Bed of Roses
Chapter Forty-One
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

You and I got something
But it's all and then it's nothing to me, yeah
And I got my defenses
When it comes to your intentions for me, yeah
And we wake up in the breakdown
Of the things we never thought we could be, yeah
I'm not the one who broke you
I'm not the one you should fear
What you got to move you darling?
I thought I lost you somewhere
But you were never really ever there at all

With a large sigh, he heaved the last suitcase onto the platform under the bus and groaned aloud. When the loud thud of the bag against the metal reached his ears, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, wiping his brow with the palm of his hand. The service elevator had broken sometime during the night, and as opposed to taking the public elevator like the rest of the crew, he had opted for the stairs in hopes of avoiding a few of the hundred fans waiting outside the front door and in the lobby of the hotel. However, as usual, his plan had backfired. Not only had he run into a group of ten screaming girls, but he'd also had to lug a thirty-pound suitcase down seven flights of stairs.

Needless to say, the youngest Backstreet Boy was not a particularly happy camper that morning. He wanted nothing more than to erase his little confession and attempt to make peace with Alli during the nine-hour bus ride to the next city. He wouldn't mind sleeping a bit either, but he wasn't exactly counting on it.

Rolling his eyes in exasperation, he stepped onto the bus and gave a half-hearted nod to the driver, who tipped his cap.

"Nick! How's it going?"

Nick laughed hollowly. "It's going."

The driver frowned. "Bad morning?"

Nick exhaled slowly. "Yeah, something like that. Are Bri and Leigh on board yet?"

The driver winked at him. "You mean Brileigh? Yeah, it's on the bus."

Nick almost cracked a smile at the comment. About a day after he and Alli began sharing a bus with Brian and Leighanne, Alli had protested that the two of them were too attached to be two separate people. As a result, she'd begun to teasingly call them Brileigh, and both the bus driver and the bodyguards had picked up the habit. He shook his head at the memory of Brian's face when he'd first heard the nickname. Eventually, the couple just thought it was cute.

After all, Alli was always doing things like that, and they had most likely grown used to it, just as Nick had. The thought of Alli finally brought a tiny upward curve at either corner of his mouth, and he trudged to the back room to see if she had arrived yet. Once he reached the area, he opened the door swiftly and scanned the room. His heart fell when he saw Brian and Leighanne nestled together on the couch, watching the morning news from the television. The door hit the opposite wall from the force of his swing, however, and Leighanne looked up at the noise. When she saw Nick in the doorframe, a tentative smile illuminated her soft, southern features.

"Hey, Nicky."

Brian looked up as soon as his fiancée spoke, and his blue eyes sparkled when at the sight of his best friend. "Frack! Hey, man, come join us. We're watching the latest on Britney and the Boobies tour 2000..."

He offered a half-hearted chuckle in response, too bothered by Alli's absence to acknowledge the fact that Leighanne had called him "Nicky". "Hey, guys. I'd love to, but I'm on a bit of a mission. You two don't happen to know where Al is, do you?"

Brian's grin faded slightly, and Leighanne's bottom lip caught under her top teeth. "Ummm..."

The two of them exchanged nervous glances, and Nick fought the
urge to roll his eyes.


Some unknown message passed between the couple, and Leighanne turned to Nick with an uncertain expression. "You didn't hear?"

The deep breath Nick had taken in hopes of calming himself down quickly came tumbling out of him. "Hear what?"

Leighanne's brow furrowed. "Well, Nicky...Al kinda switched buses this morning. She said she had plans to bond with Jessi, Howie, Amanda, and AJ..."

Leighanne didn't even get the chance to finish her sentence before Nick sprinted out of the back room and down the middle aisle of the bus. He didn't even bother to call "thanks" over his shoulder as he ran down the steps. With a grimace, Leighanne turned to face Brian.

"He didn't look real happy about that."

Brian groaned. "Something happened between the two of them last night after we went to our rooms."

Leighanne's frown deepened. "You think?"

Brian nodded. "Yeah, definitely. They're both way too tense this morning. And it isn't like Al to randomly switch buses in the middle of the tour."

Leighanne sighed. "Maybe she really did want to bond with Jessi, Howie, Amanda, and AJ. I mean, she and Manda have always been good friends..."

Brian arched an eyebrow doubtfully in her direction. "Leigh, come on. You don't really believe that, do you?"

Leighanne rubbed a carefully manicured hand over her eyes. "I don't want to believe anything else. The other option isn't really a pretty one, agreed?"

Brian snorted. "Yeah, well, that depends on what you think the other option is."

Leighanne gave her fiancé a pointed look. "And what do you think it is?"

Brian sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. "Honestly? I think he told her he loved her and she ran. Nothing else could possibly bother Alli to the point that she'd move out of the bus."

Leighanne nodded. "My thoughts exactly. And, in that case, you realize we're going to have one miserable Nicky on the bus, right?"

Brian laughed lightly. "I'm more worried about the eventual outcome of his relationship with Alli than I am in his attitude for the next few days. This one isn't just a crush, Leigh. For once in his life, I think Frack has found a girl that he could share the rest of his life with, and he just placed the ball in her court. Given how much Alli hates any kind of change, that's a big risk on his part."

Leighanne sucked in a breath. "Do you think he's willing to wait for her?"

Brian shook his head slowly before leveling Leighanne with a solemn gaze. "If he loves her as much as he says he does, he's going to have to be."

*      *      *      *      *

Nick's heart thundered in his chest as his feet hit the pavement in a steady, even rhythm. He wasn't even sure if one of the bodyguard had followed him out--he just knew that he needed to get to Alli. If she really was switching buses, then the night before had obviously had a big effect on her, and he didn't want tension between the two of them. He didn't particularly like the thought of her on another bus, either.

For that reason, his eyes narrowed to slits when he caught her loading a suitcase onto the bottom of AJ and Howie's bus. "Al! Wait up!"

She didn't have to look up from her work to know that Nick was coming towards her. She'd know his voice anywhere. However, she glanced up long enough to acknowledge him, and then turned back to the suitcase that wouldn't seem to budge. Before she could get a good grip on the handle, he was next to her.

"Here, let me get that." His fingers brushed her hand as he took the suitcase from her, sweeping it onto the platform with ease. "There, now you've got a suitcase on a bus, and you can come back and join us."

She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to maintain her composure. Alli was a confrontational person by nature, but the idea of confronting Nick, especially after his confession the night before, was not exactly her idea of a fun way to start the morning. Of course, the way the soft scent of his cologne caressed her and the way his chest was just barely tickling her back was making it difficult to think at all. They're all right. It's been way too long since I've had a boyfriend if I'm getting this worked up over nothing. "Look, Nick..."

He flinched visibly at the name. If she was calling him "Nick", the damage was obviously worse than he could possibly imagine. "What, Al?"

When her gray eyes finally reached his blue ones, she looked defeated, and the sight made him hurt. God, it's not supposed to be like this...

"Did Leigh not tell you?"

He sighed, trying to keep his temper in check. "Tell me what?"

She sighed in turn, running a hand as far through her reddish locks as it would go before getting stuck in her curls. "I'm not exactly riding on your bus anymore."

His boyish features registered surprise. "Anymore"? Shit, this is final? Is she out of her mind? Dammit, I knew I shouldn't have said anything to her. She probably spent the whole night ignoring it, but she's already about to break. He cleared his throat softly. "Really?" He had to fight the urge to shake his head, because it was taking monumental effort on his part not to lash out and start screaming at her.

Her shoulders rose and fell as another sigh came and went. "Yeah, really. Seeing Leigh and Bri attached at the hip like that was starting to get to me, and I need to bond with Amanda and AJ some anyway."

"And you need to ignore what happened last night," he said expectantly, folding his arms over his chest. He was angrier than he was upset, and he was having more trouble than he expected in concealing his frustration. His eyebrow rose as she flinched, and he realized that his tone had probably been more aggressive than it should have been.

"Yeah, that too."

He nodded. "So you were going to let Leigh tell me all of this?"

Her eyes closed again, and she fell back against the side of the bus, her hair hiding her face from view. "Well..."

He clucked his tongue in disapproval. "I've never known you to be a chickenshit, Al."

She immediately moved away from the bus, and he inwardly cheered at having stirred a reaction in her. When her eyes met his, he had to fight the urge to smile. "Dammit, Nick...I'm not being a chickenshit, okay? Whether or not she told you, I'm not riding on that bus right now."

His shoulders relaxed. "So this isn't going to be a permanent thing?"

She shot him a pointed look. "Is this newfound crush of yours going to be a permanent thing?"

The expression that resulted was somewhere between angry and hurt. "Al, that's not fair, and you know it."

She shook her head, her curls traipsing from side to side as she did so. "No, Nicky," she sneered. "What you pulled last night wasn't fair, and expecting me to act like everything's okay is even less fair."

His eyes widened at her angry countenance. "Look, Al, last night was plenty fair. You and I don't keep secrets, and last night was me being honest. If you can't handle that, that's not my fault."

Alli rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well...we may not be surreptitious people, but, shit, Nick. You don't throw words like that around, okay? Especially not where your best friend is concerned."

Nick raised his chin defiantly. "Al, if you know me well enough to be a best friend, then you should know that I wouldn't throw words like that around."

Alli groaned. "And what exactly do you know about love, Nick? You spent all last year catering to lust, yeah, but I don't understand how any of that taught you anything about real matters of the heart."

"Maybe you don't have to learn about stuff like that," he insisted. "Maybe it's something that you come to realize when the time is right."

Alli snorted. "You need to reset your body clock, then, dude, because last night the time was seriously wrong."

Nick sighed heavily. "Look, Alli, what I said last night was something that needed to be said, and I'm not at all sorry for saying it. I'm sorry that you're pissed, but I'm not sorry that I told you how I felt."

Alli chortled. "Nick, you don't know what the hell you feel. There are days where I wonder if you feel at all."

He cast a nasty look in her direction. "I must be rubbing off on you, then, because you're being a bitch right now."

Alli's hands flew to her hips so that she wouldn't be tempted to smack him. "Oh, well, shit. My best friend had the courtesy last night to inform me that he's in love with me, and I don't really think he's got the first clue about what love really is. Forgive me if I'm not vying for the Miss Congeniality crown this morning. I'm not exactly up to Mary Sunshine caliber just yet."

For some reason, he was more hurt than angry all of a sudden. "Al, you're not being fair. I think that, deep down, everyone knows what love is. I know my track record hasn't been great lately, but..." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair again before looking up at her with pleading eyes. His tone softened a good deal. "Look, Al, you really are my best friend. I care about you a lot, and I wouldn't dare spring something on you unless I knew for sure that I mean it."

Alli nodded. "Oh, I have no doubt that you think you mean it. I'm just not sure if you're mistaking love for lust again."

Nick frowned. "You know me better than that. I told you New Year's Day, and I meant it--I'm done with meaningless sex."

Alli's eyes moved skyward. "Oh, well, hell, the sex must be much more meaningful if you're fucking your best friend, right?"

All of the patience that Nick had been trying to conserve flew out the window at that point. "What the fuck are you talking about?! When have I ever said anything to you about sex?!"

Alli shrugged. "Never that I know of. However, if you've been hiding a crush from me all this time, what's to say that you haven't got more shit up your sleeve that I don't know about?"

Nick shook his head. "That's not fair."

Alli's arms flew from her waist, flailing out to make her point as she mimicked him. "That's not fair, that's not fair, that's not fair..." She shook her head. "Dammit, Nick, YOU'RE not being fair! You expect me to take this with the greatest of ease, the greatest absence of skepticism, and to welcome you into heart and home with open arms, but you spent all of last year pushing me away. THAT'S not fucking fair, okay?" She heaved a deep breath, shocked by the rage that seemed to send her into overdrive. "Look, I don't know what you feel or what you think you feel or whatever the hell you're so intent upon getting me to see, but I can't do this right now. I'm sorry if you think I'm being a chickenshit, and I'm sorry if you're pissed, but I cannot sit on that fucking bus with you and fucking Brileigh and act like nothing's wrong."

For a moment, the two of them stood facing each other with blazing eyes as their chests rose and fell quickly with heated breaths. The face-off was silent, though, with both of them searching the other's eyes for any sign of weakness or any lack of sincerity. Finally, Nick heaved one last sigh and his eyes fell to the ground before he met her gaze again, his countenance solemn.


Alli's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Fine?"

He nodded. "Yeah, fine. I'm sorry that you think something's wrong, and I'm sorry that you're too afraid of whatever there is between us to keep living on my bus, but there's not a hell of a lot that I can do about it."

Alli sighed, and her eyes began to look apologetic. "Look, Nick, I'm not deserting you, okay? I just think you need some time to think."

Nick laughed hollowly. "I don't need any time to think, Al. It's not going to go away, okay? I'm still going to feel this way about you when we get off these buses in the next city, and I'll still feel the same way whenever we load them again. Love doesn't fade."

Alli nodded. "You're right. Love doesn't fade, but crushes do, and I'm just going to wait this one out and give you some space to deflate."

Nick groaned. "Good God, Al, don't insult me. This isn't a crush, okay?"

"You don't know that."

Nick arched an eyebrow. "Oh, yes I do. You're just scared shitless that I might be right."

Alli shook her head. "Nick, if you're really in love with me, then that changes everything."

Nick looked down at her with dark blue eyes and hi hand unknowingly reached for hers long enough to squeeze her fingers lightly. The gesture was playful, but his eyes radiated sincerity. "It doesn't have to."

Something about the genuine tone in his voice and the seriousness in his eyes scared Alli more than she cared to admit, and she backed away quickly, shaking her head. "Nick, no, okay? I can't do this right now. We need time apart."

What little patience he had with her had already run out. "Time apart to do what, Al? I don't need time because I know where I stand. If there's someone who needs time, it's you, so don't fucking pin this all on me."

Alli rolled her eyes. "Fine. I need time. I don't know what to think, and being around you when you're like this isn't helping me figure anything out."

Nick sighed in exasperation. "Maybe because you're not supposed to figure anything out! Maybe you're just supposed to feel, Al. Dammit, it doesn't always have to be about logic!"

Alli's gray eyes blazed. "Maybe not, dumbass, but it does have to make sense, and this..." she gestured wildly at the two of them and their surroundings, "isn't making a lot of fucking sense right now!"

It was Nick's turn to roll his eyes. "Al, for God's sake, forget about things making sense right now! Just look at me, okay?"

She obliged with a pointed look and an arched eyebrow. "I'm looking."

Somehow, he managed to conjure up the earlier look of sincerity, and his voice grew soft and soothing. "Do you trust me?"

Alli sucked in a breath. When she spoke, her voice was equally as soft. "Right now? No, I don't, because I can't, and that scares me more than anything."

With that, she turned on her heel and ran up the stairs and into the other bus.

*      *      *      *      *

"She's gone. I'm going to sleep."

As soon as he came, he was gone, and Leighanne looked to Brian in confusion. "What was that, exactly?"

Brian sighed heavily. "I think that was Nick."

Leighanne nodded slowly. "And I take it that 'she' is Alli?"

Brian made a face. "Yeah, probably. And I take it from his need to disappear really quickly that the talk with her didn't go so well, 'cause she's nowhere around."

Leighanne shrugged. "She could just be sleeping at the front of the bus..."

Brian chuckled. "Right...someone's a fan of wishful thinking this morning."

Leighanne smiled sheepishly. "Can you blame me? We've all waited so long to see them get together."

"And it looks like we're going to have to exercise a bit more of that patience," Brian finished, sitting up. "Anyway, I think I'm going to head up to the front of the bus and see if I can get Nick to tell me something about what's going on."

Leighanne stretched and nodded her agreement. "Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Do you want help or no?"

He looked at her apologetically. "I think he and I should probably make this one a guy talk. He doesn't exactly seem to be in the best of sorts, and I'm not exactly sure what he'll say about Alli..."

Leighanne laughed as she stood. "Bri, you don't have to explain it to me, okay? I'm fine with it...this gives me a chance to take a nap without being distracted by a certain someone..." She trailed off and shot a pointed look in his direction.

Brian had the decency to blush, even as he winked at her. "Aw, but Leigh, I thought you liked being distracted."

Leighanne shook her head. "You're quite a handful, Mr. Littrell."

Brian grinned mischievously. "And don't I know it."

Leighanne's eyes widened in surprise. "Brian! Quit hanging out with AJ! He's starting to rub off on you, honey, and it doesn't suit you in the slightest..."

His response was drowned by his laughter. Leighanne merely rolled her eyes and kissed his forehead. "I'm going to take a nap, you nut."

Brian smiled cheekily up at her. "Okay. Sleep sweet."

She chuckled. "Thanks. Good luck with Nicky."

The smile faded slightly from Brian features. "Thanks, I'll need it."

Unfortunately, Brian fell asleep before he could have his talk with Nick, and so he was forced to corner the younger man in the back room later that day. When he walked in, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Nick was playing Playstation rather aggressively in the middle of the floor, legs out in front of him as he fought to kill his latest opponent.

"Dammit, why won't you just fucking DIE?!"

Brian flinched at the aggression in his friend's voice. "Uh, Frack?"

Nick paused the game for a moment and looked up. "Oh, hey, Bri." That said, he grabbed the control and turned back to his game, pelting the monster onscreen with a number of weird, bluish fireballs. "Take that, shithead!"

Brian, who was too tired to be especially patient, rolled his eyes at Nick's enthusiasm. "Hey, Nick, can we talk?"

"Yeah, just a sec. I'm almost through with this sucker."

Brian coughed pointedly. "Well, uh, actually, now would be good."

The sounds of burning metal echoed through the room as the character on the screen fell into a pit of burning lava, and Nick smiled in satisfaction. When the second battle came up, he paused the game again and turned to face his friend. "Sure thing, man. What's up?"

Brian laughed nervously and sat down on the couch, trying to make himself comfortable. "Well, actually, I was planning to ask you the same question. What happened this morning?"

The neutral expression on Nick's face quickly became an ugly frown. "Oh, that. Nothing."

Brian arched his eyebrow skeptically. "That frown doesn't look like nothing."

Nick sighed. "B, it was nothing, okay? Shit happens."

Brian nodded his agreement. "Exactly. What shit happened this morning?"

Nick snorted. "More like what shit happened last night."

Brian exhaled slowly, fighting his smile at the fact that he was finally getting somewhere. "Okay, then. What shit happened last night?"

Nick sighed again and ran a hand cautiously through his blonde locks. "I told Al how I felt."

Brian leaned towards his friend, propping his elbows up on his knees. "Which is?"

Nick gave Brian a weird look in response. "Gee, I dunno...I love her?"

Brian had suspected that Nick had said something to Alli, but suspecting it and hearing it proved to be two different things entirely as his eyebrows rose in surprise. "You told her that you loved her?"

"Love her," Nick corrected with a sigh. "And, yeah, I told her."

Brian cocked his head to the side expectantly, knowing that Nick wouldn't explain any further unless prodded. "And how did she react?"

Nick let out a bitter laugh. "Well, see, that's the thing, Frick--she didn't."

Brian frowned in confusion. "How could she not react?"

Nick shrugged. "Well, she basically said that she 'couldn't do this right now' and walked out."

Brian groaned. "So she ignored it."


His brow furrowed. "Is that why she moved onto Amanda and AJ's bus?"

Nick rolled his eyes in frustration. "Probably. She wasn't exactly thrilled at the idea of us as a couple."

Brian's eyebrows rose. "I thought you said she didn't react?"

Nick frowned at the memory of that morning. "We talked whenever I found her at AJ's bus."

Brian's surprise was clearly evident. "You talked?"

Nick laughed again, a hollow sound. "Well, we had words. Al wasn't exactly in the mood for decent conversation. Long and short of it, she told me that she thought I was bullshitting her, and I told her I was serious. She said I need time to think about it, and she's going to keep her distance until I figure things out."

Brian gave Nick a perplexed look. "But I thought you had figured things out..."

Nick shrugged again. "I did, but whatever. She doesn't like the idea, so it's not like I have much of a choice."

At that, Brian's jaw fell open, and he stared at his friend in complete disbelief. "So that's it? You're just going to give up on her?"

Nick sighed. "Well, Frick, I don't really have much of a choice. I don't want to lose her, and she's not willing to give her and I a shot to be us, so..."

"So you're just going to give up," Brian finished. "That's stupid, Nick."

Nick finally whirled to face his friend, blue eyes blazing angrily. "How the hell is that stupid, Bri? I don't fucking have a choice! I don't want to lose her over something this ridiculous, and that's what this seems to be coming down to."

Brian snorted. "Right, so you back down. Nick, if you love her as much as you say you do, you're not going to be able to sit on your feelings just so you can make her comfortable again. That's retarded."

"You're retarded," Nick shot back, folding his arms over his chest. He knew that he probably looked like a two-year-old throwing a hissy fit, but he was too perturbed at that moment to care.

Brian shot Nick a pointed look. "Okay, step out of kindergarden for a second and join me in the land of maturity, would you?" Nick rolled his eyes, but his gaze eventually fell on Brian, and the older man was satisfied enough to continue. "Look, man, if you give up on her that easily, you're just proving her right. You're proving to her that you really don't love her as much as you think you do." Nick opened his mouth to protest, but Brian held up a hand to halt him. "I know she's being a bit of a bitch about it right now, but if you really love her, you won't give her up that easily. Don't prove her right, prove her wrong."

Nick chortled. "Prove her wrong? Yeah, Frick, that's funny. A lot fucking easier said than done."

Brian shrugged. "Then lose her and lose your chance at having the first girl you've really loved in a long time, but don't expect the rest of us to feel sorry for you."

Nick shook his head. "Easy for you to say, man. You didn't see how pissed she was this morning."

Brian chuckled bitterly. "Oh, I can imagine. Nick, she's scared, okay? That's how she's dealing with it right now. She's giving you space, but she's also giving herself space so that she won't have to think about it. Your job is to make her think about it."

Nick's bitter laugh matched Brian's exactly. "Right. Piss her off even further so that she decides not to speak to me anymore!" The false enthusiasm faded from his sarcastic smile and he shot Brian a doubtful look. "Brilliant plan, dumbass."

Brian shook his head. "No, seriously, hear me out. If she thinks about it, then she'll consider it, but if you let her ignore your feelings for her, things are never going to change between you two."

"But that's what she wants!" Nick cried incredulously, throwing his arms in the air. "My hands are tied, Bri! There's not a fucking thing I can do right now because the ball's in her court."

Brian shrugged again. "So persuade her to start playing, Frack. You may not have any power over her actions, but you do have a bit of influence."

Nick arched an eyebrow skeptically in his friend's direction. "Do you really think she wants things to change between us?"

Brian laughed hollowly. "Nicky, I think she's scared shitless. She doesn't know what the hell she wants right now, and running keeps her from having to decide."

Nick snorted at the thought. "Gee, super. And I'm the one who's immature?"

"We all do immature stuff sometimes. Give Al a chance to think about things, okay? I mean, hell, Frack, you sprang this on her last night. You're not exactly going to get immediate results, here."

Suddenly, all traces of anger faded to insecurity and Nick looked down at his hands. His voice was soft and uncertain when he spoke, but the sincerity in his eyes made Brian's heart constrict. "Frick, do you really think there's a chance that she feels the same way?"

Brian smiled wryly. "Nick, if I didn't think there was a chance, I would've told you a long time ago to leave her alone."

Nick's eyes lit up hopefully. "So I've still got a chance?"

Brian laughed. "Nick, this is Al. You should know by now...when it comes to Al, you've always got a chance."

Nick looked doubtful for a moment. "Even if she's pissed?"

Brian rolled his eyes. "Yes, Nick. Even if she's pissed. Just prove to her that things could be better than they are now. Show her that you care, not that you're willing to relinquish everything because she's not comfortable right now."

Nick sighed, and his hand found a path through his hair again as he exhaled uncertainly. "You're telling me to push her."

"No," Brian disagreed with a twinkle in his eyes. "I'm telling you to pull her. There's a difference."

Nick heaved another sigh before nodding slowly. "Okay."

Brian's expression was somewhere between confused and apprehensive. "Okay?"

Nick nodded again. "Okay. I'll give it a shot."

Brian chuckled. "And why's that, Frack."

Nick smiled gently. "Because you're right, man. She's worth it."

*      *      *      *      *

With a melodramatic sigh of annoyance, Amanda dropped her magazine on the table in the back room and arched an expectant eyebrow in Alli's direction. "Okay, enough. I've been understanding, I've been silent, and I've even been fucking considerate of boundaries and whatever, but everyone has a limit. Now, what the hell is up?"

Jessi, who had been perched on the floor cutting photographs together, looked up with her brow furrowed in concern. "Yeah, Al, what's going on? I mean, it's awesome having you on the bus with us, but I get the feeling that there's more to this than a sudden need for Backstreet bonding."

At the concerned tone in Jessi's voice, Alli sighed heavily from the couch and set her book on the table, being sure to mark her place. She could handle ignoring Amanda because the woman was nosy by nature, but when Jessi began prying, it was time to speak up. "Well..."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Oh, God, the girl's going to pull a Carter and talk us in circles." When Alli glared at her, she shrugged. "I'll tell you what. Why don't we start with the reason behind your screamfest in front of the bus this morning?"

Alli folded her arms belligerently across her chest at the memory. "I was pissed off."

Jessi chuckled lightly. "And, from the likes of it, you're still pissed off. What happened between you and Nick?"

Between Alli's uncomfortable expression and the silence that had suddenly ensued, Amanda had a fairly good idea of what had gone on between the cute one and the redhead. She turned her lethal gaze on Alli and began tapping her nails on the arm of the sofa. "I was right, wasn't I?"

Alli groaned and buried her face in her hands, knowing exactly to what Amanda was referring. After a brief bout with embarrassment and too many unwelcome memories, she reluctantly met her friend's glance. "Yes, Manda, you were right. For once."

"Hey!" Amanda cried in protest. "I resent that! I'll have you know that when it comes to matters of love, I'm always right..."

Alli smirked. "Don't you mean matters of lust?"

Jessi grimaced. "No, that's AJ's area of expertise. Trust me."

Alli chuckled lightly. "So sharing a bus with the crackhead nympho couple isn't all it's made out to be?"

Jessi shook her head vehemently. "No, and that's saying a whole freaking lot considering that it was made out to be a nightmare in the first place."

Alli took one look at Amanda's sulking expression and giggled. "Aw, she's pouting..."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "At least I'm not stalling." When Alli groaned again, Amanda managed a triumphant smile. "Hey, you knew we were going to bring it up sooner or later. You can't switch off Carter's bus and not expect anyone to be suspicious."

Alli looked up in disbelief and made a disgusted face. "You're grinning? Good God, Manda, one would think that you get off on tormenting others."

Amanda smiled wryly. "Not, not all others. Just AJ." Amidst the moans of the other two women, she chuckled. "However, that doesn't change the fact that we want to know what happened between you and Nicky."

It was Alli's turn to roll her eyes. "There's not a lot to say. Nicky decided that he's in love with me, and I think he's sadly mistaken."

Jessi arched a doubtful eyebrow. "Al, are you sure you aren't the one that's sadly mistaken? I've seen the way that boy looks at you. He's practically smitten."

Alli grimaced at the thought and buried her face in her hands again. "Oh, God, not you too..."

Amanda sighed. "Look, Al, all kidding aside, Jessi's right. We've all noticed the way he acts around you, and everybody's been waiting for him to profess his undying love. It was just a matter of time."

Alli sighed in turn. "Yeah, well, he could've waited a little bit longer, don't you think?"

Amanda shot her a breadbox look. "He could've waited until what, Al?"

The younger woman shrugged. "I don't know...until he was sure? Until the tour had settled down a bit more? Until things were definitely okay between the two of us?"

Jessi frowned. "So you're saying that you would've been more comfortable with the idea had he waited to mention it?"

The moment Alli screwed up her features in frustration, Amanda let out a hollow laugh. "Yeah fucking right, chica. You wouldn't be comfortable with his admission if he waited 'til you were both over fifty and the Boys were doing a wheelchair routine onstage every night."

Alli leveled Amanda with a relatively stern glare. "Yeah, well, maybe I don't see him that way."

"Maybe you don't want to see him that way," Amanda corrected.

"And maybe that's healthy," Alli shot back. "Because best friends aren't supposed to think about each other that way."

Jessi took a deep breath, and when she spoke, her tone was soft and tentative. "Look, Al, not to push or anything, but have you ever stopped to think that maybe you and Carter were meant to be more than best friends?"

Alli's response was immediate. "No."

Amanda's doubtful eyebrow returned. "No? Not at all?"

Alli shook her head for emphasis. "Nope."

"Not even when he was playing drums during 'Back To Your Heart' the other night?"

At last, it was Alli's turn to deliver the breadbox look. "Oh, come on, Amanda...that was teenybopper moment. I may have wanted to fuck his brains out, but there's no way I would've ever acted on that. So no, not then."

Jessi leveled Alli with an expectant look. "Not even when he started singing Rod Stewart in your ear on New Year's Eve?"

Alli closed her eyes for a moment to conjure the memory and visibly flinched when she remembered how safe and how comfortable she had felt in his arms that night. Oh, fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck...

When Alli's only answer was to nestle her face between her knees so as to hide the subtle blush creeping up her cheeks, Jessi smiled knowingly. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

Alli looked up at that, making an appropriately ugly face. "Have you ever heard the expression 'caught up in the moment'?"

Amanda glared in return. "Have you ever heard the expression 'in denial'? I mean, shit, Al, the boy told you that he's in love with you, and you walked away. You can't tell me that there's not a teeny, tiny part of you that wanted to stick around and see what it'd be like to love him back."

Alli sighed in resignation when she realized that she couldn't find the right words to lie. "But that's not the same, Manda. Carter and I aren't like that. We don't do stuff like that."

"You could if you'd pull that stick out of your ass and see this for what it could be," Amanda retorted. "I mean, shit, love isn't easy, but it's hard to find out how difficult it's going to be if you don't even give it a shot."

"I agree," Jessi added before Alli could protest. "Al, you don't have to say yes right away, but think about it, okay? He's started changing for the better, and that's due largely in part to your presence."

Alli shook her head. "There's no way I mean that much to him. He doesn't even know what love is."

"You never know unless you give him a chance to prove it to you," Jessi pointed out.

Alli bit her lip uncertainly before looking at both of her friends with bright, fearful, pleading eyes. "But what if I don't want to give him that chance? I mean, I don't want to risk our friendship just to end up with a failed attempt at romance because Carter couldn't keep it in his pants. I've been his friend for so long..."

"So you already know you're good together," Amanda finished. "Taking it a step further is taking a risk, but it can reap some pretty awesome benefits if you play your cards right."

Alli shook her head firmly. "I'm not willing to take that risk, Manda." She hated the absence of conviction in her voice. If her tone sounded hollow to her, she couldn't imagine what it sounded like to the other two.

Amanda gave her a pointed look. "You might want to rethink that answer, hon, because something tells me that you're going to be kicking yourself if you pass this up."

"And something tells me that I'm going to be kicking myself if I don't," Alli shot back. "There's no sure thing here, and I don't want this kind of a change with him. There's no need for it."

"There very well could be," Amanda countered, but Alli shook her head again.

"No, there couldn't be, Manda, and that's final."

Amanda laughed. "I was right before, and I'm right now, Al. I just hope that you figure that out before it's too late."

"Here Is Gone"

lyrics and music by the Goo Goo Dolls