by Jain

Written for the Now or Never: Nick Songfic Challenge.

AJ's mom was pretty much always with them when they were starting out--in the cool way, not in the needing-to-know-where-he-was-every-second-of-the-day way--so he never really got homesick. Nick's mom was there, too, though she barely let Nick out of her sight except for when he was with Lou or rehearsing...and sometimes she watched him even then.

Nick still got homesick.

He'd spent the first few weeks in Germany red-eyed, though none of them ever actually saw him cry. Kevin had had the nerve to warn AJ not to tease him, and AJ had told him to fuck off. He wasn't a complete asshole, after all, especially not to his friends. He'd never even made fun of Howie's taste in clothing.

Okay, so the one time he'd given Howie a birthday present, it had been three cool shirts and a note that said, "Wear these in good health and often. I'll replace them if they wear out," but that wasn't really making fun. For one thing, he'd meant the offer seriously...even if Howie had just laughed and never taken him up on it.

Nick wasn't exactly a friend--not yet, at least--but that wasn't going to prevent AJ from treating him like one. Especially since Nick was only thirteen, and kind of delicately blond, like he would break if AJ pressed him too hard, and he probably looked up to AJ for being older and cooler. It was actually pretty neat being a role model, like having a little brother, or something.

Having older brothers, on the other hand, sucked ass. AJ had to read 1984 for English and started calling Kevin "Big Brother" just on general principle. Kevin was not amused. Howie and Brian both thought it was hilarious.

It did mean, though, that he couldn't ask Kevin for an advance on his weekly allowance just because he'd run out of deodorant. Not without having to do a fair amount of groveling, at least, which AJ really didn't want to do. He could always use his mom's, but she only used some flowery women's deodorant that smelled like powdered air freshener. And everybody, including his mom, had refused to lend him any more money until he'd paid off his previous debts. Which meant that he'd have to find someone who'd let him borrow his deodorant until the end of the week.

The door was unlocked, so AJ let himself into the room Nick shared with his mom. She didn't seem to be there, but Nick was sitting propped up against the headboard of his bed, talking on the phone. He looked over at AJ when the door clicked shut and raised his eyebrows, pointing at the phone. AJ nodded and started browsing Nick's schoolbooks. Algebra. American history. Introductory German. AJ was still pissed that he'd taken Spanish in middle school, and now he had to learn a whole new language.

"No, it's not your fault!" Nick said, loudly enough to make AJ jump. "They're jerks, thatís all. Don't pay any attention to them. You're still friends with Melissa, right?"

A pause.

"Oh. Sorry, you never told me. How about Rachel?"

Another pause.

"So hang out with her. She's on the swim team, right? Maybe you could join."


"Are you kidding me? You're definitely good enough. You nearly beat me the last time we had a race, didn't you?"


"Yeah, I think that's a good idea. It sounds like you'll have a lot of fun. And school's going okay for you?"


"That's great! Listen, though, I have to go now."


"Yeah. Love you, too, Leslie."


"Bye." He hung up the phone.

"Girlfriend?" AJ asked, though that didn't seem like it could be right. Nick never talked about girls, not even the hot blonde Germans who came to their concerts dressed like Madonna, or something.

Nick shook his head. "My little sister."

"What, you mean you actually call home? Isn't that hella expensive?"

"I guess." Nick shrugged. "Mom pays for most of my food, so it's not like I really need my allowance for anything."

"Still, why don't you just write them letters? You know Lou will pay for the stamps, especially if you get Brian to ask him for you."

"I do," Nick said, a touch defensively. "It's just, Angel and Aaron can't read so well yet--they're only seven. And writing letters is different from really talking to somebody, you know?"

"I guess. Dude, it's your money, what I think doesn't matter. Anyway, I wanted to ask you something."


"You think I could maybe use your deodorant? Just for the next couple of days. I ran out, and I've already used up most of my allowance this week."

"I don't use any."

"Oh. You always smell good," AJ said, without thinking.

Nick blinked at him, then smiled a little, tentatively. "I just wash with the hotel soap."

"Wouldn't work for me."

"Well, I could... I mean, if you really promised to pay me back, I could loan you the money to buy some more."

"Nah, that's okay. I'll just borrow some of Howie's or Brian's. Or my mom's," AJ said, trying not to imagine what it would be like to spend the next two days smelling like a flower garden on crack.

"Okay," Nick said. "But if they say no, you can come back."

"You got it," AJ said, and left the room without ruffling Nick's hair. It would've been fun--kind of like something out of a '50s sitcom--but Nick might get annoyed at him, and AJ didn't want to burn any more bridges until he had his own deodorant again.

Since he was sharing the title of Nick's unofficial older brother with Howie (who was kind of a dork, despite being AJ's best friend), Brian (even more of a dork), and Kevin, AJ figured it was his job to take Nick cool places and do fun stuff with him that he couldn't do on his own.

The first time he invited Nick out, to some weird kids-only pool hall he'd found, Nick had smiled like it was Christmas and he'd just gotten everything on his list...and said he couldn't go.

When he asked Nick along to the real haunted house where an entire family had been murdered in their beds by the butler, Nick had smiled even brighter, offered to lend AJ a really cool book of true ghost stories...and said he couldn't go.

By the time Nick had refused his third invitation, to a coffee shop that had hilariously bad German standup comedians every Wednesday, he'd figured out that Nick wasn't ever going to say yes.

He almost didn't know why he kept asking. But Nick kept looking happier each time AJ invited him someplace new, and, even if it was kind of weird taking credit for something he never actually did, it still felt good when Nick smiled at him like that.

Besides, it wasn't like AJ didn't understand. Whatever little free time they had, Nick always had less. They usually did their homework together, but that was about the only time outside of practice sessions that they saw each other. The rest of the time Nick was either practicing in his room or sleeping.

("Leave Nick alone; he's tired," Kevin said to him more than once. Well, duh, AJ thought. They were all tired. Rehearsals ate up a huge chunk of every day, and there was never enough time to fit in everything else that needed done. But it was true that Nick was the only one of them with steadily deepening shadows under his eyes, and he was definitely the only one to ever skip dinner so that he could go to bed earlier.)

So if Nick was too busy to do more than smile gratefully at AJ's invitations, that was fine. It didn't hurt anybody to keep asking, and it made Nick happy. And, after all, it wasn't as though AJ wouldn't be completely willing to take Nick out anytime he said yes.

They all took turns on the phones in the two rooms they were sharing--Lou thought it would be "nice" if their parents heard from them first that they were finally coming home. Nick had talked to his family most recently, of course, so he let Brian and AJ take their turns first.

The five of them were going to meet in Kevin and Howie's room right after to celebrate, but AJ hung around after he'd finished his own call, poking in his drawers aimlessly.

Behind him, Nick said, "Hey, sweetie. Can I talk to Mom?" He'd picked that habit up from Howie or Brian. Nick hadn't been big on endearments when he was younger, but now his speech was peppered with them. It had gotten to the point where the person sitting closest to Nick during interviews and stuff was officially responsible for poking him whenever he got too demonstrative.

Verbally demonstrative, that was. Lou's marketing ensured that they could hang all over each other and nobody would bat an eyelash, but even in Europe people noticed if you consistently called other boys "darling."

"Hi," Nick said. "Lou gave us some news today."

AJ couldn't hear Mrs. Carter's response, obviously, but Nick sounded slightly hurt when he said, "No, nothing like that. Actually...he said we're ready to tackle the U.S. We're coming home in a month."


"That's fine. Kevin's uber-organized; he'll probably make me start packing as soon as I get off the phone."


"Well, actually, Lou's paying for this call. I should probably go. Give my love to Aaron and the girls."


"Me, too. Bye."

He hung the phone up carefully and flopped onto the bed with a long sigh.

"She can't come out here again before we leave?" AJ asked quietly.

Nick shook his head. "It's fine, though; it doesn't bother me."

Considering that when Mrs. Carter first left to go take care of her other kids back home, Nick had fallen asleep for three days straight, only waking up for rehearsals--and that reluctantly, AJ didn't figure he would mind.

The one thing that really sucked about the whole situation was that just around the time she'd left, they'd started getting too famous to visit all the cool places AJ had dug up. Not without a bodyguard, at least, and Kevin was at best really reluctant to let the two of them out loose even with that protection. Or maybe he was just taking advantage of the chance to pay them back for every prank they'd ever played on him.

Either way, AJ had to content himself with the fact that at least now Nick came out of his room more than twice a day, and he'd started smiling constantly, for no discernable reason. Taken in all, it seemed like more than a fair trade.

"Nick?" AJ rapped on the door quickly and tried the knob. It was unlocked. "Are you..." He trailed off. Nick was lying in the oversized hotel bed, asleep. So was Aaron.

The two of them were curled into each other--Nick's bare arm slung over Aaron's back, Aaron's face tucked into the hollow of Nick's throat. As AJ watched, Aaron mumbled something in his sleep and rolled over, away from Nick. Nick's hand slipped down to his waist.

AJ tiptoed carefully out of the room, closing the door behind him. After a moment's indecision, he knocked on Brian's door and walked in.

"Hey," Brian said, looking up from his glossy magazine.

"Hey. When'd Aaron get in?"

"He did come, then? I know Nick really wanted him to, but Jane kept saying he was too busy."

"Who was? And why didn't I know Aaron was coming for a visit?"

"Aaron was, and I don't know. So what're they up to?"

"Nothing much. Napping."

"That makes sense. I know Jane's been dragging him to a lot of auditions lately, on top of all his schoolwork. She wouldn't even let him try out for the basketball team."

"Sucks," AJ said.

"Pretty much," Brian agreed. "Speaking of, are you up for a game?"

"I think that depends on whether or not you'll agree to tie one hand behind your back to even up the playing field."

"How about I just start out with negative twenty points, and we can take it from there?" Brian suggested.

AJ shrugged. "Eh, what the hell. I haven't really explored my masochistic tendencies anytime lately."

"And you know I'll make it good for you, baby," Brian said throatily.

AJ snorted with laughter and grabbed the basketball on his way out the door.

AJ sprawled across the hotel bed on one of their rare days off, seriously considering whether or not going to sleep would be more fun than jerking off. He was glad he hadn't gone past the planning stages when Nick came in just then and flopped next to him.

"Aaron got a record contract," Nick said.

AJ twisted to look him at him more directly. "Seriously?!"

"Yup." Nick nodded.

"Huh," AJ said. Nick's face was oddly blank. "So, is this a good thing or a bad thing?"

Nick shrugged. "I'm really proud of him, you know? Like, he's such an amazing and talented kid, and he sounds really happy. But he's still so young, and he's going to be all alone."

AJ didn't bother mentioning the fact that Jane would undoubtedly be with Aaron along every step of his career. Instead he settled on saying, "He's smart. He can take care of himself."

"No," Nick said lowly. "He really can't."

And, since there wasn't anything to say to that, AJ shut up and gently teased the knots out of Nick's hair with his fingers, uncomfortably aware that Nick was probably right.

"So, Leighanne and I--"

AJ groaned loudly. Approximately all of Brian's sentences began that way lately. Every time the tendency seemed to be dying down, they'd get engaged or get married or something and he'd start doing it again.

"Shut up, AJ. Leighanne and I were talking about, you know, if we maybe had kids someday--not anytime soon," he added hastily, "but maybe in a couple of years, right?"

"Right..." Nick said.

"And I was wondering: if your mom and dad were hanging off the edge of the cliff, and you could only save one of them, which one would you save?"

"You don't even have kids yet, and already you're anticipating them murdering you?" AJ asked.

"Not murdering, saving from certain death, and was I talking to you? No, I was not. So, Nick, which of them would you rescue?"

"Could I save both of them if I died instead?"

"Maybe," Brian said cautiously. "Would you really do that?"

"...Probably not." Nick sounded faintly regretful.

"Original question, then. Which of your parents would you save?"

"I don't know. It's not like I love either of them more than I love the other one, you know? So...I don't know. Maybe I'd flip a coin, or something. Or maybe they could decide."

"Well... Okay, never mind. Forget that question. Who's the one person you love most in the world?"

Nick pursed his lips, thinking. "I can't, like, narrow it down to just one person. All my brothers and sisters, I guess."

BJ, Leslie, and Angel. Kevin, Brian, Howie, AJ, and Aaron. It was a lot of people to love equally, AJ thought. Either Nick was exaggerating, or he was lying.

"How about you?" Nick asked.

"Leighanne," Brian said promptly. "And, right after her, my family and the four of you."

AJ cleared his throat. "And if we were all standing on a cliff, while a butterfly flapped its wings in China, and Nick had to pick one of us to push off the cliff..."

Nick grinned. "Brian, for always starting these stupid conversations." ("Hey," Brian protested.) "Or Kevin, just because."

"Not me?" AJ asked.

"Not unless you were really asking for it."

"Is there a time when AJ isn't asking for it?" Kevin asked unexpectedly from the far corner, where he was on the phone with Kristin.

"Probably not," Nick said, and winked at AJ.

The hallway lights were too bright and too fuzzy at the same time, and AJ wasn't sure if he'd be able to read the room numbers to find his room. To tell the truth, he wasn't sure if he remembered the numbers in the first place. It didn't matter. Sooner or later somebody would find him and lead him to bed. Or maybe he could look for it on his own, but all the doors he tried were locked.

He tried each door along the right side, and then started down the left, when one of the locked doors he'd already tried opened and Nick stepped out.

"Come on, AJ," and his voice was soft, which was really, really nice, so much more fucking considerate than their so-called fans out front, but his face was sad.

AJ raised a hand to Nick's cheek, cupped it, brushed his thumb along golden stubble, and Nick made a soft, choked sound and leaned forward and they were kissing, open and warm and wet, forever and ever until Nick pulled away.

"Wha--?" AJ began.

Nick shook his head. "Let's just get you to bed," and that sounded fucking fantastic, but then he didn't take off anything but AJ's shoes, and the buttons were too hard for AJ to manage even though he tried and Nick was gone.

And then he was back with a glass of water, though AJ didn't think he'd ever be thirsty again, that he set down on the bedside table. Nick's wrist was warm when AJ reached out to grasp it, the long sleeve of his black shirt fading into the dark of the room, and AJ could feel himself drifting, like the room was the ocean, Nick probably loved it, and it must be a cloudy night no stars overhead only shadows and roaring silence and dark.

He woke up the next morning with a pounding headache and somehow stumbled to the blessedly cool, dark bathroom to empty his unsteady stomach. It wasn't too bad that morning; he napped a little against the toilet seat and managed to take a shower with no problems.

That didn't, of course, mean he was anywhere near ready to deal with Kevin at that hour. Especially not if he were going to bang doors open to announce group meetings and stand there watching every move as AJ got dressed.

Even that was better than the meeting, though. The four of them sat him down in a circle in Howie's room, so kind, so fucking reasonable, and when AJ figured out what they were trying to say he pushed himself to his feet, shaking with fury.

They all stood up, too. Howie reached for him placatingly, but AJ wrenched his arm away.

"Fucking Judas," he hissed, glaring at Nick.

Nick flinched violently, and before AJ could move an inch his fist had slammed into the wall beside AJ's head. The sound of cracking plaster and snapping bones was loud in AJ's ears.

Nick's hand was broken, and AJ was the one who burst into tears. Nick just stood there trembling, his face white, until Brian realized what had happened and made him lie down on the bed while Howie called for an ambulance.

Only Kevin remained standing by him as AJ sank to the floor--sobbing, cursing, and, ultimately, promising to do whatever they wanted.

When AJ's almost-marriage blew up in his face, he moved out of his own house indefinitely. The arrival of Baylee had thrown the Littrells into enough turmoil without adding a heartbroken houseguest to their burden, but Kevin, Howie, and Nick each got lengthy visits from him that only ended when another's began.

Eventually he settled at Nick's. Howie was gone promoting the Foundation for days on end. Kevin was around a lot more, but so was Kristen, and the two of them were apparently trying to follow in Brian and Leighanne's footsteps. AJ wished them the best of luck, but didn't really want to be in the presence of that much enthusiastic sex unless he was allowed to join in. Somehow, he didn't think that was going to happen anytime soon.

Nick was working on his second album, of course, but at least he was around and spent most of the day fully clothed.

After a couple of weeks, AJ realized he desperately wanted that to change. And, after getting Howie's approval, Brian's friendly advice, and a series of nearly-as-friendly threats from Kevin, he felt as if it might actually be a good idea to listen to himself.

He and Nick were sharing Nick's bed--it was the only bed in the hut, after all, and the sofa really wasn't designed for long-term comfort. So one night AJ rolled onto his side, murmured, "Please don't take this the wrong way," and kissed him.

Nick's lips parted instantly, his tongue slipping along AJ's, their mouths open and wet, and AJ was harder than he'd been since...too far back to remember. And then Nick was gentling the kiss, pulling back, to ask, "What's the wrong way to take it?" hoarsely.

Nick was beautiful in the dim moonlight, and AJ kissed him helplessly. He was giving away too much, everything, and he didn't care. "That's for you to decide," he said softly, whispering the words to the corner of Nick's lips, pressing them into the gorgeous curve of his mouth.

"I don't want this to be the only time," Nick confessed, eyes wide and blue even in the night...AJ kissed them closed and licked the taste of old salt from the lashes. Nick's eyelids twitched like rose petals in the breeze under his tongue, soft and powdery. AJ wanted to see the minute veins pulsing under translucent skin.

Nick moaned breathlessly, his pelvis arching up to rock against AJ's, and their cocks rubbed naked and damp on bare skin--they'd known each other too long for false modesty just because they slept side by side.

The next thrust against AJ's hip slid hot and liquid, and he slid down Nick's body to capture the taste of pre-come and to kiss the delicate skin of Nick's cock. AJ was so hard he was shaking, but the sweaty, musky scent rising from Nick and his half-surprised gasps of pleasure were more addictive than AJ's own pleasure.

His tongue circled the tip of Nick's cock, probing delicately at the drawn-back foreskin, then pressing firmly on the underside. Nick moaned.

AJ'd planned on sucking Nick off properly, then teasing him slowly to hardness again and fucking himself on Nick's beautifully long cock. It was a good plan, he thought. Well-envisioned; practically flawless. It was also completely impossible to follow. A quick rifle through the bedside table yielded a condom and a tube of lubricant. He tossed the first to Nick, did the bare minimum of preparation with the second, and lay back on the pillows, his stomach thrumming with anticipation.

Nick didn't need any more encouragement than that. With one smooth glide he was inside AJ, the two of them gasping in concert. AJ's cock rubbed across the soft curve of Nick's stomach with each impossibly deep thrust, and Nick sped up his strokes incrementally until the movement in and out formed an endless loop of pleasure that ratcheted higher and higher and AJ came, noiselessly, shuddering with pleasure and release. Half a minute later Nick followed.

They lay pressed together sweatily afterwards, their breaths evening gradually.

AJ wondered how hard it would be to convince Nick to let him stick around for another several decades. Of course, Jane would start suspecting something long before then... He shuddered at the thought.

"What?" Nick asked.

"I was just thinking of what Jane would think if she could see the two of us now. Somehow I don't think I'm what she has in mind for you."

"Oh, that shouldn't be a problem," Nick said muzzily. He yawned. "She already likes you. So long as you don't try to out either of us, she should be totally fine."

"She knows you're gay?" AJ asked, trying not to sound surprised.

"Sure. I told all my family--well, my parents and brother and sisters; my grandparents still don't know--maybe...three years ago? Somewhere around there."

"You never mentioned that."

Nick yawned again. "I guess I didn't really need to. It was all kind of...anti-climactic."

"So you don't think she'd pitch a fit if I moved in here long-term?"

"Probably not," Nick said, with a smile that thousands of people would probably kill to see. After a moment, AJ kissed him gently. There was a great joke about in-laws on the tip of his tongue, but it could wait.

"Well, this is a surprise," Jane said, when she answered the door to AJ and Nick. "You could try to visit more than once a week, you know."

Nick shrugged. "I'm here now, aren't I?"

"But I'm just getting ready to go out. I'm meeting Mrs. Roberts for lunch, and then I have to go to the post office, and then buy gas..."

"When do you have to leave?"

"What time is it? Noon?"

AJ checked his watch and nodded.

"I guess I can stay another half hour, then."

"Okay. I've actually got something I wanted to talk to you about," Nick said.

"Well, I'm not going to listen to you standing in the doorway. Come in."

Nick led the way to the kitchen, and they all sat at the table. "Angel's still at school?"

"Yes. And then she has dance lessons afterwards. She'll be home around dinnertime."

He nodded. "I should give her a call, or email her, or something, and set up a time to meet. It feels like I never see her."

"Well, maybe if you visited more often... You could come for dinner tonight, if you wanted."

"I would, but Aje and I are going out. We've kind of been planning it for a while."

"Oh? Well, have a good time. Where are you going?"

"Someplace new," AJ said. "It's sort of a surprise for Nick. I can tell you later, if you want."

"Definitely. What's the occasion?"

"I'm just about done the new album," Nick said. "A few last-minute tweaks, and it'll be finished."

Jane's face lit up and she leaned forward to kiss Nick's cheek. "Congratulations! That's wonderful, Nicky. When do I get to hear it?"

"Maybe another couple of weeks. I'm still deciding which songs will be singles, and stuff, but that won't take long. The first single should be getting radio play within the month."

Her smile got a little tight, but she said, "Well, that's really great. I'm assuming that's the thing you came all the way over here to tell me about?"

"Actually, it isn't. I wanted to talk about Aaron."

"What about Aaron?"

"He called me last night from the road. He's really not happy being out there."

Jane laughed a little. "He's a teenager. Of course he's unhappy. That's what teenagers do."

"Not like this," Nick said. "It's not just hormones, or whatever. He's worn out, and he's lonely, and he wants to take a break."

"Well, you'll just have to tell him that that's unacceptable." Jane's voice rose sharply. "If he stops now, there's no way of knowing how long it would take him to regain his popularity and be on top again."

"He doesn't care about that."

"Then we have to care for him. He's too young to know what he wants. Can you imagine what would have happened if I'd let you quit when you were just starting out?"

"I never asked to quit. I was fine--I was even happy a lot of the time. Aaron isn't, and he wants to come home."

"Wait, that might work," Jane said suddenly. "He doesn't really need to be on tour now. If he just did a few interviews a month, maybe a couple of charity functions..."

"That's not good enough. He wants to relax and have fun again, not just trade performing for making public appearances."

Jane looked incredulous. "And who are you to say what's not good enough? I'm his mother, in case you'd forgotten."

"I know that. But he talks to me a lot, and I've got a better idea where he's coming from 'cause I've been doing the same thing since I was his age."

"Well, he's certainly been doing a better job of it than you have lately," Jane snapped. "At least he still has his looks. Not to mention a successful solo career."

AJ flinched, his hand itching to slap her across the face, despite the fact that that would be the worst fucking thing he could do. Nick just smiled. "You're right, he does. But even if he grows up to be the next Justin Timberlake, he's still just a kid now. And he needs a break."

"He can't afford to--"

"Aaron can afford to never work again in his life," Nick interrupted. "Just like I can afford to support you and Dad for the rest of yours. But right now he needs to be a teenager more than he needs to be in the next J-14 or earning his next million dollars. It's not healthy for him, and I bet any good psychiatrist would say the same thing."

Jane's eyes shimmered with tears. "Are you threatening me, Nick? Would you really drag our family through the dirt just so you can get your own way?"

"You tell me," Nick said.

"Fine. I think you don't care how much you hurt me or the family, as long as you're happy. So go ahead, tell me just exactly what you think Aaron should do."

"I think you should let Aaron live a normal life for a while. As long as he wants to. You might even be able to find a private school for him where they wouldn't treat him too differently. Otherwise, I guess he should keep his tutor, only let him do whatever he wants in his free time."

Her lower lip trembled as she said, "All right. But I want you to know that I'm not happy about this."

"I know you aren't," Nick said seriously. "I'm sorry."

"So, do you have any idea how long this is going to go on? Or is that something else we're leaving to Aaron to decide?"

"I really don't know." Nick hesitated, then said, "Aaron's always welcome at our place, if he wants."

"What, so you can turn him against me even more? Why would I ever agree to something like that?"

"That's totally not what I meant, and you know it. I was just thinking that it's quieter there--at least when AJ isn't playing music on the stereo--and Aaron might want that, sometimes. I didn't mean that he should move out of the house permanently, or anything."

"We'll see," Jane said, her mouth tight. "You should probably go now. I'm going to be late for lunch."

Nick sighed quietly. "Okay. I'll try to come by sometime soon."

"You do that."

"Bye," AJ said.

Jane smiled at him, as brightly as though he hadn't been sitting there through the whole conversation/argument. "Bye. Try to talk Nick into coming back sometime before next Friday."

Back at the hut, he and Nick had a list of over eighty excuses for why they couldn't visit that they used whenever Jane called. Adding to the list was their equivalent of playing board games on rainy days, when they were worried about frying the electrical equipment.

"Right," AJ said. "I'll see what I can do."

They ended up going back for dinner on Wednesday, after all, since that was the day that Aaron had finally slept off his jet lag and was actually awake at dinnertime. Afterwards he rode the golf cart back to Nick and AJ's hut. So far there'd been no luck finding a suitable private school--according to Jane, at least; Nick had just started making inquiries himself--and having Nick over twice in the same week had softened her enough that Aaron was allowed an officially sanctioned sleepover.

"You want hot chocolate?" Nick asked as soon as Aaron was ensconced in one of the soft dining room chairs.

"Yes, please."

AJ watched with vague interest as Nick used half the normal amount of cocoa, making up the difference with a spoonful of honey.

"Nick hasn't figured out that I'm old enough to drink regular hot chocolate at bedtime yet," Aaron explained, rolling his eyes.

"Hey." Nick pointed a spoon at him threateningly. "I've seen you on a caffeine high just last year, remember, and that's nothing I want happening within fifty yards of my house."

"I only broke--"

"No 'only,'" Nick said firmly. "The next time you get that hyper, you're taking the pogo stick outside." The microwave beeped, and Nick set the steaming mug in front of Aaron.

"As opposed to you, who nearly bounced a hole in the wall with the basketball?" AJ asked, despite the fact that that accident had been mostly his fault. When AJ had fired on Nick with a concealed water gun, he'd had no choice but to retaliate with the nearest weapon. Which had fortunately missed AJ and not so fortunately pegged the living room wall.

Nick just narrowed his eyes and said, "At least I didn't bounce it through a glass door, like some people I could name," while Aaron blushed into his hot chocolate.

AJ took pity on him and joined Nick at the sink. They had a strict chore rotation, and he had absolutely no intention of doing any unnecessary dishes. Of course, that didn't mean that he couldn't sneak a grope or two while Nick worked.

There was a loud slurp from the table as Aaron drank the last dregs of hot chocolate.

"Go brush your teeth, and I'll make up the couch for you in a second," Nick said.

"Actually, would it be all right if I..."

Nick shrugged. "It's fine with me. Ask AJ."

"What?" AJ asked when Aaron turned hopeful eyes on him.

"Can I sleep with you guys tonight?"

AJ tried to catch Nick's eye, but Nick was busily and unconcernedly washing up the dishes in the sink. "If you really want to," he said finally.


"Just don't forget to brush your teeth," Nick warned--which reminded AJ that he'd better get moving if he wanted first turn in the bathroom.

Wearing clothes to bed, even if it was just boxers and a T-shirt, felt subtly and undeniably wrong. It was almost...AJ paused to catch the elusive was like when he'd finally taken off the rings Sarah had given him. His hands had missed the feel of them for weeks. Now he was wrapped in soft pima cotton, Nick pressed warm against his side, and all he could feel was the insidious wrongness.

At least until Aaron came out of the bathroom and clambered onto the bed between them. Then things stopped feeling oddly wrong and just felt fucking weird. Aaron slid underneath the covers carefully and cuddled against Nick. The bed was big, of course--Nick insisted on that--but not when it was holding three people. There was only just enough room for AJ between the edge of the bed and Aaron, who, unexpectedly, was radiating heat like a hot water bottle.

After a moment, AJ wrapped an arm around Aaron's pajama-clad torso. He was bigger than AJ had expected, but still had a boy's narrow ribs and shoulders. On the other side of Aaron, Nick found AJ's hand and held it gently in his own, their intertwined fingers rising and falling with Aaron's breath.

Somehow, AJ had thought being obscenely rich meant never having to fuss about money. Certainly he didn't bother about it beyond making sure that he had a good accountant and that a sizable chunk of his income was invested each year. Nick and Aaron seemed determined to prove him wrong.

"I'm not even sure how much I paid for the house and property by now," Nick said. "That's how completely unimportant it is. So why does it matter to you so much?"

"I feel bad about it. I mean, I've got plenty of money, too. You should let me pay for part of this."

"It's not your responsibility."

"What, and it's yours? Mom and Dad are the parents--you shouldn't be taking care of them."

Nick reached across the table to hold Aaron's hand. "Believe it or not, I'm getting the better part of the deal."

"What deal?" Aaron asked.

"Ask me again in a couple of years, and I promise I'll tell you. Anyway, taking care of the family has to be more my responsibility than yours, 'cause I'm an adult and you're not yet. When you're eighteen, if you can give me a good reason why you want to help pay for everything, then we can split the cost. Sound fair?"

"Yeah, okay," Aaron said reluctantly.

"You could do a couple of chores around here, if you're that determined to help. You practically live here, anyway," AJ pointed out. "You know how to do laundry?"

"Umm," Aaron said, looking trapped. Nick tried unsuccessfully to hide a smile.

"Bad answer," AJ said. "Come on, I'll show you."

"Go ahead, Aaron. I want to talk to AJ a second," Nick added. As soon as Aaron had left the room, he kissed AJ quickly but thoroughly. "Just to make clear exactly how I feel about you using my brother as slave labor," he said breathlessly.

AJ leaned in to lick across Nick's lower lip. "Damn. With that as incentive, I think I'm going to have him scrub the kitchen floor, too."

When AJ woke up, he felt a moment of disorientation before realizing that the body he was wrapped around was Aaron. He leaned over Aaron slightly to check the clock on Nick's side of the bed: ten forty-five. Then he carefully removed his dick from Aaron's boxer-clad thigh and slid out of the bed in search of clothes, breakfast, and a hell of a lot of coffee.

It was just past eleven, and AJ was on his fourth cup, by the time Nick came out of the bedroom in boxers and a tank top and dropped into the chair next to him.

"Does it bother you?" Nick asked.

AJ took another sip of coffee. "Why should it bother me if my boyfriend's fifteen year-old brother decides to sleep in the same bed with us when we happen to be naked?"

"He wouldn't do it if he didn't trust us."

"Well, that's great, Nick. I'm so glad that the lesson I should take from this is that Aaron trusts us not to fucking molest him in his sleep!"

Nick's eyes went wide and startled, a flush rising high on his cheekbones. "That's not... I didn't mean he trusts us not to hurt him. Of course he knows we'd never do anything like that. It's more like...he wants us to protect him."

"Protect him from what, Nick? This place has better security than Camp David. Not to mention, how many teenaged boys do you know who'd use two naked men as a security blanket? He's not scared, he's jealous."

Nick frowned in bewilderment. "Why would he be jealous? And he's not scared, exactly. It's more like...sleeping with us lets him feel loved. You know all five of us used to sleep in the same bed when I was little, sometimes? It used to be like a really cramped sleepover."

"Yeah, you told me. We've got pictures in the picture album. That still has nothing to do with your underage brother climbing into bed with us when we're naked!"

"Actually, I think it does," Nick disagreed. "But if you've got a problem with it, I can tell him to stop."

AJ sighed and counted to twenty. "Just get him to start asking first so we can put some clothes on, okay?"

"Okay," Nick promised.

Smoke from AJ's cigarette wafted out into the dusk air. He was shivering a little--even Florida got cold at night in December--but Nick didn't like him smoking inside.

"I'm not jealous," Aaron said suddenly from behind him.

AJ nearly choked on a lungful of smoke, but managed to exhale slowly. "What?" he asked, his voice rasping softly.

Aaron came forward to stand beside him at the railing. "I heard you and Nick talking this morning, and I'm not jealous of you. Nick's my brother--he's never going to stop being that no matter who he's dating."

"So why do you want to sleep with us?" AJ asked bluntly.

Aaron shrugged. "I guess for all the reasons Nick said. It's nice. It makes me feel safe."

"When we're naked?"

"Sure, why not? It's not like you want me, and I sure as hell don't want you. Or Nick, either. I'm straight."

"How do you know I don't want you?" AJ countered.

Aaron just looked at him. Fucking insouciant teenagers.

"Besides," AJ continued, "you don't have to want someone to be in love with them."

There was an uncomfortable silence while Aaron thought that over. Or, at least, AJ was uncomfortable. Aaron looked like he felt just fine. Finally he said, "I can't decide if that's true or not. I'm not in love with Nick, though, if that's what you were getting at. So you've got no reason to be jealous of me."

"Not for that reason, maybe," AJ said, lighting a new cigarette off the old one and stubbing out the end on the rail.

Aaron just shook his head. "You know," he said, "I thought it was kind of funny when Nick was talking about how he and the girls and I all used to sleep together when we were little."

"And why's that?" AJ asked tightly.

"Well, it's just that's the way it always was when I visited Nick on tour. Every time I looked you were falling asleep on top of each other or in the same bed or whatever. Not just you and Nick, I mean. All five of you."

Epiphanies, AJ reflected, were a hell of a lot more gratifying when they weren't given to you by semi-bratty fifteen year-olds.

"I thought it was funny," Aaron repeated unnecessarily.

AJ rolled his eyes. "All right, I get it. Now go inside and let me finish my cigarette." He swatted Aaron's butt to get him moving, and Aaron yelped happily. "And you'd better be sleeping on the couch tonight," he called after him.

"Well, duh," Aaron's voice floated back. AJ tapped another cigarette out of the pack, figuring he more than deserved it. Just the one, though. Nick was waiting inside for him.

"Family," AJ whispered to Nick in a thankfully Aaron-free bed that night, "is a very fucked-up thing."

"Yeah..." Nick said, a bit uncertainly.

"If Jane and I were hanging off a cliff and you could only save one of us, which of--"

"You," Nick said firmly.

"What if it were Aaron and me?"

"I'd let myself get killed and save both of you."

"And how about if you couldn't do that? If you had to let one of us die?"

Nick thought a while. "I couldn't. I'd have to let both of you die. I couldn't choose. Sorry," he added. "If it's any consolation, I'd probably kill myself afterwards."

"No, you wouldn't," AJ said. "Because I'd tell you to save Aaron, and then I'd let go. And if you ever, ever kill yourself I am going to be more fucking pissed than you can even begin to imagine."

Nick peered at him curiously. "You really love Aaron that much?"

AJ shook his head. "I love you that much."

"I love you that much, too."

"I know." AJ kissed him softly, lingering on the rich sweetness of Nick's mouth. "You've been telling me all along."

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