AJ took everyone upstairs to one of the guestrooms in his new house. He pulled about a dozen shoeboxes out of the closet and they were placed on the bed. She wasn't sure what to do with them, but Brian opened the first box and pulled out some pictures. They began to all share with her, repeating some of the very stories Nick had already told her. Soon the contents of the boxes were spewed about, each of them taking their turn talking. Lexie was the most surprised with Kevin. He had found his place stretched out across the bed on his stomach, pictures all around him.
"I remember when this was taken. I took it. We were all in L.A. for a video shoot. I never imagined there would be a time when she wasn't around." He said. Lexie could've sworn she heard his voice crack. "I guess she really isn't gone."
He ever so gently tucked the picture in one of the several shoeboxes lying around him. His light eyes met hers and spoke volumes in words he never used. He was a man of few words, because he just didn't need them.
A couple hours later, Alex woke up from his nap and the guys got up to stretch their legs. AJ was joking with Brian that it was his turn to change the poopy diaper as they left her alone with her mother's things.
It was amazing. Most of the items were notes AJ had written; songs and poems. She had written back, too. Their words reflected a love they just couldn't hang on to. There were baby pictures, including portraits of the three of them. Some she remembered from her house where she lived with her mother. Howie said he still had a few of her old things, but when she was first adopted, she seemed to have no interest in them. After she heard the doorbell, it didn't take too long for a shadow to cast itself across her where she was sitting on the floor.
"Can you imagine he saved all these things?" She smiled to herself. She felt her heart racing as he came nearer. He didn't say a word as he entered the room and knelt beside her on the floor.
Several heartbeats passed and she looked beside her to only see the top of his head bowed before her. She leaned over and laid her lips on the top of his head. He looked up; his eyes dry and stunned. She spared him a small smile. She watched his eyes close and he took a deep breath. He moved closer to her and she toward him. Only a hair's breath separated them.
"Hey, you guys! Dinner's here and AJ. . .I'm sorry." Brian stuttered as he ran into the room. He back peddled out as quickly as he came in.
Nick and Lexie separated quickly and she began to straighten up her mother's things. She never looked at him as she began to gently put the letters and things back in their boxes. They got up, picked up the boxes, and stacked them on the dresser.
"We'd better go to dinner." She said quietly, her eyes downcast onto his fine Italian leather shoes. She squeezed past him and headed out of the bedroom. Nick found himself following her in silence.
AJ had dinner brought in for all six of them and it was a night that she would never forget. Her years of wishing came true as she sat with her Dad's beloved brothers in the Backstreet Boys and they shared with her their lives, their hopes, their dreams and their fears. Kevin played the piano, the others sang for her and for themselves. Nick's eyes never met her and rarely came near her, but she couldn't keep hers off of him. He looked terrible. Tired, stressed and scared.
"Hey, babygirl, how about some of that pie the caterer brought?" AJ laughed as Alex launched a ball at Nick, hitting him gently in the face with it.
"Don't you all get up, I'll get it." She laughed as she got up from her spot on the couch and headed into the kitchen. Brian followed Lexie into the kitchen where she was serving up dessert.
"Is it everything you hoped?" he asked. She stopped and stared at him.
"Being with us. Are we living up to your expectations?" he asked.
"I haven't had expectations for years." She said, shaking her head.
"When are you going to tell them, Howie and AJ, where you've been and why you left?" he asked.
She narrowed her eyes at him. What did he want?
"I'm planning on tonight."
"Are you going to tell Nick?" he finally asked. Lexie raised an eyebrow at him.
"I will." She said.
"I know how much Nick loves you." He said, waiting to gauge her reaction.
"What?" she asked, stunned.
"Nick told me what happened. He only told me a while ago, he carried it with him all this time while you were gone." Brian said. After a long pause, Brian asked her, "Do you love him? Really love him?"
"Yes." She said after a little hesitation.
"He'll give us all up for you. If they turn on him, he won't care." He said.
"I won't ask that of him." She said.
"Your love can give him courage." Brian said, as though reading her mind.
"Your love already does." She said. She lifted two plates toward him, "Give me a hand?"
Lexie had thought of that. Howie and AJ might turn on him; she didn't know where Kevin would end up. At least she knew where Brian stood. Howie would always love her and eventually he would come to accept them, but her new found relationship with AJ was too frail to withstand this shock. There was no telling when it would be strong enough; she only hoped that if Nick decided to be with her, it would be the right time for her and AJ.
A future. You're thinking and planning for a future.
She carried in three pieces of pie herself. She handed one to her Dad and one to Nick and kept the third for herself. Nick took his pie he sat on the floor with Alex. Alex clamored up on him and opened his mouth for a bite.
"Nick? Where is CJ?" Howie asked.
"Angel came and got her this afternoon. I promised my folks she would spend part of the Christmas holiday with them. I have to head back myself." He said, picking pie out of AJ's carpet that Alex had dropped.
"When are you going back?" Brian asked.
"Pretty soon, probably before New Year's." He said, not looking up.
"Who is having the party this year?" Brian pestered.
"Leslie, it's her turn." He said, still not looking up from Alex eating pie out of his plate.
"What about you, Lexie? What are your New Year's plans?" Brian asked cheerfully.
"I. . .uh, don't really have any. I have to get back to school right afterwards."
"You stayed in school?"
"Yeah." She said.
"Where are you going?" Brian asked. Everyone froze. Howie had promised her they wanted her back, no questions asked. She finished the bite of pie she started and pulled the fork out of her mouth and then licked the back of it before she put it down.
"Funny you should ask." She smiled sweetly to Brian. "I enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle. I'm still an art major and I have a job at the Longman's Gallery in Wallingford. That's a neighborhood just west of the campus."
"And how are your grades?"
"Perfect as always." She smiled back at him.
"Anything else happen while you were gone?" Brian asked.
"I got married and had two children." She said, continuing to smile at Brian.
"Married?" Nick asked.
"She's kidding, Nick." Kevin said.
"So, why did you leave in the first place?" Brian asked.
"Brian, that's enough." Howie said sternly.
"No, I want to know." Brian insisted.
"Brian! I said 'that's enough'!" Howie snapped.
"No, Dad. It's all right." She said, reaching to him where he sat beside her. "I guess I owe everyone an explanation."
"No, not everyone." AJ said.
"Thanks, AJ." She smiled half heartedly at him.
"I was scared and I panicked. All these years, I've always wanted to be close to AJ and I've always wanted to know why he had left. But when he started speaking to my mother that night. . .I lost it. I think in some way my desperation to be with AJ pushed my grief for my mother up to the surface. When he started talking to her, I suddenly felt very alone. Like both my mother and father were gone. I never understood why being a part of the Doroughs just didn't feel like enough for me. I think. . ." She said.
"What, babygirl?" AJ asked quietly.
"No, I don't think I can. . ." She began.
"It's all right." Brian said.
"No, it's not! Damn it!" She slammed the dessert plate on the wood coffee table and got to her feet. Kevin got her by both arms as she tried to run past him the piano. She looked up into his face, seeing Jake.
"You've got to stop running." He said so quietly, no one really heard what he said to her. Now she knew where Jake got it from.
"I can't, Kevin." She whispered.
"Yes, you can." He said sternly. He turned her to face the other four. She stood there with Kevin's hands on her shoulders.
"I think I ran, because I knew that night how much AJ loved my mother. I was afraid that if I loved him as much as she did, I would die, too." She said quietly, not looking at any of them. Nothing could've stopped AJ from getting to her soon enough. His arms swallowed her up.
"Nothing like that is going to happen to you." He said.
"You don't understand, AJ. . ." she began.
"I know enough to know that your mother taught you to love me, in spite of everything I've done. I had Howie to show me the way. We are so lucky to be loved by both of them." He said, holding her at arm's length and looking into her eyes.
Maybe. Maybe he did kind of understand. She thought, searching his face.
Lexie sat back down between Howie and Brian on the couch and told them how she first heard the song. She told them how it was really seeing her mother's pregnancy that made her come home. They told her about "The Lexie Dorough Fund" and all the good that it was doing. AJ mentioned they should have some kind of press announcement of her return, but she said that wasn't something she was ready for right now. She still had a life and a job in Seattle to tend to.
"Why don't you come back here and finish your degree." AJ asked.
"No, I'm think I'll go back to USC."
"Really?" Howie asked in surprise.
"I am applying for an internship down there." She said.
"You'll do great." Nick said.
"I hope so. It's a pretty junior position, but it might turn into something down the road." She smiled.
"What do you think your friends are going to say when you get back?" Kevin asked. She let out a laugh that sounded so much like the old Lexie it even startled her.
"Well, one already knows." She smiled.
"Really? Who?" Howie asked.
"That's the irony of the whole thing. He's family." She chuckled.
"Jake Richardson." She said, looking at Kevin.
"Jake?" Nick asked.
"My second oldest boy. I can't believe it." Kevin said, shaking his head with a smile.
"I. . .it took him a while to figure it out, but he did." She said.
"You started to say something else." Brian said, pushing her.
"I had a couple rough times. He's been a great friend. He's a intern at the university radio station and he's kind of a 'guy Friday' at the gallery."
"Are you and Jake close?" Howie asked. He couldn't not think of the prospect of Lexie with one of Kevin's sons.
"No, well yes. We're good friends. We joke about being cousins."
"Is there anyone else?" AJ asked.
"For a little while, but it was nothing." She said, not looking at any of them.
"What happened?" AJ asked.
Lexie thought about it a second and then thought, "Well, Dad, I'm actually in love with someone else you know." She smiled to herself.
"He was a resident artist at the gallery, but moved to California a while ago. New opportunity."
"Is that why you're going back to USC?" AJ asked.
"No. I won't be seeing Matt again." She sighed.
Brian looked over at Nick, watching the blood drain from his face. She didn't have to say all that. Couldn't she see how it was killing him? Nick got up with Alex and gathered up a couple plates and headed to the kitchen without a word. Brian watched her eyes follow his every move. He wondered what would've happened if he hadn't interrupted them earlier. A vision of bliss came to Brian. How he wished for Nick that he hadn't walked in on them.
Brian went back to Nick's hotel suite to spend the night. It was deadly quiet with CJ gone to L.A. Nick was moving about, getting ready for bed the second he walked in the door. Brian could tell he was avoiding him.
"Are you really going to leave the little monkey in L.A.?" Brian asked to Nick's back as he followed Nick into his room. Nick headed right into the bathroom.
"I'm not. I'm leaving for L.A. tomorrow."
"Why didn't you say anything sooner?" he asked, sitting on the edge of Nick's bed.
"I didn't want to ruin tonight. CJ is there, so is my family. I've got all of these legal battles to deal with."
"Will you be at Leslie's for New Year's?"
"No, I'll just stay home."
"Did you at least have Christmas morning with CJ this year?"
"Yeah. Angel came and got her today, I said." Nick snapped, coming out of the bathroom brushing out his hair.
"What happened with Lexie?" Brian finally asked.
"Nothing, I. . .couldn't say anything to her. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I did nothing." He sighed. The brush sat quietly in his hand as his arms dropped to his side.
"She say anything?"
"No." He sighed.
"I told her I knew." Brian said.
"YOU WHAT?!" Nick declared.
"Relax, she even seemed a little relieved."
"What did she say?" Nick asked eagerly. Brian could tell Nick was hanging on his every word, looking for something to hold on to.
"She said she loves you. I think she'll wait for you." Brian said.
"She said that?"
"I think she knows what you're up against. She's up against it, too. Her relationship with AJ is less than 24 hours old."
"What about Howie and Kevin?" He asked, coming to sit next to Brian.
"Kevin? Who knows?" Brian shrugged, "Howie will be pissed, but he'll get over it."
"I don't know about that. I think he'd take it harder than AJ."
"No, I think AJ will explode." Brian said honestly.
"He's not the only one." Nick sighed heavily.
Nick felt like shit for leaving the next day without a word to anyone except Brian. He kicked himself on the flight home for not talking to her, but he could only remember how he felt when he first saw her. He was speechless and it took so much energy to control his body that he couldn't actually speak. He remembered the sickening feelings he felt when she talked about her friend, Matt, back in school. Brian had said she loved him and he knew he loved her, but he also knew they could never really ever be together.
He was sure of that.
It was just another one of his sad doomed fantasies.