"I don't get it."
"You always don't get it."
but this time I REALLY don't get it."
A roll of the eyes followed the heavy sigh. "Okay, babe, hit me. What don't you
A glare arrived from the other occupant of the king-sized bed. "You say that like you think I'm stupid."
flinched. He had been dating Amanda long enough to know when a temper tantrum was coming on, and they tended to come more
quickly and more frequently early in the morning. He inconspicuously glanced at his watch and groaned inaudibly when he saw
that it was a quarter past seven. What a way to start the day...
"Baby, I don't think you're stupid...you
She arched an eyebrow expectantly. "Oh, do I?"
That time, AJ didn't bother to suppress his groan.
"Panda, I love you, but it is way too early in the morning to start bitching about respect for the female sex, okay?"
opened her mouth to reply, but closed it just as quickly and folded her arms over her chest. "So I suppose I'm just good sex,
is that it?"
AJ cast a warning look in her direction. "Amanda..."
He smiled happily and
pulled her close to him, biting back his laughter when she insisted on keeping her arms folded. "Now, what is it that you
AJ groaned again. "That's a pretty broad topic, Manda. There's a lot about Nick that none
of us get. Come to think about it, there's not a whole lot about Nick that any of us do get right now..."
her eyes. "Yeah, you can say that again..."
"Come to think about it, there's not..."
His cheeky reply was interrupted
by a loud smack across the chest. "AJ, you shit, I didn't mean it literally!" She made an exasperated noise. "God, when do
I ever mean anything literally?"
He arched an eyebrow. "Well, you did say 'oh, fuck me' last night...and I'm assuming
that was a request to be taken literally, if you know what I mean." He winked for emphasis, and she turned her head away so
he couldn't see the crimson creeping up her cheeks.
"Okay, so maybe I do say some things and expect them to be taken
literally, but not all the time, and..."
AJ tried unsuccessfully to hide his smile.
"What don't you get?"
"Nick collapses onstage, drinks himself into oblivion, and manages to hide from the wrath of
Kevin by surrounding himself with sex and candy, right?"
AJ's smile was fading quickly to a perplexed expression. Amanda
was famous for her tangents, and it was extremely easy to get lost after a moment or two of one-way conversation. "Yeah..."
he didn't bring anyone to his room last night or the night before, and he's been glued to his cell phone for the past week.
I mean, hell Age, he just called you to meet him for breakfast at fucking seven a.m.! It doesn't add up, you know?"
sighed. "Personally, I'm shocked, but we don't know that he hasn't been up all night fucking some bar chick and sending her
out before we could see her."
Amanda rolled her eyes. "Still, it doesn't fit. When has Nick ever woken up on time?"
response was immediate. "Never, but there's a first time for everything. We still don't know if he's hung over or not."
rolled out of bed and began striding towards the closet with a heavy sigh. "Just so you know--if he smiles during breakfast,
I'm going to have a coronary. Poster Boy hasn't acted like it since Alli left."
AJ arched an eyebrow as he began stretching.
"You think she's the cause of this?"
Amanda shook her head as she slipped on a sweater and jeans. "No, I think he's
in love with her."
The corners of AJ's mouth turned up in a smirk as he slid out of bed to join his girlfriend by the
closet. "That's a pretty big claim, babe. Anything you're willing to stake that on?"
She grinned evilly as she slipped
into the bathroom to brush her teeth. "Hmmm...let me think..."
AJ's voice was muffled from under his hooded sweatshirt.
"You're going to make it something evil, aren't you?"
She stuck her head out of the bathroom to quickly respond. "I
bet a week of mad, passionate sex that Nick is in love with Alli."
AJ rolled his eyes. "What, so now I get punished
if the shit doesn't love her?"
"So, basically, I have ten minutes to learn to play matchmaker?"
laughed and re-emerged from the bathroom, obviously pleased to see her boyfriend ready to leave. "No, nothing like that, Age.
I didn't say he would admit to loving her. I doubt he even knows he's in love with her." She paused to wink at him. "But he
is. Love the shirt, by the way."
AJ glanced down at his sweatshirt, cringing with he saw BACKSTREET RULEZ! written
on the front of it. "A fan gave it to me."
Amanda's lips curved to match his previous smirk. "I bet."
heavily. "Where are we going to eat?"
"Nick's room. Room service. You know this."
He grinned at her. "Then I
won't change. Nick's so blind when it comes to clothes that he won't even notice."
Amanda arched an eyebrow skeptically.
"I doubt that."
AJ sighed. "Are you going to stake another week of mad, passionate sex on it?"
expression changed to an incredulous one. "Are you kidding?"
"No, I'm living in fear at the moment, why?"
I was afraid we were back to that 'Do you really think I'm stupid?' thing again."
He just laughed. "Are we going now?"
we're going now. Don't want Nick to think we're talking about him again."
AJ groaned. "Why is he such a popular subject
Amanda shrugged. "He's an idiot, right? Aren't idiots always popular subjects?"
"I wouldn't know.
I'm not an idiot."
Amanda laughed. "Well, it's not like people talk about idiots to their face."
"Are you saying
that I could be an idiot and I wouldn't know?"
She just smiled innocently. "I thought we were going now?"
growled and pulled her into his arms for the second hug of the morning. "You're calling me an idiot. I think this calls for
"You're a guy. All guys are idiots."
AJ rolled his eyes. "All girls are drama queens."
grinned mischievously. "Oh, yes, but you need drama queens to make you feel normal."
"And you need idiots to make you
Amanda chuckled. "Then Alli must be feeling like Einstein right about now."
AJ shook his head.
"Nah, I think Alli feels kind of like that chick on the Disney movie that had to raise five babies."
Amanda burst out
laughing as they opened the door to their room and began the trek to Nick's room. "What the hell are you doing watching Disney
"It was a commercial!"
She rolled her eyes. "Right."
He pouted. "I'm ignoring you now. At least Nick doesn't tease me mercilessly about stupid stuff."
shot her boyfriend a disbelieving look as she knocked on Nick's door. "Yes, he does."
"He does what?"
jaw dropped in shock, her playful spat with AJ totally forgotten. "Since when do you open the door that fast?"
smirked at her. "Since I'm expecting company?"
Amanda's shocked expression darkened. "Which bar chick did you coerce
into spending the morning with you?"
AJ bit his bottom lip to keep from smiling. "He was expecting us, Manda."
open jaw closed quickly. "Oh."
Nick smiled warmly. "Nah, it's cool. You guys wanna come in? I'm starving, personally.
I didn't know what to order you, though, so we're going to have to wait a bit longer for breakfast this morning."
shrugged. "It's cool." Amanda, on the other hand, was staring incredulously again. She paused in the act of catching flies,
however, to elbow AJ on their way inside. He looked only minorly annoyed.
nodded blandly. "Are you looking for permission to have your coronary?"
He shook his head. "Yeah,
no kidding. You said that already."
Amanda groaned. "But...but..."
Nick looked up in surprise from his intense
study of the room service menu. "Manda? Something wrong?"
Nick chuckled lightly. "Am I not
allowed or something?"
AJ grinned knowingly. "She just can't remember the last time you did it, is all."
Amanda was still staring openly. "Did something weird happen this morning? You look charmed, and
it's really starting to freak me out."
Nick shrugged. "I woke up. I talked to Alli. I invited y'all to breakfast. Other
than that, nothing happened."
Amanda shook her head. "Whoa, backtrack here...you talked to Alli?"
returned. "Yeah. She forgave me."
Amanda shot AJ a meaningful grin, and AJ groaned aloud. Nick, however, was entirely
confused by the exchange and made no move to hide it. His blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What?"
AJ shook his head.
"Nothing. Amanda's just being weird."
Nick shrugged. "And how is this any different from the day-to-day?"
actually laughed. "You got me, man. I don't know."
Meanwhile, Amanda's jaw had dropped again as she stared at Nick
in wonder. "Did you just make a joke?!"
Nick groaned and turned to AJ. "Man, have I really been that bad?"
shrugged. "Yeah, but we forgive you for being a shit. You do it a lot anyway."
Nick chuckled uncertainly. "Thanks,
Amanda was still gawking, but AJ was hungry and ready for a change of subject. "Can we hurry up and order?
No offense, Nick, but as amusing as Manda can be, I'd still rather eat before the sun goes down, okay?"
him the menu and grinned again, eliciting a small squeal from AJ's girlfriend. "Deal. By the way, man...love the shirt." He
snickered, and AJ grunted.
Amanda's smile of triumph lit up the bedroom.
* * *
When the sun eventually did go down, the darkness found Alli standing
nervously outside her father's house. Holly had gone home to visit her own family, so her father had invited her to a dinner
with just the two of them. She had been deliriously happy ever since his phone call--well, until she'd arrived on the porch.
At that point, her stomach twisted in knots and butterflies began building a nest within them. She groaned again at her inability
to ring the doorbell and sighed heavily, wondering what on earth could make her nervous to see her own father.
to tell, she'd noticed a change in him since her encounter with Holly. Something about the woman seemed to have brought about
the change, though, and Alli was still in the midst of deciding whether it was a good change or a bad change. She did know
that the change brought about a fear that he wouldn't understand her anymore. As long as she could remember, her family had
existed only of herself and her father. They had formed a bond that was undisturbed by time and distance--or so she thought.
she wasn't so sure.
She didn't know Holly well enough to dislike her, but she knew enough about her relationship with
John Lacey to be skeptical. Growing up with her father, Alli had rarely seen any woman but Jane Carter in the house. At first,
she had thought that he would resume dating as soon as she left for college. When she arrived back home for her first holiday
and found him contentedly single, however, her theory fell away, and she accepted the fact that he just wasn't interested
in women anymore. She didn't blame him, though. She herself had a hard time trusting women, and she herself was female.
Holly's presence had not only disrupted the theory, but also had placed her nerves on edge and her guard
up. She tried to convince herself that she was only looking out for her father, but she knew that there was more to her hostility
than her father's well being. However, the more existed in a Pandora's box that she had no interest in opening any time soon.
a deep breath, she gathered her courage and turned the key in the lock, stepping inside the house tentatively. As she closed
the door behind her, her uncertain voice rang through the halls. "Daddy? I'm here..."
She hated that the word "home"
didn't seem to fit anymore.
"Al? Is that you?" His voice preceded him, but she could hear the creak of the wheelchair
from down the hall. She rolled her eyes at the obvious question.
"No, it's the ghost of Christmas past, come to haunt
you. By the way, I brought that nightcap that you dropped in the graveyard last Christmas..."
Her father beamed at
her from the doorway. "Ah, the wit's back. Did I tell you yet how much I missed having someone to retort to?"
rolled her eyes again. "You mean Holly doesn't double as a partner for some verbal sparring?"
Her father's bright smile
dimmed a bit. "Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Holly."
Al's distaste was nearly palpable. "I thought this dinner
was going to be just the two of us."
He laughed. "Oh, it will be. We have to make casual conversation, though."
let out a sigh of resignation. "Only if you made spaghetti." She had been blessed with a father of many trades, but she appreciated
the culinary skills more than anything else. She had been saddened during college to learn that she had not inherited them.
winked at her. "What else would I make?"
He frowned. "Nah, don't do hamburgers much anymore. Hol's
Alli groaned lightly. "Oh, really?" Go freaking figure. "Daddy, why don't you take your place
at the table? I'll fix the plates."
He smiled lovingly at his only daughter. "Sounds good."
Alli went to work
piling two plates with spaghetti and meatballs while she attempted small talk. "So, how's the recovery process going?"
father groaned audibly from his place at the table. "You always ask me that."
Alli laughed genuinely and set a plate
in front of him. "It's only because I care."
He sighed. "I know, but it doesn't make the question any less annoying."
chuckled lightly as she took her place at the table. "I feel like I'm supposed to apologize..."
"But you won't," her
father finished with a knowing smile. His daughter had not inherited his gift for tact, either, but he was used to it. Alli
shot him a mischievous smile from across the table.
"You haven't answered yet."
He shot her a knowing look.
"You won't apologize then either."
Alli smirked at him and popped her can of soda open, taking a long drink before
delivering a reply. "Try me."
He groaned and took a long swig of his iced tea. "I'm moving along fine. Physical therapy
is a bitch, but I'm getting back in shape. The casts should be off by sometime in late January. Of course, you'll be gone
Alli frowned. "I never said I'd be gone by then. I'm going to take another semester off before I start into
Her father gave another knowing look as he reached across the table to take her hands and offer a
quick grace. "Oh, you'll be gone. Trust me."
Alli rolled her eyes, but grace began before she could counter his prediction.
She closed her eyes and reveled in the tiny trickle of normalcy that came with the prayer. Her father had said the same grace
since she'd been a child, and she wouldn't hesitate to admit that she missed it when she wasn't home.
But, of course,
it didn't feel like home anymore.
She tried to discard the thought and began twirling pasta around her fork, but her
father's voice broke the silence. She looked up attentively, wondering whether or not she was glad at the disturbed silence.
Alli frowned. "You're asking about him a lot lately, you know that?"
Her father laughed. "I just
sense that there's more to the situation than you let on."
Alli groaned. "Here's an idea--leave the sensing to Miss
Cleo from now on."
John Lacey shook his head. "Nah, that's no fun. So what's up between you two?"
"Now? Nothing. We cleared it all up at a ridiculous hour this morning."
John chewed thoughtfully before replying. "What
kind of ridiculous hour are we talking?"
Alli made a face into her spaghetti. "Six in the morning. That boy is a nut."
time zone was he in?"
Alli shrugged. "Whatever time zone is two hours behind us. The dork woke up at four a.m. to call
John grinned at her. "But you're glad he did."
Alli arched an eyebrow before swallowing. "I'm glad we're
not fighting anymore. I hate fighting with him."
They sat in silence for a moment, listening intently to the sound
of their forks against the plates. The tension was mounting, and Alli, for one, was extremely uncomfortable. It's not supposed to be this hard to talk to him.
out of town?"
Bad idea. She hated the way his eyes lit up whenever Holly's name was mentioned.
She went to visit her dad, who lives in Orlando. She drove."
Alli nodded, acknowledging the fact that he obviously
wanted to discuss his girlfriend further. She didn't necessarily like it, but she loved her father enough to humor him for
a few minutes. "Are her parents divorced?"
John chewed thoughtfully before shaking his head. "Nope. Actually, her family
situation is a lot like yours."
It wasn't supposed to happen that way. The fork wasn't supposed
to hit the plate. It wasn't supposed to slip out of her hands. Her jaw wasn't supposed to drop, and her eyes weren't supposed
to widen. But they did, and she sudden felt a sharp pain in the pit of her stomach.
He looked up long
enough to chuckle at her. "You sound surprised."
Alli shook her head slightly. "Where's her mother?"
staring down at the plate in front of him. "She died of a drug overdose."
She wanted to be bitter and cynical. Usually
she could master the technique just fine, but something about the sudden revelation rendered her somewhat speechless. "What
Her father met her eyes that time in a meaningfully solemn look. "Morphine. She had cancer."
hated how the word did so little to express the things that were racing through her mind. "So she only has a father."
own father nodded slightly and went back to his dinner. "Yeah, that's kinda the deal."
"How old was she when her mother
died?" She had no idea where the questions were coming from, but she needed to know. For some reason, she was suddenly enthralled
with the subject and afraid of it, all at the same time. It hit too close to home, and yet it wasn't close enough.
amidst her feelings of confusion, there was also the fear that it was about to get closer.
"She was about three or
four. She doesn't remember much of her mom, but she saw the effects of everything in her father."
Alli nodded. Her
usually sarcastic reply came out in a soft, almost sympathetic tone that was entirely uncharacteristic of her. "I'll bet."
She paused before another question came tumbling forth. "So...how did she overdose?"
Her father looked up again with
the solemn look in his eyes. She hated that look. "You know how patients have a button that allows them to administer pain
medication to themselves when they feel that they need it?"
She hadn't known. "Yeah."
He sighed. "I think she
was tired of being in pain."
She felt the pricks of the pins behind her ears and at the tip of her nose, but she wasn't
about to cry. Somehow, crying over Holly's mother would be crying over her own, and she had sworn long ago that she wouldn't
do that. She swallowed the lump in her throat as the last dreaded question came rushing out. "How does Holly feel about it
Her father glanced up briefly as he chewed, then paused to swallow. "Honestly? I think she's had a long time
to think about it. Unlike you, she's more of a reflective person. She's thought about it a lot, and she's come to a peaceful
place regarding it all." He smiled slightly. "That's why she tolerates your attitude, though. I don't like it, but Holly doesn't
mind. She understands."
Her voice was barely above a whisper as her eyes bore into her plate. "Oh."
to focus on twirling the pasta around her fork and chewing her food so that she could ignore the three little words rolling
around inside her head amidst the mass confusion that she could no longer decipher. Well, she couldn't necessarily decipher
it, but she could feel it tightening into a large mass in the pit of her stomach. She closed her eyes a moment and let the
words echo in the back of her head.
Oh. My. God.
The rest of the dinner was spent in polite small
talk and silence, but her mind was elsewhere. She just kept watching her father, forcing the words out, so that she could
eventually leave and calm herself down. Because she knew that she'd be calm once she got out of the tension, out of the unfamiliar
place that she'd once felt so safe in. She didn't want to think about everything that the new knowledge had suddenly dragged
to the surface.
She just wanted to leave.
And after she left? She'd just pray that she had an ounce of sanity
at the end of the evening. She wanted to be okay. She wanted to shove it all back down, call Nick, call David, and fall asleep.
She wanted to re-bury everything.
She just wasn't sure that was a possibility anymore.