Nick gripped the armrest tightly as the turbulence registered and
his stomach took a nosedive. The Bloody Mary that he'd ordered hadn't quite done the trick, and he was still very much aware
of everything around him, including the fact that the plane ride had been anything but smooth. Of course, being alert might
be a good thing once the plane finally arrived at the gate. He knew Alli well, and he had done quite a bit of groveling the
night before, but he still had doubts about her picking him up. Leaving him in the airport alone with nothing but a baseball
cap, sunglasses, and a heavy suitcase was very close to Alli's idea of a great practical joke. He'd spent the majority of
the ride to the airport praying that Alli wasn't in a joking mood that day.
Either way, though, if she could see him
then, she would definitely be laughing. He winced at the thought and pried his hands from the armrests, only to grip them
again when the plane hit another air pocket. As a bead of sweat rolled down his forehead, he sucked in a breath.
God, I hate flying...
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are now heading towards Tampa's international airport. We should
be landing shortly, so please fasten your seatbelts. The weather in Tampa at the moment is a balmy seventy-five degrees, and
the skies are clear. Flight attendants, please prepare for landing."
He gulped and sat back in his seat, reminded for
the thousandth time just how much he hated to fly. He knew that Alli would be laughing at him, but at that moment he wanted
her with him anyway, because she would've been holding his hand through her laughter. Her smile came to mind, and he had to
smile in return at the thought. Through everything, despite even the mess that the tour had become, they were still friends.
He shook his head slightly when he realized exactly how sentimental his thoughts were getting. He didn't honestly
believe that he cared that much, just that he was exhausted and the thought of home made him giddy. He couldn't remember the
last time he'd been home. Of course, he also knew that it would feel much more like home when he could see Alli. He'd missed
her for the month and a half that she'd been gone, whether or not he would admit it out loud. He needed a hug from her, regardless
of how weak it made him look. For that one moment, hands wrapped tightly around the ends of the armrests and back pressed
firmly against the seat, he didn't care about appearing strong or masculine.
Bottom line, it had been a really, really
bad week, beginning with the flight to his family's place in LA. He'd done a radio spot that morning with the rest of the
Boys, then had left for the airport and had a run-in with the fans. After being clawed and stretched until he had felt like
crawling into a corner, security had finally been able to pull the Boys into a VIP lounge, only to discover that Brian, AJ,
and Nick had missed their flights. As a result, the three had spent three hours in the VIP lounge with their bodyguards nearby,
drifting in and out of consciousness as they tried to avoid looking at each other. He loved the other Boys like brothers,
but the tour had been long, and he'd spent the last week of the tour trying to reconstruct his macho outer shell of alcohol
and sex. None of his "brothers" had been pleased in the slightest, so enough tension already existed. Nick knew that he'd
miss them over Christmas, but he also knew that he'd be grateful for the break. Some time away from the business would do
Of course, his first week of time away from the business had consisted of a nagging mother and a strained
family holiday. They'd eventually calmed down by Christmas morning, but Nick had been on another flight before dinner, and
so he hadn't had time to catch up with the more casual, comfortable side of his family. His mother had scheduled a heavy guilt
trip, but he had already been too anxious to leave. They hadn't parted very amicably, and he knew that he'd have things to
smooth over before New Year's.
With a tired sigh, he closed his eyes and commenced praying that Alli had lectured herself
out the night before. He just wanted to have a friend for the next few days. He'd spent enough time with his mother already.
He was finally able to doze off a few moments later, still thinking about Alli's smile.
* * *
"Dammit, MOVE! I'm gonna be late, and then he's going to kick my
ass, and I'm really not in the mood to deal with my best friend the cocky pop star today, okay people?"
cringed when she realized that she was still holding her cell phone, talking to AJ. "Yeah?"
"If you're going to talk
to yourself, it's usually better to do it when you're NOT already on the phone."
Alli smirked. "Yeah, thanks for the
tip. But you know how he gets. I don't want to be reminded of the fact that I was late ONCE for the next ten years."
frowned. "He wouldn't remind you for the next ten years, would he?"
Alli sighed. "No, you're right. He'd never stop
reminding me of it. Ten years wouldn't nearly be enough to satisfy him."
AJ laughed lightly. "Yeah, but you love him
Alli was about to respond with the usual "true", but something about AJ's tone made her hesitate. "Why do
I feel like I'm being set up for an impromptu episode of Confessions?"
AJ smiled innocently. "I don't know. Why do you?"
groaned. "Well, it might have something to do with the fact that David spent the past three days trying to convince me that
Carter is in love with me and I'm in love with him."
AJ chuckled. "Hey, at this point, you're doing better than Nick.
At least you can say the word 'love' in relation to the kid."
Alli's eyes widened, and she had to swerve to stay on
the road. "What?! Alexander McLean, have you been torturing him about that too?"
AJ grinned like a Cheshire cat, knowing
that she couldn't see him. "Not at all!"
Alli's voice was dangerously low. "You lie."
"Okay, maybe I have."
He paused. "But at least I got him drunk first. I did it in a nice way."
Alli's jaw dropped. "Nice my ass, J! We all
know Carter is a stupid drunk. You got him drunk so he'd answer your stupid questions honestly!"
AJ's laughter genuinely
seemed to bother Alli. "Aw, babe, you know me too well. He didn't confess though, so no worries. It seems I just didn't get
him drunk enough."
"Or maybe he's just not in love with me," Alli shot back. "We're fucking friends, AJ. You
used to be totally cool with that."
"I am totally cool with that. Nick's changed, though. He cares about you more now."
grunted. "And what, pray tell, makes you think that?"
AJ grinned knowingly. "You can see it in his eyes. Manda and
I went shopping the other day, and we were talking about it. She agrees with me."
Alli rolled her eyes in irritation.
"I've said it before, and I'll say it again--AJ, you should've been a girl."
AJ's raspy laugh echoed in her ears. "And why should I have
been a girl this time, babe?"
Alli made a face as she pulled into a parking space. "First off, you're saying things
like 'you can see it in his eyes', and secondly, you're gossiping about someone else's LACK of love life." She paused before
shutting off the engine. "Did you hear that, J? Lack. L-A-C-K..."
It was AJ's turn to roll his eyes. "Yes, Alli dear,
I heard you. And, for your information, I was talking to Amanda. She's my girlfriend, so that doesn't count as gossip. That's
significant other talk."
He could hear her indignant snort as she slammed the car door shut. "It doesn't count as significant
other talk unless you're married."
AJ groaned. "Yeah, yeah. Technicalities."
"Sometimes it pays to mind your
AJ arched an eyebrow skeptically. "You know, chick, maybe you should be minding your own advice and
pay attention to some technicalities while you're spending quality time with Nicky for the next few days."
a small scream of exasperation. "AJ! Leave it alone, okay? We're friends. If you really need a reminder as to what that means,
there should be a Webster on your bookshelf. If you're still unsure, the show comes on at six o'clock every night."
smirked. "While I'm at the bookshelf, do you want me to look up ignorance for you as well?"
"Would it encourage you
to ignore this ridiculous theory you've got going?"
AJ frowned in mock sadness. "Nope, sorry babe. No luck there."
can't you call David and talk to him about it? At least he agrees with you..."
AJ grinned evilly. "Can we get together
and play matchmaker?"
Alli chuckled. "Go right ahead, but expect the gay rumor to increase infinitely on your message
boards after a mysterious post."
AJ flinched. "Do you even know how to post on a message board?"
It was Alli's
turn to smirk. "Dear, if it helped me to torture you, I'd learn."
AJ's flinch became a pout almost immediately. "I'm
not feeling the love, Al..."
"I thought my love was supposed to be directed at Carter?"
AJ's pout faded. "I
still think I'm right. One of you is in love with the other."
Alli squealed in mock excitement. "Oh, wow, really? Are
you going to give me my horoscope for today too?"
AJ chuckled. "Sure. I predict mad, passionate sex on the beach with
a blonde pop god."
Alli made a face. "That's funny. I don't think I know a blonde pop god..."
AJ sighed, reluctantly
giving in to laughter. He knew enough from her tone to figure out that he wasn't going to succeed in enlightening her any
time soon. "Well, you may be fucking frustratingly ignorant, but at least you're good for his ego."
Alli smiled sweetly. "Nice to know I'm good for something."
be good for sex soon enough," AJ predicted, and Alli covered her other ear with her hand.
"Now, I think I'm just good
for selective hearing, and I'm going to pretend that you didn't just say that." She began searching the crowd of passengers
leaving the plane as she reached the correct gate. "However, I'm also good as Carter's welcome wagon, and I'm at the gate,
so I think I'm going to have to leave you now."
AJ sighed. "Seriously? Bummer. Call sometime before New Year's, though,
so I can make sure that you aren't attached to his hip yet...or, better yet, his..."
"Well, AJ, it's been nice talking
to you!" Alli interrupted with a falsely chipper tone. She dropped it only a moment later. "If I'm lucky, I won't have to
deal with you again until I'm very, very drunk."
AJ frowned. "You love me."
Alli's lips curved in amusement.
"Oh? I thought I loved Carter?"
AJ smiled. "You may love him, but you're MY groupie."
Alli laughed. "You keep
telling yourself that, J. Meanwhile, I'm going to disprove your theory."
She groaned. "By hanging up.
He chuckled into the phone, making her smile again. "Bye, Al. Save some love for me when you're
done with Nick, would you?"
"I'm going, AJ..."
Finally, he seemed to take the hint. "See ya, chick."
that, Alli disconnected the call and began roaming the gate in search of her tall, blonde friend.
* * *
Nick breathed a sigh of relief as he walked out of the gate and
into the airport. His blonde locks were crushed under a baseball cap, and his blue eyes were hidden by dark sunglasses as
he lugged his backpack through the mass of people waiting for his fellow planemates. He stood on tiptoe, scanning the crowd
for Alli's reddish curls. She was much shorter than he was, but her hair usually gave her away in public places.
he felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Looking for somebody special?"
At the sound of her voice, he whirled around
and dropped his backpack on the tiled floor of the airport. He smiled tiredly.
"Was I really that obvious?"
shrugged. "I dunno. You were looking pretty anxious. She must be a really nice girl, dude."
Nick laughed. "Aw, man,
she's the best. I can be a real jerk, but she puts up with me anyway, and she even promised to cook me dinner tonight..."
arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow beneath her mass of hair. "I don't remember that part of the agreement, Carter."
grinned innocently. "Aw, Al, come on...you know you want to cook for me. It's my first night back! I don't even remember what
normal food tastes like, for crying out loud."
Alli sighed heavily. "You actually expect me to believe that?"
"Two words, Carter."
Alli smirked knowingly. "Room service."
The two burst into healthy laughter, and Nick pulled Alli in for a hug without a second thought. It
had been a terrible day, and his best friend felt good in his arms as he attempted to bury his nose in her hair.
he mumbled, closing his eyes against the reality of everyone around them. "You smell good."
Alli had to laugh. "Herbal
Essences, babe. Does a girl good."
Nick frowned, pulling away slightly so that he could look at her. "Is that the commercial
where all of the women sound like they're having orgasms?"
Alli rolled her eyes and swatted him playfully. "Okay, you
know what? You are such a guy..."
Nick grinned down at her, pulling her into another hug. "Yeah, but you missed me
He almost laughed when she pulled away and began looking down at the ground around her. "What?"
smiled slightly, looking up at him. "Oh, nothing. Just making sure that the place wasn't going to collapse or anything. I
mean, hell, if you were right, then anything can happen..."
It was Nick's turn to roll his eyes as he bent to retrieve
his backpack, slinging it over his shoulder. "Oh, how funny you are, Al. You just crack me up," he muttered in monotone. Alli
chuckled at him.
"Don't I? Did you miss me as much as I missed you?"
He paused to get a good look at her for
the first time since his arrival. Her hair was swept up into a ponytail of some sort, but a number of curls had managed to
escape and were flying around her head and hanging into her eyes, framing her face. She was wearing flared jeans and a gray
zip-up hooded sweatshirt that set off her eyes, and he couldn't help but wonder if she knew how cute she looked. Something
about Alli's down-to-earth nature never ceased to surprise him after a particularly grueling tour and a long period of Hollywood
glitz and glamour.
"More, Al. I missed you more than you will ever know."
The awkward moment was gone as soon
as it came. Alli shook her head slightly and laughed lightly. "Riiiiight. Would you really have me believe that you aren't
just saying that so that you don't have to be home alone tonight?"
Nick's grin faded to a somewhat sexy smirk. "Oh,
baby, I don't have to be home alone tonight. There are plenty of clubs in Tampa, and plenty of women who know my face."
sighed with relief at hearing the familiar cocky tone. After David's teasing and AJ's insistence, any affection on Nick's
part made her extremely nervous. She sucked in a deep breath, trying to keep herself from listening to either of her friends.
They're obnoxious. They never know what they're talking about. Hell, Al, AJ still tries to give fashion advice to people.
I mean, he's probably talked to Britney Spears about the clothes she wears... She paused and frowned. You know, come
to think of it, that makes a lot of sense.
"Earth to Alli..."
Alli jumped slightly before aiming a sweet
smile in her best friend's direction. "Oh, I'm sorry. You slipped into cocky pop star mode again, so I was just tuning you
Nick rolled his eyes. "With you around, it's a wonder that I have any ego at all."
Alli cocked her head
to one side. "Well, for a month or so there, I wasn't around, so it's had plenty of time to grow out of proportion again."
was something about the tone of voice she used that caused Nick's chest to constrict. His face took on a pained expression.
Al, I know I've said this before, but I'm really sorry about..."
She waved a hand. "I know. It's over and done with.
Time for moving on, right?"
She had to fight the urge to laugh when she heard his sigh of relief.
I ever told you just how cool you are?"
She cast him a withering look. "You're not about to try and flatter me into
cooking for you, are you?"
Nick's smirk re-appeared as he grabbed his two suitcases from the baggage claim belt. "Maybe..."
He shrugged. "Can't blame a guy for trying, though, right?"
Alli nodded knowingly as they began
moving towards the parking lot. "Oh, yes you can. Trust me. Every time I'm forced to listen to another lame pick-up line,
I learn that you can blame a guy for trying."
Nick gave her a doubtful look. "And what, pray tell, is the lamest pick-up
line you've ever heard?"
Alli groaned. "Oh, God...I couldn't decide. There are WAY too freaking many to choose from.
You men can be really pathetic when it comes to getting girls, you know that?"
Nick sighed. "Okay, feed me one of the
worst that you've heard."
Alli thought for a moment before responding. "You've got 206 bones in your body. Want one
Nick grimaced and squinted at his pelvis. "Is it really a bone?"
Alli's eyes widened to twice their size
as she stared at him in amazement. "Did you really just ask me that? I can't believe you even bother to process thoughts like
that..." She shook her head. "No, wait. Yes, I can."
Nick frowned. "I feel like I should be insulted."
winked at him as she clicked the button on her keys that unlocked her car. "Always trust your instincts, Carter."
was about to retort, but groaned instead when he saw the car in front of him. "Oh my God, I cannot believe you're still
driving this thing."
Alli chuckled. "What, Carter? Is there something wrong with my Jeep?"
Nick made a
face, looking the car over in disdain. "You want a list? I mean, I've already got more than twenty complaints, and I'm not
Alli snorted as she opened the door and jumped in the driver's seat. "Since when are you ever thinking?"
couldn't think of a decent comeback before the engine puttered to a start, so he just mimicked her instead. Alli cast him
a sideways glance before pulling the car into reverse and rolling her eyes.
"Oh, that's mature, Mr. Backstreet Boy.
Are you going to stick your tongue out at me too?"
Nick grinned at her. "I was thinkin' about it."
"So you do
Nick groaned. "Alli?"
She burst out laughing. "Now, THERE'S the
Carter I know and love."
Nick frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
She shrugged. "You went all sentimental
on me for a second, and I was worried that you'd been spending too much time with Howie again."
Before he could comment
or inquire further, she turned the radio on full blast and rolled the windows down.
"Let the games begin!"
sighed heavily. Alli had many endearing qualities, but her insatiable need to blast the stereo (which, at times, seemed to
be the only working part of her ten-year-old car) and roll the windows down was NOT one of them. Of course, Alli also had
a penchant for heavy metal and punk rock. Nick knew more band names than he ever cared to repeat, but he still didn't like
the majority of them. "What is this shit?"
Alli beamed at him. "Green Day. Why?"
He groaned. "Just wanted to
make sure I'll have an answer when they ask me who destroyed my eardrums."
Alli laughed. "Oh, please. You stand on
a stage with, like, ten-foot speakers every night for two hours. If your eardrums aren't dead by now, they never will be."
adopted a helpless expression and cast a wary glance at the many cars around them, just to make sure that the people were
shooting dirty looks again. Everyone who drove near Alli seemed to take an immediate dislike to her. He was almost positive
it had to do with the Parental Advisory albums that she insisted on blaring. Or maybe it was the fact that she was blaring
them at nine o'clock at night. "Why do I get the feeling that I'm about to get the chance to test that theory?"
looked at him long enough to answer. "Because you will." Then, immediately afterwards, she turned her eyes back to the road,
cranked the volume up a notch, began drumming along on the steering wheel, and started singing at the top of her lungs.
shook his head, unable to hide his smile of amusement. It was definitely good to be back home.
* * *
Nick groaned loudly for good measure and stretched back in his chair.
"I can't believe I ate that much."
Alli rolled her eyes from her position by the sink. "I certainly can." She turned
to wink at him. "After all, I was the one cooking, remember? Of course it's going to be good."
Nick laughed. "I still
can't believe I talked you into cooking for me."
Alli shook her head in amusement. "Carter, it came out of a box. It
wasn't too difficult."
Nick grinned at her. "Yeah, I know. I mean, had you tried to make it from scratch, you probably
would've scorched it..."
Alli's jaw dropped. "Hey! Be nice to me! I made you dinner, remember?"
He sighed. "Yeah,
I remember. So does my stomach. I think I had to shove a lung over to make room for all of that Hamburger Helper."
smirked at him. "It certainly wouldn't surprise me. You ate almost three-fourths of that whole batch."
softly. "Yeah, but you ate the rest." He stared at her a moment before his brow creased in a frown. "Have I told you yet how
much I like it that you eat?"
Alli arched an eyebrow skeptically. "And what else would you have me do, huh? Starve?"
shook his head. "No, but...the girls we're around, the girls we see...they don't. And they make look nice, but they get boring
Alli moved her hand in a circle in hopes of formulating an understanding. "Is that supposed to be
your excuse for needing a different one each night?"
Nick groaned more loudly that time and tossed his napkin on the
table. "Look, can we not talk about my past experiences with women for tonight?"
Alli gave a mock gasp and brought
her hand to her throat. "You mean there's more to life than sex, drinking, and dancing until dawn? When did this happen?"
glared at her. "You're not funny, you know."
Alli rolled her eyes again and went back to doing the dishes. "Oh, I'm
funny. You just take yourself too seriously sometimes. I mean, heaven forbid you drop the macho image and actually admit to
being tired of playing man-whore to half the world."
Nick's frown returned full force. "Is that really the way you
Alli frowned back at him as she toweled one of the plates. "No, but I think that, sometimes, you entertain
the misconception that having sex makes you a man, and once you stop you become a little boy again."
Nick ran a tired
hand over his face. "I'm working over Hamburger Helper and wine, here. Can we please stop with the SAT words?"
wiggled her eyebrows. "Ooh, his thinking is muddled." She giggled to herself and winked at him. "Does that mean that, if I
get you more wine and leave dessert for later, I can bag a Backstreet Boy?"
Nick grimaced. "I am seriously going to
hurt you. I feel like I'm stuck in the middle of some really bad American Pie re-run."
Alli dropped her act
long enough to sit at the table and furrow her brow at him. "So what do you want to do for the rest of the night, then, if
you aren't going out in search of a sexy groupie type?"
Nick stared at her for a long moment before a small smile surfaced.
"Would you take a walk on the beach with me?"
Alli chuckled. "Ooh, that sounds serious. Are we going out for dinner
and a movie too?"
Nick pretended to ponder the thought. "Nah, I figured that the beach would be enough foreplay. Then
we can come back to the house and fuck like bunnies until the sun comes up."
If Alli was surprised, she didn't show
it. "I don't know about that. See, my Daddy wants me home by eleven."
Nick smirked at her, amused by the way Alli could
go from downright nasty to innocent in mere seconds. "We'll see what we can do."
She laughed and tugged at his hand.
"Okay, Carter, up. You promised me a beach."
Nick frowned and glanced quickly at the sink before turning back to Alli.
"But the dishes aren't all done yet."
Alli arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Carter?"
"Who cooked dinner?"
Nick frowned. "Well, you did, but..."
She smirked. "But I did my duty for the night. You
can finish the dishes when we get back."
Nick's face contorted with a pout, and he was about to let forth with his
trademark whine when he heard Alli laughing. "Okay, girl, you are SO gonna get it..."
She grinned mischievously, running
out the back screen door before he could stand up. "You're going to have to catch me first!"
Nick didn't waste a second
before chasing her out the door and directly onto the beach in his backyard. When he finally landed somewhat clumsily on his
feet, he looked up to see Alli staring out at the water. In all honesty, he couldn't blame her. Something about the ocean,
even in the early morning, always made him feel small, but safe. As opposed to tackling her, he walked slowly up behind her
and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. For a long time, they just stood there, neither saying a word. At long last, though,
Nick broke the silence.
"Beautiful night, isn't it?"
His voice was soft and sweet, eliciting a smile from Alli.
Something about being home changed Nick every time, and she always treasured those rare moments where he acting like the Carter
she remembered. She closed her eyes and leaned back against his chest, feeling vaguely like she was coming home.
But, down here, it's always gorgeous."
Nick smiled softly. "Yeah, it is. I love being at this place. I mean, being
with Mom and Les and Beej and Aaron and Dad was fun, but..." He trailed off, sighing heavily. He rested his chin on Alli's
head, and her brow furrowed in concern. Before she could voice her concerns, though, he spoke again. "It's just not home anymore,
Al. I mean, shit, I tried, you know? I just don't feel right there anymore."
Alli sighed, and he could feel the rise
and fall of her chest beneath his arms. "Did you try and talk to Jane about it?"
Nick groaned. "In a word? No. I love
my mother a lot, but she was a real pain in the ass this time. She gave me the 'you're never home' speech again and whined
about the fact that I wanted to be here in Tampa for New Year's. She doesn't understand why I can't always be around the family,
why I can't maintain a steady love life, why I don't call her every night to check in..." He trailed off and rolled his eyes.
"I really feel for Aaron, Al. I mean, shit, if she were touring with me and I had her breathing down my neck every second
of every day, I'd go fucking nuts!"
Alli was silent, waiting for the rest of the outburst. She knew enough about Nick's
relationship with his mother to know that he would talk without being prodded. Though Alli loved Jane Carter for everything
the older woman had done in Alli's younger years, she knew that Jane's over-protectiveness was the main reason for strain
in Jane's relationship with Nick. In fact, looking back, she couldn't help but wonder if his rebellious behavior was due in
part to his need to exercise free will.
He shook his head in frustration, and her attention returned to him as he vented.
know she cares, and I know she means well. This whole thing--this Backstreet thing--it changes people sometimes. She's suddenly
more concerned because she's heard rumors about shit I've been doing, and because I don't talk to her about any of it, she
doesn't know what to believe. Of course, if I actually were to talk to her, I probably wouldn't tell her the whole truth,
because it really sucks to tell your parents that you fucked up. She doesn't need to know what goes on during the tour. The
tours make me crazy sometimes. I'm too trapped when I'm on the road. There's too much supervision, and then there's not enough.
It's like, as long as the door's closed, no one gives a shit about what I'm doing."
Alli arched an eyebrow. "Are you
sure? It seems to me the problem is that they give too much of a shit about what you're doing."
Nick groaned. "No,
that's just the fellas. Management never cares about our personal lives, as long as it stays personal."
Alli gave him
a pointed look, leaning back so she could see his face. "You don't spend every day with management either."
"True. It just...everyone has this image of me and the way I should be, and when I do anything that has the possibility of
contradicting their image, they jump down my throat about it."
"The guys or your mom?"
Nick sighed. "Both. Mainly
the fellas. Mom doesn't care so much when I'm not home. When I get home, though, she makes me clarify every fucking rumor
that she's heard."
Alli bit back a laugh. "Do I want to know how much she heard this time?"
Nick chortled. "No,
definitely not. I don't know how she found out, but she was really, really concerned about me drinking and having sex with
these groupies in different cities. She said that she found a lot of really shitty stories about what I'd been doing."
exhaled sharply. "Maybe she has a good reason to be concerned. I mean, you've been one hell of a party boy this tour."
not over yet, babe." Nick laughed bitterly. "It does suck, though, when everything she confronts me with is true."
brow furrowed. "So did you lie to her about it?"
Nick chuckled. "Eh...I kind of changed the subject, told her not to
believe everything she saw on the internet."
Alli rolled her eyes. "You know she's got you figured out anyway."
nodded. "That's a big part of the reason I needed to get away. I am so sick of all of this holier-than-thou bullshit that
everyone's been pulling. I need a break from everything."
Alli smirked. "Even the sex and the booze?"
"Okay, I do NOT need you getting all smartass on me..."
"It was an honest question."
Nick glared out over the
water. "Bullshit, Al. You've been just as judgmental as everyone else."
Alli willed her temper away. "Maybe it's because
I care, and I remember a time when you weren't drinking and fucking your way across the country."
"I was younger."
snorted indignantly. "Yeah, well, you were smarter too."
Nick rubbed a tired hand over his face. "I've been better,
okay? I know it's not smart, but sometimes it makes a good escape from some pretty fucking stressful surroundings."
gave him a doubtful look. "You've been better? Yeah freaking right. How bad were you last week, Carter?"
was enough of an answer, but his guilty expression was immediate confirmation.
"Yeah, that's what I thought."
sighed. "Look, I was good earlier, when I started talking to you again. I just got restless, and the tour started feeling
longer, and everyone was putting so much pressure on..."
Alli interrupted him with an impatient wave of her hand and
slipped out of his arms so that she could look frankly at him. "You know what I think?"
The playful smile had surfaced
in an instant as Nick grabbed her hand. "What do you think?"
Together, they began walking down the beach, and Alli
looked out over the ocean, listening to the waves for a moment before responding. "I think that you do stupid stuff to have
fun and be crazy, but I think that you cling to it because you're afraid that, if you don't keep doing stupid stuff, you'll
be confined to the whole 'sweet and innocent' image of you that everyone seems to have adopted."
Nick tensed immediately
as the truth in her words hit, and he knew that Alli sensed it. When it came right down to the heart of things, there wasn't
much about Nick that Alli didn't sense. He attempted to laugh it off, but the laugh sounded fake to him. "I think that you
analyze things too much."
Alli smirked at him. "Yeah, well, I think that you know that I'm right, and it's freaking
you out, because you're starting to realize that maybe not all of you is that big, sexy badass that you want to be."
sighed. "Look, I don't have to be a badass. I'm just sick of people looking at me like I'm a little kid."
"Well, call me crazy..."
"Crazy," Nick interjected, sticking out his tongue at her when she rolled her eyes.
maybe if you started being a bit more responsible, you wouldn't have to worry about people treating you like a kid."
frowned at her and stared for a moment. "Okay, were you abducted by aliens or...oh, I don't know...my mother? 'Cause I seriously
thought I left her at home."
Alli groaned. "Oh, God. Seriously, Carter...you act like a dick when you're being stupid.
Why the hell do you think I left?"
Nick smiled innocently. "Because of John?"
Alli gave him a pointed look.
"Okay, I know you're not really that stupid."
Nick rolled his eyes. "Yeah, contrary to what the fans think." He smiled
innocently again when Alli frowned at him. Finally, he sighed. "'Cause you were being anal?"
Alli shook her head. "No,
and I know you know that."
At long last, he groaned. "Fine. You left 'cause I was being mean."
"No, I left because you weren't treating me or anyone around you with any kind of respect of decency. Unlike the sluts you
sleep with, I still think that a girl deserves to be treated kindly. When you're pissed, I expect you to be honest with me,
but you had no real reason for being a shit. Now, the rest of the guys have to deal with you when you're like that, but I
Nick frowned. "You really think that they feel obligated to deal with me?"
Alli grinned. "No, not when
you're acting like you are now. When you're being an ass, then I think they get annoyed. I mean, hell, AJ gets obnoxious too
Nick grunted. "Yeah, you can say that again."
Alli chuckled. "But I won't. You guys are so close...and
it's very cool to watch sometimes. But when you're..."
"Fucking up?" Nick offered with a sly smile, and Alli laughed.
When you're fucking up, you end up fucking up the relationship with them too."
Nick's brow furrowed in thought. "You
know, Amanda said kinda the same thing one day."
Alli nodded knowingly. "Yeah, she's smart like that."
took a deep breath. "AJ's a lucky guy."
Alli's jaw dropped in amazement. "What, and you're not?"
"Aw, come on, Al. AJ's got a best friend that he can take to bed with him."
They were slowly walking back to the house,
swinging their entwined hands between the two of them, so Alli could easily smack him.
"They're kinda dating, punk."
grinned at her. "I was just saying..."
Alli frowned. "Does that really bother you that much?"
"What, that you're a prude?" He ducked when she smacked him again. "Nah, but it's fun to tease you about it."
they both stepped inside, and Alli rolled her eyes. "You suck, you know that? You're so mean to me!"
Suddenly, his expression turned serious. "Hey, Al?"
Alli recognized the tone and
followed him as he moved towards the stairs. "Yeah?"
"If I was really that much of an asshole on tour, then why are
you still here?"
Alli smiled softly. "Truth?"
Nick nodded seriously as they entered his bedroom and he sat on
the bed, patting the spot next to him so that he could face her. "Yeah, truth."
She shrugged. "I guess I'm still a
big believer in second chances." She laughed and leaned back. "That, and you've got such a great place to crash..."
rolled his eyes, but he couldn't conceal his smile. His features immediately lit up when he caught sight of the stack of videos
in the corner. "Hey, you wanna watch a movie?"
Alli sighed. "Carter, it's been a long day...I should probably get going."
frowned. "Why don't you just crash here?"
Alli sighed, looking up at him uncertainly. "Are you sure?"
his eyes again. "Duh. How long have we known each other? You really think I'm going to let you out of keeping me company?"
expression darkened significantly, and Nick's groan echoed throughout the room.
"Not THAT kind of company, dammit!
God, I can't even be innocent anymore without you getting suspect-ish."
Alli's mouth quirked into an amused smile.
"Suspicious, you mean?"
Nick's cheeks reddened. "Shut up."
She sighed again. "Well, it is kinda late..."
grinned. "Exactly my point. We can lie here and watch movies until we fall asleep."
Alli's grin lit up the room. "Like
Nick nodded. "Hell, yeah! Come on, I'll even let you pick the movie."
She smiled mischievously again,
and Nick frowned. "You know, on second thought..."
Alli laughed. "Shut up! Do you still have Clue?"
sighed with relief. "Yeah, definitely. Let me get it."
Within seconds, the movie was in the VCR and
the opening credits were playing. Nick glanced over, smiling at the eager grin on Alli's face. "Dude, when was the last time
you saw this movie?"
Alli smiled sheepishly. "I made Holly and Dad watch it with me a few nights ago."
rolled his eyes knowingly. "You are so obsessed..."
Alli gave him a pointed look. "Hey, you owe me. I had to see Aliens
three times in one week the last time you were home."
It was Nick's turn to smile sheepishly, and Alli chuckled.
Suddenly, thunder rumbled onscreen, and she turned to watch the movie. Nick's gaze, however remained fixed on Alli. He frowned
when he noticed exactly how far away she was and bit his lower lip.
He couldn't suppress
his smile when he saw her intense stare. Regardless of how many times she made him watch it, she still had the same awed look
on her face every time it came on. "Is there a reason you're on the opposite end of the bed?"
Alli looked over at him
quickly to assess the distance and cringed when she saw that he was right. "Oops...no, sorry, no reason."
his eyes and held an arm out. "Then get over here, girl! I'm getting cold..." He trailed off until the infamous pout appeared,
and Alli grumbled incoherently as she scooted into his arms.
"You know, at times like this, I don't wonder why people
treat you like a kid."
His grin widened, despite the insult. "Al?"
"What, Carter? There's a movie playing!"
chuckled. "I just wanted to tell you thanks for hanging around. I'm glad that we still get to do things like this. I..." Okay,
Carter, let it out. It's not going to kill you to drop the masculine facade for ten seconds. "I missed this."
looked up at him long enough to smile genuinely, and suddenly everything seemed to fall into place. "Me too."