Marked

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Amongst the five of them, Brian was notorious for his temper.

It took a lot to provoke him. Nick had tried many times in his younger years, when he'd been tired and homesick and desperate for a fight to give way to his frustrations. It never worked. Brian would tolerate it for a while, reply to Nick's complaints and insults as if they were simply discussing the day's schedule, and then suggest a video game or a movie. He'd stay with him the entire night, making him laugh with silly impressions and making him talk about things by simply listening.

It was Brian's way of coping. Where Nick needed to hit a few punches and be done with it, Brian needed to deal with it on his own. No one challenged him in that.

Except when, occasionally, he'd bottled up so much that all it took was a throwaway comment for him to explode. It was an ugly thing to see on such a beautiful person. He'd slam doors and snarl at everyone who tried to approach him. Usually one or two of the guys would end up not talking to him for a few days, because none of them were all that emotionally mature, and seeing Brian unravel, the one person who was supposed to be stable, was such a freak occurrence that it threw them all off.

Brian got mad when he was scared as well.

___________________

In his peripheral vision, Brian managed to get a glimpse of Kevin, looking at him with a disapproving frown. A couple of reporters still skirted the backstage area, after all. Brian dragged AJ on nonetheless, keeping a firm grip on his wrist despite the somewhat loud protests from the other man. He just didn't care. Let them all see what a mess AJ had become. Let them all wag their tongues to the world. It didn't matter anymore.

It wasn't a long walk down the hallway to their dressing room, but it felt like a mile with AJ protesting every step they took. "Stop making a scene, for Christ's sake," he hissed, pulling hard and making AJ stumble forward.

"Then fucking stop manhandling me!" he snapped indignantly, pushing against the floor with his heels.

"I said stop it. Get in here." He pushed AJ through the door, making the younger man nearly trip over his own feet. He caught Nick sitting in the couch, flipping through an old issue of Sports Illustrated. He looked up to see them enter, and as his gaze fell on AJ, his eyes filled with so much disgust that Brian felt the flare of anger in his stomach was probably just a simmer of annoyance in comparison. "Give us a minute, Nick," he said coolly, shoving his hands in his pockets in an effort to stay controlled.

Nick took one look at him and immediately nodded. "Yeah," he replied flatly, rising from the couch and smoothing down his pants. "I'm gonna head back to the hotel." Brian simply nodded in reply and Nick headed for the door, not looking at AJ once. When he'd closed the door behind him, Brian went back and locked it.

"All right," he heard the mocking voice behind him begin. "What am I gonna be bitched out about this time? Was my performance not up to your high standards, Brian? Did I frown once or twice? Didn't I look happy? I know people are gonna be surprised that it's not all sunshine and bubbles around here, but really, I think they'll manage."

Brian turned around and regarded AJ slowly. He almost passed for looking sober these days. He didn't even sway on his feet anymore. Were it not for the glaze in his eyes and the stench of Jack Daniels that seemed to surround him constantly, he could've almost bought it.

"Oh, I'm not gonna say anything," he replied evenly, pushing back from the door and walking towards AJ at the opposite side of the room. His fists clenched and unclenched, trying to stop them from shaking.

AJ snorted in amusement. "What am I doing here then? You definitely don't hang out with me for the company."

Brian shrugged. "All right then. I guess I can say something if you want me to."

He felt like a stranger to himself, knowing what he was gonna do and still hearing himself saying the words so calmly. In a blur of movement, he'd bunched AJ's t-shirt up in his hands and pushed him hard against the wall, felt AJ's whoosh of breath against his face and the smell of alcohol was so vile, so disgusting, he was sure he was gonna be throwing up any second.

"Did you hear yourself out there?" he ground out from behind gritted teeth, watching AJ's blurry eyes try to focus on him and feeling the anger rise like a foul taste in the back of his throat. "Did you see yourself? You could barely catch your breath. You messed up the dance moves. You were stumbling all over that stage, AJ. You-"

"Is that what this is about?" AJ laughed humorlessly, pushing at Brian's hands to get them loose. "I'll just work on my vocals in sound check tomorrow, Brian, what the hell-"

"No!" Brian suddenly roared, slamming AJ into the wall again. "You think this is about your performance? I don't care about your goddamn vocals, AJ! I don't care!" He shoved AJ into the wall again at the last word, his voice going a little shrill towards the end.

AJ's eyes were blazing with anger now, and Brian thrived on it, now there was something there, finally something.

"But you should," he continued, grip tightening in AJ's shirt. "You don't care about yourself, but what about when it's affecting your job? Your singing? I've never heard you so winded, AJ, it's a wonder you could even push out a word with all that huffing-"

"Shut up!" he snapped, finally managing to push Brian off of him and giving him a shove in return. "You don't even know what you're talking about-"

"Yes I do," Brian said, back in front of AJ in a second, faces inches apart. "I know your voice better than you do. Get yourself together soon or you're gonna lose it, AJ, you'll lose what you love the most-"

"Shut the fuck up!" AJ bellowed, eyes widened as he gripped at Brian's shirt and pulled at him, hard. "Shut up, shut up, shut up." Suddenly Brian felt lips against his own, crushing down almost painfully, and the taste of stale Jack Daniels filled his senses violently, and he hated it, he hated it so much, but he couldn't stop himself from kissing back. They stumbled back and forth for a second before pressing frantically up against the wall and Brian pressed their mouths together so close that their teeth clicked, biting down on AJ's lower lip hard enough to produce a pained whimper from the other man.

Brian wrenched himself free when the need to breathe became unbearable, gulping in air desperately, and noted somehow, through the foggy feeling in his brain, that AJ was back to smirking triumphantly. "I'm not doing this with you again," Brian breathed almost inaudibly, letting out a protesting little moan as AJ licked a long trail up his neck. "Stop it," he groaned, pressing further into AJ as soon as he'd said the words.

He could feel AJ's lips curl into a smirk on his skin. "So you keep saying," he murmured softly, mouth traveling up his neck and trailing along his jaw line. "But I don't know, Brian. I'm starting to think these little lectures you keep throwing at me are just the excuse you give yourself. Hmm?" His mouth ghosted over Brian's ear as he added, "Do you really want me that badly?"

Brian shivered, from disgust or sensation he wasn't sure. "You don't get it," he said dully, then let out a small groan. "Go to hell, AJ."

He was off the other man and out the door as quickly as his shaking legs could carry him.

___________________

Somewhere between sleep and consciousness, the knocking got more persistent. Brian twisted in the sheets, groaning as he blearily tried to focus on the digital clock on his nightstand. 4:32 AM shone back at him in shining red numbers. He'd only fallen asleep 20 minutes ago.

"Oh, you've got to be kidding me," he mumbled as he slowly sat up straight on the bedside. There was another knock. "I'm coming," he snapped, groping blindly on the floor for the t-shirt he'd tossed aside before going to bed. He found it quickly and yanked it on as he padded towards the door. He was too tired to try and find the light switch. The light would be too strong for his eyes anyway.

When he opened the door, he still had to squint against the small lights burning in the hallway. It was too damn early. He blinked a few times before he was able to focus on AJ, standing in front of him clad in nothing but sweatpants and looking like a deer caught in headlights.

"Do you know what time it is?" he asked, voice gravelly with sleep. "What ... did something happen? Is something wrong?" His voice shifted from annoyance to concern.

"No," AJ said quickly, hands fumbling with the waistband on his sweatpants. "No, I – I just – couldn't sleep and … can I...?"

Apparently he couldn't finish the question, because he didn't say anything else. A short silence followed before Brian sighed and opened the door wide. "Come on then," he muttered, and didn't look up as AJ slid by him into the room. The whiff of cologne that followed was overwhelming – he always put on too much, and why do it in the middle of the night? – but Brian completely stopped in his tracks when he realized something.

He hadn't caught the smell of alcohol.

He stared at AJ, who was now standing in the middle of the dark room and wringing his hands like he didn't know what to do with them. Still gawking in disbelief, Brian closed the door and turned on the light.

AJ immediately jumped and his hands flew up to cover his eyes. "Turn it off!" he hissed, voice quivering with the effort to stay low. "Turn it off, Brian, please, hurts my eyes, please-"

"Sorry, sorry," Brian said quickly, scrambling back to the light switch and flicking it off. "It's gone, AJ," he said hesitantly to the dark room. His eyes hadn't adjusted to the light yet, and he could see the outline of the other man close to him, now wrapping arms around himself. "Can I turn on the bedside lamp?" Brian asked quietly, trying not to startle AJ again. "Just so I can see you."

There was a little silence. He could see AJ square his shoulders, but his voice was small as he said, "Yeah … okay."

Brian nodded to no one in particular. Keeping a hand on the wall so he wouldn't bump into anything, he went back to the bed and groped for the light switch clipped into the wall. He turned around as he flicked it on, and caught AJ flinch, eyes pressing firmly shut. Brian waited. After a little while, AJ's eyelids flickered and they opened to small slits, then blinked a few more times before his eyes stayed open and he nodded. He didn't look in Brian's direction, towards the light, but he wasn't squinting anymore.

Brian walked over to stand in front of him. "AJ," he said, ducking his head to meet his gaze, to get him to speak, just so he could be sure…

AJ looked at him. "What?" he asked quietly.

Brian took a small step back. It had been so long since he'd smelled anything on AJ's breath besides Jack Daniels or heavy amounts of toothpaste, he'd almost forgotten what it was like to breathe clean air around him.

Nothing. There was nothing.

"Nothing," he answered, knowing he was grinning like a fool and unable to stop it. "Just … stay as long as you like. I'm not really tired anyway."

AJ smiled halfheartedly in return, hand going up to scratch a bit frantically at his shoulder. "Okay, so … you wanna watch TV or something?"

"Oh … sure," Brian said, the smile slowly slipping off his face. AJ was starting to look really pale. "Anything you wanna watch?"

"Don't care," he mumbled, brushing past Brian to pick up the remote at the TV table. As soon he'd turned it on and music blared from the television, he yelped and recoiled in shock again, scrambling with the remote until he hit the mute button. Brian watched helplessly as AJ lifted a shaking hand to scratch at his shoulders again, then his arms, watched as he made a keening, broken sound.

"AJ," Brian said softly, voice breaking a little on the word. "Come on. Sit down. Please."

AJ took a few deep breaths, eyes darting back and forth between his feet and the bed, then nodded. Already at the foot of the bed, he crawled up along it on all fours before he settled at the headboard, sitting straight as a string on a bow and arms going around himself again, absently scratching at his elbows. Brian sat down next to him, doing his best not to stir the bed too much.

They were quiet for a time. Feeling awkward, Brian tried to focus on the television. A rerun of Jay Leno. Something funny must have been going on, because Nicole Kidman's smile was very wide as she talked. Brian didn't feel like laughing along.

He couldn't begin to concentrate anyway, not when AJ was sitting next to him and slowly going out of his mind. The bed dipped and swayed every second as he shifted from one position to the other, and there was heat, so much heat radiating off of him that it was like sitting next to a furnace. Chewing on his thumbnail, Brian made a quick glance at his friend and saw him rocking back and forth, small beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead, staring fixedly at the screen without seeing anything at all.

Broken, all over again.

Doing the only thing he could think of, Brian wrapped his arm around AJ's shoulders and pulled him close. AJ startled with a gasp, panic-struck eyes flittering over him as if he was a complete stranger. It took a second for that look to disappear, for recognition to take its place. Letting out a shuddering breath, he buried his face in Brian's neck and curled into him. Arms went around Brian's waist, and he could feel the light shaking in his hands.

"You're okay," Brian whispered, and immediately made a face at himself. What a stupid thing to say. "Do you need anything?" he tried instead. "Some water? A blanket?"

AJ shook his head, smearing sweat into Brian's skin, something he probably would've found disgusting if he could've found it in himself to care right then. "Just," he croaked, lips brushing against Brian's neck as he formed the word and Brian exhaled, very quietly. "Rok, I just-" His voice cracked, and after that, there was nothing.

Then Brian felt a shaky, open-mouthed kiss pressed into his neck.

His breath hitched in his throat. "Oh," he said quietly, and again, nothing. He couldn't speak. His breathing was already going shallow.

The fingers around his waist dug into his skin, hard, and he gasped as AJ began kissing a slow trail up his neck. Red hot kisses that burned just as warm as AJ did against him, kisses he could feel even after AJ's mouth was gone and he was straddling him - though when he had managed to do that Brian couldn't say - looking at him and not saying a word.

Brian blinked, hands going to AJ's waist before he even registered what he was doing. AJ sucked in a breath, but his gaze didn't waver, not even for a second, and Brian finally realized that he was asking for permission. He gave a slow nod, fingers traveling over AJ's stomach and making muscles flutter.

AJ's eyelids lowered as he nodded in return and slowly, hesitantly, leaned forward.

They both came into the kiss from the same angle, making their noses bump, but Brian was quick to correct it and then, at the first slide of lips, he immediately let out a tiny moan of longing. AJ's hands came up to cup Brian's face, and he could feel the tremors so clearly this way, reverberating through his very skin, but he couldn't let himself think about it, not now. He nibbled lightly at AJ's lower lip, deliberately going as slow as he could bring himself to, and swallowed the gasp that fell from AJ's mouth.

AJ pulled away, reeling back a bit to make sure it was still okay, but Brian closed the distance just as quickly, making a small sound as he brought their lips together again. The kisses this time were light, chaste, unsure. When AJ pulled back a second time, Brian didn't try to resist him in it again. Their breathing, low and slightly labored, was the only sound in the room as AJ pressed his forehead to Brian's. They both closed their eyes.

"I … I don't feel so good," AJ whispered, his breath ghosting over Brian's face. His mind was reeling. Still nothing. Nothing.

"I know," he whispered back. "Don't think about it. I'm here. Stay here."

AJ exhaled deeply, then pulled back a little and met Brian's gaze. He hadn't noticed how sunken in AJ's eyes were till then. How dark the hollows under them were. Without a word, AJ grabbed the hem of Brian's shirt and pulled it over his head. He tossed it to the floor and turned back, hands darting forward a little before pulling back unsurely.

There was an awkward silence where neither of them knew who was going to make the next move, and Brian could've almost laughed if he hadn't been so scared. This was the first time they'd done anything while both sober. He had no idea what to do with that.

When the silence had stretched for longer than he could bear, he placed his hands on AJ's thighs and pulled him closer. AJ went willingly, only stopping when he couldn't go any further into Brian's lap. The close contact made his stomach flutter and he looked at AJ for only a moment longer before lowering his head to AJ's neck, placing light kisses on the heated skin. AJ moaned softly, surprised, and Brian's hands took on a mind of their own, traveling up and down AJ's sides and feeling every little ripple of muscle there.

"Hurts," AJ gasped, mouth pressed into Brian's ear and making his head spin, it was too much, too good, if he didn't get himself together he was gonna pass out soon. "Like … needles pricking under my skin … Brian…"

It took a moment for the words to actually make sense in Brian's mind. When they did, he snapped back. "God, I'm sorry," he exclaimed softly, pulling his hands off the other man as quickly as if he'd been scolded. "I didn't know, I'm sorry-"

"No," AJ interrupted, voice edged with near panic. "Don't stop, don't stop, please." He grabbed Brian's hands and placed them at his sides again. "Need-" His hands clutched at Brian's shoulders and he shuddered lightly.

Startled, Brian let his fingers curl lightly into AJ's skin and the other man let out a long breath. "Okay," he whispered, hands sliding down AJ's waist. "If you're sure."

AJ groaned in approval and let his lips brush against Brian's again. Brian kissed back hesitantly, still not sure how far he could go. They'd never been together like this. With AJ drunk and begging for a fight, it was always hard, fast and angry. But this, right now, was what he'd wanted for so long. He had to stop thinking and just go with it. Slowly he opened his mouth, answering AJ's encouraging groan with one of his own, and then it was hot and wet and nowhere near perfect and God, he couldn't stop the tiny noises he kept making into AJ's mouth.

He leaned back into the pillows and AJ followed him down, finally breaking away to gasp some air into his lungs. Almost immediately he latched himself onto Brian's neck, body squirming to adjust, and Brian moaned rather loudly that time. The slow grinding of their hips and the breathy, wet feeling of AJ's lips exploring his skin made him restless with the need for more, more of this, more of him. Driven by instinct now, his hands ran down AJ's back, feeling the other man's sigh over his collarbone and the shiver that followed went straight through him as well, making his eyes fall closed.

AJ licked a tiny trail down Brian's scar and he sucked in a sharp breath, eyes slowly opening again. He looked down at AJ, who was smiling now – not fully, not quite, but it was a start. "Sensitive?" he asked softly, voice deeper than normal.

Brian smiled lightly back, trying not to appear as shaken as he felt. "Yeah," he rasped, fingers trailing the lines in AJ's cornrows. "Feels good, though."

AJ's smile went a little wider, a little softer, and Brian could recognize this man, the one he'd known for years and was in so much awe of. He leaned down again and pressed a tender, feather-light kiss to the beginning of the scar. Brian knew the bump that started there, knew that a little further down his chest there would be another one, knew that it would end in a mess of tiny scars where he'd been connected to nameless machines. He knew the shape of that scar without looking at it. The skin had pulled at it over the years and made it crooked. It had only been a straight line for a short time.

"C'mere," he muttered huskily, pulling AJ up to face him. Their lips met again, and Brian's eyes flickered open only to see dark eyes stare back at him. He startled a little, but AJ followed him, didn't lose his gaze, and murmured quiet words into Brian's mouth that he couldn't understand. Didn't need to.

AJ shivered again, but it wasn't from pleasure. The hands on Brian's shoulders were still shaking.

"What are you trying to prove?" he whispered back against AJ's lips, seeing nothing but long eyelashes flutter and blurry brown eyes with wide, dark pupils.

All movement stilled. AJ pulled away, only far enough to look at Brian properly. His voice was calm and controlled as he said, "Nothing," but Brian clearly heard the I don't know that he couldn't bring himself to say.

Brian was silent for a while. "Do you want this?" he then asked, trying to keep his voice flat. "Me?"

AJ's mouth fell open for a moment, closing and opening one more time before he sputtered. "Brian, for Christ's sake," he said, voice lacking in the frustration the words held. "Are you blind? I'm in-"

He wasn't sure what stopped AJ from finishing that sentence, but he figured the burst of panic he felt must've shown on his face.

The silence in the room was deafening. Brian grasped for something to say, anything, but all he could do was stare wide-eyed. AJ had gone even paler, if that was at all possible. Then he coughed awkwardly. "Nevermind," he said gruffly, sitting up straight between Brian's legs.

Brian sat up and grabbed AJ's wrist before he could've even moved. "What-" He fumbled for words, trying to get his heart to stop pounding out of his chest. "Just … wait a second."

"I gotta go," AJ said, eyes turned downwards as he tried to wrench out of Brian's grip.

Brian froze. He knew that tone. That paranoid, quivering tone. Quivering with the need to be sated. In a voice cold with dread, he said, "No."

"I'll be back," AJ mumbled. "I just need to … I need-"

"I said no."

Finally AJ looked at him. "Let me go," he said dully, giving his wrist a violent tug.

"I won't let you!" He startled himself by yelling. Grabbing onto AJ anywhere he could, he fumbled on. "I won't, AJ. It'll kill you, I know it will, please, just stay with me, I … I'll take care of you, I'll help you, you don't have to be scared, I-"

"Stop it!" AJ roared hoarsely, eyes wide with fear. "Stop saying that, you don't mean any of that! Let me go!" With a sudden burst of strength, he pulled out of Brian's grip and stumbled towards the door as quickly as he could, half-tripping on the way. The door slammed shut before Brian could say a word.

"Shit," he spat vehemently, trying to punch the mattress only to have his fist come bobbing up at him again. "Shit, shit, goddamnit." He pulled his knees up to his chest and buried his face in them, tugging at his hair and rocking back and forth desperately. He needed to hit, he needed to fucking punch something until it bled. He needed to go after AJ. He couldn't do any of it.

The goddamn television was still turned on.

He sat like that, glaring at the muted screen as if it had any fault in this, for a long time. He didn't know how long. When he heard the knob turning and the door open, he didn't look away. He didn't when he heard footsteps on the floor either, and not when he felt the mattress dip under the weight of someone sitting on the bedside.

A short silence followed before Brian asked, "Was it worth it?"

No response.

He turned to look at AJ. He was sitting at the end of the bed, looking at his hands. They weren't shaking anymore. "I don't know what to say to you," Brian continued quietly. He shook his head. Suddenly he was really tired. "You can't even see it, can you? You need that stuff so badly that you can't even go one night without it."

AJ's head shot up at that. "Fuck you," he spat as his eyes narrowed. "I don't need that … that…"

"Of course you don't," Brian deadpanned. "Haven't you had that cold for a while now, by the way? Isn't that why you keep rubbing your nose?" His voice was beginning to shake audibly. "Even if you hadn't told Kevin, do you really think we're that stupid?"

AJ's lip curled in disdain. "You don't know shit," he said, voice raspy with anger.

"I don't know what it's like being scared?" Brian asked loudly.

AJ's eyes shifted to the scar on his chest on their own accord, and he immediately looked away.

Brian sighed in defeat, holding his head in his hands. "The day you ask for help," he said, voice both dull and broken at the same time, "I'm going to do everything I can for you, I swear to God. Until then … well … I'll be here." He looked up at AJ again. "I love you," he said, and tried to make his voice sound impassive. "I love all of you. S'all there is to it."

AJ looked like he'd been punched in the gut.

He let out a long breath, his glazed-over eyes falling back on Brian slowly, and Brian braced himself for the worst. "Warm words, really," he said, his voice too soft to carry any sarcasm he might've been going for. "All this love going around. On that note, I'm gonna take off." He sat up from the bed and turned back, looking at Brian almost expectantly. "You don't have to worry. Message's been received. But … I think you're the one who doesn't get it." With that, he turned around and walked out the door.

"No," Brian said to himself, and it was his turn to start shaking. "It's still you."

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Brian used to love the preparations for their shows. If he had time after sound check, he'd help the crew with lugging equipment into the arena, still feeling energetic afterwards despite of it. Or he'd go talk to the dancers, blow off some steam by going through routines with them and doing his best to make them laugh. He'd loved the time right before he got so nervous that he couldn't sit still for even two seconds, the time when he was just excited to be able to do this and do it well.

These days all preparations seemed to consist of either finding AJ, getting AJ ready, or fighting with AJ.

Brian plopped down in the middle of the couch, between Howie and Nick, watching AJ and Kevin talking in lowered voices on the other side of the room. They'd just prayed with the crew. They were spending the last few quiet minutes in their dressing room before it was show time.

"You okay?" Howie asked, giving the collar of his shirt a gentle tug to loosen it. He rolled his neck once and Brian heard the muscles crack.

Frowning, he nodded. "Just haven't slept," he mumbled.

"Since when?"

"Uh … yesterday morning," Brian said, thinking back to make sure that was right. Had it really been that long?

Howie's eyes widened in surprise. "You sure you're okay?"

Brian gave him a tired smile. "Not really. But I'll be fine, don't worry."

Their conversation was suddenly drowned out as the voices from the other side of the room were raised considerably.

"Stay out of my business, Kevin," AJ snapped, clenching his fists at his sides. "Why don't you go pretend that you have a life outside of riding my ass somewhere else? I'm so fucking tired of your pampering."

Kevin stepped closer, eyes darkening with suppressed rage. "Say that again," he replied slowly. "Say that just one more time. I'm asking you." The last words were ground out from gritted teeth.

"What, you think I'm scared of you?!" AJ yelled, leaning forward into Kevin's face.

"I don't know," Kevin said quietly. "Are you?"

AJ stood silent, trembling with rage, breathing fast and trying to stare the other man down. Brian looked at Nick. He was watching them intently, his grip so tight on the arm of the couch that his knuckles had turned white. Brian wanted to do something, anything, but he knew Nick. He knew he'd get shrugged away.

After a silence so tense it was a wonder anyone was still breathing, AJ took a step back. He let out a dry laugh. "Whatever," he said hoarsely. "Who needs you, anyway?" His eyes flickered and landed on Brian, and his gaze turned cold. "Who needs you?" he repeated, voice full of contempt, and stalked out the door.

Kevin looked after him, visibly aging just a little as he stood before them. He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Brian, stop that," he said tiredly.

Brian looked down and noticed his hand was clenched tightly around an empty water bottle. He loosened it, and the bottle crackled loudly, making him jump. He'd made a giant crack on one side of it.

"Come on," Kevin said, before taking in a big breath to compose himself. "We have to get ready."

Brian glanced at Nick again. "You okay?" he asked quietly.

Nick's jaw was tight and his gaze was turned straight ahead as he replied, "Sure. Why wouldn't I be? Let's go." He pushed himself up from the couch and followed Kevin out the door, bumping his shoulder hard into Kevin's as he passed. Kevin paused, opened his mouth to say something, and then closed it again. Shaking his head, he walked out as well.

Brian fell forward, placing his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, and made an unintelligible sound. "I'm so tired," he said, voice muffled through his hands.

"I know," Howie agreed quietly. He put his forehead against Brian's shoulder and for a moment too short for anyone but them to acknowledge, they leaned against each other. "Come on," Howie whispered, before standing up with a small groan.

Brian nodded wordlessly and stood up as well. They made their way under the stage together and got in formation. None of them were looking at each other, but Brian could feel of all them, feel their frustration and fatigue as palpably as if it were his own.

He looked ahead of him, heard the crowd chant for them, and tried to put a smile on his face.

Somehow it managed to slip off every time.

_____________________________

FIN.

© Mette M. 2005. This story is purely fiction, meaning not true. If any actions in the story are similar to real life experiences, they are pure coincidence. All persons, excluding the Backstreet Boys and occasional real-life based characters, are made up from the author's imagination. I, Mette, do not know the Backstreet Boys, their families and friends or their management.