Two weeks into recording The Album They Couldn't Name, Nick started having very strange dreams about Britney Spears.
"Heads up, everyone," he announced, trudging into the studio, a baseball cap covering up the worst of his morning hair. "You're no longer allowed to watch E! when I'm around."
AJ, who had his legs propped up on the soundboard, snorted. "Don't look at me," he said without looking up, busily scrolling through his iPhone. "D's the one who has to catch up with Ryan Seacrest every day."
Howie was already leafing through lyric sheets, even though Nick had seen him enter the building just as he was getting out of his car. "Says the guy who's always right there next to me," he pointed out casually. "And anyway, Joey's on that dancing show right now, that's why."
"Hello?" Nick dropped his backpack on the couch and grabbed one of the free chairs, which he swung around and plopped down backwards on. "Do you think we could get back to the problem at hand?"
"What?" AJ sounded amused, and when he finally looked at Nick it was only for long enough to test out the built-in camera on his phone. "So you're having dreams about Britney Spears. You're right, let's send you off to a shrink immediately."
Nick tried again. "Maybe it's a metaphor for something else, though."
"Maybe you just haven't been laid in a while."
"Shut up," Nick said sullenly. He propped his chin in his hand and watched Howie turn on the systems. He flicked on a desk lamp on top of the sound table and Nick added, "Where's Brian anyway? He's always game for Freud'ing me up."
"Who?" Howie asked, lifting AJ's feet from the board so he could get past. AJ barely noticed, just started playing through the songs he'd already downloaded at full blast.
"Funny." Nick rolled his eyes. "Is he late or what?"
AJ gave him an odd look. "Dude, who? We're kind of all accounted for here."
"Brian," Nick said with a sigh, playing along. He pulled off his baseball cap and mussed up the hair at the back of his head. "Short, big nostrils, looks like a gnome?"
Howie and AJ looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
"Our new commander now that Kevin's ditched us?"
Howie and AJ looked at Nick.
"Kevin's back in Kentucky," Howie said slowly. "He needed a break, you know that. But I don't … hey, are you okay?"
Nick frowned at them both. AJ had put his phone down now, finally giving Nick his full attention, but he didn't look like he was commanding every muscle in his face to stay still so his mouth wouldn't start twitching. AJ was shit at pulling off pranks, but apparently he was getting better.
Nick snorted. "You guys are lame." He pushed up from his seat. "I'm gonna go call him."
But Brian didn't answer his cellphone any of the five times Nick tried calling. He didn't have Brian's home number - or okay, he did, Brian had given it to him on a paper slip ages ago and Nick had sort of misplaced it and forgotten to ask again - and when he asked Howie a second time he got a genuinely concerned look on his face, so Nick dropped it.
It was a strange prank to be pulling in the middle of recording time, and Nick found it kind of weird to be the butt of the joke for once, but it wasn't like it bothered him. Brian was probably hanging out at home and calling AJ for progress reports. He'd show up at the studio tomorrow, grinning like an idiot and telling everyone that he just wanted to feel appreciated again. Which, hey, back when Nick appreciated Brian on a daily basis he didn't actually want it, so screw that.
Only now they were missing both Kevin and Brian, and Nick spent most of the day filling out as much space as he could. He belted out his lines in the recording booth, and AJ glared at him through the glass panes. "Hey, Pavarotti, mind taking it down a notch?" he said into the microphone, and Nick blinked in confusion before he realized his throat was sore from over-exertion.
He was twirling around in an office chair and watching the ceiling spiral above him when he saw it. A strong, golden flicker of light, right in the corner of his eye. Nick slowed to a stop and looked around, but the studio was still sparsely lit as always, and no one had suddenly decided to start lighting fireworks anywhere. Nick saw it again though, twice during lunch and once when he was watching Howie go through a take on Trouble Is.
"Can you stretch out the notes a little bit more on that first line?" Dan was telling him, and Nick followed the light's direction to a small stack of papers on top of a random coffee table. (Some studios were always filled with the most random things, which Nick really liked.) Partially hidden under some extra lyric sheets and studio bookings were a set of promo pictures. Nick picked them up and went through them slowly. One by one, and no matter how long he looked, there were still only three guys on every shot. Just him, Howie and AJ, leaning up against a brick wall and looking like they actually fit like this, like this was actually right.
"Guys, what-?" he started saying. He felt like he should congratulate someone, because actually taking the time to find someone good enough to work in Photoshop was pretty impressive, he had to admit.
But when he looked up, AJ was the only one left in the room. Dan was in the recording booth giving Howie instructions, and AJ was bent over the soundboard with his hands braced on the edge of it. He caught Nick's eye then, and when he said, "what?" Nick cleared his throat and shook his head.
"Nothing," he answered, and if he sounded a little uncomfortable, AJ didn't comment on it. Neither of them ever did.
By the end of the day, Nick was ready to climb into bed and never get up again. They'd made him record all of Brian's takes for Something That I Already Know, which wasn't unusual or anything - they all swapped verses and lines all the time, but no one had slipped and mentioned Brian all day, and Nick was getting slightly weirded out by the whole thing.
Not that he'd ever tell anyone that or anything.
He tried Brian's number two more times as he sat down on the side of his hotel bed, but the long waiting tone started hurting his ears after a while. He sent a text (haha, b, fucking call or something) and spent a minute chewing on his lower lip before he finally huffed and yanked the covers aside.
Brian never actually let him worry like this, but fine. He was just not going to worry at all.
It still took him a while to fall asleep.
"Welcome!" a high voice said, cheery and chiming like bells. "Be careful or that plant is going to eat you."
The ground was spinning, or at least it felt like it. Nick's eyelashes were stuck together with something that felt like too much sleep dust, and when he tried to knuckle it away his arms and hands were floating, too light for him to bring back down.
The earth was crunching beneath his feet, and there was a high whine in his ear, like a chained dog needing feverishly to pounce. Nick staggered backwards, and there was that voice again, saying, "oh my god, no one ever takes me seriously, I said move."
Then there was a firm prod, like a small twig trying to poke insistently at his shoulder. Nick made a disoriented sound, but he fumbled ahead slowly. Something snapped at his heels, and Nick yelped (in a completely manly way), jumping away like he'd caught fire. He stumbled, heading for the ground face-first, and braced himself for the impact that never came. He fell down, but the soil bopped and swayed gently beneath him, like he'd fallen into a giant water bed.
"The fuck?" he said, rather stupidly. His voice echoed.
"There we go," the voice chirped. It was distinctly female. Nick pawed at his eyes - or tried to, it was like his hands were going right through him. "Now, hi. Hello. Just take a couple of deep breaths and let yourself go heavy, okay? You have to land properly or you're just gonna be floating around here for hours, and, well, you don't really have time for that, so."
Nick groaned, falling back onto the cloud-like ground. His head swirled and twisted, and most of all he wanted to ask what the hell was going on, but he couldn't seem to find his mouth all of a sudden. He knew it was there, but no sound came from it. So, trying desperately not to freak, he breathed in slowly and sank down. What was it Kevin used to say? If you want to relax, be aware of every muscle in your body. But aware how? Fuck, why did Kevin always have to talk to him about spiritual shit like this when Nick was doing important things?
He wiggled his toes experimentally.
"Yeah, that's it," the voice encouraged. It was closer now, although no less small. "I know this feels weird, but it always takes a while to adjust. Bend your legs next."
Nick did. After that he tried clenching his hands into fists, then loosened them again and bent his arms. He felt his chest swell the next time he took a breath, then he slowly twisted his neck, opened his mouth, and finally blinked his eyes open very slowly.
His vision was blurry, but there was something hovering right above him. Nick squinted, briefly wishing for his glasses, but after a moment had passed the light became brighter, clearer, and Nick pushed himself sluggishly up on his elbows.
"Britney?" he asked hoarsely.
"Hi," she said again. She was smiling at him, flitting back so Nick could sit up properly. "So, yeah, welcome. I know you probably have questions and stuff, but we're kind of in a hurry, so could you-?"
"You're tiny," Nick said, staring at her hovering in the open air. She was probably the size of his hand.
Britney looked pleased, and fit her hands around her waist, twirling around herself in the air. "Thank you. I've been working out a lot more lately, so-"
"No, I mean." Nick shook his head. "You kind of have wings?"
"It's kind of your dream?" Britney replied slowly. Now she was looking at Nick like he was dense and had maybe just been hiding it for the past fourteen years.
"Wait," he said, pulling his legs to his chest. His mouth was probably hanging open right now, pretty unattractively, but seriously, what? "You're Tinkerbell?" he asked in disbelief.
"I think so," Britney said. Her batting wings left a fine trail of glittering dust in their wake, and her small ears were just a little pointy. "Don't ask me why though, this is your head we're in. Now come on, we really have to go."
Nick came to his feet very haltingly, because the world around him was melting into focus. He was in a forest clearing, the trees around him so high that the small patch of sky looked like nothing more than a button hole. A pair of owl eyes were blinking at him from a tree branch, and underneath the scattered leaves on the ground there was a gnarled vine that led to a large, swaying plant with teeth. It snapped after him, and Nick jumped back.
"Did someone get me on an acid trip without telling me?" he asked loudly.
Britney, who had already started towards the sunlit trail further ahead, let out a loud sigh (although it still sounded small) and flew back. "I already told you," she said, hovering in his eye line. "You're dreaming. Now do you wanna go save Brian or what?"
"What?" Nick demanded, and he was just going to be a broken record forever, wasn't he? "Brian … what?"
"Brian," Britney said firmly. She put her tiny hands on her hips. "He's been missing all day, right? No one remembers him but you?"
Nick blinked. "But-"
"You gotta go get him." Britney flew behind him and pushed with all her might at his back. It was vaguely ticklish. "And we have to hurry, okay? We have to do this before you wake up, and it's already six am." She landed on his shoulder and pointed at the trail. "See?" she said. "The light's getting brighter."
Nick was dumbfounded. He wasn't usually this aware of himself when he was dreaming, and Brian … Brian had been missing all day. Or was that a part of the dream, too?
"Oh my God, come on already," Britney said, and yanked at his ear.
"Ow!" Nick was actually dragged forward a step, and he batted at the air, but she was too quick for him. "All right, all right," he mumbled, following after her with a brief glance over his shoulder. What the hell had Marcus put in his coffee?
They walked for a long time. The forest was thick and dark, but every once in a while the colors would flicker, turning into dark reds or glowing whites. They undulated in and out of each other like heat waves, and when Nick tried to lean against a tree trunk it turned into a lamp post.
"You have really bright dreams," Britney commented, smiling as she flew next to him. "Mine are like this sometimes too, and then sometimes they get brighter, and then … well, sometimes there aren't any colors at all, so."
Nick moved a tree branch aside and glanced at her. "I've been dreaming about you for a while," he said.
"Yeah, I know," she said brightly. Her long, blue gown rippled as she halted and waited for him to catch up. "I've been trying to get in contact with you for a while, but you've been really closed off lately. I was trying to warn you about what was gonna happen."
"Oh, well. Thanks, I guess." Nick stumbled when the ground beneath him momentarily turned to sand. "I liked that one with the snake in it."
Britney grinned, clasping her hands behind her back. "I thought that was a nice touch myself."
"Wait," Nick said. He paused and pointed to the ground. "Look. Bread crumbs."
"We're on the right track," Britney agreed. Nick bent down to examine the pieces and she added, "You're remembering the story all wrong, you know. The birds ate all the bread crumbs, that's why they couldn't find their way back home and ended up at the gingerbread house."
"Shut up," Nick said grumpily. He stood upright and dusted off his jeans before he paused. "We're at that stage now, right?" he asked. "I can say that and not get slapped in the face?"
"I don't think you can ever say that to a woman and not get slapped in the face," Britney said exasperatedly. "But honestly, I'm just glad you didn't turn me into, like, Pluto or something, so whatever."
"Pluto the dog?" Nick asked, his mouth twitching. A bit of fairy dust drifted into his hair when she flew past him.
"Well, you're clearly getting most of your inspiration from Disney here," she said, weaving through a clutter of leaves. "We've passed three dancing hippos in tutus on the way. Oh, look!"
Nick went the rest of the way and pushed the branches aside to reveal a small hut on a tiny hill, with smoke drifting from the chimney. Only the chimney wasn't a regular chimney - it was a candy cane, and the bricks of the house looked doughy and were sparkling with sugar. The roof was made out of icing, just like the gingerbread houses that Nick usually saw in bakery displays but never dared to touch.
"Brian's in there?" he asked quietly, and his stomach suddenly went into a tight knot.
Britney nodded. "We have to hurry, Nick," she said, flying down to grab his index finger and pull him forward. "Your alarm clock's gonna be going off soon."
The light was much brighter now, Nick could see that as well. The hut was sparkling, and the sky above them was clear white. They went up the hill as quietly as they could. Nick didn't hear any sound at all in those minutes - it was only when he got to the window that his own breaths got distinct again, and then he heard water bubbling and boiling.
He peeked into the open window - it was an old kitchen, with a cauldron brewing on top of the stove, and a huge brick oven filling up an entire wall - when he looked down and gasped, "Brian."
He clambered through the window as fast as he could. Brian was curled up inside an enlarged bird cage, his legs pulled to his chest and looking very pale. He looked up then, and the amount of relief that burst out on his face really scared Nick for a second. "Where've you been?" Brian whispered, sitting up and grabbing onto the bars. "She's gonna start frying me up any second now."
"I know, I'm sorry," Nick whispered back, falling flat on his ass in front of the cage. His heart was lodged in his throat, and for a moment the world swam in front of his eyes. Jesus. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Brian pointed to the huge pile of food in the corner of the cage. "She's been trying to fatten me up all day, but I keep giving her this chicken leg whenever she tries to check if I-" Brian paused, and gave Nick a strange look. "Since when do you know this story?"
"What?" Nick said, slightly offended. "I read."
There was a tug at the corner of Brian's mouth. "Which comic-?"
"Do you wanna be left in here or what?"
"Sorry," Brian said.
Just then there was the low thudding of heavy footsteps on the stairs. Nick and Brian both tensed. "Fire up the stove, Gretel!" a shrill, cold voice demanded. "Tonight I'm going to be as full as royalty."
"I'm Gretel, right?" Nick asked dryly.
"Hey, it's your subconscious, not mine." Brian managed to give him one of his teasing smiles, but it was faint at best, and his grip on the bars was getting tighter. "Nick, you have to do this before you wake up," he told him, staying focused. "You know how they defeat the witch, right?"
"Yeah." Nick nodded, and swallowed once. "Yeah. Okay."
The wood of the floor creaked as the steps came closer. Britney flew in through the window and hovered just over Nick's shoulder. "Hey, do you have a hairpin or something?" he asked her, slightly frantic. "Maybe we can pick the lock."
"Why would I have a hairpin?" Brian whispered impatiently, already fumbling for his chicken bone.
"I wasn't talking to you," Nick murmured. "I was talking to-"
"Yeah, he can't see me," Britney said, flying into Nick's line of sight. She looked a little sad. "And I can't help you here either. You have to do this yourself."
"Great," Nick hissed, scrambling to his feet when a figure crept into the doorway.
The witch was draped in a hooded cloak, her stringy grey hair falling down to her knobbly, wrinkled hands. She was hunched deeply over her cane, and on the tip of her crooked nose a large mole was growing out hairs. When she looked up her eyes were clear and unseeing. Nick felt vaguely nauseous.
"Please don't ever put me in one of your nightmares, okay?" Brian was making the same squeamish face that Nick was pretty sure he was making right now himself. "I've had to look at that all day."
"Come here, boy!" the witch screeched, and Nick jumped before he realized she was talking to Brian. She hobbled over to the cage and reached out a shaking hand. "Now, give me your hand and let me see if you're ready for feasting."
Brian stuck the chicken bone through the bars, and the witch's fingers clamped down on it. "Blasted!" she screamed, and Nick felt his bones go cold. "How can that be? I've fed you nothing but the finest, fattest meals." Her voice sounded like nails over a chalkboard. She turned around, clearly intent on trying again tomorrow, but slowly, so very slowly, she paused. Nick didn't know what to do, so he grabbed the nearest thing he could find, which was a crooked old broom. The witch turned her head in the direction of the oven, taking in a huge, rattling breath of anticipation.
"No," she said slowly. "I think I am done waiting." Her blind, beady eyes shot to Nick and she barked, "You! Come here."
"Nick, come on," Brian whispered. Nick caught his eye; Brian's jaw was clenched hard. "You know what happens."
Nick nodded. Pulse beating madly, he grabbed the broom tighter and walked over to where the witch was standing by the oven.
"Now, dear," she said, sickly sweet. "We're going to bake first. Can't have a proper feast without bread, can we? So pop in and make sure that the fire's burning, would you?"
Nick took a breath. He could do this. He could remember this. "I don't know," he said thoughtfully. His limbs were weak and shaky when he crouched down. "I don't think I can fit in there. Could you show me how you do it?"
"Oh, you silly goose," the witch huffed, and pushed him aside. "It's easy, just look!" She crawled into the burning oven, and before Nick could think too deeply about what he was doing, he gave her a heavy push the rest of the way in.
Her scream was deafening.
Nick fumbled with the broomstick before he managed to shove it through the oven handles, locking it effectively. He could hear rattling and pounding from behind the door, but nothing else. Panting, he ran over to Brian and grabbed the key dangling from a nail on the wall.
Brian grabbed on to Nick arm's tight when Nick got him locked out. "Why isn't she-?"
"No way in hell I'm gonna hear her screaming again," he said gruffly, helping Brian to his feet. "This is my fucking dream. Come on."
They hopped out of the window and ran down the hill towards the forest. Nick didn't look back.
He didn't quite understand how, but in that way that dreams sometimes does, the forest clearing had turned into a meadow by the time they got there. The sky was open, and the corn was shimmering, flickering in and out of sight.
"You're probably gonna wake up soon," Brian told him.
"Yeah," Nick agreed. He flopped down on the ground and raked a hand through his hair, laughing breathlessly. "That was really weird."
Brian laughed and sat down in front of him. "I had fun in your head," he offered. Then he paused. "Apart from, you know, almost getting eaten."
"Apart from that," Nick agreed.
The corn was swaying gently now, a breeze rustling through the leaves. Nick squinted upwards when Kanye West suddenly started playing from the clouds. "That's my alarm clock," he said, with a small frown. "I usually wake up pretty quickly."
Brian looked thoughtful. "They said you were supposed to tell me something before we left."
"They?" Nick repeated, watching Brian tear off a corn leaf. "Who?"
"I don't know." Brian started tearing the leaf into long strips. "You, I guess? This is your brainchild anyway."
"Okay," Nick said. Brian looked at him expectantly, and Nick picked up a pebble from the ground. "Uh. I love you?"
Brian smiled at him. "Yeah, I know."
"I cooked a witch for you," Nick added, putting the stone down on top of Brian's white shoe. "Even though I repressed it."
"I appreciate it."
Nick was quiet for a while. Brian bounced a balled-up leaf off his forehead, and the music on his alarm clock switched to Coldplay. "It's weird," he muttered, stacking up a few more pebbles around Brian's feet. "We're talking more now. Sort of like … you know? Like ten years ago."
"Yeah." Brian sounded calm. Like he was waiting.
Nick shrugged. "I didn't think that was gonna happen again."
Brian poked Nick's calf with his toe, because now he was suddenly barefoot. "Me neither."
"Do you think it happened 'cause he left?" Nick asked suddenly, looking up. Brian slipped into a mild smile of confusion. The lights flickered, and Nick briefly saw the blurry vision of his hotel room.
"Maybe," Brian said. "I don't think so, though. Hey, quit feeling guilty for something you didn't have any control over. He left, and he's happy. He left us, and we're still happy."
"I don't think that's what I'm feeling guilty about," Nick admitted. Everything was graying at the edges, turning still where the light didn't touch it anymore.
"Then what?" Brian asked him.
Nick looked down at his hands. "I think I'm fucking up the group again," he said quietly, and then he woke up.
He was carrying the largest cup of Starbucks coffee he could get when he went to the studio an hour and a half later. When Brian came down the hallway towards him, Nick couldn't help the grin that broke out on his face.
"Sorry I'm late," he said, meeting Brian in the doorway. "But you seriously are not gonna believe the dream I had last night."
Brian sighed dramatically. "Is it the one about the python again? Because, Nick, seriously. You don't need me to crack the metaphor on that one."
Nick went a little warm around the ears. "No," he said, weakly indignant. He stuck his sunglasses into the collar of his shirt. "No, it was about…"
He trailed off as they walked inside the studio. AJ was the only one sitting there, eating his way through a bowl of cereal and skimming through the newspaper (which meant that he was at the comics already.) The room was eerily silent, apart from AJ's periodic crunching.
Nick almost didn't want to ask. "Where's Howie?" slipped from his mouth before he knew what was happening.
Brian raised an eyebrow at him, heading over to join AJ at the table. "Who?"
It was around that time that Nick felt a large boulder settle into the pit of his stomach and get really, really comfortable there.
He was in the middle of a relatively quiet freak-out when it happened. The day hadn't gotten better as it had worn on.
"But you gotta remember last night then," Nick had implored Brian, following after him around the studio.
Brian had given AJ a look and blinked at Nick. "Last night when we were doing that charity thing?" he'd asked, clearly confused.
Whatever fucked up alternate universe he'd ended in, it was clearly one of the better ones, because 'that charity thing' had been a nationally televised event with a crowd of ten thousand. Nick didn't give a shit. He paced the floor, trying to figure out what to do, when he heard it again.
"Psst!" his Starbucks cup said.
Nick blanched so suddenly that he dropped into the squashy armchair behind him. His arms and legs flailed around for a second before he regained control, and he sat up forcefully, staring at the half-empty cup in front of him. Crouched behind the logo, a cartoon version of Britney was peering over her shoulder and waving him closer.
"You gotta wait till you're asleep," she whispered. In the background, Brian was telling AJ to go higher on the next take. "I'm sorry. I don't know how else to do this."
Nick suddenly felt really helpless. "Am I going crazy?" he whispered back.
Britney smiled halfheartedly at him. "You're not," she said. "Don't worry. I know what that feels like."
The problem was though, that once Nick actively tried to fall asleep, he couldn't. At all. It was like that thing when people told you, "don't think about an elephant for the next thirty seconds" and then all you could think about was how you were totally not thinking about elephants. He was lying upside down, legs hooked over the back of the couch, when AJ sat down beside him.
"New meditation technique?" he asked. There was a cigarette dangling from his fingers, smoke curling up along his hand. Nick looked away from it.
"Can't sleep," he replied, drumming his fingers on his stomach. "I figured that maybe if I got all the blood to my head I'll just, like, pass out when I stand up or something."
"Sounds healthy," AJ remarked. When Nick straightened his neck long enough to look up, AJ was smiling lightly at him, just one corner of his mouth lifted. Apparently some things didn't change in these new realities. They were still working on The Album After The Comeback, and Nick still felt like he shouldn't look at AJ for too long at a time. Looking generally led to thinking, and thinking about AJ generally led to problems of nuclear war proportions. Or, at least, pretty big town squabble proportions.
"Your face is getting purple," AJ told him conversationally.
"Thanks," Nick said absently, watching the vein on AJ's neck. When he realized what AJ had actually said, he sat up straight and tugged at his t-shirt. "Oh, thanks."
AJ's smile was turning oddly crooked. Nick licked his lips and looked up to see Brian approach them. He folded his hands in his lap.
AJ had been lying down lines for You Can Let Go all day. Brian was sitting on the couch watching him, sipping at a bottle up water when Nick crouched behind the couch and hugged Brian from behind.
"Hey." Brian turned his head and smiled, patting Nick's arm warmly. "What's up?"
"Nothin'," Nick mumbled, his chin bopping against Brian's shoulder. He watched AJ put his earphones back on and nod along to the beat, waiting for his cue. "He sounds good today."
"He does," Brian agreed. He'd just been on the phone with Leighanne, which always put him in a calm, slightly mellow mood if he was away from her. As mellow as Brian could get, anyway. He rubbed Nick's arm, and Nick's chest clenched a little. "You all right, man?" he asked.
"I miss Howie," Nick said, hushed like Howie could actually hear him. He'd probably be happy if he'd heard. Maybe. Nick hoped he would be. Nick was sometimes on Howie's case enough that Howie got fed up and only spoke to him when he had to for a couple of days, which was never what Nick actually intended. He was always fucking up the group in some way. They were in the studio recording The Album That Nick Officially Hated, without Howie to fuss over all the loose sheets everywhere, and it felt empty.
Brian craned his neck and gave Nick a genuinely curious look. "Is he an old friend or something?" he asked.
"No." Nick shook his head. AJ went into a long, embellished note that had goosebumps rising on his arms. "Brother," he said, and then, "hey, can you give me your home number again? I kinda lost it."
He called Kevin once he got back to the hotel that night.
It only took two rings for Kevin to answer, thankfully, since Nick was planning on freaking out if it went past four. "Nick?" Kevin said, sounding surprised.
Nick cleared his throat. "Yeah, hi." He shifted on the bed. "I just wanted … okay, so you're here. You're here. That's good."
"Okay," Kevin said slowly. Nick could hear the TV in the background. "You doing okay?" He paused for a second. "I haven't heard from you in a while."
"Yeah, I know." Nick grabbed his glasses from the nightstand, careful not to get any smudgy fingerprints on the glass. "I've just been. There's been stuff, so. I just wanted to…" He sighed and rolled his eyes at himself. "Are you going anywhere tomorrow?" he asked.
"Uh." Kristin's voice was there now, and the sound went muffled for a bit, like Kevin was holding his hand over the receiver. "No, I don't think so," he said shortly after.
"Okay," Nick said. He let out a quiet breath. "Okay. Good."
"Okay," Kevin said. He sounded vaguely amused now. "Why, are you planning on dropping by?"
"No." Nick scratched the back of his neck. "We're recording right now, so."
"Yeah, I know," Kevin replied.
Nick coughed. "Okay, so. Okay." He sat up and put his glasses back on the table. "I just wanted to check, so. And, uh. Congrats. On the pregnancy and all."
Nick thought he heard Kevin sigh. "Thanks, Nick," he said, voice low as always, and Nick hung up before he could say anything else that sounded insincere.
It didn't take him as long to land down this time. He gasped and wheezed for breath, but Britney was there, whispering encouraging words in his ear until Nick could hear the tinkling of her wings and he could once again locate his feet, his arms, his body.
When he finally managed to stand up straight and open his eyes, Howie was glaring at him.
"Seriously?" he snapped, pointing to his feet. "Cinderella. Seriously?"
Next to him, Britney muffled a laugh behind her hand. Nick was nowhere near that discreet.
"Sorry," he said, grinning like a total jackass. He looked around and saw the immaculate ballroom drift into light, heard the ferocious playing of the string quartet. The couples on the dance floor were swirling around grandly, all of them forming a perfect circle around him and Howie.
"I hate you," Howie said. He wasn't in glass slippers, but his sneakers were pearly white and glittering. "At least you didn't put me in a dress."
"Hey, I was Gretel last time, okay?" Nick was still smiling happily. It was good to see him again. "You're okay, right?" he asked.
"I'm fine," Howie sighed. Nick knew that the small smile was totally involuntary. "You fell asleep really late though."
"I know," Nick said. "I'm sorry, I couldn't-"
The large clock hovering directly above them rung out loudly, and Nick tilted his head back to see the gilded hands both pointed to twelve.
"Great," Howie mumbled, retying his ponytail. It was gone a second later though, and he gave Nick a frustrated glare.
"Sorry," Nick said. "I just remembered I kind of hated that thing."
"I have to go," Howie told him. The clock had already struck six times. He backed up to the edge of the circle and turned around. "I guess I have a pumpkin waiting for me. God."
"Wait," Nick said, jogging forward. "How'm I supposed to…?"
"You know the story, Nick." Howie was pushing through the crowd now, his purple robes snagging on a woman's heels. "Come find me!"
Nick's mouth opened, but nothing came out. This was all happening much faster than last time. "Drop your shoe then!" he called after him.
A second later the shoe came hurling and landed smack in his face.
"We've already been to fifteen houses," Nick groaned, leaning up against another really convenient lamp post. Under his arm was the sparkly sneaker, so light that Nick had to keep checking that he was still carrying it. "I know I love the guy and all, but seriously."
"No," Britney said tremulously, her eyes wide as she landed on top of Nick's upturned hand. "No, you really have to get him now." She paced his palm, her now green dress tickling Nick's skin. "God, you fell asleep so late," she said, frustrated. "You're gonna be waking up any second now. Nick, move, I'm not kidding."
Frowning, Nick pushed away from the lamp and started walking again. "Can't I just come get him the next time I go to asleep?" he asked.
Britney shook her head frantically, and pushed off to fly next to his shoulder. "No, it's sort of a one chance kind of thing. Oh!" She let out of a panicked burst of fairy dust from her wings and flew up an inch, pointing a stiff arm ahead. "Oh thank God, there it is. Nick, hurry up, dammit! Your alarm clock's going off!"
It was. Nick heard Kanye West floating down from the sky. Still quiet, but the sound was going to turn up any minute now. He looked at Britney again before he went into a run, crossing the large field up to the dark mansion as fast as he could. The field was already starting to flicker out of focus, and when Nick saw a brief, sleep-filled glance of his hotel room, he ran so hard he couldn't breathe anymore, could barely see for the wind in his eyes.
The field stretched out elastically and then suddenly shrunk so Nick dumped down directly in front of the doors to the mansion. Scrambling to his feet, he called, "Howie!" Coldplay was playing from the sky now, louder than before, and Nick pounded his fists against the door. "Howie!" he roared, legs shaking and his heart pounding furiously.
An elderly woman in elegant robes opened the door. She was flickering as well, like a poorly constructed hologram, and Nick saw another glimpse of his hotel room through sleep-heavy eyes. Don't wake up, he thought desperately. "Why, your Highness!" the woman cooed, stepping back to open the door wider. "What a pleasure, what a pleasure. Come right in. I believe you are on a quest to find your-?"
"Where's your stepdaughter?" Nick barked. Inside the house, two girls were standing up and curtseying, their makeup caked on so heavily that it was flaking. Nick whirred his head. "Stepson. Step-"
"Now is not the time for gender sensitivity, Nick!" Britney cried, releasing another puff of fairy dust.
"Why, I don't know who you're referring to, your Highness," the stepmother said sweetly. "All my daughters are right-"
"Howie!" Nick yelled, pushing past her and running down the hallway. The entire house was flickering now, and in a brief second he saw something, something huddled up behind a cupboard door. Nick yanked it open, not worrying about locks and therefore not finding any, and saw the ceiling of his hotel room for a very, very clear second.
Then Howie was there. Curled up on the floor, he looked even smaller than usual. He was shaking, flickering in and out of Nick's vision, and Nick dropped to his knees without caring about pain.
"I tried telling you…" Britney said faintly from behind him, but Nick wasn't listening anymore.
"Howie," he said shakily, so cold suddenly that his teeth were chattering. He fumbled for Howie desperately, but he kept sliding away. "Howie, I'm - you're gonna be okay, I'm gonna-"
Howie was trying to say something, Nick realized then. He bent closer, eyes wide, and it took a second to force the roaring in his ears to die down so he could hear Howie croak, "s-shoe…"
"Oh!" Nick scrambled upright. "Oh God, I'm sorry, I'm-" He yanked the shoe from under his arm and grabbed Howie's leg. There was no time to be gentle about it, and he crammed the sneaker down on Howie's foot, saying, "sorry, I'm sorry," over and over again.
It fit perfectly.
Suddenly Howie gasped in a harsh breath. It was followed immediately by a long, slow exhale, and Nick choked out a wet laugh when Howie started returning back to his own bright colors, bit by slow bit.
He rolled over on his back and turned fever-glazed eyes on Nick. "Always with the drama," he mumbled slowly, his voice rough and low.
"Yeah." Nick swallowed heavily more than once, and mustered up a smile. "Yeah, you know me." He grabbed a firm hold of Howie's wrist. "Come on."
On the way out he had Howie's arm slung around his neck the entire time, holding him steady with a tight grip around his waist. Howie was hobbling along on one shoe, slowly but surely. The stepmother and stepdaughters were shrouded in darkness now, and when the mother stepped forward to stop them, her eyes were yellow and angry. "Now you can't-"
"Get out of my way," Nick snarled, so fiercely that even Howie startled against him.
"Do we know why I haven't woken up yet?" Nick asked later, when they were perched on top of a brick fence.
Howie was leaning against him a little. Nick didn't wrap an arm around him because he knew Howie wasn't up for feeling weak just now. He squinted up at the sun and did a small shrug. "Maybe you hit the snooze button in your sleep?"
Nick laughed. "So basically I don't get to wake up until I figure out something to tell you? We didn't have to stress before then."
"I don't think it works like that," Howie replied, giving Nick a tired smile. "If you'd woken up before the story was over…" He shook his head, and Nick pretended not to feel him shudder. "I don't know."
Nick suppressed the cold chill trickling down his spine. A fox and a hound passed them on their way along the road, and Nick sighed. "Okay."
"Okay," Howie said as well, patient as always.
"Okay," Nick repeated. He swung his legs back and forth. "So. I almost just lost you to this weird, black-hole-in-the-universe thing I'm stuck in."
"Yeah," Howie murmured, knocking his knee gently against Nick's.
"I don't mean to make fun of you all the time," Nick told him. He was looking fixedly at his shoes. "It's just…"
"Yeah, I know." Howie laughed a little. "I'm an easy target."
"No," Nick said quickly, shaking his head. "Well … I mean, yeah. But that's not why … I don't know. We've always done it, so I just thought." He shrugged helplessly. "I kind of flipped when I thought you were gone."
"Yeah." Nick could hear the smile in Howie's voice now. "Thanks, Nick."
"It sucks that you're gonna get married," Nick added reluctantly. He glanced up. "You're gonna propose soon, right?"
Howie picked up a race car sitting next to him and examined it. "Probably, yeah," he replied, giving Nick a quirked grin.
"I figured." Nick turned back and dug his toe into the gravel. "It'll just be me and AJ left."
"Are you ever gonna tell him?" Howie asked. A flock of seagulls swooped over their heads, and when Nick looked up the sun was melting the fields away.
"Tell him what?" he asked in confusion.
Howie rolled his eyes so hard it looked painful. "Tell him what," he repeated. "How many times in the past couple of years have you brought up how great the sex was?"
"It was pretty great," Nick admitted to his feet, feeling heat trickle into the back of his neck.
"Yeah, so that officially makes it four hundred and seventy five." Howie waved his hand. "Or something." There was a loud knock on the door, followed by, Nick, wake up! and Howie gave him an overbearing smile that would be annoying if Nick hadn't just seen him huddled up on a floor unable to breathe. "No one's abandoning you, Nick," he said, giving Nick's arm a squeeze that echoed in his head. "And he's been waiting for you for a really long time."
Nick woke up with a gasp, his fingers clenched tightly around his ringing cell phone.
It happened on the Black and Blue tour. Sometimes Nick like felt like he could trace every fucking bad decision he'd ever made back to that year. Somewhere in the middle, the only thing he could remember were the hotel rooms, the whiskey rings from their glasses smudging on the coffee tables, and the white-dusted mirrors that no one ever bothered to clean up. There was always a party in AJ's room. Small or big, it didn't really matter. Nick was there for all of them for a while.
It was in one of those drugged-out states of mind, where he couldn't move from the couch and the techno music was a reminder for his pulse to keep beating, that AJ kissed him. Nick still thought it might've been a dare, someone drunkenly shouting from across the room, but he couldn't remember. He just remembered kissing back. Remembered not stopping.
Slowly it turned into a thing. Every night, whenever a party started dying down, Nick would inevitably end up with AJ sprawled across him, or straddling his lap, his hot breath in Nick's mouth and his hands crawling under Nick's shirt. Nick got hard every time, whether AJ was grinding against him or not. He bit back groans and urgent sounds, bit AJ's lip hard enough to bleed and pulled him closer with a fist his hair. They were always pressed so tight together that Nick couldn't breathe, and he arched and gasped and AJ's lips trailed up to his ear to hiss things like, "fuck," and "yes," and "you."
No one ever said anything. Either they were too high themselves to remember it, or Marcus took care of the repercussions. There wasn't really an either-or in that scenario, but Nick liked to pretend they hadn't really been that careless.
It wasn't like it mattered anyway, because AJ had Sarah. And then a few weeks later he was flying off to Arizona for a clean start, and Nick was left where he was, fighting off the withdrawals by himself. He'd been on the verge of something terrifying, something AJ had been trapped in for longer than Nick had realized.
He didn't go visit him once. Nick liked to pretend he had reasons for that, too, other than getting new tattoos and not knowing what to say.
Then a year later AJ didn't have Sarah anymore, but Nick was already tearing himself free, going off on his own, and he figured that that was probably for the best. It wasn't till the next time around - until they were back on the road again, all of five of them older, healthier, happier - that Nick got up the guts to look at AJ again. He'd looked at AJ forever obviously, and they'd always been close, but there was a strange thrill now whenever AJ called him an idiot in that fond way of his, or used Nick for a pillow on long plane rides, that made Nick remember what AJ's mouth against his neck felt like.
He'd been drunk the night they slept together, but not enough to be hazy about what was happening. Not enough to forget to pull AJ closer and whisper, "me too, fuck," against his lips, backing them towards the bed. AJ's kisses weren't sloppy and unfocused that time, and he didn't try to get Nick off in two seconds flat like before. He was so slow and thorough that Nick couldn't think by the time AJ had gotten his jeans open. AJ sucked his lower lip into his mouth and slid on top of him, his thumb brushing over Nick's temple, and fuck, Nick still remembered that, still remembered moaning and begging and AJ just hushing him, murmuring, "don't rush it, don't rush it."
In the morning, Nick had gotten up first.
"This was probably stupid," he said, picking his shirt up from the floor.
AJ was still in bed, propped up against the headboard and watching him with a raised eyebrow. He opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it and closed it again. "Probably, yeah," he went with.
Nick sat down at the foot of the bed. There was a small bruise on AJ's collarbone, faintly red still. "We're good, right?" he asked, more casual than he felt.
AJ sighed, and gave Nick a long look. Then he shook his head. "Only if you pay for breakfast," he said, smiling crookedly.
Nick tried to laugh, but it fell fairly short. He fucked with people without meaning to, had just fucked his bandmate, and he was a master at fucking up the group.
He walked into the studio already knowing what he was going to see. Brian, Howie, and AJ were playing Go Fish around the table, AJ sprawled out across two chairs and failing completely at trying to be sneaky about checking out Brian's cards. Brian didn't seem to mind though, and cheerfully asked Howie for his kings when AJ yelped and shot up straight.
"You kicked me!" he said indignantly.
Brian's shocked face was about as convincing as AJ's stealth face. "I did not."
Nick cleared his throat before AJ could start pulling up his pant legs and complain about how easily he bruised. "Morning," he said, still standing in the door.
All three of them looked up. They were four again, Nick thought, and his stomach did an odd drop.
"Morning," Howie said, sliding two cards across the table towards Brian. "Are you all right? We tried calling you."
"That's his polite way of saying that you're two hours late," AJ told him, massaging his ankle and giving Brian a glare.
"I know," Nick said. He clutched the strap of his backpack tighter than he had to. "Sorry, I was - I haven't been sleeping well." He cleared his throat and steeled himself. "Where's Kevin?" he asked, forcing the words out before his throat went dry.
Brian glanced up at him from his cards and frowned lightly. "In Kentucky, I guess."
Nick stared at him, caught off guard completely. Maybe, god, maybe--
"What do you mean, where's Kevin?" AJ gave him an odd look. "Since when do we need a roadie for recording?"
"Right," Nick said dully. He sank into an empty seat and saw Britney looking up at him sadly from the backside of one of the outspread cards. "Guess I wasn't thinking."
On his way back to the hotel yesterday he'd checked out a book of fairy tales from a library he'd looked up in the phonebook. He sat on the couch and went through each story while the other guys took their turns in the recording booth, reading every line carefully in case he missed something.
He tried calling Kevin, just to make sure, but no one picked up. Nick only called once.
Howie was sick, coughing and sniffling and looking red around the eyes. Nick went out and got him some chamomile for the bowl of hot water he was making, and as he leaned over it with a towel draped over his head Nick didn't comment on it once.
He might've said something about Howie's shirt, but it wasn't like the guy could wear rhinestones and not expect to be mocked a least a little. Howie told Nick not to comment on anyone else's fashion choices while he was still wearing white plastic sunglasses, and Nick smiled to himself as he flipped to the next page of Little Red Riding Hood.
Most of the day he spent curled up on the couch with his eyes firmly shut, trying to tune out Jared the producer giving out instructions every five seconds and just thinking about a calm ocean.
A pillow hit the back of Nick's his head. "Are you gonna be lazy all day?" That was AJ.
Without opening his eyes, Nick grabbed the pillow and threw it back forcefully. "Fuck off."
"What's with you?" Brian asked, sounding even closer than AJ was. He heard footsteps and then Brian lifted Nick's legs up carefully and put them in his lap when he sat down.
"I have to sleep," Nick said, curling in towards the back of the couch.
"Are you getting sick?" Brian rubbed his ankle.
"Yeah," Nick lied. "I think so. I need sleep."
He heard AJ snort. "Why are you babying him?" he asked.
"Fuck off, AJ," Nick snapped, much louder this time.
"Fuck off with the attitude," AJ shot right back.
Brian sighed. "Great," he muttered under his breath.
Nick crossed his arms, squeezed his eyes shut so tight he saw sparks dancing behind his eyelids, and thought about walking through a meadow.
They were listening to a playback of Unmistakable, all of them gathered around the soundboard with Jared messing with the tabs. Nick was sitting backwards on one of the chairs, his chin down on the backrest. His head was throbbing.
"That's really great," Howie said once the song was over, genuinely pleased. Nick could feel AJ watching him, but he just kept staring straight ahead. He still heard the song in his head, four distinct harmonies that were missing their anchor. "We're coming along, I think."
"We sound like shit," Nick said, his voice completely flat.
It was like he'd inadvertently turned on a time freeze. Everything went very still for about two seconds before Brian turned around to face him, and Howie's confused frown went into an angry one. Nick didn't look at AJ.
"What are you-?" Brian started to say, but Nick pushed up from the chair before he could finish.
"It's not right," he snapped, already stalking towards the door. He yanked it open and went into the hallway, glancing down both ends before he spotted an open door just near the vending machine. He marched past all the pictures of singers and bands shaking hands with studio executives and went into what must've been a small conference room.
In a fit of panic and exhaustion, he kicked the leg of the heavy conference table so it scraped a few inches across the floor. "Shit," he cursed, hopping on one foot while he clutched the other. He'd been so tired he could barely sit up all day, and still, nothing. His eyes wanted to spring open every time he closed them. He was going to fall asleep too late again and not have time to do what he was supposed to do, and what if Kevin … what if he-?
"Would you mind telling me what the hell your problem is?" AJ's voice became clearer and clearer as he went down the hallway, and when he came to stand in the doorway, his eyes were angry and the word 'problem' was spat out.
Nick glared at him, for the simple reason that there was no one else around to be angry at. "Don't start."
"The fuck I will." AJ shut the door behind him and went over to Nick. He gave him a light but forceful shove, which made Nick's eyes go wide. "I don't really care what diva trip you think you're entitled to be on," he told him. "But you're not a kid anymore, so quit acting like you can just say shit like that and no one's gonna call you out on it."
AJ was standing way too close. Nick breathed in heavily through his nose and said, "It's not - that's not how it's supposed to be, okay? You should know that. You miss Kevin more than I do."
"What are you talking about?" AJ looked like he couldn't decide if Nick was crazy or just messing with him. "You've been acting so weird lately," he said.
Nick's chest was hurting. This wasn't right. "I have to go, okay?" he said, but he didn't move, because if he did he was going to be pressed right up against AJ. "I need to … it's Kevin, I have to-"
"What?" AJ's eyes were flashing. "No, you're-"
"I have to go," Nick pleaded, and then he stepped up and kissed AJ, hard.
AJ made a rough, surprised sound in Nick's mouth, and Nick only heard a furious roaring in his ears as his lips moved over AJ's, demanding, fingers trembling as they slid into AJ's hair, knocking his stupid hat off. He whipped them around and shoved AJ up against the table, making the legs scrape across the floor again with a loud whining sound. AJ scrambled for purchase, his hands gripping down on Nick's arms, and Nick thought, please, please, until he had to pull away. They were both breathing hard, and Nick's ears were burning with embarrassment and guilt, but as soon as he opened his mouth to apologize AJ's breath hitched, and he reeled Nick back in, fiercely and out of control.
AJ's mouth was hot and Nick groaned without meaning to, his hands scrambling down to AJ's waist and hoisting him up on the table. AJ exhaled for the brief second their mouths separated, and Nick felt dizzy, but then AJ's lips were back, fast and wet and God, maybe AJ had waited a long time, but Nick had waited longer.
"Fucking stay here," he said breathlessly, pressing his forehead to AJ's and squeezing his eyes shut tight. AJ's hands were everywhere, on his shoulders and his back and his neck and Nick slumped against him, throat working painfully. "Stay here."
"What?" AJ rasped, so hoarse that Nick shuddered. He pulled him in again, their breaths loud in Nick's ears, so close that their lips grazed each other for a burning hot second.
Nick's breath whooshed from his throat, and suddenly he shook his head hard and wrenched away. "I'm sorry," he said miserably. "I have to - I'm sorry."
He scrubbed at his mouth the entire way out to the parking lot and into his car, needing to make the burn go away.
When he came to, it was hard to lift his head. Nick wheezed for breath, the air around him too thin, and he clutched on tightly to whatever was holding him steady. He concentrated on his breathing, and when he could finally look up, Britney was hovering in front of him, her face sunken in with pity.
"I'm so sorry," she said quietly. "I know this is hard for you, but I can't change it."
Nick shook his head weakly, breaths rasping in his chest. "Where is he?" he managed, head spinning when he tried to get to his feet.
"I'm here," Kevin said, suddenly right next to him. Nick recoiled with a yelp. Kevin looked like he was trying to hold back a smirk. "Hey," he said, gesturing towards Nick's hands. "Had to take the leading role in my story, didn't you?"
Nick blinked. That was when he noticed the ocean.
They were on a sandy beach, the waves rolling in calmly and hardly making any sound at all. Nick's feet were bare, and the sand between his toes was warm. In his hands he was gripping the handle of a long, large sword. The sword was driven into a weather-worn rock that came up to Nick's knees.
"What-?" Nick tried to wrench his hands free, but no matter how much he tugged and pulled, they stayed where they were.
Kevin smiled very lightly at him. "You know how the story goes," he said.
"No," Nick moaned, resting his head on top of the handle. For a second the world around them melted into dark blue as he shuddered involuntarily. "I can't. I'm too tired."
"You have to talk to me." Kevin put a hand on Nick's shoulder and gave him a little squeeze. "Nick? Hey, you know what to do. You know what you want to say."
Nick gritted his teeth. There was a thunderbolt echoing far away, and without raising his head, barely without moving at all, Nick nodded. He did know.
"You left," he said quietly, giving the sword a small, angry tug.
Kevin let out a small sigh that sounded like he'd been waiting. "Yeah," he replied, coming around to stand in front of the stone so he was facing Nick.
Nick managed to raise his head, glowering. "You left," he said harshly, yanking at the sword again. Nothing happened.
"Yeah," Kevin said a second time. His gaze didn't waver. "If you're waiting for an apology, you're not getting one."
The sand was slipping beneath Nick's feet. He braced himself against the stone and pulled as hard as he could. "What were we supposed to do?" he demanded. "Just end it because you were done? I don't know who the hell I am if I'm not…"
He panted for breath, sinking down on the ground with his hands still stuck above his head. Kevin came around and helped him up again, his grip tight around Nick's waist. "This is your head, you know," he said reassuringly. "You don't have to censor yourself."
There wasn't a muscle in Nick's body that wasn't hurting. With a pained groan he yanked again. This time, the sword slid up an inch. "You have to come back," Nick croaked, slumping against the handle. "I'm fucking it all up again, Kev."
Kevin steadied Nick on his feet again. "You're doing fine," he said, in that slow drawl of his that always meant serious business. His hands clamped down on Nick's shoulders, holding him upright. "Nick, come on. You don't need me for this."
"Was it my fault?" Nick asked breathlessly, yanking as hard as he could. The stone made a small cracking sound when the sword slid up almost halfway.
"What?" Kevin dropped his hands slowly, rubbed Nick's back instead. "AJ?"
The sky glimmered with lights and then turned bright red. Nick's hands were burning. "I was right there," he gasped, heaving and pulling the best he could. "I could've … he was so far gone and I didn't … I couldn't…"
"Jesus, Nick." Kevin looked so shocked for a moment that Nick nearly forgot what he was supposed to do. "What, you … no. No." He let out an incredulous sound. "No one was responsible for that but him, okay? And it's not … you're in love with the guy. How were you gonna see through that clearly?"
Nick's eyes jerked back. "What?"
Kevin snorted, and then he actually flicked Nick's forehead. The sword slid from the stone in one long swoop and Nick came crashing towards the ground, still clutching it in his hand.
"Everything got messed up, though," he tried again, clambering up to a seated position. "The group. Everything."
"Not because of you." Kevin crouched down in front of him, the wind billowing his shirt. "AJ doesn't have problems because of you." He shrugged. "Four is still good, Nick. I mean, it's different, I guess, but I don't think it's gonna be bad. And you're not gonna mess that up just because you want him."
Nick's shoulders slumped. He looked up and saw a dark bedroom window floating through the clouds. "He's gonna be next," he said quietly. "I don't know how … you have to come back and help me."
"I kind of have a pregnant wife to get back to," Kevin pointed out.
Nick let out a choked laugh and nodded. There was a pause, and then, "I'm trying to be happy for you," he said, feeling the sand under him separate and blow away with the wind.
Kevin gave him a smile, and the sky flickered above him. "I know."
Nick woke up on his own, ten minutes before the alarm went off.
He didn't want to ask when he came into the studio later. Howie and Brian were stacking lyric sheets like little elves at a conveyer belt. Nick went over and sank into a seat, burying his head in his hands. He felt clammy. Maybe he was running a fever.
"Morning to you too," Howie said, rubbing the back of Nick's neck briefly. Nick just grunted in reply, and when nothing else happened he looked up to see Howie frowning at him.
"Did Brian disappear too?" Nick asked wearily.
"He just said he went to get coffee." Howie gave Nick another look before he went back to his paper filing. "You all right?"
"Peachy," Nick said. When Howie raised an eyebrow, he added, "Just … didn't get enough sleep last night."
Now Howie looked exasperated. "I'm all for partying, Nick, but seriously." He shook his head. "Whatever. Here's your stuff."
Nick looked at Treat Me Right, the first one in the pile. AJ's name wasn't in the credits.
That night, Nick slept earlier than he had any other night in the past week.
He came to with the echo of a strong, pure voice echoing in his ears. When he tried to take a breath he inhaled water.
He spluttered and pushed himself up on straight arms. He was lying in the edge of the waves that were now retreating back into the sea. Britney was standing on his shoulder, wringing water out of a strand of his hair.
"You're such a martyr," she sighed, shaking off the sand grains from her tiny high heels. "You had to start your dream right here, didn't you? Well, come on then. I can't carry you up to dry land myself."
She flew up in the air as Nick heaved himself away from the water and into dry, warm sand. He flopped onto his back and exhaled heavily.
Britney hovered directly over his head, her hands on her hips. This time her dress was pink, her hair longer than usual. Behind her the sky was bright blue. "Do you know where we are this time?" she asked him.
Nick glared. 'If you could just give me a second,' he tried to say, but when he opened his mouth, nothing came out. He frowned, looking up at Britney curiously. He opened his mouth again, tried to get his vocal chords working, but there wasn't so much as a whisper in his throat.
"I figured," Britney sighed. "You know, you make yourself the girl in a lot of your dreams. It's kind of weird."
Before Nick could sic the errant bumblebee that had magically appeared on her, he heard a series of loud, excited barks, followed by, "Hey, Bernie, hey! Slow down!"
"Right," Britney said, bringing her hands together, seemingly making a decision. "Can you stand? I guess you must've just gotten your legs if - do you even know the original story? If you don't land him by sundown you'll turn into sea foam."
Nick's eyes widened in horror, frozen halfway into a crouch.
"Well, that probably won't happen," Britney added thoughtfully. "Since you don't know it and all. Does all your inspiration come from Disney or do you pick up a book, like, ever? Are we gonna have to battle a sea witch? Hook up with a snooty crab? Because I-"
Nick shut her inside his cupped hands and she squeaked, banging on his palm indignantly.
"I'm trying to help you!" she yelled in her tiny voice.
Nick was briefly tempted to give his hands a little shake, but he released her as soon as AJ came into view behind a clutter of rocks. Bernie was at his heels, chasing happily after crabs and small birds that came down to poke for food. AJ looked content, Nick thought, picking up small pebbles every now and then to throw into the sea.
Then he caught sight of Nick, and his expression changed entirely. Nick couldn't tell if it was good or bad. AJ cocked his head as he made his way over, letting Bernie run free. "Hey, Nick," he said, once he was close enough. His voice was smoother than it usually was. More careful. "I was wondering if you were gonna show up."
Nick's legs were wobbly. It was strange, feeling like a part of his body was a new, foreign thing. He opened his mouth again before he remembered that he couldn't speak. Shit, this was never going to work.
"Oh hey, he's cute," Britney said, with a hint of surprise. She swayed in the air and tilted her head appreciatively. "More tattoos since last time I saw him."
Nick's lips were pinched, and then AJ said, "So I guess you got the invitation?"
"To the wedding," AJ clarified.
"Oh, crap," Britney said. Nick suddenly felt like he'd swallowed a jellyfish. He managed a small nod and a faint smile, pushing wet hair out of his eyes.
"Good," AJ said. He studied Nick's face, and Nick shuffled his feet, making Britney fly over and stroke the side of his neck. "I'm glad you're coming," AJ said finally. "I wasn't sure if…" He trailed off before he could finish. Nick watched him helplessly as he raked a hand through his hair before looking up again, a new, slightly wider smile on his face. "Hey, why don't I take you up to the castle?" he offered.
A flock of seagulls squawked over their heads. It was a bright, sunny day on a beach shore, and Nick had never felt more like throwing up in his life. The sun was already high on the sky. Pretty soon it would be heading downwards.
Wringing his hands, Nick nodded, and the smile AJ gave him was enough to make his stomach flutter unexpectedly.
"Hey, just before we head off anywhere," Britney said, tapping her small knuckles on Nick's forehead. "You know you came out of the water naked, right?"
How was he going to do this? He couldn't speak. And AJ was getting married in four hours, just around sunset. It was just the kind of ridiculously over-the-top romantic thing that AJ would do. Nick wrinkled his nose.
"He remembers you, though," Britney said encouragingly, putting her hair up in a messy bun on top of her head. "At least vaguely. He just thinks you're over him, so you just have to convince him that you're not."
They were walking through the small village located at the bottom of a hill. On top of that the castle stood proudly, its many flags flapping in the wind. Nick glared at her and dug his hands into his sweatpants. Easy for you to say, he thought darkly.
"Yeah, because helping you out has just been a fun little vacation so far." Britney rolled her eyes. "Jeez, are you always this bitchy?"
"So how long are you here for?" AJ asked, making Nick startle a little. He smiled and gave some flustered, hastily bowing townspeople a nod.
Nick followed the motion. When AJ glanced at him again, he held up an index finger sheepishly.
"Yeah?" AJ looked pleased. "You're here just for this?"
"Damn." AJ clicked his tongue. "You and your grand gestures."
Nick knocked their shoulders together, smiling at his feet when AJ laughed.
"Boys," Britney sighed, and then, "ooh, handbags!"
The market was bustling with life. Horses were pulling filled carts over the uneven cobblestone, the wooden wheels bouncing and creaking in their wake. Men and women were all shouting about their great prizes from the booths, attracting everything from little children looking for sweets to farmers in need of new tools. It was the clearest, most vivid dream Nick had had so far.
Suddenly remembering, he dug into his pocket and grabbed a couple of coins. He went over to a small cart with the words Ye Bucks of Stars carved on a hanging board, and paid for two mugs. He handed AJ one and made a small 'here you go' gesture.
"Thanks," AJ said mildly, surprised.
Britney shook her head, perching on Nick's shoulder. "Say it with coffee, huh?" She laughed. "Well, hey, whatever gets the story rolling."
Before Nick could tell her through whatever frequency she was hearing his thoughts from that he was doing the best he could, AJ took a gentle hold of his arm and pulled him forward. "Come on," he said, smiling at Nick over his shoulder. "I'm like an hour late here."
Nick swallowed thickly and tried to pretend that his skin wasn't humming.
If the town had been busy, it was nothing like the bustle that was going on inside the castle. It seemed that everyone was preparing for the wedding, and as Nick followed AJ he had to dodge several servants who came sprinting down the hallways, balancing heavily stacked meters of dark green fabric or carrying silverware enough for a small country.
AJ didn't looked bothered by any of the panic around him. "I want you to meet him," he said, guiding Nick into a huge ballroom.
Him? Nick thought with a frown, nearly tripping over a maid bent low to attach little silver bells to the collar of a small dog. It barked at Britney, whom it apparently could sense, and she puffed out fairy dust as she shrieked and darted away. A flower-covered archway had been placed at the far end of the ballroom, right in front of the large window where they would all see the sun setting. The sky outside was already darkening.
"Hey, babe," AJ said warmly, and Nick realized they'd stopped by the banquet tables. A tall, pale man with red hair was barking orders at a maid - "do you think I would tell you not to put out the crystal glasses?" - and he looked up at AJ's words, raking a hand through his floppy bangs.
"Hi," he said on a laugh, as the maid slinked away as fast as she could. Nick, to his horror, recognized his own voice immediately. "I swear, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."
"Everything looks great," AJ said, letting go of Nick's wrist to pull the sea witch closer. Nick rubbed his arm, watching reluctantly as AJ dropped a soft kiss on the sea witch's long, creamy-white neck. He looked like he was in a daze suddenly, because when he glanced up at Nick again he blinked, as if he'd forgotten that he was there. "Oh," he said, whirring his head. "I wanted to introduce you two." He took the sea witch's hand and tugged her (him) to where Nick was standing. "This is Nick. He's, uh - he's an old friend."
The sea witch gave Nick a slow, curling sort of smile that made him feel like someone was pricking him with very small needles. Next to him, Britney made a displeased grimace.
"Nice to meet you," he said, speaking very carefully. Nick thought his own voice had never sounded that cold before.
"Your Highness!" A lackey came running towards them, his shoes clacking loudly along the marble floor. "I'm afraid I must-" he paused to catch his breath. "An emergency in - it's the wedding robes, your Highness - leopard print is - all wonky."
AJ sighed, patting the lackey's back as he braced his hands on his knees and wheezed. "Okay. I guess I have to go." He gave the sea witch's hand a squeeze. "Marrying this one takes work."
"You know I'm worth it," the sea witch drawled, leaning forward to kiss AJ squarely on the mouth. He gave Nick a badly disguised triumphant look as he pulled away.
"Ew, tacky," Britney said, her nose scrunching up. Nick was pretty sure he was doing the same thing.
AJ smiled at the sea witch and turned to Nick. His smile faded into something else, something that looked more thoughtful. "I have to…" he said, gesturing vaguely towards the large room.
Nick mustered up a smile and nodded, clasping his hands behind his back.
"You'll be here, right?" AJ started towards the doors, glancing at Nick over his shoulder. He nodded as if answering his own question. "You'll be here."
Nick nodded again. His fingers flexed and curled briefly into shaking fists.
When AJ was gone, he heard the icy, low sound of his own voice again.
"Did you really think you were going to win?"
Nick turned, feeling his blood go hot as his eyes narrowed. The sea witch was standing close now, looking Nick up and down like he was a small beetle just begging to be squashed. He smiled again, a brief tug at the corner of his mouth that said, plain as day, you will die, and I will love every minute of it.
"You're too late," he said, low so no one else could hear. "The sun will set soon." He gave a bark of a laugh that sounded like metal grinding together. "And he doesn't want you," he continued, sick delight showing on his face.
Nick stepped so close their noses were brushing, eyes blazing and fists clenched by his sides.
"Nick, no," Britney said, and then more firmly, "Nick." She pulled at his ear until Nick, still staring hard at the witch, took a step back. "You know you can't change the story like this," she told him sternly. "Come on. Let's just go."
The sea witch only smiled wider than before. Nick exhaled heavily through his nose and, forcing down the anger, turned around and walked away, Britney keeping up at his side.
"What did I just tell you?" she demanded hotly fifteen minutes later, flying in a circle all around his head. "You have to finish the story, Nick. I don't know about you, but I've never seen a version of The Little Mermaid where the witch gets hurled out of a window."
Nick shrugged tightly, folding his arms. Even if it wasn't a perfect option, it would make him feel a hell of a lot better.
I have to do something, he thought, glaring at her when she circled his head again.
"Well, duh," she said like it was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard in her life. "You have to make him kiss you before the sun goes down. Which is in, like, half an hour!" She came to a halt in front of his face and jabbed a finger into the space between his eyes. "You saw what happens when the story doesn't finish, Nick."
Nick went pale shockingly fast at that.
"Yeah," Britney said solemnly. The preparations were happening all around them, and now guests were filing into the crowded ballroom. "It can't be that hard," she continued, an edge of desperation in her words. "He already wants you. Just … stop feeling so damn guilty and let things happen. God!" She threw her hands up in frustration. "Hey, newsflash, life sucks sometimes, all right? People leave and you push people away, but what the hell. How blind are you?"
Nick leaned heavily against a pillar, bonking his head back against it. Outside, the slowly moving sun was burning a pale red, the sky turning pink and orange in the distance.
Without knowing how, whether he was floating along with the other guests or the dream just took him there, Nick ended up watching the ceremony from the front of the crowd. Britney was wringing her hands next to him, flitting back and forth and smacking Nick's earlobe every few seconds.
"Do something!" she hissed.
Nick's pulse was racing. AJ was standing under the archway next to the sea witch, their hands locked together as the minister recited the vows. He looked really happy, Nick thought. Smiling and his eyes bright, the setting sun gave him almost a warm, shimmering glow. It was sappy, but Nick was a in a fairy tale. He figured that, just this once, it was okay.
"Nick!" Britney snapped, yanking at his hair. She was nearly spitting she was so frantic. "Jesus, you idiot!"
The ballroom flickered in and out of sight. Nick's heart was lodged in his throat. He didn't know what to do. Rationally, fuck, what the hell was rational about this? Rationally he knew he had to do something, had to finish this, but his entire body felt numb. The minister put his hand on top of the couple's intertwined ones, the guests all aww'ing, and AJ was finally getting what he wanted. AJ was going to be happy.
"Get over your guilt-trip!" Britney cried, kicking the top of his head as hard as she could. "He doesn't want this! He doesn't want-!"
The bottom of the sun touched the ocean. AJ's gaze flickered, and when it landed on Nick, tentative and questioning, Nick sucked in a sharp, rattling breath like he'd been underwater for years.
He grabbed the goblet from the guest beside him and crashed it into the floor as hard as he could.
The sound was ear-splitting.
Everything stopped. Then a shocked murmur broke out from the crowd, and suddenly the entire ballroom flickered again. Nick stumbled forward, his legs giving in on him when the ground turned to mud, but he gritted his teeth and pushed up again. The minister was staring at him, but with a pop he disappeared out of sight. The crowd was gone as well, but Nick barely noticed.
It was just him, AJ and sea witch now, standing in a long corridor with wall-sized windows showing the sun, already half disappeared into the ocean. Nick trudged towards AJ and grabbed him by his arms, pulling him away forcefully.
"No," the sea witch said, an angry tremor in his voice. "No!"
"What?" AJ asked Nick, eyes wide and confused. Nick slumped against the wall, still holding AJ against him, his mouth opening in a last desperate attempt.
Please, he thought fiercely, like that would help AJ hear him. Please, please. Please, AJ.
"What, Nick?" AJ asked again. He was holding on to Nick's sides, stepping in closer against him. Nick did a full-body shiver, closing his eyes for a pained second before he forced them open again. AJ was staring at him, his hands drifting up to Nick's shoulders, and Nick was an idiot, he was an idiot for not going after AJ the first time, for not apologizing for fucking up so badly. AJ's eyes lowered, gaze drifting down to Nick's mouth. "What?" he murmured, leaning closer. Leaning in.
"No!" the sea witch screamed, flickering out of sight, and Nick's hands shook with silent triumph.
Before he could close his eyes and wait for it, before anything else happened, he grabbed AJ's hand and started running.
"So I guess you changed the story around a little, huh?" AJ said with a grin, dusting sand from his khakis.
My dream, not theirs, Nick thought, and smiled at his hands.
They were sitting on the beach again. There was a sliver of the sun left in the horizon, and the sky was painted in dark reds and blues over their heads. Nick looked at AJ again, how he was so easily relaxed in the sand, his arms braced back to support him.
AJ looked back. Eventually he let out a huff of a laugh and shook his head. "You're an idiot, you know that?" he said.
Nick grinned crookedly and nodded. He took a breath, as slowly as he could, and closed his eyes. The words were right there, right where they needed to be, and he couldn't get them out. The wind fanned across his cheeks, mild and gentle. His throat felt like sandpaper. They were right there, he could feel them, he could--
There was a slow brush of lips against his cheek and Nick gasped painfully, slumping forward, and with a hoarse wheeze he choked out, "I want-"
"Yeah," AJ muttered, his mouth covering Nick's before he could finish.
White light exploded behind Nick's eyelids and he surged forward, letting out a long, low sound from the back of his throat.
He felt the buzz of AJ's laugh against his mouth. "What a cheesy fucking ending," he murmured, just as Nick's hotel room appeared in a quick flash.
Nick pressed their foreheads together and grinned, welcoming the slow, gradual feeling of his mattress under his back. "Please," he said. "You love it."
He arrived at the studio ten minutes earlier than he was supposed to that morning.
AJ looked up at him from his place at the small dinner table. He was reading through a magazine with a picture of Britney on the open page. "Hey," AJ said, his voice low, giving Nick a half smile.
Nick smiled back. "Mornin'," he mumbled, ruffling up the hair at the back of his head. He went over and took the seat next to AJ, reaching for the full coffee pot. "Where are the others?"
"Should be here soon," AJ said. Under the table, Nick's foot brushed up against his. Neither of them moved.
"What're you reading?" Nick asked, leaning over to peer at the page.
AJ waved a hand. "Just trash. I don't know. I saw the picture and I just wanted to see what it was about."
"Yeah," Nick said, smiling a little.
Just then Howie and Brian came through the door, Brian laughing as he pushed Howie by the shoulders. "Someone's getting a grey hair," he said in a sing-song voice. "Did you pull out the emergency kit yet?"
"Shut up," Howie said, but he didn't sound all that annoyed. He turned around and flicked the back of Brian's head. "And who are you to talk, Mr. Bald Spot?"
"Uh, hello?" Brian said, flicking the back of Howie's head right back. "We should start a club. Baldness Is For Boybanders. Nick can be our young trainee. Right, AJ? Oh." Brian blinked, smiling in surprise. "Hi, Nick. You're here early."
"Yeah," Nick said. He couldn't stop grinning.
"One of the tracks came back from Dan yesterday." Howie pulled out a CD from his backpack. "So we might as well, since we're all here."
"That's the enthusiasm I love to hear, Howard," Brian said with a nod.
AJ's foot nudged Nick's a little. Nick went hot around the ears, and when he looked up AJ was still focused on his magazine, but he was smiling.
Howie put the song on, and Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon flowed through the speakers, Brian's low voice filling the room.
"Coming along," Brian commented, leaning his hip against the soundboard.
Nick nodded, taking a slow breath. "It sounds good," he said, pausing before he spoke again. "Kevin should hear this."
Brian smiled. "So call him. He's like twenty minutes away."
"Hey," Howie said, holding up a thick book with Tales From The Brothers Grimm: A Classic Illustrated Edition printed across in large letters. "Who's reading fairy tales?"