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It was great having all the guys in town, even if it was only for a few days. “Doesn’t this feel like the good old days?” I asked, as we sat around on my balcony, enjoying the cool breeze coming off the cape. “The five of us, back in our old stomping grounds?”

“I dunno what you’re remembering, bro, but that crappy apartment we had in Orlando definitely didn’t come with an ocean view,” said Brian, propping his bare feet up on the railing as he leaned back in his chair.

“Granted, there are no ocean views in Orlando,” Kevin pointed out, “but yeah, we were practically living in squalor compared to this.”

“Aw, c’mon, it wasn’t that bad,” I protested. I had fond memories of my first apartment and those early days of the group, living with Kevin and Brian. We barely knew each other when they moved in, but we knew we made beautiful music together, and back then, that was the only thing that mattered.

“Howie, the hot water only lasted one-and-half showers, we had to do laundry in a musty basement, and there was no dishwasher,” said Kevin.

AJ laughed. “Hashtag first world problems.”

“Dude, please don’t ever say ‘hashtag’ out loud again,” groaned Nick. “It makes you sound like someone’s grandma.”

“No, he’d have to say ‘pound sign’ to sound like somebody’s grandma,” laughed Brian. “And we did have a dishwasher, Kev. His name was Howie, remember?”

“Haha, funny. At least one of us took some pride in the place,” I said. I knew they would think I was crazy, but I missed that crappy apartment. By comparison, my condo was much more spacious and luxurious, but these days, it felt too big, too empty.

“Hey, I’m with you, Howie. I loved that apartment,” said AJ. “I felt so freaking cool coming to kick it with you guys in your bachelor pad.”

“Me too,” Nick admitted, grinning. “It made me feel grown up. And it beat being stuck at home.”

I smiled at him, remembering how Kevin and I had to put up with an obnoxious thirteen-year-old hanging around. I never minded having AJ over; even though I’d known him since he was younger than Nick, he had always seemed older, more mature. But Nick was another story. Brian was the only one who ever invited Nick to spend the night. Had I known how bad Nick’s home life was back then, I might have made more of an effort to include him, but instead, Kevin and I would take advantage of our age and escape to the bars on those nights, leaving the younger boys back at the apartment playing video games.

Things were a lot different now. I actually liked being around Nick. It had helped, having him stay in my condo, although it still wasn’t the same as sharing the space with my wife and kids. I missed having a family, having a role and a purpose in life. Being with the guys again reminded me of better times, when I had goals and aspirations for the future. Back then, we were always busy rehearsing or recording, but it rarely felt like work. It was fun. Even though Nick and Brian drove me nuts, the five of us had a ton of fun together. I didn’t really miss the actual apartment, I realized. What I missed was that time in my life, when all that mattered was the music.

I suddenly cleared my throat. “Hey, since we’re all here together, maybe we should take some time to talk about what our plans are for the group.”

The other guys looked over at me in surprise. “Yeah, sure, if you’re feeling up to it,” said Kevin.

“Well, I know Nick lured you guys down here under false pretenses, but turns out I’m not dying after all, so I figure we might as well make the visit worth your while.”

AJ frowned. “Don’t talk like that, D. We don’t have to be working for a visit with each other to be ‘worth our while.’”

“No, I know, but I also know you guys have your own lives and families you’d probably rather be spending time with than hanging out here with me.”

Nick snorted. “Not me.”

“Well I know you don’t, Nick, or I wouldn’t have invited you down here.” I shot him a quick smile so he’d know I was just joking. If his feelings were hurt, he didn’t show it.

“Howie, I hope you don’t think, just ‘cause we live in different states, that we don’t care,” said Brian. “You guys give me crap about spending too much time with my family, but you know I’m here for you if you need me.”

“I know, Bri.” I reached over and patted his shoulder. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to make you guys feel guilty. I’m just saying, since this wasn’t exactly planned, we should take advantage of our time together to talk about the future. I feel like the Backstreet Boys have been sort of stuck in limbo for the last few months because of me, and it’s probably time to figure out where we go from here.”

“Well...” Kevin looked around at all of us before he focused again on me. “I think that’s something you and Nick need to figure out first. You’re in the driver’s seat, Howie; it’s up to you where we’re going. Brian and AJ and I are gonna take the back seat on this one, but whatever you decide, we’ll be behind you all the way. Right, fellas?”

AJ and Brian nodded without hesitation. “You have to put your health first, man,” added AJ.

“And whatever we do, Nick needs to feel comfortable with it, too,” said Brian, catching Nick’s eye. I swallowed hard, remembering his reaction to finding out I’d infected Nick. Even though Brian had apologized, his words still stung. What hurt even worse was knowing Nick felt uncomfortable around me, as if I was some deviant sexual predator who’d made him sick on purpose. Things had gotten better between us since my transplant, but I could only imagine what Nick had been saying about me behind my back before then.

“Of course,” I said quickly, nodding in Nick’s direction. “Whatever we as a group decide, we all need to be okay with it.”

Kevin cleared his throat and leaned forward. “Listen up, fellas. We’ve always been good about supporting each other’s decisions, even when they take us in different directions. When I wanted out, you guys respected my feelings and let me go, and I gave you my blessing to continue on as a foursome. When I was ready to come back, you embraced me with open arms. That break was exactly what I needed to bring back my passion for performing. I enjoyed every second we spent on stage together last year, and selfishly, I don’t want this to be the end of the Backstreet Boys. But if either of you wants or needs to take a break, I understand, and you have my blessing.”

AJ and Brian nodded in silent agreement, leaving Nick and I to look at each other.

“Nick, I can’t speak for you or your feelings,” I started, “but aside from this one, minor setback, I’ve been feeling a lot better lately, and I don’t see why I wouldn’t be able to get back in shape to perform again. I’d have to get clearance from my doctor, of course, but it’s been more than four months since my transplant, so I should be able to start working out and traveling again. I really would like to go back on tour at some point and try to make up all those shows we cancelled. Would you be up for that?”

Nick shrugged. “Yeah, I mean... if you are, then sure, why not? It’s not like I’ve got anything else going on right now.”

He was trying so hard to sound casual, but I could hear the emotion in his voice. I had been thinking only of my own feelings before, but right then, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who was lonely and looking for a purpose in this new life. Nick needed this, too.

Of the five of us, Nick had always needed the group the most. Maybe it was because he was still a child when we started and had grown up being a Backstreet Boy that he’d seemed to struggle to find his own identity outside of the group. Not that he hadn’t tried. First he’d tried to be a rock star, then an actor, and let’s not forget his “ghetto fab” phase that occurred somewhere in between. Then there was his brief stint as Paris Hilton’s arm candy, followed by his ill-fated foray into reality TV. In every case, Nick was playing a role, trying to adopt a persona that wasn’t true to himself, and since acting really wasn’t his forte, he’d failed every time. Nick was most successful when he stopped trying to be someone else and embraced being a Backstreet Boy.

In the last few years, he had seemed more at ease in his own skin, which I’d attributed to two things: a healthy lifestyle and Lauren Kitt. But now that his health had been compromised and he’d ended his engagement with Lauren, I knew Nick was struggling again to find his place. Maybe that place was onstage, right alongside me, where it had always been.