No, you're not hallucinating. Hell has not frozen over, nor have pigs learned to fly. This really is


FROM THE CHATROOM: MikeEllis: "After two years, Part 20 has to be really good. I don't want to write the slash equivalent of The Phantom Menace."

DISCLAIMER: The story that follows is a work of fiction. Some characters may be based on real people, but this story should not be considered accurate or truthful representations of any actual person. This story is not intended to reflect the behavior, work habits, personal hygiene, sexual proclivities, or frequent flyer miles of any real person, living or dead.

WARNING: This story deals with homosexual themes. If this offends you, read no further. If accessing this story causes you break any laws applicable in your area, read no further. If you are under 18 years of age, read no further. If some idiot asks you the colour of stop signs and you want to answer while insulting them with an allusion to Star Wars, say, "Red, Nerfherder."

ANNOUNCEMENT: On Friday, August 22, we're having a virtual party in the old #boybands chatroom. Both events begin at 7pm CST; check your globe for the times in your local area.

FEEDBACK: Send any comments, compliments, criticisms or really effective antihistamines to me at a new address,

Part 20 - Monday Morning, October 4, 1999

         I think it was the rain that woke me -- fairly heavy drops pinging against the window screen, some of them coming through the gap beneath the partially opened sash. It took a few seconds for me to awaken enough to recognize what I was hearing, but when I did, I sat up fast and closed the window.
         The red digital numbers of the clock glowed 5:17 at me. Dawn was coming, but the sky outside was still a featureless expanse of black, the millions of stars that I could normally see hidden by clouds.
         I can still remember the first time I noticed all the stars that are visible in the night sky when you get away from the constant onslaught of city lights. It had been during one of our summertime visits here to what was then my grandparents' house. I was about eight, so Ethan would have been seven.
         Robby and Mike were in bed already, but Ethan and I were feeling very grown up because Grandpa had let us stay up until he went to bed. The three of us were sitting on the front porch, which in those days was wooden and a lot deeper than the one we have now. Grandpa was sitting in one of the old rocking chairs, smoking a smelly cigar. I was sitting in the other rocker, my shoes hanging off the edge of the seat and me leaning forward heavily, needing all my weight to make the heavy chair rock back and forth. Ethan was sitting on the second step from the top, pushing this little truck back and forth on the porch and mouthing the sounds of gears and squealing tires.
         It was very dark -- darker than it ever got in the city. There was little bit of light coming from the kitchen window where we could hear Mom talking to Grandma, and the security light glowed atop its pole near the barn facing the house, a small cloud of insects buzzing around it. But there was no light from anywhere else: not another house or light anywhere within sight.
         "Boys," my grandfather had said, "wanna see something y'all don't have in Chicago? Look up."
         That's when I noticed the night sky for the first time. This sea of black with tiny points of light -- billions of them -- shining down from one edge to the other. More stars than I'd ever seen. More than I'd ever imagined there being.
         For a long time I just stood there with my mouth open, amazed at this display, something that had been over my head without me even noticing.
         "Wow," Ethan had said very slowly. "Can we tttake ssome of them home with us?"

         The mattress must have shifted a bit as I'd sat up, because I heard Brian behind me murmur a little in his sleep. I turned toward him, but he was pretty much impossible to see in the dark room, just a vague shape in the bed beside me, the smooth skin of his back lighted only by its contrast with the dark blue sheets. For seconds, I sat and looked at him, at the sleeping boy I'd met a week ago and who had become so important to me in only seven days.
         It was almost like noticing those stars that always been there but that I hadn't seen, only this time it was my own feelings that I was aware of. For a long time, I had been complacent and taken it for happiness. No highs, no lows, not much of anything. Like water that has reached room temperature, unable to remember having ever been hot or cold.
         But Brian had awakened a lot of feelings in me. Feelings that had tortured me just twenty-four hours ago at the prospect of letting him leave today without telling him how I felt. I'd been aware finally of just how alone and lonely I'd been. I felt an immense, deeply rooted, gnawing feeling of isolation, accompanied by bitter sense of helplessness to do anything but watch him leave.
         But then last night, all that had changed. I'd told him how I felt, and he'd reciprocated. And the feelings had come fast after that. The surprise, the elation: those had hit immediately, becoming something more basic, more raw, more physical as soon as we were alone. I'd stopped thinking for a few hours and just acted. Moved. Touched. My body had been let loose to play, and my brain had taken the night off.
         Now it was the next morning, and my brain was back, but this time it was just happy. Long into the night, before and after our lovemaking, we'd held each other and talked. About what we wanted for ourselves individually and for us as a couple. About the difficulties we were likely to face and how do prepare for and deal with them. About our future.
         Oh, the nagging, cautionary part of the brain was still there, reminding me how hard this could be. But I wasn't listening. I didn't care. I loved Brian, and he loved me. We'd handle whatever happened. We'd face it and overcome it. Even the prospect of saying goodbye to him, of having to drive him to the airport just so he could leave me didn't feel the same anymore, because I knew that wouldn't be the end. We still be connected in some way. I'd see him again. We'd be together. I'd miss him, of course, but knowing he'd be back made that tolerable. We were not ending.

         For minutes I just looked at him, his square shoulders and smooth, strong back as he lay in the bed beside me, his skin a lighter grey in the dark grey room. Though I couldn't really see him, I knew already how he felt. How loving but solid he'd felt in my arms. How soft and smooth his skin had felt; fine silk stretched over muscle, strong but pliant and human under my fingers. In the October night with an open window, the room had become cold, but I remembered too how warm he'd been in my arms. His skin had sometimes been heated and drenched in sweat as we'd moved together, but there'd also been the occasional shiver, his skin became alive with goosebumps, as my tongue had found his ear, as I'd taken his sex into my mouth.
         Yes, "human" was the best word. A human lover, alive and changing from moment to moment, from movement to movement, giving and taking and responding and giving more.
         I sat beside him now, my right hand inches from his back, but not touching him. Instead I just looked at him without seeing him. In my mind, I saw our night together -- every movement and sensation, every breathy gasp and cathartic groan. I knew his fingers still, knew them as they stroked and kneaded and clutched me. Knew his breath on my shoulder, his mouth on my mouth, my ears, my neck, my nipples. Knew his cock moving against mine, warm and alive on my stomach, in my hands, my mouth. I still tingled when I remembered the sensation of him entering me gently or taking me hard. I was memorizing it all, to have with me when he was gone.
         And to plan our next time.
         My mind was busy with memories and plans, but now other parts of me were wanting their time with Brian. The digital clock on my dresser told me it was after 5:30 now. Our time together was getting shorter with each change of the glowing red numbers. I could spend time remembering him after he was gone, him and how his body had made mine feel. Right now was the time for doing. Right now, as he lay naked in my bed, was the time for making more memories to savour later.
         I shifted my weight and lay down on my side, my weight on one elbow and my mouth hovering just over his ear, his cute little pink, perfect ear. Without touching my lips to it, my tongue reached out and dipped into it. Once more I felt the warmth of Brian, the salty silkiness of his skin against my tongue. I licked softly, not trying to arouse him, just to moisten his ear. Then I held my mouth slightly above his ear and breathed in sharply, pulling the air past the wet skin of his ear.
         He shivered. "That's damned cold, you know that?" he asked without a trace of sleep in his voice.
         I grabbed onto his shoulder and leaned in. "How long have you been awake?"
         "A few minutes."
         "So why didn't you say anything?"
         In the dark, I couldn't see his grin, but I sensed it somehow. If he ever figured out what his grin did to me, I'd be powerless against him.
         "Oh," he started, "I was waiting to see what interesting way you'd find to wake me up. I wasn't expecting to have my ear frozen."
         My hands started exploring. "Maybe I should freeze something else," I teased.

         He turned so that he was lying on his back beside me, the movement pushing him closer to me. When he spoke again, his voice was different. The sound of amusement was gone, replaced by a sexy combination of desire and shyness. "Don't freeze anything," he said. "Heat things up."
         My turn to grin. "What did you have in mind?"
         "Last night, we... I...." He seemed even more shy now. I didn't say anything, just draped my left arm over his chest, my hand cupping his right shoulder. He breathed in and let it out slowly. "Benji, last night you had me inside you."
         "Twice." My grin widened.
         "Well, do you want to do that to me?"
         I was surprised. "Bri, you don't have to do that. You don't have to do anything you're not ready for."
         "But what if I want to?"
         "Do you?" I was a bit torn between concern for him and my own desire. I remembered my first time. It had not been fun: very clumsy and uncomfortable. I didn't want it to be the same for Brian. But, at the same time, I did want to take him.
         "I think so," he said quietly. "I trust you."
         "Sometimes it hurts," I warned him, trying to let more of my concern than my lust sound in my voice. "In fact, usually it hurts the first time."
         He reached up with both hands and held my left arm. "You won't hurt me," he said.
         "And you'll tell me if I do," I interrupted, "and we'll stop."
         He seemed very confident, but he still sounded relieved after I said that. "I will. But you won't hurt me."
         I leaned in and kissed his forehead. My lips stayed there a few seconds, lingering over the feel of his warm skin.
         "Hey, what's wrong with kissing my mouth?"
         "Morning breath," I said.
         "Oh. Sorry"
         "Not yours; mine," I told him. "If I don't want to hurt you, subjecting you to my morning breath is not a good beginning."
         He laughed softly. Then, he paused and added, "So, how do we begin?"
         I thought for a second. "It's best if you're on top the first time. So you can have more control. But, Bri, are you sure you want to do this?"
         "I'm sure," he said. Now his voice sounded soft and sweet. He lifted my arm from his chest and sat up, turning to face me. "I want to do this. Here and now and with you."
         I pulled him into my arms and squeezed him hard against my chest, my fingertips sinking into his upper back with the pressure of my hug. I could feel his fingers doing the same to me, one hand between my shoulders and the other at my waist. I opened my mouth on his shoulder, just at the point where it rose to his neck. His mouth was open, working against the side of my neck, travelling up to my ear and cheek. Our hands moved on each other, fingers at work.
         Suddenly his mouth was on mine, the fingers of one hand in the hair on the back of my head, holding my head still as his lips pressed mine apart and his tongue licked at the inside of my mouth. My body relaxed, and I just went with him, letting him hold me and kiss me and move me as he wanted. The kissing grew more forceful, his breath heavier.
         Finally he broke off the kiss and leaned his head toward my shoulder, our heads side by side. We were both breathing hard, and his felt warm and moist on my naked shoulder. In a husky voice, he whispered into my ear, "Where are the condoms?"
         I extracated myself from his arms and reached for the bedside table.

         We dozed afterward, wrapped around each other. I woke slowly, not really aware of where I was at first; just very warm and comfortable and happy. Brian shifted on top of me, uncovering some of my chest to the cool air of the room. Bit by bit, I woke, coming back slowly like a diver ascending slowly to the surface.
         When I was awake, I lay still, luxuriating in the feeling of Brian's weight on top of me. The sky through the window was still very dark, but not the endless black it had been. The rain no longer tapped against the window. Somewhere outside, a dog -- it sounded like Regina -- barked a couple of times.
         Brian moved again, then sighed, then moved one more time. He was dreaming, I thought, or waking up. I wrapped my arms around his back, the smooth skin there cool compared to the slightly sweaty warmth of our chests together. He exhaled and nestled his face into my neck. "Are you awake?" came the muffled question.
         "No," I kidded him. I'm too comfortable to be awake.
         "Me, neither," he said to my neck. "But what time is it?"
         I craned my neck to see the clock. "Almost 6:30," I said. "They'll be coming to check on us in about an hour."
         He stirred and raised his head to look into my face. "An hour? That's not very long." The tone of his voice was concerned. "How long before we have to leave for the airport?"
         I calculated. "About three and half hours. We'll miss most of the traffic and still get there in plenty of time for you to catch your flight."
         Brian frowned. "I hate that I'm leaving already. After we..."
         "...screwed each other silly," I supplied with a smile.
         He smiled too, for a second, before his face went serious again. "That's not what I meant. We just got together, and now I have to leave. I don't want you to think that this didn't mean anything to me."
         "Bri Bri, we talked about this. I know it did." My hand reached up of its own accord and touched his hair. "I know it meant something to both of us. And, for the record, I don't like you leaving either. But I knew you would and I know you'll be back. We're not over yet."
         This smile lasted longer. "We're not," he affirmed. "We'll get together. I'll come here, and you'll come see us. Yeah, come see us on the tour."
         "Wouldn't that be hard to explain?" I asked. "Random gay guy coming to stay in your room."
         "Well, we'd have a better story than that, you goof! You'd be a friend coming to see us on tour. It happens to us all the time. And you could bring your brothers. It'd look more innocent that way."
         My turn to frown. "I'm not sure I like the idea of having to make it 'look innocent'."
         His serious look was back. "I don't either," he said slowly, "but we have to. I can't..." His words trailed off, and the look on his face was pained.
         "Bri, I understand. "There's a lot riding on this, and even if were just you, this is still new to you. I don't expect you to tell the whole world."
         "I haven't even told my family," he said absently, obviously listening to me on one level, but it was pretty clear that his thoughts were somewhere else. I hugged him but didn't say anything, waiting for him to come back to me.
         It was a few seconds later when he looked me in the eyes again. "They really are great, he said. "My family has always been really strong, really supportive. But I'm worried about telling them this."
         "If they're that supportive, they should be able to handle it," I said, "though it may be hard for a while."
         Brian shook his head gently. "I don't know. This is different. They'll think of this as a sin, and that'll make it hard. Harder even that when they thought I was going to die."
         Surprise again. "They thought you were going to die? What are you talking about?"
         "You know: my heart surgery. We told you about that."
         "Yeah, but I didn't realize it was so serious."

         "It was. The disease that I had is fatal, and I had a zero chance of living. The doctors told my mom and dad to go ahead and make funeral arrangements, because 'your son is going to pass on'." Brian was staring at some point on the pillow to the left of my face, and his own had become stiff, as if he had learned to keep the feelings behind it at bay. I imagined for a second how many time he must have told this story, in one hurried interview after another, where some anonymous reporter or DJ or pseudo-celebrity interviewer had plopped him in front of a microphone and asked him these horribly personal questions.
         I could understand why he'd learn to take the emotions out of the story, but I didn't want him to be guarded with me. My left hand found the back of his head, and my fingers kneaded their way through his hair. His blue eyes were looking at me now, a bit red and watery, but open and trusting.
         He breathed out audibly, and I could feel him relax a bit before he went on. "And my mom... I'm the baby of the family, and it was so hard for her to deal with. Us being big in the church, she asked for help from the church and from family. After a while, I was on certain medication, but nothing really could stop this infection. As time went on, though, the infection started to disappear, and it went away! I thank God for that experience. I know that it was a miracle. There's no medicine that could keep me on this earth." Brian's voice had changed again, becoming less timid and fearful, and I had a sense of the faith in him, a deep faith in his god.
         "I'll never forget something that my mom said when I was ten or eleven. She said that when I went into the hospital, she was holding on to me, trying to keep me with her because I was her baby and she needed me. But then she realized that she shouldn't fight, because God had other plans. If it was time to let me go, she had to do it. She said, 'Whatever happens, happens, if it's meant to be.' And from then on, I started slowly to get better and recover."
         I didn't know what to say, so I just lay there, holding him, noticing the faraway look that had returned to his eyes, and the warmth where our two bodies were touching, and the distant sound of two dogs barking now.
         "You know," Brian said as he turned to look at me, "if my mother can get through that, then she ought to handle me telling her that I'm gay."
         I grinned up at him, and that crinkled, bemused but confused expression came across his face. "What?," he asked. "What's so funny?"
         "That's the first time you've used the word 'gay' since the night you first told me. All this time, you've been saying you're afraid to tell people about 'this' or that the guys makes jokes about 'it,' but this is the first time I've heard you use the word 'gay' in a long time. That's a good sign."
         Brian opened his mouth to say something, but that's when the security alarm went off.

         It was a nasty sound. A single, high-pitched note, repeated over and over with a short pause between repetitions. Loud and harsh and impossible to ignore.
         "What is that?" Brian asked. "Is it a fire?"
         "No, that's the burglar alarm. It's attached to all the exterior doors and windows on the ground floor,"explained. "And it's probably nothing. It gone off before, but always when one of us -- usually Robby -- goes out and forgets the alarm."
         "You think that's what it is this time?"
         I shrugged. "Probably." Looking at him in the growing daylight, I saw real worry in his face. "I doubt it means much." I tried to sound reassuring.
         "Well, either way, it is one ugly sound. That could even wake AJ after a wild night."
         I laughed. "We'll never know; it doesn't sound in the hotel, only in the house. Dad realized that there's no reason to wake every guest and scare them." I turned on the lamp and stood up. "But I'd better go see what I can find out."
         As I took a few steps toward my dresser, I heard Brian hum "Mmmmm" behind me. "I haven't seen you naked before. Nice." I glanced over over my shoulder at him, and he laughed. "You look good when you're blushing too."
         I grinned. "We'll have time to check each other out later," I said reaching for the dresser drawer.
         "But not much time," Brian said softly, barely audible under the alarm.
         It was also hard to hear the knock on the door to the hallway. Both Brian and I started for a second. Glancing at him, I said loudly, "What is it?"
         "Dddecent?" came the reply.
         Brian and I grinned at each other. "Just a sec," I said, grabbing a pair of jeans from the dresser and pulling them on.
         A naked Brian ran past me into the bathroom. "I had to go anyway," he joked. I slapped his little butt as he went by.
         Once the bathroom door closed, I turned and opened the door into the hallway. Ethan stood there wearing white T-shirt and a pair of plaid boxers. A sudden shiver shook him, and he crossed his arms over his chest. "Fffucking ffreezer", he said.
         "And good morning to you too, Eath," I replied. "Know what's up with alarm?"
         He shrugged. "Rrrobby?"
         "That's what I was..." As I spoke the alarm stopped. Reflexively, we both looked up toward the ceiling, as if there were actually something to see. "Well, that's better," I said. "I'll go down and see what's happening."
         Ethan raised a hand to stop me and stepped into the room. Standing before the dresser, he pulled open a drawer and began pawing through my clothes.
         "What are you looking for?" I asked him.
         He ignored me and continued his search, finally straightening up with a soft beige turtleneck sweater. He tossed it onto the bed near me. "Wear that," he said.
         "Just ddo it." His voice carried the sound of his grin.
         "Eath, the Boys know that Brian and I spent last night together," I explained. "If I show up the next morning wearing a turtleneck, they'll think I have a hickey or something."
         "You ddo," he said. He turned his chin to the left and pointed beneath his own right ear as he headed out the door. "A nnice pppurple one." He closed the door behind him.
         As I was pulling on the sweater, Brian opened the bathroom door and stuck his head through the opening, his body hidden behind the wall. "All clear?" he asked.
         The phone next to the bed buzzed. "Ask me again in a minute," I told him. Picking it up, I heard Dad's voice.
         "Ben, is Brian with you?" His tone was kurt.
         I looked over my shoulder at Brian. "Yes, he's right here."
         "Make sure he stays there, then you get down here." I glanced at the display on the phone. He was calling from his office in the studio.
         Glancing back at Brian, I tried to keep the concern out of my voice. "I'll be right there."


         It was a few minutes later when I got to the office. Brian was getting dressed when I left, but I'd made him promise to stay put until I got back. Just to be sure, I stopped by Ethan's room to ask him to keep Brian upstairs until I returned or called.
         The hotel and studio section were only a couple of years old and relatively unused. The furniture in the two suites on the top floor were still wrapped in plastic. The walls looked still new and freshly painted, except for one mar -- hidden by a strategically placed ficus tree -- where a room service cart race between Robby and Mike had ended badly. The only part of the hotel that saw daily use was the first floor hallway, but even there the carpet was still new and thick under my bare feet. I wasn't really thinking about the newness of the carpet as I made my way down the hall until I got to the elevator. The carpet here was muddy, covered with footprints. It's beige colour was darker because of the rainwater that my bare feet could feel in the pile.
         Reflexively I checked the outside the doors, but they were all closed and locked. In the early morning light, I could see the two dogs on the patio, sitting under one of the picnic tables to escape the drizzling rain. When Rex saw me, he stood up and wagged his tail. Regina just yawned.
         To get from the workroom to Dad's office, I had to pass through Stacey's office, and that's where I found everyone: Dad, Robby, Ed, Dave, and a very business-like Phyllis Shaw, standing in a circle looking down at three teenage girls I'd never seen before. Their hair was wet and stringy, and their jeans were spattered with wet marks where rain drops had hit them. Dad had dressed in a hurry into some old, faded jeans and a sweatshirt. He's pulled on a pair of penny loafers, but I noticed he was sockless. Phyllis was similarly disheveled, looking somehow less severe without makeup, though the expression on her face told me how pissed off she felt.
         Only Robby looked like he'd had time to shower and dress normally. I guessed he had, since he would have been up preparing breakfast. He was standing next to Dave and Ed, and he and Ed kept glancing at each other and smirking, like the whole thing was funny but they didn't dare laugh at it.
         Phyllis Shaw was obviously very angry, but she kept her mouth shut and glared at Dad. And Dad was questioning the girls, supported by an occasional nod from Dave. Not that Dad needed the support: he was already in full lawyer mode, sitting on the edge of Stacy's desk and questioning the girls in a calm, dispassionate tone that I knew belied how upset he really was. That particular tone always told us when we were in real trouble. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and gave me an acknowledging nod before he went on.
         "And once you'd got inside, what were you going to do then?"
         "We don't know," said the girl in the center, a tallish, thin girl who looked to be about seventeen. "Just look around, I guess. See if we could find them."
         "We weren't going to hurt anybody," said the girl on her left. "We just wanted to see them." This girl had long brown hair and a pug nose. She kept looking up at Dad then looking away when she'd made eye contact. The third girl, a tiny thing with straight blonde hair, kept her eyes down and her arms folded over her chest.
         Dad's next question was interrupted by a buzz on the telephone. I reached over and picked it up. "Corbyn Studio?" I said quietly.
         "This is the sheriff," a woman's voice twanged through the speaker phone at the front gate. "Stephen Corbyn called me this morning about a break-in. I'm here now, but I need someone to open the gate."
         I looked up to see everyone looking at me. Looking at them but speaking into the phone, I said, "Yes, sherriff, I can open the gate from here." At the sound of the word "sheriff," the girls were visible more upset, and the quiet one on the left looked like she might cry. I punched the necessary code into the phone. "We're in the studio office: second right into the parking lot, then the only door you can see."
         "Right," said the sheriff. "There's another car coming in a few. Can you leave the gate open?"
         "Will do, Sheriff." I punched a different set of numbers into the phone.
         Dad stood up. "Since the Sheriff is here, I think we should let her continue the questioning. But it might be a good idea to call your parents."
         The dark-haired girl shook her head. "My parents'll kill me if they hear about this."
         Ed grinned at her gently. "I doubt you can keep this from them. The sooner you tell them, the sooner it'll be over, and they'd probably rather hear this from you than from the police. I know I would if it were my daughter."
         She hesitated, looking from face to face. Finally Robby reached over and pushed the phone at her. "Here, Ashley. Hit 9, then dial."
         Smiling slightly at my brother, she stood and stepped to the phone. Ed plucked a tissue from the box on Stacey's desk and handed it to the small girl. Dad stepped toward where I stood in the doorway in the workroom, leaving Phyllis Shaw glaring down at the girls. Dave, it seemed to me, was watching her and not the girls.
         His hand on my shoulder, Dad and I stepped back into the workroom, and Robby joined us a few seconds later. "It just some kids", he whispered, glancing through the doorway. "Girls trying to see The Backstreet Boys. They tried to get into the hotel through the doors by the pool. The alarm went off, and Robby and Dave caught them standing on the patio, looking confused about whether to run or hide."
         "So they didn't get in." I said. "Did they actually see any of the Boys?"
         "No, and I want to make sure they don't," Dad said. "I don't want them to get any kind of reward for having tried to break in here."
         "How did they know they were here?" I asked.
         Dad began, "I don't know..." but Robby interrupted him.
         "They saw them at church yesterday morning," he explained. "At least, Ashley did. She must have seen them leave with me and figured they were here working. Sorry, Dad."
         Dad put his hand on his shoulder. "Not your fault. The clients wanted to go to church, and you took them. But will have to think more about security around here. This could have been a lot worse."
         Outside we heard a car door shut. Looking across Stacey's office and through the glass of the door, we could see the sheriff coming up the sidewalk to the office. Dad glanced that way then leaned over to whisper to me. "What you need to do right now is get Brian out of your room and up to his hotel suite. There are going to be police and parents in and out of there this morning, and we don't want them to see anything suspicious."
         I nodded. "What then? What do you want me to tell Brian?"
         "Just that it's three girl fans and nothing to worry about." He was stepping away from me, going to greet Sheriff Jones. "Then you and Ethan get breakfast. Robby will be busy in here for a while."

         I headed back toward my room, only to find Mike and Nick -- with two bad cases of bedhead -- stepping out of the elevator. Mike's mouth was in full yawn, but his eyes were following the wet muddy footprints in the carpet down the hall and into the lighted office behind me. We could both hear muffled voices coming from there, and Mike frowned at me. "Benji," Mike said, "what is it?"
         I grinned and shook my head dismissively. "Just three girl fans trying to force their way in here. You two get back upstairs. I'm gonna get Brian back to his room. Keep the other guys upstairs, 'kay?"
         Mike smiled at me. "Cute girl fans?"
         Nick looked at him. "What do you care? They're our fans." He tried to sound indignent, but he was grinning too much.
         Mike shrugged. "I was just hoping to catch leftovers."
         "So," I said, "you're still interested in girls? You're not playing exclusively for the pink team?"
         He shook his head. "Definitely not."
         Just then motor on the elevator started up. Someone upstairs had called for it. I could just see the other Boys coming down to see what was going on, which would be bad. Even if the fans didn't bother them, I'd still have to deal with Dad later.
         "You guys need to head back upstairs," I told Nick and Mike. "When whoever-it-is comes down in the elevator, just get in and take them back up to their rooms. Dad says you guys should stay out of sight until this is cleared up. I'll get Brian up there as fast as I can."
         "Probably Kevin," Nick said as he watched the lighted numbers over the elevator door change from 2 to 1. "He usually gets up early on days when we have to fly. Worries that we're gonna be late or forget something. Or someone."

         Trusting Mike to deal with whomever it was, I headed back toward my room. I found Brian and Ethan in the living room of our little "apartment." Brian was digging through the little refrigerator that Ethan and I had had in our dorm room, and Ethan was on the couch, using the remote control to survey the wasteland of morning television.
         Brian's head turned toward me as soon as I opened the door. "So, what's up?"
         "Three of your fans -- high school girls, I think -- tried to break in to see the famous Backstreet Boys," I told him. "Right now, they're down in the office, being questioned by the Sheriff, Dad, and Phyllis Shaw."
         "The Sheriff? Really?" Brian said. "That sounds serious."
         "She's cccool," Ethan said. "Dddad is serious."
         "So is Phyllis Shaw," I added, "but she seemed madder at Dad than at the girls. I hope this doesn't turn ugly between Jive and us."
         Brian shook his head. "We won't let it. And -- confidentially -- the rest of the company knows that Phyllis overreacts. They won't believe her story completely. Was Dave down there? They'll listen to Dave's side of the story more than hers on something like this."
         I nodded. "He and Robby found the girls when the alarm went off." Mentioning Robby's name reminded me of breakfast. Speaking more to Ethan, I said, "Robby knows the girls too, so he has to talk to the police about this. Dad wants the two of us to get breakfast, then carry it up to the Boys' rooms." Turning back to Brian, I went on. "But first we have to get you back to your room, so the police or whoever can't see anything suspicious."
         "Is the coast clear?" Brian asked.
         "It was when I came up, but we should get moving. Did you leave anything in my room?"
         "I don't think so, but I'll look." Brian finally closed the fridge door and headed down the hall toward my bedroom. Ethan turned off the television, sighed heavily, and stood up.
         "What's wrong with you?" I asked him.
         "This is a bbbitch," Ethan said. "I hate cccooking."
         I was still grinning when Brian returned. "Nope, got everything: wallet, watch, socks, shoes..."
         "Virggginity?" Ethan interrupted.
         "Eath!" I let out as Brian blushed so dark it seemed like it would be painful. "I can't believe you said that."
         I was embarrassed, but Brian had a little smile playing on his lips. "As AJ would say," he said quietly, "that's none of your f-ing business."
         Ethan laughed and headed toward the door, Brian and I following. On the way out, I put my hand briefly onto Brian's shoulder and squeezed. "Sorry 'bout that," I said quietly.
         "Oh, I'm used to it," Brian said. "We all tease each other about personal stuff a lot."
         "I can believe that," I said, closing the door behind me, "but you can't make me believe that AJ says 'f-ing'. I bet he says the whole word."
         By now, Ethan was headed down the staircase that descended to the hallway by the kitchen door. I started down the stairs just as he reached the landing where the staircase turned back on itself. "Ben," he said, "these fffans: are they cccute?"
         I shook my head. "High school girls, Eath. HIGH SCHOOL girls."


         We left Ethan in the kitchen and headed toward the hotel, me in the lead. Not wanting to wait for the elevator, we took the stairs behind it up to the second floor.
         We found Mike and three of the other Boys in Kevin and AJ's suite. AJ was on the phone, and Howie was sitting on the couch watching Mike and Nick disconnect two VCRs from the television. I couldn't see Kevin anywhere, but I could hear a shower going in the next room.
         Howie gave us a wide, knowing smile when he saw us. "Hey, Brian."
         "Hey, D," Brian said, with a slight nod of his chin. When I stepped up beside him, I noticed that Brian was blushing again, but his eyes were bright and he was also smiling. For a few seconds, the three of us exchanged grins that probably looked borderline insane to the others, but we knew what we were thinking: Brian was part of the "club" now.

         "So, are those fans still downstairs?" Mike asked.
         Turning his direction, I shrugged. "I guess," I said. "I didn't see them on the way up."
         "Mike said it was some local girls trying to break in." Howie's statement sounded more like a question.
         "Yeah, Robby and Davie found them on the patio across from the elevator and hauled them into the office."
         "You're lucky you didn't have to hear the alarm," Brian added.
         "Is that why the carpet was so wet and muddy?" Nick asked.
         "I guess so," I told him. "The girls looked a little wet."
         Mike shook his head in mock disbelief. "Imagine: girls walking through the rain, trespassing, and breaking-and-entering just to see you. Man, I gotta be a rock star now."
         I was about to ask him what was up with having two VCRs, but just then AJ interrupted. "You're not supposed to be here," he said, looking at me as he hung up the phone. "I just called the kitchen, and Ethan said that breakfast would be done faster if you were there to help. So get back down there, mister. You have hungry men up here who want their food."
         I smiled before giving him an exaggerated little bow. "Of course, sir. Will there be anything else, sir?"
         AJ grinned then said, "Yeah, could you bring up a coupla cans of grape soda? I had one stashed in the back of the fridge, but I guess Kevin drank it." I looked over at Mike and found him and Nick about to start laughing.
         "Well," I began, "I really do need to get back to the kitchen." Turning to Brian, I added, "I'll be back with breakfast as soon as I can, but Dad wants you guys to stay in your rooms. He doesn't want the girls rewarded with actually getting to see you."
         "Stay here for how long?" Howie asked. "We do have to leave for the airport in three hours."
         I glanced at the wall clock in the kitchen. "Closer to two. It's a little after 7:30 now."
         "7:30!" Nick exclaimed. "Crap! Why did I get up so early when I didn't have to?"
         "To eat breakfast and say 'goodbye' to these nice people," AJ told him. "And 'cause Kevin and I set your clock ahead an hour so we wouldn't have to wait on your lazy ass."
         "I'll ask Dad about the plans for leaving at 10," I said to Howie, changing the subject back. "I don't think the police will need to bother you, and I'm sure Phyllis Shaw will want to leave on time."
         AJ laughed. "Phyllis will insist on it. And get her way, like usual."

         There was one of those brief, inexplicable pauses. I knew I needed to go downstairs and get busy, but I didn't want to leave the room. For a brief second, I wondered why Mike didn't have some job to do, but then I realized that it was probably because he hadn't slept in his own room and so Dad hadn't found him yet to give him an assignment. Well, if that was the case, I wasn't going to tell Dad where his baby boy slept last night.
         "Well, I'd better get downstairs," I said finally. "You guys need to pack, and AJ wants his breakfast."
         I turned to Brian and was about to say "goodbye" to him when Howie said, "Ben, hold on a second." He stood up and walked into his bedroom.
         I was facing Brian now, and we were close enough to whisper without much awkward effort. "Hurry back," he said softly. "I want us to have breakfast together one more time."
         I was looking into his blue eyes when I suddenly realized that my two hands were wrapped around his. Glancing around, I saw the other guys pretending not to be watching us. "Just us, or all these guys."
         He smiled. "Well, both sound good, but it would be nice to have all the guys together. We won't get another chance, and you and I have been alone all night."
         "One night is not enough," I told him, "but knowing it was all we had made it special."
         Brian's expression became very calm, very knowing. "It won't be the last night. We talked about this."
         My turn to smile at him. "I know."
         "Here, Ben," came Howie's voice from his bedroom door. "Take these to those girls downstairs." I turned to look at him. In one hand, he was holding three autographed photographs of the group; in the other, he held three of our hotel towels. "Souvenirs, and they can dry off." I just looked at him: the photographs were a predictable present, but the towels really suprised me. It's amazing, I thought, how thoughtful some people could be.
         That's when I first realized how much I was going to miss all these guys. Brian most of all, of course, but not just Brian.

         The next forty-five minutes were busy but not eventful.
         I delivered the towels and photographs to three appreciative girls, under the displeased eyes of Dad and Phyllis Shaw. Dave winked at me though. "Brian's idea?" he whispered, "Or Howie's?"
         I confirmed with Dad, Ms. Shaw, and the Sherriff that the Boys would be able to leave for the airport on time. When I told them that I thought the singers wanted to have breakfast in the dining room so we could all eat together one last time, Dad let a flattered smile cross his face before his lawyer brain started listing reasons against it. But the decision was made by the arrival of someone new in the office: the parents of the girls were starting to arrive to collect their daughters. The girls had cleaned themselves up and cheered somewhat by that time, but with the arrival of parents the crying started again. I was used to a houseful of brothers: weepy teenage girls always bothered me more than they should have. But at least breakfast was settled: with the girls gone and the police going, we could all eat together.
         Robby joined Ethan and I in the kitchen and we got to work on breakfast, helped a bit by Mom and interrupted by Mike: when he came down to get the last of the Boys' laundry -- it seems Dad had given him a job the night before after all -- he grabbed grape soda from the big refrigerator for AJ.
         By 8:15 the table was set and we were all sitting down for one last communal meal.


         Mom, who hated flying, had planned a light breakfast. There were sausages and bacon for anyone who wanted them, but mostly it was waffles and fruit. We spread everything on the sideboard, and people actually had to line up to fill their plates. It was the first time all week that everyone had come to eat at the same time. Well, almost everyone.
         Robby carried in the second tray of waffles and had to break through the line to set it on the sideboard. Then he stepped out of the way and looked around the room. "Where's Mike?" he asked.
         I looked around then, and I wasn't the only one because I heard Kevin say, "And where's Nick?"
         AJ added, "'must be serious. Nick does not miss meals."
         "We're comin'. We're comin'.," Nick's voice said from the hotel hallway. Finally he stepped into the dining room, with Mike right behind him, scanning pages of some binder. "Jeez, it's not like you can't eat without us, y'know." Nick added.
         "We not only can," Howie said. "We would."
         "And there'd be more to go around," Brian told them both.
         "Oh, ha ha," Nick said. "Just gimme a plate and get outta my way."
         I glanced up at Kevin who was standing just behind me at the sideboard. "Someone sounds unfriendly this morning."
         "Oh, Nick's just playing," Kevin said. "If I thought he was really being that rude, I'd kick his butt."
         Eventually, everyone was in their usual seat. Again, I had Robby on my right hand and Brian on my left. Mike was the last one to get to the table. He set his plate down, but before he sat down he leaned over to get the black binder out of his chair. I was about to ask what it was, when Dave started another line of conversation, apparently intended for everyone.
         "I hope the exciting part of the day is behind us," he said, "and that these flights are nice and boring this afternoon. I've had enough excitement for one day."
         Most people started talking about our little break-in. The producers, who had actually seen the girls, were pelted with questions from the Boys who hadn't seen anything. Stacy, who'd slept through the whole thing, asked more questions than the Boys did. Ed and Dave were grinning and said they almost felt sorry for those poor girls, but it was pretty obvious that Phyllis Shaw didn't find any humour in this. I tried to tell myself that she was doing her job, but when I saw the ugly looks she was giving Dad, it was hard not to hate her.
         In any event, if Dave had been trying to start a conversation, he'd succeeded. Everyone was talking about the break-in until Nick decided to shift the subject.
         "I'm with Dave. I want today to be relaxing. I've had enough excitement too," said Nick. "What about you, Brian? Have you had enough excitement already today?" The way he stretched out the word "excitement" conveyed more meaning than the rest of his words. Brian didn't say anything, but he blushed enough to attract attention.
         Stacy broke in and distracted the producers by changing the subject again, talking a little too loudly in the process. "What time does your flight leave? And where are you going exactly? I don't think we've heard anything about that."
         "Ed and I fly back to Florida at 1. But the boys are flying out at what? 12:30?"
         "Yeah," I heard AJ said. "Three nights in Chicago." I only heard this exchange because I was looking at the other end of the table. A lot was going on. Brian's face was still red. He glanced at Nick, then across to Howie. He looked embarrassed but not angry. Kevin looked angry though. He glowered at Nick; Nick jumped in his chair and mouthed a silent "Ow!," then Kevin reached up with his left hand put his fork back onto his plate. Kevin noticed Ethan giving him a conspiratorial smile, shrugged slightly, then said quietly, "It seemed to work for you guys." Kevin got a sly smile from Mom too.
         Brian and I both saw all of this, and he looked over at me and smiled. I leaned toward him and whispered, "You okay?"
         "Yeah," he said dismissively. "It's just Nick. We can handle him."
         "But what if these guys catch on?" I asked, nodding slightly toward the other end of the table, where Ed, Dave, and Phyllis Shaw all sat close together.
         Brian shrugged. "We can handle that too, if it happens."
         I gave him a serious look. "So this is where the secrecy starts?"
         Now he was serious too. "Yeah," he said slowly, "I guess so."
         "Chicago!" Robby said behind me, talking to AJ. "We used to live there. Our cousins still do," he went on. "Maybe we could come with you."
         "Robert, these guys are going back to work," Mom said. "They're going to be too busy to entertain you and your brothers."
         "Well, not this week, no," said Kevin, "but we would like you to come visit us on the road sometime. We talked about it. There are times in our schedule when we have some down time and friends come to visit."
         "And," Howie jumped in, "it might be good for these guys to see what goes into a live show, if they're gonna be a band."
         "What's this?" Dad asked. "What's this about becoming a band?"
         "Well," Robby said, slowly, "we talked about it yesterday. Well, Mike, Ben and I did. We haven't talked to Ethan yet. But we think we want to form a band." He stopped here and looked up at Dad, trying to gauge his reaction. I was too.
         Dad was silent for a few seconds. His face looked just plain surprised for a bit, then I saw what looked like a pleased expression on his face, which was pretty much what I'd expect to see. He'd had his time as a member of a band when he was younger, and it was no secret that he'd love to see us try the same thing. He'd never really nagged us, but he did insist when we were younger that we all learn to play the guitar and piano. And he'd encouraged us in anything musical we did. When Ethan and I were in high school, he'd come to every band concert and halftime show and choir program. He'd spent two weekends helping Mike build a platform for his first trap set in seventh grade. Robby had been Dad's little guitar prodigy, and the two of them had spent countless hours playing together. There was no doubt that if the four of us did form a group, no one would be happier than Dad himself.
         But I guess his long silence seemed like disapproval to the other people at the table. Ed butted in with, "They could do it, Stephen. They've got the talent."
         Dave was nodding along with him. "And, with facilities like these, they could have one very professional sounding demo. A few months with some professional trainers and producers, and I've no doubt we could get them a record deal."
         "If only they weren't so ugly," AJ laughed.
         "But you boys have always..." Dad began before interrupting himself. Then he looked right at me and asked, "Benjamin, are you sure you like this idea? You've always been against it before."
         "I wasn't against the idea itself," I clarified my opinions. "I thought it would be hard for us to work together because we all like such different music." I looked down at my plate and let my voice trail off. Even as I was saying it, I knew that it had been a cop-out answer. My real objection had been something else. Breathing in a little heavily, I went on, "And I guess I was against the risk really." I made myself look up at Dad again, but when I did I saw Ed and Robby on either side of him, all looking back at me. "Lots of people dream about making it in music, and very few of them have any success. And a lot of them who get some success for a while still turn out to be horrible failures." There it was: the sensible part of my brain, running the show again.
         "It is a risk," Phyllis Shaw said gently. "Everything you just said is true. A lot of groups don't make it. But from what I've seen and heard this week, I'd say that you guys have a good chance." I was looking right at her now, and she was looking right back at me. And for the moment, she didn't seem like the bitchy executive that had been looking daggers at my father. There was a kinder look in her eyes and something calm and reassuring in her voice. "And, as for taking a risk, most things in life have risk attached to them. If you don't take risks, you're not really living."
         "Yeah," Ethan said softly, getting my attention. With a nod in Ms. Shaw's direction, he added, "What she said."
         I hesitated for a couple of seconds, then Mom jumped in. "You said you 'were' against the risk. What about now?"
         I looked up and found her staring back at me. Her expression was mostly blank, noncommittal, but there was something in her eyes that told me she had an answer in mind that she very much wanted to hear from me. Then I looked slowly around, making eye contact with Mike, then Ethan, and then Robby. They were all staring at me expectantly. My eyes still on Robby, I said, "I guess, some things are worth taking a risk for. I say, let's give it a shot."
         When I looked back around, it seemed like too many people were smiling at me, beaming at me like I'd just taken my first steps or something. It was embarrassing. But the look on Mom's face made up for it. I'd evidentally said what she wanted to hear.

         The conversation got crazy after that. Robby and Dad began pelting Dave and Ed with logistical questions. Robby was asking about equipment and people. Dad was asking about representation and contracts. It was typical of him to turn into a lawyer at times like this, but it was cool to hear him sound as excited about this as Robby. I could overhear enough from across the table to know that AJ and Stacy were discussing the possibility of our visiting the guys on tour with Ms. Shaw, who surprisingly seemed to approve the idea. Meanwhile, on my left Mike and Nick were talking about songwriting, with Kevin adding his comments here and there.
         I just sat there looking around the table, trying to follow all the conversations. In the process, I eventually noticed Howie and Brian trying to do the same thing. And Ethan was just staring at me with a wide grin on his face. "See," he said, "they wwere just wwaiting for you tto say yes."
         "Hey, Kev," AJ said loudly down the table, "what about the guys coming to the Denver show?"
         Most talking stopped, and people looked at Kevin, who was looking up as if reading some schedule that only he could see. "Denver?" He repeated, still thinking. "That would be a good one. We have a day off before and after the show, so we'd have time to spend with them."
         Howie was frowning. "Isn't Kristen coming to visit that weekend?"
         "Yeah," Kevin told him, "but that won't be a problem. We'll all have a great time together."
         "When is this?" Dad asked. "We need to make sure that we don't have some prior commitment."
         "Halloween," Nick told him before grinning over at Mike. "The Halloween show is always a blast. And there's usually some killer party to go to afterward."
         "Ben," Dad went on, "do we have anyone booked for Halloween?"
         "I don't know," I said as I wiped my hands on my napkin and started to get up. "I'll go get my calendar."
         "Never mind," Mike said, "I've got it right here." Reaching under his chair, he picked up the black binder that I'd seen him with earlier."We were all talking about this upstairs earlier, so I grabbed this on the way to breakfast." He spent a couple of seconds looking for a way to lay the binder on the already crowded table. Not finding one, he just picked up his plate with his left hand and handed it to Ethan. "Here, hold this," he told him. Ethan just sat there cradling the plate in his two hands as he gave it and then us a bewildered look. Mike didn't even look at him; he opened the binder on the newly freed table space and started flipping the pages over.
         "Kevin, didn't we have some plans for the day after the concert already?" Brian asked him.
         Kevin shrugged. "Nothing concrete. We talked about going snowboarding, but we don't have any solid plans yet."
         "Here it is," Mike announced. "Let's see. It says 'Hickman/Kopp' on the 27th and 28th, then nothing for the rest of the week."
         "That's Sara Hickman," Stacy explained. "She's coming with a small group for those two days, staying in the hotel for one night."
         "So if nothing comes up," Mom contributed, "there's no reason the boys can't go."
         "Not just the boys," AJ added. "We want Stacy there too."
         Stacy smiled at him before looking at Dad. "Is that okay?"
         Dad leaned back in his chair and said, "Well, as of now, it all seems great, if you guys really want them to visit you." As he said this, he let his glance move from Kevin around to Ms. Shaw, evidentally giving anyone a chance to object if they were going to. "Do we need to settle on things now, or can we plan out details later?"
         "Later will be fine," Phyllis Shaw said. "If we map out things in a couple of weeks, it ought to be okay, though I should see about hotels pretty soon. Skiers will be filling them up by then, so we should reserve some rooms as soon as we can."
         "We'll call you some time this week and start making plans," Kevin said. "We don't have to settle any of this now."
         I got the impression that he thought he still needed to convince Dad that this was a good idea by taking some of the immediacy of it away. I thought of another reason to wait until later in the week. "If it's still raining, then we should leave for the airport early," I said. "We don't want to get delayed behind any accidents or anything."
         "Oh, that's right," Ms. Shaw said, "We've got to get out of here."
         I looked at my watch. "It's almost 9 now. Think we could be packed and loaded by 9:30?"
         "Probably," Nick said with a grin. "We're all packed except Brian."
         I grinned at Brian when I remembered why he hadn't packed with everyone else, then I immediately looked at the record company people to see if they seemed suspicious.
         But Dave just let out a good-natured sigh, and Ed was shaking his head. "No wonder," he said, "I've seen what kind of mess he can make in a hotel room."
         "We'll help him get packed," Howie volunteered. "It won't take long."
         "So," Dad began, "Ben and Ms. Shaw can settle the account while the rest of us deal with this mess. And we'll come after your luggage at 9:30."
         "Can Stacy take care of the account?" Mom said. "I need Ben to help me with something."
         I gave her a surprised look, and so did Dad. "I suppose so," he told her. "Ben, is everything up-to-date?"
         "As far as I know," I told him. "Unless there've been any phone calls this morning, everything was current last night."
         "I can check the phone calls," Stacy said, standing up. "Ms. Shaw, if you'll head down to the office when you finish your coffee, I'll have everything printed out for you."


         We all got busy after that. Stacy reclaimed the notebook from Mike and headed to the office. Phyllis Shaw and the two producers went to check that they'd left nothing in their suites or in the studio. Dad and my little brothers began moving dishes and leftovers into the kitchen. The Boys went upstairs; they were unnaturally quiet as they went, but from the grins I could tell that Brian was in for a lot of teasing when he got upstairs. The last I saw of Brian was the grin he gave me as Howie and Nick practically pulled him out of the room.
         Mom appeared at my left elbow. "Come on, Benji," she said rattling keys in her hand, "we're going to pull the vans around to the office door."
         I knew this was just an excuse, but I didn't say anything. We stopped in the front hallway long enough to get a couple of windbreakers, and then we headed outside. The wet gravel made a dull, scraping sound underfoot as we crossed the driveway that surrounded the house to the garage on the other side.
         "Your father told me that Brian slept in your room last night," Mom said. It wasn't a question, but the way she said it made it obvious that she wanted a response.
         "Yes," I said very matter-of-factly, "he did. Second time in three nights, in fact."
         She gave me one of her blunt looks. "Just slept?"
         I paused for a moment before I said, "The first night, yes. Last night, no."
         She was still looking straight at me, but her mouth had moved into a slight grin. "So," she said very slowly, "is this some kind of fling, or is this something more serious?"
         By then we were at the garage, and we stood still as she unlocked the door. "More serious," I said.
         "I expected as much," she went on. "You're not much of the 'fling' type. But is this more serious for him too?"
         "I'm sure," I told her confidently. "This is all very new to him." Then, for the first time, I realized what I'd done. At least when I'd told Dad about Brian, I'd hesitated. I'd given some thought to the fact that I was betraying Brian's trust in me. I'd done it anyway, but I'd at least considered it. But with Mom, I'd just talked to her as if this were all very open and public.
         "Here," she said as she reached out to hand me one ring of keys. "Pull the van around, then go upstairs and tell Brian that your father and I want to talk to the two of you before you go to the airport."
         "Mom," I began, but she didn't let me finish.
         "Benjamin, do you care about Brian?"
         I just looked at her for a moment. "Yes," I said finally. "Yes, I do."
         "Then he's important to you, and you're important to us," she went on. "And we deserve a chance to talk to him before he leaves. And there's not much time, so hurry."
         "Mom, like I said, this is all very new for Brian," I began to explain. "He's still getting used to the fact that he likes men, and he's going through a lot right now." Well, I told myself, if I'm gonna betray Brian's secrets to my mother, I might as well give her the whole picture. "This has been a rough week for him, and I don't want the two of you to give him a hard time on top of that." Here, yards from anyone who could overhear, I raised my voice with her more than I'd have been able to in the house.
         Instead of raising her voice in return, she just smiled at me again. "You're protecting him. That's a good sign." Then her voice went softer and her smile faded into something serious but kindly. She reached out and, taking my left hand in both of hers, she pressed the keys into my grip. "Just tell him that we want to talk to you both, and let him decide if he wants to come or not. But you'll have to hurry, or there won't be any time."

         I pulled my van around to the office door. As I was going into the office, Mom came up in the second van; she'd stopped to close the garage doors again.
         In the office, Stacy was at her desk. Phyllis Shaw leaned over her as the two of them reviewed everything I'd added to their account since yesterday morning. Stacy had switched into her office mode. She was still very sweet and very charming and very Southern, but there was a polite tenacity in her tone that more than stood up to Phyllis Shaw whenever she questioned this or that item. I smiled as I listened to them. If we did go to become musicians, Stacy was more than able to take over my responsibilities to the studio.
         "I don't know who's driving yet," I interrupted them as I set the keys on Stacy's desk, "but here's one ring of keys. Mom has the other one."
         Stacy smiled at me. "I'll take care of 'em. I'm coming with you, by the way." Looking up a Ms. Shaw, she added, "AJ invited me along."
         I left them and headed toward the elevator. I didn't know how Brian would react to Mom's request, but I wanted to get this over with. I found Robby at the elevator, pushing the luggage cart through the door.
         "Kitchen done already?"
         "Yeah, right," he said sarcastically. "Dad, Ethan and Mike are still down there, but Dad sent me to start on the luggage." I stepped into the elevator with him and pressed the button. As the door was closing, Mom walked past going toward the kitchen. She glanced in and gave us a slight smile. "What did Mom want?" Robby said quietly from behind me after the door had closed.
         I sighed. "She wanted to know how serious Brian and I are."
         "And how serious is it?" Robby asked amusedly.
         I turned my head to see him grinning at me, all three of his dimples apparent. "Pretty serious, I guess," I told him. "We both know it's gonna be hard with us being so far apart. But we're gonna try."
         Robby gave me a small frown as the doors began to open. "Well," he said slowly, "I'd rather you have someone you can see more often. You're alone too much. But I guess Brian's better than nothing," he added as his grin returned.
         We got the luggage cart out into the hallway, but I didn't pull it toward any room. In fact, I stood in front of it so Robby couldn't go anywhere. "There's more," I said quietly. "Mom said that she and Dad want to talk to the two of us."
         "What did we do?" Robby asked, sounding something between confused and indignent.
         "Not you and me," I told him. "They want to talk to Brian and me."
         "Oh," Robby said simply. Then his eyebrows went up and he repeated "Oh," this time stretching the word out. "What are you gonna do?"
         I shrugged. "Mom said to just tell him what they want, and let him decide. If he doesn't want to, at least he'll be gone soon so he won't have to face them."
         Robby gave me a little nod. "Yeah. That sounds good. Do you think he'll want to?"
         "I dunno," I admitted. "He's really nervous about all this."
         "Y'know, this could be one of Mom's little tests. Give Brian a choice like this just to see what he does."
         I nodded, realizing how much sense that would make. "Uh, you wanna come with me to tell Brian," I asked my brother.
         "No," he grinned at me. "But I will anyway."

         "I don't think I like this," Kevin said.
         There were the four of us in Brian's room. Robby and I had left the luggage cart in their living room, then I asked Brian if I could talk to him alone for a second before we headed into his bedroom. I don't know if it had been my tone or the fact that Robby was following me that made Kevin suspicious, but he'd insisted on coming with us.
         I started to defend my parents, but Brian started talking first. "Kevin, they're his parents! They have a right to know what's going on."
         Kevin gave a little dismissive laugh. "You don't even know what's going on!"
         Brian gave him a steady look. At first his glance seemed tinged with a bit of anger, but then he relaxed. "You're right," he finally admitted. "I don't know everything that's going on. I just know that I want Ben..."
         "And Ben wants him," I interrupted, whereupon I was rewarded with that killer grin again.
         "Kevin, we're gonna try make this work. We know it's gonna be hard. Even if we weren't two men and it didn't have to be a secret, this would be hard." He turned away from his cousin to look at me, even if it was Kevin he was still talking to. "But Ben is worth this trouble. He's really special. And they're his parents; they have a right to get to know me."
         Kevin gave him a little exasperated sigh and stood up from where he was sitting beside Brian on the bed. "Aw, man, I wish this weren't so complicated," he said, a little angrily.
         "Kevin, be mad at me," Brian said flatly. "Not Ben."
         Kevin whirled around to give him a surprised look. "Cuz, I'm not mad at you. Or Ben. I'm just mad at.... at the situation." He kept looking at Brian, but his expression softened into one of concern. "Are you sure about doing this, Brian?"
         "Yeah, I am," Brian said. Then looking at me again, he added, "I'm nervous about it, but I'm sure."
         "Well, what do you say about this?" I heard Kevin say. I looked up to answer him, but I caught him looking at Robby.
         "Me?" My brother said. "What do I have to do with this?"
         "Well, they're your parents too," Kevin said, a little humour returning to his voice.
         Robby gave him a dismissive wave. "I take no responsibility for them," he said, "but if you're worried about trusting them, don't. Deep down, they don't give a damn about hurting or helping Brian, or you either. They're just gonna protect their golden boy here."
         "I really wish people would stop calling me that," I muttered a little more loudly than was necessary.
         Brian grinned over at me. "I like it," he said softly.
         "And you, little man," Robby went on, this time talking to Brian, "you don't need to worry about my parents. My opinion is the one that matters, and I already approve."
         "Well, gee, thanks," Brian said. "Call me 'little man' again and you'll die painfully."
         Robby laughed. "You can't scare me. I share a bathroom with Mike!"
         "So," I jumped in to get us back on track, "if we're gonna talk to my parents, we should get going."
         "Yes, you should," Kevin echoed. "Robby and I will get the luggage downstairs. And we'll get everyone loaded at 9:30. Just don't be too long."
         Brian and I both smiled in his direction. "We won't," I assured him. "This will just take long enough for us to convince them that Brian is good enough for me. I think about two minutes should do it."
         Kevin smiled now. "Right. Any longer, and they'll know him too well to approve." Then he leaned over and gave Brian a little kiss on top of his head. "Finish packing, cuz, then head downstairs."
         "Uh, yes, sir," Brian mocked him just a little, but the affection in his tone was obvious.

         Kevin and Robby left the room to load the rest of the luggage onto the cart. Brian stood up and started tossing the last of his shirts into the suitcase that lay on the dresser. I continued to sit on the bed and watched him work, just because I could.
         It was very quiet for a minute or so, then Brian glanced back to catch me watching him. "Having fun?" he asked.
         "Loads," I told him. "I like watching other people work. But I think I like your butt better without the jeans."
         He laughed. "That will have to wait," he said. "We're in a hurry."
         "Yeah, it will have to wait a long time," I said a little ruefully.
         Brian turned and dropped the last shirt into the suitcase, but instead of zipping the case shut he stepped over to stand in front of me. He reached down to cup my face in both of his hands, then turned my chin up to kiss me. This kiss was soft. Simple. More sweet affection than passion. Then he pulled his mouth back slightly, leaving our forehead together. "Benji, I don't like having to wait for you either," he whispered to me. "It'll be weeks before we can be alone together again."
         "Alone and naked," I contributed.
         The killer grin came back, a bit out-of-focus because our faces were so close together, which blunted its power over me. "Alone and naked and sweaty," Brian said then. " I won't like having to wait. But at least I have someone to wait for now. And someone who's worth waiting for." Then his mouth was on mine again before I could say anything. I didn't mind. I opened my mouth and gave myself to the kiss.
         This kiss went longer. At first it was our open mouths pressed together, a little vacuum as we inhaled each other. Then the tip of my tongue reached up tease his lips. His tongue reached out to flick at mine. His hands left my chin, slid around my cheeks and over my ears until his fingers intertwined behind my head. My hands went to his shoulders and gripped tightly. I felt the shift of the mattress as Brian's weight joined me on the bed, his knees on either side of my hips. I leaned back to give him room to move forward as my hands helped steady his weight, and I sucked hard at his tongue as it reached into my mouth, rubbing wetly over mine and brushing lightly across the roof of my mouth.
         "So, Brian, are you... Aw, jeez!" Robby's voice said as he re-entered the room.
         Brian pulled his mouth from mine, but his body was still wrapped around me. "You should learn to knock," I said
         "And you should learn to restrain yourself," Robby said.
         "What the Hell do you think I've been doing for the past year?"
         "Oh, great, something else I don't want to think about. Just gimme the suitcase and let me go."
         "No, wait," Brian said, as he jumped up. He flipped the suitcase lid over and zipped it into place while he kept talking to my brother. "I have something I want to ask you about, Robbo. And I don't know when I'll get another chance like this." The last few words came out unnaturally slowly as he stalled for time so that he could get the suitcase closed. Once that was done, Brian lifted the suitcase and thrust it at Robby, who had to release the doorknob so that he could take it in both hands. The door clicked shut behind him as Brian stepped back and sat sideways on my lap, his right arm winding itself around my shoulders.
         Robby just stared at him. "'Robbo'," he repeated. "My, aren't we presumptuous?"
         "Shut up and listen. I have a question for you." Brian leaned to his right so he could look me in the eye. "What can you tell me that will make it easier to be with your brother?" Brian asked Robby, adding a small grin in my direction.
         Robby frowned. "You're not wanting any kind of sex advice, I hope"
         Brian and I laughed at him. I leaned forward to wrap my arms tightly around Brian as he explained, "Actually, I hope that's something you don't know a thing about. I just want some inside info to help me understand him. And keep him in line when necessary." The tone of his voice became a bit conspiratorial toward the end, but the humour never left it. He was enjoying this.
         "Well, keeping him in line is pretty easy," Robby began, earning a raised eyebrow from me.
         "Hey," I interrupted, "I'm the one who keeps you in line. Without me, you'd've pulled even more stupid shit over the years and got in even more trouble. You'd probably be dead right now if I hadn't been protecting you."
         He gave me a blank look that said "yeah, whatever," then went back to talking to Brian like I hadn't said anything. "He'll argue with you a lot, thinks he knows more than everyone else most of the time. Just let him argue, then nod a few times and tell him he's right. Act like he's really got you convinced. Then just go ahead and do whatever the Hell you wanted to do in the first place. That's how you keep him in line."
         I couldn't believe I was hearing this. I opened my mouth to argue, but he had more to say.
         "As for getting along with him, he might keep his emotions to himself a lot of the time, so it'll seem like he's some kind of uncaring robot," Robby said, giving me a smug grin. I rolled my eyes at hearing him call me a robot with no emotions for what was possibly the thousandth time, but he kept talking.
         "But it's all an act. If anything, he's too emotional." Well, this was a surprising opinion to hear from him. My mouth was still open so I didn't have to let my chin fall again, but this time I raised both eyebrows. "His emotions are all too big," he went on. "When he's happy, he all giggly and silly and has this stupid grin all the time. Like this morning," he added giving me a sly grin. "When he's unhappy, he's utterly miserable. And when he's mad at you, do not turn your back on him. I think he acts all unemotional at the worst of times because his feelings just take over. Kinda scares him a little. So if he ever starts the whole robot thing, then you know he's really hurting about something. Make sure you stay close and he'll eventually feel reassured and open up, but you have to wait for him. Don't push too hard or he just gets worse."
         I thought about this, and realized that he was right; I did close down when things were at their worst, and I really hated people trying to push me to talk when I didn't want to. I also realized that I'd underestimated this little brother: he knew me better than I thought.
         There were a couple of knocks on the door just before it opened a crack. "Everybody decent?" AJ's voice asked through the opening.
         Brian said, "As decent as we're gonna be," while in the same breath I responded with "Everybody but Robby." Robby stuck his tongue out at me as AJ stepped into the room.
         "Well, that's okay then," AJ said. "I didn't want anything to upset my stomach so close to getting on a plane."
         I looked at my watch to see just how close we were. It was fifteen after nine, and we still had that talk with my parents to get through. I felt the need to get down to the library pretty quickly; I didn't want them waiting on us, having even more time to prepare a united front against us if that's what they were going to do. I wasn't really worried about that -- they'd always respected my decisions about my love life before -- but I still didn't want to take any chances. I knew that if I'd let myself listen to that "other" part of my brain, it could give me about ten reasons why Brian and I shouldn't be together. And I was a bit afraid my parents were about to list those ten and a dozen more to both of us.
         AJ interrupted my thoughts. "Ben, I just came in to give you this," he said as he reached out with a piece of paper.
         I took it, but Robby couldn't help being his nosy self. He stepped over beside me to look at it while saying, "What's that?"
         "Those are our private cell phone numbers for Mr. Boyfriend here," AJ grinned at Brian. "In case he needs to call one of us. Brian's is on there too," he pointed out, "and I finally decided to add mine too, even though I wasn't sure about it." I looked up at AJ, but he went on. "I don't usually give my number to anyone with a dick."
         Beside me, Robby said, "But I saw you give it to Stacy."
         AJ shook his head. "She doesn't have a dick."
         "Maybe not," Robby argued, "but she's got more balls than the rest of us put together."
         "If you know Brian's number," I asked AJ, "doesn't he know yours?"
         AJ nodded. "Sure."
         "Well, believe me," I said, "Brian has a dick."
         "Okay, that's enough," Robby said. "I know enough. I don't need any more details."
         Brian grinned at him. 'We don't have to tell you," he said. "We could always demonstrate."
         Robby gave him a dismissive wave as he headed toward the door as AJ was stepping out just ahead of him but obviously still listening. "That is so not necessary. We don't need to talk about this anymore..." He paused, his right hand on the doorknob. Then, without dropping his hand, he turned to face Brian. " long as you understand something, Brian. You hurt my brother and I'll kill you."
         The grin on his face took some of the sting out of his words, but I was a little surprised at the tone of his voice. Brian grinned at me, and I let out a little laugh.
         "Howie told me the same thing about you a couple of days ago," I told Brian.
         "Really?" Brian asked, sounding genuinely surprised. "He told me that about you, too."

         With Robby and the suitcase gone, I thought we'd head straight to the library, but it didn't work that way. Once we were left alone, Brian and I started kissing again, but we weren't alone long because Kevin came pounding on the door, yelling at us to get going. We stood up, got Brian's shirt tucked in again, and headed out into the living room, where we found five guys staring at us with big grins. Robby was gone, presumably loading the vans with Ethan, but Mike was still there, having somehow avoided work in that way only baby brothers seem to be able to get away with.
         We didn't get straight out the door though. As interested as Kevin was in getting us out of there, Nick and AJ seemed just as intent on holding us up. Brian had told me how they were teasing him while I was getting breakfast, but AJ had gone back to his room to wake Stacy in some evidently very time-consuming manner and had missed it all. Now that he was back with the others, it seemed to be time for round two.
         "Hey, Brian," Nick started in, "you're looking a lot better. That limp is barely noticeable now."
         "Limp?" AJ said, giving Nick a tone of fake concern at a volume that was obviously meant for Brian. "Our boy had a limp!"
         "Oh, yeah." Nick was really exaggerating now. "He came draggin' in here this morning, all smelly and messed up, walkin' real funny." He shook his head in mock confusion. "I don't know what Ben did to him, but must've been painful." Then he looked up with a grin that said he was quite pleased with his little joke. The other guys laughed, but they also laughed when Howie popped him in the back of the head with his hand.
         "Enough, Nick." Howie said it quietly and not without some humour, but everyone could hear he meant it.
         "Yeah," Kevin butted in, "leave 'em alone and let them get downstairs."
         "And as for not knowing what Ben did to him," AJ added, laughing at Nick, "I bet you know exactly what he did, you little hosebag."
         Nick gave him a snotty, sarcastic look. "Oh, ha ha. In what universe do you get to call me 'little,' little man?"
         "Brian," Howie interrupted to change the subject, "where does Kevin keep rushing you off to? Where are you guys going?"
         I looked at Brian, and he was looking back at me. "Well, Ben's parents want to talk to us before we leave," he said a little nervously.
         And this remark garnered us Mikey's attention. "Really?" he asked me. "What do they want?"
         I shrugged. "I think they just want to talk to us about us. You've seem 'em do this before."
         "Oh, yeah," Mike said dismissively. "They interviewed all our girlfriends. Especially Robby's. I think they were mostly confused why anyone would go out with him."
         "This is no big deal," I said, talking as much to Brian as to all the others, "but we're running out of time. We need to get going."
         "Go," Kevin said with another glance at his watch. "At 9:30, we're heading down to the vans, so come find us there."
         We promised exactly that and then finally got out of that suite.
         Eschewing the elevator, we took the stairs one floor down, with me a few steps ahead of Brian. "Y'know," I told him, "this really is nothing to be worried about." I glanced over my shoulder at Brian as I spoke. "My parents can be a little intense if you don't know them, but I do, and I know they're gonna love you."
         Brian aimed that grin at me again, and again I felt the urge to grab him and start exploring his mouth with mine. "They'll love me," he agreed. "Everyone loves me."
         He was making jokes so I returned the favour. "And, if they don't for some reason, just remember that you already have the approval of the only Corbyn whose opinion really matters," I grinned back at him as I opened the door to the hallway.
         "Yeah," he replied, "Robby already said he approved."
         Letting him through the door first made it much easier to give him a little kick in the butt.

         When we got to the library, we found my parents inside. My father was sort of half-leaning, half-sitting on the front edge of the desk, and my mother was sitting on the loveseat facing him. The door was open, so Brian and I just walked in, me in front.
         "Everything packed and loaded?" my father asked with a smile.
         I realized that I really didn't know. "I think so," I told him, "Robby came down with the last of the luggage a few minutes ago. I think he and Ethan are packing the vans."
         "Well, just so long as it gets done in time," my father added. He frowned slightly as he looked at his watch.
         "Brian, you boys come and sit down," my mother said, smiling warmly at him. With a quick glance at me, Brian stepped past me to sit beside my mother on the loveseat. I followed, crossed in front of both of them, but I didn't sit in the only other chair. I sat on the arm of the loveseat, very close to Brian.
         "Brian," my mother continued, "I'm sorry that I didn't get to know you better this week. From what Ben tells me, you're a pretty special young man."
         "And you're someone that we should get to know better," my father contributed, "because I get the idea that we haven't seen the last of you." This last he added with a warm smile of his own. "I hope you don't mind that we asked you in here. It's just that Margaret and I wanted to get to know you a bit better since you and..."
         "Stephen," my mother interrupted, "just a second." My father paused long enough for my mother to get up and close the library door. That done, she didn't return to the loveseat. Instead she stepped around the behind the desk and leaned back against the wall cabinets.
         My father went on talking. "Well, we want to get to know you better because I understand that you've become something more than just a client. Especially to Ben here." His smile returned, and Brian glanced over to give me a smile of his own. "And we want to understand the situation better, because all I know about you rignt now is that you're Kevin's cousin and your record company owes me a lot of money."
         Here, he paused, giving Brian a chance to talk. I rolled my eyes a little, understanding how awkward a situation this could be. Everyone knows themself better than any other subject in the world, but most people, when faced with the question "Tell me about yourself," can't think of anything to say. I would have been stumped, and so would most people I know. But not Brian. I don't know if it was his own personality or the years of interviews, but he wasn't the least bit nonplussed.
         "Well, I'm guessing you don't want any of the usual, fan magazine details of my personal life -- family, hobbies, boxers or briefs -- that kind of thing," Brian started. "You want to know about my relationship with Ben."
         Dad grinned at him. It was a more genuine grin than the one he'd given him before, one I recognized. I knew that more than anything Dad respected someone who was direct and who could take care of himself verbally, and Brian was earning a bit of respect from him. "You guess right," he said. "What's going on with you two?"
         "I love him," Brian said very simply. It wasn't the first time I'd heard him say it. We'd said it to each other last night when he found me crying, when he'd been trying to console me. And we'd said it in bed last night and this morning, whispered it out of breath as we'd calmed our bodies after one of us had come inside the other. But this was the first time he'd said it plainly, firmly, and with other people listening.
         I looked at him, and his blue eyes were looking back at mine. "And I love him, Dad," I affirmed without taking my eyes from Brian.
         "You love him," Dad said. He'd just repeated what I'd said, but the words were delivered with a flat, dubious tone that completely altered the meaning. I looked up at him and found his smile was gone too. He was giving me a steady, emotionless gaze. Definitely going into his full lawyer mode. "Even though you barely know him?"
         "Dad, I know what kind of man Brian is!" I countered. I had more to say, but Dad didn't give me the chance.
         "How, Benjamin? How do you know what kind of man he is after one week? Do you know what he's like when he gets mad? ...when he's stressed? ...when he's too busy to have time for you?"
         "That's not fair!" I said. "Of course, I don't know what he's like in all kinds of situations. But I know what he's like deep down. He's a good person. He's kind and warm and loving. He might get tired or lose his temper or get stressed -- and you can't name me one person who doesn't sooner or later -- but he's too good a person to let any of that get to him for very long.
         "No, I don't know everything about him," I went on, a bit calmer now, "but no one going into a relationship does. Part of being in a relationship is getting to know the other person. And..." I paused before throwing down my trump card. " for my not knowing him well enough, you and Mom knew each other for exactly nine days before you proposed to her!"
         I stopped here and looked my father straight in the eyes. He stared back at me for a few seconds, then breathed out audibly as his shoulders relaxed a bit and his lips toyed with the idea of smiling. Instead, though, he leaned toward me and asked quietly, "Is it really too late to get you to go to law school?"
         I smiled back at him, knowing I'd won this round. For a couple of seconds I was foolish enough to think that we were through, but I should have known my father better than that.
         "But I have another concern too," my father said, sitting up straight again and turning his attention back to include Brian. "Your life is very hectic. You're on the road a great deal, and you stay incredibly busy even when you're not. And when you are at home, you're four states away. You two are going to be able to see very little of each other. That makes any kind of relationship hard, but it gets harder when you add the pressure of having to keep this secret. This relationship is going to have a lot of time apart, a lot of nights when you miss each other, a lot of instances when you want to tell someone about each other and you have to keep your mouth shut, and a lot of sleeping alone. It's going to be something very difficult on both of you," he added, emphasizing the word "both."
         "Are you sure you're ready for this kind of pressure?" Dad summaraized.
         I was ready to go again by then, but Brian started talking first. "I don't know," he said. I thought for a split-second that he was giving up, but he wasn't through. "We don't know. No one knows when they start off that they're ready for what's going to happen. But we've talked about the things you're talking about, and we're going to try very hard to make things work, because it's that important to us."
         When Brian stopped, Dad just regarded him quietly for a bit before turning to look over his shoulder at Mom. "What do you think about that?" Dad asked her.
         Mom's face was just visible to me past Dad's head, but she was smiling again. "So far, I like what I'm hearing."
         "Yeah," Dad said as he turned back to us. "I do too," he added, his grin returning.

         "So, any more questions, Counselor?" I asked facetiously.
         "Well, not a question, really, but I do have one other thing I want to say," Dad said quietly. "Brian, I'm not sure how much Ben has told you about his 'coming out,' but it was very hard on him. Though we didn't know it at the time because he was afraid to talk to us about it, he spent more than a year being very unhappy. Then once he went came out, he was much happier and we were happy to have him happy again. And I respect him for being so honest about his sexuality. My son is not very good at secrets and lies, and I don't really like the idea of him having to keep your relationship secret."
         For the first time, Brian was visibly taken aback. He dropped his face to look at the floor and let go a sigh before saying, "I don't either." His voice was so soft, so breathy that I was actually worried about him. I watched him for a moment, and I was just about to speak when he raised his head again, looking at me instead of Dad. "I'm not gonna like this sneaking around," he began, "and keeping secrets and having to come up with cover stories whenever you visit us. To tell the truth, I'm kinda jealous that you get to be public about everything. I wish I could." He turned to look again at Dad. "I'm not ashamed, and the time will come when I can, but right now it's just too dangerous, not just for my career but for the other guys too."
         "Did you ever consider," Dad said gently, "that coming out might make you more fans instead of costing you fans? Some people might respect you more."
         Brian seemed to think about this before saying, "Maybe. We'd lose some and get some others. But I don't want to take the risk with everyone's career. I don't really have the right."
         "What did your family say when you told them?" Dad asked. "And have you told them about Ben yet?"
         "Well..." Brian drug the word out over a few seconds. "I haven't actually told them yet."
         "Told them about Ben?"
         "Told them I'm gay."
         "You haven't... You w..." Dad was actually sputtering for something to say. "Benjamin, did you know this?"
         I nodded. "I told you: this is all very new for Brian. He's come to a lot of decisions about this this week. And he wants to tell his family when he sees them in person."
         "And when's that going to be?" Dad insisted. His tone was a little angrier now for some reason.
         "Well," Brian was hesitating, "I won't get to go home to see them until Thanksgiving."
         "Thanksgiving!" Dad exclaimed. "You're trying to get my son into a relationship where he has to sneak around and deceive people, while you haven't even told your own family!"
         "Dad, he's not trying to 'get' me to do anything!" I was yelling back, but Dad got a little louder to keep me from going on.
         "And you knew that his family didn't know! Benjamin, I could understand that he has to keep this from the fans, but his family ought to know!"
         "And they will!" I raised my voice louder still. "He'll tell them when he can, when he sees them! He doesn't want to tell them this over the phone, and I don't think he should either. But, bottom line, it doesn't matter what I think or you either; this is between Brian and his family, and it's none of our business. And if you really hate the idea of Brian and I being together, why don't you just come out and say so and stop all these sneaky little questions!"
         I stopped yelling here. I just looked at my father looking back at me, but when I realized that Brian hadn't said anything during our exchange, I looked down at him. He was leaning over a bit, his elbows resting heavily near his knees and his head hanging. I leaned down toward him and rested my right hand on his back, whispering "Brian?"
         "I didn't want to make you two fight," he said quietly.
         "And I didn't want to upset anyone," Dad said, his tone just as quiet.
         "Well, you did!" I growled up at him, while my right hand went on rubbing Brian's back. "You scared him, and you pissed me off!"
         "Neither of which I wanted," Dad went on, frustratingly calmly. "And I don't hate the idea of you two together, Benji. I trust you to know what you're doing -- I think you know that. And if you say that Brian is a good man and that you want to be with him, I'm going to support that. I was worried that you two hadn't considered how hard this could be, but you have and I think you're as prepared as you can be."
         I could feel myself calming a bit, and I guess Dad could see it in my face, because he dropped his tone still further before he went on. "I never meant to scare Brian with my 'sneaky little questions,' Benji. I'm just worried about you. I want you to be happy, and if you need Brian for that, then I want you to have him."

         "So, is that it?" I asked my father. Despite all he'd just said, I was still angry at the way he had scared the two of us -- especially Brian, who didn't know him as well as I -- and it was my anger that made me add sarcastically, "Is the Inquisition over?
         "Not just yet," my mother said, finally joining the conversation. Up to now, she'd just stood behind my father's desk, leaning back against the cabinets with her hands resting lightly on the edge of a shelf. She seemed relaxed, but I couldn't tell whether it was genuine or an act to put Brian more at ease. Both were possible. Dad was famous among us for his questions; Mom just was a question. She and I almost always understood each other's motives, but her methods could still surprise me. She was the mecurial mom, the unpredictable one -- sometimes the gentle, comforting Mommy, and sometimes the sarcastic bitch who been able to respond to teenage sons with as many biting comments and as much cruel unfairness as we'd sometimes given her.
         But behind all of it, there had been a consistent foundation to what she said and did. She'd could surprise us by radically changing her approach to what each of us needed most depending on the situation, but her main goal never wavered: she always fought for what she truly felt was best for us.
         And I was counting on that as she stepped around the desk and sat on the loveseat near Brian.
         She rested her left hand on his knee and smiled gently first at him, then at the two of us."Brian," she said simply, her voice soft and even a bit affectionate, "my husband and I have had a very successful marriage for almost twenty-four years, and it's been so successful because he's very logical and I'm very emotional. He's the lawyer, and I'm the artist. We complement each other.
         "And that's where I'm coming from when say this: I've watched you two together this week, whenever I could, and I've seen the change in Benji's attitude. He's been happier than I've seen him in some time, and I'm glad that you've been a big part of making him feel that way. I know you two are fond of each other...." My mouth opened to speak when she used the minimalizing word "fond," but she waved me into silence and went on. "I know you're infatuated with each other. I know you're attracted to each other. You may even be in love with each other, just like you say, though that is hard to believe after just one week. But even if it's not love now, it could grow into that, and there is nothing that would make me happier. I would love for the two of you to be right for each other, to be together, and to make each other happy for the rest of your lives. I mean that."
         She stopped here, her chin tucked in bit so that she had to look out from beneath her eyebrows and her lips closed in what was nevertheless a warm smile. Brian turned to grin at me after hearing what sounded very much like a blessing. I was again benefitting from my longer experience with my parents; I waited for the other shoe to drop. I managed to keep my mouth shut and avoided saying the word with her when she said...
         "But," she began again, "you've said yourself that you've been worried about being gay for a long time and that this week was the first time that you've ever admitted it to yourself. Ben is the first man you've let yourself feel attraction for, and he's the first man you've ever gone to bed with.
         "I can understand completely that you would feel love for my son -- he's an amazing young man in ways that he doesn't begin to appreciate -- but I'm also familiar with anxiety like you've been feeling. You worry and worry, and then when you face what's been scaring you and conquer it, you feel great, like you're ready to take on the whole world. Right now, you're probably feeling all kinds of relief and excitement and freedom. Your emotions are all magnified by the excitement you feel from accepting yourself.
         "I just want you to be sure about how much of your feelings have to do with Ben and how much has to do with the freedom you feel. And that's why I'm glad that you two are going to be apart for a while, not because I don't approve," she added quickly when she saw me about to argue again, "but because I think some time apart will be good for you. You'll be able to assess your feelings clearly. And if you still feel the same way about each other, you'll have the rest of your lives to be together."
         Brian gave her long, steady look, then his eyes trailed down to look at the carpet. Looking at his profile, I saw his brow wrinkle slightly as he thought about what she'd said. My face was probably doing the same thing, but I was watching him instead of staring blankly downward.
         For a few seconds, the room was silent. No one spoke. We just waited for Brian to work his way through whatever thoughts were going through his head. I wanted to say something, to touch him at least, to put my hand on the back of his neck to let him know I was with him. But I restrained myself. Whenever I'd had to think about something so serious, I knew what it was like to be constantly interrupted by people trying be supportive. They only wanted to help, I know, but mostly they just broke into my thoughts. Few people appreciate what a gift silence can be to be.
         Finally though, Brian had come to some conclusion. You could see it in his face. His forehead smoothed, and his lips hinted at a slight smile. He looked my mother in the face again. "That all makes sense," he said simply, his voice soft. "I've been feeling very worried and scared, and now I'm not. And not feeling that way feels great. I am happy, and I am excited. But I don't think that's what's behind my feelings for Ben." He glanced over at me as he added that, and I couldn't hide my smile.
         "But it is possible?" my mother interjected.
         Brian responded first with a small shrug. "I guess so. But I doubt it. Anyway, like you said, we're gonna have some time apart to figure that out." His voice was a little louder now, firmer and more confident.
         This time, Mom smiled at him. "Exactly. I hope you understand me, Brian. I want this to work." I followed her eyes as she glanced up at my father. "We both do. We like you and we love Ben and we want both of you to be happy. We just want you to be sure and we want you to be careful too." Mom was looking at Brian again, but I was watching Dad. The whole time she'd been talking, he'd been slightly nodding his assent in Brian's direction. When he noticed me looking at him, his mouth curved in a smile and he gave me a wink.
         "You have my blessing, boys," he said, "just in case I didn't make that clear earlier. I'm concerned, but I'm not unhappy."
         Brian looked up at him and smiled. "Thank you," he said, first looking at my father, then turning to include my mother. Then he looked at me and said, still talking to my parents, "I guess we have a lot to think about while we're apart." I smiled at him and gave him a nod.
         But Mom wasn't done. "Well, here's something else to think about: love is a great feeling. But a relationship can't just be emotional. It has make some logical sense too. And it has to make some practical sense. If you try to build a relationship with just one of those, you're probably going to be very unhappy. But if you have some of each..."
         "Or a lot of each," Dad interjected.
         "...then your relationship will be strong enough to survive just about anything."
         This last little comment had the two of us smiling at each other again. All by itself, my right hand reached for Brian's hand and held it as I stared at his dangerous grin. When I turned my head back toward my parents, they were beaming at the two of us.
         Then the logical, organized, get-the-job-done part of my brain reasserted itself, probably angry to not be running the whole show for a change. It made me glance at the clock and mentally compare it to our time schedule. "Bri Bri, we really need to be going."
         Brian said, "Yeah, I know," and stood up, while at the same time my father repeated incredulously, "'Bri Bri'! Benjamin, that's without doubt one of the stupidest, most sickeningly sweet nicknames I've ever heard. Now, while it's still early in the relationship, find something better. Please. I'm begging you." The three of us laughed at his overacting.
         Mom came to my defense. "Stephen, it's no sillier than 'Sweet D' or 'Mr. Body Beautiful'"
         Dad gave her a confused look, but Brian shot her the killer grin. "Someone's been reading fan magazines."
         Mom laughed again. "Yeah, Stacy. She filled me in on all sorts of details last week."

         Mom stepped closer and took Brian's shoulders in her hands. I noticed for the first time that the two of them were the same height. I had a brief flash of worry that there was something Freudian in this: men falling in love with their own mothers, that sort of thing. But, thankfully, Mom interrupted my thoughts.
         "Brian, I know my son pretty well, so I'm going to give you the benefit of something I've learned over the years: always tell him the truth. If it's good news, if it's bad news, whatever, always just tell him the truth. Don't try to spare him. Don't try to protect him. He'll just be angrier or more hurt later on. Just be honest with him."
         Brian returned her serious look for a second or two, before glancing at me. I gave him a close-lipped smile and nodded, at which he looked at my mother again. "Thank you," he said softly. "Anything else I should know?"
         "Just this: if I ever find out that you've hurt him by lying to him, there's not a place on this earth where you'll be safe from me."
         "Mom!" I blurted out, shocked that she'd talk to him like that. She'd said similar things to us over the years, but she barely knew him! "Don't play with Brian like that!" I added, while I prayed deep down that she was playing.
         "Sorry, Benji," she shrugged. Her face breaking into a slight grin, she added, "I just thought that if he's gonna be family, he ought to see my 'dangerous mega-bitch' side as soon as possible. Y'know, lessen the shock."
         Brian and I eventually got our goodbyes said and got out of there. Dad shook Brian's hand but he also raised his left hand to give Brian's right shoulder a squeeze. I smiled to myself: that was big-time affection coming from him. Mom just hugged him. And I hugged both my parents. I was going to be seeing them again in a few hours, but after that conversation hugs were definitely in order.
         Then we got out of there, leaving them to talk about us, no doubt.
         As we hurried down the hall and into the hotel, I asked Brian, "So who do you think Ms. Shaw will kill first: you or me?"
         Brian took a second to think. "Phyllis will kill you. Kevin will kill me." Then his face broke into that grin again before he added, "But your parents are great."
         By then we were passing through the workroom. I leaned into my office long enough to get the black binder off of my desk as I said, "Yeah, they really are. Scary, but great."
         "I thought they weren't scary to you 'cause you're used to them"
         "Oh, I didn't mean the whole conversation. Just that Mom referred to herself as a 'dangerous mega-bitch.' That's Robby's secret nickname for her, but I didn't know she knew about it."

         Stacy's office was completely empty of people and luggage when we got there, so we headed toward the door. Through the rain, we could see both white vans in the parking lot with all the luggage and people inside one or the other. The side door to one was open, and through it we could see Kevin leaning over looking out. When he saw us open the door, he automatically looked at his watch and waved us out.
         I tucked the binder under my jacket, and then Brian and I ran through the rain and piled into the van. The two seats in the second row were empty for us. I pulled the sliding door shut and then sat beside Brian.
         "Leave early because of the rain, huh?" Kevin mocked gently from the front passenger seat. I looked up to see him grinning at me.
         "Yeah, 9:30 means 9:30, young man," Nick laughed from behind me as Robby started the van moving.
         A hand appeared on my right shoulder and I turned around to see Mike looking concerned. "Everything okay?" he asked softly.
         I smiled at him. "Everything's great."
         Robby must have caught us smiling at each other in the mirror, because he said, "So you two got the parent's blessing, huh?" I looked forward again in time to see Kevin give Brian a concerned look just before Brian grinned at him. Robby was shaking his head, "I swear: if Ben told them he wanted to poison the Dallas Water Supply, they'd let him. How do I get credibility like that?"
         "Well, not being a doofus would be a start," Mike yelled at him.
         By then, we were reaching the gate at the end of the driveway and I noticed that it was still open. Evidently, no one had closed it after I'd blocked it open for the sheriff. "Robby, stop by the key pad for a sec." He stopped the van with the keybad by the sliding door. I reached out and punched in a before closing the door again and sitting back down. And then we were off.


         There were thirteen people on this trip, so we occupied all but one of the seats on both vans. Robby and Kevin were up front, and with Mike behind me, I knew that Ethan must be driving other van. Brian and I were in the middle, and the seat behind us held Mike, Nick, and Howie. Howie grinned at me when he saw me mentally taking roll, then his face turned serious. "Everything went okay?" he asked.
         I smiled back at him, gave Brian a glance, then turned to Howie again. "Yeah. They have some worries..."
         "Really sensible worries," Brian interrupted. "You can tell they're Ben's parents."
         I smiled at Brian and went on. "...but they're mostly happy about this."
         "That's great," Howie said. "I could tell both of you were worried about talking to them."
         Brian laughed. "You should have been there. First, Mr. Corbyn was all serious and kept asking these questions."
         "Sounds like Dad," Mike muttered.
         "What kind of questions?" Howie interrupted this time.
         "Oh, he wanted to know how serious this is, and if we knew each other well enough to be serious. And he wanted to make sure that we were ready for being apart so much of the time and for having to sneak around and keep things secret."
         "And then he started giving Brian a hard time for not having told his parents anything," I jumped in, a little of the anger returning to colour my tone.
         "Well, you do need to tell them," I heard Kevin say quietly, but Brian didn't seem to hear.
         He just smiled at me. "And then Ben started yelling at him to stop being..."
         "You yelled at Dad!" Robby let out, jutting his chin up and left awkwardly so he could see me in the rearview mirror. "Oh, shit, it must be love," he added as he traded grins with Kevin.
         "Didn't Ms. Corbyn say anything?" Nick asked.
         "Not at first," Brian told him. "She just stood back and listened while we talked. Then she started in on me."
         "That's the way Mom works," Mike started explaining. "She wait 'til Dad wears you out, then she jumps on for the kill. Very sneaky."
         "Well, speaking of 'sneaky'," I began, turning from Mike to Robby, "she knows about your calling her a 'dangerous mega-bitch'. She even called herself that as a joke."
         "Damn," Robby muttered. "I'll need a new name now."
         "Stop it!" Nick yelled. "You guys can talk about this later. I wanna hear what your sneaky mom said to Brian."
         Brian laughed again. "She was pretty great, actually. She said that she was happy for us -- they both said that -- and that she wanted us to be happy. And she was glad that we were going to be apart for a while to make sure how we felt."
         I caught some motion out of the corner of my right eye and glanced over to find Kevin nodding a little in agreement. He was turned around in the seat and watching Brian intently. When he noticed me looking at him, he said, "I was kinda thinking the same thing." He said it very gently, almost like he was apologizing for not having utter faith in us as a couple. But I didn't really take it that way. I felt a lot of confidence about my being with Brian, but I understood where Kevin was coming from: he was looking out for his cousin, and I wouldn't have expected anything less from him.
         "So she didn't 'move in and kill' you?" Howie asked, repeating Mike's words.
         "No," Brian said simply and a little slowly, his head shaking a little to reinforce the answer. "Nobody died. She was great. They both were."
         "Well, we had it all worked out if she did kill you," Nick said. "We decided while we were waiting for you that if you didn't come back, Mike was gonna take your place."
         Mike raised his chin and gave Brian a ridiculously smug grin. I laughed. "What about me?" I said. "I'm the brilliant musician. Mike's just cute."
         "Too good," Howie joked. "You'd make us look bad."
         "And with Brian gone," Nick added, "we don't need you anymore. And Mike at least can keep one of us happy." He said this in a very casual, joking way, leaning his head over as if to rest it on Mike's face. In this position, he couldn't see the look that crossed Mike's face -- a complicated mixture of surprise, anger and a little fear -- but I saw it.
         "I knew it!" Robby said laughing. "I knew you two were up to something."
         "Aw, you're just mad 'cause no one wanted to sleep with you," Mike retorted, in a weak attempt to defend himself.
         "Well," Kevin said, dragging the words out as he leaned over toward Robby. He reached out to rest his hand on Robby's knee as he added, "as a matter of fact, this morning AJ was saying that you...."
         "NO!" My brother said. "No, no, no, no, no..." he repeated before stopping suddenly and leaning toward Kevin. Then, in a sort of stage whisper he said quickly, "How much cash has he got on him?"
         We all laughed. Nick laughed and said quietly, "Another free agent for the pink team." Mike muttered something I couldn't make out, thought I think I heard the word "whore" in it. But Howie was the loudest when he spoke.
         "Hey! What about me?" he said plaintively.
         "You can have Ethan," I volunteered.
         Howie shook his head. "Nah. Too pretty. If I wanted pretty, I'd sleep with girls."
         "Ethan's pretty enough to be a girl," Nick said. I reached over and playfully tickled at Brian when I saw him nodding in agreement.
         "Yeah," Kevin laughed, "if Ethan were any prettier, I'd go after him."

         Despite the van being so filled with people, our drive into Dallas was pretty quiet. Robby and Kevin talked for a while, Robby pestering Kevin for music industry information. Howie had unpacked a book, and Nick fell asleep early on, snoring just a little behind me. And I was about doze a bit myself, when Brian nudged me softly and gave a nod toward the back seat once he had my attention. I looked over my right shoulder and found that Mike was also asleep, resting his head on Nick's shoulder.
         Then I turned back to smile at Brian. Leaning in, I said softly,"I wonder what your fans would say if they could see that."
         "I wonder what your parents would say," he whispered back.
         "They probably wouldn't be surprised," I told him with a grin. "Mike has always copied me. Once I got a boyband boy for myself, he was bound to want one of his own."
         Instead of smiling back, he shook his head. "'Man'," he said. "I'm your boyband 'man'."
         My smile grew, and reached over to take his hand. "Yes, you are," I affirmed. "All mine."
         Brian looked down at our hands wistfully for a few seconds. "That's gonna be hard, you know," he said finally. "When we're in public, we'll have to pretend we're just friends."
         "I know," I told him. "And I'll do it for you. Keep my hands to myself and the whole bit." I tried to make this sound light, but my voice got serious when I said, "But if anyone ever asks if I'm gay, I'm gonna tell them the truth. I love you, Bri Bri, but I won't pretend to be something I'm not. I'm out, and I'm gonna stay out."
         He looked at me for a few seconds. Finally, he said, "I don't want you to pretend to be anything else. But I'll admit to being a little scared about anyone finding out." He stopped talking, but his blue eyes never left mine. "And I'm a little bit jealous", he continued. "You know what you are and you can tell people. I'm still finding out, and I have to keep it a secret. Even I were sure, I can't take the chance of hurting the group. Or my family."
         "What are you going to tell your family?"
         Brian shook his head. "I don't know. I know I should tell them, but you're right about this not being something to tell over the phone and I won't get to spend any real time with them until Thanksgiving. I guess I have until then to decide how to tell them."
         We rode for a long while without talking. It was another glimpse of how complicated Brian's life was because of being a celebrity. All that week, he and the other Boys had just been some guys staying at our house and working in our studio. But now he was going back into the real world, a world where millions of people felt like they owned a little piece of him.

         As it turned out, our drive through the city to the airport was simple. Interstate 20 hit the bigger loop around Dallas, and it was late enough in the day that the traffic wasn't too bad. We made pretty good time, and Robby didn't scare any of us any more than was necessary.
         As he headed down the freeway that crosses the airport, Kevin's cell phone went off. From what he said into it, we could tell it was Ms. Shaw, calling from the other van to confirm that Robby knew where he was going.
         After Kevin had shut the phone, Robby looked over at him. "Old witch checking up on me?" my brother asked.
         "Well, mostly," Kevin told him, "but she also wanted to tell us that she called ahead to let the airline know we were about to arrive. And she got permission for us to preboard. Someone's gonna meet us at the curb to get the luggage and then we're going straight to the plane.
         Brian grabbed my left hand in both of his. "We're gonna have to make our goodbye's quick," he said, sounding as sad as I felt. I just sat there, looking into his blue eyes.
         Then I felt another hand on my right shoulder, but this time it was Howie. He was leaning up and had put one arm around me while his other was around Brian. "Not 'goodbye'," he reminded us both. "You're gonna see each other again. As soon as we can arrange it."
         I smiled first at Howie then turned to Brian. "Yeah," I agreed. "This is not any kind of ending. Just an interruption." He just beamed back at me. Somewhere in the seat behind me, I was vaguely aware of Howie retreating to leave us alone. "Y'know," I went on more quietly, leaning toward Brian, "if we can't say our goodbyes on the sidewalk, we might have to do it here."
         By now, my face was really close to him. I really expected him to smile again and kiss me, but instead he pulled back a bit and his eyes began looking around nervously. That's when it finally hit me that this was all very new to him. He'd only admitted to himself that he was gay four days ago, and except for when Robby walked in on us that morning, he'd never kissed another guy in front of other people, even people he knew he could trust.
         I was about to apologize for being so thoughtless, but that's when he looked at me quickly with this gleam in his eyes. Then he grabbed my head and planted his mouth on mine. It was a great kiss. Not a passionate one, no tongues wrestling back and forth, but just a long, steady pull on my mouth as he inhaled from my mouth, like he was trying to inhale me. Like he was trying to hold on to me.
         When we finally separated, I leaned back, a little out of breath.
         "Jesus, Brian," Nick said, "if I knew you could kiss like that, I would have worked harder on getting you for myself." I gave Nick a confused look, and deep down I felt a pang of jealousy.
         But when Brian spoke to me, there was nothing to indicate that he'd even heard what Nick had said. "There," he said, "try to forget me after that kind of goodbye."
         I leaned toward where he was leaning toward me and reached into his lap to take his hands in mine. "Don't worry," I flirted with him. "There's no way I'm gonna forget you."
         "I'll be back, you know."
         "I hope so," I told him, reaching up to rub my jaw. "I think you got a couple of my teeth."
         "Uh, guys," Robby got our attention. I looked over and saw his eyes in the rearview mirror again. "We're about to stop, so you two might wanna separate."
         We did just that. I let go of his hands and retreated to my end of the seat. Brian turned to face forward again as he moved in the opposite direction. Neither of us looked happy.

         Robby pulled the van into the curb and stopped just beyond a trio of young men. Two were wearing grey windbreakers with some airline logo stitched into them. The third was wearing the standard issue uniform of the ubiquitous corporate lackey: white shirt, beige khakis, a navy blue jacket, and some kind of generic tie. I turned around to watch the other van pull in just behind these three. For a second, it was funny to watch this guy look back and forth between the two vans as if they were playing tennis, looking for some indication of where to find the person he was there to suck up to.
         Ms. Shaw practically leaped out of the second van and got his attention. The Boys, I noticed, just stayed put until she'd spoken to the guy. Then she nodded toward Kevin and we started climbing out of the vans.
         Most of us stood around then. Without really thinking about it, we'd taken strategic positions: the Boys nearest the vans, with the rest of us more or less in a ring around them. The two windbreakers each produced a luggage cart and headed to the back of the second van. The two engineers identified their luggage, which got loaded onto one cart. Then the windbreakers and Ethan began loading the remaining luggage onto the second cart. Ed and Dave, meanwhile, stepped up to take their leave of us.
         "Well, this is it," Dave said.
         "You guys have a safe flight," Ed said to the Boys, "and I'll get these back to Florida and get 'em finished off." He patted his carry-on bag which I guessed must contain the digital recordings from the studio.
         "When will we get to hear it," Kevin asked him.
         "Sometime this week. I'll email an MP3 to you when it's done."
         "And to Ms. Houston," AJ said, pronouncing the name in a way that mocked her importance.
         Dave laughed at him. "Of course. We have to send it to her. And I'm glad email is enough, so I don't have to talk to her again."
         Again I got the feeling that Dave was not the least bit fond of Whitney Houston. This time, though, I said something. "Okay, what's the deal with you and her?"
         Dave and Ed both laughed this time, joined by AJ but none of the rest. "I'll tell you the story sometime," Dave replied. "But I wanna hear something from you, too. I wanna hear reports about this band you guys are gonna form. And I wanna hear recordings. I'm serious. If you guys end up being half as good as I think you could be, I know lots of people that would be interested."
         "You'll hear from us," Robby said. "I'll either send you recording of our songs or video of my killing these guys for not working."
         Dave punched him in the shoulder. "That's the spirit. Work 'em 'til they beg for mercy."
         "Couldn't we just beg up front and save ourselves a lot of trouble?" I asked him.
         "Well, boys, we're gonna head out," Ed said again, which started a big round of handshakes and goodbyes, including Ethan, now that he'd joined us after the luggage was all loaded.
         We watched as Dave, Ed, and their own personal windbreaker guy -- the cute one, I noticed -- headed into the airport. Then Stacy remembered something. "I thought their plane didn't leave until after yours," she said, sounding confused.
         "That's right," Brian said.
         "I don't get it," Robby said with exasperation. "What does sitting in an airport have that's better than talking to me?"
         "Beer," Ethan deadpanned at him.
         "Or maybe they're just sick of all the bad jokes," Kevin told Robby with a grin.
         "Yeah," Robby retorted, "like you guys are so damned funny."
         "Uh, excuse me," Mr. Tie-and-jacket said, "but we really should get going if you're going to preboard before the gate is full of people."
         Automatically, my eyes sought Brian's. For a second, I was really confused about how to say goodbye to him. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew how I would have acted if we'd been alone, but this situation was brand new to me. Did I hug him, or give him a generic guy-to-guy handshake? He solved the problem by hugging me himself. I worried that we were holding on a little long and a little tightly though, while at the same time I wondered if I was just worrying too much.
         "Come here, Brian," I heard Stacy say off my left shoulder. I could feel reluctance that matched my own as Brian let go of me and turned to hug Stacy, his eyes staying on mine as long as they could. Then I looked around guiltily, to see how it might've looked to anyone else. But no one seemed to be paying undue attention. All around, the guys were saying goodbye to each other, some with hugs and some with handshakes.
         When I'd finished scanning off to my left, I turned my head back to the right, and that's when Howie grabbed me in a hug just as tight and lingering as Brian's had been. As he released me, I frowned at Howie. Under my breath, I asked, "Did you hug me like that 'cause you wanted to, or are you covering for Brian?"
         Howie smiled at me before whispering, "A little from column A and a little from column B."
         "Same here," Kevin said softly before taking me in a hug that matched the other two. "Welcome to the family, Ben," he whispered in my ear. "If you're what Brian wants, I'm glad he found you."

         Then, all too soon, the Backstreet Boys were gone, taken from us by the officious Phyllis Shaw, some obsequious airport toady -- I never did get his name clearly. It was Todd or Tad or Chad, something like that -- and a guy in a windbreaker how pushed the luggage cart and looked incredibly bored by his job. The last I saw of them was as they stepped into the elevator. Brian was the last one in. He gave me a sad look, and as the doors closed I saw Kevin wrap his arm around his shoulders and say something to him.
         Still on the sidewalk, none of us spoke for a few seconds. Then Robby broke the silence.
         "So, how're we arranging the trip back? Stacy gonna ride with Ethan and me or with Mike and Ben?"
         "Neither," Mike answered before anyone else. "She's gonna ride with Ethan and me 'cause you're riding with Ben. He wants to talk to you about something."
         "Oh." Robby turned to give me a slightly worried look. And I gave Mike a look of my own. "Well, what about lunch then?" Robby went on.
         Stacy knew Dallas the best of any of us, so they started discussing places to eat. I took the opportunity to take Mike off to one side.
         "What was that about?" I asked him. "I didn't say anything about needing to talk to Robby."
         "No, but I don't want him talking to Ethan yet." This confused me even more, and my face must have told Mike so. "Look, Robby knows I messed around with Nick. And if he rides with Ethan, he's gonna tell him. And if I ride with Robby, I'll have to listen to all kinds of crap about it. So the only solution is for Robby to ride with you and me with Ethan. Please," he added, becoming for a bit the little brother that used to need me to protect him from our brothers.
         I gave in. "Okay, but this'll have to go before and after lunch, you know. And once I get Robby alone, I'll try and get him to cut you some slack. But you're just delaying the inevitable. Sooner or later, Robby's gonna get you on this and Ethan's gonna know."
         Mikey nodded. "I know. And Mom and Dad are gonna know too, but I'm gonna tell 'em before Robby can."
         "Oh, I don't think he'd tell them," I defended Robby as I looked over at him. "I think he's a bit more grown up that we give him credit for."
         Robby saw me looking his way and yelled at us, "Come on. We're outta here. I'm hungry, and I don't like this ticket-taking guy giving us dirty looks."
         We climbed into the vans, with me driving the first one and Ethan still driving the other. I was in the lead, so Stacy rode with us to the restaurant so she could give directions.

         Our van stopped at a red light to let some cars merge from a parking lot. Overhead, a plane roared westward, and I watched it closely, and just for a second I wondered if that were the Boys' flight.
         Robby was watching me from the passenger's seat. "You all right, big brother?"
         It was a couple of seconds before his question penetrated, but I smiled over at him. "Yeah, I'm good," I told him. "He'll be back, y'know."
         "Of course he will," Robby grinned back at me. "No one can stand to miss me for very long."
         Behind us, a horn sounded just as the cell phone rang on the console between the seat. Robby snatched it up and pressed the Receive button before he pressed it to his ear. As he was lifting it, I heard static and then Ethan's voice saying, "Ttell loverbboy tto stop waiting for another shade of ggreen!"
         I laughed and started down the road.

that I should be really happy about having this done and up, but I find myself feeling a bit sad. Our little community of boyband writers and readers has changed a great deal since Part 18 (July 31, 2000, if you're keeping track), and I can't help sometimes missing the way things used to be. The Nifty boyband chatroom is practically nonexistent. First, there were schisms, angry words, temper tantrums, and people just tired of other people's crap. Then people formed rooms of their own or just left not to return. By now most everyone has found other things to do, becoming busy with jobs and relationships and lives apart from these stories. I'm happy for them, of course, but I'm nostalgic nonetheless.

Moreover, the boybands themselves have all but disappeared. We used to joke about how it was impossible to watch television or look at a magazine without seeing these guys; now I hear bits of news about them from time to time, but often it seems that the only people who don't know they're done are the boys themselves. It was inevitable, I know, but for someone who hates change as much as I do, this is all very sad. I'm afraid that in a few years, the only writing about boybands will be the predictable tell-all books that some boys will write about his groupmates. (I wonder who'll publish the first ghost-written rag?)

All this makes it a bit anachronistic to be writing a story that is STILL stuck in October 1999. But I'm going to finish the story, if only because I've missed Ben and his brothers.

After all this time, it's impossible for me to thank everyone who deserves it. Let me just offer a large blanket "thank you" to all the people who emailed me to ask about this story or to inquire if I were still alive. I don't know what made me stop writing, what made me live my life offline for so long, or what made me come back and finally finish this. I just want to apologize for making some of you wait so long.

And I owe thanks to all the people who voted for me back when I was still eligible for the BBSAwards. Though I was out of the running for the more recent ones because of my long silence, way back when a lot of people nominated or voted for me, and I've never thanked them for it.

And I also need to thank the many writers and friends I've "met" online, both from what I still refer to as our "boyband community" and those I've got to know in the #niftywriters room. I won't even attempt a list of names because I'll omit too many important people. Let me just say that as much as I shamelessly enjoy "fan mail," it is the friends I've made online that have been real reward for ever posting a story.

Lastly, long overdue thanks to Howard Harris for the article "Brian Tells About His Life," which provided actual quotations for a lot of the things that this Brian says in this installment. Wow! Research for a slash story: who woulda thunk?

shut up now before this sounds even more like a farewell address.

Ben Corbyn will return in
Never Say Nerfherder Again.