Bed of Roses
Chapter Thirty-Eight
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

I want to scream and shout
Just losing any doubt
'Cause all I care about is you and me and us and now
If only I had the guts to feel this way
If only you'd look at me and want to stay
If only I'd hold you in my arms and say
"I won't go, 'cause I need you"
Please don't go, 'cause I need you now

Nick sighed heavily and took a sip of his black coffee as he struggled to read about whatever drama had captivated the world for the moment. He'd never been too fond of reading the morning paper, but he'd been waiting for his best friend in the tiny coffee shop for almost half an hour and had quickly gotten bored enough to begin skimming the pages of tiny black print.

It was his own fault that the wait was so long. Alli wasn't late yet, but he'd been desperate to get away from the hotel that had kept him from sleep and sanity for an evening. When he'd returned to the room, the girl in his bed had vanished, leaving a note that thanked him for an interesting evening and wished him the best of luck. He'd felt momentary guilt at having skipped out so quickly, and he was slightly concerned about how the blonde had reacted to his behavior, but the guilt had left as quickly as it had come. Truth to tell--regardless of how awful it sounded--he was glad to be spared the trouble of the "morning after" routine. He wasn't proud of his actions, for the first time in a long time, and he wanted to leave quickly so that he could get the fresh start that the new year and the night by the piano seemed to have promised him.

He shook his head and tried to re-focus on the paper, but, after re-reading the same sentence for the fifth time, decided that he wasn't paying enough attention to get anything out of the article and quickly skipped to the comics. He'd just begun to giggle over Garfield and friends when he heard footsteps behind him.

"Oh my God, I'm hallucinating. Either that new allergy medication is causing majorly bizarre side effects, or Nick Carter is actually early for a coffee date."

Nick rolled his eyes, but he couldn't keep the smile off his face as he turned to face his best friend. "Yeah, yeah...go on and make fun of me. I found comics. I don't care." His eyes widened as he gestured for her to sit down. "By the way, have you read this Garfield thing? This is funny shit, Al..." The declaration was followed by another round of infamous Carter giggles, and Alli's gray eyes widened at the scene. As though looking for a route to reality, she took a large gulp of her frappucino and sighed.

"Oh, wow. Not only are you up before noon, but you're giggling before noon." She arched an eyebrow skeptically and frowned at him. "Who are you and what did you do to my Carter?"

Nick grinned. "I'm in a good mood. This is gonna be a good day." The statement was punctuated with another gulp of coffee and followed by another grin. Alli shook her head and groaned.

"Oh, no. This is not the Carter I know. Look, dude, I know you, and you only know two parts of the day: afternoon and night. If you're up in time for morning, of which you once tried to argue against the existence , then something major must have happened."

Nick wrinkled his nose. "Okay, I may be up, but I'm not coherent enough to mess with you and your humongous vocabulary yet. Can you translate?"

Alli gave him an evil smile. "No, sorry, I don't speak ghetto."

Nick mimicked her before rolling his eyes. "Gosh, Al, you're so funny!"

She grinned. "I know!"

He frowned. "Seriously, though, you know what I mean. Rewind and pretend you're talking to Kevin."


Nick groaned and rubbed a tired hand over his face to hide his smile at Alli's sense of humor. "Okay, bad choice of words. If you pretend you're talking to Kevin, I'm not going to get out of here until NEXT year. Pretend you're talking to AJ, okay?"

Alli closed her eyes and attempted to submerge herself deep in thought before frowning. "I give up. I can't think of a sexual analogy."

Not even Nick had enough willpower to control his laughter that time. When his giggles finally died down, he took a deep breath and gave her a pleading look. "Al, please have pity? What were you trying to say?"

Alli smiled innocently. "I don't remember anymore..."


She laughed. "Okay. I made some joke about you never being up in the morning. Why the hell are you up this early, anyway?"

Nick shrugged. "I didn't get any sleep last night."

Alli frowned lightly and abandoned her teasing as soon as she saw the more serious look on Nick's face. "Why not?"

He shrugged again. "It was just a crappy evening, you know? I was tense..."

Alli grinned casually. "Well, then, consider me your official 'un-tenser'...or something like that."

Nick laughed and set the paper down so he could smile at her. "Sounds like a plan. I needed to unwind."

Alli nodded. "Which is why you're drinking coffee...makes perfect sense..."

Nick rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Fine, tease me. You're not going to piss me off today."

"And every teenybopper in the world is thanking God for that," Alli chuckled, gesturing to the smile he was sporting. "They get to see the Carter grin, and I don't have to deal with another round of male PMS. Everybody wins."

Nick laughed again. "See? It's already a good year."

Alli chuckled. "It better be a good year if I have to spend it with you."

"Should I be insulted?"

Alli arched an eyebrow pointedly. "You woke me up early after a night at AJ's. You take what you get."

Nick made a face. "Damn. And here I thought I was grumpy in the morning..."

"You love me anyway," Alli insisted, taking another sip of frappucino. Fortunately for Nick, she was too engrossed in her coffee to notice that all of the color had momentarily drained from his face at the mention of love. However, by the time she had returned her attention to his features, he was casually grinning again and had fully recovered. Fully recovered. Yeah fucking right. I'm still in love with her. And I'm lying about it. Only I'm not really lying, I'm just not saying anything. That's not lying, is it? That's keeping silent. That's not lying. God, it sure feels like lying, though. I never fucking lie to Alli. Why do I have to lie to her? If she asked me, would I tell her the truth? Would she even suspect? No, she wouldn't. She's too casual. But, then again, she does tease me a lot. Is that flirting? That could be flirting. Shit, she could be flirting with me...

She treats everyone like that, though. Not just me. And Alli wouldn't flirt with the whole world...would she?

"I knew he was going to fall asleep on me at some point..."

"What?" Nick immediately snapped back into focus, scattering all his previous thoughts to the far corners of his mind, away from any light that might hit them and cause his eyes to sparkle when he smiled at her. Surely she'd notice if his eyes started sparkling.

"See, that's the Carter I was looking for. The lack of intelligence, the ability to catch flies..."

Nick rolled his eyes. "Damn, what the hell did you do last night that made you this grumpy?"

Alli chuckled lightly and drained the rest of her coffee. "Not much. I just stayed over at the party with AJ and Amanda until the wee hours of the morning so I could help them clean up."

Nick rolled his eyes. "Go fucking figure. My best friend, the Good Samaritan."

Alli's chuckle grew to a full-out laugh. "Oh, please! I love hanging out with J and Manda. Those two are pretty cool, and I really did miss them while you guys were finishing up the tour." She leaned in and looked around cautiously before lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Don't tell AJ that, though. I'd never live it down."

Nick grinned. "Secret's safe with me."

Alli returned the grin. "I figured as much." The grin immediately gave way to a furrowed brow of concern, however, when Alli realized what they had been discussing. "Anyway--speaking of last night--what happened to you? I mean, we looked around after one of AJ's ridiculous dance sessions and realized that you'd vanished. What the hell did you do?"

Nick frowned, hating his inability to lie to her more than anything. He wanted to be honest, but he really didn't want to admit to having performed such outrageous acts the night before, especially after having experience the epiphany that had followed. He cleared his throat meekly and glanced at a crack in the tiled floor of Alli's favorite coffee shop. "I went out."

Alli chuckled again, swirling the remaining milk foam around in her cup. "No shit, Sherlock. I didn't recognize the number on the caller-ID this morning either. Where'd you go to?"

Nick began picking at a loose thread on his jeans. "Some hotel in Orlando." He could see the question forming on her lips before they ever parted, and chose to answer it before she could accuse him of hiding things from her. "I took a girl to bed with me."

Alli's eyebrow quirked as her friend's words registered. She fought the urge to close her eyes so that she could separate herself from what her best friend had apparently become, but her mind was racing with the myriad of feelings she'd suddenly been forced to endure. Why do I feel betrayed? I mean, hell, he wasn't glued to my side or anything. This is Carter we're talking about. A kiss is a kiss is a kiss, and he's kissed a billion girls before. He's kissed fans before. It didn't even mean anything, did it? He's a damn good kisser, but he's had a lot of practice, and...

She clenched her jaw so it wouldn't drop as another realization hit her. Oh, God. He's never going to change. This is the way he's going to be. I can't fix this phase anymore. I'm just going to have to ride it out. Of course, then there's always the possibility that he stays this way forever. Can I deal with that? Can I handle befriending a player that constantly uses women as frequently as AJ uses hair dye? Would I be compromising anything to deal with that?

She snuck a glance at Nick, who was still staring at the floor and chewing his bottom lip apprehensively, and sighed heavily. God, that's my best friend. That's the guy I've known my entire life, the one person I trust more than anything in the world. How shallow would I be to totally and completely ditch him just because a few of his morals didn't line up with mine? Here I am, preaching about accepting people for who they are and learning to get past everyone else's judgment, and...and I'm judging him. Shit.

She remained stock still, but inwardly imagined herself shaking her head at...well, herself. She knew just by looking at Nick, seeing the hint of fear and the tinge of innocence in his boyish features, that she couldn't let him go just because he'd changed. She also knew that it was ridiculous to expect him to remain lodged in the past just for her. Hey, I have a New Year's Resolution now. Amanda's going to be so proud of me...

With an indifferent countenance, she turned to Nick and dropped her face against her hand. "So, you took a girl to bed with you?"

Nick cringed, and Alli couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry at his immense and obvious discomfort. "Yeah."

She allowed her features to form her famous smirk and chuckled. "Well, Carter, spill...was she any good?"

Nick's jaw dropped immediately. He could almost feel the cold tile underneath his chin as his eyes widened to nearly twice their size. He knew Alli better than he knew himself most of the time, and he knew her morals better than his own. Alli could grind with the best, and she could kiss forever, but his best friend had never approved of meaningless sex. What the FUCK got into her?

He frowned. "Al?"

She chuckled. "Carter? Most questions are usually followed by answers, you know."

Nick shook his head as if to clear it. Fuck. She's asking me about my sex life. Do I be honest with her or not?

Finally, he relented and gave another heavy sigh. "Not really. It was..." He trailed off, groaning. "Fuck it. Al, I don't know why the hell I do shit like that anymore. I mean, I'm almost twenty fucking years old. I should be past this stage already. I was sitting there last night, and it hit me just how fucking ridiculous all of that was."

Alli shrugged lightly, trying to maintain the indifferent attitude. "You are who you are, Carter. If that's who you are, then that's who you are and you owe it to yourself to be true to that."

Nick glared at her, completely astounded by her sudden lack of emotion. "Maybe that's not who I am anymore."

Alli allowed a bit of her inner cheerleader to shine through as she smiled. Damn, so this is why people use reverse psychology... "Then I'm glad that you moved past that." When he cracked a small smile, hers widened in return. "But, Carter, don't feel like you have to change just because people want you to."

Nick's smile immediately faded to another frown as he pondered the implications of Alli's declaration. Fuck. Isn't this what we spent the whole first leg of the tour arguing about? I have no morals, blah, blah, I need to change...what changed her mind? I mean, I wanted this, right? This should be a good thing. I wanted her to accept me for me, to leave me alone and let me be psychotic as I damn well pleased. So why does it bother me that she's suddenly letting go of the whole mother hen thing she had going?

His subconscious provided an answer almost before the question even registered. Because it's like she doesn't care. It's like she doesn't care enough to watch out for me. But this was what I wanted. This is what I asked her for over and over.

He smiled tentatively at her and took another sip of coffee, biting back the scream that ripped at his temples.

Dammit. Fate sucks.

*     *     *     *     *

"So, I hear that you and Nick had quite the discussion in the coffee shop a few days ago..."

Alli looked up from the piles of clothes she had spread around her and frowned. "I guess. Whom did you hear that from?"

Amanda arched an eyebrow from the closet doorway and tossed another "cute shirt" in Alli's direction. "I heard it from Nick," she informed the younger woman, then pointed to the article of clothing that had just flown across the room. "And you are so packing that. That shirt is hot, chick, and we're going to need it when we hit the clubs."

Alli shrugged and dropped the shirt into the first suitcase, which was quickly becoming full. With a sigh, she turned back to Amanda, her tone doubtful. "You heard about our conversation from Carter?"

Amanda looked guilty for a moment before casting one of her seemingly innocent smiles in Alli's direction. "Yeah!"

Alli dipped her chin and gave her friend a pointed look, to which Amanda quickly responded.

"Okay, fine, so I eavesdropped. He and AJ were talking, and I knew I wasn't going to get good gossip unless I listened."

Alli laughed aloud. "Good gossip? Manda, if you had asked, you know I would've told you."

Amanda grinned. "Well, sure. But where's the fun in that?" She winked at Alli before turning back to complete her mission of searching the closet for decent attire.

"You're too much."

Amanda scratched her chin as she gazed at Alli's jeans. "You know, that's about what AJ said last night..."

"Exactly how offended would you be if I told you that I don't want to know?"

Amanda tossed a casual grin over her shoulder, sending her chocolate-colored curls flying. "Nada. I would've figured as much. My sex life is way too hot for you and the girls to handle." She winked again. "We'll just say that AJ's the kind of guy that leaves you coming back for more."

"Must be a pretty large dose of viagra that you're dumping in his coffee every morning, then, because that boy's getting old..."

Amanda whirled around and leveled a surprised expression on Alli. "What on earth? I know I didn't just hear you knocking my boy..."

Alli smiled mischievously. "From what I hear, Manda, it would seem as though you're the one knocking your boy..."

Amanda rolled her eyes in good-natured disgust. "You know, if it weren't for your red hair, I would seriously wonder if you were AJ's long lost twin. My sex jokes may make the girls blush when the guys aren't around, but you're just lethal."

Alli allowed a grin of satisfaction to illuminate her features. "Thank you. Now, what were you saying about my conversation with Carter?"

Amanda's amused disposition quickly faded to a calculated nonchalance. "He had a few interesting things to say on your behalf, that's for sure."

"Oh?" Alli feigned disinterest and continued to place articles of clothing in the suitcase, knowing that the other girls would be over momentarily to get her out of whatever stint Amanda was preparing to pull. If she could stall she could almost certainly avoid a lecture.

Amanda frowned. "You know, Al, if I didn't know any better, I'd think that you were trying to avoid talking to me right now?"

Gee, Manda, it's a good thing you know better then, isn't it? "Why would I do that?"

Amanda narrowed her eyes in Alli's general direction. "You tell me."

"What did Carter have to say that has you so weirded out?"

Amanda leaned back against the doorframe and examined her nails for a moment before turning to face Alli with an expectant gaze. "Well, see, he said that he told you about having taken a woman to bed on New Year's..."

"He called her a girl," Alli interjected, her cheeks flaring crimson as soon as the words had left her mouth. Way to go, Al. How the hell is that relevant? Now you can't deny whatever Amanda attempts to accuse you of. Besides, why are you remember petty details about a conversation you and Carter had a week ago?

Amanda arched an eyebrow in curiosity, but didn't acknowledge Alli's interruption. "So, anyway, he said that he told you about having taken a girl to bed with him on New Year's, and said that you were completely and totally all right with his behavior."

Alli winced into the suitcase. Coming from Amanda, the idea didn't sound half as good as it had sounded in her head that morning, but she was absolutely determined to be a better friend to Nick and accept him for whom he had become.

"So is that true, Al? Did you really not care about Carter sleeping with another woman?"

"Girl," Alli returned pointedly. Why does that make such a difference to me?

Amanda rolled her eyes and folded her arms across her chest. "Fine. Woman, girl, whatever. Did it really not bother you?"

Alli finally decided that she couldn't be productive with Amanda's eyes on her back and turned around to face the older woman. "Hell yes, it bothered me."

Amanda smiled in satisfaction. "Now, there's the Alli I know. I knew that Nick couldn't have been serious. I mean, you're the one who kept him straight..."

Alli smirked in amusement at her friend's rambling. "Amanda, I wasn't done yet."

Amanda had the decency to offer her a sheepish smile. "Oh. Sorry, chick."

Alli rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Anyway, as I was saying...yes, it bothers me. It will always bother me. However, it's not worth my friendship with Carter. I care too much about him to ditch him just because he and I don't see eye-to-eye on everything. I mean, we fought during the whole first leg of the tour because I couldn't accept him. Hell, Manda, I almost lost him because of it. I've just decided to live and let live. What he wants to do is his prerogative. It's no place of mine to judge him." She grinned at Amanda's gradually drooping jaw. "I figure that it can be my New Year's Resolution--be accepting of Carter."

Amanda started laughing, but her laughter gradually died when she noticed that her fiery-haired friend wasn't laughing with her. "Oh my gosh, you're serious."

Alli frowned. "Well, yeah. I mean, why do I need to keep criticizing him if it only causes tension?"

Amanda threw her arms up in frustration, stepping out of the closet so that she could pace. "Oh, gee, Al, I don't know...maybe because you were getting somewhere with him?"

Alli's frown deepened. "But I wasn't, really. I was just pissing him off."

Amanda groaned. "Did he look pissed whenever you saw him at the coffee shop?"

Alli laughed. "No. It was early. He just looked confused, and he kept giggling."

Because he was around YOU! "So he wasn't pissed."

Alli shook her head. "No, but Amanda...think about it. I haven't had the chance to piss him off lately."

"He seemed a bit pissed that you suddenly don't care whatever he does with his dick," Amanda shot back from her position against the wall. "I mean, shit, Al, he was an asshole last leg, but can you not tell how much better he's gotten since you two got over your little tiff?"

Alli groaned. "Little tiff? Manda, I had completely quit speaking to the guy. I think that qualifies as a tiny bit more serious than a 'little tiff'."

Amanda rolled her eyes in annoyance and tossed her arms up again. "Fine, whatever the hell it was. But isn't it obvious that he's changed for the better since you forgave him? I mean, hell, Al, you should've seen how bad he was when you weren't speaking to him."

Alli nodded her agreement. "So how can my being judgmental help him if it pisses him off so much that he hurts himself?"

"Because he's not hurting himself anymore! Because he's fucking trying to be a better person because he cares what you think! Because he's not fucking pissed off anymore about you nagging him. He knows that you only nag because you care, and I think that means something to Carter."

It was Alli's turn to roll her eyes. "Right, whatever. I still think it pisses him off."

Amanda let loose with something between a scream and a groan. "Well, call me crazy, but he sure as hell didn't look pissed whenever you two were locking lips at midnight on New Year's Eve."

Alli sighed, ready to relay the logic she'd been using for the entire week. "It was a kiss, Manda. Just a kiss. He's with girls all the time. Something that little probably meant nothing to him."

Amanda quirked an eyebrow inquisitively, suddenly more interested in Alli's reserved tone than the shirt she'd been trying to fold. "Did it mean anything to you?"

Alli was shaking her head before she had even allowed herself to think about the question. "No way, Manda. It was just a friendly thing. Neither one of us had dates, so it was nice not to be alone when the clock struck twelve."

Amanda squinted at her friend, dropping the shirt to the floor in frustration. "Were you dropped on your head as a child?"

Alli feigned horror. "Why, does the bump still show?"

Amanda rolled her eyes and smacked her friend. "Al, I was being serious. How can you say the kiss didn't mean anything to you?"

Alli rolled her eyes in turn, giving Amanda a breadbox look before narrowing her eyes in the older woman's direction. "What the hell does it matter to you? And how did you know that we kissed, anyway? Were you spying on me?"

Amanda sighed guiltily. "I was trying to prove a point to AJ. You two are so fucking in love, and neither one of you gets it, and it's like watching those stupid people on Survivor try to eat bricks with a plastic fork."

Alli's expression quickly grew to be perplexed. "They tried to eat bricks with a plastic fork?!"

Amanda groaned in annoyance. "No, retard, I was trying to make a point."

Alli chuckled bitterly to herself. "And they think I'm the psychotic one..."

If Amanda had heard the comment, she didn't let on. "So you can really, honestly say that you don't have anything more than friendly feelings for Carter and that kiss meant nothing but a friendly 'have an awesome year and thanks for hanging out with me'?"

"No, Amanda, I'm madly in love with him and the kiss meant nothing but 'I wish you'd hold me like this forever...or until you can take me upstairs and fuck me senseless'." Alli made a face. "YES, I'm sure I don't have those kind of feelings for him. For God's sake, what is this? I graduated from junior high years ago."

"Funny," Amanda mused. "I couldn't tell with the way you're clutching denial like a freaking toddler with a teddy bear."

Alli gave an exasperated sigh, watching her stomach deflate as she flopped back onto the bed. "I'm not in denial, okay? I just know whom I'm talking about. Carter has never, ever in his entire life been serious about a girl."

"He's serious about you."

Alli leveled Amanda with a pointed look. "I'm not a girl..."

"Not yet a woman..." Amanda teased, adopting a Britney pose at the foot of Alli's bed. The redhead rolled her eyes and flopped back against the pillows.

"I'm just a friend," she insisted, but Amanda was still going.

"All I need is time...a moment that is mine...while I'm in between..." *

Alli groaned aloud. "Between what? Mentally ill and exceedingly psychotic? Or Miss Cleo and Dear Abby?"

Amanda shrugged. "I could be Miss Cleo. I can definitely see into your future."

Alli rolled her eyes and made a face at the ceiling, praying that something would fall onto Amanda's head before Alli was forced to sit and listen to another romantic prediction. "And what do you see, oh wise one?"

"A very big brick wall that I'm going to need to bang my head against in a moment..."

Alli laughed. "Frustrated much?"

"How's 'hell yes' for an answer?" Amanda snapped. "Al, you two are so completely attracted to each other that I could've strangled the rest of Backstreet with the sexual tension, and neither one of you even notice it."

Alli laughed again. "Yeah, Manda, because it's not there."

"Oh?" Amanda sat up and stared at Alli pointedly. "I'd be willing to bet you anything that that kiss meant more to Nick than you think it did, and that it meant more to you than you'd ever admit."

Alli rolled her eyes and tried to roll away from her persistent friend, but Amanda held her in place. "Furthermore, I'd be willing to bet that Carter is insanely in love with you."

Alli groaned. "Okay, now I know you're on crack. Where did we put your medication, Manda?"

Amanda shrugged. "I'm serious, Al. And you know what else?"


"He'd do anything for you. He loves you, and it's going to tear him up inside if you suddenly don't care."

Alli's face fell. "I do care. And I'd do anything for him, but he already knows that. It's part of this whole 'friendship' deal we started awhile back."

"That deal is about to crumble."

Alli rolled her eyes and sat up so that she could climb off the bed and wander over to the closet, safe from Amanda's prying gaze and that twisting feeling in her stomach. "No, it's not. We're friends. We were friends before, and that won't change. Nothing changed. It was just a fucking kiss, Amanda! Good God!"

When she turned back around, Amanda was digging through the drawers of her night table. To say that Alli was confused would have been a definite understatement. "What are you doing now?"

Amanda shook her head. "Do you have a picture of yourself anywhere around here?"

Alli looked back into the closet, suddenly distracted with the task of finding her favorite pair of jeans. She wasn't about to follow her best friend around the world without her favorite pair of jeans. "Yeah, on the dresser, why?"

Before Amanda could even answer the question, she had rushed out of the room, obviously on a mission of some sort. Alli watched her leave with a frown before turning back to her closet. "Where in the hell did I put those?"

Within moments, Amanda was back with a roll of tape in her mouth and a dictionary in her hands. She went to grab Alli's picture off the dresser and smiled, leaning over the bed while she flipped through the large book. Alli watched the whole scene with a curious, concerned detachment. God, the girl has lost it.


"Yeah?" She sounded distracted, and her voice was slightly muffled by the mass of hair that covered the determined smile on her face.

"What in God's name are you doing?"

Amanda looked up long enough to grin at Alli. "Helping Mr. Webster out."

"Oh?" Yeah, confusion comes in the form of me. That made NO freaking sense.

"Yeah. He likes illustrations, right?"

Alli shrugged, trying to keep her brow from knitting more tightly than the scarves she'd seen her grandmother construct. "I guess?"

"Because, I figure, with the attitude you've got going, your face was meant to be under 'stupid'. If 'in denial' were one word, I'd put your picture there, but it's not. However, your lack of romantic intelligence is astounding enough to deserve some kind of recognition, so I figure the Webster guy wouldn't mind."

Alli's eyebrows hiked to the top of her forehead as she stared at Amanda's flustered form. "What kinds of drugs are you on?!"

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Obviously not the same brand that you're on. I found my guy, and I have no problem admitting that we're a match made in heaven."

"Or hell," Alli muttered, still staring incredulously as Amanda began tearing tape off the canister.

"What was that?"

She smiled sweetly when Amanda turn to look at her again. "Nothing."

"That's what I thought."

Finally, unable to hold it in any longer, Alli chuckled. "You know, what scares me the most about this whole scene is that I actually understand what you're doing."

Amanda grinned at her slyly from the foot of the bed. "I know."

"Alli! Al?!"

Alli's chuckle faded as she recognized Leighanne's voice. "Leigh?"

"Hey! Where are you girls? I brought necessities..."

Alli laughed at the how typically Leighanne such a comment was. "We're in the bedroom."

Amanda looked up for a moment to wiggle her eyebrows before returning to her work. "Ooh, that sounded kinky."

Before Alli could comment, Leighanne entered the room with two large shopping bags and a full-fledged Mommy frown.


Alli smiled meekly. She knew that look well enough to know that she was about to get scolded. "Yeah?"

"Your door was unlocked."

"I know."

"It was open."

"I know."

"That's dangerous."

Alli sighed. "I know."

"Nicky could just walk right in and jump you."

"Shut up Amanda."

With that comment, Leighanne directed her attention to Amanda and frowned at the mess of tape and pictures surrounding the dictionary. She turned to Alli with a fearful look. "What in heaven's name is she doing over there?"

As if on cue, Amanda turned around with a triumphant smile. "This." She held the book up proudly, displaying the new Kodak moment that fell under one of the more popular "s" words. "See? It's Alli!"

Leighanne's frown deepened. "I see."

"She's now an illustration."

"I see."

"She helps people understand the meaning of the word 'stupid'," Amanda finally clarified, and Leighanne flinched. With something between a smile and a concerned expression, she turned to Alli.

"Why are you stupid?"

"Because Nick's in love with her and she can't see it," Amanda responded before Alli could open her mouth. Alli glared beneath her auburn curls to show her disapproval before turning to Leighanne.

"He is not. We kissed once on New Year's Eve. It was a friendly thing."

Leighanne frowned. "Are you sure?"

Alli rolled her eyes. "Leigh, this is Nick. Player of the Year."

Leighanne shrugged. "Then Player of the Year just took my fiance to the golf course for a private, male discussion. I offered to caddy, but Nick made it very clear that he wanted to talk to Brian alone."

"Because he's in love with Alli," Amanda finished proudly, grinning at her friend. "Can I say 'I told you so' now?"

Alli cast a small mischievous smile in Leighanne's direction. "Hey Leigh?"

"Hey Al?"

"How much do you think that dictionary weighs?"

Leighanne laughed. With Alli, one could never tell exactly where the conversation was headed. "I don't know, Al, why?"

"You think it weighs enough to knock Amanda out?"

Amanda shook her head. "No, because then it would weigh enough to knock some common sense into you."

Alli's eyes narrowed in the brunette's direction. "Maybe we can bypass the dictionary and I can knock you out..."

Amanda stuck her tongue out. "AJ would kill you."

"AJ planted this stupid idea in your head, I'll bet. AJ can kiss my ass."

Amanda grinned. "No, AJ's going to leave that to Nick."

Alli growled. "Carter wouldn't do that, because Carter is a friend..."

Amanda arched a pointed eyebrow. "Have you seen the guys grovel with Kevin? Friends can kiss ass."

Alli groaned. "If Carter so much as touches my ass, he's going to be kissing the back of a tour bus."

Leighanne fought to hid her amused smile. "You planning on making roadkill, Al? You're going to have all of the teenyboppers after you."

Alli sighed. "I won't need to make roadkill, because Carter doesn't feel that way."

Amanda grinned. "Leigh?"

Leighanne was almost afraid to answer. "Yeah?"

"Do you think we can have the guys write a song that revolves around 'I told you so' and sing it to Alli during one of the shows?"

Leighanne didn't have time to respond before Alli had crossed the distance between herself and Amanda so she could smack her friend playfully. Well, not so much playfully, judging by the satisfied grin on Amanda's face.

With a sigh, Leighanne shook her head. This is going to be a long tour...

*     *     *     *     *

"Nick, slow down! You're going to get us killed before opening night hits, and then Kev's going to be majorly pissed. Beside, I'm engaged now. I have a fiancee to think about..."

Nick rolled his eyes at his best friend's antics. "Bri, shut up, okay? We're not going that fast."

Brian gave him an incredulous look. "Um, hello? I know you need glasses and all, Frack, but that's a tree."

"We are so not going to hit that."

"How do you know? I can't even see that. It's just a brown blur that's getting way too big, way too fast."

They rushed by the tree without any accident and slammed to a stop at the fourth hole. As soon as the cart had stopped shaking, Nick turned to Brian with a self-satisfied smirk.

"I told you we weren't going to hit that tree."

Brian grinned. "Well, gee, what do you know? God DOES answer prayers instantly!"

He didn't have the decency to hide his giggles, and received a whack for his lack of effort. When he had finally stopped laughing, however, he turned to Nick and frowned.

"So, do you want to tell me why you invited me on this little private outing?" He paused a moment before reconsidering. "And I know for a fact that you hate to play golf, Nick, so you're going to have to be honest with me."

Nick sighed and leaned back against the leather of the cart seats. "I wanted to talk."

Brian nodded, having expected that much. "What about?"

Nick sighed again, heavily, before turning to Brian with apprehension on his boyish features and uncertainty in his eyes. "Frick, how'd you know that you were in love with Leigh?"

Brian couldn't help the smile that crossed his face at the mention of
his fiancee. Of course, he was also sure that part of his amusement and contentment had to do with the fact that Nick was finally asking him about love. He knew all too well to what situation the younger man was referring, and his smile was reflective of his satisfaction at Nick slowly coming to terms with his feelings for Alli. Brian had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at Nick's thoughtful expression, though. Man, AJ was right. That boy is seriously in denial. He's so far gone that he's somehow managed to confuse himself. He shook his head at the thought, and tried to focus on the conversation. After all, he was supposed to be thinking about Leighanne and his love for her.

He sighed. "I knew I was in love with Leigh when I would spend the entire day just waiting to hear her voice, when I would call her house while she was at work just to hear her answering machine. I knew I was in love with Leigh when her arms started to feel like home to me, and when I wanted to be her safe haven. I knew I was in love with Leigh when my day depended on the smile she gave me when I saw her. I knew I was in love with Leigh when she was the one I wanted to run to, regardless of the reason. Of all the people in the world, Leigh makes me the most comfortable. She's the only person in the world who makes me feel like I'm a better person just by being me." He sighed heavily when he realized exactly how romantic the conversation had gotten, and he ran a hand through his honey-colored curls in attempt to clear his head and venture away from the world of rapid heartbeats, pretty words, and Leighanne. "I don't know, Nick. I just...sometimes, you just know. And it sounds cliche, but with Leigh, I just knew. Every time around her, I feel like me, and that suddenly becomes okay."

Nick was simply staring ahead with wide, bright eyes, trying to keep his thoughts from stumbling over the edge. Shit. I'm even too shocked to be cynical about Rok going Hallmark, because that whole fucking thing could've just as easily been me describing Alli.

He mouth fell open slightly as another realization struck him. Oh, fuck. That means I really am in love with her. Totally, completely, helplessly, hopelessly in love with her. I am so screwed.

He gulped and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to pretend that his heart wasn't suddenly racing with knowledge that he wasn't so sure he wanted to acquire in the first place.

"Nick? You're spacing out on me. Are you okay?"

His head snapped up at the sound of Brian's voice, and he turned to stare at his best friend before offering a shaky smile. "Yeah, fine. Sorry, I was just thinking about something."

Brian smiled knowingly. "Care to share?"

Nick coughed. "No, it wasn't really all that important. Just stupid, random stuff." Love. Good God. What the hell did I get myself into? And why do I not really mind?

Brian nodded, knowing Nick well enough to leave the issue alone. When the younger man wanted to speak, he would, but until then, he was better left alone. "Hey, Frack?"

Nick groaned inwardly. He's figured me out now. That was so NOT discreet. "Yeah, Frick?"

"Why are you suddenly asking me about Leighanne and love?"

Nick shrugged lightly and began chewing on his thumbnail, knowing he couldn't really bluff his way out of the conversation. However, far be it from him not to try. "I don't know. I just...I see you and Leigh, and I see how happy you guys are, and I guess I want to be that happy someday."

Brian smiled and gave his friend a pat on the back. "You will be, bro. You just need to find the right girl."

That's all? Funny, I thought you had to confess your feelings, then wait for some kind of reciprocation as well, and then actually come to terms with the fact that a bir part of your life depends on someone else, and... "Yeah..."

Brian continued to watch Nick for a moment, biting back his smile, until he couldn't hold back any longer. "Nick, how long are you planning to bullshit me?"

Nick looked up in surprise at hearing Brian curse. "What?"

Brian leveled a pointed gaze in Nick's direction. "Nick, how long have I known you? I know you don't just randomly decide to talk love and commitment over a game of golf. Seriously, man, quit bluffing already and tell me what's up before you knock a ball through someone's roof again."

Nick gave a shaky courtesy laugh. "Well, um..."

Brian nodded. "Good start."

That time, Nick's chuckle was genuine, and he exhaled heavily. "Bri, I think I'm in love with Alli."

Brian arched an eyebrow. "You think or you know?"

Nick winced as the full force of his words hit him. "I know I'm in love with Alli."

Brian sucked in a breath. "Wow. I've got to say, bro, it's about time."

Nick cringed. "Yeah, everyone else seems to share that opinion."

Brian sighed. "So what are you going to do about it?"

Nick groaned. "I'm going to have to tell her, man. I mean, with her on tour and with everything being insane and with my inability to lie to her, I don't have any other way to go about it. That, and it hurts like hell to hold something this big inside."

Brian nodded again. "So tell her. You don't know that she won't feel the same way."

Nick laughed bitterly. "No, I don't, but I don't know that she will feel the same way either, and that's what scares me."

Brian gave a loose laugh. "Man, you sound like you're afraid of getting what you want."

Nick narrowed his eyes in Brian's direction. "I don't want her, Frick. I love her. There's a difference."

Brian grimaced. "Sorry, you're right. That was a bad choice of wording. But it sounds like you're almost afraid that you're going to get Alli on a whole new level."

Nick's bitter laugh returned. "No, I'm not even remotely afraid of getting that close to her. I'm afraid of losing her."

Brian frowned. "You think you'd lose her over something that simple?"

Nick shook his head slowly. "I don't know, Bri, and the uncertainty alone is enough to keep me quiet for now."

Brian nodded slowly. "And what happens, then, when the need to tell her surpasses the uncertainty?"

Nick laughed. "Honestly? I pray. Really fucking hard. Because it's going to take a lot of prayers to make sure I don't screw this one up."

"If Only"
lyrics and music by Hanson
* "Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman"
performed by Britney Spears
lyrics and music by Dido