sparsenicjade
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He had been in love with all of them at one point or another. Kevin first, with his overprotective tendencies that had always made Howie feel safe and the maturity that he sometimes craved as the second oldest in the group. AJ was second, with his brutal honesty and fierce loyalty. Brian had been a shorter phase, but there all the same, endearing in his constant cheer and unwavering sweetness. Nick had come most recently, just beginning to grow into himself and figure out what he was about but still shy behind all the cameras and unsure, with just a touch of hero worship that boggled Howie's mind but made him feel special.

There was a myth that crushes were fun. Howie had been told this time and again, but mostly, he just thought they were reminders of how lonely you were. Being on the road, watching the others have their own relationships, no matter how imperfect, Howie didn’t think there was much fun in them at all.

It got worse after Caroline's death, when the person that he'd had to call up and have intense bitch sessions over the phone with suddenly wasn't there and the loneliness had to be experienced without backup. So when Josh came along, it seemed like a good idea. After all, he was a studio exec for a company that didn't really compete with Jive for markets which meant that he understood the business and Howie's need to be in the closet but that there weren't any professional conflicts presented. He was good-looking, mature, had the ability to travel a lot and enough of his own cash that Howie didn’t have to wonder if his interest was financially based. Even when he thought about it afterward, Howie was pretty sure he had considered everything involved before jumping in to anything with Josh.

The guys had known about Howie for as long as any of them could remember. AJ and Nick had found out back when they were constantly being pitted against each other in the audition circuit and Howie's boyfriend at the time would come and watch, cheering them all on. When Kevin had suggested they bring Brian in as the fifth member, Howie had said, "Is your cousin going to have a problem with me being gay?" gambling on the fact that Kevin himself wouldn't. Kevin had appeared thoughtful for a moment before shrugging, "I'll ask. If he does, well, you're already in the group, we'll find another guy with his range." Brian's answer to being asked if he minded was, "Intolerence was not what Jesus was trying to get across."

They had all accepted Josh's presence in Howie's life easily, most of them being glad that Howie had found someone to date at that point in his life. With all the risks, he didn’t bother trying terribly often.

Later, Howie felt like an idiot for not having noticed anything with the first signs. But he figured that everyone had their faults and, evidently, Josh's combined a quick temper with no ability to control himself while angry. Josh didn't touch Howie at first, just yelled and said things to him that he apologized for the next morning. It rarely took longer. And Howie remembered what loneliness felt like. He preferred feeling stupid and insufficient.

The first time Josh hit him, it was almost like it hadn't happened. It was so sudden and quick that Howie wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it. Josh's apology was more elaborate than usual and Howie let it go. After all, it had never happened before. It wouldn't happen again. Josh said so.

AJ started suspecting something long before Howie had even begun to wonder if being with Josh wasn't worse than being alone. Denise was great, but she had awful taste in men and AJ had seen more than his fair share of abusive boyfriends. When he finally managed to talk to Howie about the fact that the man was wearing long-sleeved shirts in eighty-degree weather, Howie became defensive. Worried, AJ went to Kevin. Kevin promised to keep a closer eye on things and asked Brian to as well. They all agreed that it was probably best for Nick not to know. He had been dedicatedly in love with Howie since puberty and had a tendency to act irrationally when the object of his desire was being threatened.

It didn't take long for there to be days where Howie would show up to the studio with sunglasses attached to his face or turtlenecks. Kevin tried approaching him this time, but Howie just repeated what he had told AJ, if a little bit more belligerently and with a larger tremble in his voice. Kevin did what he did in every situation where he didn't know what to do. He called Kristen.

*

"Hey baby."

"Hey. What's wrong?"

Kevin smiled half-heartedly on his end of the line. There was no bullshitting with Kristen. "Okay, so say I've got a friend who I think is being hit by his significant other."

"I thought we determined that Mandy and Nick just rough-housed a little too much."

"No, it's not- They broke up."

"Well, I know, but all you guys are shit with permanence, I figured they saw each other somewhere and hooked back up. If it's not Nicky, who? Because AJ wouldn't stand for that kinda thing and that's not really Leighanne's style. Howie doesn't have a-"

"Kris?"

"So Howie found himself a boy, huh?"

"Yeah."

"How long now?"

"Over a year."

"Were you gonna tell me at anytime?"

"'M sorry, I really am, it just gets so that I forget there are certain people I can tell secrets to."

Kristen was tempted to push the point, but Kevin sounded so resigned to her doing so that she chose not to. "How long have you guys suspected?"

"'Bout a month. All things considered, though, it’s probably been longer."

"What are you gonna do?"

"That's kinda why I called you. He won't talk to us, I was wondering if maybe you had some insight."

"Honestly, hon, knowing what I do about AJ, that kid probably has more insight than I do into this situation. What does he say?"

"He's more interested in doing the silent fuming thing right now."

"Go remind him that doesn't help anyone. Kick his ass into talking. If he doesn't say anything useful, call me again. You know my number."

*

Before Kevin got a chance to sit AJ down, Howie showed up early to a recording session with a limp and small brace on his wrist. Brian and Nick weren't there yet, so only the three of them witnessed AJ's breakdown.

AJ's voice was almost inaudible as he seethed. "Where is the little fuck?"

"AJ," Howie sounded exhausted, "it was an-"

"You tell me it was an accident and I will kill you first before taking my time with him. You think I don't know about accidents? Wanna know how many times I watched my mother NOT fall down the stairs?"

Howie shook his head, because he knew. "AJ, please…"

AJ was fighting tears. "Why are you staying with him, D?"

"He doesn't mean it. If he did, he wouldn't apologize afterwards."

"No, D. Apologies are only real if the person endeavors not to make the same mistake again. The time Nick borrowed your hairdryer and broke it and then tried to cover it up, when he apologized he never borrowed anything from you again without asking and if something happened to it, he was honest. The time Brian almost outed you while he was drunk, he apologized and then never got that fucked up in public again. You know why? Because Brian and Nick care about you. Because they meant they were sorry when they said it. They didn't say it because they thought it would keep you around for when they need someone to treat like shit."

Howie had lost his battle with tears and was sobbing into his hands. "I don't wanna be alone."

Both Kevin and AJ were silent for awhile, neither of them having expected that or knowing what to say to it. After a moment, Kevin tugged on AJ's hand and they both surrounded Howie in a double hug. Kevin whispered softly in his ear, "We're not gonna let you be alone, D. But you gotta leave him. He's no good."

"He's as good-" sob, "as someone like me-" hiccup, "is gonna get."

AJ controlled his rage so that he wouldn't shake with it and scare Howie. Kevin started whispering again, "Babe, you don't know who someone like you is. You evidently haven't for a long time."

By the time Nick and Brian arrived, ready to work on the bulk of the material, there was just a note: "Howie's not feeling well, AJ and I went to get him settled at his house. We'll be back in a couple of hours. -Kevin."

*

They had originally intended to get Howie settled back at his house, but AJ was worried that Josh might come looking for him there, so they settled for Kevin's place. By the time AJ and Kevin got Howie up the stairs he was shaking as much from nerves and pain as exhaustion. They propped him up against the bed.

AJ hesitated. "D. Um. Can I look at you?" He placed his hand at the hem of Howie's shirt but didn't move anything. "I want to make sure you don't need a doctor."

Howie shook his head once. "I don't."

AJ bit his lip. "Just like he didn't mean it? Just like there was nothing going on?" His voice stayed soft, but his words were pointed.

Howie glared up at AJ for a moment before looking away. He pulled his shirt over his head and slipped his jeans off quickly, leaving his boxers on. Howie was stiff but docile as AJ surveyed the damage: welts plastered haphazardly along Howie's back and torso -- evidence that he had tried to escape whatever implement had caused the marks -- old yellowed bruises and fresh purple ones side by side across his chest and abdomen, climbing up to his throat, plus a half-healed scar across the underside of his right arm that looked like it had been a severe burn at some point, and one directly over his hipbone.

Kevin brought some peppermint tea and a couple of Tylenol at AJ's request. Kevin fed Howie the pills when the tea had cooled to a drinkable temperature and then held the cup while AJ coaxed Howie's arms up and slid one of Kevin's sweatshirts over his head. Howie finished the tea slowly and moved, as per Kevin's indication that he should, up the bed. Kevin took to tucking him in, but was stopped by the death grip that Howie latched onto his arm with. He looked down in concern, "D?"

"Um." Howie looked at his hand in surprise and seemed to concentrate on getting his fingers to open. "Sorry."

From the other side of the bed, AJ kicked off his sneakers and climbed in behind Howie, with a murmured, "It's cool, D. I'm staying."

This seemed to have been what Howie wanted, because his fingers slid off Kevin's arm and he pressed himself so hard against AJ, Kevin was worried he'd fall right through the younger man. AJ just wrapped his arms around the smaller man more tightly and mouthed in Kevin's direction, "Studio?"

Flicking a quick glance toward Howie and ascertaining that his eyes had already closed in the pursuit of sleep, Kevin nodded and pointed to where his cell phone was attached to his belt. He mouthed back, "Call if you need me."

AJ nodded.

Kevin set the alarm system and checked to make sure all the doors were locked three times before leaving.

*

Ten hours later, Howie woke up and stilled himself immediately, aware of an arm surrounding him securely. Josh got mean when he was woken up before the alarm clock went off. Howie strained to see what time it was, frowning when he couldn't seem to find the green LED numbers in the dark.

"D?" The voice belonging to the same person as the arm holding him spoke. "Y'awake?"

"Brian?" Howie's mind was scrambling to make sense of the whole situation. Parts of the morning were coming back to him and he knew now why the clock wasn't where he expected it to be, but Brian shouldn't have been there.

"Yeah, you've been out for awhile, AJ needed to go to the bathroom and eat, so I told him I'd fill in for a bit. We've been staying with you in shifts. I can go get him, if that's what you want."

"No." Howie brought the wrist that wasn't hurting up to his face and attempted to rub the last of the sleep away. "Is everyone here?"

"Just me, Aje and Kev. Nick doesn't know, 'cause we didn't so much trust him not to kill Josh and land himself with a life sentence, plus, y'know-"

"Protecting him gets to be second nature?"

"Yeah."

"So where is he? Did I fuck up the whole recording schedule?"

"To the first question, Aaron's in town, so Nick and the twins are spending some quality sibling time away from Jane. To the second, no, we were still able to work on a whole bunch of the solos and some of Nick and Kev's harmonies. We actually got a lot done; so you're just gonna have to put away your overdeveloped guilt complex."

Howie turned over carefully to face Brian and did his best at forming a smile. "Yes, sir."

Brian gently ruffled Howie's hair and got up. "I'm gonna go find Aje and Kev. You okay?"

"D'you mind turning on the lights?"

There was the sound of a switch being flipped and Howie blinked in the wake of the halogen lighting that flooded the room. Brian blinked a few times as well. "That better?"

Howie nodded and Brian turned to leave the room, nearly colliding with AJ and Kevin as the door opened to reveal them. He stumbled back. "Hi."

AJ smiled. "Going somewhere?"

Kevin helped Brian regain his balance. "We heard voices, thought there might be people awake up here."

AJ crossed the room to sit on the bed next to Howie. He threaded his fingers in the older man's. "We ordered food from that noodle shop you like that I can never pronounce the name of. That cool?"

Howie nodded. "Um."

Kevin and Brian both sat down on the edge of the bed and all three of his bandmates watched him expectantly.

"He wasn't. It didn't start like that. I mean, just so you know and all, I'm sorry about the inconvenience. I was gonna make some calls tonight, so that, y'know, if he tells anyone, it won't fuck you guys up."

Kevin's eyes were almost black with an undefined emotion in response to Howie's words. "He's not gonna tell, D."

Howie was about to argue when he saw the look Kevin was fixing him with. "What'd you do?"

"Made it clear that he'd live to enjoy about three seconds of the money and notoriety he'd garner off such a confession."

"Oh."

"Secondly, and more importantly, if he did tell, we'd deal with it, and you are not an inconvenience. At least no more so than Brian was when he had his surgery. Getting me?"

"Getting you."

"Good. You're staying here for a couple of days until we get all the locks and codes at your place reset."

"Okay." Howie took a quick breath. "Can we not tell Nick? Just say that I broke up with Josh, he cheated, or something."

AJ's expression darkened, but Howie was too busy paying attention to Kevin, who often had the last word on these things. AJ looked at Kevin as well. "Why, D?"

Howie breathed softly, each exhalation seeming to deflate him a little bit. "I don't want him to look at me differently."

Brian, AJ and Kevin conferenced silently with the use of their eyes, Brian's scrunching up slightly, thinking Howie didn't know Nick as well as he should, but in the end Kevin looked away -- down to where Howie was squeezing AJ's hand mercilessly -- and put forth his judgment. "Okay. No telling Nick. But if he asks questions, we're sending him your way."

*

Nick, for his part, wasn't all that worried about the specifics of Howie's breakup when he found out. It upset him that Josh had hurt Howie, but other than that, he was just happy to have Howie on the market again. Nick couldn't remember a point in their friendship when the timing hadn't been wrong for him to pursue Howie. At first there had been the whole age thing. Then, when that wasn't such an issue anymore, Nick just hadn’t felt right pursuing Howie with everything that was going on in respect to Caroline. Then Josh had come in and taken the chance Nick had been waiting for.

The problem was, Howie didn't seem to be looking to get himself reinstated into the world of dating. It wasn't that he didn't seem interested in Nick. Nick had pretty much expected that, seeing as how he had always been of the opinion that Howie carried a torch for AJ, and maybe a little bit for Kevin in the earlier days. Nick wasn't even sure he had that good a chance, but having spent his entire dating career measuring everyone up to his lifelong crush, he wasn't going to let something like odds get in his way.

Still, it wasn't about Howie not looking at Nick. It was about the way Howie seemed to have adopted a credo of asexual living overnight. He rarely came out to clubs with them anymore -- even to his own club -- and when he did, he stayed close to the rest of the guys in the band and didn't even bother scanning the dance floor. He still performed with the same intensity, but the truth of his sexuality was missing. The salsa moves that Nick used to practically drool over looked practiced, uniform.

The whole thing made Nick kind of jittery and sick to his stomach. He told himself he was being paranoid for days before casually dropping by Brian's place with take-out from the only good country fried-chicken outfit in Orlando, pleading the insane need to get away from his house. Leighanne was in town, but Brian took pity on Nick and let him in and they all shared in the goodies that he had brought. Nick took it upon himself to clean things up and hoped Brian would know enough to follow him into the kitchen. Shortly after Nick disappeared, Leighanne said, "I think you should probably go talk to him."

Brian rolled his eyes good-naturedly, got up and pecked her on the cheek as he walked toward the kitchen. "Probably. Kids."

Nick was staring at the counter in rapt fascination when Brian came through the door and jumped a little at the interruption. Brian clapped a hand on his shoulder. "What's happening?"

"I don't know." Nick cleared his throat. "Howie."

"That's been happening for a long time, why the sudden need to talk about it?"

"No. I mean, that too, but. His clothes aren't flowy anymore. And, I mean, I know Howie's like really super good with the fans and shit, but he's spending way too much time answering fan mail." Nick looked at Brian like his meaning should be obvious. Brian gave no indication that it was. Nick sighed. "He's being weird Brian. You know it, I know it, Aje and Kev know it or else you three wouldn't be acting like everything was normal. 'Specially not Kev."

"It's not even slightly possible that you're overreacting and the rest of us are sane, unparanoid human beings?"

"When I was fifteen and I hit my head on the bed while wrestling with you I got a bump that didn't go down for two weeks and Kevin had me tested for cancer. When Kevin got the flu two years ago and it developed into a cough, AJ wanted him hospitalized for pneumonia. When AJ broke up with Katya and didn't cheer up for almost a month, you tried to get him to see a shrink about anti-depressants. We're all more jumpy about each other than a monkey strung out on Jolt."

"Yeah."

Nick waited for there to be more and when it was evident that was all Brian was going to say on the subject, Nick kicked the wall. It wasn't hard enough to damage, just to release some of his frustration. "I appreciate that you all love me. I do. Every day that I'm home and I have to try and give my sisters and brother what I've gotten from you and what was missing from my parents, I want to get down on my knees and thank the lord that I found four people who are willing to take me as I am and put my welfare in front of theirs all the fucking time. And it's not that I don't understand the idea of being used to protecting someone. But you can't do this my whole life. I can't always be the one left out because things might hurt me. Maybe I need a little hurt so that if something ever happens away from you guys, I can survive it. Jesus-"

"You have to talk to Howie."

"What?"

"It's not about leaving you out or about you being a kid. Protection, yeah a little bit. Mostly, though, it's about Howie. You have to talk to him."

Nick understood then, without a shadow of a doubt, that nothing about this was going to be simple.

*

"What's your deal?"

The question came with absolutely no context applied to it, they hadn't even been speaking. Howie jumped at the sound, but was less taken aback than he would have been had Nick not been in the habit of changing subjects in mid-sentence and forgetting to preface thoughts his whole life.

"Post getting-laid-regularly stress disorder."

"Once more with feeling, D. If you're gonna lie, at least make it believable."

"What? You were mopey for months after Mandy finally got fed up and went to go work her wiles on Carson."

"Mopey, yes, but I didn't stop doing a little thing I like to refer to as 'living my life.'" Nick hooked his fingers in exaggerated air quotes.

"And I'm holing up in my house, keeping thirty stray cats with names like Madge and Elsie, only speaking to the bats that inhabit my attic?"

"You have bats in your attic?"

"Hypothetical situation, Nick."

Nick scowled. He had recognized that fact on every point but the bats. "You might as well be."

"Should I put an add out in the newspaper? Twenty-seven year old gay male of Hispanic/Irish descent searching for partner. Must be able to harmonize in shower."

"I was thinking more along the lines of you going on a date with me." Nick realized what he had said the second after it left his mouth and it took all his willpower not to clamp his hand over the offending body part in a futile attempt to recall the words.

Howie blinked several times. "Nick. Um, I don't think-"

Now that the damage had been done, Nick was convinced with his twenty-one year old way of relating to the world that this was his one and only chance at this. "Try me, D. That's all I'm asking for here. Just one date. It can be casual. Burger King and one of those weird ass art movies you’re always into, or something. We can even go dutch."

Howie pulled at his ear in indecision. "Even if the movie's in French?"

"Contrary to popular opinion, I'm not illiterate."

Howie attempted a smile. He wanted to tell Nick no, he did. Nick didn't know about him, couldn't find out and he would if they dated, because Howie was horrible at keeping secrets from his significant others. Howie couldn't handle that, not what Nick would think, which would probably mirror his own thoughts, possibly with more vehemence. As it was, he was amazed Nick hadn't figured out Howie wasn't worth it. Instead, here was Nick asking him to go dutch on a movie that Nick would probably fall asleep in. It was Nick being everything that had caused Howie to crush on him. When it came right down to it, there wasn't enough fear and self-disgust in the world to make Howie strong enough to say no to that. "When's good for you?"

*

Nick showed up at Howie's place twelve minutes early in his most expensive pair of blue jeans holding a bright purple Gerber daisy. He held it out to Howie and stammered. "'Cuz, y'know, you like purple. And, um, I'm a girl."

Howie stuck the flower in a glass of water with an aspirin pill at the bottom and placed it on his kitchen windowsill. "It's great."

"D'you mind if we do Lulu's instead of Burger King?" Lulu's was a malt shop that Nick was addicted to. When in town he frequented the place at least once a week. It was easy to see why he liked it. The guy who ran the place kept it clean with enough memorabilia on the walls to remind everyone that the place was a burger joint, but not enough to be tacky. Plus, the food was out of this world.

Howie nodded. "Gee, I don't know if I can handle anything that upscale."

They made it to Lulu's and Nick headed to the booth that everyone who worked in the restaurant had silently agreed was his. It only took a few seconds for a tiny redhead to make her way over with waters. She smiled at the two of them. "Hey Nick."

"Hi Kay." The employees of Lulu's were used to seeing him and, over time, had grown protective. Lulu's was one of the safest places in the world for Nick because any of the waiters and waitresses would lie without a moments hesitation for him. He couldn't have counted the number of times he had heard employees saying, "Nah, it just looks like him, he's in here all the time."

Kay and Nick chatted for a few minutes, Nick introducing Howie to her, before she took their orders and scooted off to help the family that had just walked in the door. Things were awkward for a few seconds before Nick scowled down at the table and said, "We talk all the time, it can't possibly be this hard to have a conversation."

Howie thought this over for a few seconds. "What do you want to talk about?"

Nick wondered why it was so important that he be the one to choose their topic of conversation, but he shrugged it off as them both being nervous. "I'm thinking about redecorating my house, what do you think?"

Howie shrugged. "Is that gonna make you happy?"

"No, I mean, I'm definitely redecorating, I wanted to know if you had any thoughts on decorators to hire or things I should do, stuff like that, since you just had your place done."

"Oh." Howie nodded, feeling more like he had been given some kind of permission to speak freely. Hesitantly, he started spinning out ideas. The more Nick nodded and asked questions, the more at ease he felt.

Their conversation flowed in and out of topics throughout the whole of dinner, pausing only so that one or both of them could chew. As they were leaving, though, the awareness that something was wrong in the way Howie waited for Nick's lead or peered nervously at him whenever he did or said something to someone else -- even the waitress -- tugged at the back of Nick's mind. When they were back in the car, on the way to the movie theater, Nick asked, "Am I doing something wrong?"

Howie turned to look at him, eyes wide and dark in the late spring dusk. "No. Why?"

"I dunno. You seem…" Nick blushed as he continued, thinking it would serve him right if Howie laughed, "Scared or something. Skittish."

Howie rotated his head to stare out the passenger side window. After he had been silent for so long Nick thought he was being ignored in punishment for his moronic tendencies, Howie spoke up softly, "It's not you who's doing things wrong."

Nick wasn't sure if "wrong" was the correct word to be using here. He had a sense it was something more complex than that.

*

"He agreed to go on a date with me out of pity, didn't he?" Nick talked to AJ's machine on his cell phone while driving away from Howie's house. He knew AJ was there, he just screened compulsively. He heard the click of the phone being picked up.

"I told you to lay off the crack."

"He acted like I was some kind of rabid dog all night long."

AJ hit his head against the phone. "You know how weird he is when he's nervous."

"He's known me for over eight years now."

"Well, yeah, but in a different context."

"I think he liked that context better."

"Don't be a quitter, Nick. It's unattractive."

"Aje…just. Does he want this? Or is this just him being considerate?"

"No. No, he. He wants this."

"Well, that was confidence inspiring."

"Are the things that you want always easy to achieve?"

Nick was silent.

"Be patient, babe. If anyone does, you have the ability to make this work."

"Thanks."

AJ snorted and hung up. He leaned his head back up against the wall and closed his eyes. "Please, please let this work."

*

Nick crawled into Howie's car after a studio session a few days later and whined, "I'm too tired to drive home."

Howie put a hand to Nick's forehead. "Um, what are you gonna do when we start rehearsals and we have to actually, I dunno, do things during the day?"

"It was a lame ass excuse to have you take me back to your place Dorough, play along."

"Oh." Howie turned the key in the ignition.

"Hey," Nick smiled and reached up to grab the thing hanging from Howie's rearview mirror between his thumb and forefinger. "Cool."

Howie didn't look over. He had gotten the gerber daisy pressed and preserved in a small plexi-glass frame and hung it where a mini-version of the Dorough foundation bear used to swing. "Yeah." He cleared his throat softly. "Evidently you're not the only girl in this band. Next time we say we're not a boyband-"

"I don't think our audience is really ready for that."

"No, probably not."

*

Nick was a perfectionist who liked to be able to do everything. When he was fourteen, Kevin had taught him how to use the bus kitchen to make Mac & Cheese and a week later Nick had bought himself a battered copy of the Joy of Cooking Cookbook. His logic was that if he could follow the directions on a box, he could follow them on a page.

At first, the whole endeavor had been a string of phenomenal disasters that had the Boys riding in below freezing weather with the bus windows wide open more often than not. Then suddenly, after about half a year of immense patience on everyone's parts, Nick made a devil's food cake that had them all fighting rabidly over the last piece. A week later he treated them all to Citrus Chicken. After that, it was hard to convince anyone else to cook. Not that Nick minded. He knew the rest of the guys protected him and took care of him when it came to everything else. He felt like more an adult when he could say thanks with homemade lasagna.

So it was painfully evident when he suggested to Howie while they were jogging together one morning, "Wanna come to my place for dinner on Friday?" that Howie's cringe had nothing to do with Nick's culinary skills.

"Um, I think I told AJ I'd do something with him that evening."

"Oh. Okay." Nick pretended like he was too winded to talk for the rest of the route.

*

"Are you and Howie doing something Friday night?" Nick knew he sounded pissed and that AJ had every bit as much right to spend time with Howie as he did, but somehow, Friday nights seemed like they should have been off-limits to everyone who knew Nick was in mid-woo.

AJ picked up the phone. "He asked me to say we were."

"Fuck you, AJ, you know-" AJ's words hit Nick at about that point in his tirade. "Oh." He felt it would be anti-climatic not to yell at that point, so he just changed his approach, "You fucking told me he was interested, you asshole. I've managed to turn him off in two and a half weeks? Or were you just lying the whole time?"

"You done?"

"Yelling? Yes. Being pissed? That would be a gigantic no." Nick huffed for emphasis.

"A household date between two of Us --in the Royal Band Member Us sense -- is serious. Everything up until now, that was just kid's play."

"Yes, thank you, oh elder. Why do you think I asked him?"

"Because the only fear you've ever known in your entire life is the fear of not being loved."

"Wha- what?"

"Baby, if Howie didn't want you he would've told you, nicely and privately, not played with you for a few weeks before rejecting you."

"Well, I mean, he could've not known, late experimentation and everything."

"Howie doesn't take risks like that."

"He's fucking lying to me so that he can turn down dates, you tell me what I'm supposed to be thinking here."

"From his point of view? Probably a lot of things. Maybe that you're too hot and popular and young and charismatic for him. Maybe that you need someone without the issues he has, someone who hasn't been where he's been."

"How can I reassure him about things that nobody will tell me about, least of all him?"

"Nicky, you worked almost everyday for six and a half months even when you were exhausted to be able to make good Texan chili, you can't put a little time and effort into making Howie and yourself happy?"

*

AJ was not surprised to feel another person climb into his bed. He opened one eye and allowed it to focus. "D, Jesus, do you really need to wait until four in the morning to decide you can't sleep?"

"I can sleep." Howie tried to make his body smaller so as not to take up much bed space. "I just have nightmares."

He'd been having them since he'd left Josh. He had tried turning on all the lights in his room, sleeping with his arms curved around pillows, leaving the TV playing, taking Tylenol PM and exercising until he dropped into bed from sheer exhaustion. Nothing worked. AJ had only figured it out when he started noticing how wiped Howie looked and covertly pretended to get drunk over at his place and pass out on his couch. The screaming had woken him up long before Howie.

AJ had stayed with him for about a week after that, sleeping in the same bed with him. The nightmares hadn't come, and Howie had ruffled his hair one morning, whispering, "You're my safety blanket." Even quieter was the comment he made while moving away, "Twenty-seven years old with a blankie."

AJ had gone back to his house only after making Howie promise that any time he needed to, he would just come over and climb into bed. If he didn't, and AJ noticed, AJ threatened to move in with Howie. Howie took him seriously. He was at AJ's house at least four out of every seven nights.

AJ sighed and rolled over to pull Howie against him. "Nick'd kill me if he found us like this."

"Nick knows we're not like that."

"Yeah, but he acts before thinking when it comes to you."

"I'm fucking everything up."

"What's everything, D? I mean, do you even know what you want or don't want?"

"I know I don't want to disappoint him." Howie propped his chin up on AJ's chest. "I think he's probably everything."

"If you really believed that, you'd trust him with all of you."

"I'm afraid to."

"I know. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only one in this room who remembers that you're a fantastically brave person."

*

Howie told Nick that he'd asked AJ for a reschedule and showed up at his place Friday night with a large box of fudge from the family-run candy shop an hour away from where either of them lived. Nick took it from him with a small gasp and led him into the kitchen.

He hadn't gone all romantic on them, for which Howie was grateful. He didn't want this to be any harder than it already was shaping up to be. There was a small centerpiece, and Nick had laid out his best dishes, but the lights were all at their maximum shine and there wasn't any mood music, so Howie was pleased. "What'd you make?"

"A teriyaki chicken dish with vegetarian sushi as a starter." Nick looked at Howie out of the corner of his eye. "Kevin said you liked both of those."

"Sounds great, you need any help?" Howie was glad for the small talk, it was easy, something he could do without thinking.

Nick shook his head and brought out the plates of food, setting them methodically on the table. Howie forced himself to eat what he was positive was a really good meal, listening to Nick chatter all the way through. He had always enjoyed just being able to sit back and listen to Nick, the way his voice would rise and fall, his excitement about the things he felt important enough to talk about bleeding into every word. He was doubly glad for it in those moments, not wanting to have to try and say anything, afraid that to start speaking would be to say what he needed to say. He wasn't ready to do that yet.

Howie helped Nick clean up the dishes, overriding Nick's protests of him being a guest with, "You cooked, I help clean."

They settled down together on Nick's love seat with a bottle of dessert wine and the fudge. Howie took a bite of the fudge and three large sips of the wine. Nick was saying something about one of AJ's new techno-toys, so Howie waited patiently for him to finish his thoughts. He didn't respond at the end and Nick reached out a hand to tuck a stray hair behind Howie's ear. "You okay?"

Howie turned his face into Nick's palm. "I asked the guys to lie to you."

Nick stiffened in his seat. "Um. When? Why?"

Howie looked up at Nick. "I came over here tonight to tell you the whole story. I still want to do that, but, um…it's long, and I don't know how you'll feel about it -- me -- when I finish."

Nick broke off a piece of the fudge with his free hand and placed it in Howie's palm. "Start when you're ready."

Howie let the fudge melt on his tongue and took another couple of sips of wine. "Josh and I didn't break up because he cheated on me. We broke up because he came home angry one evening while I was cooking dinner and held my arm against the pot while I screamed for him to stop. Or because he got upset with me for having to go away and do DLF stuff for a weekend and dislocated my wrist. Probably because of the time I came home from a rehearsal too tired to want to do anything other than sleep and he slammed me against the wall and raped me while I was too out of it to fight back much."

Nick was crying silently, something Howie knew he had learned to do even before they started as a band. "He was really great in the beginning. We had long conversations and he was always doing nice things for me, so, y'know, when he started yelling at me, or just telling me what a slut I was or how stupid I could be all of the time, I didn't -- I guess I thought he was having a slew of bad days. By the time he started hurting me, though, I just believed him. I mean, it had been so long since I had been with someone for longer than a couple of nights before him and it started feeling like all those things he was telling me were probably the reason why. And, at first, he'd apologize, so by the time he got to telling me that I deserved the things he was doing to me, I just, I dunno. Didn't have any defenses left by then, I guess."

Howie put his hand over the one Nick was still holding to his cheek. Nick's fingers were wet. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."

Nick gave an emphatic shake of his head. "That was your choice. You told me now." He wiped at his face with his free hand. "Do you still believe him? Is that what AJ keeps trying to tell me without saying anything?"

Howie shrugged. "It's kind of hard to think one minute that you deserve to be beaten and the next that you deserve to have Nick Carter be the best boyfriend he can possibly be to you."

Nick's snort of laughter came out closer to a sniffle. "And here I was being all insecure over my worthiness."

Howie frowned. "Huh?"

"Well, I mean, I always thought you had a crush on AJ, because I've been head over for you for forever and you never noticed."

Howie blinked. His thoughts weren't coming through any clearer, so he tried it again. "You. You had a crush. On me?"

"You seriously never noticed?"

Howie brought his palm up to his forehead and hit himself a few times before Nick snatched the offending hand away. "We have got to work on our communications skills."

Nick agreed. "Yeah, I'll say." He paused. "You do deserve me."

Howie's smile was watery. Nick sighed. "I guess I'm just gonna have to prove it to you."

*

Sara was in town for a few days and Brian was in Kentucky, so Howie ended up at Kevin's after leaving Nick's. He knew Kristen was there, but Kevin had told him early on that Kristen had known about as long as any of the guys, so he felt safe enough talking in front of her.

It was Kristen who answered the door, smiling at some joke that Howie was certain he had missed. "C'mon in," she said as she pulled him inside and straight into a bear hug. Kristen knew how to hug. It was one of the first things Howie had learned about her and one of his favorites to this day. She talked into his shoulder, "He's on the phone with Brian, who put Nick on hold to call. I think you've managed to topple the whole chain of Backstreet calm in one evening."

Howie followed her into the living room, where Kevin was sprawling across the couch, bare feet propped on one of its arms. "Bri…Bri, yeah, no, D's here. Yes. I'll ask him."

Kevin arched his neck so that he could see Howie. "You tell him everything?"

Howie pursed his lips for a moment. "Everything I could. If he needs to know something else, he can be told."

Kevin went back to talking to his cousin for a few minutes. He said goodbye quickly and set the phone on the cradle that was resting on his stomach. Sitting up, he placed the cradle next to him and extended his hand to Kristen who came and curled up at his side. "Sit down, D."

Howie did as he was told.

"You okay?"

"Been better." Howie brought his knees up to his chest. "Been worse. Did Brian say how Nick was doing?"

"He thought he sounded pretty calm, which I think was half of what was freaking Brian out. We all pretty much expected fireworks of some kind, y'know."

Howie was silent for a long time. "I needed him to be calm."

Kevin prompted. "But?"

Howie turned his head to look out the window and took a long time answering. "Josh was very habitual. At first, it was one of the things I liked, it was soothing. He would do the same stretches before bed every night, buy the same toothpaste every time he ran out, make the bed before he left every morning and set out his clothes every night. Things like that. One morning right after the hitting started, when it hadn't been anything bad yet, just a few slaps here and there, I couldn't sleep. It was four-thirty and I'd been lying there awake for over an hour. So I got up to see if I could get some writing done, or check my email, or something. Josh wasn't a very heavy sleeper and I woke him up on accident. He was so pissed. He started yelling at me and the words were so loud I couldn't even make sense of them -- all I knew was that I was scared shitless. I was trying to back out of the room, get the door between us, but he followed me and on the way to the door was the chair that he always laid his clothes out on. His belt was lying on top and he grabbed it, hitting at me in the dark. He was holding the buckle end, but the tip was lined with some kind of metal and it caught my hipbone. I was lying on the floor by that point, trying to stay conscious and all I could hear was him telling me over and over again, 'you're fucking worthless, I don't know why I put up with you.'" Howie paused to breathe, rubbing slowly at his calves. "Every time I get in the shower I see the scar on my hipbone. Part of me wonders when Nick's gonna see it too, and think that Josh probably had his reasons for putting it there."

Kevin shifted Kristen off of him and crossed to where Howie was. He didn't touch him until Howie indicated that it would be alright by unfurling slightly. Gently, Kevin untucked one of Howie's arms and slid the sleeve of his shirt up to where Kevin knew he would find the burn mark. He caressed the scar once, lightly. "Maybe Nick will see what I see when he sees that scar on your hip."

Howie looked up at him with bottomless eyes. Kevin put a hand in Howie's hair to pet him. "Survival marks. Signs of how much you deserve the best the world has to offer."

*

Nick showed up at Kevin's the next morning with a dozen doughnuts and a gallon of milk. Kristen rolled her newspaper up methodically and smacked him upside the head. Nick grinned apologetically and sprinted up the stairs to the room he knew Howie would be in. He knocked loudly enough to wake Howie up if he was still sleeping and put his ear to the door. A muffled groan met his efforts and he opened the door, standing in the frame. "Morning, sunshine."

Howie rolled over to face the door. He patted the bed and Nick approached, laying down on top of the comforter. "I brought doughnuts."

"My Lancelot."

Nick nodded. "Just you wait, I'm gonna be."

*

Nick got his chance to prove it on a Tuesday afternoon in the pasta & rice aisle of the local grocery store. He was busy musing over the various basmatis when he heard a cocky, "Hello, D" from behind him and went cold. When he turned around, the only thing he seemed to be able to focus on was the way Howie's knuckles near matched the white plastic bar of the grocery cart that he was gripping. Nick tore his eyes away to meet Josh's gray ones. "Hi, Josh."

Josh's smile twisted just the tiniest bit. "Nick." He turned his attention back to Howie. "How've you been?"

Howie took a breath and met Josh's inquiring gaze. "Fine. Nice of you to ask." He didn't return the courtesy.

"Well," Nick trained his voice into sounding pleasant as he placed his hand over Howie's shoulder, "we gotta get going. Later." Howie didn’t waste any time pulling the cart away quickly. Nick steered them to the check-out line.

Howie looked at him, confused. "Don't you have other stuff to get?"

"I can come back later, let's just get out of here." Nick was not lost on the fact that Howie had started shaking the minute they were beyond Josh's sightline.

"You don't have to, I can-"

"I know. I know you can. But I'll kill him."

Howie had missed the fact that Nick was shaking too.

*

They had sat down to discuss the video for "More Than That" months before it was filmed. Howie had mentioned that he didn't want to turn into a girl at any point during it and Kevin had thrown off something about wanting to wear a cowboy hat and somewhere in between those two statements a concept had been born. Which was how they found themselves chartering a plane out to where there were Joshua trees and windmills a plenty.

Nick hated flying. Back when they had been required to fly across seas on a fairly regular basis, Kevin used to take Nick to the men's bathroom beforehand and sneak him a shot of whiskey so he'd sleep through most of it. If Jane had suspected anything she had never called them on it. Then again, when she wasn't in front of the cameras Jane wasn't a very affectionate woman, so none of them were all that shocked at the lack of awareness.

One shot didn't really do much for Nick now, and while he didn't have any issues with getting drunk on the occasional night out, it wasn't something he felt up to doing for the mere sake of a half a day's worth of sleep. Howie noticed Nick's apprehension the night before, when Howie was sitting on the bed at Nick's, watching him pack. The set of Nick's shoulders was tight and his laugh was a little too high pitched for comfort. Howie got off the bed. He approached Nick tentatively, not touching him until Nick had acknowledged his presence and swayed in far enough to indicate that it would be alright. Rubbing gently at the small of Nick's back, Howie pressed his lips lightly to the base of Nick's neck for a moment. "Nervous about the flight?"

Nick leaned further into the touch. "I bet you're all excited, too."

"You wanna stay up all night tonight?"

"What for?"

"I was thinking you could whip up brownies, or starch swans, or whatever the hell it is you can make from three sticks of butter and an orange, which I think is about what's left in your fridge and we could watch the 'Back to the Future' trilogy straight through. Then we could commandeer a couple of seats on the plane tomorrow and get all curled up around each other and sleep off our night of revelry."

"I so can make something out of butter and oranges, y'know."

"My faith is absolute."

"And I only own all three 'Back to the Future' movies because Brian gave them to me as a housewarming gift."

"After you put them on your Christmas wish list three years in a row because you wanted to be able to pin it on one of us."

"You love flying."

Howie was stuck on that for a moment. Then he rested his forehead against Nick's neck where his mouth had been previously and closed his eyes. "I love you."

"Oh." Nick's body was still against the man behind him. "Because I didn't…I thought we were doing this slowly."

"We are. Very slowly. But that's not such a big revelation."

"I think it is."

"Yeah, well, you haven't known it for over two years."

"Right. Um. Me too, in case you hadn't figured it out. All about the loving you."

"So you'll sacrifice your last three sticks of butter to the Carter-Dorough All Night Affair?"

Nick twisted himself just far enough to kiss Howie. "I'll even throw in the orange."

*

It was the tiny salsa step that started the chain reaction. The movement wasn't even a full salsa count, but Howie just did it, without warning, while they were taping in the hangar and it was sexy and spontaneous and all the things that Howie had avoided being for so very long.

Nick was so happy about it that he couldn't stop himself from twirling. It was supposed to be a quick twirl -- that was how he had planned it anyway -- but once he started, he was just too elated to stop.

The twirl caused Howie to be unable to stop looking at Nick like he was the center of the world whenever the camera's stopped rolling.

The looks caused Nick to think about what they were actually singing. So when they got to filming the last verse of "More Than That," Nick capitalized on his tendency to over-emote and clung to Howie's sleeve as he went down on his knees.

The director wrapped up the shot and Howie looked down to where Nick was still on his knees next to him. Nick looked up, eyes serious. "I will."

Howie dragged him up for some impromptu salsa dancing.

*

When they reached South Africa during what Kevin had referred to as their "one hundred hours of face time," Howie whispered something in AJ's ear and the next thing he knew, him and Nick were in a car with Brian, away from the cameras for the first time in days. The windows were tinted and Howie leaned in to kiss Nick. He tasted blood.

"Nick?" Howie pushed Nick's bangs back from his forehead.

Nick smiled weakly at him. "Initiating kisses, are we?"

Howie almost pulled back, but Nick caught his hand. "Go you."

"You're bleeding."

"Been biting my lip. Bad habit."

Howie fixed Nick with a concerned look and waited silently. He got what he was waiting for a moment later when Nick bent over so that his head was nearly touching the seat. Howie placed a hand on the shaking back laid out in front of him. Howie had a feeling this had needed to happen for at least a day, which would explain the state of Nick's lip. "Hey."

Nick sent up a small, "Sorry," which Howie almost missed. The sobs were tiny and silent. Howie hauled Nick up into a sitting position and forced him to make eye contact. Nick wiped furiously at his eyes. "Just tired and sick of having to watch everything I do and of being on a plane all the time, and y'know. Just ready to go home."

Howie nodded in understanding. "Don't take this the wrong way, because I don't like having to watch you hold things in like this, but the way you control your emotions, it's kinda reassuring."

Nick thought about that for a moment before smiling. He leaned in to kiss Howie.

Howie kissed back for a few minutes before Brian cleared his throat in warning that they were getting close. He pulled back and licked his lips. "Mm, salty goodness."

Nick's countenance belied the fact that he had been crying just moments before.

*

Later, the only thing Howie would remember about the events beforehand was the heat. Howie didn't even know what city they were in, wouldn't until Brian waved and said, "Hello, wherever the fuck we are," later that night. It was in the nineties with a humidity factor that made breathing the air feel roughly like drinking water and the air conditioning in the back of the arena was broken. The local contractors had apologized up and down about the problem, bringing in fans to cover nearly every square inch of the room and supplying the Boys with an endless amount of ice water and cold towels. It had still felt like the anteroom to hell.

Howie was trying to get as much water as possible into AJ, who had already had a couple of drinks earlier in the day. Howie worried about dehydration in AJ a lot. It was easier than worrying about the things he couldn’t fix, such as the source of that dehydration.

It wasn't that none of them had tried. Howie was relatively sure all of them had tried at one point or another. He knew Brian had been spending an inordinate amount of time with AJ after the younger man's grandmother had died and that Kevin still stayed up nights waiting for AJ to come back from the bowling alleys, or wherever he had chosen to disappear to. Nick had bought AJ another dog, ostensibly so that the first one he kept on his bus wouldn't be lonely while AJ was working, but Nick had confided to Howie that he thought more responsibility for others couldn't be a bad thing at this point. Howie, for his part, just kept trying to handle damage control, hoping that his presence, silent and worried, would affect AJ's decisions.

AJ wasn't being cooperative in this instance, though, refusing to get out of the direct path of one of the fans, as well as the water bottle that Howie kept offering. After an hour, Howie was long past his last inch of patience. He grabbed AJ's hand, curled it around the water bottle, and held it long enough to say, "You can be an asshole on your own time, but we need you conscious during the show."

AJ had turned around slowly, allowing more than enough time for Howie to move back, stiffening in fear. AJ's eyes were furious. He threw the water bottle against the far wall, missing Howie's head by a scant inch. "I can be an asshole, huh?" AJ moved away from the fan toward Howie. "Well, I guess that's better than being someone's bitch, yeah, D? I mean, you'd know about-"

Nick had crossed the room by this time and was standing in between AJ and Howie, "That will be more than enough."

AJ tilted his head, "Aw, is Nicky getting all protective of his girlfriend?"

Nick was counting to ten under his breath when AJ moved. As far as Nick could tell, AJ's intent was to reach Howie. Nick caught the back of AJ's shirt and tossed him across the room. AJ wasn't exactly light, but he'd lost a lot of weight from all the drinking and Nick was strong. AJ slid along the floor until the friction caught up with him and he slowed to a stop. He was back on his feet almost immediately and his fist whipped sharply up, into Nick's side. Nick punched back at AJ's shoulder, still cognizant that he didn’t really want to hurt him, just get him to stop what he was doing. AJ latched onto the fist that had plowed into him with his right hand and twisted. Hard. Nick screamed and stumbled back.

Howie had run to get Kevin and Brian, who were each dealing with a different set of people when the whole thing began. They returned to find Nick standing across the room from AJ, snarling at him to "Stay the fuck away."

AJ turned shell-shocked eyes to the three men in the doorway. "He needs a doctor. I hurt him."

Kevin nodded. "Okay. It’s gonna…we're gonna be okay."

*

By the time Nick made it back to the hotel they were staying at, his wrist was in a brace and AJ had left for Arizona. Kevin came to his room to tell him and Howie, who had stayed with Nick at the hospital, that AJ would be staying at the Meadows for at least a month. He laid out as simply as possible the plans for rescheduling the shows and what they were going to say in front of the cameras. He told them about the plan to use Nick's wrist as an excuse to delay having to deal with the media for a few days, giving them all time to work through whatever issues the events of the day had dragged up.

Kevin left after checking to make sure that neither Nick nor Howie needed anything. Howie walked him to the door and instructed him to spend at least an hour on the phone with his wife. "It'll keep you sane, you know it."

Howie closed the door after Kevin, carefully doing the latch up and turned around to face Nick. "You want anything?"

Nick shook his head. "I'm not gonna get to say I'm sorry for so long now." He picked at some lint on the bedspread with the hand that wasn't restrained. "I mean, he was wrong, and I want him to be sorry, so fucking sorry, because he can't come near you like that, ever. Nobody can. And the things he said…" Nick's hand formed into a fist. "But I. I threw him. I mean, it was me, first. I saw your eyes when you came back in. I saw the way you looked at us. It was the same. You were scared of me."

Howie crossed the room and sat down on the bed next to Nick so that they weren't touching. "Yes. I was. Only for a second, though. Only until I thought it through. You were protecting me, baby. That's all. I'm not saying you and AJ shouldn't talk about this, and maybe not even that you shouldn't apologize. But not to me. Not for that."

"He-" Nick reached out to stroke Howie's face, "What he said. It wasn't true at all."

"He was drunk, sweetheart."

"I don't care. He said that stuff because he knew that you think that, he knew that you worry that I see that in you, that other people see that in you, but we can't because it isn't there. You're not anybody's bitch. You're so strong-" Nick broke off with an exasperated expression, only to start again, "You don't believe me right now, and that's okay, but I'm just gonna keep saying it and saying it and saying it and you will. Because if you don’t I won't stop. Ever."

Howie leaned into the hand that was still running along his face. "I'm trying so hard. I'm listening so intently, my brain just doesn't wanna let the message in."

"You're so strong."

*

AJ wouldn't look at Howie when he came to visit. He came by himself. Howie was not afraid of a sober AJ. So he told himself and Nick over and over again.

AJ was willing to accept the hug Howie initiated, but then sat down across from him, eyes focused on a window on the other side of the room. Howie tapped his fingers rhythmically on his knee, "We miss you."

AJ smiled, a bitter twist of the lips. "Good that someone does, I suppose."

"Aje-"

"I didn't have any right to say those things to you."

"No."

"I didn't even mean them."

"I know that."

"Please be mad, D. Please." AJ's voice was soft enough that Howie had to lean in to hear it.

Howie leaned back again. "Why should I? You're mad enough for both of us."

When AJ spoke, his voice was without inflection. "And Nick?"

"You're gonna need to talk to him yourself."

"Does he… He hasn’t come to visit me."

"He wanted me to go first."

AJ nodded at that.

"AJ?"

AJ's eyes flickered slightly to the side, just enough to let Howie know that he was listening.

"I love you."

AJ brought his hands up over his eyes.

*

A few days later, Howie found Nick in the pool of the hotel, after Nick had gone on his own trip out to The Meadows. Howie took his shoes off and rolled his jeans up to his knees before sitting down to dangle his feet in the pool. Nick swam over to him, breaking out of the water with a shake of his head. Blond hair fell into place haphazardly, sticking out every which direction. Howie reach out to smooth one piece down. Nick tugged playfully at Howie's ankles. Howie gave him a warning look. "How'd it go?"

Nick pushed himself onto his back, floating a little ways. His eyes were closed against the brightness of the mid-day Arizona sun. "Could've been worse."

"Overwhelm me with your enthusiasm. Please."

Nick gravitated back into a standing position. "I think he thinks I hate him, or something. I was just mad, y'know. I'd never hate him. I mean, maybe if he did something like kill one of us, but he wouldn't."

"He hates himself, Nick. He can't imagine anyone else feeling any differently."

Nick splashed angrily at the water. "How come we never notice these things?"

Howie squinted at the reflection coming off the water. "What things, babe?"

"Well, we didn't know when you were getting hurt, or when AJ was slowly killing himself, what's it gonna be next?"

"It's not… I don't think that we didn't notice. Just, sometimes things have to be at their worst to have the possibility of getting better."

Nick dunked his head below the water. He waited as long as he could before coming up for air.

*

AJ came back to them with a different brand of fear in his eyes than what had been there before rehab and a much healthier body fat percentage. Howie invited AJ to ride on his bus, "Nick's coming over, thought we'd be all teeny and have a slumber party."

"Um. There gonna be pizza?"

"There's another way to have a slumber party?"

Nick had three large pizzas with different toppings delivered before they headed out, so that everyone could have their favorite. Nick graciously offered to share his with Howie, and Howie, knowing what his boyfriend was really after, declined the offer but told Nick he could have some of Howie's pizza.

AJ showed up with a two pound bag of assorted Hershey's chocolate to add to the festivities. Nick grinned, tossed the bag onto the table and hugged AJ until his arms began to fall asleep. AJ didn't even squirm.

Nick talked about the conversation he and Aaron had had online the night before. Aaron had been asking for girl advice, much to Nick's chagrin. Nick had given Aaron suggestions that had worked on men and prayed that gender really was just a construct. If not, Aaron could just blame the fact that Nick never dated women on horrific socialization skills.

AJ offered to step up to the plate next time Aaron came around with questions. Nick promised eternal loyalty in exchange for some valid heterosexual dating advice. Howie slid off the end of the booth, tears of laughter running down his face.

Nick insisted on a muppet marathon, since he had gotten the DVDs for "Muppets Take Manhattan" and "Dark Crystal" days before they had left to go out on tour again and hadn't gotten a chance to watch either yet. AJ put up some token resistance because he felt that not to would screw with the bad ass image that he had gone to such lengths to preserve. Howie snuggled into Nick on the couch. He looked pointedly at AJ, "Nostalgia. Fun. Furry singing creatures. Sit."

AJ knew an unbeatable argument when he heard one. Nick flung out an arm on the side that Howie wasn't burrowing into and AJ curled up underneath it without another word.

Nick and Howie didn't say anything about the fact that AJ seemed to know an extraordinary amount of dialogue from "The Dark Crystal."

*

Howie was asleep when Nick turned off the last movie. AJ was not. Nick took a moment to shut down the DVD equipment, longer than he needed to. AJ spoke softly at Nick's back, his words traveling sharply through the still darkness of the bus. "Thanks…I didn't want to be by myself."

Nick turned around, chewing thoughtfully at his lower lip. "No, um. None of us really thinks that's a good idea right now."

"Yeah, I'd imagine." AJ sounded sad. "If I were you guys-"

"Uh uh. Nope, you don’t get to play that game."

"I just-"

"You just think that everyone should trust you as little as you trust yourself."

AJ's eyes narrowed. "Nick. I called Howie…I said that he was-"

"I was there, AJ."

"You ended up in the hospital because of me."

"There for that too."

"I'm supposed to apologize to everyone, say sorry for the things I did, but there's just too much of it. A whole year of my life where I fucked everything and everyone I came near to up."

Nick laughed. "Honey, get over yourself, okay?"

AJ blinked. "Wha?"

"Yeah, you had a major claim to the title of group asshole for awhile there, which, I admit, was not fun for anybody involved, but really, we survived. Josh did the damage to Howie, not you. If Howie had freaked out and left me, that would be one thing, but he didn't. Because, whether he believed your words or not, he knows that you were out of your head while you were saying them. You were stupid, and I'm probably still a little pissed off at you for that, but c'mon, I used to stay pissed off at your for days when you would cheat at Monopoly. We're gonna get past this, but you have to trust us."

"I…" AJ frowned, "Of course I trust you guys."

"No, you don't. You can't, if you think we'd stop loving you because you made a mistake."

"It was a big mistake, Nick. Not like picking the wrong color shirt for an awards show, or something."

"And what was dating Josh?"

"It was… He didn’t-"

"It was a mistake. A mother big one."

"But he wasn't to blame. It's not the same."

"No, not the same, but what is the same is that we didn’t stop loving him because of it and we're not going to stop loving you. Look, we don't trust you worth shit right now. It’s not gonna stay like that forever."

Howie, who had woken up sometime in the middle of the conversation, crawled the couple of inches of couch it took to reach AJ and settled himself on top of the younger man. "Nope, you're gonna come back to us."

Ever so carefully, AJ wrapped his arms around Howie. "That makes two of us, I guess."

*

In light of AJ's heretofore hidden fondness for muppets, Howie spoke to Kevin, who had odd connections all over the place. Kevin made some phone calls and then casually announced one afternoon in the dressing room, "I got us a gig on Sesame Street."

Nick lit up. "Like, we're gonna sing to Bert and Ernie?"

Brian laughed. "You are so gay."

Nick's eyes widened. "Do you think? Oh my G-d. What am I gonna do? Help, Howie, I'm having an identity crisis."

Kevin continued on as if Brian hadn't said anything. "I dunno, they didn't really specify what our bit was gonna be, but they sounded enthusiastic, I bet we could ask for what we want."

AJ looked down at his hands. "Think we could get Elmo?"

Kevin shrugged, "I don't see why not."

Nick pulled Howie into his lap. "I wanna stand next to Howie."

Howie stayed still, carefully not meeting the eyes of anyone in the room.

Kevin put a hand to the back of his neck. "Do you really think that's a good idea? I mean, you know I support you guys in full, but you do have a tendency to be a little touchy-feely, and, well, it isn't just a photo shoot, where you can get away with wrapping an arm around Howie's shoulders, or a concert where we can pass it off as you just being high on the performance."

"I think I can stand the responsibility of being next to my boyfriend without jumping him on kid's television." Nick's voice was cold.

Brian gave Nick a "don't be stupid" glare. "He's not worried about you jumping him. It's just…"

AJ finished the thought for him, "It's just that the two of you… There's something there. I'm not sure if it's just us that sees it because we know, or if it really exists, but, it's like. Hard to explain. Tangible."

Howie tilted his head, considering AJ's comment. "I think. I want Nick next to me. It feels good when he's near. I sound better inside my head. Maybe it is tangible, maybe it's that strong. I guess I'm asking you guys to be okay with that."

There was a long moment of careful deliberation, broken by AJ's, "I could stand by Brian and hang all over him. Throw everyone off the scent."

Kevin nodded thoughtfully. "If Nick is with Howie, and you're with Brian, who's left for me?"

AJ raised thoroughly innocent eyes to Kevin, "There's always the mup-"

Brian covered his ears and sang very loudly.

*

AJ wanted the guys to come out and spend New Year's at his place in LA. He had gone home for Christmas, but Orlando held a considerable amount of memories from the past year that he wasn't ready to deal with on a regular basis. He wanted to start the new year out in a new place, but not without his best friends.

Kristen showed up with Kevin in tow and Brian and Leighanne came looking like they were attached at the hip, the truth of which was a regular topic of debate among the guys. Sara, who had gotten out of AJ's life when the alcohol became more important than her and then shown back up while AJ was in rehab, surprising him by visiting on more than one occasion, was there as well.

Nick had staged a hostile takeover of AJ's kitchen earlier that week and prepared all the food for the celebration. This meant that on top of a three-course dinner, served according to Nick's delicate timing, there were hor d'oevres to snack on all night long, and five different dessert options. AJ mentioned being grateful that he had been unable to access sustenance for several days on end half-way through the evening.

Kevin played some Chopin and other flashy stuff that he never let on knowing in front of anyone other than his family and the guys. They all talked about new songs, things they wanted to do on the next album, what taking the next step would mean for them, and if they were ready to do it.

The New Year's toast was made with sparkling cider with AJ offered up his very best crystal for the midnight hour drink. Everyone helped clean up the food and whatever else littered AJ's house before heading to their separate guest rooms.

Nick arrived in the room he was sharing with Howie slightly after the older man, having wanted to make sure all the food was put away correctly. Howie was already underneath the covers by the time Nick made it upstairs. Nick turned on the light in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and hair and changing into his pajamas before crawling into bed with Howie. Howie was facing Nick, eyes open, waiting.

Nick kissed him quickly. "Happy New Year's."

Howie brought a finger up to his own lips. "It is, isn't it?"

"I made a resolution."

"You don’t make resolutions."

"Well, no. But I figured this one was a pretty sure bet."

"Oh?"

"I resolute to fall more in love with you every day." Nick sounded proud of this idea.

Howie snorted. "Resolute?"

Nick ignored the mockery, tugging at one of Howie's curls with his fingers. "How 'bout you? Any resolutions?"

Howie brought his hand up to where Nick was playing with his curls and intertwined their fingers. "Kinda."

Nick brought their linked hands to the scar on Howie's hip, massaging at it gently. "You don't have to tell me."

"It's not really… Just, to be deserving. Of you. And of myself. Not to give up on me, even when I really want to."

"That's a good one."

"I feel like some kind of psychotic self-help freak."

"Says a lot for my taste, huh?"

Howie laughed. "We've always wondered about you, Carter."

"Is that so?" Nick leaned in closer to Howie, his eyes glinting playfully.

Howie nodded, and allowed Nick to roll over onto him, unafraid.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile