Bed of Roses
Chapter Forty
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

Say my name
Sun shines through the rain
A whole life so lonely
You come and ease the pain
I don't want to lose this feeling
Close your eyes
Give me your hand, darling
Do you feel my heart beating?
Do you understand?
Do you feel the same?
Am I only dreaming?
Or is this burning?
An eternal flame


Alli groaned from beneath a blanket of red curls and reached up a hand to rub her tired eyes. Shit, did he really have to do that? I didn't exactly need a reminder of WHY I hate sleeping on the bus...


She groaned again at the sound of the doors opening and managed to open one gray eye so she could get a semi-decent view of her surroundings. She could hear Nick snoring behind her, and his arm fell heavily across her waist. After brushing away a few curls, she saw that Leighanne and Brian were tangled together on the other couch, and remembered falling asleep during the movie. A slow smile slid across her pointed features when she realized that Nick had taken care not to wake her. He wasn't exactly in the most comfortable of positions, but he was still sound asleep. She couldn't see his face, but she could feel his abdomen rise and fall against her back.

Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump...

The sound of footfalls had barely registered when the door to the back room was thrust open and Kevin's deep voice echoed in Alli's ears.

"We're here, just arrived, and it's time to get up. Management is checking us into the hotel, and then we're going to have a group meeting in the lobby. Y'all have about five minutes to be down there...and, Alli, I KNOW you're awake, so don't even think of pretending that you didn't just hear me."

Alli rolled her eyes, but Kevin left the bus before she had a chance to respond. With a heavy sigh of annoyed reluctance, she began nudging Nick.

"Carter? Eyebrows has spoken...and it's time to get up, dude."

Just as Alli had predicted, Nick didn't move an inch. She groaned inwardly and pulled herself up off the couch long enough to shake the tangled mass of limbs formerly known as Brian and Leighanne.

"Okay, happy couple, the other half of the Kentucky cousins says that we've had enough sleep and it's time to cut the catnaps short."

She heard a feminine groan of protest and silently thanked God for making Leighanne a relatively light sleeper. "Leigh? Time to get up..."

Leighanne barely opened one eye and stared up at Alli. "Tell me that I'm dreaming..."

"Say you're never leaving," Alli sang teasingly, but Leighanne only rolled her eyes. *

"I'm not dreaming. You're only this much of a dork in real life."

"And, lucky for you, I'm also too tired to be offended," Alli mumbled. "Listen, Captain Richardson called a meeting on deck in ten minutes. We all have to be there, or he's coming after me."

Leighanne somehow summoned enough energy to lift an eyebrow. "And would that really be such a loss?"

Alli arched an eyebrow in return. "Okay, maybe I'm not too tired to be offended..."

Leighanne groaned and began to stretch. "Nevermind, I don't want to listen to Nick's whining once Kevin's made a mess of you."

"Gee, your love is just astounding, Leigh..."

"It's fucking EARLY in the morning, Al. What do you expect?"

She smiled and batted her eyelashes hopefully. "For you to pull your soon-to-be hubby up while I try dragging Carter's ghetto ass out of bed again?"

Finally, with an assortment of grunts and groans, Leighanne got to her feet. "I'm going to kill Kevin..."

Alli sighed. "And if I had a dollar for every time someone expressed that sentiment, I might just be a millionaire."

Leighanne shook her head. "No, you'd be a billionaire. At least."

With that, the two ladies turned away from each other and toward their respective Boys, both of which were still snoring softly on the sofa.

*     *     *     *     *

Ten minutes later, four-fifths of the Backstreet group were arranged in one corner of the lobby, slightly agitated and half-asleep. Kevin grunted as he glanced at his watch for the thousandth time.

"Where the hell are Alli and Nick?! I know that I told her to get him the hell up..."

"We're right here, Kev. Calm the fuck down," Nick bit back as he stumbled down the steps. He was absolutely exhausted from the night before, and Alli had had to drag him off of the couch before he even regained consciousness. At the moment, she was still trailing behind him, just in case he fell backwards and went to sleep again. "Now, is there a reason you dragged us in here at the butt crack of dawn?"

Kevin sighed heavily, the sigh he usually offered before he engaged in a long-winded lecture or explanation. Almost immediately, the sigh resulted in nine groans that were less than enthusiastic. If Kevin noticed, however, he didn't acknowledge it. "As you all most likely know, we have a day off today."

AJ grinned. "Yeah, no shit, Sherlock. Should I start the 'Hallelujah' chorus now or later?"

Nick groaned at AJ's good mood, and Alli could feel a whine coming on. "No fucking fair, dammit! AJ got coffee first!"

Alli rolled her eyes and smacked the blonde kid in the chair beside her. "Yeah, well, had you actually gotten up when I told you to, you could've had coffee too."

"I hate you all," Nick huffed, folding his arms petulantly across his chest. Howie, on the other hand, shook his head and bit back a smile.

"Yeah, well, I give that attitude about two hours..."

"Is the peanut gallery finished, or do you want me to postpone this conversation a bit more?"

"You could postpone it indefinitely and I wouldn't complain," Amanda muttered. Kevin shot her a biting glare for her efforts, but she only smiled sweetly.

"As I was saying...we have a day off today. However, after thinking a few things over, I believe that it might be best for us to have some kind of organized activity. In addition, management requested that we all go somewhere together due to certain rumors that troubles with Nicky..." he paused to glare at the belligerent blonde, "are breaking us up. So, with those thoughts in mind, I decided to search for a suitable place that we could all visit and enjoy. There isn't too much to do here, but I managed to find something that I think we could all have fun with."

"Oh, God, here it comes..." Nick muttered, rolling his eyes.

"We're going to the zoo."

Alli's squeal and Nick's groan were in perfect unison. Everyone else just continued to stare at the tall, dark, and handsome one in a state of semi-awed disbelief. AJ cleared his throat.

"You're joking, right?"

Kevin shook his head. "Nope, no joke."

"The zoo?" Brian affirmed.

Kevin nodded. "The zoo."

Nick groaned. Alli squealed.

Amanda just shook her head. "Shit, this is going to be a long day."

*      *      *      *      * 

"I can't believe you dragged me to the zoo."

Leighanne rolled her eyes and sighed. "Fifty-two."

Brian smirked at Nick. "That's got to be some kind of record."

Kevin arched an eyebrow in disbelief. "This is Nick, Bri. There is never a record. He whines too often for a record to even contemplate existence."

AJ stopped mid-step and began looking around in confusion. "Wait, stop a sec. Was that Kevin trying to sound smart again?"

Howie, who had been walking behind AJ and intensely studying a map of the zoo, groaned and rubbed his forehead (which had just made contact with AJ's back). "Dammit, Bone, warn me before you pull another stunt like that, okay?"

Even sweet Jessi was annoyed with Nick's childish antics. She turned to glare at him after giving Howie a concerned glance. "Please tell me that you don't plan on saying that the whole time we're here."

"No fucking joke," Amanda muttered. "Because, you know, I'm not a violent person by nature, but I have no reservations about smacking you around if you don't learn to shut up and deal with it."

Nick groaned, but Alli somehow managed to link her arm through his before he could fold his arms across his chest again. "Besides, Carter, it's the zoo! Show some excitement, dude! If we look hard enough, we'll probably be able to find some relatives of yours, and then we'll FINALLY know where you came from..."

Nick was vaguely aware of the laughter around him as he groaned again. Well, outwardly he was groaning. Inwardly, he was finding it very difficult not to smile at Alli's ever-present cheer. She'd been excited for the entire ride to the zoo, talking nonstop about animals and shows and tours and the things they'd be able to see. He wouldn't admit it, exactly, but he knew that he wasn't too far from giving up the act of the strong, annoyed macho man that would rather be lifting weights and joining Alli as she skipped along the rocky path adorned in animal carvings.

"Look, they have a life-size koala carving! Dude, we HAVE to go see the koalas!"

Kristin couldn't help but smile at Alli's enthusiasm as she glanced up at Kevin. "You're sure we couldn't have dropped her off at that elementary school on the way?"

Kevin laughed. "Yeah, pretty sure. One of us has to spend the rest of the day with Nick."

"In that case..." Brian trailed off with a bright, tight smile. "The more the merrier!"

Nick's features crumpled at Brian's joke. "Oh, you are SO not funny..."

"Oh, you are SO grouchy..." Alli shot back. "What's up your ass, anyway? We used to love coming to the zoo together! Don't you remember?"

He was about to say no, but he was suddenly greeted with a myriad of memories from his past. Years before, when he was a bouncy little blonde boy and Alli was nothing more than a mass of curls and freckles, his mother and her father would make a point of taking them both to the Tampa Zoo. The two kids had always spent the entire dayrunning eagerly from exhibit to exhibit, completely enthralled with the exotic animals that were suddenly in plain view. Nick's personal favorite had been the shark tank, while Alli had been completely awed by the polar bears and the koalas. He bit back a smile when he remembered the way her eyes used to sparkle whenever they got to watch the zookeepers feed the polar bears. Alli had never been anything less than a bundle of energy, but something about her fascination had always made him see the world as a more colorful place.

However, despite the sudden memories, the man in him wasn't about to admit that the trip wouldn't be a bad experience. He had decided sometime during the car ride over that he wasn't going to have any fun. For some reason, maintaining his pride and his opinions seemed more important than giving into the excitement he remembered so well.

"Yes...and I STILL can't believe you dragged me to the zoo."

Outwardly, he was pouting. Inwardly, he was hoping that the statement had sounded stronger to them than it did to him. He hated the fact that one glance at Alli's dancing eyes could weaken his need to protest.

He expected her to roll her eyes at him and put him in his place, but instead, she grinned widely and grabbed his arm. "Dude, LOOK! It's the koala exhibit! Come on, you KNOW you'll love it..."

Nick rolled his eyes instead and turned to Billy, who merely smirked at him (all of the bodyguards had also been required to make the trip for safety reasons). "Yeah, Carter, you KNOW you'll love it..."

Nick groaned, but he was fairly sure that his lack of resistance was obvious. It didn't really seem like Alli was pulling him fact, they were running side-by-side.

"Aw, maybe Nicky's getting excited after all," Amanda teased. Nick turned around long enough to stick out his tongue, at which point Kevin laughed.

"Maturity, Nick. Look it up."

Nick smiled sweetly. "Anal, Kevin. Shut the hell up."

Alli's voice seemed to come out of nowhere. "When I get done being the retarded six-year-old that loves the animals, we're going to work on your comeback abilities, okay Carter?"

He grunted. Well, he tried to grunt. By the time he was responding, they had arrived at the entrance to the koala exhibit, and the sparkle was back in Alli's eyes. Suddenly, they were both six again, and she was tugging on his arm and pointing excitedly at the furry gray animals sleeping behind the glass.

"Carter, look! They're asleep. Oh my gosh, they're adorable..."

He took one look at the childlike grin on her face and the glitter in her eyes and he could feel every bit of his resolve slipping away. Another look at the other Boys and their girlfriends, and another exclamation from Alli in the soft, feminine tone that she had suddenly acquired, and he was helpless. Oh, damn it all to hell...

"Al, look! This one's eating!"

Sure enough, the next glass cage displayed a pair of koalas feasting on what must have been Eucalyptus leaves. Alli let out a squeal of excitement, and Nick's arm found its way around her shoulder as his other arm stretched to point out a baby koala in the corner.

"Check it out..."

"Aw! It's so tiny..."

Kevin leaned in to Kristin with an amused smile. "I feel like I'm chaperoning a daycare field trip."

Kristin shook her head and smacked him playfully in response. "Shut up, Kev. They're already having so much fun."

AJ, who had overheard the discussion, couldn't help but nod in agreement. "No shit. I can't remember the last time Nick looked so much like a little boy. Hell, Kev, he looks like the kid that bounced into the conference room that first morning that the five of us were together."

Brian nodded. "That's Alli's doing, man. It's incredible how easily she can bring the old Nick back into the picture."

Leighanne, clutched tight to his side, smiled maternally at the two teenaged children who were still staring at the window. "That's the only part of him she knows."

AJ laughed lightly. "Yeah, that, and he really does love her."

Amanda sighed, coming up behind AJ to wrap her arms around him. "And the question is, does she love him in return?"

"I don't know," AJ lamented softly. "But these furry things are pretty damn cute, if you ask me."

"See?" Kevin began, delighted by AJ's sudden admission. "I really can have good ideas!"

AJ nodded seriously at him. "And the cow really can jump over the moon, too, right Kev?"

Kevin glared, but the others were laughing too hard to be affected. Well, they were laughing until they heard another shriek from the resident redhead.

"Oh my gosh! I think it's waving!"

"You know, there are such things as spending TOO much time with Nick..." AJ called without missing a beat. Alli's head suddenly appeared around the corner, framed by her hair and brightened by the excitement in her eyes.

"Man, don't be a spoilsport! Come see them! AJ, they're absolutely adorable. Really, man. Even Billy started cooing at them a second ago."

Amanda's eyes widened at the thought. "Chica! Billy started cooing? Where the hell was your camcorder, girl?"

Alli laughed. "Talk to Kevin, babe. He has camcorder control at all times."

Kristin nodded. "That he does. In fact, he was a bit obsessive about needing it this morning." She shook her head and turned to the two girls. "I think it may be some type of disorder. We're looking into it."

She ignored Kevin's glare, instead listening for the retort that Nick was sure to oblige with.

"No need to research, Kris. Kev's anal-retentive, and it's a hell of a lot more than a disorder. It's a genetic defect. It probably has to do with the massive eyebrows."

The confusion on Alli's face before she turned to frown at Nick was absolutely priceless. "Pay no attention to Blondie," she stage-whispered. "The koalas fried his brain and hid it in the Eucalyptus leaves."

"You two are fucking weird," Amanda muttered with a shake of her head. "But at least you're weird together..."

"How is that a good thing?" Jessi asked, coming up behind the group with Howie and his bodyguard in tow. "That's twice the trouble, chick."

"But this way they can keep each other company when we send them to the loony bin," Brian joked. His comment was followed by a snort from Nick's general direction.

"HEY! I heard that!"

"Oh, good. That means we won't have to spend extra money to get you a hearing aid..."

"You're just glad because that gives you the chance to buy new brain cells."

"Nah, with my luck, I'd get your recycled brain cells..."

"Wouldn't that make you smarter?"

"I could probably create the same effects if I beat my head against that brick wall a few hundred times..."

"Are you implying that I'm stupid?"

"I didn't think I was implying...I thought I said it pretty straight-up, actually."

Amanda finally turned to AJ with a hopeless expression. "They're going to be like this all day, aren't they?"

AJ thought for only a moment before nodding in agreement. "Probably so."

Before Amanda could make any more complaints, however, the fearless leader held his hand up and halted the entire group.

"Okay, guys, we're going to have to split up at this point because it's too much of a security risk to move through this together in such a big group. Kristin and I are headed towards the guided tour, because we'd like to see the park. Who's coming with?"

Brian and Leighanne looked at each other quickly before nodding in agreement. Brian spoke. "We'll go with you. The tour sounds like it could be interesting, and I'm too exhausted to walk around forever."

AJ snorted at the uncertain tone in Brian's voice. "Oh, what-fucking-ever. You just don't want to hang out with the children over there."

Brian glanced down the corridor, where Alli and Nick were laughing hysterically over some joke that one of them had most likely made to the other. "Well, now that you mention it..."

"They're so cute together," Leighanne sighed happily. "However, they need time alone. They need time to be cute and funny and as 'Nick and Alli' as they used to be."

Howie nodded his agreement. "Yeah, they do. As annoying as they could get sometimes, I miss seeing them together."

Jessi laughed lightly as Alli rolled her eyes and smacked Nick. "Well, they're definitely together now."

Amanda sighed with mock sentimentality. "Just like old times..." Suddenly, it was her turn to roll her eyes. "Moving right along. AJ and I are headed to see the dolphin show."

AJ looked away from Nick and Alli in surprise. "We are?"



She grinned mischievously. "Because I think it looks fucking cool, that's why."

AJ groaned. "Super. If I get wet, baby, I'm going to make you go on that guided tour with Kevin, Kristin, and the sunshine-y tour guide."

Amanda smirked up at him. "You care enough about punishing me to endure that kind of torture?"

He paused to think about it for only a moment before a look of genuine disgust crossed his features. "No, now that you mention it. I'll make you chaperone Nick, Al, and Billy while Marc and I go play some video games."

Amanda flinched. "Damn, Alex. Fine, you win. We'll sit up in the balcony area."

AJ pumped a fist in the air to declare his victory, making everyone laugh. The gesture of triumph finished, he turned to Howie expectantly. "Well, D, are you going to be joining Manda, Shamu, and I?"

Amanda shrieked before Howie could answer, smacking AJ like Alli had smacked Nick only moments before. "Shamu is a killer whale, you dumbass!"

AJ grimaced. "Okay! Shit, girl, chill out. My shoulder gets the point."

Marcus, AJ's bodyguard, laughed roughly. "You always did have a penchant for the violent ones, man..."

Amanda grinned slyly. "Marc, how about you sit down towards the tank and take pictures for us?"

Marcus shook his head. "Hell, no, little lady. I may work for AJ, but I only go so far..."

AJ snickered. "Yeah, Manda, he's not getting wet for you."

She grinned up at AJ instead, a mischievous glint in her eyes. "I'll get wet for you..."

"And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a TMI violation," Alli interjected, finally joining the group. Nick, with laughing blue eyes and tousled blonde locks, wasn't far behind her.

"Of course, Amanda's really been racking those up lately, if I recall correctly." He turned his gleaming gaze on her with a smirk. "Stepping into Kevin's territory, Amanda?"

Kevin rolled his eyes as the remark registered. "Ha fucking ha, Carter. Are you coming on the guided tour with us, or do I get an hour of peace before I have to deal with you again?"

Nick and Alli exchanged glances before shrugging in unison.

"Eh, you can have your peace," Nick agreed. "I think Al and I are headed towards the shark tanks..."

Amanda chuckled. "Aw, they're going to see Kevin's relatives..."

AJ turned to Howie a second time while Kevin was busy glaring at Amanda. "So, D, are you coming to watch the dolphins with us or hitting the shark tanks with Carter and Charter over there?"

Alli's jaw fell open. "CHARTER?! What the hell?"

AJ shrugged. "You're a nut, right? In fact, you're probably the nuttiest of nuts. So, if you haven't been a patient there in the past, I figure you will be soon enough." Alli began grumbling incoherently, and AJ offered his most charming grin. "Besides, it rhymes with your nickname for the infamous Backstreet pimp over there."

Nick laughed. "Um, not exactly, dude. My pimping days are over."

"Debatable," AJ shot back. "Once a pimp, always a pimp."

Alli smiled sweetly at AJ. "Then you and Jay-Z must be soulmates, right?"

"Hey!" Amanda interjected, feigning anger as she wrapped an arm protectively around AJ's waist. "He may be a pimp, but he's MY pimp."

Jessi groaned. "I think we're headed towards another TMI violation..."

"Good call," Howie chuckled, pulling his girlfriend into a hug. He took the opportunity to finally answer AJ's question as well. "J, as exciting as the dolphin show sounds, I think we're going to join Billy in chaperoning the adolescents by the shark tank, okay?"

AJ nodded. "Sounds like a plan, D."

Before everyone managed to run off in separate directions, Kevin's baritone voice rang out through the area. "We're meeting for lunch in about two hours, understood? There was a little restaurant towards the entrance that serves burgers."

"Kick ass," AJ agreed, grabbing Amanda's hand. "We'll see you kiddies at lunch. Have fun now!"

Just like that, Amanda, AJ, and Marcus were gone. Kevin, Kristin, Brian, Leighanne, and Kevin's Carlos began walking towards the loading area for the tour busses, leaving Nick, Jessi, Howie, and Alli to fend for themselves with Billy. Nick glanced at Alli with a grin.

"We're finally alone. You know what this means, right?"

Despite Billy's groan of protest and Jessi and Howie's laughter, Alli nodded. "Hell yeah. Race you to the shark tank?"

Nick's grin, if possible, grew wider. "You are SO on."

*     *     *     *     * 

"Mine's bigger, Carter, get over it."

"The hell it is! Are you fucking blind, girl? Mine is SO bigger..."

"Of course it is, Nick, you dumbass," AJ interjected. "Alli doesn't have one."

Alli didn't bat an eye. "You know, AJ, every time I think that you can't be that weird, that psychotic, or that crude in real life, I find out that I'm wrong."

"Shouldn't you be glad that I'm keeping you on your toes?" he encountered cheekily, and Alli shot him one of her patented breadbox looks.

"Actually, Alex, you should probably be glad that I'm keeping you off yours, because I am more than capable of kicking your ass."

"Ooh, you go girl!" Amanda hollered from the sidelines. AJ threw her a dejected glance, and she sighed reluctantly. "I love you, Age..."

"Yeah. Right."

While the couple continued to quarrel, Billy, Howie, and Jessi finally managed to catch up to the group. All three were out of breath, but the bodyguard still managed to look intimidating as he waited for Howie to join the others.

"So, who won the race?" Billy asked, eyebrow arched. Alli and Nick had challenged each other to yet another race from the bird cages to the brunch spot, and the comment had barely registered with the burly bodyguard before the two of them went soaring over the hill, screaming insults at each other as they went.

"I did!" Alli exclaimed proudly, puffing out her chest. Nick rolled his eyes and smacked her playfully, shaking his head in disagreement.

"Deflate, girl, because you did NOT beat me. I was distracted."

Billy smirked doubtfully. "Oh, is that so? And what distracted you, Carter?"

"Probably the order of his feet," Alli answered smugly, "seeing as he almost ran into this old lady with a stroller back there."

Nick's indignant countenance was inspiring giggles from the surrounding Backstreeters even before he opened his mouth. "You fucking pushed me!"

Alli grinned. "Aw, Carter's just pissed. Come on, Nick, all in the spirit of competition. I was trying to play fair."

"Fair? FAIR? That was just dirty playing, there."

Alli laughed. "No, that wasn't anywhere near dirty. If you want dirty playing, I suggest you talk to Pamela and Tommy Lee over there." She jerked her thumb in the direction of Amanda and AJ, who were engaged in a very passionate kiss. Nick snickered at both the sight and the nicknames.

"Looks like they're making up after all."

"Making up, no," Alli retorted. "Making out, yes."

Nick's eyes danced mischievously. "So, do you think that AJ will be making a home run tonight?"

"He'll either be making a home run, or he'll be making a bed out of the couch," Amanda intoned sweetly, finally abandoning AJ's lips for the possibility of conversation. "It all depends on whether or not he stays on good behavior."

"But Amanda," Alli countered innocently. "I thought you liked him better on bad behavior?"

Amanda glared playfully at Alli and attempted to take a swipe at her from AJ's arms. "You're such a shit, Al."

"But you love me anyway," Alli finished, grinning wildly.

"Don't we all?" Jessi laughed. "I mean, Al, you're the only girl I know that can kick Nick's butt at the video arcade."

Alli laughed. "All you have to do, Jess, is challenge him to a racing game."

"Hey!" Nick hollered in protest. "I'm a good driver!"

Alli arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Carter, you would be a good driver only if it was your first day of driver's ed and you'd never, ever been in a car before."

He groaned. "Okay, so I'm a little reckless."

"A LITTLE reckless?" Alli cried incredulously. "Carter, Bryan Adams named his freaking album after you, okay? Your picture is under 'reckless' in the dictionary, and the example sentence they give deals with driving."

Amanda took up the line of retort and patted Nick on the back in mock consolation. "It's okay, Nicky. Her picture is in the dictionary under 'stupid'."

Nick rolled his eyes a second time. "Um, Amanda, maybe Alli should be coaching YOU on comeback abilities..."

Amanda shook her head and exchanged knowing glances with Alli. "No, seriously. Her picture is in the dictionary under 'stupid'. Next time you're at her apartment, go check it out."

Nick frowned deeply at AJ's significant other. "Amanda, I'm sure I've told you this before, but you're fucking weird, you know that?"

Amanda laughed. "Yeah, I've been told. This time, however, I'm serious. Look at the dictionary."

Jessi turned to Howie with a confused expression. "Okay, why am I getting the feeling that we missed something?"

Howie shrugged. "We probably did. Of course, it could be the fact that, with Nick and Al, it's hard to get anything."

"Speaking of getting things," AJ muttered. "Didn't we agree to meet here so that we could get food?"

"No joke," Nick agreed. "I'm starving, man. I've been chasing Alli all over the park since we split up."

"Now, that I believe," AJ joked with a laugh, and Howie and Jessi had to bite back giggles. Nick's glare did nothing to silence AJ.

"Shut up, man, you know what I meant. That girl is worse than a two-year-old on speed. Hell, she's worse than the Energizer bunny on caffeine. She wants to see EVERYTHING."

"Um, correct me if I'm wrong," Howie interrupted, "but isn't that kinda the idea of coming to the zoo?"

Nick rubbed a tired hand over his face. "Shove it, Howard."

"What are we shoving?"

The grin on Nick's face reappeared instantly at the sound of Brian's voice. "Brian! Dude! How was the tour?"

Brian laughed and poked the exhausted blonde next to him. "Oh, it was enthralling, really suspenseful. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. In fact, it tired Leigh out, she was so caught up in the excitement."

Leighanne managed a groan. "Brian, dear, do us all a favor and..."

Brian clamped a hand over her mouth before an expletive could escape and grinned sheepishly and the other members of their group. "She fell asleep."

Nick's eyebrows hiked high on his forehead. "Wow. That boring, huh?"

Brian laughed. "Worse. I thought we were never going to get off of there. The bus wouldn't start for fifteen minutes, it was delayed by the giraffes--who, I might add, had just taken a shit--and the tour guide most likely overdosed on Prozac during take-off."

Leighanne lifted her head from Brian's shoulder for only a moment, eyes wide. "Oh my gosh, she would NOT shut up..."

Brian shook his head in amusement. "All in all, it was a really worthless experience."

"I'll bet Kevin had a blast," AJ mused, inspiring giggles from his comrades. "Can we get food now?"

"That's kinda where we're headed," Brian agreed. "We're just waiting for Kevin and Kristin. Kevin found the guide 'absolutely fascinating' and 'just HAD to have a word with her'," he finished in a perfect imitation of Kevin's slow speech and southern drawl. Alli fought to control her smile, but Nick was in stitches.

"Oh, God, the poor girl..."

"She's going to need a lot more Prozac whenever Kevy finally takes leave of her," Alli quipped, and the group erupted into laughter again. They continued to battle giggle fits, in fact, until another voice broke through the humor.

"What's so funny?"

The others immediately fell silent and resorted to biting their bottom lips to contain the rest of their amusement. Kristin took one look at the mixed expressions on their faces and sighed heavily.

"Kev, you probably don't want to know. Can we order now?"

Kevin smiled down at his girlfriend. "Absolutely. Didn't you think that lady was fascinating?"

Behind Kevin's back, Brian rolled his eyes at Nick.

"I mean, she knew so much about the was really quite intriguing."

Nick crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue at Brian, mouthing the word "intriguing" around it, and Brian bit back laughter.

"I think they're required to know that much, Kev," Alli interjected. "In fact, there's a process they go through...I think they call it 'briefing'."

Kevin sighed petulantly and furrowed his brow. "Well, I know that. I was just saying...she's really an intelligent girl..."

Brian made a Jim Carrey face at Nick and mouthed the word "intelligent", and Nick clamped a hand over his mouth so that he wouldn't start giggling again.

"Kev, can you PLEASE stop fantasizing about the tour guide so we can eat?" Kristin cried in exasperation. The tone in her voice, combined with the indignant look that Kevin was suddenly sporting was too much for Brian and Nick, however, and the two burst into raucous laughter until they had tears streaming down their faces.

Howie took one look at the two and shook his head. "Well, it looks like Frick and Frack are back in business..."

Nick barely managed a "hell yeah, baby!" in between giggles. Alli quirked an eyebrow and turned to Leighanne.

"Do you know what they're on?"

Leighanne sighed. "I don't know what Nick's deal is, but Brian's a little loopy from being on a bus and listening to Mary Sunshine for the past hour and a half."

Jessi laughed. "Yeah, and Nick's just loopy from channeling Alli for too long. I swear, those two were joined at the hip all morning." She turned to Alli. "I think you guys have a whole other language, because I couldn't understand half the crap you were saying to each other..."

"History," Alli explained with a smile. "We were remembering. We used to come to the zoo together all the time, so we've got a lot of inside jokes that deal with this place."

She had to fight the urge to put a hand to her lips as she mentally ran over her last sentence. Shit, did I really say that about Carter? When did I get all sentimental? And why the hell is my smile so wide?

"Aw, Alli's getting sappy on us," Jessi teased, and Alli grunted.

"Um, no. Alli's just getting delirious from starvation." She yelled the last word in the direction of the others. "Can the members of the Backstreet ADD alliance please try to focus on lunch for a few minutes so I can stop being retarded?"

"Al, you won't ever stop being retarded," Nick shot back, and Alli growled.

"Carter, you're standing in between me and food. Now, the other guys may have an excuse, but I KNOW you know better..." She let her voice trail off and tried to look menacing. Judging by the sudden look of fear on Nick's face, she wasn't doing too terrible a job. He turned around in record time and hollered at the rest of the Backstreet camp.

"Okay, guys, we're eating now. Seriously. If we don't eat food, Alli will eat me."

AJ looked up from his in-depth conversation with Marcus regarding hair-dye products. "Why would that be a bad thing again?"

Alli jumped up behind him to ruffle his hair. "Because he's the cute one! Without Carter here, all of the posters would be distorted and incomplete."

Howie snorted. "I don't know if I'd go that far..."

Nick grinned. "You would. Admit it, Howard. You love me."

Howie looked helplessly at Jessi before turning his glance back to Nick. "I plead the fifth."

"Aw, man, you suck!"

Alli cleared her throat impatiently, her vocabulary having been reduced to a pile of hunger. "Guys. Food. Now."

Nick grinned and grabbed her wrist, pulling her into the line to order so that they could look at the menu. "Oh, look, Al, they have animal-shaped hamburgers!"

Despite the periodic groans coming from her abdomen, she had to smile at her best friend's enthusiasm. She followed his outstretched finger to the illustration advertising the burgers and grinned with Nick. "Oh my gosh! They have polar bears!"

Alli's eyes lit up at the prospect of eating a burger in the shape of her favorite zoo animal, and Nick felt his stomach twist at the sight of her smile. He looked up again, however, when she tugged impatiently on the hem of his shirt.

"Look, Carter, we have to get the kiddie burgers! They come with animal crackers instead of French fries!"

Nick felt his excitement skyrocket, and he had to fight the urge to laugh at himself. He'd spent the entire morning in a blissful absence of awareness, and he was still surrounded by the warmth of Alli's smile and the sun on his back. In a mere five hours, I've become someone who gets all psyched up at the thought of eating burgers shaped like animals. I've become someone who skips up and down the stairs and races my child of a best friend from exhibit to exhibit. And, somehow, I'm okay with that. Damn, what the fuck is wrong with me?

Kristin smiled at Alli from the other side of the woman and tapped her lightly on the shoulder. "Hey, Al, the kiddie meals come in commemorative zoo buckets."

Alli beamed. "Oh, that SO seals the deal. I'm getting a kiddie meal." She turned to Nick with glittering eyes. "How about you, Carter? What meal looks to tickle your fancy?"

Nick burst out laughing at Alli's question. "Man, what the hell got into you?"

Alli made a wacky face. "The zoo, you retard! Now, what do you want to eat? I'm hungry!"

"You just want to make animal noises while you pretend to make your burger hunt your animal crackers."

Alli faked a sheepish smile. "Yeah, you so have me pegged. But you know you want your burger to battle my burger for the title of Supreme Species."

"More like Supreme Shape," Nick retorted, but he had to smile. "Yeah, you're right. Of course, I'm pretty hungry, so I may end up getting two of those kiddie meals."

Suddenly, Alli's jaw dropped and her eyes widened in excitement. "Dude! You can get two different animal shapes!"

As Alli and Nick continued to animatedly discuss their lunch options, Kevin leaned over to Howie.

"I can't believe they're together like this again."

Howie nodded his agreement. "They were like this all morning, too. It's just like old times. Everything is suddenly right in the world of Backstreet, you know?"

Kevin sighed. "Most definitely. As childish as Nick can be, I really did miss this side of him. It's like my little brother just came home for the holidays."

Howie chuckled. "With any luck, he'll stay this way for a good length of time. Alli has this influence over him that's extremely difficult to describe, but very easy to observe. She enters a room, and his whole outlook suddenly changes."

Kevin sucked in a breath, still slightly unwilling to admit just how true Howie's statement was. "So when do you think he's going to tell her how he feels?"

Howie furrowed his brow in thought for a moment before answering. "Honestly? I think he'll do it pretty soon. He's having the time of his life right now, and, knowing Nicky, he's going to want to do everything he can to preserve this."

Kevin nodded slowly. "How do you think she's going to react?"

Howie closed his eyes for a brief period. "Man, I'd really like to believe that everything will turn out okay for Nick's sake, but, in reality? I just don't know. None of us do. We can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

Kevin frowned and turned his steely green gaze on Howie's Latin features. "And you think that's going to be enough to see them through?"

Howie laughed lightly. "It has to be. They don't have another choice."

Finally, Kevin's serious mood gave way to a smile, and the bridge of his nose wrinkled as he giggled at Alli trying to steal Nick's newly acquired animal crackers. "They look good for now. I haven't seen either of them this happy in a long time. They're just as bad as they used to be."

Howie laughed whole-heartedly at that sentiment. "Oh, damn. You think this is bad? You just wait, Kev. By the end of the day, I can guarantee you that they're going to be about ten times worse."

*     *     *     *     *

Howie's assumption proved to be more than correct during the first five minutes of the van ride back to the hotel. Any and all reservations Nick had previous had about acting childish had obviously been thrown out the window, and Alli was taking full advantage of her dorky best friend's return to reality. The two had arrived in the van five minutes late, with a huge bag of lifelike stuffed animals between them and a very amused Billy behind them. The moment they had actually settled down, Alli had grabbed a mixed CD from her purse and stuck it in the player, and she and Nick had been making jokes and singing along ever since. And, of course, they were doing it all very loudly.

Howie rubbed his temples and exchanged exasperated looks with Jessi. He was beginning to get a headache. Not only that, but Alli and Nick were entirely too enthusiastic about the Blues Traveler song that was blaring through the speakers.

Once upon a midnight dreary... **

"Oh, he is SO channeling Edgar Allen Poe!"

Nick burst out laughing. "You think he sees black birds of death too?"

Alli frowned. "Depends. Was he a drug addict?"

Nick shrugged. "Lord only knows...maybe he hears beating hearts too..."

Alli grinned. "Beating broken hearts?"

Nick adopted a sickly sincere expression and twisted his facial features in pain and passion as he began to croon. "I'll never break your heart..."

Alli sniffed, wiping away imaginary tears. "I'll never make you cry..."

Both of them collapsed into sobs that sounded suspiciously like laughter as they embraced and attempted to choke out the next line. "I'd rather die than live without you..." ***

"Someone call the presses," AJ muttered. "Nick suddenly managed to sing his line sharp instead of flat..."

Fortunately for AJ, Nick was far too distracted to respond. "Al, it's the best part!"

The two in the middle seat began to bob their heads to the catchy harmonica tune as they sang to each other in between giggles. "Oh, girl...why you gotta give me the run around? You think that it's a surefire way to speed things up, yeah, but all it does is slow me down..."

Amanda groaned loudly. "Good God, I feel like I'm stuck in a torture chamber with Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber..."

Kevin gave her a doubtful look. "You weren't here to deal with the first five verses of 'I Know A Song That Gets On Everybody's Nerves' before someone finally came and unlocked the bus, lady. I don't want to hear it..."

Kristin rolled her eyes and bit back a chuckle at the perturbed look on Kevin's face. "Melodrama, anyone? Kevin's got enough to go around twice tonight..."

Kevin grimaced at his girlfriend. "Aren't you supposed to be on my side?"

"No, she's still pissed about you being enthralled with the tour guide," Amanda retorted. "Which, by the way, was really fucking sad, Kev."

Brian turned to Leighanne as Kevin began to squabble with AJ's girlfriend. "Okay, on the whole, who do you think is worse? Amanda and Kevin, or Nick and Alli?"

Leighanne rubbed a tired hand over her perfectly-drawn face. "I knew there was a reason I liked being indecisive..."

Jessi laughed. "Looking at them now? I can't decide either. Of course, Nick and Al are smiling, so maybe they're the better choice..."

"That means that they actually delight in our torment," Howie mumbled in anguish. "That should give them negative brownie points."

Jessi arched an eyebrow in her boyfriend's direction as she bit back a smile. "Negative brownie points?"

Howie sighed heavily and dropped his head on Jessi's shoulder. "Give me a break, Jess. My brain hurts, and we've still got another ten minutes in this van."

Leighanne looked up in distress. "Oh, Lordy, please tell me you're kidding."

Howie's laugh was bitter. "Nope."

Leighanne groaned aloud. "Exactly how long is this CD again?"

Brian chuckled. "Too long."

AJ nodded his agreement, having grown bored with watching Amanda spread her claws for Kevin's amusement. "No fucking joke. I'm living in fear of what song comes next."

Brian's ears perked up as "Run-Around" faded into the background and silence ensued for a few precious moments. "Well, you won't be living in fear for too much longer, 'cause it seems to be coming."

Kristin sighed and twirled a finger in the air in false enthusiasm. "Super."

I'm missing your bed, I never sleep
Avoiding the spots where we'd have to speak
And this bottle of beast is taking me home...

Alli's grin widened at the quiet guitar riff and the honest lyrics. "Oh my God, Carter, this is SO your song..."

Nick eyed Alli for a moment before nodding in agreement. "Yeah, you're definitely a bottle of beast..."

Her jaw dropped, and she smacked him for good measure as he began to giggle. "You are such a dork, you know that? Seriously, dude, if you keep that sass up, I might be pushed to just ditch the bottle and stick to the beast part."

Nick nodded thoughtfully. "Oh, you could definitely pull it off. Just, you know, run a brush through your hair and get in touch with your inner Beyoncé, and you might just be able to do it..."

Alli groaned. "This coming from the guy who can break mirrors in the morning..."

Nick grinned charmingly. "Aw, Al, but apparently you still care enough to take me home."

Alli laughed lightly. "Not even I could accomplish that kind of task. Remember, Carter, we never managed to find your species at the zoo today."

Nick fluttered his eyelashes and shrugged his shoulders upwards. "That's 'cause I'm special. I'm one of a kind."

Alli rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Yeah, and thank God for that."

"Hey!" Nick hollered in mock protest, completely oblivious to Howie's widened eyes and his increase in volume. "There happen to be many little girls out there looking to clone me, thank you very much!"

Alli snickered. "Nah, they'd just prefer cloning to reproduction. I mean, if your generation turned out to be this bad, Lord only knows what the next one would turn out like..."

Nick tossed his imaginary locks back in a perfect diva impersonation and stuck his nose in the air, adopting a broken falsetto. "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful!"

AJ groaned. "Can we hate you because you're loud and obnoxious?"

Nick shook his head. "Aw, man, don't be jealous of the fact that I make a lasting impression."

Alli chortled. "Oh, you make an impression, all right. A big, huge dent in everyone's ear drums..."

Nick frowned at her long enough to roll his bottom lip out and quiver his chin. "I feel unloved..."

Alli sighed heavily. "Okay, okay, okay. I guess we only tease because we care..."

Nick's eyes lit up at the prospect. "Really?" he beamed, and Alli couldn't help but laugh at his over-exaggerations.

"Yes, really, dammit. Somehow, you're retarded enough to be charming."

Nick grinned mischievously as he slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Wow, Al, just think...if retarded is charming, you must be fluttering galaxies above the competition."

Alli smiled sarcastically. "Wow, Carter, you're so kind. How do you do it?"

Nick opened his mouth to retort, but Alli immediately shushed him. "Dude, it's the good part! Listen!"

Your hair, it's everywhere
Screaming infidelities

Alli and Nick shared a knowing look before shutting their eyes and turning towards the windows.


Kevin flinched as the scream echoed throughout the van. "Shit, there went my hearing for the afternoon..."

Nick's grin was blindingly bright as he patted Kevin on the back. "It's okay, Kev. I'm sure Alli would be willing to sacrifice her extra brain cells to get you a hearing aid."

Howie looked up with something between a frown and a grimace etched into his Latin features. "Do I even want to know how many inside jokes the two of you have?"

Alli chuckled. "You may want to know, but I sure as hell couldn't tell you, because I don't know them all, and Carter can't count that high."

Nick rolled his eyes. "Gee, Alli, you're just so funny!"
Alli smiled charmingly and batted her eyes at him. "I know." She topped it off with a giggle, and it was all Nick could do not to smile as he prepared his next line.

"Hey, Al, you're wrong, you know."

"About what?"

He smirked at her. "This isn't my song, chica, it's yours."

Alli politely ignored Amanda's shout of "Stop stealing my words!" while she formed a perplexed expression. "How so?"

His smirk became a grin all too quickly as he tried to feign fear. "Well, your's...everywhere..."

He couldn't finish the sentence before he burst into the infamous giggle. Alli only mananged to roll her eyes once before she started laughing as well. "Dude, you'd better be so glad that we're finally at the hotel..."

The others looked up hopefully at the mention of the hotel. The van parked not long afterwards, and Alli could honestly say that she had never seen any of them climb out of any vehicle so quickly. She looked up to Nick with a smile as she retrieved the CD, and he laughed. "What are you thinking, Al?"

She shrugged. "I think we scared them sufficiently today."

Nick sucked in a breath. "Probably right. It's been awhile since we've been that crazy..."

"So they're no longer desensitized," Alli finished, pausing to smile at Billy as they crawled through the back doors to the hotel. "We'll have to change that."

Nick nodded his agreement slowly, and his voice softened. "Yeah, we will." They hurried to the elevator area with Billy flanking them. When they finally arrived at the service elevator, Nick had to laugh.

"Man, we must've scared them, because they took the damn thing without us."

Billy's tone was heavy with sarcasm. "Imagine that..."

Alli looked up at the burly bodyguard with a knowing smile. "Okay, Bill, cut the bullshit. The Boys may have an excuse for being scared, because they haven't really gotten to see Nick and I being Nick and I in awhile, but you have no excuse whatsoever. You used to chaperone us when we were younger, and I know for a fact that we aren't half as bad as we used to be."

Billy clucked his tongue, shaking his head slowly. "I don't know..." he trailed off, almost singing the words. The smile on his face, however, said otherwise, and Alli grinned.

"So you can honestly say that you didn't miss me while Carter was playing man-whore for the last month and a half of the last leg of the tour?"

Billy laughed. "Okay, you've got me there. I did miss having company."

Alli turned her triumphant grin on Nick, who was trying hard to stifle his own smile. "See? Even your bodyguard loves me. I'm irresistible!"

"And yet you've still got absolutely nothing on Jessica Simpson," Nick retorted with a good-natured grin, and Alli sighed.

"Oh, please. That girl? She wouldn't know a sex joke if it bit her in the butt..."

"She might know it if it bit her in a few other places," Nick mused, and Alli grimaced.

"Okay, mental images are a negative. I do NOT want those kinds of pictures in my head, Carter..."

Nick smiled a cheesy smile her way. "You're welcome, Al!" For good measure, he ruffled her curls a bit, and he had to bit back a chuckle as she bristled beneath his fingers.

"Man, not the hair...I haven't done anything to warrant that yet..."

Billy sighed. "Nick, her hair may be everywhere, but it looks like you're the one responsible."

Alli's pout quickly became a mask of horror. "Oh, shit...Carter, we're rubbing off on Billy..."

Before Billy or Nick could come up with a satisfactory retort, however, the elevator doors opened and the three were forced to trek to their designated rooms. Billy waved good-bye as the other two continued to bicker, and they playfully argued and teased their way to the door of Nick's suite.

"Well, look, Carter, it's your stop."

Nick wiggled his eyebrows at her. "It could be your stop too, you know."

Alli flinched. "Whoa, someone missed Charm 101..."

Nick made a funny face. "Okay, so I skipped a few classes to go to the zoo."

"I'm sure the teacher will praise you for that lovely display of maturity."

Nick grinned. "Nah, I'll just tell her that I was fascinated by the intelligence of the tour guide and absolutely had to stay for another ride around the park..."

He trailed off, and the two shared a laugh over Kevin's ridiculous fascination. "He is such a moron."

Alli nodded. "No joke, man. With any luck, Kristin will have him sleeping on the couch tonight, and we won't have to hear another word about Mary Sunshine for the rest of eternity."

Nick arched an eyebrow. "You're planning on staying around all of this craziness for the rest of eternity?"

Alli chuckled. "I was thinking about it..."

He smiled slowly. "You realize that plan does involve another movie night with me, right?"

Alli flinched. "Really? Damn..."

He rolled his eyes good-naturedly and swatted her as he opened the door. "Seriously, chick, come join me. I'm going to be all lonely, 'cause you got me all hyped up now. It's your job to wind me down."

Alli's eyebrows hiked high on her forehead. "Oh, really? And where is that in the best friend job description?"

Nick clucked his tongue is disapproval. "Gosh, Al, didn't you read the fine print?"

"Shit. I knew I missed something..."

Nick laughed at her lack of acting skills. "Girl, even your sarcasm sounds tired. Do you honestly think you're going to be able to make it to your room without passing out in the hallway?"

Alli pretended to ponder the thought for a brief moment, then made a face. "Lead me to the video collection..."

He grinned triumphantly, blue eyes bright beneath his mop of blonde hair. "I knew you'd see things my way! Go crash on the bed, and I'll be in with popcorn in a sec." He eyed her suspiciously. "Can I trust you not to pick out the cheesiest chick flick offered on the satellite system?"

Alli sighed heavily. "I guess so..."

Nick chuckled lightly and reached out to pat her on the head affectionately. "Okay, then. Run in and go set up the movie. I'm right behind you."

He stuck a bag of popcorn in the microwave and smiled to himself as it popped. If he leaned against the counter casually and tilted his head a little to the left, he could see Alli crawling up onto the bed in his room. Her red hair was bouncing with her every movement, and he could faintly hear her talking to herself while she searched for the television remote. Just the thought of her goofiness made him smile, and he was soon shaking his head in amusement while the microwave went off. Damn, I know that she's three years older than I am, but there are days where you'd never be able to tell. Of course, I was just as big of a goof today as she was. He had to laugh as he poured the popcorn into plastic bowl that they had bought in the last city. Fuck the façade, though. It was fun. God, it was fun. I haven't been that happy in a long time...

At that thought, he stopped in the doorway of his bedroom and watched Alli for a moment. She was propped up against the pillows, completely enthralled in whatever movie she had chosen, and the light from the television was bouncing off of her face and her curls in a way that made her truly beautiful. Nick sighed quietly, and he could feel his heart swelling in his chest as his smile bloomed.

She made me that happy. Being with her, joking with her, just hanging out with her the way we always have...that made me happy. Just being with her makes me feel like smilingand good God, I sound like a fucking Hallmark card. But did I miss that?

He had spent the entire day in a sense of euphoria. Something about being with Alli in a place that held so many memories made it okay for him to shed his cracked skin and be the boy that he still was underneath the masks he'd worn over the past few months. Somewhere beneath the colder exterior had been a thousand smiles that he hadn't known he was capable of, and the sunshine felt so much lighter with Alli next to him. She knew him so completely that it was almost easier for him to be himself in front of her, and he knew that there was much to be said for the fact that she could break him. Somehow, even when he was the epitome of the weakness and immaturity that he loathed, her smile could make him feel like the most brilliant person to walk the earth. The whole day, amidst the jokes and the flirting and the memories and the immaturity that made them the best of friends, he had been warmed, inside and out, just by her smile and the sparkle in her eyes. It was as though his entire perception of himself could change for the better based solely on the way that she looked at him. Because I love her. Because her opinion matters that fucking much. Because she makes me feel like I don't need to be tall, strong, and stoic to be a man. Because, in her eyes, I'm already all that I need to be, and that's enough.

Shit. She doesn't even know, and I'm already in too deep.

"Am I drooling or something? I mean, I know that it's Brad Pitt, but I'm trying really, really hard not to drool..."

Stunned halfway out of his reverie, Nick looked up with a surprised countenance before frowning in confusion. "What?"

When his eyes finally focused, he was greeted with Alli's trademark smirk. "You were staring."

Realization dawned, and he laughed. "Sorry, I didn't notice. I was just thinking about how much fun we all had today."

Alli arched an eyebrow, and one corner of her mouth went slightly higher than the other. "Despite your unrelenting protests at the start of the morning?"

His laugh died to a chuckle, and he rubbed the back of his neck so that she couldn't see him blushing. "Yeah, despite that. It really did turn out to be an awesome day." He sighed. "I'd forgotten how much fun the zoo can be."

Alli smiled softly, which was a rarity in itself. "Well, we definitely used to have a lot of fun there."

Nick gave her a doubtful smirk. "Used to? Try still do."

Alli's soft smile became a full-fledged grin. "Yeah, it's nice to know that we can still have that kind of fun, isn't it?"

Nick nodded. "More than you know, Al. I didn't realize quite how much I missed that until we actually started running around like the morons we are. I don't think my smile faltered all day."

"Mine either," Alli laughed. "Unless, of course, it gave way to a smirk..." She trailed off and managed a somewhat guilty look, making Nick laugh with her. "Seriously, though, I missed it too. It's been way too long since we did something stupid like that."

Nick's fingers found her hand and tightened around it gently as he looked up at her with imploring eyes. "Let's not wait that long again, okay? We have too much fun together to wait that long..."

Alli smiled down at their hands entwined, remembering all of the times they'd shared growing up, and she bit back a soft giggle before responding. "That we do." Her gray eyes glittered in the dim light of the light and the blue-ish glow of the television, and she smirked. "But we'll always be friends, right Carter?"

Suddenly, he was seven again and she was ten, and they were seated in the dirt of the flower bed, tickling and teasing each other with impish grins. He could remember so many times over the years that the same phrases had come up, and he almost hated himself for his inability to say them of late. But now is my chance, right? Now I can prove to her that I can be that guy that she thinks I am, that guy that I'm so fucking scared to be again.
One look at the warmth in her eyes, and he had never wanted anything so badly in his entire life.

Carefully, painstakingly, he swallowed the lump in his throat and managed the shy, sincere smile that had once been his trademark.

"Always friends, always more, right?"

Upon hearing the phrase that had been a landmark in their childhood, Alli laughed out loud, all thoughts of Brad Pitt completely forgotten. "Aw, man, you can't possibly mean that. We were so goofy back then! Hell, I can't believe you still remember that..."

But he did.

All day, despite his full-wattage smile and his ever-present humor, it had been there, lurking like a shadow over a perfect sunrise. Even when his stomach was shaking with laughter, the feeling was sitting in the bottom, eating away at him. He could smile and laugh and be the friend that he'd so missed being for her, but he couldn't deny that he felt more than that. He couldn't deny that he thrived on each smile that she directed at him, each witty comeback that she tossed in his direction and each of the famous eye-rolls that made her Alli. Somewhere along the line, she had come to mean more to him than he'd ever cared to acknowledge, yet, in the darkness of the evening and the dim light of the past, it was suddenly all too clear. And he knew then that there was no turning back, because he couldn't ignore it any longer. He needed more than the friendly punches on the shoulder and the incriminating jokes that they both knew were all in fun. He needed more than the nights where they fell asleep to the sound of the silver screen and the afternoons they spent having deep, intellectual discussions that they could only have with each other. Furthermore, he needed her to know all of that. God, I'm actually going to do it. I'm actually going to take that step and fucking change everything that I worked so hard to get back to good. I'm willing to fuck all of this up just because I think that we could hold each other a bit tighter every night. Am I nuts? Is this the right thing to do?

Of course, by then, he'd already started it. He'd already given himself a glimpse of the way things could be. As though to seal the deal, the kiss on New Year's Eve ran through his head, and his lips suddenly tingled with the memory.

*Shit. I'm really going to do this.*

His smile was tentative, and his laugh sounded far too nervous to his sensitive ears. His eyes dropped to the covers and landed on their hands, and he sighed. "Oh, I remember." With a strength he didn't think he had, his blue orbs rose to meet her pools of gray. "And I really do mean it, Al." He took a deep breath before delivering the final blow. Hell, Carter, it's now or never...

"I love you."

The image that greeted him then was not something he would soon forget.

He could pinpoint the exact moment when the comfortable contentment in her eyes burned into a bright fear, the exact moment when her lips fell from a smile into a perfect "o" of surprise. Later, he would remember the way her hand began shaking in his and the way her slow, easy breathing became instantly quick and shallow. Finally, her teeth gripped her bottom lip, and his stomach dipped to his feet.

He knew what she was going to say even before she said it.
My God, she's going to run...

He had never heard her voice shake quite so much as it did that moment.

"I...I..." And then, finally, her eyes rose to meet his again, and they closed briefly before her brow wrinkled in hopelessness. "Nick, I'm sorry...I can't do this..."

His eyes fell to the bedsheet then, and he didn't see her leave. Instead, he felt the absence of her weight on the bed beside him and heard her quick, sharp footsteps just before the slamming of the door.

Only then did he notice that she had called him Nick again, and his heart constricted painfully with the realization of what had just passed and what was to come. God, I didn't even have time to feel free...

And, with that thought, his smile finally faltered.

"Eternal Flame"
lyrics and music by the Bangles
* "Tell Me That I'm Dreaming"
lyrics and music by Max Martin (I think)
performed by the Backstreet Boys
** "Run-Around"
lyrics and music by Blues Traveler
*** "I'll Never Break Your Heart"
performed by the Backstreet Boys
lyrics and music by some random producers with bad grammar
**** "Screaming Infidelities"
lyrics and music by Dashboard Confessional