by Zoicite

"Mom," Nick says. "Hey, mom." And he says it six more times before Howie looks up and realizes that he's the only other person in the room.

Nick is sitting cross-legged on the floor, his video game paused, the controller hanging loosely from one hand. Howie looks down at the book he's trying to read, then at Nick, back to the book, and then to Nick once more. Nick continues to watch Howie throughout this and eventually Howie realizes that Nick is in fact addressing him. "Um," he says and raises his eyebrows.

"Finally," Nick says with that tone of exasperation that is special to Nick Carter.

Howie decides that it's best to go with the obvious. "Why are you calling me Mom?"

Nick pauses for a second and even the clock seems to stop. Howie wonders if Nick got into the mini-bar, but then remembers that they don't stay at hotels nice enough to have them. "I wasn't," Nick says.

"You just did. Several times," Howie points out, folding down the page in his paperback. He should have known that he wouldn't get much reading done rooming with Nick. The book's pretty boring anyway. Howie's almost positive that the author is American but it reads as though it's been translated into German and then back to English.

"I think I called you Howie," Nick says. "That's your name." Nick un-pauses the game he's been playing for the last hour and turns back to the television.

"Nicky," Howie says. He tosses the book onto the bedside table and sits up straight against the headboard. Nick's tone has switched from exasperated to stubborn and Howie doesn't see much point in continuing the argument. "Okay, Nick. You win. I must have heard wrong. What did you want?"

Nick shrugs. "I wanted you to play this game with me. It's better with two people. But I dunno, man. You're being kind of weird." Howie sighs and plucks his book up from the table, leafing through the bad grammar to the page he'd paused on a moment before. "Where's Brian?" Nick asks.

The more Howie pretends to read his book, the more worried he becomes. Maybe Nick is homesick. He watches Nick play his game, and Nick doesn't look upset at all. His toes are bouncing along with the generic music of the game and his posture is relaxed. But then, Howie isn't always good at reading Nick, and so he decides to go to the expert.

"Does Nick seem homesick to you?" Howie asks Brian the next day, sliding into the booth beside him. AJ convinced Johnny and Donna to stop at the first McDonalds they passed on the way back from the photo shoot that lasted most of the morning and had them all ready to pull out their hair. Howie's not sure how AJ would survive if McDonalds hadn't infiltrated most of Europe.

Brian stuffs a few too many fries in his mouth and seems to think about Howie's question. His head bobs back and forth as he chews. Brian swallows with a head bob a little more exaggerated than the rest and then says, "No, not really."

"I'm a little worried," Howie presses. He pokes at his cheeseburger, peeking beneath the bun and pulling off the pickle slices. "He called me mom."

Brian stops eating and watches Howie scrape half of the tiny freeze-dried onions off the top of the bun. "He called you mom?"

"Yeah, and then denied it."

Brian frowns and looks around, probably looking for Nick. Howie looks too and sees Nick a few booths down, laughing with AJ. Kevin is just collecting his food at the counter and Brian waves him over. "That is pretty weird," Brian says. "You want me to talk to him? Make sure everything's okay?"

Howie shrugs. Nick's much more likely to tell Brian if something is wrong than he is to tell Howie. "Sure," he says, moving over to let Kevin into their booth.

Howie hefts his bag higher on his shoulder and crosses the parking lot to the bus. Brian, AJ, and Nick are standing outside, toward the back of the bus in a tight little circle. Howie swerves so that his path from the hotel door to the bus takes him closer to the circle. Brian is talking to Nick, his voice low so that Howie can't hear what he's saying, but his eyebrows are raised and his hands are gesturing, and they've been together long enough that Howie knows Brian is either lecturing or angry.

Nick shrugs and throws up his hands and says, "So, I slipped. So what."

AJ hits Nick's shoulder and turns to Brian. Brian's looking at Howie and Howie smiles and waves. "Hey," he says, continuing toward the bus.

"Hey," Brian says, waving back, and then he too hits Nick's shoulder. All three watch Howie climb onto the bus.

Howie shakes his head and dumps his bag on the couch. Kevin is leaning across the table opposite, peering out the window.

"They're up to something again," Kevin says solemnly. "They've recruited AJ this time."

"I think I'm the target," Howie sighs, climbing into the booth to look out the window with Kevin. They can't really see the others, only part of Nick's back is visible toward the end of the bus.

Kevin turns to look at Howie. "Good luck, man," he says, rubbing Howie's shoulder. Howie nods. He's going to need it.

Howie sits in the back of the bus with his crappy book and reads the same paragraph over and over again. Mostly he's trying to predict what the big prank is going to be. It has to be a big one. They only recruit AJ for the really good ones.

It's pretty obvious now that Nick fucked up when he called Howie "mom" three days earlier. And despite what Nick might tell Brian and AJ, there was no way it was a slip up. You don't repeat something six times when you're slipping up. But Howie can't guess how it's going to figure into the plan. Howie's not sure he even wants to know, but he knows he'll find out soon enough and it won't matter at all then what Howie wants.

"Are you worried?" Kevin asks, standing in the open doorway leading to the rows of bunks.

Howie shrugs. He is a little worried.

"Maybe it'll be like last time," Kevin offers. "That wasn't so bad." It really wasn't. Howie had no idea that it was coming, but it turned out that they just snuck into Howie and AJ's room and dumped M&Ms in the beds. The candies melted as Howie and AJ slept on them during the night so that in the morning there were small brown spots left on the white sheets. Nick and Brian laughed and made cracks about bowel movements all day, but it was a pretty lame prank, really. Howie and AJ had guessed that it was chocolate as soon as they noticed the bits of candy shell.

But last time it was probably unplanned spur of the moment fun. This time there is planning, and slip-ups, and key words, and a target, and they are probably just getting started. And the worst part is that the target is Howie. Again.

"It might be like the time with the band," Howie says, because he's pretty sure that's the worst case scenario and he just wants to get it out there.

Kevin shakes his head. "They know better." People weren't exactly happy about the band prank, and Nick and Brian have since promised that there will be no more jokes involving actual excrement. Howie can't remember if the deal was all shit, or just human shit, or just Nick's shit, but he's hoping it was all shit.

"Maybe it's not you," Kevin says, and they both know that they're grasping at straws. Of course it's Howie. Despite the fact that the three are acting strangely, Howie's almost always the target.

Howie shrugs. "It's me." Kevin doesn't try arguing the point any further.

"Well, hey," Kevin says finally, folding his arms across his chest. "If it ends up being a really bad one, I'll help you get them back."

Howie smiles and nods. It's not as comforting as it should be. Especially when Kevin leaves, heads back down the aisle and goes to enter the bathroom, but upon opening the door finds that the entire closet is filled with balloons, half of them containing water.

"Brian!" he bellows, kicking them out and into the hallway. Nick shrieks from the front of the bus.

Later Howie finds that his bunk is also filled with balloons. No one's around for him to make any jokes about all that hot air.

Howie spends the next week jumping at small noises and carefully watching his back. He dreads entering rooms alone and leaves the bathroom light on all night even though AJ complains that it's too bright to sleep. A week and still nothing and as every day passes Howie gets more worried because it must be something really big this time. He thought for maybe an hour that it was the balloons, that that was it, but he could still sense something coming and he knew that he was lying to himself.

"What is it?" Howie asks, because AJ must feel at least a little more loyalty to him than he does to the prank twins. "Just tell me. It's killing me. It's bad, isn't it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," AJ says, and he looks Howie right in the eye as he says it.

Damn, Howie thinks, because he's not getting anything out of AJ. And maybe AJ isn't in on it after all but Howie's almost positive that he is.

"Fine," Howie concedes. "Just tell me one thing then. Promise that it doesn't involve shit or anything. And what does Nick's mom have to do with it?"

"I don't know anything," AJ says again. AJ's really good at this. Howie should really be targeting Nick, but Nick knows he can't keep a secret and most likely at Brian's insistence, Nick's been avoiding Howie like the plague. Brian's the mastermind. Brian's always the mastermind. When Brian gets bored, when Brian's struck with an idea, that's when things get dangerous.

Kevin's the only one Howie can trust lately and so Howie sticks close.

"Nothing yet?" Kevin asks every morning. Kevin's been grilling Brian, threatening that he'll get his own if they don't stop with the pranks, but they both know it won't be effective. Driving everyone else insane is what keeps Brian and Nick from going nuts on the road.

Knowing that it's coming is so much worse than it coming unexpected. By the time the realization of what's happening hits it's already over and there's laughter and mocking, but it's over. Howie's never known beforehand and now it's all he can think about.

Johnny calls a meeting, and Brian suggests they hold it in the room he's sharing with Kevin. There's safety in numbers and at least Howie's not worried about the meeting, it's probably to discuss the schedule, the nine shows they have lined up in the next five days.

"Where's Brian?" Howie asks when Kevin moves aside to let him into the room.

"Nick's sick. His stomach is upset or something," Kevin says, and he looks worried.

"Should we go check up on him?" Howie asks, sitting on the edge of one the beds. Howie guesses it's Brian's based on the pile of unfolded clothes on the floor beside it.

Kevin shakes his head and shrugs. "I wanted to but Brian told me to stay here, for the meeting. He says he'll take care of Nick. I hope it's nothing."

Howie nods. Nick's prone to exaggeration. Kevin moves to turn on the television and the phone rings. Howie grabs it.

"Kev," AJ says.

"Howie," he corrects.

"Oh, hey," AJ says. "Listen, Nick's sick and Johnny says we can postpone the meeting, so I'm going out. I've got a date, man. French. Hot."

"Oh," Howie says, frowning at the phone, because sudden illnesses and dates and it's all looking a little suspicious. Howie wishes AJ luck with his girl, hangs up the phone, and then as if on cue, there's a knock at the door. Howie jumps, the receiver rattling in its holster. Kevin moves to answer the knock.

"Don't answer it," Howie says, holding up his hand. Kevin stops in his path to the door and gives Howie a look.

"It's probably Johnny," Kevin frowns. He starts moving toward the door again.

"AJ was on the phone. Johnny cancelled the meeting. AJ's got a date. Nick's sick. Brian's with Nick. What does that leave?" Howie asks. He's talking fast, trying to get it all out before Kevin reaches his destination.

"Donna?" Kevin suggests. He looks out the peephole and then back at Howie, shrugging. "It's hotel staff, Howie."

"It's their prank," Howie hisses. He just knows it's going to be horribly unpleasant, targeted at him specifically, and he'll do whatever he can to avoid the prank going to fruition. "Kev. Don't open it."

"It's hotel staff," Kevin says again. "I think Brian called for towels earlier." The knocking is louder now.

Howie is about to protest a third time, but Kevin doesn't seem convinced that opening the door may be detrimental to Howie and Howie has no time to work on his persuasive tactics. Instead Howie shrugs and moves to the far end of the room. Kevin mimics his shrug and opens the door.

"Monsieur?" the young man asks. Kevin nods and opens the door a little wider. The man is holding a tray with some Styrofoam containers and a small vase that holds one red rose.

"I didn't think this hotel had room service," Kevin says, turning to look at Howie.

"It doesn't," Howie confirms. Lou cuts as many corners as he can, and room and board is definitely one of the most cut-able, apparently.

The man listens to this exchange, frowns, and then tries again in heavily accented English. "This is the room of Monsieur uh, AJ?"

Howie sighs in relief. Kevin laughs a little and then points three doors down the hall. The bell boy/waiter apologizes in French, bows a little, and backs out of the room.

"See," Kevin says.

Howie visibly relaxes. He collapses into an ugly orange chair by the window. Then Howie stops to think about it and starts feeling tense again.

"What now?" Kevin asks.

"That means it's still coming," Howie moans, letting his head fall back over the top of the chair. "They're going to give me an ulcer." He stares at the ceiling and doesn't listen as Kevin tries to say comforting and supportive things. Kevin's never the target of the bad pranks. Brian and Nick are sort of afraid of Kevin. Must be nice.

"But not tonight," Kevin points out, and yeah, he's probably right about that. Probably not tonight.

Howie rubs his hands over his face and nods. Probably not tonight. Kevin's right. The bellhop/waiter boy was a false alarm. It didn't look so bad and Howie wishes that were it, that it was over, but it isn't and it probably won't come tonight. Howie sighs and suddenly feels exhausted, as though he hasn't slept in four days. And really he pretty much hasn't, thanks to their schedule.

"I think I'm going to call it a night," Howie says, standing from the chair.

Kevin glances at the clock and frowns. It's only a little after seven, but Howie has a chance for undisturbed sleep and he's going to take advantage of it.

Kevin nods and then rubs his hand across Howie's back in large circles. Howie leans into it and closes his eyes. "G'night Howie," Kevin says. He grips Howie's shoulders and starts steering Howie toward the door.

"Night," Howie says, his eyes still closed. Kevin stops pushing and Howie opens his eyes, sees the door in front of him. "Night," he says again.

Howie opens the door, already thinking of his quiet room, of the comfort of his own bed, and so he jumps when he nearly runs into the bellboy/waiter poised to knock.

"Geez," Howie says, stepping back and in doing so stepping right into Kevin. "You're back."

"Monsieur AJ," the man says. "He is not at home." His tag says his name is Basile.

"He had a date," Howie says.

"This is the room," Basile insists. He holds up a small piece of paper across which is printed AJ and 623. Howie glances at the door. Basile is at the right room.

"AJ is out," Kevin says, stepping in. "We'll take the food."

"Ah," Basile says and he smiles. "Merci." He slides by Kevin and Howie and sets the tray with the Styrofoam containers and the one red rose on the table by the ugly orange chairs. Kevin tips him and he repeatedly thanks them, rattling along in French that is way too fast for Howie to catch. Basile backs out of the room, closing the door behind him, and Howie turns to Kevin.

"Let's see what AJ ordered," Kevin says, sitting in one of the chairs and pulling it closer to the table. The Styrofoam squeaks as the containers slide against one another.

"This hotel doesn't have room service," Howie points out. He's eyeing the single red rose. Maybe AJ was planning on staying in with his date.

"Hence the Styrofoam." Kevin gestures toward the second ugly orange chair. He sets the second container in front of the seat and waits for Howie to sit before opening his own.

Howie opens the container and squints at the contents. "It's some kind of chocolate mousse cakey thing," he says. The entire slice is covered in chocolate shavings.

"Looks good," Kevin says, picking up one of the forks on the tray.

It is good and Kevin and Howie eat in silence for awhile. Howie stares at that damn rose as he eats and finally says, "You know what this kind of feels like?"

"What?" Kevin asks between mouthfuls. He's really shoveling it in. Kevin's always had a thing for chocolate.

"AJ definitely said he was going out. It doesn't add up. It feels like a set up." Howie fingers the rose, sliding the petals between the pads of his fingers. Kevin watches him.

"Sort of feels like a date," Kevin says eventually.

"Yeah," Howie ventures.

"You think that's it then? That's what you've been worried about?"

Kevin's grinning now. Howie shrugs. "It's pretty painless."

"Not particularly humiliating even," Kevin agrees.

"Sorta lame, really."

Kevin snorts and pretends to be offended. "Well you're not exactly my type either, but there's no need to get nasty about it."

Howie feels his cheeks get warm. "That's not what I -" Kevin's actually exactly Howie's type.

"I know." Kevin's still grinning.

"Well, I'll let them get in whatever gloating they have planned tomorrow, but you know, I really think this is one of their wimpiest pranks yet. Also, you know, kind of low."

"Low?" Kevin asks.

"Yeah, you know, targeting my sexuality and stuff like that and then mocking it."

"Oh," Kevin says. He's finished his cake and is eyeing the rest of Howie's. Howie pushes it across the table for him. It's always annoyed him that Kevin can eat like he does and still look like that.

"Okay, well, I guess I'm going to get going. Hopefully actually make it to bed this time."

Kevin nods. "You want me to kiss you good night?"

"Oh, please," Howie pleads in a high falsetto, rolling his eyes. "G'night Kev."

Howie sits across the table from Kevin and AJ and watches them eat their cereal. Brian and Nick are giggling on the couch by the windows, pointing at random things as the bus passes by them. They haven't said anything about 'the date,' but then it's only 9 AM.

Howie pokes at his cereal but it's already too soggy. He drops his spoon in the bowl and goes back to watching the guys instead.

AJ looks particularly worn out. Must have been out pretty late, though Howie doesn't know how he manages to pull that shit off with Denise hanging around all the time. Maybe he had Nick lie for him or something. And speaking of, Howie turns his attention to Nick and Brian who are still laughing and pointing at things out the window. Some kind of game maybe, but it looks pretty pointless. Nick has a nice healthy glow to his cheeks and he's cackling and roughhousing with Brian. Not the look of someone that had been so ill the night before.

"Hey, Nicky," Howie says. Nick and Brian don't seem to hear him so he says it again, louder. "Nicky."

Brian stops and looks at Howie and Nick scrunches up his nose at the hated nickname. "Yeah?" he asks.

"How are you feeling?"

"Oh," Nick says, turning to look at Brian. His hands are fidgeting restlessly in his lap and he's biting his lip. Two of the more obvious signs that Nick's lying. "I'm feeling good," he nods. "Much better."

"Good," Kevin jumps in. "We were worried about you. Nine shows coming up."

"Yeah," Nick nods again before turning to look at Brian.

"Mild food poisoning, maybe," Brian says.

"And, hey," Howie segues, "speaking of, we got your food last night AJ."

"My food?" AJ asks, looking up from his cereal for the first time since the conversation started. "oh, the desserts?"

"Yeah," Kevin says. Brian and Nick are quiet. "Cute. The rose was a nice touch."

"Cute?" AJ asks, confused. "I forgot about the food. We went out to dinner."

Kevin nods and Howie follows suit. The conversation is dropped and they finish their breakfast in relative silence. Brian and Nick leave to watch television in the back of the bus, or probably more likely to play video games. They only get one channel on the television and it's always something really lame. Eventually AJ leaves to join them.

"They're acting like it's nothing," Howie says. "That's kind of weird." Brian and Nick are usually the first to own up to their pranks, reveling in them for days.

"Maybe that wasn't it," Kevin suggests. "Or maybe it's not over with."

"So they're trying to set us up or something like that, but it didn't really, you know, work? So they're pretending nothing's going on? What did they think would happen? I'd see some chocolate and a rose and jump you or something, thereby humiliating both of us? And what does Nick's mom have to do with it?" He'd almost forgotten that little piece of the puzzle.

"I dunno, man," Kevin says, shrugging. He collects the three cereal bowls from the table and dumps them in the small sink. He hardly needs to leave his seat to do it. The bus is small, but a luxury nonetheless. They were all surprised when Lou actually said they could have a tour bus this time instead of various local busses that just carted them from the hotels to the venues. "Hey, why don't we just go along with it." Kevin has a little gleam in his eye now. He's leaning over the table and his voice is low, conspiratorial.

"Go along with it?"

"Yeah, you know, play along. Pretend like it's working."

"Get them back with their own lame prank," Howie says. Kevin grins.

"No single this time, boys," Johnny says, holding up two sets of room keys. "Somebody's gotta cot it tonight."

Howie sighs. One of the biggest pointless argument starters within the group: who gets the cot. And if they do start arguing about it, Howie's already set to just give in and take it to keep the peace.

"Not me," Nick says immediately. "I had it last time."

Kevin throws up his hands and then points at Nick. "I'm the oldest."

"I had it last time," AJ disagrees.

"No way, man!" Nick protests, stamping a foot for emphasis. His eyes are narrowed at Kevin and his mouth is hanging open.

Here we go, Howie thinks, and opens his mouth to break it up before it can really start.

"I'll take the cot," Brian offers.

"You will?" Nick asks. Brian's usually trying the hardest to get out of cot duty. He goes as far as to make up lies about a bad back that they all know he doesn't have.

"Sure," Brian shrugs. "It's probably my turn anyway."

A bit more bickering over rooming arrangements and the keys are handed out, the bags tossed in the elevator, and then Kevin and Howie are alone in the double.

"That went well," Kevin says

"Brian offered to sleep on a cot," Howie says, still a bit flabbergasted by the whole thing. "Offered. I think that's a first."

"They're trying to get us into the same room. Part of the set up prank thing," Kevin says. "They probably think it'll be funny and awkward after our 'date.'" He throws his stuff down by the dresser.

"Yeah," Howie says. "Maybe."

They grab some food and then it's off to the venue, off to do their thing.

It's a good show, Howie thinks afterward, wiping his face on a towel that Billy, one of the lighting guys tosses to him. Howie's not afraid to admit that sometimes he feels lost in the group, like he doesn't really have a place, like he's on the outside. But that's rainy day thinking, bus thinking, and being on stage, singing with these four guys, watching them command a crowd that doesn't even speak their language, it feels right. It feels like he's found his place. It feels like it could be something really big.

AJ asked him once if he felt it, if he could feel it coming. Howie hadn't, and he thinks maybe with the four shows a day and the endless rehearsals he just hadn't really had time to stop and notice. He still doesn't have time, even though they're down to maybe three shows a day, but he feels it. It's coming and he starts to believe Lou again when Lou says so.

"Good prank," Howie says, coming up beside Nick after the show. Nick frowns at him and then looks around, probably for Brian. Howie's supposed to be pretending he doesn't know. He's supposed to be playing along with Kevin, but it's such a stupid prank and Howie can't help but try to catch Nick in the act.

"What?" Nick asks. Brian's not around to save him.

"You know," Howie presses.

"The balloons? It wasn't that good," Nick shrugs and walks a little faster.

Kevin shuts the bathroom door and Howie picks up his book from the table. He flips through to the page he left off on, but hardly starts to read when he hears Kevin mutter, "Fuck," in the bathroom.

"You okay?" Howie calls.

The bathroom door opens and Kevin emerges half way, his pants and his boxers down around his knees. Only his hip is visible.

"Do I really want to know?" Howie asks.

Kevin turns to show off half of his ass, revealing a nice streak of white across one cheek.

"I really don't want to know," Howie confirms. Mostly he wants to look away because he has a feeling he's supposed to be checking out the white crap and not the ass it rests on.

"Toothpaste," Kevin says, grouchily. "I think it was meant for you."

Howie snorts. "I'm not always the target," he says, pulling his eyes away from Kevin's bare ass and back to the open page of his book.

"Sure you are, because they know that if this was actually meant for me, they'll be dead within eight hours," Kevin shuffles back into the bathroom and slams the door.

"Sometimes AJ's the target. It's not always me," Howie sniffs to the empty room. A few seconds later the shower turns on and Howie goes back to pretending to read his horrible boring badly written piece of crap book.

"I'm just saying maybe you should be more careful," Kevin says, following AJ toward the front of the bus. They've been on the bus a lot this week. Howie thinks they probably could have scheduled things better. He's pretty sure they're just zigzagging back and forth across the same stretch of countryside every other day.

"Uh oh," Brian sing songs from the table where he's playing gameboy. Nick is asleep on the couch beside Howie.

"Fuck you," AJ says.

"I'm one of the few you haven't," Kevin says. "I'm just trying to help." Sometimes Kevin tries too hard. They all know it, they all accept it, and they all try to listen. Kevin wants so much to be the role model, he wants to be their guide, their brother. But he's always been the one looking up and it's hard. He's much better at joining in, being an equal when he lets himself.

"Okay Dad," AJ spits. "I am careful enough and I don't need you all hypocritical telling me what to do." AJ turns and stomps off the bus, and oh hey, they're there.

"Nick," Brian says, shutting off the gameboy. "Hey, Nick. We're here."

Howie reaches over and shakes Nick, who shoots right up from the couch. "What?"

"We're here," Howie says, gently.

"Oh." Nick swipes his hand over his face and yawns. "Cool." He disappears into the bathroom and Howie begins collecting his stuff. Kevin is still standing in the aisle staring after AJ. Brian's halfway to the back entrance of the hotel.

"Hey," Howie says, coming up behind Kevin, "You okay?"

"Sure," Kevin says, but he doesn't look like he's really there and he doesn't move.

"He'll thank you some day," Howie offers. Nick comes out of the bathroom, grabs his bag from his bunk, and then opens the fridge and grabs an apple. "Wash your hands," Howie says. Kevin does turn then. Turns and stares at Howie instead of at the bus door. Nick just snorts and pushes past them, hopping off the bus.

"Let's go," Howie says, nudging Kevin. He heaves his bag up over his shoulder.

"I figured it out," Kevin says and instead of grabbing his own bag he sits down at the table.


"Nick wasn't calling you his mom, he was calling you mom."

"What? why?" Howie drops his bag and sits down across from Kevin.

"'Wash your hands, Nicky.' 'Be careful, AJ.'," Kevin mocks. "Get it? You're mom. I'm dad. The prank is that they're setting up the parents."

Howie frowns. "Why am I mom? Because I'm short? Because I'm gay and girlie? That's why, right? I'm the target, I'm the mom, and I'm gay."

"Howie," Kevin says. "you've been gay since we've known you. They aren't singling you out now because of it."

"Well, it's stupid anyway. Just because we're a tad more responsible -"

"A tad?" Kevin smiles.

"Shut up. Game's off. I quit," Howie slaps his hands down on the table. The mom. He guesses it isn't that bad. He loves his mom, she's a great woman and he doesn't consider it an insult to be compared to someone like that, but they're making fun, they're always making fun, and Howie's sick of it.

"You can't quit."

"I just did, didn't I?" Howie says.

"How are you going to get them back if you quit?" Kevin points out.

"How are we getting them back this way? They haven't even said anything. They don't even notice."

"You guys gonna get moving or what?" Johnny asks, sticking his head onto the bus. "We have rehearsal in twenty minutes. You guys get the double." He tosses a key and Kevin catches it.

"They're noticing," Kevin smiles.

"Ten minutes!"

Howie sighs and picks up his water bottle. They've been at it for several hours, and that's fine, Howie doesn't mind rehearsal, but they have a show tonight on top of it all. It just seems like they could have scheduled the precision choreography stuff on a day off, maybe work on vocal arrangements today. He's not going to suggest it.

Howie turns to watch the others in one of the big mirrors of the rented studio. He watches Kevin approach from behind him, smiles when Kevin's hands settle on his sides.

"Hey," Kevin says. "Lean back a little."

Howie starts to question but Kevin's hands slide around to rest on his stomach and Howie looks around the studio. There's no one around but the other boys, Fatima, and Johnny and Donna, but they're off in one corner not paying attention to anyone else. Johnny's holding a stack of papers and Donna's filing her nails. Howie thinks it won't be long until they're actively ignoring one another for the rest of the day. Not really the best situation for management.

Howie leans back into Kevin and sighs. He thinks that he could get used to this and then catches himself thinking it and tenses a little. Kevin feels it, he can tell, but Kevin doesn't say anything, instead reaches for the water bottle in Howie's hand. Howie watches him drink from it in the mirror, feels drops of water from the perspiration on the outside of the bottle hit his neck. Kevin is warm and smells alive and Howie feels himself start to relax again.

"They're watching," Kevin says quietly, his mouth close to Howie's ear.

Howie stops looking at them in the mirror then, glances toward Brian and Nick instead. AJ isn't paying any attention, he's twirling around the room, singing some made up song. Brian and Nick though, they're sitting on a bench and have the distinct appearance of someone who's pretending not to watch.

"Oh, hey, look what I brought. I almost forgot," Nick says, pulling a small tube from his pocket. Howie is sitting with Brian and Nick in a booth at a bar. It's a night off, the first one they've had in quite awhile.

What is it?" Howie asks. They'd been talking about cheeseburgers and pizza and their pets back home.

"Superglue," Brian answers for Nick, grabbing the tube from Nick's hand and patting him on the shoulder. "Nice, Frack."

Nick grins and starts wiping off the bottom of his empty Coke glass.

"What are you going to do with it?" Howie's already looking for someone he can escape to. He doesn't know what they're planning, but he's pretty sure he doesn't want to be in on it.

"We're going to glue our glasses to the table," Nick says, and rolls his eyes at Brian. Howie frowns.

"And then we'll leave and watch from over there," Brian points to the bar, "as our waiter tries to pick them up."

Oh, great, Howie thinks. He definitely doesn't want to be a part of this. Let them get kicked out of the pub, Howie's going to get out of it while he still can. "Oh, there's Kevin," he says, sliding out of the booth and making sure to take his glass with him.

Howie pushes through the small crowd in the pub, making his way to Kevin, who's now leaning against the bar, tapping his fingers on his hip to the beat of the music. Howie looks around for AJ. He was last seen playing darts with a tall brunette, but he doesn't seem to be around anymore. Howie shrugs and sits on a stool beside Kevin.

"Where's AJ?" Howie asks.

Kevin shrugs. "Sewing his wild teenage oats? I don't know. He doesn't tell me these things."

AJ is nearly twenty, he's been sowing his oats for years, but Kevin seems bitter so Howie drops it.

"They aren't buying it anymore," Kevin says, sipping his beer. "They're on to us."

"Yeah, maybe," Howie agrees. He watches Kevin's neck as Kevin takes another swallow of the beer.

"We should take things up a notch," Kevin says.

"You think so?"

"Yeah. What are they doing?" He gestures to Brian and Nick, hunched over their table with their backs turned to the rest of the room.

"Gluing their glasses to the table," Howie says.

"Oh," Kevin nods. "Okay, well, as soon as they finish with that, we're going to kiss."

Howie knows better than to argue. You don't argue when Kevin Richardson says he's going to kiss you. Not unless you're either really really really straight or really insane. Howie is neither.

They watch Brian and Nick, who are visibly shaking with laughter as they continue to glue things to the table. It looks like they've moved on to the salt and peppershakers now, to the napkin holder. The tube is small. They'll probably run out of glue soon.

Howie keeps watching but stops paying attention. He won't admit it to any of them, but he really sort of loves this prank thing for once. He's spending more time with Kevin than he has in the last few years. And now Kevin's going to kiss him. Howie used to have dreams about that. Actual dreams, not daydreams. He used to have dreams about hooking up with Kevin before he even knew that he had something of a crush. Kevin in a towel, kisses, blowjobs, romantic crap, all the usual dream stuff. It made things incredibly awkward in the beginning. But that was years ago, and Howie has mostly gotten over his little crush, mostly. Kevin is going to kiss him and Howie is neither straight nor insane.

Kevin taps his shoulder and Howie jumps a little. The ice rattles in his empty glass.

"They're done," Kevin says. His hand doesn't let go of its grip on Howie's shoulder.

It was Kevin's suggestion, but Howie is the one that hears the words and takes action. He leans in, strains on his stool. Kevin sees him coming and closes his eyes. Howie follows suit and also closes his eyes, continuing to lean in. It's always strange when things you've anticipated, things you've thought about in detail actually happen.

Howie presses his mouth to Kevin's and Kevin's tongue is poking out between his lips a little before he even arrives. It seems like jumping the gun. Kevin licks across Howie's lower lip and Howie opens his mouth a bit to allow Kevin access. If he wants to jump right into it Howie has no complaints. The kiss feels a little awkward, a little unbalanced, and then Kevin stiffens, let's go of his grip on Howie's shoulder. Howie pulls back a bit and then pushes, kissing Kevin again, small light kisses, but Kevin is tense, closed, and he pulls away.

Howie stares at him for a moment, tries to figure out what's going on in his head. Kevin's just looking at Howie, his brow furrowed a bit and if anything he just looks confused.

"Okay," Howie says, because it's weird and he's not sure where to take it from here. "Okay." He scans the room to see if Nick and Brian were watching. They're looping around the crowd, snickering and repeatedly glancing back toward their table. It's hard to tell. "Okay," Howie says a third time and licks his lips.

"I don't know what I'm doing," Kevin says suddenly, and Howie swings around to look at him. Kevin's fingers scratch at his chin as he shakes his head. He looks surprised by his realization.

"Whoa, guys, PDA much?" Brian says, answering Howie's unspoken question. He knocks into Howie and then climbs up on the stool beside them. Nick is uncontrollably giggling and keeps glancing back at the table. Howie sips the water that has collected in the bottom of his glass from the melting ice. There isn't much there but his throat is dry suddenly and the bartender is busy with some cute girls at the other end of the bar. Howie takes Kevin's beer from his hand and downs half of it. Kevin watches and then takes the beer absently when Howie hands it back.

"Sorry," Kevin says, and it almost sounds like an afterthought, an apology to Brian and Nick, but Howie thinks that that's probably not it at all. He shakes his head because Kevin has nothing to apologize for. There were expectations, things that Kevin didn't even know about, and Howie thinks that they influenced things too. It wasn't a bad kiss. It was short and well, wet, but not bad. Not something that Howie never wants to try again. Howie definitely wants to try it again, but hopefully with a less intoxicated and more relaxed Kevin.

"Hey, it's okay, man. Your butt's the one Lou might kick if he finds out, not mine," Brian shrugs. Nick shrieks a little and then slaps his hand over his mouth, yanks on Brian's shirt and not so discreetly points back toward their table.

"Here he comes!" Nick blurts loudly. He's practically jumping up and down in excitement.

Kevin looks at Howie and shrugs.

"No wonder they aren't buying it," Kevin says the next day, dropping onto the couch beside Howie. Everyone else is still asleep, taking advantage of prime bus napping time, though Howie thinks he hears shuffling in one of the bunks. "I don't even know how to pretend I'm a gay man."

"You're doing okay," Howie reassures him. He pats Kevin's knee and then stops patting and shakes it a little instead. Kevin's hand slide's over Howie's, almost a caress, before it stops and squeezes and then disappears completely.

"I licked your face," Kevin frowns.

"Yeah. Well, I didn't really mind."

"Maybe I should start talking with a lisp or something," Kevin says, trying out the voice. He stands, juts his hip out, props his hand on it, and bats his lashes at Howie.

Howie rolls his eyes. "Now you're just being an idiot."

Kevin collapses back onto the couch beside Howie. "Maybe we should just quit," Kevin says. "Let it go."

Howie shrugs, "Whatever you want, man."

"We could just saran wrap their toilets instead," Kevin suggests.

"No pranks involving excrement," Howie reminds him, but he's smiling. "Even indirectly."

"Right," Kevin says, he knocks the back of his head against the window behind the couch for emphasis as he says, "Must." Bang. "Set." Bang. "A Positive." Bang. "Example."

"That's right, dad."

"Fuck you, mom." Kevin flips him off.

Howie shakes his head. "I'm still really offended about that, you know. Also creeped out a little."

"Yeah," Kevin agrees, but his voice is quiet now and Howie glances over at him. Kevin's head is still thrown back over the top of the couch, exposing his neck. His eyes are closed, his hands folded across his chest. He swallows and his adam's apple bobs up and down. Howie swallows too. He tries to think of an excuse to run his fingers along the exposed stretch of tanned skin, tries to find a reason to touch, but before he comes up with anything believable, AJ comes shuffling out of the bunks and opens the small refrigerator.

"Mornin' lovebirds," he says. He's already wearing sunglasses. "Heard while I was getting laid you guys were back at the bar sucking face. That true?" He grabs the carton of orange juice from the fridge and slides into a booth, pulling off his glasses and setting them beside a pile of Nick's comic books on the table. Howie frowns. AJ's still too young to be talking about sex so casually.

"Maybe," Kevin says.

"So is there something you want to tell your little buddy AJ?"

"Nope," Howie says. AJ opens the carton of orange juice and takes a long draught. Howie shakes his head, uses Kevin's knee to propel himself up from the couch and pulls a glass from the cupboard for AJ.

"Thanks," AJ says, rolling his eyes. "So you guys aren't really, you know?" He waves his hands around and looks from Kevin to Howie.

"No, no you-knowing," Kevin says, not bothering to open his eyes.

"Oh," AJ frowns. "Okay." He picks up his glass of orange juice and heads toward the 'lounge' in the back of the bus.

"He seemed a little disappointed," Howie notes, picking up the carton AJ left on the table and depositing it back in the refrigerator.

Kevin opens his eyes and leans forward, looking down the hall in the direction that AJ disappeared. He frowns, then stares at Howie for a few minutes, his brows furrowed.

"What?" Howie asks finally, running a hand over his face.

"You think maybe this isn't a prank?" Kevin asks. His lips keep moving though the words stop coming out, as though he's working things out in his head. He sets his elbows on his knees and then props his head in his hands.

"I guess. Like we're just being paranoid and stuff like that?" Howie asks. He's been thinking maybe they, or specifically him, have just been acting paranoid for days now.

Kevin thinks about this. "No," he says slowly. "Like the toothpaste was a prank, the superglue, that was a prank. But this, this is something else. They're still behind it, but maybe it's not a joke, you know? Maybe they're playing matchmaker."

Howie snorts. "You're straight. I'm gay. They're stupid."

"Maybe it's a bet," Kevin continues as though he hasn't heard Howie. "I bet it's a bet."

"A bet," Howie repeats. He still thinks it's a pretty stupid bet. A prank makes more sense.

"I bet it's a bet to see if they can set us up," Kevin says, nodding in support of his own theory. "That's why AJ was so disappointed. He thinks they can!"

"So who's on the opposing side?" Howie asks. Kevin's getting excited and Howie figures he'll just go along with it for now, despite how stupid and pointless it all seems.

Kevin shrugs. "Brian, I'd guess. Which means probably Nick too."

Howie nods. That sort of makes sense. AJ's the only one Howie ever told about his Kevin crush those first few years.

Kevin jumps up then and starts pacing the short aisle. When he speaks, his voice is still quiet, but Howie can tell he's making a conscious effort to keep it so. "Do you think there's money involved?" he asks suddenly, stopping in his tracks.

Howie slips into the booth by the window and leans against the kitchen table. "Probably, I guess. Kevin. Who cares? So they had a stupid bet. We're done with it now anyway."

"We're not done with it. Not anymore. Not if they're betting money on us. I wonder how much." Kevin sits across from Howie and starts fiddling with AJ's abandoned sunglasses.

"So we want AJ to win this bet?" Howie asks.

"Of course we do," Kevin nods. They never side with Brian and Nick when it comes to pranks or bets. It's a matter of principle.

"I don't know -" Howie says. He feels a little betrayed. AJ was the only one that knew about his crush. AJ was the only one that could have exploited that. It was an old crush anyway, it was old news, why use it to meddle?

"Come on, man. Ultimate revenge on Nick and Brian. We fool them a little longer, they lose money. Hopefully a lot. And I promise I won't lick your face again."

Howie smiles and shakes his head. "Yeah, yeah, okay." Revenge on Brian and Nick sounds pretty damn good.

The best thing about this whole business is that the other boys have quickly come to accept that if there are only two rooms at a particular hotel, Howie and Kevin get the double and the others have to triple up. Arguments have ceased and Howie never has to sleep on those damn cots.

Also, things are much quieter when it's just Kevin. Howie has plenty of time to finish his horrid book. And maybe it really isn't that bad. It's probably pretty good, but Howie's more into government conspiracies and things involving lawyers, which this sort of sounded like when he skimmed the back at the airport, but Donna was rushing him and it turns out the book is actually about some Victorian woman with a ridiculous name who just thinks she's a detective, but is actually a big obnoxious gossip mongering busybody. Just about anything is more interesting than this story and Howie spends a lot of time staring at walls, staring at Kevin.

Kevin walks out of the bathroom in nothing but a pair of sweatpants and Howie looks up from his page. Kevin scrubs a towel over his wet hair and then notices Howie watching, his open book forgotten in his hand. Kevin smiles and then drops the towel and stretches his hands toward the ceiling, groaning in satisfaction. Howie watches the muscles move under Kevin's skin and he swallows. It feels deliberate.

"Hey," Kevin says, before collapsing back on his bed. He rolls onto his side to look at Howie.

"Hey," Howie returns.

"Still reading that book?" Howie looks down at his book. He's on page 156. 250 more to go. It doesn't really help that he doesn't read more than four pages a day. Sometimes Howie wishes he's the type of person that can dump a shitty book in the middle. Or even the type that can just skip to the end to see what happens. Instead he's going to have to suffer through.

"So," Kevin starts. He frowns and then continues as though he's about to say something else and then thinks better of it. "How much money do you think they have riding on this?"

Howie shrugs, folds down the page in his book and tosses it aside. He rolls over to his side so that he's facing Kevin and props his head on his arm. "I dunno. Twenty?"

Kevin shakes his head. "Nah. We're worth more than that."


"It's gotta be about a hundred. It's kinda out there as far as bets go. Has to be at least a hundred."

Howie shrugs. He doesn't really see why anyone would bet that much money on a hookup that won't happen. "Maybe."

"So you've, you know, done things," Kevin says, not quite looking at Howie. "With men."

Howie frowns, "You know I have. I never tried to hide it from you."

"Is it the same?" Kevin asks. He seems to be over his embarrassment and he's looking at Howie again. Howie's the one that's a little embarrassed now.

"No," Howie says. Of course it's not the same.

"I always imagined that it was harder, more cruel maybe, more direct. Fucking."

"Not always," Howie says.

"I sort of tried to jump right in there, you know, in the bar," Kevin says. His fingers are pulling at the waistband of his sweats, wrapping around the pull-strings. Howie watches.

"Yeah," Howie shrugs. "It wasn't bad. Just, I guess, you've kissed girls before, I guess. Kissing isn't really that much different except for the facial hair and stuff."

"I'd like to try again," Kevin says.

"Okay," Howie nods, still watching Kevin's fingers twist in the strings of his pants. He's never seen Kevin display any nervous habits before but this looks like one. Kevin pulls his fingers away and starts getting up from the bed. Howie catches himself eyeing Kevin's crotch, but then looks up and says, "Wait? What?" He can't seem to remember what Kevin had said only a moment before.

"I want to try again," Kevin says. Howie closes his book, losing the page. Kevin wants to experiment. He's thought about the possibility that it would happen, that one of the guys would be curious and would come to him. He'd decided he'd turn them down, he didn't want to risk the group, but now that he's faced with the situation he can't imagine saying no.

"I guess," Howie starts, then forgets what comes afterward and just settles for "okay."

"Okay," Kevin repeats, climbing onto the bed beside Howie. Howie rolls over so that he's on his back looking up at Kevin. He isn't sure how this is going to go. Kevin sets a hand on Howie's stomach over his T-shirt and they both look at it. "Um," Kevin says, sounding less confident than he did before. "I think maybe you should kiss me."

"We don't have to," Howie says. "I don't want to -"

"You don't?" Kevin asks quickly, his gaze moving up Howie's body and finally meeting Howie's eyes.

"No," Howie stammers. "I mean, I guess, no. I do. I want to. I guess I just didn't think you did."

"I wouldn't have said anything if I didn't," Kevin says and his eyes are sharp, piercing. He said Howie should start it, but it's Kevin that leans in, and Kevin's kisses are soft this time, quick, but each kiss gets a little slower, a little deeper, and Howie wants it, wants more.

"Like this?" Kevin says in between kisses. He doesn't wait for an answer, goes right back in and takes Howie's breath away. He settles down so that they're pressed against one another and he's never seemed so large as he does this close. Howie might have been self-conscious, he's always been self-conscious about his size, but there's no time and he's thinking about other things. He's worried more about the fact that his hard on might scare Kevin off, that Kevin might come to his senses.

"Like this," Howie says against Kevin's mouth, and Kevin stays this time, eases Howie's lips apart with his tongue and it's like the dreams that first year, it's like the dreams only better, sharper, real. Kevin is pressed up against Howie's side and his hand slides down Howie's stomach and Howie stops breathing for a second, but it's nothing, a tease, and Kevin stops short, his hand sliding back up and slipping underneath the fabric of Howie's shirt. That's good too.

Kevin's hand keeps moving up, sliding over Howie's skin, and Howie thinks it'll stop any second now, it'll all be over and he's wake up drooling on that damn book, but it doesn't stop and when Kevin's thumb slides over Howie's right nipple Howie jumps a little and whimpers into Kevin's mouth. Kevin does it again and Howie tries to move closer, tries to get more and that's when he feels it. Kevin's hard too.

"Oh," Howie says, pulling away, pulling out of the kiss. Kevin props himself up on an elbow but his hand doesn't leave Howie's stomach. Howie hasn't dared to touch, hasn't dared to acknowledge that Kevin's already mostly undressed because he's not sure he'll be able to stop if he does. But Kevin is touching, Kevin's hard, and Howie thinks he can see the lust in Kevin's eyes, can see the disappointment in the small frown on Kevin's face. Kevin's fingers curl against Howie's stomach and then his palm flattens again. He repeats the gesture and it's all the invitation Howie needs. Kevin's letting him pretend.

Howie reaches up, slides his hand up Kevin's naked chest and around his shoulder. He watches Kevin as he does it and Kevin's expression has neutralized, the small frown is gone but the lust, that flash that Howie thinks he's probably imagining, that's still there. He pushes, just a little and Kevin falls back onto the bed, his hand coming free of Howie's shirt. Howie pulls the shirt off.

"They're winning," Kevin says.

"Let them." Howie's fingers slip underneath the waistband of Kevin's sweatpants. He leans down and kisses Kevin and then slides the pants down over Kevin's hips. Kevin lifts a little and they slide off easily. Howie kisses Kevin's neck, his shoulder and then he looks. He can't help it, it seems impolite but this is Kevin and Howie has to look. Kevin's fingers Howie's curls, scratching against his scalp, and the movement is soothing. Kevin's hard, so hard and it's so much better than those dreams that Howie was so embarrassed of those first few years. And there's the tattoo on Kevin's hip, the one that they always forget is there, the one that Kevin never talks about, won't even tell them when he got it. Howie touches it, runs a finger over it, thinks about the needle that created it and shivers.

"Yes," Kevin says and it's no more than a whisper. He says it again and Howie's not sure if he's asking or giving permission. He guesses the latter and his hand wraps around the base of Kevin's cock. "Yes," Kevin says again, closing his eyes.

It doesn't take long. Kevin thrusts into Howie's palm, makes the most needy noises Howie's ever heard, and bites his lips as though to keep them in. Howie watches, palming his own erection through his pants and flicking his thumb periodically over the head of Kevin's cock. He licks a bead of sweat from Kevin's forehead and then settles against Kevin's chest, his ear to Kevin's heart as his hand works faster, as Kevin's heart beats faster in response and he spirals toward the edge.

Howie's hand presses against the front of his pants as Kevin comes and then he's coming too, still trapped in his pants, still trapped in his underwear like an overzealous teenager. It would be embarrassing if it didn't feel so good. So right.

"Do you want me to -?" Kevin starts after he catches his breath, but Howie shakes his head, closes his eyes. It's enough.

Nick comes up beside Howie and starts piling food from the buffet on his plate. Nick's always said that the only good thing about foreign interviews that he can't understand most of is the fact that they feed him well. Howie tends to agree, but then Howie actually has to talk in the interviews. Nick usually just sits there and looks young and pretty.

Howie grabs a seat on the couch between Brian and AJ and then looks around for Kevin. Kevin's talking with Johnny and Donna in a corner of the room, so Howie settles into his seat. It's been two days since they decided to give the kissing thing a second try, and things have been pretty awkward since. Howie's not sure if it's him or if it's Kevin, but he's guessing it's probably a little of both. They've spoken little to each other in private and have sort of been sectioning themselves off in the hotel room, skirting around one another on tiptoes. The others don't seem to have noticed yet. Nick comes over and sits on the floor by Brian's feet.

"So I was talking to Billy the lighting guy earlier," Brian says between bites. He kicks Nick's thigh to make sure he has his attention.

"Yeah?" Nick asks without looking up from his plate of food. "And?"

"And he was telling me this thing he pulled with some of his buddies. He and a friend like blended up some leftover food, like not really gross stuff but it looked pretty nasty all blended. So they blended it up and dumped it all into a hot water bottle," Brian says, pausing to take another bite of a sandwich.

"Yeah?" Nick says. He's interested now and no longer paying any attention to his food.

"This sounds lovely already," AJ says, nudging Howie. Howie nods. He can't really guess where this is going but at least he can take consolation in the fact that if they're willing to talk about it in front of him they probably won't try it on him.

Brian finishes chewing. "And so they rig it up, right? And put like this tube that's attached to the bottle, like plastic hosing or something. The kind kids use to make funnels."

Nick nods but Howie's pretty sure Nick's never seen a funnel or really knows what Brian's talking about. Nick's missing those high school/college rituals completely.

"So Billy takes this bottle and like tapes it to his stomach under his shirt so that the tube comes up near his collar. And then he and his buddy go to this bar and they're already acting pretty drunk when they get there. They have a few drinks and Billy starts to talk about how sick he feels, right? So the bartender brings him a glass of water, but before Billy can reach for the glass he suddenly stands up, leans over and presses the water bottle with both hands so that the leftovers come flying up and spew out of the tube all over the bar! Everyone else at the bar is like shrieking and thinking that Billy's just barfed all over the place."

"Gross!" Nick cries and slaps the floor.

"Wait, I'm not done," Brian holds up his hands for Nick to keep listening. "This is the really good part. His friend picks up a fork and starts eating the chunks of leftovers from the bar!"

"Geez," Howie breathes, looking down at his plate. He's not quite as hungry as he was a few minutes earlier.

"That's so awesome," Nick says and he's laughing so hard that he'll probably start snorting soon. AJ's laughing a little too, but he's also shaking his head in a gesture that clearly says "that's so wrong."

"So who should we try it on?" Brian asks. "Billy says he'll help us get the blender and the bottle and tubing and stuff."

"Not me," Howie says.

"Well, no shit, Sherlock," Nick counters, still giggling, and Brian kicks his thigh again. "Ow."

"No swearing."


"Kevin?" Brian suggests, eyeing Kevin across the room. Donna and Johnny look like they're arguing with one another and Kevin is standing against the wall looking bored. Looking insanely hotter than anyone should be allowed to. Howie looks back down at his plate.

"No way," AJ says.

"Howie can keep us from getting out asses kicked, right Howie?" Nick says.

"Yeah," Brian adds, turning to Howie. "You can like, I don't know, kiss away the anger afterward." He grins a cheesy grin and pinches Howie's cheek.

Nick snickers.

"Whatever," Howie says, but he guesses he's probably blushing.

Brian and Nick spend the rest of their lunch break singing 'Howie and Kevin sittin' in a tree' in stage whispers so as not to announce it to everyone in the room. Eventually even AJ joins in and Howie elbows him in the side. AJ's supposed to be on his side. That's the way things are supposed to work in the group. Brian and Nick, AJ and Howie. Howie doesn't think he'll complain too much though. Kevin and Howie sounds pretty nice too and he'll probably be bright red for the rest of the afternoon.

When they get sick of the song, Nick and AJ go back to eating and Brian repeatedly gets himself all into Howie's space, leans over Howie's shoulder and pretends to puke until Howie shoves him off. Brian immediately leans back over and does it again.

Howie really can't wait until it's time for the interview to start.

The weirdness diminishes within a week and is replaced by a strange possessiveness on Kevin's side that wasn't there before. It's part of the prank, Howie thinks, it's part of the show, but to Howie it's starting to feel real. Kevin's a much better actor than Howie, and somehow Howie isn't surprised by that revelation.

Kevin walks with his arm around Howie's shoulders, sits pressed up against Howie's side, opens doors for him and touches the small of Howie's back lightly when Howie walks past him. Howie thinks it must be what it's like being Kevin's girlfriend. Howie's never wanted to be someone's girlfriend, he's all for equality in relationships, but somehow he thinks with Kevin he might not mind. And that thought invariably leads right into the idea of fucking Kevin, of his fingers in there, of his dick. It needs to stop before Howie becomes The Walking Erection. They all know that's Nick's role.

"You should touch me more," Kevin says one evening after a show. "It looks really one sided."

"I think we touch enough," Howie says quickly. Kevin doesn't bring it up again, but he doesn't stop either. And it isn't confined to semi-public places. It isn't only when they're with the other guys anymore either. It's all the time, it's in their hotel room, and Howie thinks it's just becoming habit, that Kevin doesn't even notice it anymore.

They open their hotel door one morning and dozens of crunched up paper balls fall into the room around their feet. Howie jumps back and Kevin's right there, couldn't have been more than a step behind him and then he's laughing and his hands are around Howie's waist and it feels like the most natural thing in the world except for the paper balls, except that their door has been completely covered in sheets of newspaper. They kick the balls into the room and Kevin breaks down the newspaper barrier and they leave it all in a pile on the floor. Kevin gathers up his bags and then picks up Howie's too and kisses him on the shoulder as he passes. Howie touches the spot and then takes his bag from Kevin, by force after Kevin resists at first.

"I feel sorry for the cleaning staff," Howie mentions as they shut the door.

"I feel sorry for Nick and Brian when we get through with them," Kevin says, but he's all talk and Howie knows he'll just let it go.

Howie falls asleep on the couch in the back of the bus, his arms wrapped around a pillow and he hardly wakes up when Kevin comes in, doesn't realize until Brian wakes them up at the hotel that Kevin had lifted his legs, settled down beneath them. Howie's shoes are off and Kevin complains about a crick in his neck the rest of the evening.

"I hope you're being careful," AJ says in the hotel elevator after a show.

"Sure Dad," Kevin retorts. Howie looks up at him and he's smiling, but just a little. AJ's standing behind them and Kevin slips his arm down Howie's back where it was resting, holding Howie close. His fingers slide into the back pocket of Howie's jeans, cupping Howie's ass.

AJ snorts behind them.

"Right," he says, "Okay."

Kevin squeezes and Howie can't help it. He smiles.

It's when Kevin isn't around that Howie really starts to worry. It's when Kevin's not touching him that Howie starts to think that that feeling in the bottom of his stomach is something he should be paying attention to, something he should stop before it consumes him.

"I can't do this anymore," Howie says, running his hands through his short hair. His fingers get tangled in the curls and he thinks, Kevin. It's too late.

"Do what?" AJ asks.

"It's becoming more than a crush," Howie moans. "I have to stop it before he realizes."

"Kev?" AJ asks.

"Who else?" Howie asks because if AJ hasn't noticed by now then he really must be blind behind those sunglasses.

"Reeeaally," AJ says, dragging out the word. "Interesting. Intra-band love."

"Yeah, you win," Howie says. He stands up and starts pacing the hotel room. AJ's lying on the cot, his hands propped behind his head. Brian and Nick were leaving as Howie arrived, going off somewhere with a basketball. "What should I do."

AJ shrugs. "He's pretty into it, man. I don't know what your problem is."

Howie sighs. That's sort of the problem. "It's all a lie," he says. "It's all a joke."

"Oh," AJ frowns.

Howie sits down on the edge of the cot and rests his forehead in the palm of his hands, closes his eyes, sighs. "But you don't have to say anything. You can still win. We did it for you. Well, you and revenge."

AJ's quiet and when Howie looks up he finds AJ staring at him, his sunglasses discarded. "Are you drunk?" AJ asks, finally.

"Of course not," Howie snorts. He had cola with dinner.

AJ throws up his hands. "just checking. You're not making a lot of sense."

"Sorry," Howie says. There isn't much that makes sense to Howie right now.

"Listen, you know I love you, and you know I love Kev, but man, if he's messing with you, dump his ass. That's just not cool. You can always come back and room with me. I'll even give you the cot," AJ offers. He pats the edge beside him and smiles.

"He's not," Howie says, because he doesn't think so, that's not it. And then he realizes. "You know, so it's over, right? That's the end of it."

AJ shakes his head and then shrugs again. "Sure, okay, D," he nods.

"I quit," Howie says as soon as he shuts the door behind him. He has to do it now before he can change his mind, before he caves.

"Quit?" Kevin asks, frowning. He's reading Howie's horrid Victorian detective novel. He's half way through it already. Bastard. "Quit what?"

"The bet," Howie clarifies. "The prank. AJ knows and AJ's won, so it's over, right?"

"Oh," Kevin says. He folds over his page in the book and sets it down. "This is horrible," he says, tapping his fingers on the cover.

"I know." Maybe he'll just let Kevin finish it, let Kevin tell him what happens.

"So how much?"

"What?" Howie asks. He's pressed up against the door. Maybe to have an easy out, maybe to prevent escape.

"How much was the bet?"

"Fifty? I didn't ask."

Kevin nods, frowns a little, and then looks at Howie and smiles. "Okay, man. You should have asked. I say we wait awhile before we tell them that it was all a ruse. Ruse? Is that the right word?"

"I think so," Howie says. He moves away from the door, starts getting ready for bed. He goes into the bathroom, brushes his teeth, takes care of business (making sure to check the toilet seat before sitting down), and when he comes back out, Kevin's curled beneath the blankets of his bed.

"How long do you want to wait?" he says. He yawns, and Howie shrugs and then yawns too.

"I don't know," Howie says. He didn't really think about that part. "A week? AJ will have spent the money by then."

Kevin nods. Howie climbs into his own bed, smiles at Kevin. It was easy. It's over and it was nothing, just as Howie suspected. A crush that got out of control, and now it's taken care of. Howie sighs in relief.

"'Night," Kevin says.

"G'night," Howie replies. He's not really all that tired though, and he thinks he can see Kevin watching him in the dark. Howie closes his eyes. He needs to get away from this for a little while, figure out what's real again, what's not some stupid joke. "Kev?" he asks, thinking of something he meant to tell Kevin days ago.

"Yeah," Kevin says, his voice quiet.

"Listen, if Brian throws up in front of you and Nick eats it, I just want you to know that it's only leftovers."

"Oh, that's comforting," Kevin says sarcastically. Howie smiles.

At first Kevin acts like nothing's changed. They decide on a week and a half before they tell the fellas that they've been duped, and Howie thinks that's probably why. Kevin's keeping up the charade until then. But now the touching isn't cute, it's not fun, it just hurts and it's annoying.

"Stop," Howie snaps when Kevin's hand slides against the inside of his thigh during rehearsal. Kevin gives him a look and goes to grab a bottle of water. "Please," Howie adds, but Kevin is already gone.

The touches become less intimate after that, shoulders, back, once Howie's neck and that was maddening, Howie had to close his eyes until Kevin took the hint. The touches become less intimate and less often, until they are simple friendly half-hugs and back pats again. Howie stops walking around half hard all the time and life becomes a little easier.

Howie misses it after only a few days.

"Two rooms this time boys," Johnny says, holding up the keys. Howie's not sure why he feels the need to tell them as though three rooms is the norm. It's so rare Howie can't even remember the last time they had three rooms.

"Not me," Nick says immediately. Kevin points at him and Nick scowls.

"I'll take it," Howie offers, grabbing the key that Johnny holds out for him. Kevin frowns but doesn't say anything.

"I'm with you, man," AJ says, slapping Howie on the back.

"Me too," Brian says. Nick looks at Kevin and pouts. The rest of them head toward the elevator.

"Be ready to head to the venue in two hours," Johnny calls after them.

"How you holding up?" AJ asks as they get settled into their room. Brian's already in the shower, and Howie's neatly folding his clothes into one of the drawers. They have two shows in a row here. Howie likes to take advantage of real drawers whenever he gets the chance. He holds the clothes away from him as he folds them, and it makes the process difficult, but several of his shirts inexplicably smell like Kevin. It's giving him a headache, heartburn, something. It hurts.

"I'm good," Howie says.

"Okay," AJ says, but he doesn't sound convinced. "Cause you know you can talk to me, man."

"Sure," Howie says. He sets a few t-shirts in the drawer, gives up on folding and shoves the rest in too.

It's been a week and his clothes still smell like Kevin. They weren't even that close. They'd pretended to date for a month. They'd kissed twice, a handjob, there's no reason for Kevin to be all over him like this. Especially when Kevin isn't all over him anymore at all. Fucking crush. He shouldn't have let it go so far.

Brian comes out of the shower with a towel wrapped around his head and Q-tips sticking out of both ears.

"Cute," AJ says.

Howie picks up his book from his bag and accidentally rips off half of the cover. "Fuck," he mutters. He lets the ripped piece flutter to the ground and then he collapses to the cot, starts leafing through for the last page he read. He's almost through the book now. He's had a lot of time this past week.

"You okay?" Brian asks.

"God, yes," Howie snaps, and then adds, "Sorry." Brian's staring at him, wide-eyed, holding a Q-tip in one hand. Howie doesn't snap very often, and he swears even less. Brian likes it that way.

"I think I'm going to go see what Nick's up to," Brian says. He shoots AJ a look, a look that Howie reads as 'Find out what's going on' and then he leaves, towel, Q-tips and all.

Howie starts reading again. Endella McRoberts. What the hell kind of name is that anyway? Howie flips back and looks at the half of the cover that's still attached to the book. He makes a note never to purchase anything by the author ever again.

There's a knock at the door and AJ stands up. "Don't answer it," Howie says. "It's probably Brian again."

"He doesn't have the key," AJ says, moving to open the door. It's not Brian, it's Kevin. Howie looks up quickly and then goes back to reading his book. Endella might find out if Jacqueline is committing adultery soon. Howie has to know. "Kev," AJ says, letting Kevin in. "Hey, is Nick in your room? I think he has something of mine." AJ slips out of the room and shuts them in.

"Thank you, AJ," Howie sighs.

"So you are mad at me," Kevin frowns. "Brian said you might be."

"I'm not mad at you," Howie says. He's not mad at Kevin, he's mad at himself. He's annoyed with AJ and Nick and Brian and he hopes the stakes were high, he hopes AJ made out like a bandit or however the expression goes, but he hasn't heard anything about it so he doesn't know. Mostly he's mad at himself.

"Fair enough," Kevin says when it becomes apparent that Howie's not going to elaborate. He sits on the edge of the cot, his back pressed against Howie's side. Howie sets the book down and Kevin picks it up off his stomach. "I was actually going to ask if I could borrow this. I have one or two chapters left. I hate leaving books unfinished, but it looks like you're pretty into it now."

"It's the worst book I've ever read," Howie says.

"What did you do? Try to eat the cover?"

"It ripped."

Kevin flips through it as Howie watches. "What kind of name is Endella anyway?"

Howie shrugs and smiles. Kevin looks at him and smiles in return.

"So Brian and Nick don't seem too broke," Kevin notes. He tosses the book onto AJ's bed and turns to face Howie, bringing one knee up onto the cot. Howie's t-shirt had ridden up when he'd fallen onto the cot exposing a line of his stomach, the top of his belly button. Kevin looks at it for a moment and before Howie can say anything he runs his fingers over the exposed skin, smiles when Howie sucks in his breath, twitches a little at Kevin's touch.

"Don't," Howie says, swatting Kevin's hand again.

"Why not?" Kevin asks. He lifts up the bottom of Howie's shirt exposing more skin and then sets the palm of his hand firmly against Howie's chest. It's cool against Howie's skin. "There's no one here. They're in my room, probably planning their next big prank."

"Because we're done pretending, that's why," Howie says. "Because I don't want you to hurt me, I guess. I guess I don't want to ask for something you can't give."

"Maybe I can," Kevin says. "Maybe you should ask." His thumb slides under the edge of Howie's jeans.

"This is stupid," Howie says, but he doesn't try to move Kevin's hand again. "You're straight, Kev."

"This is going to sound cheesy," Kevin warns. He leans in, his hand pressing into Howie's stomach until Kevin is right over him and Howie sees it again, that flash of lust in Kevin's green eyes, the one he thought he'd imagined. Kevin just sort of hovers there, staring. He licks his lips and it's such an obvious gesture. Howie rolls his eyes and pulls up, presses his mouth against Kevin's, kisses him gently, repeatedly. Kevin pushes Howie back down onto the cot, deepening the kiss as he does so. Howie moans a little and thinks that he doesn't want it to end this time. He doesn't want to go back to that awkwardness. But it always ends and right after he thinks it Kevin pulls away. "I don't know what we're doing, but I missed your mouth," Kevin says.

Howie looks at him for a moment and then snorts. "That is pretty cheesy," he admits.

"I warned you."

"You did," Howie agrees. "I missed your annoying possessive touching," he says, grinning.

"Yeah, I can tell," Kevin rolls his eyes, but slides his hand a bit further down Howie's pants. The button on Howie's jeans is undone. Kevin's fingers are curling at the edge of his pubic hair, pulling a little, teasing but not moving down any further. Howie tries to move up, ease Kevin's hand down just a little more, or better yet, get out of his jeans, stop with the teasing all together. He's had enough of that this past month.

"I was sort of upset after, you know," Kevin says, leaning down and kissing Howie's neck. "I wanted to reciprocate and you pushed me away. I thought you'd just been humoring me or something."

Howie laughs. "Not at all," he says.

"Why didn't you let me - I wanted to touch you," Kevin says. "I want you."

"I came in my pants," Howie says, his voice clipped. It wasn't embarrassing at the time, but does Kevin have to insist they talk about it? And it'll definitely be embarrassing if it happens again. It's starting to look like that's where they're headed.

"Oh," Kevin says and then he's quiet. Howie opens his eyes and looks up at him. Kevin grins.

Howie cuffs his shoulder. "Ass." Kevin unzips Howie's jeans.

"Fight's over?" Brian asks when they meet up to go to the venue. "You crazy kids work things out?"

Howie doesn't answer him, but he smiles and Brian seems satisfied with that.

"Kevin, huh?" Brian continues, because he just can't let anything drop. "Who would have guessed?"

"Not me," Howie says.

"Not me," Nick says, catching up to them. Howie's pretty sure Nick doesn't even know what they're talking about. Brian grins and ruffles Nick's hair. He has to reach up to do that now. They all do except for Kevin.

They're late getting to the venue. They're always late and AJ has started calling it Backstreet time. Donna rushes them to the dressing room and locks them in with strict orders to get ready and start doing warm-ups.

On stage in half an hour and Kevin hasn't even started changing yet. Howie's ready and he sits on the couch, tries to read a bit more in his book, but mostly he's listening to everyone else chatter. Mostly he's waiting for Kevin to take off his clothes.

"So how much was it?" Kevin asks AJ.

"How much was what?" AJ asks, his voice muffled as he pulls a shirt over his head. Brian and Nick are already dressed, playing cards and doing vocal exercises at the same time.

"How much did you win? How much are Brian and Nick out?" Kevin slides off his shoes and Howie stops paying attention to the book all together.

AJ finishes yanking his shirt into place and then turns to Brian and Nick. "You guys owe me money?" he asks.

"No way," Nick says, shaking his head.

"What for?" Brian asks. AJ shrugs.

"The bet," Howie says. Kevin drops his jeans on the floor and grabs a pair of pants from a nearby chair. Howie watches and begins calculating the hours until they're back to the hotel, starts computing how much it's going to take to bribe Nick into taking the cot.

"Bet?" Brian asks.

"Yeah," Kevin says, pulling his pants up over his ass. Howie looks away. Show's over. "You know. Me, Howie. Desserts." He points to himself, "dad," points to Howie, "mom." Howie rolls his eyes.

"What's he talking about?" Nick asks. "This is crazy talk." He drops his cards on the table and starts looking for his shoes. Howie can see them under a pile of clothes in the corner.

Brian smacks Nick as he walks by. "I told you he would be offended by that mom thing," Brian says.

"Well he's always nagging," Nick whines. "He sounds like my mom. Where are my shoes?"

"Hey," Howie says. "Shut up. I do not." He grins. "Maybe if you took better care of your things you wouldn't lose them."

"See," Nick accuses, pointing. Howie flips him off.

"Your shoes are with your shit in the corner," Kevin says.

"See," Nick says again. "I rest my case." He kicks his stuff off the shoes and sits on the floor, shoving the first shoe onto his foot.

"So there's no bet? You didn't try to set us up?" Kevin asks, frowning. He looks at Howie and Howie shrugs.

Brian looks from Nick to AJ and then he too shrugs. "We don't know what you're talking about."