Bed of Roses
Chapter Thirty-Nine
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 know I should tell you how I feel
I wish everyone would disappear
Every time you call me
I'm too scared to be me
And I'm too shy to say
Ooh, I've got a crush on you
I hope you feel the way that I do
I get a rush when I'm with you
Ooh, I've got a crush on you

"Cross right, step left, cross left, step right, cross right, step left, cross left, step right, kick left, touch down...come on, guys, you KNOW this song! What is this? Did excess New Year's celebration give you momentary amnesia, or were you just abducted by aliens over Christmas?"

Fatima's annoyed question was met with a chorus of groans from her five victims. All of the Boys had been stuck in rehearsal since early that morning due to a few minor mistakes in the show, and they were already exhausted. With a collective, weary sigh, they all exchanged fearful glances as Fatima continued to rant.

"I mean, hell, did you see this song last night? The vocals kicked ass, mind you, but I'm not a singing coach. I'm not supposed to watch for singing. I'm the choreographer. I watch for dancing. And, as your choreographer, let me kindly tell you that your dancing SUCKED ASS." She glared at the five Boys in turn before she began her individual evaluations. "Brian, you look like a chicken on depressants. I haven't seen this much lack of coordination since you came to me eight years ago, and that's saying something. AJ, you're way too concentrated on finding your style to even notice the fact that your footwork is suffering serious problems. Add to that the fact that you almost fucking fell off the stage and into the audience last night, and you'll see exactly why I'm pissed."

AJ and Brian both had the decency to blush and hang their heads, but Fatima wasn't done yet. Having satisfied herself with Brian and AJ, she turned her steely gaze to Kevin and Howie, both of whom were already cringing in preparation for her berating.

"Kevin, I have only three words for you. What the fuck?! Now, I know that you can be slow because of that charming country background, but I think you can figure that one out. You're the one that's so concerned with professionalism. Fix it." She groaned. "Howard, as for you...I think it's gradually improving. It sure as shit better be improving, though, because you weren't much better than AJ last night."

That said, she took a heated breath and directed her cold gaze to the winded blonde at her right. "Nickolas, I don't know what your deal is lately, but you've been distracted all day. You were the only one who didn't manage to screw this sequence up last night, yes, but that doesn't give you the right to fuck around and blow me off today. If you keep this kind of attitude up, you'll be the one that falls off the stage tonight."

Nick's already flushed cheeks burned an even deeper crimson at Fatima's insults. He knew that he was distracted, and he knew why. but he obviously needed to re-focus, or they were going to be there all afternoon. Of course, being there all afternoon might not be a bad thing. After a few careful calculations, he had decided that he exerted more energy avoiding Alli than he did re-learning dance steps. Such a conclusion spoke for itself. Dammit, what the hell is wrong with me? It's just a little crush, right? It'll go away. Besides, avoiding her doesn't solve anything. Any of the guys would--and have, ugh, because they can't fucking mind their own damn business--tell me that.

"I don't know why you guys are choosing right now to fuck this song up. You've only been doing it for three years. For God's sake, you should know it in your sleep right now!" Fatima rolled her eyes in aggravation and looked off to the side in an attempt to calm herself. Of course, instead, she managed to catch sight of Nick with his head in the clouds again.

"Carter!" she barked angrily, stomping over to his side of the stage. "What the HELL is your problem today? Were you so hung over this morning that you barfed up your brain?"

The other four Boys were fighting to stifle their snickers, but Nick was genuinely offended. "Fa, I can't believe you'd say that! I haven't been hung over since this leg started, dammit! If you're looking for a hangover victim, then I suggest that you direct all attention to Alex over there," he snapped. Fatima returned his glare until the other Boys were positive that the temperature in the room had risen a notch.

"Look, Carter, sue me, but I was just looking for excuses as to why you haven't paid attention to a single thing I've said since you walked in this morning."

Nick looked guiltily over to Fatima, trying to muster a sheepish grin to win her over. "I'm sorry, 'Tima, I've just been kinda distracted lately."

AJ smiled knowingly from his position on the floor and chuckled to himself. "Yeah, he's been distracted..."

Nick rolled his eyes in annoyance as the other three Boys chuckled lightly with AJ, knowing that privacy would've been too much to ask from the four of them. For some reason, they'd been perfectly happy just to nag Nick whenever they knew that he liked Alli and he didn't know, but now that Nick was aware of his affection, the Boys saw it as a perfect opportunity to tease him and did so...incessantly. He was more embarrassed than angry, but he absolutely despised the fact that he couldn't sort his feelings out on his own terms. It had only been a week since Alli had joined them on tour, and while Nick was just enraptured with her as he had been on New Year's Eve, she'd been sending her same, friendly mixed signals. He wanted to believe that his feelings were reciprocated, but he still wasn't sure, and something about his uncertainty made him keep his distance. He knew Alli better than he knew himself, and he knew that she would easily figure him out if he lingered for too long. However, in order to give her correct and careful hints about his newfound attraction, he'd begun to re-create the environment that they'd both loved before the first leg of the tour. Every show found Nick singing directly to Alli for the majority, and evening found both Nick and Alli in the same hotel room, watching movies and laughing or crying until they fell asleep.

Nick retraced that thought and flinched. God, am I trying to kill myself? She spends every night at my side, and I tease myself by staying there anyway. How fucked-up am I? Shouldn't I be trying to keep her away from me so I don't do something stupid? That would be the smart thing to do. Of course, the fellas would probably argue that I've never exactly been intelligent.

He frowned. Well, that explains the problem. I'm not really avoiding her...just emotionally avoiding her. In fact, I can't remember the last time we actually sat down and talked. Really talked. Alli and I used to have the best talks...

"Carter!" Fatima snapped. Nick looked up in surprise to see that she was standing directly in front of him and groaned aloud. My God, how long has she been there?

"Yeah, Fa?"

She rolled her eyes to convey her frustration. "You spaced out on me again, Blondie. Look, can we at least try to show some respect and pay attention?"

He nodded. "Absolutely. Sorry, I'll try and focus from now on."

Of course, Fatima wasn't nearly ready to stop there. "I don't care what you've suddenly discovered that you feel for Alli. There are fifty thousand little girls in the audience every night who want to see you dancing at singing at one hundred percent. I don't care how disillusioned you are by little red hearts and certain WILL deliver. If they're paying over a hundred dollars per ticket, you sure as hell better deliver, because little teenyboppers don't have that kind of money to throw around."

Nick's cheeks flamed an even deeper red as he scanned the arena quickly for Alli's presence. After a week of being teased incessantly, he knew that he had been obvious, but as long as Alli didn't know, he'd prefer that nobody mention his little discovery to her.

"Teenyboppers may not have that kind of cash to throw around, but Mommy and Daddy do," AJ announced with a smirk. His retort was rewarded with an immediate glare from Fatima.

"McLean, you're already on my shit list. Do you really want to push me? If you'd like, we can arrange an individual drill session after this rehearsal is over. Of course, God only knows when that'll be at the rate you morons are working today..."

AJ blanched at the thought of lengthening his practice session. Rehearsal had already gone over the allotted amount of time, and he was anxious to get back to Amanda. The Boys were supposed to spend the remainder of the afternoons on their respective buses, which he wasn't necessarily thrilled about, but between Amanda's promise of McDonald's and Howie's hints at a nap with Jessi, he figured he'd manage.

"Nah, Fa, it's cool. No more joking, okay? Can we run through this again really quickly and see how well we do?"

Fatima managed a bitter laugh. "McLean, 'quickly' is a tricky word with the five of you. We can run through it again, but this time I really do want to see all you have to give, okay? There's a fucking reason that this song is so heart-wrenching, and it has nothing to do with the fact that you're a boy band."

"We're a male vocal group," Kevin snapped from his place next to Howie. Fatima was all too happy to sneer at him.

"Well, Kevy, you also happen to be a male vocal group that dances, and if you don't get this routine right, I'm going to be wiping this here floor with your Kentucky ass." Her statement was punctuated with a sweet smile. "Is that clear enough for you, or do you need me to say it again?"

Kevin rolled his eyes, but he knew when not to push Fatima. "No, Fa, I got it. We're clear. Can we start again so that we actually have time to hit the showers and take a break before the show starts?" He'd been lucky enough to snag a bus alone with Kristin (the other couples were forced to share), and he hated to waste a single moment of time that he could be spending with her.

Fatima's response came in the form of a curt nod. "All right then, fellas. Let's see you work!"

The five men managed to stifle their groans as Fatima cued the music, glancing wearily at each other before they finally launched into the routine. This time, however, each Boy was thinking only of his respective girl, and their determination showed as they began plotting activities for their hard-earned time off.

*      *      *      *      *

"God, I cannot believe they're still in rehearsal. Did someone drop a steroid or two in Fatima's coffee this morning? It's like she's running a fucking boot camp up there," Amanda grumbled. The girls were lounging in the dressing room under the stage, catching up on gossip. Amanda, though occupied with the nail file she'd stolen from AJ's bag, had been explaining to the girls her theory on the new bus arrangements when she'd caught sight of her watch.

Alli, who was draped backwards over the couch, grinned at her friend. "Aw, someone's bitter because they aren't going to get their private time with AJ..."

Jessi laughed from her position in the make-up chair. "But, Al, haven't you heard? Amanda and AJ don't get any private time anymore because Howie and I are on the bus."

Alli, anxious to escape the possible discussion of Amanda and AJ's private life, turned instead to Kristin with a mischievous smile. "Maybe not, but I know someone who doesn't have that whole privacy problem..."

Kristin returned Alli's grin with a sarcastic one. "And why is that, exactly? Not to say that Kevin and I haven't enjoyed the time alone, but...why exactly did we end up alone on the bus and not, oh, the newly-engaged?"

Alli groaned loudly before Leighanne could say anything. "Oh, believe me, they take the private time whether they're alone or not. Carter and I have learned to just lock the door to the back room and let them have their fun."

Leighanne turned a pretty shade of pink while Amanda grinned. "Besides, Leigh's private time with Brian has already paid off, as demonstrated by said yellow diamond on her finger..."

Leighanne's jaw dropped, and she smacked Amanda considerably hard. "Goodness, Manda, you know that's not what happened."

Kristin frowned deeply and stared at Amanda in amazement. "So you stuck Kevin and I on a bus alone together in hopes that our private time would pay off like Brian's private time with Leigh did?"

Amanda laughed lightly. "Maybe..."

Kristin's voice rose nearly an octave as her eyebrows rose. "You're trying to get Kevin to propose by sticking us on a bus together?"

"Without distractions," Amanda clarified, and the rest of the girls stifled giggles at the serious expression on her face. Kristin, however, heard the giggles and began to glance suspiciously at the rest of the group.

"Are you all in on this?"

"Um..." The other four girls glanced around at each other anxiously before turning four identically innocent smiles on the oldest Backstreet girlfriend.

"Not at all," they chorused. Kristin's response was a roll of her eyes and a toss of her arms.

"You all are amazingly insane, you know that?"

"Actually," Alli giggled. "We do."

Kristin groaned aloud and ran a tired hand over her pointed features. "What on earth possessed you to chose Kevin and I as your matchmaking victims?"

"Victims?!" Jessi squealed, clearly surprised by the term. "We have perfectly good intentions. We know how much you love him."

"And how much he loves you," Leighanne chimed in with a smile, but Amanda had taken the question seriously and was beginning to run through a list of reasons.

"First off, Kris, you guys have been dating the longest out of all of us, and we know Kevin's looking to settle down soon because he passed his 'fuck the groupies' stage. Secondly, you're the oldest. Third, well, you're always looking out for us, and we wanted to do you a favor, and..."

Kristin stared incredulously at her younger friend. "You are totally beyond help, you know? That's ridiculous! Those should be reasons that Kevin and I don't need help, not reasons for you to interfere in my love life!"

Alli shrugged and smiled sweetly. "Oh, we trust that you don't need help. We just thought he was taking too long."

Kristin arched an eyebrow in disbelief at the red-headed woman in front of her. "You thought Kevin and I were taking too long? Al, come you're one to talk."

Amanda sighed heavily. "Kris, I've tried to talk to her about it. She's still very much in denial."

Jessi gave the other two girls a patented "Jessi" look. "Girls, can you blame her? I mean, this is Carter we're talking about. He's as partial to stupidity as he is to peroxide."

Leighanne frowned in thought. "I don't know..." she mused. "He's actually been pretty good lately. Like, on the bus, the four of us will hang out like we always do, but he's changed a lot from the walking disaster that crashed all the parties last leg. He's slowly becoming decent."

Jessi's expression turned inquisitive. "So you mean that she's losing her reasons for being in denial?"

Leighanne thought for another moment before nodding. "It certainly looks that way."

Amanda chuckled lightly. "You know, despite the stupidity, he's not really a bad catch, girls. He's cute, he's funny, and he's loyal as hell when it comes to Alli. I'm not sure she ever had a reason to deny her feelings."

Kristin exhaled slowly. "I don't know, ladies. He was a womanizer for a long time. I can see why she would be cautious where Carter is concerned."

Alli finally abandoned her shock for a voice. "Excuse me?! 'She' is still in the room, you know, and 'she' doesn't appreciate listening to you talk about her like she's not here!" She paused a moment to let that sink in. "Besides, who in the HELL said that I had any feelings for Carter?"

The other four girls exchanged glanced before Kristin nodded at Amanda. "You're right; she's a hopeless case." That said, she turned to Alli with the maternal smile she was known for. "Al, chick, we're not necessarily saying that you have feelings for Nick. Maybe you don't."

"He definitely has feelings for you, though," Leighanne finished. She had accented her words with an air of finality that was uncharacteristic of her, and Alli looked at her in surprise. Before the younger woman could say anything, however, Leighanne adopted a knowing smile. "Al, you can't argue with me. Unlike the other three here, I live with you two right now, and I've seen the way he acts when you're not watching."

Alli groaned instead and buried her face in her hands. "Oh, man, you have got to be kidding me. You guys are like a bad chick flick. There is nothing going on between Carter and I, okay? We're just friends. F-R-I-E-N-D-S. Like the TV show, right?"

Amanda sighed thoughtfully. "You know, Nick doesn't exactly look like a Ross, but he kind of acts like one, and I could totally see you as a Rachel."

Alli's eyes widened in amazement. "A Rachel? A Rachel? Are you fucking joking? I am so not a Rachel. I'm a Phoebe. I'm SO Phoebe."

Jessi frowned. "Isn't Phoebe the one that gets pregnant?"

Leighanne burst out laughing. "Oh my God, yes. Al, trust me, don't tell Amanda you're a Phoebe, or she'll seriously start picking out baby names for your kid whenever you and Nick actually decide that it's worth taking the plunge."

Amanda scrunched up her nose in disgust. "What's this about me picking out baby names? Leigh, that engagement thing is seriously going to your head. Do you really think I want Carter out there reproducing?"

Alli waved her hands in front of them. "Okay, fine, whatever. Hello? I'm not a Phoebe. But I am SO not a Rachel. Hell, Kristin is more of a Rachel than I am."

Leighanne looked thoughtfully at Kristin before shaking her head. "Nah, Kristin's more of a Monica. I still think you're a Rachel."

Alli shook her head in disagreement. "No, Kristin's a Rachel. I'll be an extra. Jessi's a Monica, though."

Jessi chuckled. "I'm a Monica? Oh, Lord..."

Amanda was already in stitches. "Can you see Howie as a Chandler?"

Jessi frowned in indignation. "Hey! I think Howie would make a good Chandler..."

Amanda's eyes moved skywards. "That's loyalty for you..."

Kristin rolled her eyes, having given up on fighting her own laughter. "Forget Howie as a Chandler. Can you see Kevin as a Ross?"

Even Alli couldn't hide her smile at that thought. "If Kevin is a Ross, then Carter is Ross's monkey."

The mental image inspired by Alli's comment, combined with Alli's trademark self-satisfied smirk, sent the girls into near hysterics. Jessi laughed so hard that she knocked the make-up chair into the counter, and Alli slid off the couch and onto the floor, where Kristin had been anxiously trying to stifle her giggles. When the girls had finally calmed down, wiping tears from under their eyes, they managed to lock gazes with each other and began laughing all over again.

At long last, once Alli was lying with her mess of hair in Kristin's lap--the older woman was attempting to braid it--the laughter died down and the girls were able to look at each other without cracking up. Amanda, however, wasn't about to let the "Friends" analogy go.

"Wait, wasn't Ross's monkey partial to someone on the show?"

Jessi rolled her eyes and rubbed her ebony finger up and down her arms to keep warm in the air-conditioned dressing room. "Well, gee, Manda, I don't know...maybe it was partial to Ross?"

Amanda had the good grace to giggle despite Jessi's sarcasm. "No, no, I know that. I meant one of the girls."

Leighanne frowned in consideration. "I don't know. Now that you mention it, though, I think it had to have bonded with Rachel at some point."

Kristin shook her head. "You know, as cute as that thing was, it got annoying after awhile."

Alli laughed at the notion. "Just one more thing that it had in common with Carter, right?"

Amanda, however, was still stuck on the earlier conclusion. "But you said that the cute little monkey kind of bonded with Rachel?" She directed her gaze to Alli and rose her eyebrows suggestively, immediately eliciting a groan from the redhead.

"I am NOT Rachel! Good God!"

Kristin laughed at the pitiful expression of protest that graced Alli's pale features. "I don't know. Ross is tall, right? And Carter is tall..."

Amanda frowned. "But I thought we'd agreed that Carter was the monkey?"

Jessi snorted. "Maybe he's Ross and the stupid monkey. Lord knows he's played enough games over the last few months to have more than one personality..."

Leighanne frowned. "I don't know. Ross has kind of a stupid air about him that really, really resembles Carter, but at the same time, he totally went after Rachel whenever he fell in love with her..."

Amanda's grin grew to match a Cheshire cat's. "Ooh...foreshadowing anyone?"

Alli rolled her eyes and gazed heavenward as exasperation hit. "I am NOT Rachel! You freaks! Leave me alone!"

The sounds of the girls' laughter echoed down the hall as they continued to bat comparisons back and forth in spite of Alli's protests.

*      *      *      *      *

"Well, that royally sucked," AJ concluded as they trudged down the stairs and under the stage in order to find the girls. Fatima had let them go after another hour and a half of practice in which AJ had insisted that his bones were crumbling beneath the strain of doing the same routine over and over. Fatima hadn't much appreciated the comic relief, but she couldn't keep them any longer on account of the show that evening.

"Sucked is not the word," Nick mumbled from beneath his towel. "I'm still wondering how the hell Fa knew about Alli."

Howie laughed and snapped the younger man lightly with his towel. "Nicky, when are you going to accept it? Everyone knows about Alli."

"Except Alli," Brian interjected. "I share a bus with these two, and I can tell you that Alli's almost more clueless than Blondie over there."

"No shit," AJ agreed with a sigh. "Every night, I get to hear Amanda whine about it. She's trying to explain to Al that best buddy Carter is crushing out, and Alli won't hear of it." He rolled his eyes. "Don't get me wrong. I love the girl more than life, but sometimes I think that she missed her calling as a shrink. She psychoanalyzes the fucking hell out of fucking everything."

Howie cast his friend an amused grin. "Exasperated much, 'J?"

AJ rolled his eyes again before giving Howie a sweet smile. "What, it shows?"

Howie's only response came in the form of a laugh, but Nick was much more worried about the conotations of AJ's rant. "What do you mean? Amanda's been talking to Alli about all of this shit?!"

Kevin had to laugh at the petrified look on Nick's face. As if to reassure the younger man, Kevin clapped a hand against his shoulder blade and offered him a sideways smile. "Listen, Nick, it doesn't matter what kind of shit Amanda's been telling Al. If she's as stubborn as Bone insists, then she hasn't taken heed to any of it."

Nick gave a cautious sigh of relief. "So you don't think she knows anything?"

AJ laughed. "Nick, man, everyone knows something. Al knows, but she's not believing anything. It's driving Manda nuts, but it's probably good for you."

Nick groaned in agreement and rubbed a tired hand over his face, dragging the towel away to reveal his weary features. "I just don't want her suspecting anything. I'd rather tell her whenever it feels like the right moment." He drew a ragged breath in anticipation. "Guys, I really don't want to lose her because I scared her off."

Brian gave him a pointed look. "You might want to start praying that the 'right moment' gets a move on, though, because she's going to figure it out sooner or later."

"Regardless of what kind of deal she and denial have going," AJ added with an arched eyebrow.

"And then you're really going to wish you'd told her," Kevin finished, and the other three Boys nodded their agreement. Nick frowned, but he wasn't about to deny that there was truth to their logic. Finally, the teenage side of him took hold, and his features contorted.

"Fellas, I really don't want to tell her," he whined. "I mean, admitted, this admiring her from afar shit really sucks, but I'm not so sure I'm cut out for the plunge that all of the chick flicks take. I know Alli, and she's not exactly happy ending material."

"Maybe she could be," Brian offered helpfully. "You could ease her into the idea."

Kevin gave his cousin an incredulous look of disbelief before turning to his youngest "brother" for his turn at psychoanalysis. "Nick, man, that shouldn't matter. What matters is that you love her."

AJ nodded. "Yeah, no shit. Besides, you don't really want to be a chick flick anyway, right?"

Howie snickered at the thought. "Hell, man, Nicky's more like a soap opera with all of the drama in his life lately."

"At least he stopped with the groupie-a-night routine," Brian pointed out. "He has matured a considerable amount since discovering these deeply hidden feelings for his best friend."

Nick rolled his eyes and waved his arms in annoyance. "Hello?! 'He' is still in the room, thank you very much." When the others chuckled at him, he folded his arms in indignation, which only caused them to laugh harder. Nick rolled his eyes in annoyance and tried to keep a light shade of pink from gracing his cheeks. "You all are SO going to hell, you know that?"

Before any of the Boys could retort, a burst of girlish laughter echoed down the hallway, and the five men exchanged worried glances. Kevin, with his eyebrows raised and his eyes directed anxiously towards the dressing room, spoke first.

"That doesn't sound good."

Kevin's anxious expression, however, was nothing in comparison to the expression that crossed Nick's boyish features. "What do you think they're doing in there?"

AJ laughed good-naturedly. "Think about that for a second, Nicky. Amanda, Al, Leigh, Kris, and Jess are all in there together. Do you really want to know?"

Brian laughed. "I sure don't. I heard enough 'girl talk' conversations over the holidays to scare me for a year."

AJ snickered. "Aw, poor Rok was scarred by the deadly combination of estrogen and romance..."

Howie looked to his younger friend in amusement. "Bri, was the engagement talk really that bad?"

Brian fixed Howie with a grave look of mock solemnity. "Worse."

The five Boys were still laughing at Brian's expression when they finally entered the dressing room amidst more girlish giggling. Nick looked around anxiously, trying to mask the horror he was feeling at the thought of Alli having clued in. However, he was tackled by said redhead before he had the chance to seek her out.

"Carter, help me! They're tormenting me..."

He couldn't help but smile at the whine in her tone, though his heart was racing from being in such close proximity to the woman he loved. He wrapped his arms around her and rubbed her back gently, trying to keep the sentimental smile off of his face with a perplexed expression. Oh, I'm getting all sentimental. What happened to that manly image we worked so hard on, Carter? Does every ounce of strength have to fucking diminish with a little, tiny crush? Of course, maybe it's more than a crush, but...hell...I ought to at least be able to act normal around her. I mean, fuck...this is Alli! She's hugging me, she's being friendly, and I can deal with this without making myself look like an ass. Really. I can.

He hated the fact that even his thoughts lacked confidence. In a feeble attempt to regain whatever casual atmosphere Alli had once inspired, he arched an eyebrow and smirked down at her.

"And exactly what did they do now?"

Alli looked up at him with a pitiful expression. "Tell them I'm not Rachel!"

Nick frowned in confusion. What the hell? Is she reading that fan fiction crap again?

Before he could inquire as to what she meant, however, Amanda was smiling sweetly and innocently--Amanda, innocent? Fuck, this cannot be good--in his direction. "We were just comparing her to Jennifer Aniston."

Nick was about to agree that Alli was just as gorgeous,
charming, and generally magnetic as Jennifer was--God, I'm so crushed, in love. I'm fucking IN LOVE. God help me--when Alli rolled her eyes and looked imploringly into his blue eyes with her pleading gray ones.

"Carter, tell them I'm not a Jennifer."

Nick laughed, trying to dismiss any and all romantic thoughts that crossed his mind. "Nah, you don't have the hair to pull that off." As if to emphasize his point, he ruffled her curly red locks, leaving a few baby hairs to defy gravity at the top of her forehead. Beneath them, Alli glared at him and smacked him playfully.

"Hey, nice! I happen to like my hair!"

Nick chuckled. "I think we all do, Al. It gives you character, makes you cool and rounded and shit."

Alli grinned broadly. "Not flat like Jennifer?"

Nick pretended to ponder the thought, using all of his mental strength to summon the wit that used to exist whenever he was in Alli's presence. "Well, I'm not sure 'flat' is the best word to describe Jennifer..." As his voice trailed off, his lips formed a smirk and he wiggled his eyebrows teasingly. Alli groaned.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry I asked..."

Nick chuckled. "No, seriously though, Al, you're not a Jennifer."

Alli, seemingly satisfied, gave Nick another hug and turned to stick her tongue out at the four Backstreet girlfriends. "See? I'm not a Jennifer." Her trademark smirk crossed her lips, however, and she arched an eyebrow suggestively. "Certainly wouldn't mind acquiring her husband, though..."

Jessi groaned at how characteristically Alli such a comment was, but Amanda licked her lips appreciatively.

"You are SO not the only one, chickie..."

AJ frowned immediately at the look on his girlfriend's face and launched himself into her lap as a form of protest. "Excuse me? What is that? Why the hell would you want some blue-eyed blonde like Brad Pitt when you can have me instead?"

Alli turned her lethal smirk on AJ. "You have to ask?"

The girls dissolved into giggles at the expression that crossed AJ's face, and Nick recognized the end of whatever game they had previously been playing at Alli's expense. He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or suspicious, but after seeing Amanda's countenance, he was definitely having second thoughts about leaving Alli alone with the other four girls. Lord only knows how much damage they could do if anything actually registers with Al...

"Hey, Carter, are you and Al going with us back to the bus?" Brian asked, helping Leighanne off the couch as he did so. Nick shrugged and glanced over at Alli, who nodded enthusiastically.

"Absolutely. Leigh and I wanted to see that movie that Carter picked up the other night."

"We need to go then," Brian informed her as he headed out, nodding towards the exit. "If not, we're not going to have enough time to get it started before we have to head out."

"Sounds good," Alli returned with a smile, and Nick grinned from behind her.

"Yeah, Bri, we'll be right behind you." He turned to Alli with a mischievous grin. "Say good-bye to the girls, Al. You won't see them again until showtime." As Alli was waving, Nick reached for Alli's waist, lifting her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She began shrieking immediately, demanding that he set her down, but he only grinned more broadly. After all, if he was going to be spending quality time with her to keep her away from the girls and their gossip, he might as well have fun doing it.

*      *      *      *      *

Almost two hours later, Alli and Leighanne (followed by a very intimidating Billy) entered the reserved section of seats in the arena and joined the other Backstreet girlfriends. As they came closer, Jessi noticed them and arched an expectant eyebrow.

"That better have been one hell of a movie, because you two are seriously late. You missed the Jungle Brothers already."

Alli snickered. "Aw, man, seriously? And I was so looking forward to seeing them prance around in their Hawaiian shirts and foam VIP fingers, too..."

"It was sexiness at its peak," Amanda informed her with mock seriousness, just before the two girls burst into giggles.

"You know," Kristin began when they had finally calmed down. "I really, really love watching the Boys perform. When it comes to performances, they're extremely talented. It's just a shame that they don't have the same talent for picking opening acts."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Yeah, that would be an understatement. Willa Whore is up next." She turned to Alli with inquiring eyes. "Remind me one more time why Nick dated her?"

Alli laughed. "Well, see, she wanted the exact same thing he wanted."

"Sex?" Jessi quipped, and the other girls looked at Howie's innocent girlfriend in surprise. When she saw their reactions, Jessi offered a wry smile. "What? The end of that relationship is what inspired this ridiculous womanizing phase of Nick's. Forgive me if I'm not running to thank Willa for her participation in Nick's love life just yet..."

Alli grinned broadly at her friend. "Have I told you how much I love you lately?"

Amanda rolled her eyes. "God, Al, you need a boyfriend..."

Alli smiled dreamily up at the stage. "I'd totally settle for Richard Gere. He may be older, but the guy is way adorable..."

Amanda arched an eyebrow doubtfully and glanced in Leighanne's direction. "I'm waiting for an explanation..."

Leighanne laughed. "We just finished Runaway Bride."

Kristin looked up in surprise. "Nick bought Runaway Bride voluntarily?"

Leighanne laughed again at the thought of Nick picking out a chick flick. "No, not at all. The guys wouldn't let us watch the other movie because they realized that we wouldn't have time to finish it."

Alli smiled slyly. "We got to watch Julia Roberts because Frick and Frack wanted us to pick something that they wouldn't mind leaving in the middle of."

Jessi rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Oh, whatever. I bet they were just as enthralled as the two of you."

"Absolutely!" Leighanne grinned. "Brian made us promise to tell them what happened before they'd leave to get ready."

Amanda shook her head in amazement. "They're such saps, the five of them. You'd never know it, but they're all ridiculously soft at heart."

Kristin glanced at her friend in concern. "You sounds like you're complaining, Manda. Is AJ's romantic side getting in the way of your sex life?"


"Nice reflexes," Alli teased. Not only had Amanda answered immediately, but her indignant expression was definitely overpowering the slight blush on her cheeks.

Amanda breathed a slow sigh of exasperation. "Yeah, well, I have to protect AJ's pride. He's sensitive about things like that. Besides, this is me we're talking about. When do I let anything get in the way of my sex life?"

Kristin shrugged. "I was just thinking about how sarcastic and cynical you've been recently. I figured that maybe AJ wasn't doing his job."

"No shit," Alli agreed with a smirk. "I mean, hell,'re turning into me!"

Amanda rolled her eyes. "God forbid. At least I recognize that I've got a Backstreet Boy in love with me."

"And there she goes again," Leighanne laughed. "So much sarcasm from this one, I tell you..."

Alli grinned mischievously. "What's the matter, Manda? Has AJ's love lost that fucking feeling?"

Amanda smirked at the four ladies. "I'd hope not. The hotel is certainly going to find a nice surprise when they see the pieces of the headboard that AJ broke last night..."

Jessi groaned and covered her ears in protest. "Okay, Manda, I take it back! We don't want to know about your sex life, okay?"

"Yeah, keep your broken furniture to yourself," Alli agreed with a laugh, and Amanda's grin broadened.

"You asked. It's your own faults. You know I've never been hesitant about telling."

Leighanne rolled her eyes through her blush. "I'm sure AJ loves that."

Amanda glanced skeptically up at the female strutting around the stage. "At least I'm not singing about our sex life. I do know when to draw the line."

Alli smiled sweetly, following Amanda's gaze. "Well, see, I've always figured we could draw it across little Willa's forehead and use her for target practice."

Kristin glanced at her younger friend with obvious amusement. "Harboring bitterness, Al?"

Alli turned her saccharine smile on Kevin's girlfriend. "Not at all, Kris. I'm just entertaining a few violent thoughts in memory of what I used to be able to do with Barbie dolls."

Amanda glanced thoughtfully back at Willa before shaking her head. "No, I don't think a head that big would fit down the toilet. You'd just have to rip her legs off."

Jessi rolled her eyes, trying to conceal her smile as Willa Ford and her troupe of dancers exited the stage. "Now, ladies...let's leave Barbie to her lip synching and watch the real rock stars, shall we?"

Leighanne squealed delightedly as the lights dimmed for the last time and the Star Wars theme began to play. "Nothing I'd rather do right now, that's for sure." As the smoke cleared and the surfing men came into view, she let out a scream that rivaled those of the teenyboppers behind her. "That's my Brian up there!"

"And just think," Alli teased, echoing the awe in her friend's voice. "He's going to be here all night, too!"

Leighanne only had time to stick her tongue out at Nick's best friend before the Boys landed in front of them. Satisfied with her retaliation, she waved enthusiastically at her fiance, who was obviously trying not to smile at her. Amanda, having watched the entire scene, turned to Alli with a smirk.

"You know, as gushy and disgusting as those two can be sometimes, they really are meant for each other."

Alli nodded in agreement. "You just want to frame them and draw little hearts around their heads with their names along the bottom," she shouted in return, and Amanda laughed.

"Absolutely," she grinned. However, the conversation was cut short as the music began and screams overtook the large arena. Alli took the opportunity to glance at Nick, and smiled knowingly up at him. Almost immediately after AJ's cackle (at which point, Amanda screamed her love for "her lunatic"), Nick bounded around the stage and began to hype the crowd, jamming to the beat in his head as he did so. Alli couldn't help but giggle at his enthusiasm. She'd seen him in nearly every mood, but she always loved watching Nick onstage. He had a certain charisma under the bright lights and amidst the screams that was unmatched during any other activity, and it never failed to make her smile. Jessi caught the broad grin on her face and winked at her, pointing up at the stage with a laugh. Alli followed her finger to Nick, who was grinning down at the girls.

"Looking at the crowd and I see your body sway, all right." He took a breath and pointed directly at the five of them before belting out his infamous addition. "Let me see you swaaaaay..." *

The others were happy to dance casually along to the beat, but Alli obliged by turning around and shaking her butt for Nick's benefit. When she whirled back around to smirk at him, his jaw had dropped and his head had fallen to the side. He saw her expression, however, and shook his head with a roll of his eyes. He wagged a finger at her warningly, then took off for the other side of the arena to entertain the other little girls. Once on the other side, he wiggled his butt at her, and Alli grinned appreciatively, making a mental note to let him know later how much she enjoyed watching the "ghetto booty" in action. Her eyes were still attached to Nick's backside when she heard Amanda's voice in her ear.

"You are such a fucking TEASE, Alexandra! You're going to be the death of that Boy yet..."

Alli rolled her eyes. "What-the-fuck-ever. He can dish it out just as well as he gets it, you'll see."

Amanda shook her head. "You really don't understand the effect you have on him, do you?"

Alli leveled Amanda with a breadbox look. "Of course I do, babe. It's the same effect the other Boys have on him."

Amanda smirked. "You annoy the hell out of him?"

Alli nodded. "Yeah, and I make him feel friendly. You know, that whole FRIENDLY effect. Like Big Bird and Elmo."

Amanda gave a snort, though it was lost in the screams before Alli ever heard it. "More like Kermit and Miss Piggy..."

Alli chuckled bitterly. "Yeah, right. Try Roadrunner and Wylie Coyote."

"Babs and Buster."

"Tom and Jerry."

"Penelope and Pepe le Peuw."

"Slyvester and Tweety."

"Fred and Daphne."

"Scooby and Shaggy."

"Joey and Dawson."

Alli grimaced at the reference to Dawson's Creek. "I preferred Joey and Pacey as a couple, you know."

Amanda shrugged. "Maybe so, but Joey and Dawson are going to be the couple that lasts. Mark my words."

Alli groaned. "Whatever. I still think we're more like the Animaniacs."

"Cory and Tapanga," Amanda shot back. "And if you dare say Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, I'm tossing your ass to the teenyboppers and telling them you're Nick's girlfriend."

Alli put her hand to her mouth in mock surprise. "Amanda! Are you making fun of the fans? You should be ashamed of yourself!"

Amanda sighed. "You wanna know something about the fans, Al? Look closely. See how crazy they are about Nick?"

Alli gave Amanda a pointed look. "Well, chick, I hate to tell you this, but between the ear-piercing screams of 'I want to have your baby!' and 'I LOVE YOU!', it's kind of hard to miss."

Amanda nodded her agreement, but it didn't faze her. "The way he feels about you is the same as the way the fans feel about him."

Alli squinted up at the stage as the Boys sang the breakdown of "The One" and frowned. "That's funny, Manda, but I don't see my name anywhere on his forehead."

Amanda rolled her eyes and groaned loudly in exasperation. "Good God, Alli!"

Alli shook her head teasingly. "No, Manda, that line doesn't come until LATER..."

Amanda glared at her friend. "You're really fucking annoying sometimes, you know that?"

Alli smiled in satisfaction, hoping that the discussion of the status of her relationship with Nick was over. "Yup, I do. I also know that this song makes no sense. I mean, what kind of line is 'make all your sorrows undone'?"

Amanda threw her arms up in defeat and allowed herself to smile. "I don't know, but don't say anything about it to Leigh. I think she's drooling over there." Alli glanced over at Leighanne and laughed at the look of awe and delight on her friend's face.

"That's so ridiculously disgusting..."

Amanda smiled as she saw Nick step back in front of them for his line and nudged Alli away from the examination of Leighanne's love for Brian. "Hey, Al, Carter's going to sing to you..."

Alli looked up just in time to see Nick smile at her and take a breath.

"I'll be the one to hold you and make sure that you'll be all right..." **

He had chosen to point to her again, and the expression on his face was one of intense sincerity. She made a funny face at him to erase his serious expression, and he finally smiled in return and chuckled. It wasn't until he had moved on to a different corner of the stage that she chose to acknowledge the way her heart was thundering in her chest. My God, what was that look for? For a second there, he looked like he was trying to engage in telepathy...

Fortunately for Nick, the song had ended before she had a chance to ponder for long, and she sat back in her seat to laugh as the Boys stumbled through their introductions, once again pleased to know the men behind the voices. In fact, it wasn't until the Boys were lost in a heart-wrenching performance of "Back To Your Heart" that Alli's jaw fell open and Amanda was forced to engage again in conversation out of sheer curiosity.

"Alli, dearest, you're catching flies."

Alli batted her friend away impatiently without taking her eyes off the stage. "Shut up, Amanda. I'm having a teenybopper moment."

Amanda shook her head. "Al, Al, Al...didn't you pay attention when they were telling us how to do that? You're supposed to be screaming your head off!"

Alli groaned. "Would you shut up? He's going to sing again soon!"

Amanda frowned. "Who?" Before Alli even had a chance to answer, though, she began laughing in understanding. "Carter? My God, girl, you are having a teenybopper moment. Care to include your bestest buddy?"

Alli sighed contentedly as Nick sang his second solo, waiting until the chorus to actually voice her thoughts. "You know, he's my best friend, and I've seen what he looks like when he wakes up hung over in the mornings, so you'd think that would ruin the effect of a sweaty Nick Backstreet banging on the drum set, right?"

Amanda laughed. "Sounds about right to me."

Alli shook her head. "Oh, no. Totally wrong. He still looks REALLY fucking hot behind those drums. Good God, the man is gorgeous when he goes into rock star mode."

Leighanne leaned into the conversation when the breakdown came, knowing that Brian's addition to the chorus didn't come until later. "Is that Alli I hear gushing over Carter like a lost little girl?"

Amanda smirked. "No, it's her teenybopper twin. Apparently Al had a Backstreet crush in a past life and never told us."

Fortunately for the both of them, Alli was too engaged in watching Nick to comment. Her feels of lust were seemingly reciprocated, however, when Nick sang to her during "That's The Way I Like It" only moments later. The sexual smirk on his face matched Alli's appreciative grin almost exactly, and Amanda didn't pass up the chance to tease her friend once Nick had moved on. Alli was happy to ignore the jesting comments until "I'll Never Break Your Heart", at which point Nick began to sing to her with the same sincere expression she'd seen earlier in the show. She frowned lightly and turned to Amanda.

"Is my teenybopper imagination playing tricks on me, or has he been really freaking affectionate during the whole show tonight?"

Amanda rolled her eyes. "No, he's been really freaking affectionate."

Alli smiled in relief. "Damn. It's almost like he's trying to make up for the whole last leg of the tour every time he gets onstage. I mean, he's been doing this for the past few nights."

Amanda looked over at her friend in curiosity. "Al?"


"You ever bother to think that maybe it runs deeper than Nick just trying to compensate for his asshole attitude last year?"

Alli rolled her eyes. "Amanda, you're not allowed to play 'chick flick' with me, okay? If you're that anxious to find a couple in love, I can lend Runaway Bride to you and AJ for the drive tonight."

For once, Amanda heeded the hint to back off, and the girls watched the rest of the show in awed silence.  Before long, the Boys were crooning "I Want It That Way" in casual  attire, and the girls were running under the stage, flanked by two large bodyguards. They made their way to the dressing room quickly, knowing that the Boys would be down soon in order to change and get on the buses. Still giggling over the wonderful show, the five women positioned themselves around the room so that they could greet the Boys.

Well, the four women did. Alli knew that Nick was never in much of an affectionate mood after the show. She wasn't a girlfriend, so she didn't get the large amounts of attention that the other women did. Nick was usually more enthusiastic about grabbing the shower before any of the others.

She looked up in surprise when the five came tearing into the room, still excited and energetic from the encore. She watched happily as Howie and Jessi embraced, then moved her gaze to Kevin and Kristin, who had landed on the couch together. AJ came tearing in shortly after, and he and Amanda quickly found a corner to occupy as their lips locked. Brian and Leighanne, on the other hand, were happy to hold each other while they whispered their love over and over.

Suddenly, her vision was obstructed by a large, old, ratty green tee-shirt that slightly resembled a football jersey, and two arms found their way around her waist.

"Was that not fucking incredible?!"

Alli's eyes widened as the voice registered. God, he's being nice now? What is this? He hasn't even hugged me until he's had a shower since this leg started...

Somehow, despite her utter shock, she managed to smile in return and cough up a reply. "Absolutely. Carter, you five kicked ass. It was WONDERFUL."

He pulled back, his blue eyes dancing in the light of the dressing room as his megawatt smile lit up his boyish features. "Thanks, Al. I'm really, really glad you enjoyed it. It's so fucking awesome to have you out on the road again..." He trailed off and shook his head. "I don't know, man. Performing in front of people is something I'll always love, but it makes it a thousand times better when there's someone that you really care about in the audience, you know?"

Alli grinned. "Yeah, I can imagine. Every time I watch you up there, Carter, you amaze me. I can't tell you how many times I've wondered what the hell happens to my dorky best friend when he steps onstage. You become cool, man."

Nick laughed and smacked her lightly in the back of the head for teasing him. God, that was close. I almost told her I loved her. Almost. Shit, that 'right moment' had better hurry the hell up. I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to be able to hide this from her. I mean, is it really that big a deal that I should be flipping out about when the right time is?

She rolled her eyes at him and stuck out her tongue. "Carter, you're evil, you know that?"

Nick laughed. "I'm evil because I hit you on the head?"

Alli shook her head. "No, you're evil because you went cool on me. Not only do you know exactly how to shake your butt, but you looked really fucking hot behind those drums."

Nick blushed furiously at her compliments, and she laughed. "However, 'hot' has double meaning, and if you don't hurry, you might be forced to wait before you get that much-needed shower."

His bottom lip rolled out long enough for him to pout at her. "But Al...don't you love me anymore?"

Alli laughed. "This from the Boy who has avoided me consistently for the shower three nights in a row? I'm trying to help you out."

Nick shrugged. "I could always take a shower on the bus."

"Except for the fact that the bus doesn't have a shower," Alli returned, and Nick rolled his eyes.

"Technicalities, technicalities..."

"Anyone up for clubbing tonight?" AJ hollered, and all of the room's occupants looked up in surprise at the sudden sound. Finally, Kevin shrugged.

"Sure, why not? I mean, we'll be driving all night, so we might as well make the most of the time we've got left in the city."

The others around the room slowly nodded their agreement, and Alli turned to Nick with a smirk. "Carter, if we're going out, then you're definitely going to need that shower."

Nick groaned. "Why do I feel that I should be offended?"

Alli grinned. "Aw, don't be offended. Seriously, it was an absolutely awesome show."

He smiled at her shyly. "I sang to you like old times."

Alli smiled in return, trying to refrain from being sentimental. Nick had been very much like the boy she remembered since New Year's Eve, and she was enjoying his changes in character immensely. "I know. I felt special."

Nick laughed. "Did you really?"

Alli's eyes lit up. "Absolutely! I was the envy of fifty thousand teenagers. It was incredible."

Nick wiggled his eyebrows at her. "And just how incredible was it, pray tell?"

Alli rolled her eyes good-naturedly and smacked him. "It was much more incredible before Boy Wonder's ego came into play."

Nick grinned crazily. "Hey, you said that my smile made you the envy of fifty thousand teenagers! If my ego inflated, that's your fault, girl! Don't pin it all on me..."

Alli laughed. "True. We'll just say that it would have been even more flattering if they didn't want to claw my eyes out because of it."

Nick frowned playfully. "Are you insulting my fans?"

Alli arched an eyebrow pointedly. "Your fans can be rabid, dear. Not only that, but they're unjustifiably rabid."

"Not always."

Alli smiled. "You're right. They can be exceedingly amusing on their message boards. You have no idea the kind of gossip they've spread about us girls and you Boys lately."

Nick made a face. "Do I want to know?"

Alli giggled. "Probably not. They're not as innocent as they look."

Nick groaned. "Why do you five insist on reading that stuff?"

Alli smiled innocently. "We like to be kept up to date when it comes to the Backstreet love lives. I mean, did you know that Leighanne's almost five months pregnant AND she and Brian are planning to break up because of recent problems in their relationship?"

Nick glanced doubtfully at the couple, which was engaged in a heavy lip-lock by the make-up counter. "Recent problems?"

Alli smiled evilly. "That's not all. Apparently, you and I are secretly married."

Nick ran a tired hand over his exasperated features. "I think I liked it better when you read fan fiction..."

Alli laughed. "Seriously?"

Nick peeked through his fingers to give her a breadbox look. "No. If I had things my way, you and the Internet would be mortal enemies."

Alli sighed. "Ah, well...I'll be out with everyone tonight, so I won't have a chance to plunge deeply into the online world of Backstreet."

Nick nodded. "And thank God for that."

Alli smirked at him. "However, I know someone else who won't be going out unless he cleans up before we hit the clubs."

Nick rolled his eyes, but glanced anxiously at the door just in time to see AJ creeping out of the dressing room. "Shit, AJ's going to beat me."

"So run!"

He looked up just before darting out of the room. "I get a dance or two tonight right?" Memories of New Year's Eve quickly filled his head, and he had to close his eyes for a moment in hopes of maintaining composure. Damn, as dangerous as that would be, I definitely wouldn't mind grinding with Al again tonight. That girl has no idea just how well she does that...

Alli sighed heavily. "Well, I guess I could save you a dance or two...but only if you're clean."

Nick laughed and shook his head, thankful for Alli's ever-present sense of humor. "All right, all right...I get the message. I'm going."

True to his word, he slipped out of the dressing room, already engaged in an argument with AJ over shower privileges.

*      *      *      *      *

"There should be way more places in the world like this," Amanda declared loudly before draining the rest of her Corona. "I mean, look at the lights. Do you see those lights? They're so pretty..."

Kevin gave her a disbelieving look and shook his head, reaching across the table to take the empty bottle from her. "I think someone's had enough for tonight..."

Amanda made a face. "I'm tired. AJ made me dance with him for-fucking-ever."

Leighanne glanced out onto the floor and sipped her Cosmopolitan. "It looks like he's still dancing..."

Nick groaned aloud from across the table. "Yeah, with my fucking friend."

Amanda grinned lopsidedly at him. "Aw, someone's jealous. No need to get a stick up your ass, Nicky, it's just AJ. Why would he steal her away when he's got me?"

Nick arched an eyebrow skeptically. "I'm not going to answer that question."

"And a good thing that is," Brian chuckled. "We'd be here all night, man!"

Kevin frowned at the younger man, however, with a concerned countenance. "Nick, she's not exactly yours to be stolen, though, is she?"

Nick made a face at the older man. "That's beside the point. You all know how I feel about her."

Howie chuckled into his rum and coke. "Somehow I don't think Alli would like you staking claims around her."

Nick leveled his glare in Howie's direction. "No one asked you, Howard."

Amanda giggled. "Aw, Little Nicky's throwing a temper tantrum."

Nick looked around the table expectantly, knowing that he couldn't yell at Amanda in her intoxicated state and have even the slightest effect on her. "All right, AJ's not here. Whose responsibility is she?"

Kristin, ever the maternal figure of the group, sighed heavily. "I'll take her." She turned to Amanda with a bright smile. "Hey, Manda, let's head to the ladies' room, okay?"

Before she could drag her friend away, however, AJ trudged up to the table, bleary-eyed and obviously exhausted. Without a word to anyone else, he turned to Nick and groaned. "Man, your best friend can dance, dude. Where the hell does all of that energy come from?"

"Her hair," Nick answered without skipping a beat. "She channels energy by picking up heat waves."

AJ appeared completely and totally fascinated as he slid into the booth. "Really?"

Nick rolled his eyes. "No, you moron. The only reason she can dance longer than you is that she didn't perform for two hours before coming."

"I dunno," Amanda disagreed, grinning. "She was putting on a pretty nice performance for Nicky over there."

Nick's eyes narrowed angrily in Amanda's direction. "What?"

Amanda shrugged. "You know? Wiggling her ass, singing along, being seductive without knowing it. She's playing with you, Carter."

He didn't take his eyes off Amanda as his glare deepened. Instead, he spoke to AJ. "Bone, she's your girlfriend."

AJ sighed. "Manda, let it alone, okay? I know you like to meddle, but Nick's pissed and sex-deprived, so now's really not a good time."

Nick's glare faded as shock overcame his features, and he faced AJ. "Man, why do I even bother? I should know better than to ask you for help with her." He spat out the words as though disgusted by the people he was referring to, pointing at them in turn. "I mean, hell, Age, why help a guy out, right?"

AJ rolled his eyes at Nick's melodrama. "I am helping you out, Kaos." That said, he gave Nick a gentle shove in Alli's direction. "Go dance with the girl. She needs a partner before all of the drunk guys in the bar decide to maul her."

He didn't need much more motivation than that. He quickly moved away from the table and onto the dance floor, searching through the throngs of people for a flash of red hair. He finally found her situated between two rather decent-looking boys--he refused to think of them as men--grinding dangerously to the latest from Ludacris. She looked perfectly content with her arms in the air and her eyes closed, her hands reaching out for strands of melodies as her body found a perfect rhythm with her suitors.

It was enough to make him ill.

His stomach churned, but he remained rooted in place for a few moments as he studied her figure. Every time he looked at her, it seemed, he noticed something else that he hadn't seen before, a slight detail that he had overlooked. He loved everything about her, from her lack of height to her ever-present sarcasm, and he was rather pleased to have a chance to look at her from a distance, to
study her without being seen or reprimanded. Of course, the sight she was creating with her new male friends was soon too much to bear, and he was forced to enter into her world of rhythms and beats, gathering glares as he moved towards her. When he finally reached her side, he held out an arm and allowed his fingers to lightly brush against her forearm. She looked up in surprise, and he met her shocked expression with a charming grin.

"Can I cut in?"

Alli's look of surprise was almost immediately replaced by her trademark smirk. "I don't know. Can you?"

He rolled his eyes before fixing her with a cheesy grin. "Oh, Mother, may I?"

Somehow, she managed to find enough room to bow deeply. "You may, my son."

The two of them giggled at their own dramatic display, and Nick's hands slid easily around Alli's waist as he began to dance in time to the techno tune that was blaring through the club. Soon after, he felt her fingers in his hair and on the back of his neck, leaving a trail of goosebumps in their wake. He looked down to see her smiling up at him, a serene expression of bliss etched across her pointed features.

"You look like you're in heaven," he finally called to her over the loud music, and she laughed lightly before glancing up at him with a rather seductive smile. My God, she must really hate me.

"I love to dance," she returned, winking in his general direction. He frowned slightly.

"You never used to dance with me before..."

She shrugged, continuing to move sensually to the beat that pulsed through the faded neon lights and thin smoke. "I never saw a reason to. You always had two or three women on your arm, and I refuse to play second and third violin to any blonde concert mistresses when I can just as easily find a single, willing guy to dance with."

Nick shook his head at her. "And you think I'm the one that needs to tone down the ego?"

Alli just smiled smugly and pulled him closer to her. "I believe we were dancing, Carter. I don't like to talk when I dance."

Nick winced when she slid down his leg, trying to maintain control of his senses. "Yeah, obviously," he gulped, unable to think of a witty comeback. Before he could continue his painful attempt at conversation to distract himself from the multitude of emotions and hormones racing through him, another song came on and Alli squealed with delight. Her eyes sparkled beneath the blue and green lights that began flashing, and Nick had to smile at her enthusiasm, even though he wasn't exactly thrilled to hear the music.

"I LOVE this song! I mean, the original version was great, don't get me wrong, but you guys totally kicked ass when you gave this track to the Neptunes."

Nick groaned. "So glad you like it. Now, remind me one more time why I'm not allowed to run to the men's room and escape the sound of my own voice?"

Alli grinned. "Because you asked me to dance."

Nick arched an eyebrow skeptically. "No, you're way too smug for this to have only to do with a promise."

Alli chuckled. "Okay, so maybe I like it when you get all paranoid about fans catching you."

Nick gave her a fleeting look of disbelief. "Al, I have nightmares about fans catching me. Somehow, I think that's different."

Alli frowned in mock sympathy. "But, Carter, you're forgetting that no fans will find you in here."

Nick rolled his eyes. "And why is that?"

Alli laughed. "It's a club, dude. You have to be legal to get in, and none of your fans are legal."

Nick managed a mild look of protest. "We have legal fans. Not all of them are still begging Mommy and Daddy for permission to go to concerts."

Alli paused a moment, considering. When she turned to him, the trademark smirk was in place, and he had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. "Okay, you have some legal ones. I'll give you that. However, the ones that are legal SHOULD be illegal."

Nick smiled sweetly at the walking contradiction dancing in front of him. "But, Al, aren't you forgetting something?"

"What's that?"

He laughed lightly. "Dear, you're a fan, and you're legal."

Alli glanced over her shoulder at him with a pointed expression. "And you don't think that I should be illegal?"

Nick finally laughed and pulled her to him in a hug, glad for her presence during what was usually a crazy time for him. "Okay, point proven. You can dance now."

Alli smiled lightly. "You do know that you have to dance with me, right?"

Nick's features contorted in pain. "To my own song?"

Alli rolled her eyes. "Oh, whine whine whine. You do it every night for two hours, anyway, and I've certainly never heard you protest. What are you complaining about?"

Nick folded his arms across his chest belligerently. "That's different. We're singing then."

Alli's grin was positively devious. "Well, what a coincidence. I know a girl who absolutely loves to hear her best friend sing."

It was Nick's turn to roll his eyes. "Really? Well, imagine that..."

Alli nodded her agreement. "Yeah, I think she was brainwashed."

Nick's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You mean she had a brain to begin with?"

Alli glared at him for a moment before her need to win their little verbal battle took over. "Yeah, can you believe it? I mean, with a guy like her best friend running around her and driving her mad, it's a wonder that she ever had time to develop brain cells."

Nick shrugged lightly, falling into the comfort of their routine. "You never know. Maybe he really helped her development."

Alli groaned. "Or maybe he talked too much so as to avoid physically stimulating her."

Nick wiggled his eyebrows at her wording. "Oh, Al...I physically stimulate you? Why didn't you say anything before?"

"Because, Carter, just like any other guy in this room, your ego is much, much bigger than your dick."

Alli's smirk remained firmly in place as she continued to move to the music, thrilled that one of her favorite songs was playing. Meanwhile, Nick's jaw came unhinged and he stood stock still, occasionally blinking at Alli's moving form. The fact that she was rapping along with the Neptunes hadn't even registered. The song was over before he managed to finally voice his thoughts.

"I can't believe you actually said that."

Alli chuckled. "Well, you know, that big gap of silence we like to call speechlessness kind of clued me in to that."

Nick's eyes narrowed in her direction as he pulled her closer to him and began swaying to the ballad that had taken the place of his remix. "Do you always have to be such a smartass?"

Alli's eyes twinkled mischievously into Nick's before they began to travel down his backside. "Well, Carter, I think I'd rather have a smartass than a big ass like yours."

Nick's eyes widened, and he swatted her playfully. "Hey! Quit being mean to me."

Alli chuckled and dropped her head sweetly against his shoulder. "You know I'm just teasing, Carter. How can I help but love your ghetto ass?"

Nick gave her his best pout as Steve Perry continued to belt out a love song through the speakers of the club. "You said it was big," he accused, and Alli smiled kindly at him.

"It needs to be, Carter. From what I hear, that ass is in popular demand."

Finally, Nick's pout gave way to laughter, and he spun Alli around for good measure. "You're really something else, you know that? I've traveled all over the globe and I haven't ever managed to find someone quite like you."

Alli shrugged nonchalantly, though her eyes said otherwise. "I'm just special like that."

Nick nodded solemnly. "Oh, is that what they have to tell you to get you to take your medication?"

Alli's grin became a frown of protest rather quickly. "Hey now, you're ruining a perfectly good love song by teasing me about my inability to be normal."

Nick smiled warmly at her. "Al, you know that I'd never want you to be normal."

Alli arched a doubtful eyebrow. "Seriously, Carter? Normal keeps you out of trouble and away from masses of little girlies."

"Eh," Nick shrugged. "Normal is boring, and I'd rather hang with you than fit in."

Alli looked amusedly up at him. "And when, pray tell, did that little epiphany come along?"

"Right now," Nick smiled softly as the end of the song came rolling over the crowd, knowing that he had to let her go. They were getting too close, and he was dangerously near to saying things that he shouldn't be saying. Dammit, Carter, you're supposed to be waiting for the right moment. Before he could think of a decent way to drag her off the dance floor, however, she smiled warmly at him and tugged on his wrist.

"Carter, as much as I enjoyed that dance, I'm absolutely exhausted. Mind if we make our way back to the tables?"

He chuckled to himself. "I thought you'd never ask."

They stopped at the table only long enough to drag a very inebriated Brian and a rather exhausted Leighanne from their seats. Nick, still fearful that Amanda would spout off and blow his cover, was quick to bid the rest of the group good-bye, explaining that they had a movie to watch and would see the group in the next city. Once farewells had been made, the four trudged into the parking lot of the club, smiling happily when a limo immediately pulled up at the front door. Nick turned a sideways smile on Alli as he helped Brian into the back seat.

"See, Al, this is the benefit of star treatment. You don't have to wait for the valet people."

Alli made a face. "Isn't this a bit more expensive?"

Nick shrugged. "I guess. It's much more convenient, though."

Alli groaned. "I'll tell you what. You can show me the benefits of star treatment as long as I don't have to tip this guy at the end of the night, okay?"

Nick laughed. "You've got yourself a deal."

With that, they sped off towards the hotel to load the bus for another night trip to the next city.

*      *      *      *      *

An hour later found the Nick, Alli, Brian and Leighanne tucked tightly into the back room of their bus, prepared to watch the movie that Nick had bought earlier. The movie-watching had been delayed by Nick's battle with the VCR as he attempted to load The Patriot.

"Maybe it just doesn't like Mel Gibson," Alli suggested, fighting back giggles at the sight of Nick's frustration. Leighanne, however, seemed quite distraught at the possibility.

"How could anyone not like Mel Gibson?"

Nick rolled his eyes. "Right now, I don't much like Mel Gibson..."

Alli's ears perked at the thought. "Does this mean we get to watch Runaway Bride again?"

Nick glanced momentarily at her before shaking his head. "Not a chance in hell." Suddenly, the video slid into the slot, and all traces of former frustration or the possibility of Julia Roberts vanished. With a smile of triumph, Nick came trotting back to the couch, remote in hand.

"I won," he announced, nudging Alli in the process. "This means that you have to get up now."

Alli squinted up at him, trying to manage a frown. "Why do I have to get up again?"

"Because I don't have a place to sit!"

Alli grinned at Leighanne, who was sharing the other couch with her snoring fiancÚ. "I don't know. There's plenty of room on the floor, right Leigh?"

Leighanne laughed. "I'm too tired to be cruel, Al. Let him share the couch with you so we don't have to listen to him whine about rug burn tomorrow morning, okay?"

Alli sighed dramatically and lifted herself off of the couch long enough for Nick to get comfortable. Moments later, his arms snaked around her waist, and she was pulled up against his chest, where she snuggled into him so as to get warmer. She chuckled lightly when she felt the cashmere throw blanket fall on top of them.

"This is nice," Leighanne offered as the previews began to flash across the screen. Alli nodded her head in agreement.

"Yeah, it's definitely a good way to unwind after dancing all night."

Leighanne laughed at her exhausted expression. "You wore AJ out, you know?"

Nick groaned from behind a mop of red hair. "She wore me out too, Leigh! The girl made me dance to my own music tonight."

Leighanne gasped dramatically, covering her mouth in mock fright. "Oh, the horror!"

Somehow, despite his growing fatigue, Nick managed to throw a pillow in her general direction. He flinched guiltily, however, when he heard Brian grunt from the impact. "Sorry, man."

Leighanne rolled her eyes. "He didn't even feel it. He's dead to the world."

"Doesn't surprise me," Alli laughed. "He certainly drank enough."

"He doesn't usually drink like that," Nick mused thoughtfully. He glanced over at Leighanne, brow furrowed, and sighed. "Is something up with him?"

Leighanne shook her head. "Nothing unusual. He's just been exhausted lately. Sometimes, he gets carried away."

"Everyone does," Alli concluded, before smiling widely at the screen. "Oh, look, it's starting!" She rolled onto her back for a moment so that she could stare expectantly at Nick. "This had better not be anything like Braveheart, Carter, or I'll short sheet your bunk for a week, understand me?"

Nick bit back a smile at the serious look on her face and nodded gravely. "Absolutely. No Braveheart."

Alli rolled her eyes when he began to giggle, and turned to face the screen again. Slowly, locks of hair began falling into her face, one by one, and she made faces as they tickled her nose and cheeks. She continued to brush them away until she realized that they weren't falling of their own accord. Rolling her eyes again, she flopped onto her back and glared at her culprit. "Carter!"

Nick had been caught red-handed, with his hand in the air and another curl waiting to make the descent onto Alli's soft features. He tried to look sheepish, but his bouts of laughter made it rather difficult. "Yeah?"

"I know you love my hair, but leave it alone, okay? No matter how much you love it, I love being able to watch a movie in PEACE ten times more."

Had he not been lying down, she knew that he would've saluted her. "Yes, ma'am."

She groaned and turned to face the movie again, pressing closely against him in the process. Nick's eyes closed involuntarily as her backside made contact with his hips. Oh, God, why do I do this to myself?

They continued to watch the movie with the occasional sarcastic comment, but Nick had extreme difficulty focusing on Mel Gibson and his army when Alli's hair was tickling his forearm and her fingers were interwoven with his. She seemed so comfortable, so relaxed, so peacefulhe loved the fact that, even after all that they'd been through, he could still give her that feeling. He was, however, feeling extremely vulnerable with her so close by. He couldn't help but wonder how much she knew or how much she suspected. And then there was the fact that he couldn't seem to take his eyes off her face.

He hadn't ever realized exactly how expressive Alli's features were. She laughed when the characters laughed, frowned when they frowned, and knitted her brow in concern when they found themselves in danger. Despite her ever-present wit, she was quick to wear her heart on her sleeve, and he found the quality endearing beyond belief. It's amazing how perfect someone can seem when you realize that you want to spend the rest of your life with them...

He almost shook his head when the thought registered, but he didn't want to make Alli suspicious. Shit, Carter, which Hallmark card did you jump out of? This little crush you've got going is really starting to fuck with your head. You need to find a way to get over her before she finds out how you feel and everything goes to shit again.

Of course, just as he was getting used to that thought and firming himself in his resolve, Alli reached up a hand and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. The movement was so simple, but so graceful, and so delicate, and his stomach dropped when she ran her tongue gently over her lips. One of the characters chose that moment to make a joke, and she laughed lightly with them. The skin around her eyes crinkled, and the corners of her mouth turned up, and her abdomen shook gently beneath his fingertips. Her eyes sparkled in the dim glow of the television, and a shiver ran down his spine. And, all at once, he knew that there was no way he could get over her. There was too much that he had waited too long to notice, too much that he suddenly appreciated with an intensity that scared him.

God, it's really not a crush. I really am in love. I'm really, really planning to risk our friendship to say something to her. Hell, I HAVE to say something to her. If not, I'll get distant and try to be the guy I was on the last tour, and everything'll go to shit anyway.

She sighed contentedly in front of him, and he felt her entire body sink back into his. He closed his eyes for a moment, relishing the feeling, and realized that they were a perfect fit.

I've got to tell her. Soon. Because he wasn't exactly sure how much longer he could stand his heart thundering in his chest at the thought of her. If nothing else, he had to tell her to save his sanity--well, what was left of it at least. Even if it meant risking hers in the process.


performed by Mandy Moore


*  "Larger Than Life"

lyrics and music by Max Martin, Brian Littrell, and Kristin Lundin

performed by the Backstreet Boys


** "The One"

lyrics and music by Brian Littrell

performed by the Backstreet Boys