"You know, he has other things he wants to do with his life now," said Brian.
"Sure, but he can't do other stuff and still be a Backstreet Boy?" Nick was taking this hard, too. Kevin had always been his rock, and the prospect of going on without that strong, reliable presence had him scared and showing it. "It's not like he never did other stuff before. We aren't touring all the time."
"If he wants to settle down, start a family—" Howie began.
"You seem to work things out all right," Nick said, almost accusingly, to Brian. "Baylee loves coming with us."
"It's not really that simple," Brian said, gently.
"You know it's been hard for Brian, and for Leighanne," Howie pointed out. "Maybe Kevin doesn't want his kids to be traveling all the time, or not seeing their Daddy for weeks when we're out of the country. Besides, it's his call, Nick, it's not ours. We have to let him make his own decision."
"Yeah, but that don't mean we can't, like, talk to him," said Nick. "Make him see—"
"Kevin knows all that," AJ said, roughly. "He knows what being in this group means, and if he wants out, then he's going to leave. Don't matter what we want."
"AJ, that isn't exactly fair," said Howie.
"It's true, though." AJ didn't dare say any more. He wasn't sure which was worse, the waiting, or the sick, sick certainty in the pit of his stomach whenever he thought about it because he knew, he knew, Kevin was going to leave. He knew why Kevin needed those excuses, because they had to be excuses, they had to be. How could a sedate theater audience, if that was what he wanted now, even begin to compare with the incredible energy that came at them from the fans at every concert? And everything else Kevin wanted to do—he could do all that stuff and still be a Backstreet Boy, they all did other stuff. But he was going to leave.
Howie sighed. "Maybe he'll decide to stay. He knows we want him to stay."
"But if he doesn't," Brian said, "we have to decide what we're gonna do. Do we say, that's it, Backstreet's over, or do we go on, the four of us?"
"I can't, I can't even," Nick said, slamming his hand against the wall, "I don't want to talk like that. We don't even know."
Brian levered himself up off the couch and went over to Nick. "We don't have to talk about it now," he said. "But if it comes to that, we will have to decide."
So now there was something even worse to think about than Kevin leaving. AJ chewed at his fingernails and refused to meet anyone's eye.
He knew why Kevin was leaving.
"Hey, man! Long time no see!"
AJ turned in surprise. Yes, he did recognize that voice, and the slightly anxious, crinkle-eyed grin that went along with it. "Hey, JC, how're you doing?" They collided briefly in a hug. "I can't believe we haven't run in to each another before at one of these things. I'm always meeting up with Eric's people."
"I keep clear of a lot of them," JC said. "I mean, publicity's all right when you're promoting something, but these launches are such crapshoots, and you can only have so much stuff, right?"
"The Sidekick looks pretty cool, though," AJ said, brandishing his. "I don't actually need to browse the internet when I can't get to my computer, but I guess some people do."
"Oh, yeah, man, when you're sitting around waiting for your lunch date to show? I could definitely get into that. Check the news and the comics, you know?"
"Listen to music? The girl who gave it to me made a big thing of the MP3 player. I guess she figured out I was into music."
JC looked unimpressed. "Got my iPod for that, man. First generation, best thing I ever bought. Anyway, I dunno that I'd want to sit and listen to music with my phone held to my ear, and I bet the sound quality is crap, so, no. Unless you can record onto it using the phone, somehow? Because that would be cool, I could use something like that. You know how it is when you get a song in your head and you're about a million miles from a studio or even a piece of paper. I sang one to my answering machine once. Only way I could get it saved."
"Uh. You know what, I don't even remember. All I remember is, I had it in my head, had to get it down somewhere while I still could."
"Do you forget songs, then? I mean, when I get something, it sticks in my head until I'm almost going crazy."
JC looked faintly embarrassed. "Trouble is, I start working on something in my head, and it takes me somewhere, and when I stop, I can't remember where I started and if it was better than where I ended up. Or, you know, something might spark off another idea, and while I'm chasing that one..." He shrugged.
"It don't look like you can record stuff," AJ said, squinting at the leaflet which had been supplied with his new toy. "Just the usual stuff, messaging and email and a few games. Still, not bad. You wanna have the honor of being the first name in my new address book?"
JC crinkled at him again and said sure, so they exchanged their new, unfamiliar numbers.
"So, um," said JC. "I heard you guys are doing another album soon."
"Yeah." AJ didn't really want to talk about that, he still felt like he'd been kicked in the belly by a buffalo. Of course, it could have been worse, they could have broken up completely. The news would be out, official, any day now. "We're looking at material, you know."
"That's cool," said JC, almost wistfully.
"And you're working on a new album, right?" said AJ, eager to talk about something else. "How's it going?"
"Oh, yeah, it's good, it's good. Working with some great people, you know. Uh."
"You got a release date?"
"Oh, nothing definite, it's not really... there's a lot of work to do."
"Good luck with that," said AJ. It occurred to him that JC's first album hadn't been the raging success that was expected of an ex-Nsync member, and he wasn't quite sure what to say. 'Hope it goes better than the last one' didn't seem exactly supportive.
"So..." said JC. "I guess we should enjoy the party."
"Yeah. Nice talking to you, JC. We should get together sometime."
"You got my number," said JC, and smiled briefly before he turned and melted into the crowd.
* * *
The blonde was still talking. JC smiled at her, absently. She looked familiar, but he could not remember her name, and at an event like this, where everybody was supposedly famous, the last thing a person could do was ask. Didn't much matter. If he needed to find out, someone would tell him, he supposed. She was angling her head up at him and looking through her eyelashes, but she wasn't really his type, all false boobs and hair extensions.
"Somebody loves you," she said.
"Somebody loves—your phone. Sounds like you just got a text."
"Oh! Yeah, of course." Slightly confused, JC fished the new Sidekick out of his gift bag and flicked it open.
R U BORED YET? AJ
OMG YES JC
The reply came back very quickly. AJ must get a lot of practice at this.
IM IN C OF SILICON HELP AJ
That took him a moment to puzzle out. JC tended to text in normal English. He kept forgetting the shortcuts.
WHERE IS US CAVALRY? JC
U LIKE MEN IN UNIFORM? AJ
JC laughed. He realized at that point that the blonde had disappeared. But a waiter came by with drinks so he didn't much care. The messages on his tiny screen were more interesting, anyway.
He couldn't spend the entire evening texting AJ, although AJ's messages made him laugh aloud more than once, but it certainly brightened up an event he hadn't much been looking forward to. Eric had practically strong-armed him into this one, telling JC it was time to get up and make himself a bit more visible. JC didn't see the necessity, since 'Kate' wasn't finished yet and anyway, there was no sign of anything definite from Jive. He could perfectly well have stayed home and worked on a couple of numbers. But it was certainly good to see AJ. It was weird, really, how rarely the two of them did meet up. Possibly those stupid rivalry ideas from the early days were still hanging around, and people just didn't invite them to the same promotions. Maybe he should mention it to Eric.
JC really did not need emails from twenty-seven—twenty-seven!—different people telling him how Backstreet were breaking up. In any case, when he looked at the website that afternoon it didn't look like a breakup at all, not with Kevin Richardson talking about his 'brothers' making a success of their new album.
He hoped they could make it as a foursome.
Should he contact AJ and wish him—tell him—what, exactly? JC chewed the matter over for a while, even tried rehearsing exactly what he'd say so that he wouldn't embarrass himself by being completely incoherent, but whatever came out of his mouth sounded like either he was gloating or else there'd been a death in AJ's family, and he didn't want to sound like a complete asshole, not to AJ, of all people.
So he didn't call.
* * *
AJ bit savagely at his black-coated fingernails as the car drew up. He didn't need to stay long, an hour would probably be okay, but he had to put in an appearance at his manager's birthday bash and he had to look as though everything in the garden was rosy or there'd be all kinds of ugly rumors. Reality was bad enough. Maybe some tiny part of him had been hoping, after all, that he hadn't, that Kevin wouldn't really go. Now, he had a fucking birthday party to smile through, and he couldn't even have a drink.
Maybe a half hour would be enough.
He jammed his hat down on his head, hoped his eyeliner wasn't too smudged, took a deep breath, and got out the car.
Shit, there was a line, he'd have to wait.
His phone pinged.
U WANT COMPANY UP THERE? JC
He texted back at once. WERE R U?
"I'm right here, man." JC, looking clean cut and wholesome even with a layer of stubble, in his shiny white T-shirt and green hoodie. "Thought we could maybe go up there together, give the fans something to be happy about."
"What, consorting with the enemy?" AJ managed. He didn't dare say how grateful he was, he'd probably cry.
"Nah, there's got to be a few crazy people out there who love both of us. Our bands, I mean. Not that I actually have a band, but. So, um, shall we?"
"Yeah," said AJ.
So they stood in front of the photographers, and JC slung a warm arm casually over AJ's shoulders, and it helped, it really helped to have someone right there who understood how it felt and who had the sensitivity not to say anything, because really, what was there to say? So AJ did his best to smile and look cool for the cameras, and even managed to keep his composure for some solo shots, until mercifully they turned to their next victim and he and JC could slide on inside.
"Thanks, man," AJ said.
"I thought maybe you wouldn't want to do that on your own."
"Didn't want to be here at all," AJ said. "I guess I'm not really in the party mood."
"It sucks," JC said. "Come on, man, have something to—eat, you'll feel better. There must be human food in this place somewhere even if Eric lives off other people's blood."
That surprised a laugh out of AJ. He remembered JC so clearly as the dorky kid from Europe, too clear-eyed and clean-cut to be real, it was nice to hear him properly cynical. "Managers. Can't live with them, can't live without them taking their percentage. Lead me to the food."
They found the refreshments, and a few mouthfuls of blackened chicken later, AJ decided that he did feel better. JC heaped an incredible amount of food onto his own plate, and muttered something about lucky metabolism when AJ caught his eye.
"I'm gonna bulk up a little bit, when we go into the studio," AJ said, around a mouthful of something unidentifiable but sublime. "Always do."
"So, Backstreet are gonna be recording right away?"
"Yeah, and I'm working on some of my own stuff," AJ said. "We're all looking at doing solo projects in between."
"Brian and Nick did already, didn't they," said JC. "That's cool, man. It's such a different dynamic when you're doing your own thing and you don't have to worry about the image of the group and what works for five. Or four. Though I guess you maybe do still have to think about the group?"
"Nah, I mean, yeah, but I think our fans can deal," AJ said. "They grew up too. I'm probably gonna have some lyrics that, like, some adult lyrics. And more of a rock-slash-funk-slash-soul feel to it than the group numbers."
"Sounds like you know what you're looking for." JC hesitated. "I guess you've got people lined up already. But I, uh, if you wanted, you know, another collaborator, I mean, I really enjoy producing, and you have such a great voice..."
AJ looked at him in surprise, not so much at JC's suggestion as at the fact he hadn't thought of it himself. JC was good. "I might have to take you up on that," he said.
JC smiled at him. His eyes didn't crinkle this time, but he looked pretty happy. "That would be very cool," he said. "Give me a call, we can set something up. I know you have my number."
"Yeah, and we know our manager's going to be really happy to work things out."
"He'll probably claim the credit," JC said.
Kevin was here! Kevin and Kristin were here!
AJ couldn't figure out how he even felt about that. All he knew was, he needed to go over and give Kevin a hug, and Kristin too because she was adorable and none of this was her fault, and then they'd probably get photographs done, just to prove that they were all good friends, and AJ thought there was a better than fifty percent chance he'd be able to do it without smudging his eyeliner any worse than it already was.
Talking with JC helped a lot. Now he could think about something else, now he could start to wonder what kind of crazy love songs they might come up with together, he didn't have to think about how stupid he was, not all the time. Didn't have to think about how he'd pushed Kevin into leaving Backstreet.
* * *
JC was heading back along Montana Avenue with his shopping, listening to a bootleg of a Johnny No Name concert on his iPod. Wouldn't do any harm to get a feel for what AJ liked to do. There was a car next to him, cruising slowly alongside the kerb, he could see the sleek scarlet hood out the corner of his eye, but he ignored it carefully. If it was fans, they could just take a photo. If it was paparazzi, they could certainly do it without his help.
Something vibrated in his jeans, and made him jump. With a little difficulty, as he had too many shopping bags for one hand, he fished out his phone.
HEADS UP AJ
He stared at it, bewildered, and wondered what he'd missed. They hadn't made any arrangements, he couldn't remember any and he knew for certain that he wouldn't forget if they had. It was only two days since Eric's party, but—
The red car had stopped alongside him. A convertible. Nice. JC had a weakness for convertibles. Especially... convertibles with sexy guys in sunglasses driving them.
AJ tilted his head reproachfully as JC hastily removed his earbuds.
"You're a hard man to reach," he observed.
"Sorry! I thought you were a fan, so I wasn't. Um. Hi."
"Give you a ride somewhere?"
I wish, thought JC, but he slung his bags in back and clambered into the front seat. "I left my car in the lot on 15th, but if you don't mind..."
"Were you trying to get in touch? Because, man, I'm sorry, I never remember to check for messages."
AJ shook his head. "I didn't call yet. Sorry about that, I meant to, but there was some stuff. But if you're free right now, we could maybe have lunch?"
"Uh, yes, sure. Where'd you have in mind?"
"I thought, my place," said AJ. "You and me spend a lot of time together in public, and there'll be rumors starting about Backstreet trying to replace Kevin with another boybander. I think we can both live without that."
"Damn straight," said JC, with feeling. All the rumors about Nsync getting back together, which seemed to start from nothing at all (unless it was Lance again, stirring in his own very special way), were more than enough to frazzle his nerves, he did not want to be the subject of something even more stupid. "Uh, right here."
AJ pulled over, and said he would hold JC's shopping hostage while he collected his car.
They had an eclectic but tasty lunch of home-cooked cheeseburgers and stir-fry, and sat by AJ's pool afterwards, drinking iced tea and talking of music and touring and the evil rodent minds who ran record companies, while AJ's dogs played and panted and nosed hopefully for treats.
"This is not," JC said, "really the right atmosphere for creating the kind of song you were talking about." AJ had suggested they try for something raunchy. He already had some introspective numbers. He was looking to do something personal with his solo album.
"And sex," AJ said with understandable smugness, "is something I am all about." JC eyed him surreptitiously. He wasn't wrong. He looked so fucking cool, slouching there in his designer shades and his tight jeans, his sleeveless T showing off the trail of tattoos down his arms. "Any time, any place."
"Upstairs, downstairs, on the floor, on the kitchen table," JC agreed. "Are you seeing anyone right now?"
"Not someone you want to write about, then."
"I actually, uh, I made up a muse." It was a pity AJ still had his sunglasses on. JC would have liked to know how this was coming across. "It's working really well. All the new songs are sorta based around the idea of this one girl, instead of thinking about a bunch of different possibilities. It's more, um, focused."
"Sounds cool. She gives you what you need and, bonus, you can ignore her when you wanna, I dunno, watch a Jean Claude van Damme movie."
"Yeah! I get to think about these crazy situations, but I don't have to go through them. It's the perfect relationship, apart from, you know, not being actually real. That makes the sex a little, um... cerebral?"
AJ laughed. "That's the thing, right there. You want the sex, you have to take the rest of the deal too, you have to stop being who you are because it's never exactly what they want. You get that too?"
"Um." JC wasn't sure. "I guess. I mean, with my last, the sex was amazing. I just, you know, I couldn't sit around and just chill with her."
"Guys are way easier," AJ said. "Look how well we get along, and I mean, sure, you could say we've known one another for years, but we never really got together much."
"No," said JC, and sipped his iced tea to give himself a moment to take this in. It sounded like AJ was talking about sex with guys. But after a moment, he realized that AJ was just talking about chilling, which made sense, much more sense than the other notion. He really didn't think AJ would want to know how often JC had thought about getting together with AJ. Way, way back, when they'd been touring in Germany, right at the beginning when Backstreet were big stars and Nsync just getting started, and JC had thought AJ was the most exotic, fascinating creature he'd ever met, with his dark, expressive eyes, his beautiful bones, his confidence, and the way he moved. JC had been such a dork, back then. That basketball game, with Lance swapped out of their team, he'd not been able to think of anything worthy to say to AJ, and of course JC's basketball skills were, well, they weren't. No, he didn't want to remind AJ of that. "It's so much easier to talk to other guys," he said, lamely.
AJ seemed to have withdrawn, somehow, behind his sunglasses, probably because JC was so inept, just like he'd been all those years ago, probably because AJ had realized the way JC's thoughts were going and wasn't on the same track at all.
"I have a studio in my house," he blurted, "so, if you wanna come over, we can mess around with some riffs, see what comes out of it."
"Sure," said AJ, and picked up his Sidekick to check his schedule.
* * *
Stupid fucker, AJ told himself fiercely, after JC had gone. He'd practically outed himself right there by the pool, Oh, hey JC, by the way, I sleep with boys too, wanna fuck? Okay, he hadn't actually gone that far, but he'd been sitting there thinking about it, even while they were discussing their relationships with women. Difficult not to, with JC lying there in the sunshine looking so incredible.
What would JC have said? AJ fantasized briefly about what might have happened right there in his yard, JC saying, oh, you fuck boys? Me too, and happily undressing, and AJ turning over onto his hands and knees and JC's cock deep, deep inside him.
And now there was come all over his chest and he had to go inside and shower.
Soaping himself down, AJ vowed that he was not going to be that stupid again. He was not going to ruin a perfectly good friendship. He was increasingly sure that he and JC were going to work well together, all their ideas had been running along the same lines, and he knew from listening to JC's solo album that JC wouldn't hold back on anything. So it'd be really, really dumb to drive him away.
That hotel room on the last tour, and the memory that wouldn't leave him alone.
"AJ..." He knew how to interpret Kevin's face, after all these years, and that was Kevin looking very uncomfortable indeed. AJ began to get a sinking feeling. It had taken so long to nerve himself to do this, and now... "You did notice I have a wife?" Kevin said.
"I thought," AJ said, humbly, "I thought you might have a List."
"You know, a List, where there are some people you just get a pass for, because you should just never say no to the chance, because they're—a List. I thought."
"Ah. No, I don't have a List." Something must have shown on AJ's face, this time, because Kevin sighed. "Come here." And put his arms around AJ. "Listen to me, okay? I love you. You're one of the most important people in my world. And no, I'm not blind, and yes, I think you're essence of sex on two skinny legs. But it doesn't mean—"
"Then couldn't we—" AJ interrupted, and stopped himself. "Sorry. Go on."
"I can't, I just can't, it's not possible, AJ. Even if I wasn't married, I couldn't—I need, for a relationship like that, I need there to be some distance. And I think you need it, too."
"No," AJ protested. "I love you too, I want more than, I want more."
Kevin's hands rubbed his back in comforting circles. "It's not me you need, AJ. It's really not. And you know I have Kristin, and I'm not going to be with anyone else."
"But don't you miss, I mean, guys?" AJ was muffled against Kevin's shoulder. "It's different with guys."
"Yeah, it is, but you know, it's not really the equipment that matters, it's who you're in bed with. I'm pretty sure I can survive."
And now Kevin had left, and it had to be because AJ had been so fucking stupid, because nothing else made sense, and he was not going to do it again.
Except, damn, JC was hot.
JC's basement studio was nice, very nice. Small, but he obviously didn't stint on anything that mattered. There was hardly room for two people and all the boards.
They experimented with beats for a while, then JC played him a bass riff that got AJ's head nodding and his hips moving. They were working in the same groove, absolutely. He sang a bit, and JC muttered envious things about tone and played with sliders, and AJ talked about performing live with a small brass section, a trumpet and a trombone at least. Probably a sax. He loved the clean stridency of brass.
"You have any lyrics yet?" JC asked.
"Nothing I could pin down. Just some ideas about, kinda, about not holding back, about going for it flat out."
JC grinned at him, and right there, AJ's resolution started to slide. "Okay, that's good, I like to start clean, we can feel the vibes better."
"Yeah. I like the way you went for it on your album, that's what I want to do."
"So you're saying you want to write a song about sex."
"Aren't they all about sex?" AJ said.
"Got to give you that. So. What's sexy?"
"Well, if you don't know by now... Okay, okay! Uh. Big blue eyes."
"Is that a bit cliché for a song? Besides, I think brown eyes are sexier."
"No, blue, because you can see the pupils get huge when they're really turned on."
"Uh. Mmm, okay," said JC, turning away to tap a few keys on his open laptop. "What else?
"Attitude. Someone who wants me and isn't afraid to show it."
"Someone who doesn't care what other people think."
"Doesn't mind if we wake the neighbors."
"Yeah! Let 'em watch, we don't care. That's good, that's good," said JC.
"Someone who can go all night, keep up with me. Uh. Long legs, I like long legs." AJ was doing well, he felt. He didn't even glance down at JC's legs as he said that.
"Yeah," JC agreed, "up around my waist or over my shoulders or just up high, grab their ankles and go for it."
Oh boy. "Hard and fast and sweaty and nasty. Down and dirty. Crazy. Like, we're fighting to prove who does it the hardest." Jesus, he should stop talking like this.
"Oh, man, yes. That's hot, that's good. We can, like, just shut up and—"
"Fuck," said AJ, because JC was right there, and his eyes were more black than blue right now, was he as turned on as AJ felt, because if he was—
"Fuck, yes," said JC, and AJ thought, yes, and grabbed his shoulders and went for his mouth, and JC gave it back to him, lips and tongue and teeth and grinding together all down their bodies, and yes JC was just as hard as AJ and fuck, that was good, going for it, no holds barred. He felt teeth on the tendon at his neck, and hissed with satisfaction, tangled a hand in JC's hair, shoved the other roughly between them to claw at JC's zipper. They separated, inches, just enough to open their jeans and tug them down, enough to feel JC's hard cock sliding against his own, so hot, so hot. Their hips found a perfect, wicked rhythm, and there was JC's hand on his ass and JC's tongue in his mouth and AJ growled against him and came, and JC made a strangled noise and thrust once more and there was wet heat on AJ's belly.
AJ hung on to JC's shoulders, because his knees didn't feel very trustworthy right now. But, eventually, there had to be mumbling, and separating, and mopping of selves with T-shirts, and zippering, and AJ really hoped JC felt as stunned as he did. Talk about being hit by a train.
"I'll, um, find you something to wear," JC offered, gesturing at the icky black sleeveless roll in AJ's hand.
"Yeah, I, thanks."
So they went upstairs to JC's bedroom and the walk-in closet, and an array of T-shirts organized by color. AJ's closet wasn't organized by anything. AJ picked a dark grey one which turned out to have a Republic of Indifference crest on the front, but he felt a strange reluctance to put it on.
"If it isn't too boring and conventional," JC said, tentatively, "would you like to, uh, go to bed? Because I could do that more."
JC's loud and enthusiastic fucking was at least as good as AJ had imagined it would be.
* * *
JC always kept a notebook by the side of the bed. When he figured he had the strength to lift his arm, he reached for it. "Wanna write that song now?"
"You," said AJ, muffled, "are a crazy person."
"Well," said JC, "I feel inspired."
An inked arm emerged. AJ struggled with the sheets and flopped onto his back. "Okay, so." He hummed the bass line, and began to patter out the drumbeat on his steepled knees.
JC, approving, began to improvise a few lines. "Where shall we start?"
The song was basically done by the time they were ready for breakfast. JC loved it.
A few days later, feeling refreshed after spending so much time away from his studio, JC strolled in to see his manager. Turned out, Eric wanted to know if JC might be interested in producing something for Backstreet. JC beamed and said he would be delighted. How sweet, he thought, making the request 'officially' instead of asking him while they were together, though he couldn't figure out when AJ would have had time to consult the other Boys. It'd be cool, producing another male vocal group.
There was a very familiar skinny ass at the receptionist's desk. AJ in tight jeans, with his back to Eric's door, bent over—probably looking at Louella's baby pictures. She'd caught JC, earlier.
JC sat, and got out his Sidekick. HEADS UP JC, he sent.
"Scuse me just a second," AJ said to the receptionist as he groped for his cellphone. His double take when he saw JC was very satisfactory, and the grin that followed was all kinds of promising. "Hi! I didn't see you there."
JC explained that he had been in the office, and thanked AJ for the opportunity to work with his guys. Eric emerged half-way through that somewhat formal speech, and smiled proprietorially, like he'd actually had something to do with the deal.
"You wanna—we could talk about it, over lunch maybe?" AJ suggested, as Eric ushered him through into his office.
"Yeah, cool, I'll, um—call me." JC waved his phone. AJ nodded.
As it turned out, they postponed the discussion. After all, as AJ said, it wouldn't have been fair to talk about a new Backstreet song with none of the other Boys present. Besides, they also postponed lunch, in favor of cheeseburger and fries from McD's later in the afternoon. There were far better things to do first.
And fast food always tasted better after sex, in JC's experience.
* * *
Even with the handy and truthful excuse of making music together, the two of them couldn't actually live on sex. After a while they both had to leave the house and go back to work.
AJ dragged himself reluctantly to the studio. It had felt natural, working with JC, and now here he was with his Boys and it felt so weird. Everyone was still off-balance, still trying to figure out what to do with the gap where Kevin wasn't. Howie tried to tell them it was an opportunity, they'd each have one-fourth the input instead of one-fifth, but he wasn't very convincing and AJ could tell he didn't really believe it himself. Nick was the only one who was honestly pushing to get on and do something, and AJ was pretty sure that was because Nick still felt angry, and betrayed, and miserable.
They struggled through the day and managed a little progress, but it still felt wrong.
There was a text from JC when he checked his phone: C U 2NITE? JC AJ was about to reply with an emphatic YES when a thought struck him.
There was somewhere else he should be. Something he had to do.
Kevin greeted him with a wide smile and a hug, and explained that Kristin would be late back, she was working, a TV show. That was good, because AJ didn't think he could do this in front of Kevin's wife, and he hadn't managed to figure out a polite way to ask her to step out of the conversation.
They wandered into the kitchen for cold sodas, and Kevin asked after the other guys, and how the new album was going.
"Kinda slow," AJ told him. "We miss you."
"Yeah," said Kevin. "But, you know, I'm right here."
"You know, it's not too late. You could change your mind. It's not like—"
"No, Kevin, listen, I know why you left and I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, but I'm sleeping with JC now and I wouldn't, I won't, like, make it uncomfortable for you. I won't come on to you again, I promise."
"You pr—wait, what? You're sleeping with JC? JC Chasez?"
"Yeah. We were working together, and, um."
"I heard that." Kevin frowned. "So, what, you think that if you're having sex with some other guy, that means I'll come back to Backstreet?"
"No! Uh. I mean, yes." Why was Kevin still frowning at him like that?
"You cannot be serious."
"Uh..." Why not? AJ thought, bewildered. Didn't it solve the problem?
"Does JC know he's just being used?"
AJ stared. That wasn't it at all, that wasn't what he'd meant, how could Kevin think that?
"Because if that's what's going on, I gotta say, I'm disappointed in you. Also, it's fucking stupid." Kevin sighed. "Listen, AJ. Me leaving the group had nothing to do with you. I wasn't offended, or scared, or—hell, I was flattered. But here's the thing."
AJ got a sinking feeling all over again.
"You're one of my little brothers. You're family, you always will be. I could never have had that kind of relationship with you, you're too close already. I'm sorry, AJ, I thought you understood what I meant."
"Oh. You really, you didn't leave because of what I did?"
"I really didn't. I'm ready for something else now, I'm ready for the next thing, and for me, that means I have to leave Backstreet behind. I know it's kinda selfish, but I also know the four of you will do just fine." Kevin paused. "You okay?"
"I guess." Was he okay? That bubble of elation had gone, the excitement of that feeling he was going to get Kevin back and make everything go back to the way it was. Then again, he could lose the guilt, and that was huge. "I guess I'll have to think about it for a bit." He made himself smile, and that got easier when Kevin pulled him into a hug.
"Now," said Kevin, "about JC."
* * *
"Hi," said AJ.
"Hey! I'd just about given up on you," said JC, pleased. "Come on in."
"Is that my T-shirt?"
"Oh. Yeah," said JC, leading the way inside. "You left it here after we, that first time we, so. It ended up in my closet after doing the laundry and I, well, it's cool." JC hoped AJ didn't mind. The sleeveless black was so very AJ, he'd enjoyed the feeling of wearing it as he played about in the studio all day. He would not, however, be telling AJ that.
AJ inspected him carefully. "Looks good on you." Then he looked up at JC over the top of his glasses. "But I think you should take it off now." His eyes sparkled with an excitingly predatory gleam, and JC's breath caught. "Wouldn't want it to get all messed up again."
"Oh, we wouldn't want that," JC agreed, pulling the T-shirt over his head. "But I'll get it laundered for you."
"No hurry," said AJ. "I plan on being around for a while."