready for bed silently, not wanting Brian to have to exert the extra effort of talking.

Howie situated Brian laying down on the couch with his head in Howie's lap. Kevin sat down on the floor. Howie leaned back into the couch. "So?"

Kevin threw one of his shoes violently into the side of the bus which caused Howie to jump a bit and Brian to turn his head, "Kevin. C'mon."

Kevin was shaking, but he took a deep breath. "Lou says we have contracts and that that kind of time off isn't provided for."

"He needs an operation," Howie explained, as though it would clear everything up.

AJ appeared in the main area, having woken up to sound of Kevin's shoe making impact. "Everything okay?"

Kevin sighed. "Yeah, Aje, it's cool. We’re just talking logistics."

AJ rolled his eyes. "We're on a fucking bus, I asked to be polite."

Howie twisted slightly. "Nick still sleeping?"

"Like the dead." AJ collapsed near Kevin and sprawled over the older man. Kevin acted put off for a moment before gathering up what he could reach of AJ and squeezing.

Brian's intake of breath was loud, labored, even over the sound of the bus wheels moving rapidly on paved road. "Tell me what to do here. Please. I'll trust you guys."

Howie grabbed the throw blanket that someone had left on the floor near his feet and covered Brian in it. Brian smiled up at him before closing his eyes. Howie whispered, "Lou can take all my money and throw me in jail, he's getting his fucking operation."

*

Leighanne could have been Brian's sister or long-lost cousin, but to pretty much anyone who asked, she was his girlfriend. They had met during the video taping for "As Long As You Love Me" and Howie had been fairly convinced Nigel was going to kill the two of them and give someone else Brian's solos before the day was over.

Howie had come up with the idea for asking her if she would be willing to play beard. Brian hadn't liked it, worried that she would come between them, real or no. Howie had eventually won the argument, though and Leighanne had been let in on their secret and asked to play a part. She had agreed.

What was more, she had been a fantastic friend to both men. Howie knew they weren't going to let him go see Brian before the surgery. The doctors wouldn't even let Kevin in, and he was family. They allowed Harold and Jackie to be there, of course, and after a little bit of pleading and batting her eyelashes, Leighanne was let past the door as well.

Harold and Jackie came out of the room looking worn and scared. Leighanne wore an expression of bemusement for a mere second before she caught Howie's eyes and winked, "He's gonna be fine, sugar."

"They're cutting open his chest." Howie had spent far too much time over the past few months being optimistic for Brian to waste energy doing it for someone else.

"They went to school for half their lives to learn how to do that. You can't say that about singing and yet every time y'all open your mouths, teenage girls from here to Czechoslovakia have swooning fits."

Howie smiled tiredly, "Not the same, Leigh."

"You're just running low on faith. I was gonna take a little jag down to the chapel, wanna come with?"

"I dunno, I should probably help Kevin with Nick and-"

Leighanne grabbed his hand. "Ten minutes, D. Then you can come back and actually be of some use, okay?"

Howie squeezed her hand.

*

Nick was staring at the pages of an old "People" magazine, blinking tiredly when Howie came back to the waiting room. Harold was sitting across from Nick with Jackie resting on his shoulder, evidently sleeping. Howie seriously doubted that she actually was.

Howie sat down next to Nick, placing a hand on his knee. "Kevin and AJ leave you here?"

"Vending machine run." Nick didn't take his gaze off the picture of his lifelong crush, Christina Ricci.

"They at least getting you something?"

Nick nodded. "Dew. Caffeine."

Howie hoped Kevin had the foresight to bring him back some coffee.

"I don't understand all this."

It took Howie a moment to realize that Nick was not talking about the captions in the "Star Traks" section.

"He doesn’t deserve this, Howie." Nick kept his voice quiet, cognizant of Brian's parents being mere feet from them.

"Oh. Nicky, of course not. Stuff like this just happens, sometimes." Howie pushed fervently down at the part of him that felt like agreeing desperately with Nick.

"He's everything…everything I want to be. Like, y'know the things like his voice and his looks and all that, because who doesn't want to be Brian Litrell, right? But it's also the other stuff."

Howie wished Nick would be quiet. He knew all about Brian; everything he'd miss if Brian didn't make it back to them. Nick's eyes were large with unshed tears, though, so Howie just sat back and let him talk.

"He's just the best person I know. I mean, I wouldn't have made it through these last few months, I would've given up, but he didn't, even when he was crawling back with us at night, and I wanna be strong like that."

Howie nodded, biting at the inside of his cheek. He wanted to tell Nick that he had his own kind of strength, but speaking was far beyond Howie at that point.

"And he's the greatest friend I'm ever gonna have, ever. He's so good at knowing how I'm feeling and respecting me… The way he is with you, kinda, but different. I learned everything I know about being a good boyfriend from you guys, the way you treat each other-" Nick tore his face away from the magazine to look at Howie and cut himself off, hugging Howie tightly. "I'm sorry, D."

"He's a survivor, Nicky." Howie's voice cracked but he continued anyway, "We all are. We're gonna make it through this."

Nick sniffled affirmatively against Howie's neck.

*

Howie and the other guys weren't allowed into Brian's room until two days after the surgery when Brian began to come out of the drugged stupor the doctors had kept him in. AJ talked at Brian loudly and quickly, all the while acting as though touching him might break him. Nick petted at Brian's arm gently, smiling widely and not saying much. Kevin held his cousin's hand and whispered something into his ear that made Brian grin and say, "Means a lot to me," in a voice still raspy from sleep and low fluid intake.

After a few minutes, Kevin ushered the two younger boys out of the room so that Howie could have a little time alone with Brian. Howie sat on the side of the bed gingerly, so as not to jar Brian and placed a kiss on his forehead, "Hey sexy."

Brian grimaced slightly. "Sexy has to be at the very top of the list of things that I am not feeling like at this moment."

Howie brought the blanket up more securely over Brian's shoulders. "I bet. I miss you. Shows aren't the same without you. Bus is lonely."

Brian nodded. "Well, y'know, y'all were taking me too much for granted, thought I'd just-" He broke off as tears spilled over the edge of his eyelids. "Sorry."

Howie ran his thumb over the shadows under Brian's eyes. "Nothing to be sorry for. You've had a long couple of months."

"I hate it here. It's so quiet without AJ making his fuss and you're not near me if I need you and I do. I need you so badly." Brian laughed shortly while still crying. "I'm being such a girl."

Howie shook his head. "You're not being, as you put it, 'a girl.'" Howie's tone was slightly chiding, he always told people who used that expression that gender constructs were just that -- constructed. "You're exhausted, you've just been through major surgery and you're being kept apart from the people you've lived with for almost five years. It'd be kinda weird if you didn't feel lonely under those circumstances, don't you think?"

Brian reached out to the side of his bed for a tissue, nodding at Howie. He wiped at his nose and then tossed the tissue into the wastebasket by the side of his bed. He picked up one of Howie's hands and held it in both of his. "I want you to stay."

"I know, baby. I wish I could." Howie used his free hand to ruffle Brian's hair. "But I'm always gonna be here if you need me. You get the nurses to call my cell phone, day or night. I don't care if we're in the middle of a show, okay?"

Brian's smile was watery as his eyes met Howie's in a confirmation that he had heard and understood what Howie had said. They both knew Brian wouldn't call in the middle of a show, or most likely, call at any time, but that wasn't really the point.

Howie leaned in to kiss Brian gently. "Love you so much."

Brian snapped at Howie's lower lip playfully. "Not as much as I love you."

*

Watching Brian breathe like he had just run a marathon three songs into the show, Howie thought that Kevin's reassurances that they were taking steps toward new management weren't all that comforting. New management wouldn't matter if Brian wasn't there to see it.

Brian smacked Howie lightly on the shoulder during their first quick change and admonished him to, "Quit thinking so hard. I'm fine."

It took Brian a minute to say the whole thing between breaths. Howie was not mollified.

Brian made it through the show, just as he had almost every night the past week. He threw an arm around Nick when they were done and the two of them acted like they were taking a leisurely stroll to the bus. The bodyguards didn’t say anything, even though Lou had yelled for an hour the night before about them getting caught in traffic and being late to the next town.

Brian had commented, "Better late than dead" after the connection was cut, and that was the end of that.

The routine once on the bus was eerily similar to the way things had been before Brian's surgery. Howie still showered with Brian in case he wasn't up to standing by himself the whole time, still went to bed with him, tucked in "tight as sardines," in Jackie's colorful terms.

Since Brian had started feeling weak, he had been too tired after a show to do anything other than fall asleep. If it was a really good night, he might be able to talk for a little while before drifting off, but that was about it.

Two weeks after Brian had rejoined the tour, Howie climbed into bed, wrapping himself tightly around his lover. Brian squirmed so that he was facing Howie. Minty fresh breath wafted over Howie's face as Brian noted, "I could maybe, um, kiss you, if you were up for that."

It had been a long time since they'd had even the shortest of makeout sessions, and just the words coming out of Brian's mouth made Howie hard. "So very very up for that."

Brian didn't waste any time, falling into Howie, pressing their lips up against each other in a kiss that was so hungry Howie almost wondered about when Brian had eaten last. Howie responded with a desperation of his own, knowing his lips would be bruised in the morning, unable to care.

They fell asleep breathing each other's air.

*

"D'you think we're gonna get screwed?" Brian hoisted himself on top of the hotel's laundry machine and let his legs dangle, enjoying the rhythmic motion below him.

Howie screwed the top back on the detergent. "I don’t care if we have to walk around with fourteen inch dildos up our asses for the rest of our lives, so long as Lou isn't holding the chains to them."

"I'd really appreciate if you could avoid using the images of Lou and sex toys within the same conversation, let alone sentence, okay?"

Howie snickered. "He's gonna get some of our money. Maybe a lot. Possibly the rights to all images created previous to the split. The rights to our songs, so that we can't make any decisions regarding their release to other groups. Honestly, though, I don't care. None of that's you. He can't take us apart. We can always start over. I think we've proven ourselves sufficiently good at struggling."

"If nothing else."

Howie threw a dirty shirt at Brian's face. "Speak for yourself."

Brian peeled the shirt off of him and chucked it back at Howie. "Do me a favor babe, okay? Join me in being a little bitter here."

"I can't."

"Howie, for crying out loud, he's been robbing you, lying to you-"

"He nearly caused the man I love to die," Howie snarled, causing Brian to back up an inch, startled. Howie took several deep breaths. "I can't talk about this because once I start I won't stop. Not until I've taken him apart, piece by piece, with my own hands and hung his intestines from the rafters of Transcon's HQ as a warning to all who would dare try and follow where he has gone. Do you understand?"

Brian nodded slowly. "Yeah, I'm with." He drew his knees up on top of the washer and hugged them to himself. "Look, I don't usually find the whole Neanderthal thing very appealing, but, um. Feral's kind of good on you."

Howie looked up from where he was scrubbing at a stain with an old toothbrush and a dollop of Shout. "As good as domestic?"

Brian tilted his head, considering. "I dunno, that back and forth motion you've got going across that shirt…"

"Does something for you, eh?" Howie quirked up an eyebrow.

"Maybe if you got a little more feral with the stain-" Brian screeched with laughter as Howie suddenly grabbed him around the waist, yanking him off the washing machine for a kiss.

*

Howie got the message to call Caroline upon returning to the hotel after a show one night. He was exhausted, though, and waited until the next morning while riding on the bus to call her back.

She picked up on the third ring, "Hello?"

"Hey, you sound even more tired than I feel."

"How you doing, baby brother?"

"Okay. Little stressed, but, hi. Welcome to living life."

"And Brian?"

"Just keeps getting better. He's my hero, I swear." Howie walked back to the bunks to stand over where Brian was sleeping. He lowered his voice, "Not that I don't love talking to you, but did you have a reason for calling?"

"Yeah." Caroline sounded like she had been hoping he wouldn't ask.

"Caro? You feeling okay?"

"No, not. Not really. I've been thinking I was in a flare for awhile now." Caroline kept speaking over the pickup of Howie's breath, "I know I should've said something earlier, but I wanted to make sure Brian was as fully recovered as things would allow before I worried you."

"So I need to be worried? I mean, you've had flares before." Flaring was the word for when Lupus acted up in or something about the disease altered within an infected person's system.

"That's um, that's the thing."

"Caro, honey, tell me what's going on." Howie had sunk to the floor, resting his head on the side of the bunk.

"I went to my doctor to talk about whether I needed to alter my meds or anything, and he took a look, said it wasn't a flare."

"If it isn't-"

"I picked up something. An infection, somewhere. I mean, you know how it works, could have been anything really. And we didn't really think it was that big a deal, he just stuck me on some really strong antibiotics."

"But?"

"They're not working. He's not sure why either. He keeps trying different stuff, he's even sent me to some other specialists, but nothing's really working."

"Maybe you need to go out of state, find out who the best is and get yourself to that person."

"Howie. I need you to listen to me. The infection's really bad. I um, I got fired, because I can’t really go into work much and I finally used up all my sick days. I even went through my vacation days."

"How long has this been going on without you saying anything?" Howie was speaking pretty loudly by this point, but he couldn't bring himself to notice or care. Vaguely, he felt someone's hand settle gently on the top of his head.

"About a month."

"A month? You've known you were in trouble for a month now and-"

"You were in the middle of litigation and watching over your recently operated boyfriend-"

"You're my sister!"

"I'm sorry-"

"I have to come home-"

"No, D, I was thinking, maybe, I'd come see you while I'm still relatively able. I mean, I'd rather that than you coming back and sitting around here."

"I don't think traveling is the best idea."

"Dr. Mendez told me it was fine. It's not really your decision."

Howie had never been very good at winning fights with any of his siblings. "I'd love for you to see me performing."

"With your boy."

"With my boy."

Caroline was quiet for a bit. "I'll call you when I need you to come home."

"Don't wait again."

"No. No more waiting."

Howie hung up after telling her he loved her. Brian's grip tightened in his hair. Howie didn't acknowledge his presence in any way.

*

Caroline toured with them for a week. She flew into the city where she was meeting up with them. Paula came with her. They rented a car and Paula drove them from city to city alongside the bus as Caroline slept. Caroline sometimes boarded the bus and hung with the guys. AJ, Nick and Kevin generally left Howie to be alone with her. Brian wandered in and out of their private time, offering both of them physical support and comic relief before allowing them more time together.

She stayed backstage in the dressing room, helping all of them get dressed before the shows. Nick elected her the honorary mother of the group two days into her stay with them. She was the only one he would allow to touch his hair once it had been locked in place by the stylists.

Kevin took great pleasure in having someone older than him around, and adopted her as his older sister. Having been the youngest in his family all his life until Backstreet, it was comfortable to go back to being the little brother.

AJ was just happy to have someone to conspire with in creating trouble for Howie. Caroline was more than willing to oblige.

Brian was too busy lending Howie a calming influence to worry much about what he was getting out of Caroline's visit. Brian had stopped trying to draw distinctions between his own family and Howie's after Howie had told his parents about them and Paula had commented, "I raised my sons with good taste, yeah?" Hoke had argued, claiming credit for Howie's taste.

In the times when Caroline wasn't with them, Brian hung onto Howie for all he was worth, as tightly as he could remember being held when it was his heart that was breaking. Brian didn't see much difference between a physical fracture and an emotional one.

*

Howie apologized to the other guys when the phone call came, but went home and left them without the high end of their harmonies anyway. Nobody said a word. AJ hugged him tightly before he left, having to be pried off. Other than that, Howie's goodbye went smoothly.

Brian called him every night. Sometimes, when Caroline was feeling up to it, he would talk to her for awhile before spending an hour or so with Howie. Howie never said much and Brian didn't try to make him, just talked about what had happened to the guys during their day -- what pranks Nick had played; who had managed to get on Kevin's last nerve; the latest tattoo AJ was considering.

Brian was in the middle of talking about some abnormally large screw-up of Nick's during the "Everybody" set one night when Howie interrupted. "What if you get sick again?"

Brian thought about the question for a moment. "Not that it couldn’t happen, because we're all mortal and all, but you know there's some insanely small chance that it actually would, right?"

"A lot of people with Lupus live completely normal life spans."

"Sweetie, stop. You are not some kind of bad luck charm. I had a congenital heart defect, your sister has Lupus. Just because you know both of us doesn’t mean you caused either of these things to happen. I'm so sorry that Caro is sick, but it doesn't mean that anything is going to happen to me again, I promise."

"I don't know how to say goodbye to her." Howie whispered the words almost imperceptibly.

Brian wasn't sure if he had actually heard or just instinctually knew what had been said. "Maybe you should talk to Kevin about this. I mean, he's been there, with my uncle and everything-"

"It's not… I don’t think I want an answer."

Brian didn't vocalize his responding nod. Howie would know he was doing it.

"I love her so much."

"I know."

"She has all these plans, these things to do. She's been telling me about them."

"She picked a good person to place her memory with."

"I'm gonna, when I can. I'm gonna tell you things. That way it'll be the two of us doing it. We're…I don't remember what it's like being separate from you."

"Me neither. I don't want to."

*

The Boys cancelled shows for the first time since they had formed to fly back to Florida for the funeral. More than ever, Howie found himself rebelling against the closet of fame, wanting desperately to be able to touch Brian, hold his hand. Brian sat next to him during the proceedings, gently shaking his leg so that it would bump Howie's rhythmically. It was the only thing that kept Howie from breaking down midway through the eulogy.

Once at the Dorough's house, Kevin sequestered himself in the kitchen, helping to serve food and wash dishes so that none of the people grieving would be bothered with it. AJ and Nick both helped keep the children out of the way, playing with them in the backyard and a couple of the guest rooms. Brian stayed by Howie's side, not really worried about whether he was being conspicuous or not.

The visitors cleared out in the late evening and Kevin did one last round of making sure everyone had eaten before clearing himself, AJ and Nick out of the house. Brian gripped Howie's hand firmly and led him up the stairs to his room. Howie followed numbly, trying his best to help as Brian stripped him of his clothes. Brian shucked off his suit as well and climbed into bed, pulling Howie against him.

Howie's face was wet against Brian's chest. Brian didn't say anything just rubbed at Howie's back firmly until the sobs ceased being silent. Brian held on as Howie's body heaved. He sat Howie up when he began to choke on the sobs, not saying anything. He slid behind Howie and held him from there.

It took almost an hour for Howie to stop crying. The tears slowed gradually, coming in fits and spurts before Howie sagged against Brian's chest. "I miss her so much. It hasn't even been a week."

Brian climbed out of bed and walked to the bathroom. He returned with a lukewarm facial cloth and wiped Howie's face gently clean. He set it back by the sink before climbing into bed with Howie again, cuddling up to him as he had before the crying jag. Howie immediately cuddled closer. "I'm so glad you're here. I couldn't do this alone."

Brian kissed his forehead. "I'm never gonna let you do something like this alone. Never."

Howie was asleep by the time Brian had finished his declaration.

*
1999
*

Brian looked up at Kevin and repeated, "You want us to go ring shopping with you?"

Kevin sat down in the nearest chair. "For Kris. I'm gonna pop the question."

Howie reached over to squeeze Kevin's shoulder, "That's great, Kev. I'm in."

Brian was not to be shaken out of his state of confusion. "But you know her better than us, I mean, obviously. You'd know what she'd want more than me or Howie."

"I need a little moral support here, cous."

"Oh, well, you could've just said that."

Howie got up and moved to where Brian was sitting, kissing the tip of his ear. "Hey you."

Brian sighed. "Hey." He glanced back up at Kevin. "It's great about you and Kris. About time."

"I might even believe you if you didn't sound like I just told you winter was never going to end and the earth was about to spin off its axis." Kevin rolled his eyes.

"I'm sorry. I really am happy for the two of you."

Howie pulled Brian closer to him. "We've been talking about the Leighanne situation of late."

"I see. Come up with anything?"

Brian closed his eyes. "Her boyfriend asked her to marry him."

Kevin grimaced. "What are his thoughts on all of this?"

Howie shifted slightly underneath Brian. "I introduced them. He's cool with it. He actually suggested that Brian and Leighanne have a public ceremony. Then Scott and Leighanne would get documentation drawn up on the sly. That way her wedding ring wouldn't look odd and Brian gets to keep his beard. Everyone's happy."

"Kind of." Kevin drew each word out.

Brian reopened his eyes. "Yeah. If the media doesn't dig enough to find something wrong, or Howie and I don't start having problems over the fact that I'm legally bound to someone else as far as everyone can tell."

Kevin started laughing. He took deep breaths trying to stop himself, but before long he was leaning over, clutching his stomach, tears rolling off both sides of his face. When he finally managed to look up, it was into two very bemused expressions.

Howie managed a tentative, "You okay?"

"Fine." Kevin wiped a stray tear away. "I just…do you know each other? Because, AJ and Nick and I were under the impression that you'd been dating for several years now."

Brian opened his mouth to say something, but Howie beat him to it. "Your point?"

"First off, the media isn't gonna dig and you know it. You're the golden boy, of course you're marrying her. She's blond and blue-eyed and Southern Baptist and if she was anymore like you, we'd have to be checking her DNA to make sure you two were far enough removed. You could fuck Howie on a table in the middle of a press conference and people'd still believe it when you announced the engagement the next day. Secondly, you guys have made it through Lou, Brian's surgery and a gajillion other things while Brian was supposedly dating Leighanne. Do you really think that a little publicity stunt is going to change any of that?"

Brian turned his face to look at Howie. "Why does he always have to have a point?"

Howie snickered. Despite himself, he found Brian cute when he was whining. "Because he is old and wise, young grasshopper."

Brian shoved the heel of his hand into Howie's arm. "Guess I'm tying the knot."

Kevin smiled sardonically. "If we time this right, the media will eat. it. up."

*

"I've been thinking-" Howie started.

"You should be careful about that kind of thing," Brian interrupted.

Howie went on like nothing had been said, "That if you're going to be wearing something that identifies you to the world as hers, that there should be something on you that identifies you to the people who know as mine."

Brian thought back through the sentence. "You want us to have rings, or something?"

"Or something. I was thinking much more on the permanent side."

"Permanent." Brian rolled the word around on his tongue.

"I have a design. I was thinking you could find one too, okay? And then we'd have the design that each of us chose for one another inked on."

"We'd have to think up back stories for them, because you know we're gonna get asked." Brian was failing to hide his enthusiasm for the idea.

"Yeah, um. That's the other thing." Howie looked sheepish.

"Other thing?"

Howie ran a hand firmly up Brian's inner thigh almost to his groin. He squeezed the spot lightly. "If we get them here, nobody's ever gonna see 'em but us and the guys."

Brian put a hand over Howie's and dragged it upwards so that it rested over his cock. He panted a bit at the sensation and leaned forward to nip at Howie's chin. "Good little Catholic" nip, "boy," lick, "my ass."

Howie smiled and put his hand to good use.

*
2000
*

Brian and Leighanne were lounging on the veranda of the bungalow they had rented for their "honeymoon" when Howie and Scott showed up later that night. The bungalow was on a private beach and the proprietors of the place had promised in writing that the newlyweds would not be disturbed by the media or fans. It was also large enough for both couples to spend the week in without getting in each other's way.

Howie kissed Leighanne's cheek and told her for the eighteenth time that day how beautiful she had looked in her wedding dress before dragging his boyfriend out of the wicker chair that large parts of him had melded to and into the house. Brian hung bonelessly over Howie's back, trampling his feet several times on the way to the bedroom. Howie laughed and deposited Brian on the bed. "Long flight?"

Brian wrinkled up his face. "Think I have enough money to pay someone to invent a transporter for me?"

"I love it when your inner-science geek surfaces." Howie lifted Brian's shirt over his head. "You're so very lucky I didn't throw you to the ground and ravish you in the middle of your ceremony today."

Brian picked at the hem of Howie's shirt, indicating that he should take it off as well. "You were pretty damn hot yourself. Boys in cumberbunds, I tell you."

Howie pulled Brian's button up jeans open in one swift motion, "Just any boy in a cumberbund?"

Brian laid back on the bed, "Um, one in particular."

Howie yanked the jeans off. "That's what I thought." Brian was naked beneath them. Howie knelt between Brian's legs, hands massaging at Brian's ankle bones. They worked their way up, rubbing along the calves, at the knees, the tops of the thighs. Howie leaned in then to kiss the Celtic cross inked into Brian's skin just where Howie had said it would be. The cross was one of the simpler Celtic designs, originally part of the Dorough family crest. It was done in a deep violet and was not even as large as Howie's palm. Brian moaned and arched his flesh into the kiss. "Lemme see yours."

Howie smiled against the skin of Brian's leg. He stood to remove his own pants, climbing onto the bed next to Brian. Brian rolled over to face him. Brian reached out to touch the B, written in flowing -- but not flowery -- script in simple black. He traced the shape with a finger, biting his lower lip at Howie's gasp. Howie reached down and pulled Brian's hand away, bringing it up to his mouth, where he sucked at the finger that had been brushing his skin a moment earlier. Brian propped his head up with his other hand, watching with interest.

Howie removed the finger from his mouth slowly. "I can taste myself on you. Just from touching me. I'm there."

Brian nodded, responding in a voice flushed with desire, "That taste never goes away."

*

Brian woke up to Howie carrying a breakfast tray into the room. "What're you doing?"

"It's your honeymoon."

Brian worked his best to summon up a glare. "If it's my honeymoon, than the only person I'm on a honeymoon with is you. So, stop working, get in here and fuck me through the mattress, please."

"Seeing as how you were so polite, maybe later. Breakfast now." Howie sat down on the bed, "Don't worry, I brought enough for us to share."

Brian sat up enough to survey the plate. He picked up the cluster of grapes and popped one off. He made sure Howie was looking before carefully placing it in his mouth and rolling it around on his tongue lewdly, supposedly in the process of eating.

Howie shook his head, "Nice try. I'm already interested, though. Just hungry."

Brian pouted for a few minutes, but the fruit was good, and the place had remembered to stock Golden Grahams, which was his favorite cereal. Howie picked up one of the two goblets that were sitting on the corner of the tray and indicated that Brian should follow. Brian gave the goblet a suspicious look. "Ice cream for breakfast?"

"It's not ice cream, it's sorbet. Strawberry."

"But." Brian wasn't going against his mama's teachings without a fight. "Breakfast."

"Honeymoon. I'm spoiling you. Eat." Howie slowly licked at his spoonful, putting on just as much of a show as Brian with his grape. Brian gave in and dug his spoon a little into the sorbet.

The aftertaste of the sorbet was even colder and sweeter to Brian later when he was sucking it from the surface of Howie's tongue.

*

Kevin had come up with the idea of going to the Caribbean and writing together for the next album. He told Howie and Brian first, wanting their opinions on the idea.

Howie looked thoughtfully at the place where Kevin's voice was emanating from the speaker phone. "I mean. I'm not really one to turn down fun in the sun, but what are you really hoping for here?"

"At the very least to get some of the people who get on us about not writing our own stuff off our asses."

Brian smiled at Howie, safely out of Kevin's sight. They both worried over and got amusement from Kevin's need for critical support. "Cous, they're gonna eat us alive whether we're writing our own stuff or not, you know that."

"Yeah," Kevin agreed shortly. "There's also… I'm kinda worried about Nicky and Aje. I think this might be good for them."

Brian came closer to the phone. "Nicky's just a teenager, Kev. Nothing to be done about that. A little late, maybe, but it's not like we gave him a chance when the time was right."

"And AJ?" The question was even more chilling for being disconnected from the body that was asking it.

Howie bit the inside of his cheek lightly and let go. "And you think a week in the Caribbean's gonna change things?"

"I want him to know we're still here. I thought, maybe, if we got him away from everyone else, that he could remember that."

Brian leaned one hip against the counter with the phone on it. "I hope so."

The look in Howie's eyes echoed the note of Brian's voice.

*

Howie and Brian knocked on the door of AJ's suite the evening after he revealed what he'd been working on so diligently by himself during the trip.

AJ's voice rang out from the other side of the door. "Guys, I'm tired, can this wait?"

"No." Brian was so easy-going three-fourths of the time that when he got pushy it always took the receiving party by just enough surprise for Brian to get what he wanted.

AJ, however, knew Brian pretty well. He opened the door less because he was unsettled than due to the realization that when Brian was like this, he wasn't going until he had done what he had come to do. AJ stood aside to let both men in.

Howie caught AJ's waist as he was passing by and brought him with them to the bed. AJ laughed, looking like it was very much despite his best intentions. He batted Howie's hands away. "So?"

Brian started. "Your song is really good."

AJ's eyes were pleased, but he shrugged. "Just giving the girlies what they want. Marriage vows and thoughtless pop."

Howie drew his legs up onto the bed. "What do you want?"

"What d'you mean?"

Brian answered him, "You sounded kinda…wistful, when you sang."

"It's a wistful song."

"Well, right," Howie spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully, "But you wrote it that way."

"Look, maybe I haven't been as happy joy joy as I'm supposed to be about relationships since Amanda and I finally gave up, but it's not dire or anything, you can go back to being perfectly happy with everything in your world without any guilt, okay?"

"Do us a favor, Aje, while you're reassuring us, tell us that cows have taken over the US government and are going to completely revolutionize the healthcare system, because really, it would be about as believable as everything you just said." Brian's voice stayed completely level and earnest for the entire comeback.

AJ's jaw tensed. "Did you come in here to hear that I'm so jealous of what the two of you have that most of the time it builds up inside me until the feeling is so close to hate I have trouble distinguishing it? Is that what you wanted to know?"

Howie dug his fingernails into his palm and did his best not to flinch away from the vehemence in AJ's voice. AJ's breath was coming in pants now. The air smelled like Scotch. Howie wondered how he had missed it in the first place. "We never meant to hurt you."

"No, you and Brian wouldn't, would you? The two of you wouldn't pass your own worst enemy if they were lying in the street. So. Fucking. Good."

Howie shook his head, "Oh, Aje."

AJ growled. "Look, just get out, okay? We can pretend nothing happened tomorrow. That's something I learned from you two, the art of flawless pretending."

Brian's eyes were soft, hurt as he stood up. "Glad to know our relationship has been good for something other than causing you pain."

*

Nick was the first one to break the silence when Jive told the group the numbers for Black & Blue's first week sales. "Shit."

Howie reached out to put the palm of his hand against the tensed muscles of Nick's back. There was no reaction to the touch.

Kevin took a deep breath. "We can't let this affect us."

AJ laughed, "That's rich, Kev."

"AJ, you have something you wanna say to me, you can say it when you're in your fucking right mind. Until then, lay the fuck off."

Howie fought to keep his fingers from tightening against Nick's back. Kevin only swore when he was frightened. Brian ran a hand over his eyes and back through his hair. "We came here to discuss the tour, guys. Let's stay on topic. Making ourselves sick over numbers isn't going to help sales."

AJ looked like he was going to say something inflaming, but instead what came out was, "I think we should have separate buses."

Howie thought that was a phenomenally bad idea. "Is there a reason for that?"

"We've got two members who at least need to make it look like they’re married."

There wasn't really a counter-argument for that, so Howie turned to Nick, "What do you think?"

Nick shook Howie's hand off calmly, back in full late-blooming-teenager mode. "It'll be nice to have my own space."

Howie knew the look on his face matched the desperation of Brian's. They could climb on each other's bus with little difficulty, as long as they were discreet. Leaving AJ alone was a bad idea, though. Brian appealed to his older cousin, "Kevin?"

Kevin put a hand to his stomach, as if to calm it. "Aje has gotta point."

"Okay, but we could bus together. Married bus, non-married bus."

"You have interesting concepts of what could be considered wholesome, Bri." AJ's eyes were dark and mean.

Kevin's soft, "I'll talk to PR, see what they think is best," told Howie that AJ had won.

*
2001
*

Howie and Brian's buses stopped somewhere in the fields of the Northeastern United States and Howie switched over to Brian's in the pre-dawn hours. Brian was still up, strumming gently at his guitar. "Hey."

Howie toed his shoes off and sat down on the couch, tucking his bare feet underneath one of Brian's legs. "Couldn't sleep?"

Brian didn't answer directly, "You sounded good tonight, especially on 'How Did I Fall.'"

Howie knew an evasion when he heard one, but he let it go. "You just like that song."

"Guilty as charged." Brian played a chord. "You wrote it for us, I'm supposed to not like it?"

"Weirder things've happened."

Brian acknowledged this with a small huff of breath. "AJ sounded like death warmed over. It's been even worse since his grandma died."

Howie knew that Brian and AJ hadn't been getting along. Not that any of them had, really. It was hard to get along with an AJ whose main purpose in life seemed to be to hurt whoever came within spitting distance. Brian's anger was something he held close to him, though. He never allowed himself to get mad without understanding exactly why he was doing it. Brian was mad at AJ. Which was how he knew that AJ needed their help like never before. "We have to help him."

"What do you suggest, babe?" Howie's fingers tucked a lock of Brian's hair behind his ear.

"I've been reading about interventions. I even called some people. Professionals, I got their numbers off the 'Net."

"And you think that's the best way to go?"

"I'd. I'd need to talk to Kevin and Nick, see what they're thinking. It has to be planned, we have to know what we're going to say. It can't just- He has to know how much we love him, even if he hates us." Brian bit his lip as he broke off. "I don't want to, though. I don't want to send him away."

Howie had never minded not having all the answers. He wished he had an answer for Brian right then.

*

Nick hurt himself helping move equipment. It was odd, because all of them had helped haul stuff for a show at one point or another, treating the crew well was a good tactic on a tour. Nobody had ever gotten hurt before; roadies tended to be protective of the guys, particularly the ones who had been touring with them over the years. The doctor declared it a severe sprain though, and warned Nick not to do anything with it for at least a week.

In all the excitement, AJ disappeared off the radar. Howie noticed that he wasn't at the hospital, but considering how stilted group communication had been, he thought AJ might have stayed back at the concert site, or gone on to the hotel. By the time they realized that neither of these things was true, all they knew was that AJ was missing and without a bodyguard.

Kevin gave Nick some painkillers that put him to sleep. He called Jive and told them to postpone that evening's show, with apologies and the news that Nick had been hurt. Howie, Brian and Kevin acquired a list of bars from the hotel concierge and split up, each taking a third of the locations.

Howie found AJ near to the end of his search. AJ was still sitting at the bar, just barely. Howie approached and put a hand on AJ's shoulder, "Hey. C'mon, let's get you back."

AJ turned his gaze toward Howie. It was a moment before recognition set in. He started to laugh, "We gotta do a sshhow, huh?"

"No show tonight, we postponed, let's just get outta here."

"Not ready yet."

"Trust me you are. Aje, you can either get up, and let me help you to the car, or I can go get backup, since I remembered to bring my bodyguard. Which way we gonna do this?"

AJ stayed seated. Howie motioned to Billy. Within seconds, AJ was being carried out of the bar. He fussed, but Billy was roughly twice his size and AJ's movement was impaired, so it wasn't much of a match. Howie stayed behind to pay off the patrons who had seen anything and the owner.

AJ had already passed out by the time Howie climbed into the back seat of the car. Billy twisted around from the front seat. "I called the others, told'em we found him."

Howie indicated his thanks with a small head gesture. He looked over AJ's sleeping form. "This can't go on. We can't… Shit."

Howie opened up his cell phone and dialed a three-way between him, Brian and Kevin. "I don't wanna go on being this scared."

*

Kevin, Howie and Brian alternated taking care of AJ throughout the night. Once he fell asleep, he didn't wake until mid-afternoon the next day. At his first moan, someone handed him some water and a couple of Tylenol. AJ accepted both.

It took a few minutes for his head to clear enough for him to even register large details, but when it did, the first thing he noticed was the four men sitting in his room, each with a separate expression of worry. "Lemme guess," he croaked quietly. "Another, 'let's lecture AJ' kinda day?"

Kevin shook his head. "No lectures, Aje, just a choice."

AJ took a sip of his water. "I'm listening."

Kevin looked at Brian. Brian's expression was grim, but full of support. Kevin took a deep breath. "The Backstreet Boys is a group made up of five guys who sing and dance for their living. They're the best of friends, they live together for a large majority of the year and they support and protect each other when necessary."

"Cut the prose, Kev, get to the point."

Howie drew AJ's attention to him, "This group hasn't had five people in it for awhile. We've had five bodies, the fifth one is willing to share his soul with us less and less. We can't function like that."

Brian jumped in, "We love you, we love our fifth member, but that's not who you are right now. The only way you can be him is without the booze, and you haven't proven yourself capable of even trying to be without it."

Kevin picked up the thread again. "So, the choice is, rehab, or this ends. We won't try and find someone new, there is no other AJ and we wouldn't want a replacement, but you scared the shit outta us yesterday, disappearing with no protection. You worry us constantly with the damage that you're doing to yourself. This group isn't The Backstreet Boys anymore, and we won't go on pretending."

AJ smirked. "You practice all that in the mirror beforehand?"

Nobody responded. They had all discussed not rising to AJ's bait earlier. Nick bit the inside of his lip to keep from crying, even though he was long past having broken the skin.

"Who says I can't live without the alcohol? You haven't even given me the chance to try."

More silence.

"Why would I want to be in a band with the four of you anyway, you're all fucking assholes, I'm better off on my own, Nicky's getting all fat, and Kevin's getting old and don't even get me started on the two fag boys."

Kevin put his hands on knees. His fingers clutched them so tightly that the knuckles turned white. "So's that your decision?"

Brian was crying now, his sniffling the only noise between other people's words. AJ's eyes caught his, and they filled with tears of their own. "Fuck all of you."

Brian stared back, not moving to wipe his tears away. AJ broke, the tears running down his face. "Fine. You wanna put me away, fine."

Kevin and Nick were holding on to their silence like it was a lifeline and Brian's voice was buried beneath his pain. It was Howie who had to say, "We just want you better. That's all we want."

*

Howie checked the caller ID before picking up. "Sweetie? It's almost three in the morning."

Brian's voice was hushed and Howie thought he could hear the distance from Orlando to Atlanta. "Who the fuck decided on this whole Atlanta thing? I wanna come home. It won't look weird, you and Nick and Kev are all out there, it would seem perfectly natural. Or we could go to Arizona. He's all alone out there, I don't like it, we have to go Howie." Brian stopped. "I'm freaking out."

Howie was a big believer in diplomacy. "You're tired and worried."

"Howie, I-"

"Bri, you gotta stay out there for a week, we discussed this. We both made this decision. It wasn't me or you or Leighanne, it was everyone, remember? Then we're gonna go see AJ. The doctor said he probably wouldn't be ready to see us until that point anyway, maybe not even then. We could have to wait out there."

"I hate being away from you."

"Trust me, the sentiment is returned. Leigh's taking good care of you, right?"

"Not as good as you."

"Now you're just being whiny."

"Absolutely."

"Y'know how you always do the hospital corners on the bed?"

"Couldn't figure'em out for yourself?"

"I've watched you do it, what, like eighty trillion times? I had to leave a note for the maid. She probably thinks she works for a total imbecile. I'm dreading the tabloid headers."

"Yeah, that'd be a great read: 'Backstreet Boy Bed-Making Challenged.' Supermarket lines'd be out the door. Besides, Nina's still your maid, right? She's so loyal to you. You'd think she'd nursed you with her very own milk, or something."

"Nice visual, Bri. I really prefer our conversations when you don't feel the need to allude to lactation."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"Babe?"

"Yeah, still here."

"Go take a tablespoon of Nyquil, or a Benadryl or whatever Leigh and Scott keep around. You need to get some sleep."

"I hate taking stuff when I don't need it."

"I know, and I'll make it up to you, but I don't want you wearing yourself down, especially not with the rest of the tour left when we get back on the road and you already being worried about Aje."

"How're you gonna make it up to me?"

"I was thinking along the lines of bedtime stories."

"The ones where I get to choose the adventure?" Even without the use of his face, Brian could deliver a double-entendre like few others, mostly because it was never expected from him.

"A, B or C." Howie drew out the C.

*

Howie hadn't had a birthday party without AJ since Howie's sweet sixteen, and he didn't intend for his 28th year to be the one that he broke that streak on. AJ was out of rehab by that time, in the half-way house. He could leave when signed out, as long as he was going somewhere that was on the list of acceptable places. If not, the place would kick him back to rehab. That was a setback none of them needed. Not with the tour rescheduled for the second time to restart in less than a week.

They had dinner at an upscale Southwestern restaurant, since AJ was dying for anything that wasn't institutional food and Brian had decided years ago that dining on regional food when in the right region was the safest way to live.

Kristen was with Kevin. She was going to ride with him for the first few weeks of the tour, to help keep the stress level lowered. Sara had flown out to see AJ through his last week off the road, so she came along. Nick had wanted to bring Erin, whom he'd been seeing for almost a year, but they had managed to keep things a secret for this long, mostly due to the fact that Erin worked PR for Jive and knew how to spin things; neither of them wanted their perfectly private relationship to be messed up by one night on the town. Denise came along at Howie's insistence, rounding the party out to eight people.

It was AJ's first trip to the outside world since leaving it. He spent most of the evening concentrating intently on what was being said, tamping down on the temporary agoraphobia that came from being out of practice at going beyond the walls of a sanctuary. Howie was acutely conscious of this fact. He sat AJ on the side of him that Brian wasn't on and spent a large part of the night with his hand on AJ's knee. AJ didn't say a word about it until they had dropped him safely back in his room, when he hugged Howie tightly and said, "Happy Birthday and I love you and I instructed Brian to give you a good birthday fuck and he acted all scandalized, but we both know better."

Which was true. Brian was sweet, but he was hardly a choir boy. Not anymore.

Howie was the last to leave after his hug and AJ called after him, softly. "Um, just so you know, I uh. Hatethewordfag."

"Me too." Howie nodded at AJ. "It's okay. We all say things we don't mean."

"I meant it about the birthday fuck."

"I'm gonna go collect, if that's okay with you?"

AJ motioned with his hand. "By all means."

Howie walked down to where Brian was waiting in the car and climbed in. "Wanna go follow AJ's orders?"

Brian blushed. "Why, I have no idea what you are talking about whatsoever."

"No, of course not."

"But I was thinking of taking you to bed and having my wicked way with you."

"A rose by any other name."

*

AJ sounded better than he had in over a year, Nick was happy that his "family" was whole again, Kevin was missing his wife, but otherwise pleased with life and Brian and Howie were content with the way things were stabilizing on the morning when Howie woke up to the ringing of a phone in a hotel room in Montreal. Brian reached the phone first. "Huh?"

Howie watched blearily as Brian's expression came awake almost immediately. "No. That's. That's not funny."

The person on the other end of the line said something. Brian's lower lip trembled. "Okay, I'm gonna turn on the TV in here. Yeah, bring'em over. See you."

Howie touched the expanse of Brian's stomach as Brian reached to set the phone back on the cradle. "What's going on?"

"I'm gonna turn on the news. I have to see that it's the truth, I can't say it right now."

Howie didn't wait for Brian to get up, reaching for where he had left the remote after turning off late night television hours before. He clicked the TV on and immediately flipped to CNN. The reports were confusing at first, with a whole bunch of reporters looking like they had suddenly lost command of the English language. Then they replayed footage of the plane hitting the first tower, and Howie sympathized. He wasn't sure he could have said anything coherent either.

"Howie." Brian's voice cut ruthlessly into Howie's bewilderment. "Howie, there's so many people."

Howie pressed Brian tightly to him in an embrace that caused Brian's face to be hidden from the screen playing and replaying incomprehensible images. Howie's dad had once told him that when "War of the Worlds" was first broadcast, people who had missed the disclaimer jumped out of their windows, thinking the world really was coming to an end. Howie wanted to rewind the CNN footage, check for a disclaimer.

Howie rocked Brian as the guys came in to join them, sitting on the bed in stunned silence. He rocked Brian as people ran through the streets of New York. He was still rocking him when the second tower fell. There didn't seem to be anything else to do.

*

Howie sat down after the group received news of their crewmember's death. "The baby and the wife? They're okay? No complications, or anything, right?"

Kevin leaned against the nearest wall. "I've been told they're…fine."

Brian tucked his knees to his chest and played with the laces on his shoes. "He was so excited about the baby. Every time I ran into him-"

"He showed you the sonogram picture?" AJ's smile was bittersweet.

Nick beat a rhythm softly against his legs. "We should do something. To help."

Howie nodded in agreement. "Something multi-layered."

Multi-layered was the Boys's code term for when they were going to do something public, that everyone could see and note in the media and something entirely else, which would never be mentioned outside the five of them and the people the action benefited.

Brian looked up at Howie. "Suggestions?"

"Nothing real fancy. I just thought we'd do some face time fundraising, because everyone's gonna expect it, and then we set up a fund for her and the kid, the five of us, that'll take care of things like basic living expenditures and bigger things, like college."

Nick pushed a few strands of hair out of his eyes. "I like that."

Kevin had crossed the room to the hotel desk, where he had left all the faxes that had come through in the days since the attacks. "There's a couple of concerts coming up, specifically to raise money. Lots of different artists, one place, that kinda thing. There's two in particular that I was thinking we should take part in, but it would mean an overnight ride from one to the next."

AJ walked to where he could peer over Kevin's shoulder. "Where are they?"

"First one's in New York, the second is in DC. The New York one is free for cops and firefighters and their families. The DC one is more our kind of line-up, mainstream pop, but I think they're both important."

Brian rested his chin on one of his knees. "Everything feels important right now."

Howie slid down close to Brian, so close that the pressure they were exerting against each other nearly hurt. Brian didn't move. "I love you guys."

All four other guys turned to look at Brian, understanding where the thought had come from, but not necessarily expecting it. He continued, "I know that I don't really have a problem vocalizing, and I tell you guys that a lot anyway, but I've been feeling a bit like it can't be said enough. So, you might have to deal with me saying it more than usual for awhile."

AJ dragged Kevin to where Howie and Brian were sitting and flopped down almost on top of the two men, motioning for Nick to join. "I love you guys too. I've apologized so many times this year for things I did, but I'm not sure I've told you how much I love you guys and how much I really do appreciate what you did for me."

Nick wrapped his arms around as many other people as he could. "You're my family. I don't think I'd know what to do without you. I'm not sure saying I love you really means enough for me."

Howie shrugged, "I guess all that's left is a 'me too.'"

Kevin chuckled. "Me three."

*

Howie lifted an eyebrow at Brian's blindfold and hummed the chorus of "I'm a Believer." Brian pulled the blindfold back in order to snap it out at Howie. Howie moved out of the way quickly.

Brian held out the two blindfolds that Howie was holding to see what they said on them. "You're just jealous. Being a 'Believer' is obviously much deeper than being 'Latino.'"

"Or 'White' for that matter?"

"That goes without saying." Brian waved a hand in the air pretentiously.

Howie took a step closer to Brian. "Maybe I'm trying to figure out a way to smuggle yours out of here for later use."

"Good thinking, Dorough. They gave Nick three, he'd probably be willing to 'accidentally' lose one for us."

"Just make sure it isn't the one that says 'Pain'."

"Only feeling so adventurous?"

"I just don't think it's a good idea for three-fourths of the pop industry to start thinking that Nick is a klepto in regard to kinky items. Not really what our rep needs right now."

"No," Brian said solemnly. He maintained a straight face for nearly ten seconds before bending in half with laughter. Howie patted Brian's back and smiled reassuringly at Nelly Furtado, who was looking at the two men bemusedly. She smiled back a little less widely and turned away.

Howie muttered as Brian straightened up, "You're scaring the Canadian contingent."

"I'm protecting us against the foreign menace."

"You do know that Canadians constitute most of our best fans?"

"Damn. Maybe you should get a new band leader."

Howie wrapped his arm around Brian's waist securely, "Not for all the fans in the world."

*

Brian rode with Howie for the last stretch of travel on the Black & Blue tour. Howie made enchiladas, which -- combined with buttered toast and spaghettios -- was the extent of his culinary abilities. They were good though, cooked just enough, with the right kinds of cheeses and a little bit of onion and pepper for excitement.

Brian did the dishes, handing them over to Howie to be dried. Howie shared the orange-spice muffins his mom had sent him in her last care package by way of thanks. Brian kissed Howie, his breath tangy. Howie held Brian to him, followed his mouth, made out with him until they had both sunk to the floor, breathless.

Brian's eyes came open after a bit, taking a moment to focus. "Been awhile since we did that."

Howie mumbled his agreement. Tours were tiring, and this one had been even more so than some in the past. Most nights it took all the energy they had just to get each other off, foreplay was a luxury to be tasted when they weren't exhausted. Brian traced Howie's lips with his pointer finger. "I don't want this tour to end."

Howie kissed Brian's finger. "No?"

"I know, crazy, because it's been long and ugly and everything has gone wrong and I should be celebrating. I know. But I hate having to go back to Atlanta and pretend like that's what I've been waiting for ever since the moment I stepped on the bus. I hate lying and I hate being away from you and I don't have to do either of those when we're touring, so I'll take all the craziness if it means I get to be with you."

Howie stroked Brian's hair. "You won't be there for very long this time. We start working on the new album soon, and everyone knows you can't write songs without us around you twenty-four seven. It's impossible."

Brian giggled. "I'm no good without patented Dorough Inspiration Sex."

"That would be the part they don’t know."

"Or at least, they pretend not to know."

Howie kissed the top of Brian's head. "There's something to be said for open secrets."

"I'm not knocking it. I just wish the 'secret' part didn't have to be added on. That it wasn't…that people didn't care."

Howie's hand wormed under Brian's shirt and his palm ran all the way up the length of Brian's spine. "I know."

Brian pressed his back against the heat of Howie's fingers. Howie made love to him on the floor of the bus.

*

Sweden was cold and serene, much the same way Howie remembered it being. The place the Boys had rented out for their stay was warmer than the third-rate hotels they'd stayed in the last time they'd been there, making the experience infinitely more pleasant.

Howie liked studio work. He really did enjoy just about every part of his job outside of having to pander to the media, but studio time was among the top reasons he loved doing what he did. It was soothing to smooth out the harmonies between the five of them, nitpicking at the tone and pitch and feel of the sound. And while he loved knowing that their voices were heard by so many outside of the five of them, there was a thrill in their harmonization being a secret between them. It got tinkered with and produced and then sold, of course, but for awhile, it was just him and his friends, pounding out some notes.

AJ had brought some new songs to the proceedings, things that sounded harder than what the Boys were used to. Technically new Swedish pop, that reminded Howie of just about everything they had ever sung was put into the mix, as well as some of the stuff he had been collaborating with Wade Robson on, since the choreographer's split from NSYNC. Kevin contributed a couple of samples that he and Brian had been working on together.

It took some time to figure out how to make the album coherent, if not completely fluid. Days in the studio could be long and confrontational. They could also be completely laid back. Howie didn't mind either, the patterns were familiar, and he hadn't gotten to experience them for two years.

Studio time brought out Brian's sense of humor like nothing else could, and at the end of the day, Howie was usually stuck dealing with a very energetic and mischievous other half. It didn't bother Howie; Brian was playful in bed when he got like this, which was fun for all parties.

Early into the month that they were scheduled to be staying in Sweden, Brian made real hot cocoa after dinner one evening, piled too many large marshmallows on top of both mugs worth of drink and sat down on the couch of their rented living space so that he was facing Howie. He handed Howie a mug.

Howie blew across the surface. "Thanks."

Brian took a tiny sip. He swallowed and said matter-of-factly, "I love you."

Howie licked at the melting marshmallows. "Okay, me too."

"We're fine, and I know that. But I also think that we need to concentrate on being fine."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that we should take this month to remember who we both were before this year and figure out who we are now, and what that means to the two of us."

Howie's hands shook a bit, the surface of his drink rippling. "You want a separation?"

"No!" Brian's eyes widened. "No, not at all, don't be silly, I'm completely dysfunctional without you, you know that."

"That's what it sounded like."

"I just think we need to be more aware of what makes us happy or unhappy. So that we can use that information when it's really essential. If you want something out of me, I want to know that, and I want to be able to tell you what I want. Or need."

Howie rotated his mug in his hands. "Lots of communication, then? Even more than we're used to?"

"I think it’s worth a try, to make sure that we stay fine, no matter what."

"And if I told you that the tech guy was driving me crazy today not listening to what I was saying and all I really want out of life right now is a massage?"

"I'd say, 'what are you doing with your clothes still on in a sitting position?'"

Howie only got as far as opening his mouth before Brian was busy relieving him of his shirt and his mug all at the same time.

*

AJ was the one who had steered Kevin toward looking for new management. The younger man had been making a conscious effort to be more concerned with the business end of his career since getting his life back on track. AJ had made a good enough case that Kevin began looking into options with him for a new company. They ended up presenting options to the other three guys, telling them why they thought a change was necessary in the first place and why the people they had selected as candidates were worthy of the position.

Once they had decided as a group who would be contacted about the job, Kevin and AJ handled all the logistics of the actual changeover, leaving it to the other guys only to show up to the final meeting and sign their names to the new contracts.

Brian and Howie offered to take anyone who wanted out to dinner after the meeting, but Nick was meeting Erin, AJ had promised Sara he'd come straight home and Kristen had come to pick Kevin up. Brian shrugged at Howie, "Guess it's just the two of us."

"I can handle that."

Brian didn't ask Howie what he wanted, instead heading to a small home-style cooking place that both of them loved. Brian loved it because the food reminded him of home. Howie liked it because it attracted more older couples than anyone else and nobody ever bothered them when they were there. They both ordered a dish and then shared, the way they had even before they had started dating, since they had both recognized how similar their tastes ran.

For dessert, Brian ordered the hot fudge sundae and Howie requested the peach cobbler. Brian dipped a spoon into the vanilla ice cream and then drenched it in the folds of thick fudge. "I'm glad we're making the change."

Howie cracked into the pastry shell of the cobbler. "Seems like the right time to do it," he agreed.

Brian reached over to steal some of Howie's cobbler. "I got afraid to think things were going to be okay somewhere along the way. I don't remember when. But I was looking at Aje today, how confident he was -- like he hasn't been in so long -- and I caught myself thinking it. It was weird, I almost didn't recognize the feeling."

Howie returned the favor and dipped into Brian's ice cream. "You did, though."

"Yeah." Brian licked thoughtfully at the ice cream on his spoon. "What were you thinking?"

"Mostly that I was proud of Aje. That Kevin looks more sure of things than he has in awhile."

"No revelations that things were gonna work out?" Brian's self-mockery echoed in his voice.

"Not really." Howie scraped the last of the peach cobbler from the bowl. "I don't need them. I feel like that every time you're near me."

Brian set his spoon down in the bowl with a soft clinking sound. A dorky grin overtook his face. "I make things okay for you."

"You make things better than okay for me."

"You make things perfect for me."

"Guess that's why we work out so well."

"Good a reason as any, I suppose." Underneath the table, Brian's fingers clamped around Howie's.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile