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Nick cooled off with a bottle of aspirin and some cranberry juice in the back of the bus for the rest of the day while Brian and Amanda sat in the kitchenette and played board games. They were in the middle of Scrabble when Nick came back out. Amanda was just laying the word "ZOOLOGIST" when he walked by toward the driving pit.

Brian watched him go by, then looked at Amanda, raised his eyebrows, and stood up. "Hey Nick, what'cha doing?" he asked, following his friend. Amanda stayed where she was with the Scrabble game.

Nick was getting behind the wheel of the bus. "I'm driving," he said resolutely.

Brian frowned, "You up for that?"

"Yeah," Nick nodded half heartedly. "I'm alright."

Brian sat down in the passenger seat as Nick stuck the key in the ignition. "Are you okay?" he asked carefully.

Nick sighed. "I guess so."

Brian looked at his hands, trying to decide how to word what he was thinking. "I know you're not happy about the-- the kiss thing." Nick's jaw set slightly, but he didn't say anything. "Nick, you know I wouldn't do that to you, buddy." Nick looked at Brian and blinked silently. "You know I wouldn't do it to Leighanne, either, but especially not to you."

Nick nodded slowly, "I know."

"And despite what you might be thinking right now," he said slowly, "I don't think Amanda would do it to you, either."

Nick's mouth formed a tight line.

"Really, Nick," Brian said, "I've been talking to Amanda since we've been on this trip and..." he paused. "There's something about her," he said, "I don't know what it is, but I think she's a genuinely good person."

Nick frowned. "I told her I loved her," he whispered.

Brian glanced back into the kitchenette to make sure Amanda couldn't hear them. If she could, she wasn't acting it. "When?" Brian asked.

"On the balloon ride," Nick answered.

Brian smiled, "Good for you, Nick."

"Yeah, except she doesn't love me back," he said. His insecurities bubbling to the surface at last, he scowled at his toes. "She stammered a lot and like stared at me, but didn't say anything. So I told her she didn't have to say it back, and --" Nick sighed. "So she didn't."

"What do you think that means?" Brian asked.

"Well I thought it meant she just wasn't - yanno - there yet," Nick answered slowly, "But then she kissed you and..." he paused, looking up at Brian. "What if she likes you more than me?"

Brian laughed. "Nick, please."

"I'm serious, Brian."

"Amanda does not like me more than you," Brian said as solemnly as he could possibly manage. The idea of Nick worrying about this was absurd. Nick - the most popular of the group, the one who all the fans screamed at when he just stood there breathing. Nick, the lovable one. "I'm just a friend. She was drunk. That's all."

"Yeah..." Nick sighed.

"Nick, really. That's all it is."

"I know," he answered. He turned to the wheel. "I really do gotta drive, though," he said. "We have a seven hour drive and we gotta be there the day after tomorrow for the early morning."

"Where are we headed next, Captain my Captain?" Brian asked.

Nick smirked, "I'm not telling."

Brian laughed, "You're such an asshole."

"Go beat my girlfriend at Scrabble, I wanna listen to music and think."

Brian snorted. "I think your girlfriend's beating me at Scrabble, she just put down the word zoologist on a triple word score square. I don't think there's anyway to recover from that."

Nick laughed, "Probably not."



As Nick drove I-25N through the evening, he listened to his emo-rock bands and thought about the press feeding frenzy that had been going on around the Backstreet Boys since they'd canceled the tour. Kevin had fielded so much crap for them it was insane. He'd done countless interviews and press releases, yet still the sharks continued to swarm.

He wondered who Pop Stuff Online had following them besides this Tobias Winterson, and why they couldn't seem to shake whoever it was off their tails. It wasn't like hot air ballooning had been a given when they took off from LA. The Grand Canyon, sure, but hot air ballooning had been weird and wacky and out of left field. Still they'd caught up.

And the worst part was they weren't just attacking Brian and himself this time, but they were including Amanda into the mix, too. Amanda, who wasn't even famous, just a normal everyday person. He felt bad dragging her into the media's eyes - I mean, I complain about it everyday, he thought, and here I am inflicting it on someone else now.

This Tobias character was troubling Nick. He knew the guy was a staff photographer for Pop Stuff, but he sold his photos to a lot of different news and gossip rags around the globe. He'd seen the guy's work as far away as Japan. But there was something else about him that was bugging him, and he wasn't sure what it was.

He was dwelling on the question as R.E.M.'s Everybody Hurts came on his iPod. Amanda appeared suddenly at his side and stepped down into the passenger's seat. She sat sideways, back to the window and looked at him, her legs tucked under her Indian-style.

"Hey," she said carefully. She smiled gently and held her feet with her hands.

"Hey," he said, acknowledging her.

She slipped her fingers between her toes. "I'm sorry about the kiss," she said, "It didn't mean anything."

"I know. I already talked to Brian about it," Nick said.

"I know you talked to Brian," Amanda said, "But you haven't talked to me yet."

"Sorry," he said.

Amanda paused, "Look, I know you're upset about the press thing. They should leave you alone, you're right."

"I'm not so much worried about me. I'm used to it," he said. "They've always shit on me since I was a kid. That's not the problem. I just don't like them treating Brian and you like that."

Amanda was surprised to hear these words. "Used to it?" she said, furrowing her brow.

"Yeah," Nick said, shaking his head bitterly. "The press have always acted like I'm some kind of white trash working class idiot that somehow accidentally made it big. They act like I'm a drunk imbecile who doesn't know anything. They publicize every negative thing I do, but barely publish the good stuff I do."

"How do you mean?"

"Well how much press did it get a few years ago when that Paris Hilton abuse thing blew up?" he asked. "Which, by the way, I did not do that. It's a long story, but I didn't do what they said I did."

"I believe you," Amanda stammered, and she did, because of the vehemence in his voice.

"But I spend a day at the local children's hospital once a week every week for two years and nothing. Not that I want publicity for it, I mean I do that stuff for the fun of getting to be with the kids and making them happy," he added quickly, "But still."

Amanda frowned, "Maybe they just don't realize --"

"They realize just fine," he said. "They don't want me to be anything except a piece of shit, that's all." He shrugged. "But I'm used to that, and I've been rising above it since I was thirteen. It's really not a huge deal."

"It's bothering you, though," Amanda observed, frowning.

He shrugged, "Not as much as it's bothering me that they can't leave you and Brian alone, either. I mean, Brian's gotten his fair share of poor news. They were attacking his beliefs not all that long ago over an event we did that had nothing to do with whether he was a Christian or not, and he sucked that up just fine. But this... they're basically accusing him of cheating on Leighanne, which he'd never do."

Amanda nodded. "We were talking about her," she said, "Just before it happened. He really loves her a lot."

Nick sighed, "And then they're attacking you, too, and..." He glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes. "Amanda, I don't want them doing that to you. They made you look really slutty in that picture and you aren't like that. But now my fans probably are all bashing the crap out of you online, and I hate the thought of that."

"They're probably gonna bash anyone you date," Amanda pointed out.

"Yeah but now they have a reason to bash you," he said.

Amanda smiled, "Nick. I can handle it. Don't worry about it."

"You're just an amazing person, Amanda, and I don't want them to get you down like they get me down sometimes," he said. "I just want you to be happy. You and Brian both. More than anything else." He smiled sadly at her, then turned back to the road.

Amanda looked down at her hands and listened to Nick's emo-music playing over the radio quietly in the background.
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