Howie never really came out to AJ. He'd never had to. One drunken night in Germany, flushed with cheap beer and success...and actions spoke louder than words.
Howie still hated thinking about the details of that night, because...well, AJ had technically been legal, it being Germany, but he'd still only been sixteen. Not to mention that Howie's loss of control on that occasion was pretty mortifying.
When AJ'd whispered that the girl he'd been wooing singlemindedly all evening was interested in a threesome, Howie had accepted without reflection or hesitation. Accepted, only to go back with them to the hotel and watch them fuck, then roll over and beg AJ to do him, too, after the girl had passed out. Which AJ had done, very, very well.
The next morning found Howie shivering and sober and waiting for judgment. He'd abused his position of trust. AJ would have been in his rights to hate him, to tell his mom and Kevin and Lou what had happened, to ruin him.
But AJ'd simply woken up, stared at Howie in silence for a moment, and said, "You're gonna think I'm a complete idiot, but I totally never saw that coming. You should've told me, man. Still, it turned out pretty cool, right? Anytime you want to do it again, just let me know."
Needless to say, they never did do it again. Howie was beyond relieved that their friendship--and AJ's life--weren't ruined, but he wasn't stupid. AJ was off-limits for reasons. And by the time AJ was maybe a little less off-limits, they were both too comfortable with the status quo to change it for the memory of one night of drunken, if surprisingly decent, sex.
Coming out to the others took a bit more consideration. Howie had a lot of time for the planning of it; he was determined not to come out to the group until Nick turned eighteen.
As soon as that prerequisite had been filled, he started dropping hints. When Brian looked at him in puzzlement after Howie's fourth declaration in as many weeks that he didn't think he'd ever get married, then opened his mouth to say something, only to shake his head and change his mind, Howie knew it was time.
He invited them all for dinner that night and ordered in Middle Eastern. As jittery as he was, sharp knives and a hot stove were a very bad idea.
Midway through the meal, Howie took advantage of a lull in the conversation to say, "We've known each other a long time now--maybe too long, for what I'm about to say--but I wanted to let all of you know that I'm gay."
Silence flowed across the table like a palpable presence.
Then AJ winked at him. "Good for you, D."
Kevin cleared his throat. "I wouldn't go quite that far, but, you know, whatever makes you happy. Just--"
"--be safe and avoid bad publicity," Howie interrupted. "I know, Kevin."
"I was only going to say the part about keeping safe," Kevin said mildly.
Brian was gazing intently at his own hands, folded on the table. "I can't say that I hadn't wondered if you were, once in a while. But thank you for telling us." Howie knew that was the best he could expect from Brian at that point. Maybe--hopefully--later, Brian would reconcile his views of Howie the friend with Howie the practicing homosexual. Or maybe Howie was misjudging him, and it was the years of deception and half-truths that were disturbing him.
"Me, too," Nick said, then blushed bright red. "I mean, I kind of thought you were gay before, too, but, uh, thanks for actually saying it."
"You're welcome," Howie said, and immediately felt like an idiot. Reflexive good manners could be more of a curse than a blessing, at times. "I'm glad I don't have to hide it from all of you anymore." That was marginally better. "Um, cheesecake, anyone?"
Nick's eyes kept drifting over to him over dessert, but he didn't look freaked out, or anything. Just a little wondering, maybe, his easily-read face showing awe and interest, despite his claim that he'd known already. He was young, Howie reminded himself. It was natural for Nick to be curious. He smiled at Nick reassuringly, and Nick grinned back at him.
Whenever Howie went on business trips--usually promoting the Foundation--he tried to bring back souvenirs for his family and the guys. Nothing very expensive, just a small gift, and he didn't always do it. It was sheer coincidence that an old friend complained to Howie about the courtside tickets he'd bought with no chance of a refund, and Howie instantly thought of Nick.
He told Nick that, too, even being scrupulously honest about the fact that he'd talked the friend into donating half of the money Howie gave him for the tickets to the Foundation. None of that seemed to matter.
"You are so sweet," Nick said, wrapping an excited arm around Howie's neck and kissing his temple. He'd gotten increasingly clingy lately--though Howie certainly didn't mind.
"Not really," Howie said. Nick was the sweet one, for all his occasional macho posturing. He might lash out when he felt hurt or threatened, but underneath he was as soft-hearted as ever.
Howie was just...quiet and inoffensive. Which wasn't the same thing as being sweet, not at all.
"Looks like you've got a stalker, man," AJ said, leaning in close to be heard over the clamor of the club and nodding towards one of the far tables.
Howie grinned a little and snuck a peek. Then he frowned and poked AJ irritably. The person staring at them with starry eyes and an expression that seemed to want to wrap Howie up and take him home wasn't one of their fans, after all. "Don't be ridiculous, it's just Nick. He probably isn't even looking at us. He's, like, thinking about Mandy, or something.
"Oh, I don't think so," AJ said. "He pretty much hasn't taken his eyes off of you all evening."
"Meaning you've been watching him all evening?" Howie asked snidely. "Or do you mean that the two or three times you've noticed Nick he's happened to be looking at me?"
AJ shook his head. "Nope, I've been watching him."
That was...curious. "Why?"
"I wanted to see if his obsession with you went beyond making himself your newest layer of skin." He shrugged. "Obviously, it has."
"It's not that bad," Howie objected. "He's just been a little lonely, that's all. You could try hanging out with him more, too. I bet he'd really like that." Even as the mean, selfish part of him said, No, don't take him away from me, he's mine, he's mine.
AJ's eyes said that he wasn't fooled. "That's okay, I think I'll leave the babysitting to you."
"Don't let him hear you calling it that," Howie warned, laughing.
"Calling what what?" AJ asked innocently.
Years of living with AJ had honed his instincts sufficiently that Howie only said, "You know what," and turned around to greet Nick. "Hey, we were just wondering if you were going to ignore us all night."
Nick slid into the seat on his other side and scooted it closer to Howie's. "Um, no. Definitely not ignoring you." He grinned endearingly, looking up at Howie through his eyelashes.
Howie smiled back. That particular trick had been taught to Nick as a kid, and he'd never outgrown it, despite the fact that he was usually taller than anyone he wanted to try it on. It was all the cuter for the disparity.
Nick scooted his chair even closer, and Howie leaned into Nick's warmth. Brian had been a bit standoffish lately--maybe ever since Howie came out; AJ was increasingly prickly; and Kevin was alternately touchy-feely and distant. It was nice to have someone whom you could feel comfortable asking for a hug at anytime. His body hummed happily with alcohol and the sensation of touching another person, and he tipped his head back against Nick's shoulder.
If he opened his eyes, he knew AJ would be staring at him meaningfully. But Howie felt much too good to want to deal with that right now, so he just concentrated on the sound of Nick's heartbeat, the deep rhythm of his chest as he breathed, and kept his eyes shut.
A few months later, and Nick had changed his tactics. He was dancing with a pretty brunette who was grinding against his thigh with what looked like singleminded determination. Howie wondered bitterly if she'd already had an orgasm, and, if not, whether it would be audible from where he was sitting.
"I hadn't realized this club featured live porn," AJ said, sliding into the seat next to him. "They should be charging a higher cover."
"Hmm," Howie said, still watching Nick and the girl. She was wrapped higher up on Nick's body, now, Nick's hands on her ass. Nick opened his eyes briefly, just long enough to make eye contact with Howie. Nick's eyes drifted shut again.
"So, which of them are you glaring at?"
"Both," Howie said, to his own surprise. Not that he hadn't already been very aware of how he felt, but for him to say it might be a good indication that he should switch to water right about now.
"Because you're jealous," AJ said.
He'd already said enough that it seemed useless to deny it, and AJ could be trusted to keep Howie's secrets better than he could himself, so Howie said, "Yes."
"I don't get that."
Howie shrugged uncomfortably. "What's not to get?"
"The kid's had a hard-on for you the past year--it's not like he's going to turn you down. Why not just go for it?"
"I don't think Nick really..." Howie trailed off under AJ's skeptical gaze. "Fine. You know what it is? I wouldn't be good for him."
"What, because a gorgeous, talented multi-millionaire isn't enough for him? Don't sell yourself short, Howie."
"That has nothing to do with it. I know that you've got this picture in your head of me and Nick as, like, Romeo and Juliet, or something, but we're not, AJ. We're not meant for each other."
AJ stared at him for a full minute, his mouth set in a line. "Maybe you should tell that to Nick."
He pushed away from the table, leaving Howie alone with his drink. Suddenly, finishing it--and quickly--seemed like an excellent idea.
Fuzzy memory of riding in a limo, Nick pressed close to him. Warm, beautiful Nick. Steadying hands on his back and thigh that felt sinfully good, but Howie was careful not to let him know that.
He was so careful that he didn't say anything, and the silence lasted all the way up the long elevator ride and down the hallway to their rooms.
"Come here a second, I wanna show you something." Nick's big hand, wrapped carefully around Howie's wrist, tugged him into Nick's hotel room.
Howie looked into Nick's blue eyes, open and pure. Filled with beautiful half-promises that couldn't possibly come true. He struggled to make sense of what he was seeing, but Nick was too close, and then Howie was pressed up against the door, Nick's mouth on his and his tongue licking Howie's teeth.
He gave himself up to the feeling, warmth trickling down to pool at his cock. It was only when Nick's mouth slid down to suck at his neck that Howie felt a hint of alarm and tried to push Nick away with disquietingly feeble hands.
"Mmm, wait. I don't...you--"
"Shh, it's okay. I want to."
Nick's hand stroked down the center of Howie's chest and slipped carefully beneath the waistband of his pants. Howie dropped his head backwards, thumping it almost painfully against the door, and thrust into Nick's hand.
And then Nick was kneeling in front of him, opening Howie's pants and drawing out his erection, sucking it down. Lights exploded in Howie's head like a precursor to mental clarity.
Howie slitted his eyes far enough open to look down at Nick's bobbing head. He looked beautiful, of course. Sweat-streaked blond hair, blue eyes gazing up at Howie's face through pale, bristly lashes, red lips stretched around Howie's cock. Howie laid a hand gently on the back of Nick's head as though he were a priest performing a benediction.
Blessing and transgression, consecration and sin, and the fire licking around Howie's cock was the flames of hell. If he were any less drunk, he'd raise Nick to his feet, wipe the pre-come from those pretty lips, and tuck him into bed. As it was, he just wanted to ream Nick's choirboy ass.
He knew he'd feel guilty for that last thought later, but all he could feel then was the gorgeous wet warmth of Nick's mouth, and he was swimming in the sensation, sweet waves that crescendoed to a shuddering climax.
Howie couldn't meet Nick's eyes when he stood up. "Do you want me to...um..."
Nick shook his head. "You're tired, and this was for you, anyway. Let's just go to bed."
Wrong answer, and fuck, but there wasn't any other way to do this. And it was going to hurt--hurt both of them--very badly.
"Nick, we can't...I'm sorry, but this was a mistake," Howie said quietly.
Nick's forehead crinkled. "Why was it a mistake? It was good, right? and we love each other, and you know the guys will be fine with it, and now we can be together. For real, like, all the time."
"Nick." Howie sighed. "I don't love you. Not like that."
"...Oh." Nick's voice was shocked and hurt; his eyes flew to Howie's for one startled moment before looking away too quickly.
Sympathetic tears pricked Howie's own eyes. "I'm sorry."
"But, I thought...I mean, didn't you want me?"
Nick sounded almost scared, and Howie felt a brief moment of exhilaration, followed by an immediate wave of crashing guilt. He sighed again. "You can want someone without being in love with them."
The tears in Nick's eyes spilled over onto his cheeks, and Howie ached to comfort him, but knew he couldn't.
He wanted to take back everything that had happened, rewind to when Nick had been a comfortable, arousing presence and Howie's best friend, and he'd been certain that there would never be anything more between them. But that was even more impossible than the idea of reaching out to give Nick the hug that would have been natural and right less than an hour ago.
"Don't hate me," he said, slipping out of the room, trying to ignore the rising sound of Nick's sobs on the other side of the closed door.
The next morning, he knew, Nick's face would be drawn and betrayed, Nick himself quietly distant, and no matter if or how they rebuilt their friendship, they'd never speak of this evening again. Not fair to either of them, and least of all to Nick, but then, nothing really could be. And all Howie had to do in return was forget the taste and smell and feel of Nick, knowing that they might never again be close enough to touch.