Kevin wakes up, rubs his eyes, scratches his chest, scratches his balls and swings his legs over the side of the bed. It's still dark outside; he can tell because they've not only left the curtains open but left the window open as well, trying to cool off the room.
It worked too well, and he shivers as he gets up to close it again, to close the curtains even though they'll have vacated the hotel before sunrise. He's not sure how far it is to their first performance of the day, but he knows they need to be on the road soon.
AJ is still fast asleep, taking up only a tiny corner of the bed, and Howie is sprawled restlessly on the cot. He threw the blanket off at some point during the night and is shivering in the cool air; Kevin lays it back overtop of him, even though he'll need to wake him up in another fifteen minutes. They need to grab their sleep where they can.
He's already hearing waking noises from the adjoining room, though, and it's only five minutes, not fifteen, before there's a frantic pounding on their door. Howie and AJ are both awake before Kevin can answer it -- the danger of learning to sleep lightly.
"What?" he asks as he flings the door open, not caring much who's there, who sees him in his underwear. They all do, sooner or later; privacy is a myth. A dream. Kevin sighs and just hopes it's nothing too bad. "What is it?" he asks again.
"It's Nick," Brian says, a little breathlessly, like he's had to run from another floor and not just next door.
"What? What's wrong? Is he sick? Where's his mother?"
"No, no, he's not sick. He can't find his lucky bear and he's throwing a fit."
"His lucky bear," repeats Kevin and rolls his eyes and bites his tongue. Fifteen years old and he still has a lucky bear. They all have their things that keep them going, though, that keep them from bolting for home. Nick's entitled to his, too. "All right. We'll help look."
And another day begins.
Nick stands leaning over the mirror, scrubbing at his face frantically to get all the make-up off. He hates it and it's starting to make him break out. Kevin remembers being fifteen, and winces at what Nick has yet to face. He'll be lucky if breaking out is the worst of his problems.
"Five minutes, boys. Another great show, but we've got to get a move on."
A move on back to a hotel, happily, because they've already done two shows plus a photo shoot plus an interview in between plus travel time which adds up to five slightly cranky boys. Some more than slightly cranky.
"I can't get this off," whines Nick, his face looking raw from the scrubbing. That can't be good for it either. It's probably part of the problem, but they don't have anyone around to say for sure. "And I can't find Mr. Bear still."
"What kind of name is Mr. Bear, anyway?" scoffs AJ.
"Shush," says Brian, "there's nothing wrong with it. Or do I need to bring up your little stuffed friend?"
Right when Kevin thinks he's gonna snap at one of them, he feels Howie's hand close over his shoulder and squeeze gently. He takes a deep breath and the urge goes away, for the moment.
"We'll get them to stop for dinner on the way," says Howie quietly, quietly like he always is, not quietly like he doesn't want to be heard. "They haven't eaten all day, hardly. It'll help."
Kevin knows it's not that easy, that the best they can hope for on the trip is some stale sandwiches, but he appreciates the thought all the same. "Someone needs wrangle Nick onto the bus. Where's his mother?"
"I'll take care of it," says Howie, giving his shoulder another squeeze before letting go. "You get AJ and Brian. If Brian asks where his meds are, remind him they're in the inside pocket of his jacket."
"Thanks," says Kevin, and watches as Howie goes and puts an arm around Nick's shoulders and leads him away from the dingy mirror, talking to him about something, anything, to hold his attention. It's easier to round up the other two after that.
It's a little thing, but Kevin thinks it's nice to know that someone has his back.
They do stop to eat at a little out of the way restaurant that seats them, and two other groups, and that's about it. It's clean, though, and the food smells good, and they all know better than to complain. This is luxury, compared to a lot of nights. Kevin thinks they must have put on an exceptionally good show, or someone important was in the audience. Or both.
"Where's the ketchup?" asks Nick, looking over the table and then up again like he doesn't understand. Kevin sighs and rolls his eyes in Howie's direction, who he knows will understand. They've been through this before, the last time they all went out for a meal.
"You can do without ketchup, Nicky."
Nick flinches; he doesn't like being called Nicky by him, he says it makes him feel weird. He doesn't like it when it's anyone but his friends, and even then he whines a little because it makes him feel like a little kid. Kevin learned long ago not to remind him that he was.
Howie's the one that gives Nick a gentle warning look, and lays a hand on his arm, and shakes his head slightly. Nick pouts his devastating little pout -- the one that they bank on -- but it doesn't get him anywhere. He looks back down at his dinner and takes a tiny, sullen bite.
Kevin can't do much more than shrug helplessly at Howie and offer Nick the rest of his Coke as a consolation. Nick looks kinda like he wants to cry, and they all know it's not about the ketchup.
Kevin draws the short straw that night, figuratively speaking, and ends up on the cot. He learned long ago that it's not possible for someone his height to ever get comfortable on one. Not that any of them ever gets a good night's sleep when they're stuck with the cot, so he has the consolation of not being the only one. AJ snores, just a little bit, just loud enough to be heard, but Howie doesn't. Howie, however, talks in his sleep once in a while. It's entertaining when Kevin isn't so damn tired.
And in the next room over he can hear a banging on the wall every so often, followed by grunts and laughter. Apparently teenagers don't need sleep, though he thinks it's more likely that Nick is going to be tired and cranky the next day. Another thing to look forward to.
Around one, he thinks, he kicks off all the covers and sprawls out on his stomach, limbs hanging off all sides of the cot. Only then does he get more than half an hour of sleep at a stretch, losing consciousness with the vague thought that he's going to be freezing when he wakes up in the morning.
When he does wake, though, he finds that the blanket is tucked in around him again, right up to his chin and to the tips of his toes. And that he's warm, if not comfortable. As he sits up and rubs the back of his neck to try to get the kink out, he looks toward the bed that Howie is occupying and smiles.
"So what do you think our chances are of getting out tonight?" asks Howie as Kevin looms over him from behind and rests his chin on Howie's shoulder.
They both watch as Nick and Brian rig the band's drum kit to spray confetti, as AJ tries to flirt with the woman doing their make-up, even though she's got to be twice his age and looks older. Looks a lot like Kevin's sixth-grade science teacher, actually, the one the braver kids used to neigh at.
"Doesn't look good," he tells Howie. "As soon as that prank goes off, we're in lock down."
Brian and Nick never care about that, though, 'cause they never go out anyway. Or if they do, it isn't with permission. Brian keeps the pranks harmless and they keep Nick busy and usually the rest of them just stay out of their way. Stopping Nick will keep their freedom, but give them enough whining boy to keep out of trouble that they won't be able to get out anyway.
"How long until we're on?" asks Howie.
"Forty minutes for the first show," says Kevin promptly, without even needing to look at his watch. "Second show two hours after that."
Howie groans. "I'm never going to get laid again," he says, and Kevin almost invites him to join the club. A life of enforced celibacy wasn't exactly what they thought they were signing on for. "Even the band is starting to look good."
"I wouldn't tell them that if I were you," laughs Kevin, lifting his head and resting his hand on the back of Howie's neck. "Don't worry -- where there's a will there's a way. We've got the will, we'll find a way."
"But not tonight."
Kevin takes one last look at a giggling Nick and Brian and has to agree. "No, not tonight."
"Shit," says Kevin as he watches the commotion in the corner. "Shit, it's happening again. Howie?"
But Howie's already at AJ's side, trying to help out, trying to get him calm again. They're supposed to take the stage in fifteen minutes, and there's no way they're going to be able to at this rate.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Panic attack, sir." At the moment, Kevin's grateful that his good manners are automatic and not conscious. It prevents any more problems than there already are. At some point, though, he hopes to train that out of himself, because not everyone deserves his respect.
"Give him a shot of whiskey or something."
Kevin wants to protest that AJ's only seventeen, but it feels hypocritical. He sure as hell'd had a few shots by the time he was that age. And it may be the only thing that'll work fast enough.
It's not like it's his call to make anyway this time. Someone is already scurrying over with a bottle and a glass, and it's a done deal. Howie looks like he's fighting the same internal battle that Kevin just had, and with the same results. He gives in.
Then Nick is right there, tugging at Kevin's sleeve and saying, "AJ's freaking out again, what do we do, Kevin?"
Kevin turns and looks down to him, then has to look a lot higher than that to find Nick's face. Just when did he start getting so tall, anyway? "We leave him alone," he tells him, which just makes Nick tug at his sleeve again, a little more insistently. "Go find Brian, tell him everything's okay and we're going on as planned. And no screwing around today, all right?"
Nick doesn't answer, but he does take off so Kevin has to assume he's going what he was asked. It's not a safe assumption, but what can he do? At least he's given Nick something to keep him busy.
When he looks again AJ's pushing Howie away, pushing all of them away, and they go so he doesn't have to feel like he's in a fishbowl. Yet. Howie gravitates right to Kevin's side.
"You're good with him," Kevin tells him.
"I'm kind of not," argues Howie. "I didn't know what to do."
"Yeah, but you tried," says Kevin. "That's all we can do. We try."
"We aren't their parents."
"No," he says, "but sometimes we need to be." And that's just how it is.
Kevin stands close to the stage as they pack up, ready to lend a hand if they need him. He isn't supposed to help with that -- for some bullshit reason, he's sure -- but he's ready to anyway because sometimes they just run out of time and hands and things still need to be done.
He doesn't realize this puts him right in the line of fire until Nick comes flying out with a squirt gun in each hand and starts firing.
"Take that!" he says, laughing gleefully as he soaks the crew. "Gotcha!"
"Yeah, you got us," mutters Kevin, slicking his wet hair back from his forehead. "You got us good."
"If the kid ever thinks he's getting his toy back he's nuts," he hears someone say from nearby, and he's not surprised at all by it. It's not the first time Nick has pulled this little stunt. Still, he figures he'll give it just another day or two and then take care of it -- whenever his patience for Nick's whining grows thin.
"Where's that boy's mother when you need her?" asks Howie, looking around as he suddenly appears to drape a towel over Kevin's shoulders. "You're wet."
"I noticed." Kevin shivers and clutches the towel closer against his neck, then scrubs at his dripping hair. Howie gently takes the towel away from him again and takes care of the rest of the job. "He's out of control."
"He's lonely and homesick," says Howie. "Maybe it's a good thing we're staying in with him tonight."
"Yeah, maybe," says Kevin, bemoaning the loss of yet another night when he could be out on the town, enjoying the fact that he's young and good looking and a long way from home. "We'll make it a good thing."
"You're back early," Kevin says as he opens the door to let AJ into the room. "You guys fighting again?" He already knows they aren't, at least not badly. The walls, as always, are thin, and so he already knows that Nick was laughing happily not so long ago, even after Kevin and Howie left to return to their own room.
"No, he's just stupid," says AJ, slouching in. It makes him look even smaller than he actually is. "He's watching this stupid show about, like, pigs and he won't change the channel. And I'm just ... tired."
He looks tired, and Kevin shouldn't be surprised. AJ's body's been stressed to the limit; he's almost surprised AJ's still standing as it is.
"Why don't you take the bed?" says Howie, getting up and smoothing the blankets where he's been sitting. "You'll sleep better. I can take the cot for you. Just this once."
AJ's so wiped he doesn't even argue, just shuffles over to the bed and slips beneath the covers, clothes and all. He's asleep before they can tell him to take off his pants, or brush his teeth.
"Leave him," Kevin decides finally. "If they're uncomfortable enough, he'll wake up and take them off. If not, no sense us cutting into his sleep."
Howie nods, like Kevin was sure he would. "Tomorrow night," he says quietly, "let's you and me do something. I think we've earned a break."
"Amen," says Kevin, and throws an arm over Howie's shoulders to give him a squeeze. "It gonna bother you if I watch some TV before I sleep?"
"Nah, I was gonna anyway," says Howie, tossing his paperback onto his cot and stretching his arms over his head, like if he works all the kinks out now, the cot won't be able to put them back in. "It's not a very good book."
"You should lie on the bed with me," says Kevin. "No sense putting up with the cot until you have to." He might've volunteered to take it in Howie's place, but the plain truth is that Howie fits on it way better than Kevin does. The rest of them all do, but Kevin still takes his turn.
"Sure," says Howie agreeably, and soon they're both propped up against the headboard, flipping through channels with the volume down low. The only thing on really is some documentary about a woman and her pigs. It's good enough.
AJ already has a guilty look in his eyes when he sidles up to Kevin. Guilty, but hopeful. The last time Kevin saw that look on his face, he ended up getting involved in an elaborate plot to get back at Nick and Brian. He hopes it's a little more innocuous this time; Nick's already miserable enough about losing Mr. Bear, and acting up at every opportunity. They don't need to be making it worse.
"About what happened yesterday," AJ starts awkwardly. Kevin can read him better when he can see his eyes, but AJ's taken to wearing sunglasses wherever he goes. "I thought of something -- "
They're interrupted by Nick, who races past and tries to give them both a drive-by wedgie. He doesn't manage to do more than tug at both of their pants, but he cackles anyway and looks like he's getting ready for another pass. Until Howie catches him by the waist and drags him back towards their dressing room, Nick wriggling in Howie's arms all the way. Kevin shoots Howie a mental word of thanks.
"I think Nick just needs to go jerk off," AJ says wisely. "Brian says he does it all the time. Like, more than the rest of us combined."
Kevin's lips twitch and he tries not to laugh. "He's fifteen," he reminds AJ. "I met you when you were fifteen. Don't even try to tell me you don't understand."
AJ shrugs and Kevin wishes again he could see his eyes. "Anyway, like I was saying ... "
"Listen," Kevin interrupts him, not wanting AJ to think his attacks are something to apologize for. "Don't worry about it, AJ. It happens, and it's not your fault. We'll find a way to work it out."
"This is Holland, right?" he goes on, just continuing his previous thought despite Kevin's interruption. "So we can get pot here, right?"
"Oh, AJ," says Kevin, his eyes widening. He hadn't seen that coming; maybe he should've. "No, no way."
"You don't get to tell me what I can or can't do," AJ says stubbornly. "We can get some, right? It might help. Just ... just answer the question."
"Fine," says Kevin, thinking quickly. He really doesn't know, if he's being honest, but AJ doesn't need to know that. "Fine. The truth? It's not as easy as that, AJ. You can't just go out and pick some up. And that's not a long-term solution, anyway. Look ... we will help you find a way to deal with it. I promise. Okay?"
AJ looks skeptical, but he nods and doesn't ask again. Kevin can't ask for anything more; he knows he's lucky AJ still listens at all.
Howie is straightening Kevin's collar when they hear a knock at the door, sharp and quick and followed by a sniffle. Their eyes meet, and without a word Howie lets him go and Kevin answers the door.
Nick is standing there, clutching Mr. Bear, his eyes watery. He looks eleven, not fifteen. "Oh, Nicky," whisperes Kevin, reaching for his shoulder and ushering him inside.
"They took him," he says, sniffling again but obviously trying to make it seem like he's not really crying over that. He is, after all, fifteen. "They said it served me right."
"But they gave him back," Howie reminds him, ushering him, ushering both of them, towards the bed. Neither of them point out that it probably did serve Nick right, the number of pranks he plays on the crew. He doesn't need to hear that just yet. "They took him, but they gave him back."
"I want to go home," Nick says, and suddenly the tears come again, flowing out of his already reddened eyes and running down his cheeks. "I'm sick of it here, I want to go home."
"Shhh," says Kevin, wrapping his arms around him and rocking him back and forth like his own mother used to do for him when he was scared. "Shhh, Nicky, it's okay. Where's your mom?" Nick just sniffles louder and shrugs his shoulders. "It's okay," Kevin says again. "It'll all work out, Nick, you'll see. Just remember we're here for you, too. All of us."
Howie wraps his arms around him, too, and Nick rests his head against Howie's chest, already calming down. Even though he's holding Mr. Bear in a death grip against his own chest. Howie's hand meets Kevin's behind Nick's back and then they're holding on to one another tightly.
None of them can do this alone.
If AJ was a mature, considerate guy, he would've taken the cot in return for Howie taking it for him the night before. But he's not, he's seventeen, and when Howie and Kevin come back into the room after their night out, he's fast asleep in one of the beds.
Howie sighs, but he doesn't look surprised, and he kicks his shoes off before slumping down on the edge of the cot. Kevin watches as he strips off his shirt, sniffing it before tossing it aside too. It probably smells as smoky as Kevin's.
"You shouldn't have to sleep there anymore," says Kevin, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
"Well, better me than you," says Howie, stripping off his pants and socks, too. "It'll be all right. One of us has to."
Kevin thinks about that as he strips off his own clothes, folding them and setting them neatly aside. "It's not as if the beds are small," he says finally, as he pulls the covers back. They are, kinda, but not too small. "We could share."
"Well, I don't know," says Howie, but he's smiling and already standing up again. "Does it mean I have to share with you, too, when it's your turn on the cot?"
"You'll probably have to share with me every night," admits Kevin. "AJ will complain if he's the only one who has to sleep on the cot."
"Hmm," says Howie as he carries his own pillow over to the bed. "Well, I'll have to think about it ... " He slips under the covers and props his head up on his hand. "Yeah. Okay."
Kevin smiles as he slips into the other side of the bed and takes Howie into his arms. "Okay," he says, too, and shuts off the light.