He could only stare past everything, through everything as he waited
for her to burst back through the door and apologize, saying that it wasn't worth fighting over and they really were best
friends. Her words had barely registered by the time she'd slammed the door, and he was left to stare after her with an emptiness
weighing in his chest. Despite the fact that his one sure thing had just walked out the door, only one thought could register
in his head before it all came crashing down on him in one huge wave of reality.
It isn't supposed to hurt this
Then he was bleeding, aching, screaming, inside his head, towards her retreating figure: this new fortress,
the new wall which he had not been permitted to scale himself, which had been built of his own will and which had stood for
so long (and who knew how, fighting against what of kindness and weakness and pain) before she came to him. I could go
to her, he thought. I could pull her closer and closer and never let go, never need to stand so strong again. Only
I won't. I won't, her broken heart in his hands now, the pieces bleeding in it as he stood frozen in his place and trembling
there, there in the midst of his brothers' singing on the blackened stage, and dropped the pieces to the floor.
could drop them on the floor so easily, dust them under the seats in the front row and pretend they weren't there. He could
turn and walk back up onto the stage to continue with rehearsal like nothing had happened. He could even muster a smile long
enough to reassure the others that he was indeed an asshole, and he really didn't care. But, in truth, he couldn't stop caring.
"Man, you okay? What the hell just happened?"
He shrugged in AJ's direction, prepared to blow the older man
off. "Beats me, man. You know women. They get all worked up over stupid shit. Alli's just being crabby because of her dad.
She'll be back, you'll see."
But even as he said it, even as AJ scowled at him and walked away, he didn't believe
it. There was a look in her eyes that time that he'd never seen before, and he hated it. He hated the defeated expression
on her face and the hurt in her voice. He hated the tears in her eyes that she couldn't cry because she didn't trust him anymore.
He hated the man he'd become, and he hated himself for letting her tear his entire world down just because she cared enough.
He shook his head and began dancing with the others. She hadn't really cared enough. In the end, she'd walked out
the door. Of course, he couldn't really blame her. He'd have walked away also, and that realization shocked him more than
the fact that he could pretend she didn't matter. Alli would always matter, but by admitting that he would've walked away,
he was admitting that she was right. He was admitting that he had become someone so strong that he couldn't be weak anymore.
And then he had to wonder if he was strong at all.
He closed his eyes for a moment to clear his head. He couldn't
imagine rebuilding himself again. He couldn't imagine letting go of his newfound strength for a girl that he wasn't even interested
in. After all, Alli was just a friend. Her opinion of him shouldn't matter so much. And, in the end, she hadn't even been
able to change him. He knew he should feel triumph at having won. Alli herself had said that he'd won. Of course, Alli had
walked out the door only moments later.
Suddenly, he didn't really think that he'd won anymore. You can't win
when you lose the one person who actually had a grip on who you really are.
He'd said over and over that she
didn't know him, that he had changed. Yet he couldn't help thinking that she did know him better than anyone ever did or could.
Alli knew him better than he knew himself, and that was a frightening thought. Of course, Alli had walked out.
was terrified by the fact that he wanted to walk out too. He couldn't, though.
Damn, when did it get so bad?
would you concentrate over there? You've almost stepped on poor Howie twice during this routine, and you wrote the damn song!
Pay attention, okay?"
Nick recovered long enough to pull an apologetic expression, which he shot to Fatima. "Fa, I'm
really sorry. He's just so little that he's kind of hard to see..."
If the others were shocked at his sudden reversion
back to old habits, they didn't show it. Howie's reply was immediate and flawless.
"Nicky, quit making excuses for
the fact that you have two left feet."
And then it happened. He laughed. For the first time in a long time, he was
actually giggling at Howie's retort. The other four were looking at him like he was absolutely crazy, and he didn't blame
them. Only seconds after he started laughing, he felt a huge lump welling in his throat, and he couldn't breathe. His chest
constricted with a force that he couldn't identify, and he had to close his eyes again to get a grip on himself. However,
when he closed his eyes, all he could see was the look on Alli's face when she'd told him that he'd said he didn't need her.
His eyes snapped open immediately and he began dancing again to avoid any further criticism by Fatima.
I really say that to her? I didn't mean it. I really do need her...but I don't. I can't...
He shook his head
at his own thoughts, thoroughly aggravated by his inability to push her away, and yet equally aggravated by his inability
to pull her close. Alli already knew more of him than anybody, so the risk would be minimal. However, he couldn't bring himself
to change again. He couldn't will away the walls he had built for his own protection. He didn't need protection from Alli
because she was just a friend, but he couldn't let her in either. He had convinced himself long ago that he didn't have much
to offer emotionally. He hadn't even needed the emotional attachment until Alli had joined the tour. She always had required
more than anyone else, though. She didn't put up with any of his crap, and she forced him to play things straight with her.
He almost chuckled at the irony of it. She hadn't necessarily been straight with him. Her eyes had held a month of hurt, but
she hadn't ever mentioned it to him. She hadn't approved of his new and improved character, but she hadn't ever told him that
his change hurt her. He felt a tiny pang of guilt when he remembered the bitter edge to her words. But why do I have to
feel guilty? Why does it have to be my fault? She knows how different I am, and she came anyway. She knows that I've grown
up considerably, and she still tried to make me act like a child. Why is it my fault that I stood strong and she failed?
only logical conclusion was that it wasn't his fault, but the guilt was still fresh. The guilt had been fresh enough to force
an apology out of him when he hadn't said "I'm sorry" in months. He knew he was living recklessly, but it left little time
for regret, and he was tired of being sorry and cautious. He was tired of caring, because it hurt too much to care. And yet,
regardless of how much it hurt to care, regardless of the fact that he'd been numb since the beginning of the tour, he felt
as though someone was ripping his heart out of his chest. He just couldn't figure out why.
He had warned her that
he wasn't going to change back. He had warned her about his various flings, warned her about his sudden dislike for anything
childish and his sudden need to be respected by those around him. He had only wanted control in his life, and he had finally
gotten it by the time Alli arrived. Of course, he hadn't ever wanted to control her. One of the things about Alli that he
loved most was her free spirit and audacious personality. She hadn't cared what people thought about her, and she had always
been herself regardless of the situation. He hadn't ever thought he'd live to see the day that Alli would surrender a cause,
but she had.
It killed him that he might have been the one to finally break her. He had just wanted power over his
own life. He hadn't wanted the kind of power that could make his best friend cry. She was supposed to be his rock. Not
that I need one, of course. We solved that problem when I grew up.
Even if he didn't need her to support him,
though, her absence hurt. He felt empty, and the knowledge that she'd taken their friendship with her hurt even more. He finally
settled on being angry to ease the burning in his chest. He was seeing red, but at least it didn't hurt anymore.
regardless of how angry he was, he spent the rest of the rehearsal watching the door to the arena with the smallest hope that
she might come running back through it.
* * * * *
"You're really leaving?"
Alli sighed heavily and stopped
her packing long enough to level her girlfriends with a sad but solemn look. "Yeah, I'm really leaving. Daddy needs me."
voice was tentative as she spoke. "Al, what about Nick?"
Alli gave a bitter laugh at his name. "I've said all there
is to say to Nick."
Amanda's frown was deep and dark on her exotic features. "Not Carter?"
Alli shook her
head. "Definitely not Carter. That's not my Carter, and I won't call him Carter."
Kristin sighed heavily and gazed
concernedly at Alli. "You're serious about this, aren't you? You're really not coming back."
Alli smiled ruefully.
"Ladies, this is it for me. It's been great fun and I hope you all keep in touch, but I can't do this anymore, you know? There
are lots of other men I'd rather chase around. I'm thinking that I might go find Brad Pitt and see just how attached he is
to Jennifer Aniston."
Jessi rolled her eyes, recognizing Alli's sarcasm as her defense mechanism. "Alli..."
looked up to face her friend, eyes wide with innocence. "What? This country has a high divorce rate!"
back a small smile. "Al, you know that's not what she means."
Alli rolled her eyes at Kristin's maternal nature. She'd
never really had a mother, but she was sure that Kristin had taken the role in another life. "Kris, I'm through with playing
games, okay? I can't win, and I won't pretend that I can. Nick is Nick, and he's pretty intent on not changing."
looked at Alli doubtfully. "So you're giving up."
Alli groaned. "Good God, what part of 'I'm through' did you not
Amanda arched an eyebrow pointedly. "You sat and argued with me for a good hour and a half about why
you shouldn't give up on Nick, and now you're jetting back to Tampa with no plans to return? Al, you're not too logical, but
this is too wacky for even you."
Alli shook her head. "Even I get tired, Manda, and I'm really fucking tired right
"So sleep it off!"
Alli chuckled. "No can do. Unfortunately, the blonde kid would still be here when
I woke up, and that's not something I can handle right now. Maybe later, but not anywhere in the near future." With another
heavy sigh, she zipped the last of her suitcases and gave them all a smile. "Well, I'm out!"
Leighanne frowned. "Who's
taking you to the airport?"
Alli's eyes brightened with a mischievous glint. "Billy."
Amanda rolled her eyes
and swore. "Dammit, Al, Nick's going to pitch a fit..."
Alli shrugged. "No he won't. Trust me, Nick doesn't want me
Leighanne leveled her with a serious look. "He's going to miss you, Al. He may not know it yet, but he will."
Alli shook her head. "Doubtful."
Before they could offer any further arguments, there was a knock on the door,
and Alli's smile widened.
"That's Billy, and that's my sign to leave. Come give me a hug, and stay out of trouble,
Amanda pouted. "Without you around, I won't have any way to get into trouble," she muttered, but she hugged
her friend tightly just the same. "Call us when you get to Tampa, okay? Blondie may have his head up his ass, but we're still
worried about you."
Alli nodded and hugged each of the others in turn before opening the door and pulling her suitcases
into the hallway. When she finally came face to face with her visitor, her features darkened. "Oh, just super..."
stood firm, folding his arms across his chest to look intimidating. "You can't leave."
Alli rolled her eyes and continued
to pull her suitcases toward the elevator. "I beg to differ, oh wise one."
"But you're not coming back!"
turned around and offered a small smile, patting him on the head and sighing with mock content as she did so. "Don't let anyone
ever tell you you're slow, okay buddy?"
Nick growled at her sarcasm, knowing that she wasn't taking him seriously.
"Look, Al, I really don't want you to leave, okay? Why don't you come back once your dad gets better?"
lightly and pressed the down button for the elevator. "I don't have any reason to come back."
Nick's eyes widened
incredulously. "What about me?"
Alli pretended to think over the matter for a few minutes. "Okay, you're right. I'll
tell you what, Nick. When you find my Carter, give me a call, okay? You know my number."
Nick's features softened
when he heard the hurt in her voice, and he cursed himself inwardly for his inability to respond. "Alli..."
doors opened and she shoved her bags in quickly before sliding between the doors and giving him one last wave. "Bye, Nick."
His expression grew frantic as the doors beganclosing. "Al, wait..."
The slamming of the elevator doors interrupted
his plea, and he had to close his eyes to keep from screaming in frustration.
She really wasn't coming back. A few
mistakes, and she was willing to walk out of his life forever. The biggest mistake had been on her part, though, in thinking
that she didn't matter, that her absence didn't matter. As much as he didn't want to admit it, she did matter, and the thought
that she could leave so easily was killing him. His thoughts from that morning came rushing back to him all of a sudden.
should go to her. I should pull her closer and closer and never let go, never need to maintain my own pride again. Only I
won't. I won't.
And he didn't. Instead, he turned around
and walked back to his room to get ready for the show that evening.