Facing Reality

Soundtrack: "Rose Garden" by Lynn Anderson
Note: Finally! I've been terribly blocked - and when I was able to write all I could write was fluff, which this story is not. But I've tried not to make it too depressing - couldn't go without the sweetness completely... *g*

Part 1

Waking up was not something AJ enjoyed but he decided that waking up beside Howie made the whole process at least bearable. His love was lying on his stomach, one arm still holding the phone that had put an end to the much too short night. Howie's face was all crunched up, his eyes squeezed shut, his hair a mess and he still smelled of sweat and smoke from last night - but AJ found the sight unbearably cute.

He could almost hear Howie contemplating simply going back to sleep but a squint at the watch obviously convinced him that there was no time for that. Having decided to get up Howie finally turned over to direct a sleepy smile at AJ.

"Morning, lover!" he murmured and leaned in for a first kiss - close mouthed because of morning breath. "How come you're up already? I was sure I'd have to wake you up - preferably with a kiss..."

AJ couldn't help but laugh. "Well, if I had known that I wouldn't have bothered waking up to watch you grumble at the wake up call person... You know, you probably destroyed your whole sweet image with your grumpiness there!"

Howie chuckled. "Yeah, well - someone kept me up way past my bed time... I didn't get my beauty sleep!" With that he ruffled AJ's hair and moved to get out of the bed and go take a shower, not bothering to put on his discarded boxers.

AJ really knew that they didn't have time for anything - but the sight of all this naked skin was simply too much of a temptation for him to resist. He took Howie's hand and pulled, causing Howie to collapse on top of him with a surprised yelp. Grinning widely AJ let his hands roam over his lover's body, marvelling in the contrast of hard muscle and smooth skin. Being able to touch Howie like that was more than he had ever hoped for - and he didn't think he'd ever get enough of feeling Howie relax into his arms or of the soft sigh escaping him when AJ's hands caressed his nipples.

"God, Aje... We don't really have time... oh!" Protests died on Howie's lips as AJ began to suck on his neck, knowing fingers teasing first one then the other nipple into peaks, while the other hand closed around Howie's hardening cock. Howie rocked back and it was AJ's turn to gasp as what was intended to be only a bit of teasing turned into something a lot more intense.

But just as things began to get really interesting the phone rang again. With a frustrated "Fuck!" AJ leaned over to pick it up. "Yeah?" he said ungraciously while Howie slipped out of his arms with a sigh and disappeared into the bathroom, throwing AJ a look of regret.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing, AJ?" Kevin's irritated voice bellowed into his ear. "You should know better than to pick up the phone in Howie's room!" AJ felt his temper rise, but before he had found his voice to grace Kevin with some choice four letter words, the older man cut him short: "Shit, sorry - didn't mean to yell at you like that, Aje. I know you probably just didn't remember that you weren't in your own room - but you two have to be careful! How would you explain your presence in Howie's room at this time of the day if I had been a nosy journalist?"

AJ couldn't find an answer for that and pulled the covers around himself, feeling suddenly cold. "Don't fucking know", he mumbled defensively, "I won't do it again, no reason to get all worked up about it. And it was just you, so what did you call us for?"

Kevin obviously decided to let it pass - probably giving him the benefit of the doubt because he remembered how new everything was still for them, AJ thought wryly to himself. "Howie has an appearance for DLF tonight and Nick is flying back to Europe, so management thought it'd be a good idea if the five of us did an interview together this morning. Just thought I'd remind you - in case you got sidetracked..."

AJ could hear Kevin's smirk over the line and answered dryly: "Well, we were in the process of getting 'sidetracked' when you so rudely interrupted us, Kev!"

Kevin just laughed. "In that case it's a good thing that I called, isn't it?"

AJ spluttered indignantly: "I'll have you informed that it is not a good thing at all - and I'll make sure to return the favor when you're having some alone time with Kristen!" That only elicited another laugh from Kevin and AJ simply hung up on him.

With a sigh he got out of bed and followed Howie into the bathroom.

"Remind me again why we're putting up with that impossible man?" he asked over the noise of the running water as he squinted into the fogged up mirror, trying to shave.

"Who?" Howie inquired, sticking his head out of the shower. AJ had to clamp down the urge to pick up where they had left off as he met his eyes in the mirror. Naked and wet Howie, his curls damp and water running down his chest... Definitely not an image AJ needed when trying to get his facial hair into shape!

Clearing his throat he replied: "Kevin of course. He called to remind us that we have an interview this morning - and to stop us from getting sidetracked. I swear he's just jealous because I get some and he doesn't!"

Howie's laughter echoed off the bathroom walls. "I seriously doubt that - you've always been getting more than he was, ever since you were a slip of a boy of barely 16!"

AJ grunted and handed Howie his toothbrush into the shower cabin. "See - I knew there was a reason why he's always trying to get on my nerves! The old man is jealous!"

"Hey! I hate to remind you - but I'm almost as old as he is, so I resent that 'old man' remark!"

"Yeah well - I guess I like my men old and experienced..." AJ shot back.

The sound of Howie choking on toothpaste while trying not to laugh caused AJ to crack up and the rest of the bad taste Kevin's call had left in his mouth disappeared - for the time being at least.

It came back in full force when they arrived at the press room and Marcus held him back with an apologetic look while motioning Howie to go inside.

"What the fuck...!" AJ knew exactly what it was all about, but it still angered him. Now they could not even enter a room at the same time anymore? Was that the way it was going to be from now on?

When he was finally allowed to enter his temper rose again as he saw that the only chair left seated him as far away from Howie as possible, putting Nick, Kevin and Brian between them. AJ would be damned if that was coincidence - and whoever had arranged it this way would be sure to get a piece of his mind later!

He was so furious that he almost missed the opening question, and only years of experience allowed him to answer on his cue. "Yes, I'm still sober - it's been a year now and I'm doing great!" Over the heads of the others he saw Howie smiling proudly at his words and impulse made him add: "I've found someone who helps me a lot, who's always there for me and I'm really grateful for that." The journalists wanted to know details of course, but all AJ saw were Howie's chocolate brown eyes burning with love. "That's all I'm gonna say and I'd appreciate it if you could respect my privacy..."

Then Kevin cut in and brought the interview back on track. AJ tuned most of it out - it was the same old questions every time and he could have given his answers in his sleep. Only when Howie got asked the girlfriend question he perked up, wanting to know what Howie was going to say.

"No, I still don't have a girlfriend and I'm not looking for one either at the moment." Howie's words were calm and he didn't look at AJ, who couldn't help but wonder why Howie had chosen those words. Couldn't he have said that he was in a relationship, the way AJ had?

The rest of the interview AJ avoided looking at Howie, hating the fact that he had forgotten his sunglasses in their - no, in Howie's room. His eyes always gave him away and he really didn't want any of the journalists noticing his preoccupation!

At that moment he felt Brian nudge him and looked over questioningly. Under the table Brian handed him a familiar pair of sunglasses that AJ gratefully put on. How had they gotten here? He looked over at Howie, who shot him a somewhat sad smile that told AJ that Howie knew exactly what he was feeling - and that he hated it as much as AJ.

Part 2

After the interview it was already lunch time and time to split up.

Nick had to catch his plane and left them first, but not after hugging them all and promising to call them often.

To Howie and AJ he said jokingly, but with serious eyes: "Hang in there, okay? As much as I hate being the only single Backstreet Boy left, I'd hate it more to see you two join the dating circus again!" He hugged Howie tightly, whispering something into his ear, then repeated it with AJ. "I love you like a brother, you know that - but if you hurt him I'll kill you, Aje!"

"I won't, I promise!" was all AJ managed, surprised once more at how mature their baby boy had become lately. He looked over at Howie and the look in his lover's eyes told him that Nick had said the same thing to him as well. They shared a smile, which Nick didn't fail to notice.

"Hey! Attention on the leaving boy, you two! I'll be all alone for the next two weeks, so you could at least spare some time for poor little me!"

Brian laughed and tackled Nick by jumping on his back, causing his knees to buckle: "Don't worry, Nicky boy - you have all my attention!"

Kevin stood there and watched them wrestle with a wide grin on his face. He caught AJ's amused look and said: "You wouldn't think that those two are grown men, would you?"

"I don't think Frick and Frack will ever grow up, Kev - and admit it, you wouldn't want them to!" AJ laughed and grabbed Howie's hand, pulling him closer - he had to savor every moment he got before Howie had to leave as well.

Howie's grip was tight, telling AJ more than anything that Howie hated to leave him just as much as AJ. That gave AJ an idea: "Why don't I come with you, D? We could do that charity thing together and it'd just be the two of us..."

He saw Howie's eyes light up, only to sober up again just as quickly. "We can't do that, Aje - it's much too conspicuous. You've never come with me before, it'd just look odd and get people guessing..."

AJ felt disappointment rise bitter in his throat. Why was Howie so damn careful - if AJ didn't care about what people thought, why couldn't Howie feel the same?

But he swallowed the sentiment and managed a smile. "Okay, in that case I'll see you again - what? - tomorrow, right? You can fly over and stay at my place until we go into the studio again on Monday. Maybe we can write something together!"

He started to like the prospect of two days alone with Howie a lot, and the excited smile on his lover's face told him that Howie felt the same.

"That's a good idea - I can't wait for tomorrow!" Howie's voice dropped and he leaned closer to AJ, sending shivers down AJ's spine. "Imagine what I can do with you in 48 hours..."

With that promise in his ear AJ didn't feel so bad about saying good-bye to Howie at the hotel instead of going to the airport with him. At least that way they could kiss and hug properly, not having to pretend that they were just 'brothers' - and it was only a day, right?

Except that AJ got a call from Howie in the night, after Howie's event was over. He noticed straight away that something was wrong, Howie sounded almost guilty and hardly managed to answer AJ's happy greeting.

"What's up, D? Something's bothering you, I can tell!"

Howie laughed weakly in an attempt to sound okay. "Well, that's what I get for falling in love with my best friend - a lover who can read my mind..."

"Well, I can't tell what's up with you, so would you please tell me already?" AJ was getting worried. Had something bad happened? Were Howie's parents okay? His siblings? One of the guys?

"You see, Aje, it's like this..." Howie hesitated, obviously not wanting to go on. "I can't come stay with you tomorrow. It just wouldn't be a good idea."

AJ, who had been pacing back and forth in the kitchen of his house, let himself fall onto one of the barstools around the kitchen island. "What?!" he could hear the unbelieving tone in his voice and didn't even try to sound less than aggravated.

What was that supposed to mean? Why the hell wasn't it a good idea? As far as AJ was concerned, it was an excellent idea, one that he'd spent most of the afternoon imagining.

"Fuck, D - what's that supposed to mean?" he finally gave voice to the thoughts racing around in his head.

"Oh, Aje, I'm just as sorry as you are, believe me!" Howie's voice was sincere and sad. He was obviously trying to do damage control, trying to get AJ to calm down.

AJ scowled at the receiver in his hand. Sometimes it sucked that his lover was at the same time his best friend! He didn't want to know how bad Howie was feeling, he just wanted to be angry.

But against his better judgement AJ felt himself relent a bit: "So what's the reason? Why the fuck isn't it a 'good idea'?"

Howie's relief was again easy for AJ to read. "Todd from PR just called me - obviously someone told them about us, and he wanted to make sure that we know what's at stake here."

AJ almost snorted. Typical! Just typical! PR had to go and put their noses into things that were really none of their damn business!

Howie must have felt his reaction, because he quickly went on: "It's not just the two of us here, Aje - I mean, it would affect the whole group if something went wrong! Not just if the public found out, but if we fought, or broke up..."

AJ couldn't believe his ears. They had been together not even two days, and Howie was already speaking of them breaking up?

He was just about to blow up, when Howie spoke again, a whole wealth of emotions in his voice. "I couldn't believe he was actually saying that to me! I was so angry and hurt and just wanted to tell him to leave us alone. But, you know, then I realized that he was right." Howie sighed, and AJ once more cursed the fact that he could practically see the sad, disappointed look on Howie's face before his inner eye.

"Oh, Aje - he is right, it's not only us here. I know the others would stand behind us no matter what - but do we really want to see them suffer? Because us being gay and together, it would without doubt reflect badly on them, too..." Howie was pleading with AJ, and AJ couldn't close his ears to that.

His fingers gripped the receiver tightly, and a part of him wished that it would simply break under the pressure, so that he didn't have to listen to Howie's voice anymore.

"Aje... You know I love you, I truly do - more than anyone in my life! And if you want us to go out there and tell the world about us, I'll be with you every step of the way, I promise! But just think about it for a moment and tell me if you really think that that's what we should do..."

Howie fell silent, leaving AJ staring at the floor with blind eyes. His mind was racing, he wanted nothing more than to tell Howie that yes, he wanted the whole world to know, even if that meant the end of Backstreet and of Nick's solo career, and maybe of all their charities.

Finally he sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling a murder headache starting. When he spoke he was aware of the defeat in his voice: "Okay, I understand what you're getting at, D. I don't like it one damn bit, but I understand. I'll be a good little boy, behave myself in public and not spend every free minute with the man I love, I promise." He was aware that he sounded increasingly bitter - but as far as he was concerned he had every right to be! "I guess it's time to wake up and smell the roses - or the gutter minded press fuckers in our case..."

"This really really sucks, Aje - and I'm more sorry than words can tell that we can't be like every other couple!" Howie's voice mirrored AJ's emotions, balm for his hurt and anger. He was not alone in this - he'd never be alone anymore, not as long as he had Howie!

"I'll miss you like crazy, lover - I had already made all kinds of nice plans for us..." Howie sounded so sorry that AJ would have killed to be able to hold him right now.

Since that was not possible, he settled on trying to cheer him up verbally: "Well, we can take a weekend off next month and go somewhere hidden and private - and there you can show me what exactly your twisted little brain has cooked up!"

Howie chuckled a bit, the sound making AJ smile as well. "Oh, I'm sure it's not half as crazy as what your kinky mind has come up with!"

They laughed both, the sound travelling over the wire to soothe the first bruises of their short relationship.

AJ grinned, feeling himself relax. Maybe they could really be okay with hiding - they just had to face reality and try to get around it. It was just one more step they had to take to make this work.

Smiling AJ let his voice drop to a mock-seductive whisper: "And there's always phone sex, you know..."

Howie's laugh sounded almost carefree again. "Yes, there's always phone sex."

They were silent for a while, but it was a comfortable silence. They had known each other so long that AJ could see Howie in his mind, could see the way he was sitting on the couch, resting his head on one hand while the other held the phone, looking outside into the night with a small smile on his face, his eyes crinkling a little as he thought of AJ.

He liked the way it felt to know so much about someone. It was safe. Safe and comfortable.

"So I'll see you on Monday?" he finally asked, getting up from the barstool to get himself a coke.

Howie's voice was soft: "Yes, on Monday..." Then his mood changed, and AJ knew the mischievous glint that was lighting up those beautiful brown eyes, as Howie continued: "If I don't happen to drop by tomorrow afternoon for a swim in your pool - it's much nicer than mine!"

AJ laughed. "Devious, devious, D! I knew there was a reason why I love you as much as I do!"

"Only one?" Howie's exaggerated pout was adorable even over the phone, and AJ plopped down on the sofa.

"Well... if you ask like that... there might be some other reasons, too." Hearing Howie's low laugh, AJ slid down on the couch, making himself more comfortable.

Howie's plane didn't leave until ten in the morning, so AJ didn't feel too bad about keeping him up. A smart secret lover needed know when sleeping was just a waste of time, after all...

"Now tell me, D - what exactly are you wearing?"

Lynn Anderson - Rose Garden

I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine there's gotta be a little rain sometime
When you take you gotta give so live and let live and let go oh oh oh oh
I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden

I could promise you things like big diamond rings
But you don't find roses growin' on stalks of clover
So you better think it over
Well, if sweet talking you could make it come true
I would give you the world right now on a silver platter
But what would it matter
So smile for a while and let's be jolly love shouldn't be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times while we can

I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine there's gotta be a little rain sometime
I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden

I could sing you a tune and promise you the moon
But if that's what it takes to hold you I'd just as soon let you go
But there's one thing I want you to know
You'd better look before you leap still waters run deep
And there won't always be someone there to pull you out
And you know what I'm talking about
So smile for a while and let's be jolly love shouldn't be so melancholy
Come along and share the good times while we can

I beg your pardon I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine there's gotta be a little rain sometime.....

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