Bed of Roses
Chapter Forty-Three
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

Loving you like I never have before
I'm needing you just to open up the door
If begging you might somehow turn the tides
Then tell me to; I've gotta get this off my mind
I never thought I'd be speaking these words
Never thought I'd find a way to say
Another day alone is more than I can take
Won't you save me?
Saving's what I need
I just want to be by your side
Won't you save me?
I don't wanna be just drifting through the sea of life

"Hi, ladies and gentlemen! This is JoJo, and you're listening to JoJo's Morning Madness on 106.7 KIIS FM. In case you just tuned in, we've got some pretty awesome guests lined up this morning. Actually, they just filed into the studio during our commercial break. Say hello to the BACKSTREET BOYS!"

Insert obligatory cheers. Beneath the plastic smiles, more than one Boy was cringing.

"Guys, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourselves to our listeners?"

Kevin, ever the responsible one, leaned into his microphone with a smile. "Hey, I'm Kevin."

"And I'm Brian." Big, cheesy grin.

"I would be AJ." Small nod, a tip of the hat, and more than half of the girls in the room were swooning.

"My name is Howie D." A wink and a thumbs-up.

"And I'm Nick." A sigh. Lots of screams.

"He'll be the one causing the headaches this morning," the DJ joked with a grin. Howie returned the smile with one of his own.

"Yeah, Nicky's good at that," he teased, and Nick chuckled good-naturedly. Shut up, Howard.

"Well, now that we've got the introductions done, let's get down to business. You guys are on tour right now, correct?"

It was a standard Kevin question, and the older man stepped in as usual. "That's correct, man."

"How's that going?"

Kevin smiled. "It's going great, actually. The fans have been really, really supportive, and the shows have been totally high-energy. We're really proud of this album, so being able to bring it to the fans live has been a really rewarding experience for us."

The DJ nodded. "Now, AJ, according to the ladies out there this morning, you're the one who loves the road, right?"

AJ cracked a small grin. "Yeah, I definitely love to tour. I'm a freak, so being able to channel that energy into being a showman for the lovely ladies in the house is more than any guy could ask for."

Brian frowned thoughtfully. "Actually, what Kevin was saying earlier plays a big part as well. We are really proud of the album, and some of us were actually involved in writing some of the songs, so it's really nice to be able to see such a positive response to the more personal music we've been making recently."

The DJ continued grinning cheerfully. "You brought up the album, so I'm going to go ahead and ask you Boys about the first week sales. For those who don't know--you've gotta be living under a rock! Nah, I'm just kidding. However, these fab five dropped an album called Millennium in the spring of last year, and it sold a whopping 1.3 million albums in the first week. Guys, how amazing was that?"

"Pretty damn cool," AJ shot immediately, ignoring the glare from Kevin in reponse to his harsh language.

"I've got to agree with AJ," Howie managed with a laugh. "It was incredible to see those kind of numbers on paper. We had no idea that the album would be as big as it has been, but we're very grateful that the fans are continuing to embrace us and our music."

"Were you all worried at all about the frequently mentioned sophomore slump?"

"Oh, definitely," Kevin assured JoJo. "Our first album was so successful that we weren't sure anything could ever top it. We went into the studio, however, with the idea that we were going to create a record that we were proud of regardless of the numbers, and I think a bit of that confidence came off in the sounds and vocals."

Nick cleared his throat, deciding to speak up before any fans chose to ask him why he was sad. "I think that, I mean, any time you release something, you're going to, you know, be a bit freaked out about the kind of reaction you're going to get. We were nervous because, well, it's hard to reproduce the kind of success that we had with the first album. We just, I mean, Kev's right. We went into the studio trying to make something we were proud of, you know? The fact that the fans like it like they do...that just blew us away."

"Yeah, you guys are pretty famous now, aren't you? Listen, how is it to have screaming girls everywhere you go?"

"Not so bad," AJ commented with a wry smile. "Here at Backstreet, we like to give the ladies what they want."

The comment inspired the necessary catcalls, and the group laughed amiably while AJ tipped his hat to the girls watching the show.

"It can get tedious when you want private time," Brian explained once the crowd had settled down, "but we're very thankful for the love we get from the fans."

"Especially the female ones, right?" the DJ asked with a wink, and Nick fought the urge to smack the guy around a little. Instead, his smile widened.

"Oh, yeah," he grinned. "Definitely the female ones."

JoJo sighed with mock sadness. "Well, Boys, we're almost out of time, and I've really got to you guys have girlfriends?"

The guys cast dramatic nervous glances at each other before laughing. Kevin was the first to lean into the microphone.

"Might as well be honest," he drawled. "Yes, I've got a girlfriend."

"Me too," AJ said with a smile.

"Although Lord only knows how he managed that one," Howie joked, inspiring a laugh from the audience.

"How about you, Nick?" JoJo asked with a knowing smile. "Do you have a girlfriend?"

"Nah, he's got a crush," AJ teased, and Nick made a silent vow to kill him as soon as they went off air.

"Really?" JoJo perked up immediately at the sign of gossip like a starving vulture searching for a dead carcass to munch on. "Do tell."

Nick managed a nervous laugh while he ran his hand through his hair. "Yeah, umm...well, see, there's this girl that I'm interested in, but nothing serious yet."


Nick smiled shyly. "I've been kind of hoping that she'll come around."

"Ah, I see," JoJo nodded. "Well, that's all the time we have this morning. Guys, thanks SO much for dropping by the was really a pleasure to have you here. In case you're just now tuning in, those were the Backstreet Boys, and this is 'Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely' on 106.7 KIIS FM."

*      *      *      *      *

"Good God, AJ," Nick fired immediately as the door to the limo slammed shut. "What the hell kind of stunt were you trying to pull in there?"

"I was just teasing, Nick," AJ groaned. "Fuck, man, lighten up."

"You teasing me about Alli is one thing, 'J, but teasing me about her ON AIR is entirely another! It's not fucking funny when all of LA gets to hear about it, okay?"

"Geez, okay," AJ muttered. "I got the message, Nick."

Nick rolled his eyes at his friend's apparent ignorance and turned his pleading gaze to Kevin's stoic features. "Please tell me we're headed back to the hotel to sleep now."

Kevin's eyes sparkled in amusement, but he held his smile at bay while he responded. "Actually, we're getting on the buses. We've got a night trip coming up, and we're leaving in an hour."

"Super," Nick grunted, tossing his arms in the air helplessly. "Now I'm NEVER going to get to sleep."

Brian shrugged. "You can always sleep on the bus, Frack. Leigh and I won't be too loud, I promise."

AJ snickered at the sincere expression on Brian's face. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Rok. We all know that you and Leigh want to spend some quality time together on the road."

Brian rubbed at his temples before shooting an annoyed look in AJ's direction. "AJ, shut up."

"Seriously, man," Howie agreed, grimacing beneath the sunlight peeking through the tinted windows. "I don't need those kinds of pictures in my head, okay?"

AJ snorted indignantly. "Oh, please," he grumbled. "Like you won't be doing the very same things with Jess."

"Not the very same things, no..." Howie trailed off, finishing the comment with a wink and eliciting groans from the other four men.

"Howie, between you and Kevin, I think this group is a walking TMI violation," Nick commented, and Kevin frowned deeply.

"What the hell did I do to inspire that kind of comment?"

Nick arched a lethal blonde eyebrow in the older man's direction. "Do I even have to mention that God-awful Rolling Stone article?"

Kevin grinned slowly. "Okay, so maybe I did deserve that."

Nick chortled. "Yeah, just maybe..."

"So," AJ began, clearing his throat for emphasis. "What're everyone's plans for this long and lovely trip we seem to have scheduled?"

"Sleep," Kevin mumbled. "I'm absolutely exhausted."

"Time with Jess," Howie added. "I haven't seen her lately because we've kept such a tight schedule."

AJ nodded his understanding. "Yeah, I haven't seen much of Amanda either. How about you, Bri?"

Brian grinned. "I'm going to hang with Leigh and Nick, actually. We're one big family, you know."

"Any chance that Alli might be joining you?" AJ asked casually, but the question immediately caught Nick's attention. The blonde's boyish features darkened in anger, and he shook his head.

"Nope. She still hasn't made any attempts to talk to me."

An uncomfortable silence crept over the five men for a moment as the implications of Nick's words sunk in. The Boys all knew about the fight with Alli through the grapevine, but none of them had suspected that either Nick or Alli would keep silent for so long. The two hadn't said a word to each other in two days, and neither seemed any more anxious to have a discussion. AJ knew from observation that Alli was sulking, but he could also tell that, beneath the cold exterior he was trying so hard to maintain, Nick was hurting just as much. With a weary sigh, he removed his sunglasses to rub a hand over his face.

"Not a word, huh?"

Nick shook his head without flinching. "Not a word."

AJ glanced up in subdued surprise. "You aren't even going to try to talk to her?"

Nick shrugged and turned his cold gaze on AJ, leaving the older man free to see the defeat that ran rampant in the blue of his eyes. "Look, Age, the whole conversation went downhill. I'm not going to force her to love me. If she feels the same way, then she feels the same way, and if she doesn't, then she doesn't. However, I'm not going to sit here and fight her until the death of our friendship just so that she can acknowledge feelings I'm not even sure she has. If she starts to miss me, she knows where to find me. Other than that, I don't have any control over the situation."

With that, he reached to the handle and opened the door of the limo, stepping out into the sunlight before disappearing into the back of the hotel with long, quick strides. Even as the thick metal door slammed behind him and Billy, who had raced to catch up, the other four Boys sat idly in the limo, unable to move. Finally, they began to ease slowly out of the black car and into the hotel.

AJ blinked once, twice, three times. He hadn't even noticed that they'd arrived at the hotel. He'd been too caught up in the sadness that swam in his brother's blue eyes.

*      *      *      *      *

"Nick, man, wait up for a sec, would you?"

Nick glanced behind him and towards the front of the bus with a wary sigh. His shoulders finally relaxed when he saw Brian coming towards him. "Hey, man, what's up?"

Brian arched an eyebrow. "Not much here, although I could ask you the same question." He grabbed his friend's wrist and began dragging him to the back room almost immediately. "We need to talk."

Nick chuckled bitterly as he flopped onto the couch. "No offense, Frick, but there's really not much to say."

Brian shot his younger brother a look of disbelief. "Oh, I don't know about that."

Nick rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, I do. There's nothing to say, okay? Everything that could possibly be said about this situation has already been said, and I'm sick of rehashing shit just for everyone's amusement. Why can't you guys just leave me the hell alone about it?"

Brian's tone was deadpan and immediate. "Because we care, Nick, and you look sad."

"I'm pissed off."

Brian drew a skeptical breath and cocked his head to the side. "Maybe you'd like to be pissed, but I think you're more sad than anything right now, and that scares me."

Nick snorted in false amusement. "Does it really?"

Despite Nick's obviously sour attitude, Brian's tone was soft and sincere. "Yeah, it does. Man, what's up?"

Nick groaned again. "She won't talk to me, and she doesn't even want to listen to what I have to say. Nothing that I brought up two days ago even registered with her, I'm sure." He glanced over at Brian long enough to see the older man's pitying expression and sighed. "And I know what you said about not giving up, but it's really damn hard not to. She's giving me every reason in the world to leave her alone and try to get over her."

Brian raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "Do you really think that you can get over Al? I mean, Nick, I've seen you with a bunch of girls, and this seems kinda different to me."

"Why?" Nick asked with a bitter laugh. "Because I actually care whether or not this one's here the next morning?"

Brian rolled his eyes. "That too. I just meant that Alli doesn't seem like that type of girl that a guy can get over easily."

Nick stared amusedly ahead as Brian's words hung limply in the air. "Yeah, she doesn't, does she?"

"So do you really think you can get over her?"

"No, but right now I'm feeling hopeless enough to pretend. I'm just in a pissy mood." He shrugged lightly to emphasize his words. "I'll be better when we get to the next city and I can leave that stupid fight behind us, trust me."

Immediately after the declaration, Nick switched on the television and picked up the game controller, signifying the end of the conversation. When the opening music to his game spilled from the speakers, Brian exhaled exasperatedly and exited the room.

*      *      *      *      *

Leighanne looked up from her novel expectantly when she heard the door to the back room close and frowned as Brian's weary form came into view. She dog-eared the page she had been reading and set the book down carefully, her eyes never leaving her fiance. "How is he?"

Brian slumped down into the chair next to Leighanne's and closed his eyes. "Would you believe I don't even know anymore?"

She grimaced when his head hit his hands. "That's not a good thing, is it?"

Brian shrugged and rolled his eyes. "No, it just means that he's moping and entirely unwilling to talk to us."

Leighanne's features were sympathetic. "Can you blame him?"

Brian groaned. "Yes. No. I don't know." He lifted his head for a moment and found her gaze. "Honestly? In a way, I do, because he knew that Alli wasn't going to make this easy, but he acts like he expected the whole thing to be simple."

Leighanne sighed. "Well, looking at it from his side, I guess that does make sense. He's never had a probably getting a girl before."

Brian gave Leighanne Alli's breadbox look. "Alli's not exactly any girl, Leigh. She's different, and Nick knew that she would be."

She frowned lightly. "Somehow, Bri, I don't think that makes it any easier for him. He really does love her. You could tell by the way he used to look at her when the two of them were together. If not for that, the way he acted around her at AJ's New Year's party was proof enough. He couldn't take his eyes off of her."

That got a soft laugh from Brian. "Yeah, he never could. Al definitely attracts attention, that's for sure."

"So does Nick, though," Leighanne pointed out with a small smile. Her small smile, however, seemed lost on Brian's perplexed expression.

"What exactly are you trying to get at?"

She shrugged, mirroring his earlier actions. "Just that I don't believe his affection is entirely one-sided."

Brian gave her a pointed look. "I don't either, but you can't tell me that she loves him the way he loves her."

Leighanne sighed again. "Maybe not yet, but I think that there is some validity to the idea that she cares about him more than he thinks. I also think that there's a chance that she does care about him as much as he cares about her."

Brian's eyes rose heavenward at the ridiculousness of the notion. "And why is that, Leigh?"

Leighanne smiled slowly. "Bri, if Alli really, really didn't care about him as more than a friend, then she wouldn't be petrified of changing things."

"Alli's always been petrified of change. That means nothing."

Leighanne nodded. "Fine then. If she didn't care more than she admits, then she wouldn't be fighting it this hard. She hasn't spoken to him for two days straight, Brian."

"Why not?"

Leighanne shrugged again. "Honesty? I don't know for sure, but I think she's thinking. Nick's words affected her more than he knows."

Brian finally looked his fiancee in the eye with a grave seriousness. "Well, for both of their sakes, I hope you're right. Because the way they're acting now? It isn't good for Alli or Nick, and it's going to catch up with them soon."

*      *      *      *      *

"Okay, kids, which movie is it tonight?"

Alli glanced skeptically in her friend's direction and glanced down at her watch. "Uh, Manda?"



Amanda glanced over her shoulder and shot Alli a grin. "Answer."

AJ scoffed from his position on the sofa. "Sometimes."

Amanda stuck her tongue out at him in response. "All the time."

His only reply came in the form of a pout. "Why the hell do you stick that thing out if you know you're not going to use it?"

"Because I can," she retorted before turning back to Alli. "You had a question?"

Alli nodded. "Yeah. How can it be tonight if it's only three o'clock in the afternoon?"

"Because I said so."

Alli cast a perplexed expression in AJ's general direction. "Does she make any sense to you?"

AJ shook his head and made a face. "Not exactly, but I thought it was just a girl thing."

"Oh, it is," Alli assured him with a small wink. "Amanda just happens to be a little more nonsensical that the average femme, see."

AJ rolled his eyes and sunk further into the overstuffed leather of the couch cushions. "Just my fucking luck, huh?"

"Hello? People? I'm not just standing over at the movie shelf for my health, you know."

"Yeah, we know," Alli countered. "You're standing over there so AJ can stare at your ass."

Amanda groaned. "Funny, Al."

AJ, however, shook his head in disagreement. "No, if she wanted me to stare at her ass, she'd drag you out of here and lose the clothing while some bump-and-grind beat played in the background."

Alli frowned in disgust as her head swiveled in AJ's direction. "Are you ever not fantasizing about sex?"

"Only when I'm not breathing."

AJ's frown soon matched Alli's when her eyes began darting around the room anxiously. "Do I want to know what the hell you're doing?"

"Looking for a way to make you stop breathing."

"I'm going to stop breathing if we don't pick a movie soon!" Amanda called cheerfully from the shelf to the left. When both heads turned to face her, she smiled. "Title suggestions, anyone?"

"I vote for Pretty Woman," Alli called immediately, and AJ grimaced.

"Dammit, I could've sworn I threw that thing out after Manda made me watch it for the fifth time..."

"Nope, still here," Amanda returned with a smile. "Can we see it?"

AJ scowled further. "Abso-fucking-lutely not!"

"Runaway Bride?" Amanda asked, holding the cover of the movie up hopefully. AJ studied it for a moment as his brow furrowed in thought.

"Actually, Nick and Rok were saying that it wasn't half bad..."

Alli started shaking her head as soon as AJ began seriously considering the title. "No. Man, I just saw that movie, and, unlike the two Boys, I actually finished it."

For the first time that afternoon, AJ shot Alli a smile of his own. "You finished Pretty Woman too, hon."

Alli sighed. "Yeah, but that's different. That movie's a classic."

AJ shrugged. "So? Julia Roberts is a classic actress. This movie could become the next Pretty Woman."

Alli finally laughed at the seriousness of AJ's expression. "You are such a retard, you know that? Man, you've been bummed all day. What's up?"

Amanda finally pulled Runaway Bride down from the shelf and shook her head. "Yeah, no joke, man. Who stuck the stick up your ass?"

AJ groaned and made a face, but both girls could tell that his bad mood was beginning to fade. "Nothing. It's just been a long tour so far and Nick was being a whiny ass this morning."

Alli winced at the mention of Nick. "Okay, I changed my mind. We can watch Runaway Bride. Put it in, Manda."

AJ grinned at the quick change in Alli's demeanor while Amanda went to battle the on-bus VCR. "Why so quick to change the subject, Al?"

Alli rolled her eyes in annoyance at AJ's tone. "Like you have to ask? I don't want to talk about Nick, AJ."

"You're going to have to talk about him sooner or later," AJ pointed out, and Alli's head tipped back.

"Don't I know it, too. Look, can we just not talk about Nick for the next few hours? That's all anybody's talking about, and it's getting old. There's nothing to discuss because there's nothing going on between the two of us!"

"Yeah," AJ agreed, "but there should be."

"No joke," Amanda chimed as she joined AJ on the couch. "I mean, you two were practically made for each other, Al, and he's been sulking ever since you quit talking to him."

Alli groaned in protest at the accusation. "Um, reality check? In case you missed the memo, Manda, he was the one walking out this time, not me."

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, if you ask me, he had a pretty good reason for it."

"Oh? What reason was that?"

Amanda shot Alli an incredulous look, ignoring the "oomph" from AJ as she sat up against his chest. "Because you've got something absolutely wonderful in front of you and you're staring straight fucking past it, Alli! It gets a little aggravating."

"Especially when you add Nick's infamous drama queen factor," AJ interjected with a grin, and Alli finally cracked a smile.

"Yeah, he always has been a bit of a drama queen, hasn't he?"

"Understatement of the year," AJ scoffed. "The Boy's a muse for the screenwriter of every soap opera from here to oblivion, I bet. He's got more melodrama in his pinky than the entire cast of Dawson's Creek has put together."

"He does, however, have the ability to watch a film in silence," Amanda interrupted with a soft smile. "Movie's starting, children. Play nice until the credits roll, would you?"

"We'll try," AJ and Alli chorused before bursting into laughter. However, even as they settled into a casual silence while Julia Roberts took over, AJ's words haunted Alli's thoughts. She fell into a bit of a trance as she watched Julia Roberts trip over herself in search of the perfect guy, but the movie didn't seem to have the same appeal that it had previously had. Every time Julia's character had a lame line, she could hear Nick's retort in the back of her head and feel his fingers in her hair. When familiar songs began playing in the background, she could hear Nick singing along and would glance over expecting to see him next to her. Somehow, his absence weighed more heavily than it had before, and Alli couldn't help but wonder if he was really supposed to mean so much that she couldn't even get through a movie without him lying next to her. Good God, when did I get to be such a wimp? I thought we agreed that I didn't care about him like that?

She shook her head in amusement as the plot of the film continued to unfold, but turned deadly still when Julia Roberts caught the mail truck away from the chapel. Something about the fear in the other woman's eyes hit way too close to home, and Alli had to pause for a moment before she could remind herself that it was, in fact, just a movie.

Of course, if it was just a movie, then there had to be another reason that the devastation on Richard Gere's face had made her feel guilty. Because there's no way in hell that any of this has anything to do with Carter. No fucking way.

Still, when the infamous egg scene arrived and she was forced to wince while Julia Roberts sampled every type of egg recipe imaginable, a memory slowly began to form in her head.

When she had first arrived at college, Nick had been coming off of a tour. She hadn't seen him in ages, so she had demanded that he stop by her dorm room before going on to his own house. Finally, upon kicking her roommates out for the evening, she convinced him to stay the night with her so that the two of them could catch up. When he finally did show up at her dorm room door, however, she grabbed him in a huge hug and led him to the couch, where they spent the rest of the night talking. That morning, she had been embarrassed to admit to having nothing more than a few eggs and orange juice, but he was perfectly fine with a simple breakfast. Too terrified of letting Alli anywhere near the stove in his presence, Nick had scrambled the eggs hard with a healthy dose of cheese while the two of them continued to chat. When he finally finished cooking and they sat down to eat, he confessed that scrambled eggs with cheese was his favorite breakfast of all time. Alli hadn't paid much attention to it at the time, but she somehow managed to retain all of Nick's little confessions throughout the years so that she knew more about him than she often knew about herself.

When reality finally came calling, the credits were rolling and Amanda and AJ were snoring softly on the sofa opposite Alli's. She crawled off the couch and shut the movie off, then exited the room and went to her bunk to take a nap of her own. However, even as she was drifting into unconsciousness, she couldn't help but think that she knew exactly how Nick liked his eggs. And, just before she took the plunge into unconsciousness, she couldn't help but think that he probably knew how she liked her eggs as well.

She just wasn't so sure she knew how she liked her eggs anymore.

*      *      *      *      *

"So why aren't you at the concert watching your little blonde friend rock out again?"

Alli sighed heavily into the phone, but she couldn't hide her smile. "Honestly? I wanted to talk to you, although I'm beginning to regret it..."

"You're regretting it before the phone bill arrives? That's not a good sign, is it?"

Alli laughed out loud. "Man, you're getting good, Hol! Dad must be teaching you a thing or two down there."

Holly's smile was clear in her tone. "I'm learning to hold my own in this constant verbal battle you two seem to have."

"Always a good thing," Alli chuckled. "We're kinda relentless when it comes to wit."

"Understatement of the year," Holly scoffed. "John can be downright cruel every now and then."

"He always did have a rather sharp side to him," Alli joked, and Holly nodded her agreement.

"A soft side and a sharp side. He's a fairly good mix of both, I think."

"Sounds like he's been feeding you subliminal messages in your sleep if you're singing his praises after this long," Alli quipped, and it was Holly's turn to hide her smile.

"Maybe so, but I've got a pretty good grip on him as well."

"You'd think that, but Dad's a sly one," Alli teased. "He'll jump you when you least expect it. Of course, I'm sure you know more about that than I would..."

Alli didn't need to hear Holly's gasp to know that the older woman's cheeks had flushed a deep crimson. "Alli! Goodness gracious!"

Alli stifled her laughter for only a moment before it came tumbling forth. "But Hol, I thought you said you were learning?"

Holly grimaced on the other line. "Yeah, well, the sexual innuendo is going to take a bit of getting used to, but I'm going to go ahead and blame it on the rock star life you seem to be living right now lest your father find out that you're implying things like that."

Alli chortled at the idea. "Oh, please...Dad is SO much worse than I am..."

Holly grinned at the thought, memories of John's unexpected jokes all too ready to spring forth. "Oh, I know, but I love him just the same."

There was a sincerity in Holly's tone that piqued Alli's interest at that particular moment, and the question was out of her mouth before asking it could even register.

"Holly, how did you know you were in love with my dad?"

As soon as Alli heard the heavy exhale on the other end, she drew a tight breath and covered her face with her hands. She knew that, while her relationship with Holly had grown steadily better over the last few months, she had no right to ask the other woman such a personal question. She honestly wasn't sure why she'd even wondered, but suddenly she had to know how Holly was so sure of whatever feelings made her so vulnerable and dependent, yet so happy and so fulfilled. She could imagine opening herself up to someone, but...opening herself up to the right person has always been a major concern of hers. Of course, the concern had increased infinitely upon Nick's original confession.

She flinched at that thought. Oh, no. This is not about Carter. That question had nothing to do with Carter. I'm just curious.

She flinched again when she realized that not even her subconscious sounded convincing.

"Listen, Hol, I'm sorry. I had no right to..."

Holly cut her off before she could say anymore. "No, it's all right. It's perfectly fine, in fact. I's hard to put into words, you know?"

Alli smiled uncertainly. "Yeah, I know." God, I think I, I don't. No fucking way.

"I...I feel comfortable around your father. John is the first man I've ever known who has made me feel completely and totally free to be who I am without fear. I just...I've never felt the need to hold back any part of myself from him. Where I might censor myself to an acquaintance, I've never had to hide anything from John. He knows me for the woman that I am, and there's something beautiful in knowing that the reason he knows me so completely is because he's made it all
right for me to show him everything that I am. He makes me feel complete, but he also makes me feel understood, and in all our differences, we always manage to find a common ground somewhere. To me, that common ground is love. When you care enough about someone to find every way possible for you to be with them, both physically and spiritually, that's love. When you can share all of yourself with someone without the fear of their opinion, then you know that your feelings are reciprocated." Holly sighed, but Alli didn't even twitch. "We share bits and pieces of ourselves with everyone, Al, but I firmly believe that we only share all of ourselves with one person, because only true love can withstand every single aspect of our personalities."

There was a long moment of silence while Alli took in the true weight of Holly's words. As she ran over the speech again and again in her head, time seemed to stop, and she wasn't able to shake from her trance until Holly began calling her name.

"Al? Alli? Did that make any sense?"

Alli swallowed forcefully, hoping to banish her disturbing thoughts as well as the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat. "Yeah, thanks Hol. That made a lot of sense."

Holly frowned at the trancelike tone of Alli's voice. "Al, if you don't mind me asking, what prompted that question?"

Alli's response was immediate. "Nothing! Just, you know, curious."

Holly rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Right. Are you sure there's not a guy who fits that description for you?"

"Pretty sure, yeah."

Holly sighed. "Okay then. What are you doing for the next few days?"

The women continued to make idle conversation for a few more minutes, chatting about the upcoming schedules and John's cast removals. It turned out that the man was going to make a full recovery and would be walking again by the time Alli returned home. When it was finally time to end the call, however, Holly's voice grew serious again.

"Hey, Al?"

Alli frowned in curiosity. "Yeah?"

"Good luck with that guy."

Holly hung up before Alli could ask her to which guy she was referring, but she knew that the question had no purpose. Even as she clicked her cell phone off and crawled beneath the blankets in her bunk, even as her eyes closed gently with the promise of sleep, Nick's face was in her head.

"Save Me"
lyrics and music by Hanson