Nick liked Leighanne fine when they met on the set of the video; she was sweet and quiet and pretty, and not brassy and pushy the way so many of the dancers were. AJ talked to her for five minutes, declared her 'a prude,' and lost interest; Howie was going through a shy phase and didn't talk to her at all. Nick talked to her because Brian did, and because Brian was hanging on her every word, and had a goofy look on his face. Nick nudged his shoulder with an elbow when they retreated to the makeup trailer, and wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, and Brian laughed and blushed and shoved him. He hoped Brian would ask her out. A girlfriend would be good for Brian. And Nick wanted nothing more in life than to see Brian happy. Well, maybe a Grammy, too, but Brian came first.
Brian, who had found a fifteen-year-old Nick backed up against a wall by that record producer, and had broken two knuckles on the guy's face. Brian had been the one to suggest gently that maybe Mrs. Carter didn't need to be on tour with them ALL the time, once he'd noticed that Nick didn't really goof around with them, or even talk much, when she was around. Brian had hugged and held him, after he'd slept with that girl in Germany, who had turned out to smell kind of funny, and it had been horrible and weird and guilty, but Brian had made it all ok. And Brian was his comfortable pillow on the couch on the bus, the strong voice in his ear when he was singing, the hand on his back when he was scared. Brian was his Frick, and anything Nick could do to improve his life, he'd do.
So he talked to Leighanne, teased her a little but not too much, and made sure that Brian got her number. When Brian told him that night that they were going on a date, Nick beamed. He did good work.
"AJ! AJ, let me use your phone?"
AJ lifted an eyebrow and cocked his head. "Why for?"
"My battery just died, I was on the phone with Leighanne...come on, you've got to let me, she'll think I hung up on her or the bus crashed or something!" Brian was shifting from foot to foot, looking anxious, his dead cellphone clutched in his hand.
"Brian, dude, you have GOT to give that a rest. Haven't you heard, the radiation or some shit from these phones gives you tumors?"
"Don't swear in front of Nick," Nick grunted a halfhearted protest from his sprawl on the floor in front of the television, "and please, AJ? Just this once?"
"Sure, fine." AJ dug into his pocket, tossed over the little phone. "Don't go jacking off when you're on my phone, though, Littrell."
"AJ! Oh, but thanks." Brian ran back to the bunks, dialing as he went. AJ sighed and scratched his thigh. Nick wondered if Kevin and Howie were having any fun over on the other bus. Watching TV just wasn't the same when he didn't have Brian to lean on and make jokes with.
Nick stopped watching the video for 'As Long As You Love Me' right around the time AJ started referring to events as BL (Before Leighanne) and AL (After Leighanne). Brian was still fun and nice and he still gave 100% to the band, but once the photo shoot or appearance was over, he disappeared into the dressing room or the bus and got on the phone right away. Every break they had longer than 24 hours, he flew out to see Leighanne. Nick was happy for him, since Brian was glowing and sparkling and joyful, these days, but he couldn't deny a little niggling unease when Brian refused to shoot hoops with him, preferring to talk to Leighanne.
One night on the bus, after a show, when Brian had brushed off his invitation to dinner with a "DAMMIT, Nick, could I please have a MINUTE here?", Howie wandered over to sit next to him, as he watched his microwave meal go around and around on the little turntable. Howie kind of leaned on him, and he looked down, surprised.
"What's up, D?" It wasn't that he didn't talk to Howie; they all talked, they lived in each others' pockets for most of the year. But Howie was usually just sort of a quiet calm presence. Nick couldn't remember the last time he and Howie had just chatted.
"Missed my Nicky." Howie grinned up at him. "Just wanted to say hey. Why are you here eating-" Howie pulled the package out of Nick's hand, "Stouffer's Lasagna, instead of out on the town?"
Nick shrugged. "Didn't feel like it." He didn't really want to talk about it.
"Where's Brian?" And that felt like a leading question, but Howie's eyes were big and dark and innocent, and he just looked curious.
"On the phone with the girl." He was a little surprised at the venom in his own voice, but Howie just nodded, and waited a moment before he spoke.
"It's still the honeymoon period for them, you know. He'll be back." And Nick couldn't even pretend not to know what he was talking about. He just sighed, and got up to get his lasagna because the timer had beeped. When he came back, Howie hadn't moved, and tried to steal bites of his food, and poked him when he started pouting. Later, they watched a movie, and Howie wrapped an arm around him and played with his hair. He was small and warm and solid against Nick. It was amazing, how much he'd missed the pleasure of simple, friendly touch.
If this was a honeymoon, Nick thought, it was the longest damn honeymoon he'd ever heard of. Even Kevin was getting a little annoyed, and Kevin and Kristin had been infamous for their long mushy conversations. Leighanne was on tour with them now, and even though she and Brian maintained separate, chaste bedrooms, Nick knew they were awake until all hours, wrapped up in each other, talking and kissing. It made him want to gag. He'd tried everything, even running over and scooping Brian up, shouting "Frick Frick Frick I'm kidnapping you!", but Brian had shoved him off and yelled at him and stomped away. He could feel himself getting more and more sullen, more and more on edge. He hated being like this, but there wasn't anything he could do. He didn't know if there was anything he WANTED to do. If Brian was going to spend all his time with some chick, Nick could be a pissy bitch if he wanted to. One afternoon, though, he punched a roadie who he'd heard making comments about carrying 'those fucking fag outfits they wear,' and it came to a head.
Maybe they didn't think he could hear them. Maybe they thought he was still locked in his room, where Kevin had shoved him to wait for his lecture. But he'd had to go to the bathroom, and he he heard voices inside AJ's room, and he paused.
"-go around hitting people!" Brian, sounding outraged. Nick held in a snort.
"He really got that guy good, huh?" AJ, gleeful as always at the thought of mayhem.
"AJ." Kevin, reprimanding. "What the hell is going on with him? This whole last month he's been moping around like his dog died. Brian? Do you know what the problem is?"
Nick could almost see Brian shrug. "I have no idea."
Howie's voice was sudden and uncharacteristically sharp. "That's because you ARE the problem, you moron."
"How would YOU feel if your best friend stopped spending time with you and talking to you because he was too caught up in some grand romance to notice you existed?"
"What are you talking about? I spend all kinds of time with Nick!" Brian sounded horrified.
"Sure, on shoots, on set. When was the last time you-" Nick suddenly decided he didn't want to listen to this any more, and ran back to his own room. He didn't know whether he'd rather hit Howie or kiss him. Sweet D meant well, Nick knew he did, but he couldn't help feeling a little like a teenaged girl about the whole situation.
After the lecture from Kevin, which was far milder than he was expecting, he settled in to sleep. His head was all muddled and confused, and his hand hurt, and he was pretty completely miserable. And he really didn't want to see Brian. So, of course, when the he checked through the peephole after the knock on his door, there stood Littrell in the flesh. He sighed, and opened the door, and tried to forget that he'd heard Brian being guilt-tripped into being nice to him again.
"Hey, Nick. Can I come in for just a minute?"
"Sure." Nick stood aside. "Why aren't you in bed? We've got another show tomorrow."
"I do know our schedule, thanks." He moved in, sat in the chair, while Nick perched on the edge of the bed.
"I just...I can't believe you hit that guy, Nick!" Brian shook his head. "What's going on with you, man?"
"I've just had a rough couple of days, you know? I already got the lecture from Kevin, if that's what you're here for."
"No, I know. I just want to make sure you're ok. I know I've been kind of busy lately, with Leighanne...but you're still my brother, right? You'd tell me if there was something wrong?"
Nick fought the appeal of clear, earnest blue eyes, and the urge to fling himself at Brian and cry, and smiled instead.
"Oh, yeah. And hey, I can tell you and Leighanne are really hitting it off, man. I haven't even asked you. How's that going?"
Brian lit up, and began to chatter about Leighanne and how sweet and perfect she was, and this funny thing she'd said today, and went on for at least another half an hour, happy. Nick smiled the entire time.
Brian tried harder after that, dragging Nick out to the basketball court or to a movie now and then, but that, Nick thought, was the heart of the problem. Brian shouldn't have to TRY at all.
The wedding was kind of a nightmare. They all got completely lit at the reception, and Brian hung off his shoulders and called him Frack and wouldn't let him go till he was dragged away to dance the first dance. Nick shook himself off, had another drink, and went to find Howie.
He and Howie had been spending a lot of time together, just hanging out on the bus, curling up on the couch and talking about everything and nothing. Howie was quiet and calming, sure, but he had an unexpected and completely sarcastic sense of humor that only seemed to come out when it was just him and Nick, hanging out. He could say the most cutting, catty things, and get away with it, just because he had that whole innocent image going for him. Most of the time, Nick would find himself howling, leaning on Howie, laughing too hard to breathe. They'd almost gotten kicked out of the VMAs when Howie'd started a whispered running commentary on N Sync's wardrobe choices.
He told himself firmly that the fact that Howie had the most beautiful eyes he'd ever seen, and hair like dark silk, and small clever hands, had nothing to do with it. Howie was his best friend, a funny guy. That was all. It didn't mean anything that Howie's hand in his hair made him want to purr, that Howie's head fell naturally to his shoulder when they were talking.
He figured Howie would have a few choice words to say about Mrs. Littrell's drunken toast to the couple, or AJ's broken promise to not grope the bridesmaids, or the incredibly bad wedding band. Brian was in the music industry, for Christ's sake; couldn't he have hired a decent band?
When he came around the corner and saw Howie leaning close to one of the previously-groped-by-AJ bridesmaids, and laughing, and looking at her with slow dark eyes, he froze. Felt a wave of panic that caught him right under his breastbone and made him want to puke. He spun on his heel, and walked away.
"Nick." It had been a week, and he hadn't really talked to Howie at all. "Nick, talk to me. This whole silent and brooding thing is a cute look for you, but it's getting a little boring. Nick."
Howie had showed up at his apartment unannounced and uninvited, and had pounded on the door until Nick, fearing the neighbors would call the police, let him in. It was one of those long hot Orlando afternoons, and Nick had planned to get a good few hours of sulking in. He wouldn't look at Howie. Howie was being stubborn.
"Nick, what is going ON with you? You were supposed to be there when my club opened. You aren't answering your phone." He was starting to sound aggravated. Good, Nick thought, spitefully. "Look." He heard a sigh, finally. "I know I'm just your substitute Brian, Nick, but I think I deserve at least some kind of explanation."
Substitute Brian? What the-?
"Can you at least LOOK at me?" He couldn't help it, he looked.
Howie was standing at the end of his couch, and he looked like he was near tears. His hands were at fists at his sides.
"Was she nice?" His abrupt voice startled even himself. Howie looked confused.
"Who? Was who nice?"
"That girl. At the wedding. Are you going out now?"
"What? Ohhhh-" Sudden enlightenment, and Howie's hands relaxed. He almost smiled. "Nick, when was the last time I had a girlfriend?"
Non-sequiteur, much, Howie? But Nick searched his memory anyway.
"I don't know. What's her name. That model."
"Claudia." Howie nodded. "That was years ago. Did you ever even wonder why?"
"You said you didn't have time for a girlfriend."
"Brian and Kevin are MARRIED. AJ has a new girlfriend every week. You've dated a lot. What do I do that takes up so much more time?"
"I...I don't know." Nick was utterly baffled, here.
"Men, Nick. I'm gay. I can't BELIEVE you didn't know that." Howie shook his head, smiling. "Do you even own a gaydar?"
Nick thought perhaps that his heart had stopped. BSB Hearthrob Dead At 21 From Heart Failure, Teen Girls Mourn Worldwide, the headline would read. That was the only explanation he could think of for why his blood suddenly felt heavy, why he couldn't move, why his head was ringing and spinning like he'd stood up too quickly. No, he was still sitting on the couch, and Howie was still smiling at him, and his heart started again.
"Oh." Why didn't you tell me? he thought. Why didn't I know this? And it must have showed on his face, because Howie came to sit next to him, and sighed.
"I never told the guys, though AJ knows, I'm pretty sure, and Kevin at least suspects. But can you imagine what Brian would say? And what would happen if anyone found out? It's not just me, here, it's us, and I'll never do anything to put that in danger. I just...I thought you would have figured it out."
"I'm glad you're vocalizing again, here, but do you think you could say something a little more informative than 'oh'?"
"I'm glad you told me." He was still staring at Howie. Mocha skin. Black eyes. Howie was gay. Howie was smiling at him, and he had the prettiest smile, crinkly eyes and white teeth and he sparkled.
"Good. I'm glad I told you, then. Nick, I'm not dumping you for some girl. Or some guy. You're my best friend. I'd never do that to you." Howie settled in beside him, and Nick felt something inside him relax at the touch.
"I missed you. And you're not a substitute anyone." He was whispering, but he didn't know why.
"I missed you too. A lot. And I didn't really mean that, I was upset. Now, can we watch a movie and order pizza, or are we going to sit here and stare at this fascinating wall all afternoon?"
They were recording Black and Blue, and between Brian's dog-related crises, AJ's apparent inability to be sober at any point during the day, and Nick and Howie mocking him behind his back, Kevin was about to go nuclear on all of them. Nick knew it. Howie knew it. So they suggested a week's vacation. Kevin stared at them, looking wild-eyed and a little demonic, actually, and stormed back into the studio.
"YOU." He pointed at AJ. "One week off. Do NOT get arrested, and be sober when you get back, or I swear to God, AJ, you are going to rehab. I don't give a shit about publicity." He spun.
"You." He looked at Brian. "Go home and play with your dogs and your wife, and I don't want to hear another word about any of them on studio time, understood?" Brian nodded, eyes wide.
"And you two." Kevin waved his hand at Nick and Howie. "Go do...whatever it is you do. But buy a work ethic while you're doing it, got that?" They nodded too. Brian was looking at them a little strangely, Nick thought, but he dismissed it. They had a week off! "We need a break from each other. Go. Break. Just don't TELL me about it." And Kevin walked out.
Brian called him four times during the week, wanting to hang out, but all he got was Nick's cell message. Nick had gone diving with Howie.
They had separate buses for the tour, which Nick thought kind of sucked. But the married people wanted their wives along, and AJ demanded a recording studio, and Nick thought it might look a little funny if he and Howie were the only two sharing a bus. Not that there was anything going on, but...appearances, as Kevin said. So they each had their bus. And for the first week or so, it was pleasant. He hadn't fallen into the rythm of touring yet, and having privacy was still a nice thing. But pretty soon, he started missing AJ's manic energy and psychotic, filthy mouth. Kevin's quiet steadiness when Nick was feeling the pressure coming down on him. Brian's sweet, goofy little jokes, and the way he used to follow Nick around the bus, scolding him and cleaning up his messes. And Howie.
"Nickolas." AJ bowed him onto his bus, the first time he followed him out after a show. "Please. Welcome to my domain."
AJ's bus was the strangest mix of porn set and practicality. Kind of like AJ himself, Nick thought. There was a mirror on the ceiling over the bed--Nick had a brief moment of nostalgia for the old bunks--but the kitchen was spotless and well-equipped, and the whole back lounge was a musician's wet dream of electronics. Nick's favorite little known fact about AJ McLean: he loved to cook. He made Nick an amazing meal, regaling Nick with his impressions of the women in the audience that night, stage energy still pouring off him in waves, music turned up as high as it could go on his stereo. When Nick fell asleep on his zebra-print couch, AJ was still dancing, moving his hips a little, grooving to the music in his head.
Howie's bus was like home. A corner with a computer and all his files from his foundation, comfortable furniture, and Persian and South American carpets on the floors. The next night, when he wandered over, Howie just smiled, and let him settle in. He felt big and kind of awkward in buses, always had, since he'd topped out in height and kept putting on weight. He was always bumping into things and knocking them over, even now. Maybe it was the sparse furniture in here, or the way Howie kept it clean, but he was instantly comfortable. Maybe it was just that when he was around Howie, he felt a little bit beautiful again.
He played a few video games, let himself wind down, responded to some fan mail, watched Howie type e-mail. But when he fell asleep on Howie's couch, he was wrapped around Howie, one hand under Howie's shirt on the smooth, hot skin of his back, listening to the low hum of the wheels, and muted voices on the television.
After that, he divided his time between AJ and Howie's buses pretty evenly. When Kevin complained that they were spending money on a bus that no one was using, AJ growled at him to "Shut up, Kevin, what, you're the only person who gets to have company on the bus?" and Kevin dropped it. Brian invited him to come stay on his bus once in a while, but Nick shrugged off the offer with thanks. He thought for a minute that Brian looked hurt, but then dismissed the thought. Brian had Leighanne, after all, and good for him. It was nice that Brian was happy. He grabbed his things and headed for AJ's.
He really preferred the nights with Howie, though, because without ever talking about it, he and Howie always fell asleep together now. It was wonderful, feeling someone, Howie, breathing against him as he drifted off to sleep, waking up held in Howie's arms. He wasn't sure how Howie felt about it, if he was just being nice, because Howie was always so matter-of-fact and calm about everything. Always smiled at him with that same twinkle. Nothing had changed, but Nick didn't feel matter-of-fact and calm about Howie at all.
They must have forgotten to set the alarm, because when Nick woke up, AJ was sitting by the bed, looking at them evenly over his sunglasses. Nick froze, took stock of hands. He was spooned behind Howie, full-body press, looking at AJ over Howie's head, one arm draped over Howie's ribs, his hand resting over Howie's heart. Howie's hand was holding his.
He looked at AJ. AJ looked back.
"I love you like a brother, Nick. You know that?" AJ's voice was low, and Nick nodded slightly. He could tell his eyes were huge. "Good. And I'd take a bullet for you, you know that?" He nodded again. "Good. Now understand this. You play with my Sweet D, you dick him around or lead him on, you hurt him, and you answer to me. You know THAT?" Nick nodded, though he thought maybe AJ had it a little backwards, there, with the hurting thing.
"Good." AJ stood, stretched a little, looking like an extremely dangerous cat. "Breakfast's in ten, get your lazy asses up." And he walked off the bus without another word. Nick was still frozen.
"Nick?" Howie sounded very awake, for someone who had allegedly been unconscious five seconds ago.
"Yeah?" Maybe if he shut his eyes, this wouldn't be happening. Didn't work.
"Are you playing with me?" Said in such an uncertain tone that Nick's heart came close to breaking. He found his tongue, and the words just poured out.
"Howie. I haven't left your side in a month, and Kevin's starting to bitch about how often we're photographed together. I can't sleep right unless I'm with you. I can't think right unless you're around. I can't even sing, unless you're there. The only time I feel like smiling is when I'm with you. I'm not playing with you, D. I never could." He held his breath, and Howie turned in his arms, looking him right in the eye. Looking scared, and so happy he shone with it.
"So...you want me?"
Nick felt that a physical demonstration might be in order, so he slid his hand around to the small of Howie's back, and hauled him flush against his body. Howie's eyes went wide, and Nick bit back a moan. Howie moved a little, experimentally, and this time there was no biting that sound back.
When Howie reached up and pulled his face down, Nick came willingly. And Howie's mouth was warm and smooth and gentle against his lips, a chaste closed-mouth morning-breath kiss, but Nick felt it to his toes. More kisses, little butterflies across his face, and Nick couldn't believe this was happening, not to him. Things just didn't work out this way for him. Howie was moving more surely now, little needy rocking motions with his hips, and the boxers they wore were not much of a barrier. Heat against his heat, hard against his hard...Nick let his eyes fall shut, his hands delighting in the sleek skin on Howie's sides, palms running over ribs and up to shoulderblades, then down, greatly daring, gently cupping Howie's ass and pulling him even deeper into the contact. This time it was Howie who moaned, and bucked his hips a little into Nick's hands, and Nick felt hot wetness dampening him, through two layers of cloth. He had a sudden and overwhelming desire to taste. He opened his mouth to lick Howie's shoulder--it was right there, and so tempting--and lowered his head-
BANG BANG "ASSHOLES!"
He jumped about a foot, and so did Howie.
"GET OUT HERE NOW OR I SWEAR TO CHRIST I'M GETTING KEVIN!"
"Thanks, AJ." Howie muttered, moving away to find clothes. Nick could tell he was still hard, and shaking a little. Nick wasn't much better himself. "And Nick, someday you'll have to tell me when you found time to read romance novels. I mean, that little speech, man..." Howie disappeared into the bathroom, and Nick grinned, then laughed, then got dressed. Because AJ never bluffed.
"HeteroWHAT?" Howie was laughing, as they dropped their gear on the bus that night.
"Heteroflexible, I said."
"Nick, what the hell is that?"
"It means I mostly like girls, cause I do, but, you know. I'm flexible. Like with you."
Howie looked at him with hungry eyes.
"You'd better be."
And Nick was.