I see the world, the world is you.
I see baby baby blue.
-- "Won't Go Away" - Vertical Horizon
Freaks, Howie thought and shook his head. He was in a band with a bunch of freaks.
AJ, who had been singing incoherent gibberish into his microphone, suddenly stopped in his tracks. "I think time may have officially stopped, like," he checked his watch, "half an hour ago."
The microphone amplified the words so they boomed across the empty clubhouse. "Could someone shut him up?" Kevin groaned, rubbing a hand over his face. "You're not helping, AJ."
“I’m bored,” AJ stressed, still talking into the microphone. “How can I already be bored? How is that possible? We’ve only been touring for a week.”
“Soundcheck’s always boring, dude.” Nick was sprawled out across the stage, drawing circles in the air. “We should do something different if we get to do the whole world tour thing.”
“When,” Kevin said. “Not if. When.”
"When,” Nick corrected absentmindedly. “I’m just saying. We could invite some fans or something. It’d be cool.”
“Or reporters,” AJ snorted. “And they can ask us the same questions they’ve been asking us for the past year now." He counted them off on his fingers. "‘How does it feel to be back? Are you gonna change your name to Backstreet Men? What did you do on your time off?’”
The band played the first few chords to Poster Girl and Brian started humming the chorus under his breath. Adding a little guitar to go with it, he nudged Howie next to him and they both grinned.
“No, seriously,” AJ continued, apparently on a roll, “I could make up better questions myself. Brian,” he called. “How many hairs did you find in your comb today?”
“Ten,” Brian answered solemnly.
“See, now that’s interesting,” AJ exclaimed with a grand hand gesture. “I found twelve myself.”
“You’ll be bald before you turn thirty, dude,” Nick grinned.
“Yeah, I’ll enter the next stage of my life as a sexy bald man,” AJ sighed. “I’ve made my peace with it.”
Howie turned away from the scene when Brian nudged him again. Brian smiled at him and leaned closer. “So, you never said anything," he ventured in a lowered voice, "What happened with that guy?”
Howie raised an eyebrow. “What guy?”
"You know," Brian pressed, as if that would get Howie to understand. "That guy. Tim, right? Didn't you two have that dinner thing this weekend?"
"Oh!" Howie said, suddenly comprehending, and cleared his throat. "Right. It was fine. Didn't work out, though."
Brian didn't look away. "Why not?" he asked.
Howie just shrugged. Tim had been fine, the dinner had been fine, the kissing in the back of his car afterwards had been fine. Howie wasn't really looking for fine.
Brian's knee bumped his. "I'm sorry, man," he said. "You seemed real excited about him."
"Brian," AJ called out from across the stage. "Get over here and get your mic checked, dude."
Brian flashed Howie a small smile, then hopped off the speaker they were both sitting on. "Coming," he called back.
Howie watched him walk away.
It was kind of an unofficial open secret that Howie wanted Brian. No one had ever talked about it, ever, but they all knew. Howie wasn't really sure how that had happened. The only person he'd told was Kevin - who was still the only one of the guys Howie felt comfortable talking about things like that with, even if it did involve his cousin in this case - and Kevin had sworn up and down that he hadn't said a word to anyone. Maybe he was being obvious. Maybe Kevin was lying, although he seriously doubted that.
He couldn't really be sure about AJ or Nick - although AJ had been known to make a suggestive comment once or twice - but Brian knew. Howie was absolutely, completely, one hundred percent sure that Brian knew. Howie was sure because Brian had asked Kevin about it once, briefly, and Kevin had told Howie about it later, like they were all still stuck in high school.
Brian had never mentioned anything to him, and Howie sure as hell wasn't going to stir up trouble if no one was asking him to, so everything stayed the same. Which was okay. Probably. It probably made things easier for all of them.
Except Howie didn't want Brian to know. Especially when he was sure that there was no chance in hell anything was ever going to happen, because Brian was ... well. It would've just been better if Howie could've gotten over it in peace.
Howie might’ve been temporarily ruined for anyone else, but he wasn’t stupid and he definitely wasn’t blind. Especially not when it came to Brian. He was pretty sure he watched Brian more than most people.
"What's with them?" Nick leaned over so they could talk privately. "They've been at each other's throats lately."
Howie just shrugged.
Meanwhile, Brian had walked away from his microphone and looked like he wanted to kick something really hard. “You’re in the wrong key again," he snapped.
AJ scowled. “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
“Well, snap out of it. I can’t cue you in every time.”
This time AJ's jaw dropped. “Oh, right, because the holy Brian Littrell can't make mistakes. My bad, I guess I forgot about your promotion to Saint Buttmunch.”
Brian rolled his eyes. “Just stop singing in my key and learn your own.”
“Why are you still talking?” AJ snapped.
Howie looked at Kevin, who only held his hands up in a 'I'm not getting in the line of fire' gesture. He couldn't really blame him. None of them were kids anymore; it wasn't fair to anyone if they started interfering.
"You guys done?" Nick finally asked.
AJ's head snapped back in Nick's direction and his scowl went even deeper. "I'm done," he said sharply. "Unless of course the saint has anything else to add."
Brian opened his mouth to say something, but apparently thought better of it as it snapped back shut. He went back to his microphone and began the first verse of Climbing the Walls again without waiting for the rest of them.
Howie wasn't stupid. Even with all the fighting, they still hadn't moved away from each other.
They touched a lot. Okay, everyone touched a lot more after the break, but AJ and Brian seemed to almost need the physical contact. Brian had never been the first to initiate displays of affection, except with Nick in the early days, so it was easy for Howie to notice the subtle shift. Even before they'd begun the Up Close And Personal tour it had been obvious. Brian's hand on AJ's arm as they both leaned over the soundboard. AJ's arm slung carelessly over Brian's shoulder during interviews. Affectionate teasing on stage. They even held entire conversations in a whisper sometimes, heads together and bodies pressed close.
Even when they fought - and they'd been fighting a lot lately - they still didn't move far away from each other.
Howie had never been able to figure out how AJ always just seemed to take what he wanted. Even when he didn't know he wanted it. There was a difference from the usual though - this time Howie wanted it, too. And there was nothing he could do except watch it happen.
"So then this girl comes up to me, right - and I haven't seen her in ten years, swear to God - and she's all, 'I gave you my parents' wedding bands a couple of years ago, you still got them?'"
"No," Brian said, wide-eyed.
"I know!" AJ exclaimed. "I mean, I can't exactly go back and get them for her, you know? But shit, her parents must've ripped her a new one."
They were lounging backstage, waiting for the show to begin. Nick had brought his pre-concert CDs with him and Howie watched him as he leaned over the stereo, tapping the beat with his fingertips. Kevin perched on the arm of the couch and took a swig from his water bottle. "I still don't understand why she'd give them to you in the first place," he said, looking thoughtful.
AJ shrugged. "They're in a good place now, that's for sure."
A soft smile appeared on Brian's face and he leaned in to murmur something in AJ's ear. AJ looked at him and shrugged again, this time with a smile of his own.
"All right," Kevin said, clapping his own thigh to get himself in motion. "I'm getting up if anyone needs anything from the fridge. D?"
"What?" Howie tore his eyes away from Brian and AJ. "Oh. No, it's cool, you don't have to. I'll get one for myself later."
"You sure?" Kevin asked. "It's no problem."
"Yeah, I'm fine." Howie waved a hand dismissively.
"You can get me a soda if you're itching for it, Kev," Nick interjected from across the room.
"I'm sorry, are you sitting?" Kevin asked. "Or paralyzed in any kind of way? No, I don't think so. Get your own."
"But you just asked Howie!" Nick pointed in Howie's general direction.
"Howie gets special treatment," Kevin said logically. "His legs are shorter than ours. It takes him longer to get places."
Brian finally tore himself from his conversation and flashed a big grin at Howie. "Nice. So being short finally pays off, huh?"
Howie only responded with a halfhearted smile. His gaze was fixed on the hand Brian had around AJ's shoulders.
The bus hummed loudly. Howie was used to it. Still, he woke up - not with a jolt, thankfully, because banging your head on the top of the bunk hurt like a bitch - but slowly, feeling disturbed from his sleep. Like some sound he wasn't used to had woken him up.
He pulled the curtain slightly aside - only an inch or so, he was pretty sure - and looked out. AJ and Brian were in the kitchenette. Brian was backing away frantically, eyes wide, scared, and AJ was staring at him with an oddly shaken look to his features.
"You-" Brian breathed, putting fingertips to his lips. "You just-"
"Yeah." AJ nodded, letting out a nervous laugh. "I … yeah. Pretty much."
Brian stared at him. "Why?"
"I wanted to," he said simply.
Brian's whole body was shaking now. "You don't - you don't do that just because you want to," he hissed. When AJ took a step forward he quickly backed away. "I'm not-" He jumped when he bumped against the dining table. When he looked up at AJ again, there was desperation in his eyes.
Howie was afraid to even breathe at this point.
"Rok," AJ said softly. He approached him hesitantly, but Brian didn't move this time, and Howie really should look away now, but he couldn't, he didn't want to. "So I kissed you. It doesn't change anything. I mean," he added quickly when Brian's eyes got wide again, "I mean, you're still who you are, and - I'm still-" He reached Brian, standing directly in front of him, and shrugged in a way that was meant to be nonchalant. "It's not the end of the world," he finished quietly.
Brian stared at him avidly, eyes unforgiving in their intensity. He reached a shaking hand out and grabbed AJ's wrist tight. "I didn't know that I was - I mean, I'm not, but - oh God."
"Hey, hey." AJ leaned closer and held Brian's head in his hands, forcing him to look up. "Don't freak out. It's just me, Bri." He smiled crookedly. "Am I scary?"
Brian, still staring, mumbled something about 'fashion sense' and AJ's grin got wider. Even Brian finally smiled, and the look on his face changed to something more. Something warmer.
"Did you like it?" AJ asked, after a short silence. He'd moved closer, his body almost aligned with the other man's.
Brian swallowed. Nodded wordlessly.
"Okay." AJ rested his forehead against Brian's and smiled. "Me too. So ... there's that, then."
Heart pounding wildly in his chest, Howie laid back down and turned around to face the wall. He curled in on himself and listened to the thrumming of the bus instead. It almost drowned out the rest of their conversation. Almost.
Howie never had much privacy on the road. He wasn't as lucky as the others. Everyone respected AJ's need to sometimes be alone these days, and no one ever really bothered Kevin unless he wanted to be bothered. Nick could put on his headphones, slump against a wall and exude an air that seemed to say bother me and I'll shove a pea up your nose. Brian didn't need that much privacy. Howie didn't have any of that. Everyone seemed to think it was okay to bother Howie, even if he was on the phone which, granted, he was a lot.
What he had was sleep.
If he closed his eyes, people usually left him alone. So more often than not, when he needed a moment to himself, he curled up on the couch in the back and closed his eyes.
"Howie, have you - oh." Nick's voice cut off midway. There was silence for a moment, and then Howie heard feet shuffling away.
"Hey, has anyone seen my vest with the people on it?" Nick called out, his voice further away now.
"Did Kevin borrow it?" he heard AJ suggest from a closer distance.
"No, I already asked."
"Check with Howie then. He usually knows where everyone's shit is."
"He's asleep," Nick said.
"What?" AJ's voice was incredulous. "Again?" Another pair of shuffling feet on the floor, moving closer, and Howie tried to look at relaxed as possible. "Jesus," AJ mumbled, close by now. He had to be standing at the door.
Shuffling feet. Then, "What?" Brian's voice.
"He's asleep again," AJ said. "I swear, the man needs vitamins. This has to be some kind of health issue."
"He just needs to get back into the swing of things." The couch shifted and Howie went with it, relaxing his brow when it tried to frown. "He's been really quiet lately." Brian's voice, closer still. "More quiet than usual."
"He'd tell us if something was wrong." AJ's voice was quiet.
"Maybe." A hand came to rest on his ankle. Brian's hand was on his ankle.
"Listen." AJ sounded hesitant. "Since I have you here … can we talk later? You know, about the other night?"
There was a long moment of silence. Then, "Yeah. I'd been meaning to ask you about that, too, but things just got … you know."
"Yeah, sure." The bus slowed down and AJ cleared his throat. "We're pulling up. Could you wake him?"
The sound of footsteps moving away, and Howie wished he'd really been asleep, even if that had meant missing the feel of Brian touching him.
The tour ended too quickly, but of course that didn't mean that they got a break from each other. There was promotion now, one interview lined up after another with the same questions asked over and over again. Howie was fine with it. He was used to it by now, not to mention that they needed the exposure. Plus he liked to talk about the album. He was proud of the album.
He was looking for a bathroom the first time it happened. The third door he opened was to an empty dressing room. Or what should have been an empty dressing room if Brian and AJ hadn't been making out in it.
"Oh shit," Howie gasped, too stunned to move, and he watched as the two men broke apart. Brian's hand had been near AJ's pants. Oh shit.
AJ fumbled his shirt back in place and took a step forward. "Howie," he said quickly, "Howie, listen-"
"I - sorry," he stuttered. Brian was staring at him, his breathing a little quicker than usual. His lips were swollen. "I'm sorry, I'll just - I - I won't tell anyone."
He closed the door and darted down the hallway as quickly as his legs could carry him. He heard a door opening, but he didn't stop, he couldn't stop. When he made it back to their own dressing room, he ran for the sink and splashed water in his face four times until he felt like he could breathe again.
"You okay, D?" Kevin raised an eyebrow from behind his newspaper.
"Yeah," Howie said breathlessly, nodding as he stared at his own reflection. "Fine, just … I'll be fine."
That proved to be one of the worst interviews Howie had ever done. He couldn't remember the name of the host, but it didn't really matter much since he wasn't speaking. Kevin was going on enough for everyone as always, so no one noticed. They'd placed him next to Brian and AJ - they always placed him next to Brian and AJ. Howie smiled and answered questions when asked directly and did everything he was supposed to. He even smiled at Brian and talked to AJ, but he couldn't remember ever wanting to be anywhere else so badly in his life.
Afterwards, when they were all filing for the van outside, Nick bounded up to him and slung his arms around him. "My man, Howie," he sang. "Dude, I'm so tired I think I could fall asleep right here. What else are we doing today?"
"I don't know," Howie said briefly, trying to disentangle himself from all the flailing limbs. "Nick, not now, okay?"
"What?" Nick asked, and now there was a teasing edge to his voice. "You don't like when I do this?" He poked Howie's side. "Or this?" He poked Howie's shoulder. "Or-?"
"Stop it!" Howie snapped, shoving Nick away from him as hard as he dared. "Why don't you ever listen, huh? I said stop bothering me. I don't have the energy to deal with you right now. Jesus Christ, Nick."
Most people kept moving past them. It wasn't a big enough scene that anyone who didn't know Howie would notice. Nick, however, sported the widest eyes that Howie had ever seen. After a tense pause he stepped back, smoothing down his shirt. "All right," he said. "Sorry." Then he began walking towards the exit by himself, his hands buried in his pockets.
Howie watched him leave. As soon as he rounded a corner, Howie rubbed a hand over his face with a deep sigh. When he looked up Brian and AJ were still standing there, staring at him in much the same way Nick had. Except … and Howie couldn't be sure, but he thought that maybe Brian looked a little guilty.
"What?" he snapped. He began to walk in the same direction as Nick without giving them time to speak.
When he made it to the van, Kevin was still standing outside it. He gave Howie a puzzled look. "He just stormed in there without a word," he said, gesturing to Nick slumped down in the seat furthest away. "Did something happen?"
Howie heaved another sigh. "I'll take care of it." Climbing into the car, he settled down next to Nick who was clearly fascinated with something outside the window.
"Nicky," Howie said softly. Nick looked down at his hands and bit his lower lip. "I'm sorry. I'm really tired and I just … but that's no excuse."
He heard the others start to get into the car. Nick looked up at him, and for a very long moment he didn't say anything. Finally he offered him a half smile. "No problem," he said with a small nod. "I guess I need to learn how to listen. I won't do it again."
Howie eyed him for a second. Then he settled fully back in his seat and waited for Nick to get comfortable before he poked him right between the ribs. Nick flew up with a yelp and stared at Howie. "Hey!"
"What?" Howie asked innocently.
Nick did a double take, eyes suspicious, before he laughed. "Should've known, man. Stealth bastard, that's what you are."
Howie winked at him, and just like that, they were okay again. Howie finally took time to look around and wasn't surprised when he found Kevin sitting next to him. He tipped his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes, not looking back around to see AJ and Brian in the backseat.
Things got really weird after that.
For a while things were fine, mainly because they got a tiny breather for about a month. But then the tour started and he couldn't seem to enter a room without finding Brian and AJ doing something in there. One time they were just huddled close on a couch, AJ's head resting on Brian's shoulder. Another time they were rumbled and looked like they'd been kissing for hours. Howie started growing a complex. He always waited a beat before he opened a door, and even then, he did it carefully.
It was embarrassing and excruciating and completely off-the-charts weird. Something wasn't adding up. At least, nothing logical could explain why Brian had been smiling into AJ's lips the fourth time Howie had walked in on them.
Howie wasn't really sure how it had happened. For so many years, he and Brian had had nothing in common. They'd been good friends - they pretty much had to be, working as closely together as they all did - but there hadn't been that same level of closeness that he'd had with AJ and Kevin and, later, Nick.
But then Howie started mentioning his purple Corvette and Brian seemed to think that was the funniest thing in the world. They'd shared their faith for years now. Things fell into place for them in such a subtle way that Howie never saw it coming.
He wasn't really sure how it had happened, but he guessed it was the day Brian had sat down next to him and tugged on his hair. "You're my favorite," he'd said in a silly voice, and Howie had laughed for the first time that day. Brian had flashed him the biggest grin ever and slung his arm casually around the back of the couch. He hadn't moved for the next two interviews.
Howie was heading down to Marcus' room to see if he could help him fix his TV when another door in the hallway opened. Howie turned around and smiled painfully at AJ. It wasn't exactly easy being around him now that he seemed to be catching every episode of the AJ And Brian Lip-lock Show.
"Hey, Howie," AJ said, smiling as he approached him. "What are you up to?"
"What?" Howie cleared his throat and smiled back. "Oh, I just wanted to see if Marcus could help me out - my TV isn't showing any channels, so."
"Ah." AJ reached him. He reached out and brushed some lint off of Howie's shoulder. "Sounds like a slow night."
Howie frowned at him. Well, that was new. "I guess so."
"Listen, Howie." AJ said it as if he'd suddenly been struck by an epiphany. "Could you come with me for a second? I've been wanting to run something by you."
"Sure," Howie said slowly, raising an eyebrow. They made their way back to AJ's room in silence. AJ's hand settled on Howie's back, but when Howie looked up at him AJ was deeply intent on something ahead of him. When he showed Howie into the room his hand was still there.
The room was almost pitch-black, save for a desk lamp burning in the back corner. Howie froze when he saw Brian sitting on the bed, clad in only boxers and a faded Wildcats t-shirt, rubbing one of his arms and meeting Howie's gaze squarely.
"Wha-?" Howie's breath hitched when AJ wrapped arms around him from behind and placed a light kiss at the nape of his neck.
"Brian and I were wondering if you wanted to," another kiss, this time longer, "join us?"
Howie's brain was having trouble keeping up, because there was no way in hell he'd heard what he thought he'd just heard. Heart pounding, he stared at Brian, looking for some sign of a half-formed grin to let him know it was all just a sick, sick joke, but Brian wasn't smiling. He just stared back, an expression that Howie had never seen held firmly on his face.
"What are you doing?" Howie asked wildly, stepping out of AJ's grip with force. "You think this is funny?"
"No," Brian answered.
"Then - what the hell?" Howie was shaking now, and there was no possible way to explain why Brian was looking at him like that. "You know that I'm - dammit, you know, and for you to still - it's a really shitty thing to do. You're going too far."
Brian stood up and walked over to Howie slowly, only stopping when they were close enough for Howie to feel warmth, warmth, why the hell was Brian so warm? His eyes were clear and serious. "I'm not making fun of you," he said quietly. "And I'm not experimenting, and I'm not going to forget it in the morning. We want to do this with you, and you’ve been acting like you might - but it's up to you. Yes or no, Howie."
He just had to breathe, really, that was the key. Howie's vision blurred slightly at the edges – from the intense panic attack, or the burning, overwhelming heat pooling in his stomach, he wasn't sure. There was no reason to freak out like this, he told himself. He'd done this before. Several times, actually. But this was different. He was the only one here with anything to lose.
But he couldn't remember a time where he didn't want Brian, either.
“It’s okay,” Brian reassured, and Howie could tell he was holding back from touching him. “You can say no, it’s – it’s fine. Still friends, right?” His grin was lopsided and very nervous.
“He won’t say no,” AJ interjected, pulling Howie close again and Howie was already so freaked that his breathing was going shallow. “You’ve been jealous,” he added quietly. Not mocking, just stating a fact. “I know it’s mostly about – but it has to be both of us, Howie, because I’m not going to – it has to be both.” He nuzzled his face into Howie’s neck, and Howie thought, AJ, sweet AJ, my best friend once. “I want you, too,” AJ murmured against his skin. Kissed it gently. “I’m here and I want you, too.”
“I-“ Howie tried, but the words got stuck in his throat. He didn’t dare look up at Brian, because Brian still wasn’t touching him and he didn’t know how the hell he would react if Brian actually did touch him. He concentrated on AJ instead, AJ who was holding him and calming him and making it all sound so easy.
“You want to?” AJ asked quietly, hands sliding over Howie’s stomach, and there was really only one answer to give.
He nodded once, looking down at the ugly red carpet and seeing nothing else. When AJ kissed him behind one ear and made his way down Howie’s neck, he didn't pull away. And when Brian moved closer, pressed a hand to his cheek and let his eyes roam wherever they pleased, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes.
"You don’t have to do this," he whispered, and immediately wanted to take it back.
It was a moment before he heard AJ say, “We asked you, D. Not the other way around.”
Breathe, breathe, just calm the hell down. Howie turned his head slightly in AJ’s direction. “You’re insane,” he said, breathless, because Brian’s hands were on his chest now, “Why did you – why, how did you even think of something like this?”
AJ smiled briefly and ran a hand slowly through Howie's curls. "Wasn’t my idea," he murmured.
When Howie turned back to Brian in shock, he was still studying Howie closely. He had moved, because they were almost pressed together completely now, and Howie felt his stomach lurch. "Howie," Brian said again, voice hesitant, eyes inspecting every inch of the other man's face before finally stopping at his lips.
Brian was nervous, too. That made him feel marginally less like throwing up. He was about to open his mouth to speak when Brian blurted, “just, think later, okay?” and when he leaned in Howie leaned back in shock for the briefest of seconds. Then...
Then there were lips, slightly chapped but still so soft, sliding over his own – carefully, so carefully. The simple sounds the kiss produced made Howie do a full-body shudder. There was a noise, like a cut-off moan, and he didn't know where it came from but he didn't care either. AJ was still pressed against his back, kissing and nibbling at his neck. It was glorious. It was the hottest thing he'd ever done – and he’d done a lot of stuff – and he hadn't been this scared since the day he'd kissed gap-toothed Lenny Thomas behind the china shop at the state fair, his first kiss with a boy, ever, and this was a really bad time to be thinking about that.
Brian cupped Howie's face in his hands and deepened the kiss, tongue licking at Howie's lips to gain access. Howie's mouth fell open before he could even think about it, and oh, Brian was a fucking natural. Howie made a keening noise that was utterly embarrassing and AJ bit down on his neck gently. Howie fought back a groan.
"Don't do that," Brian breathed into Howie's mouth, hands now running up and down his arms and causing delicious goosebumps. "Don't hold back, don't-"
Something in Howie snapped.
Making a growling noise deep in the back of his throat, he surged forward and pressed their mouths together tight, teeth briefly clicking, hands running over Brian's back, in his hair, down his arms. Somewhere far back he heard a soft "fuck" that had to have come from AJ, but he wasn't about to stop and check. Brian was clinging to him, making noises that had to be completely sinful and giving it back as good as he got. He tasted like toothpaste and something so decidedly Brian that Howie quickly decided it was the best thing he had ever tasted in his life. They were so close that their cheeks brushed, all teeth and tongues and ragged breathing and it wasn't enough, it tore at him how he needed more, closer, harder, tighter, now.
He wrenched away with a shuddering gasp, but they were still so close, Brian's face only inches from his. He could feel Brian's labored breathing ghost over his lips, see the dazed look in his eyes, the surprise underneath the desire, the desire, and somewhere far off he could hear himself babble in an uncharacteristically raspy voice, "That was, that, I don't, I-"
"Wow," AJ breathed behind him. "Rok, you okay?"
Brian laughed breathlessly, still not tearing his gaze away from Howie, who was feeling more than a little nauseous at the moment. "Absolutely," he replied in a husky voice. “I - I had no idea you-“
Howie managed a hesitant smile. He was shaking hard with pent up energy now, waiting, wanting, aching to reach out, so when Brian began to tug Howie’s shirt out of his jeans, he gasped and leaned into him on pure instinct. A smile that looked like a secret tugged on Brian’s lips as he murmured, “More?” Howie nodded and a needy sound fell unconsciously from his throat as Brian kissed him again.
It was different this time. Brian teased Howie’s lips open, and then it was soft and deep. So incredibly sexy. Howie barely felt it when AJ began guiding them all towards the bed, he was so caught up in Brian and the soft noises he was making, in the way he gripped Howie’s arms tight so he wouldn’t lose his balance. In the way the heat lurking under the surface felt a little bit like a surprise to the both of them.
When the back of Brian’s knees hit the bed, he broke the kiss with a soft gasp. Howie stared at him, slightly out of breath and completely at a loss. Brian smiled at him again, and just as Howie watched him begin to settle down on the bed, he was turned around by persistent hands. He met AJ’s gaze and hoped he didn’t look as lost as he felt. AJ stepped closer and ran his hands over Howie’s shoulders, raising an eyebrow as he waited. Howie swallowed once before nodding. He was breathing hard, blood pounding in his ears, and AJ frowned just as he was about to lean in.
“Howie,” he said gently and ran a hand through Howie’s hair. “Howie-“
“I know,” he interrupted roughly, closing his eyes and pressing his hands to AJ’s chest. “I know - just-“
He was cut off by AJ’s lips on his, which was probably a good thing, because he had no idea what he was trying to say. Howie’s surprised gasp was muffled between them, but he recovered quickly and moved his own shaking hand to AJ’s hair, pulling him closer. He opened his eyes and saw blurry eyelashes as AJ whispered, “come on, come on” into his mouth and, just like that, their kiss grew harder. AJ growled in frustration and Howie was going to pass out from lack of oxygen soon, but he didn’t care, because this was … this was…
He felt AJ’s hands fumble with the hem of his shirt and they only pulled away from each other when AJ got a good enough grip to yank it over Howie’s head. They looked at each other, fighting for breath, and when AJ kissed him a second time it didn’t feel like they were trying so hard. AJ's beard scraped over Howie's cheeks, so different from Brian, so different, but still good. “AJ,” Howie murmured, just once, just to remind himself where he was. AJ nibbled at his lower lip in response and his hand tickled lightly over Howie’s stomach, making Howie gasp into the kiss. He’d always known, for some reason, that AJ would be pretty damn good at this. The fact that he’d actually thought about that before tonight was something he didn’t feel like dwelling on too much.
They broke away from the kiss slowly, AJ pressing his forehead to Howie’s as they steadied themselves. Howie tried to get his heartbeat to slow down, but it wasn’t easy – not with AJ’s soft breath against his face and Brian’s eyes on his back. AJ moved back just enough that he could look Howie in the eye, and they shared a smile. “Turn around,” AJ said hoarsely, and Howie sucked in a sharp breath. “He can’t stop looking at you. Turn around and see for yourself.”
Howie almost laughed, this was all so absurd and exactly what he’d wanted for so long. AJ smiled again, like he understood, and kissed Howie’s neck before he turned him back around to face Brian. He was up on his knees on the bed, making them almost at eye level. He grinned lightly, not giving a damn that he was caught staring, and just before Howie was pulled in for another kiss he heard Brian murmur a soft, “thank you.” Howie closed his eyes and wondered which one of them that was meant for.
The part of Howie's brain that he could never shut up kept telling him that when he woke up, none of it would have happened. He had to have imagined it. There was no way it could've been real.
Except that when he woke up, Brian's morning stubble was tickling the back of his neck. Howie blinked a few times, trying to make sense of where he was and what had happened when AJ walked out of the bathroom, scratching his chest as he yawned hugely. His eyes landed on Howie and a small smile crept up on his face.
"Morning," he chirped.
Howie blinked again. That probably wasn't the best way to communicate. "Morning," he tried instead, clearing his throat when he realized how raspy his voice was.
"Do you wanna shower first?" AJ asked, and Howie tried desperately to focus on what he was saying instead of thinking about where his mouth and hands had been last night, "Or you can go back to your own room and shower if you want to. I'm not trying to kick you out or anything, but I'm just saying, three people and one shower. Whoever gets last turn is in for a cold treat, you know?"
"Um." Howie tried to move until he discovered that one of Brian's legs was thrown over his. "I'll, uh. I guess I'll shower in my own room. I'll just-"
"You don't have to go yet," Brian mumbled slowly, the words muffled against the back of Howie's neck. "AJ, slow down. What's the hurry?"
"We have stuff to do today," AJ protested. "There's that radio interview thing. And I don't know if you remember, but there's also that pesky little concert. You know, girls screaming, panties flying. Fun all around."
"Yay," Brian said calmly. Every time he spoke, his lips moved against Howie's neck. Howie tried to keep as still as possible. "Go shower first then. I'm comfortable."
"I would be, too," AJ commented with a knowing smirk. Before Howie had time to think about what that meant, AJ turned back around. "All right, I'll go first, but if you're still snuggling when I'm done I'm dragging both of you out of bed. By the hair if I have to."
The door closed with a soft click, leaving the room quiet once again. Howie was wide awake now, overly aware of each deep breath Brian took. Brian made no move to get up, or even to move away now that they had more room. Howie cleared his throat again. "I … I think I'll go take that shower then."
"Already?" Brian's voice was still low with sleep.
"Yeah," Howie rasped.
"All right." There was stirring behind him, and when a hand settled gently on his shoulder, Howie turned to find Brian leaning up on his elbow. His hair was sticking up in every direction and Howie had a sudden urge to smooth it down. Brian offered him a small smile. "You okay?"
Howie thought about it. Then he nodded, feeling a smile of his own grow.
"Good." Brian's thumb was rubbing over Howie's shoulder blade now. "Listen, Howie, this doesn't have to … you know. We can do this again. If you want to."
The smile fell off Howie's face. He thought he'd hoped too much. Things never happened when he hoped too much. "I … yeah. Definitely." He gestured towards the bathroom. "But what about…?"
"He knows I'm asking you," Brian replied. "We talked about it a lot before it happened, Howie. I just don’t think either of us thought that…" Brian trailed off, fixing his gaze on Howie's neck. "I don't know. It wasn't what I expected."
Howie swallowed hard. "Oh."
"No, I mean," Brian took his hand and squeezed it gently, "in a good way." When Howie looked up at him again, Brian was smiling.
Howie let out a little laugh. "This is weird." He shook his head. "I mean, it's - it's you. And AJ. And then last night - it's so different now."
"Yeah." Brian nodded. "It takes a little while to get used to." He studied Howie's face for a moment, looking like he was deep in thought. Then he leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to the corner of Howie's mouth. "I like change, though," he added with a half smile.
Howie looked up into blue eyes and smiled back. "Me too."
Without acknowledging it, the three of them worked out a system. Brian would approach Howie, place a hand on his arm and tug gently. Howie would smile at him and nod. He couldn't imagine ever saying no.
It wasn't every night. Sometimes weeks passed before anything happened. It was sort of a thrill, not knowing when or where they would ask. AJ and Brian still shared a hotel room every night, but Howie was okay with that. He really didn't have much of a choice. And it wasn't like he was trying to get between them - it wasn’t his place. He didn't have any business there anyway.
Kevin started watching him more than usual. One day when they were alone in the dressing room, Kevin watched as Howie inspected his outfit in the mirror and said, "You sure you know what you're doing?"
Howie looked at him in the reflection. "What?"
"Can you really handle it?" Kevin leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "The three of you?"
Howie looked at Kevin for a long moment. When he turned back to his own reflection, he could barely recognize himself. Of course Kevin knew. All of them knew so many things about each other that they never talked about. "I'm a big boy, Kevin."
"I know." Kevin was frowning in that way that made his eyebrows meet on his forehead. Which didn't take much, but still, Howie knew that it was time to take him seriously. "But come on. Are you sure this isn't gonna mess with your head? I mean - you've been into him for a long time."
Now it was Howie's turn to frown. "So?" Howie said defensively.
"So, he's with AJ," Kevin continued like Howie didn't know that already. "I'm just saying, don't … you know."
"I'm not doing much of anything," Howie said sharply. "I'm taking what I can get. That's it."
Kevin's expression softened a bit. "Okay. You're all responsible people, so I don't need to tell you to be safe, right?"
Howie looked down. "It's not - um, we don't go that far." He scratched the back of his head and cleared his throat. "It's just … you know, hands, and-"
Kevin's hands flew up. "I don't need details, D. Jesus." Despite that, he laughed, low and brief, as he shook his head. "You look happy, man," he said. "It's good. I'm glad."
There was so much touch in his life now. He never had to wait long before Brian's arm was around his shoulders or AJ's fingers were tickling his waist. Nick was always all over him - that would probably never change. There'd always been a lot of touch in his life, but now … it was a different kind of touch. Like when Brian touched his knee under the piano and everything from Howie's toes to his stomach were tingling with anticipation. Then again, Brian just had to look at him a certain way and Howie's heart would do funny things, so he supposed it didn't take much.
Sometimes Brian would pull him backstage and give him a chaste kiss as if to say, "you look nice today," or "I thought you might need it," or "I want to cover you in chocolate and have you for dessert." Howie was never really be sure. It was never much, but he could still feel Brian's hands on his chest hours later, as if they had made an imprint there.
Sometimes he thought he lived for those nights. Nights when touch became almost overwhelming. It was a tight fit, the three of them in one bed, but they made it work. Sometimes Howie would just watch the two of them - how they moved, what they did to be good for each other. Sometimes Brian sat on top of him and brushed his hair back, just watching him for a moment before leaning in. Sometimes AJ kissed him, rough and hard and a bit possessive. With AJ it was always harder; they had to work at it. It wasn't like with Brian. Being with Brian was probably the easiest thing in the world.
"Howie!" Nick called from down the hallway. Howie stopped in his tracks and waited for Nick to catch up with him. "Hey," he grinned, clapping a hand down on Howie's shoulder. "You wanna go check out some clubs tonight? One of the fans gave me a tip. If it sucks we can always find somewhere else, right?"
"Oh." Howie's gaze shifted to a closed door a little further down. "Not tonight, Nick. I'm kinda tired."
The smile slipped from Nick's face. "Really?"
"Yeah." Howie slipped out of Nick's grasp and smiled apologetically. "What about this weekend, though? You up for it?"
Nick nodded, biting his lower lip. "Sure. That's cool." He backed towards the elevator. "I'll, uh … I'll let you get some sleep then."
Howie smiled. "Have fun." As soon as the elevator doors slipped shut, he headed down the hallway. He knocked twice and waited, hearing shuffling feet behind the door. When the door opened a crack and AJ's head peered out, Howie's smile grew. "Hey," he said.
"Oh." AJ said. "Hey, D."
Howie hesitated when AJ didn't move to let him in. "Um. Could I … come in?"
AJ looked over his shoulder before turning back. "We're sort of busy."
"Oh. Oh." Howie felt his stomach bottoming out. "I'm sorry, I just thought … I mean, I thought you-"
"Not tonight," AJ cut him off. "We'll see you tomorrow, D." Then he shut the door in Howie's face, leaving him alone in the hallway.
Howie swallowed hard and shifted his weight from foot to foot. He heard the shower running inside the room, and then Brian, singing a song he didn't know. When he could finally get his feet to move, he walked to his own room with slow steps. Brian probably hadn't touched his arm like that today. He really had been looking for that invitation a little too hard lately.
Sometimes he forgot that he wasn't a part of what they had.
On the day that everything changed, Brian barged into Howie’s room and flung himself down on the couch. “I am so bored,” he announced dramatically, like it was some life-threatening disease. He poked Howie’s side. ”You should entertain me.”
Howie snorted, but put his magazine down on the coffee table just the same. “God forbid you should ever have to entertain yourself.”
“That’s right.” Brian grinned as he got comfortable at the end of the couch, slinging his arm over the back. “I have my very own Howie right here, why should I be bored in my room all alone?”
Howie smiled a little. “I’ll do my best, then,” he said as he rubbed his eyes.
The smile faded from Brian’s face. He frowned. “Hey, you okay?” he asked, reaching out to put a hand on Howie’s shoulder.
Turning away from the touch just a fraction and wiping his hands on his jeans, he did his best to smile. “Fine,” he said casually. “Just wiped out. I need to sleep for about two days straight sometime in the near future.”
Brian’s expression didn’t change, and Howie squirmed under that intent stare. After a brief silence, Brian shifted so he was sitting up against the arm of the couch. “I wanna try something. Move so you’re facing away from me.”
Howie raised an eyebrow, but did as he was told. He felt the couch dip as Brian shifted closer, and he did his best to take in a breath without making too much noise. At the first touch of hands on his shoulders, his muscles tightened instinctively.
“Relax.” Brian laughed, hands running slowly up to his neck. “I’ll have no chance if you tense up like that. Mind taking off your shirt? It’ll be easier that way.”
Howie made a funny noise in the back of his throat and really hoped Brian would choose to ignore it. “Sure.” Howie smiled a little before pulling the worn t-shirt over his head and throwing it aside. “You’re a saint, Brian.”
“Hardly,” he replied, a smirk evident in his voice as he set to kneading Howie’s neck. Firm fingers digging into his skin, tender even at its roughest. Howie exhaled slowly, head falling slightly forward as Brian used his other hand to press fingertips into the muscles just around his spine. Warm breath whooshed over Howie’s back as Brian put effort into applying extra pressure, making the hairs on the back of Howie’s neck stand on end.
“You know,” he began lightly in a voice that only cracked a little, “I think we’re a bottle of baby oil and some dimmed lighting away from making really bad porn here.”
Brian burst out laughing at that, and Howie couldn’t help but grin, because making Brian genuinely laugh didn’t happen to him that often. “Oh man. I’d have to say something like,” his voice went an octave lower, “’you’re so hot, baby. Let’s get you out of these clothes and get more comfortable.’ Or, well.” The couch dipped a bit as he leaned forward. “Guess I already took care of the clothes part.”
“I’m still dressed,” Howie protested. “Partially.”
“Such a pity, too.”
Howie sniffed. “I knew you only wanted me for my hot body.”
“Sorry, man. I’m really shallow when you get down to it.”
They both laughed, and Howie finally started to relax a little. His eyes closed as Brian’s hands slid further up his neck, fingers kneading just under his hairline and making him lightheaded. “Where’d you learn … how to do this?” he asked, voice gone softer on its own accord.
“An ex,” Brian answered as his thumbs started rubbing slow circles. “She gave me full body massages after shows sometimes. Right from my toes to hair roots, man, the whole nine yards. Her hands could make me melt into the mattress.” He laughed lightly, and breath ghosted over Howie’s neck again. “And then, you know, I wanted to return the favor so she taught me how. I could do more, but you really need to be lying down for the rest of it.”
“Oh,” Howie said. He opened his mouth to say more, but quickly shut it again. “This is fine. You're - you know, you're really good at it.”
There was a short silence. “Thanks,” Brian then said, and Howie nodded wordlessly. Hands skimmed down to his spine and landed at the small of his back, palms pressing into the sore muscles. Howie fell slightly forward with the pressure, breath released in a rush, and Brian leaned closer into him as his palms started pushing upwards hard. “This all right?” he asked quietly, his mouth almost at the shell of Howie’s ear.
“Uh huh,” Howie breathed – at least he thought he did, it was hard to tell when his brain was in the process of turning liquid. When Brian pressed his fingertips around his spine and pushed upwards all the way up his back, he couldn’t stop himself from letting out a small moan. Almost instantly it was replaced by a nervous laugh. “Sorry,” he mumbled.
“It’s okay.” Brian's voice was very quiet, and yet Howie could still tell that he was smiling. “Means I’m doing it right, doesn’t it?”
Howie took a breath, blushing when he felt shivers run down his spine. “You don’t have to-“
“I want to.” Brian’s voice was still soft, hands still kneading his neck. “Okay? I know I don’t have to do anything if I don’t feel like it. I really wish you’d understand that.”
There was a tense little pause where Brian’s hands lay still on his shoulders. Howie cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, right. No, you’re right, I’m sorry.”
Another pause. Then Brian let out a little sigh and went back to work. For a while there was nothing but the sound of their breathing, and just when Howie was beginning to think that there was no point to this massage when all his muscles were beginning to tense up again, he felt Brian shift behind him. His legs stretched out so Howie was sitting between them, and one of his hands moved to run through Howie’s curls.
“You seem to think I’m here because I feel guilty,” Brian said slowly, like he was taking his time to choose the right words. “Or maybe … I don’t know. Because I feel sorry for you or something. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”
Howie had no idea how to respond, or even how to react. His gaze was fixed on a tiny rip in his pants.
“That’s a yes, then.” Brian was pressed flush against him now, chin resting on his shoulder and hands circling around his waist. “It’s all in your head, you know. If you want to, you can lie down right now and I’ll massage you from your toes to your hair roots, and you don’t have to feel like I’m doing it out of some weird sense of obligation.” He paused for a moment. “I want to do this for you. Get you to relax a little for once. Make you feel better.”
Howie closed his eyes. “Brian.“
“I like making you feel better.”
“You’re gorgeous.” He pressed a kiss to the back of Howie’s neck and chuckled when Howie made a choked sound. “What was that?”
Howie shook his head and let out a little laugh as well. “I don’t know,” he said on an exhale.
They were quiet for a time. Howie could feel Brian’s fingers lightly skirting over his stomach, waiting patiently. It took Howie a moment to realize he was supposed to say something now. “It’s, um, it’s not,” he tried to explain, but the words weren’t coming out right. “I mean, I guess I’ve spent a lot of time thinking you didn’t want me.”
“Too much time,” Brian murmured and hugged Howie closer.
Suddenly Howie felt a lump in his throat. “Don’t, okay?” he said, and even to him his voice sounded shaky. “Just – just, don’t.”
“M’not doing anything.” Brian kissed him gently behind one ear.
Howie turned and looked at Brian over his shoulder. Brian who was smiling and kissing the corner of his eye now, his cheek, smoothing his hair back. Treating Howie like he was some kind of treasure. Brian who was waiting. Howie kissed him hesitantly, just a light pressure of lips, and when he pulled back Brian’s smile was warm.
Howie kissed him again. Brian made a contented hum in his throat and kissed back, making it slow and sweet. Howie’s heart was in his throat and it was so hard to breathe suddenly, to hear anything but the blood rushing in his ears. The angle was all wrong, though, so Howie maneuvered around – not breaking away, never breaking away – and then he was sitting in Brian’s lap with his legs around Brian’s waist, and - yeah. That was better. He let out a long breath into Brian’s mouth and shifted closer. It was somewhere around the time he wrapped his arms around Brian’s neck that he realized this was the first time he’d actually kissed Brian rather than Brian kissing him.
Brian was making soft noises that made Howie's toes curl. One hand moved from Howie’s bare back and settled in his hair, running his fingers through it, tickling his neck affectionately. Howie smiled a little into the kiss and felt Brian smile back, and “yeah,” he breathed, yeah, this was so good. Brian’s mouth was hot and his hands were everywhere, moving slowly – everything about him seemed to whisper I want you, I want you, and, God, yes. He was really wanted here. Howie’s hands started shaking.
Brian hummed softly. He didn’t stop the kiss until Howie was the one who reluctantly ended it, and even then he still held him close. Howie blinked rapidly a few times and tried to steady his breathing. Brian was a little short of breath as well, and his hair was messed up by Howie’s hands, his lips shining and red. He looked amazing.
“That was new,” Brian murmured with a little smile, and Howie couldn’t be sure, but he thought that maybe Brian looked a little overwhelmed as well.
Howie let out a small laugh. “Yeah,” he rasped and let his head fall to Brian’s shoulder. “I know.” He was still shaking, surprised and scared and turned on, but he followed easily when Brian leaned back to lie down on the couch. Howie stretched out on top of him and Brian’s arms went around Howie again, hands moving up and down his back in a soothing motion.
Howie took a shaky breath. He felt charged suddenly, like he was crackling with something … something. He didn’t know what. Some new energy. He wanted to kiss Brian again – it was all so simple, he knew, because he could kiss Brian if he wanted to. Brian wanted him to. Brian wanted him.
Howie looked up when Brian began stirring a little. He watched as Brian let out a warm sound and opened his eyes. He looked sated. Happy.
“Hey,” he said with a small smile, like they’d just met up in the hallway. His hand was running up and down Howie’s spine. “Better?” he asked softly.
Howie was pretty sure something in brain had shorted, because no words were coming to him. Instead he kissed Brian again, light and hesitant, still testing. Brian hummed again and placed a hand on Howie’s neck, keeping him close. So relaxed. Brian really wanted this.
“Yeah,” Howie murmured against Brian’s lips, smiling a little. “Yeah, much better.”
Brian kissed him one more time, a quick peck, before he leaned back down. “Good,” he grinned and ran his hands through Howie’s hair.
When the lock turned, Howie jumped and tried to move away, but Brian had a surprisingly firm grip on him. And really, it was stupid, because AJ was the only one who had a key, but Howie felt more than a little vulnerable right now. A little exposed.
“Yeah, sure, catch you later, Nick. Dude, Howie, check out this shirt I – oh.” AJ stopped mid-sentence and shut the door behind him quickly. “Okay, not what I was expecting to see,” he remarked, his grin spreading slowly.
“Hey,” Brian said with a smile, hands settling on Howie’s waist, and Howie couldn’t help but blush, because really, he was lying directly on top of Brian without a shirt on and everyone was acting like it was no big deal. “Did you have fun shopping?”
“Not as much fun as I would’ve had here, apparently,” AJ grinned, and Howie thought, okay, he must have known this would happen, they must have planned it ahead of time, he was so casual about the whole thing. Well, as casual as AJ could be. He couldn’t have welcomed Howie into their relationship that much. He couldn’t.
AJ’s eyes darted from Brian to Howie and back to Brian again. “Is he okay?” he asked and jerked a thumb in Howie’s direction.
“He’s fine,” Brian grinned. “Dude, why are you still standing all the way over there? We don’t take up that much room.”
AJ quirked an eyebrow, did a tiny ‘who, me?’ gesture, and began walking towards the couch. Howie was shaking again, tense with anticipation, but Brian was soothing him with hands that ran up and down his back. Howie sat up, still nestled between Brian’s legs, and when AJ was standing in front of him Howie grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him down for a kiss.
AJ made a surprised sound into Howie’s mouth, and he had to grab on to the back of the couch to steady himself, but then he was kissing Howie back and there was blood rushing in Howie’s ears again. He made a soft sound, a relieved sound, and held on tight to AJ’s shirt, bunching it up in his hands. So soft. AJ’s lips were so soft, and Howie could taste the coffee he’d had earlier. AJ, he thought, over and over in time with his heartbeat, AJ wants me. It was a while yet before he pulled away, adding one last quick kiss to wet lips.
AJ was hovering over him now, looking both surprised and amused at the same time. “Hello to you, too,” he said with a soft smile. He was still close, he hadn’t moved away and it didn’t look like he was planning on it either. Howie let out a breathless little laugh before he kissed AJ again.
“I was giving Howie a backrub,” he heard Brian say, and he would’ve looked, except he wasn’t quite ready to stop kissing AJ yet. “But I don’t know, man. Maybe you can convince him to let us work on the rest of those sore muscles, ‘cause I didn’t have any luck.”
Howie could feel the smile tugging on AJ’s lips, and when he pulled back it was already in place. “If he wants us to,” AJ said carefully.
It was all so simple. Howie leaned back and looked at Brian, whose hands were pressed lightly to Howie’s stomach.
“I want,” Howie said, and Brian’s smile turned as bright as he’d ever seen it.
They stumbled into the dark hotel room, kissing and touching almost before the door was closed. Brian growled playfully as he nuzzled his face in Howie’s neck, and Howie had to laugh, had to hold on so his legs wouldn’t give in on him.
“It’s been weeks.” Brian’s voice was muffled against Howie’s throat. He kissed the spot gently and pulled away so they were face to face. “We’ve missed you,” he murmured, and Howie could hear the smile even if he couldn’t see it.
“Missed you, too,” he said as they fumbled backwards blindly, searching for the bed. He reached out and pulled AJ as close as he could. “Missed you,” he whispered into AJ’s mouth and he felt AJ’s smile, felt his answering moan all the way down to his toes.
There hadn't been time. They'd been so busy, and then for a while they hadn't asked, but now, finally. It seemed like all he'd done for the past few weeks was wait for this.
“Hold on a second,” Brian said, but Howie didn’t hear him. He pushed AJ back without breaking the kiss, trying to find something, anything, to lean up against, because he wasn't sure his legs could hold him up much longer. When finally he felt AJ flatten out against a wall, he pressed closer and deepened the kiss, cupping AJ’s face in his hands.
“Howie, Howie,” AJ whispered, a soft litany, and wrapped his arms around Howie’s back to pull him closer. Howie growled deep in his throat, and he barely felt it when AJ turned them around so he was the one pressed up against the wall; only felt AJ kiss him harder, deeper. Only felt AJ wanting him.
Suddenly there was light flooding behind Howie’s eyelids. He broke away with a disoriented sound and had to blink a few times before he could focus on Brian, who had turned on one of the bedside lamps. Soft light deepened the shadows in the room, and Howie fought to catch his breath. Brian was looking at them with a small smile that he couldn't quite read.
“Don’t stop on my account,” he said. “That looked really nice.”
AJ made a small noise of agreement. Howie turned back to him and kept his eyes open as AJ kissed him again. "You wanna?” he mumbled as he started pulling Howie towards the bed. Howie didn't have breath to tell him how much he wanted it, so he just nodded, wide-eyed and desperate.
They climbed into the bed one at a time. Howie went first and settled down on his back, maneuvering to make room for all of them. AJ settled by his side and Brian by his feet. Howie blinked up at them. They were so different, and yet – together, the two of them – it made sense. Suddenly it was hard to breathe when he thought about what they were doing for him, what they were giving him.
Brian climbed up and settled a hand on Howie’s hip. Rubbing the skin softly, he started to smile. “What’s this?” he asked softly and pressed a kiss to Howie’s stomach. Howie tensed just a little and looked down at the top of Brian’s head. But Brian just kept on kissing his stomach, his chest, his thumb stroking back and forth on Howie’s hipbone all the while. He sat up for a second and focused big eyes on AJ. “Have you seen this? Did you see what I got?”
"Yeah, I see it," AJ said with a small laugh. He ran a hand down Brian's back and let it stay there as Brian leaned back down to continue what he was doing.
Howie had to smile when Brian was finally at eye level with him. ”It’s a Howie in my bed,” Brian exclaimed in a light voice, grinning all the while as he rubbed their noses together. “It’s my Howie, I found him all by myself.”
Howie laughed breathlessly and shook his head. “Idiot,” he said fondly, feeling his body begin to relax.
Brian got up on his elbows and smiled softly. His eyes never left Howie’s as he traced a hand down Howie’s chest. Circled it on his stomach. Howie breathed out slowly and fought to keep his eyes open – it was kind of pathetic, he thought, that such a simple touch could make him react this way. But Brian didn’t look like he was complaining.
Moving his hands back to Howie’s hips, Brian leaned down and kissed the skin just below Howie’s ear, the press of it so slow and light that it was almost reverent. He made his way down slowly, so slow, so gentle, taking his time to kiss and mouth at Howie’s neck, his collarbone. With a soft moan, Howie placed his hand at the back of Brian’s head – not guiding, just holding on.
It was all so quiet. They were all so careful and he didn’t know why, only that he liked it, that he didn’t want to ruin it. A third hand settled on his side, rubbing the skin gently, and Howie forced his eyes open. He smiled up at AJ, breathing a little quicker as Brian explored his neck, and when he ran his free hand slowly up AJ’s arm, AJ smiled in return.
Meanwhile, Brian had found the spot on Howie’s neck that always made him whine and arch up for more. “Yeah,” Brian whispered, so faint that it was nothing more than a tickle on Howie’s skin, “yeah, you’re so - I want-“ Howie nodded mindlessly, just knowing that anything Brian wanted was absolutely okay with him. Brian moved up and they kissed again, slow and deep. His hands came up to grab Howie’s, twine their fingers together, and then he stretched out so every part of their bodies were pressed together. Howie groaned into the kiss and felt Brian shiver above him, soft and quiet and just slightly out of control.
A second mouth pressed small kisses to Howie’s shoulder as a hand skimmed down his side and Howie arched up again, meeting AJ’s touch as much as he could. “Mmm.” AJ’s voice was as low as he’d ever heard it. “You want him, D?” he murmured right by Howie’s ear.
“Yes,” Howie breathed, almost sobbed with the sincerity of it, and Brian broke their kiss with a small needy sound. He stared at Howie with wide, dark eyes, flushed and out of breath and so irresistibly sexy that Howie’s heart ached.
“Brian wants you, too,” AJ said quietly. It wasn’t until now Howie noticed that AJ’s other hand was on Brian’s back, drawing lazy circles there. “Don’t you?”
Still looking directly at Howie, Brian took a deep breath and nodded. Howie felt his stomach flip. Everything went black and for a second he could barely breathe.
“I want,” AJ whispered urgently, nibbling at Howie’s throat, “to watch you. I want to see it.” Howie felt a shiver run all the way down his spine and when he turned his head to look at AJ, there was a small smile on his face. “You both want it so much,” he said quietly.
“AJ,” Brian whispered, startled, and when AJ moved up on his elbow Brian was quick to pull him in. The kiss happened without any hesitation. Brian’s hand moved to the back of AJ’s head, keeping him in place, and AJ’s thumb moved slowly back and forth on Brian’s shoulder. Breathing raggedly, Brian clung to him, kissed him so hard that it was sure to bruise. They kissed like they needed each other’s air to breathe, and Howie wasn’t even surprised, because he knew. Of course he knew.
They drew apart slowly, their foreheads still pressed together. AJ let out a breath and smiled shakily. “I want this,” he reassured one last time. “And I know you want it, so quit stalling.”
Brian laughed, a short, breathless laugh, and nodded. He let go of AJ and they both looked down at Howie, who was still lying between them. Howie took a deep breath and pulled AJ down for a kiss. “Don’t go too far, 'kay?” he murmured and looked into wide, brown eyes.
AJ kissed the corner of his mouth and nodded. “M’not going anywhere,” he promised.
Howie nodded back and kissed AJ one final time, a soft peck on the lips. When he turned back to Brian, he was looking at him with soft, questioning eyes. Howie got it. He knew what to do.
Without another word, he leaned up and caught Brian’s lips with his own. Brian sucked in a sharp breath before he gripped Howie’s arms tight and kissed him back. When Howie tilted his head to get a better angle, a shudder went through Brian and he moaned into Howie’s mouth. They settled back down on the mattress and Brian shifted, moving just a little on top of him. A small groan was wrenched from Howie’s throat. Every nerve ending was singing, crying, and when Brian nearly sagged on top of him it was almost too much. It was so clear. Brian's body was asking for what Brian couldn't and Howie was finally starting to understand. He held Brian's head in his hands and took charge, swallowing one small moan after another. Brian pulled back just an inch, breathing hard against Howie's lips, before he kissed him again, so soft, murmuring ragged nonsense between them. Howie clung to him and tried to form a coherent thought. He hadn’t known, he’d been so stupid, he hadn’t known Brian wanted him that much.
“Howie,” Brian whispered, his accent thick, “Howie, you – do you-?”
Howie let his hands wander, felt the ripple of Brian's spine, the curve of his back, and when Brian buried his face in Howie’s neck and groaned, Howie let his arms circle around him. He wanted to say it, wanted it to be acknowledged and cherished, but he couldn’t. It would just make things harder in the end. “Please,” he said instead, a low rasp right in Brian’s ear, and Brian nodded even as he began to move.
It never got completely dark on summer nights. So far, Howie hadn't slept much. It wasn't often he shared a bed with anyone, so the unfamiliar sounds always threw him off a bit. He didn't know when they'd all started to doze off, just that Brian was pressed up against his back, legs perfectly aligned and one arm curled possessively around Howie's stomach. It was too hot to sleep like this; Howie was sweaty and sore and restless, and he didn't want to move, ever. Not ever.
Even though his eyes were closed, he knew AJ was on the other side of him, taking up as much space as he could. And all those sounds - so many breaths that went in and out, so many heartbeats thudding calmly as they slept. Howie listened to everything.
The sheets rustled as Brian stirred behind him. His arm around Howie tightened, making Howie hide a smile in his pillow. There was a warm, sleepy sound right in his ear, and then Brian nuzzled his face into the back of Howie's neck and sighed. Then it got quiet again. Howie didn't hesitate when he let his hand fall on top of Brian's. He was tired of hesitating.
Brian's voice, veiled with the distance of someone still asleep, was barely audible. Nevertheless, Howie heard the whispered endearments spoken as clearly as if he had been awake. He heard the words that weren’t meant for him.
And just like that, everything changed again. Howie's eyes flew open and connected with AJ's, the AJ who was supposed to be asleep but instead was reeling back at the same moment. "I didn't know," he whispered, looking truly startled, "I was - I was watching you and - I swear, I didn't know he-"
Howie took his hand and AJ immediately stopped talking. "It's okay," he reassured. It had happened so much later than he'd expected. "Can I just … stay till morning?"
AJ stared at him for a long time. His mouth opened and closed several times before he could finally speak. "Of course," he said hoarsely, looking over Howie's shoulder at the man still sleeping. "As long as you want. I'm sure it didn't … didn't mean anything."
All Howie could muster was a sad smile before he closed his eyes again.
There was a tense moment where everything was quiet. Then Howie felt a light kiss pressed to the corner of his mouth. "Night, D," AJ murmured. Howie didn't open his eyes as AJ settled back down, but when AJ placed his hand on top of Howie's again he gave it a gentle squeeze. Neither of them let go again.
Howie didn't sleep much the rest of the night.
The next time Brian walked up to him with that small smile and placed a hand on his arm, Howie blurted out before Brian could even get started, “I can’t tonight. I have, you know, I have a thing. With Kevin. I promised, so.”
Brian looked a little surprised. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, okay.” He smiled again and drew his hand back. “Another time then.”
Howie just nodded and went back to his microphone stand.
It took a few more tries that Howie kept declining for Brian to take the hint. He hadn’t even looked surprised the final time Howie made up a lame excuse. So now there weren’t small secret smiles and lingering touches anymore; there were awkward silences and a very strained effort on both parts to ignore the other. Howie wasn’t exactly sure what to do. He'd never been very good at fixing his own problems.
The mutual cold shoulder lasted about a week until AJ had finally had enough and maneuvered Howie into a quiet corner.
“You better talk to him,” he said, adding a poke in Howie’s chest for emphasis.
“Ow.” Howie rubbed the sore spot and glared. “What’s your problem?”
“My problem?” AJ repeated incredulously. “My problem is that you’re acting like a goddamn five-year-old about this whole thing. You need to tell him why you’ve stopped … you know, us.”
Howie’s eyes widened. “You haven’t told him?” he asked.
AJ looked down and Howie actually saw his cheeks flush a little bit. A second later he looked at Howie again, his jaw set. “I haven’t told him anything,” he said firmly. “This isn’t about me and him, all right? Right now he’s thinking … I don’t know what he’s thinking, but it’s not good. I mean, shit, you totally brushed him off. What the hell were you thinking anyway?”
Howie just shook his head. “I just – it seemed like the best way to go about it, I guess.”
“No.” AJ pushed him. Not hard, but enough to make Howie’s eyes go wide. “No, that’s not good enough. You know he doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment.” Howie opened his mouth to speak up for himself, but AJ cut him off sharply, “And you know him. He never would’ve started anything with you if it was all just about a favor. Right?”
Howie sighed and wiped a tired hand across his face. “So what do you want me to do?”
AJ stared at him as if he was a complete idiot, which, okay, was probably pretty accurate to be thinking right then. “Fix it,” AJ said simply. “Tell him the truth. Pull the band-aid off quickly and all that.”
Howie nodded. “Yeah,” he said quietly and looked down to where he was pressing his heel against the wall. “No, I know, you’re right. I know.”
There was a short silence. Howie was looking at AJ’s shoes when AJ suddenly said, “You don’t have to end this now if you don’t want to. I know we said, but … you don’t have to.“
Howie smiled a little and looked up. “It’s fine,” he reassured. “I’m just gonna miss - I don’t know. It’s weird … I mean, we see each other all the time.“ Howie shrugged when he couldn’t find the right words. “I know it started out being just about Brian, but-“
“Yeah,” AJ said, and nodded like he knew exactly what Howie was talking about.
It hadn’t been as difficult to get Brian to talk to him as Howie had initially feared. He’d been wary, definitely, and he hadn’t smiled once while they’d arranged where to meet up later, but that was okay. Howie hadn’t felt like smiling either.
There was a knock on his door at exactly 9pm, and Howie would’ve found it funny that Brian was so ridiculously prompt if his hand hadn’t already been on the doorknob. He waited a second before opening and stepped aside for Brian with a small smile. Brian returned it, hands stuffed into his pockets and hunched over like he wanted to hide.
They stood in the middle of the room and let the awkward silence grow. Finally Brian cleared his throat and looked up.
“You could’ve said something,” he began hesitantly. “If you wanted me to stop asking, you could’ve just said.”
“I’m an idiot,” Howie said quickly. “I don’t know why I did that. I’m sorry.”
Brian chewed on his lip in concentration for a moment. He pulled a hand out of his pocket to fiddle with the hem of his shirt. “I don’t really understand,” he said helplessly.
Howie sighed. “Come on.” He motioned towards the bed before he sat down, watching as Brian followed suit. A lot more space between them than Howie was now used to. They might as well have been sitting on opposite sides of the bed. Brian looked at him again, waiting.
“It’s just,” Howie began. He drew his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. “You know what, I’ll just say it. I had a thing for you, long before we even started this. And you knew it, too.”
Brian smiled a little, but at least he was kind enough not to respond.
“So,” Howie continued on an exhale. “I need to get out now before I start to … well. You know? Because that would be too hard to walk away from, which I would still have to at some point … um. I mean, it was just you and him in the beginning. I’ve always known that.”
“Are you always this incoherent when you’re breaking up with people?” Brian asked with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
It hit Howie hard. He really was, he was breaking up the most messed up, most amazing relationship he’d ever been in. He pressed his forehead to his knees and closed his eyes. “Help me out here, okay? Because, um, I don’t think I can – I mean, I-“
“Howie,” Brian ventured, and the mattress dipped when he slipped closer, “This doesn’t have to – Howie, you don’t have to-“
And Howie laughed. There was a brief flash of panic when he felt it bubble in his throat, and then he was laughing and it was so absurd and completely unreal. When he looked up, Brian was staring at him in disbelief, when suddenly realization dawned and he chuckled a little sheepishly.
“Right,” he said. “Bad choice of words, I guess.”
Howie just shook his head and let the last bit of laughter fade into a smile. They sat together in silence for a while. Howie took a deep breath, trying to figure out what to say. He looked at Brian, who just shrugged and shook his head.
“I’m serious, though,” he went on and studied his wiggling toes. “You - just, don’t do it if you’re doing it for our sake.” He shrugged, cleared his throat, and continued, “Don’t - don’t do it if you’re doing it for mine, anyway.”
Howie stopped smiling after that. Brian looked up at him and Howie felt like his stomach was bottoming out. “That’s not fair,” he said, “This wasn’t – it wasn’t supposed to be, you know. It was just supposed to be a once in a while thing.”
“So what?” Brian countered and moved a little closer, “And, besides, did you think this was just some notch in the belt or something? It wasn’t like, hey, Brian’s Littrell’s gonna have himself a Big Gay Threesome just so he can say he too was freaky once. It wasn’t about that.”
Howie shook his head. “That’s not what I thought.”
“Good,” Brian said seriously. “Because I’m – well. And you … you’re really-” He broke into a tired laugh and rubbed his eyes. “I guess I suck at this, too,” he sighed.
Howie laughed weakly and picked at a hole in his jeans.
“It was … it was about-” Howie looked up when Brian spoke again. He looked nervous, but his voice was steady. “You’re right. I did know about you for … for a long time. And it made me curious. Then the thing with AJ happened, and I just – I needed to figure out why I was still looking at you and thinking about what it would be like to…” Brian trailed off with a helpless shrug.
“Because you knew I would do it if you asked me to?” Howie asked.
Brian looked at him for a long moment. “Maybe,” he admitted. “But it wasn’t about the fact that you’re a guy. It’s never been about that. It was about you.” He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable, but despite what he was saying he held Howie’s gaze. “I mean, you’re the one that got me thinking about the possibility of – um, of guys in the first place, but – it was about you. I know it was.”
Howie swallowed hard. “So, if I had gotten there first-?”
“I don’t know,” Brian said quickly. “I don’t know. I can’t think about that.”
Howie looked down in his lap and nodded. “Okay,” he finally said. “That’s – I mean, that sucks, but I can – I mean, I got so much more than I ever thought I’d get, so. Yeah, okay.”
“Hey.” Brian’s voice was quiet, and Howie looked up at him. “Don’t – no, come here.” Brian scooted up the bed and pulled Howie in for a hug. Howie froze for a second, but Brian just made a protesting sound and held him tighter. Finally Howie returned the hold, wrapping his arms tight around Brian’s back.
“We’re gonna be okay, right?” Brian asked hesitantly.
Howie stared at the painting across the room and saw nothing at all. “Yeah,” he replied hoarsely. “I – I’m gonna need some time, though. I don’t think I can just go back to-“
“I know,” Brian interrupted softly, placing a kiss on Howie’s shoulder, and Howie had to smile, because it was the kind of thing Brian would have done back when they were still just friends. “I know what you mean. We’ll figure it out.”
Howie’s hand was in Brian’s hair now, his fingers running through it. “Thanks,” he said quietly, tugging affectionately at a curly strand. “For everything. I can’t even – thank you so much.”
He felt Brian sigh against his neck. His hands gripped Howie’s arms a little tighter, and then Howie felt him nod. Howie closed his eyes, gripped Brian back just as tight, and Brian let out a defeated laugh. “What did you do to me?” he murmured against Howie’s cheek, and Howie couldn’t stop himself for shivering. Brian pressed his forehead to Howie’s briefly, and then Brian was kissing him, once, twice, hard and fast. He pulled out of Howie’s hold quickly and was off the bed before Howie even had time to blink.
Right before he reached the door, he turned around and took a step back into the room. He stopped abruptly as he opened his mouth to speak – almost as quickly, the look on his face fell, and his mouth closed again. There was another moment of silence. “Okay,” he said, nodding with finality. “Okay.” Giving Howie one last glance, he turned around and left the room.
Howie had one foot off the bed now, and kept looking at the door for a long time after it closed. He took in a deep breath. Still breathing. Okay.
He sat like that for hours. Or maybe minutes. He had no idea. Finally he swung the other leg over the side of the bed and put his head between his legs, taking in big gulps of air. “Come on,” he said to himself, except it came out as a rough whisper, and when he sat back up his head was spinning. “Come on,” he tried again, and this time his voice cracked with the effort.
He fell back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling for a few more hours (minutes) before he curled in on himself and closed his eyes. He was just going to sleep. Nothing had changed. He’d just go to sleep and when he woke up, everything would be okay.
Music woke him back up.
There was a bass turned up so loud that he could feel the steady thump-thump vibrate through the bed. Howie blinked in the darkness and listened. It took a few more seconds before he could hear the knocking on his door.
He was so tired. He just wanted to sleep, to forget, but he got up anyway. Maybe it was … it probably wasn't, though, and he wasn't sure he was ready for that yet. He was so tired he couldn't even muster up the energy to lift his feet properly as he padded to the door.
He peered out and was a little surprised despite himself. "Nick, he said. "Hey."
"Hey." Nick grinned, but it fell quickly as he took in Howie's rumpled state. "I'm sorry, man, were you sleeping?"
"Yeah." Howie rubbed a hand over his face. "Don't worry about it. What's up?"
"I was just wondering if you got some cologne or anything." Nick rubbed the back of his neck, looking pretty sheepish. "I accidentally knocked mine into the sink at the last hotel and I haven't had time to get a new one."
Howie smiled. "Sure, Nicky." He opened the door wider to give Nick room.
"Thanks, man," Nick said, clapping a hand on Howie's shoulder as he passed. Howie went back to the bed and sat down, watching Nick through the opened bathroom door. He looked good. White button down shirt and khakis. Spiked hair and a clean face for once. He'd been getting more and more lazy about shaving lately.
"You going somewhere?" Howie asked.
"Yeah, Keith knows of a few places worth checking out," Nick replied as he dug through Howie's toiletries. "Ooh, nice," he commented, holding up Howie's cologne with a lopsided grin.
Howie nodded. He watched as Nick grabbed some hair gel and a lint remover. "Hey," he said after a while. "Would you mind if I tagged along?"
Nick looked up, clearly surprised. "Really?"
"Yeah." Howie worried his lower lip and nodded. "I really need to get out of here." He needed to go somewhere where he didn't have to think, just for a little while. "If it's cool with you."
For a moment Howie was sure that Nick was gonna say no. His expression was completely unreadable, which threw Howie off even more. Since when was he not able to read Nick? But then a slow smile spread on Nick's face, completely genuine for a change, and he looked almost nervous as he raked a hand through his hair. "You really want to?" he asked. "Yeah, that's - I mean, yeah, definitely. When can you be ready?"
Howie grinned. "Give me twenty minutes, all right?" He stood up and made his way to the closet. As he inspected his wardrobe, he could hear Nick shuffling behind him.
"Dude, wear that green one," he said, reaching over Howie to grab it from the closet. "It look great on you."
"All right," Howie said skeptically, smoothing the shirt out to check for any wrinkles.
A moment later he felt arms around him as Nick hugged him close from behind. "Thanks, Howie," he said quietly and pressed a kiss to the crook of Howie's neck before he pulled back.
Howie just shook his head and went back to picking out a decent pair of pants. Nick could be so weird sometimes.