Howie's eyes searched the young woman in front of him. The voice had been right, but the look. She looked so different. Howie stumbled toward her, she caught him in her arms and he held her tightly. Soon the whole clan was outside. John and Tyler went and grabbed her bags and they turned and headed inside.
"Look at you!" her mother declared, touching her very blonde curls.
"Something, huh?" she said.
"Are you all right? Where have you been? Are you hungry?" Howie asked, taking her to the kitchen table that was a mess with Christmas breakfast.
"I'm starved, actually." She admitted. "I guess I've got some explaining to do."
"No, I'm sorry I asked. I promised. No questions asked." He said, sitting next to her at the table. Her mom loaded up a plate of pancakes for her and placed them in front of her.
"Thanks Dad." She said, stuffing food in her mouth.
"Just one, are you all right?" her mom asked.
"Yes, I am." She smiled.
"Are you sure she's all right?" John asked Howie as they cleared some of the Christmas dinner plates at their parent's house.
"She says she is." Howie said, pulling the garbage can out from under the sink and scraping the plates before handing them to John to rinse.
"She's so thin. She can't be a hundred pounds." John said.
"I know, I can't believe it myself. I'm just glad she's here." Howie said.
"What are you going to do now? Has she told you why she left?" John asked.
"No, and I promised I wouldn't ask any questions as long as she came home."
"It doesn't sound like she's going to be staying."
"Have you told AJ?"
"Yes, I called him when we got here. He's ecstatic and can't wait to see her." Howie sighed.
"You don't want that, do you? You still blame him for her leaving."
"I think I might, I don't want to. He was so sick that night. He didn't know what he was saying. Besides, I don't even know if she wants to see him."
"I do." They heard her say from behind.
"I’m sorry, honey. I didn't mean to talk about you. . ." Howie began.
"It's all right, Dad. So, he knows I'm here?" she asked, handing him the plates she carried in.
"What about the others?" she asked.
"I'm sure he called them. He wants you to come by tonight. . ."
"I'm too tired, tell him tomorrow, okay?" she smiled, wiping her hands on a towel he had flung over his shoulder.
"Sure, Lex, anything." Howie nodded.
Lexie tucked the boys in bed and told them stories while her parents waited downstairs for her. She stopped off at her old room where she would be spending her vacation while she was here. It looked the same, even if she didn't feel the same in it.
She walked down the familiar stairs and stopped in the foyer and thought of the time when Nick had walked in here with CJ. She turned into her father's den, where Nick had told her so much about how her father loved her. He had told her how much he had loved AJ, too.
"I spoke with AJ." He said, standing in the doorway behind her. "He said we can come by any time. He bought a house here in Orlando and it's only about 15 minutes away."
"How's Nick?" she asked, trying to sound casual.
"I'm surprised you didn't keep in touch with him. You seemed so. . . close." He said.
"No, I didn't keep in touch with anyone."
"He's still here in Orlando. He's planning to go to L.A. for the New Year. He's got multiple lawsuits pending because of the labor problems with that tour." He said.
"I heard some things about it, is it really that bad?"
"Yes, he's liquidated everything he owns except the house in L.A. He'll be in court for years and it'll cost him millions." He said.
"I'm so sorry to hear that." She nodded.
Howie wanted to know.
What happened in Detroit? Had Nick done something they didn't know about? Was it really all about AJ as everyone thought?
He could no longer deny those questions.
"Did Nick say something in Detroit to make you leave?" he asked suddenly. Lexie seemed shocked when he asked.
"No, I was leaving any ways." She said. "I needed to get away from everything Backstreet."
"I never thought that would ever sound like a cuss word."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that."
"Yes, you did. I made it that way, I should've never kept you and AJ apart all these years." He admitted. "I was wrong."
Lexie was stunned. She didn't know what to say.
"You? I thought he stayed away."
"I didn't make it easy for him."
"He did want to see me?" she asked, but the look on Howie's face told her he hadn't. "I didn't think so."
"If I had had more of an open door policy, maybe he would have made more of an effort. . ."
"Is this what you've been talking about all these months? What went wrong?" she asked.
"What else was there? Lexie, all we could think about was you and finding you." Howie said.
"You haven't told me about the baby." She said, changing the subject.
Howie's face lit up and she could see he was truly happy about it. "We made plans before you left. I'm so glad it worked out. We're hoping for a girl."
"When is she due?"
"June 14th." he smiled.
"In time for John's birthday." She smiled, but it was an empty one.
"I know this is going to take some getting used to. . ."Howie began, moving closer to her.
"No, I think it's great. I wish you all the happiness. . ."
"Lex? Are you going to leave again?"
"I have to get back to school after the first. I was hoping to stay a while."
"Of course." He said, his hand reaching to touch her face. "I hope you keep in touch when you're gone."
"I will, I promise." She smiled. She got up and went into his arms. "I'm sorry, Dad. I love you."
The drive over with Howie had been quiet. He wasn't asking any more questions, and Lexie felt some guilt about not giving any real explanations. That time would come, she silently promised him. One thing at a time. First AJ.
Brian and Kevin were already at AJ's when she and Howie arrived. Kevin was there again opening the door one more time for her. This time a smile warmed his dark face, lighting his eyes. He drew her into his arms as she walked into the house and she found herself buried in a massive bear hug.
AJ did look great. He was so healthy and happy. His smile just lit up the room when he saw her enter his den. Brian was the first one off the couch and giving her a hug. She found herself reaching her hand toward AJ and pulling him into her arms. "You look great." She whispered in his ear. He looked just beautiful to her and she wasn't sure why.
The strength and warmth in her embrace surprised AJ. Howie had told him she was changed, but to AJ, that didn't mean much. He never knew her well before. The other guys left the room and she was surprised when she turned around and they were gone.
"Gee, where'd everyone go?" she laughed.
"They thought they'd give us some time alone." AJ said.
"Are you sure that's what you want?" she asked.
"Howie said you had changed. . ."
"I still have the same issues, the same questions. I just feel differently about them now, that's all that's changed." She said. "I meant what I said, you look great."
"You're so thin. . ." he mumbled.
"Maybe it runs in the family." She shrugged gently.
"The hair is a nice touch." He smiled.
"Stupid, huh? It happened in one of my more un-Dorough like moments." She said, running her fingers through her curls.
"It looks more McLean." He said.
"I guess that would be true." She nodded. "You shaved."
"Yeah, I got tired of it." He nodded, rubbing his bare chin.
"I'm sorry about your wife, I heard what happened." She said.
"Thank you. Alex's illness took its toll on her." He nodded sadly.
"Where is he? Where's Alex?" she asked eagerly.
"He's upstairs asleep. He had a busy day at his grandparents' yesterday." He smiled.
"I'd like to see him later."
"Of course, I owe you for his life."
"No you don't. It was the right thing to do, you don't owe me anything." She said.
"Yes, I owe you a lot. A lot of answers, apologies, explanations. . . anything you want." He said softly.
She looked at him and stared for the longest time. Her heart raced and her fears began to overwhelm her. Twenty-one years she had waited and this was it. It was the moment she had fantasized and dreaded most in the whole world. She couldn't count the years she had spent praying he would tell her the answers to the one question she had carried in her heart all this time.
"Why?" she asked so quietly he barely heard her.
"Why did you leave?" she asked, choking on her words. She raised a hand up between them and composed herself. Her black eyes brimmed with unbidden tears. "Why did you abandon me when my mother died? You were my father. My mother never said an unkind word about you while she was alive. When she died, I just assumed I'd go live with you. I never dreamed you didn't want me." Lexie said, tears beginning to stream down her face. "Why AJ? Why when I came to you, you signed your rights over to Howie?"
He suddenly gripped with an unexplainable feeling of horror and dread of what he had done 11 years ago. He understood the crying and the screaming and the roller coaster of emotions she had been on all these years. He understood why she ran after that night in the suite.
Amanda had instilled her love for him in his child before she had died. All these years gone and Amanda was still there for him; still loving him. Hot tears began to roll down his face. He could see so much of Amanda in her, especially how she loved him.
"I did what I thought was best." He gasped. "Howie had Leah, they were planning to get married. You deserved a real family like what Howie could've given you with the Dorough's. Howie Dorough is a better man than I am, you were better off with him."
"But you were my father!" she screamed.
"Howie has been an excellent father to you!" he yelled back.
"I know that! It doesn't change the fact that no matter how much he loved me, he couldn't fill this huge hole in my heart! The one for my father, you, AJ!" she yelled back. "God, I've felt so guilty all these years because his love just wasn't enough! I can't believe I'm even saying it! I shouldn't feel this way! Howie scarified everything for me! All these years, I never truly believed he loved me. I never believed he could protect me from my greatest fear and that was you! But when I saw my mom, I knew I was wrong. I knew AJ, even after all this time, regardless of what I did that I could always come home and he would always love me. Always, AJ! It took me 11 years and thousand of miles, but I know that no one has ever loved me like he has. Look what I've done to him! Look what I've done to myself! Look at all I've been through just because you left me! Just like you left my mother!"
Her hand flew over her mouth. God, it sounded as awful as when she said it as when she just thought it! He would do it. He would leave again. He would finally hate her, just as she always feared.
"I thought I was doing what was best." He said quietly, not looking at her. "I had no idea it would come to this. It's all my fault. I don't know what else to say. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I hurt you, I'm sorry I left you, I’m sorry you feel so terrible about yourself, I'm sorry I let Howie adopt you, I'm sorry I waited this long to tell you how much I love you."
Her eyes met his.
She had known him only through pictures and videos and his music just like all of his fans. Her heart skipped a beat when his eyes reflected the love in his heart and she could see it exactly how she fantasized it.
"Howie has been too, too good to me all these years. He loves us both so much; he's given me a chance to have you back with an understanding on how to love you. What can I do, Lexie? What do I have to do?" he began to beg.
"Don't leave me, Daddy." she whispered.
"No, Lexie. Never. I'll never leave you. I swear." He choked.
His eyes fell shut as tears streamed down his face. They suddenly flew open as she crashed into him, wrapping her arms around him as she began to sob. They crumpled to the floor holding each other and crying. Lexie cried like she did when her mother died. She was crying because she had been right to get on the plane and come home. She found the courage to face the end of her journey and demand her answers. In her heart, she could love Howie even more because he was still able to give her what she really did need and AJ had been right. Howie was the best choice and it had been a good decision, even if they didn't realize that until 21 years later.
AJ pushed back her hair and wiped her eyes, caressing her gaunt cheeks. She was merely a shadow of the girl he had met a year and half ago.
"I don't deserve to be called 'daddy'." He said quietly. "But I've always longed to hear it from you."
"I've waited so long to say it." She sniffled.
"I've waited so long to hear it." He choked. "I have some things for you. They belonged to your mother." He added with a smile.
"Really? You still have some of her things?" Lexie asked, pushing herself away from him and looking into his face.
"I couldn't let them go. Come on, I'll show you." He smiled, taking her hand and helping her up. He opened the den door and they found the others in the hall. Howie was sitting on the floor across from them, his head buried in his arms. Kevin and Brian were trying to console him.
"Dad?" she asked, going over to him. He was racked with tears and she threw herself into his arms. He held her and cried, some more. "Daddy, please don't cry." She pleaded. "Everything is going to be fine."
"I had no idea, Lex, you were suffering so much all these years. . .if I had known. . ."
"You would've done everything in your power to make it right. You did, Dad. You have been working on it for 11 years. No matter what, you'll always be my Daddy." She cried. She pulled a tissue out of her pocket and tried to give it to him and he laughed a little.
"Don't you have a clean one?" They shared a private joke.
"Come on, AJ is going to share some things of my mother's." She said, pulling him to his feet. AJ embraced Howie, but Lexie could see him hesitate. Nick had been right, Howie loved AJ, but he loved her more.
"Now, you have two dads." Howie said, almost bitterly.
"No, I only have one Dad. One dad and an AJ." She smiled, taking Howie's hand and touching AJ's cheek. She knew that AJ didn't want to hurt Howie and he would always be her dad, but AJ was going to be AJ and for now, that was enough.
"And I hope an Uncle Brian and an Uncle Kevin." Brian smiled.
"All we need now is Uncle Nick." Kevin smiled.
Brian saw her eyes drop to the floor, but Howie spoke up first. "No, he's just Nick. She made him promise not to be a 'dad'."
"He won't be a 'dad' he's an Uncle." AJ laughed.
Not even close, Brian thought, you guys aren't even close.