It was a complete accident when Howie got his foot caught in the strap of Nick's gym bag one very early Tuesday morning. He meeped as he stumbled forward, trying to disentangle himself without toppling over, and when he finally succeeded the bag tilted and all of Nick's things ended up strewn across the bus floor.
Howie surveyed the damage while he waited for his heart to lodge out of his throat. "Perfect," he mumbled. They were running late as it was, and he was the only one left on the bus. Darting a glance at the doors up front, he crouched down and haphazardly gathered up as much as he could carry. He could hear Marcus just outside, shuffling against the pavement and waiting patiently. For now. Howie dumped a wad of what was hopefully clean clothes, three almost-empty deodorant cans, a digital camera and a box of tissues into Nick's bag before hurriedly bowing back down for more.
It was somewhere between picking up The DaVinci Code and reaching for a pack of breath mints that Howie accidentally stumbled over a dark blue notebook, kicking it open. Howie steadied himself a second time - apparently he needed those glasses more than he'd thought - and bent down quickly to pick it up.
He really didn't mean to look at the open page.
"Howie!" Marcus barked, when Howie had been staring at the open notebook for what had to have been at least a minute. "What's taking so long, man? You're gonna be late if you don't pick up some speed in there."
Howie startled, peering over his shoulder guiltily. Without thinking, he ripped the page from Nick's notebook, folded it twice and stuck it in his jeans pocket. Taking a deep breath, he quickly tossed the rest of Nick's stuff into his bag and lined it up neatly against Nick's bunk where people wouldn't trip over it again. "Coming," he called back, keeping one hand on his pocket as he jogged to the front of the bus.
He was still thinking about it when he settled into his hotel room that night. The crinkling in his pocket every time he bent down was a constant reminder, but he managed to wait until he'd unpacked, flossed and brushed his teeth before he finally took out the folded piece of paper and sat down.
The four corners were all dented and worn from being stuck in his pocket all day. Howie rubbed them between his thumb and index finger, feeling a little guilty, before he carefully unfolded it. Two hard lines from the folds ran across the paper, forming a cross over the sketch. Howie put it down on the desk in front of him and tried to smooth the paper with a flat palm, careful not to smudge the rough pencil lines.
He roamed through the desk drawers until he came across a set of cardboard folders. Howie put the sketch inside it and snapped the elastic strings stretched diagonally at the corners in place, making sure it would stay closed. Getting back up, he stuffed it into the roof of his suitcase, tucking it in safely behind a few of his business magazines.
He hadn't given himself much time to look at it.
It wasn't until they had to get to the venue the next day that Howie saw the guys again. He could only spot AJ and Brian when he stepped out into the parking lot; they were leaning up against one of the buses while AJ finished off his cigarette, having a quiet conversation. The sun was baking down on them - Howie had brought five sweaters that he hadn't been able to use yet, but it was always best not to take chances on European weather - and he had to squint against the harsh light as he dragged his suitcase behind him.
"Hey," Brian said, greeting him with a smile once he reached them. "You all set?"
"Yeah," Howie replied, offering a smile in return.
AJ blew a curling stream of smoke out the side of his mouth. "You gonna ride with us today?"
Howie nodded. He considered himself pretty lucky to be the flitter between the two buses on this tour. Sure, he had stuff scattered all over the place, but he would've been driven up the wall if he hadn't had the option to switch it up every once in a while. "Are we all here?"
AJ snorted. "Well, Kevin's on the bus, but Nick's probably still in his room picking his toe jam."
Brian grimaced. "Dude. You can't say stuff like that before we've even had coffee."
Howie kind of agreed. He carded a hand through his hair, watching Keith and Marcus step out of the first bus. "Maybe I should-" he began as he turned around - go check up on him, he'd meant to say, but just then Nick stumbled through the back entrance, kicking the door open as he dragged his luggage forward with both hands.
"Need help?" AJ called, apparently unable to keep a grin off his face.
"I got it," Nick snapped back, waving off Keith's attempt to grab one of the suitcases. Howie had to shield his eyes against the sun to watch him struggle the last bit of the way. "I can't fucking believe I forgot we were only staying here for one night," he started, setting down his stuff a little harder than necessary "I unpacked all my shit last night."
"You bring that much stuff up for two nights?" Brian asked, staring at the two large suitcases at Nick's feet.
Nick scowled. "I didn't feel like sorting."
"All right," AJ said, dropping his cigarette butt to the ground and crushing it under his sneaker. "Since we're all accounted for, how's about we get a move on? Arnold Schwarzenegger here probably needs another ten minutes to carry those things onto the bus."
"You're hilarious, AJ." Nick's tone was biting.
AJ just laughed. "Dude, would you lighten up? What's your problem today?"
"Nothing." Nick raked a hand through his hair, mucking it up even more than it already was. "Whatever. My throat's killing me."
"It's too early in the tour to be this grumpy," AJ reminded him. When Nick just ignored him, AJ turned to Brian. "You gonna ride with us to the venue?"
Brian looked like he didn't know whether to laugh really hard or run away as fast as possible. "Um. Probably not. No." He started heading for his own bus. "There better not be any severed heads when I see you again. I'm counting on you, Howie."
Howie gave him a wave goodbye. Just before Nick was getting ready to drag his luggage up the stairs of the bus, Howie tapped him on the shoulder. "Here." He unzipped the side compartment of his backpack and pulled out a roll of eucalyptus mints. "Figured someone would need these sooner or later."
Nick looked at him for a moment, sunlight playing in his hair as he looked down at the roll in his hand. Howie thought about the sketch tucked away in his suitcase - maybe Nick already knew it was missing, maybe he knew Howie had taken it - but when Nick looked up again he was smiling. "Thanks," he said, sticking the mints in his shirt pocket.
Howie released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Anytime," he said. "So, are you sure you don't need help with those suitcases?"
Nick eyed him for a second. Then he checked that they were indeed alone on the parking lot before turning back, looking sheepish. "If you could just take the small one?"
Howie approached Nick again during soundcheck. "Hey," he greeted, crossing his arms as he leaned against the piano next to him.
Nick looked up with a puzzled smile. "Hey." He already had his guitar in his hands and was idly tuning it. He was in a much better mood. In the fifteen minutes they’d been there, he'd managed to pick Brian up from the ground three times and attempt to give Kevin several noogies, much to the delight of their small audience.
Howie looked at the crowd of girls pressed up against the barrier in front of the stage, snapping pictures and blushing whenever they got eye contact. He smiled at a girl with short brown hair after she'd lowered her camera. She smiled back, cheeks flushed, and when she waved Brian's HHC wristband slid down her arm.
Howie let his gaze wander. "You never do that anymore," he suddenly said.
"What?" Nick was still focused on his guitar.
Howie bumped their shoulders together, and Nick finally looked up so Howie could nod towards a banner in the far back. "That," he clarified. "You never sketch anymore."
Nick looked at him like he'd grown a second head. "So?"
Howie could feel his ears heating up. "So you used to love it," he tried to explain. "I just don't get it, that's all."
It took a moment for Nick to react. Then he shrugged, running his fingers over the guitar strings, gently enough that you could barely hear it over the speakers. "I guess I grew up," he finally answered, leaving it at that.
Howie resisted the urge to frown. Instead he just nodded, looking at his feet. He wasn't sure why that answer made him so sad.
Nick had been drawing incessantly when he was younger, back when his hair had been long and floppy enough that it kept getting in his eyes. Almost every time Howie had stepped on the bus, Nick had been curled up on the divan, sitting cross-legged and bent so far over the sketchbook in his lap that it was impossible to even sneak a look at what he was working on.
"The grand artiste," Kevin would always say, smiling affectionately when Nick had been too focused to even look up at that statement. There had been a constant stream of balled up pieces of paper scattered across the bus floor, and Howie had caught himself unfolding a few of them every once in a while. The sketches were always unfinished; most of the time they'd consisted of the early stages of a head, complete with lines for later reference to get the proportions of a face right. Others would be nothing more than a few pencil lines, attempts at something Nick couldn't get to work properly.
Then, as time passed and Nick had improved, he'd apparently decided that drawing his bandmates would be the best idea ever. AJ had been all for it. More than once Nick had had to roll his eyes and go, "AJ, you're posing again. Just be natural, okay?" and AJ had removed the carefully placed hand from his chin and flashed an unrepentant grin. Whenever Nick had decided to draw Kevin, he'd let Nick sit next to him as he'd continued whatever he'd been doing, only asking if he could get up when he'd felt that enough time had passed. "Not yet," Nick would murmur, blowing bangs out of his eyes as he'd worked, and Kevin would just settle back down with his newspaper or the remote control.
Nick had probably drawn Brian the most out of all of them. There were a lot of great things to work with, Howie could easily admit that. And they'd been best friends. It had only been natural. Still, Howie liked to imagine it had been special the few times Nick had sat down next to him with his sketchbook. Howie would be reading emails or cooking or playing solitaire, and he would watch Nick in his peripheral vision as he'd worked. It had always seemed like something Nick did for comfort, and so Howie had tried not to tense up or worry about the fact that his profile wasn't his best feature.
Over the years, Nick had drawn everything from caricatures to landscapes to comic art. But now he'd grown up. Gotten over it. Howie couldn't understand how someone could just give up a part of their identity so easily.
Howie switched to The Cousin Bus after a week. It wasn't so much quieter as it was mellower than AJ and Nick's bus. He didn't have to worry about getting wrestled to the ground in the middle of going over business proposals, not even by Brian. Brian always calmed down when he was around Kevin.
Howie was curled up in the back room with a book, propped up against the arm of the couch so he could look out the large back window, when Brian walked in. "Hey," he said, holding up two folded t-shirts. "They're yours. I washed them yesterday."
Howie smiled at him as he turned another page in his book. "Thanks. Just put them down over by the luggage."
Brian set the folded clothes down next to Howie's suitcase, then clasped his hands behind his back. With a shameless grin, he tipped up on his toes and nodded towards the suitcase. "You mind?"
Howie feigned a tired sigh and made a sweeping hand gesture. "Go ahead." Brian beamed at him as he crouched down to find some new clothes he could borrow. Brian was always looking for stuff outside his own wardrobe. Howie really didn't mind. "How's the family?" he inquired, watching as Brian unzipped his suitcase.
Brian's smile turned a little sad, which Howie had expected. Brian didn't allow himself to miss them very often. "They're good," he said, sorting through Howie's t-shirts. "Baylee's really starting to speak well. He still gets some stuff mixed up, like, 'I sing-ed a song for mommy today', you know? But he's such a riot. He's already got a great sense of humor. Ooh, this one's nice." He held up a dark green t-shirt with black lettering stretched across it.
Howie fiddled with the corner of the page he was on. "When are they coming back?"
"In a week," Brian replied with a dramatic sigh, offering Howie a grin to lighten the mood.
Howie smiled back. "Too long, huh?"
Brian laughed humorlessly as he picked up a navy blue sweater. "Oh yeah. Feels like a month right now." When he looked back at Howie, both his eyebrows were raised. "Dude, I appreciate you caring and everything, but I'm gonna get into a funk if we don't start talking about something else soon."
"Fair enough," Howie conceded. He drummed his fingers idly against the window, watching the rain pour down so hard outside that the wipers on the bus behind them were working on full speed. At least now he had some use for the sweaters he'd brought.
Howie shifted, rolling his shoulders to get to a more comfortable position. "When was the last time you saw Nick draw anything?" he asked, leaving a McDonald's napkin in his book before closing it.
Brian had begun re-folding the clothes he'd taken out. He paused in the middle of aligning the sleeves of a cashmere sweater and glanced up. "What? Why?"
Howie shrugged. He'd only taken the drawing out twice in the past week, but it was already a solid imprint in the back of his mind. "I've just been wondering lately."
Brian cocked an eyebrow. "Okay. Um." His nose scrunched up in thought as he grabbed the next piece of clothing. "Wow, I don't know. Aside from charity stuff? I think it's been a couple of years. Like … yeah, the last tour, probably."
"I thought so." Howie stretched out on the seat, head resting back against the pillows. "He used to draw you a lot, remember?"
"Yeah." Brian's mouth curved up in a small smile. He set the two t-shirts he'd picked aside and closed the roof of Howie's suitcase. "He used to draw you all the time, too."
Howie frowned a little. "No he didn't."
"He did," Brian said calmly, leaning back on his hands and straightening his legs out in front of him.
Howie sat up a bit. He wasn't sure he was hearing this right. "No, that's … I never saw any of them."
Brian smiled at him, wiggled his toes. "I don't think you were supposed to."
It took Howie a minute to absorb that. He pushed himself fully upright, pushing a few pillows to the floor in the process. "And you're telling me this now?"
"Who's telling you anything?" Brian got up on his feet and dusted his pants off. Then he tilted his head a little, his lips tugging up against his will. "C'mon. Scoot."
Still keeping a wary eye on Brian, Howie swung his legs down to the floor and Brian immediately jumped to it, sprawling himself across the couch and planting his feet comfortably in Howie's lap. Howie watched him grab the book he'd been reading and skim over the blurb on the back. "You're lying," he decided, with a finality in his voice that almost surprised himself.
Brian lowered the book and looked at him. Then there was a tiny frown, and his foot nudged Howie's knee in what seemed like a cross between exasperation and sympathy. "You never give yourself any credit," he said quietly.
Howie had stopped his before-bed workout routine years ago. He still remembered all too well how ruthlessly he'd pushed himself, to the point where it probably had been its own form of addiction. Always trying to bulk up, to prove to himself and everyone else that he was just as worthy of being here as the other four. Always trying to make up for the things he didn't have, like a decent height or a powerful voice or a bright personality.
It took him years to realize that he didn't have to make up for anything. So now all Howie's before-bed rituals consisted of were flossing, brushing his teeth and checking his email. He'd just cleaned out his mouth with a big gulp of water when he heard the faint sound of knocking from the other room. Frowning, he set his cup down, wiped his mouth quickly with a towel and went to answer.
Outside his hotel room was Nick, comfortably clad in sweatpants and an old baggy t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His hair was a complete mess, sticking up in every direction, and his cheeks were flushed bright red. "Can I come in?" he asked, his sharp voice an odd contrast to his soft appearance.
"Um," Howie said, momentarily stunned. "Sure." He opened the door wider and Nick dodged past him, a soft scent of shower soap lingering in his wake. Howie sat down on his bed and watched Nick flit around, poking at Howie's laptop one minute and sticking his head inside the bathroom the next. His hand didn't leave his hair the entire time.
"Are you looking for decorating tips or is there something wrong?" Howie finally asked.
As soon as he spoke, Nick plopped down on the bed next to him. "Aaron's been calling me again," he began, tucking one leg under himself. "A lot. And that's, you know, that's not the problem, but lately it's all been about mom. She's driving him up the wall and now apparently I'm supposed to talk to her. Make her see reason or something." His hand went to his hair again, running all the way down to the back of his neck where he bowed his head and massaged a bit. His eyes fell closed as he stretched his neck to the side. "God, why do I always get dragged into their shit?"
Howie looked away. "Well," he said quietly, clearing his throat. "You know her better than they do - I mean, when it comes to business stuff. You know how she gets."
Nick barked a bitter laugh. "Yeah. But I don't know what he - I mean, I can't fix it. I can't fix anything from over here." His hand went to comb through his hair again, but Howie grabbed his wrist gently before he could get that far.
"Take it easy," he said quietly. When Nick finally looked like he was calming down, he continued, "You're not their parents, you know. It's not your job to fix anything."
Nick let out a low sigh, eyes closing in resignation, and when Howie let go of his wrist he nodded, lying down on his back. "I know."
Howie watched the light shift on Nick's face, the shadows deepening as his frown increased. "You don’t look like you do," he remarked, resting his chin on his knee.
Nick's gaze was fixed on the ceiling as he tucked a hand behind his head. "I just…" He trailed off before he could finish. "It just gets to a point where you think, is this really my family, you know? Like, how did we get here?" He scrubbed a hand over his face, looking more and more like a lost boy tugged in two different directions.
"Yeah," Howie agreed softly, arms tightening around his own legs.
Nick licked his lips, shifting up on the bed in a graceful slide worthy of a cat. "I think he's going to quit," he said, loud and startling in the oppressing silence.
Howie straightened up, momentarily confused. "What?"
Nick finally turned his gaze back on Howie, looking older and sadder and so very very tired. "Kevin," he clarified, his voice carrying much stronger than his demeanor. "I think he's gonna do it."
"Oh," Howie said, and the shift was so quick that it nearly knocked the wind out of him. "Oh." He stretched out beside Nick, the mattress dipping under his weight. "Nick, you don't know that yet."
Nick watched Howie as he shifted to his stomach, tucking his own arms under his head. "He said he was thinking about it, though," he murmured. "Once it's actually out there, do you really think he'll just come back and be all, 'guys, guess what, I've changed my mind again'?"
Howie had to smile at that mental image. It definitely wouldn't be typical of Kevin. Still, "He might," Howie insisted, his voice muffled against the hand he was lying on.
Nick's eyes roamed his face, his breaths coming out even and slow. "He won't," he repeated.
Howie didn't have anything to say to that. Nick laid his free arm down between them, almost as some sort of buffer, his palm facing up and his fingers curled inward. Howie watched those fingers flex and relax, flex and relax, remembering Kevin's voice over the phone that morning - group meeting in my room in ten minutes - and how strange he had sounded. Howie had known immediately that it was serious.
"It's like losing a limb," Nick said, breaking the silence between them. He was staring up at the ceiling again. "And that's so fucking cliché, like I swear I heard that in a chick flick once, but it's true. It'd be like losing a hand or an eye or something."
"Yeah," Howie agreed. "Or an abnormally large eyebrow."
Nick's head snapped back, wide-eyed and laughing. "Howie!"
"What?" Howie was grinning now. "Have you seen them lately?"
Nick chuckled and shifted just an inch closer. "Man, at least you're talking about it," he continued, voice going lower as he flexed his fingers again. "Everyone else is trying to pretend it didn't happen, have you noticed?"
Howie shrugged. "I guess it's easier."
Nick blinked at him. "Is it easier for you, too?"
"I don't like thinking about it, if that's what you mean," Howie told him, feeling Nick's foot bump gently against his ankle. "But I don't even think Kevin likes thinking about it."
Nick let out a long breath that sounded like a halfhearted sigh. He shifted over on his side, tucking one arm under his head to pillow it again. His legs were bent, knees pressing into Howie's thigh. He began picking at the floral bedspread as he said, "Do you remember that time with the balloons?"
Howie smiled a little. "Which time?"
Nick's own smile was soft, like he was already lost in thought. "That time in Germany. When me and Brian filled Kevin's bed with water balloons and he broke like five of them because he threw himself down too hard."
"Oh God." Howie snorted. "And I was rooming with him, too. I was worried he was gonna have an aneurysm, I swear. He even-"
"It shouldn't be over yet," Nick murmured, so quiet Howie almost didn't hear him.
He paused, and then he didn't even think before his hand was on Nick's shoulder. "Nick," he pleaded gently.
"Who would think that 12 years wouldn't be enough?" Nick continued, and his smile was the saddest thing Howie had ever seen. "But it isn't. It's not."
"It has to end at some point," Howie reasoned, feeling his stomach bottoming out at his own words.
"Why?" Nick demanded.
"Because…" Howie propped himself up on an elbow as he tried to find the right words. "Okay, it's like - maybe it's like breakups, you know? At first you don't think you'll ever be able to live without this person, but then the months go by and you stop thinking about them as much and then one day you can't remember why you even needed that person in the first place." He took a deep breath. "I mean - people are able to move on from pretty much anything. Maybe it won't be as difficult as we think it will."
Nick frowned up at him. He looked unconvinced. "You really think that?"
Howie shrugged a little, offering him a half smile. "That's what people keep telling me."
Nick's smile spread slowly, understanding written all over his face. "Yeah," he murmured, then attempted another mirthless laugh. "So that's two of my families torn to pieces."
Howie sighed. "He's not gonna alienate himself from your life, Nick. He loves you." He snorted to himself. "How could anyone not love you?"
Nick looked at him long and hard at that, mirroring Howie's propped up position. "Really?"
"Yeah. I mean-" Howie could feel his telltale blush begin to show. Instead of hiding he rolled his eyes at himself. "You know what I mean."
Nick's brow creased in a frown. "Yeah," he agreed gruffly. His hand clenched into a fist at his side, then relaxed and reached out. He settled it on Howie's hip, running up along his side in a smooth, slow motion as he shifted closer. Howie waited with bated breath until Nick's hand was at his neck, his thumb rubbing slowly.
"Oh," Howie said, his voice catching on the word. Nick's gaze shifted to Howie's lips.
"Yeah," he repeated, even lower still, and Howie closed his eyes before he felt that soft exhale against his face. Then the slide of lips over his, warm and familiar. His own hand settled on Nick's hip as he began to respond, and Nick cupped the back of his head, still so careful, even after learning a long time ago that Howie wouldn't break.
It had been a while.
Nick lowered them back down on the mattress, lying half on top of Howie and getting more courageous the more they got back into familiar territory. Their lips parted for each other and Nick made a warm sound in the back of his throat when Howie slid his hands up under Nick's t-shirt. His fingers traced the ripple of Nick's spine, causing Nick to shudder and kiss him harder, his fingers still tangled in Howie's hair. It was Howie's favorite place to be, nestled under Nick like this, so he wasn't exactly sure he pushed Nick away and whispered, "Wait."
Both of them were already breathing heavily. Howie's hand was still on Nick's chest, feeling the rapid rise and fall of it. "What?" Nick asked, licking distractedly at his wet, shiny lips.
Howie scrambled to get his brain to function. "Just - just one second." He untangled himself and held up a finger when Nick still looked like he was trapped in the twilight zone. "One second."
He dodged around the bed and nearly ran into the bathroom, keeping the door open. Inside he took a deep breath, splashing some water on his face and toweling himself off. He took another deep breath, feeling it rasp in his chest.
When he turned around, he saw the suitcase lined up against the wall for later use. He almost wanted to pop the lid open, to check if it was still hidden in a folder behind his magazines. Instead he yanked his shirt up over his head and threw it on top of the suitcase, exiting the bathroom with a heart that was racing a mile a minute.
Back inside, Nick was sitting on the bedside, raking a hand through his already tussled hair. When his eyes landed on Howie, he looked surprised for all of two seconds before he broke into a smile. Howie went to crawl back on the bed, but Nick shook his head, beckoning him over to stand in front of him. Howie followed him willingly. Nick looked up at him for one fleeting second, eyes bright and a touch questioning, before he hooked his fingers in Howie belt loops and pulled him closer. Hot breath fanned out across Howie's stomach, making his muscles tense up, and then Nick pressed his lips to it, so soft and so sexy that Howie felt a shiver run down his spine.
"Can I stay?" he murmured, the words vibrating against Howie's skin as he started a slow trail with lips that never seemed to get dry.
Howie tangled a hand in Nick's hair, anchoring himself as he looked down at Nick showering kisses across his stomach. It was a wonder he was still breathing. "Yeah," he replied, feeling quite proud when his voice didn't shake as much as he'd anticipated.
With his eyes closed, Nick smiled. He tugged Howie down in his lap and didn't waste any time before his lips were running along Howie's collarbone and up the side of his neck. When Howie finally couldn't hold back a moan, Nick's grip on him tightened. "Good," he whispered just before Howie pushed them both back down on the bed.
Howie woke up in much the same way he'd fallen asleep; lying on his stomach with Nick pressing soft kisses to his shoulderblade. Howie smiled into his arm, emitting a small groan as he stretched. He felt Nick shift beside him before he looked up. "Morning."
Nick smiled at him, his eyelids still heavy with sleep. "Morning breath," he rasped in reply, sticking a hand up in front of Howie's face.
Howie laughed. "Wow, I think that has to be record tact-breaking." He kissed Nick's palm quickly before rolling out of bed. "Be right back," he added before disappearing into the bathroom.
When he emerged, wearing a fresh pair of boxers and an old t-shirt, Nick was sitting on the bedside again, rubbing excess sleep from his eyes. "All clean," Howie declared, pausing when he noted Nick's slumped position. "What is it?"
"Nothing," Nick shrugged. His hair was matted down on one side and sticking up wildly on the other, and Howie was trying his best not to comment on it when Nick said, "You know that you can come to me, right? I mean - it doesn't always have to be me, like, initiating or whatever." He looked up then, eyes squinting to make up for his lack of glasses.
Howie shifted his weight and nodded. "Yeah, I know."
Nick's tongue darted out to lick his lips as he looked down. "Okay," he said, picking up his t-shirt. "Okay." He hopped into his sweatpants and yanked his shirt on; Howie had never seen him dress that fast. "I'm gonna head back to my room," he muttered, his hands mussing up his hair again.
"Really?" Howie walked over to stand in front of him, his brow creasing in a frown.
Nick kept his gaze on the carpet. "Yeah. I need a shower and stuff." His eyes met Howie's for a brief second before he leaned down to press a quick kiss to the corner of Howie's mouth. "I'll see you later."
Howie wrapped a hand around Nick's wrist before he could leave. "Are you-?"
"I'm fine," Nick said, adding a smile to prove his point. "I'll see you later. Don't spend too long on your hair."
Howie swatted after him halfheartedly. "Shut up. At least I make an effort."
Nick just grinned. Another beat later, he was leaning in again. Howie closed his eyes and enjoyed the heady rush when Nick kissed his upper lip, soft and slow enough to make his toes curl. When they broke apart, Nick kept his eyes averted. "Later," he repeated, offering another half smile before he was out the door.
Howie surveyed the empty room for a moment before he headed back into the bathroom. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, he pulled his suitcase down and opened it. The folder was still hidden safely inside. Howie pulled it out and snapped the elastic strings off the corners, letting himself look at Nick's drawing one more time.
It was pretty simple, at first glance. All it really consisted of was a square tilted up on one of its corners with two lines going from one side to the other, creating an X in the middle. But the work was intricate. Each line was thick, leaving plenty of space for the different shadows and broad, elegant pencil strokes Nick had been working with. The lines were wavy instead of going straight across, and the vines Nick had drawn weaved in and out of the design with no apparent linear structure. Wild and messy, just as it should be.
Howie tried to smooth the creases out yet again. No matter what he did, the folds wouldn't disappear completely.
"Which way to the nearest plastic surgeon?" Kevin asked, handing Howie a water bottle as he sat down beside him on the couch.
Howie was busy chewing on his thumbnail. "What?"
Kevin uncapped his own water bottle, taking a sip as he shrugged. "I'm thinking about getting breast implants."
"Huh," Howie said, then did a double take when his eyes nearly bugged out of his head. "What?"
Kevin smiled at him. "So you were paying attention," he observed quietly, one eyebrow arching up.
"I-" Howie shook his head, trying to clear it as he gave a light chuckle. "Right. Sorry."
Kevin bumped their knees together gently. "Got a lot on your mind, kid?"
Howie snorted, both at the nickname and the question. "Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
Kevin just shrugged. He'd been keeping to himself a lot more than usual since he'd first talked to them about that thing that no one wanted to acknowledge. "Well," he said, stretching out the word so it was almost a hum. "I figure these migraines have been happening for a reason. I should probably stop thinking about it for a while."
Howie felt that familiar ache return in his stomach. "Have you made up your mind?"
Kevin's eyes crinkled up a little as he smiled, looking disheartened despite of it. He shook his head.
Howie worried his bottom lip. They were all treating him differently, but Kevin still didn't let it affect him, didn't let himself feel excluded where other people would slowly start to shrink away. Kevin had kept himself away because that was how he best worked out what was going on in his head. Howie cleared his throat and said, "You know that we … I mean, we-"
"I know," Kevin answered, nodding before Howie had even finished. His mouth quirked up in a tired smile. "I'm just starting to think that maybe it's time, you know?" His low laugh rumbled in his chest. "Although I seem to forget that every time I'm up on that damn stage."
Howie cracked a smile. "Yeah."
Kevin released a long breath, his shoulders relaxing as he rolled his earpiece between his fingers. "Let's just have fun, okay?" he said in that even, calm voice. "Let's just enjoy it."
Howie didn't have time to respond before Brian bounded into the dressing room, followed closely by Nick who was darting glances over his shoulder and murmuring, "dude, get a grip on yourself, there are people here."
"Two days!" Brian plopped into a recliner and bounced a little bit. "Two days till I get my family back!"
"I was excited with you the first time," Nick reminded him. "But you've been counting down every day for a week. Jesus." He turned to Howie. "I'm not this obnoxious, am I?"
"Way worse," Howie answered. "Way, way worse."
Next to him Kevin chuckled. Brian stopped bouncing long enough to grin at Howie over the coffee table. "I love it when you're like this, man. I really do."
"Whatever." Nick waved his hand dismissively as he sat down in a plush armchair. "Y'all wouldn't know what to do with yourselves if I wasn't around."
Just then AJ stumbled into the room, still trying to fit his arm through a shirt sleeve as his other was busy holding up his cell phone. "I can't talk right now," he snapped, tugging his shirt down frantically. "Because we're performing in twenty minutes, that's why. Oh, really? That’s what you think? Well, I guess you'll just have to - no, later - later, okay? Okay. I love you, too, mom. Bye." He ended the phone call with an eyeroll and tucked his cell phone into his jeans pocket. "All right, guys, let's get - what?" He paused when he realized they were all staring at him.
Brian just shook his head sadly. "You're a disgrace to mama's boys everywhere."
That sent AJ off into a tirade. "It's not my fault she keeps yakking when I've already ended the conversation three times, and - dude." AJ was looking more and more puzzled. "Why do you have that weird grin on your face? You're creeping me out."
"Baylee and Leighanne are coming back on tour soon," Howie explained.
"Oh," AJ said easily, like that explained everything. Then his face twisted into another grimace. "Oh God. You're gonna be kissing us out on that stage, aren't you?" When Brian didn't say anything, AJ groaned. "You are. Shit. You can never control yourself when you're happy. You're like a damn dog, I swear."
Brian bounced over to Nick's chair, perching on the arm of the seat and leaning in to smack a loud, wet kiss on Nick's cheek. "I have fully embraced my gay, thank you very much," he declared, beaming at AJ while Nick was busy wiping his cheek against his shoulder and grinning so wide it looked like his face might split in two.
AJ rolled his eyes again. "Freaks," he muttered, plopping down in Brian's vacant seat.
Howie tuned out the rest of their conversation. Nick's smile was slipping and his eyes flickered downward, looking suddenly lost in thought. Howie watched him with a small frown as Nick started looking increasingly more bewildered. When he looked up again, he was staring at something right over Howie's shoulder - at Kevin, Howie realized, seeing the confusion hiding under the hard, angry edge in Nick's eyes. Howie could practically tell what he was thinking. He seemed to be emanating the questions that none of them could find the words to ask. How can you leave this? Why now? Why not together, all of us?
And Kevin, still sitting calmly next to Howie, just accepted it. Just looked back at Nick and took the anger, because he knew how to deal with Nick better than anyone. He just sat back and accepted that things had changed.
Howie fiddled with the hem of his shirt, hearing Brian and AJ's laughter from somewhere far away. They always talked a lot, but lately the air was heavy with all the things they weren't saying.
Howie had an odd habit of cooking at night. Especially when they were on the road - sometimes, no matter how tired he was, Howie found himself fumbling his way towards the kitchen, taking careful steps until he was clear of the bunk area, before rifling around for the pots and pans. It was something he'd done since they'd all shared a rattling old bus and he'd had to take five minutes to close every cabinet so he wouldn't wake anyone up.
He only had a light over the stove on that night. The engine of the bus was nothing but a distant hum and Howie moved around easily, shifting his body weight whenever there was a bump in the road. He grabbed two plates from one of the cupboards and leaned against the counter as he waited, his fingers drumming against the wooden surface.
When he heard the snick of a door opening, Howie smiled despite himself. He looked over to find AJ stepping out of the bunk area, closing the door behind him a lot less quietly than Howie had done before. He was wrapped up in his blanket, wearing it over his head like a nun, his free hand clutching it together just under his chin. Howie bit his lip and looked away quickly, his grin already taking over.
"Figured you'd be out here," he heard AJ mumble, as he shuffled across the floor. "What are you making?"
"Waffles," Howie replied, checking his watch to see when they'd be ready. Suddenly AJ was right there, his chin poking into Howie's shoulder as his sleep-warm body pressed against Howie's back.
"You're never leaving this bus again," AJ decided, stifling a yawn as Howie reached up to pat his cheek. "I'm serious. Kevin and Brian don't deserve you. One week over there was plenty." He moved to stand next to Howie and leaned over the waffle maker. "That smells amazing. You got enough to make for two?"
Without a word, Howie handed AJ one of the plates he'd taken out. At AJ's look, Howie just settled for, "One of you was bound to wake up sooner or later."
AJ snorted. "I wouldn't worry about Nick. An earthquake couldn’t wake him up right now." He grabbed both plates and settled into the booth by the large window, stretching so hard that his back arched off the seat. He groaned. "I'm too old to be sleeping in bunks."
Howie cocked an eyebrow, amused. "If you're too old then what does that make me?"
AJ patted the dinner table and shot Howie a pointed look. "You could sleep on top of this if nothing else was available. You're already in a league of your own, man."
Howie just shook his head. "Whatever. You want peanut butter on yours?"
AJ paused in the middle of wrapping his blanket back around his shoulders. "What?"
"I know," Howie agreed, cutting the round waffle in two and throwing one half on each plate. "But Kevin swears by it. He made me try it one day. It's actually pretty good."
AJ looked at his waffle, letting out a small knowing laugh. "Of course he does," he murmured. Kevin was known, and thoroughly mocked, for his love of peanut butter. "Sure, let me try it."
Howie stuck a butter knife into a half-empty peanut butter jar and took it with him to the table. He slid in next to AJ, taking a moment to spread a thick layer on his waffle before passing it on. "Why are you up?" he asked as he bit into his snack.
AJ was busy coating his own waffle, although more sparsely than Howie had. "I don't know," he said with a small shrug. "Couldn't sleep, I guess."
Howie just nodded. "Yeah," he said quietly, turning so he could look out the window. Even at night the bus was bathed in light; each of the spots lighting up the highway whooshed past the window in one never-ending blur. Howie watched two lonely cars zoom by on the opposite side. He had a feeling he knew what was coming.
"Do you think he'll quit?" AJ asked, his voice brusque as he started breaking his waffle into small square pieces.
Howie released his sigh as quietly as possible. "I don't know," he answered honestly. His fingernail scraped over a dirty spot on the window. "It'll be a while before he decides, I think."
AJ frowned a little as he tucked one of his legs under himself. "Yeah," he agreed, pushing the little squares out to the edge of the plate. "It's the waiting that’s killing me, though."
Howie placed his arm in the window sill and leaned his head against his hand. He watched AJ for a minute, shadows running over his profile as the streetlights passed by outside. "Me too," he said quietly, nodding in silent assent.
AJ licked his lips as he nodded back. A moment later he let out a quiet laugh. "Dude, I don't get how you do it."
Howie pulled his legs up on the seat. "Do what?"
"Give everyone else first priority all the time," AJ replied, apparently regaining his footing. "I don't get how you have the energy."
Now it was Howie's turn to frown. "I don't-"
"Yes you do," AJ interrupted, eyebrows raising as if he was challenging Howie to object again. "And not just about stuff like this." He nodded towards the closed off bunk area. "He's all grown up, D," he continued, staying calm while Howie just stared at him. He nudged Howie's foot with his own. "No one's gonna come after you with pitchforks, you know. It's okay."
Howie closed his mouth when he realized he'd been gaping. "I-" He shook his head, trying to clear it. "Why are you…?"
AJ gestured at his plate of waffles, his smile knowing. "Returning a favor," he simply said. The blanket started slipping off as he reached up to give Howie's shoulder a gentle squeeze. "You've waited long enough, I'd say."
The first time they'd slept together had been a few months after Paris. Nick had always gotten a rise out of pushing Howie's buttons; flicking his ear when Howie kept telling him to stop it, poking him when he was bored and jumping all over him when Howie just wanted to be left alone. But in those months the constant prodding had evolved into something that wasn't exactly friendly anymore, into quiet murmurs in the shell of Howie's ear and touches that lingered too long and smiles that seemed too promising. And Howie had been too frustrated and too tired of wanting what he couldn't have to start talking reason.
He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it definitely hadn't been Nick coming back for more.
It wasn't a relationship. It was just two friends helping each other out. No attachments. Howie had been trying to convince himself from the beginning that that would be enough.
It had been one of those unbearably hot summer days, before the tour had even begun, that Howie had found himself lying next to Nick by the pool of his own house. They'd spread out a beach towel and Howie had been sprawled out on his stomach, his head pillowed by his arms. He'd smiled lazily at Nick, feeling the heat of the sun seep into his body, and Nick had smiled back from where he was propped up on his elbow, his finger drawing nonsensical patterns on Howie's back.
"Is this new?" Nick had asked, rubbing gently at the leather string of Howie's necklace.
Howie had made a warm, confirming sound in the back of his throat. It had been so nice, the heat of sun and the heat of Nick so close all at the same time.
"Can I see it?" Nick had laughed as he'd tried to turn Howie over. "Come on, help me out here."
Groaning in protest, Howie had forced his muscles to kick back into action as he'd turned over slowly on his back. He'd squinted in dismay, shielding his eyes against the sun.
Nick had been nothing more than a dark silhouette as he'd reached for the pendant. "It's cool," he'd mumbled, leaning even closer to inspect it.
"It's Eban," Howie had replied.
The silhouette above him had shifted. "A what?" There had been laughter in Nick's voice.
Howie had grinned. "It's an African symbol. Look." He'd held up the silver pendant, a square only attached to the leather string from one corner. "It means 'fence'. The X in the middle makes four separate squares, right? So symbolically these are all fences, and they're supposed to ward off intruders from your home."
Nick had traced the jagged lines of the design. "And you know all of this because…?"
"I bought it at the pier last weekend," Howie had explained. "There was this booth full of stuff with symbols from the Adinkra alphabet, and there were these little notes explaining what they all meant pinned up next to the necklaces. I ended up looking up some stuff about it." At this, Howie had smiled sheepishly. "It's actually a really interesting culture. The Adinkra symbols were originally only used at funerals, but now it's branched out to clothes you wear to celebrations and stuff like that. It came from Ghana, I think."
Nick had leaned over him so the sun had been behind his head and Howie could see him, his gaze focused on Howie's necklace. "So what does yours mean?"
Howie had shrugged, letting his eyes fall closed. "Something about the safety and security you can find in your home and in the people you love," he'd murmured.
There had been a long pause. When Nick had spoken again, his voice had changed. "And you have that?"
Howie hadn't opened his eyes again. "I don't know," he'd admitted, so quietly he wasn't sure Nick had heard.
He'd waited one, two, three beats before he'd felt Nick settle back down. Nick had still been twirling the pendant in his fingers. "It's cool," he'd repeated in a low murmur, and a moment later Howie had heard Nick's breathing even out.
No matter how much Howie tried to prepare himself for Europe with his combination of t-shirts and sweaters, he couldn't be ready for everything. When he stepped off the bus the next morning, a cold gust of wind nearly threw him off balance. Startled, he kept a tight grip on the rail as he took the last step from the stairs out to the parking lot. He wrapped his jacket tighter around himself and looked around.
Nick was already heading for the back entrance of the hotel, his backpack slung over his shoulder and hanging open for all the world to see.
"Nick!" Howie called, hoping his voice wouldn't get lost in the wind. "You've dropped-"
Nick skidded to a halt and turned around. "What?" he yelled back, cupping a hand behind his ear as another heavy gust of wind grabbed a hold of the first fallen autumn leafs.
"Nevermind," Howie called back. He was closer to whatever it was Nick had dropped anyway. A flock of pigeons had gathered around it, no doubt looking for food, and as Howie headed towards them he was already trying to shoo them away.
"Howie," he heard Nick call, his voice much too sharp to be normal. "Howie!"
The pigeons finally scattered, cooing in dismay as Howie crouched down to pick up what turned out to be a folder. His arm froze halfway towards it. The folder had opened somewhere along the way, the paper sheets flapping helplessly in the wind, close to tearing loose completely.
They were sketches of him. Howie stood up slowly, pulse racing as he began flipping through the sheets. He was right there on every single one of them, doing everything from sleeping to reading to looking out a window. One was just hands, another was just eyes, but Howie could so easily recognize it as what he saw in the mirror every day.
When he looked up again, Nick was standing in right front of him, his baggy sweatshirt billowing in the wind. Howie's mouth opened, but all that came out was a small, "I…"
Nick's eyes turned hard almost instantly. "That's private," he snapped, snatching the folder from Howie's hands and heading back towards the hotel, walking so fast that Howie couldn't have kept up with him if he'd tried.
When the elevator doors opened, Howie headed straight for Nick's room, not even taking time to discard his suitcase. Five knocks and Nick was opening the door, not looking very surprised at all.
"Let me in," Howie demanded, meeting Nick's gaze head on.
Nick frowned, but he stepped aside for Howie to slip past him regardless. Once inside, Howie's eyes were immediately drawn to the bed. Nick's backpack had been thrown down by the foot of the bed, his stuff scattered across the floor; the folder was lying open on the bed, papers spilling out onto the bedspread.
Without looking up, Howie set his suitcase down in the middle of the floor, unzipped it and reached behind the magazines in the roof compartment. "Here," he said, handing Nick his own folder. He removed his necklace with the Adinkra pendant and handed that to Nick as well. "Here."
Nick's frown deepened, obviously confused, but when he opened the folder in his hand his eyes went wide. "Oh," he blurted, his breath hitching as he looked from the drawing to the necklace and back to the drawing again. "So you…"
"I've been trying to get rid of the fold marks on it," Howie explained, speaking fast so he wouldn't get interrupted. "But I can't." His pulse was speeding up and he took a deep breath. "I wasn't trying to snoop through your stuff. Your bag flipped over and - I just, I guess I wasn't thinking."
Nick's fingers wrapped over the necklace one by one, creating a fist. He squared his jaw as he shrugged. "Doesn't matter."
Howie looked up then, digging his hands in his pockets. "You should've told me," he said, surprising himself with how steady his voice was.
Nick snorted, his laugh cutting. "Because you were so willing to listen."
"I was," Howie retorted firmly, stepping closer. "Don't just assume stuff like that. I was willing. I still am, if you've got something to say."
Nick looked at him for a long moment, his expression completely unreadable. Then his gaze slid past Howie's shoulder, and without a word he moved to sit down on the bed. His smile was tired as he slid a thumb in-between two of the drawings. "You know … this, this makes me look pretty psychotic," he said. "There's like, five years worth of work in here."
Howie scuffed his toe into the floor. "I didn't know."
Nick kept his eyes averted until he finally snapped the folder shut with a sigh. "It's just," he paused, trying to find the right words. "My family is always so spastic and now all this shit with Kevin is happening and I can't make sense of anything, but then with you it's just…"
"What?" Howie pressed when Nick wasn't saying anything else.
Nick pinched the bridge of his nose before resting his elbows on his knees and looking away. "It's just better," he said with a small, helpless shrug.
Howie's heart was racing. Nick really wanted this from him, wanted safety and security and maybe even love, and Howie had been keeping himself at an arm's length because he'd been afraid of wanting someone so unattainable. "Stupid," he whispered, shaking his head at himself.
"What?" Nick still wasn't looking up.
"Nothing," Howie said, allowing himself a small smile. "Nothing." He leaned back against the wall and released a long, relieving sigh. His eyes had fallen closed and when he opened them again, Nick was staring at him. Howie smiled at him, warmth spreading from the pit of his stomach, finally feeling okay when Nick offered a hesitant smile in return.
"You can keep that." Howie nodded towards the leather string dangling from Nick's fist.
Nick looked down, his free hand picking at a hole in his jeans, and when he met Howie's gaze again there was a small grin tugging at his lips. "Something to remember you by?"
Howie's eyes crinkled up when he smiled, all teeth, and shook his head. "Not even close."
The whirring of the bus vibrated under Howie's feet as he padded barefoot across the floor. His hands were buried deep in his pockets, trying to hunch in on himself. He watched Nick sitting at the kitchen table, flipping idly through a magazine. As soon as Howie paused, Nick looked up.
"Hey," he said, his smile more open than it had been in a long time.
Howie smiled back weakly. Gathering the last of his courage, he took the few remaining steps towards his goal. Nick watched him avidly as Howie slinked into the booth, next to Nick and then behind Nick, his back pressing into Howie's chest. Howie was so sure that Nick would feel his hands shake as they slid around his waist, as his lips pressed into the back of Nick's neck. Nick slid forward, accommodating Howie even though there was plenty of room, and his breaths were slow and Howie wasn't sure he could speak when his mouth was this dry.
"I know that twelve years isn't enough," he whispered, heart thudding in his chest. "And I'm scared as well, but if it has to end, if it has to, then - then I hope that I can be enough for you. I want - I'd like to try."
For a while, all that greeted Howie was silence. Howie waited with bated breath, hoping, bracing himself for the worst. When Nick finally moved, it was to turn his head slightly. "Are you gonna give me my sketch back?" he asked, his voice calm and lightly teasing, and it was then that Howie realized that Nick wasn't running. That he wasn't planning to.
Howie smiled against the back of his neck. "No."
Nick laughed. Carefully, he plucked Howie's hand from his stomach and pressed his lips to the knuckles, one by one. "Ah well," he said, and Howie could hear the smile even if he couldn't see it. "I guess I can always make another one."