There's no official end to it. It's a bad fight, a ridiculous one, a couple of looks are exchanged, but no one says I’m sorry. No one says anything.
AJ’s dealt with break-ups before. Just because he has to see Brian every day doesn’t change that. People just need to give him time.
He curls up with his discman in the back lounge and listens to Nirvana for hours. Nick's already in there with him, flipping through the channels, but when he wakes up from sleep he doesn't remember falling into he's alone again. His eyes feel grainy and sore, that physical exhaustion that he hates. Usually when he wakes up Brian's there, lying next to him reading a magazine or watching TV with his fingers combing absently through AJ's hair.
He hears laughter coming from the kitchenette and AJ flops over to face the back of the couch, closing his eyes and turning the volume of his discman up to max.
It's the most ridiculous breakup in the history of the universe, as Howie seems hell-bent on telling him every five minutes. "You guys are morons," he says while AJ unpacks in his hotel room – in which case unpacking means zipping open his suitcase and kicking it into a corner. "Morons. That's all I'm saying."
"In case I haven't told you lately," AJ says as he pulls out his toilet kit. "I know jujitsu and I know it well."
Even with his back turned AJ knows that Howie's rolling his eyes. "Look, we can watch a movie and not talk about it if you want," he offers. "I'm just saying that-"
"You're saying that I don't need a lecture," AJ cuts him off, dumping his room key onto the nearest flat surface, which turns out to be the bathroom sink. "Because I'm practically twenty and I'm an adult and this is actually not my first breakup." He's walking out of the bathroom as he speaks and he shoots Howie a raised eyebrow. "That's what you're saying, right?"
"That," Howie agrees. "And that you're morons. Basically. Morons who have both been moping for the last five days."
"I hear it's good for the skin." AJ runs a hand through his hair and sighs. "Scoot," he says, already crawling up the bed before Howie's edged over and made room for him.
Howie reaches for the remote without a word and AJ tries to settle down comfortably, even though it's been hard lately. There's a restless feeling there, right under his skin, combined with a lethargy so deep it kind of scares him. He's still squirming around when Howie flips over to a random basketball game and he finds himself snapping, "not that."
The channel changes to a cooking show. AJ exhales shakily and he hears Howie sigh before he's pulled into a careful hug.
"Morons," Howie murmurs again, rubbing AJ's back as he buries his face in Howie's neck.
Brian has this scarf that’s probably the ugliest thing AJ’s ever seen. It’s basically vomit-green, that’s the only association he gets with that color. It was a home-made gift from his aunt when he turned ten, so it’s been fraying at the edges for a while now, small pieces of yarn dangling from it everywhere. It’s soft though, as AJ learned pretty early on. Softer than any scarf he’s ever had, which is why Brian keeps it. He wears it when he’s sick, or exhausted, usually curled up against AJ’s side and lazily weaving the frayed pieces of yarn through the spaces between AJ’s fingers.
AJ still has it tucked into the corner of his bunk from the last time Brian was in there with him, partly under the mattress so there isn’t a noticeable lump under the covers. Brian curls up with a hoodie whenever he’s tired these days, arms around his knees and head resting uncomfortably against whatever wall is available. That’s usually when AJ gets up and leaves.
Most of the time now it’s like he’s watching Brian through a stained glass window. Everything he does and says is muted, all his expressions, all his little quirks and mannerisms. Everything. He floats in AJ’s vision like the blurry shapes you can’t focus on after sleep, something you know that you’re supposed to understand, will understand the second you wake up properly. He’s something AJ used to know so well, and now.
He can’t figure out if that makes it better or worse.
“Hey,” Brian says quietly.
AJ looks up from his notebook. He wants to act surprised, but it’s not like he didn’t spot Brian walk across the rehearsal hall through the open doors a few minutes ago. “Hey,” he replies, hesitating for a second before nodding to the ground beside him. It’s no use, really. He wants to see Brian as much as he doesn’t want to see him these days.
Brian sits down and leans back against the concrete wall with a long sigh. Tour rehearsals are always tough, but it’s hot at fuck inside the warehouse today and AJ had needed the fresh air just as badly.
They’re quiet for a while. AJ takes another drag of his cigarette and looks out over the half-empty parking lot. Brian’s shifting some of the dirt on the ground through his fingers and AJ watches the dust rise up between them from the movement of it. His arm itches suddenly and he scratches it with a quick motion.
“So I’ve been thinking,” Brian says, like he’s contemplating the weather, “that you’re totally wrong.”
AJ blinks. “What?”
“Yeah.” Brian’s still got his head back against the wall, but his eyes are closed now, and AJ looks away. “I still say a frog would kick a mouse’s ass any day.”
AJ lets out a surprised laugh and looks at his hands. “No way,” he says, smiling.
“No no, I’ve got proof now,” Brian says in a near drawl, stretching his legs out. “’Cause they’ve got the long tongue, see? And the quickness. My frog could just be like, schloop! And bam, your mouse defeated before it even blinks.”
AJ huffs. “It’s not like a frog catching a mouse with its tongue would kill it.”
“Hey, who’s saying anything about killing? It’s animal wrestling. He’d just have to hold the mouse down for ten seconds and we’d call it a day.”
AJ shudders. “So gross.”
Brian lets out a pleased sigh. “I don’t think the fact that you’re scared of frogs will ever stop being funny.”
“A mouse can run, though,” AJ points out, watching a car turn into the parking lot from the street. “All a frog can do is jump. My mouse could sneak behind your frog and bite it in the leg. What’s your frog gonna do now?”
Brian has a thoughtful pause. “Do a one-eighty turn on its healthy leg and then do the tongue thing.”
AJ nods slowly. “So we’re not factoring in the things they can actually physically do, right?”
“Pfft, no,” Brian says.
“Just checking,” AJ returns, settling back against the wall with his legs crossed. They look at each other then, and Brian smiles, because that’s what Brian always does. AJ smiles back because it’s the best effort he has.
Brian’s gaze flickers down. “You mind?” he asks, gesturing towards AJ’s cigarette pack. AJ raises an eyebrow, but hands it to him without question and watches as he attempts three times to light it.
“Is this some kind of reinvention thing?” he asks once Brian finally gets it going. It’s too much, sitting here like this, watching Brian’s throat as he blows the smoke out in a long, hesitant stream. Brian brings the cigarette to his lips and AJ’s stomach twists in anger and need and desperation.
Brian lets out this breath of a laugh and shakes his head, smoke still wafting from his mouth. He looks too tired for this early in the day. He hands the cigarette back to AJ without their fingers brushing at all. “It was worth a try,” he murmurs.
There’s a girl working at their next photoshoot that Brian keeps going back to talk to. She’s blonde and pretty and she makes Brian laugh in that stupid loud way he has that AJ can’t seem to run away from. He sits back in the makeup chair with his arms folded and scowls when the makeup artist, who looks about his mom's age, asks him for the fifth time to please keep his eyes straight ahead.
"It'll only take longer if you're gonna make me start over again," she says as she reaches for a tube of foundation. It's the brand that makes his skin itch for at least three days afterward he’s had it on. AJ wants to yell at her for it because he's dying to yell at someone, but all his anger is only coming out in this suffocating apathy lately, and anyway, he doesn't need Donna to sit him down and lecture him again about how quickly a bad reputation can be made in this industry, and it's really important that he treats everyone in a professional manner no matter what, he has to know that she's only looking out for their future success, and also he has to do something about those dark circles because they're really not projecting a good image.
He doesn't have the energy for it.
Brian's been talking to the girl again for five minutes now about some old TV show that AJ doesn't know, but he catches AJ's eye in the mirror and seems to hesitate. AJ hadn't meant to be caught, but he's not going to be a pussy about it, so even if the sudden eye contact feels like a bucket of ice water in his face he just shrugs casually and looks away.
“Really, I’m going to accidentally stab your eye out any second now,” the woman – Sandy? Barbara? – says, keeping the concealer brush a pointed two inches from his face. AJ wants to ask her what the hell her problem is, because seriously, what the fuck, but it’s not like she knows that he’s going through the most ridiculous breakup in history and really just wants to hide under his bed for a week.
He can hate her anyway though. He’s pretty sure he’s entitled.
“Need a break,” he mutters, getting up unsteadily. He works his way on slightly wobbly legs past Whatsherface, who only sighs in exasperation and starts cleaning her brushes. It’s not really anything though, he knows. He’s just tired.
Brian’s watching him when he walks past – still? or again? – but AJ just asks into the room, “Anyone wanna go clubbing tonight? I seriously need to blow off some steam.”
After lunch he follows Kevin into the wardrobe room and drops his forehead in the dip between his shoulder blades, letting out a shaky breath. Kevin turns around without a word and wraps him up in a tight hug, and AJ has no choice but to bunch the back of Kevin’s shirt into his fists and remind himself that the ground isn’t going to fall apart beneath him.
The club is hot – too hot – and there are drops of sweat running down his spine. He grips the girl he’s dancing with by the waist, pulls her in closer, wanting the feel of her. She grins at him and grinds lightly down his body before moving up again to slip her arms around his neck. He doesn’t remember her name and he isn’t sure if he ever actually asked, but she’s been looking at him for hours with all the intent in the world and he would’ve gone for this even if he wasn’t drunk.
They weave out of the dancing crowd and AJ pins her up against a wall, kisses her slowly when her fingernails scrape over the nape of his neck. The alcohol pounds through him in a much harsher way than the music does. He finds himself bending down to work on her neck before his head has time to catch up, and it feels like a snap in his brain when she gasps in his ear. He tries to find the taste of her skin through eight tequila shots as he nudges her skirt further up her thighs.
He doesn’t want to think right now.
There’s a hand pulling his forehead gently off the toilet seat when he wakes up. He coughs and Brian says, “here,” before there’s a wet towel placed in his hand. AJ groans and presses it to his mouth before he collapses back against the bathtub.
“Did I throw up?” he rasps, once he’s moved on to holding the towel to his pounding forehead.
“No.” Brian was rubbing his back a second ago, but now that hand is gone. “I wouldn’t rule it out though.”
AJ vaguely remembers Marcus calming him down at the club – was he freaking out? – and getting him back to the hotel somehow. He struggles to open his eyes through the massive throbbing that’s settled itself just over his right eyebrow, but he makes himself look at Brian just the same. He looks even more tired than he has in the past couple of days, legs to his chest and forehead resting in his hand, skin pale and waxy.
“Why are you here?” AJ asks. He thinks he should know, but he doesn’t.
Brian looks at him. His eyes are still so fucking blue that AJ sometimes finds it startling that they could reflect anything but innocence. His gaze drifts down to AJ’s mouth, lower still, and AJ can hear his own breaths ringing in his ears. He thinks about the girl, how badly he wanted her to be the solution to all of this. How badly he wanted her to taste like Brian does, just for a while.
When Brian meets his eyes again, AJ’s mouth is dry. “Because I wanted to kick your ass tonight,” he says. He sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “Come on. Don’t sleep in here, you’ll throw your back out and they’ll make me do all the sexy moves at the show. Let’s face it, all I know how to do is wave.”
AJ’s pretty much in the foulest mood of the decade the next day, hungover and tired and cranky, but when Nick makes them pull over to get McDonald’s at the first truck-stop he’s ready to kiss the ground he walks on. “You’re totally my new favorite,” he tells him at the counter. “I’m making you my flavor of the month.”
“What flavor?” Nick asks, unfazed, still digging for his credit card and ignoring the way the cashier keeps looking at them out of the corner of her eye. AJ always feels those stares itching on the back of his neck, dammit.
“I don’t know.” He catches himself before he says something like ‘Chunky Monkey’ – he’d be ripping on the monkey part, but Nick would take that completely the wrong way. “Some kind of sherbet? Orange.”
“Orange sherbet? Really?” Nick grins, then, “oh, right,” and fishes the card out of the only pocket he didn’t bother turning inside out. AJ rolls his eyes and smiles at the girl while Nick pays, even though his skin is still kind of crawling. She smiles back sheepishly and fumbles with their receipt.
“I don’t know, you’re all California surfer boy or whatever,” AJ says as they head back to the bus. Nick raises an eyebrow and smirks at him, and AJ does a pointed wave with his paper bag. “Orange sherbet fits, okay? Shut up. You always have to ruin my metaphors.”
“Yeah, ‘cause they’re lame metaphors,” Nick says easily. He takes a thoughtful sip through his straw, then says, “Hey, go easy on Brian for a while, yeah? He needs a break.”
AJ thinks he should probably be offended, but it’s hard to say that it isn’t any of Nick’s business. They’re all each other’s business most of the time. “Whatever,” he says. “Brian’s peachy-keen. He’s been snapping pictures of Howie sleeping all morning, he’s fine.”
Nick gives him an odd look. “It’s not like he’s gonna show that he’s upset when you’re around.” He juggles all his stuff into one hand so he can knock on the bus door with the other one. “Who broke up with who anyway?” he asks him, looking back.
AJ chews on his hoodie string and shrugs. “Dunno,” he says honestly, as the doors open.
It’s hard to remember that he’s not supposed to touch Brian anymore. It’s been a constant in his day for so long now that it’s like being asked to always remind himself that his leg has been cut off.
They touched in all kinds of ways. They had sex, they warmed each other’s feet, they gave each other backrubs. Red Hands, foreplay, piggyback rides. Hands touching on plane take-offs. Arms around shoulders. Random, warm brushes of fingers as they walked past each other.
One night, AJ maps out the places that Brian used to touch the most. A palm spread out wide on his stomach, before sliding down to cup his hipbone. Then drifting up his arm to the inside of his elbow. Mostly he lingers at the place where his neck meets his shoulder, running his thumb lightly back and forth in that groove. It makes his chest clench when he does it, but it’s still the only thing that can calm him down enough to start falling asleep.
“Please don’t, okay?” Brian’s voice is worn but kind, and AJ stops abruptly on his way into the lounge area, gripping on to a bunk so he won’t get thrown off his feet by a sudden pothole. “I know you mean well and everything, it’s – I’m just tired, is all.”
“Okay,” Howie says, with no conviction in his voice whatsoever. AJ looks in to see him give Brian an affectionate squeeze to the shoulder, half awkward as per Howie Dorough tradition. Brian snorts and reaches to squeeze back, then forces Howie into a hug anyway, holding on tight. Howie looks at AJ over Brian’s shoulder and rubs his back, just the same as he’d done for AJ before.
It’s not like they all go to bed at the same time. Howie usually goes first, probably because he’s a maniac about sleep and never feels like he gets enough. AJ follows him shortly after and just lies in his bunk, twining the strings of Brian’s scarf through his fingers and waiting.
He hears two sets of padding feet on the floor just by his head a while after, Brian’s quiet, “night, Kev,” the clearest of everything. It’s at least another half hour before the Nintendo sounds are switched off and Nick goes to bed, but by then all the other breaths in the bunk area have evened out. AJ’s been up last before – he’s up last most nights, really – but never by choice, and it’s surprising how normal the sound of Howie’s and Kevin’s slight snoring is to him, now that he’s listening for it.
It doesn’t take long for Nick to fall asleep either – he always stops tossing and turning when he start to drift off – and once that happens AJ slips out of his bunk as quietly as he can, holding on tight to the scarf. His heart is doing a valiant effort to pound right through his ribcage, and he thinks he’s going to wake the whole bus up with how loud his breathing is, but he crawls across the small aisle anyway.
Brian sleeps in a bottom bunk like he does. AJ slips the curtain aside hesitantly and tries to adjust to the darkness. Brian’s facing the wall, using an arm for a pillow, but he turns around the second the curtains rustle and AJ wonders why he’s surprised, because he didn’t hear Brian’s sleep sounds at all. They’re the ones he knows better than anyone’s.
“Hi,” he whispers. His heartbeat is so violent that it makes his voice catch.
“Hi,” Brian whispers back, supporting himself on his elbows. AJ can’t make out his face, but he doesn’t have to see Brian to know what he’s supposed to do. Not when it comes to things like this.
Brian doesn’t either, because he scoots over the same second AJ starts climbing into the bunk. Brian pulls the covers aside, and AJ hears him inhale as he settles down underneath them. AJ reaches to draw the curtains shut, and then they’re completely shrouded in darkness. He turns over on his side, feels Brian do the same.
“I have your scarf,” he whispers into the small space between them. That’s when he realizes he’s still clutching it tight in his hands.
Brian breathes a small laugh. “Thanks,” he murmurs, so quietly AJ barely hears him. AJ feels him reach down for it, but he doesn’t take it away. He just holds it the same way AJ does; tightly, weaving his fingers through it inches away from AJ’s hands. Brian doesn’t jump into things without thinking, but he’s never been scared the same way AJ has once he actually does it.
AJ swallows. “Did you break up with me?” he asks quietly, trying for all the world not to sound like he’s terrified of the answer.
“I don’t know.” Brian’s voice changes, the slightest pitch away from sure. “Did you break up with me?”
AJ shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he murmurs back. The lethargy crawls back under his skin, settles in with the adrenaline so he can’t figure out what to do with himself. “I’m really tired,” he sighs, shifting in closer.
“Me too,” Brian whispers, letting go of the scarf. It’s a cramped space, and AJ hears the distinct sound of an elbow banging against the wall. “Ow,” Brian hisses, nudging him when AJ snorts. “Shut up.” He edges closer to the wall, putting his arm gently around AJ’s waist. “This okay?” he asks hesitantly, tucking the covers up to AJ’s shoulder before settling down again.
“Yeah,” AJ exhales, barely nodding. His eyes are already closed and he’s drifting between dream and consciousness, giving in to something he hadn’t realized he was fighting against.
He only wakes up because Kevin starts rummaging through his bunk just on top of Brian’s. Opening his eyes feels awkward and painful. He squints against the light seeping in through the curtains, and his first semi-conscious thought is morning already?
“Kevin, man, don’t wake them,” Nick hisses from the end of the hall. AJ feels the small of his back tense up.
“Sorry, sorry,” Kevin whispers hurriedly. “I just can’t find my – freaking – ah, there we go.” There’s a small clink of stuff knocking together – deodorants, probably, Kevin collects them like it’s his job – and AJ sees the silhouette of Kevin’s feet walk out of sight. “It’s not like they haven’t slept through breakfast already.”
AJ turns his head slightly. Brian’s still asleep, flat on his stomach, their shoulders touching as the only point of contact. AJ smiles warmly, reaching to tuck some hair behind his ear before he can help himself.
“What, like you don’t want a break from the drama,” Nick says with clear laughter in his voice. AJ is determined more than ever to conquer him with shin kicking. One day.
He takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly, watching his chest expand and deflate. Brian snuffles next to him, and AJ looks at him for a while before tucking his chin into his own shoulder, trying to get closer somehow.
The next time he wakes up, he’s alone.
“So I know how I can annoy you all the most,” Nick says, plopping himself down at the kitchen table.
Kevin rolls his eyes next to him, but mostly ends up smiling anyway. AJ pokes Brian’s leg where they’re sprawled out next to each other on the couch, testing their boundaries. Brian pokes back and adds a tickle.
“How?” Howie asks warily from the floor. There’s no fucking room on this bus. Some days they just sprawl out all over each other and deal with it from there, and others they try to space themselves out as far apart as they can possibly get. It varies. It varies a lot on AJ’s or Brian’s mood these days.
“Totally,” Nick says gleefully, and stretches out so he can cross his ankles, nearly hitting the couch from the other side of the room. He takes a dramatic pause, and then says, “The Oscar Mayer Wiener song!”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Brian says, and AJ turns to look at him. “I had that as my ringtone last year. Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wienerrrr,” he sings, eyes going comically wide and he’s ridiculous looking like that, slouched so low in his seat that he has a small double chin. “That is what I’d truly like to be,” and he dips his voice so low that AJ can’t keep a straight face.
“Dude,” Nick says while AJ laughs, disappointed. “I was gonna stick hidden tapes all over the bus so you’d all think you were going crazy.”
“Wow,” Kevin says, lips quirking even harder. “Brian’s IQ just dropped about fifty points.”
“Oh, like you’re one to talk,” Brian says unconcernedly, poking AJ’s leg again. “When was the last time you watched Teletubbies?”
“Yesterday morning,” Kevin replies, picking up his cell phone. “Which you already know. I heard you singing along in your bunk.”
“That song is really catchy,” Brian says earnestly when AJ looks at him with a half horrified, half delighted grin. “Like, not the good kind of catchy. It gets in your head and then it won’t leave.”
“There are not words,” AJ says slowly, “for my shame at the both of you right now. I think we should get the driver to stop the bus. Actually, I can just hurl myself onto the highway, that way I wouldn’t have to remember this moment ever again. Anyway, I know how to annoy you the most,” he adds to Nick, and promptly kicks him hard in the shin.
“Ow!” Nick yelps, jerking upright. “What the fuck?”
AJ cannot possibly smirk any harder. Victory.
“Wow,” Howie says, tugging affectionately at AJ’s pant leg. “I think that’s the most I’ve heard you talk in weeks.”
They’re three watching TV in the back lounge, this time with AJ hanging out on the floor while Howie and Brian take up the couch. It’s a nice setup, except once Howie gets up to get a drink Brian sprawls out to get comfortable and there’s no room left with the way he’s lying.
“Whatever,” Howie says once he gets back, rolling his eyes goodnaturedly. “I was gonna make some calls anyway.”
“Aw, Howie,” Brian calls after him when he leaves. “I just wanted an excuse to put my feet in your lap. Can’t you see I just wanna get close to you?”
His hand has been resting by the nape of AJ’s neck for a while now, and when he moves it around to gesture he brushes right up against AJ’s hairline. AJ bends his neck forward as slowly as possible and tries to suppress the shiver.
Things have been better since that night, to the point where he actually feels semi-human again, but they still usually make sure that they’re never without a buffer in the room. It seems to make the most sense. They have to find a way to be around each other again.
“So,” Brian says, after a brief pause with nothing but the TV running. “If a mutant bus and a monster truck-“
“Don’t start,” AJ laughs, twisting around. Brian’s sprawled out flat, resting his head on the arm of the couch, and he grins at AJ in that drowsy way he gets when the motion of the bus tries to lull him to sleep.
His grin fades to a small smile, and he touches AJ’s arm briefly. “You doing okay?” he asks.
AJ shrugs. He folds his arms on the couch and drops his chin onto his stacked hands. Most of all he misses having Brian to talk to. One time they held an hour long conversation entirely in British Donald Duck voices. “Kev keeps telling me it’s okay to mourn.”
Brian snorts. “He would,” he says, turning his head slightly. It’s so familiar it makes AJ hurt. This is how he’s used to seeing Brian’s face; up close like this. “Not that it’s wrong,” he adds quietly. “I miss a lot of things.”
AJ wiggles his eyebrows. “Obviously.”
Brian lets out a sudden laugh. “Jackass,” he says, and AJ grins despite himself.
“You’d think you would expect these things by now.”
“You’d think,” Brian agrees, tucking a hand between his head and the couch. He looks at AJ for a long moment. AJ’s trying not to tense up, even with his brain slowly shutting itself down and electric currents shooting down his spine. He’s always been so hyperaware of Brian, even before. The way Brian saw him always mattered. It takes a while, but eventually Brian breaks out in a slightly apologetic smile and all AJ can do is stare at his mouth as he reaches out. “Miss hugging you,” he murmurs, tugging gently at a piece of his hair.
And AJ can’t do it anymore, can’t stop himself from leaning in and kissing Brian so carefully that it’s almost an apology in return. Brian’s hand freezes in his hair for a second, then slides down to the nape of his neck and pulls him closer. There’s a burst of something in AJ’s chest, something too warm, and he shifts up on his knees, feeling Brian’s harsh exhale when he briefly has to break away.
It hits him, suddenly, what he’s doing. “Sorry,” he breathes, making to pull back.
“No-“ Brian says, voice strained, and struggles up on his elbows to kiss him, hard. It’s like someone’s cutting off AJ’s sense of self, and he can’t feel the floor beneath him, can’t feel anything but Brian’s hand in his hair and his mouth working his slowly open.
They fumble to get him up on the couch together, and Brian rolls on top of him, kisses him again before he has time to catch his breath. AJ makes a soft noise in the back of his throat, and they claw at each other, desperation making them reckless. Brian’s hand is under his shirt and he gasps out something that sounds like AJ’s name when he presses their foreheads together and breathes against his jaw.
And just like that, it slows down. AJ closes his eyes and shivers as Brian starts kissing down his jawline, fiercely tender the way he gets. The hand pressed to his stomach starts roaming, down to his hips, back up to his ribcage. AJ digs his fingers into Brian’s sides and nudges his head with his own until they’re panting against each other’s mouths again. “AJ,” Brian exhales and, “yeah,” AJ replies breathlessly, feeling a coil of heat in his stomach go hotter.
They’re so close it takes nothing for them to be kissing again, and they’re moving now too, hips gently shifting. AJ’s long gone, it feels so good just moving like this, kissing like they’re going to burn up if they take it any faster. Brian runs his free hand along AJ’s arm, murmurs something into his mouth as he pins his wrist down against the couch. AJ gasps unintelligible nonsense and tries to kiss Brian harder, but Brian won’t let him. This is what he does, holds AJ together at the seams, keeps him so fucking steady even when it seems impossible that it completely overwhelms him.
“Tell me,” Brian whispers, eyes dark, moving down to kiss along his neck. AJ does a full-body shiver at that, and he pushes violently at Brian’s t-shirt with one hand so he can touch him, run his fingers along his bare back, feels the muscles shift, and then they’re just clinging to each other, breathing into each other’s shoulders until Brian lets out a half hysterical laugh. “Tell me what we’re doing.”
AJ brushes his thumb along Brian’s temple, nuzzling his neck when he feels goosebumps rise on Brian’s skin. That’s when Kevin yells, “We’re at the hotel!” from up front and they jump apart like they’ve actually scorched themselves.
They pack up for the hotel in silence while Howie and Nick bicker about dance moves next to them. AJ’s mouth is still burning and Brian’s sporting some serious sex hair, but neither of them have bothered to neaten their appearance much. AJ opens his mouth to say something four times, anything, but there’s no lightning bolt of clarity or answers coming to him.
He feels Brian’s eyes on the back of his head when he zips his overnight bag shut. When they edge past each other in the narrow aisle they don’t touch once, and AJ wants to grab his arm and make him agree how fucking stupid this all is, but Brian’s already calling out for Drew at the stairs of the bus, already laughing, and AJ bites down on the inside of his cheek.
And still, no one’s saying anything. Maybe this time they’ve said everything they can.
AJ spends most of that night tossing a rubber ball against the ceiling of his hotel room. He has a feeling there’ll be a complaint about him in the morning.
He read a self-help book about acceptance once, back when they were being tutored. ’Accept that sometimes you will hurt yourself without meaning to.’ He watches the ball hit the ceiling with a dull clunk and catches it again. ’But accept as well that sometimes you will hurt yourself exactly when you mean to.’
Kevin talked to him about the stages of grief at the beginning of all this, talked to him about mourning and how it’s perfectly normal to miss someone who’s right next to you. AJ gets that, but he’s starting to think he’s been connecting the pieces backwards. Maybe he loves because he hurts.
“Where’s Brian?” Howie asks, shutting his hotel room door behind him.
“Drew said he was still in his room last time he checked,” Nick says, frowning at AJ down the hallway.
AJ frowns back. “What?”
“We have to be at the venue in thirty minutes,” Kevin says. He’s fiddling with his own keys, cursing under his breath when the door won’t open. Apparently he forgot something in his room. He sighs. “I’ll go check-“
“No, I’ll go,” AJ says. Nick shoots him a look, but he ignores him. “Whatever, I’m sure he just overslept or something,” he insists, heading down the hallway towards Brian’s room. It doesn’t even surprise him that he knows which one it is. It doesn’t surprise him that it doesn’t surprise anyone else either.
“Kevin, Jesus, don’t break the key,” he hears Howie start as he knocks on Brian’s door. “Brian?” he calls, knocking one more time before he opens. “Hey, what’s-?”
Brian’s sitting on the floor, leaning up against his bed. His legs are stretched out and his hands are lying limply in his lap, looking like an overgrown ragdoll in his much too big t-shirt and jeans. He looks up, red eyes and dark circles stark in this light, opens his mouth, but AJ steps into the room and closes the door behind him before he gets a word out, turning the voices from the hallway into muffles echoes.
Brian’s picking at the skin around his nails, which looks raw already, when AJ walks over and sits down next to him. His bag is standing by the bathroom door, all zipped up and packed. AJ pulls his legs to his chest and watches Brian run a hand through his hair, tilting his head away so the light bounces off his jaw and cheekbones.
AJ shifts in closer, though he doesn’t need to, and presses his lips to Brian’s shoulder. Brian lets out a watery laughing sound and seems to sway a little before leaning into him. AJ kisses the same spot again, where he knows Brian’s tattoo is, pushes up the sleeve and kisses it a third time, and Brian’s breathing rasps in his chest.
It takes a few minutes before AJ pushes himself back to his feet. He doesn’t look back as he heads to the door and opens it to glance into the hallway. Nick’s still there, clearly waiting.
“Hey,” he begins, taking a few steps towards him. “The others went downstairs, just so you know.”
“Thanks,” AJ says. His voice is surprisingly steady. “Listen, me and Brian are gonna be a while, okay? We’ll get a cab to the venue or something, just – we’ll be there later.”
Nick looks at him. Then he smiles a little, and looks at the small sliver AJ has left open into the room. “Yeah, okay,” he says, nodding. “I’ll figure out something to tell them, don’t worry about it.”
“Thanks,” AJ says gratefully.
“No problem.” Nick starts backing down the hallway. “Get back in there.”
AJ smiles quickly at him before shutting the door again. The small snick echoes in his head for a second before he turns around. Brian’s staring at him from his spot on the floor, looking rattled and bewildered. AJ jams his hands in his pockets. “So,” he says.
Brian’s laugh is startled but genuine. “So,” he agrees.
It’s easy to smile back now. AJ starts towards him. “I think I owe you a hug.”