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** AJ **

“Nick … Niick … Niiick?”

My voice echoed off of the bare walls, but I was still met with no response. I trudged deeper into the maze of rooms that made up the backstage area of the venue and sighed. Where was he? Sound-check was scheduled to start in less than twenty minutes, and I was in no mood to listen to one of Kevin’s lectures on the importance of punctuality.

I peeked into the next open door on my left and the smell of salami invaded my nostrils. Three members of the venue’s maintenance crew were clustered around a small card table cramming sandwiches into their mouths and laughing obnoxiously.

“Sorry to interrupt.” I apologized as the laughter ground to a halt and all three of the men turned to stare at me. “Have you guys seen Nick?”

One of the men raised an eyebrow and tried to contain his smirk. “We got no clue which one of you Backdoor Boys is Nick.”

I gritted my teeth and struggled to keep my voice sounding pleasant. As if I hadn’t heard that ‘Backdoor’ comment more than a million times throughout the course of our career. “Nick is the tall blonde one.”

“Down the hall.” The largest of the three men answered. He took a massive bite of his sandwich; his teeth tearing at the meat and sending bits of bread scattering across the table. “In the smaller lounge.”

“Thanks.” I offered, even though I received only condescending smirks in return.

I backed out of the doorway as quickly as possible and headed off in the direction that the man had indicated. The laughter started up again almost as soon as I left the room, and I had a pretty strong feeling that the men were now sharing a private joke at my expense. Still working hard to maintain my composure, I ploughed into the room marked ‘Lounge B’ with the intent of informing Nick that it was time for him to get his ass in gear.

Despite the fact that I entered the room with enough force to raise someone from the dead, Nick didn’t even look up to acknowledge my arrival. He was stretched out on a massive leather couch, his face wrinkled in concentration as he stared intently at his iPad. A slow smile spread across my face as I crept towards him and he continued to remain oblivious to my presence. This would teach him for trying to seek out some peace and quiet.

I could feel my smile stretching even wider as I positioned myself next to the couch on which Nick was lounging. When Nick still didn’t look up from the iPad, I angled my left elbow at his chest and delivered the only 1990's wrestling move that I was good at; the body slam.

Nick’s eyes opened wide as my weight connected squarely with his chest. He let out a noise that was a cross between a groan and a squeal of terror as the two of us toppled off of the couch and onto the floor in a mess of arms and legs. We scuffled across the carpet, each of us fighting for the upper hand; Nick’s cursing interspersed with my laughter.

Despite the fact that Nick overpowered me in both height and weight, I easily managed to pin him to the ground. I pushed his shoulders into the carpet and swung my legs across him in order to straddle his chest. “What-cha readin’?”

Nick glared up at me while simultaneously whipping the iPad along the carpet to the other end of the room. “I’m going to have a wicked bruise you asshole!”

Still laughing, I released my grip on Nick’s shoulders and allowed him to pull his t-shirt away from his body in order to inspect his chest for signs of bruising.

“Do I even want to know what the two of you are doing?”

Nick wrenched his face out of his t-shirt. He allowed the material to fall back against his skin as he slowly scanned the feet that had appeared just to the left of his head.

Our eyes locked as I, too, took in the pair of expensive shoes. I would recognize those leather clad, tapping feet anywhere. “Hey, Kev.”

“What are you two doing?” Kevin repeated his earlier question; his voice a full octave lower than it had been only thirty seconds before. He reached down to retrieve the iPad from the floor. “We’re going to be late for sound-check.”

“Give me that!”

Without warning, Nick shot his arms out and smacked me square in the chest. I toppled backwards, bouncing roughly on the carpet as my legs swung up into the air and my tailbone absorbed most of the fall. Kevin quickly stepped out of the way, laughing loudly at both my misfortune and Nick’s overreaction.

“Give me the iPad!”

“What’s your deal?” Kevin continued to chuckle. He moved the tablet just out of Nick’s reach as Nick hauled himself to his feet and stared at him in what could only be described as pure panic. “What don’t you want us to see?”

“Nothing!” Nick whined. “It’s mine, so give it back.”

“Give it back!” I copied Nick’s whiney tone and gingerly pulled myself into a sitting position. I didn’t want Nick to know it, but he had really done a number on my back.

“Kev, don’t be a dick!” Nick stepped forward and managed to swipe the device from Kevin’s hand. He immediately began tapping at the screen in desperation. “Did you look at anything?”

“No, I didn’t look at anything.” Kevin rolled his eyes, clearly fed up with the entire situation. “At what point did you morph back into a fourteen year old?”

Nick stopped his furious tapping long enough to narrow his eyes at Kevin. “AJ started it. I was minding my own business and he fucking tackled me to the ground!”

I pulled myself to my feet, using the couch as leverage and wincing as I straightened my back. “You shouldn’t have disappeared so close to sound-check. It’s your own fault.” I argued.

“I wasn’t bothering anyone.” Nick countered. His eyes softened as he took me in. “Did I hurt you?”

“No.” I shook my head despite the fact that my lower back felt as if it was on fire. I wasn’t about to give Nick the satisfaction of knowing that he had managed to overpower me. “I’m fine.”

“Wonderful.” Kevin stole a quick glance at his watch and a look of pure annoyance flashed across his face. “We’re now officially late for sound-check. Brian better not have decided to get things started on his own.”

“Brian’s on his own? What happened to Howie?” Nick stepped up beside me and the two of us began trailing after Kevin like a couple of delinquent children.

“Howie’s too sick to perform.” Kevin filled Nick in; his long strides increasing the distance between us at a rapid rate. “He’s gone back to the hotel.”

“He has?” Nick looked to me for confirmation. “Who’s gonna sing his parts?”

“We’ll trade off.” I shrugged. “You would have known all of this if you hadn’t disappeared for the better part of the afternoon.” I nodded in the direction of the iPad that Nick was holding protectively in the hand farthest away from me. “What were you really doing?”

“Just – looking – reading – this game stuff.” Nick mumbled. “Nothing important.”

“You’re full of shit!” I took in the blush that was slowly creeping up Nick’s face. “Is it that bad?”

“It’s nothing.” Nick insisted. He dropped his eyes to the floor in order to avoid having to look me in the face. “I was just reading some World of Warcraft hints.”

“Do you smell that?” I made a big show of sniffing loudly as the three of us reached the side of the stage.

Nick shook his head. “I don’t smell anything.”

“It smells like shit!” I announced. “And it’s coming from you.”

“Are you guys done?” Kevin interrupted. He thrust a microphone at my chest and gave me his best ‘older brother’ look of disdain. “Leave Nick alone.”

I yanked the microphone out of Kevin’s hand and resisted the urge to mimic his final statement. Even though we were all grown men, Kevin would always step in to defend Nick. The five of us would be sitting in a nursing home and Kevin would probably tell me to stop making fun of Nick’s false teeth. Nick was the baby of the group, and being the youngest clearly came with special privileges as far as Kevin was concerned.

“There you guys are!” Brian seemingly appeared out of nowhere and bounded up to the rest of us. “I was beginning to think that I was gonna have to go at it alone.” He grinned and directed his attention towards Nick. “Where have you been?”

“He’s here now.” Kevin snapped. “Can we all please just leave Nick alone?”

“Okayyyyyyy …” Brian drew his eyes up to my face as Kevin stalked off towards the centre of the stage amidst a series of screams from the waiting crowd. “Is there something that I need to know?”

“Sadly, no.” I sighed. “Everything is exactly the way that it always is.”