Howie was quick to learn, eager to please, and--though he didn't like to admit it to himself--desperate. So when Sandy, the 45 year-old woman Lou had hired to help them with their makeup before appearances, approached him one night just to talk, he listened. She was really nervous, snapping her gum quickly and not looking into his eyes. Howie tried his best not to cry and make her feel even worse.
It was okay, he told her. She was right. His teeth were a bit too big for him to smile so widely. Chest hair--despite how proud he'd been once he'd actually grown some--really wasn't a turn-on for their pre-pubescent fanbase. And his nice, tucked-in button-downs and pleated pants--the ones that he'd bought himself with the money from various menial jobs and that made his mom smile and pat his cheek when she saw him--really were kind of...gay.
"I shouldn't've said anything. It's probably not that big a deal," Sandy muttered.
"No, it's fine," Howie said, blinking rapidly. "I can take care of it."
That night he jerked off in the shower first thing. While his legs were still trembling, he soaped up his chest and carefully shaved off the dark curls. It took a really long time--he kept having to rinse the razor every few seconds--but he figured it would only be that bad this first time.
Clothes were nearly as easy. He'd been saving up money for a car, so he just withdrew a hundred and fifty dollars and went to the mall to buy some jeans and t-shirts that looked like something AJ might wear. If AJ were in the habit of wearing clothes that weren't a couple of inches away from sliding right off his body, that is.
The smiling, though, which seemed like it should have been the easiest thing to change about himself, was actually really hard. He just kept forgetting. Whenever he did remember, he had to either smile a dumb little half-smile or stare at the camera expressionlessly, wondering if he looked as stupid and sullen as he felt.
He tried to practice in the bathroom mirror, but each attempt looked worse than the last. He sighed, then made a face at himself that was so awful he had to giggle.
"What are you doing?" AJ asked, pushing open the cracked door.
"Jesus," Howie yelped. He grabbed onto the edge of the counter. "Do you think maybe you could knock next time, instead of scaring me to death?"
AJ hopped up onto the counter, right next to him. "Yeah, whatever. So what are you up to?"
"I'm...uh..." Howie blushed.
"I'm trying to figure out how to smile without showing my front teeth," he muttered, embarrassed.
"What's wrong with your front teeth?"
"AJ! Don't tell me you never noticed that they're kind of...too big."
"Nope," AJ said. "Smile, let me see 'em."
Howie bared his teeth quickly, looking beyond AJ at his own reflection.
"Huh, I guess you're right." AJ didn't sound particularly concerned. "Still, I see you practically every day and I didn't know you could double for Bugs Bunny. Why's it a big deal?"
"Well, maybe it isn't most of the time. But if we get famous and photographers start taking our pictures all the time, maybe... I don't wanna look dumb, you know?"
AJ nodded. "Okay, so what'cha got? Show me your smile minus the pearly whites."
"I look really bad," Howie warned him. AJ nodded, and Howie smiled his half-smile.
AJ burst out laughing. Howie hit him.
"Sorry, D," he wheezed. "You just looked so..." He dissolved into laughter again.
"I know," Howie said, staring at the floor. "Why do you think I've been practicing?"
"Yeah, okay, just give me a minute," AJ gasped, leaning over to rest his elbows on his thighs. Every few seconds his shoulders shook with more suppressed laughter.
Howie sighed and wiggled his toes.
"Okay," AJ said finally, straightening up. "Let's see what we can do here."
"I'm not smiling just so you can laugh at me again," Howie said.
"You have to smile eventually, so you can get it right, but we'll talk it out first," AJ said. "What are you thinking about when you smile?"
"What? Um, well, I guess I'm thinking that I have to keep my teeth covered."
"Which would explain why you look like a kid who's shit in his pants and doesn't want to tell anybody," AJ said, ignoring Howie's indignant "Hey!" "You can't act like you've got some dirty little secret, D. You have to smile that way because you want to."
"But the only reason I want to smile like this is because of my stupid teeth!" Howie said, frustrated.
"I know." AJ patted his arm sympathetically. "But even if that's the reason, you can't let yourself think about it like that. So, like, instead of thinking 'I gotta hide my teeth,' you think 'I want people to notice my eyes.'"
AJ shrugged. "They're pretty. So's your mouth. Maybe when you don't have to smile you could try pouting a little, kind of show it off."
"What?" Howie asked, shocked.
"For, like, serious pictures, D." AJ sounded barely fazed by Howie's obvious stupidity.
"I know," Howie said. "It's just...you think I have a pretty mouth?"
AJ reached up and brushed his fingers along the edge of Howie's lips, and by the corner of his eye. "Yeah." He let his hand drop. "So you just have to make sure that everyone else sees it."
Howie stared at AJ for a minute, then smiled, slowly, sultrily, his eyes wide and his lips parted gently.
"That's it!" AJ smacked him on the shoulder. "Are we done here, now? Can we go play basketball?"
Howie couldn't help but laugh; AJ, for all his feigned coolness, could be as energetic as a puppy dog. "Sure," he said, still grinning. And he spared only a moment's thought on the fact that his teeth were showing yet again.
By the time they'd become legendary in Europe and were trying for a comparable fame in America, Howie had his image firmly in place. Each layer had been perfected until he could draw it on as easily as he slid into his costumes...and now the rest of Backstreet wanted to pull away their collective masks and show the world what they were really about. Kevin's idea, but everyone else supported it. They were going to come up with the concept for their next video.
It wasn't quite on par with writing their own songs or playing their instruments onstage, but it was a first step.
"Superheroes don't live in castles," Brian commented.
"Thanks, cuz," Kevin said.
"I was just saying."
"Yeah, okay, so what lives in a castle?"
"Who would be Dracula?"
"Kevin," Howie said, at the same moment that Brian said, "Howie."
"And what would the rest of us do while Howie or Kevin plays Dracula?" AJ asked. "Dress up as Dracula's vampire babes?"
"How about if we were all monsters?" Nick said. "Like, somebody could be Dracula, and somebody else could be a werewolf, and somebody else could be Frankenstein."
"That might work," Brian said. "It's a lot more interesting that way, and nobody gets left out."
"Only it doesn't make sense to have all those monsters living in the same castle. They'd rip each other to shreds," Nick said.
"Not if it was just a dream," Kevin said.
"Aw, man, Kevin, that's cheesy as hell."
"It's cheesy, but it works," Brian said. "I say we do that."
"Sounds good to me," Howie agreed.
Nick grinned. "So who's gonna be what?"
"I wanna be the Phantom," AJ said decisively.
"What, you mean like a ghost?" Nick said.
"No, numbskull," AJ said derisively. "Phantom of the Opera."
"Very," Kevin agreed. "I like that. We should maybe try to have a mix of traditional monsters and, like, monsters from literature. Have the video be more than just a tribute to B-movie horror flicks." The rest of them nodded. "I'd been thinking of a mad scientist, but now..."
"No, that still works," Brian interrupted. "You can be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Kevin's face brightened. "That's perfect. Thanks, Bri."
"No problem," Brian said.
"Well, I still want to be one of the normal monsters," Nick said. "Maybe, well, no, not Dracula. Maybe Frankenstein. Or no, wait, the Creature from the Black Lagoon...and what are you all laughing at?"
"Half of those are from books, Nicky," Brian said.
Kevin, Howie, and AJ nodded.
"Well, fuck you, too," he said mildly.
"I'll be a werewolf," Brian said.
"Wild and athletic, not to mention off the wall. Sounds just like you, Rok," Kevin said, as Brian smiled with pleasure.
"Okay, so that takes care of the rest of you, just as soon as Nick makes up his mind between his five million different options," Howie said. "But what am I going to be?"
AJ smiled. "You're Dracula."
The makeup to transform him into a vampire was just about what he'd been expecting: pale facepaint, dark lipstick and eyeshadow, pointy teeth. The hair extensions, though, were a surprise. Even more surprisingly, he looked really good in them. All of the guys said so. As had the makeup artists. Even a couple of the techies had said his hair looked cool.
The fan mail had started streaming in after the video was released.
"You're going to have a new look, Howie," his stylist told him, shuffling papers.
Howie shrugged. "Okay."
After a while, he even started to like it. It was a pain in the ass to take care of, and he had to use a fortune in styling products to keep it manageable. But it made people notice him. He wasn't the nameless, faceless fifth of Backstreet anymore; he was the nameless one with the hair.
Within the group, too, people were suddenly paying more attention to him. They were touching him more. He'd always believed that each of them was vital to the Backstreet Boys. Now, though, Howie actually felt wanted. Nick would curl up with him on the sofa and play with his hair; Brian and Kevin had taken to tousling it--especially just after he'd pulled it back into a smooth ponytail; AJ developed what was essentially a conversational tic: every few minutes he'd reach out and smooth Howie's hair away from his eyes while they were talking.
"I don't want to give this up," Howie whispered one night, curled into AJ's lean warmth on the sofa as they watched a movie, one of AJ's hands brushing through his loose curls.
"What, D?" AJ asked absently.
"My hair. I don't want to give up my hair."
"Then don't. It's your hair."
"You're right," Howie said in surprise. "It is."
"It is," AJ agreed. "Now can we go back to watching the movie, Rapunzel, or do I have to, like, support your decision and tell you that you look fantastic with long hair?"
Howie blushed. "That's okay."
AJ nodded and watched the movie for a few minutes, then turned back to Howie. "In case you didn't know, your hair's fucking hot," he said seriously. He leaned over to peck Howie's cheek. "And so are you."
"Um...thanks," Howie said, a pool of warmth and contentment spreading in his stomach.
"Anytime," AJ said.
Of course, any boost to his ego had to be followed by a subsequent cut. Only a few weeks later, the photographer at their next photo shoot got delusions of creativity.
It was a stupid thing to be upset about, and Howie knew it. But really, over half the shoots he'd been in before had stuck him in subtly high heels. A couple of photographers had even placed Brian and him on boxes. And now some second-rate photographer wanted to line them up for his pictures, with 6'2" Kevin at one end and Howie--quite obviously almost a foot shorter than that--on the other?
It wouldn't have been so bad except that just last night, AJ had tried to grab for the remote that Kevin held away from him and missed by several inches. "Damn, Kevin," he'd said admiringly. "Looking at you makes me wish I could be tall, dark, and handsome, too, instead of just the second half." Now this shoot was going to make it painfully obvious that Howie--both literally and figuratively--just didn't measure up. Not that anyone in the group hadn't already figured that out.
Dressed and made up, they were let loose on the set and started jockeying for position. AJ placed himself between Nick and Kevin for a few moments until he found himself staring at Nick's shoulderblades and remembered that he wasn't the second tallest anymore. Nick tried to argue that he was taller than Kevin now and they had to stand back to back to check.
Howie had no such problems. He'd gone immediately to the end of the line and waited for the rest of them to straighten themselves out. At least he had Brian right behind him, 5'6" and perfectly happy about it.
The shoot took less time than usual, since they weren't moving around, and Howie's smile remained bright and professional the whole time.
As soon as they were let go, Howie hurried to the dressing room.
"Well, that was kinda boring, but at least we get to go early," AJ said, only a few steps behind him.
"You looked good in that outfit, though," he added.
"You looked better in it," Howie said.
"Thanks." AJ's cocky smile seemed to say he agreed. "I think it's 'cause we're both dark. We just look good in white."
"Um, yeah, I guess."
"Still, that was really fucking weird, having to stand in front of Nick. When'd he get so big?"
Howie laughed ruefully. "I have no idea. God, he used to be shorter than I am."
"Yeah, well that didn't last long," AJ said. Howie's smile got a little tight. "I'd been hoping he might level out at 5'7", though. No such luck."
The door swung open behind them and whacked into the already scarred wall. "Nope," Nick said cheerfully, stepping into the dressing room. "Too bad for you. Bri and Kevin are still talking to the photographer, but they both want to go out later. You up for it?"
"Sure," AJ shrugged.
"I'm think I'm gonna stay in," Howie said. "I'm kind of tired."
"Aww." Nick turned puppy dog eyes on him. "Everyone else is going. And we don't have anything scheduled until tomorrow afternoon. I asked Kevin. So you could sleep in."
"Well...I also wanted to watch a TV show. I mean, I know that sounds like a dumb excuse, but--"
"Which show?" AJ interrupted.
"Dude!" He turned to Nick. "Sorry, I'm staying in, too."
"Sarah Michelle Gellar, Charisma Carpenter, and David Boreanaz. You think I'm going to see anyone who looks like that out clubbing? Present company excepted, of course."
"It's only a TV show," Nick said. "It's not like they're really there."
"A good fantasy always has its place," AJ said philosophically.
Nick seemed to accept that without question; his faith in AJ's prowess was near absolute. Howie couldn't help wondering whether they'd appreciate a good fantasy as much if they weren't both completely assured of getting the real thing anytime they wished for it.
Howie hated clubs. He owned a very lucrative one that all his family descended upon every few months, and he was a good and enthusiastic dancer, and he liked seeing all the people intermingling in their pretty, skimpy outfits. But the smell of alcohol made him sick.
"You're such a girl, Dorough," AJ slurred. Howie took his half-empty glass, his smile suddenly painful and strained. He tried to ignore the others' staring.
"And you're just a little too wasted right now," he said carefully. "How about you and me head home, okay?"
AJ shook his head, though Howie couldn't tell if it was in answer or as some part of AJ's internal monologue. "You're a fucking pushover. Yeah, you're all cute and friendly and nice and shit, but people treat you like crap all over it. Grow some fucking balls, man. I'm tired of lookin' after you all the time." The last sentence was mumbled into the tabletop as AJ leaned forward to rest his head against it.
Howie cleared his throat. "Aje and I are gonna head out," he said quietly. "See you guys tomorrow."
"You need any help?" Kevin asked, not quite looking Howie in the eye.
"Nah, I've got it."
Brian pushed back from the table anyway. "I'm about done here, too. And Leighanne's waiting." He put a seemingly casual hand under AJ's arm and pulled him to his feet.
"What?" AJ asked belligerently.
"Nothing, man." Brian's voice was innocent and unassuming. "We're just going now."
"What about Kevin and Nick?"
"They're hanging out here a bit longer."
AJ smirked. "Isn't that sweet? But I thought they didn't swing that way." Kevin stared at his hands, and Nick abruptly turned to look out at the dance floor. Howie could see his faint blush and the tight set of his mouth, so familiar to them all.
"You know it's not like that, Aje. They just wanna talk together." Brian leaned in to whisper loudly, "I think Nick's got some girl problems."
AJ nodded. "Okay. 'S cool."
"I'm so glad you give your approval," Brian said wryly, as he steered AJ towards the exit.
Howie trailed along next to them, feeling stupid and ineffectual, but at the same time relieved that he could temporarily trust AJ to Brian's capable hands.
The car ride back to the hotel was blessedly quiet. Towards the very end, AJ roused himself enough to lift his head from Howie's shoulder and say, "So, am I gettin' any tonight? 'Cause you are looking very fine tonight, if I do say so myself."
"We'll see," Howie said softly.
AJ nodded. "Okay. Though you really should say yes, 'cause then you'd get to have sex with me."
"I figured that out," Howie said.
AJ nodded again. "Just making sure. And, hey, I love you." He suddenly noticed Brian sitting on his other side. "You, too, Bri."
"I love you, AJ," Howie said, unable to deny AJ even that much.
Howie lingered in the hallway with Brian after they'd sent AJ into the hotel room alone, seeking some brief moment of comfort. Brian wrapped him in a strong hug and rubbed his back. "You know AJ didn't mean what he said in the club," he said.
Howie nodded and shrugged at the same time, struggling not to sniffle. It was hard to know what AJ meant and didn't mean, sometimes. His insults and his "love you"s all sounded equally sincere.
By the time he'd gone into the room himself, AJ was passed out on the bed with all his clothes on. Howie suppressed a sigh and tugged off AJ's shoes and pants and tucked him under the blankets. He folded the omnipresent sunglasses and placed them on the bedside table.
Standing under the hot, steamy spray of the shower, he noticed that--in the increasing stress of the past months--he'd somehow forgotten his ritual daily shave. Dark hair curled over his chest. For a brief moment he wondered if this might make AJ think him any less girly. In the end, he didn't think anything could make much of a difference. But he still didn't shave.
Sometimes Howie thought it ironic that even when life was as close to perfect as it could reasonably get, individual moments still had the ability to make him feel like shit.
"Fucking hell!" he snarled, stomping out of his room.
AJ looked up at him, startled, from the kitchen table. "What's wrong?"
"I burnt my ear when I was ironing my fucking hair, that's what's wrong."
"Yeah? Shit, let me see," AJ said, hurrying to his side.
Howie shrugged him off. "It's fine. I put some aloe on it. I'm just stupid, that's all."
"You're not stupid," AJ said automatically.
"I burnt myself trying to fix my own hair, AJ. Grooming yourself isn't supposed to be rocket science."
"You burnt yourself because you were using an iron a couple of inches from your head. That's not rocket science, that's Russian roulette. You couldn't pay me to do that kind of shit."
"Well, it's not like I can just stop."
"Why not?" AJ asked.
"AJ." Howie felt himself on the verge of tears, the way he always was when he had to explain yet again why he just wasn't good enough. "You know my hair's all fucked up now from ironing it everyday. It looks like crap if I leave it alone."
"So don't just leave it alone. Cut it off. You can get rid of all the dead stuff and start growing it healthy again."
"Wait, you don't like it long?"
"It's gorgeous," AJ said flatly. "But it makes you miserable."
Of course he was right--AJ was almost always right about Howie--so Howie went to the salon and had four years' worth of wasted effort hacked off. He felt like crying when he saw the broken strands lying on the floor, and wiped his eyes quickly so the stylist wouldn't see.
He nearly ran two red lights on the way home, he was so busy looking in the rearview mirror, and he kept reaching up to touch his hair. It was really...short.
"Hey," AJ said in surprise when Howie walked in and dropped his keys on the front hall table. "You actually did it."
New tears pricked at his eyes. "Yeah," he said dully, turning towards the stairs. "I think I'm gonna go take a nap."
"Okay," AJ said. "It looks great, by the way."
Howie paused for a moment on the bottom step. "Um, thanks."
When he woke up, AJ was curled up behind him, their hands clasped together on Howie's stomach. He tried to ease out from underneath AJ's arm without waking him.
Before he'd reached the edge of the bed, though, AJ was stirring. His hand reached out to grab onto the hem of Howie's shirt. "Wait," he said sleepily.
Howie settled back against the headboard as AJ sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Why didn't you tell me you were upset?" AJ asked.
"What do you mean?" Howie said quietly.
AJ brushed Howie's cheek with his thumb. "You came up here to cry. Look, if you're mad at me because I encouraged you to get your hair cut and now you don't like it, just yell at me. Don't feel like you have to hide in our bedroom and pretend like everything's okay."
"I'm not mad," Howie said. "I just..." he trailed off, frustrated.
"Then why won't you talk to me, man? Tell me what's wrong."
"I just don't want to deal with it! No matter what I do it's the wrong thing. My hair's too fucked up for me to keep it long, and you don't like it short, and I wouldn't have gotten it cut except that you told me to, and I'm sorry if you think it's ugly, okay? This is the best I can do. I'm sorry if it's not good enough."
"Wait a second, hold up," AJ said. He put a warm hand on Howie's forearm. "Where's all this coming from? I told you your hair looked good."
"Well, yeah, but you had to say that. It's, like, required to compliment people on new haircuts, even if they look like crap. Especially if you're dating the person."
"I wouldn't do that, D. I'm not saying I'd have made you feel bad--'cause you know I wouldn't--but I wouldn't let you walk around with bad hair, either."
Despite himself, Howie snorted softly at the horror in AJ's voice. God forbid any of them have bad hair, let alone his own boyfriend.
"You were really...shocked when you saw me, though," he said. "You sounded...not happy."
"Yeah, well, I was shocked," AJ retorted gently. "I figured it would take you another couple of months of agonizing before you actually went through with it. I definitely didn't expect you to rush out today to get it cut. Doesn't mean I think it looks bad, just that I was surprised."
Howie frowned, thinking. "So...you really meant it when you said you liked my haircut?"
"Yes." AJ tugged him closer to him on the bed, with increasingly obvious intent. "It would take a hell of a lot for me to find you anything less than gorgeous. Getting a sexy new haircut doesn't even come close."
AJ's hands slid into Howie's hair and tilted his head for a kiss, and Howie shivered pleasurably. This, too--AJ's fingers running through his curls--still felt just as good with his newly short hair.
AJ moaned into Howie's mouth as he pressed him down to lie on his back, and Howie let himself imagine that AJ felt the same.
It was cold during the making of the "Drowning" video--a point AJ took great pleasure in driving home, as he quickly developed the habit of pinching Howie's nipples every time he saw him. Howie almost requested a different shirt, but he was really grateful to at least be in sleeves. Besides, it made AJ happy.
Truth to tell, it kind of made Howie happy, too. AJ was a lot more like the kid he'd befriended all those years ago, and simultaneously more mature than Howie'd ever seen him. And he finally looked healthy again. They'd all seen the progress he'd made--he came back to them fully, if a bit broken--but it had taken his body some time to catch up with his enormous strides. Now...he was gorgeous.
"We are a couple of handsome fuckers," Howie said, admiring them side by side in the dressing room mirror.
"D, watch your mouth!" AJ said in mock horror.
Howie giggled, and AJ kissed him on the cheek. And then AJ turned to go out, and Howie saw it. Nick was still changing in the other corner, just pulling his T-shirt off, and AJ's jaw dropped. Howie's giddy mood plummeted. He could understand: Nick's soft, golden skin shone in the artificial light, stretched across fine bones and smooth, broad muscles. Nick looked like masculine perfection, and AJ had always had an eye for beauty.
Thinking back, Howie though AJ might always have had an eye for Nick in particular. And if any guy had a chance of succeeding with Nick... Howie couldn't blame him. But he couldn't help withdrawing, either, and he could tell AJ missed their previous playfulness as the shoot went on.
He'd had a long run of it, Howie rationalized to himself. Even discounting the worst part of AJ's depression, when he'd felt more like a babysitter than a boyfriend, he and AJ had been together for nearly two years. And they'd been two good years.
He couldn't believe how secure he'd felt in AJ's love. Gay relationships outside the group were just too risky...not to mention that it was difficult to find anyone who could compete with Backstreet's love for each other. Where AJ loved them all equally, though, and had happened to find Howie convenient, Howie'd actually done it. Fallen in love with AJ, probably years before they got together, if he were being honest.
He'd trusted too much to the others' straightness and to the fact that AJ was happy with him, even if not as committed to the relationship as Howie dreamed he might one day be. It seemed clear that that day would never arrive.
If AJ had stopped seeing Nick as a little kid, or too straight, or whatever had prevented him from making a move earlier, then Howie didn't stand a chance. He knew they'd part as friends, and that he himself would do a good job of hiding the fact that AJ was ripping his heart to shreds.
Over dinner that night, Howie paused in lifting his water glass and said, "I was thinking, 'bout when we first got together. You said something like 'I have no idea how this gay thing works, but you're my best friend, and you're totally hot, so could we maybe try it out for a couple of months?' Remember?"
AJ laughed. "Man, I can't believe you're still holding that against me. I was twenty, okay? and nervous as all fuck, not to mention clueless. Though you kind of already mentioned it."
"I wasn't...I just wanted to remind you. It's been a hell of a lot longer than a couple of months."
AJ's forehead crinkled. "What are you saying, Howie?"
He took a deep breath. "I saw you checking out Nick in the dressing room today. I just wanted to make sure that you didn't think that...I don't know, that you had any obligations that you never meant to make."
AJ's laughter this time sounded relieved. "D, you've got nothing to worry about. The average porn star doesn't have a body as good as yours. Yeah, I might check other people out every once in a while, but I'd be an idiot to actually do anything about it. And all that's before we take into consideration the fact that I'm completely head-over-heels in love with you."
"What?" Howie asked, shocked.
AJ looked at him sharply, then shook his head. "Oh no, you are not trying to tell me that you didn't know that. I say I love you all the fricking time. Show it, too."
"Well, yeah, but just like you love all the guys, right? I mean, we're Backstreet. We're brothers."
"No, we're not," AJ snapped. "At least, you and I aren't."
Howie gasped, feeling as though he'd been punched in the stomach and had his heart implode, all at the same time. "We're not?" he asked, his voice trembling slightly.
AJ shook his head. "No. Nick and Brian and Kevin are my brothers. You're my--fuck if I don't hate this word, but you're my lover. I honestly think I'd die if I lost you. You're more important to me than the money, the fans, performing... I'd give up the Backstreet Boys rather than lose you. Hell, I'd marry you if I could. So, fuck no, you're not my brother. You're way more than that to me."
Howie swallowed hard and cast about desperately for something to say. "Um, Kevin likes the word 'lover,'" he said.
AJ snorted. "Kevin's from Kentucky, man. He's weird."
"And how long have you, uh, felt like that about me?" Howie asked. "'Cause, honestly, I had no clue--"
"Since I was fourteen," AJ said promptly. Howie gaped. "I was crushing for a while before that, but that's when I fell in love with you."
"I never noticed..." Howie said wonderingly.
AJ snorted. "Yeah, well, I finally figured that out. I thought you were actually turning me down for six years, till I decided you were just oblivious. Hence the embarrassing proposition."
"So when you suggested hooking up for a couple of months..."
AJ shrugged. "I meant it." He pulled Howie over onto his lap for a quick, dirty kiss. "Give or take fifty years."