You With The Sad Eyes
written for Popslash Bitty Bang 2008
The first morning he woke up in LA he checked for grey hairs in the bathroom mirror. Brian was twenty-five going on sixty-two.
He showed up for their morning briefing in sweatshirt and khakis, trying to rub what felt like giant sand grains out of his eyes, and Kevin just raised an eyebrow and murmured, "A bit too casual, don't you think?"
"I didn't feel like dressing up for you today," Brian said with a cheery air, snatching a bagel and a plate from the breakfast trolley before plopping into the near-by plushy recliner. Sometimes he wouldn't mind being a little more like Kevin, who was already in full suit and tie attire, but then the wires re-crossed themselves in his brain and he was rational again. "I'll go change in a minute, okay?" he sighed, when Kevin kept looking like he was valiantly resisting the urge to go find one of his own suits for Brian to wear. "It's just us right now."
Kevin reached for his coffee cup. "All right." As he took a sip he peered at Brian over the rim and handed him a piece of paper. "Came through the fax about half an hour ago," he told him as soon as he'd swallowed.
Brian looked over the very brief note from their secretary, her swooping signature slipping into their company logo just underneath. He rubbed the heel of his palm into the space between his eyes. "So how much do we have to switch around today?" he asked, distantly noticing how weary he already sounded.
"Not that much." Kevin shrugged. "I called Amanda right after she sent it over and she's going to move our ten-thirty to nine, so now we have extra time to prepare for lunch with Smith and Roberts if we need it. I don't think they're gonna make it easy on us, so you might want to - Brian?"
Brian watched the cold morning sun settle over the streets and buildings outside, wondered idly why the light didn't reach into this room when the façade was lined with wall-sized windows. Stores were raising their shutters outside and cars were backing out of their gated houses. Two guys were walking down the street, one of them kicking a soda can along the sidewalk. If he listened hard enough he could almost hear the bustling sounds of a city waking up. "What?" he asked, dropping his chin to his shoulder.
There was a pause in which Brian watched a silver Mercedes zoom right through a red light, causing a harmony of honking. "Maybe I shouldn't have insisted that you come with me this time," Kevin finally said, sounding cautious.
Brian rolled his eyes. "Maybe I'm an adult who can make my own decisions," he said, glancing at Kevin with a crooked smile.
Kevin had that small wrinkle of a frown that Brian knew all too well, because Kevin was thirty going on three hundred. "We both need to be alert this week," he said, leaning back against the couch. "I know it's been a rough year for you, but-"
"Kevin," Brian said, and Kevin paused at the note of his voice. Brian shook his head. "Give me some credit, okay?" he told him, smoothing out his pants as he got to his feet. The bagel was left uneaten on the coffee table, but he grabbed another one on his way out and threw, "I'll get changed and meet you in the lobby in twenty," over his shoulder.
"Yeah," Kevin said, and Brian didn't look back to see the frown he knew was still there. "In twenty, then."
One of the reasons why they were such good partners, besides trusting each other implicitly, was that in most ways they were complete opposites. Kevin was always preparing himself for the worst in any situation so he could be ready to act quickly, whereas Brian was more observant of what was going on around him and didn't worry until he saw something that wasn't up to standard. But contrary to Kevin's doomsday beliefs, Brian was a capable business man who had no problems separating his personal life from his work.
"Feel free to have your lawyers look over these," Kevin said at lunch, gesturing to the papers on the table, and Brian steepled his fingers together under his chin, keeping his gaze carefully neutral. From across the table, Smith and Roberts were clearly staying blank slates as well; one of them sipping at his water while the other was frowning in concentration. "Everything should be in order, but it never hurts to be sure."
"Absolutely." Smith nodded, bringing the papers into a neat stack and placing them next to his plate of foie gras. "We'll be going over them this afternoon and you'll have your answer by tonight."
Brian glanced at Kevin, who nodded. "I should add that you're welcome to come by the office any time you want, of course," Brian said, smiling at them both. He held out his hands. "We're always happy to show people what we're all about, and it's easier to do it where we can show you all these things instead of just telling you about them."
Smith nodded again, his smile clearly strained. Roberts was stirring his water with a spoon so the ice cubes clinked loudly against the glass. He hadn't looked up for the last five minutes.
"It's not an easy decision," Brian said shortly after.
Smith, his shoulders slumping briefly, shook his head in agreement. "We'll get back to you later," he replied, leaving it at that.
It was a day like all the others; conference calls, pouring over paperwork and going to one meeting after the next, everything conveniently held in the hotel's conference rooms and restaurants. All that had changed was the city, the people, and the hotel that he never seemed to step outside of.
It was dark outside. He and Kevin were once again alone in his hotel room, the dinner table buried under mounts of paperwork, when Kevin, voice heavy with the weight of the world, suddenly said, "Where are you going?"
Brian blinked at him, not understanding. Then he looked down and saw that he was standing. The screech he'd heard before must've been him pushing his chair back. Brian frowned, then looked at Kevin again. "Out," he said, shaking his head in a dazed whir. "Just … out."
"Brian," Kevin said, but Brian was already heading for the door, shrugging into his blazer on the way. "What about-?"
"Tomorrow." Brian turned around and threw his hands out in defeat. "Whatever it is, it can wait till tomorrow."
AJ had tried burying his head under the pillow for the last ten minutes while pots and pans clattered in the kitchen, telling himself that he really did love the kid, but when there was finally a resounding crash and the half-hissed, "fuck, shit," that AJ was waiting for, he hurled the pillow to the floor and rolled onto his back. He glared at the ceiling for a while, then kicked his blankets off with more force than necessary and stalked out of the bedroom.
"Is it fucking necessary to wake me up with your failed juggling attempts every morning?" he snapped as soon as he threw the door open. Their apartment basically consisted of two rooms the size of shoeboxes, plus a bathroom and a kitchen, all of which lined up against each other so they were always in each other's business.
Nick straightened up from the floor and glared at him. He was in comfortable nightwear, a t-shirt and a pair of loose, striped boxers, but his cheeks were still smudged with flickers of green glitter, and there was a blooming hickey near his collarbone. "It slipped, all right?" he said defensively, turning back to the stove with their battered frying pan in his hand. "It's not like I was trying to wake you."
"It's eight am," AJ said, almost physically pained. He flopped into their patio furniture and buried his head in his hands. "I was still out four hours ago."
"And I wasn't?" Nick cracked an egg into the frying pan and immediately flew back, flapping his hand and swearing loudly. "Fuck, stupid fucking thing heats too fucking quickly. Look, I made good money last night and I wanted to make breakfast to celebrate with my friend, is that so terrible?"
AJ sighed and looked up, resting his chin in his hand. Outside the morning sunlight glinted and crept along the bricks on the adjoining apartment building. It was the most natural light they ever got in this room.
"You have eyeliner all over your face," Nick said sullenly. AJ turned his gaze back to where Nick was leaning against the counter and rubbing at the flaking glitter on his arm, which AJ hadn't seen before.
"And you look like a princess," AJ replied. He shook his head and heaved himself up from the chair with a light groan. "Come on," he said, grabbing Nick's shoulder and steering him towards the hallway. "You can't cook for shit, and if we're gonna celebrate we should do it properly."
"So who convinced you to get up in drag queen gear last night?" AJ asked, once they were outside and strolling down the quiet streets.
Nick made a half-laugh, half-groan sound and drove his fingers through his hair. "Oh man, this guy. He was so into me being like something out of Velvet Goldmine, he fucking brought the glitter and lipstick himself." He waved a hand dismissively. "Whatever. It didn't get any weirder than that, and I got two hundred out of it, so."
"Nice." AJ kicked idly at an empty soda can so it rolled a couple of feet ahead of them. "So we can actually pay Donna this month then."
"Yeah." Nick cleared his throat, and AJ glanced sideways to see him rub the back of his neck. "About that."
AJ stopped abruptly in his tracks, trying to ignore that familiar sense of foreboding he'd come to expect each month. He put a restricting hand on Nick's arm. "What?" he asked warily.
Nick was looking resolutely at his shoes. Then he sighed, and AJ already knew what was coming. "We needed food," he said firmly. "And Johnny's been riding my ass about the money I owe him all week, so…"
"So," AJ repeated. His hand felt heavy suddenly, and he dropped it from Nick's arm and curled it into the pocket of his jacket. "What the hell are we celebrating then?" he demanded, once they picked up their pace again. He kicked the soda can extra hard this time.
"We have real food in our fridge again?" Nick suggested, and AJ hated how Nick always had an answer when he just wanted to be grumpy. "And I still have enough to take you someplace nice for breakfast."
"Well, slap me twice and call me Nancy," AJ muttered, but the way his stomach rumbled at the word 'breakfast' only made Nick snort and throw an arm around his shoulders. He was cursing his betraying bodily functions when he pushed the door open to the diner, the announcing bell chiming happily over their heads.
The place only had five customers scattered along the booths, but it was still early. "Hey, Drew," AJ said, dragging Nick along with him up to the counter. A tall, lanky guy with glasses greeted them both with a broad smile.
"Morning, guys," he replied, sticking a pencil behind his ear. "Two coffees and two eggs over-easy?"
"Nah, man, we're splurging today," Nick said proudly. "We'll have two coffees, an order of waffles and-"
"Two," AJ interrupted, reassuring his growling stomach that food was definitely on the way.
"Right, two orders. And scrambled eggs." Nick reached into his pocket and dug around until he came up with a couple of wrinkled bills. He slid them across the counter, and it occurred to AJ that he couldn't remember the last time they hadn't paid in a mess of coins that they'd had to count up after the check arrived.
The diner was 50's themed, with pastel pink booths and checkered linoleum floors. But the jukebox had nothing but contemporary rock music, everything from Bon Jovi to Led Zeppelin. AJ always enjoyed seeing customers' faces when they realized that they'd stepped into some weird cross between Beauty School Dropout and Welcome to The Jungle. The place didn't get crowded with tourists until mid morning or so, so the booths by the window were free. AJ steered directly for the one in the far corner as soon as they'd gotten their change, the one with the best view over Hollywood Boulevard.
"So what's the plan for today?" Nick asked as he slid into his seat. He was starting to lose that edge of awkwardness that he'd been carrying around since AJ had met him, so for once there was no banging of elbows and knees into table edges.
AJ slumped back and sighed. "What's the plan? I'm going to eat this breakfast that you're so generously paying for, and then I'm going home for at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep." He pointed a finger at Nick. "At least. We have to get some work tonight."
Nick rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I got you. I'll hook up with Lance for the rest of the day or something." He dragged the salt and sugar dispensers closer and started screwing the lids off. "Man, you'd think you were the one that'd been at this for years."
AJ drummed his fingers against the tabletop and watched Nick sneak a glance at the counter before he poured some sugar into the salt dispenser and vice versa. "I don't know what I'm gonna tell Donna," he muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face. "Next time think before you start gambling with Johnny, all right? He plays a fucking dirty game and no one's gonna tell him he's cheating."
Nick nodded, clearly not listening anymore. He scratched his cheek and glitter drizzled onto the table. "There," he said gleefully, jamming the lids back on and putting them back in their original positions, adjusting them so they both turned labels out.
"We have to use those in a second, idiot," AJ said.
"Relax." Nick gestured to the two small piles he'd made in the middle of the table. "Salt here, and sugar here." He pointed to each, looking more than a little smug. "I got you covered, you know that."
AJ shook his head. "You're twelve," he said, feeling his mouth tug upwards reluctantly. "Seriously. You're gonna get us kicked out of here one of these days."
"No I'm not," Nick said cheerfully, and it was full of that infuriating confidence that reminded AJ why he'd decided to take up with a stranger just because he'd told him that he knew a way AJ didn't have to go hungry anymore.
He was trudging up the stairs to the apartment when he heard what he least wanted to hear.
"AJ!" Donna barked, sticking her head out of her apartment door.
AJ tried not to wince too obviously. Typical, fucking typical, all he wanted out of life was a comfy bed and six hours of peace and he couldn't even get that. He took a second before he turned around on the stairs and flashed Donna a bright smile. "Morning. You're up early."
"Don't even give me that." Donna stepped into the hallway and slammed the door shut after her, one of her rollers unfurling from her hair and dropping to the floor. "You two owe me three weeks worth of rent now, and I can't-"
"I know," AJ said quickly. He took one more step up the stairs. "You'll get them all next week, I promise."
"Oh, you're gonna pull that many tricks in a week then?" she demanded. AJ resisted the urge to frown. "Sorry, I know you guys are popular, but I'm thinking even for you that's a stretch." She started heading for the staircase. "Besides, I'm hearing Johnny's been getting his money from Nick more than once these past couple of months."
"That's not gonna happen again," AJ reassured, his hand sliding slowly up the cracked wooden railing. "You'll get them next week, all right? I'll figure something out. Just, I really gotta go."
"Next week!" AJ called over his shoulder, taking the next stairs two at a time until he was out of sight.
"Seven days, AJ!" he heard Donna call from the bottom of the stairs. "I'm not kidding!"
AJ closed the door to his apartment behind himself and fell against it with a heavy sigh. His head was pounding, but he couldn't remember the last time they'd been able to afford Advil, so he settled for resting his forehead against the cool wood. He could fall asleep here, he thought to himself, in most ways it'd be a lot easier than dragging himself those four steps through the kitchen to his room.
Comfort won out over the exhaustion though, and he straightened himself with a loud groan that made him grimace to the empty room. "Getting old, McLean," he mumbled to himself. There used to be a time he could stay up for days without feeling like he was ready to keel over.
Not a time that he wanted to go back to, but still.
He rubbed at his itchy eyes and went to the sink to grab a glass from the cupboard. As he filled it with water he felt his chin nodding towards his chest, and when a shock of cold water ran over his hand he jerked upright and saw that the tap was still running so water was pouring over the rim of the glass.
"Shit," he grumbled, snagging the dishtowel that hung over one of the patio chairs. "Perfect." He wiped the glass off and shook his hand dry, wiping the remaining dampness off on his jeans. The water was a light brown color and small specs floated around near the bottom of the glass. AJ sighed. First thing tomorrow, they were getting bottled water again, no matter how expensive.
He shuffled into his bedroom and set the water down on the nightstand before he flopped into bed with a happy sigh. Out on the street, cars were honking and a couple was fighting loudly enough that he could hear it on the third floor. He was vaguely regretful he hadn't remembered to close the window before he got in bed, because there was no way he was getting up again now.
He closed his eyes and let out of a long, drowsy breath. Already the noises outside were becoming more distant, like slowly dissipating foghorns, until a rattle and a chiming from his nightstand woke him up.
He flew up with a start, eyes darting around the room before they landed on his cellphone vibrating and blinking on top of a stack of Sports Illustrated magazines. If looks could kill, it would already have thrown itself up against the wall in a fit of surrender.
AJ fumbled for it and connected the call so he could snap a very heartfelt "What?" at whoever was stupid enough to call him at a harebrained time like noon on a Monday.
"Um." Joey's voice on the other end was clearly amused. "Bad time?"
AJ scowled. "Two seconds," was all he said. "I'm serious. If it's a social call, then yeah, the weather's great today and it really has been a long time and we should totally hang out again soon, I'll call you back in six hours and we'll set something up. But I'm cranky and my head hurts and I need sleep."
"No kidding." Joey didn't sound particularly regretful. "I just wanted to tell you to stop by the bar later. I've got the money I owe you."
"Oh man." AJ rested his forehead against his knees and let out a quick breath of relief. "You have no idea how good that is to hear. Donna was just on my case again and…" He trailed off, then shook his head. "Nevermind. It's just good news."
"I thought it might be," Joey replied, and AJ could almost see his smug little face as he was wiping glasses clean with the phone cradled between his ear and shoulder. "All right, so I should expect you in six hours then?"
"Six hours," AJ muttered with a nod. Even as he said it he let his heavy eyelids fall closed and breathed out through his nose, letting the scritch-scratch house noises fade away again.
"Hang up, you idiot," Joey said, mild fondness seeping through the mirth. "You can't afford to stay on the phone with me while you sleep."
The good thing about living right next to a bar was that AJ was never very far away from potential work. The bad thing about it was that he hadn't actually wanted to see another bar for at least another ten years.
But you did what you had to do, so AJ opened the door to Crazy Daisy's a little after six pm, just barely dodging a man running for the bathrooms with a distinct greenish tint to his skin.
The music was loud and the people even louder. AJ was careful of his new leather jacket as he wove past the tables and huddles of people, their full beer bottles sloshing over their hands as they stumbled into each other. He'd scoured thrift shops for the last six months until he'd finally spotted it hanging on a rack between three brown ponchos and a sixties summer dress. It had a couple of tears in the inside lining, but it was better than trying to sell yourself in a star-studded hoodie that said Camp A-Minor, for teens with dreams, summer '93 across the chest.
Once he'd gotten through the crowd, he nudged in between a bald man drinking by himself and a woman chatting animatedly on her cellphone. He leaned heavily against the bar counter and called, "Joey!", ignoring the man's slow, half-lidded look.
Joey was at the other end of the bar talking to a group of girls, but as soon as he heard AJ's voice he looked over and grinned. He excused himself, and AJ saw the girls glance at each other with small smiles that meant they were all thinking the same thing.
"Right on time," he said as soon as he was within hearing range. AJ grinned back, and they clasped hands over the counter. "If I was the insecure type I'd ask why you're never this precise when we're just hanging out."
"Hey, I showered tonight," AJ said indignantly. "I primped and I tucked and I tweezed. Don't tell me I don't make myself look nice for you."
"Of course, my bad." Joey ducked under the counter and came up with a bottle of Corona and a small stack of bills. "Here you go," he said, handing AJ the money. "And thanks again, man, seriously. You have no idea how much good they did."
AJ rolled his eyes good-naturedly and folded the bills twice so he could stick them into his liner pocket and zip it shut. "Your mom was sick. What was I supposed to do, watch you worry yourself sick from across the country?"
Joey smiled wryly. "The life of a label intern," he sighed, pouring some Corona into a blender. "They're looking again, you know," he added, glancing at AJ as he reached for the ice cubes. "I could put in a good word for you."
The woman next to him shrieked with laughter into her phone and AJ tried his best not to grimace. "Thanks," he said carefully, watching Joey pick out mint leaves from a bowl and drop them into the blender. They didn't have this conversation as often as they used to anymore. "But it doesn't exactly pay the kind of money I get now."
"And yet," Joey said, arching an eyebrow, "you sounded like I handed you a golden ticket when I told you I had money for you."
AJ paused for a moment, considering. "I'm saving," he answered simply, just before Joey started the blender and the whirring drowned out all noise within a two feet radius. Joey just smiled at him again, completely neutral as always.
"Look, I'm gonna get going," AJ said, once the blender was off again. He had to raise his voice, because a group of football fans had decided to stand right behind him and watch the game on the TV hanging over the bar. "But thanks for getting this to me as quick as you could."
"Anytime," Joey said, pouring the blend into two tall glasses.
AJ turned and caught the sitting man watching him again. He was at least fifty, with deep wrinkles on his splotchy forehead and heavy dark circles under his eyes. "Hey," AJ muttered, and the man startled and looked away hastily. AJ put a hand on the guy's shoulder and leaned in. "Come find me later," he said lowly in his ear.
The man just shrugged him off forcefully and picked up his drink, and AJ clicked his tongue with a grin.
He was trying to figure out how to get through the crowd and back outside when Joey called, "Hey, AJ!"
AJ turned around, putting his hand back on the counter. "Yeah?"
Joey topped off a customer's drink and wiped his hands in his apron. "Johnny's been asking about you again," he told him. "Said to tell you to reconsider his offer and that there's still a spot open at the poker table if you want it."
AJ rolled his eyes and rapped his knuckles against the counter. "Tell him he still knows where he can stick his offer."
Joey bit back a grin and tossed a vodka bottle in the air. "Later, babe."
"It's about time you got here," Nick said, leaning back against the brick wall and lighting up a cigarette. AJ popped up the collar of his jacket and went to stand next to him, assuming his usual stance of resting one hip against the wall with his thumbs loosely hanging from his pockets.
"You know it's painfully obvious that you're not inhaling, right?" he pointed out in return. He watched Nick draw from the cigarette and let the smoke out almost the same second, one long stream out the side of his mouth.
Nick waved his hand absentmindedly, and flecks of ash floated to the ground. "Just because I'm not prepared to get lung cancer doesn't mean I can't look good. Don't be jealous." He drew a line with his toe along one of the stars on the sidewalk. "Where were you, anyway?"
"Making sure we don't get kicked out on the street in a week." AJ tugged on the collar of Nick's black tee and grinned when he saw the blooming red mark that he knew would be there. "You had fun with Lance, huh?"
Nick shrugged him off, but there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he brought the cigarette back up again. "We were bored."
"You're so fucking easy," AJ laughed, shaking his head.
Nick turned his head just in time to blow the last traces of smoke in AJ's face, and he grinned when AJ parted his lips receptively. "Occupational hazard."
When AJ had first met Nick, he'd told him all about respect in their line of work. "Because no one else is going to, so we gotta look out for ourselves," he'd said, pushing what was left over of his waffles across the table. Nick had been here longer than AJ liked to think about, so he had a permanent spot on Hollywood Boulevard that no one else ever ventured to. And if anyone questioned that, or why AJ had been tagging along right from when he'd been the greenest vegetable in the patch, Nick would shrug and say, "You can ask Johnny, if you want."
AJ didn't entirely understand the protective streak that was going on there, because Nick didn't work for anyone, but bringing up Johnny's name usually made people shrink away pretty quickly.
They were always by the corner of an abandoned factory with wooden boards shuttering the windows, shielded from the occasional rain drizzle or gust of wind by the apartment balcony over their heads. There were always gaggles of women in drunken, uninhibited stupors who click-clacked past them in their high heels or, much more frequently, guys in long trench-coats who stared at them for ten minutes from across the street before they made their move. They had business men come by once in while, glancing at them and muttering into their cellphones as they hurried past. Nick was a master at getting them to do the over-the-shoulder-second-glance with his easy smile and his comfortable slouch against the wall that plainly said 'your wife doesn't have to know.'
But tonight was a slow night. AJ glanced disinterestedly at the cars zooming by on the street, the red streaks of light from the neon signs reflecting on their newly done paintjobs, and picked a fleck of black nail polish off his thumb. Suddenly there was a screeching sound, like an engine dying a very painful death, and he looked up again to see a silver Lotus Esprit jumping along the road in little halting motions. The cars behind it were starting on brief, disgruntled honks, and the Lotus eventually seemed to give up and pulled over in jerky motions to the curb a safe distance away from them.
"Typical," Nick said, and he and AJ shared a look. "Why is it always the rich guys that treat nice cars like shit?"
"Yeah, no kidding." AJ rubbed the back of his neck. "Do you think…?"
Nick grinned suddenly. "Hey, go for it. Maybe you'll finally get that ride in a Lotus you've always been talking about." He dropped his second cigarette butt to the ground and mashed it. "Or he'll be the one getting a ride. Either way."
AJ rolled his eyes and pushed away from the wall. "All in a day, right?"
"Exactly. Hey, wait a sec." Nick straightened before AJ could walk too far and looked AJ up and down. He pursed his lips thoughtfully, then reached to tug AJ's collar down and run fingers twice through his hair. "There we go," he said, seemingly satisfied, and smacked AJ's ass lightly. "Take care, babe."
"You too," AJ said, his voice gruff. He dug his hands in his pockets as he approached the car. The lights from the building advertisements shone on the rooftop, and inside he heard a muffled swear and a quick thump. AJ steeled himself - one day this was going to get easier - and tapped on the passenger's window.
There was pause where AJ crouched down and peered inside. Then the window slid down a fraction and AJ reeled back briefly, startled. "Hey," he then said, giving his most winning grin. "Need a hand?"
The guy in the car was young, around his own age, with short tousled hair and an apprehensive look on his face. He was wearing a wrinkled grey suit, with a tie that had been loosened and was hanging crookedly. A cellphone was pressed to his ear, but AJ couldn't hear any noise on the other end of the line. He looked like someone that wasn't quite ready to play dress-up in his dad's closet.
"Uh, no thanks," he said carefully, and AJ noted the southern accent right away. "I'm just - this car…"
"Yeah, you're breaking it really nicely," AJ remarked. "Don't know how to drive a stick, huh?"
Through the crack in the window he could hear faint country music playing. The guy looked down at the stick as if it was a piece of space shuttle equipment. "Not really, no," he said eventually. He glanced at AJ again and shifted in his seat. "Look, no offense, but I'm not really looking for…"
"For?" AJ asked slowly, unable to bite back a grin.
The guy looked him over, almost as if seeking confirmation. "Company," he finished eventually, raising both eyebrows.
"Hey, I'm just offering my services. It's up to you how you wanna take them." AJ held his hands up. "Thirty bucks and I'll drive you wherever you need to go." He braced one hand on the rooftop and leaned in. "Just think of me as a really friendly taxi driver."
"It's nice of you, but I'm fine, really." He held up his cellphone. "I've got it covered."
"What, triple A? Information?" AJ shrugged. "Doesn't matter, you're gonna have trouble getting through to anything at this time of night. Letting me take you will save you a lot of grief, trust me."
The guy frowned a little, and AJ could almost see every possible scenario that flew through his head.
"All I'm carrying is dental floss," AJ said. He grinned again. "You're welcome to search me, if you want."
The guy ran a hand through his hair - chewed down nails, AJ always noticed that for some reason. He looked at the steering wheel uncertainly, then at AJ again.
"Your call," AJ offered eventually. He took a step back. "It just seems to me that you're kind of stuck if you can't drive your car, and this is just guesswork, but I'm guessing you're lost too, because I don't see a Lotus Esprit coming down here too often. But hey, I'm just gonna go back to my friend then. Enjoy your night."
He started backing away, and had just turned around when he heard a car door opening and a quick, "Wait."
AJ rotated around himself and looked back as if surprised. "Me?"
The guy looked mildly exasperated with himself, but slammed his door shut and walked up to AJ on the sidewalk. "Thirty bucks, right?" he asked. He was about the same height as AJ was, and roughly the same build as well.
"Thirty bucks," AJ confirmed. The guy narrowed his eyes a bit, gaze moving downwards, and before he could say anything AJ held his jacket open. "Nothing's gonna fit into these, trust me," he said with conviction, smoothing both hands over his skin-tight jeans. "And besides, it's usually me who has to worry about my 'company' carrying knives in their pockets."
The guy smiled wryly, then held his own blazer jacket open as well. He shook his head. "All right then," he said, tossing AJ a pair of keys with a Lotus key ring dangling from them.
AJ caught them easily, and shot Nick a quick triumphant 'everything's cool' sign before he headed over to the driver's side of the car. "Hey, just so you're not getting in a car with a complete stranger," he said. "I'm AJ."
The guy paused, looking up at AJ over the roof of the car. Then he nodded. "Brian," he replied, and slid into the passenger's seat.
"This car is nice," AJ commented, taking a corner on screeching wheels. A car rounded on the opposite side and honked in outrage, but AJ just looked over at Brian, who was clutching the handle of his car door somewhat desperately. "Yours?"
"No, it's, uh, it's rented." One of Brian's hands flew down to grab on to his seat when AJ narrowly missed a street sign. "You know, you don't have to go so fast," he assured. "I'm not in a hurry to get to anything."
"No, it's totally fine," AJ said readily, stepping down on the speeder to get through a yellow light. "I'm an excellent driver. Me and my friends used to fix up cars from the junk yard and drive races on this abandoned parking lot we had. That's how I know how to drive a stick, too. You just have to make sure to give enough gas when you ease up on the clutch." He rested his elbow on the window edge and got comfortable. "Besides, gotta give you your money's worth, right?"
"Right." Brian didn't sound particularly reassured, but when he laughed a second later it was genuine. "Guess I can always appreciate a good business deal."
"I figured," AJ said, glancing over again. It was quiet in the car for a second before he asked, "So I'm going in the right direction, right? You gotta be somewhere in that cluster of fancy hotels downtown."
"That's a pretty fitting description." Brian glanced out the window. "Yeah, I'm in Beverly Wilshire."
AJ whistled quietly. "Nice."
"They all start to look the same, believe me." Brian turned and gave him a tight smile. He looked AJ over with a hesitant curiosity that AJ always got from the eighteen-year-olds who'd been granted de-virginizing money from their friends. "So," he said, clearing his throat. "AJ, right?"
AJ turned his head briefly and quirked an eyebrow, smiling easily. "You can call me something else if that's what revs your engine."
Brian looked mildly amused. "So, AJ," he repeated. "Do you usually offer rides to people who get lost by your…?"
"My office?" AJ supplied helpfully when Brian didn't go on.
Brian snorted at that, but the sound wasn't mocking. "Yeah," he said agreeably. "Your office."
AJ changed gears. "Hell no," he replied. "I mean, people get lost up there often, but I try to get an hour instead 'cause it pays more. But I don't get to drive a Lotus very often these days, or ever, basically, so I figured why not, you know?"
"Yeah," Brian said. He tried to smooth out the wrinkles in his shirt and shifted in his seat. "So … how much does someone in your profession make these days?"
AJ smiled when he felt Brian's eyes on him. The hotel came into sight and he clicked on the turning signal. "Can't take less than a hundred," he said.
"For an hour?" Brian asked incredulously.
AJ shrugged. "It's a hard-knock life," he replied simply, pulling up in front of the hotel's entrance. The light from inside the revolving doors looked warm and inviting, and AJ could just barely spot the bottom of the large chandelier hanging from the lobby ceiling. The two doormen outside greeted the incoming people with a friendly nod. AJ directed his gaze back at Brian. "And we have arrived," he said.
"What?" Brian blinked at him before he shook himself. "Oh, right. Yeah, of course."
They stepped out of the car almost at the same time. "Here you go, man," AJ called, slamming the door shut and tossing the car keys to a valet who fumbled in the air to catch them. He stared at AJ in surprise, and AJ added, "The clutch is kind of tricky, but just ease up on it at first and you'll be fine."
When he stepped up on the sidewalk Brian was watching him, and AJ straightened himself as subtly as he could. ("Bad posture is bad advertising," Nick had told him once.) He smiled again, halfway, and dug his hands in his pockets. "So," he said.
Brian nodded before he reached into his liner pocket and pulled a couple of bills from a money clip. "Here you go," he said hesitantly, handing them over. "So, yeah. Thanks for the ride."
"Hey, anytime," AJ said, grinning. He did the two finger salute and had taken a couple of steps when Brian spoke up again.
"Do you have enough for a taxi back?" he asked.
AJ glanced over his shoulder, then shifted back on his heel and turned around again. "Yeah, but I'm good," he said. He cocked his head in the direction of the bus stop further down the street. "I kind of like public transportation." And it was a good opportunity to save some money. If he got back to the corner and made nothing all night, at least there was enough to get him and Nick a new light bulb for the bathroom tomorrow.
"Okay." Brian shifted his weight, and AJ thought, maybe. "Okay," he said again. "So."
AJ lingered for a second, unsure, before he laughed under his breath. "Okay," he replied, nodding. He popped his jacket collar up again and went the short way over to the bus stop. At least he had a cool experience to tell Nick now, and maybe if he got back in time to pick up another customer he could be the one to spring for breakfast tomorrow. He perched on the back of the bench and put his feet down on the seat, settling down for a wait. He knew buses around here.
"Nothing yet, huh?"
AJ peered over his shoulder and saw Brian standing a few feet away, a hesitant smile on his face. He'd taken his blazer off and slung it over his arm, and through the thin fabric of his white shirt AJ could see indistinguishable tattoos wrapped around his left arm. "Nah," he said, smiling back. "You always have to wait longer for things than people tell you you do."
Brian exhaled a faint laugh and nodded. His eyes were blue, AJ noticed, just before Brian said, "So … you said a hundred, right?"
AJ's smile broadened slowly as he twisted around and braced his hands on the back of the bench. "I did," he replied.
Brian nodded again, seemingly to himself, and when he looked back at AJ he took a deep breath. "Okay then," he said. "If you don't have any other plans, I was wondering if you would come with me up to my room."
AJ couldn't resist a smirk. "To keep you company?"
Brian's answering laugh was relieved, and he folded his arms over his chest so his jacket disguised him like a shield. "Yeah, exactly."
AJ swung his feet around and jumped off the bench, making it look as casual as he could. He walked up to Brian and said, in a lowered voice, "Then I definitely don't have any other plans."
Brian's eyes flitted over his face. The lights from the hotel façade cast shadows on his face, and AJ remembered seeing that same mixed look of apprehension and anticipation in the mirror a long time ago. "Okay," he said, possibly for the fiftieth time tonight. He gave his jacket a shake and held it out. "You should probably put this on then."
"Oh." AJ looked down at himself, the tight jeans and the black boots and the worn leather jacket, and offered Brian a wry, knowing smile. "Not that kind of establishment?"
Brian looked a little pink around the ears, but his shoulders visibly lowered when AJ took his jacket off and slid into the blazer. "Who knows in Beverly Hills?" he said, smiling when AJ laughed in agreement.
When they went through the revolving doors AJ's steps faltered slowly, and he looked around the extravagant lobby with wide-eyed fascination. The chandelier hanging in the center of the room was roughly the size of a small boat, the light catching in its oval glass ornaments and reflecting in the mirror-bright reception desks. There were thick mahogany-lined pillars forming a direct line to the reception. People were everywhere, chatting guests and busy maids and smarmy receptionists, but the noise wasn't deafening like at the bar, more like a dignified buzzing of voices so the music over the speakers could still be heard. Chopin, AJ recognized, and almost smiled.
Brian turned around when he realized AJ wasn't behind him anymore, giving him a curious look. AJ was vaguely surprised that there wasn't any impatience there. "Swanky," he muttered quietly, adjusting the cuffs of his sleeves.
Brian nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. "Yeah," he agreed, glancing around as well as if seeing it for the first time. "I think I forget to notice these days." He strolled back, and in the electric illusion of candlelight AJ could clearly see the dark circles under his eyes. "Come on," he murmured, nodding AJ along with him.
People were watching him as they went along, elderly women in fur coats darting reproachful glances, and for a wild second AJ almost wanted to toss the blazer off and tell them that they could pay up if they were so into watching. But he needed this money, for Nick as well as himself, so he bit the inside of his cheek and followed Brian up to the reception desk.
"Hey, Howie," Brian said with weary familiarity, leaning up against the counter. "Any messages for me today?"
The guy behind the counter - kind of short, with a navy-colored suit and a phone cradled between his shoulder and ear - turned away from the receptionist he was talking quietly to and gave Brian an acknowledging nod. "Mr. Richardson has called down about five times," he said. AJ noticed the gold-lined nametag that read 'hotel manager' tacked to his chest pocket. His gaze slid over to AJ casually - pretty discreet actually, AJ thought. Better than other hotels he'd been dragged to, at any rate. "He said to tell you to call him the second you got in."
"Sure thing." AJ caught the slight exasperation in Brian's voice, even though his expression stayed perfectly friendly. "Anything else?"
Howie thumbed quickly through a small stack of notes. Next to them two table bells dinged in rapid concession. "No, that's it for tonight."
"All right, then," Brian said. He leaned back and rapped his knuckles lightly against the counter. "I'm turning in for the night. I'd prefer not to be disturbed."
"I'll make a note of it," Howie said, giving AJ another stealthy glance as he filled out a sheet of paper. AJ gave him a smile that showed off all his teeth, and Howie looked down again quickly. "Have a good night."
AJ caught up to Brian on their way over to the brass-covered elevator doors. "Hey, so not that it's my business or anything," he said, pitched low so only Brian could hear. "But is this Richardson your boyfriend or something? 'Cause adding a third person to the party is a bit more-"
"God, no," Brian blurted out once he'd caught on, staring at AJ in mild horror. "No, nothing like that. He's my business partner."
"Oh," AJ said slowly. Brian pressed the elevator button, and the man keeping watch in a chair by the side glanced at him quickly before looking away. "So why's he so desperate to get a hold of you?"
Brian rubbed the back of his neck and barely turned his head. "I sort of left him hanging tonight," he replied, giving AJ a brief, tired smile. "In the middle of some important stuff."
The shiny doors slipped open then, and AJ left it at that. The bellboy inside the elevator stood very still, only moving to give Brian a brief nod and push a number before Brian even had to say anything.
This elevator had seats. AJ sprawled out along the one lining the wall, stretching his legs out comfortably and bending one knee to the side. "You know every single person down there knew what I'm here for, right?" he asked, grinning a little when he saw another flush spread on Brian's cheeks. The bellboy shifted his weight.
Brian, however, kept looking at the ascending numbers above the doors. "People are really happy to talk here," he said eventually. "Might as well give them a reason."
"There are probably cheaper ways to make people gossip about you," AJ pointed out just as the bellboy announced, "top floor, penthouse and entrance to the rooftop." AJ's lips formed a small 'o' as he stood up. "But clearly you don't have any problems finding money lying around."
Brian huffed a laugh. They went out into the hallway, and AJ pretend not to notice the bellboy crane his neck to watch them as the elevator closed with a soft whoosh. Instead he watched in mild fascination as Brian slid the keycard through the slot on the door in front of them, and the small light clicked from red to green. Brian pushed the door open and AJ followed him, tucking his leather jacket securely under his arm.
Inside, two steps led down to an elegant living room area, with couches big enough for ten, maroon cushions and thick, cream-white carpets. Brian tossed his keycard onto the dresser and walked over to the mahogany desk pushed up next to the French doors by the balcony.
The corner of AJ's open mouth tugged up, half confused and half in awe. "What kind of business man are you?" he asked.
"A really good one," Brian replied with a small smile, picking up a stack of letters and thumbing through them. He'd clicked on the small desk lamp and the room was cast in warm shadows, Brian standing in the center of it.
"You can say that again," AJ muttered. He shrugged off the blazer and draped it over a baroque-styled chair, folding up his own leather jacket and leaving it on the back of the couch as he strolled through the room. The dark windows gleamed with the flickering lights of the city beneath them, and when AJ ended up at the balcony he took a step outside. "Wow, check it out," he muttered. "That's a sweet view you got here."
"I'll take your word for it," Brian said. When AJ raised a questioning eyebrow Brian just shrugged. "I'm not really great with heights," he explained without looking up, putting a stack of papers into a drawer.
AJ almost laughed, but he wasn't a complete idiot. Instead he leaned against the doorframe and asked, "Not that it's any of my business, but what are you doing in the penthouse then?"
Brian caught his eye, and seemed to realize where AJ was getting at, because he laughed a little himself and shook his head. "It's the best," he said, after a second's thought.
"Of course," AJ murmured, cocking his head to the side. Brian's smile faded, and he cleared his throat, glancing down again. Wind caught on to the French doors and made them rattle very lightly. The mood was changing, and AJ wet his lips as the silence grew. He went through the catalogue in his head, clever things to say, which cliché worked best on which type of customer. Brian wasn't the type of guy he got picked up by very often. He was guarded, seemingly unsure, and clearly out of his element. The thing that threw AJ off was that he didn't try to hide any of those things.
AJ walked around and over to Brian slowly, sliding into the space between him and the desk and leaning back with calculated moves that exposed his flat stomach, the strength in his hands when he held on to the edge of the desk. Brian's eyes didn't leave him, but he stayed trained on AJ's body rather than AJ's face, and AJ allowed himself a small smile. "So," he said, his voice low and smooth. Careful was the way to go. "You got me here. What do you plan to do with me?"
Brian's gaze lifted to his, the nervous tensing of his shoulders only becoming more prominent. They were standing close enough that Brian could touch him if he just flexed his fingers, but he didn't move. "I'm not sure," he said quietly, after a moment had passed, letting out another small laugh in a clear defense mechanism. "I didn't … exactly plan this."
AJ smiled at that, very lightly. "And you like plans?"
"It doesn't really matter what I like," Brian replied, his voice low. His eyes drifted down along AJ's neck, to his collarbone peeking out of his shirt, hesitant but clearly appreciative. The low light in the room made his eyelids look heavier than they were, and AJ watched as Brian reached a hand out in brief, halting movements, and brushed his fingers over AJ's bare arm. He traced one of AJ's tattoos, and AJ scooted up on the desk and pulled Brian in by the belt loops.
"With me it does," he murmured, and when he looked up Brian's eyes were wide, but they had darkened as well. He traced Brian's belt buckle with the tips of his fingers, but as he went to open it Brian sucked in a sharp breath and reached down to stop him.
"Wait," he rushed out, taking a step back. His hands fumbled to tug his belt back in place. "Can we just … wait on that?"
AJ raised an eyebrow. "Sure," he drawled, and leaned back on his hands, pushing a document up against the edge of the desk. "I mean, it's your money, as long as you know that I'm on the clock here. You sure you don't just want me to give you a nice tucking-in and be on my way?"
Brian didn't answer. For a moment he just watched him, hands at his sides and a considering look to his face. AJ stayed perfectly casual, his legs still lightly spread where Brian had been standing before, and tried not to think about anything.
Then something in Brian's stance shifted, and he stood tall again like he'd done back in the lobby. "How much for the whole night?" he asked.
AJ blinked. "What, staying here?"
"Yeah. Staying here."
AJ sat upright again, more than a little surprised. "You sure you wanna spend that much on something that you can go out and find for free?" It came out of his mouth before he could think about it.
Brian smiled. "Give it a try."
AJ was thrown enough that he had to look away to consider the offer. He could risk getting kicked to the curb if he asked for too much, but then, how often did he get asked to spend more than an hour in the backseat? "Three hundred," he said, his grip on the desk tightening a fraction.
"Done." Brian went over and pulled three bills out of his wallet like it was no big deal, like AJ couldn't cover a month's rent and feed both him and Nick for a week on that. He handed them over and offered a relieved smile. "I'm just gonna make some calls, so go ahead and make yourself comfortable. There's a stocked fridge if you want anything."
AJ looked down at the crinkling money in his hand, then felt a grin spread slowly on his face. "You got it," he said, stuffing the money down his boot and hopping off the desk. He watched Brian pull up the sleeves of his shirt and pick up one of the three phones on the desk. He dialed a number and AJ said, "I'll just be in the bedroom. You can come find me whenever you're done."
Brian glanced at him, and for a moment AJ couldn't even try to guess what he was thinking. "All right," he said, with a brief nod.
AJ went in search of the bedroom just in time to hear Brian say, "yes, hello, can you put me through to Kirkpatrick's room?" The balcony had a good outlook on the rest of the penthouse, and AJ walked over to the far end of the living room and back up the two steps. He opened the door carefully and found, once he hit the light switch, a bedroom roughly the size of his own apartment. There was another chandelier, although smaller than the one in the lobby. It hung from the ceiling, the crystals chiming gently in the breeze from the open window. The bed was big enough for three, with perfect hospital corners and a dust ruffle covering it so it looked like no one had ever slept in it.
To the side there was another door. AJ went through it and found a marble-tiled bathroom, stocked with a hot tub and a wide shower with tinted glass. He went over to the sink and stared at himself in the mirror. Three hundred dollars, he thought, and allowed himself to slump down with relief. They could stay in their apartment now. Maybe, once they'd bought their essentials, he could even spring for something special for him and Nick. A proper kitchen table, for one. It'd have to be second-hand, but that was okay, that was completely okay. Maybe he could even put some money aside, save it in the jar he kept under his bed with 'for the future' written across it.
He could hear Brian talking on the phone in the other room, and AJ pulled out his dental floss from his pocket and used it, quickly and expertly. He spotted an empty glass sitting in a cradle on the wall, and he quickly filled it up with water. Taking a brief look at himself in the mirror, he mussed up his hair and adjusted his clothes, achieving his own favorite tousled look in just a couple of seconds. Satisfied, he went back into the room with his water glass and set it down on the nightstand on the right side of the bed. He could always move if that turned out to be Brian's side.
He heard disconnected words from Brian as he pulled off the bed covers, things like, "no, I hear what you're saying, but," and "we can discuss the offer further tomorrow if that's…" AJ plopped down on the mattress - really soft, wow - and pulled out his cellphone. Got a golden ticket, so don't wait up, he texted quickly and snapped it shut. Keeping his boots off the bed, he bent down and fished out a string of condoms - various sizes, colors and flavors for whatever the situation called for - and put those down on the nightstand next to his phone and his water. He pulled his shoes off one by one - and nearly fell off the bed, they were too fucking tight without a zipper in the side - and scooted back to lean against the headboard. Settled, he sighed and spread out comfortably.
He was watching an old re-run of Step By Step on the huge flat-screen that had appeared out of a TV cupboard when Brian walked into the room. He'd removed his tie so his collar hung loose around his neck, sleeves still pushed up, and as he leaned up against the doorframe he dug his hands in his pockets, looking from the screen to AJ with a small smile. "Good?" he asked casually.
AJ actually felt sheepish for a second. "Already seen it," he admitted, slouching further down on the bed. He bent one leg and let it fall open, tilting his head. "Do you wanna watch it?" he asked.
The colors from the screen flickered over Brian's face, and when canned laughter burst from the TV he didn't move his eyes away. The smile was still there, playing lightly on his lips, and even though he looked perfectly at ease standing there AJ could see the nervous flush spreading on his neck. He wet his lips and met AJ's gaze again, eyes kind and closed off. "No," he finally said, voice quiet, and shook his head.
AJ returned the smile and reached for the remote. Once the TV was off the room was almost dead silent, save for the constant car noises and club music that was a permanent soundtrack to anyone who lived in this city. Brian stayed where he was, most of him shrouded in shadows now, and AJ planted his feet on the floor one by one and stood up. Brian's breathing was an audible thing, too measured to be normal, and when he stepped back into the light AJ could see the worry lines on his forehead. He looked at AJ as if needing conformation, and when AJ started to walk around the bed Brian bowed his head and started unbuttoning his shirt.
AJ took the hint and didn't wait for Brian to come remove his clothes. Instead he pulled his shirt over his head in one sweeping motion, folding it up before he put it down on the chest by the foot of the bed. Brian's moves were clumsy, each button taking several tries before it popped open, and AJ took a step closer.
Back when he still noticed bodies he would've appreciated Brian's. Once he shrugged off his shirt and put it down on a nearby chair, AJ could see the defined muscles that ran along his arms, the wiry strength in him. He had two tattoos on his left arm, a cross perched on a stone amidst crashing waves, and a band of writing that went around his bicep. AJ couldn't make it out, but he supposed he didn't need to. He moved closer still, until they were directly in front of each other and Brian looked up at him. Their eye line was nearly the same, and AJ gave him a reassuring smile.
"You're good, right?" he asked lowly. "You're not - I mean-" He reeled in his surprise and immediately tried to shift approaches in his head. "Is this your first time?"
"No," Brian laughed breathlessly. His nose scrunched up and he seemed to give himself a shake, squaring his shoulders. "Just - first time in a while," he amended, eyes meeting AJ's with regained calmness.
AJ nodded. This time, when he reached for Brian's belt buckle, Brian didn't stop him. "Don't come looking for people like me very often?" he muttered, taking measured steps as he pulled Brian with him towards the bed.
Brian's chest expanded with his heavy breath. "I think I short-circuited tonight," he admitted quietly, like it was a terrible secret he was careful about sharing. His hands settled awkwardly on AJ's sides, holding on until the back of AJ's knees hit the mattress. "I just … I needed something…" His eyes drifted over AJ's body as if it was something foreign, and he went slightly rigid when AJ got his pants open and they fell to the floor. "Different," he finished.
"Lucky for me," AJ murmured, grinning at Brian's startled laugh. He sat down on the bed and grabbed Brian's hips, pulling him in closer. "What do you like?" he asked against the warm skin of Brian's stomach.
He heard Brian's soft exhale as well as felt it. Fingers tangled in his hair, threading through it with hesitant little movements as AJ's lips drifted down to Brian's navel. "What do you do?" he asked, and his voice had dropped suddenly, gone low and his accent thick.
AJ looked up and shrugged. "I don't kiss on the mouth," he said, skimming his fingers along the waistband of Brian's boxers. "Other than that, anything's fair game."
Brian looked gaunt from this angle, the shadows moving over his sharp face as he swallowed audibly. "Okay," he said, nodding, his fingers drifting down the side of AJ's neck.
AJ smirked, just a little, and leaned back on his hands. "Are you attracted to me?" he asked bluntly, spreading his legs and pulling Brian in with his heels.
Brian breathed a laugh and leaned down, bracing himself with his hands on either side of AJ's torso. The muscles in his arms flexed, and when he smiled it wasn't the least bit shameful. "Yeah," he muttered, eyes raking over AJ's body more confidently this time.
"Oh, good," AJ said cheerfully, lying down flat and pulling Brian on top of him. Brian oomphed in surprise, and AJ grinned, rolling on top of him easily. "Trust me, that makes this a lot more fun."
AJ woke up to the smell of ink and pancakes.
He squinted against the sunlight and rolled over on his back, knuckling the sleep dust out of his eyes. It took him a second to realize that he was alone and that the empty side of the bed was cold. He yawned, stretching until his toes kinked up against the sheets, and smacked the sour morning taste out of his mouth as he rolled out of bed. There was a white terry-bathrobe sitting next to his clothes on the chest. AJ hopped into his boxers and wrapped himself up in the robe, tying the belt securely around his middle.
He padded out of the bedroom to find Brian sitting by the large dining table, already in his suit and reading through the paper. He looked up at the sound of AJ's shuffling, and gave a light smile.
"Morning," AJ returned, voice still hoarse from sleep. He cleared his throat and gestured towards the table that was stacked full of everything from poached eggs to wheatgrass shots. "Sorry, I didn't know you were expecting - um." He rubbed his neck uncomfortably. "If I can just take a quick shower I'll be out of your hair in-"
"No, no, hey," Brian said, the paper rustling when he put it down. "No, I wasn't - you should stay and eat something." He looked slightly flustered as he made a sweeping hand movement out over the table. "I, uh, I didn't know what you like, so I just kind of … ordered everything."
"Oh," AJ said. He found himself smiling, somewhat lopsided, and made his way over to one of the empty chairs. "Well, slap me twice and call me Spongebob," he muttered as he took a seat, grabbing one of the pancakes and tearing a piece off it.
Brian looked up, his face stuck between amusement and horror. "What?"
AJ was equally startled. He cleared his throat and waved a hand around. "Just … this is really nice and all. I'm just not used to it getting a breakfast buffet for doing my job."
"Yeah, well." Brian shook his head at himself as he went back to his newspaper. "Other people get raises all the time for cheating and lying their way to the top," he said without looking up. His hair was combed and his suit was free of wrinkles, a complete one-eighty from the disheveled guy with the nice smile and the drawn-in, worn eyes that AJ had met last night. Brian looked ready to take over the world today. "I don't see why you should get less when you do neither of those things."
AJ drew one of his legs up to his chest and popped another piece of pancake into his mouth. "I guess," he said eventually, through his mouthful. He remembered the almost shy way Brian had touched him last night, only growing confident once he figured out that AJ was okay with anything he did, and he offered Brian a half smile. "It's nice. Thanks."
Brian glanced at him again, a double take that lingered. "Anytime," he replied.
They were interrupted when the front door burst open and a cheerful voice rang out with, "it's all right, don't worry, Mr. Littrell knows I'm coming," overlapping a much more frantic, "but sir, I have to insist, Mr. Littrell said not to be--"
AJ's gaze flew back to Brian, but before either of them could react a man a few years their senior strolled past the corner of the room. "Relax, relax, I won't take long," he said, waving off the flushed bellboy like he was an annoying little fly.
"Mr. Littrell, I'm sorry, I couldn't stop him," the bellboy said miserably, arms nearly flapping out of their sockets.
"It's fine," Brian replied uneasily, clearly unprepared. He got up on his feet and glanced at AJ out the corner of his eye. "Really, it's fine," he reassured, and the bellboy rushed off after wringing his hands desperately. "Hey, Kirkpatrick," Brian said, slipping on a polite smile, heading over to shake the man's hand. "Do you always show up in the middle of breakfast?"
"Only when there's the possibility of someone not being dressed yet," he said happily. "Which, hey, speaking of which, I see that you have company, so-" He paused when he caught AJ's eye, and when he peered closer AJ knew the delighted recognition he saw there. "Son of a bitch," he said under his breath, then barked a laugh. "AJ?"
"Hey, Chris," AJ said weakly, trying to shoot Brian an apologetic glance without being too obvious about it. He got up and refastened his bathrobe as he walked over on bare feet, his stomach lurching painfully. This was a risky situation both for him and Brian to get caught in. "How've you been, man?" he asked, clasping their hands together. "It's been a while. You got rich enough to hang out with this guy?"
Chris pulled him into a quick back-pat hug and grinned. "I could ask you the same thing."
"Oh, well." AJ looked at Brian quickly, who was watching them both with a small, confused frown on his face. "I was just…"
"Oh. Oh," Chris exclaimed, looking from one to the other. "I see. Getting back on the saddle, huh?" He pounded Brian's back so Brian nearly fell forward. "Good for you, Littrell. The old twig and berries shrivel up and die if you don't use them enough. Trust me, I've been there. So, AJ," he said, turning back, and AJ's head was already spinning, "Are you still working at that old record store? I keep meaning to go back, but I'm so fucking busy these days." He wrapped an arm around AJ's shoulders and addressed Brian. "Me and this guy used to waste hours on vocal lessons when he was a baby and I was a guy in my prime."
Brian looked like he wasn't sure whether to start talking or just back away really quickly, so AJ jumped in. "I had to quit that job," he said. "So now I'm just … you know. Running errands for rich kids, trying to save up enough so I can get started on that internship."
It almost felt like the truth, if he stretched it enough for himself. He did go buy liquor for the occasional twenty-year-old whose fake id didn't fool anyone, but it was usually followed by twenty minutes spent in a back alley on his knees. Chris, however, just nodded intently. "Good for you, man," he said with complete sincerity. Only Chris could ever take the lamest of situations and make them sound like they had a shred of dignity. "You'll get there someday. Listen, I don't wanna keep you two from whatever you were doing, and I have to be on my way anyway, but I just needed a quick word." He turned back to Brian, and AJ recognized the serious set to his face. "I've never been the kind of man to do business over the phone, I'll admit," he said regretfully. "So I was thinking we should set up a dinner meeting tomorrow. You, me, that partner of yours with the scary eyebrows."
"Sure." Brian seemed to find his footing and slipped back into that carelessly confident mode that seemed so easy for him. He leaned back against the table and nodded. "I'm always happy to meet with the people I'm going to be in business with. Especially if they arrange these dinner plans over the phone first."
"Well, I was in the neighborhood," Chris said lightly, as if the subliminal message completely went over his head. He gave AJ's shoulder another rough thump. "We should really catch up sometime, McLean," he added, giving him another one of those sincere looks that could easily be mistaken for menacing. "I wanna hear all about life after the boulevard of broken dreams."
"Yeah, we should-" AJ's breath hitched before he could finish the sentence, so he simply dug the hands in the pockets of his bathrobe and nodded. "Yeah. Let's do that."
Chris nodded, and AJ thought it was a little sad that he was probably never going to see this guy again. "All right, I'll leave you two lovebirds to it," he announced, flouncing off with another quick look in Brian's direction. "And I'll see you tomorrow then."
Once the front door slammed shut again, AJ didn't know where to look. He rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly in a place where he was forced to think and react to his surroundings. He'd never had his past infiltrate his work this way.
"What-" Brian said after an interminable silence, and AJ cleared his throat loudly.
"Hey, so, I'll just go take that shower now," he said, looking up to find Brian already watching him, a puzzled look on his face. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the bathroom and started backing away. "I'll be quick, no worries. I can see that you've got a lot of stuff to do."
He slipped past the door before he could get another thorough look at Brian's face, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes once he was by himself. "Idiot," he whispered to himself, scrubbing both hands over his face. It wasn't the most respectable job in the world he had, but dammit, he had his integrity, and he wasn't about to ruin the reputation of one of his customers, especially when they were nice enough to treat him properly and offer him breakfast in the morning. And it wasn't like AJ had seen anyone from his past since he'd moved to LA.
Sighing, he went over and turned on the shower, letting the spray of the water heat up before he stepped in. He looked back when Brian poked his head through the door, then stepped fully into the room.
"Hey," he said, and his smile was the same, still so friendly like he'd never judged anyone in his life. "So you know Kirkpatrick then?" he asked, keeping one hand on the doorknob.
"Yeah," AJ said grimly. He sat down on the edge of the hot tub and gave an embarrassed shrug of his shoulders. "Sorry about that," he ventured. "If he hadn't been so fast I could've hid in the bedroom or something. I didn't mean to-"
"What?" Brian blinked. "No, I didn't - I don't care that he saw you." He huffed out a laugh. "It was a good thing, actually." He took a step closer. "The thing is, I have an offer to make you," he said carefully, his hair curling in the steam from the running shower.
AJ blinked. He'd sort of expected to have been kicked out before he got to yank on his clothes. "Okay," he said slowly, frowning a little. "Shoot."
Brian chewed on his lower lip, expression carefully neutral before he started speaking. "Kirkpatrick isn't … all that happy with me," he said, seeming to choose his words carefully. "So far he's been a really tough nut to crack, so if I had someone who could help me make him listen to what I have to say, it'd make my job a lot easier." His words were perfectly measured, like a speech given a hundred times. "So. I'd like to offer you to stay here with me for the rest of the week."
AJ gawked. There was no other word for it. He considered himself pretty smooth most of the time, but right now he definitely had to remind himself to close his mouth before it got stupid. "How many days specifically?" he asked, once he found his voice, and leaned back to look as casual as he could.
"Five days," Brian said. There was a faint blush that could've been from the heat in the room when he added, "And four nights. You'd be coming with me to the dinner tomorrow, and I might need you for some other events this week where Kirkpatrick could show up."
"I don't-" AJ half-laughed, half-choked, and his eyes flickered despite himself. "I'm not sure I'd even know what to ask for that."
Brian smiled then, a small tug on the side of his mouth. "You're a business man," he said, his voice returning to normal. "Make me an offer."
AJ was once again at that place where he had to weigh his options, gather up all his information and hope he made the right guess. "Four thousand," he said, chin jutting up in determination.
Brian frowned. "For five days?"
"I'd be going to events, too," AJ said, leaving that as his only explanation.
Brian pursed his lips. "Two thousand," he eventually offered.
"Three," AJ said quickly.
Brian beamed. "Done," he said, and then AJ couldn't breathe for at least a minute.
"Three thousand dollars, Nick," AJ crowed into the phone, once Brian had left and he'd spent at least ten minutes running around the penthouse like a maniac. "Do you even know what we can do with that?"
"He's gotta be a freak, right?" Nick said. AJ could hear him crunching on a bowl of cereal on the other end. "Are you wearing a dog collar right now? A corset? Come on, I can take it."
"No," AJ laughed, tracing a squiggly line down the mattress of the bed. "He's pretty decent," he said eventually. "He just wants me to go with him to some business dinners and stuff."
"Wearing a dog collar, right?"
"God, you have issues," AJ told him.
"I'm sorry!" Nick exclaimed. AJ could hear china rattling against the edge of a sink. "But you don't exactly hear about shit like this every day. Are you sure you didn't just go back to Bumfuck, New Jersey and you're too chicken to tell me?"
AJ rolled his eyes. "I'm gonna leave money for you at the reception desk at the Beverly Wilshire," he said. "You got the address, right? That's rent money, Nick, I mean it. Don't give Johnny more excuses to come after you than he already has."
"Yeah, yeah, I heard you," Nick mumbled, and AJ heard the scratching of pen against paper. "I'll swing by later and pick it up."
AJ exhaled heavily and looked at the cream white walls. "He gave me money to go shopping, too," he said. "Stuff for tomorrow night. How'm I supposed to know where to go looking for things like that?"
"What, are you kidding?" Nick's laugh was throaty, still doused with sleep. "How many times have we gone window drooling? Hit up Rodeo Drive, babe."
Four hours later, AJ stalked back into the lobby from the street, keeping his head ducked when he passed a huddle of guests in mink coats. He was tired and itchy and pissed off, and it didn't help that everyone kept staring at him like he was the fucking descendent of Quasimodo.
He headed straight for the elevators and shoved the heel of his hand against the button, scowling at the floor. A woman next to him huffed indignantly and walked the two steps to the next elevator.
"Excuse me, sir?"
"What?" AJ snapped, whirling around to come face to face with the manager from last night. "I'm going upstairs, all right? I'm not bothering any of your guests, I just wanna go back to my room and down wheatgrass shots until I pass out. God, what is everybody's problem?"
Howie raised both his eyebrows in a manner so controlled that AJ almost swore he didn't see it happening. "I just wanted to talk to you very quickly," he said, already putting a hand on AJ's arm and guiding him along. "If you have a minute?"
"Fine," AJ sighed, throwing his hands up in the air, and gave a couple of the staring maids a glare as he was led into a square little office with family pictures on the walls and large plants next to the bookshelf stacked with folders.
Howie made a gesture towards a seat, and AJ plopped down ungracefully, crossing his arms and watching Howie perch against his desk.
"So you're Mr. Littrell's guest, right?" he asked. He loosened his tie and popped a button open in his shirt. "You're his…?"
AJ cocked an eyebrow, his mouth twisting. This was probably what that gum you scrape off the bottom of your shoe felt like. He shook his head and shrugged. "Cousin?" he suggested flatly.
"Cousin," Howie agreed, nodding. "And how long will you be staying here for?"
AJ snorted, his fingers drumming against the arm of the chair. "Five days," he said, glaring up at Howie through his lashes. "Do you need a written contract that I'll be out of here by then?"
"No," Howie replied, his mouth twitching a bit. He cleared his throat and went on, "I just think it would be better if you could maybe find some … different clothes. Something a little less, um…" He coughed. "Tight?"
AJ shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I'm trying, okay?" he said sharply. "Brian, he gave me money to go buy some clothes for this dinner we're going to tomorrow, and I tried, but it's…" His voice faltered and he sank back, gritting his teeth. "No one wants to help me," he forced out.
He'd never been met with so many narrow-eyed stares in his life. Going from one store to the next, where there were only two items out in the open for the customers, and salesmen coming up to him with pinched lips and going, "there are some thrift shops down the street that you might find more interesting," or "I'm sorry, I don't think we carry your sizes here. No, I don't have to check."
He picked at a hole in his jeans and didn't look up when Howie eventually straightened and walked to the other side of the desk. There was the swoosh sound of someone picking up a phone handle and then digits being pressed down.
"Great," AJ snorted humorlessly, tugging at the rip until it tore another inch open with a loud ripping noise. "Great, yeah, sic the cops on me, that's really-"
"Hey, Fatima?" Howie said, his voice suddenly warm, and AJ's head flew up. Howie was scribbling down quickly on a piece of paper. "Yeah, it's good to hear from you, too. Listen, I'm gonna send someone over to you now, all right? He needs an update on his wardrobe. You can help him out, right?" Howie looked over with a knowing smile. "Great. I can always count on you. I'll talk to you soon."
He put the phone down and tore off the sheet of paper. "I wrote the address down for you," he explained, folding it up and handing it over to AJ, who took it hesitantly. "It's not too far from here. Just ask for Fatima and she'll take care of you. She's really good at dressing you up for any occasion."
AJ eyed the note, then looked up at Howie again, frowning suspiciously. "What's in it for you?" he asked. "If you want cousin favors from me it's gonna cost you like it does anyone else."
Howie didn't reply right away. He just watched AJ, expression completely neutral, sitting on the edge of his desk. Eventually AJ had to look away again, biting his lip.
"Brian's … an old friend," Howie said then, slowly like he was considering each word. AJ stared at his shoes. "And I'd like him to have a good stay here. If that includes you, then the least I can do is make sure that you get what he wants you to get."
AJ didn't say anything. His defenses had been clawed at since he woke up in a strange bed this morning, having to stay longer with any one customer than he'd ever had to before, and it was all so tiring. Everyone treating him like he wasn't what he really was.
"You should probably get going now," Howie said, his shoes clacking against the tiles as he walked over to the door. "Fatima's expecting to see you soon."
The only light in the room was the shadows cast from the hotel's illuminated name on the building. Brian dug his fingers into AJ's arms and hissed, writhing in a silent demand for more, but AJ just kept mouthing the flushed skin in the crook of his neck. He scraped his teeth over the pulse point and Brian's sharp gasp filled the room, the lingering small noise after it that could've been a moan.
AJ was out of breath when Brian flipped them over, but he still managed to position himself just right so his muscles flexed when he raised his arms over his head. Brian's eyes were dark, pupils blown wide, but there was still a small frown as he looked AJ over, almost confused. His fingers glided along AJ's lower arm to the inside of his elbow where he lingered, briefly. AJ watched the concentration on his face slip into appreciation, subtle shifts in his expression and a small, stuttered breath released. Then Brian's fingers slid up further and linked with AJ's above their heads, and AJ forced himself to stay completely still, wait, breathe normally.
It wasn't till a second later that he realized the grip was loose. Brian's thumb brushed along the back of AJ's hand as he braced himself and leaned down.
"Okay?" he asked quietly, his voice gravelly like sandpaper, but no less hesitant because of it.
AJ smiled at him easily. "Yeah," he muttered, splaying himself out for Brian, relaxing every part of his body into the mattress. "Feels good."
Brian looked him over a second longer before nodding. His eyelids drooped slightly and he shifted on top of AJ, his hips dragging along and aligning so AJ's breath hitched despite himself. His fingers tightened around Brian's, and Brian smiled knowingly, a light tug of his mouth that was far from innocent.
The sheets rustled when Brian bent down, and AJ could see the muscles in Brian's arms work just before he attached his lips to AJ's neck. It was small, careful brushes of his lips, then a small swipe of his tongue against damp skin. AJ felt the sheets stick to his back when he squirmed and tilted his head to give Brian better access.
The only sound was their breathing, out of rhythm, and the slick noise of lips against skin. Brian exhaled hotly against AJ's throat, arched his back into it and tightened his grip on AJ's hand as he dragged his lips over the side of AJ's neck, and the moan rushed from AJ's throat before he realized it was there, the burst of sensation in his lower belly an unexpected surprise.
Brian's answer was to suck on AJ's neck again, more fervently than before. The air around them was stifling, and AJ felt a second of breathlessness before Brian slowly raised his head. He was panting short, shallow bursts of air, and it was only then that AJ realized he was almost as out of breath. His chest rose and fell heavily for those few seconds while the heat of Brian's breath trickled over his mouth, Brian's damp forehead resting against his, their loud breaths nearly drowning out the noise in his head.
Then AJ drew his head back an inch, just enough to feel safe again. Brian opened his eyes and AJ drew in a breath and tried on his best smirk. "My turn?" he murmured, raising an eyebrow just enough.
Brian smiled at him, soft, almost sleep-dazed, and nodded. AJ rolled them over again and let go of Brian's hand to use it elsewhere, and when Brian arched up sharply and moaned, the sound rang in AJ's ears. He mouthed at Brian's earlobe, then under his jaw, knowing exactly where to go and what to do, perfecting his own choreographed dance.
The next morning AJ spent a good amount of time circling the grand piano near the east window until Brian, with badly disguised amusement, said, "Do you wanna play something?"
AJ whipped around, but let the tension go and laughed a little when he saw the look on Brian's face. "It's just," he said, running his fingers through his hair. "I never see pianos this nice. Or at least I haven't in a while."
Brian smiled at him and leaned back against the dining table. "You should give it a try," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "I always like having music around."
"Me too," AJ replied, giving Brian a small, acknowledging smile in return. He turned back to the white piano and put a warm hand down on top of it. "It's been a while, I'm just telling you now," he warned. "I usually mess around with my guitar, but even that's been a couple of years."
Brian's expression slipped into mild surprise, his hands lowering down to his sides. "Really?" he asked, with a crooked little grin. Before AJ could answer Brian held up a hand and said, "one second, okay?" before he disappeared into the bedroom.
AJ frowned. When Brian came back out a few minutes later holding a Gibson by the neck, AJ immediately felt his fingers prickling with excitement. Grinning from ear to ear, he took the two steps down to the living room slowly. "You gotta be kidding me," he said quietly.
There was definite pleasure and pride on Brian's face as he handed the guitar over carefully. "I'm gonna go take a shower," he said, stepping back so AJ could get a firm grip on it and brush his thumb over the strings. It was perfectly in tune. "Have fun," Brian added, smiling as he turned on his heel.
The sound of the water spray was a distant background beat to his playing. AJ sat in the couch, his fingers plucking clumsily at the strings until memory control slowly started to take over. He exhaled a shaky breath when he started playing an old melody, rough and untrained in parts, easy progressions in his head but too difficult for his fingers to follow. Back when he was fifteen there had been nothing difficult about it, sitting on the stoop on the porch of his house and playing music until his fingers were so blistered that he couldn't lift up the fork at dinner.
He was on his fourth try when Brian came back out of the bathroom. AJ looked up. He was in a grey pair of sweatpants and a plain white, worn t-shirt, stretched out crooked at the hem from too many times through the washing machine. AJ's eyes drifted unconsciously to the damp patch on Brian's abdomen where the fabric clung to it and was turning see-through.
"That sounds really good," Brian commented, throwing his towel over the back of a chair. AJ cleared his throat and looked back at his strumming fingers. When Brian came down to sit on the coffee table in front of him, he shrugged with half-practiced ease.
"A Gibson makes anything sound good."
"Not if you don't know how to use it," Brian said with conviction. He leaned back on his hands, damp hair curling up against his neck as he tilted his head. "You wanna play some more?"
It was strange, how he could look much older than his years one moment and so young the next. AJ nodded, knowing that if he opened his mouth he was going to say something stupid to cover up for the fact that he hadn't played in front of anyone in a good long while.
He ducked his head. The first few notes were nervous attempts, his fingers freezing up before he finally regained control of his muscles and started to play. Once he had it, once he knew with complete certainty that he still knew how to do this, it got easier. When he looked up briefly Brian was watching his fingers, his brow furrowed in concentration, and AJ felt the back of his neck heating up. His fingers didn't lose their place though, not once.
It was a slow song, and AJ hummed along a little before he eventually faltered. "I never finished this one," he admitted.
Brian caught his lip between his teeth. His lyrics tattoo peeked out from his sleeve when he leaned forward and reached out to adjust AJ's fingers holding the chord. He was careful, focused, and AJ watched the sharp line of his jaw move when he opened his mouth. "What if you…?" he said, hmm'ing in thought before he finished. He reached out for the guitar and asked, "Can I?"
Eyes wide, AJ handed the guitar over. Brian adjusted it in his lap and immediately started playing the same melody AJ just had. Slower, but no less precise. The same melody AJ had been working on for five years now. He watched in fascination as Brian's fingers moved, and then Brian started humming along, a low, smooth note that rang pure. "It's really nice," Brian said eventually, nodding at AJ. His fingers slowed and he set the guitar down gently on the floor. "You're stuck near the bridge though, right? Something there felt off to me anyway."
"Yeah," AJ said, somewhat stupidly. He let out an incredulous laugh and sunk back in the cushions. "So you're in music," he surmised, gauging Brian's reaction.
Brian simply smiled as he always did, but there was a gleam in his eye that AJ hadn't seen before. "I own part of a record company with my cousin," he told him, shifting so his ankle rested on his knee.
AJ's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "You're a CEO?"
"Sort of," Brian said, his foot whirring up and down. "Partially, anyway."
AJ looked around the giant penthouse and followed the strip of light that landed on Brian's shoulder. "You know, I was thinking lawyer," he said, after a moment. "But then that didn't really suit you." He scratched the side of his nose. "Is it a record company I know?"
"I'm not sure." Brian paused as if he was considering the question. "We're located in Nashville. We mostly try to buy record labels that focus on country music, but we're looking into other things right now." He looked at AJ for a long moment. "And you're a budding musician, right?" he asked.
AJ shrugged carefully and rubbed the back of his neck. "Nah. Not for a while now, anyway." His mouth tugged up in a smirk. "I'm not looking to break into the country music scene, if that's what you're asking."
Brian started to smile at that. "No, I figured," he muttered. He stood up and went over to the open kitchen, leaving the guitar where it was. "You ready for tonight?" he asked over his shoulder, grabbing a soda from the fridge.
"Yeah, I think so," AJ replied. "I got the clothes, anyway." He shifted in his seat and smoothed the lint off his new pants. "Actually, um - do you think you could get Howie to do me a favor?"
"No, no, just listen to me for a second." Howie pinched the bridge of his nose and looked briefly like he was ready to start knocking his head against the wall. "Okay. The small fork goes with what?"
"They all look the same!" AJ said indignantly, his voice echoing. The large dining room was completely empty, two layers of pink and dark red cloths on each of the round tables, but the only plate set was his. He picked up the three-pronged fork and inspected it suspiciously. "What's the point of using all this cutlery for one meal anyway? Can't you just wipe it off in a napkin and recycle?"
Howie sighed very long-sufferingly. "It's etiquette."
"Yeah, but why? So that some poor busboy has to spend eight hours doing dishes because some high and mighty people don't know how to suck the food off their fork and use it again?"
"That poor busboy gets paid to do those dishes," Howie pointed out, stepping behind AJ's chair. "And we do have dishwashers, you know."
"Complete waste of our resources," AJ mumbled.
Howie took a deep breath. "Are you trying to stall because you don't know the answer?"
AJ looked up behind him and grinned at Howie's upside down face. "How do you know me so well already?" he asked sweetly.
Even from this angle he could see Howie roll his eyes. He removed his jacket and draped it over the back of AJ's chair. "Look, just - work your way outwards and in. That should be fine."
"Man, why didn't you just say so?" AJ sighed. He picked up the wine glass - only keeping his fingers on the stem like he'd been told - and weighed it in his hand. "I just," he said, and did a casual shrug. "I wanna do well tonight, you know?"
"Yeah," Howie said, and AJ could hear the slow smile in his voice. "Yeah, I know."
AJ swore under his breath when his fingernails once again slid on the buttons of his black shirt. Outside the bedroom he could hear Brian talking on the phone in that lazy drawl he always seemed to slip into at night. AJ glared at himself in the mirror, popped open the top button again and squared his shoulders. His beige slacks felt soft against his legs, so unlike his usual jeans, and his dress shoes were pointy. AJ held them up against the light, scrutinizing before he put them down. He wasn't completely foreign to this, but it'd been a while since he'd had to dress up for family birthdays or Christmas dinners, and even then it was usually the nicest shirt he could find in his room that was still clean and a pair of black jeans.
He'd added one of his own leather necklaces to the outfit tonight, as well as the rings he'd kept stashed in his jacket for a while now. AJ mussed up his hair one last time and, once satisfied, made his way carefully into the living room, stepping carefully so he wouldn't wrinkle anything too soon.
Brian was pacing around in a small circle, his phone stuck to his ear and a hand threaded in his hair. He was in a button-down and black pants, much more casual than AJ was used to seeing him when it came to business. There was even a cross necklace dangling from his neck. "I know, I know, we'll be there in…" he started to say, but when his gaze flickered up to AJ's he stopped moving for a second, his eyes widening curiously.
AJ grinned, and held his hands out as if to accept critique. Brian's answering smile was soft, his eyes moving down as AJ walked closer. "Yeah, we'll be there in twenty minutes," he muttered into the phone, and flipped it shut rather abruptly.
"Big man Kevin?" AJ asked teasingly, wishing he had a hoodie string or something he could fiddle with.
"Who else?" Brian said, his laugh faint, and adjusted the collar of his shirt. His eyes looked unnaturally dark blue in the low light when they looked over AJ's clothes and eventually settled on his face. "You look good," he added, and his smile made the back of AJ's neck heat up.
"I know," he grinned, pushing his cuffs to rest further up his arms. "I hope these are okay?" he said, holding up his hands so his rings were visible. "I kinda … I have this thing about skulls."
"Hey, you're stepping into the music world," Brian pointed out, leading them both towards the door. "One time I had dinner with three clients all in cowboy hats. And they were all sequined. I kept being blinded whenever the light reflected on them."
"I bet they had fun, though," AJ said, waiting for Brian to lock the door behind them. "Sometimes it's a nice feeling when you do what everyone don't expect you to."
Brian glanced at him, ducking his head when he grinned. "Yeah," he agreed, heading towards the elevator. "Guess you're right."
The restaurant was one of the ones that AJ passed every day on his way to the diner. Usually the shutters were down and a group of people were clearing the garbage off the sidewalk, but at night, when it was full of people, and there was string quartet music and muffled shouts from the kitchen, it felt like an entirely different place.
AJ wasn't altogether impressed.
"There you are," Chris said, dropping his napkin and waving them over once he and Brian had weaved their way past the crowded tables. "We were considering ordering without you, but then we'd probably be done by the time you got here. Seven course meals with portions the sizes of buttons, I'll never get it."
"Sorry we're late," Brian apologized, directing AJ forward with a light hand to the small of his back. "That's Kevin," he murmured in his ear, nodding towards a tall, dark-haired man sitting across from Chris. "And that's Justin, Chris' partner," about the equally tall, much younger guy scowling at the whole table.
AJ nodded quickly, smoothing his pants down with a clumsy motion before he grabbed the nearest seat, right next to Chris.
Chris leaned in and nudged him. "I didn't know you were a permanent fixture," he muttered.
AJ smiled nervously, glancing to Brian who was taking the seat on the other side of him. "I think I'm mostly here to even the playing field," he admitted quietly.
"Smart move." Chris sat back again and patted his arm. "It's good to see you so soon again, at any rate."
"Yeah, you too," AJ said, glancing down at his plate. Four different forks again. He sighed as lightly as he could, and when he glanced up Brian was hiding a smile behind his napkin. AJ smiled back and folded his hands in his lap. When he looked at Kevin there was nothing but neutral consideration, not unfriendly but definitely not pleasant either. It was a sizing up. AJ was all too familiar with those.
"All right," Chris said brightly, clasping his hands together. "Let's get down to it so I can be home in time for Survivor."
Five courses in and AJ still wasn't full. What was so wrong about a burger anyway? He poked at his blob of salmon mousse and picked half the scoop up with room to spare on his fork.
"How many of our rights will we get to keep if we sell our record label to you?" Chris asked, swirling the wine idly around in his glass. AJ picked up his own water and took a sip. "I just wanna make sure I'm clear on everything here."
"You'll still be running the label," Kevin said evenly. He'd done most of the talking tonight, while Brian opted to sit back and watch the conversation progress. "We're not going to replace you or any of your staff."
Justin snorted. "Then what's the point in selling?" he asked sharply, speaking up for the first time in a while. His eyes were hard when he dropped a hand on Chris' arm. "You're kidding me with this, right?" he demanded lowly. "We're an independent label. We've always been an independent label. I don't want some suits to swoop in and decide what I'm allowed or not allowed to release."
"You're sinking," Brian said, very clearly. The whole table turned to look at him, but Brian didn't move. His fingers were clenching the arm of his chair. "You're sinking fast. If we don't take you in, you'll be closing shop by the end of the year."
Justin's eyes narrowed. "I don't have to listen to this," he snapped, throwing his napkin down on the table.
"Justin, relax, all right?" Chris said, his voice low but firm. Justin stared at him incredulously, and pinched his lips tight when Chris leaned in and said to him, "If you could lower your guard for, I don't know, just two seconds tonight, you'd probably see that they have a point." He turned back and gave both Brian and Kevin a raised eyebrow. "I get that you're doing this from the good of your hearts and all, as clearly everyone in this business does, but we've kind of put everything we had into this little label that you're about to snatch up, so a little bit of consideration wouldn't be completely uncalled for."
"When did you start it?" AJ asked carefully, when he sensed that no one was going to speak up again any time soon.
Chris looked at him as if he'd forgotten he was there, then gave him a tired grin. "A couple of months after you skipped town," he replied. "You should've stuck around, kid. We could've used your expert advice."
"No one's saying you have to decide anything tonight," Kevin cut in, crossing his arms over his chest. "We'll be here all week, but I'll be honest and tell you that we're not going to wait that much longer."
"Ah, the ultimatum technique." Chris looked vaguely impressed. "Pretty gutsy."
"This is ridiculous," Justin sneered, pulling his chair back so fast that it screeched across the marble floor. A couple of other patrons shot them appalled glances. "Why are we listening to two guys from the top of the career ladder who've forgotten all about what the hell music is?" he demanded of Chris. AJ frowned at him, and Justin seemingly tried to gather his composure. "You'll excuse me," he said, giving both Kevin and Brian stone cold nods. "But I think prefer going down in flames to being a sellout."
He left before Chris could stop him. "Ah," Chris said, looking from the door and back to the table. "Sorry about that. I should probably go before he takes off and leaves me stranded here." He stood up and removed his jacket from the back of his chair. "We'll get back to you as soon as we can," he settled for saying.
Kevin pinched the bridge of his nose, ignoring the murmurs from the tables around them. "Just remember that this is about all your artists as well," he reminded him, with the same fatigue that AJ sometimes heard in Brian's voice.
"I know." Chris nodded. "Just-" he sighed. "I might as well tell you now that if Justin isn't on board with this, then you can count me out as well. That's not personal or anything, that's just where we are."
"I figured," Kevin replied, giving a nod of his own.
AJ glanced over at Brian. He was staring fixedly at the table, body slouched and a hard set to his jaw. He didn't speak, not when Chris excused himself, and not when Kevin sighed and asked the nearest waiter for the check.
The ride back to the hotel was silent. AJ only looked at Brian twice, but both times he was staring straight ahead on the road, one hand firm on the wheel while the other rested at his side. AJ didn't know what to say, and he spent most of the ride wishing that didn't bother him so much.
"You're not coming up?" he asked quietly, when Brian started steering in the direction of the bar down in the lobby instead of the elevators.
Brian looked back at him, eyes unseeing for a second before they settled. "No, go ahead," he replied, offering AJ a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I'll be up later."
AJ had almost dozed off when he heard the front door creaking open. He blinked, rubbing at his eyes, and reached for the remote. The episode of Felicity was cut off just as Keri Russell was about to kiss the art boy and lose her virginity.
He retied the belt on his bathrobe and padded out to the living room. Lights from the street below them and the moonlight was the only reason he could see Brian slumped up against the door and fumbling with the locks. His clothes were rumpled, his head bowed like it was too heavy to hold up.
"Hey," AJ murmured, and cleared the sleep out of his throat. He went down the steps and walked through the living room. "I was about to send a search party out for you."
Brian raised his head like an animal on guard, slowly shifted unfocused eyes onto AJ and giving him a toothy grin. "Hullo yourself," he slurred. He braced his back against the door and beckoned AJ closer. "How long w's I down for?"
"I don't know." AJ tried to keep the amusement out of his voice when he went up the two steps again to the front door. "A couple of hours, probably."
"Wow," Brian said, like AJ had just told him the world was round for the first time. He tugged at AJ's robe belt until he leaned forward and braced his hands on either side of Brian's head. "You smell nice," he murmured, grinning crookedly as his fingers hooked into the belt loops.
AJ smiled a little despite himself. "You kind of don't," he admitted.
Brian laughed at that, startled and hollow. "I know, I'm sorry," he said quietly, heavy-lidded eyes gliding over AJ's face. "You don't drink, do you?"
"No." AJ shook his head. "Haven't for a couple of years now."
"You always have that water glass by the bed." Brian looked at him as if he'd just remembered.
AJ lowered his head a fraction. "Yeah," he agreed, grinning shyly. "It's just … it's a thing. I get really dry mouth at night. It's a habit, I guess."
Brian's fingers danced slowly up along AJ's abdomen and chest, to the V where his robe sagged open. "I don't drink much," he murmured, watching himself trace the line of AJ's collarbone. "S'just … I don't know."
"Rough night?" AJ said for him. He watched as Brian's face dropped for an interminably long second, went so drawn and miserable that AJ's hand instinctively went to his hip.
"Yeah," Brian rasped, after a while. His throat worked as he pushed the neck of AJ's robe aside, and he didn't look up when he buried his face there and sighed against AJ's skin. His arms slunk around AJ as his lips started to move, dragging hotly against AJ's neck. AJ draped his arms over Brian's shoulders and let Brian push them away from the door, slipping one hand hesitantly down the back of Brian's neck.
Brian kept moving, taking halting steps until he had AJ gently pressed up against the front of the piano. The keys made a low rumble when AJ settled back, watching calmly as Brian's hands went back to his robe belt. The moonlight was bright here, and Brian's hair was drawn an odd blue-ish color, his face unnaturally pale. When he cocked his head the light shifted, but his eyes went a touch darker as he tucked at the belt and opened the robe.
He only took his eyes off of AJ's naked body to look him in the eye. AJ just exhaled, waiting for his next signal, waiting for a cue that hadn't come yet. Brian stepped closer and took a hold of AJ's sides, lifted him up until he sat on the piano keys and sound rumbled low through the room, the bathrobe cushioning him.
Brian stepped between his legs and wrapped one arm around AJ to pull him in, close enough that their hip bones bumped together, the other hand trailing down his neck.
The piano rumbled below him again, and AJ watched Brian's face calmly, steadying himself with a hand on Brian's arms. Brian took in a shuddering breath and braced himself against the piano, pinning AJ in, all this strength that he never fully used.
But there was anything but strength in his voice when he asked, "What do you like?"
AJ smiled a little, smoothing one hand up Brian's side while Brian dropped a careful kiss under his jaw. "Whatever you like," he said, tilting his neck and inviting Brian in.
"No." Brian sounded defeated, the word rushed out on a tired exhale, and pressed his lips to AJ's pulse point. "No, just…" He raised his head and pressed their forehead together. "Please tell me," he said quietly, his breath warm on AJ's mouth.
AJ reeled back a little bit, trying to keep his movements slow and non-rejecting, and when Brian blindly leaned in again AJ turned and pressed his lips to Brian's cheek. "Brian," he murmured, muffled there, letting out a small sigh. "You're paying me, Brian."
Brian shivered against him. "I know," he said weakly, like he was ashamed, pressing a hand to the small of AJ's back. "I just … I need…" AJ listened to the rapid thudding of his heartbeat, the breaths that were coming just a touch too fast. "I need you to pretend for me," he whispered. It came out in a rush of breath like maybe if it wasn't loud then it wasn't real.
AJ's hand tightened reflexively on the back of Brian's neck for a second. Brian stilled as if bracing himself, then slowly went back to mouthing along the sensitive parts of AJ's neck. His hands mapped out a pattern on AJ's back, leaving warm trails behind on AJ's skin, and AJ took a deep breath before he relaxed, inch by inch, sinking back against the sharp lines of the piano and pulling Brian close against him.
"What you're doing now s'pretty good," he said into the silence, letting himself feel the goosebumps on his arms when Brian's mouth ran over his collarbone.
Brian's exhale was heavy against his skin. "Good," he murmured, making room when AJ's hands slipped down to unbuckle his belt. He looked up at AJ, mouth already swollen, and pressed their foreheads together again. "It's so ridiculous, all of it," he whispered, closing his eyes painfully. "I just wish…" He slumped down as if exhausted. "I'm so tired of…"
"Hey," AJ whispered back. He let Brian's pants drop to the ground and pulled him in with his heels when Brian whimpered against the corner of his mouth. "Hey," he whispered, threading a hand through Brian's hair. "Come here."
Brian nodded, his breath rasping in his chest, and slid as close as he could, the moonlight pooling in the dip of his back.
Later, much later, when they were sticking together with sweat and panting harshly and Brian gasped out against AJ's neck before he started shaking, AJ heard the piano noises like a faint thunder in the back of his head. He tried to catch his breath as he pressed his lips to the matted hair by Brian's temple. His back was aching and his leg muscles were trembling with the effort, but when Brian murmured nonsense against his neck and wrapped a hand around him, AJ bit his lip to keep the groan back and arched up, letting the desperate ache in his stomach go deeper.
One of his earliest memories was going to the horse track with his dad. It was really only the smells that AJ could bring up these days; horse dung and hay, a nearby man's cigar, his dad's musky scent that smelled like excitement. He could remember sitting on his dad's arm and all the roaring around him, his dad being the loudest, and the speakers making scratching noises that hurt his ears.
It hadn't really changed much.
"Honeydukes is taking the lead!" the announcer yelled into his microphone, to which the crowd responded with an exploding roar and several hats thrown up in the air. He was in one of the boxes with Brian, along with a dozen other people. AJ peered out on the track, leaning over the rail.
"I should've bet something," he said regretfully. "I totally had my eye on that horse."
"Yeah, um," Brian sounded pretty uncomfortable, and AJ turned around to find him edging further back. "Could you back up a few steps, do you think?" he asked.
AJ couldn't help but grin. "Why?" he said, leaning back casually. "You think I'm gonna fall down?"
Brian sighed exasperatedly, but he was smiling when he tugged on AJ's arm. "Would you just come over here?" he pleaded.
AJ relented, strolling up to Brian and sidling up close. "You're afraid of heights," he pointed out, pitched low enough so only they could hear. "And you still choose one of the boxes."
Brian sipped at his champagne. "Well, yeah," he replied, scanning the crowd with a casual air that didn't fool AJ for a second. "It's-"
"-the best, right," AJ chuckled, pressing his fingers to Brian's side. "You know, one of these days you gotta learn that the best isn't always what other people say it is."
Brian glanced at him, amusement bright in his eyes, and was about to speak when Kevin walked up to them. "Brian," he said, giving AJ a quick look. "Do you have a second?"
Brian sighed lightly, setting his glass down on a nearby table. "I'll be back, okay?" he told AJ, touching his arm briefly.
AJ nodded and dug his hands into his khakis. "Okay," he said, watching as Brian and Kevin weaved past the small crowd and went into the hallway.
The fact that he'd been drinking almost nothing but water for so many years really should've taught him something. He went in search of a bathroom about ten minutes later, passing doors in the hallway and looking for that internationally known sign of a stick man standing with his arms and legs spread wide.
He caught a snatch of a heated voice - Brian's voice - when he passed an open door, and his steps faltered even though he knew the right thing to do was to keep walking.
"I'm not a little kid anymore, all right?" he heard Brian say, voice very even. "You have to respect me and the decisions I make. There's nothing else to it."
"I don't think you're a little kid," Kevin said exasperatedly. AJ took the few steps back to the door and saw Kevin and Brian standing in the middle of the empty conference room, the crowd through the window the only thing that moved. "You're just not the kind of guy to … to do something like this." Kevin exhaled harshly through his nose. "I don't wanna see you end up in another mess."
"In case you hadn't noticed, I can take care of myself just fine." Brian looked perfectly natural, standing there with his thumbs hooked in his pockets, but his eyes were hard, watching Kevin's every move.
"That's not what I'm saying." Kevin looked more and more frustrated, pacing a small circle around himself. "I just don't understand it."
"You don't have to," Brian said simply.
"Are you that lonely?" Kevin demanded loudly, and at that second his eyes flew up and spotted AJ standing there. Brian followed his gaze, eyes wide before recognition returned, and for a crazy moment AJ's pulse did an odd stuttering motion. He stayed where he was though, even when Brian just looked down and walked right past him into the hallway.
Kevin stood in the middle of the room, the crowd standing up to do a wave behind him. He stared AJ down, but AJ didn't relent. This was the environment he came from. Kevin stalked up to stand directly in front of him, his fingers flexing at his sides.
"He's family," he said eventually, his voice low. "Do you understand that? If you-"
"Yeah," AJ said flatly, staying right where he was. "I guess it's hard to believe that I'm not going to take advantage of him just because I'm a whore."
Kevin didn't so much as flinch. AJ pushed away from the doorframe, only looking away when he started walking.
Once he did, he found himself staring right at Chris, who was looking at them both with huge, confused eyes. "What-?"
AJ clenched his jaw. "Really bright fucking future for your prodigy, huh?" he muttered as he pushed right past him.
Brian tossed the keycard on the dresser as soon as they walked into the penthouse. They'd been stonily quiet the entire ride back, and AJ didn't know how to do anything but glance at him as he went for the kitchen and yanked the fridge door open.
Sighing, AJ went and picked up his cellphone from the coffee table. Might as well try to call Nick again. He plopped down in the couch and flipped the lid open, only to find a voicemail waiting for him.
He dialed the number, waited while the message came through, and promptly felt every part of his body go stone cold.
"Fuck," he snapped as he flew up to his feet, fingers already dialing independent from his brain. "Fucking son a bitch, I don't … Nick, pick the hell up!" he yelled into the phone, when all he got was the lousy waiting signal.
"AJ?" Brian's voice was closer than the distance from the kitchen, worried, and AJ whipped around to find him standing at the other end of the couch.
"Johnny," he said, out of breath and jaw so tight he could barely get the word out. "This guy, he … they did something to Nick and-"
"Your roommate?" Brian asked, his brow furrowing.
"I gotta go," AJ said suddenly, and then he was heading for the bedroom in long strides, already dialing again. "I gotta go make sure he's - fuck, I told him so many times not to mess with that guy, he fucking knows everyone and now it's-"
He was flinging stuff into an empty Barney's bag without seeing what it was, just scooping everything from the nightstand into it, stuffing his boots in there, socks he didn't think were his. He flew back out of the bedroom and was nearly at the front door when Brian called, "wait!"
AJ's hand was shaking as it rested on the doorknob. "Not now, okay?" he snapped, his heart pounding so hard it was nearly breaking through his ribcage. He didn't even know if he was yelling. "I'll - I'll be back later, I just gotta-"
Brian came up to him, his face pinched, and grabbed a hold of AJ's hand. "Here," he said, smacking a thick wad of bills into it. "That should be all of it, but I didn't really have time to check, so just-"
"Brian," AJ breathed, staring wide-eyed.
"Just use the rest if there's too much in there," Brian went on, whirring his head to keep AJ from talking. "I don't know if it's - if he needs to go to the hospital or - but that's at least three thousand there, that should be enough."
AJ couldn't swallow past the lump in his throat. "Brian, I didn't-"
"Shut up," Brian said vehemently, opening the door and shoving AJ out none too gently. "Just go take care of your friend."
AJ walked backwards the entire way to the elevator, clutching the money tight up in his fist. "I'll - I'll be back, all right?" he insisted, his legs so unsteady he nearly tripped. "I'll try to be back if-"
"Okay," Brian said, watching from the door. "Hit the button, AJ."
AJ did, although he had to smack his entire hand down on it to get it right, and he looked up with panicked eyes as the doors slid open. "Brian."
"Yeah, I heard you." Brian's smile was completely miserable, but he still nodded, hands fumbling uselessly at his sides. "I'll see you later, then," he said, and AJ could hear the halfhearted note in his voice even as the doors closed between them.
He nearly crashed through his apartment door when it wouldn't open fast enough. The lock rattled and whined when AJ shoved his key in there, but once it finally opened AJ burst through and yelled, "Nick!" so could the whole building probably heard him.
"Yeah," a gruff voice came from the bedroom, and for a delirious second AJ was beyond grateful for small apartments where you could hear everything that everyone else did. He burst through the kitchen and yanked Nick's bedroom door shut.
Nick was sitting on the floor with his back leaned against the old bed, a pack of frozen peas pressed to his cheek. When he looked up AJ saw his eyes were almost swelled completely shot, and there was caked blood by the edge of his mouth. "Hey, man," he said slowly, a slight whistle to his voice. "Aren't you supposed to be gone for two more days?"
AJ shook the trembling out of his hands and went over to sink down beside Nick. "Johnny left me a message," he managed to say, gently removing the ice pack so he could see Nick's purple and yellow cheek. "Said that he'd warned you enough times, and that I should probably go check up on you."
"Yeah, well." Nick snorted, but that was immediately followed by a wince, and he pushed himself up gingerly. "Not gonna be pretty enough to work for a while, that's for sure. Which was probably what he had in mind."
"Why didn't you come get the money I left for you?" AJ demanded, panic making his voice harsh. "You could've paid him most of what you owed him with that."
"I tried. Your fancy hotel wouldn't let me in." Nick let AJ grab the plastic cup with water by the bed and wet his sleeve so he could wipe off the blood by his mouth. "And then today I guess they decided to use me as their own personal punching bag." He squinted a little, touching his split lip. "I'm fine, J," he said, putting the ice pack back on his face. "They mostly went for the face. Nothing's broken or anything."
"Motherfucking bastard," AJ mumbled under his breath, sitting back on his heels and raking a hand through his hair when he didn't know what else to do with it. "You can't stay here," he said finally.
He thought he could see a small smile on Nick's face. "You always were the smart one," he piped up.
"Fuck off," AJ laughed breathlessly, inhaling deep to signal his heart that it could start slowing down now.
"I already know where to go, dumbass." He held up his phone, which was shattered beyond recognition. "But you're gonna have to call for me, 'cause I don't think this one's much use anymore."
"So what's with the pricey clothes?" Nick asked, as AJ helped ease him down on Lance's bed. "You look halfway attractive."
"Could you make him shut up for two seconds?" AJ asked Lance, who was tucking a pillow behind Nick's head and straightening the covers.
"I think that's a pretty definite no," Lance replied, his laugh shaky. He'd had a decidedly white edge around his lips since they'd showed up on his doorstep.
"I'm just saying." Nick tugged on AJ's shirt collar. AJ knew he was looking for the tag at the neck. "This guy's treating you pretty nice, huh?"
"Yeah," AJ muttered, going over Nick's face with a washcloth again. His jaw had swelled to double its size, and one of his eyes was completely shut now. "You sure we don't need to go to the doctor?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." Nick waved him off. "Look, I would've heard it if bones were cracking, all right? I hear that's a sound you don't forget too soon."
"What if you have a concussion?" Lance asked reasonably.
"Then you should think of things we can do so I won't fall asleep," Nick said as he peered up at him, his grin unmistakable even with half his face in shambles.
Lance's laugh was startled. "Fucking unbelievable," he murmured warmly, pushing Nick's hair carefully out of his eyes.
Nick smiled at him before he blinked down at AJ again. "I thought you were supposed to stay for five days," he said, the sentence almost lilted like a question.
Nick really didn't have too many bruises below the neck. AJ had cut up his shirt a little while ago and was going over the five fingerprints dented into each of Nick's arms, the small mark below his chest. "I was," he said, without looking up. "But he told me to go make sure you were okay."
"Sweet," Nick said. He let out a rough groan when he shifted up, and Lance was there immediately, shifting the pillows behind him. "Well, I'm totally fine," he said through gritted teeth. "So you should … you know. Go earn the last of that money."
AJ didn't say anything for a while, just watched as Lance pressed a tentative kiss to the top of Nick's head. His mouth felt oddly dry. "I have it," he said eventually, his fingers pressing into his knee. "All of it. He wanted to make sure we had enough for hospital bills if that's … if you needed that."
"Wow, nice," Nick mumbled, his hand stroking over Lance's arm. "So I guess you don't need to go back if…" His head snapped back, and he winced briefly at that, but then a cross between a painful (that one was pretty much constant) and delighted look went over his face. "You like him, don't you?" he grinned.
"What?" AJ's hand flew up to the back of his neck. "No."
"Oh my God, you're totally sprung. I can't believe you. You're such a fucking moron." Nick couldn't sound more amused.
"I'm not just gonna leave you like this," AJ insisted, ignoring everything else that he didn't need to hear.
"Look, it's up to you," Nick said, still grinning like the complete asshole he was. "Go back or don't go back. I'm just saying I don't need you here. I got my own personal nurse at my beck and call-"
"-and if you just leave some money on the kitchen table if I decide to pop by the hospital, we're gonna be just fine." Nick shook his head a little. "Come on, man, you've got two days left of living like they do on that show about the young and the beautiful, or whatever it's called. Might as well make the most of it."
AJ hesitated. He'd been here for a couple of hours, enough that it was dark outside by now. He looked at Lance. "Are you sure you-?"
"I'll get him to the hospital," Lance said, smiling. "Honestly, the only thing we'd need you here for would be to sit around and wring your hands."
"And that starts to chafe after a while," Nick added helpfully.
He had to be insane. There was no other reason he was standing up right now, looking at them both and saying, "I'm gonna - I'll leave money on the kitchen table, all right? You have to use it for hospital bills, Nick, I mean it."
"Don't worry." Nick shook his head at him, as if he was still saying 'idiot' in the back of his mind. "Lance got it covered."
When AJ shut the door behind him, the entire stack of money was lying on the wobbly kitchen table.
The elevator ride was quiet, just him and the bellboy. AJ scuffed his toes against the carpet and didn't look up, not once, not even when there was a ding through the speakers and the man announced, "top floor, penthouse and entrance to the rooftop."
He padded out into the hallway, clutching his backpack to his chest. The elevator doors closed with another ding and he looked up, straight ahead at the ornate white doors that looked much bigger than the last time he'd seen them. His feet sunk into the thick carpet as he walked, whooshing steps that clacked whenever his flip-flops smacked against his heels. His fingers twitched like they wanted to jump away, and AJ took a deep breath that stretched his lungs.
He stopped in front of the door. There was a second of hesitation, his fingers hovering, before he curled them in and knocked, twice, quick raps before his hand flew down like it had caught fire.
It didn't take long. AJ counted the seconds - one, two, breathe in, three, four, breathe out - before the door slowly creaked open and Brian peered into the fluorescent hallway light.
"AJ?" he said. He was in flannel pants and a white t-shirt as rumpled as the rest of him. He blinked blearily, and AJ's stomach flipped violently as Brian slipped out of his sleep haze and focused on him properly. He looked AJ over, first with concern, then with a small smile that AJ could only recognize as relief. "Hey," he said, voice rough with sleep.
"Brian," AJ said helplessly. He didn't come here with a plan, and that was scary in itself, but on top of that he was wrung out and exhausted and he could see pillow wrinkles on Brian's cheek.
Brian's smile faded. "What?" he asked. He pulled AJ inside the hotel room and shut the door, shrouding them in near darkness. His hand stayed on AJ's arm, warm enough to make AJ's head feel fuzzy. "Was everything okay?" Brian asked, pitching his voice low.
"Yeah." AJ nodded, breathing in deeply. "It will be, anyway. I just…"
Brian waited, frowning in concentration, and AJ watched the sharp shadows that the bedroom light cast on his jaw and cheekbones. "What?" he asked eventually.
AJ just shook his head and slumped in against Brian, heart near hammering through his chest, and he distantly felt Brian brace his weight and use his free hand to steady them both. "AJ, what-?" he heard him say, so close the soft words thundered in AJ's ears, and before AJ could reason with himself he leaned in the last inch and kissed him.
For a second Brian went oddly rigid, and AJ thought, shit, shit, fuck. Then, in a flurry of motion that he was too dazed to understand, he was shoved up against the door and Brian was kissing him back hungrily, one hand grappling for purchase in AJ's hair. AJ's breath whooshed out of him and Brian caught it all, the darkness amplifying the small noise Brian made, and AJ yanked him closer by the waist and shuddered uncontrollably. Brian was warm from head to toe, and AJ brushed his tongue gently over the pillow-soft spot on the inside of Brian's bottom lip, invincible for that short second when Brian shivered against him like a man starving.
Brian's breaths were harsh against AJ's mouth, his cheeks and eyelashes brushing against AJ's with every feverish renewed start of the kiss, and AJ didn't even think when he started fumbling with the hem of Brian's t-shirt. Brian exhaled shakily and sucked on AJ's lower lip in what felt like gratitude, his hand drifting from AJ's hair to his jaw and then his neck, and it was AJ's turn to feel a shiver race down his spine. He pushed away from the door and Brian was right there with him, panting into his mouth before breaking away so AJ could yank the shirt over his head.
They tumbled into the bedroom clawing at clothes and touching frantically, only breaking away periodically to catch a few gasping breaths before they were kissing again. AJ tripped over his own half-removed pant leg and flew ungracefully across the floor, landing at the foot of the bed with a half-grunted oomph. Brian stared at him in mortification, chest rising and falling impossibly fast and his panting mouth red as sin, before he broke into a breathless laugh unlike anything AJ had heard from him before. It was high and kind of like a giggle and it was real.
He sunk down next to AJ and this close AJ could see his eyes crinkle as he smiled. AJ snorted a little himself and rolled his eyes, completely surrendered. He rolled on top of Brian and kissed him again, swallowing the last traces of Brian's laugh.
Eventually he fucked Brian slowly like that, against the thousand-dollars-a-yard carpet. Brian winced beneath him, fingers digging into AJ's sweaty back, and AJ dragged his lips over Brian's temple as slowly as he could, trying to calm his racing heartbeat and the energy racing in his blood that was urging him to move faster.
"Is this-" He rocked forward gently and Brian went tense and groaned, threading fingers through AJ's damp hair as AJ rested his forehead against Brian's and whispered against his mouth, "okay - god, okay like this, are you-?"
"Yeah," Brian exhaled shakily. His chest stuttered, eyes squeezed shut, and AJ kissed him again, carefully, moving as slowly and deeply as he could until he heard a moaned "yeah" and Brian's mouth went slack against his.
In the morning, AJ woke up to the sound of coffee brewing.
He padded out of the bedroom to find Brian sitting at the dining table in his sweatpants and a t-shirt, talking quietly to Kevin who was nodding next to him. When Kevin looked up, Brian followed his line of vision, and once he saw AJ his eyes crinkled a little at the corners when he smiled. "Morning," he said softly.
AJ silently ordered his stomach to jump back where it belonged. "Mornin'," he replied, rubbing his sweaty palms on his bathrobe. He shuffled over to the table and took his usual seat across from Brian. As he sat down he darted a glance at Kevin. "Do you guys ever not work?"
Kevin arched an eyebrow. It was really a quite spectacular sight. AJ wondered if they were heavier when they were that thick. "I just had to drop off some contracts," he said, his voice calmer than his appearance led on. He gave AJ a small, inconspicuous nod, one that AJ understood.
"All work and no play for the big guys on top," Brian sighed, reaching for the sugar bowl. "Well." He paused, grinning at AJ. "I guess a little play."
AJ laughed, startled. He chewed on a fingernail before sticking out a hand for the cereal. His fingers brushed up against Brian's then, who was going for the same thing, and they drew back immediately. AJ's fingers started prickling
"Sorry," he said sheepishly.
"No, it's okay." Brian sat back again, his smile so soft and so bright that AJ almost couldn't look. "Go ahead and-"
"No, it's fine." He fumbled out stupidly for a banana instead, his ears going warm. "You were already pouring, I'll just-"
"Christ," Kevin said exasperatedly, rolling his eyes so far back it must've hurt. "Brian called me up to tell me that he's taking a personal day, and I'm gonna go now before you two start going at it over the breakfast table."
"How long were you married for?" AJ asked tentatively.
They'd settled themselves down on the bed after the maid had been by. AJ was on his back while Brian was resting on his stomach next to him, his head supported by one of his hands. AJ had found a small rubber ball in one of the cereal boxes, and he'd been throwing it idly up in the air, catching it just before it hit his face.
Brian traced the line of the bedspread with a finger. "Five years," he replied, a quiet lilt to his voice. "We finalized the divorce about a year ago."
"What happened?" AJ asked, tossing the ball up so high it hit the ceiling.
Brian glanced up when he heard the thud. "I don't know," he murmured. It was immediately followed by a wry smile. "That's a lie. You know how people always say that it takes two to break up a marriage?" He chewed on his lower lip. "I don't know. I was always working. And it wasn't even … I mean. Kevin asked me, after his dad died. They'd been working on their own record label in their basement for years. I just stepped in, I guess. I hadn't even finished college." He shook his head as if remembering. "Leighanne is great, but I was always away. Night school, meetings, business trips. And we were only nineteen when we got married. I'm sort of surprised I didn't see it coming."
"That doesn't make sense though," AJ countered, setting the ball down between them. He laced his fingers behind his head. "You chose a job you hate over your wife?"
Brian smiled lightly at that. "I think the job chose me," he said. "I don't know. I thought it was cool at first. I just ended up getting further and further away from the music, I guess."
"Yeah." AJ nodded. "Things start snowballing on you before you know what's happening."
"Yeah," Brian said lightly. He placed his hand between them both, fingers gently skimming AJ's lower arm. "Was that-" he faltered, trying again. "Did it happen like that for you?"
"Oh, well." AJ rolled his eyes upwards, smiling when Brian did. "It's just like one of those stories you hear on those teenage drama shows. I came to LA to get famous, no one wanted to listen to me, I went broke and couldn't find a job." He paused. "And then some crazy guy dragged me back to his penthouse and offered me a shitload of money to hang out with him for a week."
"Sounds pretty decent," Brian replied, his smile stretching long and slow.
AJ felt his stomach flopping when Brian's hand traced down his side. "Look, it's not pretty," he mumbled, sighing when Brian blinked at him. "And I don't think it's anything you wanna hear nighttime stories about. It is what it is."
"There's so much more to do though," Brian said quietly, his eyes fixed on AJ's face. He slid closer, bumping their knees together. "Haven't you thought about…?"
"I've been saving ever since I started," AJ told him, once silence had settled between them. He bit the inside of his cheek and looked at the ceiling. "My mom doesn't know," he said. "And I'm not going back before I can … she's not going to know."
Brian was quiet next to him. AJ closed his eyes and sighed, turning his head into it a little when Brian kissed the corner of his mouth.
"One thing I don't get though," he murmured, slowly regaining his smug look as Brian stroked a thumb over his jawline. "Why'd you pick me up if you'd been with a woman for so long?"
Brian grinned along with him, slowly, his body heat weighing AJ down comfortably. "I had this thing with a guy in high school," he said after a while, into the shared space between them. "He was in the marching band. I had no clue what I was doing, but…" He lowered his head briefly, his hair brushing against AJ's forehead. "He had me tripping over myself for a while," he said fondly. "He's been with the same guy for about six years now. JC, I think his name is."
AJ smoothed his hand down Brian's back, a little surprised despite himself. "Guys in marching bands are never up to any good," he said, the faint edge to his voice something he hadn't heard in a while.
Brian drew back and grinned knowingly at him, bumping his nose against AJ's cheek as he draped one of his legs in between AJ's spread ones. "What about guys in leather jackets?" he asked, voice so low and careful that it sent a spike of heat through AJ's system.
AJ's hand traveled down and dipped under Brian's shirt. "Nah," he murmured, his lips pressed gently to Brian's jaw. "They're the good ones."
He took a long shower that night, standing with his hands braced on the wall while the water beat down his back. He wedged his fingers in between the spaces between the marble tiles and traced the lines, reshaping them to Tetris pieces in his head that had to turn and rotate until they fit, and thought about nothing else.
When he came out of the bathroom some time later, the fresh air hitting him head-on, the room was only lit up by one of the bed lamps. Brian was asleep sitting up, propped against the headboard with a book lying open in his lap, still loosely holding on to it. AJ smiled. There was a full glass of water sitting on his side (not really his side) of the bed, carefully wiped down of any stray drops on the outside of the glass.
AJ fiddled with the string in his sweatpants for a moment, his toes curling up in the thick carpet. He drew one slow inhale, and went over to the bed as quietly as he could. Slipping onto the mattress on careful hands and knees, he tried not to stir it more than necessary, his limbs suddenly too long and too awkward. He half expected to knee Brian in the stomach and jolt him awake, but Brian was still when AJ settled down next to him, his chest rising and falling slowly and his breaths slightly whistled through his nose.
AJ smiled again, almost reluctantly, and eased the book gently from Brian's hands. Brian snuffled, drawing in a deep breath before his chin lolled onto his shoulder. AJ leaned over him to place the book on his nightstand, not taking his eyes away, but Brian was settled now, his breaths returning to that same even rhythm.
It was so quiet. There was always noise - next door neighbors screaming and throwing china, Nick's drumming with ladles in the next room, strangers panting and whispering in his ear - that hearing his own breath now felt like a strange, foreign thing. He watched Brian somewhat helplessly, tugging at the hem of his t-shirt. Brian's clothes were already sleep-rumpled, wrinkling up at his stomach and exposing a sliver of skin. AJ paused just before he touched it, then reached down and pulled the covers higher up around him, biting his lip in concentration.
His fingers took on a mind of their own then, and he watched himself touch Brian's shoulder, the small wrinkle on his forehead, smoothing a wisp of hair behind his ear. Brian mumbled in his sleep and AJ found himself smiling again, as hesitant as the thoughts in his head. He skimmed light fingers through Brian's hair, watching his relaxed face, and hedged a little before he leaned in. It was a gentle press of lips, but he closed his eyes anyway, a goodnight but more importantly a thank you.
Brian inhaled sharply, coming awake with a small jolt, and AJ felt the faint sleepy-confused sound he made against his mouth.
AJ jerked back, just enough that Brian's half-lidded, questioning gaze swam back into focus. Brian opened his mouth to speak, eyes moving over AJ's face before they dropped to his mouth, and AJ tensed just before Brian sat up and reeled him back in. The kiss was warm, nothing but hesitant brushes of lips, and AJ shuddered when Brian's hand slipped from his arm and tangled into his hair, holding on as if AJ might leave, as if he was something actually worth holding on to.
AJ's hands traveled up to Brian's back, and Brian eased them down on the mattress without breaking away, settling down on top of him and tilting his head so he could kiss AJ deeper. Slower. AJ's hand dipped under Brian's shirt, feeling out the grooves of his spine, and Brian's breath caught against AJ's mouth. In an achingly sweet motion, he curled himself slowly in against AJ and ran exploring fingers down his neck. Something tightened in AJ's chest, and when Brian's toes brushed up against his calf he made a sound he didn't recognize, one that Brian responded to with a hushing one of his own.
It was hours before they fell asleep again, legs between one another's and AJ's hand still tucked under Brian's shirt, Brian's fingers running lazily through AJ's hair.
The last morning was mostly spent in silence. AJ had always been one of those people to spread themselves wide without realizing it, and he went around the penthouse picking up things like his watch, his rings, the pictures of his old dogs he'd taken out to show Brian at some point yesterday.
He left the clothes he'd bought on the chest by the bed. The only thing he kept was the shirt he'd used for Nick yesterday. It was folded up at the bottom on his backpack, nestled between his favorite pair of sunglasses and the tattered copy of The Phantom of the Opera that he always kept in there.
He went back out to the living room to find Brian sitting in a chair by the open French doors, slouched down with his legs spread and his chin in his hand. The wind was stirring his hair into fluffy mess, and it took AJ a few minutes to clear his throat.
"You're getting closer," he said.
Brian jumped, turning around to give AJ a startled look. "Yeah," he laughed. "I'll be going up the Eiffel tower any day now." He got up and padded across the room on bare feet. "I even snatched one of the crystals from the chandelier," he said, somewhat smugly. "How's that for doing the unexpected?"
AJ grinned. "You'll be shoplifting any day now," he said, hooking his backpack over his shoulder. He paused, twisting one of his rings around on his finger, voice casual when he asked, "What time does your flight leave?"
Brian shrugged, rubbing his hands over his bare forearms. "Three hours, give or take," he said. "I should probably get going soon."
AJ nodded, and looked down as he took a step towards the door.
"Chris called," Brian said hurriedly. His hand flew to his hair, mussing it up even further. "They're, uh, accepting the offer."
AJ wasn't sure if he'd expected that or not. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Brian smiled a little. "He also said to tell you that you've got an appointment for a job interview any time you want it."
AJ shook his head, smiling wryly. He was vaguely relieved that Brian didn't offer the same thing. "I think I'm gonna head home for a while," he said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "Maybe look into some night school courses before I start taking job offers I'm not qualified for yet."
Brian's smile broadened tentatively. "Good," he replied, nothing but sincerity in his voice. "I'm glad."
AJ scratched the nape of his neck. "What about you, though?" he asked carefully. "Are you going back to work?"
"Yeah." The word sounded weary, but Brian's cheeks were still flushed with color from the wind, and his expression was nothing but the promise of possibilities. "I mean, I'll have to talk it over with Kevin before I can even think about anything else. I guess I'll have to see what happens."
"Good. That sounds good." AJ cleared his throat again and looked down at his feet. His old boots looked especially dirty against the imported carpet. "You think they're gonna let me walk through the lobby like this?" he joked, tugging at the hem of his leather jacket.
Brian looked down, seemingly noticing AJ's old clothes for the first time. He let out a laugh. "You pull it off," he said by way of answer, meeting AJ's gaze again.
AJ let out a breath. "I should probably," he said, gesturing towards the door weakly. "Um. It's…"
"Yeah." Brian nodded quickly. "Yeah, I know. I should get started on packing as well." He didn't make any moves to leave yet, though. "You'll get back okay, right?" he asked quietly.
AJ smiled. "Yeah," he muttered, picking at a loose nail. "Public transportation never fails, right?"
"Right," Brian laughed.
The silence stretched between them for a long moment. "I want," Brian suddenly said, and AJ looked up to see him shake his head to himself and snap his mouth shut. He looked up as his shoulders slumped. He seemed unable to decide on what to do, but when finally he said, "I'll see you, AJ," and brushed past him, he drifted a quick touch along the back of AJ's hand. AJ tried not to show his shiver.
He closed the front door behind him while Brian was still in the bedroom. The ride down to the lobby was silent, AJ holding on to the strap of his backpack and watching the numbers descend on the small screen above the door.
He went up to the receptionist desk and leaned against it, propping his elbow on it while Howie was busy instructing a tall girl with a thick pair of glasses.
"I'll need those evaluation slips on my desk as soon as possible, okay?" He scribbled a quick note on a loose sheet and handed it to her. "And could you call JC for me and tell him I'll probably be an hour late today?"
AJ almost laughed out loud. Instead he ducked his head quickly and grinned into his collar.
Howie's gaze caught his then, and he gave a polite little nod as he put his papers down and walked over. "You're leaving now then, sir?"
AJ rolled his eyes. "I'm twenty-three, Howie," he said. "I think it's a little too early to start calling me 'sir', you know?"
Howie's mouth twitched. "Fine," he agreed. "Do you have a ride home?"
"Yeah, I'm just gonna grab a cab. I've got a little money left." AJ leaned over the counter and gave Howie's shoulder a friendly fist-bump. "I just wanted to say thanks for the lesson and stuff," he said, keeping his voice low. "You really helped a lot."
Howie looked completely different when he smiled. "Yeah," he nodded. "I think you did, too."
"I can't believe you're gonna abandon me here," Nick whined. He'd been sitting backwards on their patio chair watching AJ pack for the last hour. He dropped his bruised chin down on his hands and made a grimace. "I don't remember ever giving you free will when I recruited you for my two-person army."
"I already told you five times that you should come with me," AJ replied, unfazed. He dumped another load of clothes into his suitcase and zipped it shut. "Unless you've got something keeping you here." He gave Nick a pointed look. "Someone."
There was a pause. "You better fucking call me," Nick mumbled, his chin bopping against his hands. "Every day. Even when you become a huge rock star and I'll be able to come to all your shows for free."
"Every day," AJ agreed, ruffling the top of Nick's head. Nick batted his hands away in childlike frustration and scratched near the edge of one of his cuts. Avoiding getting scars was going to be a bitch for him.
AJ had left a voicemail on his mom's cell phone telling her that he was coming home as soon as he could. He hadn't seen her in almost six months now. And his dogs, although he knew for sure that Panda had been sent off to live with their cousins. Maybe Bernie was still there, though. AJ balled up a pair of socks and stuck them in the side compartment for later. He always did get cold feet on plane rides.
"Where are you gonna go anyway?" Nick asked him. On the other side of the wall Lance was humming one of those songs that AJ knew but never could remember. "I heard you telling your mom you weren't coming home directly."
AJ glanced at his backpack. He'd found a white envelope there, in the small side pocket when he was going through it on the cab ride home. Inside there was a two-way plane ticket, available to use at any time, and with it a hurriedly torn off piece of paper, a note scribbled diagonally across the sheet.
Think I'm getting pretty good at the unexpected. How about you?
"Dunno," he said, smiling as he reached for his carry-on. "I think I might swing by Nashville."