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

I don't want you to give it all up
To leave your own life collecting dust
And I don't want you to feel sorry for me
You never gave us a chance to be
And I don't need you to be by my side
To tell me that everything's all right...
When I get close, you turn away
There's nothing that I can do or say
I just wanted you to tell me the truth
You know I'd do that for you

Brian tossed his gym bag to the side, listening to the thud of nylon against the stage as he jogged up the steps with a grumbling Nick.

"I still don't see why we have to rehearse," Nick muttered angrily, glaring down at his feet.

"Gee, I don't know...maybe because we have a show tonight?" AJ shot back sarcastically. "Good morning to you too, Nick."

"Shove it, AJ." Nick groaned. "I still don't get it, though. I mean, we know the show already. We do it every night."

"And you somehow manage to trip all the hell over yourselves at some point in time," Fatima interjected, coming up onstage with a boom box. "There is a reason I haul your asses up here every morning."

"Well, isn't that nice to know?" Howie joked, pulling his foot up to his hips to stretch his quadriceps. Kevin sighed from the other side of the ring.

"You all knew that. Even you, Nick. We want the show to be its best for all of the fans each night, and that means rehearsal."

Brian chuckled lightly. "Yeah, Nicky. I mean, there are about ten thousand girls in the arena every night, screaming your name."

Nick let loose with a bitter laugh. "Yeah, well, it doesn't fucking matter at this rate. The one girl who should be there, the one who matters, won't be there."

A momentary silence fell over the group as each member groped for something to say. In all honesty, there wasn't much they could say to counter Nick's assertion. It had been two days since Alli's now infamous bus change, and she had been completely absent from Backstreet life ever since. She had even managed to make herself somewhat scarce during the bus rides with AJ and Howie, and the Boys were beginning to miss her presence. Of course, they hadn't missed her nearly as much as Nick had. Ever since Alli's absence, the youngest Backstreet Boy had been surly and sullen, snapping only when spoken too and pouting otherwise. His performances were nothing less than professional, and his interviews had been even less revealing than usual, but offstage, his attitude had taken a definite downward turn. He was more than willing to patch things up with Alli and take Brian's advice, but he couldn't very well do anything about the situation when Alli was nowhere to be found.

"Nicky..." AJ, who was closer to Alli than the other three, understood Nick's frustration to an extent, but not even AJ could manage to bring the younger man to be civil that morning.

Nick glanced up coldly, his blue eyes shooting daggers. "AJ, I don't want to hear it, okay? She hasn't fucking been there. Alli never misses a show, but God only knows where she was these past two nights. I mean, I can handle her being scared, but now she's just being fucking immature."

AJ sighed heavily. "Look, man, it may not seem like it, but she has had valid excuses. I mean, that first night, she stayed up all night filling out forms to postpone grad school another semester."

Nick arched an eyebrow. "And last night?"

AJ groaned. "Okay, so maybe not last night. She was asleep in her bunk whenever Manda and I got back."

"She is avoiding him," Kevin pointed out. As always, the story of Nick's confession had spread throughout Backstreet camp, and far be it from Kevin to recognize the limitations of privacy. "But she's avoiding the rest of us also. I think that this is a bit bigger than grad school forms and exhaustion, AJ, don't you?"

AJ dropped his face in his hands, completely and totally unwilling to listen to Kevin lecture him at such an early hour. "Yes, Kev, I agree," he muttered.

Kevin seemed satisfied with that answer, because he turned to Nick immediately afterwards. "Look, bro, she's scared, yes, but she is being immature. Maybe the answer to this is to just..."

"Leave me the hell alone about it?" Nick suggested with false cheer and a malicious smile. The smile, however, was gone as quickly as it had come, and the glare was back in place. "'Cause, you know, that would be my suggestion."

"Sounds peachy," Fatima agreed before the others could protest. "Not to offend Nick in any way, but practice is a bit more important than a pending romance at the moment, agreed?"

The Boys mumbled incoherently, but they somehow found their ways to their spots as Fatima went to cue the music.

"I thought so. Such lovely work ethic you boys have! Now, if I remember correctly, this would be the dance that everyone fucked up last night."

The arena was filled with groans as the opening chords to "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" blared through the speakers.

"You are SO not allowed to groan, men. I know that Backstreet's back, but you had them wondering last night if you were dead or alive, and that's Bon Jovi's territory. Now, what's say we try this number again, hm? I think it went something like this..."

With a silent round of protests, the Boys slowly began to follow Fatima's choreography, only pausing occasionally to whine about the repetition. After an hour and a half of moaning and groaning, however, they finally danced well enough to earn a well-deserved break.

"Take five, and then I'm coming back in," she announced. The Boys nodded gratefully before dropping onto the stage in exhaustion.

"I think she was a drill sergeant for juvenile delinquents in a past life," AJ muttered.

"Normally, I'd feel sorry for the kids that she tormented, but I'm too tired," Howie chuckled from the right of AJ. Nick, who had fallen to the ground on AJ's left, just grunted.

"We're all tired, man. Really, really fucking tired."

Brian knew the tone all too well. "And what are you tired of, Nick?"

Nick's head shot up so he could direct his malicious glare at his friend. "What the fuck do you think, Brian?"

"Well, I don't know what Brian thinks," AJ began with a sigh. "But the rest of us still aren't so sure what happened between you and Al."

Nick snorted in disbelief. "Oh, please, Age. Like Amanda didn't tell you what's going on?"

AJ's guilty expression said more than any words could have, and Nick groaned in annoyance. "Yeah, that's what I thought. No one knows the meaning of the word 'privacy' around here."

"I think that has more to do with the fact that we care than the fact that we feel like it's our personal right to everybody's business."

Nick arched a doubtful eyebrow at Kevin. "You're serious?"

Howie laughed. "Well, with the rest of us, it has to do with the fact that we care."

"We're not so sure about Kevin," AJ interjected with a wicked grin, and Kevin rolled his eyes.

"Oh, come on, now, I'm not THAT bad..."

In response, Brian looked up at the ceiling of the arena and began trembling in a melodramatic display of fear. Kevin caught his cousin's antics immediately and sighed in exasperation. "Brian, what the hell are you doing?"

Brian shot a cheeky grin in Kevin's direction. "Waiting for the sky to fall."

"You are SO not funny..." Kevin grumbled.

"I beg to differ," AJ chuckled, holding his hand out to Brian for a high five. Howie, however, cleared his throat and turned back to the blonde on the floor.

"Guys, we're digressing. As I remember, we were about to go into the details of Nick's love life."

Nick groaned audibly and ran a hand over his tired features. "Don't you mean lack of which? She's never going to love me like I love her..."

"Nick..." Brian began, but AJ silenced him with a glare.

"And how does that figure, Nicky?"

Nick sat up with a scowl. "Oh, I don't know AJ. Maybe because she ran out of the fucking hotel room when I told her I love her? Maybe because she fought me tooth and nail about changing buses because she thinks my feelings are just some haphazard reasoning that got confused? Oh, no, wait! Maybe it's because she won't fucking talk to me anymore! Maybe it's because she goes out of her way to avoid me!"

Kevin rolled his eyes at the conniption fit Nick was throwing. "Kaos, chill out a sec."

Nick turned his scowl on Kevin. "Shut up, Train. You've got your girl in your arms every night and a bus to yourselves. You have no idea what it's like to pour your heart out to a woman who won't return it."

"I think the problem is that she did return it," Brian pointed out, and Nick grimaced accordingly.

"Whatever. She won't love me. That's all I need to know."

Howie frowned. "Whoa, hold up. From what I heard, she simply told you that she needed time. That doesn't mean that she won't love you, Nicky, that just means that she's a little confused about things right now."

"Well, for once in my life, I'm NOT a little confused," Nick grumbled. "And I'm fucking tired of waiting for her to pull her head out of her ass and deal with this. She's acting like a kid."

"And you're not?" Kevin countered with a perfectly arched eyebrow and a pointed expression. Nick's pout faded to a stern look, and his folded arms dropped to his sides.

"Well...not now." He sighed heavily when he saw the others crack a smile, and he couldn't help but smile himself. "Dammit, I'm getting better. I used to be a lot worse."

"That you did," Kevin agreed. "I don't know what Al did, but she certainly pulled a number on you."

Nick chuckled lightly. "She reminded me how much fun it was to be me." Upon hearing the snickers of his bandmates, he blushed and tried to muster another glare for them. "I know it sounds corny, but it's true. I had this warped idea of how I was supposed to act, and I was kinda just screwing myself up."

Brian nodded thoughtfully. "Did you ever think that maybe Al has a warped idea of how she's supposed to act in regards to you?"

AJ's head bobbed in accordance. "Yeah, man, maybe she's screwing herself up too because of some ideal that she's associated with you."

"The best friend ideal," Howie chipped in with a grin. "She was talking to the girls about it on the bus the day that she switched."

Nick nodded slowly while he turned the thought over in his head. "Yeah, she mentioned that she didn't want to change things between us."

Brian shrugged. "So let her know that you're not changing them. You're just enhancing them a bit. It's like adding color to a black and white picture."

Kevin snickered. "Yeah, man, it's like sticking AJ in a black tie business party."

AJ would've retorted, but his lack of energy only allowed him to stick out his tongue. Kevin returned the gesture proudly, and the other three rolled their eyes at the scene.

"Oh, yeah, you've matured all right..." Nick muttered, and the others laughed.

"Seriously, though, man...maybe you just have to coax her out of her thoughts. As a general rule, women think too damn much. If you can get her to stop thinking and start feeling, you'd probably have a hell of a lot more luck," AJ pointed out, and Nick sighed.

"Yeah, well, that would involve getting her to talk to me, and she hasn't been so keen on that idea lately."

Howie frowned. "Well, she doesn't have an excuse to miss the show tonight, and we're in this city for more than one day. I don't know about you guys, but I'm going out tonight."

AJ nodded. "Hell, yeah, man. I'm going out."

Nick made a face. "Aww, man, I don't want to go out tonight. I'm fucking exhausted..."

"So stay in," AJ supplied with a grin. "We'll just conveniently forget to tell Al that you aren't coming with us..."

"And she'll stay as well," Nick finished, and a smile began to form. "I get it." He chuckled. "I like the way you think, McLean."

Brian shook his head. "Only AJ would come up with ways to trap a girl into a conversation."

Kevin shrugged. "Maybe so, but it works. Nicky can corner Al in her hotel room after the show, and he can try to talk her out of whatever she's so scared of."

Nick nodded. "Sounds like a plan, man. I've got the whole afternoon to think of something decent to say."

Unable to resist one more dig, Brian grinned. "Yeah, well, Lord knows you'll need it..."

Nick shot him the finger in response, none too discreetly.

"Well, I'm glad you boys cleared that up," Fatima called, announcing her return. "However, it's time to get up off your butts and show me just how much knowledge you can retain."

The Boys rose that time with minimal groaning, and Nick and Brian exchanged knowing looks.

"Here we go again..."

*      *      *      *      *

"Oh my God..."

Alli looked up in annoyance from the novel she had been reading. "What?"

AJ's eyebrows rose as he faked complete and utter astonishment. "She really does exist!"

His less-than-subtle message was all too apparent, and Alli rolled her eyes at the connotations of his statement. "You're not funny, AJ."

He grinned, dropping down onto the couch next to her. "Really? I thought it was hilarious."

"You thought wrong."

He chuckled. "Well, judging by some of your recent company, you should be impressed that I think at all."

Alli feigned innocence. "Why, Alex, to whom are you referring?"

He gave her a pointed look. "Al, you know damn well what I mean. Of course, you and Carter haven't really spent too much time together recently, now, have you?"

Alli began to squirm uncomfortably in her seat, and AJ knew that the real conversation was about to begin. "I've been busy."

Never one to beat around the bush, AJ dropped the bombshell immediately. "He's getting impatient, Al."

Alli frowned deeply in AJ's direction. "And what the hell is that supposed to mean, 'J?"

AJ shrugged casually. "Just that, sooner or later, he's going to get tired of waiting."

Alli groaned at her friend's ignorance. "That's great. I've been tired of waiting for quite some time now."

AJ furrowed his brow in confusion. "Tired of waiting for what?"

Alli finally tossed the book aside and threw her arms up in frustration. "Tired of waiting for things to get back to normal! For God's sake, Age, you know Nick well enough to know that he's not serious about this thing. If I go along with it and adhere to this little whim of his, it's only going to fuck things up again, and I'm not willing to do that just so that he doesn't get his feelings hurt, okay? His friendship means a hell of a lot more to me than enduring this little temper tantrum he's probably in the midst of throwing."

AJ shook his head. "Al,'re right, okay? In some ways, you couldn't be more right. I do know Nick extremely well. In fact, I know him well enough to know that he's more serious about this 'little whim' than he's been about anything in a long time. He's not exactly throwing a temper tantrum, but he's at a loss of how to prove things to you."

"Because he doesn't have anything to prove!" Alli cried in exasperation. "We weren't meant to be together like that. He's just going through withdrawl because he finally decided to get some morals. That's not my fucking fault, okay?"

AJ frowned. "Why are you so concerned with what's meant to happen?"

"Because Nick's trying to push things in the wrong direction."

AJ arched an eyebrow skeptically. "You don't know that it's the wrong direction unless you head that way for a bit first."

Alli rolled her eyes and flopped back against the couch. "Now you sound like Amanda..."

AJ grinned impishly. "See? I knew there was a reason I love that girl!" Noticing Alli's quickly waning patience, however, he grew serious again. "Al, she's right. It definitely wouldn't hurt to give this a shot."

Alli turned a pitiful countenance to AJ. "It could destroy everything we have right now."

AJ sucked in a breath, choosing his words carefully so as not to offend the lady to his left. "Look, Al--and correct me if I'm wrong--but, judging by Nick's sullen mood, your pissy mood, and the general lack of communication going on between you two, I'm guessing that whatever you have right now isn't so great."

Alli closed her eyes and rubbed a tired hand across her face as the true weight of his words registered. When she spoke, her tone was barely more than a whisper, and AJ knew that he had been somewhat successful in permeating her hard exterior. "Dammit."

He jumped at the window of opportunity. "Al, listen--I know you and Nicky. I've seen you guys go up and down more than the freaking hotel elevators we all hate to ride, and I know you well enough to forsee another crash. If I thought for a second that Nick was bullshitting you or that he wasn't completely and totally fucking serious about this, I'd kick his ass to China and tell you to stay the hell away. You know that." His hand swept across his face, removing his sunglasses, and he locked gazes with her so that she would truly understand what he was about to say. "Nick is head over heels in love with you, girl. He's not going to go back on this one, and he's not going to give up. I know that you're pushing the kid away right now because you like what you guys have in regards to friendship, and I know how long it took you to rebuild that after he was such an asshole last leg. However, if you push him far enough, you're not going to be able to have him at all." He saw the sharp breath that Alli took and had to stifle his smile. Damn, Nick is gonna owe me one after this is all over. "I'm not asking you to run to him and swear to be a couple right now, okay? Just...just come to the show tonight and give him a chance."

Alli sighed heavily and peered cautiously at AJ with storming eyes. "I don't have much of a choice, do I?"

He chuckled lightly. "If you don't want to piss him off to the point of no return? No, you don't."

She nodded slowly. "Okay, then. I'll be there."

AJ smiled. "Thanks." He started to get up, but paused and returned to his seat on the sofa for a second longer. "And Al?"

She exhaled forcefully, and he could see her exhaustion leaking through. The rings beneath her steel gray eyes were no different from the bags that had shadowed Nick's baby blues that morning, and AJ knew that the distance wasn't doing either of them any good. Damn, I hope they find each other...

"Yes, Age?"

His brow furrowed in concern. "Talk to him, okay? I know you don't want to and I'm sure that there's a hell of a lot of tension between you two right now, but shutting him out isn't helping either one of you."

Alli laughed bitterly. "Maybe not, but letting him in gives him hope, and I want to make it perfectly clear that I'm opposed to any kind of romance where he's concerned."

AJ shrugged. After talking to Alli for half an hour, he was becoming somewhat familiar with the defeat that Nick must be accustomed to. "Maybe so, but...just talk to him, Al. Once upon a time, you two used to be really good at that."

"It becomes a hell of a lot harder when I'm constantly scared of what he's going to say."

AJ nodded. "Yeah, but the fear goes both ways, you know?"

Alli sighed. "No, Age, I don't know. All I know is this: what he wants to do? It changes everything, and I hate change."

AJ shook his head with a rueful smile. "Al, change can be a good thing."

Her head bobbed in agreement. "Yeah, but it can be a bad thing, and if turns out to be a bad thing, I'm not so sure that we'll be able to get it back to good."

*      *      *      *      *

All heads turned as AJ burst into the dressing room with a wide grin. His chest heaved as he panted, and a heavy hand fell on the make-up counter so he could steady himself.

Nick rolled his eyes and glanced expectantly at the older man. "Well?"

AJ chuckled. "Yeah, Nick, she's here. The girls brought her in, and she actually looks happy to be out in the audience again."

Nick's eyebrows hiked up his forehead slowly. "Really?"

AJ nodded. "Yup. Didn't I tell you I'd get her here?"

Kevin groaned. "Oh, please, AJ. How much shit do you say you're going to do that you never end up doing again?"

AJ glared at Kevin for a moment before turning a warm smile to Nick. "Just go work your magic, kiddo. She's out there."

Nick grinned. "Cool."

AJ reached for a bottle of water, then turned to face Nick again. "Oh, and another thing."


He winked. "I have it on good confidence that Al is rather appreciative of you and your drumset. Something about how the site of 'sweaty Nick beating on the drums' makes her 'go all teenybopper'."

Nick's jaw dropped. "You're shittin' me."

AJ shook his head solemnly. "No way, man. I shit you not. Amanda let it slip whenever I was helping her drag Alli out of the hotel room, and Al turned, like, fifty different shades of red and told Manda to shut the hell up."

Nick smirked. "Did she really..."

AJ laughed. "Absolutely. You can thank me later, though--now, just go out there and try to be as godly as I am."

Howie chortled from behind AJ as he ran a brush through his hair. "Right, 'cause that's just what the world needs, AJ. More of you."

"Of course it does!"

Kevin shook his head at their antics. "Come on, Boys, it's show time."

Still grumbling, teasing, and generally having a good time, said Boys headed for the stage, prepared to rock the arena.

*      *      *      *      *

The chaos of the after-show in the dressing room fell silent the moment that Nick walked in. His face was flushed, and he looked less than pleased. He threw his towel against the couch and his eyes flashed as he directly a violent gaze towards AJ and Amanda.

"Does someone want to tell me what the FUCK just happened out there?"

Amanda groaned. "Drop the attitude, okay? It's not impressive."

Nick's eyes widened dangerously before narrowing in her direction. His tone dropped when he spoke. "You think I'm pulling an attitude? If you want to talk attitudes, Amanda, I suggest you talk to Alli. I'm not the one who fucking WALKED OUT before the encore."

Amanda winced as Nick's voice grew in volume. "Okay, man, I get the point. I think you tripped her out, okay?"

Nick threw his hands up in the air. "Why? Because I sang to her? Or maybe it was because I acted like I cared for her. I mean, shit, maybe I actually LOVE her! What a FUCKING concept that would be!"

Kevin looked up with an exasperated sigh. "Look, Nick, chill. You'll get to talk to her when we get back to the hotel."

Brian chuckled. "Yeah, man, no joke. I think you missed your calling as a Days of Our Lives actor..."

AJ took on an announcer's voice and held his hand up to his mouth like a microphone. "And now, as the world turns..."

Amanda smacked her boyfriend in annoyance and rolled her eyes. "That's the wrong soap opera, dumbass."

Nick waved his arms in order to bring the attention back to his dilemma. "Hello? She walked out! Guys, this is a bit of a serious issue, don't you think?"

Howie shrugged, pulling Jessi more tightly to him. "Honestly, Nicky? I think you're overreacting. You're not going to know what's up until you talk to her, so there's really no point in getting all worked up right now."

Nick scowled. "I'm not worked up, D, I'm pissed off. If I stay pissed off, then I can't feel defeated, which is what I really feel like. I mean, hell, she's not even giving me a chance!"

Leighanne sighed heavily from beneath Brian's arm. "Nick, she's scared..."

Brian gave her a warning look. "Leigh, I'd be careful. We've been over this."

"I'm inclined to agree with Nick," Kevin added with a frown. "She really isn't giving him much of a chance. Of course, on the other hand..."

Nick's groan of annoyance interrupted Kevin's analysis. "Oh my God, I'm already sorry I brought it up..."

Kristin, who was still slightly aggravated by Kevin's obsession with the tour guide of days before, gave him a pointed look. "No kidding, hon. No offense, but you're no Dr. Freud."

"You are, however," Nick interjected, seeing the beginning of a tantrum on Kevin's chiseled features, "great at taking charge, and I would seriously appreciate it if we could get to the hotel sometime tonight."

Kevin rolled his eyes, but headed out of the room to see what was taking so long. As soon as he left, Nick turned expectantly to AJ.

"You all are going out tonight, right?"

AJ nodded. "Yeah, we're gonna hit the clubs. You sure you don't want to come with?"

Nick sighed and ran a tired hand through his hair. "Yeah. I really do need to talk to Al. I'm not half as pissed as I am surprised. I mean, that came out of fucking nowhere. She never walks out of shows."

"You were being awfully affectionate," Leighanne hesitantly pointed out, and Nick exhaled slowly.

"Yeah, I was, but I was trying to prove a point. I'm not giving up on her, on us. I really think that we could make this work, Leigh, and I really do love her." He looked up at Brian's fiancée with a small smile. "I don't think I realized just how much until I said the words. It seems so right, you know?"

Amanda shrugged. "For what it's worth, Carter, I know. It's pretty fucking obvious to all of us. It's just Alli..."

Nick laughed half-heartedly. "Yeah, she always was a stubborn little punk."

AJ rolled his eyes jokingly. "Well, duh. The question is this--exactly how much of a stubborn little punk is she?"

"Buses are ready!" Kevin announced, darting out just as quickly as he had come. The Boys laughed at his enthusiasm, and as they were gathering up their belongings, Nick answered AJ's question with a tentative grin.

"I don't know, but I get the feeling I'm about to find out."

*      *      *      *      *

"You stock and stone!" exclaimed Miss Havisham. "You cold, cold heart!"
"What!" said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; "do you reproach me for being cold? You?"
"Are you not?" was the fierce retort.
"You should know," said Estella. "I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me." (305). *

Alli was startled out of Dickens's beautiful novel by a knock at her door. With a heavy sigh, she set down her worn and dog-eared copy of Great Expectations and padded to the door, wrapping her sweatshirt more tightly around her. Damn, it's cold in here...

The second she opened the door, however, the temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees. She was sure she shivered at the sight of his steely blue eyes on her, and she swallowed forcefully when she saw his chest rise and fall with a measured breath. Shit, I am SO not ready to have this discussion with him.


He arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Hi." There was a slight pause before he spoke again. "I would've said 'hi' earlier, but you left kinda early."

She groaned inwardly, knowing all too well that she was about to pay the consequences for running away earlier that evening. "Yeah, that I did."

Nick took a deep breath, trying desperately to maintain his patience and keep his temper in check. "Would you mind telling me why?"

Alli glanced down at the carpet, stifling the smile that surfaced when she saw the flip-flops on her best friend's--is he still worthy of that title? Do we still count as best friends?--feet. Regardless of how much fame had altered certain aspects of his character, other aspects had remained untouched, and she took momentary solace in the little bits of normalcy that still littered his figure.

"You want to come in first? This probably isn't the best discussion to have in the hallway."

Upon hearing that declaration, Nick's fear heightened, but he refrained from saying anything as he stepped inside Alli's hotel room. He glanced around cautiously and curiously, taking note of the little things that were in place and out of place. Only days before, Alli's room would have been as familiar to him as his own. Now, however, he felt like an intruder, and he hated the awkward tension that had come to replace their usually casual atmosphere.

"Look, I'm sorry for leaving early tonight. I know that I usually stay through the whole show, and I know that the last songs are usually the best, but I seriously couldn't sit through another minute of that."

He didn't think he was supposed to take offense, but he couldn't help feeling the slightest bit hurt at the tired tone in her voice and the defeat that weighed on her shoulders. "And what exactly is 'that', pray tell?"

"'That'," Alli retorted, "would be the ridiculous display of affection that went on all fucking night long. You know, the singing to me, reaching out to me with your hand, giving me 'come hither' looks, banging extra hard on the drums..." She trailed off, blissfully unaware of the slight blush that crept across Nick's cheeks at the mention of his drumming. "Dammit, Nick, I told you to give me time!"

"And I told you I wouldn't change my mind," he replied, folding his arms defiantly across his chest. "I wasn't kidding about this, Al. I care a lot for you, and there's nothing you can do to change that."

Alli groaned in exasperation. "I'm not trying to change the fact that you care. I'm just trying to change the way in which you care. There's a difference."

"I know how I feel," Nick insisted, furrowing his brow for effect. Alli merely rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, well, congratulations, dumbass. So do I. I love you a lot as a friend, Nick, but there's a thin line between love and hate, and this little act you've been pulling lately is starting to make that line just a little bit blurry," she snapped. "Catch my drift?"

"Caught and dismissed," Nick fired back. "You're not listening to what I have to say, and you aren't reading between the song lines that I sang directly at you tonight."

Alli arched an eyebrow and gave him a pointed look. "With all due respect, Mr. Backstreet Boy, there's not a lot to read between. They're all sappy pop ballads about people too dangerously in love to think that reality might be lurking in the shadows."

"Maybe it's good to let go and sing a sappy pop ballad every now and then!" Nick cried. "Because, shit, some people are too focused on where reality might be lurking to actually end up happy. I mean, God forbid life actually make you smile, right?"

"You can smile without falling dangerously in love," Alli countered, and Nick sighed heavily.

"Maybe so, but falling dangerously in love can greatly enhance that smile, agreed?"

"I wouldn't know," Alli answered coldly. "I have absolutely no intention of falling dangerously in love with you."

"If the world were ruled by good intentions, we'd all be in hell," Nick muttered exasperatedly. Alli's eyes widened before narrowing in his direction.

"Well, if you keep up this kind of shit, you're probably headed there anyway, right? What's the difference?"

Nick's expression was a mixture of hurt and anger as his eyes found hers. "You know, you never used to be this difficult to talk to."

"And you never used to care this fucking much!" Alli cried in exasperation. "Good God, Nick, why can't you just take 'no' for an answer?"

"Because we're too good together to leave this at a casual 'no' that sprouted from your fear of change," Nick answered softly. "You used to know that, Al. You've got all the fight in the world for me right now, but you don't have any fight left for us."

"Maybe that's because somebody wore out my damn patience, Nickolas," she growled, eliciting a frown from Nick.

He sighed heavily, running a hand through his blonde locks. "I've been better, Al. I'm trying."

"You were better," Alli argued. "Then you went and pulled this shit on me. Nick..."

He frowned deeply at the mention of his first name. "You know, that brings me to another question. Al, you told me that day in the hotel when you left to call you when I found your Carter. I found him, okay? I dug past layers and layers of ridiculous machismo and found that stupid kid that ran all over the zoo with you. Why the hell are you still calling me 'Nick' when I'm your Carter?"

Alli's anger seemed to diminish as she took a step backwards and began shaking her head slowly. "Because you're not my Carter. My Carter was never in love with me."

Nick's quiet, bitter laugh echoed in the stillness of the room. "That's where you've got it all wrong, Al. Your Carter was always in love with you. We were both just too blind to see it."

She closed her eyes for a moment. "Then maybe I want to go back to being blind."

He chuckled hollowly. "Look, Al, as far as I'm concerned, you're still blind. You haven't made the slightest fucking attempt to see if we would work or not. You're too busy running away."

Alli's anger returned as she narrowed her eyes in his direction. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe the fact that I'm running away ought to tell you something?"

"Oh, it does," Nick snapped in turn. "It tells me that you're scared shitless of loving me back, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why."

Alli threw her arms up in exasperation. "Good God, Nick, we've been over this. I don't want things to change because I like the way they are!"

Nick arched an eyebrow doubtfully. "You like this? You like the tension and the awkward feeling? Fuck, Al, I feel like a stranger in your hotel room, and I used to be at home wherever the hell you were. I fucking HATE the way things are right now!"

"That's your fault," Alli sneered. "You're the one who decided to turn everything on its head, Nickolas."

"I fucking fell in love with you, Alexandra," he shot back, his tone equally as angry. "You act like I went and fucked things up on purpose, but I couldn't HELP it, okay?"

Alli snorted. "Yeah, well, if you hate the way things are so much right now, then learn to help it, because I'm not any more comfortable with the idea of us together NOW than I was two fucking days ago when we LAST had this discussion!"

"That's not my fucking fault!" Nick yelled angrily. "Dammit, Alli, I gave you time! If you used it to ignore me instead of thinking seriously about all this, it's not my fault, okay? I did what you wanted."

Alli chortled. "You did what I wanted? The hell you did, Nick. I wanted you to forget that this little crush ever popped into your head!"

Nick's face was flushed and his fists were clenched as he glared at her. When he finally spoke, he couldn't conceal his rage at the way she was treating the situation. Dammit, I'm ALMOST sorry I ever brought this up to her.


His shout reverberated against the walls, and Alli's eyes widened at the sheer volume of his feelings. Her eyes moved to meet his, and icy blue locked shimmering silver for a moment as the two of them fought to regain composure. Both chests were heaving, and both pairs of fists were clenched tightly. As they stood there in silence, they appeared to be searching each other for the words unsaid that lay beneath the masks of anger they had both spent the evening wearing. At long last, Nick's shoulders sagged in defeat, and he turned his eyes away from Alli's gray gaze to stare at the dent his feet had made in the carpet. His eyes rose to meet hers slowly, and he sighed as though the weight of the world rested solely on him.

"Al, I'm sorry, okay? I don't want to fight with you. Not like this."

Alli's sigh mirrored Nick's. "I don't want to fight with you either, Nick, but..." She paused to collect her thoughts before she met his gaze again, pleading with her eyes for him to understand the reasons behind her vehement position. "For the entire last leg of the tour, you were constantly whining at me to accept you for the monster you were becoming and learn to deal with it. I did, okay? It took me fucking forever, yes, but I finally learned to take you as you were--but then you changed. And that was okay, because you became my best friend again, and I'd missed that enough to overlook the fact that you turned everything over because you had finally turned it right-side-up." Her brow knitted in frustration, and she sighed again. "But this? Nick, this is asking too much, okay? I became the friend you needed regardless of who you had become, and I finally got my best friend back. What you're asking me to do involves relinquishing that, and we're not even sure that I'm giving it up for a good cause! You taught me how to be the best friend, Nick. I followed all of your directions. You can't change the rules at the end of the game."

Nick took a deep, apprehensive breath before glancing imploringly in her direction. "So you're saying that the reason you're opposed to this is because you want to hold on to the best friends feeling that we finally arrived at?"

Alli nodded slowly. "Yeah. Call it ridiculous and silly, but I spent so long missing you, Nick. I finally stopped missing you, and I don't want to lose you again. I don't want to lose my best friend again."

Nick ran a tired hand across his face. "Al, I don't want to lose my best friend either, okay?"

Alli shook her head. "You don't get it, though. If we take this a step further, we run the risk of losing everything that we have. THAT'S why I don't want to give this a shot."

Nick sighed heavily. "Then maybe you need more time to re-think your reasons, Al, because this sure as hell doesn't feel like best friends to me anymore."

She glanced down at her hands as the weight of his words registered. When she looked back up to counter him, though, her eyes met with only a closing door.

It wasn't until the tiny click echoed through the room that she realized she had started missing him again.

"Running Away"
lyrics and music by Hoobastank
* Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Penguin Books: New York.
September, 1961.