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I didn’t realize how much I missed touring until we made the decision to hit the road again. Usually I enjoyed my time off, but the last six months had brought nothing but heartbreak and drama. Going back on tour would bring a much-needed sense of normalcy back to my life.

After Howie had talked to his transplant doctor and Kevin called our manager, we’d agreed to do a short U.S. tour in the fall. We had intended to do another North American leg of our world tour anyway, and since Howie wasn’t supposed to travel overseas until one year after his transplant, it made the most sense to start in the States. If everything went well, we could take the tour to Europe the following year and make up the dates we’d had to cancel. That meant Howie had about four months to get back in shape, and I promised to stay in Florida and help him do it.

We got started a week after AJ, Kevin, and Brian left. Howie was feeling better, and his rash had faded to the point that it was barely noticeable. I must have been immune to that particular virus after all because I still hadn’t experienced any of the same symptoms Howie had. About time I caught a lucky break, I thought with relief.

On the first day of Howie’s new workout regimen, I woke him up at six in the morning. “Are you kidding me, Carter?” he complained, rolling over in bed. “It’s not even light out.”

“It will be soon, and it won’t be hot yet. C’mon,” I said, shaking his shoulder. “If we get a move on, we’ll get to see the sunrise.”

Grudgingly, Howie got up. Dressed in shorts and tank tops, we went outside and headed toward the water. I knew Howie liked to take walks along the beach, so my plan was to start with what he was already doing and build on that to help him regain his stamina.

I tried to remember everything Lauren had taught me about fitness as I took on the role of Howie’s trainer, leading him through some light stretches to get warmed up. “Ugh,” he groaned during an oblique stretch, holding his side with one hand while he raised the other arm over his head. “How do you lose so much flexibility in just four months?”

“Does it hurt?” I asked. “Don’t push yourself if it hurts.”

“No, it doesn’t hurt, really. It just feels like I’m gonna bust a seam or something.” Howie shook his head. “I know that’s stupid - my incision’s healed; I don’t have any stitches or staples or anything left to pop - but it still feels weird. It’s probably all in my head. Like, I remember how much it hurt to move the wrong way after surgery, so I still expect there to be pain when I stretch like this. Does that make any sense?”

“Sure, I guess,” I said, shrugging. I had no idea what it felt like to be split wide open and sewn back together again, but it couldn’t have been very comfortable. “Just let me know if it does start to hurt, okay? I don’t want you to overdo it.”

“I’m fine. Just stiff,” he said with a sigh, as he switched to the other side.

“That’s alright,” I assured him. “It’s just gonna take time for you to get back into the shape you were in before surgery. I know you can do it.”

Howie gritted his teeth and smiled. “Thanks, Nick.”

Once we were both warmed up, we took off walking down the beach. We started off slow, but gradually, I picked up the pace until my own heart was pumping fast. I looked over at Howie. Even though the temperature was only in the sixties, he was already sweating. “You doing okay, man?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, sounding slightly winded.

“You wanna try jogging with me for a few seconds?”

“Do I want to?” He laughed. “No, but I will.”

“Okay, let’s go for ten seconds. Ready? Go!” I counted down the seconds out loud as I started to jog, barely faster than we’d been walking. “Ten... nine... eight...” Howie stayed with me, matching my pace. “Seven... six... five...” I could hear him starting to pant. “C’mon... three... two... one... and done!” Howie exhaled noisily as we slowed to a walk again. “Good job, man,” I said, sensing he needed some encouragement. “Let’s walk for a minute, then try jogging again.”

We kept at it for fifteen minutes, then turned around and walk-jogged the other direction, ending up back at Howie’s condo half an hour later. By that time, Howie’s face and arms were streaked with sweat. We took off our shoes and waded to cool down, letting the waves wash over our bare feet as we stood in the wet sand. The sun was rising over Cape Canaveral, the streaks of orange in the sky reflected on the surface of the water.

“You don’t see sunrises like this in Tennessee, do you?” said Howie, standing alongside me as we admired the view. It was such a gorgeous sight, it made me glad to be alive. I hoped he felt the same way.

“No,” I admitted. “Now aren’t you glad I got your butt out of bed so early?”

“As long as you let me take a nap later,” he replied. “I guess I’d better get used to it, with the boys coming in a couple weeks. James wakes up at the crack of dawn, too.”

I’d almost forgotten that, per his custody arrangement, Howie’s kids would be spending the summer with him. “Oh, now I see why you talked me into staying down here, so I can entertain your son while you sleep in.”

Howie laughed. “You got me. And according to Leigh, James is the easy one. She’s started calling Holden ‘diablo blanco’ - the white devil.”

“Aww, that little blond angel? No way.”

“Apparently, the other day, he tried to flush Leigh’s Tiffany watch down the toilet. She rescued it, but not before it hit the water, so now it no longer tells time.”

I shrugged. “Who buys a watch to tell time anymore? We got phones for that. It’ll still look good on her wrist, once she wipes the shit stains off it.”

Howie shook his head, chuckling. “You’re sick, man. C’mon, let’s head in. I need a shower.”

I wrinkled my nose and sniffed. “Yeah, you stink.”

“I know, almost as much as you,” he shot back.

“Really?” I raised my arm, pretending to sniff my pit. Then I pounced, throwing my arm around Howie and pulling him into a headlock so that his face was there instead. “You sure about that, Howie?”

Howie struggled, choking and gagging, then slipped in the wet sand. As he stumbled, his weight knocked me off balance, and before I knew it, we were both on our asses in the water.

“That’s what you get, Carter,” said Howie, laughing, as the waves rolled over us.

“Eh, we needed to wash the stink off anyway,” I replied, splashing him.

“Speak for yourself!” He splashed me back. “You told me once that my sweat smelled like taco meat, remember?”

I laughed, remembering how I always used to compare Howie to Mexican food, even though he was technically Puerto Rican. “Yeah, rancid taco meat.”

We goofed around for a few more minutes, then got out of the water and sploshed back to the condo, shoes and socks in hand. “Try not to get water all over the floor,” Howie warned, as I tiptoed toward the guest bathroom to take a shower.

That wasn’t bad for our first workout, I thought, as I stood under the stream of hot water, lathering my body with soap. It was good to see Howie getting back to his old, active self. Other than an affinity for alcohol, he had always been one of the more health-conscious members of our group, so to see him in the hospital had been hard for me. I hoped his latest stay would be the last one for a long time. I wanted him to be healthy and feel good about himself again, and if I could help him get there, I was glad to do it.

When I got out of the shower, I changed into a clean t-shirt and shorts and went into the kitchen to take my meds. Howie was already there, about to do the same thing. “Hey, you did a great job today, dude,” I said, watching him swallow a handful of pills. “You’re gonna be back in dancing shape by fall, I guarantee it.”

Howie wiped some water off the corner of his mouth and smiled. “Thanks, Nick,” he said, setting his cup down on the counter. “I hope you know how much I appreciate you staying down here and helping me out.”

“Hey, man, you’ve been keeping me on track, too,” I replied, rattling my pill organizer.

“Here.” Howie filled a fresh glass with water and handed it to me.

“Thanks.” I plucked my morning pills out of their compartment and popped them into my mouth, chasing them down my throat with a long drink of water. This part of my new lifestyle wasn’t really so bad, I’d decided, especially after seeing how much medication Howie had to take. These days, he definitely had it worse than I did.

Howie hardly ever complained, though. Ever since he’d decided he wanted to live after all, he had just kept on trucking through everything: a liver transplant, a divorce, illness, and now the long, hard road to rehabilitation. I admired his strength.

“C’mere, man,” I said, setting my glass down and opening my arms. Howie seemed to be caught off-guard at first, but he crossed the kitchen to give me a hug. “I’m proud of you,” I added, as I wrapped my arms around him. “You’re stronger than you know.”

“Thanks, Nick,” he whispered, pressing his compact little body close to mine as he embraced me back. It had been a long time since we’d hugged like that. He felt somehow smaller and frailer than I remembered. I could smell the fresh scent of soap coming off his skin, which was still warm from his shower. His head was tucked under my chin, and as I looked down at his hair, I felt the insane urge to run my fingers through his wet curls. When he started to let me go, I realized I didn’t want him to.

“Howie.” He looked up, and, slowly, I lowered my face toward his until our lips were touching. I closed my eyes and kissed him softly, tentatively at first. I could taste a hint of his spearmint toothpaste, and the way it made my lips tingle was intoxicating. I hated how much I liked it, but I couldn’t deny my attraction anymore. Life was too short to live a lie. Neither of us knew how much time we had left. We were both feeling healthy, but as Howie’s recent hospitalization had shown, our circumstances could change in a heartbeat. I didn’t want to waste one more day trying to hide how I felt about him. So I took the kiss deeper, sucking his bottom lip between my teeth. When we finally broke apart and I opened my eyes again, Howie was staring at me in amazement.

“You sure felt something that time, didn’t you?” he asked breathlessly.

I could feel the redness creep into my cheeks as I closed my eyes and nodded. Embarrassed as I was to admit it, my feelings for him were real. Somehow, in a strange twist of fate, I’d found myself falling for my best friend.


Chapter End Notes:
Happy Valentine's Day! =D