Nick was starting to crack. I could see it in his eyes, which kept darting around the room like a nervous animal before eventually looking at his lap, where he was holding his phone. He had been checking it every few seconds for the last hour. Nick was fidgety by nature, but it had been a long time since I’d seen him act so squirrelly.
“Nick, are you okay?” I asked, watching him with sympathy as he pressed the button on the side of his phone to check the screen again.
“Honestly, I feel fine,” I said. It was true; I was tired, but I didn’t feel any worse than I had that morning. Actually, I felt quite a bit better. Along with the blood transfusion, I was getting steroids through my IV to reduce the rash, and that had helped with the itching. I’d also been allowed to take Tylenol to lower my fever and take the edge off the pain from the liver biopsy. All things considered, I was feeling pretty good at that point.
“I know it looks bad,” I added, noticing Nick’s eyes linger for a second on my face. I didn’t know if he was looking at the rash on my cheeks or checking to see if I was lying. “But I’ve been through worse.”
“I know,” he said shortly. “I was there, remember?”
Of course, I knew he had come to see me in the hospital right before my transplant, but I had been so out of it, I didn’t remember much. I could tell by the look on Nick’s face that he hadn’t forgotten. “I’m sorry,” I said softly, “for putting you through all that.”
He shook his head. “I told you, you don’t need to apologize anymore. I just never wanna see you go through something like that again.” His eyes found a spot on the floor to study for a few seconds before he looked at his phone again.
“Hey,” I said, “why don’t you get out of here for a while? I think they’re done running tests for the night, and I probably won’t get any more results until at least tomorrow morning, so there’s really no reason for you to stay. Go back to the condo and get some rest.”
Nick locked eyes with me, and for a second, he looked like he was considering it. Then he shook his head again. “Nah, man, I’m good. I’m not gonna leave you here alone.”
But a startling thought had just occurred to me. “You’re not good, Nick; you don’t have your meds with you! You need to go home right now and take them.”
He checked his phone. “I don’t have to take them for another couple of hours. I’ll hang out till-” He stopped abruptly, his face flushing. “-till I feel like leaving,” he finished lamely, but I could tell that wasn’t what he had started to say.
I narrowed my eyes suspiciously at him. “Why do you keep looking at your phone? What are you waiting for? Or should I ask who you’re waiting for?”
Nick wouldn’t give me a straight answer, but it didn’t matter. I found out a few minutes later, when Brian walked through the doorway.
“Hey!” he greeted me with a wave and a big grin, setting a bag of sandwiches down on my bedside table. “Can I hug ya, or is this stuff contagious?” he asked, looking at the lacy red rash on my arms.
I shrugged. “If it’s an immune response like they think, then no, but no one really knows-”
“I’ll take the risk,” Brian said and bent down to give me a hug.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, as he released me. Before Brian could answer, I looked over his shoulder at Nick, who seemed completely unsurprised to see Brian. “When did you call him?”
Nick smiled shiftily. “While you were having your CT scan.”
“He kinda made it sound like you were dying,” said Brian, frowning, “but it doesn’t look that bad. You sure you haven’t just been playing in poison ivy?”
The last part made me laugh. “I don’t think so - but I don’t think I’m dying, either.” I glared over at Nick, who was still looking guilty. “You sure didn’t have to come all the way down here.”
“I don’t mind,” Brian said, shrugging. “It’s not that far, and I haven’t seen you guys in awhile. So how’s it goin’?” He flung himself into an open chair and crossed his legs conversationally.
Nick and I looked at each other again. Neither of us seemed to know what to say. I was annoyed at him for not taking his own advice about not freaking out before we knew anything for sure and for going behind my back to call Brian without even asking me first.
Brian didn’t seem bothered by the awkward silence. “Hey, I brought subs,” he said suddenly, jumping back out of his seat to grab the bag of sandwiches off my bedside table. “I wasn’t sure if you could have one of these or if you had to eat hospital food, but I got plenty just in case.”
“Thanks, B.” I wasn’t hungry, but I took a few bites out of a sub to be polite. Watching Nick wolf his down, I wondered if he had been honest when he’d told me he had eaten earlier. “Hey, now that you’re here, maybe you can hang out with me for a while so Nick can drive back to Cape Canaveral. He needs to take his medicine.”
Nick made a face at me, but Brian said, “Sure, you bet. Hey, Nick, I booked two rooms at the Hilton if you wanna just pack some stuff and stay with us instead of driving back and forth - and sorry, I know how you hate Hiltons, but it was the only decent hotel with rooms left on such short notice.” He grinned. “Leighanne would kill me if I brought home bedbugs.”
I chuckled. “I dunno, Bri, I think you can get worse than bedbugs from a Hilton.”
“Good one, Howie.” Brian got up to give me a high five.
“Ha, ha,” said Nick sarcastically, rolling his eyes. “Your decade-old jokes are hilarious. Like I said the other day, though,” he added, locking eyes with me, “she ain’t the one who gave me an STD.”
Brian let out a low whistle, looking awkwardly between us. I just shook my head, wondering why Nick was always so mean to me when we were with other people. I supposed he had to keep up a front; God forbid the rest of the guys find out he had feelings for me that went beyond friendship.
The rest of the guys...
Suddenly, I was struck by something Brian had said before the Paris Hilton jokes started. “Hey, wait a sec... what did you mean ‘stay with us’?” I asked, looking from Brian to Nick. “Are Leighanne and Baylee with you, or... Kevin and AJ aren’t coming, too, are they?”
Nick and Brian exchanged sheepish grins. “They get in late tonight,” Nick admitted.
I sighed. “Seriously, Nick? What happened to not freaking out before we know what’s wrong with me? I wish you’d take your own advice for once. I haven’t even told my family I’m in the hospital, and now you’ve got the whole group flying in like I’m on my deathbed! How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Loved?” supplied Brian, raising his eyebrows, before Nick could say anything.
That made me feel bad. Swallowing hard, I said, “I know. That didn’t come out right. Don’t think I don’t appreciate you guys being here. I just think everyone’s overreacting. This isn’t like last time. I’m gonna be fine.”
“We know,” Brian said quickly. “But Nick was worried, and we wanted to be here to help however we could... even if it’s just to keep you company till you can get out of here.”
“Well, thanks,” I said, forcing myself to smile. I knew they meant well, and I was grateful for the company. But at the same time, I was worried. What if there was something they knew or sensed that I didn’t? What if my test results showed I really was dying?
It was almost funny. Five months ago, I would have welcomed death. I was ready for it then. But a lot had changed since New Year’s Eve. With the new year - and my new liver - had come a new lease on life. I wanted to live again. I wanted to be there for my children, my family, my friends, and my fans. I wanted to make music and make people happy. I wanted to see where the rollercoaster that was my relationship with Nick would take us next. But still, I worried that our carefully reconstructed lives were about to be turned upside down again.