AJ figured out Brian's secret pretty early on, because he was easily the nosiest of the group. It was eating away at him that he had no clue as to why Brian needed to go to the post office in every European country, when all the rest of them simply sent their mail out by way of the hotel lobby desks. AJ hadn't yet grown into feeling comfortable about not knowing everything, though, so instead of simply approaching Brian about the situation, AJ did his best imitation of James Bond and followed Brian to the post office in Luxembourg.
AJ watched the transaction take place from a distance, Brian struggling with the little German he knew to ask for what he wanted. When AJ saw what was being sold, he slipped out of the post office and waited in front for Brian to emerge.
"You buy stamps, that's it?"
Brian was barely out the door when he was forced to jump back nearly four feet out of sheer fright. Realizing quickly what had happened, he put a hand over his heart and glared at AJ.
AJ looked at the ground. "Sorry." He wasn't really, though, so it only took a second for him to glance back up. "Seriously, though, stamps?"
Brian was still glaring and AJ was beginning to feel very sorry, even if he wasn't precisely sure what he was sorry about. He didn't think it was for startling Brian.
"It's just, you know Transcon pays for the cards home, right? Something about reassured parents being good for everyone, yada yada… Unless, ooo, you're holding out on us, aren't you? Who is she, huh? Huh?"
"You're a hormonal imbecile." Brian wasn't glaring any longer, but his expression was blank and it was unclear whether or not he had actually meant those words.
AJ drew back a little. "You could've just said you didn't want to tell me. I would tell you. If there was… someone."
Brian pushed AJ back gently against the railing and leaned up beside him. "There isn't someone."
"Look, I don't. Okay, I do mean to pry, but if you're not using them to mail anything, we don't just have money to be flinging around on postal stamps."
Silently, Brian swung the bag he had hanging from his back around front and unzipped the main compartment. He pulled out something that looked remarkably like a photo album, but the dust sleeves inside had spaces just large enough for-
"Oh." AJ said. He saw why Brian hadn't wanted to say anything, but the organization and breadth of what AJ was witnessing was so vast that he hadn't the heart to make fun of Brian. Plus, however he pretended to see himself, AJ had no illusions about how cool or uncool he actually was. Brian would have plenty of comeback material if AJ started something. Brian was evidently protective of himself on this issue, though, so AJ chose to leave well enough alone. "You collect stamps."
"It's." Brian flipped back to the beginning of the collection, having started in the middle. "My dad started it when he was eight. His dad thought he should have a hobby, so he gave my dad a box and three stamps. My dad gave it to me when I was eight, all organized in this book. There are two hundred and eighty four as of today. Different countries, years, editions. Some of 'em are worth money, others are just fun."
"This is," AJ peered closely at the 1936 American Olympic collection, "awesome, Bri. I mean, I grant you, saying 'I collect stamps' out loud probably doesn't usually win you any cool points, but really, this is, wow."
Brian tapped on AJ's shoulder and flipped to where the last stamps ever issued in Czechoslovakia resided.
AJ had been hitting the post offices of different countries with Brian for weeks, watching the older boy carefully decide which sets to buy and figure out exactly where they worked into the organizational scheme of the stamp album, when Brian's dad sent him six more stamp sleeves. Brian opened the package and grinned at AJ. "Gives me room to reorganize the way I really want to."
Reorganizing took time, which was something none of the Boys had at that point. Brian got an hour or so of it in while riding from photo shoot to a venue, but for the really time-consuming projects that needed hours uninterrupted, he sacrificed sleep, caught up in the idea of how he wanted the album laid out.
AJ stayed up with him, braving Kevin's wrath at his consistent yawning.
On the night that Brian finished the product, he and AJ shared a quick, sleepy grin before collapsing onto separate beds. Brian wasn't sure if he had dreamed AJ's words the next morning, or if AJ had really said, "I want a collection. You have to help me find something," right before they both fell asleep.
Brian suggested records first, but after further discussion of both price and mobility, AJ decided against it. Rocks and gems carried with them many of the same complications. NSYNC had just made it over to Europe, and JC's Hard Rock Café Menu collection ruled out anything of that ilk. Beads seemed simplistic to AJ and butterflies were decidedly morbid.
By the time AJ had given up on ever finding anything that truly suited him, Howie came back to the hotel from some incredibly seedy bar that served alcohol for the local equivalent of quarters and threw a small, rectangular cardboard box down in front of AJ. "Matchboxes."
The cardboard box had the insignia of the bar, an incredibly lewd silhouette and a few words in French. They were in Austria. AJ slid the box open to consider the brightly tipped matches. Brian peered over his shoulder. "I think Howie might be on to something."
AJ tugged Howie down on the bed next to him. "So, we're all gonna scout the cool ones out, right?"
Brian was nodding enthusiastically before AJ even finished the question. AJ turned to Howie, "You have to be in, you figured things out for me."
Howie shook his head dolefully at the combined expressions of the two younger Boys. "'Course I'm in."
AJ got a letter upon arriving in Switzerland. He frowned and turned the letter over, checking for a return address, since the handwriting didn't look anything like his mother's or either of his grandparent's. Flipping it back to the front, AJ noticed something he hadn't upon first picking the letter up. He recognized the stamp.
AJ pried the envelope open and took out a single sheet of thin, European paper.
"AJ. That day that you found out about the stamps, there wasn't anybody then."
AJ rustled in his bag for the pencil he had buried in the leftmost pocket. He turned the paper over to the side that was clean and considered his options. Brian had sent the letter to AJ. He had bought at least one of his last batch of stamps purely to mail AJ something.
"Rok. I guess you really were holding out on me."
AJ left the letter on Brian's pillow so that he would be sure to find it. He expected to hear something from Brian, a 'can we talk?' or a 'huh?' or anything by the end of the next day. They went on their usual stamp buying errand without a word, though. AJ tried not to act like anything weird was happening.
His effort paid off a week later in Prague when another letter with a familiar stamp showed up.
"You're not upset, right?"
Oh. AJ repeated the ritual from the week before, only changing the words.
"The bar two doors down from here, with the old wooden sign in Czech, eleven thirty tonight."
Brian was already there when AJ arrived, sipping steadily from a beer mug that both his hands were having a hard time fitting around.
AJ joined him at the small table in the middle of everything. "Can I have a sip?"
Brian pushed the mug across the table. "This was the only spot left."
AJ nodded, it was too loud to worry about anyone listening to them. He took several sips before giving Brian back his drink. "In hindsight, I wasn't as clear as I could have been in my response to your first letter."
Brian hid his nervous grin in the mug. AJ was cute when he used formal language.
"I should have mentioned the fact that I seriously want to kiss you."
"That probably would have helped," Brian agreed solemnly.
"But I'm saying it, now. That I want to kiss you."
"I got Henry to loan me the key to the bus. Just in case."
The only thing AJ stopped for on his way out of the bar was to snag a box of matches.
The movie theater that AJ and Brian stole a few hours to run off to a week later had matchboxes with a small marquis insignia on the front. AJ flipped it over his knuckles. "Maybe it's just me, but isn't giving matches to a bunch of people about to go sit in the dark a bad idea?"
"I mean, what if the movie is really bad? That's a whole lotta potential destruction causing disgruntlement."
"Maybe they figure, seeing as how they don’t get that many movies, there's no real scale of relativity on which audiences can judge how bad or good the movie is."
AJ looked at Brian doubtfully. "Bad is bad. Fuck relativity."
Brian was about to respond, but the lights went down in the theater and the screen crackled in a desperate effort to reflect what the ancient projector in the backroom was throwing against its surface. No more than twenty minutes into the movie, AJ leaned over and whispered, "See? My point exactly, bad is bad."
Brian turned into the whisper and pressed his lips sweetly against AJ's, withdrawing just as AJ began to fall toward him. "You really came for the movie?"
AJ shook his head as he continued to fall toward Brian's lips. Brian met him half way.
When Howie asked, "Anything worth seeing?" Brian blushed and AJ looked away and Howie said, "Nevermind."
AJ went to Howie, because even though Nick and Kevin both knew what was going on, Howie wouldn't pretend like he didn't.
He found Howie hiding, probably from the other members of the group. AJ felt a mild pang of guilt for disturbing Howie's quiet time, but he needed to talk and there wasn't an overly abundant source of free time with the five of them.
Howie didn't say anything, just scooted over a few inches on the sofa he was sitting on in one of the dressing rooms. They had been doing a photo shoot, but the pictures were mostly Brian and Nick now, so the rest of them had been set free.
"You've done it with guys, right?"
Howie had gotten over being shocked by AJ's bluntness back in the early days of rehearsing together, even before Brian had come around. The only people AJ wouldn't say exactly what was on his mind to were his mother and his grandmother. "Not in a while, sadly, but yes."
"Okay then. Because I haven't."
"Oh. Not. Not at all?" In the back of his mind, Howie was sure this was normal. AJ was only seventeen. "You and Brian."
"Making out, mostly, so far. I don't want it to stay that way. And I don't wanna be disappointing."
Howie enjoyed the moments when AJ's walls crumbled and there was something more there than compensation for what AJ felt his weaknesses were. Howie didn't like knowing his friends were breakable, but he felt more comfortable when he could see the cracks. "Aje, you know the basic mechanics. Everything else…it's something you have to. It'll be there."
"There's technique, I know there is."
"There is, but. Practice makes perfect, really, in this kind of situation. Just remember that he's a guy and everything he has works pretty much like everything you have, and, for confidence, you might wanna repeat to yourself a few times that Brian isn't all that experienced when it comes to this stuff either."
AJ opened his mouth. Sat with it open for a few seconds. "Come again."
"You're gonna just have to trust me on that one."
AJ looked tempted to pursue the line of questioning, but Howie was better at keeping secrets than anyone he knew. AJ didn't have a lot of time to sit around and waste. He hugged Howie. "Thanks babe."
Howie hung loosely in AJ's arms.
AJ knew all about holding onto a good thing for as long as possible and letting go of it before it became a bad thing. There was no question in his mind that Brian was a good thing.
When they would go out on dinner dates, Brian always ordered something that he knew AJ would want to share. AJ hated picking just one dish at a restaurant. Brian asked AJ to go to movies that Brian really wanted to see and AJ didn't to give him the chance to say no, instead of just assuming that AJ wouldn't want to accompany him. More times than not, AJ said yes. Brian discussed things that mattered with AJ, like the fact that he really didn't like the girl Harold Jr. had been dating for months, and things that didn't matter so much, like what shirt he should wear to a radio interview. Brian listened to the things AJ had to say and didn't make AJ feel stupid, even when AJ suspected he was.
Brian knew the spot at the base of AJ's left shoulderblade that made him pant like a dog in the middle of August and about the way having his hands held from behind made AJ feel secure. He knew that AJ thought of himself as too easy to read and wore sunglasses because he didn't know any other way of effectively hiding. Brian bought AJ sunglasses on a regular basis, ones that he saw while out running errands and thought would look good on AJ.
Brian had told his mom about AJ first thing. AJ had a feeling she hadn't known about her son's affinity for men, because there were some awkward pauses in the conversation and Brian kept saying, "I didn't really think it was important to mention until there was a reason, Momma." AJ had a hard time wrapping his mind around the idea of being an important enough reason to tell Brian's rather seriously Southern Baptist mother that Brian was bisexual. Brian seemed to think so, though, and AJ tried not to argue with him about family matters.
Brian was a good thing. A great thing. AJ was keeping his eyes open for the sign that meant it was time to let go.
Getting to play England was a big deal because people spoke English, even if it sounded funny, and when the girls got to screaming at them in the streets, Brian would whistle whatever Beatles' tune he thought of first. Kevin would shove at him. "There are five of us, not four. And I don't see anyone playing a guitar."
"I play the guitar," Brian could do wounded with the very best.
Howie and AJ both hid smiles. Nick pointed out that, "Not like any of The Beatles."
"Not yet," Brian insisted, stubbornly.
AJ was all about encouraging Brian in the things he loved, so he agreed, "He's gotten a hell of a lot better than when he started. Give him some time."
"A hell of a lot better than when he started, at this point, means that we actually know he's playing the guitar, and not some other instrument, when he goes to practice," Nick was obviously dubious.
"Oh, because you're so instrumentally inclined, Nick-y." Brian drew out both syllables of the hated nickname.
"I could play something if I wanted to."
All four other guys raised their eyebrows in one expression or another of doubt. Brian snuck a glance around to make sure he was being supported. Kevin, who was the most sarcastic and the most worried about each of the guys having positive mental images of themselves all at once, caved first. "Of course you could."
Howie bit at his fingernails so that he wouldn't laugh at Kevin.
Later, when AJ and Brian were back in their hotel room and Brian was picking slowly at random chords, AJ put a hand on the top of his head and said affectionately, "Hello there, Ringo."
"Why Ringo? I don’t get to be Paul, or John?"
"Ringo was the queerest. And you're already the Paul of one band."
"Good enough. Thanks for sticking up for me."
"Any day of the week and twice on Sundays, babe." AJ sat down behind Brian, positioning the older boy in the V of his legs, held on tight and listened to Brian learn how to play the guitar.
"Have you noticed the strangeness that is Howie lately?" Brian was the band's official worrier. Kevin gave him a run for his money some days, but mostly was too busy being proactive to actually sit back and worry. Brian took the time necessary to truly stress out about things. While at times this could be obnoxious, it meant that quite often, Brian noticed that things were wrong before anyone else.
Aware of this, AJ cautiously replied, "What symptoms are we referring to?"
"He's like, mopey, I guess."
Mopey wasn't a word that AJ ever thought to associate with Howie, whom AJ considered to be the guys' quiet core of happiness. Howie could pull Eeyore out of a slump on a rainy day just by sitting near him and radiating silent waves of satisfaction. He had a gift for finding joy in nearly everything. "Um, actually-"
"You haven't and I'm just being paranoid?" Brian was nothing if not self-aware.
"No, I haven't noticed, and no, that doesn't mean you're being paranoid. Can you give me anything concrete to back up this feeling of yours?"
"Not really. He hasn't gone out with Kevin in almost two weeks and that seems odd, because hi, he likes clubs enough to be thinking about opening one if we ever have that kind of money. And he seemed all fake-cheery during the show last night, which just isn't normal."
"I thought he might be tired." AJ had noticed, but it took a lot of hard evidence for AJ to get worked up over something, and all the Boys were exhausted.
"Like I said, it's probably just the overactive Littrell imagination."
"We'll keep an eye out, though, okay? Just in case it's not."
"You don’t have to validate every crazy notion I have, y'know."
AJ didn't even try to explain that, actually, he really did.
AJ dozed while attempting to wait up for Brian. Kevin had looked so disappointed when Howie had turned down the offer to go out for the third week in a row that Brian had taken pity and offered to accompany. Howie had evidently caught onto the subliminal meaning of Brian's actions and capitulated, so all three of them were out. That left AJ and Nick. Nick's mom was with them, though, so Nick was already safely tucked into bed.
AJ heard the door open and checked the bedside clock. It wasn't digital, so he had to actually concentrate. It took a few minutes for him to come up with almost a quarter past three as the local time. "Have fun?"
Brian smelled faintly of alcohol. He collapsed onto the bed next to AJ. "Howie blew a guy in the bathroom."
AJ winced. "I'm assuming you're not supposed to know this."
"Why. Why would he do that? He knows how dangerous that is." Dangerous for all of them, but AJ was more concerned with the roughly three million ways that his brain was calculating in which Howie could have gotten hurt. Or sick.
Brian took a breath. "Here's the thing," rushed out on the exhale. "Kevin's really straight. Rulerish. And he's got the best girlfriend in the world. Nick is really young, and not so concerned with either women or men except in the vague sense of knowing where our meal ticket comes from. We're in love."
AJ still felt dizzy every time Brian decided to say things like that out loud. He closed his eyes, glad to be laying down. "Then, if I'm following all this correctly, Howie is single and gay, which makes the logistics of him finding someone about ten times harder than they would be otherwise, and alone. Lonely alone."
"Howie doesn't think with his dick. If he were just horny, I'm pretty sure he'd be safer or take care of it himself. Loneliness is different though."
"What do you think we should do?"
Brian was quiet for a long time. Long enough that AJ was just about to say his name when Brian responded, "You can say no to this."
AJ's stomach tightened. Brian never gave right of veto over his ideas unless they very intimately involved AJ.
"Howie watches us."
AJ had to shake his head to try and make Brian's words form into some kind of coherency for himself. "I'm sorry?"
"He watches…us being together. Like it's something he wants."
"He wants what we have, Bri. Not us."
"He wants you, at the very least."
AJ didn't think anyone could look at the two of them and pick him out of the deal. "You're wrong."
"Maybe, but you know I rarely am about this stuff."
"Well, what if he does? What then? We say, 'hey, there's extra room in the bed, wanna join?'"
Brian pushed himself tightly up against AJ. "Nevermind, it was stupid. I'll come up with something else."
AJ gritted his teeth and pretended to fall asleep.
Brian didn't come up with another idea, didn't even mention the situation for a whole week, when AJ caught him looking at Howie sadly. AJ could stand up to a lot of things, but Brian hurting in any way was not one of them, and it wasn't helping that Howie was starting to look frighteningly similar to a neglected puppy.
AJ took matters into his own hands, bit the inside of his cheek firmly and walked over to sit down beside Howie. "Hey."
Howie smiled. It looked like it took a considerable amount of effort. "Hey Aje."
"How goes it?"
Howie's eyes narrowed and he did a quick examination of AJ. The guys were pretty much past asking each other how they were. "It goes. Too fast at times and too slow at others."
"Too slow I suppose."
AJ knew that he was meant to take the comment as Howie's way of saying he was tired of waiting to get this interview over and done with. Instead he used it to justify offering, "Bri and I were gonna sneak up to the roof of the hotel tonight and stargaze. It's slow in a good way, wanna join?"
AJ had already known Brian was eavesdropping, so he wasn't surprised when he felt someone come up from behind Howie and stay there, silent.
Howie averted his eyes from AJ. "I dunno, you guys don't get a hell of a lot of quiet time, I wouldn't want-"
AJ tugged on Howie's chin until the only place reasonable to look at was AJ. "I wouldn't've extended the invitation if I hadn't wanted you there with us."
Howie nodded, his chin still in AJ's palm. "Okay."
Brian grinned and AJ was surprised to feel, underneath his wall of sheer terror, a bit of a grin inside himself.
Brian and AJ made it up to the roof before Howie. AJ sat down on one of the air conditioning ducts. Brian slung himself over AJ's shoulders, "I love you."
AJ turned his face so that he could see Brian. "Okay."
"I just mean, you can relax."
"I am relaxed."
Brian poked at one of AJ's muscles. The arm gave before the muscle. "Sure you are."
"What do I have to be stressed about?"
"Well, I happen to know it’s nothing, because I love you and nobody could ever take your place in my life, not even Howie. Even if we do go all the way through with whatever it is we seem to be doing, you'll still be the first person I ever fell in love with and the guy that I continue to get up in the morning dying to see. You're not acting so sure of all of that, though."
AJ listened to the words, thinking of the way Howie and Brian were so close in age, the fact that Howie's body should have shrines built in its honor, Howie's tendency to do things that were so sweet the person on the receiving end couldn't quite believe Howie had actually managed to accomplish them. AJ knew who he'd pick if the choice came down to being between him and Howie. Brian was looking at AJ, his eyes concerned and determined all at once. AJ kissed him. "I love you."
It was surprising to AJ how easy it was being on the roof with both of them, chatting, pretending that they weren't trying to maneuver themselves through some sort of complicated romantic liaison. Howie didn't even try to touch either of them until AJ pulled the older man into the V of his legs and, before AJ could think about what he was doing, kissed the patch of skin directly above the collar of Howie's coat. "Warmer?"
Howie put a hand on AJ's knee, squeezing lightly. "Much."
When Howie said, "It's late, I gotta sleep some," Brian didn't so much as move behind AJ, but AJ thought he ought to ask, "You wanna come do that with us?"
Howie went unnaturally still. "I don't… Look, it's that, you guys are perfect the way you are."
Not a month before, AJ would have agreed. But Brian wanted something, and AJ would be damned if Brian wasn't going to get it. Brian saved AJ from having to figure out what kind of response to give to that by running a hand firmly up the length of AJ's back and agreeing, "We are. But there isn't anything in the world that can't stand to be improved upon."
"You're both sure about this? Both of you?"
"Absotively posolutely," quipped Brian.
AJ giggled at his boyfriend. "Couldn't have said it better myself."
Howie's relenting comment was, "You're geeks."
Brian stuck AJ in the middle of the bed and when he tried to fight the decision, Brian shoved him down firmly, "Trust me, Howie wouldn't be taking me up on this deal if you weren't part of it."
AJ frowned. "Whatever."
Howie, who had been in the bathroom, emerged. The three of them had pushed the two twin beds together with little trouble. Howie crawled in and inquired sweetly, "You're not on the crack, are you?"
"Not that one, no," AJ muttered.
After a few seconds, both Howie and Brian chuckled and tried to crush AJ to a pulp between the two of them until he yelled, "Uncle! Aunt! Fucking stop I can't breathe!"
Sex between three people, as AJ discovered, could be described in two adjectives. Hot and complicated. It was the latter adjective that caused Nick to figure things out when Brian fell off the bed during one of the threesome's aptly nicknamed "adventurous exploits." The fall resulted in a huge bruise and Brian was the second worst liar in the world, right behind Howie, so when Nick said, "Holy fuck -- don't tell my mom I said that -- what did you do?!?" Brian answered, "Had an accident."
AJ couldn't help choking on the piece of toast that he was eating. Kevin calmly reached over without looking up from his paper and smacked AJ on the back so hard that he toppled forward. Kevin didn't look up. "Better?"
AJ glared, but Nick, not to be deterred, was already on top of this new piece of evidence. He turned to AJ. "You didn't hit Brian did you, because if you did, you're dead."
AJ decided it was a good thing he hadn't bothered to sit back up due to the fact that he would undoubtedly have been back on the floor by that point. Luckily, Brian and Howie's, "What? No!" were directly cued with his own.
Nick pointed at Howie. "You! How would you know?"
"Well, because," if Howie was bad at lying normally, he was ten times worse at doing it with one of the guys, "we were, um. Rehearsing. And Brian didn't hit one of the turns right and just, went down."
"Uh huh." Nick nodded slowly, a sure sign of danger if ever there was one. "And that's what had AJ hacking up a lung and some other unessential organs over there."
AJ, who thought his lungs were very essential organs and was feeling distinctly panicked by the uncertainty on both Howie and Brian's face snapped, "He fell out of bed while sucking Howie's brains out by way of his dick."
Kevin, still hiding behind his newspaper, although AJ was pretty sure it was more out of a safety instinct than actual interest in world politics by this point, casually wondered aloud, "You kiss your mom with that mouth?"
Howie was grinning like an utter imbecile, Brian was hiding his face in his hands, shaking with what AJ hoped was laughter and Nick was looking, wild-eyed, from one person to the next in the room. AJ felt it was okay to ignore Kevin for the moment.
Nick finally spoke, very softly, as if that would make the consequences of anything he could say lighter. "So, um. I thought. No, no. Brian and AJ are boyfriends."
Brian came up for air, his face a shade of red rivaled only by freshly-painted fire trucks. "Yes, but we both wanted AJ so badly that instead of fighting over him, we decided to share."
AJ flicked Brian off with the sweetest smile he could summon up across his face. Brian stuck out his tongue in response. Howie's eyes narrowed. Nick threw up his hands and stole the entertainment section of Kevin's newspaper.
The five of them came back to Orlando for about a week to do some taping and a homecoming concert. They weren't big in America yet, but they were closer than they ever had been before and all of them kept smiling like that meant something.
Kevin, Brian and Howie went back to living in their bachelor pad and AJ crashed at his mom's and cried himself to sleep. When Brian called too early the next morning, AJ answered the phone on the first ring. "Hello?"
"Aje? What're you doing up?"
"Probably not the same thing as you." AJ hung up the phone.
Howie left a message with Denise that he was going to stay with his mom for a few days and that AJ should call over there if he needed him for anything. AJ read the message four times before picking up the phone. "Hi. Mm, is Howie there?"
There was a bit of shouting and a loud clank before Howie picked up, "Sorry, John dropped the phone."
"How could you leave Brian alone?"
Howie buzzed a little bit, like a hum that hadn't been quite realized. He did that when he was pissed off but not wanting to yell. "I thought that was what you wanted."
"I wanted." AJ squeezed the phone so hard he thought it would break, crumbling messily between his fingers. "I wanted Brian to be happy."
"Then why'd you get so mad?"
"Because. It's. Things aren't always… I can't explain it."
AJ leaned his forehead up against the wall. "I love him, right? More than, like, singing or being on stage, or anything. And he said he loved me, which was good, but I knew it wasn't forever, it's only like that in movies and shit. It wasn't forever, either, because he wanted you, but he was too nice to just hurt me like that so he made you a part of us and he acted like I was this really important part of the equation, but I knew I wasn't. Even if you want someone to be happy though, it doesn't make getting hurt yourself any easier, okay? That's it, that's the whole thing, the best I can do."
Howie was silent for a long time. "How do you feel about me?"
"What's that supposed to mean, we've been best friends since I was twelve or something."
"No, I mean, how have you felt about me in these last months, since that night on the roof?"
"Oh." AJ considered things. "Well, you're sexy."
"You're a good listener, you stay calmer than Brian and I when things are all screwy and hectic."
"Hypothetically, if Brian still wanted you in the relationship, if he actually, really did want it be the three of us, do I add or detract from the relationship for you?"
"I thought. I thought you were going to make it worse, because Brian would always be paying attention to you and I'd be jealous and hurt, but it wasn't like I thought it would be. I mean, there were times when I wanted him all to myself, but there were times when I wanted you all to myself, which I never expected, and it was nice, and most of the time I just wanted it like it was, the three of us."
Brian showed up with a packet of matches from a goth club. AJ took it, examining the goods. "You went to a goth club and didn’t let me do your makeup?"
"I didn't go, one of Howie's friends owns the place, we pulled in a favor."
"Tell me he didn't actually consider this payback for whatever Howie did."
Brian took the hand that AJ was still holding the matches in, "I need to not pretend like we're not in trouble here."
AJ nodded. "You talk to Howie?"
"Yes. He…you don't get it at all."
"What don't I get?"
"Look, I. I love Howie, right? I mean, I'm not in love with him, not yet, not like I am with you, but I could be. The thing is, though, that I didn't suggest bringing him in for my own personal pleasure. I suggested it because Howie wanted you so badly that everyone in the band could tell just by sitting in a room with the two of you."
"And I was so sure that if I just started things, that you'd want him like that too. Everybody always thought -- before us, and maybe even a little bit after -- that the two of you would get together eventually, and I fucked that up -- for you and for him -- and I just wanted to give you that chance, but I couldn't give you up because I hate you for it, but you're the only person I've ever needed for sheer, day-to-day survival."
AJ got up and walked to where the pocketed album in which he kept his matchbooks was lying on his bed. Brian followed him. "Aje."
AJ sorted through the album, looking for an appropriate spot for the neo-Victorian insignia on the front of his newest acquisition.
"How come everybody knew all these things but me, huh? How come everybody thought they could just manipulate things to supposedly work out the best for me? Why didn’t you fucking say something? I thought you didn't want me anymore. I was going out of my fucking mind, Brian. You're supposed to talk to me, to trust me to make up my own mind about things, understand what's going on around me and assess situations appropriately."
Brian laid his pointer finger on a matchbook with a singular carousel pony on the front of it. "I was too scared to. I was terrified that you'd work on finding the easiest way to move onto Howie without scarring me for life."
AJ decided that he agreed, the pony would look cool next to the goth art. He began rearranging. "I told you I loved you."
"Well, so did I. That evidently counted for a whole lot."
AJ sighed and slipped the matchbook into its new home. "I'm sorry."
"Me too." Brian shoved his fingers through his hair roughly. "So, um. What now?"
AJ flipped to the back of the album, where there were pages half-filled, waiting for the natural growth of the collection.
Denise had come home to find Brian and AJ chatting at the kitchen table, looking mildly like their plans for world domination had been foiled once again. She glared at Brian more out of solidarity with the fact that her son had been mopey and not talking to his boyfriend, which added up to no good, than having any idea whatsoever the reason behind AJ's mood swing.
AJ got up and kissed his mom. "S'okay, we made up."
Denise looked relieved. She gave Brian a big hug. AJ was fairly convinced she would have adopted Brian if he wasn't so adamant about the fact that, no, really, he did have his own parents. "You better be good to him."
Brian and Denise smiled conspiratorially. AJ crawled under the table.
Brian and AJ crashed the Dorough's dinner that night, Brian heading off Hoke with a discussion about local politics, and AJ charming his way into Paula's kitchen until she wasn't entirely sure she hadn't invited them over in the first place.
Howie might as well have been on camera for the entirety of the meal, acting as if there couldn't be a reason in the world beyond simple friendship for Brian and AJ to have stopped by. The whole thing must have taken some serious effort though, because as soon as the dishes were cleaned and put away, Brian and AJ found themselves on the porch with a rather intense Howie, "What are you doing here?"
This was the part the two of them had planned ahead for. AJ explained, "See, Brian thought I should do this part by myself, but I disagreed, so you get both of us, because, it's. This. Is not going to work any other way."
Howie leaned with his shoulders over the railing on the porch.
"I need one more question answered first." AJ wrapped his arms around Howie's midsection, fingers tickling lightly.
Howie squirmed. "What's that?"
"I know how Brian feels about all this, and, after much consideration, how I feel. What I don't know, is how you feel."
"How I feel." Howie's voice was flat. Brian had moved to stand behind AJ, his breathing thick in the humidity of early evening.
"How you feel, what you want, anything. I just need to have more of what's going on inside your head than I do right now."
Howie's fingers tapped completely without rhythm along the railing for several moments. "I love you. I want you. I've always wanted that, way back before it was anything other than downright sick."
"And Brian gave you the chance to have me."
"He did. And now I can't imagine things without him."
AJ felt Brian's hand at his hip. He brought one of his own hands to tug Brian into him, the impact of which caused Howie to drive into the railing with a grunt. AJ whispered, "Sorry."
Howie shook his head. "Sometimes things have to hurt a little before you can realize how good they feel."
"I was just apologizing for-"
After the show in Vancouver, AJ and Brian planted themselves on Howie's bed while he was showering, legs folded into matching pretzels. Howie giggled when he saw them, "Hey sillies."
Brian wrinkled his nose slightly. "Be nice or we won’t give you your present."
Howie crawled up the length of the bed to sit in a mirror image of them, his knees touching one of theirs each. "My present?"
AJ produced a small box from behind his back. Howie took it from him, slipped the red bow off and pulled it open. He dumped the jewelry case out of the box and flipped the top up. He tilted his head slightly. "That’s. Pretty."
"It's a maple leaf charm," Brian clarified, "Canada, maple, leaf, y'know."
"Yeah, Bri, I know what it is."
"We took a two man vote and decided that you were a charms collection kinda guy," AJ informed him.
"Oh." The maple leaf shined an iridescent red and gold color up at Howie.
"See, and we got you this," Brian pulled another box from behind his back.
This box wasn't wrapped. It was a utilitarian tackle box. AJ explained, "To keep them organized in. But you can also wear them, we just thought we'd leave picking chains up to you."
"Very considerate of you, given how much had already been decided for me."
AJ and Brian shared a look that Howie missed while trying to figure out the latch to the tackle box. Brian folded his knees to his chest, away from Howie, "You don't have to. We just thought since both of us have a collection, and we really enjoy helping the other build it, it would be fun for you to have one too. You could always pick something different, or just, not."
AJ picked at the rapidly growing hole on his favorite pair of sweatpants and didn't say a word.
Howie undid the tie holding the charm in its place in the jewelry box and placed it in the topmost right-hand tackle space. "I thought the collection thing was between the two of you."
AJ reached over and closed the tackle box. "It was. Now, it's between the three of us. Like everything."