Nick closed the door to the rec room quietly, careful not to wake
Alli. She'd fallen asleep about two hours into the movie, and he hadn't had the heart to move her until the credits started
rolling and he got bored. The memory of her appearance when she slept had still burned itself into his mind, and he was trying
to clear any and all thoughts of her. For some reason, Alli didn't trust him anymore, and the thought bothered him more than
he cared to admit. She hadn't spoken to him after their argument, and he wasn't sure what to make of it. After all, Alli was
famous for her sharp-tongued comments during a movie. Usually, he had to beg her to keep quiet. Her silence had unnerved him.
"Hey, you're back! What happened to you and Al? I was looking everywhere for you guys!"
Nick looked up at
the sound of AJ's voice and sighed. "Nothing, man, we were watching a movie. She fell asleep, though, so don't go in there
and wake her up."
AJ nodded. "Sure thing, dude. I know how much Alli values her sleep." He paused to chuckle to himself,
but stopped when he noticed that Nick still had the same troubled look on his face. "Okay, spill. What's up?"
frowned and shook his head, trying desperately to shrug it off. Be a man, Carter. Don't let it get to you. "Nothing's
up. Why would you think that something's up?"
AJ laughed. "Maybe 'cause you look like someone just handed you a book
of Greek to learn before the show tomorrow night. What's with the confusion, dude?"
Nick looked down at the older
man, studying his face intently before answering at last. "Is Alli mad at me? And be honest, AJ. I need to know."
concerned look faded to an expression of cool indifference as he draped himself over the arm of one of the couches. "Why would
"Because she acts like she's pissed at me. She wouldn't say anything throughout the whole movie."
features twisted into an ugly glare. "What did you say to her?"
Nick threw his arms up in surrender. "Nothing, man!
All I did was flirt with her a little. Alli knows I'm kidding. She always knows what's going on in my head. Sometimes I think
that she's the only one."
AJ rolled his eyes in annoyance as he recalled Nick's behavior since the tour had started.
"Yeah, me too."
Nick immediately frowned at the comment. "What's that supposed to mean?"
AJ shrugged. "Just
that you've shut everybody out. I don't know. You try to act all tough, and you've just been an asshole lately. I mean, it's
like when you hit Alli yesterday morning. What the hell was that about?"
Nick's glower deepened as he watched his
friend. "I told you, I was hung over and pissed off. She made me mad."
"So that's an excuse to hit her?"
told her I didn't mean it!"
"And you think that's going to make her comfortable around you again?" AJ scoffed, staring
at him incredulously. "Nick, do you remember whom we're talking about here? This is Alli, okay? Your best friend since forever.
You know her. Why do you think she's pissed at you?"
Nick sighed heavily, raking a hand through his long blonde locks
and making a mental note to get them cut. "I don't know, J. That's why I asked. If I knew, I'd be trying to make it right."
AJ jumped to a sitting position, staring at him in amazement. "You mean you actually care if she's mad at you?"
rolled his eyes. "Duh! What the fuck do you think I'm doing right now? If I weren't concerned, I wouldn't be talking to you."
"Have you apologized for using her to pick up chicks?"
Nick frowned. "What was wrong with that? I needed a
good lay, and Alli was there. I wasn't about to ask her to jump in bed with me, because that'd be disgusting. I figured that
AJ arched his eyebrow skeptically. "So how would you feel if she used you to pick up some guy at
the food court?"
Nick narrowed his eyes in the direction of the tattooed man angrily. "That's different," he growled.
"She wouldn't do that."
"Exactly! So why the hell would you do it to her?"
Nick shrugged lightly. "She's not
my girlfriend. She knows how I am about women, and she knows not to take it personally. Why would she care?"
you ever think that it might make her feel like you didn't appreciate her company?"
Nick sighed heavily. "At that
time, J, I really didn't. She was acting like a little kid."
"You didn't used to mind Alli acting like a child. In
fact, you used to join her and annoy the hell out of everyone on the bus just for the hell of it."
Nick's blue eyes
narrowed in AJ's direction at the mention of how he used to be. "I'm not like that anymore, AJ. I'm not a kid anymore."
shrugged slightly. "So maybe Alli's not a kid anymore either."
Nick stared angrily at the wall, trying to quell the
feeling of loneliness that washed over him at the thought of his beloved Alli changing. "But she's Alli! Alli's always been
like that, and she doesn't change. She's my best friend, you know? Why would she change?"
AJ watched Nick with a blank
expression, trying to keep from displaying the myriad of emotions that decorated his psyche at Nick's response. "You changed."
"I'm not Alli."
"So you're allowed to change, but she's not?"
Nick shook his head. "No, it's not like
that. Alli wouldn't change, though. She just wouldn't."
"But you would."
Nick stared at AJ like he was ridiculously
retarded. "Well, duh. It happened, didn't it? Am I the same kid you used to know?"
AJ shook his head fervently, more
sure of that answer than any other. "Hell, no."
"I'm not even a kid, am I?"
You're not a kid, you're an
asshole, AJ thought silently, but fought to keep the indifferent countenance he had maintained throughout the conversation.
"I don't know. Sometimes you act like one."
Nick's blue eyes blazed with fury. "I do not! God, that's why I didn't
want Alli here! It's what I'm trying to avoid. I don't want to be a kid."
AJ shrugged again. "A little bit of innocence
never hurt anybody, Nick."
"I'm not innocent! I'm not fucking naive either, and I'm not a fucking kid! Don't you get it?"
AJ rolled his eyes. "Fine, I get it. You're not a kid. Now, why would Alli be mad at you?"
Nick studied AJ
carefully as he formulated his next response, trying desperately to think of a reason that things would've changed between
them and use AJ's hints in the process. Nick got the feeling that AJ knew more than he cared to share, but he didn't dare
push the older man for fear of not getting the answers he had come for. "Is she mad at me because I've changed?"
sighed. "I'm not sure she's as mad as she is surprised. I've known Alli for a long time, Nick, and she puts a lot of stock
in the friendship you two have."
Nick clenched his fists. "I'm glad, but the friendship isn't going to be there if
she can't just accept me for who I am now and move on."
AJ rolled his eyes again, this time in exasperation, and threw
his arms in the air. "You know what, Carter? I give up. I give up trying to help you, because you just don't get it. Go to
someone else for help, because I'm sick of trying to get through to you."
Nick stared in disbelief at AJ's retreating
back, completely perplexed at how he had managed to stir such a reaction in his friend. He shook his head as if to clear it
and sighed heavily, then followed AJ to the front of the bus. If anything, he could find Brian there, and Brian would surely
have an answer to his questions. He always did.
* * * * *
Jessi entered the entertainment room about an hour after Nick had
emerged to find Alli still asleep. The others had agreed to play cards in the kitchenette and then watch another movie to
keep themselves entertained that evening, and she had been elected to wake her friend. She sighed at the thought of Nick,
remembering how he had been hesitant to wake her at all. He had been the topic of discussion during lunch that day while he
was in the back room, and Jessi had learned that the others were clueless as to his behavior. Normally, Jessi would be happy
to ride out the phase until Nick had returned to normal, but she hated the way the change in him had affected Alli. Even in
her sleep, she looked troubled. Reluctantly, Jessi shook her shoulders gently.
"Alli, time to wake up. The guys want
us all to play cards or something. Everyone's bored, and we might end up watching a movie..."
Alli stirred at the
sound of her friend's voice and groggily opened one eye to look at her. She sighed when she saw who it was and managed a tired
smile as she tried to haul herself into a sitting position.
"You're not Carter."
Jessi bit her lip to keep
from laughing at Alli's confused expression. "Aren't you the quick one?"
Alli rolled her eyes good-naturedly and stretched.
"No, it's not like that. See, I fell asleep watching the movie with Carter. I guess I expected him to be here."
heart ached at the lost expression on Alli's face. She didn't have a friend that was as close to her as Alli was to Nick,
but she couldn't imagine how she would deal if Howie were going through those kind of changes. To lessen the tension in the
room, Jessi smiled gently and laughed. "Aw, come on, Alli. You know Nick's not the 'morning after' type."
look on Alli's face proved that Jessi had picked the wrong joke to make. She rolled her eyes and stood up, stretching again.
"You said something about cards. When and what are we playing?"
Jessi shrugged. "I don't know. It really depends on
how many decks we can find. At this rate, though, we may end up playing Go Fish."
Alli sighed heavily. "How about
Egyptian Rat Screw? It's been awhile since I've played, and you can play with a thousand people and one deck."
nodded. "Sounds good to me. If you come on out of here and head towards the kitchen, you can run it by the rest of the crew."
"How long was I asleep?"
Jessi laughed as she got a good look at Alli's tousled curls. "From what Nick said,
you've been asleep for about three hours. Not too long, considering that we've all just been lounging around and trying to
Alli nodded her understanding, remembering how bored Nick had been earlier that afternoon. "Any luck?"
Jessi shook her head sadly. "Nope. I think boredom has taken up permanent residence on this bus until we get lucky
enough to arrive at the next city."
Alli's countenance did plenty to express her distaste. "Yuck..."
is right. Are you ready to kick some booty?"
"At cards, you mean?"
Alli arched an eyebrow and
smiled menacingly. "Yeah, I'm ready to kick some booty. Some ghetto booty, more specifically," she added, thinking about Nick.
She was still slightly angry with him for his constant attitude change. That afternoon, he had acted somewhat like the kid
that she remembered until he had started flirting with her. She rolled her eyes at the memory. If he could just be the
guy I remember, we wouldn't have any problems. I get the feeling that he wants to be, but he can't. I'm going to find him,
though. If it takes the rest of this whole damn tour, I'm going to find my Carter.
* * * * *
"That is NOT a ten! There's no way!"
see, I could be wrong, but last I checked, eight and two equaled ten."
"Alli, you suck."
Alli smirked at the
blonde man whose Queen she had taken into her deck. "Spoken like a true man, Carter," she teased, laying down another card.
They had been playing for about an hour, and they had yet to crown a winner. Despite the fact that they could have played
with only one deck of cards, AJ had found one deck buried in his backpack, so they had combined two decks to make for longer
playing time. After an hour, the only remaining players were AJ, Kevin, Howie, Leighanne, Alli, and Nick. The game had gotten
interesting due to side comments by the players, so the others were happy to sit and watch. Unfortunately, Alli seemed to
be getting the better of Nick, and the sight was growing ugly as Nick's temper began to flare. It was common knowledge among
the members of the Backstreet camp that the youngest boy was a sore loser.
"Kids, shut up and play," Kevin admonished,
laying his card on top of Alli's. AJ rolled his eyes as he threw a Jack on the top of the pile.
"Kev, this is Alli
and Nick we're talking about. When have you ever known them to shut up?" he asked pointedly, his eyes dancing with mischief.
Kevin stared thoughtfully at the pile of cards before nodding his agreement.
"Okay, point taken."
good-naturedly at AJ's remark. "Alexander, I resemble that remark!"
Leighanne rolled her own baby blues and threw
a card down, pouting when it wasn't a face card. "Man, this sucks, guys. I'm down to three cards, and then I'm out."
patted her friend reassuringly as AJ took the pile with a grin of victory. "Don't worry, Leigh, you'll steal some cards. Carter
over there isn't paying attention at all."
Nick's blue eyes blazed at the comment. "I am too! Just because I didn't
notice a few of the pairs that added up to ten does not mean that I'm spacing out!"
"No, it just means that you can't
add," Howie teased from his position next to AJ, waiting patiently for the man to put down another card. As soon as he had,
Howie quickly threw his on top, smiling happily when it was a face card. Nick, on the other hand, was still insulted.
still in the game, aren't I?" he retorted.
"Proof that miracles do exist," Alli smirked. Nick grumbled in response
as he tried to land a face card on top of Howie's Ace.
"Ha! See, Al, that's how you play."
"I'll keep that in mind, C." She triumphantly pulled a Jack from the top of her deck. "Ha-HA! Beat that one, Kev!"
arched an eyebrow in disbelief at the competitive spirit of the players. "You guys are ridiculous," she declared from her
position behind Howie. Howie turned around for a quick kiss before turning his attention back to the game at hand.
Brian chuckled. "Of course, they're pretty much always like this."
"That's why you don't stand a chance, sweetie.
You need some more spunk in you to play with this crowd," Leighanne informed him as she laid down the rest of her three cards
in an attempt to beat AJ's Ace. "Well, I'm out. That's all my cards."
AJ nodded sadly. "Okay, Leigh. You're free to
make a sex slave out of Brian now."
Leighanne smirked at him as she stood and took Brian's hand. "Will do, AJ. I sincerely
hope that you and your left hand have a wonderful time after the game."
AJ frowned. "That's cold, Leigh."
laughed. "Yeah, Leigh, didn't you hear? They broke up. AJ's currently fixated on his right hand..."
The others groaned
in laughter as AJ rolled his eyes and stuck his tongue out at Alli. "You always have to get the last word in, don't you?"
Alli winked playfully at him while Howie played his card. "You got it, J."
Nick nodded fervently. "Always.
No exceptions. Trust me, I'd know."
Alli fought hard to keep the smirk on her face. She knew that a look of utter
astonishment wouldn't be left without an explanation, and she wasn't ready to give one. You'd know? What the hell is your
deal these days?
"Alli? It's your turn, girl. If you don't pull a face card in two, Carter gets the deck."
looked up at the sound of Howie's voice. "Carter gets the deck? I don't think so..."
True to her word, she produced
a King with a smirk of victory. I refuse to let him win this. He's not going to transform into an asshole without a fight.