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

This is real, I'm afraid
This time there's no hiding, fighting
You make me restless
You're in my heart
The only light that shines there in the dark
And I wanted to fly, so you gave me your wings
And time held its breath so I could see, yeah
You set me free


Nick groaned audibly as he stretched and opened a lazy eye. He had never taken too kindly to being woken by the phone, but being woken at eight in the morning was an entirely different story. He didn't count himself as coherent before ten o'clock, so he didn't see a single reason that he should answer.


Okay, so maybe he saw one reason that he should answer. If he answered, the thing would finally shut up, and he could go back to sleep. He tried to bring his other arm forward so that he could reach across and grab the offending object. Instead, he frowned when he ran into something solid and opened his other eye. When he caught sight of the auburn curls, the night before came back to him, and he smiled nostalgically. It was definitely nice to have Alli's trust again. They must have fallen asleep watching Clue, he decided, because the screen in front of them was a bright blue, signaling the end of the movie.

He brought his other hand up to rub the sleep from his eyes. God, I'm exhausted...


Nick rolled his eyes and tore his gaze from Alli long enough to grab the phone. "Carter," he mumbled, his voice still thick from sleep.


Nick groaned. "No, Nick's sleeping. This is his evil clone. How can I help you?"

"Aw, Frack, lighten up. I come bearing good news, bro! Besides, it's eight o'clock. Get out of bed!"

Brian should NOT be this cheerful. Isn't it an hour earlier where he is? "No fucking way. If I move, Alli will fall off, and I'm not going to give her a rude awakening just because some dumbass decided to call me at the butt crack of dawn."

"Alli's in your bed?!"

Despite his belligerence, Nick had to laugh at the horrified tone in Brian's voice. "Yeah, bro. Didn't I tell you? I got sick of bagging groupies, so I went for more of a challenge."

Brian's disgust was evident. "I sincerely hope you're kidding."

Nick chuckled. "Definitely kidding. In fact, if she weren't asleep, I wouldn't even be joking like that. She'd kick my ass in a second."

Brian's tone was solemn. "Nick, take Alli seriously, okay? She's not like the other girls you hang out with. She deserves a lot more than you're willing to give her right now..."

Nick snorted at the impending lecture. "Damn, weren't you cheerful a minute ago?"

He heard Brian's yelp of excitement and immediately regretted bringing it up.

"Aw, man, I almost forgot...Nick, dude, you are SO gonna love this."

Nick rolled his eyes and tried to stretch again. "Yeah, I'd better, or I am SO going to kill you for waking me up this early."

Brian chuckled. "Aw, Frack, you don't really mean love me!"

Nick just grunted.

Brian, however, didn't at all seem fazed by the negative attitude. "Hey, Frack, remember when I told you about how I was thinking of asking Leighanne to marry me?"

Nick could feel his heart leap into his throat at the sound of marriage again. He knew that Brian was confident that Brian and Leighanne were meant for each other, but Nick couldn't fathom something as final as marriage. Something about forever scared him to no end. However, for Brian's benefit (and because the excitement in his friend's voice was nearly painful), he managed a shaky response. "Yeah?"

"Well..." Brian's voice trailed off, and Nick was almost sure that his older friend was jumping up and down. "Dude, she said yes! I asked her Christmas Eve, and she said yes! I mean, it was so incredible. She had this huge smile on her face, and she was crying, and we were both so happy..."

Nick swallowed forcefully and tried to muster a smile. "Wow, Bri, that's awesome. I'm happy for you..."

Brian, on the other line, shook his head in amazement. "Man, Nick, I tell ya...she's an amazing woman. I love her so much. I's like I can't believe I'm actually gonna get to marry her, you know?"

Nick had to laugh at that. "Yeah, I know." Boy, do I ever. I can't believe it either. I mean, shit...marriage?

Brian chuckled lightly. "She's been telling all her friends, man. It's so funny. She gets on the phone and gushes for hours about how excited she is. She's like, 'Oh, he's so good to me, we're just meant for each other, you know? It's that perfect, fairy-tale feeling, and I'm just so have got to come to the wedding!'"

Despite his nervousness, Nick cracked up at Brian's impersonation of Leighanne. The high-pitched voice, the giggles in all the right places...Brian's ability to imitate other people had always been uncanny, though. Nick couldn't help the smile that spread across his face as he recalled the numerous times that Brian had imitated the fans.

"Must be quite an ego boost, right?"

Brian laughed. "Oh, yeah. I'm just glad that I make her as happy as she makes me."

Ugh, not another Hallmark conversation... "Me too, Rok. You definitely deserve to be happy."

There was a slight pause, and Nick flinched in anticipation of Brian's next remark.

"You know, Nick, you deserve to be happy too."

Nick groaned aloud. "Why do I feel like this is supposed to be a hint of some sort?"

Brian smirked. "You might want to look next to you."

The hint didn't register until Nick did as Brian had suggested. Alli's hair was still spread delicately across his shoulder and the pillow, and her features were serene as she slept. With every breath, her chest rose and fell, pushing against his side lightly. A slow, soft smile gradually creeped across his features, and he moved his hand to brush an auburn curl out of her face. However, as soon as the tender gesture registered, he shook his head and turned back to his conversation.

"Dammit, Brian, have you been talking to AJ?"

Nick could see the confusion on Brian's face as he answered. "What makes you think that I talked to AJ?"

A sigh of exasperation. "Nevermind. I just don't understand why the hell everyone is suddenly trying to make me fall in love with the one girl that I've always depended on as my best friend. Do you know just how much it would fuck things up if I decided to love Alli?"

Brian bit his lip to hold back his laughter. "Hey, Kaos?"

Nick's petulance was obvious, and Brian was almost positive that the younger man had his arms folded across his chest and his lower lip rolled out. "Two points."

"Well? I'm listening."

Brian sighed. "First off, you don't ever decide to love anyone."

Nick rolled his eyes. "You fall in love, when the moment is perfect, right? My bad."

Brian shook his head. "You'll understand when you fall in love."

Nick rolled his eyes a second time. "Fine, I'll understand when I 'fall in love'. Whatever. What was the second point?"

Brian frowned. "When did I ever mention Alli in relation to you being happy?"

Nick was about to retort, but thought back on the conversation. With arched eyebrows, he silently acknowledged that the connection hadn't been made. "You didn't."

Brian chuckled. "No, I didn't, but it seems like you did."

Nick rubbed a tired hand over his face, balancing the phone between his ear and his shoulder. "What, so now you're going to pull an AJ and overanalyze it?"

Brian smiled knowingly. "I didn't say a word, Nick."

"You didn't have to."

Brian couldn't hide his amusement. "You know, for someone who only sees Alli as a friend, you're certainly sensitive about the subject."

Nick frowned. "Of course I am! It took her forever to trust me after that disastrous tour, and I don't want you guys making her uneasy again by putting any of your bullshit theories in her head, okay?"

Brian's frown matched Nick's exactly. "Listen, man, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hit a nerve or anything...and you know that we'd never do anything to jeopardize the friendship between you and Al."

Nick sighed heavily. "No, I'm sorry. You called because of your engagement, and you were all excited. About Alli...dude, I jeopardize our friendship enough on my own, you know? I just don't want anyone to help me screw up."

Brian chuckled again. "Yeah, I definitely understand. Hey, she's there now, isn't she?"

Nick smiled down at the woman beside him. Woman, not girl. Oh, shit...

"Yeah, she is. And I can bet that Leighanne isn't too far from wherever you are."

Brian blushed slightly. "Yeah, she's, um..." He glanced down at his fiancee, who was snuggled up to his side. "She's asleep next to me."

Nick grinned slyly. "Well, now, doesn't that sound familiar?"

The two men laughed, and Nick leaned back against the pillows. "Listen, man, congratulations on the engagement. I'd be absolutely giddy if it weren't so damn early. I'm really happy for the two of you, though. You guys definitely deserve to have a wonderful life together."

Brian's smile was beautifully genuine. "Thanks, Frack. It means a lot coming from you."

Nick chuckled. "Should I tell Al or should I let Leighanne squeal a bit more?"

Brian smirked down at his fiancee. "Oh, definitely let her squeal. She was really upset yesterday when she couldn't get Alli to answer the phone."

Nick frowned. "I wonder where she was all day..."

Brian laughed. "Not at home, that's for sure! Listen, bro, I need to call the others, though, so I'm gonna have to talk to you later."

Nick allowed his characteristic half-smile to dance along his features. "It's cool. Listen, Frick, congrats again. That's awesome."

Brian nodded. "Thanks, Kaos. Catch you later."

Nick nodded in return, though he knew Brian couldn't see him. "Yeah, man, later." He clicked the phone off and tossed it back on the night table. Just as he was closing his eyes, however, he felt Alli stir next to him and groaned.

"Please don't tell me that you're awake now..."

Alli rolled her eyes and stretched beside him. "Oh, please. With that hyena giggle of yours, you could probably wake the dead."

Nick opened his eyes and whimpered at her, trying to make himself look imploring. "I see dead people," he told her seriously, and she rolled her eyes.

"I see dork people," she shot back. "And I really wish I didn't..."

"Hey!" Nick cried indignantly, locking her against him with a firm arm. "You love me!"

Alli looked at him with a frown. "Carter, someone's been lying to you again."

Nick frowned in return, pretending to look thoughtful. "But, Al, last night, you said that..."

He stopped when he saw the horrified look on her face and burst into hearty, chest-heaving, stomach-cramping laughter. Even as she smacked him for teasing her, he continued to giggle.

"Given your record, you are NOT allowed to say things like that before ten in the morning," Alli huffed, and Nick laughed again.

"No, I've got to do it again when I've got a camera, 'cause the look on your face was fucking hilarious, Al."

"So nice to know I amuse you," she muttered dryly, and he smiled innocently down at her.

"Always, chica."

Deciding that the search for his sanity was probably a lost cause, Alli wisely changed the subject. "So, who was that on the phone?"

Nick's face suddenly became void of any and all expression. "Brian." He paused only a moment before the inevitable frown crossed his features. "Hey, by the way, where were you all day yesterday?"

Alli didn't bother hiding her smirk at his concern. "Out. Contrary to popular belief, Carter, I do have other friends, and I do enjoy spending my time with them."

Nick's features contorted in mock amazement. "You mean there are other people who actually want to spend time with you?"

He ducked before she could swat him again.

"Yes, and, knowing that, I'm beginning to wonder why I decided to spend time with you instead," Alli retorted, rolling over to stretch in the other direction. She had to bite back another smile when she felt Nick's arm around her waist.

"You don't mean that."

She smirked at him. "Oh? What makes you so sure?"

He looked slightly worried until she started laughing, at which point he decided to return her favor by smacking her playfully. "So, who were you hanging out with yesterday?"

She shrugged nonchalantly. "Doc, Amy, Jen, Brent, Tony, and Alicia. You know, people from high school down here, people that we both know."

Nick frowned and narrowed his eyes. "You've been hanging out with David a lot lately, haven't you?"

Alli grinned. "Man, I haven't seen him in four years! I couldn't believe how similar he looks, though. He's just the same old David. It's nice to see that some people stay the same."

Nick winced, having taken her words as an insult. "Ouch." Dammit, I deserve that, though. Why do I deserve that? Why was I stupid? Why can't I be masculine AND good to her at the same time? And why in the freaking hell does it even matter, dammit? It's not like we're dating or anything...

He had a feeling that that particular thought wasn't supposed to be painful.

"Carter? I didn't mean it like that."

He sighed. "I know. I'm just...I can be an asshole sometimes."

After a moment of silence, Alli smirked at him. "Are you waiting for me to agree with you?"

Nick laughed. "Maybe waiting for you to disagree."

Alli shrugged again. "No, you can be an asshole. You're getting better, though, and that's what counts." As soon as she had revealed that insight, she rolled over and stood up, then began digging around under Nick's bed for her shoes.

He frowned. "Al? What are you doing?"

"When was the last time you cleaned under here?"

Nick chortled. "Uh, momentary amnesia, anyone? Think about whom you're talking to. A better question might be 'when was the last time you cleaned?'"

Finally, Alli pulled out her sneakers and lifted her head up. "No, I don't want to know that. The answer might scare me."

"Might scare you or scar you?"

Alli stood up with a solemn expression. "It might scar me. I might never want to come back."

Nick grinned innocently. "Eh, you're right. You definitely don't need to know the answer to that question."

Alli winked at him and began lacing her shoes. "What question?"

He rolled his eyes and chuckled lightly. "So, where're you going?"

She shrugged again. "Down to breakfast, first. I sincerely hope you have cereal, because I'm hungry. If you don't have food, I'm going to make you go get food."

Nick rolled his eyes a second time and groaned. "Suddenly, I'm reminded of why I don't have a girlfriend."

Alli grinned up at him. "Aw, Carter, you don't need a girlfriend. You have sluts and groupies galore, and then you have me! What the hell do you need a girlfriend for?"

Nick frowned. "I don't need one. But what was that about groupies?"

Alli smiled smugly. "Just stating facts, darling. Listen, the gang was thinking of getting together again tonight, so I'm going to call and see what the deal is while you make breakfast."

Nick held up a hand in confusion, signaling a halt to the conversation. "Okay, who the hell said I was making breakfast?"

Alli smiled. "I did. I made dinner. You owe me."

With a sigh of exasperation, Nick grabbed his car keys off the night table. "Yeah, well, I'll be going then. I'll be back soon."

Alli frowned. "Where to?"

"Someplace that has food, because I'm out."

Alli's eyes widened. "You're completely out of food?!"

Nick's expression matched hers as he mocked her. "I just got off a tour?! Leave me alone..."

Alli bit back a smile. "Fine. I'm calling the girls. I expect food when I get back."

"Are you always this demanding?"

She smirked. "Yes."

For a moment, Nick stared at her incredulously. At long last, however, his expression softened. "Hey, can I come with you guys and hang tonight? It's been forever since I've seen everybody."

Alli grinned. "Absolutely, Carter. I'll count you in."

He smiled in return, the same smile that covered millions of walls across America. "Thanks, Al, you're a pal."

She rolled her eyes. "Corny, freak. Now, go get me food!"

His laughter echoed down the stairs.

*     *     *     *     *

"So, Alli's just sitting there, and all of a sudden, asshole guy comes back and tells her that she doesn't look like she's busy, so he wants a ride."

Nick groaned. "Oh, God, you've got to be kidding me..."

David frowned. "Okay, where the hell was I when this happened?"

Jen waved her hand impatiently. "Hello? You were dancing! Anyway, she gives him this frown, then tells him that he missed the exit for trailer trash and that he couldn't handle her. When he tells her that he's quite capable. So she tells him that he's in dire need of a cold shower and a reality check and throws her Cosmo in his face." By that point in the story, she was beaming. "It was great!"

Nick shot Alli an amused look. "Do any men ever stand a chance with you?"

Alicia laughed. "Oh, decent ones do. Al just doesn't tend to attract the decent ones, you know?"

Alli, who had covered her face in her hands and attempted to blend into the booth of the local pizzeria, blushed and groaned. "I can't take you guys anywhere without getting totally humiliated."

Brent grinned widely. "Aw, come on, Al. We didn't tell Nicky about drunk guy yet."

Alli's eyes bulged and she shot Brent a disbelieving look. "Don't you fucking dare, or I'll tell him about that guy you thought was a girl."

Nick, who had been prepared to tease Alli into oblivion, burst out laughing at the embarrassed look on Brent's face. "You thought a guy was a girl?!"

Brent groaned. "Okay, you know what? He was wearing a skirt."

Alli grinned slyly. "So? Kevin wears skirts. On national television, even."

Tony grinned. "Yeah, but he's a Fagstreet Boy."

Nick rolled his eyes and wagged his finger at his friend. "You are SO going down."

Tony shook his head. "Nah, I'll just sic Alli on you."

After seeing Nick's reaction, Amy burst out laughing. "Look! He's actually cowering!"

Alli rolled her eyes again. "He's making fun of me."

Nick grinned innocently. "Who, me? Nah, girl, you and I are tight..." As if to prove his point, he wrapped an arm around her neck and pulled her closer for a wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek. Brent groaned in disgust from across the table.

"Carter, we have got to have a talk about this kissing thing..."

Tony shuddered. "Yeah, man, no joke. You kissed me too."

Nick chuckled. "And I also bought you a drink."

Tony's expression immediately changed. "Hey! Love all around!"

Jen rolled her eyes and smacked him. "You are such a loser."

Tony smiled cheekily at his girlfriend. "Yeah, but you love me anyway."

Alli rolled her eyes and snorted. "Only because you drug her."

Brent chuckled. "I've gotta agree with Al, man. I don't know what Jen sees in you."

Jen smiled sarcastically at him. "Well, it's a good thing you don't, dear, because that would make you gay."

Once again, the whole table burst into laughter at Brent's expense. They had been in the pizzeria for roughly an hour and a half, just catching up. During the first part of the meal, Nick had been the center of attention (and the focus of the majority of the jokes and sarcastic retorts). However, as the meal progressed, he had been able to hear about the others' adventures during Christmas break. While the embarrassing stories of Alli being harassed in various bars were funny (and wonderful teasing material for later), he was grateful for the time spent with his normal friends. The Boys and Nick had always been close, but something about coming back home to Tampa made him feel more like a regular guy and helped to alleviate some of the pressure of being the "cute one".

Taking a long sip of his beer, he took the opportunity to glance around the table. Alli was cheerfully teasing Brent, who had played third fiddle to Nick and Alli over the years. The three of them had caused much trouble together in their youth, and Nick was constantly grateful that they had remained friends. Amy, Jen, and Alicia (who were all still recovering from the humor in Brent's mistake) had been Alli's best girl friends through high school, so Nick had come to know them fairly well. Tony had been more Brent's friend that Alli's, but his attraction to Jen had eventually pulled him into the circle. As for David...Nick wasn't quite sure how to react to the man that had once been one of his best friends outside of Backstreet, but he did notice that David hadn't changed much. He was still kind and funny, but he had been keeping close to Alli throughout the night. While Nick had tried telling himself that they were close friends, his jealousy was beginning to get the best of him. Casually, he draped an arm around Alli.

"So, did anything else major happen while I was gone?"

Jen, the loudest of the group, looked eagerly around the table. "Well, guys? Did we miss any potential blackmail material?"

Brent rolled his eyes. "Nope, Jenny, I think you've just about covered the embarrassing details, thanks."

Alli's eyes widened in excitement. "Well, there was the one time that Brent..."

She was interrupted when his hand found her mouth, and the whole table burst into giggles all over again. When Brent finally removed his hand, Alli rolled her eyes.

"Geez, touchy, touchy."

Brent gave her a smirk. "You know, speaking of touchy, I think D had a few stories to tell us about his quality time with you..."

Alicia's eyes widened in interest. "Whoa, what's this? Do we see a potential reunion in the near future?"

David shook his head with a grin. "Nah. I'd have to compete with a Backstreet Boy."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Yeah, and Lord knows you'd rather be bagging one..."

That time, it was Nick's eyes that bulged as he choked on his beer. "WHAT?!"

Amy, always the sympathetic one, placed a hand on Nick's to calm him. "Nicky, David's bisexual. Didn't you know?"

Nick sputtered. "No!"

David rolled his eyes. "Guys, isn't that enough teasing for one night? You're going to give the poor guy a heart attack."

Nick frowned and turned to his longtime friend. "Hey, Dave, is that true?"

David shot the others a look. "No, they're totally kidding. They're just mad because they all despised my last girlfriend."

Alli grinned and tapped Nick. "See, Carter, you and Doc have something in common!"

Amy's eyes widened in approval. "So Nick had a girlfriend?"

Brent laughed knowingly. "Yeah, girlfriends. Plural. He had about fifty last tour, right Nicky?"

Nick groaned. "Can we not talk about this?"

Jen shook her head, leaning into Tony. "No way, babe, are you kidding? This is good stuff!"

Tony chuckled. "Yeah, man. I mean, we thought AJ was the Backstreet pimp."

Alli groaned. "Okay, AJ is SO not like that. He and Amanda are joined at the hip, and you guys are well aware."

David shrugged, winking at Alli. "Yeah, but it's still fun to tease him."

Alicia grinned. "Dude, I wanna hear about Nick's love life." She smiled knowingly at the blonde, biting back a laugh. "Come on, Nicky, spill."

Nick mock gasped. "Cia! I'd never kiss and tell!"

Tony's expression was priceless. "Oh, please. Save the sappiness for the next album, would you?"

Brent grinned. "Yeah, some of us are living vicariously here. I mean, hell, I can't even remember the last time I got laid."

"There's a reason for that," Alli deadpanned.

Jen rolled her eyes. "Yeah, and there's hope for females everywhere if you're finally getting turned down."

Brent rolled his eyes in return. "Stuff it, chick. We all know what you and Tony do after hours."

Tony grinned slyly. "Jealous much, Brent?"

Brent shook his head, remaining persistent. "I wanna hear the Nicky tales. I want to know what goes on with the Backstreet Boys after hours."

Amy frowned. "You know, there are a lot of things I could say to that..."

Alicia groaned. "Yeah, and 'pervert' just about sums it up."

David's eyes sparkled mischievously as he swirled his Coke. "I don't know, guys, Brent's got a point. Nick, how about a little bed time story before we all hit the road?"

Nick was about to make an inappropriate comment in David's direction simply because he didn't like the look he was getting from the guy, but his features contorted in surprise when Alli spoke up.

"Guys, leave him alone, okay? Maybe you need to be taking notes on his neglect to talk about it instead of looking for a way to feed the smaller of your two heads."

From across the table, Jen initiated a high-five with Alli. "Well-said, chick. Nicky's love life is his business."

Tony snorted. "You mean his lust life, right?"

From that point, the subject of conversation changed, and they all began laughing about something else. Nick, however, took the opportunity to pull Alli into an inconspicuous hug.

"Listen, thanks for getting them off my back," he whispered, and Alli shrugged.

"No problem. I love the guys like brothers, but they can be assholes, and Doc was out of line." She winked at him. "Besides, if you aren't proud of it, why boast?"

He laughed. "Have I told you lately how much I missed you?"

Alli rolled her eyes. "Not in the past hour, no. Other than that, I think we've already hit five hundred times. What's with the sentimentality outburst?"

Nick grinned. "It's Christmas, girl! Can't a guy be thankful?"

Alli smirked at him. "Wrong holiday."

He rolled his eyes. "You suck."

She chortled. "Like you would know."

And, suddenly, Brent managed to turn the conversation on them again. "What's this about Alli sucking?"

Tony groaned. "She's a damn prude. She doesn't suck. At least I've never seen it."

Alli smiled sarcastically at him. "That's because I have taste, Tony."

Brent let out a low whistle, and the rest of the table started laughing again. "Man, she got you good..."

Nick laughed. "Doesn't she always, though?"

Jen nodded. "Absolutely. She and Amanda are lethal together."

David frowned slightly. "How is Amanda? I haven't talked to her lately..."

Alli grinned. "She's doing well, actually. She and AJ are having that big thing for New Year's."

Alicia smiled. "Really? That'll be awesome. Those two always throw kick-ass parties."

Nick shot a charming grin in Alicia's direction. "You mean you actually remember them?"

Once again, the table burst into giggles, and Nick smiled in self-satisfaction. He had missed the normalcy that his other friends brought, and he was extremely glad to be in the middle of it all again. With a soft smile, he looked down at Alli beside him and hugged her lightly, leaning down to whisper in her ear. "Thanks. For everything."

She winked at him. "You're welcome."

Tony's roar interrupted them. "Hey, no secrets! You must share!"

Alli just smiled.

"You Set Me Free"
lyrics and music by Michelle Branch