In Dreams

This one has somehow gained a special place in my heart - I just really like it, even if it's not exactly action loaded...

The poem at the beginning is by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Author's Note: Okay, another one parter - again I couldn't skip the angst completely, but as always there's major fluff ahead as well! This is different from what I've written so far - I hope you like it!
I was lucky enough to catch AJ at MTV Cribs and decided that it's time to admit that yes, he is engaged and sadly enough not to Howie... yet. *g*
As always, keep in mind that English isn't my first language.

What if you slept?
And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed?
And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven
and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower?

And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand?
Ah, what then?

It was another one of these endless nights. AJ had woken with a start from yet another dream and simply couldn't bring himself to fall asleep again. Sarah was sleeping peacefully beside him, oblivious of her fiance's restlessness and he hoped that it stayed that way. He really didn't feel like explaining why this recurring dream disturbed him so much.
It was not that it was what you could call a nightmare - no one was chasing him, there were no frightening images whatsoever in it. No, the problem was that to AJ it felt so good, so real that when he woke up he wished he was still there. And that was most definitely not a good thing!

He was supposed to be the happiest when awake and with the woman he was going to marry- the woman who had stood by him through the darkest time of his life and who was now sleeping beside him in the home they shared. But as he lay in the darkness of their bedroom there was no denying that he couldn't remember a moment with Sarah when he had felt as content as he did in the dream.

"The dream" - when had he started referring to it like that? It was not the same every night, but there were similarities that made him think of his nightly experiences as parts of one big dream. AJ sighed softly, recalling the feeling of utter peace and harmony he always felt, the knowledge that he was safe and loved, no matter what. But who was it who made him feel like this? He just knew that it wasn't Sarah - but there was someone there, a comforting presence, someone he felt was familiar.
When had it all started? He tried to remember, knowing somehow that this was important, that there had to be a reason why his nights were becoming more important than his days. He realized that the longer this went on, the more the dream spilled over into his real life and threatened the semblance of happiness AJ had managed to erect together with Sarah.

Wait a minute! "The semblance of happiness"? Why had he chosen these words? It sounded as if he didn't really believe that he had found true happiness with his fiancee. Another sigh escaped AJ - he absolutely had to get to the bottom of this or his relationship was in serious danger. And that would be terrible, wouldn't it?
Why did this sound so unsure in his mind? Frustrated AJ got up and silently left the bedroom. He needed to think - and he normally had the clearest head when he was playing pool in his Frank Sinatra room.

As he absentmindedly began to play his thoughts were free to wander. Suddenly he remembered the first time he had had the dream. It had been during their short Christmas break that he and Sarah had spent with both their families. It had been a perfect holiday - certainly better than the one in the year before that he had spent hung over with a terrible headache.
Then why did he get the feeling that there had been something missing, something really important? AJ tried to see what it was that had been amiss - but the more the tried the less he could see.

Frustrated he gave up the direct approach and let the day pass before his inner eye instead. There had been the gifts under the Christmas tree, the big breakfast with everyone laughing and bickering good naturedly. Then they had gone to church and afterwards for a walk, him and Sarah in front of the others, wrapped in each other's arms. He still had troubles believing that she had actually said yes and would become his wife.
So far, everything seemed perfect - AJ really didn't see what could have triggered the dream. He then remembered the afternoon - calling friends all over the country and getting calls from them. Everyone was cheerful, enjoying the break. He had talked to the guys... AJ stopped short, missing a shot completely. There was something about the guys... He couldn't lay his finger on it, but it was there.

He cast his mind back once again. Kevin and Brian had called first, exuberant about spending the holiday with their wives and the whole Richardson-Littrell gang in Kentucky. Then AJ had given Nick a call, exchanging insults as always while in the background the younger Carter kids were making an incredible noise. He hadn't called Howie next , because it had somehow become a tradition for them to wait until the evening, taking turns in who was the one to call.
AJ took a sharp breath. There it was - but what the hell did it mean? Howie hadn't called that evening, so at ten o'clock AJ had rung up the Dorough family. Howie had answered the phone, sounding breathless and excited - he had probably been playing with the kids.

"Oh shit, Aje - I'm sorry! I completely forgot that it was my turn!" he had apologized profusely as soon as he recognized his best friend's voice. AJ remembered saying something about it being no problem and asking about Howie's Christmas. They had chatted for a while and then hung up. Soon afterwards AJ and Sarah went to bed. They made love and talked for a while and AJ fell asleep content and at peace, curled up around his fiancee. But that was the first night he had had the dream and had waken up with the strange feeling that something was missing in his life. And even if he still didn't understand the reason for it, AJ now knew that this something was in some way connected to Howie.

Having figured that out the question was what to do about it. AJ tiredly put down the queue. He wouldn't get to the bottom of this tonight, so he decided to go back to bed. Perhaps his sleep would be dreamless...

But of course that was not to be - as soon as he had fallen asleep he was back in the dream. As always he felt completely relaxed and was not surprised to discover, as he looked down, that he was floating naked above the honey colored ground. Everything in this particular dream seemed to be the warm golden color of honey glistening in the sun - even the air that surrounded him had a distinct honey tint and seemed to surround him like warm liquid. Leisurely AJ turned around, enjoying the sensation of complete freedom as he felt warmth caress every pore of his body. It was one of the most sensual things he had ever experienced and he felt contentment wash over him, tinged with an undercurrent of arousal. Not the kind of arousal that made one impatient and begging for release, but an incredibly erotic sensation that AJ wished to treasure forever.

A part of him was aware that he was asleep and this only a dream, but the bigger part of his consciousness wanted nothing more than stay like this forever. As he was floating in the sea of contentment AJ realized somehow that something was missing - something that would make it all perfect. This feeling returned in every dream and without wasting any thought to the reason why he did this AJ let himself sink down, relishing in the feeling of air like satin parting around his body. The moment his feet touched the ground - warm and soft underneath his bare soles - AJ suddenly wasn't alone anymore.
Someone was standing behind him, someone he knew was part of this world of warmth and honey colored sensation, much more than himself. He felt welcomed and embraced, although no word was spoken and neither one of them moved. It was as if their spirits touched and recognized each other and at this moment AJ felt perfection, absolute and complete bliss. He didn't turn around, it somehow didn't seem necessary, since his soul already knew who was reaching out to him. No real physical contact was needed to make him shiver as he felt the other caress him sensually and he experienced a kind of inner climax that, although his body didn't react, shook him through and through. Never before had AJ known something as intense as this feeling of the touching of two souls.

With a start AJ woke up, at once feeling empty and lost, as if he had been pulled away from the place where he belonged. He felt cold and lonely, despite the fact that he knew his bedroom was comfortably heated and Sarah was lying only two feet away from him, still sleeping peacefully.
His heart longed for the unknown person in his dreams and at the same time his body screamed for the touch it had just known. AJ lay back down and tried to will his erection away - but as the fading images of the dream haunted him he knew that this was a futile attempt.

Sighing he got up, knowing that he wouldn't go to sleep anymore that night. He made his way to the guest bathroom, not wanting to wake Sarah. He let hot water fill the tub and stood in front of the mirror, searching his face for signs of what had happened to him. But on the outside he looked like always - a bit tired perhaps, but otherwise completely normal and not as if his heart was in turmoil and his soul longing for the touch of its mate...
Cursing under his breath AJ shook his head - these dreams were driving him crazy! They were only dreams, for God's sake, not real! His soul mate was lying in the bed they shared, as she would hopefully do for the rest of their lives!

He had only had an erotic dream and he would take care of its effects on him right now! Decidedly AJ stripped and stepped into the steaming water. With a sigh he rested his head against the cool tiles as his hands moved over his hard flesh, banishing the dream with physical pleasure. But it somehow seemed hollow and did nothing to fill the emptiness he felt inside. The satisfaction he usually experienced was missing as he came into his hand.

Tired AJ closed his eyes and let his mind wander, the water surrounding him reminded him of the honey colored world he had seen in his dream and from there he returned to the questions still at the back of his mind.
It all came down to one thing: What the hell had all this to do with Howie? Somehow AJ felt as if he should know the answer to this, but it escaped him every time he tried to hold on to it. Almost as if his subconsciousness didn't want him to understand the reason.
That angered AJ - the dream was threatening to destroy the peace he had found with Sarah and he would get to the bottom of this!

Repeating what had worked earlier in the pool room he stopped trying to get to the answer directly and instead let his thoughts wander freely to his best friend, the man he had known since his early teens, who had always been by his side, caring for him, being there for him whenever he needed him. Had the missed phone call at Christmas caused AJ to feel kind of abandoned?
Perhaps a bit - normally it was him who forgot things, who had other stuff on his mind, not Howie, who was always thinking of others first. But that time it had been AJ who remembered, AJ who had waited for Howie's call that didn't come. It was good that his friend had put himself first and had simply enjoyed being with his family - it was not as if him and AJ wouldn't see each other again just some days later... Then why had this small absolutely unimportant incident triggered the dream?

AJ shook his head frustrated. He just wasn't making much headway here, he still didn't see any connection between the dream and Howie.
Even if he had felt some childish resentment that Howie had forgotten him - the dreams were always positive, filled with love and warmth, not with being abandoned by someone he loved... Whoa! AJ's eyes flew open as he repeated that thought in his head. Where had that come from? Sure he loved Howie - after all Howie had been his best friend for almost ten years and they had gone through all kinds of shit together, including the madness of their success, several failed relationships, the deaths of people close to them, Brian's heart surgery and of course AJ's little trip towards self destruction. And they had survived it all, perhaps slightly battered and bruised, but with their friendship still intact and closer than ever.

AJ smiled softly as he remembered the countless occasions Howie had looked out for him, the good times they had experienced together, the feeling of security he always had whenever his friend was around. When Howie touched him, be it during an interview or onstage or when they were hanging out in another anonymous hotel room, AJ always felt loved and completely safe - no matter how down he had been just seconds before.
Howie's presence alone was sometimes enough to make AJ smile, as if Howie's unconditional support and quiet strength were something he could touch and wrap around himself like a blanket. A warm, honey colored blanket that surrounded him with love and reached out to his soul...

AJ sat up with a start, hitting his head against the wall. He cursed and decided that it was time to get out of the tub. The water had gone cold and he felt all shrivelled up. Probably being in the water too long had softened his brain as well - if he were in his right mind he certainly wouldn't have thought what he was pretty sure had just been running through his head. But deep down he knew that he had finally gotten to the bottom of the whole dream thing... And what he had seen there scared him shitless and made him light headed in a way the thought of his best friend Howie really shouldn't make him feel!

Absent mindedly AJ towelled himself off. Could this really be the truth? Had it been Howie all along? Had the dream been the only possibility for his subconscious to work through the emotions AJ had kept locked away? And with good reason, AJ told himself drily. After all, didn't it all get down to one simple truth: That he had been living in an illusion of love with Sarah. Worse still - his dream told him that the person he was supposed to be with had been right in front of him all along.
For the thousandth time this night AJ shook his head unbelievingly - this whole thing was absolutely wild! Did he really believe in all that crap he was telling himself? After all, he was happy with Sarah, he truly loved her and spending the rest of his life with her was probably the best thing that could happen to him.

But the problem was, now that he had figured it all out, it made frighteningly much sense. After taking down the blinds that had kept him from seeing how deep his feelings for Howie ran his relationship to Sarah seemed suddenly terribly shallow.
Sure, she was a wonderful person and AJ would never forget that she had been there for him when he needed someone to hold on to - but she never made him feel so complete, so whole as Howie could by just being there. It was not her fault that deep down his heart had already been claimed when they met.

AJ met his own gaze in the mirror after having stared into it blindly for what seemed like forever. His hands gripped the counter for support and he swallowed hard as he asked himself: "Does that mean I'll leave my safe future with Sarah for an uncertain maybe with Howie?" He didn't realize that he was speaking loud until he heard his voice resonate from the tiled white walls of the bathroom.
Was he really thinking about dumping Sarah? And everything because of a dream? A dream that had admittedly haunted him for months, but only a dream nevertheless. Was he crazy to interpret these feelings into it? And what if Howie didn't love him back - what if he'd end up alone?

AJ resolutely turned away from the mirror. All this soul searching was not really necessary - if he was honest with himself he had made his decision the moment he had realized that the dream had been about Howie. He simply couldn't settle for anything less than what he now knew he felt for Howie - and Sarah surely deserved more than someone who "settled" for her...
AJ left his refuge, not knowing what the day would bring. But a last look into the mirror showed him that he almost seemed to be glowing from the inside - what a difference to the tired man who had come here to get his mind off a dream!

He looked at the clock in the big kitchen and realized that it was already 9 o'clock. Howie was certainly still asleep - he enjoyed every opportunity he got to sleep in. AJ smiled tenderly as he pictured him all tangled up in the sheets, his hair tousled, a peaceful look on his face. Howie was beautiful when asleep!
AJ almost stretched out a hand to caress the sleeping form - it all seemed so real. Instead he roused himself from his daydream, whispering softly "I hope you dream of me, D..." before beginning to make coffee for him and Sarah.
She would come down soon, he could already hear her moving around. This wouldn't be easy, he knew it - and he hated the thought of hurting her. But as he remembered the feeling of his soul touching Howie's his resolve was strengthened. He had to do this!

He heard Sarah walking down the stairs. He greeted her with a cup of hot coffee, avoided her good morning kiss and sat down, motioning her to do the same. "Honey, I... I have to talk to you..." he began haltingly, not knowing exactly where to begin without sounding like a madman. But then he realized that she deserved the truth - no matter how crazy it might be! After having realized this, the words seemed to flow freely as AJ told his fiancee that there wouldn't be a wedding because he had been having these dreams that made him realize that he was in love with his best friend...

An hour later it was over. Understandably enough Sarah had been less than happy - she had been incredibly angry and heart broken at the same time. She had screamed at him, flung the cup with now cold coffee at him and then broken down sobbing, before going upstairs to get some of her stuff together.
AJ had told her that he would leave, that this was as much or even more her home as it was his. But she had said that she couldn't stay here, that she had to get away from everything that reminded her of him. It had almost made AJ cry himself as he had seen how deep his betrayal cut the woman he still loved to a certain degree. But what had moved him most was what Sarah told him as she left with an overnight bag to go to her mother: "I really would like to hate you for what you've done to me, Aje - but I know you think you're doing the right thing. And perhaps, once I've stopped feeling as if I'm dying inside, I'll agree with you. Because... because I've seen the way you are around Howie - the way the two of you just complete each other... I'd just never have thought that this connection would break my heart one day."
With that she had left him without looking back and AJ had felt like complete scum - he had gone and broken the heart of one of the most wonderful persons he knew.

He had just closed the door and was trying to decide what to do next, when he heard a car stop in front of the house. He hoped that it was not some fan - it seemed impossible right now for him to slip into his Backstreet persona, give autographs and hug her as if he didn't have a care in the world.
The door bell rang and to AJ's complete surprise he saw Howie standing there, looking as if he had just left bed, in his oldest pair of trainers, comfy sweatpants and t-shirt. Normally Howie wouldn't be caught dead in something like this! What was he doing here so early? AJ decided that the best way to find out would probably be to open the door but he suddenly felt shy as he realized that things would probably be different after today.

Howie had obviously begun to lose patience and started to fumble in his pockets, probably for his set of keys for the house. This roused AJ and he opened the door.
For a while they just stood there, staring at each other, until Howie motioned for them to go inside so no one would notice their strange behavior. AJ smiled a bit at this - it was just Howie to think about what impression they might make.
Once inside AJ felt again his friend's dark eyes on him and he wondered what Howie might see. "Are you alright, Alex?" Howie finally inquired in his soft voice. "This is probably going to sound strange, but when I woke up at this ungodly hour", AJ smiled briefly at this, "I just got this feeling that I should drive over and see after you."

AJ didn't respond, couldn't respond, because his heart was beating faster and faster as he heard Howie's words. Was this the right moment to tell him about his feelings?
Because AJ remained silent Howie continued quickly, almost stumbling over the words: "I, I know that you don't need me to look after you - you can do that yourself and you have Sarah, but I just felt as if you needed me. I'm sorry - I shouldn't have come..." He turned to leave, but AJ stopped him. "But I do need you, D! I need you so much that I actually just broke up with Sarah. So please, don't leave, D!"

Howie whipped around, his eyes wide. "You... you broke up with Sarah? But... why, Alex - why would you..." AJ interrupted the almost panicked flow of words by simply pressing his lips to Howie's. That was not exactly how he had imagined their first kiss, but it just seemed right, even if Howie was frozen still. "That's why, D!" he said simply. He would tell him about the dream later - now all that counted was the mix of hope and joy that began to show on Howie's face as AJ's words sunk in. Unsure he bit his lower lip - a gesture AJ found irresistible - before replying, still sounding a bit disbelieving: "You... you broke off your engagement with Sarah... because of me?"

Almost solemn AJ nodded, but there was a smile dancing in his eyes as he reached out and caressed the face he had never been able to see in his dreams. "Yes, just for you, D..."
And then Howie kissed him and this time it was exactly as AJ had imagined it to be - absolutely perfect. Their lips seemed made for each other, just like their bodies that melted against each other as if they had done this a thousand times.
AJ smiled contentedly against Howie's mouth. It was not as good as touching Howie's soul - but it would do, oh yes, it would do just fine!