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** NICK **

I couldn’t remember a time when I had been this mad at Howie. Hell, I couldn’t even remember a time when I had been even the littlest bit mad at Howie. It’s like he had all of a sudden become this completely different person. I continued to glare at him as Kevin droned on and on about us needing to speak to each other from a place of love and respect. As if I had any love left for Howie at this point!

To his credit, Howie wasn’t backing down. He, too, was staring at Kevin, but I could tell that he wasn’t listening to a word that he was saying. I could practically see the smoke billowing out of his ears as he absently cracked his knuckles. For the first time in twenty-one years, I was getting a glimpse of the ‘real’ Howie. For the first time, I was able to see the cracks in Howie’s easy-going facade.

He was jealous. He probably always had been, but none of us had been perceptive enough to notice. Or, if we had noticed, we had simply pretended not to. I knew that I, for one, was guilty of the latter. I knew that Howie hated the fact that he was always pushed aside, relegated to the background both in life and in the studio. That’s why we had allowed him to be more of a focus on the new record. That’s just the thing; we had allowed him to move into the foreground, but we hadn’t all necessarily wanted him to. The reality of the situation was harsh, but none of us could deny it. As amazing as Howie’s voice was, it would never be a replacement for Brian’s. If Howie took on more of the lead vocals, we would have a new sound, a great sound, but we wouldn’t have the Backstreet sound.

I guess I hadn’t realized just how much Howie valued the fact that the two of us had grown closer. I suppose a part of me just couldn’t let go of the idea that Howie only saw me as a little kid that he had to protect, nurture, and take pity on simply because no one else would. Never had it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, Howie needed my friendship just as much as I needed his.

With Brian back in the picture, I had once again downgraded Howie to the background of my life. It was pathetic that I constantly treated Howie like a backup friend; someone to turn to when I felt that Brian had deserted me. I knew that Howie was waiting for me to make a choice, but I also knew that he wasn’t going to like my decision. Friendship, like love, is often blind and it was obvious that Howie knew that.

“Are we clear?”

I stared into Kevin’s face and tried to convince him that I had been paying attention. What had he been talking about? What had he just asked us? I really should learn to listen when other people are speaking.

“Whatever.” Howie stood up and shot me one final look of disdain. “It’s obvious that you guys don’t want to hear what I have to say. You never do.”

“Howie, that’s not what I was saying.” Kevin shook his head in defeat as Howie brushed past him and headed for the door. “Did you not hear a single word that I just said?”

“Apparently not!” Howie slammed the door behind him, leaving the rest of us to stare at each other in awkward silence.

“Just once I would like to have a meeting that doesn’t end in a shouting match. Is that too much to ask?” Kevin broke the silence with his rhetorical question before standing up and striding towards the door. “I’m going to see if Howie will speak to me ... alone.”

“I need a drink.” Brian waited until his cousin had left the room before leaning forward and placing his head in his hands. It was the first time that he had spoken since Howie and I had started shouting at each other. “I’m the reason that Howie feels the way that he does.”

“No you’re not.” I looked longingly at the mini-bar. “I’m the one who treated him like shit.”

“If you fellas are gonna get your drink on then that’s my cue to bounce.” AJ hoisted himself off of the couch and dropped his hand onto Brian’s shoulder. “I’m still not happy with what Ashley wrote. Agent Adams had no right to tell her to post the chapter. We should have all agreed to the content before she uploaded it.”

“Howie’s right, AJ. It’s my turn to take one for the team.” Brian’s voice was muffled by his hands. “There’s no way that you can argue with that.”

“I can argue with anything.” AJ grinned. “I can also keep you safe. Remember that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I crossed the room and yanked open the liquor cabinet, selecting two mini bottles of scotch. “What are you planning to do?”

“Nothing.” AJ avoided my eyes as he shook his head. “Don’t overdo it.”

“What?” I dropped back down onto the couch next to Brian and shoved one of the bottles of scotch into his hands before twisting the cap off of the remaining bottle. “Don’t overdo what?”

“That.” AJ nodded in the direction of the mini-bar. “Promise.”

“I promise nothing.” Brian tore the cap off of his bottle and downed the scotch in one quick swallow. He grimaced as he tossed the empty bottle onto the coffee table. “I just need a few hours of not being able to think.”

A little over an hour later, Brian had exactly what he wanted. After cleaning out the mini-bar, the two of us had stumbled down to the hotel bar with two rather disgruntled members of our new security team in tow. Once downstairs, we ordered another round of shots and a pitcher of Stella before collapsing into a large booth nestled towards the back of the establishment.

“Let’s get nachos!” I announced, banging my pint glass against the wooden table. “Do you want nachos?”

“Yes!” Brian grinned sloppily back at me. “Like, the food type. Not your ugly ass dog.”

“Nacho is a beautiful creature!” I shot back while signalling for the waitress. “He would be offended to know that you think otherwise.”

Brian let out a loud, southern cackle. “All I would have to do is give him a treat and all would be forgiven.”

“Why would someone ever need to forgive you?”

I snorted in appreciation and looked up, expecting to see the waitress. Instead, Ashley was standing beside our table holding a massive, colourful cocktail and looking suitably buzzed.

“I can do bad things.” Brian flashed a Cheshire cat grin and motioned for Ashley to join us. “Right, Nick?”

“Uhhhhhh, yeah ...” I struggled to simultaneously focus my eyes and my mind as Ashley slid into the booth next to Brian. “You do real bad stuff.”

“See?” Brian was still grinning like an idiot. “I told you.”

“What are you doing down here all by yourself?” I turned my fuzzy eyes to Ashley while, once again, signalling for the waitress.

“After what happened earlier, I just – I just ...”

“You just needed to forget.” Brian offered. “I get it.”

“The fight was my fault.” Ashley took a long sip of her drink and ran her finger along a crack in the wooden table. “All of this is my fault.”

“You’re not the one who decided that we all needed to agree about what you wrote.” I argued. “You should have just posted the chapter without giving us any advanced notice. That way we all could have just read it and accepted it for what it already was.”

Brian nodded. “You should just post the rest of the story now. Do you have any more of it written?”

“I have the next few chapters written. I could access it through my iCloud account.” Ashley raised her eyes to meet mine. “In my most recent chapter, you’re the target.”

“Post it.” I gulped my beer; the alcohol giving me courage. “Do it right now.”

Ashley’s eyes darted back and forth between me and Brian. “Are you guys serious? Agent Adams will be livid if I mess up his investigation. What if he decides not to offer me or my family protection?”

“He won’t.” I motioned for Ashley to hand me her phone. “I’ll take full responsibility.”

“Nick ...” Brian’s voice wavered as he watched Ashley slowly slide her phone across the table. “Are you sure about this?”

“This will make us stop fighting.” I squinted at the screen, struggling to navigate Ashley’s phone with my blurry vision. “This will give Howie what he wants.”

“What Howie said was awful.” Ashley looked close to tears. “I feel totally responsible ...”

“What Howie said earlier had nothing to do with you.”I shook my head. “Brian and I should be the ones apologizing to you. We’re the ones who dragged you into this mess, who put your life and your family’s life in jeopardy.”

“I started it all with my stupid fan fiction. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m thirty-three years old. I shouldn’t even be wasting my time writing about you guys.” Ashley took another long sip of her drink. “You guys must think that I’m a huge loser who lives alone with, like, a thousand cats.”

“I only pictured you having, like, three cats.” Brian laughed. “Not a thousand.” He chugged the remainder of his beer and promptly refilled his glass. “You shouldn’t feel bad about anything that’s happened. It’s not your fault that someone decided to use your story as a way to actually hurt us.”

“But if I’d never posted it in the first place ...” Ashley trailed off and downed the rest of her cocktail. She banged her empty glass on the table just as the waitress finally arrived. “For the record, I do have one cat. His name is Pickles.”

“Pickles, huh?” My stomach rumbled as I turned to the waitress. “We’ll have nachos, and deep-fried pickles, and more beer.”

“And another glass.” Brian interrupted, nodding at Ashley. “For the pretty lady with only one cat.”

The waitress rolled her eyes and quickly retreated from the table, mumbling something about deserving a good tip and that the restaurant didn’t even offer deep-fried pickles. I watched her ass as she left; my thoughts turning to Lauren and all of the things that I would be doing to her if she were here. It took me several minutes to get my head back in the present, and when I finally returned my attention to what was happening at the table, I quickly discovered that I wasn’t the only one who was harbouring some inappropriate thoughts.

“Soooooooo ...” I struggled to think of something to say as I watched Brian sling his arm across the back of the booth and begin to inch himself closer to Ashley. “Do you have a boyfriend? Or is it just you and Pickles?”

Ashley shrugged. “I’ve been seeing someone. It’s nothing serious. I’m not old and married like you two.”

“I am not old!” I quickly emptied my beer and shot Ashley a nasty look.

I was so drunk that it took me almost a full minute to figure out that she was only joking. Brian, on the other hand, had obviously picked up on her sarcasm and was busy laughing away; his accent thick and heavy as he gently lowered his arm across Ashley’s shoulders. I refilled my glass and watched the now flirty exchange between Brian and Ashley in silence. It was taking all of my concentration not to spill my entire beer down my front, and I had no brain power left to determine just how impaired Brian actually was. He seemed to be thinking at least fairly clearly, but I really wasn’t in any position to make that assumption. Besides, the Brian that I knew would never even think of looking at a woman who wasn’t his wife.

Brian was whispering now; leaning down so that he had access to Ashley’s ear as well as a better view of her chest. Ashley responded to whatever it was that Brian was saying with a girlish giggle, placing her hand lightly on his chest as she laughed. I smirked and absently took a bite of the nachos that the waitress had just deposited on the table without as much as a word. Even in my intoxicated state, part of me knew that I needed to intervene; that I needed to keep Brian from doing something that he would inevitably regret. But, I drunkenly reasoned, what if Brian was looking for a little fun? What if he and Leighanne were having problems that I didn’t know about it? It was no secret that Leighanne and I had never seen eye to eye and a small part of me definitely wouldn’t be sad if Brian decided to replace her.

So, I said nothing. Eventually, Brian stopped whispering and the two of them joined me in devouring the nachos and laughing about the middle-aged cougars sitting at the table next to us. It wasn’t until three pitchers later as I stumbled back from the bathroom that I began to regret my decision. Who was I kidding? Brian didn’t want to cheat on Leighanne. He was drunk and clearly not thinking properly. Being unfaithful would destroy him and it would be entirely my fault if he ended up doing something stupid. My heart was racing as I bumped my way back to the table; please, God, don’t have let Brian have done something stupid while I was gone!

My stomach plummeted; how could I have been so dense? The table was empty, aside from a wad of bills that Brian must have left to cover the bill. I stared at the money in dismay and grabbed at the side of the booth to steady myself. The room was spinning as I desperately tried to determine if Brian and Ashley were still in the bar. Maybe they had just gone to get another drink.

“Your friends took off.” The waitress stepped around me and grabbed for the pile of bills. Her eyes widened ever so slightly as she took in the amount. “Are you gonna want change?”

“No.” I shook my head and pushed off unsteadily towards the exit. “Keep it.”

I practically fell into the hotel lobby. The panic was rising in my chest as I forced my unfocused eyes to scan the face of everyone that I passed. I had to find Brian before he hurt Ashley, or Leighanne, or both of them. God, I was a shitty friend! No wonder he hadn’t spoken to me for so long. We had been best friends again for less than a year and I had already fucked up. Just when I was on the verge of throwing up, I saw them. They were waiting for the elevator at the far end of the lobby; Brian’s hand resting lightly on the small of Ashley’s back.

“Briaaaaaaan!” I slurred so loudly that everyone turned to stare. “Briaaaaaaaaan!”

Brian looked back just as the elevator doors dinged open. He hastily waved me off and shot me a quick smirk as he and Ashley stepped into the waiting car.

“Wait!” I stumbled forward, but the doors were already closed. I was too late.

“Relax.” One of the security guards for who had tailed Brian and me to the bar came up behind me and laid his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get the next one.”

My stomach churned as I watched the digital display above the elevator start to climb. “You don’t understand.” I shook my head at the man whose name I couldn’t remember. “I’m already too late.”