The flight from Georgia to Florida took almost no time at all and Brian spent the majority of it trying not to think about the reunion that awaited him. On the one hand, he couldn’t wait to see everyone again, especially AJ. He’d spoken to the younger man just a few days ago, but he hadn’t actually seen AJ in several weeks and he wanted to see for himself how AJ was doing. On the other, he knew AJ hadn’t seen any of the others yet and Brian couldn’t help but worry about how things were going to go once everyone arrived at Howie’s.
When Brian finally arrived at the hotel, he took the time to unpack and get settled before calling Kevin. Though he hated to admit it, he was nervous about tonight. He knew it was a good idea to get everyone together before they got back out on the road and meeting at Howie’s made perfect sense. None of them wanted this first meeting to be held in public. It didn’t matter that the whole world knew about AJ and the time he’d spent in Arizona; AJ deserved some privacy now that he was out and getting back to his life. Privacy Brian knew would be out the window the minute that the boys went back on tour. For the first time, he wondered if maybe he had been wrong when he’d encouraged AJ not to leave the group, to meet with the guys first and talk things out. Sighing, he picked up the phone to call Kevin.
“Hey, Bri, when did you get in?”
Kevin’s voice was warm and Brian instantly felt better. Whatever happened tonight, he wouldn’t be alone.
“Just now. I wanted to check in, see when you were going to Howie’s.”
“Dinner’s at eight, but when I talked to him earlier he said we could come over anytime. AJ’s been there for a couple of days.”
There was a pause and when Kevin continued the hesitation in his voice made Brian ache.
“Howie said AJ wanted to talk to us before dinner. He… it can’t be that bad if AJ’s planning on staying for Howie’s birthday, right?”
“It doesn't have to be anything bad at all, Kev.”
“It’s just… he’s not leaving, is he? I know you’ve been talking to him since he’s been at home.”
“I can’t tell you what AJ tells me in confidence. That’s not fair to him, Kevin.”
Kevin sighed. “I know. I just… if he’s leaving, I want to know. Please, Brian, I really don’t want that sprung on me out of the blue.”
“He doesn’t want to leave; I’ll put it that way. The rest of it you have to hear from AJ.”
Brian could hear Kevin take several deep calming breaths. When he answered, he sounded calm, in control.
“Okay, I’ll wait. I’ve gotten better at that recently.”
Brian could hear the smile in Kevin’s voice and it made him laugh. They made plans for Kevin to drop by Brian’s room so they could go to Howie’s together and then hung up. Brian tossed the phone onto the bed and ran a hand through his hair. He needed to find Nick, but Brian knew that conversation wasn’t going to be an easy one. Maybe he should shower first, change clothes. He could call Leighanne; tell her he’d checked in. Shaking his head, Brian picked the phone back up. Procrastinating wouldn’t make it easier.
He called Nick’s cell and got voicemail. Knowing Nick had a tendency to ‘lose’ his phone whenever it was convenient, Brian called Owen, Nick’s security. When Owen told him they were shooting hoops in the hotel gym, Brian wasn’t surprised. Basketball had always been Nick’s therapy.
“Okay, I’m gonna change clothes and come down. Hey, Owen? Don’t tell Nick I’m here.”
When Brian got to the gym, Owen was standing watch just outside the door. He gave Brian a friendly smile and tipped his head toward the gym.
“He’s been in there awhile. Your network must be slacking today cause I haven’t had a single girl try to charm her way in yet.”
Brian grinned. “They must all be in Wisconsin, waiting for the first show.”
Brian clapped a hand on Owen’s shoulder and then went into the gym. He paused and watched, a frown darkening his features. Nick was bare-chested and his skin was sheened with sweat. His blond hair was darkened with it as well and Brian's frown deepened. Nick didn't play that hard when he was just practicing by himself.
Nick glanced up at that moment and noticed Brian watching. Brian quickly pasted a smile on his face, letting none of his worry show on his face. With Nick, you couldn't push him into telling you what was wrong; you had to let him work things out in his own way and just be there when he was ready to talk. The effort was worth it when Nick grinned back, his entire face lighting up as he tossed Brian the ball.
“Bri! You made it!”
“Yeah, I got in about an hour ago, I guess.” He held up a hand as Nick came closer. “Don’t even think about hugging me.”
Nick laughed. “Gee, missed you too.”
“I shouldn’t have to be covered in your sweat for you to know that I missed you. Now let me warm up so we can play.”
While Brian warmed up with a few practice shots, Nick took a break, drinking deeply from a bottle of water he'd set near the court. When Brian was ready, he threw the ball back to Nick.
"You wanna play a real game or just shoot around?" Brian asked.
"I don't know, old man. You ready to get your butt kicked?"
Brian raised a brow, blue eyes shining with amusement. "Big talk, Nicky."
"I can back it up."
They played for nearly an hour, Nick pestering Brian for best two out of three after Brian won the first game despite the fact that Nick was so much taller. After the third game, they collapsed onto the court, passing Nick’s water bottle back and forth between them as they tried to catch their breath. When the bottle was empty, Nick pulled his T-shirt on, grimacing when it stuck to his skin. He grabbed a towel out of his bag and wiped off his face and neck, giving more care to it than he needed to. His face was mostly hidden in the towel when he finally brought up the subject Brian had been waiting for.
“I talked to Howie when I got in this morning. He said AJ’s been hanging out at his place for a couple of days.”
Brian nodded, his voice as matter of fact as Nick’s had been. “I know, Howie told me.”
“So, you’ve all seen him.”
“Not since Arizona. I don’t think Kevin has either. AJ wanted some time alone.” He watched Nick thoughtfully. “I call him every couple of days, though. Email him once in awhile. He sounds good.”
“I haven’t seen him. Not since Boston. Not since… I haven’t called him either.”
It was the one question Brian had wanted to ask Nick for weeks, but hadn’t been able to. He had wanted to have this conversation face to face, but Nick had put himself out of touch, preferring to spend the unexpected downtime with Aaron and not the boys.
Nick shrugged and lowered his gaze. “I don’t know.”
Brian heard the lie in the tone, but he let it go. Nick would talk about it when he was ready and not before. Still, it made Brian worry about how the evening would go. Especially given AJ’s news. He reached out to squeeze Nick’s arm reassuringly. Nick looked at Brian, misery etched on his face.
“I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to. I still want to, but I…” Nick broke off, ducked his head.
Brian slid his arm across Nick’s shoulders and rested his cheek on Nick’s shoulder. “It’s just gonna take some time, Nick.”
Nick sighed. “I guess, but I suck at the waiting thing. I want things to be okay right now.”
Brian kissed his temple. “I know. It makes Christmas with you such a joy.” He poked Nick’s rib cage, smiling when Nick laughed. “But it's good that you want things to be okay. It means you're going to work to make it happen." He gave Nick's shoulder a squeeze. "Come on, we better head for the showers. If we’re late for Howie’s birthday dinner, he’ll be all cranky.”
Nick nodded absentmindedly and Brian ached for his friend. He didn’t know what had gone on between AJ and Nick before AJ had left for rehab and it was clear that he wasn’t going to learn anything new now. All he could do was borrow some of Kevin’s newfound patience and wait. He stood up and helped pull Nick to his feet. As they headed up to their rooms, Brian sent up a silent prayer that the evening wouldn’t end up a complete disaster.
Just before seven, Brian arrived at Howie’s with Nick and Kevin in tow. He rang the doorbell then turned to brush imaginary lint from Kevin’s shirt and straighten Nick’s collar. Kevin rolled his eyes, but he was smiling.
“Embarrassed to be seen with us?” he teased his cousin.
“Only every day,” Brian replied.
They were all laughing when the door opened to reveal Howie standing on the threshold. Nick elbowed his way past Brian and Kevin to envelope Howie in bear hug.
“Happy Birthday, D.”
Howie smiled and returned Nick’s enthusiastic embrace. “Thank you, Nicky.” He pulled back to look at his friend. “You look good.”
Nick preened. “Yes, yes I do.”
Howie shook his head and ushered them inside, smiling the entire time. He knew that the odds were good that things would be rocky and tense off and on during the evening, but he was still happy to have them all here. He shut the door and then hollered for AJ.
“AJ, quit sampling the appetizers and get out here!”
There were a few moments of not-quite-comfortable silence before AJ appeared in the living room. He stood quietly; hands shoved in his pockets, wary expression on his face until Brian stepped forward with a grin. He pulled AJ into a hug.
“Man, I can’t believe Howie let you into the food before we got here. He should know better than that.”
AJ’s arms slid around Brian’s waist. He hid his face in Brian’s shoulder and held on tightly for a moment. When he felt steadier, he pulled back enough to look at Brian.
“I didn’t eat it all. There’s some shrimp stuff and something I can't identify. I'm saving that until someone else tries it first." Brian laughed and AJ grinned at him. "Besides, dinner won’t even be delivered for another hour so I haven’t been able to get into that.”
Brian pulled back and to the side, but he kept an arm around AJ’s waist. The show of support settled something inside AJ and he leaned against Brian. When he looked up, he saw that Nick was watching them. He glanced at Brian and then took a tentative step forward.
“Hey, Nick. Long time, no see.”
He reached out to hug Nick. Nick submitted, but it was a perfunctory embrace at best; Nick’s body was rigid, tight, and he held on just long enough for it not to be an obvious rejection. AJ felt the tension anyway and he pulled away from Nick. Hurt flashed in his eyes before it was masked by an easy smile.
“Brian said you’ve been spending alot of time with Aaron. That’s great, Nick.”
“Uh, yeah. He… we’ve all been really busy so I haven’t seen much of him. It was good to hang out with him.”
“Maybe he’ll be able to come out on the road with us for a few dates. It’ll be like old times.”
Nick nodded, glad that AJ wasn’t pushing. “Yeah, that’d be cool. I’ll have to ask him.”
Nick shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back on his heels, trying to think of something to say. AJ took pity on him and shifted his attention to Kevin. Kevin was standing with Howie, quietly watching. When AJ’s gaze met his, he smiled hesitantly. AJ swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat and ducked his head. After what happened with Nick, he couldn’t make himself move forward. The smile on Kevin’s face faded and AJ’s heart thudded painfully in his chest. Cursing softly under his breath, he went to Kevin and threw his arms around him. After the briefest hesitation, Kevin hugged him back, squeezing so tightly AJ nearly squeaked.
“I thought you’d still be pissed at me. In Arizona…”
Kevin’s voice cracked and AJ held on tighter.
“In Arizona, I was still a mess. But I was never really pissed at you."
Kevin snorted, making AJ grin ruefully.
"Alright, fine. I was pissed at you. But I'm not anymore."
Kevin held on for a few more moments before pulling back and smiling down at AJ. His green eyes were glassy, but AJ chose not to call him on it since his own eyes were more than a little damp.
“You look good, AJ.” He patted AJ's belly. "You're putting on some weight."
AJ laughed. “Staying with my mom has been good for me in more ways than one. I’d forgotten what a fantastic cook she is. I guess it’s a good thing we’re going back on tour. A couple more months of home cooking and I’d weigh as much as a house.”
Brian rolled his eyes. “Right, like that could ever happen.”
With the ice broken, they all moved to take seats in Howie’s spacious living room. They chatted quietly for awhile, catching up. It was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. To AJ, it almost felt like the awkwardness that always came when they’d been apart for any length of time. Anytime there were less than five Backstreet Boys in a room, the dynamic shifted. When they all got back together, it shifted again. Something bumped against his thigh and AJ glanced up to find Howie watching him.
“Are you going to tell them?”
Howie’s voice was pitched low, definitely not loud enough to carry through the room, but AJ glanced around nervously anyway.
“I kinda have to, don’t I?”
Howie’s smile was patient and kind. “Kind of hard to hide it.”
AJ wiped suddenly damp palms on his thighs and stood, clearing his throat. Attention shifted to him and for the first time in a very long time, AJ was uncomfortable with it. He took a deep breath and began.
“I, uh, asked everybody to come early because I need to talk to you about something. There’s, well, something I need to tell you about before we go back out on the road.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Shit, this is harder than I thought it would be.”
Kevin frowned, his stomach knotting with sudden tension. “AJ, you’re starting to scare me. Just come out and say it, okay?”
“Right. Just straight out. That’s the best way, right? I…”
Somewhere down the hall a door banged and there was the sound of running footsteps could be heard. Moments later a little boy wearing blue footy pajamas peeked hesitantly around the corner. His face lit up when he saw AJ and he ran straight for him.
Kevin and Nick stared in shock as a soft expression crossed AJ’s face. He smiled down at the little boy.
“Escaped again, huh?”
“Down, Dada,” the boy said, lifting his arms for AJ.
AJ smiled. “You are down. You want up, little man.”
“Up!” was obediently parroted back to him and AJ bent down and picked him up. He glanced over to where four pairs of eyes were watching him; Brian and Howie with encouraging expressions, Kevin and Nick with almost identical looks of surprise. He took a deep breath.
“Kev, Nick, I want you to meet Sean.” He glanced at the little boy and smiled before turning back to the group. “He’s my son."
Kevin looked from AJ to Sean and back. Even without the announcement, the relationship between them was obvious. Sean had his father's eyes; the same rich, chocolate brown, the same thick, sooty lashes. When he grinned up at his dad, Kevin could see AJ in that smile. He looked up to see AJ watching him, a wary expression on his face. Kevin frowned, unsure what was causing that reaction. Before he could ask, AJ's mother, Denise, appeared from the same direction Sean had.
“Denise, I didn’t know you were going to be here.”
Kevin stood and went to embrace Denise. She smiled at him, managing to answer him as she was hugged by Brian and Nick in turn.
“I’m not, not technically. I got in this morning and I’ve got a room at the hotel. But I missed Sean.”
“Hey!” AJ protested, making Denise laugh.
“And AJ so I had to come by and see them. I’m heading back to the hotel, but I wanted to give the little man there his bath. I’ve missed that.”
“How long are you going to be here?” Nick asked.
“I’m going to be on the road with AJ until the tour wraps. He’s going to need someone to watch Sean while he’s working and he doesn’t feel comfortable leaving him with a stranger just yet.”
Kevin frowned and looked at AJ. “You’re bringing Sean on tour?”
AJ nodded nervously. “Umm, yeah, we hadn’t gotten to that part yet.”
“Oh.” Denise glanced from AJ to Kevin quizzically. “I’m so sorry we barged in. I turned my back to rinse out the tub and Sean was gone.”
“It’s okay, Mom. We’ve still got plenty of time,” AJ said.
“Well, why I don’t take Sean and head back to the hotel? That way, you boys can catch up.”
She held out her arms for Sean, but he turned and snuggled closer to AJ. He patted AJ’s chest.
AJ glanced at the guys. “He’s gotten used to me being around all the time and he’s kinda clingy. Do any of you mind if he stays?”
“Of course not,” Brian answered before anyone else could say anything. “How is he going to get to know us if he doesn’t hang out with us?”
AJ shot Brian a grateful look. “Okay, good. Let me walk my mom out and I’ll be right back.”
As soon as AJ and Denise were out of sight, Kevin turned to Brian.
“Now why is that you appear less than surprised by all of this?”
Brian met Kevin’s gaze without hesitation. “I saw Sean in Arizona. I went to visit AJ one day and saw Denise as she was leaving. All it took was one look to know he was AJ’s. I asked AJ about him.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
It was the first time Nick had spoken since Sean entered the room and his tone of voice had Brian raising a brow.
“It wasn’t my place to tell you. AJ wanted to tell you himself and he wanted to do it face to face.”
Nick bristled. “So just because I didn’t go see him in rehab that means I didn’t deserve to know?”
“It’s not like that, Nick.”
Brian was honestly surprised at Nick’s reaction. He had thought that of all of them it would be Kevin who would have the strongest reaction, but so far Kevin seemed to be fairly calm. He wanted to talk to Nick, but AJ walked back in with Sean at that moment and the opportunity was lost.
“I guess I should do proper introductions, huh?”
AJ was obviously nervous, but trying to hide it. Brian’s heart went out to him and he stepped forward, giving AJ a place to focus his attention. AJ looked down at his son.
“Sean? This is Brian. Can you say hi?”
Sean eyed the new face warily and laid his head on his dad’s shoulder. He didn’t say anything, but he waved shyly, making Brian grin.
“Hi, buddy. We’ll save the handshakes and stuff for when you know me better.”
“Next we have Kevin.” He leaned down to mock whisper. “Don’t let the eyebrows scare you. Kevin’s a teddy bear.”
Kevin scowled at AJ, but quickly smoothed it into a smile when he saw Sean looking at him.
Sean waved again, his head still firmly on AJ’s shoulder. He yawned sleepily and AJ smiled, kissing the top his son’s head.
“Yeah, I don’t know why we needed five either. Takes too long for introductions. Anyway, next we have Nick.”
Nick managed a smile for Sean, but he made no move to get closer to AJ. AJ continued on as if he hadn't noticed anything wrong.
“And of course there’s Sweet D, but you already have him wrapped around your finger.”
Howie reached out and tickled Sean’s tummy, making the little boy giggle. “Like he doesn’t have you wrapped up just the same, Aje.”
“Can’t deny it.”
Sean yawned again. He looked up at AJ.
“Blankie time, huh? Guess it is getting pretty close to your bedtime.”
“Ni ni,” Sean agreed with another yawn.
“Let me get him his milk and then we can pick up where we were before the little man interrupted,” AJ said.
“Why don’t you let me do that,” Howie offered. “I think the natives are getting restless.”
Kevin rolled his eyes. “Hey, I’ve been pretty damn patient.”
“You have,” AJ agreed. He nodded to Howie. “Okay, if you’re sure you don’t mind. Grab his blankie too, will you?”
“Got it,” Howie said and disappeared into the kitchen.
AJ sat on the couch, settling Sean comfortably in his lap. Sean contented himself with playing with the silver rings on his father’s fingers while the rest of the group got situated. When everyone had taken a seat, AJ looked at them.
“I know you guys have questions about Sean and I’ll answer anything you want to ask, but not tonight.”
Kevin started to protest, but AJ interrupted him.
“It’s still D’s birthday and I don’t want to have some hard discussion that’s going to ruin that. Basically, Sean is mine and his mom isn’t in the picture. Nothing about that is important tonight.”
When Kevin broke in this time, AJ let him.
“Aje, there’s no question that we want to know about Sean. He’s yours and that makes him important to us. But you’re right, the details aren’t necessary tonight. What is important is the fact that you want to take him out on the road with us.”
AJ bristled. “Yeah, I do. He’s had a rough first year and he needs me. I don’t want to be some fu… screwed up version of a weekend dad. I can’t be blowing in and out of his life every few months. That’s not fair to him, Kevin. Not when I'm all he's got.”
“I’d never ask you to do that, AJ. I just… have you really thought about this? It’s not easy being out on the road and he’s just a baby.”
“I know. That’s why my mom agreed to come. It’s not gonna be a cakewalk, but I think it’ll be okay. I want to try anyway.”
Kevin had to concede that point. “Still, what about security? The fans? Are you gonna make some kind of public statement or what?”
Brian started laughing. “Geez, Kevin, calm down. You’re going to give yourself gray hair. AJ doesn’t have to have it all figured out today.”
“I do have it figured out.”
Everyone looked at him in surprise and he grinned sheepishly.
“I can be mature and responsible when I have to be. Okay, first is security. Marcus has met Sean and I think he already likes Sean more than he likes me. Second, our fans are gonna be fine. The real ones, anyway. At least I didn’t get married and break their hearts.”
Kevin huffed, making AJ laugh.
“For the rest of it, I’m not gonna stress about it. Anybody looking at Sean is gonna know he’s mine. They don’t need to know more than that. I’ll share the details with you guys, but the rest is private.”
Kevin leaned back against the sofa. “Huh. I have to admit, AJ, I’m impressed.”
AJ shrugged. “I’ve had a couple of months to think about this. At first, I freaked.”
“Anyone would, AJ. The timing alone is scary enough,” Brian said.
“Yeah, I know. I wouldn’t recommend finding out you have a kid two days before you check yourself into rehab.”
“Two days? Geez, Aje.”
It was the first contribution Nick had made to the conversation and AJ hoped it meant that Nick was going to be okay with everything.
“It was a kick in the as… butt, I’ll tell you that.”
Nick grinned, the first time all night that he didn't seem uncomfortable. "Looks like someone zoned out during Kevin's sexual responsibility lecture."
AJ grinned sheepishly. "Umm, oops? I keep threatening to sue the condom company, but Mom says it isn't their fault that I was too dumb to stop when the first one broke."
Everyone burst out laughing. Kevin shook his head, still chuckling.
"Your mom's one of a kind, AJ."
Howie came back, carrying a sippy cup and a Winnie the Pooh blanket. When Sean saw him, he brightened, sitting up and reaching for his blanket.
“Mine!” Sean said.
Howie smiled and handed the blanket to Sean. He sat down next to AJ and handed over the cup. AJ got Sean situated, his blanket tucked up close by his chin while he drank his milk. Howie leaned back and got comfortable.
“How’d it go?”
“Pretty good, I guess. Nobody kicked me out of the group so I guess Wisconsin is a go.”
Kevin frowned. “We’d never kick you out, AJ.”
AJ shrugged, but he kept his gaze firmly on Sean. “You could have. You’ve put up with alot in the last year or so and this is big. It’s gonna cause all kinds of publicity and I’m not stupid enough to think that all of it will be positive. I… I’ll quit, if that’s what you all decide is for the best.”
Howie watched as AJ retreated upstairs to put Sean to bed. Discussion regarding AJ's 'offer' had been interrupted by the arrival of dinner. By unspoken agreement, they'd kept the topics light while they'd eaten. After dinner, Nick had disappeared into the kitchen and Kevin had chosen the balcony. AJ hadn't said anything, but Howie had seen the worry in his eyes.
"Okay," Brian said. "Which one do you want?"
"Nick," Howie answered without hesitation. "He's easier. Besides, you're better with Kevin."
Brian looked thoughtful. "Rock paper scissors?"
Howie sighed. "Fine."
They both held out a hand, palm up and ready for Brian’s count. Brian glanced at Howie and Howie nodded.
“Okay.” Brian said. “One, two, three.”
On the three count, Howie finished with rock. He groaned when he saw that Brian had chosen paper.
Brian grinned and put his hands on Howie's shoulders. "Good luck. If he pitches you off the balcony, I'll sing pretty at your funeral."
"If he throws me off the balcony, I'm going to spend eternity haunting you." Howie vowed. "You'll never have a moment’s peace."
"I'll warn Leighanne that we may be having company."
"Ha ha." Howie squared his shoulders. "Okay, I'm going to go talk to Kevin." He didn't move. "Yep, this is me, going to talk to Kevin."
Brian laughed and gave him a gentle push toward the balcony.
"Thank you," Howie said.
Brian watched him go then took a deep breath and headed for the kitchen.
Nick was loading the dishwasher when Brian walked in. Brian paused, watching quietly. If Nick was doing domestic chores without being forced, things must be worse than Brian had thought. Maybe he should have taken Kevin after all.
Lost in thought, Nick hadn't heard Brian come in. He closed the dishwasher and straightened, jumping a little when he finally noticed Brian standing there. He leaned against the counter, folded his arms across his chest, and stared at his best friend until Brian finally gave in.
"You're mad at me, huh?"
"Nah," Nick said sarcastically.
"Come on, Nick, that's not fair. How comfortable would you be telling me things if you knew I was gonna run to one of the other guys with it? Besides, AJ didn't want me to know about Sean either. I found out by accident."
"I know," Nick said grudgingly. "It's just..."
"It's going to be weird for awhile, but things will get back to normal."
"Normal?" Nick snorted. "I was worried about how we were going to sound and if we'd all still be able to hang out together. I was worried that things would be tense between AJ and Kevin and if we'd have to keep them separate. I've been freaking out about all kinds of shit and now that it's happening, now that we're all back together, it's worse. Now it's gonna be babies and diaper bags and nothing's the same. Nothing's gonna be like it was before."
Nick's voice had continued to rise until he was practically shouting. Brian went to him, reaching out to grasp Nick's arms.
"It's okay, Nick, calm down." He rubbed his hands up and down Nick's arms soothingly. "We knew things were going to change when AJ went to rehab, hopefully for the better. None of us were anticipating Sean, true, but he's just a little boy, Nick. None of this is Sean's fault."
Nick looked startled. "I know that. It's not about Sean, not exactly."
Brian frowned. "You want to explain that one? Because I'm confused."
Nick smiled a little at that. "Not right now. It's just something I have to work out."
"Alright, but you know where to find me if you want to talk."
Nick nodded. "Thanks, Bri."
Brian pulled Nick into a hug, smiling when Nick returned the enthusiasm. Nick rested his chin on Brian's shoulder.
"Do you think it would be okay to ask AJ stuff? About Sean? I know he said he didn't want to answer stuff, but hell. We don't even know how old he is or anything."
Brian pulled back and gave Nick a reassuring smile. "I think it's more that he doesn't want to talk about Sean's mom. As far as Sean himself goes, I think AJ would be happy that you're interested, that you want to know things. He's really worried about how we're going to take this."
Nick nodded. "Yeah, I get that. It threw me at first, but I'll get used to it."
"And you'll work on forgiving AJ for whatever it is he did that you're not telling me about?"
Nick smiled, but his eyes held sadness. "He didn't do anything, honest. It's my issue, not his."
"If you say so," Brian said skeptically.
"I do say so."
Brian nodded, willing to let it go for now. "We should go find Howie. If this is a birthday party, there should be cake."
"Oh hell yeah." Nick frowned. "Where'd he disappear to?"
"He got Kevin duty."
Nick groaned. "Oh man, that is so wrong."
Brian shrugged. "That's what he gets for not learning the finer points of rock, paper, scissors."
"I have no idea why everyone thinks you're the nice one," Nick said, laughing.
"Good PR department," Brian replied. He grinned. "Now let's go find out about that cake."
Kevin was sitting on one of the comfortable, overstuffed patio chairs when Howie came out to join him. His long legs were stretched out in front of him; the very picture of calm relaxation. Howie knew that behind the facade, Kevin's mind was working overtime, turning everything this way and that as he tried to work out all the angles. Howie settled into the chair next to him, staring out at the city lights and thinking his own thoughts. Eventually, Kevin shifted slighty in his chair before speaking, not yet looking in Howie's direction.
"Draw the short straw?"
"No. It was rock, paper, scissors."
One corner of Kevin's mouth quirked up. "You should know better than to go up against Brian like that."
"One of these days I'm going to beat him," Howie said determinedly.
There was another long moment of silence and then Kevin turned to Howie.
"We just gonna sit here and admire your view or are you gonna say whatever it is you came out here to say?"
"I didn't come out here to talk, just to listen. It looked like you had some things on your mind."
Kevin shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "A few things, I guess. I haven't processed it all yet."
Howie nodded. "I know what you mean. AJ's been here a couple of days and I still can't wrap my head around it." He smiled. "AJ, a dad."
“AJ’s never been predictable, but this is a bit much, even for him.”
"It is a little more permanent than his hair colors."
Kevin finally cracked a real smile. "Just a little, yeah."
"Honestly? I think it's going to be good for him. I've noticed some real changes in AJ and I don't think all of it can be attributed to rehab."
Kevin shrugged. "I suppose. But being a parent, especially a single one, is alot of hard work. With AJ just getting out of rehab..."
"I know. I'm worried about him too."
"Does he have any idea how difficult this is going to be?"
"I'm sure he knows more about it than we do, Kevin. To you and me, single parenting is a foreign concept. To AJ, it's pretty normal."
Kevin had to acknowledge the truth of that. Howie smiled and continued.
"I know the baby thing is a surprise, but with both you and Brian married, it was really only a matter of time."
"Not for me; not yet anyway. Tour buses and hotel rooms are no place to raise children."
"That may be how you feel, but AJ sees it differently," Howie said quietly.
"It's not right."
Howie raised a brow. "For you and Kris, maybe not."
Frustrated, Kevin stood up and began to pace. "Off tour is bad enough, but on it? We have hoardes of people following us everywhere we go, cameras watching our every move."
"Kev, AJ could quit the group right now, settle down wherever, and still have that problem. It's just part of what we do."
Kevin started to reply, but Howie gently cut him off. "Face it, Kevin. None of our kids are going to have the kind of childhoods we had. Different doesn't have to mean therapy inducing."
Kevin dropped back down into his chair with a sigh. "In my head, I know that. Then I think about Nick and everything he went through. Hell, the things he's still going through."
Howie reached over and laid a comforting hand on Kevin's arm. "That has nothing to do with growing up famous and everything to do with Nick getting royally screwed on the parent deal."
Kevin's eyes widened in surprise and then he started to laugh. "That's a good point."
Howie patted Kevin's arm. "Try not worry so much. We only have a few months left before the tour wraps. Let's just see how it goes."
Kevin smiled ruefully. "Right, because I'm so good with the wait-and-see approach."
"There's a first time for everything."
Howie squeezed Kevin's arm reassuringly then stood. "We should get back inside. Nick and Brian have been left in the kitchen alone for too long. If they find where I hid dessert, none of the rest of us will get any."
Laughing, Kevin stood and followed Howie back inside. His mind wasn't entirely at ease, but he knew that Howie was right. The decision wasn't his to make and whether he liked it or not, he was going to have to step back and let AJ find his own path. All he could do now was watch and wait and be ready to hold out a hand if AJ stumbled.
Howie stood in the kitchen biting back a smile as he watched the frantic search going on. AJ had come back downstairs and was rummaging through the refrigerator while Brian and Nick searched the cupboards. Howie heard Kevin chuckle behind him and gave into his own grin.
"Are they close?" Kevin asked.
AJ's head popped up from behind the open fridge door. "I call bullshit. I've been through this thing three times and there's nothing resembling birthday cake in here."
Howie joined AJ at the fridge. He leaned down and opened the crisper drawer, revealing a white bakery box. AJ gave him a look.
"That's supposed to be the vegetable drawer."
"Perfect hiding place since you hate anything resembling healthy food."
"Very sneaky," AJ said admiringly.
Howie grabbed the box and carried it to the counter, AJ following right behind him. Howie smiled when AJ crowded in close, peering over Howie's shoulder so he could be the first to see what was in the box.
"Since we're combining my birthday with your homecoming, I picked out dessert with you in mind." Howie told AJ. "It's Caramel Macchiato cheesecake."
"Caramel Macchiato? Like the Starbucks drink?"
"The very same." He lifted the cheesecake out of the box. "They mix the espresso with the cream cheese and once it's been baked and cooled, they drizzle caramel over the top."
AJ tugged Howie around to face him. Cupping Howie's face in his hands, he leaned in and planted a kiss on Howie's mouth. “Howard, I love you.”
“Umm, thanks,” Howie said, bemused. “Next time could you maybe love me with a little less tongue?”
“I could try.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
While Howie sliced the cheesecake, AJ got plates out of the cupboard then helped Howie serve the dessert. Seated around Howie’s kitchen table, they all dug into the rich dessert. AJ took a bite, giving an appreciative little moan at the first taste. Kevin smothered a chuckle.
“What?” AJ asked him.
Kevin shrugged. “Nothing. Just… would you and your cheesecake like to be alone?”
“Fuck you,” AJ said good-naturedly.
Brian snickerd. “It did sound a little like you were doing something other than having dessert.”
AJ arched a brow. “How would you know what I sound like when I’m doing something other than having dessert?”
Brian rolled his eyes. “Shared buses, shared hotel rooms, not shared hotel rooms with really thin walls.”
“You’re not exactly quiet,” Howie added.
“Face it, Aje,” Nick said, licking his fork clean. “We all know how you sound when you’re having se… something other than dessert.”
“Boy, I’ve really missed these heart to hearts about AJ’s sex life,” Kevin said.
“Don’t look at me.” AJ protested. “You started it.”
“I did,” Kevin admitted. “Does that mean I can stop it?”
“Yes, please,” AJ said. “Let’s talk about something other than my non-existent sex life.”
Kevin sighed. “Here’s a thought. Let’s not talk about sex at all. We haven’t seen each other in a couple of months. There’s got to be something somebody did that’s a good conversation piece.”
“I hung out with AJ a little and then went home to my wife.” Brian frowned when the other four looked at him. “What? So I’m not an exciting globe trotting trend setter. Sue me.”
“I’m not any better,” Howie admitted. “I hung out here in Florida.”
They all looked at Kevin, who grinned sheepishly and shrugged. “I’m about as exciting as Brian.”
Brian balled up a napkin and threw it at him, making everyone laugh. He turned his attention to Nick.
“Looks like you’re the only one that did anything fun while we were on break.”
Nick shook his head. “I hung out with my little brother. Somehow, having thousands of fourteen-year-old girls following me around isn’t quite the thrill it used to be.” He leaned back in his chair. “Looks like AJ is the only one that had anything exciting happen to him.”
Nick winced when Brian kicked him under the table and then managed a sheepish smile in AJ’s direction. “Yeah, sorry, I suck at subtle.”
AJ smiled. “It’s okay. I guess it was stupid to think that we wouldn’t talk about Sean at all. And it’s not like I don’t want you guys to know him, but…”
He trailed off, unsure how to finish the thought. He reached into his pocket, automatically searching for his cigarettes before remembering that he wasn’t smoking around Sean. He cursed softly and got up to get a Coke out of the fridge. When he got back to the table, he smiled at Nick.
“Okay, so what do you want to know?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Everything.” He smiled when AJ laughed. “Too vague?”
“Just a little,” AJ replied. “Okay, let’s see. So far I’ve discovered a few really important things about him. Do NOT feed him peas. Trust me on this one. Or, if you do, make sure someone else has diaper duty. He loves Blues Clues but Barney makes him cry. Thank God.” He settled back in his chair, a fond smile on his face. “My house is a wreck, toys all over the place, and I could care less. The other night we spent like an hour just playing peek-a-boo with his blankie. That’s his new favorite game.”
AJ frowned, reached for his Coke and took a long drink. “I missed alot, though. His first step, his first word. Hell, he turned a year old in June and I missed that too.”
Howie reached out and grasped AJ’s hand. “That wasn’t your choice, AJ. And he still has plenty of firsts ahead of him that you won’t miss.”
Nick looked at Brian guiltily, hating the way the conversation was turning. He thought about the things AJ had already told them about Sean, wanting to find something to change the tone of the conversation back to how it had started out.
“Umm, you said his birthday is in June?”
Nick winced; that was already a sore subject. He tried again. “So, he’s what? About fourteen months old?”
AJ nodded and Nick sat up straighter as a thought occurred to him.
“He talks pretty well for only being fourteen months. I mean, I can remember the twins when they were little like that, but I don’t remember them ‘talking’. Just babbling words here and there.”
AJ smiled and Nick could see him relaxing again.
“When I first brought him home, he was so quiet. I mean, abnormally quiet. He hardly cried and he wouldn’t really say anything. But it’s been just the two of us and I got in the habit of talking to him. I tell him all kinds of stuff. Now he jabbers all the time. Mostly it sounds like some weird foreign language, but I swear he learns a new word every day.”
“That’s great, AJ,” Brian said.
“Yep. I found the on switch.” AJ chuckled. “Only problem is that I haven’t been able to turn him off since then.”
Once the laughter caused by that statement died down, Howie stood up.
“Let’s take our coffee into the other room. I’ve got some movies and we can just relax. It’s going to be our last chance to do that for awhile.”
Kevin stood and grabbed his mug. “Good idea. It’s getting late and some of us,” He shot a mock glare at AJ. “Had to be on a plane early today.”
AJ grinned. “Not my fault Howie likes me best.”
Smiling, Howie went to brew a fresh pot of coffee as good-natured ribbing flowed between the four men behind him. Listening to the banter, he couldn’t help but feel a lightening in his chest. The worry he’d been carrying for months was still there and he knew it would be a long time before he lost it completely, but tonight had gone a long way toward easing the fear. And he knew without asking that his brothers felt it too.
When they arrived in Milwaukee two days later, AJ found himself quietly freaking out. After weeks of being on his own schedule, the rush of getting from Howie’s house in Florida to the venue in Wisconsin had thrown him more than he’d thought it would. Not to mention that traveling with a toddler was a skill that AJ was still trying to master. Remembering to pack everything that Sean deemed a must-have was harder than it looked. AJ had spent a frantic twenty minutes trying to find Sean’s favorite blanket so that the little boy could take his nap. Between the long bus ride (one airplane trip with Sean was enough to last AJ for quite awhile and he wasn’t planning on doing it again until he had to) and the unfamiliar surroundings, Sean's sleep schedule was badly out of whack. He was cranky, irritable and by the time AJ was finally able to rock Sean to sleep, he was considering having a crying fit of his own. Now AJ quietly paced the length of the living area, Sean cradled against his chest. He'd been walking Sean for almost a half an hour, afraid to put him down because the few times he'd tried Sean had woken up and started crying again. AJ glanced down at his son, at the tear tracks still evident on his face, and leaned down to kiss the baby-soft skin.
"I know your first world tour is really sucking right now, but it'll get better. I promise."
Sean made a soft sound in his sleep and AJ smiled. He resumed his pacing, occasionally glancing at the clock and wondering when his mom would arrive. He needed to get dressed or he’d be late for sound check. That wouldn’t be a great way to show Kevin that he could handle Sean and the demands of being on the road. He sighed and was making another circuit of the living area when the bus door opened and Nick stuck his head in.
“Yo, Aje, you ready?”
AJ winced and covered Sean’s ear with his hand. “Shh. Sean’s asleep.”
Nick grimaced and entered the bus, closing the door behind him. “Sorry, guess I’m not used to that yet.”
“It’s okay. He’s usually a heavy sleeper, but the trip really made him cranky.”
“Poor kid. He’s not used to being a world traveler yet.”
AJ smiled. “I think it’s gonna take some getting used to.”
“Probably.” Nick looked around. “Where’s your mom? We’re gonna have to leave in a few minutes for sound check.”
“She should be here any minute.” A sudden idea hit AJ and he smiled. “Here, take Sean for me.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “What? Me? I…”
“You’ve held a baby before,” AJ said. He handed over the sleeping toddler, smiling at the oh-so-careful way Nick held Sean. “He likes to snuggle when he’s upset and I need to change. I’ll be right back.”
Nick watched AJ disappear then glanced down at Sean. Very carefully, he maneuvered the boy until Sean was snuggled up close to his chest. Sean sighed quietly, one small hand fisting in Nick’s shirt. Nick smiled down at him.
“Hey, buddy. Having a rough day, huh?”
Sean’s nose wrinkled and Nick laughed softly. “I hear ya. Sometimes I get really sick of the bus too.”
Unable to stand still, Nick unknowingly took up AJ’s pacing, just watching Sean sleep. It was the first time he’d really looked at AJ’s son and he was struck by how much Sean looked like his father. The thick, dark lashes resting on his cheeks and the shape of his mouth were all AJ. Nick brushed a hand over Sean’s silky dark hair. Everything about Sean made him a miniature AJ and Nick had a feeling that no matter how hard he tried he wasn’t going to be able to resist falling for the little boy.
A sound behind him caught his attention and Nick turned to find Denise getting on the bus. She saw him with Sean and smiled.
“Hi, Nick. How was your trip?”
“Better than the little guy’s.”
“Oh no. Poor kid.”
Denise came over and took her sleeping grandson from Nick’s arms. Nick felt a pang as Sean’s warmth left him and he quickly forced it back. AJ’s arrival was a welcome distraction and Nick turned to his friend gratefully.
“So, you ready to do this?”
AJ took a deep breath. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Nick waited while AJ kissed his mom and Sean good bye. He watched the way AJ’s hand lingered on Sean’s head, saw the way AJ’s face softened when he kissed Sean’s cheek, and his stomach tightened. Turning away, he walked to the door and was stepping outside when AJ caught up with him. AJ clapped Nick on the back, a smile lighting his face.
“Let’s go do this thing.”
Getting back onstage ended up being easier than AJ thought it would be. He'd missed it and he was more than ready to get back out there, but he'd been wary as to what the fans reaction would be. He'd barely gotten a foot on stage when the applause started. People had been yelling, screaming his name, waving signs. Nothing new there, but the signs had changed from marriage proposals to ones claiming how proud they were of him. AJ had gotten choked up and Kevin had rescued him, throwing an arm across his shoulders and walking across the stage with him. After that it had been like any one of the thousand shows that had come before. The sense of familiarity had soothed AJ's nerves and the show ended up being fantastic.
Afterwards, they'd gotten back on their respective buses and headed to Ohio to do it again. One hurdle had been leaped and AJ settled in, waiting for the other shoe to drop. With the Boys back out on the road, it was only a matter of time before people noticed the new addition to the group. It finally came to a head somewhere between St. Louis and Kansas City. AJ and Sean were siting on the floor of the living area, rolling a ball back and forth between them when AJ's cell phone rang. He caught the ball Sean rolled to him, hung onto it while he fished his phone out of his pocket and glanced at the display.
"Dada, ball," Sean protested.
"Hang on a minute, buddy. It's Kevin."
Sean looked around the empty room, clearly baffled. AJ laughed and held up the phone.
"He's on the phone, kiddo."
"Phone," Sean echoed.
Sean came over and crawled into his lap while AJ answered the phone.
"Hey, Kev, what's up?"
"Management just called me."
AJ's stomach tightened and he rested a hand on Sean's back.
"Is it bad?"
"Not yet. It's mostly discussion on the forums, gossip on the official site, stuff like that. Media hasn't picked it up yet, but they will. If you want to break this yourself, rather than have someone dig it up, you're gonna need to say something."
AJ sighed. "What's the meet and greet gonna be like tonight?"
"About twenty contest winners and some magazine people. J14 or whatever the hell it's called."
That made AJ smile. "We're supposed to appreciate our fans, Kevvy."
Kevin snorted. "Nosy magazine people don't count as fans."
"Good point." AJ sighed. “I guess I better call the guys, warn them about tonight."
"I'll do it. You just get Sean ready for his big debut."
“Thanks, man, I appreciate it.”
AJ hung up the phone and managed a smile for Sean who was watching him quizzically.
“You want to go to work with Daddy for a little while?”
“Go Dada,” Sean said, bouncing enthusiastically.
AJ’s smile softened, became more real. “Okay then. Guess we better get you an early bath and some clean clothes. Come on, little man.”
Later that evening, AJ sat with Sean and the guys, trying not to think about all the people gathering in the meeting room next door. Kevin reached out and squeezed AJ’s shoulder.
"This is actually a pretty good night to do this. It's one of the smaller groups we're gonna have."
AJ sighed. "I guess."
"Are you having second thoughts? We could always issue a press release and deal with it that way."
"God no," Nick stated emphatically. "One TRL appearance was enough."
Brian laid a hand on Nick's back. "Nick's got a point. That sucked."
"I don't want to do it like that anyway," AJ said. "I don't want it to seem like I'm ashamed of Sean or anything like that. I'm just worried."
"Do you think the fans are going to react badly?" Howie asked.
"No, it's not that. It's... we get mobbed going to McDonald's. What if Kevin's right? What if it's just not safe?"
Kevin hugged AJ close to him. "Nothing's going to happen to Sean."
Brian nodded. "It might be a little overwhelming at first. Once the initial shock wears off, things will settle down."
"I hope you're right," AJ said.
They were interrupted by a knock on the door. Adam, one of their handlers on this leg of the tour, stuck his head in.
"We're ready when you are, guys."
"Thanks, Adam. We'll be right there." Kevin said.
When they were alone again, AJ gave Sean a quick kiss and handed the little boy over to Denise.
"Adam will let you know when it’s safe to come in. If it gets too weird in there, they’ll just have to meet Sean another day."
Denise nodded. She kissed AJ's cheek, gave him a quick hug. "You'll do just fine."
"I hope so." AJ took a breath and stood. "Let's get this over with."
The Boys entered the meeting room to all the usual cheering and screaming. They made their way to the front of the room and the long table that was set up for their use. AJ was last so that he could be on the end where it would be easier for Sean to get to him. Chairs were set up on either side of the long aisle they were walking down. The set up was better than AJ had expected; Denise and Sean wouldn't have to weave through the crowd to get to him.
When they reached the front of the room, the other four took their seats while AJ remained standing. He waited until the noise died down and everyone was looking at him expectantly before speaking.
"Before we get started tonight, I asked the guys to give me a minute so that I could talk to all of you. First of all, I have to say thank you for all the cards and letters you've been sending me. Knowing that you guys are supporting what I'm doing has helped so much so thank you."
There was enthusiastic applause, shouts of 'we love you' and 'we're proud of you', and it made AJ smile. When it was quiet again, he continued on.
"Well, I guess we should talk about the rumors and stuff that have hit the internet the last day or so."
There was some murmuring, some vague whispering as people began talking to their companions.
"So you have heard about that, huh?"
There was some giggling and AJ smiled.
"Figured you had. Anyway, before the rumors get wild and outrageous, I wanted you to hear the truth from me. We've got a new face traveling with us on this leg of the tour." He glanced at the guys and then back at the waiting fans. "His name is Sean and he's my son."
It wasn’t quite pandemonium that broke out, but the shrieking hit a pitch that AJ was sure had small dogs cowering in fear all over the world. He winced and shot a helpless look at the guys. The look on his face had Nick up and moving before he really thought about it. He slung a companionable arm across AJ’s shoulders and smiled at the crowd.
“AJ thought that maybe you might want to meet the little guy.” The shrieking rose in pitch and Nick laughed. “I thought so. But you’re gonna have to do me a favor and save your screaming for me. I get all jealous when you guys scream for some other guy.”
Laughter greeted Nick’s statement, but AJ was happy to see everyone calming down. He shot a relieved smile at Nick and looked toward the back of the room. Adam caught the look and opened the door to allow Denise in. Attention shifted to the back of the room and AJ’s breath caught as his mom walked in with Sean. Sean stood next to his grandma, holding tightly to her hand. He was dressed in blue jeans and his favorite Monsters Inc shirt. He looked small next to Denise and AJ’s stomach clenched. He was about to step forward when he noticed Sean’s face. Sean was looking around at all the strange faces, but he seemed more curious than afraid. When he noticed Kevin, his face lit up as he began looking around excitedly. When he finally found his dad, his grin widened and he tugged on Denise’s hand.
Sean hurried down the aisle toward his father, occasionally casting a wary look on either side of him. When he reached AJ, he let go of Denise’s hand and held his arms up for AJ, giggling when AJ picked him up. There was a collective sigh from the room at large and Nick leaned down to whisper in AJ’s ear.
“You could totally score with anyone in this room tonight. What is it about women and babies?”
AJ started laughing and after a moment, Sean joined in. AJ tickled Sean’s tummy, still grinning.
“You’d better not have gotten that joke, little man. You’re too young.”
AJ and Nick took their seats at the table, AJ settling Sean on his lap while Denise took the chair in the front row that had been reserved for her. Sean looked around the table curiously, finally setting his sights on the microphone in front of AJ. He reached for it and AJ carefully moved it out of Sean’s reach, causing Sean to huff in annoyance. Laughter filled the room and AJ relaxed a little, pleased with Sean’s reception so far. He glanced down the table toward Kevin and when their eyes met, Kevin nodded. He reached for the microphone in front of him and pulled it closer to him.
"Now that you've all met AJ's little boy, we're going to go ahead and open up the floor for questions."
Sean had been watching Kevin intently and he reached for AJ's microphone again. AJ moved it farther out of reach.
"You can't have that, little man."
Sean pointed an accusing finger toward the other end of the table. "Kebin!"
The room erupted with laughter and AJ had a hard time hiding his own smile. "Kevin's a big boy. It's okay for him to do that."
Sean scowled, making AJ chuckle.
"I know, being little is such a drag." He kissed Sean's cheek. "You've got to be good if you want to stay here with me. We're working."
Sean tilted his head, gave AJ a considering look. "We's workin'?"
AJ smiled. "Yep."
Sean looked down at Kevin, grinning at Kevin and making Kevin smile back.
"Are we good to go now, kiddo?"
Sean gave him a thumbs-up and the room exploded with laughter once again. Brian flashed a grin at AJ.
"Maybe we should give up the singing and go the comedy route."
AJ pretended to consider this. "That could work. Howie's a funny guy."
"Funny looking," Nick quipped.
Howie pinched him under the table and Nick yelped, glaring at Howie while he rubbed his thigh. Sean leaned forward, put his finger to his mouth, and made an exaggerated shhing sound.
Kevin leaned back in his chair, shaking his head as the laughter rolled through the room. He caught Howie's eye and grinned.
"I've lost all control here."
"Might be easier to just put Sean in charge," Howie said.
Kevin laughed and relaxed further, watching Sean and AJ charm the crowd.
"He really is a mini AJ," Kevin said.
"We're in for one heck of a ride," Brian said with a grin.
Kevin nodded, having a feeling that nothing that had come before could compare with what was going happen during the rest of the tour.
After Sean's debut, AJ was able to quit worrying about accidental discovery. The media storm hit, but the Boys were well versed in dealing with paparazzi. AJ took it in stride, answering what questions he felt comfortable with and referring all others to management.
Life settled into a routine as AJ helped Sean become accustomed to life on the road. The bus became home for Sean and he loved traveling with AJ. He became a familiar sight at sound checks and he loved being allowed to hang out with the guys. The only dark spot was Nick. For whatever reason, Sean had decided Nick was his favorite. He was constantly glued to Nick's side and nothing AJ did could persuade him to leave Nick alone. Nick was unfailingly polite, but everyone could see that he hadn't warmed up to the little boy. AJ knew it wasn't about Sean, but it broke his heart to see the emotional distance Nick kept between himself and Sean. AJ had no clue how to fix it so he did his best to make sure that Sean didn't become a nuisance for Nick.
AJ was like that with Sean in general. He refused to allow anyone to do something for Sean when he could do it himself and he hated to ask any of the guys for help. It worried Denise, the added stress that AJ was putting himself under. AJ refused to talk about it with her, saying only that Sean was his responsibility and no one else’s. Rather than let it escalate to a fight, Denise gave in, but she made sure to keep a close eye on her son and grandson. It wasn't the perfect solution, but it gave her some peace of mind. It worked just fine until the arrived in Texas. They played three shows in Texas and then had four days off. It was the longest break they’d had since the tour had resumed and all the boys had plans. Howie was going home to Florida, Kevin was picking up Kris who was joining him on tour for a few weeks, Brian and Leighanne were going home to Georgia to celebrate their first anniversary, and Nick was thinking about meeting Aaron somewhere since he’d just finished his own tour. AJ still wasn’t thrilled about the idea of flying with Sean so he was spending the time off on the bus, taking his time in getting himself and Sean to New York for the next show.
“It’s not necessary, AJ,” Denise said for probably the hundredth time that afternoon.
“It is too. You’re flying to New York. You’ll have time to relax, shop, hit a spa. Anything you want. There’s no reason for you to be stuck on a bus.”
“But what about Sean?”
“I’m not working so it’ll be fine. I’ll stay with Sean.” AJ smiled at his mom. “You deserve some time off.”
“So do you.”
AJ shrugged. “This will be time off. No shows, no interviews, nowhere I need to be. Sean and I can stop whenever we want, do the tourist thing.”
“But…” Denise searched desperately for something that might convince AJ. “He’s been really cranky today. Maybe I should stay.”
AJ laughed. “I have to get used to a cranky kid at some point. He’s going to be living with me for, oh, the next sixteen years or so.”
Out of reasonable arguments, Denise bit back a sigh. She couldn’t keep protesting without AJ getting suspicious and she didn’t want AJ thinking that she didn’t think he was capable of taking care of his son on his own. She managed a smile.
“Alright, if you insist.”
“I do. You deserve the time off and it’s gonna be awhile before we get another break like this.”
Denise leaned in and kissed his cheek. “You’re a good son. I’m going to go pack. Are you and Sean taking me to the airport?”
Pushing back her worries, Denise went to pack. She knew that she was probably worrying for nothing, but after everything that had happened in the last few months, she couldn’t help it. As she got ready to leave, she wondered how often she could call AJ without it looking suspicious.
After Denise had been taken to the airport and seen off in style, AJ and Sean returned to their hotel room for the day. It wouldn’t take them long to reach New York and AJ wanted Sean to have the luxury of sleeping in a place that didn’t move and actually had some space. Sean was on the floor playing with his blocks when AJ’s phone rang.
AJ grinned as he reached for his phone. These days, whenever the phone rang, Sean assumed it was Kevin; ninety percent of the time, it was. This time, though, AJ was surprised to see Nick’s name on the caller ID.
“Hey, Nick, what’s up?”
AJ braced himself, hoping it wasn’t bad news. Nick never called just to talk and AJ didn’t see that changing any time soon.
“Just wanted to let you know that I’m still here. Aaron’s got some press stuff and I don’t feel like dealing with that right now. I’m gonna catch a flight in the morning, hang out in New York for a bit. I knew you were staying too so I thought I’d call.”
AJ couldn’t help the smile that crossed his face. Granted, it wasn’t much of a call, but Nick was reaching out and it gave AJ hope.
“Okay, cool. Sean and I are just gonna hang out here tonight, watch TV and order some room service.”
He wanted to invite Nick to dinner, but he didn’t know what to say and he half-hoped that Nick would make the move himself. Instead, the silence stretched out and the moment passed. Finally, AJ cleared his throat.
“Anyway, thanks for calling, Nick. Umm, have a good time tonight, whatever you’re doing.”
“Yeah, man, you too.”
AJ hung up the phone and sighed. Sean was building a tower with his blocks and AJ slid off the couch to sit on the floor next to his son.
“That’s pretty good, Sean.”
Sean scowled and knocked over the tower. “No blocks.”
“Umm, okay, then. Guess we’ll play something else.”
Sean frowned harder, glaring at the blocks scattered across the floor. AJ sighed again.
“Gonna be a fun afternoon, isn’t it?”
That statement proved to be prophetic and four hours later, AJ was nearly climbing the walls. ‘Cranky’ didn’t even begin to describe Sean’s mood. Nothing could keep his interest for more than a few minutes and he became increasingly fussy as the hours wore on. He cried when AJ held him and he cried when AJ put him down. He refused to eat anything for lunch, going so far as to throw pieces of food on the floor. Finally, AJ set him on the floor with some toys and went to get Sean’s blanket. It was too early for a nap, but AJ was beyond caring at that point. When he got back to the sitting room, he knelt down by Sean.
“Come on, little man, let’s go take a nap.”
He reached out, but Sean squirmed back.
“No ni ni.”
“Yes ni ni. You’re one cranky little crab today.”
He picked Sean up and took him into the bathroom so he could wash Sean’s hands and face. Sean kept trying to turn his face away, but AJ held his chin with one hand and cleaned him up anyway. As he ran the washcloth along Sean’s jaw, Sean jerked out of AJ’s grasp, turning his head and biting AJ’s hand. He caught the sensitive area between thumb and forefinger and the sudden shock of pain had AJ cursing.
“Damn it, Sean! No biting. What the hell was that?”
Sean reared back, looking stricken. Big brown eyes filled with tears that immediately began running down his cheeks as he started to sob. AJ cursed softly and picked Sean up.
“Dada mad,” Sean sobbed.
“Yes, Dada’s mad, but I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I’m sorry, buddy.”
He carried Sean into the bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed. He rubbed his hand up and down Sean’s back.
“Shh, come on, Sean. You need to calm down, buddy.”
Sean refused to be soothed, sobbing as if his heart was broken and AJ’s broke right along with it. He rocked Sean gently, softly patting his back as he talked quietly to him.
“Shh, it’s okay, Sean. It’s okay.”
AJ continued to rock Sean, hot tears soaking through his T-shirt as Sean sobbed his heart out. AJ’s eyes burned with tears of his own and he made no effort to blink them back, just let them come as he quietly cried along with Sean. Eventually Sean’s tears tapered off into hiccups and then to nothing as the exhausted little boy finally fell asleep. AJ held him for awhile longer and then laid Sean down in the crib. He tucked Sean’s blanket around him, running careful fingers along Sean’s cheeks to wipe away the tears. He leaned down to place a kiss on Sean’s temple.
“I’m sorry, Sean. Daddy’s sorry.”
Sean made a soft sound in his sleep and clutched his blanket tighter. AJ kissed him again and then quietly left the bedroom. In the bathroom, he washed his face and then stood for a long time, staring at his reflection in the mirror. He finally forced himself to leave the room and headed for the sitting room, not wanting to chance waking Sean by staying in the bedroom.
The sitting room wasn’t a better option. AJ paced the length of the room; agitated and upset, eyes constantly straying to the empty bar in the corner. He knew how easy it would be to fill it up. Knew that all he had to do was make one phone call and he’d be set for the night. With a shaky hand, he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. He dialed quickly and waited for the call to be picked up on the other end.
“Nick? Hey, man, I hate bothering you, but I need a really big favor.”
When Nick arrived a few minutes later, AJ let him with a grateful smile.
“I really appreciate it this, Nicky. I hated bugging you, but everybody’s gone and I just didn’t know who else to call.”
“AJ, what’s going on? You sounded… weird on the phone.”
It was more than that, but Nick couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong. Now that he could see AJ as well as hear him, his worry increased. The look on AJ’s face, in his eyes, scared Nick. AJ looked completely frazzled and Nick couldn’t remember ever seeing him look quite that way before.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out. I just…” AJ ran a hand through his hair, pink tingeing his cheeks. He hated to ask for help, especially from Nick. “Sean’s having a really bad day and I guess I’m more stressed out than I thought. I… reacted badly and now I really want a fucking drink.”
Nick’s eyes widened in alarm and AJ reached out to squeeze his arm reassuringly.
“That’s why you’re here. I need to go to a meeting, but with Mom gone I don’t have anyone to sit with Sean.”
“Oh. Okay. I can do that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, of course.” Nick grinned. “I have a little brother and sisters, remember?”
Without thinking about it, AJ pulled Nick into a tight hug. Nick froze for a minute, but then he wrapped his arms around AJ and hugged back.
“Thanks, Nick. You have no idea how much I need this.”
AJ hung on for a minute more and then let go of Nick. “Umm, okay. I shouldn’t be gone long and you’ve got my number and mom’s. Hopefully, he’ll sleep the whole time I’m gone because he’s been a real brat and I don’t want you to have to deal with that.”
Nick frowned. “AJ, it’s okay. Even if he is a brat, it’s not like you’re not coming back. I’ll be fine.”
“I know, I just…” Unable to find a way to explain without bringing up the distance that existed between him and Nick these days, AJ let it drop. “I’ve got a list of meetings and there’s one pretty close to here. Marcus is going to take me.”
Nick nodded. “Okay then. Go. Meet. Sean and I will be here when you get back.”
AJ smiled. “If he does wake up, he might be hungry. He didn’t eat lunch. He’s got Cheerios and milk for a snack.”
Nick rolled his eyes and gently pushed AJ toward the door. “You’re only gonna be gone a few hours, Aje. It’s fine. Go. For real this time.”
AJ grinned sheepishly. “Right, I’m gone.”
Shaking his head, Nick dropped down onto the sofa and reached for the remote. Hopefully there’d be something good on TV to distract himself with until AJ got back.
When AJ got back to the hotel, he felt a thousand times better than he had when he’d left. Still, he knew he wouldn’t feel completely right until he’d checked on Nick and Sean and made sure that things had gone smoothly while he’d been gone. Using his key card, he let himself into the room, being as quiet as he could in case Sean was still asleep. He found Nick sprawled on the couch, Sean snuggled against his chest with a sippy cup and his blanket. Nick glanced up and smiled when he saw AJ standing in the doorway.
AJ gave him a small smile as he came inside, shutting the door behind him. “I see the holy terror is awake.”
“Yeah, he woke up about half an hour ago. You’re right; he’s not himself today.”
AJ stiffened. “Damn. I’m sorry he was a brat for you.”
Nick frowned. “I didn’t say that. He wasn’t bad at all, just really quiet and clingy. Maybe he’s coming down with something.”
AJ walked toward the couch and reached down to lay his hand against Sean’s forehead.
“He doesn’t feel warm.”
Nick shrugged. “Maybe he’s just having a bad day then.”
AJ ran his hand down Sean’s back, smiling down at his son. To his relief, Sean smiled back and sat up. AJ picked him up, hugging him close.
“Hi yourself. Have you been a good boy for Nick?”
Sean nodded solemnly and AJ grinned, kissed his forehead.
“Glad to hear it. So, what do you say to ordering dinner? We skipped lunch and I’m starving.”
“Starving,” Sean agreed.
Nick laughed and sat up to. “Well, I guess since you’re back, I should go back to my room.”
AJ glanced toward Nick, not quite meeting his eyes. “You could stay, if you want. I could, umm, buy you dinner in exchange for babysitting.”
“Oh. Uh, yeah. That would be good. I didn’t eat lunch either.”
“Cool. Now we just have to decide what we’re all hungry for.”
“Pissa!” was Sean’s vote.
“If that’s pizza, I’m in,” Nick said.
Laughing, AJ sat down on the couch next to Nick. He sat Sean between them while he placed their dinner order. Sean crawled back into Nick’s lap, snuggling in close and sipping his milk contentedly. AJ frowned and patted the cushion next to him.
“Come sit by Daddy, Sean. Give Nick a break, okay?”
Sean shook his head and AJ sighed, preparing himself for a battle when Nick spoke up.
“He’s fine, AJ. Don’t worry about it.”
Surprised, but trying not to show it, AJ asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yep, we’re good.”
Unsure what had prompted the change in Nick, AJ let it go. He was too wrung out for any kind of emotional talk and that was assuming he could get Nick to talk to him about it anyway. He was content to let it slide. For now.
The rest of the evening consisted of dinner and a SpongeBob marathon on Nickelodeon. Despite the late nap, Sean began to fade early and with a sigh, AJ stood up. He’d been enjoying spending time with Nick and he hated to see it end.
“Someone’s about to fall asleep on us. I’m gonna get him into the tub before it’s too late.”
Nick stood too, smiling softly at AJ. “Do you want some help?”
Surprised, but pleased, AJ nodded. “Sure, come on.”
Together they got Sean into the bath tub and Nick took a seat on the toilet lid as AJ knelt beside the tub. Sean splashed a little, but it was half-hearted at best.
“Poor little guy’s really wiped out,” Nick said.
AJ nodded. “I wish I knew what was wrong. I hate feeling like there’s something I should be doing that I’m not.”
Nick nodded. “I get that.”
In deference to Sean’s obvious exhaustion, AJ forgo his normal bath routine and concentrated on getting Sean clean. When he was finished, he stood and lifted Sean out of the tub, handing him over to Nick who was waiting with a thick bath towel. Nick carefully wrapped him up and the care with which he did it had AJ smiling.
In the bedroom, AJ dried Sean off and put lotion on him. He dressed Sean in his favorite pajamas and brushed his hair. When he was finished, he picked Sean up and carried him to the crib. He laid Sean down with his blanket and smiled down at him.
“Do you want a story tonight?”
Sean yawned. “Mi Mo?”
AJ rolled his eyes. “If we must.”
Nick was looking at him, confused. “Mi Mo?”
“Mickey Mouse. My mom picked up this book for him a couple of weeks ago and he won’t let me read anything else.”
AJ got Sean’s diaper bag and found the book Sean wanted. He leaned against the crib, holding the book so that Sean could see the pictures.
“Baby Mickey has lost his shoe…”
Sean didn’t even make it to the middle of his story before he was sound asleep. AJ set the book aside and reached down to smooth Sean’s hair off his forehead. He looked up to find Nick watching him.
“What?” he asked curiously.
Nick smiled. “Nothing.”
AJ shrugged and followed Nick back out into the sitting room. He assumed Nick would be ready to leave and he couldn’t stop a pleased smile when Nick made himself comfortable on the couch instead.
“Feel like watching a movie or something now that it’s quiet?”
After the afternoon he’d had, AJ had actually been planning on going to bed early, but he wasn’t going to pass up the chance to spend some more time with Nick. He sat down next to Nick and grabbed the remote.
“Do you want to check what’s on pay-per-view or just channel surf?”
“Whatever you want is fine with me,” Nick said.
After some discussion, they settled on X-Men and while the opening credits ran, AJ grabbed Cokes to have with the leftover pizza. Nick leaned back against the couch, long legs stretched out in front of him as he popped the top on his drink. He eyed the TV screen appreciatively.
“Mmm, Halle Berry.”
AJ laughed. “Dude, Hugh Jackman.”
Nick snorted. “He’s alright. I kinda like that Cyclops guy.”
AJ nodded. “His girlfriend’s sort of hot.”
They grinned at each and then quieted down to watch the movie. AJ made it through the first hour before nodding off, eventually ending up against Nick’s shoulder, sound asleep. Nick looked down at him, so many conflicting emotions surging through him that he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to sort them all out. He reached out to brush his fingers along AJ’s jaw, feeling the rasp of AJ’s stubble against the sensitive pads of his fingertips. AJ shifted closer and Nick reluctantly dropped his hand. He knew he should get up and go back to his own room, let AJ get some sleep, but he couldn’t make himself move. Instead, he stayed through the rest of the movie; only half of his attention was on the film, the rest on the warmth of AJ’s body against his side.
The closing credits were just starting when Nick heard a sound from the bedroom. He grabbed the remote and muted the sound so he could listen. He could hear Sean fussing and he wondered if he could get up without waking AJ. Just as he started to move, Sean began to cry in earnest and AJ came awake instantly. He frowned, obviously disoriented.
“It’s Sean,” Nick said. “I was going to go get him, but then you woke up.”
“’S okay, man,” AJ said, rubbing his eyes. “Sometimes he goes back to sleep so it’s better not to go in right away.”
After a few minutes, it was obvious that Sean wasn’t going to go back to sleep on his own. AJ stood with a weary sigh and went to check on him. Nick waited, wondering if AJ would want him to stay. He was glad he had when AJ appeared in the bedroom doorway, Sean in his arms. The obvious worry on his face had Nick on his feet and moving in AJ’s direction before AJ even spoke.
“He’s burning up, Nick.”
Nick laid a hand on Sean’s forehead and winced. “Do you have a thermometer?”
AJ nodded toward the bedroom. “It’s in his diaper bag.”
Nick went to get it for him while AJ took Sean to the couch to sit down. When Nick came back, he handed the thermometer to AJ. AJ shifted Sean around so that he could reach Sean’s ear. Sean made a little sound of protest, but he didn’t make a move to sit up when AJ put the thermometer in his ear. When it beeped, AJ took it out and checked the digital read-out.
“Shit. It’s 101.”
“That’s kinda high for a baby, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. No wonder he’s been so off today.”
“What do you do for something like that?”
“Honestly? I have no clue. He’s never had so much as a cold. Not since moving in with me, anyway.”
“Should we call your mom?”
“I guess I could. I just hate to do it. I made this huge production about being able to take care of my own kid and the first time she’s gone, I have to call her for something.”
Nick rested a hand on AJ’s shoulder. “It’s okay, AJ. You can’t know everything. Maybe we could call Dr. Anderson.”
“That’s a good idea.”
“I’ll do it,” Nick offered.
Dr. Anderson was the doctor on tour with them. He’d left for New York with the rest of the crew, but when Nick called, he offered to call and find a doctor in the area that would come to the hotel for them. Within half an hour, Nick was answering the door for a young woman who came highly recommended by Dr. Anderson’s office.
“Thank you so much for coming out for us,” Nick said as he let the doctor in.
“It’s no problem.” she reassured Nick as she crossed the room to AJ and Sean. She smiled at the obviously frazzled dad and held out a hand. “Hi, my name’s Jill Payne.”
AJ smiled gratefully at her. “I’m AJ and you’ve already met Nick. The little guy is Sean. I really appreciate you coming here to see him. I really hated the idea of an ER visit.”
Jill sat down next to AJ and smiled softly at Sean. “Hi, Sean. Not having a very good day, huh?”
Sean blinked at her and snuggled closer to his dad. He sat quietly, too worn out to put up much of a fuss as his temperature was taken and Jill conferred with AJ.
“Dr. Anderson said he hasn’t been himself today.”
AJ shook his head. “He’s been really fussy all day. No appetite, cranky, sleeping more than usual. Hell, he even bit me earlier.”
Jill frowned. “He’s never done that before?”
Jill reached out and ran gentle fingers along Sean’s jaw. AJ noticed that it was the same spot he’d been touching when Sean bit him.
“He’s a little swollen there.”
AJ stared at her in alarm. “What’s wrong?”
“Just a second.”
Jill got a clean surgical glove from her bag and put it on. She had Sean open his mouth and then very gently ran her finger along Sean’s gum before smiling up at AJ.
“I think we’ve found the culprit. He’s teething.”
“Not at all. You can feel for yourself once you have a chance to wash your hands.”
“But the fever and… he’s just teething?”
Jill laughed as she stripped off the glove. “There’s no ‘just’ about it. Some babies have a really hard time with it. Running a low-grade fever is pretty common and he’s probably cranky because his mouth is sore. It’s why he didn’t want to eat.”
AJ was blushing. “God, I feel really stupid making you come out here like this.”
“No need for that. A fever is nothing to mess with. As for Sean here, we can take care of him pretty easily. I’ll write it down for you, but basically we’re going to alternate doses of Tylenol with Motrin until his fever comes down. For the sore gums, you can give him an oral gel that will help, but unless the pain is really bad, you’re better off giving him a teething ring. Keep in the fridge because the cold will help with the pain and swelling. He bit you because when babies teethe, they have the instinctive urge to chew on something. It helps the pain.”
“That is really weird,” Nick said.
Jill laughed and pulled a notebook from her bag, carefully writing down dosing instructions for AJ. She tore out the piece of paper and handed it to him.
“I have the Tylenol with me. You’ll just need to see about the Motrin and a teething ring.”
“Thanks again. I really appreciate this.”
They exchanged handshakes and then Nick walked Jill to the door. After she was gone, he rejoined AJ. AJ was snuggling Sean close.
“I can’t believe it, Nick. I freaking lost my temper with him and it wasn’t even his fault that he was cranky.”
“AJ, it’s not the end of the world. You’re human; you made a mistake. Sean isn’t traumatized and he’s gonna be fine.”
AJ didn’t look convinced, but Nick was sure he’d be fine. He smiled and reached for the wallet and keycard that he’d tossed on the side table when he’d arrived earlier. AJ looked up, startled. He wasn’t sure why, but he’d thought that maybe Nick would stay.
“I guess you probably do need to go. Thanks for coming over and sitting with Sean.”
Nick shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere. Or, I am, but I’ll be back. I’m gonna find a drug store, get Sean that teething ring and the other stuff she was talking about.”
“Nick, you don’t have to do that.”
“Well, it’s not like you can leave. I’d offer to stay with Sean, but I think he wants his dad right now.”
“Nick, thank you. I mean it. You’ve been a really big help today.”
Nick grinned. “No problem, man. It was either this or hanging out in my room and watching porn.”
AJ’s laughter followed him out the door.
The next morning it was is if Sean had never been sick at all. He was running around the room, talking a mile a minute, and generally being a kid. AJ lost track of the number of times he picked toys up off the floor or rescued the plant on the desk from curious hands. Finally, AJ decided that for the sake of his own sanity he needed to get Sean out of the hotel for awhile.
Sean looked up from the demolition derby he was having with his toy cars. “What?”
“Are you hungry?”
AJ laughed. “Me too. Let’s go down to the restaurant and get something to eat and then maybe we can take a walk.”
When he got downstairs, the hotel restaurant wasn't as deserted as AJ would have liked. He still wasn't comfortable getting approached by fans when he was alone with Sean. He debated just going back to his room and having lunch there, but he didn't really want to do that. Sean spent enough time cooped up on tour buses and in hotel rooms. AJ glanced over to where Marcus was waiting and felt some of his tension slide away. The big man was even more protective of Sean than he was of AJ. Feeling better, AJ smiled at his son.
"Still hungry, little man?"
"Eat!" Sean said excitedly. He bounced happily in AJ’s arms.
AJ laughed. "That's like your new favorite word, isn't it?"
"You've got no patience, kiddo."
Sean didn't seem particularly concerned about that. Smiling, AJ let the rest of his worries drop away as he stepped into the restaurant. Once they were seated at a table and a high chair was brought over for Sean, AJ picked up his menu. He studied it for a minute before looking over at Sean.
“So, what looks good today?”
“Hmm. We’ll see. French fries have to come after your dinner, though.”
When their waitress arrived, AJ ordered a burger and fries for himself and vanilla pudding for Sean for dessert. Once they were alone again, AJ pulled the dish with Sean’s dinner out of the diaper bag. He took off the lid and grabbed Sean’s fork out of the bag.
“We’ve got chicken and noodles and green beans today. Sound good?”
Sean peered at the dish with a noted lack of interest.
“Yeah, I know. It’s not quite the same as a burger. But you are a baby. You kind of have to eat baby food.”
Sean wrinkled his nose, but he dutifully opened his mouth when AJ held out a forkful of noodles. He ate several bites without protest, but when AJ tried to feed him a bite of green beans, Sean pushed the fork away.
“What’s wrong, little man?” AJ held out the fork again.
AJ frowned. “You like green beans. And these are even real. No mashed up baby food shi... stuff.”
“Ick,” Sean insisted.
“Come on, Sean, you need to eat more than three bites for daddy.”
AJ held out the fork again. Sean wrinkled his nose and turned his head away. AJ raised a brow and laid the fork on the table.
“If you don’t eat dinner, you don’t get French fries.”
AJ picked up the fork again. “Green beans.”
“Ick,” Sean said sadly.
AJ couldn’t help but laugh at the expression on Sean’s face. He put down the fork again and handed Sean a sippy cup of milk.
“Here, have a drink and then we’ll try the green beans again.”
Sean was drinking his milk when the waitress arrived with AJ’s dinner. When Sean saw the plate, he banged his cup on the table.
Sean scowled. “Ick.”
AJ rolled his eyes. “You’re like a broken record, kid.”
"Who's causing all the commotion back here?"
AJ looked up to see Nick approaching the table. Sean started bouncing excitedly.
Bewildered, AJ looked at his son. "Wait a minute. You've been asking for Nick all this time?
Sean gave his father a look that clearly said 'well duh'. He reached out to pat Nick's arm. "Ick."
AJ grinned sheepishly. "Right, I got it now."
Nick laughed as he slid into the booth across from AJ. "We’ve all sort of got nicknames from Sean. Guess it was my turn to get one."
"I thought he was commenting on dinner."
"Nah, he loves green beans. Don't you, buddy?"
“How do you know that?”
“He always eats dinner with us before a show. I noticed, I guess.”
Nick reached for Sean's plate, grabbed a few green beans, and set them in front of Sean. AJ watched in amazement as Sean picked one up and ate it without protest.
"I was having a hell of a time getting him to eat those today."
Nick shrugged and put a few more green beans in front of Sean. "Yeah, he does that for your mom sometimes and then she lets him do it himself."
AJ hadn’t known that Nick paid any attention to Sean at all. He should have known better. Nick was more observant than most people gave him credit for. Still, it surprised AJ that Nick knew so much when he always did his best to ignore Sean.
Nick realized that AJ was watching him and he frowned. “What?”
“Nothing. You’re just… really good with him.”
Nick smiled. “I had alot of practice. Twins are a ton of work and I was always helping my mom. I liked it, though.”
“You’re a good big brother, Nick.” AJ grinned. “You’re an even better babysitter.”
“Butt kissing won’t get you anywhere, McLean. I’m wise to your tricks.”
AJ grinned a little as he reached for his plate. “Come on, Nick,” he teased. “He’s a good baby. Hardly ever cries at all.”
Nick snorted. “Yeah, he never cries, he just bites.”
AJ cracked up. “You got me there.” AJ glanced at Sean and his smile softened. “Seriously, though, he is a good kid. I got pretty lucky.”
“He is a good kid, AJ. You’re doing a great job with him.”
AJ swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Thank you. That means alot to me, Nick.”
Nick ducked his head, his cheeks a tell-tale pink. He smiled and stole one of AJ’s fries. “Just wait until he’s two.”
AJ laughed. “My mom said the terrible twos were never a problem. It was the terrible thirteens and fourteens.”
“The fifteens and sixteens. The seventeens weren’t all that great either. And man, don’t get me started on the eighteens.”
AJ scowled and threw a fry at Nick. Sean perked up and threw a green bean in Nick’s direction. When both men turned to look at him, Sean smiled cheerfully. Nick cracked up.
“Nice going, Aje.”
AJ flushed. “Whoops. I swear he gets to be more of a copy cat everyday.”
“Better finish lunch before Sean decides to throw something else.” Nick grabbed the bowl of vanilla pudding. “Hand me a spoon. I’ll feed the monster while you eat.”
“Nick, you don’t have to. I can…”
“Shut it and spoon me, McLean.”
AJ sighed and handed over Sean’s spoon. Nick took it with a grin.
“Thank you. Now eat your lunch.”
As AJ started in on his lunch, he glanced at Nick. “How’d you find us, anyway?”
“I stopped by your room to see how Sean was feeling, but you weren’t there. Obviously. Decided to get out and do something and I happened to see Marcus as I was walking through the lobby.”
“I thought you had a flight today?”
“I changed it. I’m not flying to New York until tonight.” Nick fed Sean another bite of pudding before looking at AJ. “I was worried about the little guy here. I wanted to make sure he was feeling okay.”
"You didn't have to do that."
"I know, but I wanted to."
The silence stretched out long enough to start feeling uncomfortable. Nick was the one to finally break it.
“So, do you, uh, maybe want to hang out until I have to be at the airport?”
“That sounds great. I told Sean we’d go for a walk. Maybe there’s a park nearby or something.”
Nick smiled, relieved. “We can ask at the front desk.” He grinned at Sean. “Better finish your pudding, buddy. Then we can go swing.”
Nick cracked up. “I think maybe we better work on that.”
AJ bit back a smile. “You probably should or people are gonna think he doesn’t like you.”
Nick scowled. “You’re lucky you’re out of fries, McLean.”
AJ just laughed and finished his Coke. “Let’s get going. It’s too beautiful outside to be stuck in here.”
Things changed between Nick and Sean after that. Sean shadowed Nick as often as before, but now Nick returned the little boy's affection. They spent so much time together that Brian started calling them Frick and Frack Two. It would have been perfect except for the fact that Nick still wasn't letting AJ get close. It was better than it had been right after AJ came back from rehab, but it still wasn't the same as before. AJ tried to be happy about the fact that Nick was so obviously crazy about Sean, but it still bothered him that Nick was keeping him at arm's length. He tried several times to talk to Nick, but could never make himself ask what it was that had caused the rift. He knew there were things that he'd done while drunk or high that he couldn't remember and he wasn't sure that he really wanted to hear about what he'd done to Nick.
Later, looking back, he was never sure how long the impasse would have lasted if fate hadn't stepped in and changed everything.
They spent the day on the road, nothing out of the ordinary that would give any hint as to what was to come. AJ and Sean spent the day the same way they always did,with plenty of toys and videos to keep the monotony of being on the road at bay. It was a long trip and AJ was relieved when they finally arrived at the hotel. They were playing three shows in Toronto so he and Sean would have the luxury of spending time off the bus and AJ was looking forward to it.
Sean was napping when they pulled up in front of the hotel. AJ was about to go wake him when Nick burst onto the bus. One look at Nick's pale, drawn face had AJ's greeting dying before it could be spoken.
"What's wrong, Nick?" AJ went to him. "Is it Aaron? The girls?"
Nick shook his head. "No, it's, everyone's fine, but..."
AJ reached out to grasp Nick's forearm. "But what? What's going on, Nicky?"
Nick ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know everything yet, haven't had a chance to turn on the news, but there was a plane crash. Two of them, I guess. They hit the World Trade Center, AJ, and Kevin said the news is saying it was deliberate."
"We're all gonna meet in Kevin's room. He's already got the news on."
"Alright. Let me grab Sean and I'll be ready."
Minutes later, AJ and Nick joined Kevin, Kris, Brian, Leighanne, and Howie in Kevin's room. Together they watched the shocking news reports and could barely believe what they were seeing. It seemed inconceivable that terrorists could hijack not one but four airplanes and yet they proof was there in the horrifying images coming from New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. It was heartwrenching to watch and yet it was impossible to turn away.
"My God, all those people," Kristine said, tears streaming down her face as they watched footage of the Towers collapsing.
Kevin wrapped his arms around her and kissed her temple. "I know, baby."
"I don't know if I can watch any more of this." Howie's voice was choked with emotion. "They're not even telling us anything new, just replaying the same clips over and over."
"I know," Leighanne said softly. "But it feels like, if we turn it off, we don't care."
There were nods and quiet murmurs of agreement. Kevin switched to a different news station, hoping to find some new information. A solemn-voiced anchor was giving a run-down of the timeline of the events that had taken place that day. A small screen showed the name and number of each flight and where each had crashed. When the anchor read the flight numbers aloud, Leighanne gave a shocked gasp. AJ turned to see Leighanne and Brian staring at each other and the expression on Brian's face was one he'd never seen before.
"What is it, Rok?"
Brian hesitated a moment and then said quietly, "That was the flight that Leighanne was supposed to be on."
There was a moment of stunned silence before Kris burst into fresh tears. After that, there was no holding back and everyone was crying as they took turns embracing Brian and Leighanne. As Kevin kept a protective arm around his cousin, he reached out to turn off the TV.
"I think we've all had enough for now," he said gruffly.
No one disagreed.
Half an hour later, AJ slipped into Kevin and Kris' room with the excuse of checking on a still sleeping Sean. What he really needed was a minute alone to compose himself while he called Denise.
He'd spoken to her earlier, when they'd first found out what was going on. Denise had left for Canada later than the rest of them and while AJ had known she was safely on the ground, he was still worried. Now that some of the shock had worn off and reality had settled in, he felt the need to check in with her one more time. As he watched his son sleep, he dialed his mother's number, smiling when he heard her voice on the other end of the line.
He was slipping his phone back into his pocket when there was a soft knock on the door and Nick came into the room.
"We're gonna order something for dinner. Nobody's really hungry, but like Kevin said, we can't afford to get run down. We all get sick enough on tour as it is."
"I should get little man up and fed too. His body clock is going to be seriously messed up if I let him sleep any later."
Nick started to say something, but then shook his head. "Okay. I'll tell Kev you'll be out in a minute to help us decide."
AJ watched him go, a curious frown on his face before he shrugged and turned to rouse a sleeping Sean.
By the time AJ retired to his own room, it was fairly late. After dinner, no one had wanted to be alone so they’d all hung out in Kevin’s room; talking quietly and just being together. Brian and Leighanne had been the first to leave and AJ had begged off after that. Sean had been good, but AJ wanted him to be able to sleep in his own bed and not Kevin’s couch. He put Sean into his portable crib and stood for a long time, just watching his son sleep. He was interrupted by a knock on the door and with a last kiss to Sean’s temple, he went to answer it.
Nick stood in the hallway, hands shoved into his pockets as he rocked back and forth on his heels. He was quiet as AJ stood aside to let him in and even after AJ had closed the door, Nick was silent for the longest time, just watching AJ. AJ was about to ask him what was wrong when Nick finally spoke.
“I need to talk to you about something.”
“Okay.” AJ tipped his head toward the couch. “Do you want to sit down?”
“No, I… shit. I don’t know where to start.”
“Start anywhere you want, Nick.”
“I need to tell you I’m sorry.”
AJ frowned and opened his mouth to speak, but Nick cut him off.
“Let me finish or I don’t know if I can get it out.”
AJ nodded and Nick continued speaking.
“I’ve been an ass to you and Sean since you got back from Arizona. I know that you noticed and I know that I hurt you because of it. Especially about Sean. I know how much you love him and I know that it bothered you that I wouldn’t talk to him or talk to you about him. I just… I was angry with you. For leaving, which is really stupid because if you hadn’t left you might be dead now and I know rehab was good for you, but I hated that you were gone.”
Nick paused for breath and AJ quirked a brow.
“That was one hell of a ramble.”
Nick managed a small grin. “Yeah, well, I’m not done. I was pissed at you about something else too, but that wasn’t even your fault. I was stupid and selfish and hell, I’m being selfish now because of what happened today. Back home in the States. It made me realize how quickly things can change. Brian could have lost Leighanne because of something as stupid as her being on the wrong damn flight at the wrong time. And I hate that, and I hate how it’s making them feel, but mostly I hate that it could have happened to any one of us. Could have been you and the last memories I’d have had were of us not talking because I’m a jackass.”
“Can I ask what it was that made you so mad at me?”
Nick shook his head. “No, it was me. Nothing you did, I swear. I just got mad about something and I let it take over everything else. I could have ruined our friendship, Aje.”
“I would have never let that happen. I knew something was bothering you, but I didn’t want to ask. Was too big of a coward. But if it had gone on much longer, I’d have come to you. I miss you, Nick. In the year or so before I went to rehab, you and I hung out constantly and I missed that. I miss you.”
“I miss you too. And I’m sorry that I was stupid.”
“I’m sorry that I was a coward.”
“None of this was your fault. It was something I had to work out for myself.”
AJ finally gave in to the urge to hug Nick and Nick returned the embrace, squeezing AJ so tightly that AJ could barely breathe.
“Okay, okay, I’m glad we’re friends again, but could you let go? Dying here, Nicky.”
Nick laughed and let go of AJ, blushing.
“Do you, umm, think that maybe I could stay here tonight? I don’t want to be by myself.”
AJ smiled, relieved. “Yeah, me either. And Sean will love it if you’re here in the morning.”
“Cool. Want to put in a movie? I’ve seen enough news reports for one day.”
AJ nodded. “Yeah, me too. Pick something out and I’ll go make some popcorn.”
Nick watched AJ disappear into the little kitchenette and breathed a sigh of relief. He’d been afraid that AJ would either refuse to forgive him or push for a reason that Nick wasn’t ready to give. Relieved, he went to AJ’s duffle bag and rummaged through the DVDs. Maybe someday he’d be able to tell AJ everything, but for right now it was enough that he and AJ were friends again.
That day marked a turning point for Nick and AJ. Nick wouldn’t talk about whatever it was that had bothered him, but he no longer avoided AJ and he absolutely adored Sean. They got into a routine while on the road; Denise watched Sean during the show and then afterwards, Nick and AJ would retire to AJ’s bus for dinner and movies while they traveled to the next venue. If they had a couple of days off and stayed in a hotel, AJ and Nick would share a room. They were as close as they were before AJ went to rehab. Closer, because now AJ enjoyed Nick’s company without the haze of booze and drugs and the distraction of the club scene. AJ hadn’t wanted to admit it to anyone, but traveling alone had gotten lonely and without the distraction of clubbing, he’d gotten bored with being on the road. Now that Nick traveled with him most of the time, AJ was happier than he’d been in a long time.
There were inevitable weird moments, like the first night AJ asked Nick to share his bed. There was only the one bed on AJ's bus and Sean's portable crib. When Nick started crashing AJ's bus, he'd sack out on the couch. He always woke up stiff and sore the next morning; the couch wasn't nearly long enough for his six foot frame. About the third time he stayed over, AJ noticed him wincing in the morning. He didn't say anything, but the next time Nick spent the night, AJ remembered. When he got up to go to bed, he nudged Nick's arm.
"You can't sleep out here, the couch is killing your back. You can share with me."
Nick was uncharacteristically quiet as they walked back to the bedroom. AJ used the bathroom first and when it was Nick's turn, he lingered, hoping AJ would be asleep by the time he got out. No such luck. AJ was standing by Sean's crib, tucking a blanket securely around his small form. AJ was wearing a pair of black pajama pants and Nick spoke without thinking.
"I didn't think you even owned pajamas."
AJ laughed. "Leighanne bought them for me. She says I'm not allowed to sleep naked when I visit them. I think she's afraid I'll sleepwalk or something."
Nick snorted. AJ grinned at him as he walked over to climb into bed.
"Besides, would be rude to sleep naked when I've got company."
Nick went around to the opposite side of the bed, but he hesitated before getting into bed. AJ raised a brow.
"You coming or what? I promise not to jump you in your sleep."
Nick managed a laugh, but he was glad that it was too dark for AJ to see him blush.
"Whatever. Everybody knows you want me, pervert."
AJ laughed. "Good night, Nick."
After that, Nick shared AJ's bed whenever he stayed with AJ and Sean. It became so commonplace that the first time Nick decided to spend a night on his own bus, Sean was completely thrown the next morning. AJ woke to find Sean standng in his crib and peering intently at him. AJ yawned and stretched.
"Morning, baby boy."
AJ got up and brought Sean back to bed with him. Sean looked around, frowning.
"Nick's sleeping on his own bus today."
"Nick ni ni?"
AJ smiled. "Yes, Nick ni ni."
Sean patted the bed. "Nick bed."
"No, this is daddy's bed. Nick has his own bed on his bus."
"Nick bed," Sean insisted.
AJ gave up; it was too early to argue with baby logic.
"Maybe Nick will stay tonight, okay?"
Sean sighed, making AJ laugh. "I know, it's terrible. Stuck here with just your old man."
AJ stretched once more and got out of bed. "Let's go make breakfast and watch cartoons. Then it'll be time to see Nick again."
Sean acquiesed, but when they finally arrived in Minneapolis and he saw Nick again, Sean glued himself to Nick's side. It was obvious that he was afraid that Nick was going to disappear again. When the boys got ready to leave for their show that night, Sean sobbed and clung to Nick. Nick hugged him tightly.
"It's okay, buddy. I'll be back."
"Nick stay," Sean cried.
"Ah, buddy, I wish I could, but I have to go to work."
Sean brightened. "Sean work."
Nick laughed. "Not this time, kiddo. It'll be past your bedtime." He kissed Sean's cheek. "But I'll see you in the morning, okay? I'm staying with you and your daddy tonight."
Sean's breath hitched in a sob and he hugged Nick. Nick smiled and patted his back.
"I'll see you soon, I promise. I love you, buddy."
Sean let himself be handed over to Denise. He looped an arm around her neck and laid his head on her shoulder. AJ hugged and kissed him goodbye and Sean waved half-heartedly when they left. Nick was quiet on the way to the venue and finally AJ nudged him.
"Yeah, I just feel really guilty about leaving him."
AJ smiled. “He does that to me too. Mom calls it working parent guilt. Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, I know. I just feel bad that I made him upset.”
AJ bumped his shoulder against Nick’s. “Wait until the first time you have to give him a time out or tell him no.”
“God no. That’s your job. I’m gonna be the fun parent.”
The minute Nick said it, he blushed bright red. The words made AJ’s stomach do a crazy flip and he stared at Nick, unsure what to say. The silence was broken by Kevin’s voice.
“Yo, we’re here! Let’s get a move on.”
Gratefully, Nick stood. Neither he nor AJ said anything more about it.
After the Minneapolis show, they had three days off. The last had to be spent traveling back to Canada, but AJ and Nick spent the first two with Sean. They hung out, did tourist things, and generally just spent time hanging out. AJ spent most of those two days watching Nick and Sean. It was clear that the two of them adored each other and it warmed something in AJ to see that his friend loved Sean just as much as he did. Sometimes AJ would catch Nick watching him with an enigmatic look on his face. When Nick would notice him looking, he’d smile and turn his attention back to Sean.
When they arrived in Canada, Nick spent the first night with AJ and Sean, but on the second, he decided to go back to his own bus. He managed to make it until nine that morning before giving in and calling AJ.
Nick could hear Sean babbling in the background and he grinned. “Hey, it’s me. Sounds like someone’s in a good mood.”
“He is now. When he woke up and you weren’t here, he was p-i-s-s-e-d.”
Nick chuckled. “Uh oh.”
“Yeah. He hasn’t quite figured out that just because you leave, it doesn’t mean you aren’t coming back. He always gets over it.”
“I missed him this morning.”
Nick’s voice was quiet and AJ paused in feeding Sean his breakfast.
“He missed you too.”
A longer silence and then Nick could hear Sean banging something and the moment was gone. He settled back on his couch and chatted with AJ while AJ finished feeding Sean. Finally, AJ sighed.
“I need to go. Got to get the monster cleaned up. He’s managed to get cereal everywhere. Are you, umm, are you gonna stay with us tonight?”
“I was thinking about it. If you guys don’t care.”
The smile was evident in AJ’s voice. “Good. I’ve got a couple of new movies we can check out after Sean goes to bed. I’ll see you tonight, Nick.”
“’Kay. Kiss the little guy for me.”
“Will do. Bye, Nick.”
Nick tried not to spend more than two or three nights on AJ’s bus. He hated going back to his own empty bus, but he didn’t want to be a nuisance, constantly butting into AJ and Sean’s time together. Deep inside, he knew that AJ didn’t see it that way, but it was also something he needed to do for himself. He was getting too used to being a central part of AJ and Sean’s life when he knew that all he was to AJ was a friend.
Sean got wise to Nick’s tricks about the third time that Nick chose to spend the night on his own bus. When Nick called the driver and asked him to pull off at the next rest stop, Sean disappeared down the hall. He didn’t reappear and finally AJ had to yell for him.
“Nick’s leaving, Sean! You better come out if you want to say goodbye.”
Nick and AJ could hear odd noises coming from the hall, grunting and banging that they couldn’t place. Finally, Sean appeared, dragging his diaper bag behind him. AJ grinned.
“What are you doing with that?”
AJ and Nick looked at each in surprise before AJ knelt down in front of Sean. “No, little man, only Nick’s going bye.”
Sean shook his head. “Sean go bye.”
AJ shot a helpless look at Nick before turning back to Sean. “You can’t go with Nick. He’s not coming back tonight. You need to stay here with me and go to sleep.”
“Ni ni Nick bus.”
Before AJ could explain again, Nick cut in. “He could come and stay with me.”
“What? Are you sure?”
“Sure, why not? I know his bedtime routine. Besides, we’ve still got a couple of hours. He can hang out with me and if he freaks when it’s time for bed, we’ll have our drivers pull over again.”
“I guess we could try it, if you really don’t mind.”
“No way. I think it’ll be cool.”
Nick knelt down in front of Sean. “You want to come spend the night on my bus with me?”
Nick laughed. “Guess that settles it.”
AJ quickly packed a bag and at the rest stop, Nick and Sean got onto Nick’s bus. The silence was overwhelming and AJ didn’t have a clue what to do with himself. It had been a long time since he’d spent a night alone and he was at loose ends. He tried to watch a movie, but it seemed strange to actually hear it. He thumbed through some magazines, but they couldn’t hold his attention. Finally, he curled up on the couch with a notebook and began to write, penning more lyrics for his maybe-someday-in-the-future solo record.
Nick, meanwhile, was having the time of his life. He and Sean played video games, Nick handing the little boy an unattached controller and letting him think that he was playing. After that, they had a snack and watched SpongeBob before Nick announced bath time. He knew the mechanics of it, had helped AJ often enough, but it something else altogether to bathe a wriggly toddler by himself. Sean had a blast, splashing and playing in the tub. Nick was nearly as wet as he was and loving every minute. Sean picked up the washcloth Nick had dropped into the water and threw it at Nick.
“Hey!” Nick protested, laughing. “You’re supposed to keep the water in the tub, you menace.”
Sean giggled. “I ornery.”
Nick cracked up. “Who told you that?”
“Your Grandma Denise is right.”
Sean eyed Nick and then deliberately splashed water at Nick.
“It’s a good thing you’re cute,” Nick said as he stripped off his soaked shirt.
After Sean had been bathed and put into his pajamas, he and Nick stretched out on Nick’s bed. Nick brought out his drawing paper and some colored pencils.
“Your dad likes you to have quiet time before bed. Do you want to learn how to draw?”
“Draw?” Sean looked intrigued.
Nick sketched quickly, Sean watching his every move avidly. When Nick was finished, he turned the page toward Sean.
“You’re right, it’s a picture of Dada. Do you want to try?”
Sean eagerly took a pencil and Nick turned to a fresh page in his sketch book. Sean began drawing swirls and lines on the paper, his tongue sticking out as he concentrated. Nick smiled softly.
“That’s a good job, Sean. What are you making?”
Nick laughed. “It looks just like me.”
After Sean had drawn several pictures, Nick put the art supplies away and took Sean in the bathroom to wash his face and brush his teeth. When they got back to Nick’s room, he sat down on the bed with Sean.
“It’s time for bed, buddy. Do you want me to call Dada or do you want to stay with me.”
Nick grabbed Sean’s blanket and took the little boy to his crib. When he tried to put him down, though, Sean clung to him.
“You want to sleep with me?”
Sean looked at him with those big, brown eyes and Nick melted. “Peese?”
“Yeah, okay, you can sleep with me.”
Nick got Sean settled and then quickly got himself ready for bed. He climbed in next to Sean and leaned down to kiss Sean’s cheek.
“Good night, Sean.”
Sean yawned. “Lub you, Nick.”
Sean was asleep in minutes and Nick grabbed the remote to the TV, settling comfortably next to Sean. He was channel surfing when his cell phone rang. He wasn’t surprised to see AJ’s name on the caller ID.
“He’s fine, Dad.”
“I know, I know. I just… it’s really quiet over here.”
Nick smiled and leaned back against the headboard. “I bet. You’re supposed to be enjoying it.”
“I tried. It was nice at first. Now it’s just… quiet.”
“It wasn’t over here.”
Nick told AJ about his and Sean’s evening, AJ laughing when Nick recounted bath time for him. When Nick’s voice trailed off, AJ said, “It sounds like you guys had fun.”
Something in AJ’s voice caught at Nick. “What’s wrong, Aje?”
“Nothing. It’s just the first night he’s been away from me since he moved in and I miss him.” There was a pause and then AJ said, very quietly, “I miss you too.”
Nick swallowed past the lump in his throat. “I miss you too.”
“Will you guys come over here for breakfast?”
Nick smiled softly. “Yeah, we will.”
“I guess I’ll see you then. Good night, Nick.”
Sean’s first sleep over was dubbed a huge success and after that, AJ and Nick began alternating which bus they’d stay on. It gave Sean a change of scenery and somehow it made Nick feel less like an intruder when they spent an equal amount of time on his bus. If AJ was making the effort to come and stay with Nick, then he obviously wanted to be there and Nick quit worrying quite so much that AJ was only tolerating him because Sean loved him so much.
It became a running joke between them, having two ‘homes’ to split time between. Sean was thrilled with the arrangement and AJ learned to relax and appreciate the fact that he had help with Sean. He knew he could care of Sean on his own, but he liked sharing that with Nick. Liked even more the fact that after Sean was in bed at night, he had someone to sit and talk to. To share stories about the day with and to relax with, someone who knew what was going on his life and could listen to anything he had to say. Nick was there, just as he’d always been, and yet it felt different. AJ couldn’t put his finger on why it felt that way, he just knew that it did. It took a conversation with Kevin and Kris to make him realize what had changed.
AJ was spending a rare evening without Sean, having gotten Denise to play babysitter so that the boys could have dinner for Kevin’s birthday. Rather than go out, they’d chosen to stay in the hotel and order dinner so they could enjoy a rare evening without fans or cameras on them. Kevin turning thirty had prompted many toasts and as a result, the birthday boy was pleasantly tipsy by the time the cake had been cut. AJ joined him by the balcony doors and watched as Howie, Brian, and Nick tried to teach Kris, Leigh, and Leighanne how to do the dance steps to Everybody. AJ shook his head, laughing.
“That’d be easier if Brian could dance.”
Kevin snorted. “That’d be easier if Nick weren’t the only sober one.”
“Who? Nick?” AJ chuckled. “It’s a party, Kev. There’s no way he’s sober.”
“Sure he is. He hasn’t had a drink all night. Said it wasn’t right to go home with you when he’d been drinking.”
AJ frowned. “I told you guys that I didn’t mind.”
“I know you did.” Kevin grinned. “And I appreciate it. But I’m not going home with you.”
“That shouldn’t matter. Just because I can’t drink, that doesn’t mean Nick can’t have a few.”
Kris had come up to them and heard the last of the conversation. “I think it’s sweet.”
“Sweet?” AJ asked, confused. “Why?”
Kris beamed at him. “The two of you are just so damn cute.”
“Kris,” Kevin said warningly.
AJ looked from one to the other. “Okay, what am I missing?”
Kris rolled her eyes. “You guys live together, AJ. I don’t know why you think you’re still hiding it.”
“Oh for… you and Nick! Dating. Or whatever you’re calling it.”
AJ’s eyes widened in shock. “Who told you we were dating?”
“Nobody. Nobody had to. It’s obvious. You sleep together, AJ.”
AJ blushed. “Well, yeah, but we’re not, we don’t…”
He trailed off and Kris’ eyes widened. “Oh my God, you’re not dating?” She frowned. “Why aren’t you dating? The three of you are like this perfect little family. It’s adorable.”
AJ opened his mouth to speak and then closed it without saying a word. Little things started falling into place; the way he and Nick shared chores, the easy way they came together to take care of Sean, the nights spent lying together and talking about anything and nothing at all.
“Jesus. I think I’m accidentally dating Nick.”
Kevin snorted. “How do you accidentally date someone?”
“You know what I mean. I… we do everything couples do. We spend every waking moment together. I… how did I not notice this?”
Kris studied him quietly for a moment. “Maybe you weren’t ready to.”
AJ had to admit that there was some truth to that. After everything that had happened to him in the last year, he’d never even thought about looking for a relationship. He was focused on Sean and staying sober and he didn’t have the time or the inclination to find someone to be with. Kris’ soft voice broke into his thoughts.
“AJ? Just because we noticed something doesn’t mean it’s there. You and Nick have always been close friends. Maybe that’s all it is.” She smiled and laid a hand on his arm. “But maybe it’s more. You should think about that.”
AJ did nothing but think about it for the next several days. He and Nick were more like a married couple than alot of actual married couples AJ knew. The only thing missing between himself and Nick was sex and for the first time, AJ allowed his mind to go there. He spent every night in Nick’s bed and yet they’d never once crossed the line that would take them from friends to lovers. For the first time, it occurred to AJ to wonder why. He liked sleeping with Nick, liked waking up with the solid warmth of Nick’s body along his. Why had he never wondered what it would be like to do more than just sleep with Nick?
The minute the word popped into his head, AJ knew it was true. He didn’t have the best track record when it came to relationships and he didn’t want to jeopardize the close friendship that he and Nick had. But now that the seed had been planted, AJ found it impossible to think about anything else. Once he’d allowed himself to think about Nick in a more than friends way, it seemed he was constantly noticing things he’d never allowed himself to notice before.
One morning, about a week after Kevin’s birthday, AJ woke to a now-familiar situation; Nick’s arm thrown across his chest, Nick’s body pressed up tight against his side. AJ turned his head and stared at Nick; taking in the dark sweep of lashes, the curve of Nick’s mouth. Nick was gorgeous, AJ had always known that, but there was more to it than that. This was Nick. The man that paced the floor with him when Sean was sick and the man that listened when he was craving a drink so badly that he could practically taste the Jack on his tongue. The man that spent a Sunday playing miniature golf with him because golf was the only sport AJ was even halfway competent in.
Nick’s eyelids fluttered and then blue eyes slowly opened and focused on AJ. Nick smiled, still more asleep than awake, and AJ’s heart caught.
AJ continued to stare at Nick. He could see when Nick finally noticed, could see the confusion cloud the ocean blue and without stopping to think about it, he leaned in and kissed Nick. Nick froze and AJ had a moment’s panic before groaned softly and kissed him back. The kiss quickly went from hesitant to heated and AJ moaned low in his throat, moving closer to Nick. For a moment, his entire body was on fire, pressed tightly to Nick’s and then suddenly there was nothing but cold air as Nick pulled back and practically leapt from the bed.
“Shit, AJ, I…”
The obvious upset on Nick’s face made AJ’s stomach fall and he ran a hand through his hair, gaze falling to the mattress. He didn’t look up until he heard the bathroom door close quietly behind Nick. He leaned his head back against the headboard and cursed softly.
He was in the kitchen, making a half-hearted attempt at breakfast when Nick reappeared. AJ heard him, but couldn’t make himself look up from the pancake batter he was listlessly stirring. Nick’s hand on his arm had him stiffening and pulling away.
“Look, it’s not a big deal. I shouldn’t have kissed you. It was… I just…”
“I need to tell you the truth about something.”
Nick sounded so serious that AJ finally looked up and met his gaze. When Nick knew he had AJ’s attention, he continued.
“When you first came back from rehab and I stayed away from you? I told you it wasn’t anything you did and that was true. Mostly.”
AJ stiffened, not sure that he wanted to know where this was going.
“You never saw and I hated it. I was there all the time and you never noticed me. I was just little brother Nick. Someone fun to hang out with, to drink with, but nothing else. You didn’t see me as anything but a buddy and I hated that. I wanted you to want. The way that I wanted you.”
AJ’s eyes widened in surprise; Nick nodded his head.
“Yeah, I know, surprised me too. I kept hoping you’d notice and make the first move because I didn’t know how. And then I got pissed at you when you didn’t. I should have said something then, but I was afraid to. Then you got back and there was Sean and I knew that if I let him in, I’d let you in again too. You aren’t the coward, AJ. I am. I was too chickenshit to do anything and I blamed you for not doing it for me. When you… when you kissed me this morning, it was… God, I’d been thinking about that for so long and then it happened and I freaked. I just didn’t think you were ever going to see me that way and when you did…”
AJ smiled. “I didn’t mean to spring it on you. I think it’s been there for awhile, but I just didn’t see it. I was so focused on Sean and everything else that I didn’t realize what was happening between us. That the way I felt about you was changing.” He ducked his head. “And you aren’t the only scared one, Nick.”
“Why are you scared?”
“I suck at relationships, Nick. If I screw this one up, it’s not just me that gets hurt. There’s you, of course, but there’s Sean too. He’s crazy about you. If this goes wrong, not only do I lose my best friend, but Sean loses his Nick. That terrifies me.”
AJ reached out and put his hands on Nick’s hips, pulled Nick closer to him.
“But, we’ve been living together for months now and that’s working out well so I think we should try the next step.”
Nick smiled. “Which is?”
“We’re so backwards. Nobody lives together first and then dates.”
AJ grinned. “If you think about it, we basically have a kid together. How’s that for backwards?”
Nick’s laughter filled the kitchen. “I guess dating is kinda anti-climatic at this point.”
“Guess so.” AJ smiled and leaned up to softly kiss Nick’s mouth. “Still, I’m game if you are.”
“I think I could be persuaded.”
Nick was the one to initiate the kiss this time. It was soft, easy, and full of promise. When they were interrupted by Sean’s voice over the baby monitor, Nick smiled against AJ’s mouth.
“I guess we better get used to that.”
“Hmm, yeah. He has rotten timing.” AJ softly kissed Nick again. “Guess I should go get him.”
“Nah, we’ll go.”
Back in the bedroom, Sean grinned when he saw Nick and AJ.
“Morning, little man,” Nick said.
Nick lifted Sean from his crib, nuzzled into his neck until Sean giggled. Watching them, AJ’s heart filled with warmth and he couldn’t stop a soft smile. Nick caught him watching and smiled back.
“Do you think breakfast counts as a first date?”
AJ grinned. “Definitely.”
“Then I think we have pancakes calling our name.” Nick tickled Sean’s tummy. “What do you think, Sean? Pancakes for breakfast?”
“Cakes,” Sean agreed.
Nick chuckled and walked over to AJ so that Sean could kiss his father. “You heard the kid. Pancakes, McLean. We’re starving.”
AJ followed Nick and Sean into the kitchen and as they started on breakfast, he said to Nick, “I think this is going to be one of the best dates I’ve ever been on.”
Nick smiled and kissed the corner of his mouth. “Count on it.”