Bed of Roses
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Chapter Forty
Chapter Forty-One
Chapter Forty-Two
Chapter Forty-Three
Chapter Forty-Four
Chapter Forty-Five
Chapter Forty-Six
Chapter Forty-Seven

One step hesitation
One step into the night
Don't mind the weather
It's raining in my heart tonight
There's much more to living
Two wrongs don't make a right
You're going to regret it
When you're looking back on your life

"I seriously don't understand him, J. I keep trying, but I feel like I'm ramming my head against a brick wall. Of course, that would probably feel a bit better than watching your best friend become an asshole right before your eyes..."

AJ bit back a smile at the pensive expression on Alli's face. Only Alli could have come up with such twisted musings and actually be serious about them. He did, however, understand her point. Nick had been petulant all during practice, and his attitude had put everyone else in a surly mood. Kevin had stalked off immediately, grabbing Kristin and dragging her with him. Howie and Jessi had gone someplace quiet to have an afternoon to themselves, and Brian and Leighanne had gone shopping. AJ had noticed the look on Alli's face as she had watched the couples disperse and agreed to take her out to lunch. Hours later, they were sitting in his hotel room drinking coffee together and having one of the rare moments of uninterrupted friendship. Nick still wasn't back, and neither had any idea where he had gone, but AJ wasn't sure that he wanted to know. The distraught tone Alli had used all afternoon did enough to convey the distress Nick's actions were causing, especially after the week they'd spent together. AJ sighed at the thought. Man, he actually seemed like Nick for once...

"I need that little thingy from Men In Black."

AJ's eyebrows jumped to the top of his forehead in surprise and confusion. "Al, what the hell are you talking about now?"

Alli waved him off. "Those stick things, you know?"

AJ's confusion faded to a thoughtful grin. "I know a lot of stick things," he smirked, evoking a groan from Alli.

"Yo, AJ, concentrate for a second on something besides sex, okay? Work with me here..."

AJ rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "This from the poster girl for ADD..."
Alli smiled at him innocently. "At least I'm the greatest of my kind." He had to laugh, and she sighed. "Seriously, though, focus for a sec. You remember those silver things that erase a person's memory?"

AJ nodded after a moment's thought, still completely clueless as to where to conversation was going, but fairly confident that it had something to do with Nick. Alli was famous for inane comparisons, and he found her creativity highly amusing.

"Okay. See, maybe if I had one of those, I could trick Carter into forgetting all of this shit about changing and growing up." She sighed when AJ continued to stare at her without any sign of agreement. "Or not. God, Age, I just want him back the way he used to be. He acts more like a child now than he did before."

AJ nodded, taking another sip of coffee for good measure. "Yeah, I agree. He's being an idiot."

"J, why is he doing this?"

AJ laughed bitterly. "Al, if I knew, I can promise that he wouldn't be doing it anymore. We're all just as disturbed by his shit as you are."

Alli stared thoughtfully into her own cup of coffee before finally offering a response. She was still staring into the depths of the coffee as her tone grew pensive again. "Maybe I could just hit his head on something really, really hard."

AJ bit his lip to keep from laughing. Alli was definitely one of a kind. He had only met one person who was completely capable of comprehending Alli's twisted logic, and his brows knitted at the thought. God, I wish Nick could pull his head out of his ass and get on with life. Al needs him more than she realizes, and I'm sick of this game he's trying to play.

"Al, I don't think Nick's got that many brain cells to spare," AJ answered in mock seriousness, and Alli cracked a smile, taking a sip of her own coffee before answering.

"Yeah, I agree. He can already count his IQ on his hands."

AJ feigned surprise. "You mean he can actually count his IQ now?"

Alli nodded, smiling proudly. "I've been putting my teaching certificate to good use, I promise."

AJ snorted, dropping his facade as easily as he retained his sense of sarcasm. "Yeah, well, try teaching him to act like a decent person, and we'll all be cool."

"You do realize that we're going in circles, right? We've been over this part before. I don't know what the hell is wrong with him, or we would've fixed it by now," Alli said with a sigh, arching an eyebrow skeptically. "Of course, right now he's furious with me for God knows why. He was in a really bad mood when I went to get him up this morning."

AJ shrugged. "He should be better by the time the show's over. His moods don't always last that long, and if they do, he's too sloshed at the end of the night to even remember that he was mad in the first place."

Alli's other eyebrow rose to meet the first. "And how is that supposed to be comforting?"

AJ shrugged, staring pensively into his coffee cup for fear of the look in Alli's eyes. "At least he won't be pissed at you anymore."

Alli groaned, rubbing a tired hand across her face. "No, he'll be dead drunk. And that's just so much better, isn't it, AJ?"

AJ grinned cheekily at her. "Hey, girl, Nicky's such a fun drunk that we could sell tickets."

Alli made a face. "Of course, we'd have to check ID first, 'cause a drunk Carter isn't exactly PG-13 material, you know?"

AJ chuckled lightly. "Yeah, I know." Good God, do I know. And boy, I really wish I didn't...

"So does this mean that we're hitting the clubs after the show tonight?"

AJ wiggled his eyebrows happily. "Ooh, definitely. I'm in the mood to dance the night away, baby."

Alli frowned at him. "Dude, I'm not your baby. Sadly, Amanda was ignorant enough to step into that role."

AJ pouted immediately at the insult, trying to hide his smile. "She loves me," he insisted, folding his arms across his chest for effect. He smiled inwardly when Alli rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, she does." She paused a moment before continuing. "And now you know why I'm convinced that the girl is on drugs."

AJ's eyes widened in surprise before he could formulate an adequate retort. His verbal lashing came quickly enough, though. "You think she's on drugs? Sweetie, you're the one who's best friends with Nick."

Alli nodded and then shook her head before dropping it helplessly into her hands. "God, what the hell is wrong with me?"

"That's what I've been trying to figure out for years, babe," AJ teased her, but his smirk faded when he saw the desperate look on her face. Dammit, McLean, you know how much she cares about that kid...

"Al, the better question might be 'what the hell is wrong with him?'."

Alli sighed heavily. When she spoke, her tone was uncharacteristically soft. "But, J, I thought we'd decided that we didn't know the answer to that question?"

AJ nodded in affirmation. "That we did."

"So what's the point in asking it again?"

AJ shrugged lightly. "Maybe one of these days we'll find an answer?"

Alli rolled her eyes. "Yeah, and maybe one of these days pigs will fly out of Carter's ass." She leveled her friend with a pointed gaze. "Don't think so, AJ."

AJ chuckled at the imagery. "Hey, babe, Nick's already got a lot of things flying out of his ass. None of them are too pleasant, but they're certainly noticeable." He giggled gleefully at his own inconspicuous fart joke, but Alli had him one better.

"Yeah, I guess you're right. Come to think of it, nearly everything Nick says these days seems to fly out of his ass..."

AJ nearly spit out his coffee as he sputtered in surprise. As soon as he recovered, he glared sternly in Alli's direction.

"Alli..." he warned, wagging a finger at her. She glared right back at him, matching his tone and demeanor exactly.


"What phrase would you most like to hear Nick pull out of his ass next?"

Alli couldn't hide her smile that time. The question was random, but it was most definitely an AJ thing to ask. After a moment's thought, however, her expression grew serious as she fixed her sad gray eyes on the Backstreet Boy she considered to be a brother.

"Honestly?" AJ nodded. "I'd like to hear him call me his best friend again and mean it. I'd like to hear him tell me that I'm the only one that understands him, that he loves me for me, and that he feels better with me around." She sighed again. "Of course, that's totally unlikely, isn't it?"

"Nothing's too unlikely to hope for," AJ countered pointedly, and Alli's shoulders sagged in defeat.

"Don't tell me that," she said, quietly but seriously. "I might actually start hoping again."

* * * * *

"So what happened with Nick this morning?" Jessi asked as she leaned back against the couch. The girls had opted to stay in the dressing rooms during the performance because of the crowd that night. Management had been forced to call extra security into the arena when the Boys had first come on, and the girls had quickly crept backstage to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. The performance was still playing through the speakers, however, so they were appeased to sit and listen to their Boys while catching up with each other.

Alli groaned and tossed aside the toy she'd been playing with. "I honestly don't know. I was being the dork I am and playing housekeeping, and Carter blew a fuse because he walked to the door naked. I don't know what his deal is, but I really hope that he's not still angry after the show tonight."

"Yeah, I think we all do," Leighanne agreed. "Brian's worried beyond belief about Nick's sudden change in behavior. I think that the Boys were all hoping for the best because he'd been so good all week."

Kristin nodded, toying with her hair while she examined her appearance in the mirror. "Yeah, Kev was all excited, saying that Nick was finally changing back. He was positive that all the time Nick had spent with Alli was doing him good."

Alli rolled her eyes and began picking at the carpet. "I don't seem to do him any good these days. He's either confusing the hell out of me or asking to be slapped. I don't know whether to install a decoder or set him up as a human punching bag."

Leighanne stifled a smile at her friend's wording. "Yeah, well, Lord knows he's taken enough shots at you lately. I worry about how you can put up with him, Al."

Alli shrugged, unable to meet Leighanne's eyes as she spoke to her. "Leigh, he's still my best friend. I can't just abandon him."

Jessi sighed. "I understand that much. What I don't understand is his attitude change." She bit her tongue and glanced apprehensively at Alli, silently wondering whether or not she should ask her next question. When Alli didn't seem to show any sign of an emotional breakdown, she relented and furrowed her brow in concentration. "Are you sure he isn't on something?"

Alli's head shot up in alarm and her gray eyes widened. "Jess, how could you ask a question like that? I know he's been acting like an ass, but I don't think Carter would ever go so far as to stick his nose in drugs. He drinks a lot more than he used to, but I think they all do that."

Kristin nodded her agreement. "Yeah, the party scene certainly goes to their heads sometimes. I doubt drugs have ever entered the picture, though. Kevin would be on Nick in a second if he even suspected anything."

Leighanne's head bobbed as well. "Oh, so would Brian. He's worried enough as it is, but he's never mentioned the possibility of drugs." She turned to Jessi as another question struck her. "Has Howie?"

Jessi shook her head and sighed. "No, he hasn't mentioned anything like that, but I had to ask." She frowned more deeply. "Nick just doesn't seem like Nick anymore."

Alli rolled her eyes. "Hate to break your heart, Jess, but he hasn't seemed like himself for awhile. It isn't like this started yesterday."

"You've got to wonder what caused it," Jessi continued to muse. Alli just shrugged.

"J and I were talking about that today, and there isn't anything that we could come up with. It's got to be a phase he's going through. He hasn't done anything too drastic yet, though."

Kristin leveled Alli with a pointed gaze. "No, he's only slept with half the female population." She arched an eyebrow. "I think that counts as drastic, Alli."

Alli's own eyebrows climbed considerably high before she shook her head. "No, I don't believe that. I don't think he'd go to that extreme. A few one night stands wouldn't surprise me, but he hasn't been with someone since I've been here. He was just lonely."

Leighanne frowned. "Al, AJ gets lonely without Amanda, but you don't see him with women in his bed."

Alli glared at her friend. "Leigh, I told you. He hasn't done that since I've been here."

Jessi touched Alli's arm lightly, hoping to calm her. "Al, I hate to break it to you, but that doesn't mean he won't do it again. He certainly cracks enough jokes about it."

Kristin nodded. "And wasn't he hitting on girls the last time you two went out in public?"

Alli folded her arms stubbornly across her chest. "That's different."

Kristin sighed heavily, recognizing the denial written across Alli's face. She knew it all too well after Kevin's "fuck 'em and chuck 'em" phase. "Somehow, Al, I don't think so."

Alli continued to shake her head defiantly. "Carter isn't like that, Kris. He's getting better."

Jessi looked at her younger friend sadly. "For your sake, Alli, I really hope you're right."

Before another word could be said on the matter, however, the five Boys came tearing into the dressing rooms, exhausted but still energized from the evening's performance. AJ and Kevin had obviously raced to the dressing room, as both men were out of breath and positioned with their hands on their knees. AJ looked up soon enough, and his cackle of glee allowed that he had won. Howie came into the room after the pair, shaking his head at their antics. However, once he spotted his girlfriend, he changed directions and walked into her arms. Last but certainly not least came Brian and Nick, who were swatting at each other with pieces of their costumes.

"Dude, stop it! You already got me with the silly string!" Nick protested, finally caving long enough to pull his arms over his head in his own defense. "Enough is enough!"

Brian's eyes twinkled mischievously as he grinned. "Oh, but Nicky, I don't think the silly string was quite enough..."

Leighanne rolled her eyes at her boyfriend's behavior, but she was unable to suppress the small smile that surfaced at the sight of him acting younger than Nick. "Baby, leave him alone. He's clearly had enough."

She didn't have to say much more before she was locked in an embrace with Brian and Nick was rubbing his sore arm tiredly. He looked up to see Kevin and Kristin with their arms around each other and scanned the room for Alli. He hadn't been so nice to her that morning, and he felt the slightest bit of guilt as he remembered the expression on her face. When he finally caught sight of her, his famous smile lit up the entire room and he bounded over, grabbing her in a huge bear hug.

"That crowd tonight was fucking crazy, should've been there."

Alli rolled her eyes and shoved him off of her. "Oh, so you've actually decided to be civil now?"

Nick flinched as the anger in her tone registered. "Al, I was in a really crappy mood this morning. I know it's no excuse, but my getting pissed had nothing to do with you."

Alli's eyebrows rose in distaste. "Oh, so it's just easier to take it out on me, then?"

Nick's gaze fell to the ground, but when he looked up, his countenance was hopeful. "I'm not going to say anything right, 'cause I never do, so can we please just forgive and forget? I don't want to fight with you, Alli."

She sighed heavily. "Carter, I don't want to fight with you either, but you just keep PMS-ing on me."

Nick grinned. "If you lend me a Midol, I promise to be a good boy."

Alli rolled her eyes again at his antics. "At this rate, Carter, I don't think a whole pack of Midol would do you any good."

Nick tugged hopefully on her arm. "Worth a shot, though, right? Come on, Al, you know you love me..."

"Temporary amnesia. I'm sorry, who are you again?"

Nick rolled his own blue eyes and pulled her against him, frowning when she continued to struggle. "Dammit, you women are a lot more trouble than you're worth, you know that?" As soon as the comment left his mouth, she stilled and folded her arms across her chest petulantly. Nick smiled. "There, that's better. Now, I was an ass. My bad. Come to the club tonight with us and I'll make it up to you."

Against her better judgment, Alli found herself giving in. She turned in his arms and looked up at him hopefully. "Promise?"

Nick crossed his heart comically with his finger. "Promise. I'll show you the best time you've ever had..."

Before Alli could make a smart aleck retort, AJ joined the two and casually tossed an arm around her shoulders. "And, if he fails, I'll be there to make it all worth your while."

Alli eyed AJ doubtfully, trying to hide her smile of amusement. "Thanks...I think..."

Nick waved AJ off with a laugh. "Trust me, Al, you won't need AJ to entertain you. A promise is a promise."

Alli nodded and furrowed her brow suspiciously in Nick's direction. "I'm holding you to that, Carter."

"Feel free. Like I said, I promise."

* * * * *

"He promised."

Of course, the promise had taken place two hours earlier, before Nick had found a tall blonde with legs for days to dance with. Alli, on the other hand, was stuck in the booth with a Cosmopolitan and AJ for company. She rarely drank, but she figured that the evening called for a bit less tension.

"Babe, since when have you ever known Nick to keep a promise?"

Alli sighed in exasperation and swirled her drink around in the glass before taking a sip. "He used to."

AJ looked at her pointedly, setting his beer on the table. "And when was that?"

Alli groaned under AJ's penetrating gaze. "A while ago."

"Exactly how long ago?"

Alli's eyes snapped open and she glared at AJ from across the table. "Dammit, AJ!"

"Too fucking long ago to remember, right?" he demanded, fighting the urge to cringe when she slumped further into the booth. "Al, you can't keep doing this to yourself. He's not going to change anytime soon."

Alli stared at him with a disturbed countenance. "You're a pessimist, AJ."

AJ shook his head solemnly at her. "No, Al, I'm a realist. I hate to tell you this, but Carter isn't going to suddenly abandon that blonde chick to come spend some time with you, promise or no promise."

Alli took another glimpse at Nick to see him twirling the blonde in a circle, laughing with her over something Alli couldn't distinguish. She rolled her eyes in annoyance and drained the rest of her Cosmopolitan, immediately looking around for the bartender. One drink obviously hadn't been enough, because it still hurt that Nick had abandoned her. "Dammit."

AJ sighed as he watched Alli ordering another drink out of one eye and Nick dancing with the blonde out of the other. He hated to see Alli hurting, but he didn't dare lie to her. He'd been with Nick since the start of the tour, and with the exception of the week before, he hadn't seen the slightest change in Nick's attitude. He flinched when Alli drained the second Cosmopolitan like a tequila shot. He knew her well enough to know that she didn't drink often, and therefore couldn't hold her liquor well. "Al, honey, drowning your sorrows in a few Cosmo's isn't going to help you either."

Alli looked up at AJ with a pitiful countenance. "It won't hurt so bad."

AJ laughed bitterly. "Oh, trust me, babe, it'll hurt. You just won't know the difference because your stomach will hurt just as badly." He paused to study her carefully, noting the slight glaze to her eyes and her flushed cheeks. "No more, okay?"

Alli shot him a weary look. "I'm not drunk, AJ. As much as I wish I were, I'm not. I can still see Nick and the prey quite clearly, thank you."

AJ bit his lip to keep from laughing at her term for Nick's latest conquest. "They're kinda hard to miss, but I wouldn't stare at them for too long." He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "You might get dizzy."

Much as she tried not to, Alli did laugh at the comment. The more she tried to suppress it, the harder the laughter came until there were tears in her eyes from laughing so hard. She smacked AJ as she brushed the tears away. "Damn you, Alex, I was wallowing in my misery! You're not supposed to make me laugh."

AJ shrugged lightly. "So sue me. I just wanted to see your smile."

Alli narrowed her eyes doubtfully in his direction. "Oh, gosh, is that the best you can come up with? I thought you were supposed to be the ladies' man of the group."

AJ's eyes widened in protest. "I was being serious!" He leaned back in his chair and took another sip of the beer he'd been nursing all evening. "Besides, I'm not the ladies' man anymore; Howard is."

"He's taken," Alli muttered in disgust as she stole a taste of AJ's beer. She made a face and handed it back to him. "That's bitter."

AJ laughed at her, poking her in the side to get a bigger rise out of her. He laughed even harder when she squirmed out of his reach. "I'm taken too, babe. And don't drink a man's beer. It's not like that sweet stuff you order."

Alli groaned and dropped her face in her hands. "JD's, Cosmo, fuzzy navel...they're all the same. They make you numb."

"They make you sick."

Alli opened one eye to glare at him. "You're one to talk. Usually we're dragging you out of the bar, plastered and still up for a party. Why aren't you drinking much?"

AJ laughed tersely. "I don't want a hangover?"

"Never stopped you before," Alli retorted, trying to avoid looking at Nick. Her body failed her, however, and she found her gaze drifting to him again. Quit it! You knew he was going to do this!

"Amanda's coming tomorrow."

Alli cracked a small smile at the thought of her friend's arrival. "That explains it then. I'm glad she's coming."

AJ smiled warmly in spite of himself. "Yeah, that makes two of us."

There was a lull in the conversation, and Alli's eyes wandered back to Nick and the girl. They were gyrating to some hip-hop song by Dr. Dre, and the way their bodies rubbed together made Alli's stomach churn. Damn, any closer and they'd be fucking with clothes on...

When she tore her gaze away, she caught AJ studying her intensely. He had a look on his face that betrayed nothing but concern, and she hated that she was worrying him. More than anything, however, she hated that she was letting Nick get to her again. She sighed heavily and vowed to ignore him for the rest of the night, but she knew it was hopeless. There was no way she'd be able to avoid glancing in his direction. She missed her best friend.

Tiredly, she tore her gaze away from her Carter and admitted defeat for the night. With a little imagination, she could pretend that she was too tired to care. Too tired, too drunk, too ill, too frustrated...whatever.

"Hey, AJ?"

AJ lifted his head to look at her and raised his eyebrows in an inquisitive fashion. "Yeah?"

Alli's features drooped immediately at his eager look. That's what a friend is supposed to feel like... "Can we go home?"

AJ felt something pull at his heartstrings as he watched her. "Sure, Al." He dropped a few bills on the table and slid out of the booth to take her hand. "Let's go. I'll just grab Marc on the way out."

She nodded gratefully and leaned against him, thankful for his support. She felt his arm around her shoulder and closed her eyes for a brief moment, relishing the feeling of friendship. Then, with one more glance in Nick's direction, she allowed AJ to lead her out of the club and into the limo that would take them home.

Well, not home...just the hotel. But, at this rate, it's as close to home as I'm going to get.

"Don't Go Away"
lyrics and music by Ace of Base