Nick sighed heavily and leaned back against the headboard of his
hotel bed, trying desperately to get comfortable. "So, things are finally okay between you and Holly?"
from her upside-down position on her leather couch. "Yeah. I mean, it's weird, because I never thought I'd befriend the same
plastic people that stare at me from the Toys 'R' Us shelves and all, but..."
Nick groaned. "Okay, she can't be that
bad. I still can't believe John's dating anyone."
"Yeah, well, that makes two of us."
He laughed. "You're still
shocked? Haven't you had time to adjust and everything?"
Alli arched an eyebrow. "Carter, you should know better than
anyone that I don't deal with change well."
Nick groaned. "Yeah, no shit. I'd forgotten about that."
Nick frowned. "Was that another crack at my brain capacity?"
Alli's other eyebrow rose to meet
the first. "Whoa. Either you're getting quicker, or you're flipping through the dictionary again."
Nick sighed heavily.
"I'm pouting at you."
"Oh? Remind me to be sympathetic later, then, 'cause I might forget."
Nick stretched and
abandoned the pouting idea. "You know, I think I like you better when you're in the middle of an emotional breakdown."
grinned. "Yeah, and I think I like you better when you're miles away."
She smirked. "Well, if
you start to PMS on me, I can just hang up."
Nick groaned again and rolled over, pulling at loose strings on the bed
covers to entertain himself. "You're so mean."
"You wouldn't have it any other way," she retorted. "Who else would
keep that pop star ego in check?"
Nick's features contorted indignantly. "I do not have a pop star ego..."
nodded. "Right, and AJ's not addicted to tattoo ink or sex with Amanda."
"AJ's not addicted to sex with Amanda. AJ's
just addicted to sex."
Alli smiled sweetly. "No, Carter, I believe that would be you." She could hear the beginnings
of his retort, but chose to ignore them. "By the way, how is that sex addiction coming?"
Nick chuckled lightly. "I've
been good, thank you very much. This is, like, the third night that I've got an empty bed."
"The night is still young,"
Alli pointed out, and Nick frowned.
"You know, Al, your faith in me is just astounding..."
"I kid because I
Nick sighed heavily. "I'm not feeling the love right now, chica."
Alli groaned, and Nick chuckled
at the disgusted sound on the other end. "What?"
"It's official now. You are spending WAY too much time with my friends."
indignant look returned. "Hey! I happen to think that it's doing some good!"
Alli's expression was doubtful. "And how
does that figure?"
Nick smiled innocently. "Well, for one thing, you're talking to me again."
"I'm also sleeping
in a bed that's two thousand miles from yours."
Nick grinned again. "Al, are you saying that you'd rather be sharing
a bed with me? 'Cause, you know, that could be arranged..."
Alli moaned in annoyance. "Don't you have a button that
stops the flow of testosterone to your brain?"
"Maybe I like being in hormone overdrive. Maybe I feel more manly,"
Nick shot back.
"Well, then, Mr. Man, should I add a loin cloth to your list of Christmas gifts?"
turned sour. "Ha fucking ha."
Alli smiled sweetly. "I thought it was pretty funny, actually."
"I'm sure you
did. Wouldn't be the first time you've been wrong."
Alli's smile widened as she finally turned herself right-side-up
and stretched out on the couch with a nostalgic expression playing at her features. "You know, Carter, I'm really glad we're
Nick knew the tone in her voice well enough to smile at it. "Why is that?"
"I missed my verbal
sparring partner. I mean, damn, Doc is good and AJ is good and Amanda's getting there, but you take the cake."
laughed. "I knew it!"
Alli's nostalgic expression narrowed until she looked suspicious. "What did you know and why
hasn't the world exploded yet?"
"Ha," he muttered, then brightened. "No, seriously, though, I knew the time would come
where you would join the world in stroking my ego instead of deflating it."
Alli sighed. "I feel for those reps at
Nick's frown took precedence over his triumphant smile. "Why's that?"
"They probably have no idea that
they've created a monster."
Nick groaned. "Do you have a button that stops the wit from biting my ass every time I
dial your number?"
Alli smiled mischievously. "No, but you could get me one for Christmas."
As opposed to retorting,
Nick's eyes lit up at the opportunity to change the subject and surprise his best friend. "Oh, that reminds me! Christmas!"
chuckled lightly. "Dude, I don't think you're supposed to be this excited until AFTER you've gotten all of your gifts."
rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "No, seriously, Al, hear me out. We have one more week left of this damn tour, and then I'm
home free until the January stretch. Anyway, home life sucks right now, so I was going to come back to Tampa for Christmas
so we could hang out and check out the old scene. Is that cool?"
Alli laughed incredulously. "You're skipping Christmas
with your family to come down to Tampa and hang with your old buds down here?"
Nick half-smiled. "Al, you make me sound
like a terrible son. I'll be over there Christmas morning and everything, but I want to come back to Tampa for Christmas night
and New Year's and all that shit. I'm going to have more fun as a drunk surrounded by friends in Howie's club than as a drunk
alone in one of the tiny bars in Cali. It's just easier for me, and I miss seeing everybody anyway. I'm ready for some old-fashioned
fun, you know?"
Alli's features clouded in disapproval. "You're ready to get drunk on New Year's."
"Will you be there?"
Alli shrugged. "Will the girls be there?"
"Can you think of anywhere else they'd rather
Alli finally laughed. "No, and that means that I'll be with them."
"So you won't have to worry about me
getting drunk. I told you I was getting better."
Alli arched an eyebrow skeptically. "I didn't think I'd have to tell
you that I don't believe you."
Nick made a face. "I was nice to you yesterday, remember?"
"Does that mean I'm
eternally indebted to you?"
Nick frowned more deeply at the fact that she had a point. Alli with a point could be lethal
in an argument. "No, but..."
"That's right, Carter, no buts. Although, speaking of butts...how is that ghetto booty
Nick's cheeks flared crimson. He was used to hearing all kinds of sexual talk from girls, but something
about hearing it from Alli still made him remotely uncomfortable. Add that to the fact that talk of his butt always embarrassed
him, and it wasn't difficult to pinpoint the cause of his blush. "You're just trying to make me blush."
"Yeah, and it's working. Red's a good color for you, Carter. You don't wear it often enough."
"If I beg, will you change
Alli sighed in false contemplation. "I don't know. If I beg, will you change your shirt?"
eyes widened in protest. "What the hell?! You don't even know what I'm wearing!"
Alli laughed. "True, but there's a
ninety-nine percent chance that it could qualify as a national disaster."
Nick groaned. "Man, what the hell is with
the verbal onslaught tonight? I've been good to you lately!"
Alli smiled innocently. "Yeah, but think of all those
great comebacks I missed during that whole emotional breakdown thing..."
Nick's tone immediately softened as memories
of Alli's state that evening ran through his head. "Are you okay?"
Alli frowned. "Didn't you ask me that this morning?"
chuckled nervously. "I need a little reassuring. You were pretty shook up, and I had to turn you over to another guy."
smiled. "I'm sure you were relieved to be free of the basket case. You must get sick of girls crying around you."
brow furrowed as her words hit home. He knew that she was teasing him again, but he didn't like the amount of truth to her
humor. "Al, you don't really think that, do you? You're different, okay? You're my friend, and..."
Alli smirked. "Running
out of words for the Hallmark moment?"
Nick sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "Alli, dammit, I'm
fucking trying to be serious here. I care about you, okay? I care about you a lot more than I care about any of the shit associated
with this circus I'm stuck in."
Alli's smile turned nostalgic, and she cursed his ability to make her sentimental again.
"I care about you too, kid, and I'm really glad I called you that night."
Nick's frustrated expression finally faded
to a shy smile. "Me too."
She laughed lightly. "I mean, hell, for that hour, it was like you were my old Carter again."
thought wasn't supposed to make him feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and he cringed at the wave of nostalgia that washed over
him the moment her words registered. Dammit, Carter, whatever happened to being a man? He and his psyche had fought
to agree that he could let a bit of his guard down around Alli, but he hated the thought that a few girly words were turning
him into a sap of a best friend. He wasn't supposed to be growing down. He gulped at the thought that the walls of manhood
were starting to crumble. He had dignity to maintain.
Alli nodded. "Yeah, really. You were almost
brotherly. I was impressed. I didn't think you could be supportive anymore unless the issue involved a condom and the decision
to lose one's virginity."
Finally, he grinned. If she didn't want to keep the conversation saccharine and sentimental,
well...far be it from him to deny her. "Hey, I'm a guy, okay? That's my job."
Alli groaned. "Oh, now it's decided."
am SO getting you a loin cloth."
Nick laughed. "Isn't it past your bedtime?"
Alli leveled a mock accusatory
glare at the phone. "You're going out to pick up chicks again, aren't you?"
Nick chuckled. "Nah, I just wouldn't want
any poor person to have to see you without your beauty rest."
"Pretend I'm chucking a pillow at you."
half-smile returned. "Will do, Al. Sleep tight."
"Same to you...of course, sleeping alone would be preferable."
expression turned incredulous. "Subtlety isn't your strong suit, is it?"
Alli sighed sleepily. "What can I say? Some
things never change."
Nick laughed. He knew all too well that Alli would always be his piece of normal in his chaotic
life. Well, if you could ever call Alli normal, that is. "'Night, Al."
his head in amusement, still smiling as he clicked his cell phone off and tossed it behind his shoulder. Something about talking
to Alli always served to calm him down and make him smile. He hadn't realized nearly how much she'd meant to him as a friend
until she'd walked out on him nearly a month and a half ago, and he was more than grateful that he'd been able to repair their
friendship to a decent extent. Of course, at the same time, he couldn't help but wonder how much truth her sarcastic comments
held. Some of the things she had said were only teasing, and he could easily take them as such and retort, but others...others,
he wasn't so sure if she was entirely kidding. And he wasn't so sure if it was reassuring that she was nagging him again,
or if he really wanted to be someone different. He wasn't entirely sure that the testosterone overdrive and the sex and the
drinking and the wild antics were such an awesome display of manhood anymore. For some reason, he felt a heck of a lot better
about himself when Alli was calling to confide in him than when he was atop some mindless, faceless chick he'd found in a
That thought shouldn't have scared him as much as it did, but he was suddenly terrified of looking in the
He had told Alli during their chat that he'd been spending time with her girlfriends. Truth to tell, he'd been
spending almost TOO much time with Alli's friends because he had been having problems relating to the guys. Somehow, he always
seemed to catch them when they felt like lecturing, and he didn't appreciate the sudden onslaught of Backstreet wisdom from
his "older brothers". Since Alli had left, the only Backstreet Boy who had treated him with the same shred of decency was
AJ. Kevin had gone into paternal overdrive, Howie had simply refrained from saying too much, and Brian had been a bit more
caught up in Leighanne than usual.
He suddenly had the urge to call Alli back and drag her with him on a soul search.
He wasn't sure how she'd react, but he knew that she wouldn't hesitate to be honest with him.
The last thought brought
a smile, and he almost had to laugh. Alli was honest almost to a fault, but it was something that he loved about her. He could
always count on her to be straight with him, and he had taken advantage of the knowledge more times than he dared admit.
blue eyes met the mirror on the opposite wall, and he immediately frowned at the red rings around his eyes and the purple
bags under them. For once, he was grateful for the distance between himself and his best friend. She was honest to a fault,
but he wasn't always honest at all. He cringed at the memory of the night before, but knew that there was no need to tell
Alli that he'd drunk himself into a relatively dangerous stupor to ease the guilt at having to hand her over to David. But,
hell, would she blame me? I mean, I've screwed up so much now. I finally had the chance to do something right, and my fucking
job doesn't let me. I finally had the chance to make the whole damn tour up to her, and I had a show to do. Guilt sucks, but
it sure makes for a nice reality check.
He was holding the check tightly--he just wasn't sure if he wanted to
cash it in any time soon. He wasn't sure if he liked the weaker but more loyal person he was becoming. But, then again, he
knew that he didn't exactly like the power-hungry sex-addict that he had been prior to Alli's departure, and he knew that
the other Boys shared his distaste.
With a huge, heavy sigh, Nick reached for his torn, underused journal and began
flipping pages until he came to a blank one. He didn't write often--he never felt as intelligent as those that he surrounded
himself with--but he never hesitated to spill a few words when thinking started to hurt. With a frown, his tongue found a
place in the corner of his mouth and his fingers gripped the pencil as he began scrawling more ineloquent, raw words to ease
When I look in the mirror
I see nothing but a stranger.
I don't recognize this person anymore.
I don't want to be this person anymore.
All I want to see is the person
I used to know.
The person I used to be.
Where is that person I miss so bad?
When will I finally look in the mirror
And see that person I want to be? *
His thoughts and words were interrupted by a persistent knock at
the door. He heaved another huge sigh and closed the journal, safely tucking the pencil between the pages and hiding his turmoil
After all, if no one could see it, then it didn't have to become real yet. Nonentities were much more easy
to keep control of.
He padded to the door and peeked through the hole, frowning in confusion when he saw Brian's distorted
image on the other side. With a slight shrug of his shoulders, he undid the chain and opened the door with a small smile.
Brian smiled up at him. "Hey, Frack. Mind if I come in?"
Nick shrugged again and spread an arm out.
"Be my guest. It's a wreck, but..."
Brian laughed. "Nick trying to be hospitable? Dude, what are you on these days?"
boyish features registered clear confusion. Brian laughed again.
"Oh, come on. You've been decent lately. Is that time
of the month finally over?" he teased, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously. Nick's confused expression turned agitated.
you just come by to mess with me, or was there a point to this visit?"
Brian's chuckle faded. "No, there was a point."
He began to laugh nervously. "Actually, there was kind of a big point."
Nick flopped onto the bed and patted the space
beside him, signaling for Brian to do the same. When his best friend obliged, he exhaled noisily. "Exactly how big are we
talking here, Bri?"
The nervous laugh returned, eliciting a frown from Nick. "Well, bro, you know Leighanne?"
rolled his eyes. It's the Alli policy. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. Of course, with Alli, it could just
be ask a question, get a stupid answer... "No, Brian, I missed the blonde Barbie look-alike that you've suddenly begun
spending the majority of your time with. Please, enlighten me."
"You and Alli are spending WAY too much time together,
you know that? She's really starting to rub off on you..."
Nick groaned. "Look...Rok, man, quit playing Kevin and just
spit it out. What about Leighanne?"
Brian gulped. "Well, I...I've been thinking a lot about how much time we've spent
together, and about how much I love her, and about how much I'd like it if I got to love her for a long time, and..."
chuckled lightly. "Okay, this really is serious if you're stuttering."
Brian managed to crack a nervous smile. "Well,
see, I was thinking about asking her to marry me."
Oh my God.
Nick choked on his quiet laughter and
his eyes widened. He'd heard Brian speak about the seriousness of his relationship with Leighanne a number of times, but he
hadn't a clue that their relationship had ever been the forever type. He'd spent the majority of his life looking to Brian
as his best friend and older brother. The concept of marriage certainly hadn't ever crossed his mind, and he had only assumed
that it hadn't crossed Brian's either. After all, their ages were similar, their mindsets were similar, and...
frowned. Marriage? Hell, isn't Brian supposed to be too young for marriage? I mean, if he's old enough to get married,
that means that I'm not too far behind, and...
He shook his head fervently. He wasn't at all ready for marriage,
and he didn't think that Brian was ready for that type of commitment either. Marriage meant that Brian was growing up, and
Nick most certainly wasn't ready to lose his best friend, regardless of the tactless way he'd been treating Brian over the
past few months.
Brian's nervous laugh echoed in his ears. "Uh, Nick? It helps if you say something..."
swallowed forcefully, but his voice still came out as a squeak. "M...Marriage?"
Brian groaned. "Okay, now who's pulling
Nick sucked in a breath. "No, seriously man, just...marriage. Wow. I mean, that's a big commitment. That's,
Brian's cheesy smile surfaced. "Well, like, wow."
rolled his eyes and exhaled. "Fine, make fun of me. It's just...Bri...that's a really, really, really big deal."
nodded slowly, and his humor gave way to a solemn expression. "Yeah, I know. But, like I said, I've really been thinking a
lot about it."
Why the hell would you think about tying yourself down to one person now? You're young, dammit,
go live your life...
Nick cleared his throat awkwardly. Truth to tell, he wasn't fond of the idea at all. In
fact, he hated it, but--how to say that to Brian in a polite way?
"Um, Bri, marriage is a pretty big commitment, you
know. I mean, I know the country has a high divorce rate and all, but if you're going to get stuck, it's better to be sure
that you want to be stuck first, because the whole un-sticking process really sucks, so I've heard."
Brian arched an
eyebrow in his friend's direction at the bizarre wording. He shook his head slightly and bit back a laugh. God, this kid
should have his own language...
"You know, if I were Kevin, I'd be wondering what the hell you just said."
gave a strangled laugh, still disturbed by the whole idea of Brian getting married. "If you were Kevin, you would know better
than to try and have a serious conversation with me."
Brian couldn't hold back his laughter at that. "True."
finally sat up, unable to control the anxiety building in him. "Seriously, though, Rok, marriage is a BIG commitment. We're
talking the rest of your life here. Are you sure this is what you want?"
Brian frowned. "Why would I even consider
the idea if I wasn't trying to invest in forever?"
Nick's shoulders slumped. "Good point."
Only a moment of
silence ensued before Nick's pensive demeanor gave way to a soft, tentative question as he stole a shy glance at Brian's facial
expression. "B, do you love her? Like, I know you love her, but do you really love her?"
Nick's breath caught as he
watched Brian's face break into a beautiful smile. His eyes were glittering, the corners of his mouth were stretched to his
cheekbones, and his dimples were showing. There were tiny wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, but there was a sense of contentment
and joy that seemed to radiate from him, and Nick's thoughts began to run before he could get hold of them.
I want to be that happy with someone...
He was so flustered by that single thought that he almost missed Brian's
"Do I really love her?"
He frowned as the question was repeated, hating the bitter sound of the
words and immediately recognizing his own cynicism in the lack of tact. "Look, Bri, nevermind...it was a stupid question."
shook his head, and the smile had yet to leave his face. "Nah, man, it's cool. You asked, and you deserve an answer. It was
an honest question." He took another deep breath and finally turned to face Nick. "Frack, I love her so much that I can't
even believe it. Every time she smiles at me, it's like the world stops for a second just to hold that peaceful feeling. I
love her enough that every one of her smiles makes me want to smile. I love her enough that it hurts me to see her crying.
I love her enough that I'd do anything for her, enough that all of our love songs finally have some kind of meaning for me.
I love her enough that..."
Enough that you've suddenly turned into a Hallmark card?
Nick shook his
head as soon as the thought registered. No, no, no. You're allowed to be cynical, but you can't be cynical because you're
jealous. What the hell do you want with true love anyway, Carter?
"Enough that I really do want to spend forever
with her," Brian finished softly. His face registered his own surprise at the concept before the satisfied, tranquil smile
returned and Nick felt his own machismo sinking to an uncomfortable point in the bottom of his stomach.
"B, if you're
sure about this, then why do you even need to ask me anything?"
Brian laughed lightly. "Honestly? I think I needed
to say all of that. You're welcome to escape to the bathroom if you think you're gonna puke, but I really do feel that corny
around her." He paused to wink at his best friend. "How sad is that?"
Nick groaned. "Like those damn chick flicks that
Alli makes me watch." He sighed heavily, though, and turned to Brian with a more serious expression. "Really, though, I'm
not gonna be sick. I actually think it's kinda cool that you've already found the person you want to spend your life with."
grinned. "Yeah, me too. That's why I'm kind of anxious to make it legal and everything. I want to make sure that she'll be
around for me to spend the rest of my life with her."
Nick's serious expression became a farce. "You know that means
that you can't screw up, right?"
Brian chuckled. "Nah, it just means that I've got to learn to grovel."
finally rolled his eyes. "Man, she's already got you pussy-whipped."
Brian's chuckle became a full-out laugh once again.
"You act like that's a bad thing."
Nick shook his head slowly. "No, the bad thing is that I'm beginning to think that
it might NOT be such a bad thing. I mean, you're happy, and that's pretty cool."
Brian grinned slyly. "You know, speaking
Nick groaned again and flopped back against the mattress. "I should be running right about now, shouldn't
Brian smirked. "No, but you could always start telling me why you've been a decent guy lately."
up incredulously. "A decent guy?! Man, what the hell is with you guys? You act like I turned into the Terminator during the
past few months."
Brian held up his hands in an attempt at playing innocent. "Hey, you said it, not me."
angry expression crumbled. "Was I really that bad?"
Brian smiled ruefully. "I'd lie to you, but the whole best friend
thing means that I have to tell you the truth, no matter how painful."
Nick rolled his eyes again. "Thank you, Dr.
"Dude, you were worse than 'that bad'. You had us wondering if any woman in the world was safe, including Alli."
caused Nick to start laughing again. "Alli? Have you seen that girl when she's pissed? I don't think anyone could ever lay
a finger on Alli. They wouldn't stand a chance against a temper like that."
Brian didn't dare say anything about the
tiny spark that seemed to light up Nick's baby blues at the mention of Alli. He'd known Nick long enough to refrain from trying
to enlighten the younger man when it came to matters of the heart. However, he's really damn clueless if he can't see
how much that girl means to him.
"You know, you're probably right." Nick smiled lightly in triumph, and Brian
exhaled. "However, it seems like she's done quite a good job with you lately."
Nick frowned defensively, and Brian
inwardly cringed with the worry that he'd finally pressed the wrong nerve.
"And what the fuck is that supposed to
Brian laughed. "When did you start talking to her again?"
Nick's eyes narrowed towards Brian. "How'd
you know that we started talking again? The only people who knew were the girls and AJ."
Brian's laughter grew. "Uh,
Nick? It's pretty apparent. You're in a lot better shape now than you were without her."
Nick grunted. "Are you trying
to insinuate that I was a mess without her?"
Brian winked. "Nah, just trying to insinuate that the girl is doing wonders
for your vocabulary and for your mental state. I think you've been slut-free for three nights in a row now."
his arms across his chest petulantly. "Look, just because I care about Al does not mean that I've suddenly turned into some
emotionally in-touch guy that swims in sentimental bullshit. I'd still rather have fun." At the mention of fun, he suddenly
spotted the mini-bar and strolled over to grab a beer. "Want one?"
Brian sighed heavily. So much for trying to enlighten
the kid. "No, thanks. I should probably be getting back to Leighanne." He stood up and made his way across the room, but Nick's
voice caught up with him just as his hand found the doorknob.
Brian closed his eyes against the
effects of Nick's mood swings. "Yeah, Frack?"
Nick swallowed a huge gulp of the beer, trying to wash down the thoughts
that were already threatening to consume him that night. "Have I really changed that much since I started talking to Alli
Brian knew that there wasn't any safe way to answer the question, but he quickly and reluctantly decided that
honesty would be the best policy. In a further attempt to get his point across, he turned back around until he was facing
his younger friend.
"Yeah, Nick, you have. But you've started to change back to the guy I remember, and I think that's
a good thing." He paused a moment to let that sink in before driving the point home. "I think Alli's good for you, because
I think she knows you even when we don't know you. She knows you when you don't know yourself."
Nick nodded slowly.
"Frick, thanks for the talk. Good luck with Leighanne and everything."
Brian grinned at the mention of his girlfriend.
"Thanks, Frack. Don't stay up too late."
Nick laughed lightly. "I won't."
With that, Brian closed the door behind
him, leaving Nick alone with his thoughts and his bottle, which was fast growing empty in light of everything he was beginning
to realize. As he drained the bottle and reached for a second, he couldn't help but acknowledge the most prominent and the
least damaging of his thoughts.
Alli does know me, and that rocks, but I really wish that I knew me.
frowned. Maybe the problem wasn't so much that he didn't know himself, but that he was beginning to dislike what he did know
and what those around him were making him aware of. Either way, it hurt, and he hated the bitter feeling almost as much as
he hated the idea of being weak enough to be sentimental.
Oddly enough, he never felt weak when he was being sentimental
around Alli anymore. Something about her made him want to be the same person that Brian was for Leighanne. But that wasn't
a safe desire, so he tried to discard it and focus on the "man" he'd made himself out to be.
I'm still not really
sure exactly how much of a man I've become. I mean, shit, Al trusts me more now than she did, and I don't think I'm as strong.
But it feels good to know that she's smiling at me again, and...
Fuck. I don't want to do this anymore. It's not supposed
to be this hard to get a damn grip on yourself.
He sighed and pried the cap off the bottle before taking a long
swig. Absently, he began to tear the label off as his nerves started to relax with the alcohol. His eyes found a comfortable
spot on the wall, and he continued to stare as his thoughts swirled into nothingness and his feelings threatened to surface.
or none, he still hated to spend the night alone.