sparsenicjade
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The two things that AJ knew the moment he woke up, was that his name was AJ and that the toilet seat that he was using in the capacity of a pillow was unfamiliar. Neither awareness was really all that reassuring. The sound of a door opening somewhere in the background reached him and suddenly, he was glad to have a toilet readily available.

When he was done being sick, his mind cleared enough for him to wonder who had put the cold towel on his neck. A hand reached up to flush the toilet. AJ recognized the wedding band, dimly. It would be Kevin, then, today.

"I'm sorry." His voice sounded like the scratched spot on a record and AJ knew he was going to have to warm up for twice as long as he would normally need to. Again.

"You always are." Kevin's accent was always more pronounced when he was holding back anger. "You're scaring the shit outta Howie. He would be in here every morning, but he's having nightmares about walking in to find you dead, so I doped him up last night and stuck him in bed with Nick, who's seen better days as well."

AJ appreciated the fact that Kevin was keeping his voice low, even if he knew it was less out of sympathy than the older man wanting him to be able to think about what was being said. "I'll talk with Howie." Howie would talk to Nick, or to Brian, who would talk to Nick. Nick got all blustery and mad when AJ would try to talk to him of late, and nothing that was meant to ever got said.

Kevin shook his head but just said, "You do that." He handed AJ a glass of water and a wet rag before going to see if he could find some clean clothes for the younger man. Kevin would yell at them, but he would never kick them when they were down or leave them needing.

AJ closed his eyes and made the same promise he'd made every morning for over a year. He would go to sleep that night without having touched alcohol.

*
Three days later
*

AJ was nearly to the point where he could go to the sound check and not have anyone notice there was something amiss when Howie walked in, the swelling in his jaw just visible beneath layers of stage makeup. AJ frowned, "What happened, man?"

"If anybody asks, I hurt it in a fall during practice."

"I'm not anybody."

"You might as well be."

"D, c'mon, if there was a fight, and I should've been there for you, I swear, I'm sorry, but just tell me what happened."

Howie grabbed AJ's hand violently and placed the back of it up against his jaw, snarling at the sensation, "Feel familiar?"

AJ wrenched his hand away and stared with horrified eyes, "No, I- D, I would never-"

"Don't. I'm just glad it wasn't Nick. Kid has enough authority issues about his mother without you getting into the fray."

"I'm sorry. I'm so-"

"AJ, either stop or don't, but I'm sick of the fucking apologies. They don't mean anything anymore."

*

Brian found him while he was still sober that evening. Sober enough to say, "Get the fuck outta here Littrell," and mean it protectively.

Brian just shook his head and sat down on the barstool next to him, ordering a coke and making quick friends with the bartender. Brian was good at that. Howie and Kevin were too soft-spoken, Nick and AJ too brash in their own distinct ways, but there wasn't a person in the world that Brian couldn't walk up to and make like him in ten minutes flat.

"I hit Howie. I could hit you."

"I know. Howie was afraid Kev'd kill you if he found out and didn't wanna deal with melodrama Nick style, so he came to me."

"Good ol' Brian."

Brian smiled. If anything, he liked being the one that the guys went to when they needed something. It made him feel strong after a lifetime of feeling that his heart made him weak, inside and out. "Yep."

"Why are you still here?"

"Because you are."

"I go out every night."

"I don't. Special occasion."

"What's that?"

"Brian's night out."

AJ wasn't quite sober enough to argue that that was not a satisfactory answer to the question.

*

It was hard to get drunk with Brian there, sipping his coke and looking around like he'd never seen the inside of a bar before. AJ downed a tequila shot defiantly, sans lime, and glared at his friend. "You're not gonna leave, are you?"

Brian shook his head. "Nope. If you're gonna do this, you gotta do it knowing I'm watching you."

AJ snarled. "What the fuck do you care? You probably think I'm going to hell anyway. Is little G-d boy trying to save the group asshole, is that it?"

"I don't think you're going to hell. I try to avoid being friends with damned people, it'll mean an eternity of missing them."

"Jesus fucking Christ."

"You're a bitch when you're drunk, have I ever mentioned that?"

AJ opened his mouth when it occurred to him that Brian had never insulted him before in his life. Maybe a few times when they were joking, but never seriously. He scowled, "That's news. I'm always a bitch. If you're gonna sit here, you can at least be entertaining."

"You wanna hear something new? Something you don't know, Bone?"

"Yeah." AJ gave a snide little laugh that let Brian know he didn't think there was anything in Brian's world that could interest or surprise him. "Tell me something fascinating."

"I'm watching the man I've been in love with for five years destroy himself."

AJ distantly heard the crash of the shot glass he'd just done as it slipped from his fingers to the floor. "Jesus." He squinted at Brian. "Drinking's never made me hear shit before."

Brian got down to pick up the glass, not knowing what to do now that he'd finally said something.

"I mean, you're Brian holier-than-Saint-Peter Littrell. The fucking band leader. Oh, wait, I get it. Smooth. That would have been an excellent guilt trip, maybe even better than the Howie one, but I dunno, I'd have to try them both out for size."

"Did I say bitch? Self-centered prick maybe works better." Brian stood up to meet AJ's eyes, blood dripping from his palms where he had closed his hands around the glass shards in anger.

AJ did another shot and looked at Brian's hands. "Shit."

Brian deposited the glass on the bar. "I'll be outside."

"And *I'll* be another few hours. At least. It's hotter than fuck out there, go home."

"I won't melt." Brian shrugged and walked away from the bar. The wave of heat hit him as he opened the door and he muttered, "At least not on the outside."

*

Brian woke up three nights later to harsh pounding on his hotel room door. He got up without opening his eyes and made his way to the door blindly, stumbling into hotel furniture and his own suitcase before managing to regain eye muscle control. He opened the door to reveal a beyond drunk AJ, who didn't realize the door wasn't closed and came close to hitting Brian with his still-pounding fist. Brian sighed and swore revenge on his cousin for saying he would watch after AJ so that Brian could get some sleep.

"Where's Kev?"

"Told him I wanted to go home. He took me as far as my door." AJ pushed past Brian into the room. Brian shut the door, still amazed by how lucid AJ could be in this state, even having witnessed it a million times over.

"Um, okay. What are you doing here?" He turned around to realize that AJ was a lot closer than he had thought.

"Whaddya think?" AJ grabbed Brian's arms in his fingers and dragged the smaller man up to his mouth.

Brian moaned at the pain that AJ's fingers were causing, pressing deeply into his skin. AJ's tongue was forcing its way into Brian's mouth and the taste of alcohol was overwhelming, nauseating, working it's way into Brian's taste buds as his own tongue fought to expel AJ's. He pushed frantically at AJ's chest, screaming into his mouth. AJ was unfazed.

Brian felt himself lifted off his feet, which then struggled to kick out at AJ, but before he could find what he was aiming for, he was beneath his attacker on the bed, struggling to breathe beneath the larger man's weight without the use of his mouth.

Suddenly, one of his arms was released and Brian lashed out with it, feeling AJ's free hand working to unzip his zipper. It took him a bit, his coordination not being at its best, but when he was done, he pinned Brian's arm again, this time by the wrist against the bed, and sat up slightly.

Brian panted for breath. "Get off of me before I scream for Kevin. He'll kill you, you know he will."

"You really wanna do that, Bri? You really wanna let all the other guests know what's going on? Because one or two'll come and they'll talk to reporters, and then what, huh? Besides, Bri," his mouth twisted into a sick smile, "I thought you wanted this."

Quickly, he shifted himself up so that his cock hit Brian's chin and bobbed directly in his face. "Suck, baby, or I'll take it from where you won't have the choice of whether to open up and give it to me or not."

Brian's eyes were blurry. "AJ, I haven't…I was too scared, with guys you know-"

"The famous Brian Littrell is a virgin?"

"I've had girls, I just-" Brian cut off out of necessity when AJ placed the tip of his cock squarely in the other man's mouth. AJ shrugged slightly as he lowered himself.

Brian's gut reaction was to bite down, but even through all the anger and hurt that was coursing through his mind, he knew the man above him was not AJ, not where it counted. Brian didn't want to hurt AJ's body.

"Well, guess this won't be as good as it could've been." AJ released Brian's wrist to mockingly stroke his face as the man beneath him choked and tried to breathe. "Who's the bitch now, sweetie?"

Brian's eyes widened in pain and fear, and tears that had been held tight until that point fell.

*

AJ had managed to pull out of Brian's mouth before passing out, but had not moved off him. Brian, stuck beneath the dead weight and scared mindless of waking him up, struggled not to puke everything he had just swallowed back up. He stayed deathly still, counting as he breathed, praying. What he was praying for he wasn't all that sure.

Mostly for AJ, he thought, the AJ he had watched grow up and become a sharp, funny, unique man. The AJ who was so lost he didn't know where to stop and ask for directions.

He thought that maybe the prayers were for himself, too. For still being in love with AJ. He had long ago gotten over the fact that AJ was a man, when Kev had sat him down out of nowhere, looked at him and said, "I've known you my whole life, there ain't nothing you could do to make me not love you, you know that, right?" Brian didn't have to ask what he was talking about and there wasn't a person in this world or the next whose approval he needed more. Part of accepting his sexuality, though, had been in the understanding that it was not something ugly. Not until last night. So technically, Brian figured, he should hate AJ. As Nick would say, "Frick, you be da grand loser at hatin' people." He would smack Nick upside the head and roll his eyes and not dispute the fact, because he knew the kid was right.

His lips were still moving in silent, one-sided conversation six hours later when the phone rang insistently. He stiffened as the man above him moved to reach out, grabbed it blindly with a "Yeah, yeah," and put it back down.

AJ's face scrunched in confusion at the fact that he seemed to be lying on somebody a moment before the memory hit and he flew out of the bed as quickly as his somewhat depleted physical state would allow.

He looked in horror at the man lying unmoving on the bed and threw up on the carpet. When he finished, Brian was still in the same exact position.

AJ crawled next to the bed, but Brian seemed to sense him getting nearer and he whimpered softly. AJ stopped. "Bri. Bri, shit. Bri, I'm not gonna hurt you. You want me to call someone? I can call Kevin. He'll kick my ass for you. Fuck, Brian, I'm so sorry."

Howie's voice echoed in AJ's head, "Either stop or don't, but quit with the fucking apologies."

AJ looked at the man he had loved since the band first came together. The man he had been so sure was mocking him with his confession of returned desire. The man who considered sex to be holy. The man whose first time with a man had been vile and something to forget, thanks to AJ. "Brian. Brian, I need help. I'm gonna get it. For you."

Brian rolled over slightly, enough to look at AJ. Tears were streaming down his face. "I really hate you right now," he lied, because he didn't quite know how to explain what he was feeling right then, "but I'm still proud."

In part, the drinking had started due to the loneliness of always being around Brian and never being close enough. Of thinking he knew that to tell Brian was to be ridiculed and viewed as an object of disgust. AJ couldn't help thinking that it was all a bit ironic. He picked up the phone and dialed three numbers. "Kev? I need you to find me a quiet rehab place."

*
A month later
*

They all four went to pick him up. Kevin, ever the fearless one, walked right up to AJ, pulled him into his arms and whispered, "Welcome back, Scrawny."

AJ bit his lip at hearing the nickname that nobody outside of the band knew about, not girlfriends, not parents, nobody. It came from when AJ was fifteen and somebody had been stupid enough to make fun of Nick in front of him. Scrappy as all hell, AJ took the other guy, a seventeen year old jock, down in a flurry of determined punches and kicks. Kevin had come in at the tail end, pulled AJ off and said, as they were walking away, "Kid may be scrawny, but he's got style."

Kevin continued to hold on, saying in that calming monotone he affected so naturally, "We weren't us without you, not at all."

Nick couldn't stand still any longer and he threw his arms around the two embracing men. Howie squirmed underneath Nick's arm, leaving room for Brian on Kevin's other side. Brian dutifully went to his spot, but rather than simply moving into the group hug, Brian reached up to place his palm against AJ's cheek. AJ flashed questioning eyes at him, knowing that if what he had done that night had not been mentioned by now, that Brian had not told. AJ took a deep breath. "I fucked up so bad."

Brian smiled. "Yeah."

Howie smiled too. "But we're gonna fix it."

AJ didn't smile, "Not everything can be put back together again."

"Aw, c'mon guys, everyone say it with me…Backstreet's Back!"

They pushed Nick out of the circle.

*

It was easy apologizing to Kevin, because the older man had no capacity for bullshit between him and the other guys. He looked straight at AJ when he said clearly, if a bit hesitantly, "I'm sorry for letting you down, for not being at 120% on these tours, not being a part of the support system, just not holding up my end of the bargain," and replied with a simple, "You're forgiven, but you even think about doing it again and all agency on your part ever will be a thing of the past. You'll be in rehab so long we'll be the Wise Ones from Backstreet by the time you get out."

Nick seemed unsure of how to handle being apologized to, like he'd had all these things to say and none of them fit the reality of the situation. So instead he just attempted to act like some big, aloof Man to AJ's "I'm sorry I scared you. Sorry I wasn't a better friend and role model." AJ thought Nick was going to get pissy and recalcitrant at the role model thing, since he liked the guys to think he was old enough not to need that stuff from them. Nick just shrugged, "Well, you know, just don't do it again, 'cuz it was fucked up."

With Howie he looked out the bus window one day and randomly commented, "Look, I know you said my apologies weren't worth shit, and I'm cool with that, but you're my best friend in the entire fucking world and I don't deserve you and I need you to know that what I did to you, everything I did to you, those things were sins. Not just like mistakes, you know? Full out, biblical proportion sins. I can't not say I'm sorry. Just. Can't." Howie kissed him on his temple and said, "Accepted, babe."

The first problem with apologizing to Brian was that if Brian hadn't told the others, then it wasn't exactly AJ's right to, and that meant they had to be alone when he did it. The second was that Brian hadn't shown any particular desire to be alone with AJ. The third was that AJ was pretty sure there was no apologizing, not with words or actions, for something like that.

He figured out the solution to the first two one night in the middle of bumfuck Missouri. Kevin had stopped the buses because Nick's throat was sore and he wanted to grab some Nyquil to stomp out the problem quickly. AJ wondered into the 24-hour pharmacy, straight to the junk food section. When he had grabbed himself a half dozen York Peppermint Patties and a handful of Starburst packages, he figured he might as well see if there were any decent magazines. He got distracted by the card rack sporting Labor Day cards and wondered how dull life had to be to make someone actually celebrate that holiday with anything more than a barbecue. It was then that he noticed the small section of blank cards, the type with the black and white pictures of little kids on the front. AJ noticed one with two little boys, staring across a street at each other, eyes full of curiosity and the possibility of friendship. He picked the card up, paid and obeyed Kevin's shouts for them to get their slow-poke asses back on the bus.

*

B-

Sometimes, when I think about the order of things, everything seems screwed up. Because, you were the last one to join, right? But you're our center. That seems weird.

At first, I liked you because you didn't ever feel like you had to be macho. Even D felt that way some times, and Kevin just WAS and Nick, well, yeah. You just sang and smiled and looked at all of us like we were the second coming. I remember the first time I fell in love with you. We'd been in Germany for a grand total of three days and Nick was so homesick I was afraid he'd eat his damned stuffed dog, but he wouldn't just suck it up and cry it out, afraid we were going to think he was a pussy. I don't know if anyone else saw you stick your finger in the corner of your eye that night at dinner, but suddenly you're just fucking sobbing and then it was all good for Nick to join in and after that things got so much better.

Thing is, I'd just started getting over all my "I'm a fag" issues and you were the straightest little Jesus boy on the block as far as I could tell. So I pined and pretended like relationships with other people did it for me.

I think I went insane, a little bit, because after awhile I felt like my insides were being eaten and nothing felt right, not anything, not even the music and every time I was near you my head would pound with the loneliness of it and there was quiet in the bottle. I got so fucking addicted to that quiet and then you came and you interrupted that and said, "Hey, guess what, I feel the same way!"

I thought it was your way of trying to fix me, like a pity fuck, only, with my emotions. I figured I'd probably said something while drunk and you'd put two and two together, because you’re always doing shit like that. The alcohol wasn't quiet anymore it was just heavy and mad and hurtful and I couldn't understand my own thoughts so I listened to it instead.

What I did to you was the worst thing I have ever done in all 23 years of my life. I want to make things better and I think I'll die if you accept my apology all at once. I don't know how to say I'm sorry for this, because there is no sorry for turning love into violence and violation and hatred. You deserve to hear this in person, but if I do that, you have to be near me, alone, and I would say something stupid anyway.

You are the man I respect, love, and would die for. When I'm not busy fucking everything up, this is the foremost truth of my life. Alexander.

*

A-

G-d boy, Jesus boy, he-of-the-holy-crossed-arm, St. Littrell…am I missing any? You think people stereotype you -- try being me for one day. I don't mind it so much with the teenies. They need something solid like that, so I'm fine with it. You should know better. It took me ten years and the support of the ever-perceptive Kevin to accept the part of myself that only wanted to look at the male half of the population and reconcile that with the part that believes, absolutely, in Jesus as my Savior.

You never let on that you were ever less than sure about the rightness of slinging between men and women. As afraid as you were of my condemnation, I was equally afraid of your laughter. I never thought to be afraid of your strength.

You're screwing everything up for me now, because you mean it when you say you're sorry and I was lying when I said I hated you and it's so hard not to just find your arms and ask to start over again. But I don't think that would work.

Original sin is the idea that we all start out with marks against us and have to work to regain solid footing in neutrality, let alone pass into the good category. I want to think of you as being newly born right now, with those marks against you. I need you to put out the effort of crossing the boundaries of bad and good. That's how you say you're sorry.

I'm still proud. Brian.

*

AJ frowned in response to the knock on his door because he had spent the majority of that day and the day before convincing the guys to go out even if he wasn't ready to accompany. He got up to answer it, hoping that some fan hadn't managed to get past all the security.

Brian smiled when the door opened. "Hey, I didn't wake you, did I?"

"Um, no. Why aren't you with the guys?"

"I've gotten to spend time with them over the last two months, I wanted some time with you." He didn't step into the room when AJ moved away from the door to give him room.

"Okay." AJ forced himself to think quickly. "The coffee shop downstairs makes real hot chocolate, wanna sit down there?"

"Yeah."

AJ checked to make sure he still had his room key in his jean pocket and stepped out into the hall, closing the door behind him. "I'm glad you stayed."

Brian nodded. "You've been so on this month, don't know if I've told you that."

"Thanks, though, I gotta tell you, lately it's like we've been selling tickets solely to members of the Brian Littrell Fan Club."

"Did you see that girl who had my tattoo painted on her face? It's people like that you have to watch out for the safety of your dogs around."

AJ laughed. "I actually hired *that* kidnapper. Dude, those dogs are so ugly, I could interchange the word dog for mama in yo' mama jokes and the punch line would still make sense."

"Yeah, they kinda reminded me of you."

"Up 'til now, I was gonna treat."

"Uh huh. I believe that."

"Actually, um." AJ stopped walking as they neared the entrance to the café and turned to Brian. "I was thinking that maybe the way to start over, do that whole rebirth thing you see this as, was to, you know, maybe, court you."

Brian didn't say anything for a long while and AJ shrugged. "Stupid, I know, but we don't advertise me as being the smart one. I'll come up with something else."

Brian stopped him as he started to walk again. "Actually, I was just wondering, if that was true, why I was the one to ask for this date?"

"Oh. Because I was being kinda chickenshit about putting the plan into action."

"Oh." Brian smiled. "Well I really like the plan."

"Yeah?"

"Really, really like it."

*

Brian threw open the door to his hotel room and slumped down to deposit his bags when his head came up in a double-take. "Whoa."

Magnolia and peach blossom bouquets took up over half the non-floor surface area of the room. Nestled in the nearest one was a small note. Brian plucked the note from its resting spot and read the message.

"You smell magnolias and peach blossoms, you know you're coming up on something good. A." Brian smiled as he recognized the quote as his, from the first time they had toured in the US.

He breathed in through his nose and said to nobody in particular, "I could get used to this."

*

It was on their fourth consecutive game of checkers, somewhere between states, when Howie said, "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"

AJ raised an eyebrow, "In reference to?"

"Brian."

AJ pushed down the mild irritation he felt at being judged because when Howie felt something like this was important enough to be said, he generally had a good point. "Go on."

"It's just that, so, you've liked him since you were, what, fourteen, fifteen?"

AJ nodded.

"But you never told him, because of the group and his beliefs and everything. And now, when things are precarious as it is, we've got reporters on our ass six ways to Sunday and you're trying to pull your mind and body back to its original, fully-functional state, now is the time you choose to get involved in what could potentially be the biggest mess you've ever been involved in, and I mean that to include the whole alcoholism thing."

AJ tapped his fingers on the table, unsure of how to reassure Howie when he himself was not all that positive things were going to work out well. "You know how I did some really stupid shit while I was drunk?"

It was Howie's turn to nod.

"Well, let's just say that the whole Brian and me thing is a little more complicated than it would appear."

Howie returned his eyes to the board. "Is that to say that you don't really know what you're doing?"

"Not even just a little bit."

"Great."

*

"Nice bike." Brian eyed the Suzuki motorcycle rental with an aesthetic, if not technical, appreciation. AJ threw him a helmet before placing his own on his head and climbing into the driver's space. He waited a few moments to feel a passenger behind him and when nothing happened he turned around uncertainly.

"You still okay with this?"

Brian was still for a mere second, glancing behind him to assure himself of their bodyguard's presence, before nodding his head and climbing on behind AJ, clinging tightly to the larger man.

AJ started the bike and took them towards Route 1, heading out of San Francisco toward Santa Cruz. An hour flew by in a montage of cliffs and crashing waves, harsh wind whipping against them from every direction, prompting Brian to hold on ever tighter.

AJ pulled into a small organic produce stand, took his helmet off and said, "Wait here, wouldja?"

Brian nodded and AJ left, returning a minute later with a small white bag. He stuck the bag into one of his jacket pockets and got back on the bike. From there, he drove another five minutes to a small clearing in the trees and stopped, getting off again. This time, he motioned with his head for Brian to follow. They left their helmets with the bike and walked to the edge of the clearing, overlooking the water. Brian let out a soft, appreciative, "Nice."

AJ didn't say anything, just sat down on the ground and took the white bag out of his pocket. He opened it up to reveal sweet snap peas.

Brian sat down next to him and peered into the bag. "Romantic."

AJ grinned out at the direction of the ocean and cracked the stem end of a pea pod, stripping the side skin away. He threw the part aside and easily cracked the pod open to reveal eight large sweet peas. He brought the pod up to his mouth and swept his tongue along the inside, the peas rolling along his tongue and into his mouth. When he had swallowed he said, "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."

Brian was barely breathing as he reached into the bag for a pod. He forced his attention away from AJ to the ocean, as to not choke on his peas. His fingers were unsteady as he tried the crack the stem and he jumped when, after a half a minute of watching Brian struggle, AJ lightly placed his fingers over Brian's and quickly cracked it for him. Brian swept the peas into his mouth and swallowed almost without chewing. "Thanks."

"They're better when you actually taste them." AJ opened another one and removed the peas with his fingers, tunneling them into his palm. "Open your mouth."

Brian obeyed and AJ placed two on his tongue without ever touching him. "Now chew."

Brian did, smiling at the burst of crispy sweetness. "Those are really good. Not as good as watching you eat them, but really good."

AJ laughed. "Still don't think this is romantic?"

"I think it's sexy."

"Well, I suppose I'll settle."

*

It didn't take Brian all that long to figure out that AJ would plan things and court him and act as sexy as he damn well pleased, but if Brian wanted something physical, he was going to have to be the one to take it.

He thought that AJ was probably as surprised as he was the night they were all holed up on Nick's bus watching "Grosse Pointe Blank" for the gazillionth time and he just scooted the extra inch it took to be right up next to AJ and snuggled in. AJ hesitated, so still Brian was unsure he was breathing for all of a minute. When Minnie Driver started telling John Cusack off in her studio, AJ extricated his arm from his side and wrapped it tightly against Brian, pulling him in even closer.

There was the time when Brian was coming down with something and couldn't eat, so at meals he would just reach under the table and grab AJ's fingers. AJ would respond by tightening back and later, convincing Kevin to stay the night with Brian.

Sometimes it was even smaller, like a tug to the bandana that AJ wore knot-forward before they went onstage for the "Shape of My Heart" set or a finger quickly tracing over one of the tattoos on either arm.

It was one of those tiny touches -- Brian playfully feeding AJ a honey nut cheerio one morning while the guys hung out, waiting to be picked up for a photo shoot -- that finally sparked AJ's question. "Look, you don’t have to answer this, or anything, but, um, I think I remember you telling me that…um, ok, other than, well-"

Brian laughed and AJ took a moment to look indignant before he realized how he sounded.

"Have you ever been kissed by a guy? Nice kissed?"

Brian leaned in and set his lips softly against AJ's, bringing his hands up to caress the other man's neck and skull. AJ's hands settled gently against Brian's hips and Brian deepened the kiss, flicking his tongue against AJ's teeth, laughing into his mouth. AJ sighed and nipped at Brian's lower lip before caressing it with his tongue. He laved at Brian's tongue a moment before slowly pulling the smaller man closer, sucking Brian's tongue between his lips. The two men sucked and licked and nipped and played until their tongues hurt and their lips pulsed pleasantly. When Brian finally extracted himself, he looked dazedly up at AJ and said, "Um, now I have?"

Kevin's head snapped up from where the other three were pretending to be engrossed in something on a computer screen and said, "Observant, cos."

*

Brian didn't say anything when Kevin boarded his bus instead of his own after the concert the next night. He slipped into the bathroom and wiped himself down, changed shirts and came back out. Kevin had set out a bottle of water for him and was busy chugging another one. Brian grabbed the bottle and twisted the cap off, taking a sip.

"I've been wondering," Kevin said this as though he had casually happened upon the answer to cold fusion, "why two guys who've wanted each other for as long as the two eldest of this group can remember, are taking so damned long to just get to it, now that they've finally alerted each other to their mutual…adoration."

Brian screwed up his nose at Kevin's choice of words, thinking it made him and AJ sound like kittens, or something equally cute and innocuous. "I've been wondering why everyone in this band knew the two of us were bat-crazy over each other and nobody took it upon themselves to say a word."

"We wanted it to be a you-an'-AJ thing. Not a Backstreet thing. We messed up, didn't we?"

Brian sighed. "I think we all did. I don't even know who messed up the most anymore. At first, I wanted to think it was AJ, 'cuz it seemed like the obvious answer, but it doesn't anymore and I don't think I care as much, so long as things get fixed."

"Are they getting fixed?"

"Dunno. AJ's a lot more broken than I thought he was."

"And you?"

"And me what?"

"Bri, I may not know the specifics of the situation, but I know he did something really stupid to you. I know it every time he looks at you. I know it every time he says something that he would normally wait to say in private. Even Nick has noticed that you guys never spend any time alone together."

Brian gripped the water bottle so tightly that the plastic caved in with his fingers. He jumped at the sound. "Maybe I should tell him he already fixed me."

"Did he?"

Brian thought about the two second look AJ had stolen for them during Howie's "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely" solo. "Yeah."

*

AJ answered the knock on his door and said, "hey," softly to the man in the corridor.

"Hey back." Brian handed AJ the expensive imported chocolate bar he'd had somebody run and get for him. "Can I come in?"

AJ looked to be caught between a grin and a frown. "Um, you sure?"

"Ever so."

AJ stepped aside.

*

It was two o'clock in the morning and below freezing in Lexington, so the knock on Brian's window scared him mindless. Until he heard a hoarse, whispered shout.

"Bri, I'm not some girl and it's fucking cold out here and even I know better than to wake your mom up the night after Christmas morning. Open the door, please." There was a desperate edge to his last word. Brian ran for the door.

He opened it and ushered AJ into the dark hallway, peeling off his parka and wrapping his own sleep-and-flannel-pajama warmed body around as much of AJ as he could. "What are you doing here? I thought you were spending the holidays with Denise."

"I was, I did." AJ took a moment just to shiver before continuing. "But then I missed you and there was a ten o'clock flight out and I needed…screw it." AJ unearthed his hands from where they had buried themselves in his stomach and handed Brian a small, wrapped box.

Brian unattached himself enough to take hold of the box. He took AJ's hand with a soft, "c'mon," and lead them into the kitchen where he placed the box on the table, pointed forcefully toward a chair while looking at AJ and set some water to heating on the stove. "How long's it been since you've eaten?"

AJ didn't say anything so Brian just nodded and started taking out leftovers. He watched to make sure AJ was eating before retrieving the almost-screaming tea kettle and percolating some decaffeinated coffee. AJ spoke with his mouth full, "I came to Kentucky to give you the present, open it."

Brian sat down opposite of AJ and plucked the box from where he had placed it. There was a card that consisted of a square of unused wrapping paper folded and taped on top. Brian flipped it open to the words, "I need you more than I needed the booze." He looked up, but AJ was suddenly fascinated by the cranberry sauce. Unsure of what he would have done even if AJ had been willing to acknowledge that statement, Brian slid his finger under the tape on one side and tipped the box out of the paper.

When he took the top off the box, he was greeted by the sight of an ornate silver cross pendant. AJ, as if he had divined the moment Brian saw the thing, began talking. "It's my grandfather's. He got it from his dad, goes back a ways further than that, nobody really knows to where, though. Mom gave it to me, and for forever now I just couldn't see anybody but you wearing it. So, Merry Christmas and all that." He went back to eating, even faster than before.

Brian got up and left the kitchen, returning several minutes later. The cross hung from a thick silver chain, falling slightly below the hollow of his throat. He poured himself some coffee and said, "It's never coming off."

*

It was the night he got up the nerve to ask AJ for a blowjob that Brian figured out why there still seemed to be a problem when everything was going so well. When he realized what it was, he was kind of ashamed it had taken him so long.

AJ had looked like a sixteen year old being given a brand new car at Brian's rather inarticulate, "Um, babe, wouldja mind, um, givingmeablowjob?"

His mouth had been so perfect covering Brian's cock, tongue swirling and licking and sucking, throat clenching, that Brian had nearly passed out from the intensity of it. He hadn't though, and when AJ got up to grab some towels, Brian stole a look at AJ's still done pants, making plans.

He noticed rather quickly that his plans weren't going to do him any good. AJ came back and Brian asked quietly, "I don't turn you on?"

AJ shook his head. "It's not that."

"Forgive me for saying that's the stupidest excuse I've ever heard for anything."

"I hurt you with sex." AJ's words were staccato, his face a shade greener than the moment previous. "I can't…when I touch you I, shit, Bri-"

Brian was already holding him, rocking him back and forth.

"I hate that you have to be the strong one when I fucked up." AJ was crying, Brian could feel the tears if not hear them. He thought it was interesting that AJ could have loved him for as long as he had and never noticed Brian's need to be the strong one.

"It wasn't all your fuck up, and I'm not the only one being strong."

*

Howie rolled his eyes as Brian shyly stepped onto his bus and held out his offering of salted cashews. The guys had made fun of the way Brian's mom had so strongly trained into him the idea that one should always bring a gift when being hosted whether for dinner, the night or a month at someone else's house. In their case, it was buses, but if Brian was staying for long enough to sit down, he unfailingly brought something to add to the festivities.

Howie grabbed the cashews and deftly pulled them open, scooping out a handful and extending the bag to Brian. He made fun of Brian for the gift compulsion, but he loved the way Brian was so careful to remember each Boy's favorite foods and TV shows and other unimportant things that made the guys happy. "What's up?"

"I couldn't talk to Kev about this." Brian seemed about to jump out of his skin.

Howie frowned, because so far as he knew, there wasn't anything those two didn't talk about. "Hey, Frick, calm down." He set the cashews aside and hugged Brian tightly. "What's wrong?"

"Um," Brian didn't let go, "what did AJ tell you about us? I mean, did he say anything about before rehab?"

"Just that things were more complicated than they seemed."

Brian pulled away and went to sit down on the couch. Howie followed, listening to the other man start to explain. "Yeah, well, you know how he hit you?"

Howie nodded.

"Well, he. It's that, you see, he got kinda violent with me." Brian couldn't look at Howie, but the older man had grown up with sisters and a lot of female friends and he knew the sound of that confession.

"Jesus, Joseph and Mary."

"And, the thing is," Brian spoke like he hadn't heard Howie, "I'm pretty much okay, because I can't seem to see him and the guy that did that as the same person, AJ just isn't…AJ's strong, but in that protective, masculine way, not mean, he's not, but he sees me as the same person and when we," Brian blushed, "try to, do things, he can't, you know?"

Howie blinked several times, trying to make sense of everything that had just come tumbling out at him. "Oh."

"Did that make sense?"

"I think so. AJ can't get an erection."

Brian giggled, "In layman's terms, I think that's what I was getting at."

"Have you explained about the different person thing? How you see him?"

"No, because it always sounds stupid outside my head."

"It's probably what he needs to believe, though. Because AJ as a continuous being will never be able to accept what he did, file it away and move on."

"You might have a point."

"Gee, thanks."

Brian leaned over and squeezed Howie into another hug, "Thanks."

Howie didn't let go.

*

"You think I was a different person?" AJ frowned at the man sitting across from him, half from confusion, half from disbelief.

"I told you it sounded stupid outside my head." Brian growled and frowned right back.

"Don't call my boyfriend stupid." The words were perfunctory, AJ sounded preoccupied. "It's just that, I mean, it's not like anyone was forcing the shit down my throat, that was all me. Nobody made me hit Howie, or-"

"Well, no, but when you were drunk it was kind of like you weren't there at all." Brian pushed at the table in frustration. It was soldered to the ground. "Do you think of me as weak?"

AJ looked as though he had lost the train of the conversation, but answered with a sincere, "I've seen you lying in a hospital bed and still marveled at your strength."

"But I was weak when you did that, overpowered."

AJ started to say something, but Brian cut in. "One moment does not define who we are. If that one moment was you, then AJ McLean would not be the man I've known for over eight years. Get me?"

"I'm closer than I was when we started."

*

AJ woke up to the lack of movement. He walked out to the front of his bus and was surprised to note that it was both still dark and all he could see on every side were fields. Then he heard the door to his bus open and the top of a blonde head came into view.

Brian stopped at the top of the stairs, hair mussed from sleep, wearing only flannel pants. "Can I stay here?"

AJ nodded, "What's up?"

"Hadda nightmare."

"And you want to stay with me?" Kevin and Howie were generally the comfort providers of the group.

"Yep."

AJ shrugged and walked up to where the driver was, "Uh, thanks for stopping, you can radio that we're good to go." He wondered back to where he had been but Brian wasn't there. He walked back to where his bed was and smiled at the lump buried deep beneath the covers. Making as much noise as possible so as not to startle Brian, AJ climbed in and spooned up behind the smaller man, wrapping the two of them tightly together.

Brian twisted his head up and planted a kiss on AJ's chin. "Thanks for not making me feel stupid or anything."

"You came to me." AJ's breath was hot against Brian's ear.

"Does this have to be a one night, only-when-I'm-upset thing?" Brian attempted to snuggle in closer.

"I don't think that's a good idea."

*

"Why do we all laugh less than we used to? Is that a getting old thing?" Nick was making thorough use of his time in the hotel pool, having had it cleared out so that he could spend some down time in the water. AJ had accompanied him because nobody else seemed up to it and Nick had looked too disappointed to ignore.

"You're 21 Nicholas, that's not ancient."

"Then what is it?"

"I dunno, stress?"

"Bullshit. Stressful was when we were making less money than our show clothes were worth. We're okay now, we can perform the rest of our lives for crowds of ten people and still be okay. Probably wouldn't be as much fun, but it'd be us."

"Why are you asking?"

"Because I think that's the problem with us, maybe with you and Bri, too."

"Explain away, all seeing youth."

"Why is everything so serious between you too?"

AJ thought for a minute. "I guess 'cuz I made it that way."

"And once started you can't stop? You're like the fucking little engine that couldn't."

AJ dove under water to where Nick was floating on his back and came up underneath, tickling the younger man until he was crying from laughter. Nick shoved AJ underwater long enough to get him to stop without drowning him and let him up. AJ shoved the water out of his eyes to peer at a grinning Nick.

"See?" Nick pushed back into the position he'd been prior to AJ's attack. "That's what I'm talking 'bout."

*

"Those things are louder than the movie, Bone." Brian half-heartedly threw a pillow at AJ's head.

AJ tipped a few more of the pop rocks into his mouth. "If you hadn't insisted on getting 'Beauty & the Beast,' I wouldn't have insisted on loud candy."

"I like this movie."

"You would."

"You love me."

There was no answer that would have made AJ sound cool in this case, so instead, he made a Beast-like growl in the back of his throat and kissed Brian, pop rocks exploding between their tongues. When AJ released Brian, the other man was giggling and singing 'Something There' in a bad falsetto.

AJ felt the familiar tugging of arousal and while it was just a brief moment, barely enough to even recognize as a beginning, AJ thought that Nick might actually have a point.

Brian settled back into watching the movie, stealing one of the pop rocks packages. As they began to snap and crackle in his mouth, AJ said softly, "I love your laugh."

Brian grinned up at him, teeth tinted pink from the candy.

*

Brian went on a practical joke spree.

He did that, every once in awhile, just started setting them up wherever and whenever regardless of who sprung them and what they interrupted. It pissed interviewers off and got on Kevin's nerves. Howie ignored it and Nick loved it. AJ just marveled at the fact that Brian could do things like convince pet store owners to loan him fifteen frogs, and that he actually thought to do so.

When AJ walked into the hotel room he was staying in for one of the cities they played two nights in and saw the entire floor and ceiling covered in blown-up condoms with the words "welcum home" written on them, he shuffled through the erstwhile balloons to the phone and called across the hall. "Tell me you at least got Nick to help you with this one."

"Nick, Howie AND Kev."

"What'd you do, promise your first child by sperm-donation?"

"Nah, Kevin hasn't seen Kris in over a month, he needs SOMEONE to be getting some."

"So, this is like, a 'take one for the team' message?"

"Wow, way to make me feel sexy."

"Littrell."

"Yes?"

"You have any condoms left from your little spree?"

"I bought about a box too many."

"Then what are you doing over there? Party's evidently in my room."

*

"So?" Nick's shot rebounded against the backboard.

"So what?" Brian flew in front of the taller man and recaptured the ball.

"C'mon Frick, if Howie and Kev get to be voyeurs I'm old enough to be let in on the fun too."

"I'll let you know when AJ is."

"Nothing's working?"

"Not for him. I'm probably losing body mass from the amount of times things have worked for me."

"Maybe you should try Viagra, or something."

"It's psychological Nick, not physical."

"Maybe you should hurt him."

Brian skidded and almost tripped he stopped so quickly. "What? What are you talking about?"

"You said he's scared of hurting you." Nick looked at his friend oddly.

Brian remembered the conversation and nodded, relieved. "Yeah."

"Well, I mean, maybe you should show him that even if he does, it's not the end of the world."

"I don't know if I can. I…look, it's just that I really love him. Like sappy, happy ever after love, except with a few more complications."

"Everyone knows you have to work to actually have that kind of love." Nick paused and threw a shot from where he was standing, half way across the court. "It just seems like you've tried everything else."

The shot went in.

*

Kevin peered over his cousin's shoulder to the screen in front of Brian. "Bri, dictionaries are supposed to be for words you don't understand or can't spell. Please tell me that word doesn't fall under either category for you."

Brian shut down the online dictionary's definition of 'hurt' and spun to face the older cousin. "If you wanted to hurt someone without damaging them, just to prove a point, what would you do?"

Kevin ruffled Brian's hair and sat down next to him. "This about AJ?"

"Who else?"

"Well, Nick can get a little frustrating sometimes." Howie appeared from the back of Kevin's bus and sat on the other side of Brian.

Brian laughed. "He told you guys, huh?"

Howie smiled indulgently, "He's a kid, likes to know that everything is okay with the family."

"I'm trying." Brian put his fingers to his temples and pushed. "I swear I am."

"We're not blaming you." Kevin replaced Brian's fingers with his own and moved his in a circular motion. "We're not blaming AJ either, we just wish we could help."

"Which is why we felt that we should tell you, as the older and sometimes wiser members of this mildly dysfunctional male vocal group," Howie sounded like he had the time he'd talked about touring without AJ, like he'd rather have been getting a root canal sans Novocain; "that Nick-ay might have a point."

Pain spiked through Brian's brain and he moaned, falling further against Kevin's fingers. "Fan-tas-tic."

*

Brian hadn't been much of a drinker previous to AJ's stint in rehab, but post he'd been completely dry. So when he showed up at AJ's door smelling like a brewery, AJ frowned before letting him in anyway. "Where'd you guys go Bri?"

"A club, somewhere you can't."

AJ shut the door and turned to look at where Brian was sitting on the bed, removing his shoes. "There something you wanna talk about?"

"With you? No."

"Um, okay. I could get Kevin, or Howie, if you want."

Brian rolled his eyes, "You've become such a pussy, McLean."

AJ took a deep breath and began an inner mantra reminding himself that Brian was very obviously quite drunk. "Maybe you should get some sleep."

"The only thing I need to be getting some of is your mouth."

"I don't think so, Bri. Not right now."

"Why, because I'm drunk?" Brian laughed nastily. "That's funny."

AJ's eyes were suspiciously dark as he came over to where Brian was sitting and started to undo his pants. "Just this once, because I owe you."

As AJ began to suck, Brian's fingers dug into his scalp and he murmured, "Slut."

When AJ finished, Brian laid back on the bed and pretended to sleep. It was only after he heard AJ leave the room that he got up, vomited up the singular drink he'd had in order to take the edge off and called Howie.

Howie answered before Brian even heard a ring. "Yeah?"

"Could you make sure he's okay?"

"Are you?"

"Not right now. I don't, I need-"

"I know. I'll go take care of him."

*

Howie found AJ in Brian's room in the middle of the bed, still fully clothed, curled up tightly. Kevin had given him the master key earlier, so that he could get into either room if need be.

AJ's voice was small, "Brian?"

"Um, no, I um. What are you doing here? Where's Brian?"

AJ's eyes appeared in the dark. "Howie? What are you doing here?"

"I came to ask Brian if I could borrow his blue fleece."

"He's asleep."

Howie looked around as though he might find Brian hidden in a corner.

"In my room." They were both silent for a moment before AJ admitted, "I really need a drink right now, D."

Howie climbed on the bed and curled himself around AJ. He was surprised when the younger man turned around, latching himself onto Howie, but he thought it was probably better than AJ rejecting the physical contact. "What's going on?"

AJ mumbled into Howie's chest. "He…he was drunk."

Howie kissed the top of AJ's head but didn't say anything. AJ's body shook with sobs. He finally quieted down enough to voice a soggy, "Will you stay with me?"

Howie nodded, untangled himself and went to work unlacing AJ's shoes.

AJ smiled down at his friend's actions. Howie returned the smile, "You okay?"

"D'you think I'm a slut?"

"Did he say that?"

AJ nodded.

"Do you like to hit me?"

AJ shook his head in mute horror, "No, you know that was just the alcohol-" He stopped, mouth still open. "Oh."

Howie tugged off the shoe and repeated himself. "You okay?"

AJ thought for a moment before reaching down for the laces of the shoe that was still on. "I think maybe more than I have been in a long time."

*

AJ was sitting on the hotel desk sipping coffee in his room when Brian woke up. He waited as Brian stretched and yawned the way he did every morning, arms above his head, fists uncurling, completely unselfconscious and madly sexy. Brian noticed him mid-stretch and got caught for a moment, limbs falling in on themselves in shock. He sat up and folded his legs into a pretzel. "Hi."

AJ smiled and held out the cup of water he'd had waiting. "Hi gorgeous."

Brian reached for the glass and looked at it suspiciously. "Alex, um. Last night-"

"I don't like you when you're drunk."

Brian took a sip. "Well, no and I'm sor-"

"You don't like me when I'm drunk."

Brian concurred. "You're kind of an asshole."

"But we really like each other all the rest of the time." AJ set his coffee on the desk and sat down on the bed. "So maybe we should just stay away from alcohol."

AJ took the glass from Brian's hands and reached over to place it next to the coffee. "Babe."

"Yeah?"

"I know we're supposed to be having a discussion and all that, but, uh, the way you stretch in the morning is really turning me on right now, so could we just skip to the sex?"

Brian looked down at AJ's lap and grinned, "'I think we've waited long enough as it is."

*
Epilogue
*

Howie had requested the three-in-the-morning-stop-at-Wal-mart this time, having run out of his personal caffeine supply. Brian woke up at the cessation of movement and smiled at the mewling noises AJ made in his sleep when something about his surroundings changed. Reaching over AJ to pull back the curtain a bit, he noticed the 24-hour convenience sign and hopped out of bed.

He shuffled into shoes that were too big for him, on account -- he noticed once off the bus -- of them being AJ's, and jogged a bit to catch up with Kevin. "Hey."

"Hey kiddo."

Brian smiled and tagged alongside him until they reached the entrance, where Kevin headed towards the medicine aisle. He restocked on basics whenever he got the chance; the guys referred to him as "the Dealer" in times of sickness.

Brian wandered a bit, stretching and enjoying the solid ground, before finding the knick knacks aisle. He laughed when he saw them, a matched set. He picked the box up and paid for it along with a pack of gum at the register, unable to stop giggling. Behind him, Howie hauled his basket full of half the chocolate aisle onto the counter and rolled his eyes. "What're you on?"

Brian thanked the cashier and grabbed his bag. "I think you know."

When he got back, he placed his purchase where it was sure to be found and settled back into bed, AJ mewling at his renewed presence.

-

It wasn't until late afternoon that they got into their destination and AJ noticed the newest addition to his already eclectic key ring. He narrowed his eyes and held up the offending object. "What the hell is this, Littrell?"

"I thought it was kind of oddly appropriate, given our fan base." Brian held up his own end of the key chain, a heart with a jagged break down the middle and the word "friends."

"You're kidding, right?"

"Think about it. The press is gonna notice if we start wearing rings or bracelets or even necklaces all the time, you know they even went crazy over the cross. But nobody sees our key rings."

"So, this is, like, devotion jewelry?"

"Well, I mean, if you're really interested in something like that, I think I can do better than a four seventy-five dollar key chain from Wal-mart, but, yeah, that's the idea."

"I like the idea."

"Yeah?"

"Really, really like it."

"As much as you like me?"

"Not even close."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile