Nick was not a morning person. He stumbled slowly down the hall, the familiar hum of Brian and Kevin's voices drawing him towards the lounge and breakfast. The hum stopped abruptly as he reached the doorway. He made it to the table and grabbed a croissant.
Wait. Voices stopped.
"Were you guys talking about me?" he inquired, rubbing sleep from his eyes with the back of his hand. Now he was focused enough to see that the faces looking at him were worried. And a little guilty.
Kevin was holding a paper in his hand. Nick leaned over and pulled it away from unmoving fingers. Looked at the fax.
Grabbed the paper and left the room.
Brian closed his eyes. "She's such a bitch."
Kevin looked at his cousin for a moment. Brian rarely swore. But he nodded. Now was a good time for swearing.
Oh God. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod.
"I Want it *** Way"
"The Backstreet Boy fans will hate me even more."
"I'm speaking the truth"
"You can't be loved by a gay guy"
Nick lay back on the cold, neatly made bed that he hadn't been near all night. The bed he'd gotten out of was down the hall. It was warm and cosy. Lots of rumpled sheets and blankets. Currently occupied by a gorgeous brunette with long, dark hair. Who would hear about this and never touch him again.
She'd actually come out and said it. She'd said it and it was on CD somewhere and what was he going to do go after her for slander? He was as good as out.
He was being dragged out of the closet and that meant being alone all over again. Because Howie was solidly in the closet. And it wasn't like he and Howie were a serious thing. He was hurt and alone and Howie had comforted him. Kept him warm at night. And now he was going to be cold and alone again. And it hurt so much worse.
They would watch his every move, looking for lovers, especially among the guys. Brian wouldn't hug him anymore. A.J. wouldn't let him give him piggyback rides. Kevin wouldn't tousle his hair. And Howie...
Nick Carter never cried.
A few hours later, Howie got up and made himself a cup of tea. He had the lounge to himself for a few moments. It was kind of nice, quiet and peaceful. They didn't usually have these kind of moments in the middle of a tour. Brian walked in. Sat down.
Howie frowned. He didn't like the tone or the question.
"Fine, I guess. I haven't seen him since last night. He got up first."
Something like fear flickered quickly across Brian's face. "He's not in your room?"
"No. Figured he was with you."
Kevin stood in the doorway. Looked at Brian. Looked at Howie. "Cuz, he wouldn't."
Brian stood. "Did you see the look on his face?"
"He..." but Brian pushed him out of the way and was off down the hall.
Howie had no idea what they were talking about but he knew that reaction. He took off after Brian, Kevin following on his heels.
Brian pounded on the door to Nick's room.
"Frack? Frack open the door! Frack, answer me! Frack!"
"Go away." The sullen voice was just loud enough to be heard over Brian's frantic yelling. With a half sob, he stopped knocking and leaned against the door.
"Ok, someone tell me what's going on." Howie demanded. There hadn't been time for questions when Brian was obviously afraid Nick wanted to kill himself again. Now, he needed to know why.
"Mandy," Kevin began. Howie nodded. That explained a lot."She... it looks like she's going to out Nick. In a song."
"The Firm sent us a transcript of an interview she did. We're meeting with them at eight tonight."
"He's got to be going through hell right now," Brian said softly.
"I need to talk to him."
Nick refused to answer, much less answer the door. But there was more than one keycard and apparently Howie was persistent enough to remember things like that. The door clicked shut again. Probably not with Howie still out in the hallway.
"They told me."
"I'm... I'm sorry."
He felt Howie moving across the room. He curled up tighter. Howie stopped.
"I can't imagine how scared you must be right now, Nicky."
"Don't call me that." Not anymore.
"I always call you that."
"You know we'll all support you, whatever you decide to do. It's not like there haven't been rumours before." He moved closer again, sat down on the bed. Nick scooted away.
Not like this.
"You'll get through this, Nicky."
Yeah. Alone. "Don't call me that!"
"Why not?" Soft skin against his forearm.
"I won't... you can't..." he sighed. "You're really slow, Howard."
"Are you mad at me?" Soft, soothing voice.
"No. Yes. I..."
"I know I blew your cover. She wouldn't have known if it wasn't for me." Soft fingers, stroking slowly.
"That's not it." The fingers stopped.
Nick sat up fast, pulling away. "You don't get it!" he raged. "You don't get anything! This isn't just me coming out. You think I care if the world knows I'm bi? What do I care what any of them think? It's you!"
"Me?" Chocolate eyes filled with confusion and hurt.
Nick rolled his eyes. "You think this stops with me, Howie? You think they're not going to look around, find out who I'm dating?" He watched as realisation dawned and Howie stiffened. "That's right. So run now. Go back into your safe little closet without me."
"Howie, not even your mother knows you're gay. Don't give me any bullshit. Just... go away."
When the door closed again, Nick reminded himself that he never cried.
"I told you this would happen," A.J. drawled.
Howie glared at him. "Thanks Bone. Big help."
"I did. And now you're breaking a Backstreet rule. Don't look at me for sympathy."
"What "Backstreet rule" is that?"
"Never betray one another. Especially not Nick."
Howie bowed his head, acknowledging the truth. The first part had actually been spoken aloud, early in the fight with Lou. The second... Nick would have killed anyone who said it aloud. But even A.J. had people he could rely on outside the group. Nick just... didn't. The Backstreet Boys were Nick's family and they were determined that he would never ever get hurt by them the way the world had hurt him.
Which was how it had all started, really.
Howie's crush on Nick had started sometime on the first tour in Europe. As the youngest Backstreet Boy began to grow taller, and his voice began to crack, Howie had found something undescribably endearing in those gangly, uncoordinated limbs, that vulnerable voice. He had kept it tightly under wraps, figuring it would go away. Except Nick grew up. Filled out. Kept touching him.
The Backstreet Boys were all physically affectionate with each other, but Nick was the worst. He would hug, kiss, fondle, stroke, any of his brothers for no reason at all. It drove Howie crazy. He knew Nick didn't mean any of it the way he wanted him to mean it. The way he meant it in Howie's dreams at night.
The teasing didn't help either. Nick had grown from the group's main prankster into a man with a mission - to annoy Howie in every way possible. Pranks had evolved into constant verbal sparring. The kid versus the peacekeeper. It would have been easier for Howie to not respond, if it hadn't felt just a little like flirting.
Fast forward to Nick's final breakup with Mandy. Nick wasn't allowed to be alone after a breakup with Mandy. Not after that one terrifying time... So Howie had taken Nick duty. Showed up at the house with pizza and comedies. Tried really hard not to let Nick curl up around him on the couch.
It had been close to three in the morning when they had finally called it a night. Standing at the top of the stairs, poised to head towards the guest room, Howie felt a hand on his wrist. He looked down. Looked up and met Nick's dark, sad eyes.
"Howie..." Nick licked his lips nervously. "I know.... I know you hate it when I... like..." He shook his head and started again. "I shouldn't ask but..." Bit his lip. Looked down. Mumbled, "SometimesBriansleepswithme."
Howie blinked. Nick kept staring at the floor, but the flush on his face told Howie that it wasn't a joke. He reached out, just to be sure. Caressed a cheek. Tipped Nick's chin up. Scared blue eyes met comforting brown ones.
"If you want me to..?"
Silent but vigorous nod.
"Of course I will."
They had just snuggled all night. Nick needed a security blanket and he wrapped himself around Howie as if he would never let him go. It was dangerous. It was wonderful. He shouldn't take advantage of Nick. Nick needed him.
In the morning, warm, drowsy and very, very happy, Howie leaned over and kissed the sleeping younger man on the lips, quickly. Eyes fluttered open. Fear wrenched his stomach. Eyes continued to look, waiting for an explanation.
"I just... wanted to make you feel better."
Pink blush creeping over pale cheeks. Quiet admission. "It did."
"All I wanted to do was make him happy."
"You did. Now you're stomping on his heart and throwing him to the lions."
"How come everyone assumes I'm going to leave him?"
"Is he in this room, or is he crying somewhere else?"
Dammit. Why did A.J. always have to be so blunt? Howie sighed. "I can't think about this rationally with him in the room."
"You weren't thinking rationally when you started this whole thing, why start now?"
"Because it's a big decision."
"One you should have thought about before getting it on with a very public figure." A.J. stared at him. "I'm not going to make you come out, D. I know your reasons, and I respect them. It's totally your decision. If he has to come out alone, I will keep my mouth shut. I won't stop being your friend. But I won't hug you and let you cry on my shoulder about what could have been. So make up your mind. Then come back to me."
"Why did you just assume that?"
Stupid Howie still had the room key.
"I want to know, Nick. Why did you automatically assume that I wouldn't support you 100 percent? Wouldn't stand by you and share the spotlight?"
"There are like... four people on the planet you haven't slept with who know you're gay. You knew you were gay years ago. Maybe even before we met Brian. What would happen to change things now?"
"You don't think this changes things?"
"You dropped Chris when he came out to his group." Howie winced as Nick's bitter tone got a shade more bitter at the mention of his short, long-ago fling with Chris Kirkpatrick."You were miserable for weeks afterwards, but it didn't stop you."
"You're not Chris."
"No, I'm not." He laughed. "You'll be miserable for all of tomorrow over me."
"I'd be miserable for all my tomorrows without you."
"Don't say crap like that." Nick shook his head violently. "You don't get to say crap like that. You never even said..."
"I love you, Nick Carter." Nick's gasp was eminently satisfying. Howie felt the world slip off his shoulders. "I love you and I won't let her take you away from me. I don't care what it takes. She doesn't get to decide this one. She doesn't get to hurt you anymore."
Nick retreated once again. "So this is about her."
Howie ignored that. He crawled over the bed, pinned Nick to it by his shoulders. Looked him straight in the eye. "She doesn't get to hurt you anymore," he repeated. "Because she gave you up and I finally got my chance. I spent six years waiting for that chance. I haven't made up for all my lost time yet."
As Howie's lips met his, Nick decided that maybe, sometimes, on very special occasions, he did cry.