Something Beautiful by Pengi
Past Featured StorySummary:

After canceling their sold-out world tour the day before the first concert, the Backstreet Boys have become the center of a media frenzy. Brian, Nick, and Nick's new girlfriend, Amanda, use the newfound down-time to embark upon a search for the meaning of life, and the beauty that comes with it.

Featured Story of January 2011 - Click here to check out the discussion!

Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Brian, Nick, Other
Genres: Dramedy, Romance
Warnings: Death
Series: Something Beautiful
Chapters: 63 Completed: Yes Word count: 84545 Read: 135544 Published: 07/08/10 Updated: 07/21/10
Story Notes:
*It is rated PG-13 for language & some sexual content... :)


1. Introduction by Pengi

2. "Backstreet Boys Cancel World Tour One Day Before Kick-off" by Pengi

3. Chapter One by Pengi

4. Chapter Two by Pengi

5. "Still No Word from Backstreet Boys One Month After..." by Pengi

6. Chapter Three by Pengi

7. Chapter Four by Pengi

8. Chapter Five by Pengi

9. "Road Trip Plans Cause Rift Between Backstreet Boys" by Pengi

10. Chapter Six by Pengi

11. Chapter Seven by Pengi

12. "Runaway Backstreet Boys Spotted in the Grand Canyon National Park” by Pengi

13. Chapter Eight by Pengi

14. Chapter Nine by Pengi

15. Brian's Journal Entry by Pengi

16. "Backstreet Boys Saddle Up in Arizona!" by Pengi

17. Chapter Ten by Pengi

18. Chapter Eleven by Pengi

19. Chapter Twelve by Pengi

20. Chapter Thirteen by Pengi

21. Chapter Fourteen by Pengi

22. "Eye to the Skies: Backstreet Boys Soar Over New Mexico" by Pengi

23. Chapter Fifteen by Pengi

24. Chapter Sixteen by Pengi

25. Chapter Seventeen by Pengi

26. Chapter Eighteen by Pengi

27. Chapter Nineteen by Pengi

28. Chapter Twenty by Pengi

29. Chapter Twenty-One by Pengi

30. Chapter Twenty-Two by Pengi

31. Chapter Twenty-Three by Pengi

32. "Nick Carter Falls For Amanda Golde in Boulder, CO" by Pengi

33. Chapter Twenty-Four by Pengi

34. Chapter Twenty-Five by Pengi

35. Chapter Twenty-Six by Pengi

36. Chapter Twenty-Seven by Pengi

37. Chapter Twenty-Eight by Pengi

38. Chapter Twenty-Nine by Pengi

39. Chapter Thirty by Pengi

40. "Troubles for Traveling Backstreet Boys" by Pengi

41. Chapter Thirty-One by Pengi

42. Chapter Thirty-Two by Pengi

43. Chapter Thirty-Three by Pengi

44. Chapter Thirty-Four by Pengi

45. Chapter Thirty-Five by Pengi

46. Brian's Journal Entry by Pengi

47. Chapter Thirty-Six by Pengi

48. Chapter Thirty-Seven by Pengi

49. Chapter Thirty-Eight by Pengi

50. Chapter Thirty-Nine by Pengi

51. Chapter Forty by Pengi

52. Chapter Forty-One by Pengi

53. Chapter Forty-Two by Pengi

54. Chapter Forty-Three by Pengi

55. Chapter Forty-Four by Pengi

56. Chapter Forty-Five by Pengi

57. Chapter Forty-Six by Pengi

58. "One Night Only: Brian Littrell, Live at Turner Field" by Pengi

59. "Backstreet Boys Brian Littrell's Last Show" by Pengi

60. Chapter Forty-Seven by Pengi

61. Chapter Forty-Eight by Pengi

62. Chapter Forty-Nine by Pengi

63. "Something Beautiful" by Pengi

Introduction by Pengi
If you ever want to conduct an interesting yet easy experiment, Google the word BEAUTIFUL and click the images only option. The variety of things that Google returns with that keyword is insane; everything from the expected to the bizarre. Sunsets, naked women, flowers, animals, the Cross, the woods, the ocean, mountains, city scapes, gay porn, paintings, people’s Facebook profile pictures, quotes, books, wedding gowns… you name it, and it’s probably there somewhere.

Googling the word is proof that beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder.

I’ve seen many things, myself. I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve seen almost every country there is, every landscape, visited all the wonders of the world. Yet, I feel the need to figure out what the word means to me, which is why I won’t stop until I find it.

As soon as we are on the road, Nick and I, there will be no going back. I am looking forward to the amazing journey he’s plotted out, but I am afraid, also, about leaving behind everything that's going on here. This was my idea, though, to get away from it, and I can be nothing but eternally grateful to my friend for making it happen. He worked so hard on it…

He’s an amazing friend, Nick. It’s not a lot of guys that’ll drop everything and follow their buddy on a search for Lord-knows-what.

Like I told him at the start, when he was worried about what I was looking for: I’ll know it when I see it, in that instant that it takes my breath away. “There it is,” I’ll say, “Something beautiful.”

I know already what Nick’s going to do when it happens, too. He’s going to laugh, toss his head back as far as it’ll go, and that dopey grin of his will spread all over his face, and he’ll agree with me wholeheartedly. Then he’ll take a picture of it and keep it for the rest of his life. That’s just how Nick is.

"Backstreet Boys Cancel World Tour One Day Before Kick-off" by Pengi
Backstreet Boys Cancel World Tour One Day Before Kick-off
Pop Stuff Online – Staff Writer

In a move that has fans irate and worried, the popular boy band, the Backstreet Boys, has cancelled all 38 stops on their international New Beginning tour. The band, which has slowly risen to fame once more since splitting from old recording label, Jive Records, was supposed to begin the sold-out tour in New York City tomorrow night.

“We regret to announce that the tour is being called off,” announced ex-member, turned manager, Kevin Richardson this morning from the steps of the Boys’ hotel. “This was a very hard decision, but it was necessary. We feel bad for the fans, but sometimes there are circumstances outside of our control, which we must deal with.”

When asked why the band was backing out, though, Richardson had little to say. “While the reasons we have for cancelling are good, we do not wish to disclose them at this time. Once we have a little bit more information on the subject, we will do an official press release with the details,” he said.

“I’m upset that I won’t get to see the show, of course,” said a 24-year old fan, who waited in line for five hours to purchase the ticket to the concert. “But of course I’m more worried about the Boys. I mean, I’ve been a fan for fifteen years and I know they wouldn’t cancel the tour without a good reason. Especially now.”

The timing of the cancellation is, of course, extremely unfortunate. The Boys’ recent success has been comparable to that of the phenomenon of 1999, and this will be a major blow to their careers. “They’re losing a lot of money, and a lot of fan interest,” cautioned a music-industry expert. “This is the same situation that caused them to fall in 2001.”

This announcement does, of course, remind Backstreet Boys fans of another time in the band’s history when a tour was suddenly cancelled. In 2001, the Backstreet Boys cancelled their Black & Blue world tour in the wake of member A.J. McLean being admitted into a rehabilitation center for drugs and alcohol usage.

In fact, as speculation runs wild on the Internet, one of the many rumors blames the cancellation on a relapse, following recent candid photos of McLean drinking at a club in Los Angeles. Additional speculation revolves around the youngest member, Nick Carter, who went public with a heart condition several years ago in People Magazine.

Fans who had already purchased tickets to the shows will be fully reimbursed by the boy band, and the tickets will not be honored on any future Backstreet Boys tours. The band has posted a toll-free number on their official website,, for fans to call to claim their refund.
Chapter One by Pengi
Chapter One

The first time Nick had met Amanda was in the back parking lot behind the hotel where they’d held the initial press release about the cancelled tour. He’d snuck out through the kitchen to sneak a smoke. The other guys thought he’d quit a long time ago, and he had, really. He had gone through probably twelve bags of Tootsie Roll pops to do it, picking out only the brown ones, but he’d done it. However, the stress had made him dig through his backpack for the “emergency pack” he’d stowed away in a paper bag.

Amanda had been back there already when Nick burst out the kitchen door, clutching his backpack and glancing over his shoulder like an escaped convict as it closed. He didn’t notice her at first, but sat down on an overturned milk crate and dug through the bag until he’d extricated the Marlboros and a lighter. Kicking the bag aside, he’d clicked the lighter and the flame ignited the end of the cigarette, which he raised to his mouth and breathed in with a sigh of relief.

“Damn, that feels good,” he muttered, closing his eyes and relishing the feeling of the tobacco soaking his lungs and throat, chasing his brainwaves around in his head and releasing the stress. He imagined the feeling when AJ did that egg-cracked-on-your-head thing, and that ticklish, dripping feeling was the stress pouring out of him.

“Quit, too, huh?”

The voice startled him, and he looked around with frantic motion. His eyes landed on Amanda and he went to put out the light, ashamed that a fan had caught him.

“You don’t have to put it out,” she said, holding up her own Marlboro adorned hand.

“Thank God,” Nick replied. He took another drag. “I try not to smoke in front of fans,” he explained.

She looked around at the empty lot around them. “Um, sorry?”

Nick shrugged, “I dunno, it just seems like bad role modeling or something when I do.”

“Well, lucky for you, there doesn’t seem to be any fans around,” she answered.

Nick flushed, catching what she meant. “Sorry, I just assumed…”

“You know what they say about assuming right?”

“It makes an ass out of you and me,” Nick replied.

Amanda nodded, “Other than the part where I’m an ass, too, that is very true.” She stood up from the place where she’d been sitting on her sweatshirt on the ground.

Nick gave her a once over. She was nice looking, he decided, and unique. She had brown hair that hung to her shoulders in loose curls that he imagined her rolling out of bed with. Her arms were covered with those black plastic bracelets that teens wore these days but that had just been cool in the late 80s and early 90s. Come to think of it, the whole of her looked like she had just stepped out of Seattle in 1992, from the black Doc Martin boots to the flannel-over-a-tank that she wore over ripped-at-the-knee jeans. “I’m Amanda,” she told him, striking out her hand.

“Nick,” he said, taking it.

“Duh.” She sat down next to him on another overturned milk crate and the messenger bag she carried over one shoulder slumped beside her on the ground. “I may not be a fan, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lived in a cave since the whole BSB thing exploded. So you’re uber famous, but you’re sneaking out the back door for a smoke?”

“Like I said, I don’t like smoking in front of fans,” I said.

“Because they’re all like twelve?”

Nick laughed. “Nah. Not all of them anyways. Some of them are, you know, legal, at least.”

“Must make groupies more fun,” she said.

He didn’t answer. It was a subject that the Boys had always tried to avoid in conversations and interviews.

“So the buzz of the hotel is that you guys just cancelled your like million dollar sold out tour,” she said. Nick watched the smoke stream from her mouth, and imagined that she was part woman, part fire-breathing dragon. Somehow imagining her being a mythical creature of this sort made Nick desire her even more than he was already before the thought had occurred to him.

He shrugged in response to the statement about the tour.

“Why’d you cancel it?” she asked.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” he answered, flicking away ash from the tip of his cigarette. It was the worst thing that had ever happened, ever. It was the reason he was out here smoking again.

Amanda pulled her pack out of a pocket on her hip and a lighter that had been clasped to her pulse point by the bracelets around her wrist. She flicked the lighter and the cigarette lit. Her black-polished fingernails reminded him of AJ and made him feel sad that the tour wasn’t going to happen. He’d been looking forward to it for months.

Unlike the other guys, Nick had no one waiting for him at home. He’d ended a long-term relationship the year before and blasted his way through a string of girls so fast that even the fans hadn’t seen half of them in paparazzi photos. The last one had stolen a bunch of stuff from his apartment, and the one before that shattered three out of four rare Star Trek coffee mugs that he’d collected. So all that was waiting for him at home in Los Angeles was the heat and indigestion from too much take-out.

Tours were Nick’s sanctuary. The other guys complained while they were on tour because they were homesick, but Nick was homesick in between tours. The bus that the Boys shared for months at a time as they crisscrossed the States was his true home, had been since he was thirteen and trying to get the hell away from his parents. He had never told anyone, but during the hiatus, when they’d cancelled the tour for AJ’s stint in rehab, Nick had yearned to just visit the bus, sleep in the bunk in the dirty sheets and his Spiderman comforter, and smell the stink of five guys sharing a small space.

Now, it was very possible that he’d never spend time on the bus again. Ever.

He pushed the thought from his mind.

“So if you aren’t a fan, what brings you here?” he asked Amanda in an attempt to change the subject from himself.

“Business,” she answered dully. “My boss sent me out here to do some stuff and I just snuck back here to get a smoke.”

“What do you do?” Nick asked, curious.

Amanda smiled. “Well, in my heart I’m a writer, but nobody wants to publish the crappy poetry I write, so I do what I can to get by and that’s enough. My boss owns a bunch of publishers and he needed me to come out to pick up some stuff for one of them.”

“So he paid for a swanky hotel and you get to hide out back and smoke cigarettes on your free time,” Nick laughed. “He didn’t even get you a smoking room?”

Amanda shrugged, “Well, he did, but my co-worker’s up there and he doesn’t like it when I smoke.” She took a drag and glanced up the side of the building toward the window of her room.

“Control freak?” I asked, frowning.

“Just a freak,” she replied. She stood up and dusted the dirt from the ground off her butt, tossing the last of her cigarette onto the floor and putting it out with the toe of her boot. “It was nice meeting you, Nick,” she said.

He hesitated a moment, unsure if he was over-stepping his bounds – but he decided that he didn’t really care even if he was. “When are you leaving?”br>
“I’m here awhile,” she replied, shrugging.

Nick nodded. “Cool. Maybe we could do coffee sometime?”

Amanda nodded, a half-smile curling the left side of her mouth only. “You know where to find me. I’m a chain-smoker.”

Nick watched as she disappeared around the hotel and contemplated her a moment before putting out his own light, and heading back inside, stopping in the lobby bathroom to speed-chew a piece of gum before going to face the coyotes that were his band mate brothers.
Chapter Two by Pengi
Chapter Two

Nick found Amanda fascinating. There was something about her, the way she moved and talked, that had him hung up on her. And it turned out that they had a lot in common besides being relapsing smokers; important things, like music interests and aversion to small children. Amanda, too, lived in Los Angeles, which was something that had bothered Nick when he remembered that he met her at a hotel she was staying at. He didn’t live full time in LA, but he had a place there, too, and for Amanda, he might be willing to relocate for awhile, at least.

He didn’t introduce her to the other Backstreet Boys. “There’s too much crazy shit going on right now, it wouldn’t be right,” he said, avoiding her eye contact. When she’d asked what the crazy shit was he’d shaken his head, “I don’t really wanna talk about it.”

A month had gone by after the return to LA, with Nick seeing Amanda almost everyday, before he invited her to his apartment to watch a movie. Amanda had shown up wearing jeans and a Dr. Pepper t-shirt, carrying fluffy slippers, pajama pants, and a box of movie theater butter popcorn.

“Your place is nice,” she said, looking around the futuristic apartment. Nick had a large kitchen with sleek black appliances and granite counter tops with a large breakfast bar that split the kitchen from the dining area, which he evidently didn’t use as such, because it was void of a table, replaced by bean-bag chairs and a pinball machine.

“Thanks,” he said shrugging, “It’s just, yanno, a place.” He took the popcorn, “Sweet! Movie theater butter!” Bounding into the kitchen, he left her in the dining area to continue looking around. He ripped the box open and started poking around at the microwave. “Was it a long ride over?” he asked absently as he worked on getting the popcorn settings right.

“Traffic was kind of crap,” Amanda replied. She gasped. She’d just stepped into the living room, which was through a door flanked by two in-wall fish tanks that afforded a view of thousands of tiny goldfish from each side of the wall, and gave a aquamarine glow to the living room. The glow, she discovered, was echoed in the decorating style that he’d put into place. The couch stood in the center, full and soft and dark, midnight blue, with three over stuffed chairs, strategically placed around the room to afford every seat a view of an unassuming television that hung simply on the wall.
The walls were painted the same color blue as the sofa, and the carpet was a lighter, complimentary shade of teal. What trim there was had been painted black, giving the room a sharp, photo-like finish. Tall palm trees stood on either side of a sliding glass door that led out onto a balcony, which afforded a clear view of the city, its lights bright like stars in a sky that had fallen down.

The smell of popcorn permeated the air.

Amanda was analyzing a series of pictures that Nick had put on a shelf over his CD collection. Over the shelf hung all of the Boys’ multi-platinum plaques. The pictures were from tours – his favorite photos of himself with his brothers. She was stooped, looking at each one carefully.

The first picture was of the Boys standing in front of Universal Studios theme park, a large plastic dinosaur looking over the side of a high brick wall. They had hoisted Nick up on their shoulders and were pretending to feed him to the beast. They looked so young, and their clothes were so dated that Amanda chuckled just looking at it. Nick’s face in the picture was one of mock terror, and overwhelming joy.

Another picture had them all dressed up in business suits on a red carpet, but instead of the classic pose that usually would be taken at a red carpet event, the Boys were all pulling faces. Kevin had his eyelids inside out, Brian had flared his nose and crossed his eyes, Nick had pushed his ears forward and puckered his lips into a fish face, Howie was sticking out his tongue and peering down the end of his nose, and AJ’s lips were contorted in a way that seemed impossible – like a bleating cow.

She ran her finger tips across the edge of the shelf as she looked at them, clutching her pajama pants and slippers to her chest. She could hear Nick in the other room, opening cupboard doors and pouring the popcorn into bowls. The fridge door banged shut and she knew he must’ve been pouring sodas.

When she came to the last picture on the shelf, she bent down to get a closer look. It seemed the most recent, judging by Brian’s receding hairline and Nick’s weight. He had his arm thrown over Brian’s shoulder, grinning, and leaning over his friend, who sat in a chair in a room that looked both familiar and yet not at all anywhere that Amanda could place. The wall behind them was beige and dark teal, split by a pine accent about halfway up. The fluorescent lighting had done absolutely nothing for either of the two men, only made their skin seem nearly transparent and gave them each a somewhat unhealthy look. She noticed the bags under their eyes and wondered what on earth had made Nick keep this picture with the other ones that he had on the shelf. It didn’t seem special in anyway, and the smiles on their faces looked almost painfully forced.

Nick came into the room, carrying a TV tray laden with two yellow bowls filled to overflowing with popcorn, and two fizzing bottles of pop. “I wasn’t sure what you’d wanna watch,” he said, “But I’ve got a crapton of movies.” He motioned to some shelves she hadn’t seen that made up the bottom half of the wall beneath the fish tanks to the floor. The shelves, on either side of the door, were chockablock full of DVDs, the way a library would be full of books. “You can pick what you want… I’ll get the surround sound fixed up.”

Amanda looked surprised, “You have surround sound here?” she asked.

Nick nodded, “They’re mounted to the walls.” He pointed up to the corners of the room, and Amanda noticed four very tiny speakers that she’d somehow overlooked until he’d pointed them out. They blended perfectly with the black trim of the room, giving them a ghostly there-but-not quality.

Amanda looked through his movies, trying not to laugh at some of the typical guy titles he had. Die Hard, Alien, E.T., Fast & Furious, The Matrix, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter. A slew of karate fight movies were all grouped together, along with titles like Godzilla and King Kong. A full collection of Disney cartoons surprised her, though, and she held up her favorite Disney movie, The Little Mermaid, and laughed. “I can’t believe you own this.”

He smiled, “Disney kicks ass. Plus Ariel’s hot.”

She put the DVD back on the shelf and kept looking through the titles to choose from. He had 24 on DVD, grouped with other movies Keifer Sutherland had starred in. It was from this grouping that she pulled Stand By Me and stood up. “Here, this one.” She handed the DVD to Nick.

He smiled, “This is one of my very favorites,” he admitted, moving toward the TV and hitting a button on the side of it. A DVD tray popped out.

“Where can I change?” she asked, holding up the pajama pants and slippers.

Nick pointed at the door to the living room. “If you go out there, and hang a left, the bathroom’s the first door in the hall on your right.”

Amanda left him setting up the sound and picture options on the TV remote and followed his directions. She found the bathroom okay, but, peeking back toward the living room to make sure he wasn’t following her, she couldn’t resist opening the door opposite the bathroom’s in the hallway. It was a closet, stocked with towels and soaps. A laundry basket was overflowing below with underwear and socks. She wondered where the actual clothes were, and remembered having read somewhere once that Nick wore dirty clothes all the time and laughed at the idea.

She chanced going a little further down the hall, and opened the next door on the left, and found a pristine guest bedroom, done in shades of pink and red, with a floral pattern wall paper and dark bedding. The room obviously hadn’t been used in awhile, and it smelled like cleaning products and poppuri. Nick definitely did not design that room, she decided, backing out and closing the door.

The next door opened into what had to be Nick’s bedroom. It looked like a tornado had touched down. Stuff was everywhere in there, clothes strewn over a desk chair and bookshelves, piled onto an overstuffed chair in the corner. Everything was green in there, dark and lush looking. His bedspread was messed up, down pillows crushed and contorted in various positions across the wide expanse of bed. A laptop glowed from the head of the bed, his email program pulled up. Drawers were pulled out in a chest that stood kitty-cornered, and on top of it sat a relatively small stereo, with an iPod docked in the front. This room, too, had a balcony, but it stared out toward the ocean instead of the city.

Amanda backed out of the room, wishing she’d had more time to continue exploring down the hall, but knowing she was already taking a little too long changing. She went back to the bathroom door and stepped inside to change. In comparison to the rest of Nick’s apartment, the bathroom was amazingly normal. He didn’t have a bath tub, though, only a shower with a frosted glass stall. She pulled on her pajama pants and slid her feet into the slippers as quickly as she could, folded her jeans, and left them sitting on the closed toilet seat. She wanted an excuse to return to the bathroom later.

Returning into the living room, she found Nick had pulled the TV tray over to the sofa and sat down at one end, his legs up on the long couch, the menu of the DVD up on the screen. Amanda joined him, sitting between his legs, her back to his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close, and she reached for the bowl of popcorn. “I haven’t seen this in forever,” she commented.

“Brian and I used to watch it almost everyday on the bus when we were younger,” Nick said, laughing. “We said I’d be Chris and he’d be Gordy. AJ would’ve been Teddy, and Howie, Vern.” He smirked.

“And Kevin?” she asked.

Nick laughed, “Ace, definitely. He was always such a dick on tours. He’s really anal and stuff, so he’d be all controlling and freaky about getting everything done immediately. Plus he’s like OCD and blah, blah, blah. He thought he was like our father more than our friend. Sometimes that was cool, other times it was annoying. I love Kevin, don’t get me wrong, but he can be an ass sometimes.”

He started the movie, and Amanda found herself paying special attention to the characters that she never had before, wondering what had made Nick and Brian choose who they had to play each of them. She found Chris and Gordy especially interesting, of course, and the dynamic between the two characters made her glance at the last picture on the shelf. The surround sound system had the room rocking during the scene with the train, and she felt Nick tense up behind her during it. He let out a sigh of relief when Gordy and Vern made it off the tracks okay, and he muttered, “I always want to beat the crap out of Chris for not going back to help them.” Amanda added the comment to her thoughts on the analogy Nick had drawn between the characters and his friends. She did not overlook, either, the heavy, sad sign that heaved Nick’s chest when Chris died in the end.

“I’m going to go get my jeans back on,” she’d said, pointing to the hallway after the movie was over.

Nick was picking up the stray popcorn from the carpet and sofa, about to bring the TV tray and dishes into the kitchen. He’d been hoping she’d stay longer, that maybe they’d get a little…frisky… before she left, but he didn’t convey this to her, and just smiled, “Sure. You know where the bathroom is,” he waved her off.

He put the DVD back into its plastic case before going to the kitchen, pausing to look at the cover as he put it away on the shelf. I would kill to have the chance to go on an adventure like that again, he thought. He stuck it into the empty space on the shelf and carried the tray to the kitchen to put the dishes in the washer and throw away the empty soda bottles.

In the bathroom, Amanda had opened up Nick’s medicine cabinet, and looked over its contents. Razors, shaving cream, toothbrush and Sensodyne tooth paste. Axe body wash, Old Spice deodorant, a bottle of Gravity cologne. So that’s how he creates that unique smell of his, she thought. The bottom shelf was a myriad of medicine bottles; vitamins, Tylenol, Advil, Pepto, Alker Seltzer, Maalox, Claritin, Vick’s, cough drops, and three orange prescription bottles. She picked up one of those and turned it over in her hand, but didn’t recognize the name of the medication on the label.

She felt a little guilty for poking through his stuff, but she was glad she hadn’t found a tampon or a tube of lipstick anywhere. She momentarily considered leaving one herself for the next girl to find, but all she had on her in the bathroom was her favorite lip gloss, and she didn’t want to abandon that.

She emerged from the bathroom and Nick came out of the kitchen to lay a kiss on her mouth that was gentle and she kissed him back. “Thanks for coming over,” he said, smiling down at her. She could tell he’d kind of been hoping he was going to get lucky, but she wasn’t ready for that.

“Thanks for having me,” she answered. She picked her purse up from where she’d left it on one of the bar stools by the breakfast bar.

“Coffee break tomorrow?” he asked, snuggling her close to him.

“Sure,” she nodded, “Same place as usual.”

He grinned wickedly, “I’ll be there.” Nick kissed her again, but after a moment, as it became too heated, Amanda pulled away, and smiled up at him. “Drive careful,” he urged as she stepped out the apartment door.

Nick leaned against the door after it had closed and smiled to himself, thinking about the great night they’d had.

Amanda lit a cigarette as she walked across the parking lot to her car, thinking about Nick’s best friends.
"Still No Word from Backstreet Boys One Month After..." by Pengi
Still No Word From Backstreet Boys One Month After Cancellation of World Tour
Pop Stuff Online – Staff Writer

The tickets are returned and the fans are at least no longer paying for their unusable tickets from the New Beginnings World Tour. But the band has yet to fill the greatest wound of all: the silence.

A month has gone by since the Backstreet Boys cancelled their entire world tour, including all 38-cities from the United States leg, as well as all of their stops in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. Newly appointed band manager and ex-member of the boy band, Kevin Richardson, promised answers within a couple days, but the band has yet to come forward with details concerning their choice to cancel the crucial tour dates.

“We just want to know why,” a Backstreet Boys blogger commented on her popular fan web site. “We’ve been waiting for answers, but there’s nothing, except weird candid photos from the paparazzi.”

“They’re going to lose it all,” warned music biz rep, and former manager, Johnny Wright. “They worked really hard to get back to the top, and it’s going to fall away if they don’t at least give the fans some answers.”

Upon requesting more information from the Boys’ recording label, Pop Stuff Online received the answer that only the Boys themselves are aware of the situation. Apparently, they are keeping even the suits that hold their contracts in the dark.
Chapter Three by Pengi
Chapter Three

The strangest thing to Amanda was the way Nick would disappear for days at a time without calling or emailing her at all. When she called his cell during those days, it usually went straight to his voicemail. Once, he had answered and the call had sounded tinny and hollow, like he was in a big auditorium or something, and there were a lot of voices talking in the background, like a rumble of thunder.

Whenever she saw him next, too, and asked him where he’d been, his answers were always elusive, adding to the mystery. “Band stuff,” or “just around, you know?” or “I was with the fellas, we had some stuff to do”, or “my phone battery died, sorry” or “bad reception”, “my phone didn’t ring” and once even, “I left it at home.”

The morning that really confused Amanda was the morning when he stood her up for one of their coffee dates. Nick had disappeared, but never on a day when they’d had a plan to meet up. Today, she’d sat in the coffee house for an hour, gone through four espressos, and then stood out on the curb long enough to go through three cigarettes before she called his cell.

“Hey it’s Nick, leave some lovin’.”

“I don’t wanna leave you lovin’ right now,” she grumbled into the phone, “You stood me up, asshole. Call me.”

Amanda had enough time before he returned the call to walk ten blocks back to her apartment, let herself in, make a salad, and seat herself at her desk to work. The computer was warming up when her cell phone vibed and the picture ID she’d set of Nick was smiling at her. She sighed, and answered with, “Well, let’s hear the excuse.”

“I’m sorry, babe,” he said. The background of his phone sounded like he was standing outside of an office in the hallway or something. She could hear phones ringing and general voices. She wondered where he was, but knew if she asked he’d never tell. “Something, uh, came up overnight. I was gonna call you, but-“ he let his voice trail off.

“But what?” Amanda prompted.

He hesitated, “Just – I couldn’t.”

“Oh.” She kept her voice level, but he could tell she was still upset, and probably wondering where he was. He looked around the room he was standing in. Kevin was pacing a few feet away, AJ was playing with the Boggle tiles, trying to make them spell dirty words.

“I owe you, I owe you big,” he promised, “This weekend, we’ll do something great, I promise. I’ll… I’ll…” he racked his brain for some great sweeping gesture he could do for her to make her cheer up. “I’ll walk all the way to Columbia, handpick you some coffee beans, walk home, cut them up in the kitchen and brew them just for you, to make up for today. How’s that?”

“You’re really going to walk to Columbia?” she asked, and he could hear the smile warming her voice, even if it was slightly it was a relief.

“Yes,” he answered, “Across the wild frontiers of Mexico.”

Amanda resisted the urge to either gag or snort at this, then said, “Actually, I’d rather if you rode on a donkey.”

“Oh a donkey!” Nick’s voice was suddenly enthusiastic. “Wait- AJ.. AJ, gimme that a sec.” She could hear paper rustling in the background.

“What?” she was confused.

“Sorry, I had to write that down,” he apologized.

Amanda raised an eyebrow. “You aren’t seriously going to walk to Columbia, or ride a donkey there – you do know that, right?” she joked.

He laughed, “’I’ll explain later.”

“Really? Or are you gonna be all ‘I don’t wanna talk about it’ later?” Amanda asked, mimicking Nick’s mumble almost perfectly.

Nick laughed again, “No, I’ll explain the donkey thing.” Kevin poked him in the shoulder and nodded down the hall. Nick glanced at what he was pointing out, then said, “Look, I gotta go, okay? I gotta move and I can’t be on the phone. I’ll talk to you later. Love ya.” He hung up before she could ask any more questions.

Amanda sighed when the phone went dead, then turned to her computer and got to work.

A few hours later, Nick and Kevin had left to go get some lunch downtown. They were seated at a secluded booth at a dive diner, waiting for their burgers and fries to come out. Nick was shredding their discarded straw wrappers, making them into little pieces of confetti that he piled in front of him on the table. Kevin was working on peeling the label off his bottle of Sam Adams.

After a moment, Kevin looked up at Nick and watched his hair moving as he ripped up the straw wrappers and pushed the little pieces around with his fingertip. “Nick, how are you doing with all of this, really?” he asked suddenly, scrutinizing his youngest band-mate.

Nick looked up into Kevin’s face and shrugged mutely, his finger still absently pushing the confetti piece around. Kevin’s continued gaze prompted him to finally answer, “I dunno. I guess I’m okay. I mean, I’m not great, but I’m alright. That’s probably as good as any of us are.”

“You know Nick, we’re all really proud of how you’re handling all this, especially Brian,” Kevin said, reaching over and squeezing Nick’s shoulder. “I mean, usually by now you’ve run off on us when this sort of thing comes up. It just shows us how much you’ve grown up since last time.”

Nick looked at Kevin’s shoulder. You’re going to be so pissed off when you find out, he thought sadly. But he forced a smile and nodded at Kevin.

“And we all appreciate that,” Kevin added firmly, “Really. We do. We may not always know how to tell you that, but we do appreciate it.”

“Kev?” Nick leaned away and Kevin retracted his arm. “What do you think’s gonna happen to the band? You know – after?”

Kevin frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t know, Nick. But don’t worry about it now. There’s much more important things to worry about right now.”

Easy for you to say, you walked away from the band once, it won’t kill you to do it again. Being a Backstreet Boy isn’t your whole life anymore, the way it is mine… Nick thought bitterly. He looked down at his confetti, and was suddenly overwhelmed with regret for having torn the straw wrappers up. He was flooded with the desire to put them back together again, to weld them into one solid whole. Somewhere inside him he was aware that the things he was feeling had nothing to do with the paper. He sighed and watched the pieces float across the table toward Kevin, carried by his own wind.

“There’s something I gotta show you,” Nick was saying as he unlocked his apartment door a couple nights later. “I’m really excited about this thing I’ve been working on with Brian, and… well it’s the best thing that’s happened since we cancelled the tour,” he said. The door opened and he flipped on the light switch, illuminating the dining area-turned-pinball machine room. “C’mon.”

Nick took Amanda’s hand and led her to the hallway and to his bedroom. She was apprehensive, hoping he wouldn’t try to seduce her. Her mind raced with game plans to get out of having sex with him if it came to that. He opened the door, and ushered her inside.

Even without the lights turned on yet she could tell that some kind of miracle had taken place in the room since she’d last been there. The room was immaculate, right down to the bed was made. In fact, the only sign that Nick had been there at all was the laptop on the desk was glowing.

She migrated toward the window looking over the ocean and watched the waves roll.

Nick turned on the light. “Look.” He said, drawing her attention to the wall behind the door. She turned and gasped. Covering the wall, he had tacked up maps of the states, creating one large map of the country that took up the entire wall. Across it, he had stuck colored thumbtacks, which held up pamphlets depicting different activities. He’d drawn lines across the maps with a sharpie, marking routes and starring things and circling town names. The entire thing looked like an intricate network of planning.

“Wow,” she breathed, looking it over. “That’s… a lot of work.”

Nick nodded, standing beside her and looking it over himself. “Brian and I have been planning it for the last couple weeks,” he said.

Amanda looked at him. “When are you going?” she asked.

“As soon as Brian—“ Nick paused. “Is ready. In like two weeks,” he said.

“Wow,” she said.

Nick turned to her, “Do you wanna come with us?” he asked.

Amanda blinked in surprise, “What? Why would you want me to go?” she asked, confused, “Isn’t this like some male bonding ritual thing?”

“Brian doesn’t want us to go alone, he really wanted me to get Kevin to go, but…” Nick hesitated, “I think Kevin would wreck it worrying.”

“Why don’t you take Brian’s wife?” Amanda asked.

Nick’s hand fluttered to the map of Georgia. “We’re meeting her halfway through it at their house in Marietta, then we’re continuing up the coast here…” he dragged his hand along the line he’d drawn on the map.

Amanda felt her heart pounding in her chest. “I-“

“I understand if you can’t ‘cos of work or whatever, but if you can get the time off… I mean, it’s an all-expenses paid road trip across the country with two out of four – well, kinda five, I dunno what Kev is anymore – of the Backstreet Boy,” he laughed, beaming at her.

“I don’t really care about the BSB part of it, but it would be fun to get to know this Brian character you keep talking about, and to see everything with you. I just have to talk to my boss about it,” she said. But I’m sure Eric will be just fine with it.

Nick grinned.
Chapter Four by Pengi
Chapter Four

“So in all the planning that we’ve done so far,” said Brian, “We haven’t figured out how to break this all to Kevin.”

Nick sighed, “I know. I dunno. I was going to tell him the other day, but he’s so damn hard to talk to sometimes. Especially about stuff like this that he doesn’t approve of.”

“Tell me about it, I grew up with the guy,” Brian winked.

“I basically did, too,” Nick reminded him, smirking.

They were sitting at a table playing checkers while they were talking, the TV on and playing reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond from one corner of the room. It had been a couple days since Nick had seen or spoken to Amanda, because he’d been stuck here, but they were planning on leaving the next morning when they went home, so he planned to call her that night and make sure everything was still game.

Brian’s piece jumped four of Nick’s, ending the game, and he grinned all cheesy. “Dammit,” Nick groaned. “Why the crap can I never win this game against you? Howie’s a push over with it…”

“I’m just that good,” Brian answered. “And also Howie is crap at this game because he has that everything-has-to-be-symmetrical quirk…”

Nick laughed, “Yeah, true.” He sighed, “This doesn’t solve the Kevin problem, though,” he said. “What if we just disappear?”

“God no,” Brian said, shaking his head, “You know Kevin, he’d have the entire police force after us trying to figure out where we are.”

“And our pictures on milk cartons,” Nick added, “You’re right.”

Brian laughed, “Too bad we didn’t absolutely know we’d get his voicemail if we called him, we could leave a message. At least then, there’s a really good chance he wouldn’t get it until after we’d already left, therefore he couldn’t stop us from going.”

“How about a note?”

Brian and Nick exchanged glances.

Kevin was pissed. No, Kevin was beyond pissed. He was livid.

It was the next morning and he’d just received the note when he’d gone in to see Nick and Brian.

We’re going on a road trip, Nick’s messy chicken scratch hand writing had explained, We knew you’d be pissed, so we decided to leave a note instead of telling you directly. I know that’s kinda crappy, but... We’ll call you after we’re on the road and keep you updated. Please don’t worry about us, we’re both okay and we both put a lot of thought into this. We’ll be back before you know it.

He slammed the door and stormed down the hall, past staring people, into the parking lot. A white and teal bus was unloading under the shelter of the loading bay, and he stood beside a bush and dialed Nick’s cell phone, the note clutched in his hand so tightly that his knuckles were pale white.

“Hey it’s Nick, leave some lovin’.”

“What the fuck are you doing?” he yelled into the phone. A couple people whipped around to look at him and Kevin lowered his voice, “Are you insane? Do you have any idea – any idea at all what the consequences of this stupid little road trip of yours could have?” Kevin looked at the note again and sighed. “Tell Brian I said hello.” He hung up the phone and shook his head.

Kevin clenched his fists and stormed toward his car across the parking lot, people still looking his direction. He got into the car and drove at top speed toward Nick’s apartment, in the slim hope that they hadn’t left just yet.

Admittedly, it didn’t take a lot to talk Amanda into accompanying them on their road trip. Amanda had called Eric and let him know what was up and had been given a very enthusiastic go-ahead. She knew Eric would like the idea.

She pulled up to Nick’s apartment building, her car’s hatchback trunk full of luggage, and was surprised to see the rig that was parked by the entrance. Nick had borrowed the Backstreet Boys’ tour bus. She parked next to it, and got out, pulling off her sunglasses and gawking up at it.

She’d only been there a moment when Nick and Brian came out the door of the apartment building. Nick was carrying two suitcases, and Brian had a couple shopping bags from a local grocery store. Brian walked by Amanda to the door of the bus and disappeared inside, while Nick hoisted the suitcases he had into a storage compartment underneath the living quarters. “Hey ‘manda,” he greeted her with a smile as he turned back to the apartment building door. “You bring your stuff?”

“Yeah,” she thumbed in the direction of her car.

Nick smiled, “Sweet, lemme get the rest of Brian’s crap outta the hall here and then I’ll start loading yours before I bring mine down.” He disappeared into the hallway, leaving Amanda standing awkwardly beside the bus.

Brian came back down the steps and out the door of the bus as Amanda was looking up at it. The tinted windows, the sleek design. It was intimidating, she thought. But Brian smiled as he stood next to her, “Dot’s a good bus,” he said. His voice was a little scratchier than she’d expected.

“Dot?” she asked, glancing at him.

He nodded, “That’s what we named her,” he explained, smiling.

Amanda looked Brian over. She was surprised by how much more mature he seemed compared to how he always had acted during what few interviews she’d seen him in. She’d always thought of Brian Littrell as the hyper, annoying Backstreet Boy, even more so than Nick. Of course she’d apparently been wrong about Nick, too, but still… She’d seen an interview once when Brian had been literally doing somersaults in the chair he was sitting in while the other band members had been talking. When he’d fallen down, he’d cracked up, and Nick had started laughing, too, and the only one of the Boys left focused on the actual interview after that had been Kevin.

Evidently, thought Amanda, marriage and fatherhood finally caught up to Brian.

“I’m Brian, by the way, but you probably already know that,” he said. He shook her hand.

“Amanda,” she said, “And yeah, I did already know that. Nick hasn’t shut up talking about you since I met him.”

She had expected Brian to laugh, jokingly apologize, or say something like ‘good things, I hope?’ but instead his eyes clouded slightly and his forehead creased in concern. “Oh?” he asked.

Amanda nodded awkwardly as he dropped her hand, a bit delayed. “All good things, though,” she said, with a forced laugh, trying to get things back on track.

Brian’s concern flickered away and he nodded, “Oh, good,” he said.

Luckily Nick came out of the apartment building at that moment, breaking the awkwardness, and Amanda quickly launched herself over to help him put the suitcases into the underbelly of the bus. Brian hung back, watching, and Amanda couldn’t help but feel like he was studying her.

Once they’d gotten the luggage all into the bus – which had turned out to be quite the jigsaw puzzle, actually (Nick had gotten all but one good sized trunk in, taken everything back out in piles in the parking lot and reworked it all several times until it fit) – Nick ran back upstairs to get his computer and turn off the lights in his apartment and lock up. Brian got on board the bus, and Amanda parked her car in the farthest corner space in the lot under a small tree.

Nick and Amanda met at the door of the bus. “All right, one more stop then we can head out,” he said, climbing up behind her into the body of the bus.

Amanda had been on a couple of small tour buses before in the past, but the Backstreet tour bus was different than any she’d been on. It was set up more like a cramped apartment than a regular bus. At the top of the entry way stairs was a small kitchen to the left with the driver/passenger seats to the right. Beyond the kitchen, she could see a stretch of six bunks, three on each side, and beyond that two doors – one probably to a bathroom – and past those, even, a living/dining area, which was where Brian had retreated. He was sitting on a sofa that took up the entire back wall, laying down on it with his eyes closed.

“Here, Bri’s probably gonna nap for awhile, you can sit up here with me,” Nick said, directing Amanda to the passenger seat. He hopped behind the steering wheel.

Amanda watched as he stuck the key in the ignition and yanked the hand-shift down to drive. She got the feeling that he probably had not done this very often because of the way he was molesting the stick to get it to change gears.

“Here we go,” Nick said, as the bus began to move forward from its space in front of the apartment building.

Here we go indeed, Amanda thought, glancing into the side mirror as the building grew smaller behind them.

Nick steered the bus around the lot to the street and entered into the flow of traffic, getting honked at by a car he’d accidentally cut off when the bus took up two lanes to make the right hand turn. He smiled sheepishly in her direction. “I’m still getting the hang of driving something this big,” he admitted.

“You’re doing good,” she lied.

“That’s good,” Nick smiled, “Cos it’s gonna be even more awkward with the trailer hitch.”

“Trailer hitch?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Nick said, concentrating on the road so hard he had his tongue stuck out a little bit. “All the equipment and the bikes and stuff are all in this trailer thing we gotta pick up. But that’s outside the city a little ways cos I didn’t wanna try driving that into the city. I mean the bus is bad enough…”

“Bikes?” she asked, looking surprised.

Nick laughed, “Yeah, didn’t I tell you? Brian and I got our motorcycle licenses.”

“Motorcycles?” she asked. She glanced over her shoulder at the sleeping figure of Brian way in the back of the bus, and then at Nick. She couldn’t picture either one of them driving a motorcycle. Brian just didn’t look…rebellious…enough, and Nick… well, Nick just barely could walk without killing himself, he was such a klutz. She frowned at the idea of him driving a motor cycle.

“Yeah, it’s gonna be great,” Nick said, oblivious to the concerned look on Amanda’s face. “Don’t worry, we got you a helmet, too, so you can ride behind me.”

Great, so we can both die when you dump the bike, she thought. “That’ll be fun,” she said aloud, wondering how she could get out of it.

Nick drove the bus through the city and got on the southbound highway. He was right about the driving being easier outside of the city, and Amanda was glad to see that his driving skills improved exponentially.

Kevin’s tires squealed as he pulled up into one of the parking spaces in front of Nick’s apartment building. He got out of his car and burst into the entryway/mail cubical. He pressed the buzzer for Nick’s apartment and held it down, waiting. When no response came, he swore and punched the wall.
Chapter Five by Pengi
Chapter Five

They were headed east on the highway. Nick and Amanda had kept up a steady stream of conversation, while Brian napped in the far back. Every once in awhile Nick had glanced back at Brian's sleeping form and laughed, "And he claimed he'd stay up the whole time we were traveling."

"Where is the first stop anyway?" she asked.

Nick smirked. "Actually, our first stop is the longest stop on the whole trip, and it took me forever to get the permits and special arrangements for it."

Amanda laughed, "You didn't wave the Backstreet Boy card did you?"

"I'm afraid I did," he admitted, flushing slightly, "But you do what it takes, right?"

"So.. Tell me... Where are we headed?" Amanda asked.

Nick grinned. "We're going to the Grand Canyon."

Amanda's eyebrows shot up, "The Grand Canyon?" she laughed, "And what on earth are w going to do there?"

"Camp, of course," Nick replied.

"Your bus isn't exactly going to blend in with the other RVs, you know," Amanda laughed.

"Oh I know, that's why we're parking it off site," Nick replied.

"So we're not actually camping at the Grand Canyon, we're camping near it," Amanda teased.

Nick smirked, "No. No, we're camping in the Grand Canyon. The bus isn't allowed in there, so we're taking the equipment in separately and there's a park ranger who's gonna drive us down and help set up and all that. We have special permits for staying in the canyon and campfires under supervision and all that. It took weeks for me to score the permits."

Amanda's face was appropriately stunned. "You're serious," she stammered at last, a gasping laugh escaping her. "You're really serious?"

"Yes," Nick laughed at her surprise, "Of course I am. Plus, you were the major inspiration for a big part of it."

"I was?" she asked.

Nick smiled and nodded. "Mhm. Remember the day I stood you up at the coffee house, and you said something about riding a donkey, and I flipped out and told you I'd explain why later?"

Amanda's eyebrow raised, " didn't."

Nick laughed, "We're gonna be taking a three hour tour along a cliff edge on burros."

Amanda snorted. "Sorry," she said, "I just can't imagine you on a burro. Almost less than I can picture you on the motor cycle you keep saying is in the back of the rig."

"Well, I'll admit," Nick said, laughing, "I can't really picture me on a burro, either, I'm not fond of - uh - horse-like creatures."

"You don't like horses?" she asked, astonished, "God, how can I like you? Horses are gorgeous."

"It's not that I don't like'em," Nick answered, "It's just that they don't like me. They're all out to get me, see."

"Out to get you?"

Nick laughed, it even sounded ridiculous to him. He glanced at her for a split second, then turned back to the road. "Every time I have ever ridden a horse, they have attempted to kill me," he said dramatically. "And then they laugh at me."

"That wasn't the horse laughing, it was probably your friends," Amanda teased.

Nick was smiling, but he said, "Hey stop picking on me! I get enough shit from the horses."

"And how many times have you ridden a horse?" she asked.

"Enough times," Nick replied firmly. His smile was curling the edges of his mouth slightly, as he suppressed laughter. "The last time it was at Kevin's ranch in Kentucky. The horse threw me into the mud, and I cursed at it, and it actually reared and broke my ankle."

"So it didn't laugh at you, it just traumatized you," Amanda said.

"No, it laughed at me after it broke my ankle. Like this," Nick made a funny wheezing whinny of a sound, which set Amanda bursting out laughing. "I'm telling you," Nick said laughing, too, "It was an evil, evil horse, and it was trying to kill me."

"It was about a hundred years old and it was the gentlest horse you could ever ask to meet." Brian suddenly appeared between them, pulling up a folding chair and leaning on both their armrests.

Amanda laughed, "Aww, did the mean little pony get Nick?"

Brian smirked, "It was Kevin's father's horse," he explained, "It was about eighteen years old at the time. A speckled mare," he said. "Darcy."

Amanda smiled, "Did Kevin's father keep a lot of horses?"

"Oh yeah, the Richardson's was like a farm," Brian said, "My brother and I used to ride our bikes over there to go visit the horses and the chickens and crap. Most of the animals ended up migrating to our place after Uncle Jerald died, but Aunt Anne kept the one horse because it was my uncle's favorite."

Amanda frowned, "How did your uncle die?"

"Cancer," Brian answered.

Nick's face clouded.

"I'm so sorry, Brian. God, it seems like everyone's got cancer these days," Amanda said, shaking her head. "When was it?"

"1991," Brian answered, "A long time ago. Nick never even got to meet Jerald."

"But damn if I met his evil horse," Nick piped up.

Amanda laughed, "Horses are not evil... You're being dramatic." She turned a bit in the seat to look at Brian, "Did you have a good nap?"

Brian smiled, "Yeah, it was nice to relax for once. My son keeps me going pretty much constantly."

"Baylee's a bundle of energy," Nick agreed, "He's like everywhere all at once. Like in cartoons, you know, when people have like bionic speed? Fwoom... Fwooon!" He jerked his head to indicate the speed. "That's Baylee."

Amanda laughed, "Aw. I've actually seen pictures of Baylee before," she said, "He looks exactly like you, Brian."

Brian grinned, "He's a great kid."

Nick nodded, "Yeah, he really is. He's like the only kid I can stand being around."

"You'll get to meet him when we get to Marietta," Brian promised with a smile, "We're meeting him and Leighanne at my house there before we finish the road trip."

Amanda smiled, "That'll be nice." She changed the subject, "So, why the Grand Canyon?" she asked.

"Well it's some place we've been, but never longer than a day trip," Nick said, listing reasons, "It's an experience everyone should have at least once in their lifetimes. We're planning on doing the camping so we can see the sun rise and set over the edge of the canyon."

Brian smiled, "It's going to be beautiful," he said.

Something about the reverence in his tone when he said those words made Amanda look to him. "I'm sure," she answered, "It will be beautiful."

"But whether it's what I'm looking for or not..." Brian shrugged.

"What you're looking for?" Amanda asked, confused.

"Sure, didn't Nick explain the point of the trip?" he asked.

"Um... other than to see stuff he'd mapped out, no," Amanda answered hesitantly. She looked at Nick, who shrugged and mouthed 'my bad' to her, staying focused on driving.

Brian inched forward a bit further. "The point of the trip is to find the most beautiful thing in the world," he said. "Now I know it'll technically be the most beautiful thing in America since we're not going international with it, but that's what we're looking for."

Amanda was surprised by the depth of the purpose of the trip, especially coming from two boys that had always seemed so immature in her understanding. But to have a purpose like that for the itinerary... It was downright poetic.

"So you're going to the Canyon for the sunrises and sunsets?" she asked.

"For everything about it," Brian answered, "The whole thing of it. There's a reason they call it grand isn't there?" he asked.

"I've never been," Amanda admitted.

"Well then," said Brian with a smile, "I guess it's a good thing you came along."
"Road Trip Plans Cause Rift Between Backstreet Boys" by Pengi
Road Trip Plans Cause Rift Between Backstreet Boys
Pop Stuff Online - Staff Writer

Seven weeks after the mysterious cancellation of their world tour, two of the Backstreet Boys have departed from Los Angeles on a road trip, much to the shock and surprise of the others.

Brian Litrrell and Nick Carter, long known for their antics and friendship, struck out over the weekend in the Backstreet Boys’ luxury tour bus on the trip.

Manager Kevin Richardson, who was unaware of the trip prior to the two Boys’ departure, was recently quoted saying that the Boys’ sudden disappearance was “alarming and uncalled for”. Richardson added, “It’s really immature, considering everything that’s been going on here in the last month. They both should’ve known better.”

However, Kevin still refused to give any details about the goings-on in camp Backstreet aside from the departure of the popular Frick and Frack team.
Chapter Six by Pengi
“We should go after them,” Kevin said once he was certain Howie and AJ had completely read the letter.

AJ exchanged glances with Howie. “Well, see it’s like this, Train,” AJ said, frigeting just a little in his seat. “Kind of they told us they were going… this.. . is only a shock to you.” He cringed just a little, waiting for Kevin to blow.

Kevin didn’t. Instead, he stood dumbfounded, staring at AJ. “What?”

“Brian told us all about it,” Howie admitted. “Nick did okay keeping it a secret, but Brian was telling us about it, and… he asked us not to tell you.”

“Why in the fuck wouldn’t they tell me?” Kevin exclaimed loudly, looking exhasparated.

“Maybe ‘cos he knew you’d do this?” AJ asked, waving a hand at Kevin’s tense stance.

Kevin eyed AJ, then turned away and started pacing. “You guys, this could literally kill him, you know? They’re both completely insane for doing this, especially right now. His doctors told him not to do anything crazy for a long time, and he hasn’t slowed down a bit. He’s going to end up worse than he was when he started.”

“Well, technically refusing the treatment made him worse than when he started,” Howie pointed out.

Kevin growled and continued pacing angrily.

“Look, Kev, the bottom line is it’s his life and no matter what you do or say to him, he’s gonna do what he wants to do anyway. You know him, he’s like a friggin’ mule.”

Kevin sighed, “I know. It just seems like every time we almost get this figured out a monkey wrench gets thrown into the works. They’re going to be gone for months,” he said.

AJ shrugged, “Look, we’ve never understood the dynamic between those two… ever. But I say if they’re happy and that’s how he wants to spend the rest of his time – gallivanting across the country as a two-part set, then that’s what he’s gotta do, isn’t it?”

“It’s selfish,” Kevin snapped, “That’s the point I’m making here.”

“My apologies,” AJ replied, voice smooth with sacasm.

Kevin sighed. “They could be almost anywhere by now…”

“Another excellent reason why looking would be stupid,” AJ injected.

“And Kev,” Howie said gently, “Is it more selfish for him to take off with his best friend, or for you not to let him?”

Kevin frowned, but the argument ended there.

The bus was parked outside a gas station in the middle of no where. Brian had been humming a country song – something about a ‘lost stop Texaco’ – since they’d unloaded from the bus. Nick had filled the tank, which had cost him over a hundred bucks, and gone inside to stock up on snacks, and Brian was reading posters that were tacked to a board outside the store. Amanda was on the payphone on the corner of the lot, watching the two Boys as she dialed the number on the calling card.

Nick came out the door carrying a YooHoo and a couple Charleston Chews and spotted Brian. “Hey dude,” he said, ripping open the top of one of the Chews and chomping into it. “Anything interesting?”

“A lot of people sell guns down here,” Brian commented, laughing. It was true, more than half of the ads on the board were for guns. He looked at Nick and grabbed one of the Chews from his hands, ripping it open himself. “Did you call Kev yet?”

“I figure I’ll give him a while to cool down before I call him,” Nick answered, shrugging, “I’d rather not hear the whole ‘you’re being stupid’ tirade just yet.”

Brian nodded, “He is gonna be pretty pissed.”

Nick snorted, “When isn’t he.”

“You two have always had your differences,” mumbled Brian around a mouthful of the Chew, “But you know you love him and that he only acts like an asshole because he loves you, too. He wouldn’t be Kevin if he didn’t irritate the ever-lovin’ crap out of you, you know?”

Nick sighed, “I know, I know…”

Brian smiled and clapped Nick on the back. “When we get back you two will be best buds again, you’ll see.”

Nick nodded. “Hey, where’s Amanda?” he asked as they started walking back to the bus from the storefront.

“Over there, at the phone booth,” Brian answered, pointing. “She said she had to make a phone call.”

“Why the hell didn’t she use the cell phone then?” Nick wondered.

“Hers was out of battery,” Brian supplied.

“Well mine isn’t, she could’ve saved the money,” Nick waved Amanda over as they reached the door of the bus. Brian shrugged. “C’mon ‘Manda!” Nick yelled across the parking lot. He climbed onto the bus and Brian followed. “Girls,” Nick said, exasperated.

“Tell me about it,” Brian said, laughing, “You have yet to attempt to live with one for longer than a couple months. Just wait. They get worse the longer you keep them.”

Nick shook his head, “Thanks for the heads up, bro.”

Amanda hung up the phone quickly and ran back across the lot to the bus, and climbed on board, her hair windblown. “Sorry,” she said. She motioned to the passenger seat, “You can sit up front, Brian, I don’t mind sitting in the extra chair.”

Brian beamed, “Thanks!” he leaped into the front seat and stuck his feet up on the dash. “I always wanted to sit here like this,” he commented.

“Chris too boring for you to stay up front?” Nick joked.

Brian laughed, “No he just wouldn’t let me put my feet up like this on the dash. Well, screw him,” he smirked devilishly.

There’s the Brian Littrell I remember seeing, thought Amanda, or at least getting closer to it.

Nick laughed, “What Chris don’t know won’t hurt him.” He shifted the bus into gear and it lurched forward and crawled onto the desolate desert road, heading further into the dry state of Arizona.

Several hours later, Brian had wandered off to go to sleep again. Amanda had plunked herself back into the passenger seat. They were probably about three quarters of the way there, according to Nick’s GPS system, and the road had looked the same for over two hours: flat, reddish tan, and punctuated only by the occasional road sign or tumbling weed.

Nick reached for the stereo knob and turned on the radio and began flipping through the channels. Talk, talk, static, classical, the first couple notes of Poker Face… He started to flip it yet again, but Amanda’s hand shot forward, “Wait,” she said, “I like this song.”

Nick laughed, “Seriously? Gaga?”

Amanda pouted, “What? She’s whacked.”

Nick smirked. “And I suppose you know the lyrics?” he asked.

“Who doesn’t?”

“Prove it.” A grin crossed his face. “Bet you can’t sing as long as I do.”


He laughed, but as Lady Gaga began singing, so did he, a big smirk spread across his face. “I wanna hold’em like they do in Texas ace…”

Amanda turned red, “Fold’em let’em hit me, raise it baby stay with me…

Nick intoned, “I love it…

Amanda was laughing now, her mouth just barely folding around the words, “Luck and intuition play the cards with Spades to start…” She was looking right at Nick’s face, which was crinkled with humor at this point, “Then after he’s been hooked, I’ll play the one that’s on his heart.

Nick kept singing, but Amanda had stopped and was just listening, watching his face as he sang.
Chapter Seven by Pengi
The desert landscape had finally started to be punctuated with signs pointing the direction to the Grand Canyon. "Brian," Nick called into the back, "Hey B, we're almost there."

Brian came wandering up front and sat down in the folding chair once more as Amanda reached forward to turn off the radio station that boasted to be Arizona's number one.

Outside the sun was high - it was about one o'clock in the afternoon. Nick had stopped along the way and parked the bus in a pull off and they'd all slept for a while in the bunks. After breakfast, which Amanda had cooked while the Boys had gone into the luggage compartment to fetch them all some fresh clothes, they'd set back off on the road again. Brian had opted to stay in the back to write an email to his wife on the wireless that the bus was installed with before they trekked into the desert for the weekend of camping.

But at last they'd made the first destination, and with a feeling of accomplishment at having driven the almost 500 miles from Los Angeles without destroying the bus, Nick parked the bus in the shade in the parking lot that a well-built park ranger was waving them into. He looked at Amanda and Brian, "Stop number one, doors open on the right," he joked.

Amanda, Brian and Nick piled out of the bus and into the dusty parking lot. Amanda shielded her eyes to watch as the ranger jogged over to them, a goofy bucket hat on his head with the draw string pulled tight to his chin. He wore the typical khaki and brown that is associated with park rangers and UPS drivers alone. "Howdy you guys," he called, coming to a stop right in front of them and smiling. "My name's Tom, I'm gonna be your Ranger this weekend." Amanda noticed how perfectly straight Tom's teeth were. Even more so than Nick's.

"Hey," Nick said, sticking out his hand to shake Tom's, "I'm Nick, this is Brian, and that's Amanda."

"Nice to meet you all. So let's get your gear loaded on the Jeep and we'll take off. Getting the tent set up early is gonna be key to keeping the spot. There's a lot of backcountry permits out this weekend but I did stake us out a spot about an hour ago that's right on the Colorado River down in the bottom, so it should be great."

Brian and Amanda looked to Nick, who open up the luggage compartment of the bus and waved to them, "I already packed my duffle for this weekend."

"Bring only what you absolutely need," Tom warned, "Nothing valuable. You'll be leaving all your stuff at the site when we take the burro ride tomorrow."

Amanda and Brian exchanged glances as Nick and Tom lumbered off to the rig in the back to get the tent out. "Apprehensive about the plans?" Amanda laughed as Brian sighed.

Brian smiled, "Nick's a very enthusiastic planner," he answered, "He's always gone for the gold, so to speak. Don't worry, though, most of his most outrageous ideas don't pan out, so you're only seeing the ones that have made it through the sifting process."

Amanda raised an eyebrow as she dug through one of her suitcases for socks and shorts. "You mean there's things worse than burro rides?" she asked.

"There's no telling what's floating around in that skull of his," Brian answered, "But if you stick around awhile, you might start getting an idea for it." He was jamming random articles of clothing into a backpack.

"Think we'll need this?" Amanda asked, holding up first aid kit, "Or do you think he's already packed one?"

"I'm sure he packed one," Brian answered, "And I packed one, too, and I'm sure Ranger Joe there has one, too... But if you really don't think we need another one, then you don't really know Nick too well." He winked and pushed the first aid kit into Amanda's bag with a laugh.

Twenty minute later, Tom and Nick had the equipment all satisfactorily loaded onto the Jeep. Nick and Amanda were sitting in the back on top of a couple coolers that were strapped to the seats, holding onto the crash bars, and Brian was in the front, buckled to the seat tightly, next to Tom. "You really don't need to buckle up," Tom told Brian, "We're not going on the road."

"No, that's okay," Brian said, tightening it more. He glanced back at Nick and Amanda and wishing they, too, would buckle up.

"All right, then," Tom called, "Here we go."

The wind whipped around Nick and Amanda, and her hair, which she'd let down, flew out behind her like a long cloak. Nick kept batting it away from his face when it caught the right wind, laughing as she yelled apologies. Their hands flew up over their heads several times, as though they were on a roller coaster as Tom drove down the steep slopes, further and further into the depths of the canyon.

Brian leaned over the side of the Jeep a couple times - though he regretted it each time - to see the depth below them. His fear of heights made him turn green, and he ducked back into the Jeep.

It took a couple hours before they reached the base, and when they hit the bottom, Tom stopped the Jeep and climbed out to look back up. "Long way down, isn't it?" he asked, gesturing.

This view Brian could handle better. The sheer rock face stretched far and away into the sky on either side of him, allowing only a sliver of blue to stretch by, like a river on the ceiling. Layers of color in the rock wound up the face, like rings. "Wow," he mumbled, staring up at it.

"Beautiful, Bri?" Nick asked, enthusiastically.
Brian laughed, "It is."

Nick pulled his camera out of his back pocket, aimed it upward, and snapped a picture of the snake-like river of sky stretching away above them, punctured only by a couple of wispy clouds.

Amanda felt as though she'd never seen anything so gorgeous in all of her life.

Tom had shepherded them back into the Jeep after a few minutes to snap pictures and marvel at the sight, saying they had quite a ways to go before they'd reached their destination. They were headed for the South Rim, he explained, along the Tonto Trail, to the campsite.

They passed tiny, shriveled looking plants that looked like someone had sat on them when they were young because of the way they curled and swiveled around themselves. Rocks sat in strange formations where they'd landed falling off the sheer face. Every now and then they spotted a crawling gecko that ducked between the rocks on the side of the rough dirt road that Tom was following. They passed hikers, who stared at the passing vehicle - an unusual sight in the canyon's bottom - but who waved amicably as they went by.

When they reached the campsite, Nick was ecstatic. It was exactly as he'd hoped when he'd talked to the woman in the tourist office. The river's bank was about thirty or forty feet away, and a small flat space was nestled among a couple of large boulders, creating a safety zone. Two large logs sat around a small fire pit. Tom parked the Jeep just behind the boulders, where it was out of sight, and the four of them disembarked from its cage. Brian immediately started walking toward the river's edge, his mouth in the form of an "oh" as he approached it.

Amanda ran her hand along the face of the boulders, feeling the dust scratch her palm, and smiled as a tiny gecko peeked from a crack in the side and flickered its tongue.

Nick and Tom got to work taking out the tents and getting them set up in the flat part of the clearing. Nick unrolled several layers of egg crate into the tents to make them softer, before laying down blankets as second floors. "It won't be luxury soft," he commented to Amanda, who had looked over at him from where she stood, "But we're camping, it's not supposed to be luxury." He smiled.

"Look at this, you guys," Brian suddenly shouted to them, "This is incredible. Can you believe we're here?" His arms were splayed above his head, indicating the vast everything that surrounded him. He spun a circle in a way that reminded Amanda of a child in a sprinkler on a hot summer day.

Amanda smiled and laughed. "Well, he likes it here at least," she said.

Nick grinned, "I do, too, this is great."

"Did you see the geckos?" she asked, pointing at the one that was still spying on her from the boulder.

"Epic." Nick crawled closer to look.

Brian was sitting on a rock next to Nick twenty feet away from where Amanda and Tom were sitting, trying to get a camp fire started. The sun was going down, disappearing between the crack of the canyon's mouth, looming far overhead. They were staring off at it disappearing. Nick was on the ground, leaning against the rock. Brian looked down at the top of Nick's head. "Isn't it gorgeous?" he asked.

Nick nodded, "It is," he agreed. He held up his camera and snapped a picture of it.

Brian held out his hand, "Here let me try." Nick held the camera up over his head, and Brian took it, aimed it at the sun, and snapped the picture. The orb of it was only just visible in the crook of the gaping canyon. He smiled at the image on the LCD screen of Nick's camera, then aimed it at the top of Nick's head beside him. "Hey Nick, look up here." Nick glanced up and Brian snapped the picture of him. He laughed.

Nick blinked from the flash, "Dude!" he snorted, "You're such a freakin' nut."

Brian handed Nick back his camera. "That's why you like me, though," Brian reminded him. "If I wasn't completely whacky we'd never be friends."

"Too true," Nick leaned back against the rock, the camera clutched in his hands, and breathed deeply the hot, dry air that surrounded them.

"It'd be awful hard not to believe in heaven in a place like this," murmured Brian suddenly.

Nick's eyes blinked opened and he looked up at Brian again. "Don't." Nick got up and picked up a rock, tossing it toward the river. Brian slid off the large rock he was sitting on and joined Nick as the sky overhead darkened even more into a dark violet velvet. "I don't want to think about it," Nick said, "Death is like the last thing I wanna think about at all. Especially here, in a gorgeous place like this."

Brian smiled sadly, "The beauty is supposed to provide hope."

"And what hope is there in death?" Nick asked, "Huh? Answer me that."

Brian didn't answer. Instead, he clapped Nick on the back of the shoulder. "I'm glad you came with me."

"It wasn't a very hard choice to make," Nick said, "Between staying and coming."

Brian nodded, "I know, but I still appreciate that you decided to spend the time with me."

Nick frowned. "You're my best friend, Brian. I wasn't about to go anywhere else except with you on this trip."

The boys wandered back to the campfire a couple moments later, their arms around each other's shoulder like comrades. Amanda watched them approaching while Tom was using a cast iron griddle, suspended by chains on a tripod over the fire, to cook hot dogs that he rolled with a ridiculously long fork.

"Suppers almost up," he called to the approaching two guys.

Amanda tapped the rough log next to her, and the two boys dropped themselves down next to her on it, Nick closest to her. His arm slid away from Brian and onto her shoulder and she nestled herself into the cup of his arm.

The orange glow of the campfire flickered across their faces, giving them an almost eerie look, and Amanda recalled long nights at summer camp as a child telling and hearing ghost stories well into the night, roasting marshmallows and singing campfire songs. She could almost taste the s'mores.

"You having fun yet?" Nick asked her, leaning forward to look into her face.

Amanda smiled, "Yeah, actually. You sure know how to plan a road trip, Carter."

"And to think," Nick said, smirking, "This is only the first night of stop one."

"Yes," she said, laughing, "Tomorrow, the burros."

"Mmm," Nick murmured, leaning back the way he had been and squeezing her shoulder. He rested his chin on top of her head. "The burros," he said with less certainty than before.
"Runaway Backstreet Boys Spotted in the Grand Canyon National Park” by Pengi
”Runaway Backstreet Boys Spotted in the Grand Canyon National Park”
Pop Stuff Online - Staff Writer

After the shocking news that Backstreet Boys Brian Littrell and Nick Carter fled Los Angeles two days ago, new reports are coming in saying that the Boys were spotted in Williams, Arizona on their way to the Grand Canyon.

Upon investigation of the matter, Pop Stuff Online research professionals have discovered that that Nick Carter did indeed request a back country permit from the Arizona national parks tourism office for this weekend. The party for four – which contains Littrell, Carter, Carter’s girlfriend Amanda Golde, and a park ranger – will be spending the weekend in the depths of the American landmark.

While their next destination remains unknown, we expect there will be some marvelous photo opportunities for our staff over the weekend.

Stay tuned to Pop Stuff Online for updates as they happen.
Chapter Eight by Pengi
The dark settled into the canyon like ink into a bottle and pretty soon the only thing they could still see was the glow of the campfire. Tom gave up first, recognizing that the others were going to stay up talking well into the night, and pointed out the bucket of water to extinguish the flames with before disappearing into his tent. Amanda, Brian and Nick stayed up talking and making s’mores for hours into the night until Amanda reminded them that the burros were waiting for them and plotting their demise in the morning, and all three of them agreed it was time to go to bed so they’d be awake enough to handle the burros.

All had been silent on the campsite for quite some time. They’d each gone into their own little pop tent, each had eventually extinguished their battery power lantern, and a thick silence had fallen over the camp, like an invisible blanket.

Amanda was just about asleep when she heard the scratching sound outside her tent.

She lifted her head up and listened, but when it didn’t reoccur, she laid back down and closed her eyes.

“HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!!”

It was Nick.

Zipping and scratching and yelling and commotion ensued as Tom, Amanda and Brian all unzipped their tents and poked their heads out to see Nick, staggering and running at the same time, tripping over the logs they’d been sitting on all night, in nothing but boxer shorts, staring back at his tent as though he’d been shot forth from a cannon within. “Holy shit!” he was gasping for air, clutching the stitch in his chest.
Brian’s head swiveled around, “What? What’s going on? What is it?”

“There’s a fucking lion or something in my tent,” Nick yelled, pointing and jumping. He waved his arms apart to indicate the size of it. “It’s like THIS.”

Tom was already out of his own tent, brandishing a gun. Brian’s eyes widened, “You aren’t going to shoot it are you?” Tom shooshed violently at Brian, who silenced immediately.

Amanda could feel her nerves heightening. She’d never even seen a lion. Not to mention imagined one crawling into bed with her the way a dog might. She was glad it was Nick that’d it happened to, because she was pretty sure she would not have responded as… well, not calmly, but she probably wouldn’t have responded at all, she would’ve just dropped dead of a heart attack.

Nick was hopping from one foot to the other as Tom inched toward Nick’s tent, the gun pointing into it. He was biting his nails. Tom shined his flashlight at the tent, and used the barrel of the gun to push open the flaps of the door. And there, nestled among Nick’s blankets, was a baby raccoon.

“Aww!” Amanda cried as it chattered quietly, holding a graham cracker in its tiny hand. It looked like Meeko from Pocahontas, only tiny and fuzzy the way newborn animals are.

“Nick, your girlfriend thinks your mountain lion’s cute,” teased Brian, sticking out his tongue at his best friend.

Nick stopped hopping from foot to foot and stared, dumbfounded at the raccoon. “Is that the only thing in there?” he demanded, bending forward to look past it into the dark tent.

“Yeah,” Tom said. He looked around, “I wonder where the mother is.”

Brian’s face was red and crinkled from trying not to laugh. He ducked into the tent again, and reemerged a moment later with a camera. He snapped a picture across the fire pit of the little raccoon, curled up with his snack.

“The food attracted him over,” Tom said, pointing at the cracker, “That stuff should’ve been airtight.”

“I fell asleep eating,” Nick muttered.

“Well make this a lesson for you. Tonight it was a raccoon, tomorrow it could be something bigger.”

“Yeah, like an actual mountain lion, Frack,” Brian snorted. He snapped a picture of the disgruntled, angry expression on Nick’s face.

Amanda awoke the next day hating the idea of camping with every fiber of the sore muscles in her back. “Oh my God,” she groaned as her spine and neck made popping sounds, like Rice Krispies, as she stretched and crawled out of the tent in her sweats and tank top.

The sun was already up, peeking its way between the lips of the canyon over head, but the air was still cool and she could tell it was still very early. Nick’s tent was still zipped tight, the light he’d probably left on the rest of the night after getting the raccoon out making it glow like a little paper lantern. Brian, however, was already up and sitting on one of the logs, writing in a leather bound journal.

“Hey you,” Amanda said, approaching and sitting down beside him on the log.

Brian looked up, “Good morning,” he said, smiling. Amanda noticed his eyes were damp, and wondered what was wrong, but figured it was best not to ask. “Did you sleep well after the event?” he asked, smirking and nodding towards Nick’s tent.

“Yeah, surprisingly. Usually I spook easy, but… it was a cute little fella, wasn’t it?”

Brian laughed, “Nick stayed up all night with that lamp on, and every once in awhile I heard him jump up in the tent, probably thinking he heard something.” He shook his head, “Nick’s quite a guy. He’d try to pat one of the mountain lions if he saw it in his backyard, but because he’s camping and he’s supposed to be spooked, he is.”

“So Nick likes animals,” I said, smiling.

“You’re only just noticing? Lesson one, Nick likes animals a lot,” Brian agreed, “Particularly fish. If you’ve been to his apartment I’m sure you’ve seen the fishtanks.”

Amanda nodded, “I’ve never seen so many goldfish in my life.”

“They all have names,” Brian said, “And I might be crazy, but I’m pretty sure he knows which one’s which.”

Amanda laughed. “That would be a full time job.”

Brian wiped his eyes as casually as he could, as though he’d only just now noticed he’d been crying before she started talking to him. He smiled, drew a marker across the page he was writing on, and closed the journal before reaching down behind him and pulling up his Bible and closing that as well.

“I’m sorry, was I interrupting you?” Amanda asked.

“Nah, I was done anyway.” Brian stood up and tossed the two books into his tent. “Tom went to go get the food,” he explained.

Amanda nodded. “He’s a nice guy, Tom.”

“He knows his stuff. He’s been working here for twelve years he said, and he’s seen a lot of stuff. He said he used to hike here before he got the Ranger job even.”


“Yeah, he was interesting to talk to. He said there’s eagles and vultures and lions and all kinds of stuff in the canyon that we could see over the weekend, not just raccoons.”

“I’d like to see an eagle,” Amanda said wistfully.

Brian looked at her. “You like them?” he asked. He could tell there was a reason behind her words because of the tone she’d said them in.

Amanda looked at Brian, considering him judiciously, then said, “My brother loved eagles. American bald eagles were his very favorite. He got to do a Make a Wish and they let him work with an eagle trainer at the San Diego Zoo. He was so happy.”

Brian smiled sadly, putting together the Make a Wish reference coupled with the past tenses and looked into the sky, squinting at the sunlight as it filtered down through the hazy dust. “Maybe you’ll see one today and you can dedicate it’s flight to your brother.”

Amanda smiled, too, “That would be nice.”

They talked for awhile longer, Amanda discovering the intuitive, genuine kindness that Brian possessed and for which so many adored him. She found it easy to talk to Brian, something that she hadn’t expected even after spending almost four days with him already. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from Brian once she’d met him and discovered he wasn’t the hyper ball of energy she’d always seen on TV. But she’d never dreamt that the intimate, quiet moment in the middle of the Grand Canyon would ever happen.

Nick’s tent unzipped suddenly and he poked his head out, the hair disheveled in every which way. He blinked blurrily up at the two of them, sitting on the log, and yawned before crawling out, scratching his lower back as he staggered over and sat down.

“Mornin’ Nick,” Brian greeted him.

“Coffee,” Nick muttered.

Brian patted his friend’s head and ruffed up the hair. “Tom went to get food. I’m sure he’ll bring coffee along, no worries.”

“Okay.” Nick let himself fall to the ground in front of the log and leaned back, laying his head on it, closing his eyes.

Amanda looked down at him, “Are you ready for the burro ride?” she asked. The more she’d thought about the burros, the more excited she’d become. She only could wish that they could wear little Mexican sombreros.

“Not without coffee,” Nick muttered. “Maybe not even then.”

Brian smirked, “Lesson two, Nick’s a grumpy monster before he’s had his coffee.”
Chapter Nine by Pengi
The burros were in a little pen at the top of the South Rim by an old-looking shack with a gift shop inside of it. Amanda watched the burrows hoofing at the dry ground and chomping lazily on their crunchy straw as Tom parked the Jeep a few feet away. She'd grown to the point of being ecstatic about the impending burro ride by the time Tom had loaded them all into the Jeep and begun the ascent to the top of the cliffs of the Canyon.

"Aren't they adorable?" she asked Nick, pointing at the burros from where they sat in the back of the Jeep, arms over the cage.

"They look like they smell," Nick grumbled. He'd been crabby since Tom had returned from getting breakfast with an assortment of juices but no coffee. The explanation that coffee was a diuretic and therefore would dehydrate him in the dry desert air hadn't improved the caffeine addict's mood any, and he'd proceeded to descend to levels of crankiness previously unexplored by mankind as the afternoon wore on. Needless to say, the prospect of riding on an equine wasn't improving matters any, and the burros just were another excuse to exercise his bitchy attitude.

Amanda waved him off and a 'pffff' sound and watched with baited breath as the burros recognized Tom and started moving toward the side of the pen closest to them, braying at their buddy.

"You're gonna have some time to look in the shop," Tom said, waving in the direction of the shack, "I'm going to get them ready to go. I'll come get you when we're set." He jumped out of the Jeep and quickly loped off toward a little barn at the far side of the pen while Brian and Amanda climbed out of the vehicle.

Nick folded his arms over his chest, and pouted.

"You coming in the gift shop, Frack?" Brian asked, reaching in to nudge Nick's shoulder. Nick shook his head. "All righty then, up to you. C'mon, Amanda." Brian smiled and led Amanda across the parking lot.

"Lesson three," he mumbled into Amanda's ear once they were out of earshot of the Jeep, "When Nick is in a bad mood, ignore the crap out of him. Let him go it alone for awhile. It seems mean, but it's really not. He's like a puppy dog. He can't handle not being the center of attention. Consequently, if you ignore him, he's gonna change his behavior to regain your attention. Giving him attention, even if it's a negative reaction to his attitude, will only reinforce the behavior, and he'll get worse." Brian winked and pulled open the shop door.

Amanda glanced back at Nick's sour face. He was climbing over the side of the Jeep and cursing at the tire as he tripped. "How do you know him so well?" she asked, stepping inside the shop.

"Twenty years around a guy will learn you a thing or two," Brian answered, laughing.

She'd known the Backstreet Boys had been a band for a long time, but the number twenty had never even crossed her mind as a possible time frame. "That's a long time," she said reverently. She turned to the right in the shop and started looking at a shelf covered with little animals made from stones that had been collected in the bottom of the canyon.

"It is," Brian said, stepping up beside her and half looking at the animals as well. The window in front of him afforded a view of Nick, who was now spitting in the dirt and obviously scolding himself for his bad mood, pacing back and forth and kicking rocks around. Brian half smiled at the predictability. "I really worry about him," he admitted candidly, running his fingers over a raccoon made out of pebbles.

Amanda put down the fox she'd been looking at and looked up at Brian. "Worry about him?" she asked, turning and tilting her head.

Brian didn't take his eyes off the little raccoon. "He's been through Hell, to put it lightly," he explained. Brian's eyes wandered to Amanda's for the slightest of seconds before he added, "Especially in the romance department."

Amanda shifted uncomfortably.

"He's a good guy, really. The best friend a guy could ever ask for," Brian said, "He's very... misunderstood, you know? He's got a heart of gold. But it's only gold because it's been refined, if you know what I mean."

Amanda nodded.

Brian turned and stared directly into her eyes for a long, piercing moment. "So don't you hurt him."

"I won't," Amanda stammered.

"Good," Brian smiled and the intensity of the moment was broken. He turned back to the stone animals, "That's all I can ask for."

"I do like these little lessons you've been giving me," Amanda said.

Brian's lips curled into a smile and he laughed. His fingers found and lifted a little stone eagle, wingspan spread to make it look as though it were in flight; it hung on an invisible wire. "Eagle," he said.

Amanda's mouth curled into a smile, "Ohh, it's beautiful. Piper would've loved it." She took it into her palm where he dropped it and looked at it. It was very well crafted. She turned it over in her hand and caught sight of the price tag, though, and realized there was no way in hell she was gonna buy it.

"You should get it," Brian said, looking over some plastic wind-up toy burros.

"Nah," she answered, trying to sound casual. She suspended it from her finger, staring at it, imagining how much her brother would've adored it, and how much she missed him. "It is beautiful, though." She replaced it on the shelf sadly.

They continued looking around the little shop and Amanda was again reminded of how much America gouges tourists in these type places. Everything was ridiculously over priced just because they had little stamps that said they were bought at the Grand Canyon on them. Amazingly, it wasn't long before Nick rejoined them, his mood greatly improved. He even pretended some interest in the burros and picked out some picture postcards for his friends and family. Brian winked behind Nick's back at Amanda in a told-you-so manner, and Amanda stifled a laugh -- he really knew his stuff.

When Tom came in to collect them, Nick and Amanda paid for their postcards and stamps and headed into the parking lot while Brian paid for the armload of stuff he'd picked out for Baylee and Leighanne. After depositing their bags in the Jeep, Nick and Amanda started walking toward the corral where the burros were.

Nick smiled as they walked together. "So you and Brian are getting to be friends, huh?" he asked. He sounded happy.

"Brian's a great guy," Amanda said, nodding.

Nick laughed, "He's smart, too. Like he knows everything in the world I bet. And he's the best friend a guy could ask for."

Amanda smiled at the identical terminology. "You know, he said the exact same thing about you not even ten minutes ago," she said. Nick practically glowed with this information and Amanda was glad that she'd divulged it to him.

Brian came out of the shop a few minutes later and deposited his bag in the Jeep as well before joining them at the corral.

There were four burros in the bed, draped with blankets with hispanic designs all over them. They had reigns that fit over their heads in a harness, and little padded saddles were strapped to their middles.

"Okay," Tom said, coming over carrying four canteens. He handed each of them a canteen and pulled his own around his neck. "Now, usually the burro rides are done in large groups. For obvious reasons, we're making an exception for you three, to avoid commotion and tension that might upset the animals. What this means, however, is that I'm the only guide that's going on the trip, so we've got to stick together. If you fall behind or get separated, the burro knows how to get back here. The command is in Spanish, to keep him from getting confused by casual conversation. To get the burro to return here, ask it, 'donde es su casa?'"

"Dundy issue castle?" Nick repeated, hacking the crap out of the Spanish.

"Don-duh es sue cah-suh," corrected Amanda.

Nick blinked, "Isn't that what I just said?" He glanced at Brian for back up.

"Why do I just know Nick's gonna get lost?" Brian asked, looking at Tom, "And he's gonna tell the burro to go to a castle." Amanda laughed as Nick blushed.

"The moral of the story," Tom said, "Is that Nick isn't going to be the last in the ranks. Nick, you ride behind me, then Amanda, and Brian take up the rear."

Nick snickered, and whispered under his breath, "You're gonna take it up the rear Brian."

Brian rolled his eyes, "Okay, Beavis."

"AJ's trained me well, Frick," Nick giggled.

Tom, oblivious to the exchange, motioned for them all to approach the burros. "Let them sniff your palms before you get too aggressive patting them," he directed, "This will help you forge a relationship."

"It's gonna frickin' bite my hand or something," Nick muttered. He was nervous, and channeling all the apprehension into joking around.

"He's not gonna bite your hand off. They're gentle," Brian said, sounding just a little exasperated as he offered his palm to his own burro and Amanda inched towards hers, suddenly shy of the animal.

Nick rolled his eyes, "Says the guy who thinks horses are nice, too..."

Amanda's burro tucked his nose into her palm like there was a magnetic force between them, and she smiled. Brian was already stroking his burro's ears. Nick finally thrust his hand out for his burro to sniff, and the burro got over excited by the amount of salty sweat in Nick's palm and jammed its face too fast into Nick's hand, sending his finger tip up the nostril.

"Ugh!" Nick cried, withdrawing his hand and making the poor burro sneeze. The sneeze sprayed all over Nick's arm and he made a face, a mingle of disgust and intrigue. "Burro boogies," he murmured, waving his arm, "Sick."

"Give him your palm again, Nick," Tom directed.

Nick reluctantly reoffered his palm to the burro, who came at it more slowly this time having learned his lesson the last time, and he started rubbing his face playfully along Nick's forearm. "He sure likes you," Tom observed as the burro nudged his face into Nick's chest. Nick looked petrified.

"Too bad we can't say the same for Nick," mumbled Brian to Amanda, who was stroking her burro's face lovingly. She smirked.

"And now we mount," said Tom, demonstrating the maneuver. He waited while Amanda and Brian struggled, trying a couple times to get on the burro's back. Amazingly, Nick mounted in one hop. Amanda had half expected him to slide right over the other side or get on backwards like Dudley Doright. She accredited his ease in loading to the length of his legs, rather than aptitude.

"Okay, so now that we're all seated," called Tom, "We're going to lightly tap the animal in the haunches with our heels and say 'ho' to move forward. To stop, it's a sharp 'nay'. Let's go."

The four of them set off with light taps and ho's and the burros began their slow trot along the steep path that led down the canyon wall. They walked with a lazy gait that swayed their passengers from side to side slowly as they moved into formation, following Tom.

The Canyon's ridge ended abruptly and the burros started picking their way carefully with a practiced accuracy along a narrow path filled with uneven ground, brush, and cracks in the rock. Nick was clinging to the burro's neck, having looked down to the side, and was now watching the ground directly in front of the animal as its hoof picked daintily which direction to move in over the clefts and dips in the ground.

Brian was snapping series of pictures, and, of course, did not miss the opportunity to capture a few of Nick's look of apparent seasickness as they burro's body swayed along down the path.

Amanda felt like she'd never had eyes before. She'd seen thousands of pictures of the Grand Canyon before, of course, but none of them could compare to the actual thing. Somehow the depth of the crevice - if you could call it that - was even more impressive from this angle than it had been from the ledge the night before in the Jeep, or even looking up from the bottom in the campsite.

"Eagle in flight on the right," called Tom, pointing out the bird.

Amanda looked up and watched, breathless, as the beautiful bird soared over the yawning lip of the Canyon, dipping and swooping through the air, its wings barely moving as the thermals carried it along. Then a gust of hot desert air caught him, and carried him up - almost straight up - seemingly into Heaven.

She glanced back at Brian, a grin on her face, and saw he, too, was smiling happily right back at her. She knew he was thinking of Piper, and somehow that made the moment even more special, having someone to share it with.

They got back to the camp without any trouble at all. The burro ride had gone smoothly and after taking a lunch break at a cantina halfway down the cliff-face, Nick had even bucked up and become more confident riding the animal. He started asking Tom questions about the history surrounding the Grand Canyon and about the animals and crags they passed by. Nick's enthusiasm improved the experience, and Amanda started to believe she'd never had a greater day in all of her life.

They ate salmon that Tom cooked on a spit over the fire that night, and sat on the logs talking again into the wee hours as the stars came up and spackled the sky with their pin-pricks of white light against the black backdrop. When they were finished, Nick made sure every crumb of food was in air tight containers and packed into the Jeep before he doused the fire with the bucket of water.

They crawled into their tents, calling good night to each other as they zipped up. Amanda turned on her lantern, and gasped. Sitting on her pillow, in a bed of dark red tissue paper, was the little stone eagle, his wings spread as though he were caught up in the thermals once more.

Amanda got up early the next morning, hoping Brian was up again like the day before. She found the campsite barren, though, even though Brian's tent was unzipped. He was just no where to be found. He probably wanted some privacy to do his devotional, she thought, remembering how he hadn't been upset about being interrupted the morning before, but imagined he would like to actually finish it.

She sat down on the log herself and dragged a stick through the sand, thinking about Piper. He would've loved the whole trip, especially Brian and Nick's company. Piper had never had the luxury of older brothers, only her - the older sister who never had the time to spend with him until it was too late. If she'd had it to do over again, she would've brought him here, she decided; she would've brought Piper to see the eagles fly.

"Hallo," Brian dropped down beside her suddenly, startling her out of her thoughts. He dropped his journal and Bible down to his feet in the dust and smiled, tilting his head to look at the drawing she'd made - an eagle's wingspan.

"Thank you, by the way," she said, "For the eagle."

Brian smiled, "I'm glad we saw one yesterday."

"Me, too," Amanda said, "Piper would've loved it."

"I'm sure he saw it," Brian said. He reached over and tapped the space below her collar bone. "He's right here, always."

Tears welled up in Amanda's eyes and she could feel her throat becoming raw.

"So, it was beautiful then?" Brian asked, picking up his own stick to draw in the sand.

"Extremely," Amanda croaked.

"It's on my list, too," he said. "I'm keeping a record of beautiful things."

Amanda smiled, "And the eagle is on the list?"

"So is Piper," Brian said, reaching for his journal. He opened it and flipped through the pages, then bent the book at the binding and handed it to her for her to read. Her throat burned as she looked over the words on the page.

She looked up at Brian through the tears that hazed her eyes. "That's beautiful," she whispered.

Brian's smile was gentle as he took the journal back. "Well, that's what we're here for, isn't it?"
Brian's Journal Entry by Pengi
Piper's eagle soared over our heads... over that deep, immeasurable abyss... with practically no effort of it's own, riding the thermals ... carried by the hand of God. Sitting on the burro there, surrounded by the unspeakable beauty of creation and the canyon's ledge, I could feel the presence of greatness as that eagle soared.

That eagle's flight, with it's sightless suspension and utmost beauty, reminded me that even though a person's body might be gone ... unable to be touched, grabbed, held close ... their spirit ... that which is truly them ... is never gone, but always present in our hearts.

"Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the Earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and
to him who has no might he increases strength....
they shall mount up with wings like eagles..."

Today, I fully believe that Piper was visiting Amanda, and it made my heart glad. It was truly something beautiful.

"Backstreet Boys Saddle Up in Arizona!" by Pengi
New Photos!: Backstreet Boys Saddle Up in Arizona!
Pop Stuff Online - Staff Writer

Brian Littrell and Nick Carter, the duo quickly becoming known as "The Traveling Backstreet Boys" (yes that's a reference to the creepy Travelocity gnome), were photographed yesterday horsing around at the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Wait - those aren't horses!

Looks like Nick Carter overcame his fear of the equine breeds to impress his girlfriend, Amanda Golde, over the weekend!

Too bad the Backstreet Boys are still being as stubborn as burros and continue hide the reason behind the cancellation of their 38-stop New Beginnings World Tour!

Check out Pop Stuff Online's exclusive photo gallery to get a peek at Nick's awkward ride down the South Rim! And as always, keep checking back with Pop Stuff Online for the latest updates on the 10-40 of your favorite Traveling Backstreet Boys.

Photographs taken by Staff Photographer, Tobias Winterson.
Chapter Ten by Pengi
Although it was sad saying goodbye to the Grand Canyon later that afternoon, Amanda was looking forward to finding out where the next stop was. But Nick was guarding the secret like it was gold. All he would reveal was that they were stopping in one location and someone else was moving the bus to another for them. "How are we gonna get back to the bus?" Amanda asked him for about the hundredth time while they were rolling up the egg crates and sleeping bags from inside their tents.

"You'll see," he sang. Even Brian was intrigued, but being the Nick expert he was, he wasn't about to feed the monster by asking about the stop.

Tom drove them up the Canyon's side in the Jeep and Amanda stared wistfully back down at the river as it grew smaller and smaller behind them. The weekend had gone so fast, she was surprised it was over already. Would the whole trip fly by the way the Grand Canyon had, she wondered?

At the top, Tom helped them load their tents and bags into the rig and thanked them for staying. Brian and Nick shook his hand, and Amanda gave him a hug. He saluted them as Nick drove the bus out of the lot where they'd parked it and onto the highway once more.

Brian sat in the front of the bus with them and they talked about what their favorite moments had been. "Definitely your mountain lion," Brian said, laughing and poking Nick in the side.

"Yeah, that was pretty great," he agreed.

"I liked the burro ride," Amanda said with a smile.

They took turns picking songs off their various iPods for the next three hours of riding. Every genre of music imaginable played during that time. It was as they were entering Gallup, New Mexico that Nick selected That’s Not My Name by the Ting-Tings.

“They call me Stay-CEEE,” sang Amanda, bobbing her head, skipping over words she didn’t know (which was almost all of them), “That’s not my name. That’s not my name. That’s not my – name.”

Brian laughed and scrolled through his own iPod for a song, “Okay, this one’s one of my favorites,” he said when the Ting Ting’s had finished. He took the auxiliary outlet plug and stuck it into his headphone jack. “Its an interesting way to look at life.”

Amanda hadn’t heard the song before, though by the time it was over she knew she’d be looking up the singer on iTunes and downloading it, along with probably the rest of the guy’s music library. The lyrics were simple, yet piercing.

I'm gonna miss you
I'm gonna miss you
When you're gone
She says, I love you
I'm gonna miss you
And your songs
And I said, please
Don't talk about the end
Don't talk about how
Every living thing goes away
She said, friend
All along I thought
I was learning how to take
How to bend not how to break
How to live not how to cry
But really I've been learning how to die
I've been learning how to die

Nick’s face was stony by the time the song had ended. Amanda twisted in her seat to look at Brian and smiled, “That’s really poetic,” she said.

“I thought it was nice,” Brian answered. He disconnected the iPod and handed the plug to Nick, who just held it rather than attaching his own player. “Did you recognize the voice?” Brian asked. Amanda shook her head. “Do you know Switchfoot? They sang that song Dare You to Move?”

“Oh yeah, I remember them,” she said, nodding, “Yeah, I liked that album.”

“Well that’s their lead singer, Jon Foreman. He did some solo EPs a couple years ago and they’re all folky like that. They’re great albums.”

“I’ll have to look him up online,” Amanda said, smiling.

Without any comment, Nick suddenly hit play on his iPod and INXS filled the speakers. Amanda’s face lit up. “Oh my God I love these guys!” she started dancing in her seat to New Sensation. Brian leaned back, tucking his iPod into his pocket and studied the back of Nick’s head.

When they stopped in Gallup to fill up, Amanda stayed on the bus while the two Boys went inside to stock up. Nick maintained a distance of a foot and a half from Brian and avoided eye contact the entire time, as he had been doing since Brian had played the song. Brian frowned, catching Nick’s elbow near a display of Cheetos in front of the coolers, where Nick was debating between Pepsi and a Red Bull.

“Why are you mad at me?” Brian snapped in a hiss to Nick as he snagged his elbow.

Nick glared at him. “Seriously? You need to ask me that? I told you, I don’t feel comfortable telling Amanda everything about this trip, about why we’re really here. You’re not respecting that.”

Brian frowned even harder than he already had been. “I don’t think it’s really your choice what Amanda does and does not know about the real reason we’re here, is it?”

“She’s my girlfriend, that makes it my choice,” Nick retorted. “I don’t want her to know. Why is that so hard for you?”

“Because, she deserves to know,” Brian hissed. “She’s a good one, this one, and you only get one shot. Lesson one on girls, Nick, you don’t keep secrets. Particularly big ones like this.”

“I can do whatever I want,” Nick replied, grabbing a bag of Bugles off the shelf and opting for the Red Bull.

Brian shook his head. “So don’t tell her then, but I will.”

Nick growled, “You better not.”

Brian sighed, “Don’t be stupid, Nick. She should know, there’s so many reasons why she should. It’s not like it would go any further than us, right?”

Nick shoved by him, carrying the stuff he’d selected to the check out counter.

“Nick, you can’t just ignore it. Eventually everyone is going to know. Eventually even the fans will know. Then there’s no way for you to protect the secret anymore.” Brian paused, “I just think that Amanda is actually worth the effort of your trust for once.” Brian frowned. “I don’t understand what brought this up to begin with. I didn’t say anything, I don’t know why you think I did.”

“That fucking song,” Nick snapped. “I don’t wanna think about it Brian! We’re not supposed to be thinking about it! We’re supposed to be having fun and all you wanna do is think about it and talk about it and make me think about it! Well I don’t wanna!”

With that, he turned back to the register and yanked his wallet out of his pocket, ignoring Brian. Brian set his jaw, determined not to get mad at Nick. Yet, at the same time, he couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t him, Brian, that was supposed to be pissed off at the world, not Nick?

Nick went straight out to the bus after he paid, while Brian dawdled in the store, trying to cool off before rejoining Nick and Amanda on board Dot.

As Nick climbed the steps into the bus, he overheard Amanda on the phone. “It’s not that easy, I mean I can’t just produce something that isn’t there,” she was saying heatedly. Nick hung back in the door, holding the bag of stuff he’d bought. “Look, I don’t wanna talk about this, okay? I’ve got a lot going on right now. I’ll get it to you when I get it to you. Good-bye.” He heard her close the cell phone and sigh, and the sound of the seat flexing under her as she either sat or shifted her weight on it.

Deciding he’d waited long enough to look like he hadn’t been eavesdropping, Nick galloped up the stairs. “I got you a Red Bull,” he announced, tossing a can to her.

“Oh thank God,” Amanda popped the lid and started drinking, “I need energy so bad. Sleeping in a tent really wears on your back, huh?”

Nick laughed, “Try it sometime without the egg crates and get back to me.” He sat down across from her at the little table in the back and pulled out the Bugles and popped them open. He offered the bag to her, but Amanda waved it away.

“Where’s Brian?”

“Inside still.” Nick’s voice was hardened at the mention of the name.

Amanda furrowed her brow, “What happened?” she asked, suspicious of the tone change in Nick’s voice and the stern look of his face.

“We had a little bit of an argument is all,” Nick replied, shrugging, “No biggie.”

“Over what?” Amanda asked.

Nick shook his head, “Nothing. Really.” But Amanda knew it was something.
End Notes:
The song Brian plays (which really is one of my favorite songs) can be heard for free at this link:,std_e0a18bce7d1b455591ec0832f78c8620
Chapter Eleven by Pengi
Amanda felt like a third wheel for the rest of the night. The carefree hours of playing songs on the radio had melted into silence as Nick drove to the campground where they were parking the bus for the night. Luckily, it wasn't very far out of Gallup. Amanda didn't think she could've handled it if they'd driven the rest of the way into Albuquerque with the tension as high as it was.

Brian had disappeared into the back of the bus and was mulling over his journal, rubbing his forehead and staring at the pages, rather than actually writing on them. He was deep in thought, consulting his own words for answers to questions he couldn't quite wrap his mouth around. He kept glancing up front at Nick's head, wondering what was going on inside it, if Nick's thoughts were as tangled as his own were.

The tension was evident most in Nick's body language, though. He gripped the steering wheel at ten and two with white knuckles, his jaw set and eyes glued to the road directly ahead of them. Amanda was willing to bet that Nick was staring but unseeing. She was relieved when he parked the bus and cut the engine, because it was one less danger that she had to worry about.

"I'm taking a shower," he announced once the engine's roar died. He got up and walked to the back of the bus where the dinky shower and toilet was.

He closed the bathroom door behind him and leaned against it, closing his eyes and trying to remember how to breathe normally, steadily. He looked into the mirror at his own reflection, and felt a piece of his heart break. He hadn’t meant to get mad at Brian like that. Getting mad at his best friend had been the last thing he’d wanted to do. Getting angry wasn’t what the trip was supposed to be about. But then again, neither was getting depressed.

For as long as Nick could remember, he’d struggled with feeling as though he was truly wanted. He’d always second guessed the fans’ devotion to him, convinced that if they knew the real him they’d abandon him faster than he could blink his eyes. The only person he’d ever truly believed accepted him for who he was … was Brian.

Nick imagined telling Amanda, confessing why Brian had wanted her to come along, why he’d been outback of the hotel smoking that day when they first met, what had made him put all the effort into planning the perfect road trip… but he couldn’t imagine the reaction she’d have. Angry, for one, for not telling her sooner, Brian was right about that. But how else would she react?

A part of him was jealous. But he wasn’t quite sure of what.

Amanda sighed and stood up as the door clicked shut behind Nick. She slid between the driver and passenger seats. She leaned against the back of the passenger seat, and looked at Brian, who was sitting at the little table by the kitchenette, directly behind Nick's seat.

He looked up, and she recognized the look of defeat on his face. "Hey," he said.

"That was awkward," she said.

"We had a fight," he admitted.

"Nick told me," Amanda said. She fidgeted with a ring on her finger for a moment, then said, "I'm gonna go outside."

Amanda climbed off the bus and found herself in another breath-taking desert landscape. She sat down on a rock and pulled her pack of cigarettes from her pocket on her hip. The lighter was tucked inside. She made a mental note to actually go into the next gas station and restock her nicotine supply. Lighting up, she leaned back so that she was laying across the rock, looking up into the sky, her hair splayed on the ground below.

The door to the bus opened, then closed. "There's something I want to tell you," Brian said.

Amanda sat up, shaking the dust out of her hair and lowering the cigarette from her mouth, exhaling the smoke. "What?"

Brian stood by the bus, not meeting her eyes, "I think you should know. Nick doesn't want me to tell you. But I'm not sure if it's up to him."

"Why wouldn't Nick want you to tell me?" she asked.

Brian sighed, "He doesn't like thinking about it."

Amanda bit her lip and flicked ash from the end of the light. "Does my knowing mean he'd have to think about it?" she asked.

"He thinks so," Brian answered.

"Well, you could tell me, and we could not tell Nick that you told me," she suggested.

Brian's eyes met hers and she could tell he was really struggling with the decision. "I-" he paused. His nose flared, and she could tell whatever it was, it was huge, and it was hurting him to speak the words.

"What is it, Brian?"

"I really think I should tell you,” he said, “But… he’s my best friend…so I don’t know if I can.”

Recognizing the thick emotion in his voice, Amanda tossed the cigarette down and stomped it out. She stood up, now fully intrigued as Brian wove his fingers together and pressed his bonded hands to his face like he was praying. They were shaking.

"You can tell me anything, Brian. I won’t tell him you told me," she said. “He can think he told me himself whenever he gets around to it.” Her heart was pounding.

Brian looked her square in the eyes. He wanted to tell her. He was right, after all, she had a right to know, and it wasn’t really up to Nick to decide whether to tell her or not. He opened his mouth, the words on the cusp of coming out of his mouth, when the bus door opened.

Nick stood in the doorway, his hair still wet from the shower. “Hey,” he said slowly. His eyes looked from Brian to Amanda.

“We were just talking,” Amanda said quickly, smoothly, “About what the next stop is. Does it have something to do with the motorcycles?”

Nick’s smile cracked like dawn, slowly but worth the wait, and he laughed. “No, the bikes go with the rig when we hand it off. But we’ll use the bikes, don’t worry.”

Amanda looked at Brian and smiled, shaking her head, “Damn and I thought we had it that time.”

Brian nodded, “Yeah. I did, too.”
Chapter Twelve by Pengi
Nick was up before the birds. It was still dark outside his bunk window when the alarm on his cell phone went off and he stretched and yawned. He laid still in the bunk, tempted to go back to sleep for but a moment longer... and then his eyes snapped opened. A rush of adrenaline shot through his veins and he rolled out of the bunk quickly, his feet hitting the floor of the bus below with a soft thud. He tiptoed away from the bunks to the front of the bus and stuck the keys into the ignition.

Nick cringed at the loud wrenching of the engine as Dot hummed to life around him. He glanced back at the bunks, but no movement came from either of them. He smirked, just wait 'til they find out where we are when they wake up...

The bus traveled along Interstate 40 from Gallup, headed into Albuquerque. He kept glancing nervously at the clock on the dash as the lime green digital numbers flipped silently. They had to be there and on site before 7:00, and it was already 5:45.

At 6:15, Brian woke up and was surprised to feel the bus moving. He pushed the window shade open on his bunk and watched the scenery slipping past for a couple minutes. Laying there in bed, it was easy to imagine they'd never cancelled the tour and that it was really Chris up front driving. Or at least that was easy until Nick cut off a Lexus in the bus, and that's when Brian decided he didn't wanna watch the road from this angle anymore, and he closed the shade, rolling himself out of bed.

"Good morning," he greeted Nick, dropping himself into the passenger seat beside him.

"Morning!" Nick was back to being his cheerful self, the fight of the night before evidently ancient history already. Brian was glad for Nick's lack of attention span and memory.

He looked around, "So... this is Albuquerque, huh?" he said. The city looked differently than he had expected. He'd expected giant statues of Bugs Bunny around every corner, fresh out of his rabbit hole, having finally taken that correct turn there.

"Yup, this is it," Nick smiled.

"And where exactly are we going again?" Brian asked tentatively.

Nick's grin was huge, contagious, and excited all at once. "You're going to hate it at first," he said, "But you're going to love it deep down."

"You aren't making me go sky diving or something, right?" Brian asked, nervous.

"Not yet," Nick replied. Brian paled and Nick laughed. "Hey you're the one that said every experience to see beauty. I'm just doing my job as travel agent slash tour guide slash best friend."

"You forgot a slash," Amanda said, coming up behind him and planting a kiss on his head. She pulled up the folding chair between the two of them.

"Slash boyfriend," Nick added, winking.

"That's better."

Brian smiled at the affectionate moment passed between them, and felt a pang of desire to see Leighanne. Marietta seemed forever away, and yet he didn't really want the trip to speed up any, either.

"So.. now do we get to know what we're doing today?" Amanda demanded pleadingly.

"Not quite yet," Nick answered, turning down a road that looked like it went into the middle of no where. "But we're almost there."

Finally, Nick turned a corner and they were in a large, unpaved parking lot, surrounded by tall, thick trees that afforded no view of anything beyond it. There were no signs of where the hell they were, other than long, squat, grey storage unit that took up the length of one whole side of the lot. Nick pulled up to that and cut the engine as a guy came around the corner of some trees, waving and smiling.

“The next stop is getting us all murdered in the woods, right?” Brian joked.

Nick laughed, “C’mon. I bet this is Zach.”

“Oh good, you know the killer’s name,” Brian muttered as Nick leaped out of the driver’s seat and past Amanda, who shrugged at Brian.

They piled off the bus and into the dry Albuquerque air. Nick’s excitement was growing, and it was contagious, so pretty soon Amanda was pumped and she didn’t even know why. Brian hovered behind as they approached the guy Nick was pretty sure was Zach.

“Hey,” Nick called, “You Zach?”

“And you’re Nick,” answered Zach, shaking Nick’s hand. “Did you find it all right?”

“Your directions were perfect, even for directionally-challenged me,” he replied, grinning. “No problems at all finding the place.”

A loud, strange “kooooshhhhh” sound came from over the trees and Amanda jumped. Brian’s eyebrows knit together as he looked in the direction of the noise. “What the hell was that?” Amanda gasped.

“They’re just prepping,” Zach answered, evidently under the impression they all knew what they were here for. He turned back to Nick, “So I’ll be the one driving your rig around to the other side. I’ll be there before you will, and I’ll get the barbeque set up.”

The sound repeated itself. Amanda stared into the trees. She knew she’d heard the noise before, but she couldn’t quite place where. Brian’s face was pale. She had a feeling he’d figured it out.

Nick handed Zach the bus’ keys. “Thanks man!”

Zach grinned, “No problem. So you’re gonna head right over that way,” he pointed through the trees, “Into the clearing there. They’ll give you the option of helping out like you’re in the crew or just watching. If it’s your first time, I’d opt for the watching bit. It’s really interesting to see how it all goes together. See you in six hours!”

“Six hours?” Brian stammered as Zach climbed onto the bus.

Nick beamed, “Usually they only do this by the hour, but I scored us an epic all day thing.” He waved them to follow him, “C’mon. This is gonna be great.”

Amanda and Brian followed along as Nick led them into the trees that Zach had indicated. The little path was worn from many travelers and led into a huge field on the other side. As she stepped into the clear and looked around the field, Amanda felt her heart leap in her chest and a sharp gasp burn her lungs.

“Oh my God,” Brian muttered.

Nick was beaming, “Isn’t this great?!” he cried, practically jumping in the air like a little kid. “Can you believe it?”

“I cannot believe it,” Brian stammered. He was pretty certain he was going to die before the day was over.
Chapter Thirteen by Pengi
Amanda never dreamt, in her wildest dreams, that she would ever ride in a hot air balloon during her lifetime. But now that they were in the air in one, she couldn't imagine going through life without having had the experience at least once. The idea of being carried through the air in a basket had been terrifying at first, but it glided so smoothly along - the hot air that filled the balloon sounding like steady breathing over her head - that she lost all sense of fear within a matter of a couple minutes.

The day was perfect. Crisp, blue skies stretched around them, dotted only by tiny, puffy white clouds. It was exactly what Amanda would imagine a hot air balloon ride looking like in her mind, had she ever been asked to imagine such a thing, that is. They glided over Albuquerque toward Santa Fe - the final destination.

Amanda watched as some kids playing in a park far below them stopped playing to run and point straight up as the balloon passed. Nick waved back at them, but whether they could see him from that distance or not was impossible to tell. Nick laughed and waved just the same, though, enjoying the idea of them all watching the balloon go by.

Even Brian seemed to be enjoying himself. Once the initial shock of the height had worn off, he'd started looking around and pointing things out to Nick and Amanda, too, although he'd been very carefully avoiding looking straight down over the side of the basket the way they were.

The balloon's pilot, an elderly man with a kind disposition whose name was Jimmy, was quiet, but not in a weird or awkward sort of way. He just didn't have a lot to say unprompted. He gladly answered when Nick asked him about the science behind the balloon's suspension, going into detail that made Amanda's head spin - she'd never been good at science and chemistry, but Jimmy had evidently excelled in it. Nick's eyes blinked rapidly as he tried to keep up, but Brian and Amanda could tell he'd lost the comprehension somewhere around the end of the first or second sentence. "You know, if you're interested in the balloons," Jimmy said, "Every autumn there's a wonderful festival here in New Mexico. Thousands of balloons from all over the world..." he smiled, "You should come."

"I don't think we can," Nick said. Amanda couldn't help but notice the sad, ominous tone in his voice, and she tilted her head questioningly at him, wondering why he'd said it like that.

"You never know Nick," Brian interjected, "We might." This positive statement from his friend made Nick's face break into a smile again.

"Yeah?" Nick asked. When Brian nodded, Nick's enthusiasm doubled - if that was possible.

Are they rescheduling the tour? Amanda wondered, But why would that make Nick upset like that? Does this exchange have something to do with what Brian was about to tell me yesterday? She wasn't about to outright ask either of them, though, at least not yet. They would tell her on their own when they were ready to tell her what was going on. Besides, she wasn't entirely certain she wanted all of the answers to all of the questions just yet.

Around ten o'clock, when they were about halfway through the ride, Jimmy pointed out a cooler on the floor of the basket by Brian's feet. "Complimentary champagne," he said, "A toast."

Nick pulled the bottle of pink champagne out of the cooler, which was packed with ice, and handed out the four chilled flutes as well. When he popped the cork, it went flying over the side of the basket and he looked down, "Hope that doesn't hit anyone," he muttered, not seeing anything but trees below them, luckily. They were all laughing at the cork's escape as Nick poured the champagne into their glasses, even Jimmy was laughing. Once the champagne had been poured, they all held up their glasses in a toast.

"To all of you," Jimmy said, smiling.

"And to long lives," added Nick.

"Filled with friendships," Amanda said.

They looked to Brian to cap off the toast. He smiled, "And to something beautiful."

"Something beautiful," Nick and Amanda chorused.

They clinked the glasses together and a slight mist of spilled champagne fell over them as it sloshed slightly on impact. They each drained their glasses, and Nick refilled his and Amanda's, although Brian and Jimmy declined seconds.

The six hours went by so quickly, and Amanda wished it would've lasted at least twice as long as it was. When the time was nearly up, she and Nick were leaning against the basket, looking down as Santa Fe came into view, while Brian was telling Jimmy all about their adventures at the Grand Canyon. Nick slipped his hand over Amanda's and squeezed it, smiling at her.

"Hi," he said in a childish voice.

Amanda laughed. "Hi," she said.

"You're pretty," Nick told her.

Amanda laughed again. "How much champagne have you had?"

"Just the two glasses." He leaned over and planted a kiss on her cheek, keeping his face there, the tip of his nose tickling just below her eye.

"My hair is a mess from all this wind," Amanda objected, "I should've put it up before we left."

"I like it like that," Nick answered. He wrapped his arm around the front of her and touched the lock of her hair closest to the left side of her face. "It makes you look... wild, and rebellious."

She smiled and felt her cheeks redden as she flushed. This was the first really intimate moment she and Nick had shared since leaving Los Angeles, she suddenly realized.

"We should go out tonight," Nick suggested, "Go dancin'. You wanna go dancing?"

"What about Brian?" Amanda asked, "He doesn't have a partner."

"We'll share you," Nick answered with a laugh. "Besides, most of the time he's just gonna sit there and watch any how. That's what he always does when we go out. He likes people watching, you know?"

Amanda smiled. "Okay, then. We'll go dancing."

Nick slid his hand softly against her jaw bone, his palm on her neck, and pulled her to look at him. His eyes searched hers for a moment, then he leaned down and kissed her. His mouth tasted like the champagne, but also a little salty, a flavor that made Amanda smile because of its uniqueness. His lips were soft and warm and his hands felt nice cupped against her face the way they were, so gentle... If she hadn't been in a hot air balloon, she would've described the way the kiss felt as flying, but seeing as they were flying, the adjective held little purpose.

When the kiss ended, and they'd started to pull their faces back, Nick held his gaze in her eyes, and said in a low, husky voice, "I love you."

Amanda's heart stopped, then reawakened and began pounding wildly in the cavity of her chest so hard she thought she might drop dead from its velocity. It was the first time he'd said those words to her. Her breath seared her throat, stuck there. "I- I-" she stammered.

Nick, sensing her panic, said quickly, "You don't gotta say it back." A part of him ached that she didn't want to, but somewhere in his heart he also knew that he didn't want her to say it, unless she meant it. "I just... wanted you to know."

Amanda's mouth moved without forming any words, gaping like a waterless fish. He kissed her forehead again while she did this dazedly. Then he turned and looked over the side of the basket again, the moment broken, his hands folded in front of him.

She joined him, also leaning against the side of the basket. But instead of looking at the scenery, she looked at his hands. She noticed the long fingers with the big knuckles. The wide, chewed up fingernails with dirt under the tips of them. His thumb bent funny from too many years of video games, and he had a writer's bump on the inside of his ring finger. There was a scar, too, by the wrist of his left hand. The skin puckered by the spot where his index and thumb bones met, and she could just see the inside of the palm of his right hand peeking out under his left. The veins in his wrist were purple and blue and bumping blood to his heart. The heart that had just confessed it loved her.

I love your hands, she thought. Maybe I can fall in love with you one part at a time.

"There's the bus," he said a few minutes later, pointing.

Amanda followed the point and indeed saw the rig, parked below in a large field, similar to the one they'd taken off from. Zach was a tiny dot, moving around between long silver barbeque grills that were pouring forth smoke. A large picnic table stood behind him, set with plates and dishes.

"Here comes the descent," Jimmy warned.

The balloon slowly lowered as they neared the field, the bottom of the basket only just clearing the trees. As it struck the ground, the basket trembled from the shock, but they all managed to stay standing by holding onto the side of the basket.

"Wow, that was amazing," Brian told Jimmy as they all climbed out of the basket. He was glowing.

Zach came running over, smiling widely. "Hey, how'd you like the flight?" he called, "Did Jimmy treat'cha right?"

"It was spectacular," breathed Amanda, still in awe from the sights they'd seen. Mountains, trees, clouds, cities, desert... everything. Nick smiled as he caught sight of the gleam in Amanda's eyes.

"Yeah it was great," he agreed.

"Beautiful," Brian added, winking at Amanda.

Zach beamed. "Great to hear that! And you're here just in time - the food's all ready."

Amanda hadn't realized how incredibly famished she was until they were immersed in the smell of the barbeque. They loaded up plates with pulled pork, beans, corn bread and grilled peaches. Zach passed around glass bottles of lemonade and Coors Light and they feasted, while watching the balloon slowly deflate across the field.
Chapter Fourteen by Pengi
Brian was writing in his journal on the bus later that day. They'd parked the bus in a Wal-Mart parking lot, because they wanted to stay in town to go dancing as Nick and Amanda had planned. They'd all wandered into the Wal-Mart to pick up more food for the bus and other things they needed. Brian had finished first and come back outside to collect his thoughts on the beauty of the balloon ride. He was tucked into his bunk, the curtain drawn, mulling over a Bible verse about the Lord having formed the earth with his hands. After seeing the earth from the vantage point afforded by the balloon, he'd been reminded of the verse and had searched it out to dwell on in his journal.

The bus door opened and closed and he heard Amanda climb on board. He was about to hop out of the bunk to go talk to her, when he realized she was on her cell phone. He froze.

"I didn't tell you about it because I didn't know until today," she said, her voice irritated. "Besides, I'm allowed some privacy, aren't I?" Amanda paused, listening to the other person. "Well of course I am. No, it's not like that. Look, you can think whatever you want."

Brian's eyebrows knit together. What was she talking about? He pulled the curtain back from his bunk, and Amanda's eyes flickered to him from where she was standing in the kitchenette.

"Look, I gotta go, okay?" she said hotly into the phone, "I'll call you tomorrow or something." Amanda hung up the phone.

"What's up?" Brian asked. His voice sounded funny, even to him.

Amanda held up her phone and sighed in exasperation. "Fathers," she said.

Brian blinked in surprise. He'd been thinking something completely different. "Fathers?"

"Yeah," Amanda put the phone down on the counter and sat down in the booth. "My dad's super controlling..."

"At least you know he loves you if he's worrying about you," he said.

"Yeah, I'm not sure that's what this is. Besides, if he does love me, it'll never be as much as he loved Piper. He just likes being able to have full control over me," she rolled her eyes. "Piper was always the favorite with my dad. My mom liked me more. Well, until Piper got sick, then I was kind of old hat. But that's typical in any family, right?"

Brian remembered what life had bee like in his family when he was little, after his heart problems had started. He remembered Harold complaining while they played with Legos and coloring books in the hospital room once, saying almost the exact same words to him. "Mom only worries about you now, you know. She packed me lunch yesterday for school and forgot to put the sandwich in. All I got was a bag of crackers and a juice box. Sometimes I think she forgets she has a second kid."

"Yeah," Brian answered.

Amanda smiled sadly. "So yeah, it's not so much that he's worried as much as it is that he's pissed I'm not telling him every move I make. Like he was mad I didn't tell him about the hot air balloon sooner."

"How could you have?" Brian asked.

"Exactly my point. He wanted me to have told him before I got on it, but I mean, what was I gonna do? Be like 'sorry, hold on, I gotta call my dad'?" she scoffed, shaking her head. "He expects too much of me."

Brian frowned and held out his arm to half-hug Amanda, who leaned into Brian softly. "It's hard," Brian said, "When people expect too much from you. But the important thing to remember is that you're exactly who you're meant to be, regardless of what anyone else says or thinks. God made you to be who you are, and you're perfect."

"Thanks Brian," Amanda said, smiling up at him.

"You're welcome," he answered, smiling back down at her.

"Nick's right, you know everything in the world," she giggled.

Brian's face crinkled with laughter, "He said that?" Amanda nodded. "Oh Nick is wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, and very, very mistaken."

Amanda pulled out of Brian's hug and opened the fridge, pulling out a can of soda from inside. She offered one to Brian, and he took it, and sat down at the table. Nick came onto the bus as Amanda reached for another soda, carrying an armload of bags. Amanda blinked in surprise, "Dude, did you buy the whole store?" she teased him.

Nick stuck out his tongue and dropped the bags on the floor. "No I just realized we're gonna need some stuff that I forgot to pack."

"There's stuff you forgot to pack?" Amanda asked, thinking of the rig, which was stuffed to the point of bursting in the back of the bus.

"Oh yeah." Nick opened up one of the bags and a little wiggly tackle things fell out onto the floor, as well as a bright orange life preserver.

Brian snorted. Amanda shook her head, "You think we're fishing?"

"You'll see," he sang.

Amanda looked at Brian, "You do realize by the time this road trip is over, there's going to be nothing in the world that we haven't done before?"

Brian laughed, "I think that's exactly his goal." Nick grinned and nodded as he started pulling more stuff out of the bags.

Nick had spent the afternoon googling clubs in New Mexico after unpacking his fishing gear and other stuff that he wouldn’t let Amanda or Brian look at, and had resurfaced from cyber space around 8:30 with the perfect place for them to go. Amanda changed into a nice-fitting red strappy sundress with a loose, floaty skirt, and some strappy black shoes. Brian and Nick had both been floored by this outfit, and Brian had bolted off the bus to leave Nick alone with her for a few minutes. Nick and Amanda had found that really funny, and laughed instead of kissing – or whatever it was Brian thought they were going to do when he ran.

Nick had pulled out the motorcycles and the three helmets from the back of the rig. They were going to bike to the club and leave the bus parked at the Wal-Mart. Amanda pulled the white helmet over her head and felt like she probably looked like a ping-pong ball. Nick and Brian both had dark blue helmets with shields and everything. Brian even had gloves.

They climbed onto the bikes, Amanda on the seat behind Nick, clinging to him, her arms around his neck and head leaned against the space between his shoulders as he revved the bike. The engines were loud and rumbled like they were in Hell’s Angels or something. They sounded way more bad ass than Amanda could really imagine either Nick or Brian being.

The bikes hummed along through Santa Fe’s streets, for the most part unnoticed by anyone around. Amanda watched everything going by, the lights and the smells and people. It was all a beautiful, colorful blur.

If Nick hadn’t known where he was going, they would’ve gone right by the club. It was just a rustic little hole in the wall place, but once the engines on the bikes had been cut, the unmistakable hum of Latin music could be both heard and felt – the bass line was deep and rumbling almost the same as the bikes had been. Nick pulled off his helmet before he helped Amanda climb down from the bike daintily. She held his hand and Brian followed them into the club.

Inside, the ceiling was lined with tiny twinkle lights, giving it an amber glow. The walls looked like they were hollowed out of stone, like a crazy indoor grotto. People were everywhere. Booths and tables lined the perimeter of the room, and in the center, the floor sank about ten feet for the dance floor. A small stage, occupied by a DJ’s turn table, faced the dancers, and Nick thought it would be a nice place to see a concert.

They found a table and a waitress in a too-short skirt and tube top, with piercings all over her face and wildly orange hair, came over to take their order. “I’ll have a Sprite,” Brian ordered.

“And a round of tequila shots,” Nick added as Amanda nodded.

“Don’t forget you’ve got to drive back to the bus,” Brian warned him and Nick waved him off with a nod.

When the drinks came, Nick quickly downed two shot glasses of tequila, and Amanda followed suit, while Brian sipped the Sprite, watching the people all around them. There was a lot of Spanish being spoken, and laughter. The music bomp-bomp-bomped loudly, the lyrics racy and even some of those were in Spanish.

Nick stood up after the third shots of tequila had been kicked back and offered his hand to Amanda, “C’mon, let’s go dance.”

Amanda glanced at Brian. “Go on,” Brian said, “Go dance.” She smiled and leaped up, her skirt flouncing around her knees, and Nick led her off to the dance floor.

Brian watched as they slid between the people and their hands raised over their heads and their bodies started moving. Nick wasn’t very good at freestyle dancing – hell he barely pulled off the choreography after they’d practiced for months before tours. He always looked like he was hula hooping without the hoop. Amanda didn’t seem much better, and Brian laughed to himself because they made the perfect pair of awkward dancers. He reached over and took one of the shots of tequila that they’d left behind on the table and knocked it back, feeling the rush to his head. He sighed deeply and looked around.

It’d been about an hour before Nick and Amanda came back, both laughing. Nick was walking behind her, his body pressed tightly against hers, sucking on the side of her neck. Amanda laughed and shrugged him off like a rich woman’s fur coat as they sat down across from Brian – who had downed two more of their tequila shots and polished off his Sprite.

“They’re wild down there dawg,” Nick laughed, his voice carefree.

Brian laughed back. “I saw you,” he said, “You guys are crazy.”

“It was so hot,” Amanda groaned. Indeed, she was covered with sweat from the dancing.

“You gotta try it, BRok,” Nick said, using the nickname that was more commonly used by AJ. Brian laughed at the sound of it, thinking of their tattooed friend and wondering what he was up to.

“I dunno,” Brian said, crinkling up his nose, “Dancing isn’t really my thing.”

Amanda pouted, “Oh c’mon, you’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t dance with me,” she said as she took yet another shot.

Brian laughed, “I think Nick can dance with you plenty to make up for me,” he answered.

“Bull shit,” Amanda grumbled. She climbed awkwardly over Nick’s lamp and stood up, a little wobbly from the tequila, and grabbed Brian’s hand. “Come!”

Nick cracked up, “That’s a command, bro!”

Brian laughed, too. He stood up and Amanda pulled him along through the crowd to the steps that led into the dance pit. Brian glanced back up at Nick, who was leaning over the rail, watching them as they melded into the crowd. Nick gave Brian the thumbs up as Amanda started dancing, her arms up over her head. Brian followed suit. The music thumped so hard, the floor vibrated. Brian felt like his head might explode.

The club mix continued for a couple of minutes, Brian and Amanda dancing as they had been, when the DJ cut the music and shouted, “Okay how about we slow things down a little bit. Couple’s only…” The dance floor weeded out as singles fled from the floor. Brian started to turn to the steps to the pit but Amanda grabbed his wrist, “Oh c’mon, stay.”

He looked up to see what Nick was doing, half expecting his friend to be on the way down to claim his spot as Amanda’s actual boyfriend, but Nick was eating some chili fries he’d ordered, oblivious to Brian and Amanda and all the other dancers altogether.

Brian felt like he was in high school. His palms were sweaty. Amanda stepped closer to him and entwined her fingers through his, pulling his other hand to the small of her back. “Oh please,” she mumbled, “You’re married. I know you’ve slow danced before.”

Exactly, thought Brian helplessly, yet a little foggy, I am married.

The song was slow and melodious. They rocked back and forth and Amanda leaned against Brian’s chest, her breath coming out in deep gasps. She’d been dancing hard before and it felt good to relax. She could hear Brian’s heart beat and somehow the sound of it was comforting.

“Tell me about your wife,” Amanda asked after a few moments.
“Leighanne’s so perfect,” Brian answered, his voice thick. “She’s a beautiful soul.”

“What does she do for a living? Or is she just Mrs. Brian Littrell?”

Brian laughed at the title. “She used to be an actress. She’s done some independent work. Now she’s into designing bags and jewelry and clothes. Her line’s starting to take off a little. Mostly it’s the fans that buy it, though, to be honest. She does a lot of hard work on it, though. I’m proud of her.”

“You’ll have to show me her stuff sometime,” Amanda said, “I love bags.”

“I’ll show you sometime,” he promised.

She hummed against his chest to the tune of the music, her eyes closed. “And your son?”

“Baylee’s a good kid,” Brian answered. “Everyone says he looks just like me.”

“He does,” Amanda mused.

“You’ve seen him?” Brian asked, surprised.

Amanda’s eyes opened. “Yeah,” she answered. “Who hasn’t?” she added. Brian didn’t respond, he just held her, slowly letting the tenseness in his arms wear away.

Amanda tilted her head to look up at him. He was handsome, there was no denying that, in the good ol’ American boy kind of way. His reddish blonde hair, even with its receding line, was nice, and the lines around his eyes revealed that he laughed and smiled a lot. His classic square-cut jaw was strong, and she could imagine him being a great protector, almost a warrior.

He looked down at her.

She didn’t know what made her do it. Maybe the tequila, maybe the atmosphere of being in the club. Whatever it was, she regretted it the moment it was too late to take it back. She pushed herself up with the balls of her feet and her mouth touched his softly. She dropped back down. His hands dropped from her back and he blinked in surprise.

“Sorry,” he said, his Kentucky accent suddenly thick. He turned and walked away, climbing out of the dance pit and disappeared.

Amanda touched her lips and felt like they were seared with a hot coal or something. She was confused. What the hell was I thinking? she wondered, her stomach turning. Oh God damn all tequila. Feeling sick, she trotted from the dance floor herself, her hand clutching the flowing skirt, and hurried back to the booth, where Nick was sitting, still chowing down on the chili fries.

“Hey,” he said, his voice a little slurred. Evidently the fries weren’t the only thing he’d had since they’d left him alone. Shot glasses littered the table. Amanda was suddenly sober, despite the shots she’d taken before. She was just dizzy. Nick pushed the plate of fries toward her as she sat down, her hands shaking. “Want some fries?”

“No,” she answered. She craned her neck, trying to see where Brian had gone off to, but he was no where to be seen.

Nick followed suit, “What’cha lookin’ for?”

“Brian,” she answered.

“Oh, he probably is peeing or something,” Nick said sluggishly.

Amanda looked at him, “Okay, no more drinks for you,” she said as she looked into his unfocused eyes.

“Aw man,” Nick murmured.

“C’mon, you need fresh air,” she stood up and hesitated, “Nick, I don’t have money for the bill.”

He pulled out his wallet and threw a $100 bill onto the table carelessly. “I wanna go outside now,” he said, leaning into her, suddenly turning a little green.

Amanda pulled him along to the doors and out into the parking lot. Brian was sitting on his motorcycle, staring at his hands. He looked up as they came around the corner and stood up quickly. Nick was hanging onto Amanda’s arm. “Hello Brian,” Nick sang out.

“Oh Lord,” Brian said, catching a whiff of Nick’s breath. He looked at Amanda, “Well, he isn’t driving, that’s for sure.”

Amanda looked at the bike.

“It’s fine,” Brian said, “We’ll leave it here and come back for it in the morning when he’s feeling better.”

“How are all three of us going to fit on one bike?” Amanda demanded. “You’ll have to show me how to do it. It can’t be that hard, right? You can get a license for one of these things in like 48-hours' time. Besides, we’re only going a little ways.”

Brian looked unsure.

“How else are we gonna get back to the bus, Brian?” she asked pointedly.
"Eye to the Skies: Backstreet Boys Soar Over New Mexico" by Pengi
Eye to the Skies: Backstreet Boys Soar Over New Mexico
Pop Stuff Online - Staff Writer

It's a bird... it's a plane... it's the Backstreet Boys?

If you live in the Albuquerque-to-Santa Fe area in New Mexico, you may very well have seen the Traveling Backstreet Boys yesterday morning as they soared overhead on their latest adventure.

Brian Litrrell, Nick Carter, and Nick's girlfriend Amanda Golde, were most recently spotted aboard a rainbow-colored hot air balloon en route between the two major New Mexico cities. Reportedly, the trio enjoyed the views and champagne while in the air.

But that's not the only alcohol that New Mexico offered up for the three of them.

These racy pictures of Amanda dancing with Nick and Brian at a local Santa Fe club surfaced this morning, including the one featured below. Evidently Amanda and Brian are becoming very friendly! We can't help but wonder what Nick, and Leighanne Littrell, Brian's wife, must think about this picture!

As always, keep updated with Pop Stuff online for all the latest on the Traveling Backstreet Boys as they wind their way across the country.

Photographs by staff photographer, Tobias Winterson.
Chapter Fifteen by Pengi
"I already told you, nothing happened," Brian was saying into the phone the next morning. Amanda was curled into the corner of the little table's bench, her back against the wall and knees to her chest, munching on dry Honey Nut Cheerios out of a bowl. She watched as Brian paced back and forth in front of her, from the driver's seat of the bus to the end of the tiled kitchenette floor and back again. "Amanda is Nick's girlfriend, she was just really drunk, that's all."

She felt awful on every level imaginable. Her head hurt from the tequila, an so did her neck from having passed out on the sofa in an awkward position after getting Nick into his bunk. Seeing the paper the next morning when she'd gone into Wal-Mart to get coffee from the Dunkin' Donuts inside had made it even worse. Especially when the pimply-faced coffee guy had recognized her and asked, "Hey aren't you that chick that was making out with the Backstreet Boys?"

Amanda had run back to the bus, carrying a copy of the paper she'd inadvertently stolen, and found Brian on the phone, arguing with his wife who'd already seen the paper - of course she had, she was two hours ahead of them, and they'd slept in even on Mountain Time standards. Nick was the only one still blissfully unaware of what a crappy day it was already turning out to be - he was passed out in his bunk, and all they'd seen of him since the night before was the arm that had fallen out from underneath the curtain on his bunk.

Brian hung up the phone with Leighanne with a heavy sigh and sat down across from Amanda, burying his head on his arm.

"I'm sorry about all this," she mumbled sheepishly.

"It's not your fault," he said, his voice muffled by his arm.

Amanda pursed her lips. "If I hadn't have kissed you it wouldn't be a problem," she insisted.

"You didn't do it on purpose," Brian said, still not looking up.

Amanda rubbed her hands on her knee caps, wondering if that was true or not. Honestly, she was still unsure what had made her kiss Brian in the first place... if it had been just the tequila or if there was more to it. It didn't really matter, either way, though. Brian was married and she was with Nick, and didn't have any intentions of being with Brian. He was just a good friend, that's it.

Brian sighed, "I should get Nick up," he said, finally sitting up.

Amanda looked at the clock, it was after one in the afternoon. "Yeah, he should get up."

Brian got up and headed for the bunks. He yanked back Nick's curtain. "Rise and shine, Frackolas!" he called into Nick's ear.

Nick groaned loudly and rolled over, pulling the pillow over his head to block out the light Brian was letting in by having opened the curtain. Brian reached over his friend and pushed the shutter open. Sunlight spilled into the little bunk, turning it bright pearly white. "Sorry buddy, but it's gotta be done," Brian said, taking a firm grip on Nick's pillow and yanking it off his face.

"What the hellllllll," Nick groaned loudly, screwing his eyes up tight against the sunlight and rolling away from the wall. He covered his head with his arms, "Leave me aloooone," he whined.

"It's time to get up," Brian said firmly, poking Nick along his arm repeatedly. "Get up, get up, get up, get up..."

"Noooo," Nick's voice was low and drawn out. "C'moff it!" he cried, kicking his legs blindly at the air, feet to Brian's right.

"Get up, get up, get up," Brian continued poking Nick.

Nick blinked his eyes opened slowly and stared at Brian through blurry eyes. "I really despise you right now."

Brian smiled, "Good. Get up. We gotta talk."

Nick closed his eyes and groaned, "Right now? It's like the middle of the night or something, dude."

"In the land of the midnight sun?" Brian asked, gesturing toward the window. "Nick it's after one in the afternoon. Get. Up."

Nick sighed, "Fine."

Once he'd gotten up and brushed his teeth and sat down with a cup of coffee, which Amanda had quickly run inside to get him while he was in the bathroom, Brian threw the newspaper down in front of him.

It wasn’t the Pop Stuff article, but they had used the same photograph, taken by Tobias Winterson, and Nick choked on his coffee when he saw it. The photo was pretty bad, even Amanda had to admit that. They’d caught Brian and Amanda from just the right angle and it made it look like she’d been sucking on his lips or something. Plus, the back of the red sundress looked a lot more skimpy than the front did. She looked like a total slut hanging off him, and he’d been in the process of pulling back, his hands lifted to push her away, but it looked like he was touching her chest instead of pushing away.

Nick stared at it blankly. “What… the hell… happened?” he asked, dumbfounded. He felt like they’d just punched him in the lowest part of his gut. Or maybe even the balls. He wasn’t sure. Somewhere very sensitive.

“Well, not quite what it looks like,” Brian said. “You were both pretty gone last night. You were real bad, Nick,” he added. Nick couldn’t argue that, his head was still pounding. “But Amanda kind of … I dunno.” He looked at her.

“We were dancing and it just kind of happened,” she said quickly, “It means absolutely nothing, of course, but the press was just – there. I don’t know where, I didn’t see anyone taking out picture, but…” she frowned.

Nick frowned too. “I don’t like it that this Tobias Winterson dude is following us everywhere. It’s kinda creepy. Isn’t he the one that got the shots of the burro ride, too?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Brian said, “The name sounds familiar.”

“It’s like he’s following us around,” Nick said, his voice heating up, “Like he’s got some kind of inside connection to know where we’re headed next. It’s creepy. I’ve always hated that about freakin’ paparazzi and photogs.” He laid a hand on the paper and shoved it away, not wanting to look at the picture anymore. It hurt too much. He’d just told her he loved her, and then this? Sure it wasn’t like she’d cheated on him, but it made him burn inside with some kind of … feeling … that he couldn’t quite put his finger on to identify.

Amanda was staring at the Cheerios, feeling sick.

“Why can’t they just leave us the fuck alone?” Nick demanded, “I mean we canceled the tour, we won’t tell them why, we leave Los Angeles. Can’t they get the fucking hint that we wanna be left alone?” He stood up and grabbed the paper off the table and threw it. It hit the wall with a pathetic noise and flumped to the floor. He scowled.

Brian sighed, “I know, Nick, it’s frustrating, but –“

“But what? ‘That’s their job’?” Nick fumed, “It’s stupid. I’m a human fuckin’ being, and so are you guys, and all of us. Why the hell do they gotta go off on everything we do? Why can’t they let us live in peace for just this once?” With that, he stormed down the length of the bus and threw himself angrily onto the couch. A moment later the TV noise filtered through the bus.

Brian picked up the paper and folded it gently before dropping it into the recycling bin. “Well, that wasn’t what I thought he’d be mad over at least,” he said shakily to Amanda. He frowned.

“Yeah,” Amanda agreed. She was still staring at the Cheerios. It would’ve been easier if he had been mad about that, she thought. At least then, I could’ve apologized.
Chapter Sixteen by Pengi
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.
Chapter Seventeen by Pengi
Amanda fell asleep in the passenger seat, talking to Nick and listening to music. Nick had felt connected to her again during their time together, like he'd felt connected to her during the hot air balloon ride.

Once the awkward conversation of the press had worn off, they'd started talking about the past, their lives growing up, and everything. It was the first time she'd told Nick about her brother, Piper. She'd been telling Brian, of course, but not Nick. She didn't tell him about the stone eagle, either. That, she felt, was special between her and Brian and didn't need to go any further.

She'd been surprised to hear about his rough childhood, growing up in a negligent family, and how he'd struggled to make it in show business just to escape the pressure of it. "It's not that my parents were, like, abusive or anything," he said defensively, "It's just that they weren't always... the best parents. I mean, my mom... she uses me a lot, I guess. She had me too young, that's all. So I guess she needs to live vicariously through me. I don't know."

She'd told him about her father, too, and how he'd always been controlling over her. "He's gotta have a hand in on everything I do," she said, exasperated. "And nothing I do is ever good enough for him. I give him some of my best work, and he craps all over it..." she shuddered with frustration.

"You work for your dad?" Nick asked, picking up on the new information.

"Yeah," Amanda said, "Eric? That's my dad."

"Wow, so you call your dad by his first name?" he asked.

Amanda scoffed, "He wouldn't have it any other way."

And it had gone on like this, touching on almost every topic imaginable. The conversation had only waned once, when Amanda had mentioned their return to Los Angeles. "You're probably going to go off on tour and forget me within a year after this is all over," she'd said sadly.

"I won't," he said. "We're probably not going to tour again anyways."

Amanda had looked up, surprised. "Why not?" she'd asked.

Nick, realizing what he'd said, stammered, "Uh- just - just because. I - we - just -" he focused on the road, his mind racing for an answer.

"You don't have to tell me," she said. "I understand."

He sighed, "I'll tell you eventually, I promise."

Sort of like the I love you, she thought. You owe me an explanation, and I owe you an I love you.

But eventually she'd fallen asleep in the passenger seat and Nick had pulled over to the side of the road and carried her back to the bunks. Brian stuck his head out to watch as Nick gently, carefully tucked Amanda into her bunk, under the blankets, and quietly pulled the curtain shut.

"How goes it?" Brian whispered.

Nick looked at Brian and smiled, "It goes all right," he answered. He ducked back up to the driver's seat and shifted back into gear. It took a few minutes before Brian joined him, but he did finally and Nick smiled. "We had a good talk," he said.

Brian yawned, "Yeah?"

"Yeah, we were talking about when we were kids and stuff," he said. "She was telling me about her younger brother, Piper, and her dad and stuff. I told her about my mom and dad, too. We have a lot in common."

"I know you do," Brian said. "That's why I'm glad you're making an effort here, Nick. I'm telling you... this one's special."

Nick laughed. "You better be calling the judgement right," he said, wagging a finger at Brian. "I'm putting an awful lot of eggs in the basket just because you're swearing she's a good apple."

"Apples, eggs... this conversation's making me hungry," Brian joked, smirking.

"You know how hard it is for me to trust a girl," Nick said, ignoring the joke. "I'm going to put my trust in her, like you said."

Brian smiled, "Good. It makes me feel good to know you've got someone to talk to and take care of you."

Nick shook his head, "No one could take the place of you, Brian."

The sun was rising, shining on the face of the Rocky Mountains, which stretched along to their left as the bus drove along I-25. Nick had stopped to rest for maybe a couple hours during the night, but had, for the most part, driven straight through to morning. As Brian and Amanda stirred the next day, they found themselves in a Boulder, Colorado.

Nick pulled the bus up to an old-fashioned looking A-frame home on the side of a mountain, surrounded by aspen pine trees. Even without snow on the ground, the place had a feeling of being a ski lodge.

"What is this place?" Amanda asked, staring up at the Swiss detail on the house, painted bright red.

"It's the lodge I rented us," Nick said, "We're gonna be staying here instead of the bus, and we can use the bikes to get around." Nick was pleased with himself, "Isn't it beautiful?"

The keys had been mailed to him the month before, and he pulled them out of the manilla envelope he had in his bag and led the way up to the front door, Amanda and Brian following close behind. Amanda rubbed her arms. The elevation had cooled the air considerably from their time in the desert and she was glad she’d packed for every climate imaginable. After all, with the surprises Nick had already put them through, she wasn’t entirely confident that he wouldn’t have them sliding with polar bears on glaciers in Alaska before the trip was done.

The inside of the lodge was unbelievable. Brian tilted his head back and spun in a circle. The rafters were done cathedral style, and there were two lofts on either side of a long room that sat over two wood stoves that flanked the living area. There was a huge TV, a big overstuffed sofa, a pool table, and sliding glass doors that led onto a huge back deck with a view of the snow-capped mountains that was breath taking.

“Wow,” Amanda breathed, shocked by the beauty of the room. “This is incredible.”

“Right?” Nick said, grinning.

“Yeah it is,” Brian agreed. He looked around. “Um. Nick?”


“Where’s the kitchen?” he asked, noticing there was no other rooms off the one they were standing in.

“Well it’s kind of old fashioned,” Nick explained. “You’re supposed to use pans on the woodstove, or the grill out back. I figured we could use the grill or the bus’ stove.”

Brian nodded, “Ah.”

Amanda, who hadn’t noticed the lack of kitchen, spun around also. “Speaking of other rooms – how about the bathroom?”

Brian looked wildly at Nick. “You didn’t seriously rent a lodge without a toilet, Frack.”

Nick bit his lips. “Well, when I rented it it was just… you and me, Bri… and um… Yanno. Dudes can.. um. Pee outside.”

“I can’t pee outside!” Amanda panicked.

“And neither can we with that Tobias Winterson guy on our tail!” Brian also paniced. “I’m already all over the magazines for making out with someone that’s not my wife, the last thing I need is indecent exposure being added to my list of felonies!”

“Well we’ve got the bus toilet, we can use that,” Nick said.

Amanda laughed, “We’re gonna be roughing it.”

“It is a beautiful lodge, though,” Brian said, looking up again at the vaulted ceilings. “Where’s the bedrooms?”

Nick pointed at the two lofts. “…boys and girls, I guess,” he said. Part of him had wanted to split it him with Amanda and Brian on his own, but he wasn’t sure Amanda would be cool with that.

Which she wouldn’t have been. Amanda was glad to hear the gender break and scurried to the ladder leading up to the loft Nick had pointed at when he said girls. Brian did the same, except in the opposite loft. Nick, who had already seen pictures and knew there wasn’t much to see up there, went over and started inspecting the pool table, running his hand over the felt and wondering if he could get Brian to let him actually play pool again. Last time he’d played pool with Brian in the room, it had resulted in a cue ball almost hitting him in the back of the head… from across the room.

“There’s skylights!” Amanda shrieked suddenly from up in her loft.

Nick laughed. He’d forgotten there’d been skylights when he looked at the pictures. They had been one of the many deciding factors of the lodge. He’d figured Brian could see the stars all night and it would be another thing to add to the quest for something beautiful.

He was setting up the balls in the rack when Brian came back down the ladder. “I hope you aren’t planning to play that, killer,” Brian said as he sat down on the sofa.

Nick pouted, “C’mon, I’m better at it now.”

“So you only maim instead of murder now?” Brian teased. Nick stuck out his tongue.

Amanda acme down the ladder of her own loft and danced across the room, “I love it in here, even If I have to go outside to pee!” she announced.

Nick and Brian both laughed. “Well that’s good, I’m glad you like it here. Cos we’ve got a week here,” Nick said.

“A week?” Brian asked, surprised. “What on earth are we doing with a week?”

“Well, a couple of days we’re going to be –“ Nick stopped, then smirked, catching himself before he revealed their next activity. “You’ll see.”

“You almost got it out of him, Brian,” Amanda said, giving Brian a high five.

Nick laughed, putting away the pool balls, “Glad to see ya’ll are ganging up on me.”
Chapter Eighteen by Pengi
Amanda awoke the next morning to the sound of Brian's laughter echoing through the living room of the lodge from outside on the deck. She rolled over and pulled her sweatpants up under the oversized shirt she wore as a pajama, and climbed down the ladder in her bare feet, padding out to the deck, rubbing her eyes. "What's going on out here?" she asked, still groggy.

"I told you it wouldn't work, buddy," Brian had been in the middle of saying between bursts of laughter as Amanda stepped through the wide-open sliding doors. Brian's face was beet red.

Nick frowned, waving a spatula at Brian and standing by the grill, "It seemed like a good idea," he defended himself.

"What seemed like a good idea?" Amanda asked, inching toward Nick and the grill.

Brian held up a box of Bisquick.

"Oh Nick," Amanda said, peering into the grill, where a pile of pale goo was smoldering on the briquettes below the grate. "You didn't."

Nick's cheeks burned as Brian bust out in more laughing, dropping into one of the patio chairs and putting his head down to his knees. "It would've been cool if it'd worked," he said, his voice sounding deflated.

Amanda frowned; she didn't like the tone that Nick's voice carried, like he was a wounded lamb. He was looking at his hands and she could just tell he was thinking something along the lines of I'm such a fuck-up and it nearly broke her heart. "It's not a horrible idea," she comforted him, "Just.. maybe you could use some tin foil underneath it?" she suggested.

He perked up instantly. "I saw some tin foil!" he exclaimed. Brian's laughter died down as Amanda gave him The Look over Nick's back as Nick dove into the little cupboard under the grill. "Here," Nick resurfaced holding the tube of Reynolds Wrap.

Amanda ripped a sheet off and laid it on the grate. "There you go, now try making your pancakes."

"You're a friggin' culinary genius," Nick exclaimed, kissing her cheek. She smiled. Making him happy felt good. "See this, Frick? My girlfriend's a culinary genius," he said proudly.

"Well, don't get too excited until it actually works," Amanda said, blushing.

Nick kissed her a second time and turned to start his cooking. Amanda sat down on the deck chair opposite Brian. As she sat, she caught a glimpse of herself in the sliding door's reflection. "Ugh!" she cried, reaching for her hair in disgust, "Oh my God, I have gotten way too comfortable around you guys when I'm willing to wander downstairs looking like this. It's like something from the black lagoon," she complained, trying to detangle the rats nest that was her hair with her fingers.

Brian laughed, "I've seen worse," he said. "Although, I must say --" he eyed the shirt she was wearing, which was an XXL Yankees baseball jersey. "Your choice of teams kind of blows."

"I like it," Nick announced from where he stood at the grill. He pointed the spatula at Amanda, "The lagoon creature and the pin stripes," he clarified, winking. He turned back and stabbed the pancake mess he was making with the spatula like a night brandishing a sword against a fire breathing dragon.

"And what team do you like, outsider?" she asked looking at Brian. She gave up on her hair - after all, if Nick liked her hair looking like she was Bellatrix Lestrange or something, then far be it from her to actually put an effort into getting it tamed just yet.

"The Sox and the Braves," Brian said in a tone that meant this should've been a given.

Amanda snorted, "You cannot be serious. Remind me -- how many pennants have either of your teams won again? Compared to the pin striped glory? Oh- oh, like ... two? In, like, 100 years?"

"I like the Sox, too," Nick called out.

Distracted from Brian's crappy choice in teams for a moment, she turned to Nick, and said - in a dead panned voice, "Say what?"

Nick laughed, "Yeah, I know. It's weird. As a Yankees fan I'm not allowed to like the Sox and as a Sox fan I'm not allowed to like the Yankees, but..." he shrugged, "I dunno, I like'em both. The Yankees win, that's for sure, but the Sox... they've got personality."

"Exactly," said Brian, pointing at Nick, "Even when the Sox suck, they're entertaining to watch."

Amanda shook her head and was about to respond to that when Nick announced, "Pancakes are served." He moved the spatula, intending to serve them up on plates, but wasn't quite sure how to go about doing so. Instead, he picked up the entire sheet of tin foil and carried it to the table, dropping it down between Brian and Amanda. "Tada," he exclaimed.

It looked like a tan blob.

Brian blinked at it, and Amanda could tell the way his nose was flaring that he was trying to resist cracking up again. Nick held up forks, "Here ya go," he said. "Try it."

"You go," Brian said, nodding at Amanda, "Ladies first."

Amanda reluctantly took the fork from Nick and stabbed a scoop of the pancake blob onto it. She studied it, dangling pitifully from the fork, and then shoved it into her mouth.

"Well? How is it?" Nick asked as she chewed slowly.

She felt like a cow chewing cud. "It's... wet, kind of..." she said. She frowned, "I'm sorry, Nick." Amanda spit the blob into her hand and scowled at it. "Ugh. It's really, really gross. You know when Eggos like get frost bit and they taste... kinda soggy or... something?" she asked.

"Oh ew," Nick made a face.

"Yeah," said Amanda throwing the spit out piece of pancake crap onto the tin foil. Nick rolled it up.

"Go on, make fun of me now Brian," he said, tossing the ball of foil and 'pancrap' into the garbage can next to the grill.

Brian took a deep breath, trying to resist the urge to obey this command, and said, "I think I saw a diner on the way through town."

"Oh thank God," Amanda cried. They all laughed, and she quickly excused herself to go upstairs and change and tame her hair before they went into public.

Brian looked at Nick. "Don't ever try grilling pancakes again, okay? It's just a bad idea," he said.

"No problem," Nick laughed.

Three hours later, they'd eaten and Nick had gotten them geared up in shorts and bathing suits and light leather jackets. Amanda had needed weatherproof hiking sneakers and Nick had dragged her into an Outdoor Outfitters shore in the town. He'd bought her a pair of really cute, light sneakers that were eggplant purple in color and laced with funny little bungee cords instead of traditional laces. "Trust me," he'd said, "You'll need'em."

Amanda had felt bad. She hated how much money he was spending on her - between the trip itself, activities, food, and random oddities like the sneakers and her insatiable need for Red Bulls at every gas station they'd stopped at so far. He was investing a small fortune in her needs. So far, the only things he'd allowed her to pay for had been her cigarettes, some post cards at the Grand Canyon, and a couple cups of coffee. Even the post card stamps he'd insisted on paying for, claiming that the post office charged less if he bought a coil of 30 than if they bought two books of 15. Amanda was pretty sure that they charged the same amount no matter how many stamps you bought, but she wasn't positive. Granted, she didn't have the money for must else than what he'd allowed her to buy herself, especially since she wasn't getting paid while she was on the road, but still. She felt like a heel.

She had to admit, though, the kicks were the best fitting pair of sneakers she'd ever had, and she was pretty sure they'd be residing on her feet until they basically disintegrated and fell off.

Nick and Brian drove the bikes away from the lodge, with Amanda on Nick's back, wearing a backpack stuffed with three changes of clothes for each of them and some "other stuff" Nick had packed before she and Brian could see what it was.

Nick led the way, Brian's motorcycle humming a couple feet to the side of them, as they drove through some gorgeous mountainous country side. The mountain air was wonderful, but cold. Amanda was glad that Nick had made her wear the jacket for the ride, and wished she'd worn pants instead of the shorts, but he'd insisted on shorts. Her legs were covered in goose pimples.

The scenery was breath-taking. The Rocky Mountains loomed to one side and tall Christmas-scented trees surrounded them. Amanda gasped in the scent, which mixed pleasantly with the familiar smell of Nick (a smell that was quickly becoming one of her very favorites in the whole world) and his leather jacket. The air was so clean compared to LA, it almost stung in her lungs.

Nick drove over a long, skinny bridge that stretched over a deep abyss-like gorge. Far below, Amanda could see a white-capped river rushing by. Some people were standing on a walking bridge below, wearing helmets. "Beautiful," Amanda whispered, staring down at the river and the depth of the gorge.

On the other side of the bridge, Nick turned onto a winding dirt road that led into the deep woods. He had to slow down the bike to keep rocks from pelting their bare legs as they flew out from the tires. The road was probably ten miles long, Amanda thought, by the time they reached the end. A large parking lot, with a big sporting goods outlet was at the end. A school bus and a bunch of cars were parked in the driveway area, and a sign as they pulled into the lot said, "Lost Paddle River Adventures".

"We aren't--" but Amanda's voice was lost in the wind and hum of the bike, even to herself, so she didn't bother finishing the sentence. There was no way in hell Nick could hear her, and she had a feeling that, even if he could hear her, he wouldn't have answered.

The noise from the motorcycles attracted attention from a large group of people clustered around some florescent blue rafts by the river bed. A couple had on construction-worker orange helmets and life vests, others were awkwardly holding long wooden oars. Nick and Brian parked the motorcycles and the three of them climbed off. Nick helped Amanda remove the ping-pong ball helmet and kissed her nose.

"Are we seriously doing this?" Brian asked, laughing, "Are you nuts?"

Nick beamed, "You don't even know the half of what we're doing."

"We're white-water rafting?" Amanda asked, both scared and excited at the same time. "Seriously?"

"Yup," Nick beamed. "Welcome to a 3-day, 2-night river adventure!" The way he said it, he easily could've starred in an ad on TV for the company, he was so enthusiastic.

"Are they even going to let us do it? I mean, I dunno for sure about Amanda, but I'm confident in saying that none of us are really very experienced with this type stuff," Brian worried, "Well, other than maybe you, Scuba Steve."

Nick laughed, "The tour we're going on is for like families with little kids," he explained, "If a six year old can do it, I think we can." He turned and started trotting excitedly toward the river, pulling Amanda along behind him.

"Yea but I bet they expect a lot less out of a six year old," Brian said to Amanda, "Plus, who knows, the six year old could be freakishly strong." He scurried to keep up with Nick's long strides, as Amanda laughed back at Brian's comment.

"You must be Nick, Brian and Amanda," called a very built, very athletic looking woman who looked like she was probably once a gym teacher. "My name is Pat, and I'm going to be one of your river guides." She stuck her hand out for the trio and Nick shoot it excitedly. "You ever done this before?"

"No," they chorused. "And I never thought I would, either," Brian added. Amanda smirked at him.

"Well this adventure is perfect for you folks then," Pat told them, "It's a good one for beginners, so no worries. We're all gonna have a great time! Follow me down to the bank and we'll introduce you to the rest of the team."

Brian leaned over so only Nick and Amanda could hear him as they walked along behind Pat. "I bet she's got a better six pack than Nick or I," he whispered.

"She's probably got bigger balls too," Nick whispered back. Amanda hit his arm and he cracked up while Brian shook his head, laughing silently.

When they reached the bank, Pat started introducing them to the other people that were going to be in the fleet of rafts heading down the river with them over the next few days. Then, a tall, dark haired guy who sort of resembled a young Eugene Levy, with the thick frizzy-hair and glasses, turned around and extended his hand to Nick. Amanda stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of him, and Brian walked into her by accident. "My name is Ben," he said, his voice deep, "Where are you all from?" He looked from Brian to Amanda and smiled.

"California," Nick answered. "That's Brian, and my girlfriend, Amanda. I'm Nick."

"Hello Brian," Ben said cordially. He turned to Amanda, "And his girlfriend, Amanda." Amanda met his eyes. Brian shook the guy's hand, but his eyes didn't tear away from Amanda's. He reached out for her hand as Nick picked up an orange helmet and someone shoved an oar into Brian's hand. "I'm really excited to be going on this river trip with you," he said exclusively to her now that their attentions were distracted.

Amanda's jaw set as he took her hand forcefully and shook it. She squeezed his hand bone as hard as she could. "Oh I'm sure you're delighted, Toby," she said whispered sarcastically.

"Quite a grip, this one," he announced loudly enough to regain Nick's attention. "She must be very feisty. How on earth do you keep track of her?"

Nick forced a fake sounding laugh and quickly snaked his arm around Amanda's waist possessively. He grimaced at Ben, jealousy firing up inside him like an angry monster that had been dormant, yet was now ready to destroy anything that got in its way. "Yeah. That's what I love about my girlfriend," he said. He kissed her on the side of the face near the neck and tugged her away from Ben, "Come on, baby," he said, employing a nickname he hadn't really used before when referring to her, "Let's go fit you into a life jacket."

Brian smiled, oblivious to the tension between Nick, Ben and Amanda. "Nice meetin' ya," he called to Ben as they turned their backs and Nick led the way, still not letting go of Amanda, over to the pile of life preservers that were sitting on a rock near the water's edge. Ben watched, smirking, as Amanda glanced back over her shoulder at him nervously.
Chapter Nineteen by Pengi
Nick pulled the life preserver around Amanda and tugged at the straps viciously. His aggression toward Ben was coming out on the life vest, and Amanda coughed, feeling like she was being tied into a girdle in the 1800s. "A little tight there, Nick," she croaked as he yanked them even tighter.

"Sorry," he said, letting the harness loosen, "I'm sorry. I don't like that guy," he said quietly. Nobody else in the group was bugging Nick the way Ben was, and he wasn't quite sure what it was about the guy - he just knew there was something about him that he absolutely didn't like. At least a part of it, he knew, was because of the way he looked at Amanda like he was hungry or something.

Brian was pulling on his own life vest and had his chin tucked into his neck, trying to look down at his own chest over the bulk of the preserver. "I always feel like a penguin in these things," he said, tugging on the strings of his harness.

"A penguin?" Amanda laughed, "Why on earth do life preservers make you feel like a penguin?"

"Because," Brian finished adjusting the harness, then dropped his hands tight to his sides and wobbled back and forth, like a penguin waddling. Amanda laughed as he did that, and bobbled his head like a bird. Nick was staring back toward Ben as he did this, but everyone else in the entire group by the short was now staring at Brian as he started quacking.

"I'm pretty sure penguins don't quack," Amanda laughed.

"Why is that asshole watching us?" Nick growled. Brian sobered up and followed Nick's gaze toward Ben.

Amanda answered, "I think everyone is watching us, thanks to Brian."

"Dude, let it go," Brian said, "You put a lot of work into this trip, don't let some guy spoil the fun. C'mon." He shoved a wooden oar into Nick's hand and grinned.

Nick sighed, "You're right." The three of them pulled on bright orange helmets like everyone else. "There's just something about that guy, I dunno. I don't like him."

"But he's not worth ruining this," Brian said holding up the oar he had in his hand as evidence.

Nick laughed, "You're right."

"I always am," Brian smiled.

Pat held her oar over her head as she climbed up onto a large rock in front of the group. "Okay everyone!" she shouted, her voice projecting quite far, even without a megaphone or anything. "FOCUS! Especially you, newbies!" She paused and waited for everyone to look at her. "So here's how the white water rafting this is gonna work. We are officially a team now. THERE IS NO I IN TEAM!" she bellowed this last part and Nick blinked in surprise at the decibels her voice reached. "So what does that mean?" she asked, "It means we have to all work together to make this trip work out! We're going to be paddling downstream to the gorge, where we will be camping for two nights. Then we will finish our rafting ride from the bottom of the water fall in the gorge."

"We're going to that gorge?" Amanda looked surprised, and glanced at Nick, who smirked.

"As you are aware," Pat continued, "There is hiking and other activities planned for you once we are in the gorge. However!" her voice was sharp at this word. "You must live through the white water before you can see the gorge. Here are the rules. You will NOT live to see the gorge if you are horsing around or pulling shenanigans. You will NOT live to see the gorge if you are not helping to paddle. In other words, you will NOT live to see the gorge if you piss me off."

Nick's eyes widened and Brian coughed, "Gestapo." Amanda glanced over her shoulder at the two boys. Apparently the fresh mountain air had revived their hyper active sides. Brian covered his mouth, turning red, trying to stifle his laughter, as Nick's eyes watered, but his face remained amazingly straight other than the way his nostrils were quivering as he tried to keep steady breaths.

Ben caught her eye while she was looking back, and Amanda quickly turned forward.

"While we are on the raft," Pat continued, "You will be paddling at all times! This is how you will be using your oars!" She demonstrated, waving her oar through the air beside her like a viking. "Now you all try."

There was a general shuffling of feet and skin scraping life preservers as they all rearranged themselves and mimicked the rowing motion that Pat was doing. Nick's paddle hit the back of Brian's leg - whether by accident or not, no one would have been able to tell - and Brian blithely hit Nick back with his own oar as they stopped rowing and straightened up. Nick squinted his eyes at Brian, who was looking forward instead of at his friend.

"Very good," Pat shouted, "You don't look like you're a bunch of losers like the last group I brought down to the gorge. Now - this is very important. At least one of you will get thrown from the raft at some point or another," she explained.

"I hope it's Ben," Nick hissed to Brian, who laughed.

"If you fall out, do not panic. Grab onto a rock and we will row to you and pull you back into the raft. It is extremely important that you do not panic, as panicking will only make you more likely to flounder and get pulled under the water, or hit yourself on a rock. Keep yourself facing with the current, so that you can latch onto a rock." Pat looked around at them all, "Okay, I think we're set. Let's move out, people!"

The herd moved toward the rafts and Nick carefully steered away from the raft Ben was closest to, but Amanda knew he wouldn't want to be in the same raft as them anyway, so she wasn't surprised when he didn't even attempt to follow them.

"Are you guys starting to feel kinda nervous about this?" Brian asked, leaning forward to Nick and Amanda. Amanda was in the front, followed by Nick and then Brian behind him on the right side of the raft they'd gotten into. Pat was in the stern of their raft, and a family - father, mother and thirteen year old boy - was on the left.

Nick laughed, "Oh trust me Brian, the raft is the least of your worries for this week." He reached back and patted Brian's shoulder. "Seriously."

Brian's eyes widened, "What the hell else do you have planned?" he panicked.

The raft was leaving the shore, though, and Nick only laughed in response as the current of the river picked it up and the wind blew into their faces, taking away sound.

It took a grand total of about fifteen seconds before the water had caught the front of the boat just right and poured about five gallons of freezing-cold river water all over their laps. Amanda let out a scream closed her eyes as a second splash hit them. “Oh-h-hh my God!” she wailed.

Nick was laughing manically behind her. She flapped her paddle. “ROW!” cried Pat.

The water was insanely loud as they were carried away on a swift current and the river dipped between two tall walls of rock. Amanda couldn’t believe how loud the water could be. As they slipped over rocks and water caps, she felt herself bouncing up and down in the boat, the water that had gotten inside splashing around her new waterproof sneakers (she very much now understood why Nick had insisted she get those instead of regular hiking shoes).

Brian felt his stomach doing flips inside him, like he was on a wacky roller coaster ride or something.

When the water calmed down a couple minutes later, Amanda opened her eyes again and, gasping for air, leaned back into Nick, who laughed as he looked down at her. “You okay?” he asked.

“That was so scary,” she said.

Nick bent down and kissed her forehead softly, then said, “You better paddle or Pat’s gonna kill you.”

Amanda sat up and started rowing. A funny feeling took over her, though, as they glided along past the trees and rocks and banking. She’d been terrified. No, beyond terrified, but when she’d looked up at Nick… the feeling had melted. She’d felt safe. She smiled, thinking of that warm feeling he’d given her, just by being there, behind her. Her forehead tingled a little where he’d kissed her, and she gripped her paddle more tightly, braver now because Nick was there.
Chapter Twenty by Pengi
The rest of the ride to the gorge went in spurts of being crazy scary and being super calm and relaxing. They passed a lot of neat and beautiful things. Brian spotted a brown bear fishing, which he pointed out to everyone, and the bear looked up to watch the raft float past, a curious expression on his face. Nick laughed, "We freaked out a bear," he said. They saw some other wild life - a deer, a fox, and a lot of jumping fish and birds swooping to catch the fish. The river was teeming with interesting things to look at.

And when the current did pick up - which it did several times, throwing the little raft up and down over rocks and bumps in the river - Amanda managed not to have another melt down by leaning back so that Nick's chest pressed against her, and she could almost smell him over the fresh air that filled her lungs. She'd never realized how comforting he was before, but now that she'd noticed she was craving his proximity.

They reached the gorge before two in the afternoon, and Pat helped them pull the rafts up onto the shore of the river and anchor them by tying them to some trees near by. They set up tents in a large clearing, and some guys built up a campfire in a pit, while Pat showed the three kids in the team some of the basics of boy scouting - things like how to tell which way was north by looking at the moss on trees, and how to start a fire using two sticks.

Because Nick was tall, the guys putting up the tents had quickly claimed him to assist them, and Amanda and Brian were left sitting on the river bank by the rafts. Amanda had taken off her sneakers and was standing knee-deep in the water, the sun reflecting off it as it rushed by.

"I don't know how you can even look at the water," Brian said. He'd been on the verge of throwing up during one of the especially turbulent currents and he'd made up his mind that this would be his first and only experience white water rafting.

Amanda laughed, "I wanna see the gorge," she explained. She squinted into the distance, but couldn't see anything. All she could hear was distant thundering. "I can hear the waterfall," she said.

"Makes you wanna get an old fashioned beer barrel, huh?" joked Brian.

Amanda waded back in to the shore and sat down next to Brian. He looked her over, and said, "So why do you think Nick's bugged by that guy?" he asked. Ben was skulking by a cluster of trees off to the side, not really doing anything except standing and watching everything else.

Amanda shrugged, "I dunno." She didn't wanna talk about him.

Brian watched Ben, and followed his gaze to Nick, who was battling with a tarp, trying to make it suspend over a tent. Brian squinted and frowned, deep in thought. "You know... the idea has crossed my mind that Ben could be the photog that's been following us around, but he isn't snapping pictures of Nick, he's just watching. Which is kind of creepier, actually."

"What else do you think Nick's got planned for us on this lovely vacation?" Amanda asked, trying to change the subject.

Brian laughed, "Who knows with Nick? This has been incredible. It's hard to believe there's anything left for him to have plotted."

"Right?" Amanda smiled. She looked in Nick's direction and felt a warm, fuzzy feeling crawl over her. "He's really special, Brian."

"I know," Brian answered. He looked Amanda over. "It's not every guy that would plan a big trip like this for his friend."

Amanda looked to Brian. Something about the tone... "Yeah," she said, "But it'd have to be a special friend for a guy to do something like that, too."

Brian's smile was sad. "Or one who was dying," he said.

The words were so not what Amanda had expected that she almost didn't comprehend them at first, almost agreed without realizing what he'd said. But then the words sunk into her head. Or one who was dying. She felt her heart screaming.

Brian looked at her, then looked away, down the river. He stood up and walked over to the edge, staring down in the direction of the gorge. Amanda stared at his back, at the shape of his legs sticking out of his shorts - which were kind of on the goofy side, especially with his water shoes, which he'd lined with socks. He was probably the only person in the world that would line water shoes with socks, she thought.

And he's dying.

The word was like ice water down the spine. It hurt. She felt breathless and dizzy.

She walked over to him, her knees felt like rubber. She stood there awkwardly beside him, trying to decide how to word what she was thinking. Finally, blunt just felt like it was the best answer. "You're not though, right?" she asked, feeling desperate.

Please say no, she begged him with all of her heart.

Brian turned to look at her.

You are. Amanda felt sick.

"No," she whispered, shaking her head. She felt cold.

"That's why we canceled the tour," Brian whispered.

Amanda backed away, closing her eyes, like that would make it stop. "No," she said, her voice cracking.

"That's why we're here," Brian said, "In this beautiful, beautiful place. Because I needed to know that there was something beautiful left. That it wasn't all medicine and treatments and hospital food and chemotherapy and heart monitors."

"Stop," she wasn't even sure there was an actual noise when she said it, her voice was that strangled in her throat. Tears seared the rims of her eyes. Her chest felt too small to contain itself. "But," she whispered, "It's not fair."

"Life is never fair," Brian answered simply.

"No, I mean any of it," she said, shaking her head. She caught a glimpse of Ben, who had spotted that she was crying, and was now watching her and Brian. She felt like throwing something at his face, screaming at him to go the fuck away, to leave Brian and Nick alone. If I'd had any idea, she thought, agonized. She looked up into Brian's face and gasped out, "Of all the people in the entire world, why the hell does it have to be you?" she asked.

Brian didn't respond, he didn't know how to. He just stared at her. He reached out to touch her shoulder, to try to comfort her, but she turned away. "Amanda," Brian whispered, "I shouldn't have told you this."

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" she demanded.


"Why didn't Nick tell me?" she asked.

Brian glanced at Nick, who was laughing, carefree, and helping put together another tent. "Nick's barely let it into his own heart and mind, let alone to place it into another's."

"Can't they fix it, whatever is wrong?" she asked.

Brian looked down at her. "They... they wanted to try," he said, "But there was no guarantee," he said slowly, "Even on the chemo, most patients only extend life by six or seven months, statistically. But... when I left for the trip... it-" he pursed his lips together and took a deep breath, "It pushed me past the time for the - the treatment option. The window of opportunity is gone."

"Why would you do that?"

"I wanted to die living," Brian said, the words thick in his accent, "Not live dying."
Chapter Twenty-One by Pengi
Nick came trotting over once the third tent he'd helped assemble was completed. He was sweating from the exertion, and came to a halt next to Brian, who was still standing by the river.

Amanda had gone to be alone to think. Brian had stayed on the riverbank, ankle deep in water, staring off toward the gorge. He was pretty sure he could see where the river ended suddenly, where the water became air, and the solidness below dropped away into an abyss.

Nick didn't notice the tear that was rolling down Brian's cheek when he initially approached.

"Hey Bri," he called, laughing, "Putting up tents is like super dangerous, I never realized. I almost belted myself a couple times in the shnoz with bungee cords." He reenacted pulling the cord and it snapping back in his face and laughed.

Brian smiled at Nick's enthusiasm and quickly composed himself, wiping the tear away with the heel of his hand. He turned to Nick his face broken into that smile still, and said, "You're a goof, Carter."

Nick grinned back. "Hey, where's Amanda?" he asked, looking around. "I thought she was chillin' with you?"

"She went for a walk," Brian said, shrugging.

Nick frowned at the trees. "Hope she doesn't get lost," he muttered.

"I don't think she went far," Brian answered.

"Isn't this great?" Nick asked, spreading his arms to indicate the campsite as well as the river and the rafts and everything. "Doesn't it make you feel like super alive?" he asked.

"Yeah," Brian said, "Alive."

Amanda had only just barely gotten out of the clearing when she heard the brush behind her part. She kept walking, knowing he would follow her. The trees got denser, and if she didn't know, too, that he was an expert hiker - and therefore would be able to find the way back - she would've been scared to go any further. But she didn't want to be overheard. Especially not now.

When she felt like she was far enough away, she stopped and allowed him to catch up with her.

"Well?" his voice was low.

"You need to leave," she said.

Tobias Benjamin Winterson stepped up to her and laid his hands gently on her shoulders. "Do you have any idea how much it pissed me off to hear that guy call you his girlfriend?" he spit the words out.

Amanda closed her eyes. "Toby, you need to go."

"Did you get the story?" he asked.

Amanda nodded. "And now you need to leave."

"Well," he said, "When are you writing it?"

She shook her head.

Tobias frowned and leaned forward, laying his mouth on her neck. "Come on, sexy," he whispered, kissing the crook of her shoulder an sucking on the skin there, "What good are you if you aren't writing the story?"

In one swift motion, she brought her elbow back, directly into the depth of his stomach as hard and as fast as she could. He let out a gasp of air, and she felt him double over, his chin hitting her shoulder and a groan of pain escaping him. "You little bitch! What the fuck was that for?" he gasped.

"Do not touch me," she growled.

Tobias' eyebrows knit together. "What is this about, Amanda, huh?" he snarled, suddenly angry. It had been a long time since she'd seen him angry, and it made her back away slightly. "What? Do you honestly think you have something with that scumbag?" he demanded.

Amanda looked back toward the camp.

"Do you seriously think he loves you?" he scoffed.

"Yes," she snapped.

Tobias laughed. "He doesn't know you," he said, "Not like I do. And if he knew you, really knew you, he wouldn't love you."

Amanda's hands felt clammy. "I'm different around him," she said, shaking her head.

"Yeah, that's because you're a lying sack of crap around him," he sneered. "If you ever told him what you are - he'd drop you so fast..."

Amanda's face was streaming with tears.

"You know it's true. Or if you doubt it, maybe if you need reminding of why you're really here, we should go tell him right now. Give him a chance to prove me wrong? To want you anyway?"

I can't lose them both in one night, she thought, her heart pounding with emotion and pain.

"C'mon, let's go see how much Nick Carter loves you." He grabbed her wrist so tight it hurt and she let out a shriek of pain and tried to pull back, but he kept his grip on her so that all it did was wrench her wrist.

"Stop it, stop it," she sobbed. She dropped to the ground, her wrist above her head in his hand and the tears poured across her face.

Tobias bent down and rubbed her back. The gesture normally would've been sweet, but she knew better now. "Oh, Amanda," he whispered. "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

"Please..." she cried, "Please leave."

"I can't leave without a story," he whispered.

Amanda's heart pounded so loudly, it echoed in her ears. "I'm working on the story," she said, "I'll write the story. Eric will get the story, okay?" she snapped. "But you need to leave."

"Why?" he asked. "Give me a good reason."

"Because they're on to you," she whispered, lying. "You're ruining my cover and if I lose my cover, we lose the story. I don't have all the details yet and until I do, I can't lose the cover, okay? You're going to blow it."

Tobias studied her. "You'll get the story?" he asked, uncertain.

"Yes," she gasped. "I'll get it."

He leaned down and kissed her mouth. She did not kiss back. "Good girl."

"Now leave," she demanded.

Amanda emerged from the woods and Nick descended on her like a swooping hawk. "Are you okay?" he asked, seeing the dirt stuck to her shorts and blood on her knees. Her face was blotchy and red.

"I'm fine," she said, shaking her head, "I don't feel well." She pushed past him, trembling, and headed for her tent.

Nick stood helplessly and watched as she crawled into the tent and zipped it shut behind her. The snap of a twig breaking made him turn around, and Ben came out of the same path in the woods that Amanda had just come from. Nick felt his muscles tighten, his stomach roll, and his fists balled.

Brian was coming up behind Nick and saw him tense up. "What's wrong?"

"He did something to her," Nick hissed.

"What?" Brian looked surprised.

Nick's face was livid, his eyes were practically red with anger. "That mother fucking --" he started walking toward Ben, who was oblivious to Nick's stare, but Brian stopped him, jumping in front of him and putting hands on each of his shoulders.

"Nick, what happened?" he asked.

"Amanda came out of the woods over there," Nick said, pointing, "Sobbing and shaking and covered in dirt and blood, and then he -"

Brian looked at Ben.

"Then he came out of the same place," Nick growled.

"And what do you think you're going to do about it?" Brian asked, his voice low. "Nick, you don't know what happened. Talk to Amanda about it before you haul off and beat the crap out of that guy, okay? Please? It could be a misunderstanding."

"Misunderstanding my ass--"

"Nick," Brian's voice was a warning bark. "Stop. Go talk to Amanda."

Nick set his jaw and felt frustration channel through him to every part of his body. "Fine," he hissed, "But if she says he hurt her..."

"Then I'll help you beat the shit out of him, okay?" Brian whispered. "But please, find out for sure something even happened first." He used his hands to twist Nick in the direction of Amanda's tent, away from Ben.
Chapter Twenty-Two by Pengi
Amanda was curled up in a ball in her tent, tears still streaming down her face. Everything was so messed up. She wanted it to go back to how it had been that morning, when the biggest concern in the world had been how to make Nick’s grilled pancakes work.

She rolled onto her back and looked up when the zipper undid and the door to the tent folded in a little. Nick popped his head in. “Can I come in?” he asked gently. She nodded, not daring to speak, as he unzipped the door the rest of the way and stepped inside and knelt, so that he was leaning over her. “I have a question for you,” Nick said firmly, “And I need you to tell me the truth.”

Oh God, he knows, she thought, her heart expanding even more. She couldn’t take it.

“Did Ben try to hurt you?” he asked, his voice nearly perfectly steady, except a slight break toward the end, when he said the word hurt.

Amanda thought of her wrenched wrist, of the emotional ache that filled her. But she could see fire in his eyes, too. “Ben?” she asked.

“He came out of the woods behind you…” Nick said, “If he hurt you, tell me.”

And they say chivalry is dead, Amanda thought, swelling with pride. Yet here is a man willing to defend my honor. She smiled up at him weakly, “Please hold me,” she whispered.

Nick dropped down beside her so that he was laying, his long legs having to bend in order to fit in the small tent. He held open his arms and she scooted over into him, her face pressed into his neck, forcing his chin up to rest on top of her head. She pushed her body so close against him that there was no space at all between them, not even a slight gap of air. He wrapped his arms around her, the arm under her acting as a pillow under her head, that hand splayed large and strong and protective across her back, and the other arm wrapped over her diagonally, that hand across her bottom, but not in a sexual way, just in a safe way, like he was ready to carry her away. She breathed in the smell of his neck and closed her eyes, the tears still falling down her face, but here, she knew nothing could hurt her.

“What’s wrong?” Nick whispered gently.

“Brian told me,” she whispered.

Nick’s breath came out shaky. He felt his mouth dry and he grimaced over her head into the dark of the tent, but he didn’t let up on his grip of her. She moved her head a little to be looking up, her ear listening to his heartbeat. “I’m sorry,” she said when he didn’t respond for too long of a time.

“No, he was right, you needed to know. It wasn’t fair. I just didn’t want to make it anymore real than it already was, you know?” he said.

“What’s wrong with him?” she asked, “I mean, I know cancer but-“

“Leukemia,” Nick answered.

Amanda’s heart shattered again and she closed her eyes. “That’s what Piper had,” she whispered.

Nick rubbed her back gently. The motion contrasted with Tobias’ attempt and made tears spring to her eyes. This man, this gentle giant of a beautiful man, was so wonderful to her, and she’d been nothing but ungrateful and horrible to him. Granted, she had reported nothing major of yet, nothing besides general road trip stories, but they’d upset him.

“Nick,” she whispered, about to tell him the truth, but her words came at exactly the same moment as he spoke, too.

“I love you Amanda.”

Fresh tears fell down her cheek. She nestled into his neck once more. She felt safe, something she rarely had felt in her lifetime. And that smell… “I love you, Nick.”

She heard him sigh, contented at her words, and he pulled her tighter to him, clutching her, like she was something he considered precious.

Nick woke up at five in the morning, still holding Amanda exactly as he had been the evening before. How they’d fallen asleep for the night at six o’clock in the evening, he was unsure, but he felt more rested and relaxed than he had in a very, very long time. She felt wonderful pressed up against him like this, and he smiled, moving his face so that his nose was buried in her hair, and he could place a kiss on her forehead.

She stirred in his arms, a coo like a dove echoing in her throat. He pulled back a little to look at her, admire her features and kissed her nose. A smile spread across her sleeping face. He pulled back even further, his arms sliding away from how he’d been holding her, rolling her gently onto her back. Her arms above her head, her shirt rode up just a little to reveal the plane of her stomach, and her belly button. He smiled down at it, thinking it was beautiful. He leaned over her, bracing himself up with his arms, and moved as though he were doing a push up, kissing her mouth softly.

Her eyes slowly blinked open and a sleepy little smile spread across her face. “Nick,” she whispered, her voice barely more than a breath.

“Hey,” he whispered, kissing her a second time. She hummed, content. “You know what?” he asked her quietly.

“What?” she closed her eyes, about to fall back to sleep.

Nick kissed her again to keep her attention. Her eyes flickered open. “You’re my something beautiful.”

She giggled. “Noo, it doesn’t work like that,” she whispered.

“Mmhm,” he argued, “It does. We’re allowed to pick whatever we want for beautiful stuff. At the Grand Canyon, I picked you when you were patting the burro. When we were in the balloon, I picked you with your hair all wind blown, and now I pick you, all sleepy.”

“You didn’t pick that stuff,” she giggled.

Nick’s eyes were serious as he said, “Yes I did.”

She reached her arms up to wrap around his neck, staring up into his eyes. “I’ve been such a jerk to you,” she whispered.

“Nah,” he said.

“I couldn’t even tell you I loved you on the balloon,” she said, nodding, “And then the thing with Brian…”

Nick shook his head, “You just weren’t there yet.”

“I’m here now,” she whispered.

He smiled, “I’m glad.”

“Me, too.”

He bent to kiss her, and his lip were almost on her skin ---

When a shrill whistle blew three times really fast, followed by, “EVERYBODY UP! LET’S GOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”


Amanda cracked up and Nick dropped rolled to the side and covered his face. “You gotta be kidding me,” he whispered.

Amanda rolled over and kissed his forehead “Just remember. The guided river tour thing? Your idea. We could’ve been back at the lodge right now in the loft…” she smiled suggestively.

“Mmm, the loft,” Nick murmured.

“And we could’ve… made more pancakes on the grill,” she whispered, pausing to let his mind wander before finishing the sentence in a sweet, sexy voice. She pressed her body against his and ran her hand down the length of him.

“Tease,” he whispered, smiling. She kissed him and felt his teeth with her tongue softly. He groaned into her mouth.

She broke the kiss, pulling away, he leaned up as far as he could, following her mouth until she’d gotten far enough back that his head wouldn’t lift from the floor any further. She giggled.

“LETS GO TENT THREE,” Pat bellowed.

“God dammit,” whispered Nick as Amanda sat up all the way and pulled her hair into a ponytail. He scooted up to a sitting position too, and ran his hand through his hair, stretching his arms.

Amanda watched him. “So… what’re the activities she’s waking us up for?” she asked.

Nick smiled. “You’ll see.”
Chapter Twenty-Three by Pengi
When Nick and Amanda had crawled out of their tent and joined the group around Pat, who was standing once more on a large rock, Brian bolted to their sides. Amanda was a couple steps ahead of Nick, her hand trailing behind her holding his hand, so Brian leaned in close to Nick. "Is she okay?" he asked.

Nick nodded, "Yeah."

"I told her," Brian whispered.

"She told me," Nick replied.

Brian bit his lip, "I felt like it was time."

"It was your secret to tell," Nick said.

"Ben left," Brian whispered, "Last night."

This, Amanda heard. She turned around, "He left?" Oh thank God, she thought.

"Yeah, he said he got poison ivy and needed to go," Brian explained, "Pat sent him off with the other river guide."

"Sweet," Nick beamed, glad he was gone.

"Okay listen up team," called Pat suddenly, her voice thundering through the morning air of the woods. "Today we're going to be taking a two mile hike into the gorge, up to the top of it, then we'll have some lunch and some fun, before hiking down the other side of it, which is a three mile hike. We'll be camping at the bottom of the gorge tonight, where we'll have views of the water fall. Let's pack up and go."

For the next hour, all the team members were packing up, rolling the tents and stuffing them into huge backpacks that had ridden in one of the rafts. Pat showed them how to deflate the rafts and roll them up tight so that they could be attached to the back of the backpacks. She stuck one of the huge pack on Nick, who was targeted once again for his height. Brian was interested to see how long Pat would put up with his whining while he was hiking before she'd take it off him. She herself shouldered the largest of the packs. Amanda carried the trio's personal backpack, and Brian got stuck with a cooler for the team.

They set off through the trees along a path that led up a steep hill. Amanda followed Nick, who wasted no time at all in complaining that the pack was really heavy, and laughed as Brian rolled his eyes and mouthed, 'I knew he was gonna do that' to her.

The woods were beautiful. Tall trees shaded the sun, which filtered through in shafts of light that hung in the air like gold. They passed fallen trees and Pat pointed out a glade where a deer had made a nest in a cluster of brushes. The deer wasn't home, but the nest was interesting to look at just the same.

But the best was the gorge itself.

When they reached the pinnacle of their hike, breathless and sweaty, Pat directed them where to drop the stuff they'd been carrying. Nick gleefully dropped the huge pack to the ground with a lot of noise and groaning and stretching that none of the other pack carriers were doing. Brian dropped the cooler and smirked at Nick, "Drama queen," he said.

"What? It was heavy! And that was like a vertical climb," he pointed back down the hill. "It was intense..."

Brian laughed, and walked past Nick, following Pat and the rest of the team members toward the gorge. Amanda patted Nick's arm. "It's okay," she said, "I'm sure it was heavy."

"It was," he said, nodding.

Amanda smiled, laughing silently on the inside, and said, "You're my big strong man." This made Nick smile, and he grabbed her hand and pulled her along after Brian and the team.

Brian, however, had stopped dead in his tracks. "Hell no."

"What is it, Frick?" Nick asked as he and Amanda came up behind him.

Brian turned to look at him. "Oh hell no."

Leaning around Brian, Amanda saw Pat had led the team onto a long, skinny footbridge that stretched across the gorge. The thundering waterfall was a couple hundred feet before them, and far, far below the bridge, was the bottom of the falls, roaring and crashing, sending a fine mist into the air.

"Hey," Amanda looked above them and saw the bridge they'd driven over the day before on the motorcycles. It seemed so long ago now... "This is the foot bridge I saw when we were on the way in to the rafting place," she said. "I saw people on it yesterday."

"Well, you all have fun," Brian directed, stepping aside from the mouth of the bridge.

"Why don't you wanna go on it?" Amanda asked, confused.

Nick laughed, "He's afraid of heights."

"Oh come on," Amanda chided him, "You rode a burro on a ledge through the Grand Canyon - if that thing had slipped you would've fallen all the way to the bottom. Then, then you rode a hot air balloon over like half of New Mexico..."

Brian nodded, "Yeah, well, I draw the line at teeny tiny, unstable-looking bridges that dangle me over thousand foot drops and huge rocks waiting at the bottom to crack my head open," he said. "But hey, if that's your thing," he waved them onward.

"Don't be a pansy, Brian," Nick directed. He took his friend's shoulders. "Come on. You said not to let you chicken out of anything, so you're not allowed to stay here. Let's go."

"I don't think I was told I would be expected to risk my life," Brian responded, digging his heels so Nick couldn't push him any further toward the bridge.

Nick laughed, "Brian, this whole trip is risking your life."

Brian looked over his shoulder at Nick, "Yeah, well. I'd rather not risk it on the bridge."

"Bri, if you don't go on the bridge... you're going to miss out on something really beautiful. And fun. Now go," Nick directed, pushing his shoulders. Brian stumbled the first couple feet onto the bridge, and his hands flew to the two hand rails on either side and closed around them in death-grips. His knuckles were white and he had braced his feet in a funny position.

Amanda had to admit that if it wasn't that Brian was legitimately this scared that it would've been comical to watch.

Nick continued pushing him along, inch by inch, toward the center of the bridge. Brian squeezed his eyes shut, clung to the railings, and shuffled his feet slowly ahead of Nick. "You're gonna thank me for this, Bri," Nick told him, as they neared the middle.

Amanda had to agree that it was worth the hassle of getting Brian onto the bridge. The view was unbelievable. She stared around, gaping at everything. The sky was brilliant blue, the waterfall white and cascading and huge. If this was this waterfall, she thought, she wondered how amazing a place like Niagara Falls must be like.

Nick tapped Brian's shoulder, "Okay. See? You're safely in the center. Now open your eyes and enjoy this."

Brian blinked his eyes open and, petrified, stood perfectly still, swiveling his eyes around. "Yup," he said, "Yup. That's great. Let's go back." He closed his eyes again.

Nick took Brian's shoulders and spun him to face the falls. Brian's hands clamped on the bar in front of him. A couple of the other team members were looking at them like they were nuts and Amanda just waved and smiled at them. So what if they didn't understand?

"Open your eyes, Brian," Nick demanded.

Brian opened them, and he saw the falls. The water plunging over the side of the gorge, falling so far down, and rushing away below. A couple random trees stuck out from the falls, green leaves covering their extended branches. One had a nest of some birds' on it. And despite the height and the fear he felt, Brian knew Nick had been right and this was worth having come out here. It was beautiful.

He sighed, relaxing ever so slightly, but more than he thought he'd have been able to relax on the footbridge, and looked at Nick. "Okay, you're right. Thank you."

"Anytime, Frick," Nick answered, smiling.

"This is gorgeous," Amanda said, feeling like it was now safe to talk, since Brian had calmed a little.

"It is," Brian agreed. "Definitely I will be journalling about this tonight," he said. He looked down. "Good Lord that's a huge drop," he mumbled, a little of the fear returning to his voice.

Amanda laughed, "And you wanted to get an old fashioned beer barrel last night."

Brian laughed, having forgotten the comment until she brought it back up again. "What can I say," he said, "I'm nuts like that."

"Okay, everyone, come over this way to get your helmets," called Pat loudly.

Amanda and Brian looked at Nick. "Helmets?" Brian asked.

"Well sure," Nick replied, "You hafta wear a helmet." He turned Brian's shoulders to face him toward Pat and started inching him along again.

"Why do we need helmets?" Amanda asked.

"The harnesses are over here, everyone can start fitting up..." Pat was yelling.

"Well if you're gonna bungee jump, you have to wear a helmet," Nick said as casually as he possible could manage.

Brian's heels dug once more and his knuckles turned white on the rail again. "No," he said, turning around to face Nick. "Absolutely not. You got me on this rickety bridge, there's no way in fucking hell you are getting me off of it in any direction except over there." He nodded at the bank they'd come from.

Amanda was trying to stifle a laugh, she felt delirious with the idea that Nick thought they were going to get Brian to jump off the bridge. Brian's panic only added to the comedy of the moment.

"Brian you gotta do this," Nick said.

"No I do not!" Brian crowed. Amanda planted her face into Nick's shoulder, shaking with laughter. "And you," Brian said, looking over Nick's shoulder as best he could at Amanda, "What're you laughing at? You don't think he means just me bungee jumping, do you?"

She looked up, sober. "Nick you're kidding, right?" she asked.

"Come on people, move it along," called Pat.

"Dawg, we can't disappoint Pat," Nick said, waving a palm in her direction.

"Yes the killer gym teacher with balls," Brian snorted, "The last thing I wanna do is disappoint her."

Nick laughed, "Oh c'mon, Brian. It's an experience you'll never get the chance to have again. You can see the falls from a totally different angle."

"I'd rather live to tell my wife about the falls, thanks," Brian replied. "Now please let me off the bridge."

Amanda laughed, "Aw Nick, if he really doesn't wanna, don't make him."

Nick shook his head, "Fine, Bri. But next time something like this comes up, you're not getting off so easy."

"Yeah if you planned anymore bungee jumping excursions, I'll kill you," Brian said, squinting his eyes maliciously at Nick. Nick and Amanda carefully leaned out of the way and Brian squeezed by them, clinging to the railing and mumbling under his breath about heights and not being a bird, so therefore why should his feet be anywhere except on solid ground. Nick watched as he shuffled slowly away down the bridge toward the bank behind them.

"I'm actually impressed he came out this far," Nick confessed.

"I got worried you were actually going to make him do it even though he didn't want to," Amanda said, watching as Brian made it to the end of the bridge and dropped onto the ground. It looked like he was hugging it. She laughed. "You scared the shit out of him, I think."

Nick laughed, too, "It was good for him." They watched as he got back up and went to sit with the bags and stuff to watch everyone else do the jump. He looked at Amanda, "C'mon, harnesses and helmets."

Amanda raised her eyebrow, "I'm not certain I wanna do this either, you know," she said.

"We'll go together," Nick said, "You can go in pairs. Please?" He gave her sad puppy eyes, his forehead wrinkled and his lips puckered, lower lip out further than the upper.

Amanda sighed. "We can go together? Definitely?"

"Yeah, they strap you to each other and you jump together," he said. "I saw a video on YouTube."

She took a deep breath, steeling herself. "Fine."

Nick's face broke into a grin and he led the way towards Pat. She quickly handed each of them a helmet. Amanda's was lime green and Nick's was blue. It made his eyes stand out when he tugged it onto his head, and Amanda noticed they were sparkling with excitement. Daredevil, she thought accusingly.

The funny thing was, on the inside, Nick was just as scared as Brian had been. But hell if he was going to show it.

Pat handed them harnesses that they had to step into the center of and tighten around them, like a heavy, flexible wire cage. Then they were buckled with restraining jackets. Long cords, with huge clamps were attached to their backs, and Pat strung a cord through a belt loop on both their harnesses, fastening them together, facing each other.

Nick grinned at Amanda, and she smiled back, less enthusiastic than he was.

"Okay," Pat announced. She positioned them on the edge of the bridge and Amanda realized there was a break in the rail beside them. Her heart pounded. The air was just... there. Nothing keeping them up on the bridge. A good gust of wind and they were going over. Of course, that was evidently the point.

Brian was standing at the end of the bridge again, holding onto the railings, watching as Pat geared Nick and Amanda up and positioned them. His stomach was doing flips for them, and he felt like he might throw up without even being the one actually doing the jump. He couldn't believe how gutsy Nick was being. There was a time, he thought, that there would've been no way in hell Nick would've done this, either. It made him feel good to know that Nick was opening up to trying new things, to taking chances.

That's what life is all about, he thought, smiling.

"On three," Pat said.

"You scared?" Nick asked Amanda.

"Yes," she said.

"One..." called Pat.

"I've got you," he told Amanda.

"Two..." called Pat.

"That's the only reason I'm here," Amanda said.


Nick and Amanda tipped to the side, and tumbled off the bridge.

They were falling. Amanda's scream echoed off the waterfall, and Nick's shout mingled with it. The water at the bottom of the falls rushed up at them and Amanda was certain her stomach had bailed on her somewhere around the foot bridge. The wind rushed over them. There was nothing solid to catch them. Amanda felt herself panicking as the cord didn't seem to be ending, they were falling further, and further... free falling... The water coming closer, the rocks now so close she could see barnacles and erosion and moss growing on them, and then the cord tightened and they were sprung back upwards, upside down, then back down. They bobbled like a cork or a fishing line bobbin. Amanda's stomach slowly settling, realizing that they were okay, just hanging upside down.

She let out a stream of nervous laughter that shook her body and tears crept out of her eyes, streaming across her forehead and into her hair under the lime green helmet. Nick, too, laughed, and his voice came out shaky. "Holy shit," he laughed.

"That was nuts," she croaked, her throat aching from the screaming.

They rocked back and forth at the end of the cord, swaying in the air coming off the falls. The mist was soaking them, beading up on their faces. The cord spun slowly, and the world around them turned into a blur. Amanda looked right into Nick's eyes.

"Holy shit," he repeated.

Amanda laughed. "Well, I didn't think I'd ever do that," she said.

They both cracked up again, overcome with the release of nerves, as they started to be pulled back up toward the bridge.

Brian sat down at the bank, relief washing over him because they were okay. He took a deep breath and let it out shakily, then laid back on the grass and waited for his heart rate to return to normal.
"Nick Carter Falls For Amanda Golde in Boulder, CO" by Pengi
Nick Carter Falls For Amanda Golde in Boulder, CO
Pop Stuff Online - Tobias Winterson

Over the weekend the trio known as the Traveling Backstreet Boys (plus one) made its way from Santa Fe, NM to Boulder, CO, where the group is currently midway through a white water rafting trip with Lost Paddle River Adventures.

While details have yet to reach us here at Pop Stuff Online about the group's experience on the river, we do have this interesting photo of Nick Carter and his girlfriend, Amanda Golde, bungee jumping from a footbridge over a waterfall.

Looks like all has been forgiven from last week's controversial kiss between Brian Littrell and Amanda Golde as the couple jumped in a pair face to face and were seen putting on a bit of PDA for their co-adventurers shortly after.

To keep up to date on all the happenings with the Backstreet Boys, stay tuned to Pop Stuff Online.

Photographs by staff photographer, Tobias Winterson.
Chapter Twenty-Four by Pengi
I've been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain... in the desert you can remember your name, 'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain... In the desert.... oooo, the desert...



Nick rolled over and pulled Amanda closer, ignoring his cell phone, which vibed and sang from his pocket. She was still asleep, and he as trying to be, but the damn phone...

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain... in the desert you can remember your name, 'cause there ain't no one for to give you no pain... In the desert... oooo, the desert...



Besides, even if he was going to answer the phone right now... the last person in the world he wanted to talk to was...

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name...

Nick yanked the phone out of his pocket and flipped it opened, sitting up. Amanda rolled over with a groan and pulled the pillow they'd been sharing over her head. "Sorry," Nick whispered to her. He crawled out of the tent. The woods outside were dark.

"Nick?" the voice on the phone was tiny, coming from the speaker.

He wandered away from the tents, to the edge of the riverbank, where the thundering of the waterfall would drown out his voice should he feel the need to yell.

"Hi Kevin," he said, sitting down on a rock.

"Thanks for calling." Kevin's voice was flat, and Nick could tell he was really pissed. "I liked your note, that was great."

Nick frowned, "Well, you wouldn't have let us go."

"You're fucking right I wouldn't have. Look, I've kept my mouth shut long enough, but these pictures are too much. You need to come home before you end up fucking killing Brian, or yourself, for that matter."

Nick rubbed the back of his neck. "What pictures?" he asked.

"Bungee jumping, Nick? What the hell were you thinking?"

Nick blinked in surprise. "There's pictures of us bungee jumping already? What the hell? That wasn't even twelve hours ago..."

"I don't care when it was," Kevin snapped, "You're white water rafting? Nick, do you have any idea what it would mean if Brian came down with a cold right now? Any at all?"

Nick was squinting into the dark at the river, his mind racing, trying to put together pieces in his head. How the hell had a tabloid gotten pictures of the bungee jumping already? "What tabloid published the bungee jumping pictures, Kev?" Nick asked.

"If it even matters who published them, it was Pop Stuff Online, which I'm looking at right now," Kevin replied. "Nick, you guys have taken this way, way too far. I'm seriously worried about Brian. You need to bring him home to Leighanne and Baylee and get your ass back out here to LA."

"Pop Stuff Online?" Nick asked, "So that Tobias Winterson asshole took them?"

"Nick, are you even listening to me?" Kevin demanded.

"Did Tobias Winterson take the bungee jumping pictures?" Nick asked.

Kevin sighed, "Nick, come home."

"I can't Kevin," he answered. "Look, Brian did this 'cos he wanted to do this. It was Brian's idea."

"Heavily influenced by you, I'm sure," Kevin snapped. "Look, I remember us talking in the waiting room the night we canceled the tour. You were all bummed because we weren't going to get to go, and you said, 'even if Brian's sick we should do the tour anyway'. Remember that?"

Nick sighed, "Kev..."

"And I said he'd be too weak to do the tour, and you said that he'd probably want to go on the tour anyways? Remember that?"

Nick closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Yeah I remember that hellish night better than you could ever dream I remember it, thought Nick bitterly. The memory of the plastic waiting room chairs and the flourescent lights, and the doctors and everything... He'd been the only one with Brian originally, the one who had driven Brian to the hospital in the middle of the night. The incident spun in his head, dizzying him.

"It's time to come home," Kevin said.

Nick shook his head, even though Kevin couldn't see it, "I'm not bringing Brian home until he either wants to come home or we get there on the itinerary," he said firmly. "Brian's having a good time. Tell Leighanne we'll see her in Marietta as planned."

"Leighanne was in on this too?" Kevin asked.

"I gotta go, Kev." Nick hung up the phone.

So Tobias Winterson was there, somewhere, among the team. Nick looked around at the tents, his mind running over the entire group's faces, and landed on Ben's in his mind.

Of course, Nick thought, No wonder he was so interested in Amanda, Brian and I. He was a reporter. He probably followed Amanda on her walk trying to get some dirt on her. It all makes sense.

I've been through the desert on a horse with no name...

"What the fuck, Kevin!" Nick asked the phone, and without thinking, he threw it with all of his might. The phone flew through the air, and hit a rock in the river, shattering. He watched the pieces drop below the surface of the white caps.

Well, that takes care of that, Nick thought.

Anger swelling up inside him, he walked across the campsite to Brian's tent and unzipped the door. Brian was laying on his side reading, and looked up as Nick popped his head in. "I gotta talk to you," Nick said.

"Um, okay." Brian pulled a ribbon across his place and closed the Bible, sitting up and crossing his legs as Nick climbed into the tent and sat down facing him.

"I just hung up the phone with Kevin," Nick said slowly. Sort of, he added mentally, imagining the explosion of phone on rock.

"Uhoh," Brian frowned. "This was the first time you've talked to him, wasn't it? I just realized you've never mentioned calling him." He grimaced.

Nick shrugged, "I meant to call him before now, I just forgot. Anyways, he's pissed because he saw some pictures on Pop Stuff just now of Amanda and I bungee jumping."

Brian tilted his head, "What?!"

Nick nodded, "Yeah. That Tobias Winterson guy was here." Brian squinted, putting together the same pieces Nick had already done. "You know what I think?" Nick asked.

"Ben?" Brian asked.

Nick nodded. "So you think it makes sense, too?"

"Yeah," Brian said, "Freakishly so." He paused. "Except for one thing."

"What?" Nick asked.

"How did he find us? Ben was at the rafting place before we were."

"I dunno," Nick answered, frowning, "I didn't think of that."

"Unless he called around asking about reservations under your name?" Brian suggested.

Nick shrugged, "Maybe." Brian was still thinking. "Either way," Nick said, "He was here and he took pictures of me and Amanda and published them, and Kevin was all pissed off because the trip is too dangerous."

Brian sighed, "We knew he was going to do that."

"I know, I just... I wish he would relax a little, get on board, be excited for us, you know? Instead of being controlling and anal and stupid."

"He's just worried about us, that's all," Brian replied. He patted Nick's knee.

Nick looked up at Brian. "You wanted to come on the trip, right? I didn't make you."

"Of course I did," Brian answered.

"'Cos Kevin thinks I talked you into it."

"Kevin's wrong. I talked you into it, remember? You got pissed 'cos I took out my IV."

Nick nodded. "Okay."

Brian smiled, "Nick, you're doing so much for me, and I will never be able to thank you enough, no matter if I live six months or sixty-six years. You have been the very best friend I could have ever asked for. God blessed me so much when he made Kevin call me up to join the Backstreet Boys, in so many ways, but most of all by giving me you as my very best friend."

Nick nodded, staring at his fingers.

"Don't you ever forget that," Brian added, "I don't say it enough. This whole dying thing kind of makes you realize that." He put a hand on Nick's shoulder. "I don't want you to ever question whether you were good to me or not after I'm gone, okay?" he leaned down so he could see Nick's eyes. "Promise me no matter what anyone says about this trip or about us that you'll never doubt what a good friend you were, okay?"

Nick looked up, his eyes were pooling. He swallowed, trying to stay strong. "Fuck Bri," his voice shuddered.

Brian smiled and patted his back. "I love you, buddy."

Nick nodded.

"Go get some sleep," Brian commanded, waving Nick off.

Nick crawled out of the tent, his throat burning and constricting. He zipped up behind himself, staring at Brian as the canvas lifted and blocked his view of him. He dawdled across the campground. He hadn't expected that.

When he got back to his own tent, he climbed inside and laid down. Amanda was sitting up, painting her toenails. She looked at him. "Who on earth did you give that ringtone to?" she asked with a laugh. She looked at Nick, and realized something was wrong. "Nick?"

"He's really dying," Nick mumbled, his face crumpling.

Amanda closed the bottle of nail polish and laid back beside Nick, wrapping her arms around his chest and laying her head on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

The tears that fell from Nick's eyes were the first he'd shed on Brian's behalf.
Chapter Twenty-Five by Pengi
After the conversation with Nick, Brian couldn't concentrate on what he was reading. He'd read the same paragraph four times before he realized he was just re-reading the exact same thing over and over again. He rolled onto his back and tried to sleep, but his mind wouldn't stop working, running over everything that had conspired in the last two days.

Finally, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. He sent a text message: R U UP?

Within a moment his phone vibed and the picture he had stored of Leighanne and Baylee popped up on the screen of his phone. He answered it, "Hey sweetie."

"Hey Brian," Leighanne replied. She sounded sleepy.

"Did I wake you up?" he asked.

"Yeah but my alarm as going to go off in like a minute anyway. Baylee's got clay studio this morning," she answered, yawning. "How's the trip going? Kiss anymore of Nick's girlfriends?" she was only kidding. She trusted her husband to a fault, and though she'd been upset when she heard, it was more because he hadn't told her before the tabloids had that had bothered her. They'd talked it out over the past few days and she'd completely forgiven him. But damn if she wasn't going to milk it.

Brian made a mental note to buy her something pretty before they got to Marietta. Preferably with diamonds on it.

"It's going okay," Brian replied, "We're in Boulder still. Nick tried to make me bungee jump."

Leighanne snorted. "Um, has Nick met you?" she asked, laughing.

"I know, right?" Brian laughed, too. "He and Amanda went, though."

"That must've been scary," she said. Leighanne paused. She knew him too well, he didn't call to tell her about Nick's bungee jumping excursion. "So... what's going on, bear?" she asked.

Brian sighed. "Something's bugging me that Nick said tonight, and I wanted to talk to you about it."

"And what's that?" she asked.

"Well, Kevin called Nick," Brian explained, "And he accused him of making me go on this trip, and Nick was pretty shaken about it. I'm guessing something was implied about if I get sick from this trip that it's his fault because Nick was really tripping about it. He was almost in tears."

"Nick can cry?" Leighanne joked, "That's serious stuff."

"Yeah." Brian paused, "And.. well, let's face it, we know I'm gonna get sick. I mean, you know? And... I don't want Nick to have to live with that."

Leighanne sighed, "I'll talk to Kevin this afternoon about it," she promised, "He needs to lay off Nick. I don't think he understands the pressure this whole thing's putting on him."

"I don't, either," Brian admitted. "I'm just really glad he's got Amanda to talk to about it now."

"He told Amanda finally?" Leighanne asked.

"I told Amanda, actually," Brian answered. "I felt like it was time she know, you know?"

"And how did that go?" asked Leighanne.

Brian hesitated, "Well..." he thought about it. "That's another thing that's been bugging me. See, when I told her she was appropriately upset, right? Then she went for a walk, and she came back hysterical. Nick said he was up half the night with her."

"Weird," Leighanne said.

"Yeah. I mean, her brother died from cancer, too, but--"

"It's still weird," Leighanne said.

"So I'm not being paranoid?" Brian asked, relieved.

"She barely knows you," Leighanne said slowly.

"That's what I was thinking, too. Something more must've happened." Brian told Leighanne about Nick's fit of anger when Amanda had returned from the woods when Ben had been following her, then how Ben had left so quickly that night, and now the latest development that Ben was really Tobias Winterson and Nick's suspicion that he'd followed her to get dirt on them. "You don't think he harassed her or something do you?" Brian asked, nervous.

"He might have," Leighanne admitted, "There's too many loose strings in that combination, though, for there to not be anything weird there."

"I thought so too, but there's only two solutions really to it," Brian said, "One is that Ben is Tobias Winterson and he harassed her, or two that he wasn't and he like attacked her or something."

"Or she's a reporter, too," Leighanne said.

"I thought of that," Brian said slowly, "But nothing really personal is getting printed. If Amanda was a reporter she'd have access to stuff a lot more interesting than what they're printing."

"Maybe she's biding her time," Leighanne suggested.

"For what?" Brian asked.

Leighanne sighed, "For the big story, Brian. You guys never told the fans about your illness, every reporter in the world wants that story."

"Well, if that's it, then she's got it now," Brian said.

He heard Baylee on the other end calling her through the bedroom door. "Bay's up," Leighanne said, "I've got to get him ready. I'll have him call you later, okay?"

"Okay hun," Brian replied. "Tell him I love him. And I love you, too."

"I love you, Brian," Leighanne answered. "And don't worry about Amanda, okay? I'm sure it's nothing and the news just struck her badly."

"Yeah." They hung up and Brian rolled over again, staring at the wall of the tent, thinking about Amanda.

Nick felt worse the next morning than he had the morning after all the tequila. His head was pounding and his throat was raw and his face was stiff from the dried tears. Amanda was sitting next to him, looking at him. She reached out a hand and touched his cheek when his eyes opened. “Are you okay?” she whispered.

He’d had some weird dreams, though they were so convoluted and strange that he couldn’t really remember them, other than to know they were strange. He nodded, “Yeah I’m okay,” he answered.

Amanda bent and kissed him gently.

They had sausages for breakfast, cooked in tin pans over the campfire. Then Pat had the entire team sprung into action, repacking the tents and blowing up the rafts to prepare for the final stretch of rafting. Nick, Brian and Amanda barely had a second to talk until they were buckling on the preservers and helmets on the banking, preparing to set sail.

Nick hadn’t even gotten to tell Amanda about the bungee jumping pictures yet. He figured he’d tell her later, at the lodge.

They all climbed into the rafts and Pat began her tyrant calling for them all to row as the current picked them up. Amanda was glad to see that the white caps were somewhat smaller so far on this side of the waterfall than they had been at the top rushing into it.
It was a relaxing ride for the first twenty minutes or so, and they spotted another couple of deer and a beaver in the water, who swam alongside the raft for a couple feet before ducking under. All the wild animals made Amanda think of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or some other animal bedecked Disney princess.

But then the current picked up again. The caps started growing into swells and the raft was tumbling over dips and climbs in the water, like a plane encountering turbulence. The raft shuddered and tossed them from the bottom of it, making them all hover in the air for nano seconds at a time. It was scaring the bejesus out of Amanda. Her oar got harder and harder to keep moving, and the thick white splashes became larger and stronger. Her teeth were chattering as the cold water sprayed her, and the cold air surrounded her. She let out screeches as the raft bumped along. Nick laid his hand on her back, trying to comfort her.

When the raft hit a particularly large rock, she felt Nick’s hand drop from her back and heard Pat’s bellow. The raft was airborne. Amanda felt her oar slip from her grip and she leaned, desperate to catch it, her feet leaving the floor of the boat.


Nick had grabbed her harness and yanked her back into the boat. But there was a splash and Pat let out a bellowing yell, “Man overboard!” And as quickly as Nick’s hand had yanked Amanda back into the boat, the grip disappeared and Nick was up on his feet, diving into the water. It happened so fast, she felt dizzy, trying to comprehend what had happened. But there wasn’t just one empty seat behind her, but two.

“Brian?” she cried, realizing what had happened. “Brian!”

Pat was throwing a rope into the water, her face scarlet from yelling, but Amanda couldn’t hear the words. They’re both in the water, her heart was screaming out, They’re both going to drown on me.

Nick’s head surfaced before Brian’s did. He popped up in the river, shaking his hair out, and taking a deep gasp of breath. He disappeared back under. Underneath the current was even louder than above. Nick felt like he was forty or fifty feet under water because of the sound and pressure, despite being less than five or six feet under. He opened his eyes and dirt sailed into them, carried in the swiftly moving water, stinging.

He spotted Brian, who was never a very good swimmer, bobbling like a cork. His mouth was ducking in and out of the water, and he was panicking, flapping his arms like a bird in distress and grabbing wildly at nothing. Nick swam toward him, squinting, trying to keep the dirt out of his eyes. He stretched and caught hold of Brian’s harness.

“Brian!” Nick yelled into his ear, “I got you.”

Brian’s face was panic. Nick hoisted him up as high as he could, leveraging him by wrapping his wrist into the back of the preserver. The effort made Nick lower in the water, but he could hold his breath longer than Brian could, thanks to scuba training.

Nick tried catching onto the next cluster of rocks they passed, but they were slimy, and his hands slid right over them.

Amanda was watching this all from the raft, her heart pounding so hard, screaming both their names. The family in the boat with them was gaping, fearfully, at the two guys in the water. Pat was yelling instructions, but neither Brian or Nick seemed able to hear her.

Nick and Brian bobbled along in the water until Pat had managed to get the family to help row closer to them. It had taken a lot of effort – the Boys had swayed quite a ways to the right side of the river. She threw them a rope when they got close enough, and an extremely grateful Brian caught it with shaking hands, and Pat reeled them in onto the raft.
Chapter Twenty-Six by Pengi
Both guys were gasping and shivering by the time the raft struck shore in a big parking lot. The school bus Amanda had seen at the place they'd departed from was parked in a clearing, but otherwise there wasn't much to be seen. A couple guys - dressed in shorts and polo shirts emblazoned with the company logo - ran across the parking lot carrying blankets, which they gave to Nick and Brian quickly as they disembarked.

Pat ushered the team onto the school bus, Nick supporting Brian with his arm, wrapping his blanket around both of them so that Brian was under two. Amanda trotted to keep up with them as Nick rushed to get Brian onto the bus. His face was pink from the cold air.

When they'd clustered into the long seat affixed across the back of the bus, Amanda crouched down in front of the two boys, who were sitting side-by-side on the seat. Nick looked at Amanda for the first time since the whole ordeal had started. She recognized concern in his eyes. He turned back to Brian. "Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yeah," Brian gasped out, "Cold, but I'm okay." He smiled sadly, "I panicked, though. Pat must be pissed."

"I think Pat's fine," Amanda injected.

Brian smiled, "Ah." He looked at Nick, "And once again you've added to the list of things I can never repay you for."

"Yeah, that was amazing," Amanda breathed. "You were like coast guard or something."

Nick's cheeks were pink, but Amanda couldn't tell if it was from the cold air or the compliment. "Ah well..." he smiled. Amanda couldn't help but notice the way his hair sort of hung in wet strands across his forehead. The water had turned his lips a slightly bluish hue.

A shiver ran down Brian's spine and his whole body shook with it. Nick yanked his blanket off completely and wrapped it around Brian. His eyes locked with Amanda's, and again concern flickered across his face. "Are you sure you're okay?" he asked.

Brian nodded.

"Should we bring you to a doctor?"

Brian shook his head. "I'll be fine, I just need to warm up."

The bus was just starting to move, and Amanda got up from her crouch and sat down next to Nick. "We drove the bikes here," she said slowly.

Nick shrugged, "We'll leave them at the thing and take a cab." He reached into his pocket for his cell phone. "Oh, right. Um. Can I borrow your phone Brian? I um. Lost mine."

"Pocket," Brian muttered.

Nick reached into Brian's pocket and pulled out a soaking wet cell phone. "Or... maybe yours, Amanda?"

She reached into her pocket and handed hers to him. They had the same phone, Nick and Amanda. Nick quickly dialed 4-1-1 and located a cab company, requesting one meet them at the Lost Paddle outfitters store. "We'll come back for the bikes tomorrow or something," Nick said. Amanda nodded.

Without thinking, Nick slid the cell phone into his pocket.

"We're gonna get you back to the lodge, Bri," Nick said, "And we'll get those wood stoves going for ya there, okay?"

Brian nodded sleepily, "That would be splendifferous," he answered.

Pat had been all apologies when they reached the outfitters store, offering them a 10% discount off their next Lost Paddles Adventure trip. Nick accepted the coupon, fairly certain there would never be a time when he'd want to use it. They said goodbye to her, which Nick actually found sorta sad because she'd grown on him the way crazy people like that do, and loaded into the cab.

"Can ya turn the heater up back here?" Nick asked, tapping on the glass and handing the cabbie a piece of paper with the address for the lodge on it. Within minutes, the back of the cab was warm and toasty and Brian had stopped shivering.

"Oh that heater feels amazing," he said, his accent thick.

Nick smiled, relaxing now that Brian was coming back to normal.

By the time the cab pulled up to the lodge, Nick and Brian were goofing around in the backseat. "Seventy-five, twenty," the cabbie called the fair.

"Damn," muttered Nick, reaching into his pocket for his wallet. "Aw crap."

"What?" Amanda asked.

Nick looked at Brian, "Guess what else I lost?"

Brian pulled his own wallet out of his pocket and handed the cabbie a hundred dollar bill. "Thanks for the heater," he called as they climbed out of the car without waiting for change. The driver pulled off before Brian could change his mind.

"I can't believe I lost my fucking wallet," Nick bitched as the three of them walked into the lodge. Brian was still draped in the two blankets, giving him a boxer-entering-the-ring kind of look.

Amanda immediately set to getting the wood stoves going as Nick climbed up the ladder to the loft he and Brian were sharing to dig out the photo copies he'd made of his credit cards and driver's license. Brian sank into the sofa with a long sigh.

"You feeling okay?" Amanda asked him as he first of the two wood stoves started glowing amber.

Brian nodded, "Yeah, better now." His hair was still wet.

"You should change," Amanda said, "Your clothes are wet and so are those blankets." She stood up, "Go change, and I'll find you fresh blankets, okay?"

Brian struggled to his feet and, reluctantly leaving the blankets behind, followed Nick up to the loft. Amanda sighed and balled up the blankets Brian had discarded before tossing them into the corner of the room and grabbing the keys to the bus off a hook by the door.

Nick was dialing the 1-800 numbers for each of his credit cards in turn on Amanda's cell phone, reporting the cards lost. Each time Nick hit the number 1, the name "ERIC" flashed across the screen as it pulled up Amanda's speed dial.

Brian came up the ladder and started rummaging through the duffle bag he'd brought up there the first night they'd been at the lodge. He finally settled for a pair of American Eagle sweatpants and a t-shirt with a picture of Spam on it. He yanked them on while Nick complained to someone who was either not speaking English or was hard of hearing about his cards.

"I'm re-por-thing them lost or sto-len," Nick said, breaking the bigger words into syllables. "I lost my wal-let in a ri-ver in Col-o-rad-oooo," he dragged out the last letter. "Holy crap is this woman an idiot," Nick muttered as he got put on hold.

Brian smiled. "Thanks for saving me," he said.

"No problem, Spam-man," Nick answered.

Brian climbed down the ladder, leaving Nick alone with the incoherent creditors of America.

That night, they ate Spaghettio's - the only thing left on the bus - which they heated by putting the cans, unopened, on the wood stoves. It had actually worked pretty effectively, considering. It had been Nick's idea. "Saves on dishes," he'd pointed out, which Brian thought was an excellent idea as he'd been the one to do all the dishes since they'd started the trip.

After they ate, Brian retired up to the loft, leaving Nick and Amanda in the living area alone. Nick half contemplated offering to play pool with her, but Amanda had stood up just before the words came out, and smiled. "Well I'm going to bed," she'd announced.

Nick looked up at her. "In the 'girls' loft," he said, trying to sound innocent. Amanda knew what he was asking. She hesitated. Without an immediate response, Nick shrugged, "No worries," he said.

Amanda held out her hand to him, palm up.

He looked up at her.

"C'mon," she said.
Chapter Twenty-Seven by Pengi
It was pretty much the best sex Amanda had ever had. Nick had been so gentle, and so careful. He'd been thoughtful, and it seemed he had a sixth-sense, knowing exactly where to touch her and when. His hands had been everywhere, and so had his mouth. And while Nick had done his magic, she'd stared up at the stars and felt as though she were soaring through them... Nick was sending her over the moon. He'd kissed constellations onto her body. She had never felt so connected to someone before.

And Nick... well, he was thinking the same thing. Amanda fit so right in his hands, reacted so much to his touch. He found pleasure in her pleasure, and she knew exactly how to push every single one of his buttons. Everything had been perfect; right down to the way she'd run her fingers down the length of his spine, over every bone, playing his senses like a piano...

But when Nick woke up the next morning, he was only extremely aware that he and Amanda were both very naked. Normally, this would be sexy. Normally, the feeling of her skin up against his skin - of her ass where it was - would've been justification to have more sex for breakfast. The wood stoves, however, had turned the loft into a sauna, and instead of getting turned on that she was very very naked next to him, their skins were stuck together in a sheen of sweat and he felt more like they were two walruses that had run ashore.

Amanda had not yet woken up, and Nick didn't particularly want to disturb her. He shifted and a feeling like when you sit on a leather chair on a hot day ripped at his skin. "Ow," he breathed. Why the hell didn't we turn off those damn stoves last night? he thought to himself. Not only was it dangerous, but holy shit was it hot.

He was busy trying to extricate his right leg from under neath Amanda when he heard Brian on the ladder.

"Nick?" Brian was calling.

Oh shit.

"Don't come up here!" Nick cried out, but his voice was strangled by the dry air and lack of water, and it came out more like an incoherent noise than a warning. He choked on his own tongue, and started hacking. Amanda jumped at the sudden shout and the entire length of her back pulled away from his chest like a gigantic band aid as she rolled away, her eyes popping open.

And Brian definitely didn't get the message through all the choking because, over the sound of his lungs trying to jump out through his throat, Nick vaguely heard Brian cry out, "Oh my Lord!" and "Sorry! Oh my Lord!" and scramble back down the ladder.

Amanda was looking at Nick, groggy, panting, sexy but untouchable thanks to the heat, her hair flipped over to the other side of her head from the velocity of her roll. She was face down, thank God, her breasts tucked beneath her. Brian would've only seen her ass sticking up like a speed bump. Nick however...

"Jesus." Nick closed his eyes and dropped backwards from the half-sitting position he'd been in to laying flat on his back on the bed, still coughing a little.

"Why the hell is it so hot?" Amanda gasped.

"The wood stoves..." Nick muttered.

"Did Brian just see us naked?" she asked, still groggy.

Nick grimaced. "Either that or he was praying really loud."

Ten minutes later, decent and still hot as hell, Nick and Amanda climbed down the ladder and found Brian had already extinguished the source of the hellfire heat and opened every window in the entire lodge. The sliding glass doors were wide open, too, and Brian was sitting on the deck with a can of Pepsi and staring off at the mountains.

None of them mentioned the incident, and Nick wondered how much Brian had actually seen.

It only took them a few minutes to decide that staying at the lodge was a bad idea. It was still hot inside. Nick had to go back to get the motorcycles anyways, so he decided to take the bus out to Lost Paddle and just put them on the rig. Brian, however, wanted to look around the center of Boulder, and Nick suggested that Amanda stick with him since he'd been acting a little funny all morning.

So as Nick took off to retrieve the bikes, Brian and Amanda wandered through a daunting amount of outdoors sporting goods stores and a little general store that had a wall of penny candy and a barrel of home made pickles. Brian selected a huge bag of the more unique candies the store had to offer for Baylee, including some really cool rock candies and an assortment of gummy animals shaped like Colorado's more notorious wildlife.

Amanda kept a close eye on Brian, as Nick had requested. For the most part he seemed okay, but he'd pause at random intervals and take deep, shaking breaths with his eyes close, as though he were in great pain. This was worrying Amanda, and she kept making him sit down to take breaks.

In one of the stores, Amanda found a shirt that would look amazing on Nick, and Brian helped her pick out the right size for him. It felt good to finally buy something for Nick, instead of the other way around, even if it meant Amanda would probably run out of cigarette money before the trip was over.

They were sitting down at a picnic table outside of a little dairy bar, eating ice cream sundaes that Brian had treated her to, when Amanda realized she didn't have a clue where her cell phone was. What if she needed help for Brian? she thought, thinking about how he'd kind of collapsed into the seat across from her. She was rummaging through her purse, looking for it, when Brian said, "Oh you know, I think Nick had it still last night. Remember? He was calling all his credit cards because of his wallet?"

"Oh. Right." Amanda frowned. Not good, she thought.

Brian pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, "I dunno if it still works after the water, but if you need to make a call..."

"I'm okay," Amanda said, "I can wait."

Brian opened up his phone anyway and was amazed to see the screen still lit up. "Impressive," he said, holding it up for Amanda to see.

"You know, if you put a wet phone into a bowl of rice it'll actually dry out, too... But apparently yours is Super Phone," she laughed.

"I paid enough for it, it better be super something," Brian laughed back.

They finished the sundaes and resumed their wandering. Brian was getting tired. They'd been walking around Boulder for a couple hours, staying on the main strip so that they wouldn't miss Nick when he came back through with the rig, but he was taking forever. Finally, they sat down in a square on some benches and Brian closed his eyes, letting the sun warm his face. Amanda was picking at a loose string on her shirt.

Brian's phone vibed.

He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the phone number displayed. "I have no clue who this is," he muttered, letting it go to voice mail.

"Do you think Nick got lost?" Amanda asked.

Brian snorted, "Probably."

His phone vibed again. It was the same number as the first time. With a sigh, he flipped it open. "Hello?" he asked.

"Brian? It's me," Nick's voice sounded far away as it echoed over the phone.

"Hey Nick, where the hell are you?" Brian asked, "We were just wondering if you got lost."

"Yeah, um, about that... Can you come bail me out?"
Chapter Twenty-Eight by Pengi
Nick was sitting on a little wooden bench in a classic looking jail-cell. He could almost imagine Billy the Kid or someone having been contained in these four walls. He still couldn't believe he was here, he felt so stupid. He was just glad that Brian's phone hadn't been ruined by the water yesterday. Since he still had Amanda's phone in his pocket - or he had until the cops had taken it away with the rest of his personal belongings - the next person he would've had to try was Kevin. And he wasn't positive, but he was pretty sure he would rather stay in jail until he was nothing but a smoldering corpse on the floor than admit to Kevin that he'd been arrested again.

That hadn't gone over so well last time.

He heard Amanda's voice echoing through the building before he saw her. The cop led her into the room and she attached herself to the bars, sticking her hands in to hold Nick's hand. Brian was right behind her, brandishing his check book and looking exhausted. He followed the officer to a desk in the corner.

"Thanks for coming to get me," Nick muttered, sheepish.

"What the hell did you do?" she asked.

"Well I got stopped because one of the tail lights on the rig is out, and when the guy asked for my license and registration--"

"Oh shit," Amanda gasped, "Your wallet."

"Yeah. So I tried to explain, but he wasn't listening to me. So I kind of got upset and took his little notepad of ticket slips," Nick continued, his cheeks were reddening with every word now, "And I ripped them up..."

"Nick..." Amanda closed her eyes.

"And he got really pissed, and he smooshed me on the side of the bus and started trying to put handcuffs on me... and... I kind of tweaked out..."

Amanda sighed.

" I am." He held out his arms to indicate the cell.

"What exactly did they charge you with?" she asked.

"Driving without a license, but they figured they should take me in because I got too emotional," he laughed, but promptly stopped when he saw that she was not even slightly about to crack a smile.

Brian came over as the officer started unlocking the cell door. "Very smooth, Carter," Brian said as Nick came out of the cell. He turned back to the officer. "Thanks again."

"No problem." The officer looked at Nick. "No more ripping up pads of tickets, got it?"

Nick's face was scarlet as they walked out of the station.

They got into the waiting cab that had brought Brian and Amanda to pick up Nick, and Nick told the driver how to get to where the bus had been left. Nick stared out the window, feeling stupid, his arms crossed over his chest. "You're lucky they didn't press any charges for resisting arrest or assaulting an officer or something," Brian said, "You got off with like a $300 fine."

"I feel like an idiot," Nick mumbled.

"Can they technically even arrest for what he did?" Amanda asked, glancing back and forth between the two Boys.

"Officer Simpson there said that they technically had the right to hold him for up to 90 days," Brian answered, "But they only bothered taking him in because he threw the fit..."

Nick banged his head against the window.

"Did you at least get the bikes?" Brian asked. Nick nodded.

When they got to the bus, Amanda couldn't help but laugh at the shredded up ticket papers that littered the ground by the door. She scooped them up, "For the scrap book," she teased Nick before throwing them away. He only scowled, not yet quite ready to joke about his traumatic morning.

Brian got to drive. He fumbled with the stick and mumbled prayers, making the gears screech every now and then. Nick sat in the passenger seat and directed him where to go while Amanda sat in the kitchenette.

They were about halfway to the lodge when Amanda heard her cellphone ring. She stood up as Nick pulled it out of his pocket and looked at it. "Oh hey it's your Dad," he said, holding it up over his head for her to take.

Her stomach turned.

Amanda reluctantly grabbed the phone out of his hands and moved through the bus to the sofa in the far back. "Hello Eric," she answered it.

"Where the hell's my story?" he demanded.

Amanda took a deep breath. "I'm ... not quite done with it yet," she whispered.

"Tobias said you got everything you needed, what the hell are you waiting for?"

"Do you always listen to everything Toby says?" she demanded, "I mean, I am your daughter, can you not respect that I don't feel like I have enough... details... to write the story yet? I'm working on it."

"Tobias says you're getting awful comfortable out there with these Boys," Eric snapped. "You aren't out there to schmooze with the Backstreet Boys, you're there to get a fucking story."

"I'm aware of that," Amanda answered.

"Is it at least a good one?" he demanded.

Amanda stared at the backs of the Boys heads as they talked. Nick's enthusiasm starting to return ever so slightly. He spoke a lot with his hands, holding them up and splaying his fingers while he explained stuff. Brian's laugh carried through the bus.

"Yeah, it's a good one," she answered.

Eric's voice was excited now, "The big one?" he asked.

"Possibly," she said.

Eric's voice softened suddenly, "You get me that story, babycakes, and you'll have yourself a byline. Picture it now... Article by Amanda Jane Golde. Can you see it? Something to make your old man proud by."

Amanda's throat ached. She'd been working to earn a byline her entire career, since she'd graduated from college, and gotten the job at her father's company to begin with. He'd put her into Pop Stuff Online to keep her out of the way, paying her a small salary, and promising that if she ever got just the right story for Pop Stuff that he'd promote her to one of his other publishing projects - something more sophisticated, like one of the newspapers or make her an editor at one of the magazines. She'd busted her ass writing stories for him - mindless fluff pieces about the weight of Hilary Duff and who Brad Pitt was cheating on now. He was finally, finally throwing her the bone she'd been digging up for eight years.

But at what cost?

"When can I expect the story, baby girl?" he asked.

"I'll call you," she promised, and hung up before he could say anything else.

Amanda held the phone in her lap, her mind spinning. Something to make your old man proud, he'd said. A fleeting image went through her head of her father's face beaming with pride as he held up the latest printed edition of Pop Stuff, a picture of Brian and Nick on the cover, and the article saying by Amanda Jane Golde inside. In her imagination, she kissed his cheek and called him Daddy and he smiled and hugged her.

She couldn't remember the last time he'd hugged her.

Nick was suddenly at her side. "Hey," he said, wrapping his arms around her. "You mad at me?" he asked, when she stiffened.

Amanda shook her head, "No."

Nick frowned. "I'm sorry I got arrested," he whispered.

"I'm not mad at you," she snapped. She stood up and walked away toward the front of the bus.

Nick blinked in surprise, and watched as she dropped into the bench next to the table. "Well damn you could've fooled me," he muttered, frowning.
Chapter Twenty-Nine by Pengi
When they got back to the lodge, Amanda bolted up the ladder to the loft and threw herself onto the bed, pulling the blanket up over her head. Brian glanced at Nick. "What the hell happened?" he asked.

"I feel like we're uttering that phrase a lot today," Nick mumbled. He looked up at the loft, concerned, "Her dad called..." he said, frowning. "I dunno. I thought she was mad at me for getting arrested, she was really weird when I went to the back to see what was up."

Brian's eyebrows knit together. "Weird," he muttered.

Nick sighed, "Should I go see if she's okay?"

Brian shook his head, "Nah, let her cool off for awhile. She'll come down when she's ready. Let her have some space."

The boys headed out onto the deck, and Amanda heard the sliding doors close to afford her some privacy.

She felt as though her heart and loyalty was torn into two pieces. Her father, the man she'd vied for attention and love from since she was a little girl, was finally actually willing to give her the promotion she so desperately wanted (and needed, her rent was constantly going up and her finances stayed exactly the same). On the other hand, what he wanted in return for that promotion was for her to betray the man that she'd slowly fallen in absolute, head-over-heels love with.


"But what? 'That's their job'? I'm a human fuckin' being! ...Why can't they leave us in peace just this once?" Nick's words echoed through Amanda's mind from the morning after she'd accidentally kissed Brian. Although it had only been a little better than a week, it felt like centuries ago.

But sooner or later, whether she wrote the story or not, Nick would find out who she was, and what she'd been there for to begin with. Sooner or later, he would know. And he would hate her.

The thought seared her heart. A sob escaped her and she curled up tighter into a ball and screwed her eyes shut tight. In a way, taking this job had been the most incredibly huge mistake she'd ever made. In another way, if she hadn't taken it she never would've met Nick and Brian at all, never would've gotten to know them or to love them. But she also never would've been able to hurt them the way she was going to before the story was over.

Brian spent the evening throwing up. He claimed the chinese food they'd ordered didn't settle well, and opted to sleep on the bus to be closer to the toilet incase he had to throw up again.

Amanda and Nick sat on the deck after Brian had gone to bed. Nick was stressed, Amanda could tell, because he kept getting up and walking in circles around the deck, then sitting back down and cracking his knuckles, shaking his head, and running his hands through his hair.

They'd been quiet all evening. Nick was still pretty sure Amanda was mad at him, but the truth was she was feeling guilty and sick to her stomach from the position she'd gotten herself into - stuck between a rock (Nick) and a hard place (Eric).

"I'm thinking we should maybe skip the stop in Omaha," Nick muttered suddenly.

Amanda looked up. "Why?" she asked, surprised.

He was glad she'd actually spoken to answer him. It gave him hope that maybe she could forgive him for being such an idiot that morning. "I'm worried about Brian," Nick confessed.

Amanda glanced through the sliding doors to the windows on the opposite side of the lodge, through which the side of the bus was visible. The bathroom light was glowing again. "How would skipping Omaha help?" she asked.

"The next stop after Omaha is Brian's momma's in Kentucky," Nick answered. "I think Jackie could probably take better care of him than I am."

Nick had spent a good portion of the evening sitting out on the bus with Brian, trying to do something to help him. He'd taken the motorcycle down into town to get ginger ale and meds, but nothing was stopping the nausea. Brian refused to go get checked out by a doctor.

"I don't think he'd be too jazzed about Omaha anyway," Nick said, "After the fiasco with the bridge and the bungee jumping."

"What were we going to do in Omaha?" Amanda asked sadly.

Nick smiled, "Sky dive."

"Yeah Brian would've hated that idea," she laughed.

"I probably wouldn't have gotten him onto the plane," Nick smirked.

Amanda and Nick's eyes met, and Amanda quickly looked away. For a split second it had felt like normal between them. But the Berlin Wall had shot right back into place. Nick frowned.

He sighed. "Can you tell me something?" he asked.

Amanda looked up.

"Why are you mad at me? Really?" he asked, his voice sad. It reminded her of the squeaking cry of a kicked puppy.

"I'm not mad at you," she said it gently this time, unlike she had when she'd snapped at him on the bus. "I'm... My dad is..." she wanted to tell him. She wanted to tell him right now the whole truth. "Nick, when we met, outside the hotel and I said I was there on business for my dad?"


"Well, I--"

But she was suddenly interrupted by Brian, who stumbled onto the deck. His face was pale and he was covered in sweat.

"Brian!" Nick jumped up. Amanda felt a chill go down her spine.

"I think I'm sick," Brian mumbled.

Nick frowned, "C'mon, let's get you back to the bus. We need to get you checked."

Amanda felt her body launch into action mode, fueled by adrenaline. She quickly ran into the lodge and up the ladder to Brian's loft to grab changes of clothes, fresh boxers, his deodorant, and his wallet, which was sitting on the nightstand.

Meanwhile, Nick had gotten Brian settled into the passenger seat on the bus. He handed Amanda Brian's cell phone when she came crashing onto the bus, carrying Brian's stuff in her arms. "Can you call Leighanne?" he asked.

Amanda looked at the phone, her heart slamming in her chest. He wants me to talk to his wife? What if she's still pissed off because of the kiss? "What do I tell her?"

"Tell her I'm bringing him to the hospital."

Amanda nodded and flipped open the phone, about to dial when Brian's hand reached up and closed it. "Don't call my wife," he begged, his voice weak, "Not yet. She'll just panic and come out. I'm sure it's just food poisoning or... something... something unimportant... or... not.. really..." his voice trailed off, and he coughed deeply, his whole body shaking.

Nick took the cell phone back from Amanda, staring at Brian. He looks so fucking tiny, he thought, and he felt very afraid.

"Should you be driving?" Amanda asked as Nick dropped behind the driver's seat of the bus.

Nick frowned, "Probably not, but are you gonna drive the rig?"


"Then lets hope we don't get stopped," Nick said, turning the key in the ignition.
Chapter Thirty by Pengi
Amanda and Nick were sitting in the waiting room in the oncology wing, where they'd rushed Brian as soon as Nick had said the word leukemia. The air conditioner made the room icy, and Amanda had pulled a sweatshirt on and curled up in the chair in the corner. Nick was sitting on the floor playing with some kids toys, pushing around a plastic truck aimlessly, his mind focused elsewhere. They'd been waiting almost two hours, and nobody had come out to tell them how Brian was.

The conversation back at the lodge was completely forgotten, and Amanda was kind of glad. This was definitely not the time or place to come clean with Nick, though she knew she didn't want to put it off too long. Waiting would only spell out trouble, and increase the anger that he would feel when she finally did tell him. She'd seen chick-flick romantic comedies, she knew how the story went. She just wanted to make sure that he knew before she ended up drunk and singing You're so Vain, ala Andie Anderson in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

"This is my fault," Nick muttered, kicking the truck. Amanda looked at him. He stood up and walked across the room, leaning on the window sill and looking down into the parking lot below. "I shouldn't have brought him on this stupid road trip."

Amanda dropped her feet to the floor and went over to sit down on the sill beside Nick, her back against the glass. She looked up at his eyes, "Brian was sick before we left," she reminded him. "It's not your fault."

"Yeah, but now he's sicker." Nick sighed. "His white count is too low to stand up against stuff like colds and pneumonia."

Amanda could remember her parents worrying about Piper's white count. A high white blood cell count meant that the blood was leukemic, so the point of chemotherapy was to kill off the white cells. What this meant, though, was that there was basically no immune system until those white cells built back up. There was only a very small window of time when Piper's cells had been level and he'd been safe from catching anything and free of the leukemia. She remembered the family outings they'd taken during those brief windows, how happy Piper had been, and how the relief had etched itself into her parent's faces.

"It's not your fault," Amanda repeated.

Nick rested his forehead against the glass and closed his eyes. He looked so sad, and defeated. He shook his head, "Kevin was right, Amanda," he whispered.

Amanda frowned, "What did Kevin say?"

Nick had forgotten that in all the craziness that had followed the phone call with Kevin, he'd never actually told Amanda about it. He sighed. "Kevin called the last night we were camping on the river," he explained, "And he was really pissed because he saw some pictures of us bungee jumping in the gorge --"

"There were pictures of us bungee jumping in the gorge?" Amanda exclaimed.

Nick nodded, "Yeah. That Ben guy? He was Tobias Winterson."

Amanda felt her stomach turn. How the hell did you find that out? she wondered, and struggled to keep her face straight, to look shocked as though this was new news to her. She felt cold. "Wow," she whispered.

"Yeah," Nick nodded, not seeing the struggle Amanda was having with herself. "Anyway, Kevin was really mad, and he said that I was going to end up killing Brian..." A tear trickled down Nick's cheek.

"Hey now," Amanda whispered, reaching out to touch Nick's arm, "Kevin was way out of line laying that on you."

Nick shook his head, "But he was right."

Amanda took a deep breath. "Stop, you can't start thinking that." The tone in her voice made Nick look over into her eyes. They were red, threatened by tears. "You can't, Nick, because if you do you'll never forgive yourself, and you'll live thinking if only for the rest of your life." Nick moved over so that he was standing between her legs in front of her, and held her hands in his. "I know what that feels like, Nick," she whispered, "And you are way, way too beautiful of a soul to feel that."

Nick looked into her eyes, "What?"

Tears streamed down her face. "Piper died because he had strep throat," Amanda whispered, "Which he caught from me."

"Amanda..." Nick's voice was soft.

"I have carried that guilt for killing my brother in my heart for ten years, Nick," she whispered. "And my parents have hated me for it since Piper died."

"You didn't kill Piper," Nick whispered.

Amanda nodded, "I know in my head that I didn't kill him," she answered, "But in my heart I will never be able to forgive myself." Nick eyes were welled up now, too, as he laid a hand gently on her cheek, cupping her face to look up at him. "I don't want you to know how this feels," she said so quietly that it couldn't even be considered a whisper. Nick pulled Amanda to him, and she slid off the window sill, melting into his arms as he hugged her.

She'd never told anyone that before, always imagining the hate and anger that would fill the eyes of anyone she admitted it to. They would say awful things, accuse her of not loving Piper. The last thing she had ever expected was the acceptance, kindness, and comfort that was emanating from Nick as he rocked her gently from side to side, whispering in her ear, telling her it would be okay.

Brian sat up in the bed the moment the doctor had left the room and his hand wrapped around the IV tubes sticking out of his hand, yanking them out in one swift motion. He moved to slide off the bed and picked up his shirt, pulling it on and buttoning down the front of it, his hands shaking.

He waited until he heard the nurses talking boisterously in the hallway, and he quickly slipped by them, keeping his head down so that they wouldn't see him go by. He tucked his shirt into his jeans as he walked quickly through the halls to the waiting room where Nick and Amanda were.

They looked up when Brian came around the corner. They'd been doing a sudoku puzzle on the floor, and Nick was writing random numbers in without regard for the rules, while Amanda tried to correct them. Brian smiled, "All better, let's go."

Nick jumped up, "You're okay!" he cried, embracing Brian.

Amanda looked up at him, concerned. The hospital bracelet was still around his wrist. "We never saw a doctor," she said, tossing the sudoku aside and getting to her feet.

"They didn't do much," Brian answered. "They gave me some anti-nausea medication and said I was all set. I told you it was just food poisoning," he smiled at Nick.

Amanda frowned, meeting Brian's eyes, and he shook his head so slightly that Nick didn't even notice the motion. Amanda set her jaw, knowing.

"Let's go," Brian said.

Torn between letting Brian get away with it, and making him go back, Amanda didn't say a word, nor did she immediately move, as Nick enthusiastically led the way out of the waiting room to the hall, gushing about the next stop being in Omaha.

"You coming 'Manda?" he called cheerfully, the relief from stress of the night making his voice bubbly.

'Please,' Brian mouthed silently to her.

Amanda followed them into the parking lot to the bus, feeling like her stomach had turned to a led ball.
"Troubles for Traveling Backstreet Boys" by Pengi
Troubles for Traveling Backstreet Boys: Water Rescues, Arrests, and Hospital Visits in Boulder
Pop Stuff Online - Tobias Winterson

The Backstreet Boys' nomadic Trio - Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, and Amanda Golde - have been facing their fair share of difficulties over the last couple of days in Boulder, Colorado.

After bungee jumping from a footbridge during their Lost Paddle River Adventures tour, they faced the danger of accelerated white caps in the river, which caused member Brian Littrell to be thrown from the raft. Witness to the event, co-adventurer Lee Coulter, 53, whose family shared a raft with the trio, said that Littrell was rescued by the heroics of his best friend, Carter. "[Nick Carter] dove into the water without any hesitation," Coulter explained in amazement.

Carter, who is a certified scuba diver, pulled Littrell back to the raft.

Recent news has revealed that Littrell was checked into the local hospital less than 48-hours later, and speculation has arisen suggesting that Brian was suffering from shock after taking the dive into the ice-cold river water.

If these troubles were not enough, an interesting bit appeared in the Denver Post's account of Boulder's police log:

Backstreet Boy Nick Carter was
arrested after being pulled over
for driving with a busted tail light.
The pop star was found to be
driving illegally without a license
on his person, and when presented
with the $300 ticket, became highly
emotional and was brought in to the
station after ripping up the ticket.
Bail was posted and the Backstreet
Boy left within two hours. The incident
will not be put on his permanent record.

When Pop Stuff Online contacted the Backstreet Boys' manager and ex-member, Richardson refused to comment.

Stay tuned to Pop Stuff Online to keep up with all the latest out of the Backstreet camp.
Chapter Thirty-One by Pengi
Amanda was silent the entire ride back to the lodge, staring at the back of Brian's head. Brian was acting like nothing had happened, like they were just riding along on the bus like it was any other night and they hadn't just been at the hospital. When they got to the lodge, she busied herself getting drinks for the deck out of the fridge while Brian was getting the stuff he'd brought out to spend the night in the bus.

The moment Nick's heels had crossed the door, Amanda closed the fridge and looked at Brian. "Why did you do that?" she asked.

"I had to," he answered.

Amanda fumed, "You put me into a really shitty position. Not to mention what you're doing to yourself."

Brian looked at her, his Bible and journal in his hand, and frowned. "I thought you of all people would understand," he said, almost accusingly.

Amanda raised an eyebrow, "Why would I understand you running away from the hospital?"

Brian answered, "You know what the treatments and stuff look like for this..." he sighed, "Once you start it, you can't stop them without doing serious damage to your prognosis, and there's no promise you'll live through the treatments to begin with. And on top of it, they're a cycle, an unending cycle..." he shook his head, "I want better than that."

She sighed, frustrated, "But if it could help you live longer..."

"Quality, not quantity," he stated simply, shrugging.

"But you've got a wife and kid to think about," she snapped.

Brian blinked in surprise. "You think I'm not aware of that?" he asked.

Amanda shook her head, "You aren't acting it. You're talking about going skydiving with Nick, and you should be in that hospital back there. They didn't discharge you, did they? You probably didn't even see a doctor."

"I saw a doctor," Brian replied. "And he gave me anti-nausea medication. I just opted out of sticking around to hear the run down of what treatment options I've got again and hearing the whole speech about how I really need to reconsider the choices I'm making..." he shook his head, "Leighanne and I have talked about this, all of it, extensively, and we've agreed, together on this choice to forego the treatment. As if any of that is your business."

"Don't you think Baylee needs a father?" Amanda asked. The question sounded colder than she'd intended it to, and she regretted asking it the moment the words had passed her lips.

Brian's eyes glazed. His square jaw set and she could tell he was gritting his teeth. "I think Baylee needs memories of his father playing baseball with him and teaching him how to fish... not laying in a hospital bed without any hair." Brian shoved past Amanda, sending her against the fridge, and stepped off the bus, the anger radiating behind him as he went.

Amanda sighed. She'd crossed the line and she knew it, but then again Brian had done a very crazy, very dangerous thing that was quite literally risking his life. She felt frustrated because on many levels she thought Brian was being stupid and selfish for leaving the hospital, for not calling Baylee and Leighanne to him. But on other levels, on the ones where she imagined what she herself would do, she completely understood him.

As he had told her when he confessed the illness to begin with, he wanted to die living, not live dying.

Well, he was certainly going to do that.

Luckily it was 3:00 in the morning, because Brian didn't think he could've faked being fine for Nick much longer. After they'd taken a few to unwind in the cool air of the deck, Brian excused himself, saying he was exhausted, and crawled up the ladder to the loft. He collapsed into the bed and hugged his knees to his chest. He'd pulled the trash bin close, just in case he needed it - which he was sure he would - and sipped warm, flat ginger ale slowly from the bottle Nick had left by the night stand earlier.

On the inside, he felt anger. He was angry with Amanda for arguing with him about his choice to walk away from the treatment, and angry that Nick was so gullible that he'd fallen for it without question. He felt mad at the doctors for seeing that he had leukemia to begin with, and angry at his own body for getting it. But most of all, for the first time in his life, Brian was really, really angry with God.

It was a strange feeling, being angry with God. It was like being angry at an invisible friend, an anger that's kind of hard to vent. He stared at the Bible laying on his night stand, and wondered why the hell a God that claimed to love him so much would make him go through this illness, would rob Baylee of a father. And he was angry, too, because God was powerful enough that he could turn off the leukemia like a light switch, and it would be gone... Just as Christ healed thousands in Israel, he could heal Brian, too, couldn't he?

Why would he allow me to live through my heart problems twice, thought Brian, just to take me now? Somewhere deep inside of him a voice whispered, you always knew you were on borrowed time after that second surgery... you had things that needed to be accomplished, and then God was going to take you. You knew that, so why are you complaining now that it is happening?

Because now it didn't seem fair. Being angry seemed fair.

But as angry as he was with God, Brian was also painfully aware that it was now more than ever that he needed him.

Stupid love-hate relationships.

"Nick?" Amanda was sitting next to him in bed. He was wearing only his boxer shorts, sprawled across the top of the blankets, his lean body was perfect in every way imaginable.

"Yeah?" he asked, looking up.

"I don't think we should go to Omaha, I think you were right. We should go to Brian's mom's next."

Nick looked surprised, and sat up. "Why not? Brian even said he'd do the jump," Nick frowned. "Is this 'cos you're scared of skydiving, baby?" he asked, his eyebrows puckering in concern.

"No," Amanda said, only half lying, "I just don't think Brian's ... as well as he's letting on."

"He seems fine to me," Nick shrugged.

Amanda shook her head, "Maybe you don't see it because you don't want him to be sick," she said, "But I really don't think he's as good as he's saying."

"I'll ask Bri what he wants to do in the morning," Nick answered, yawning and rolling over.

Amanda sighed, frustrated, and laid down, too, curling into his back. She rested a cheek against his skin. "He's not going to tell you if he's not feeling well," she said, "He doesn't want you to worry about him."

Nick frowned into the darkness, even though Amanda couldn't see him. "Brian wouldn't lie to me," he answered flatly.

"How do you know?" Amanda asked, "He might be lying." He is lying, she thought, You stupid boy.

Nick's breathing was deepening as he was falling asleep. "Because Brian knows how much I hate liars," he said.

Amanda's heart sped up, but for reasons beyond the conversation they were currently having. "But if he lied and is sorry," she said, "It's different. Right?"

"It doesn't matter why someone lies," Nick answered, voice thickening, "Once someone lies, there's no way to believe them again. You know? 'Cos you always spend the rest of your time looking at them, wondering what the truth is."

Amanda felt tears spring to her eyes. "You don't give second chances?" she mumbled.

Luckily Nick was half asleep and didn't realize that she was no longer talking about Brian. He reached behind him and wrapped his arm around her, shifting positions a little, and yawning. "Liars don't usually deserve second chances," he murmured, the words smooshing together as his lips melded into the pillow, and his eyes slid shut.

Within seconds, he was snoring, and Amanda was sobbing silently.
Chapter Thirty-Two by Pengi
The next morning, they left the lodge headed to Omaha.

Amanda felt like everything was unraveling before her eyes. Nick was sitting in the passenger seat of the bus while Brian was struggling with learning how to drive it. He wasn’t doing very good with it, and kept stripping the gears. Nick kept giving him pointers, and they were laughing and neither had really seemed to notice that she wasn't hanging out with them. She was sitting in the kitchen at the table, doodling on napkins and thinking about everything that had happened and the situation she'd found herself in.

How was I supposed to know that I would fall in love with him? Amanda wondered, watching Nick as he threw his head back in a boisterous laugh. It was supposed to be nothing more than a job, supposedly only a week or two of time invested; no harm, no foul. She was supposed to only get a story out of all this, and now so much was at stake - professionally and personally.

But Amanda knew the answer to her own question. It never should have mattered if she loved him or not. It always should've been wrong to have done what she'd done because, as Nick had said, he was a human being. Just that simple fact alone made what she'd done wrong. It didn't matter that she'd fallen in love. It would've been wrong even if she hadn't fallen in love with him. She saw that now. She regretted that it took falling in love for her to see it.

It doesn't matter what my father offers me, she decided resolutely. And it doesn't matter that I love Nick. I don't want to write and publish this story because it would be inhumane.

She just had to figure out how to tell Nick the truth about why they had met... and how to let him go when he wouldn't forgive her.

"If I'm going to be driving, we've got to downgrade," Brian said. They were standing at a car rental place somewhere between Boulder and Omaha. Amanda followed the two boys as they examined Mustangs and Corvettes with hungry looks in their eyes.

"You'll need a van if we're going to even attempt to bring any luggage with us," Amanda said, bursting their bubbles.

Nick pouted, "You're no fun," he said, taking his hands off the shiny exterior of a bright yellow Camaro that looked like Bumblebee.

"I'm no fun because I'm the one that's gonna be stuck in the backseat with all the luggage," she answered.

Eventually, they decided on a red Hummer.

"And what exactly are you planning on doing with the bus and the rig?" Amanda asked as she and Brian were presenting the lady in the office of the rental place with their licenses.

"We'll call Kevin and let him know he needs to send someone out to pick it up," Nick answered.

"Dot will be rescued," Brian assured her, smiling. "Don't forget, a lot of times on tour we'll drop the buses somewhere and fly for a few stops, and someone has to go pick'em up. It'll work similar to that."

The idea seemed crazy to Amanda, but she felt like she'd been enough of a negative Nancy and didn't need to add to the illusion that she was against continuing the road trip. She was just frustrated because it seemed like everything was hopeless. Brian was dying and he wasn't even trying to stop it, and no matter how great the next couple days or weeks were with Nick, she was ultimately going to lose him forever because he couldn't forgive her.

Oddly enough, once they were in the Hummer, Amanda had to admit that it was a bit more comfortable. It was harder to be excluded from the conversation, and as they started getting silly with the topics, it became easier to forget the depression that was slowly sinking into her.

At least it'd been easy to forget until, while playing This or That, Brian had asked, "Liar or a Thief?" and Nick had boldly announced, "A thief, any day. At least with a thief you can tell when they're hurting you. A liar you don't know until it's too late. Plus, you can replace anything a thief takes, but a liar takes your dignity."

The eight hour drive to Omaha had been broken up with several random stops at gas stations and once at a giant statue of a chicken Nick had spotted from the highway and made Brian pull off to take a picture of. (“That’s a huge cock, huh?” he’d giggled childishly the entire time, and quickly made plans for the way he’d present the picture to AJ later when they got back to Los Angeles.)

When they got to Omaha, they found a hotel and rented the last remaining room in the place. Apparently there was some kind of festival going on that had booked all the hotels up, and neither Brian nor Nick had thought to call ahead for the hotel rooms they’d need now that they didn’t have the bus with them.

The room had two beds, a TV, a small desk, a toilet and a mini-fridge, stocked to the brim with teeny-tiny bottles of alcohol for five dollars a piece. Nick stood in the center and let out a low whistle, “Shit it’s like the fuckin’ Bellagio, huh?” he said, laughing.

Brian threw himself onto the bed, “Oh, Nick please. This cannot even compare to the penthouse there,” he said, smirking, “Now we are living in luxury.”

Amanda laughed despite herself.

The luxury only continued as Nick walked them down to McDonalds for dinner. They were sitting at a booth next to a plastic Ronald McDonald and dipping their fries and chicken nuggets into a giant pool of sweet and sour sauce they’d made on the center of the tray the girl with the funky headset had given them. Nick had a stack of apple pies next to his elbow. “Can you believe they sell these puppies two for 99 cents now?” he asked. He’d bought four dollars worth. “It’s nuts, they’re like the best thing on the menu.”

“They always taste under cooked,” Brian complained, “Like the crusty stuff is always gooey inside.”

“Yeahhh,” Nick groaned appreciating the description.

“Don’t mind him,” Brian said, laughing and turning to Amanda with a gleam in his eyes. “He was practically raised on McDonalds.”

Nick smirked, “Thanks to AJ…”

“AJ and crack will do that to you,” Brian said, nodding, “It should be a PSA.” Nick laughed and chucked a fry at Brian.
Amanda laughed, “Maybe you guys can film it when we get back to LA, since you’re feeling better, Brian.” She smiled sweetly.

Brian smiled awkwardly, then grabbed a chicken nugget and threw it back at Nick in revenge for the fry. Why won’t she let this go, he wondered bitterly.

That night, Brian did something he’d once promised himself he would never do.

After Nick and Amanda were asleep, he dug through Nick’s duffle bag and found his computer, and carried it into the bathroom. He plugged it into the hair dryer outlet and threw a pile of towels down on the floor to sit on. Balancing Nick’s computer on his knees, he tapped in Nick’s password (which Nick didn’t know Brian knew but it wasn’t hard to guess that the answer to his security question “What’s my favorite band?” was “Journey”), and pulled up the Internet.

You shouldn’t do this Brian, he thought, glancing at the door nervously, as though he expected Nick or Amanda to walk in at any moment. What if you find out what you’re afraid to find out? But he couldn’t stop now.

He typed in the URL for Google.

For search terms, he tapped in “Amanda Golde”, and clicked the mouse on the button.

The first couple hits were innocent enough, neither pertained to their Amanda Golde – one was actually even for an Amanda Golden. But the third one…

Brian clicked the link, and a Twitter page for “MandaG” opened. The background was hot pink checkers, like the Vans sneakers. The profile photo was definitely their girl, and she had a following of almost 40,000 people. He only had to read a couple tweets to put the pieces together.

MandaG RT@PopStuffOL - Gearing up for another great story. Deets upon publication!
MandaG@Photoby3 - Getting some gr8 shots 2nite?? NC & me R @ IVY LUV the LEMON PIE.
MandaG - Backstreet Boys cancelled world tour! No word on Y yet. Check out PSOL for more:

Brian closed the website and spent the rest of the night throwing up.
Chapter Thirty-Three by Pengi
When Brian woke up the next morning, he found the other bed empty, the sheets and comforter all in a ball. Nick and Amanda had probably gone to get the continental breakfast in the lobby, he realized, rolling onto his back and taking a deep breath, and it was probably just as well. He didn't think he could look at her, and he didn't really want to talk to him just yet. He had a lot to think about first.

For starters, Brian was always the type to give the offender the benefit of the doubt. An evil twin, stolen identity... the impossible options, and then, of course, there was the fact that none of the tweets had been made after they'd left on the road trip, since he'd gotten to know her. Perhaps, she had changed.

But some part of him couldn't help but think that people like that never change, they just hone their acting skills.

He wondered how much of what she'd told them was true, and imagined suckering into all the bullshit stories and how easily it must've been to get in. He pictured Nick, so vulnerable and upset about the news that day, falling for her perfectly measured charm. Had she gone behind the hotel on purpose with this end in mind, or had it been fate - Nick just happening to come out once she'd been there, the plot to seduce him for news developing after having met him...

Brian wondered how long until the fans found out he was dying.

A chill went through his body. He had never wanted the fans to know until he was gone. Once he was gone, let them know then. But he didn't want their tears and pity and good-bye letters. He didn't want the freak-outs and mob scenes and having to see the brokenness he would be leaving behind. Kevin had insisted that the fans were more mature than that, but Brian knew better. He could remember the devastation that had followed AJ's stint in rehab, how forlorn and dismal the fans had been. He didn't want to cause that again.

She probably had a story all ready to go to ship off. Maybe she already sent it. Maybe it was already on the website. Maybe they hadn't gone to breakfast at all, but she'd taken off and Nick had gone after her, not knowing why she'd left because he hadn't checked Pop Stuff yet. Or maybe he had and he was hiding the body.

Brian couldn't help but laugh at the mental image of Nick dumping a body in the back alley behind the hotel. That's not very Christianly, he thought accusingly as the image floated by. Neither is what she did, he amended.

Nick and Amanda came back in the room then, though. Nick was carrying a tray and laughing at something Amanda must've just said. Brian's eyes snapped shut and he quickly started breathing deeply, pretending to be asleep. He still didn't want to encounter them just yet.

Amanda came around the corner into the room first and peeked at Brian. He was still asleep. She turned to Nick and tucked a finger across her lips and shhhhhh-ed him. Nick pretended to be zipping, then locking his mouth and throwing the key. The action threw him off balance and he had to dive to catch the tray. He smiled sheepishly at Amanda, who stifled a laugh with her hand.

They sat down on the bed facing each other with the tray of french toast, sausages, orange juice, fruit salad and dry Cheerios between them on the bed. "He looks so peaceful," Amanda whispered.

"Yeah he does," Nick agreed, making a slurping noise on the straw in his orange juice.

Amanda sighed. She was still really worried about Brian for running off from the hospital, but she'd decided during the night, when she had woken up and laid in bed thinking for a little bit, that she was going to apologize to him for the argument, tell him she respected him for the courage it took to refuse the treatment options, and promise to keep the secret about the hospital for him as long as he needed her to.

"Are you excited for today?" Nick whispered.

"I get to fall from the sky," Amanda said, "Probably to my death. It sounds great," she joked.

Nick laughed, "Well, you'll be jumping out of an air plane technically. Hey, you can pretend you're like Charlie's Angels or something."

"I don't know anyone named Charlie."

"Nicky's angel," he said, laughing.

Amanda giggled as Nick kissed her nose and stuck a grape in her mouth. She picked up a grape and pretended she was going to do the same, but changed trajectory at the last second and stuck it in his nose. Nick cracked up, covered the other nostril, and blew. The grape went flying out of his nose and hit the floor, rolling under Brian's bed. They both dissolved into laughter.

"How is he sleeping through this?" Amanda wondered, wheezing slightly.

"A frickin' bomb could go off next to him," Nick explained. "We're all like that, except Kevin. You should see the buses on tour," he laughed, "It takes forever to wake us all up. The worst is Howie, though."

"He won't wake up?"

Nick's grin turned evil, "Yeah. No matter what you do to him. We always draw on him and balance shit on his face and stuff. It's great. This one time, he fell asleep on the couch in the back, right? So me and AJ wrote stuff all over his face about him being a dwarf and AJ drew a penis on his nose and stuff... and then Howie couldn't wash it off. It took like two days to fade, and he was mortified, because Howie's like super groomed and stuff..." Nick's face was scarlet from laughing.

Amanda was laughing, too, imagining Howie with a penis drawn on his nose.

Figuring they were being too loud now for him to continue the charade - and half scared Nick might get the idea to try it on Brian to demonstrate how funny it'd been, Brian feigned yawning and stretching to wake up. He was never a very good actor though, and he wasn't positive he was convincing enough with the motion.

"Hey Bri, you're awake," Nick called. He chucked a grape in Brian's direction. "You hungry, Frick? We kinda over shot the size of our stomachs, I think."

"Yeah, there's tons of food here," Amanda said.

Brian sat up slowly and shook his head, "Nah," he said in his best fake groggy voice. "Thanks for the offer, though," he said.

"Well, if you change your mind," Amanda smiled.

"If I change my mind I'll be sure to report to you," he answered pointedly. She didn't catch the emphasis, but Brian smirked because the sarcasm had made him feel better. He rolled off the bed, and disappeared into the bathroom.

Nick took another grape and looked at Amanda, smirking.

"Don't even think about it," she warned, holding up a hand to cover her nose.

Nick threw the grape at her and it landed perfectly, sliding down her shirt into her bra. She let out a shriek - the grape was chilled! - and squealed, getting up off the bed in a quick motion, while Nick cracked up and watched her shove her hand down her shirt to fetch it out.

When she got it out she lobbed it at his head and it bounced off his forehead lamely, landing back onto the tray. Nick was laughing so hard he bent over, his nose nearly touching the sheets. "That was great," he wheezed.

Brian could hear them goofing off from the bathroom. He leaned against the bathroom door, trying to remember the last time he'd heard Nick sounding so happy. He couldn't. Brian slid slowly to the floor and hugged his knees to his chest. How the hell was he going to break it to Nick that this woman he'd fallen in love with was actually just a mole?

Well, Brian thought with a chuckle, I could always just throw her out of the plane.
Chapter Thirty-Four by Pengi
Brian parked the Hummer in front of the little airport and cut the engine - and the music - as soon as the vehicle was in park. Nick and Amanda had both been dancing in their seats and singing along with the song, which Nick had blasted the moment it came on. "Shawwwttyyyy is a eeeenie-meenie-miney-mo luuuvaaaa..." wailed Nick as Brian cut the engine. "Hey!!" he looked at Brian pouting. "Dammit, now I'm gonna have that stuck in my head all day. And that's like the only line I know..."

Amanda laughed and poked him in the arm. "Please don't change your mind-mind-mind-mind-mind... That's all I know."

Brian had been quiet most of the ride over from the hotel, just listening to Nick and Amanda's banter, which was extremely keyed-up today. Or maybe it just seemed worse since every time she opened her mouth it annoyed the crap out of Brian. They were in ridiculously good moods, though, and Amanda had tried desperately to get Brian to join in with their goofing off the entire time he'd been driving.

"I'm trying to drive," he'd snapped at one point, "So unless you wanna be on the news for having a car wreck, just torture Nick for awhile and let me concentrate, okay? Jeez."

"Turn it back on B!" Nick whined, fiddling with the Hummer's stereo buttons, even though it was off. "C'mon, just finish the song at least.."

Brian turned the key and got out, "I'll wait out here." He slammed the door. The irony of the song's lyrics with Amanda in the car was a little too much for him. Phony bitch, he thought, leaning against the grill of the Hummer.

Amanda looked after Brian as Nick turned the stereo back on and the song started over. She frowned, suddenly not in the mood for the song anymore, and reached forward and turned the stereo off. She looked at Nick. "See? I told you. I don't think he's feeling good," she pointed at Brian, who was coughing.

"Nah," Nick answered, "He's just nervous 'cos of the plane and the jumping and stuff." He turned the stereo back up.

Amanda reached forward and turned it back off. "Nick, he's not just nervous. Look at him... Plus, how cranky is he today?"

Nick shrugged, "He was up and down all night, I heard him... he probably didn't sleep good."

"Or he was sick again and didn't tell you," she said.

Nick rolled his eyes and turned the stereo back up. "Are you ready for the plane?" he asked, snickering and changing the subject.

"No," Amanda said, half laughing. She was still too worried about Brian to worry too much about the plane, though. He'd been acting so strange ever since they'd left Boulder. He'd barely said a word to her since the fight on the bus, and ever since they'd gotten to Omaha he'd just gotten quieter and quieter, until now he was even being angry with Nick. Amanda could handle him being pissed off at her, that sucked but it wasn't as devastating as it was that he would take out his anger on Nick.

The only thing Amanda could think of that was making Brian act like this was depression. Of course it would be natural for Brian to be depressed, given his situation, but it would only weaken him, and destroy what little time he had left.

Nick sighed. Amanda wasn't playing with him anymore, she was too preoccupied thinking about Brian, and the Eenie Meenie song was no fun if you were the only one singing it. "Manda?" he asked, when she didn't respond - still frowning in concern at Brian - Nick climbed out of the Hummer, opened her door, poked her in the arm, and said, "C'mon, let's go jump out a plane."

Amanda climbed out and Nick galloped around the car to where Brian was standing, still coughing. "Briiiiiiiian," Nick called out in an annoying voice. He jumped at Brian's side and hugged his arm, "We're gonna jump out a plane, are you scared?"

Brian turned and spit a pretty good sized wad of phlegm and blood onto the ground. Nick didn't notice this - but Amanda did. Brian wiped his mouth and said in a voice that sounded raw from all the coughing, "You're way too excited about jumping out of a plane, dude."

Amanda frowned at the crap Brian had spit out on the ground, and he caught her eye. They locked; a stare down ensued.

"Dude I kinda hope that Tobias asshole's here today," Nick said, looking around, oblivious to Amanda and Brian's stare down growing in intensity right beside him. "The fans would go nuts over some pictures of us skydiving, huh?"

"Oh... I'm sure there'll be someone here from the press," Brian replied pointedly, not breaking his stare into Amanda's eyes. "Aren't you, Amanda?"

He knows. The thought went through her mind like fire and she blinked in surprise with the realization, losing the stare down. Brian smirked, pleased with himself, and turned toward the door. Nick bounded after him. Amanda just stood there, dumbfounded. How the hell did he find out? she wondered.

The two boys were already in the hangar. She scurried to keep up with them, catching the door just before it slammed behind Nick. She trotted along with their longer strides. She had to talk to Brian alone. As soon as possible. She had to at least try to explain herself to him, hopefully before he told Nick.

Plus, she needed to explain to them that she'd changed.

When Amanda had first started the assignment, she'd seen nothing wrong with using Nick for the story. She'd been a total bitch. She'd been going out with that asshole Toby, whose true colors had shown in the woods in Boulder, when he'd hurt her wrist. He was always doing things to hurt her - not enough to be abusive, but enough that added together it was too much. She'd made many mistakes, been so desperate to make her father happy that she'd been ready to do just about anything - jump through any hoop he set for her - in the hopes that he'd give a fuck. But he never would, she knew that now.

One thing was certain, life was going to be extremely different after she got back to Los Angeles after this trip. She had already decided that she was going straight to her father and quitting Pop Stuff Online - assuming he didn't fire her first for not getting the story to him. She didn't care if she ended up in a cardboard box on the streets with a city-issued blanket... she wasn't going to betray the Boys anymore than she already had.

Brian had to understand that.

Or at least she had to tell him.

While she was thinking all this, the trio had been greeted by three built-looking pro tandem jump instructors - Josh, Larry, and Mesa. They were going to be accompanying Nick, Brian and Amanda on their jumps since it was their first time skydiving. A fourth guy, Jennings, was going to be filming the jump from the ground.

"The video's probably going to be on MTV before the night's over," Brian said, glancing at Amanda.

Nick laughed, "Probably."

Amanda frowned. Yeah, I definitely need to talk to him about this as soon as possible... get the confrontation over with.

She just hadn't expected that moment to come at 13,000 feet.
Chapter Thirty-Five by Pengi
It had taken six hours for Josh, Larry and Mesa to prepare Amanda, Brian and Nick for the jump. They'd told them about the view, about the plane, the velocity, the free fall sensation, the parachute, landing... everything. Amanda had concentrated on and comprehended about a tenth of it, if that much. She was too busy sweating out the moments. Scenarios raced through her mind of Brian suddenly leaping to his feet and screaming out what he knew to the world, or of randomly saying something like "Tandem jumping, you know what that reminds me of? Oh yeah, Amanda's a betraying sack of shit." She knew he'd never say those words, it just wasn't in his nature to call someone something like that, but imaginary Brian sure did.

Nick was bubbling with so much nervous excitement that it was easy to stay quiet without anyone noticing. He asked enough questions about the jump to keep the instructors busy. And when it was time to suit up, he enthusiastically grabbed Amanda's hand and pulled her along - which was good, because she probably wouldn't have noticed they were leaving to change.

The jumpsuits were hideous one piece things that zipped around the clothes they already had on. They made funny swishy sounds, and made Amanda feel like she was about to embark on an Apollo mission or something. Her jump suit was a hideous shade of yellow that made her look like a giant banana. Nick had been put into a brown suit, and Brian into a blue one. She was the only one with a tacky color. Then they were given helmets and put into harnesses that would eventually be clamped onto similar harnesses that the instructors were going to be wearing.

Amanda was so preoccupied with the situation with Brian, that she didn't even really think much about the plane as they boarded it and buckled in to these little tiny bucket seats.

Brian did, though. He gripped the arm rests of his seats and dug his fingers into them. He'd been doing good until the plane had started lifting off the ground and the elevation struck him. The back door of the plane was left open and the wind whistled by it, loud and gushing. The instructors were standing in a semi-circle by it. Nick was leaning over his seat, trying to catch a glimpse, too. Far below, corn fields and farms of various colors - all in perfect squares, like a patchwork quilt - got smaller and smaller until everything was a blur of color and moving dots far below.

"Who's going first?" Josh asked.

Nick looked at Brian and Amanda. "Me!" he called when neither jumped up with excitement. Besides, he thought, Maybe once they see that I can do it just fine they won't worry about it so much.

Josh beckoned Nick over and started hooking their harnesses together.

Brian nudged Amanda with his elbow, "Quick, take a picture. You'll want it for your story, won't you?"

Nick was grinning, waving at them, too close to the door and the rushing air to hear the words they were saying. Amanda turned to Brian, "I can explain."

Brian laughed bitterly, "I'm sure you can."

"It's not an excuse for what I did, but I've changed," she said, her voice pleading.

He rolled his eyes. "Do you remember in the Grand Canyon, when we were at the gift shop just before going to ride the burros? Do you remember what I told you?"

"Not to hurt Nick," she whispered.

"Don't you think he's been through enough shit without you doing this to him?" Brian snapped.

Amanda felt her eyes getting hot.

"Here I go!" cried Nick. The plane dipped to the side. Brian and Amanda both looked up just in time to see Josh, with Nick strapped to the front of him, fall backwards out of the plane. Nick's eyes had widened as they went, and his feet flown up off the floor, his mouth formed a perfect O... and then they were gone, outside the plane, in the air, free falling.

Brian's heart raced at the idea of Nick falling through the air, 13,000 feet off the ground. Nick needed no help falling - he fell all the damn time. Brian prayed that the parachute would work.

"I didn't mean to hurt him," Amanda screamed. Now that Nick was out of the plane, she felt she could let her true emotion show.

Brian turned back to her. "Well you are," he snapped. "Do you have any idea what this is going to do to him? You're gonna crush him," he shouted.

"I didn't know him when I started this! He was just some pop star my father wanted me to write a story on," she cried out, her voice heating up, "He meant nothing to me and I didn't care who I hurt to get what I wanted."

Brian snorted, "Attractive!"

"I know what I did was wrong, Brian!"

"That didn't stop you, though, did it?" he bellowed.

Mesa and Larry were looking at each other, awkwardly, unsure if they should interrupt to ask if they were ready for the jump or not.

Tears sprang into Amanda's eyes. "Oh and here come the water works," he yelled, "How long did you practice crying at just the right times?" he laughed bitterly, "How long did it take you to make up all your sob stories about your fake brother and your pathetic life? You disgust me!"

"Piper isn't a lie!" Amanda sobbed, "I told you that because - because -"

Brian shook his head. "All you wanted from me was a fucking story for your fucking paper. Neither one of us were people to you. We were a paycheck." He stood up, "Well, now you've got your God damned story, and you can go home and Twitter to all your little fucking newspaper friends that you got to break Nick Carter's heart and get paid for it."

Amanda's heart was so tight, her vision blurred, her face hot. She couldn't breathe. Brian's words burned her right to the soul. She gasped, the air coming in loudly. She sounded like a seal, for crying out loud. "Brian, please," she sobbed.

"I told him to trust you," he hissed, leaning over her, one hand on each of her arm rests, getting right into her face. "I thought that you would be a good thing for him, that you would be there for him, that he could rely on you when I'm dead." Brian's eyes were livid. "But he means nothing to you the way he means something to me."

"Brian I love him!" screamed Amanda, her voice racked with emotion.

She stared right into his eyes.

He stared right back.

"I'm not publishing the story," she whispered, not looking away from Brian, "Whether Nick can forgive me or not... I can't do that to you, or to him... I'm quitting my job. I can't afford to, I'm probably going to end up evicted, but I don't care. Falling in love with Nick - with you - opened my eyes. You guys aren't just a story... you aren't just a pop band... you're people, with real lives and histories and hopes and dreams and losses just like me, just like every one else in the world... and I can't do it anymore."

Brian didn't say anything, he just kept staring into her face.

"Do - um - do you guys - wanna jump? Cos - um... Your friend's almost to the ground, and... if not, we're going to land..." Larry interjected hesitantly.

Brian stood up, shoving away from Amanda and turned to him. "Yeah. I'll go."

Amanda watched as they strapped Brian to Larry's harness. He didn't stop looking at her the entire time, his eyes blank, expression unreadable. Amanda sat there, gnawing on her lip, guilt flooding her, making her heart swell. She stared down at her shoes, the ones Nick had bought her, and felt like she wanted nothing more than to evaporate.

"Amanda," Brian called.

She looked up.

"Aren't you jumping?" he asked. His voice had changed, it had softened.

"I dunno," she said.

"C'mon," Brian said.

Amanda got up, feeling numb. She crossed the plane, and Mesa started strapping her to the front of his harness. The wind whipped around her and Brian, whooshing. Brian's eyes never left hers. Once Mesa was done getting her strapped in, he and Larry inched toward the line at the door. The plane started to tip.

Brian held out his hand. "I'm crazy for doing this," he said. And Amanda knew he didn't mean the jump.

She took his hand.

The next thing they knew, the plane was above them, the ground below them, and there was nothing at all keeping them up.
Brian's Journal Entry by Pengi
Two months ago - when we were preparing for the New Beginnings tour, and I thought I was healthy and happy - if you'd told me that I would go sky-diving I would've said you were absolutely insane. Kevin can't even get me to get into his plane, and I'd trust Kevin with my life; I just don't trust physics the way some people do. To me, there's no promise that the air is going to keep that plane or that parachute where it is. There's no guarantee.

Well today sky diving was beautiful.

It wasn't just about the sights - the patchwork quilt of farm land and the mountains away in the distance, like purple shadows on the horizon. It wasn't just the setting sun, whose orange rays seemed to be under us instead of below us, or the feeling of flying - like that eagle on the thermals in Arizona.

No, today, sky diving, to me, was a metaphor.

I learned from the jump that sometimes you can't stay in the plane. The plane is like a safety zone, where you know how everything is going to turn out. The plane is a 401k and a life insurance policy. The plane is a house with a white picket fence. The plane is knowing exactly who your friends are, and who you can trust.

But the plane is not life.

The jump is life.

You see, life happens when you take that chance, when you step into unknown. Life happens when you let go of what you
think you know.

Life doesn't always come in the black and white safety that the plane affords you. Life is messy and it's in shades of grey. Hell, life is in color.

Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it plays tricks on you. Sometimes, you play tricks on it. Sometimes it gets out of control and you can't stop it because it's moving so quickly. Sometimes we master life - other times it makes us victims.

But in the end, only two things matter.

One: that someone is there to hold your hand. We all need somebody in our lives, to understand us and love us for our grey selves... we just have to remember that someone isn't always safe like the plane, sometimes they're just as dangerous as the jump.

And two: enjoy the ride. Before you know it your feet have touched the ground and its over. You can't go back. So see the sights, smell the smells, feel the air, and hold that hand while you can...

Because, like sky diving, life is amazing, if you can just get up the guts to take the plunge.

Chapter Thirty-Six by Pengi
When they landed, their parachutes floating down over them like giant colorful clouds, the ground had never felt so solid before. As soon as he was freed from Larry, Brian dropped to his knees in the grass, laughing, a sheen of sweat on his face, and tucked his fingers between the blades of grass. Nick ran over to them, scooping Amanda into his arms and twirling around her, his face bright and flushed. He was a ball of energy. He dropped his mouth to hers and pulled her close to his body, shaking with excitement like he was a Chihuahua dog or something...

When he broke the kiss, he held Amanda out at arm's length. "Wasn't that amazing?" he asked.

Amanda was still dizzy from the shock of it all - from the trauma of the argument with Brian, the surprise of his offered hand, the weightless flying sensation... "It was... insane..." she whispered. Her throat felt raw.

Nick bounded to where Brian was kneeling and tackled him, throwing himself onto Brian's back, toppling them both over on the grass, laughing. Nick dragged his hand across Brian's head, giving him a noogie, and cried, "You actually did it, Brian! You're the bee's knees, dawg!" Amanda walked slowly toward them, her lips clamped between her teeth. Nick looked up at her, a big goofy smile on his face, "C'mon, get in here," he demanded as he wrapped his arms around Brian, "Group hug on Brian!"

"I think you're flattening him enough for the both of us," she answered smiling sadly.

Brian smiled up at Amanda, "C'mmoooon dooooown, you're the next contestant on The Price is Right!"

Amanda couldn't help but laugh at Brian's silly voice, an inkling of a hope for mercy crawling into her chest. She knelt down beside the wriggling boys and Nick leaped across Brian's chest at her, tackling her down, too. The grass felt cool against her face. Nick crawled onto the other side of her, and the three of them laid there on their backs in their jumpsuits, staring up at the sky as it turned magenta and purple.

They didn't stay in Omaha another night. Brian was too excited to see his mom and dad in Kentucky. They loaded up the Hummer and were on their way before nine o'clock that night. Nick had made Amanda take the front seat for a change, and he'd sat in the center seat in the back, leaning forward to talk and be included in the conversation. Eventually, though, around 2:00 am, he finally nodded off and fell back against the pile of duffle bags beside him.

"He looks so damn innocent when he's asleep," Brian laughed, looking at Nick's reflection in the rearview mirror. Nick’s smiling face was balanced on his hands like a cherub. He rolled his eyes, "The ultimate in deceit." He glanced at Amanda, "Well. Sort of."

She sighed, "Can we talk about..." she glanced back at Nick, "...this?" she asked.

"Don't worry, he's out of it," Brian said.

"A bomb could go off," Amanda said with a smile, thinking of their conversation that morning.

"Just don't draw on his face," Brian smirked.

Amanda laughed, "He told me about Howie and the penis nose," she said.

"AJ's an evil thing," Brian laughed, nodding. After a moment his face became serious. "Look, I'm probably stupid for this, but... I'm going to trust you are telling the truth about changing, Amanda. I'm going to give you a second chance."

Amanda's eyes welled up with tears, "Brian..."

He held up his hand in the one-minute motion. "Me giving you a second chance is an entirely different thing than Nick giving you a second chance," he said. "Nick isn’t going to be as easy as I am. He’s been through a lot of shit with girls, and he’s not going to take this lightly. I can’t even promise you that he will forgive you. But I’m going to forgive you. As a Christian, it’s my duty to forgive you. The whole redemption thing is a big part of who I am and what I believe in, and if you’re saying you’ve changed, then I need to accept that, just like I’ve been accepted. But the thing is, Amanda, honestly, I can put my trust in you, and believe you when you promise me things, but I'm not going to be here to see that you live them out. I just have to take your word for it."

"You know, for a believer in God you're awful certain you're going to die," Amanda accused.

Brian half-laughed, "What does my believing in God got to do with whether I'm going to die or not?" he asked.

Amanda shrugged, "Don't you guys believe in like miracles and stuff?" she asked, "Doesn't God heal those who believe in him and put their trust in him?"

"Sometimes," Brian answered, "Not always. Not every time. He's healed me twice in my lifetime. I think I have a pretty good track record in the miracles department. I mean not only am I breathing right now, but I've got the best friend in the world in the back seat there. Plus, we jumped out of a plane today and didn't go splat." He laughed.

"Now there's a miracle," she quipped.

Brian smirked, then his expression turned serious. "I have accepted that I'm going to die," he said quietly, "It's not because I'm suicidal or that I don't want to live that I'm so certain, it's just that I'm confident in my faith enough to know that the pain I feel now will be gone and I'll be home." Brian's eyes grew a faraway, longing look, "And I can't wait to hear it."

"Hear what?" she asked.

Brian's face grew warmer as he imagined it. "'Welcome home, you,'" he answered.

"Like your song," she said quietly.

He nodded. "Yeah, like my song."

They rode quiet for a few minutes, Amanda contemplating the meaning of the song and the words that Brian had just said. They passed a large 18-wheeler and Amanda watched the tires spinning as they cut around it.

"I need you to tell him," Brian said suddenly, "Before we get to Marietta."

Amanda looked to Brian, "Why Marietta?" she asked.

"Because that's where I'm stopping," he said, "Nick doesn't know it yet, but I'm staying in Marietta. We were originally going to continue the road trip up the coast, but I’m staying with my wife and son. I want to die at home.”

Amanda swallowed the lump in her throat from what that statement implied. She nodded.

Brian glanced at her. “I need you to tell him before ya’ll leave me because I want to know that he knows, or I’ll tell him myself.” He paused. “Amanda, if you tell him you’re going to have a way better chance of him listening to you than if I tell him or if he finds out on his own. Don’t wait for him to Google you, like I did, okay?”

“I was going to tell him the other day,” Amanda said, “When you came in just before we went to the hospital, Nick and I were on the deck and the words were about to come out…”

Brian sighed. “You’ll know when the time is right to tell him. Just make it sooner, rather than later, okay? As far as I know we only have two more stops before Marietta, and I’d rather not have to tell him myself.”

“I’ll tell him Brian,” Amanda promised.

When Amanda fell asleep, too, her head leaning against the window, Brian continued driving, thinking about everything they’d talked about. He pulled into a rest stop to go to the bathroom a little north of Lexington. The toilets were disgusting, and he was glad he wasn’t a woman that would’ve had to sit down on them to pee. There wasn’t enough money in all the world to make that worth his time…

On his way out of the bathroom a little girl came careening around the corner, followed by her mother, who almost bowled Brian down. Brian stepped back, his back against the wall, as she ran past, and smiled at the little girl’s bouncing pigtails. The mom, who was probably only 16 or so, stopped short as the little girl started playing with a dangling receiver in the phone booth and took a double take at Brian.

“Oh my God, no way,” she said, “Are you Brian Littrell?”

Brian smiled, “Hallo.” He half-waved, and pointed at the little girl, “She’s adorable,” he said.

The mother smiled, “Thanks. Her name’s…” she paused, “Don’t laugh. Her name’s Brianna.” She blushed.

Brian laughed, “Aw. She’s adorable.”

“I’m Kayleigh,” the mom said, biting her lips. She stepped closer toward him. “I cannot believe this is happening to me right now. I’ve been a fan of you since… well, I think I was her size,” she pointed at Brianna and laughed.

Brian smiled again. “Aw, that’s sweet. Makes me feel really old, but it’s sweet,” he laughed.

Kayleigh smiled, “Yeah. God. I was so bummed when you guys cancelled the tour,” her smiled waned a little bit. “It was the first time I’d been able to get tickets. My fiancé gave them to me…” she held out her hand to show him a small diamond. “He’s so sweet. His name’s Ricky.” She pointed at Brianna, “She looks so much like him.”

“Congratulations,” Brian said, unsure what else to say.

Kayleigh blushed again. “Thanks,” she answered. “Are you all okay?” she asked, a worried look crossing her face.

“Yeah we’re okay,” Brian answered, “Nick’s out in the car.”

“You were always my favorite,” Kayleigh answered. She paused. “I’m glad you’re all okay. There’s a lot of really bad rumors going around why you cancelled the tour.” Brianna came back over and latched onto Kayleigh’s leg. “The fans were worried. Especially since you guys told us what happened with AJ back in ’01, we thought it must be really bad if you weren’t telling us.”

You’re too smart for your own good, Brian thought, I’m just trying to protect you guys and you’re too smart for your own good.

Brian forced a smile and held out an arm to Kayleigh. She grinned and quickly scurried to him, Brianna following, clutching her mother’s leg. Brian wrapped his arm around Kayleigh and gave her a squeeze. “Thanks,” he said warmly, “We really do appreciate every one of our fans. Without you guys…” he shook his head. “Finite,” he said in his best Italian accent - which wasn’t good at all, actually.

Kayleigh laughed as the hug broke apart. “You’re always the silly one,” she said. “Thank you.”

“It was great meeting you Kayleigh,” he bent down and held out a hand to the little girl, “And you Brianna.” Brianna reluctantly shook his hand. He stood back up, “Drive safe.”

“You too.”

Brian could feel Kayleigh watching him as he walked away, and heard her whisper to Brianna, “That’s the man that sings that song momma loves, you know the one that goes I want it that way…? That’s him.”

Brianna started singing.

Brian was still smiling when he climbed into the Hummer. Nick was half awake in the backseat. “What’re you smilin’ about dawg?” he mumbled, rolling over so he was on his back against the duffles instead of his face.

“I just ran into a fan, that’s all,” Brian said.
Chapter Thirty-Seven by Pengi
Brian's excitement only grew the closer he got to home, and every time he spoke it seemed like his Kentucky accent got thicker and thicker until he was twanging and yawling like he'd never left home. Nick snickered. "He does this every time he comes home," he laughed.

"It's not that bad," Brian drawled.

Nick snickered, "It's worse, man. You get worse every time."

The old looking mailbox on the road said Littrell on it, Amanda was surprised. She'd thought they wouldn't have been able to put the name on the box. Brian pulled into the drive way and drove what felt like forever through thick bunches of trees that lined the driveway. Finally, the trees broke, and he pulled up to what looked like a giant farm. There was a huge white house and a red barn - so silo, though. There was a huge tree with a tire swing out front, and grass that sprawled off in all directions. In the far right of the yard, acres and acres away, Amanda could see a brown house that she assumed to be the Richardson's.

Brian's mom was on a swing on the wrap around porch, his dad sitting next to her. When she saw the Hummer break through the trees, Jackie lit off her seat like there was no tomorrow, running as fast as her little legs could carry her. Brian's shortness was rapidly explained looking at his parents.

Brian threw the car in park and ran around the front of the Hummer, arms outstretched the same as Jackie's were and they collided, Jackie wrapping her arms around his neck. "Oh my Baby Duck," she gushed, slathering his cheek with big kisses.

Nick was watching with jealousy from the back seat. "He's such a momma's boy," he laughed. He opened the back door of the Hummer and climbed out. Amanda followed him.

No sooner had Nick gotten out of the Hummer than a gaggle of ducks came running out from the barn, quacking as they scuttled. "Aww!" cried Amanda.

"That's Huey, Duey, Louie, and Sam," Brian said, pointing at each of the ducks in turn.

Nick ducked behind her. She turned and raised an eyebrow, "What? You're scared of ducks now, too?" she asked.

"Me and barnyard animals don't play well together," Nick replied, shying away as the ducks came over to inspect Amanda. The duck Brian had said was named Sam reached around her and snapped at Nick's thigh. "Hey!" he yelled. He pointed at the duck, "SEE? See? They bite!"

Brian laughed.

The duck drama brought the attention next to Nick and Amanda. When Jackie saw Nick, she lit on him, too. She only came up to the middle of his chest, but she wrapped her arms around him just the same. "You've lost weight!" she said.

Nick grinned, "I know."

Jackie poked his belly, "We'll fatten you up before you leave." Nick looked at Amanda and shrugged.

"And you," Jackie looked at Amanda, "You must be Nick's girlfriend." She held out her hands to Amanda, who took them, and Jackie studied her, "You could use some fattening up, too. Look at those ankles," she clucked her tongue. "I've got chicken in the oven, we'll have ya'll fed in no time."

"Bring'em up here, Jackie," called Brian's dad from the porch, "Let'em sit down, they're probably tired from drivin' all night."

Jackie waved her hand at him. "Come, come sit down," she grabbed Brian's arm and clung to him, guiding him toward the porch. The ducks followed behind Brian, quacking loudly. "They always did love to follow you around, Baby Duck," Jackie said.

As they walked, Nick leaned in closer to Amanda, "Brian hasn't told her yet. Just so you know."

Amanda looked at Nick, "Oh."

"Yeah," Nick nodded, "That's why we're here."

Amanda frowned, "She's going to be heart broken," she whispered.

Nick sighed, "Yeah."

Nick and Amanda hid out in the guest bedroom that afternoon when Brian had said he needed to talk to his parents alone. Jackie had stuck games and art supplies in Nick's bedroom ("she still thinks I'm twelve I think," he laughed), and Amanda and Nick had opted to start playing with them.

Nick was drawing an anime version of Amanda - the fire breathing princess he'd envisioned that day in the back of the hotel when they'd first met. It was a sexy fire breathing princess, with a top that left little to the imagination. Amanda pointed at it, "My boobs are not that big."

Nick laughed, "It's my drawing, your boobs will be as big as I want'em to be."

Amanda laughed, "Fine, then, when I draw you, your junk will be a lot bigger than reality."

A smirk traveled over Nick's face, "You'll need a bigger sheet of paper to make it any bigger, baby."

Amanda rolled her eyes, "You're so gross." But she was laughing.

The strokes of his colored pencils were so gentle and perfectly placed. Amanda couldn't help but peeking over at his drawing instead of watching her own. He was truly an artist in every sense of the word. She was amazed at the way his hands moved, wrapped around the pencil and across the paper, the big knuckles holding up his wrist in various positions as he changed the stroke he was using, adding texture. It was like watching magic happen on the page in front of her.

He looked up at one point and caught her grinning stupidly at him. "What?" he asked.

"You draw beautifully," she answered.

A smile crossed his face, "I'm drawing a beautiful thing."

Amanda laughed, "You could draw crap and you'd do well at it."

Nick ripped a sheet of paper out of the back of the doodle pad he was using, took out the brown pencil, and quickly drew a very detailed looking pile of dog crap. He shaded it with the black pencil, and then took out the yellow one.

Amanda scrunched up her nose, "What the hell are you doing?" she asked.

Nick laughed, holding up the yellow pencil, "I was gonna put some corn..."

"You're sick!" she cracked up.

Nick put back the yellow pencil without adding the corn and took out a red one and scrawled across the side of the page, "To my Doodie Princess, love your Doodie King, xoxo." He handed the page to her. "Keep that forever," he said.

Amanda couldn't stop laughing as she folded it and put it in her pocket, fully intending to obey his command.

Jackie, Nick had decided long ago, was one of his very favorite cooks (second only to Howie's mother - Momma D), but tonight she'd outdone herself. She'd roasted the most amazing chicken that was so moist it practically melted in the mouth. She'd made her own homemade stuffing with cranberries and apples tossed in, and baked soft white bread that Nick could've eaten until he exploded. He'd once read a website about guinea pigs that had read, "Do not leave you guinea pig left unattended in a grassy knoll as they will eat until they explode." He'd always though that was a weird thing that guinea pigs did, but... ya know? He kinda could understand when he was at the Littrell house.

"That was amazing, Mrs. Littrell," Amanda said enthusiastically when dinner had finished.

"Call me Mum," she commanded, waving a hand in a 'psshh' kind of way at Amanda. "Everyone else in the Backstreet family does." Amanda liked that; the best part was that it wasn't awkward at all calling her that. Jackie just had that sort of personality that was impossible to be put off by.

"She likes you," Nick whispered after a little bit into Amanda's ear.

Amanda looked at Nick, "How can you tell?"

"She said you were in the Backstreet family," he explained, "She just barely started saying that to AJ's woman, and he's been with her for over a year."

Amanda flushed happily.

After dinner, Jackie shooshed them all onto the porch while she made coffee. A few minutes later, steaming mugs in hand, they were all sitting around in various places around the porch, chatting. Anne Richardson came by, and Amanda could see that she was Kevin's mom by looking at her. It was peaceful, she thought, and amazing how good it felt being around a family. She'd never had a family night like this, and everyone was so casual about it, like it happened all the time.

When it was time to go to bed, Brian came up beside Amanda on the stairs, smiling, "Sorry if my mom's a little pushy," he apologized.

"I love her," Amanda confessed, "She's so sweet."

Brian's face blossomed with a prideful grin, "She's the best," he agreed. "Have a good night," he said, rushing into the room that Nick had said was Brian's when he was growing up.

Nick stood at Amanda's door and kissed her forehead, "I've been assigned a different room for sleeping," he laughed.

Amanda laughed, too.

Nick shrugged, "Christian home, you know." He slid away down the hall to the bedroom he'd been assigned, but paused out side the door. "I'll poke by later." He winked and disappeared into his room.
Chapter Thirty-Eight by Pengi
By the time Nick poked by, Amanda had fallen asleep. He laughed when he saw she'd taken the folded sheet of paper with the crap picture on it out of her jeans pocket and left it under her watch on the night stand. Nick sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed, wishing she'd sense him there and wake-up, but feeling too bad to actually wake her up himself.

She'd fallen asleep writing. A notebook laid under her wrist, her pen having fallen and rolled away across the sheets. Nick picked up the pen so it wouldn't leak on Jackie's bed dressings and tossed it onto the nightstand. He picked up the notebook and was about to close it, when he spotted his name scrawled across the top of the page, underlined; the title of a poem that followed below it.

Feeling a little bit guilty, he started reading it.

Because of the freckles
- laid scattered on your nose -
I know that you are real,
As though these tiny spots of imperfection
- impeccably small, in comparison -
Make it impossible that I have dreamed you.
The imperfect details form you
- make you uniquely you -
Like tell-tale signs God broke you while still in the mold;
Freckles make you infinitely more precious
- priceless, impossible to replace -
Like a flawless diamond not yet refined.

Below the poem, she'd written one more sentence, in a messier hand writing, crooked across the page. This was obviously after she’d started falling asleep… And don't even get me started on the sex.

Nick smiled, feeling pretty full of himself and closed the notebook -- but not before stealing the page. He laid it on the floor by her bag, which was gaping open. He could see her lingerie just inside and snickered. He kissed her cheek softly and got up, headed back to his own room.

Nick woke up early mainly because he could smell bacon. (Note to anyone who may be interested in waking Nick up - cook bacon, it works much better than actually trying to wake him up). He meandered downstairs in his pajamas, following the smell to the kitchen. Brian and Amanda were already seated at the table in the kitchen, eating bacon and scrambled eggs with orange juice.

"I told ya bacon would do the trick mum," Brian hooted when Nick came into the room.

"We knocked like four times," Amanda said as Nick ducked down to kiss her cheek and steal her bacon.

Nick smirked, "I only wake up for pork fat," he said, crunching away on the bacon strip.

"Pork fat it is," Jackie sang, "I'm making a glazed ham for dinner." Nick's mouth could hardly contain the drool that sentence inspired. "So what are you kids up to today?" she asked.

Brian smiled, "I'm going to show Amanda's the horses."

Nick groaned. "I don't wanna look at the horses, they're gonna beat the crap out of me."

"You can stay and help me cook the ham," Jackie teased, winking at Brian.

"Me? Cook?" Nick shook his head, "It's probably safer if I go see the horses."

After they'd eaten, they all changed into jeans and old t-shirts and walked across the grass towards the brown house. About halfway between the two houses ran an old-fashioned country fence. "Uncle Jerald built this fence," Brian said proudly, "He made Kevin and Harold help. I was too young to help, which they resented," he laughed, "But I liked it." Brian climbed up on the fence so that he was standing on the lower rung and whistled loudly, sticking two fingers into his mouth.

Amanda had always wished she could do that.

Nick was a few feet away from the fence. "You're such a baby," Amanda laughed, loving the quirkiness of his fear, as he sat down in the grass at a point he figured was safe. Nick stuck out his tongue.

A few seconds after Brian whistled, a beautiful reddish-brown mare came galloping up to the fence. Brian's face broke out into a smile as she pushed her face into his chest, nearly knocking him off the fence. He stroked her nose. "This is Derby," he said.

"Hey Derby," Amanda grinned, her fingers running over the warm horse's hair. "Oh Derby, you are beautiful," she whispered.

Brian smiled, "C'mon up on the fence, she'll let you ride her if you want."

"Without a saddle?" Amanda's eyes widened.

Brian laughed, "Derby's gentle."

"Gentle like a serial killer," muttered Nick from the grass.

“Here,” Brian cupped his hands together, lacing his fingers, and nodded for Amanda to step up. She laid a hand on his shoulder and put her foot carefully in his hand, almost afraid of breaking him. Apparently Nick thought the same thing because he leaped up and braced her backside. Between the two Boys, they hoisted her up onto Derby’s back. Amanda’s leg swung over the horse and she wrapped her arms around it’s neck.

“Oh, she’s beautiful,” she breathed. Her fingers combed into Derby’s mane, feeling the soft hair glide between them. The horse tossed it’s head gently, making Nick jump back away from the fence again and land on his ass on the ground.

Brian laughed, “You do it to yourself, Nick.”

Derby whinnied. “The horse thinks it’s funny, see?” Nick looked at Amanda. “I’m so serious.”

Brian smiled, “You wanna go for a ride?” he asked Amanda.

“I’m a little afraid without a saddle,” she admitted.

Brian smiled, “I promise, she’s gentle.”

Amanda took a deep breath. “Okay.”

Brian gently smacked Derby’s back and the horse galloped gently across the grass. Amanda’s hair flew out behind her as the horse moved, sleek and smooth, her hooves kicking up grass behind them. The air rushed into Amanda’s face and she felt exhilarated. Amazingly enough, this was more exciting than the free fall had been two days before.

Once Amanda had been carried a little ways away, Brian squinted into the sun. “I didn’t tell them yet.”

“Why?” Nick looked up at him from the grass where he was still sitting.

Brian shrugged. He dropped down off the fence, but stayed by it, picking at it. “I started to, but… They’ve had to go through so much with me already, I’m afraid.”

Nick frowned, “If I told my parents I was dying they’d probably throw a party or somethin’,” he looked up at Bri, “You’re lucky they care so much.”

“They wouldn’t throw a party,” Brian reprimanded him.

They were quiet a few moments, then Nick said, “I’m gonna ask her to move in with me when we get back to LA.” He nodded toward Amanda and the horse.

Brian turned around, “You’re what?”

“I’m gonna ask Amanda to move in with me,” Nick repeated. “I love being around her, and we’re perfect together. Don’t you think we’re perfect together?”

Brian hesitated. “You barely know her,” he said.

“Yeah,” Nick shrugged, “So we’ll get to know each other more.” He squinted up at Brian, “Besides, you’re the one that said I should trust her.”

“I just think you should maybe get to know her more first,” Brian said. “Moving in is a big step.”

Nick laughed, “I just don’t think there’s anything in the world that this woman could tell me that would make me stop loving her. She’s so…” he sighed.

Brian could feel himself wincing. He leaned against the fence, taking deep breaths, trying to will himself not to tell Nick right there. If I tell him, they’ll have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it work, Brian reminded himself.

“Isn’t she great Brian?” Nick asked, grinning at Brian’s back, “I mean, seriously. I’ve really found a good one. After all those other bad news chicks I’ve dated, I finally, finally found one who loves me and gets me and can handle a joke… And she knows I’m not perfect.” He was thinking about the poem.

Brian didn’t want to hear anymore. He whistled for Derby, and the horse turned and started back toward them. She returned to Brian’s hand, her nose nuzzling him. He held out his hand for Amanda and she slid off the horse, a smile the size of Texas plastered to her face.

Brian had finally gone in to tell his parents.

Nick and Amanda lay in the back yard, far away from the house, in a field of sunflowers. The sunflowers were towering over them, stretching away into the sky. They were six feet tall, even Nick could only barely see over the tops of them standing up. They were wrapped around their stems in strange positions.

“This is what it would be like to be an ant,” Nick laughed.

Amanda giggled, “I love your imagination,” she said.

Nick grinned, “It’s cos I’m ADHD you know,” he said laughing.

“I don’t care, I love it. And I love you.”

Somewhere in the distance, a rumble of thunder rolled off the hills.

“I love you, too.” Nick rolled over onto his stomach and looked at her. Why wait ‘til LA? he wondered. “Amanda?”

“Hmmm?” she’d closed her eyes.

“When we get back to LA…”

“Yeah?” Amanda sat up, looking at Nick.

“Will you move in with me?” he asked.

Amanda could hear her heart pounding in her neck. “Move in with you?” she stuttered. “What do you mean?”

“I mean my stuff’s your stuff, its our stuff, cos we both live there.” Nick could hear the nervous in his own voice and, afraid he sounded stupid, quickly said, “If you don’t wanna…”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Amanda assured him. “God, no, more than anything else in the world, I want to live with you so I can be with you every single day of my life. But—“ she paused. “Nick, there’s something you need to know about first.”

“What is it?”

But she didn’t get the words out, yet again, as torrential rain began to fall. She screamed as it poured through the tall flowers, and struggled to her feet as the ground beneath her became instant mud. Nick, too, leaped up, laughing and holding his hands up to the sky, “Shit that’s cold!” he yelped. “C’mon.” He took her hand and started pulling her toward the house.

As they bolted across the large field, Amanda could feel her t-shirt clinging to her body. Her hair matted to the back of her neck and she was even wetter than she would’ve been having just taken a shower. The air around them seemed white from the rain. She felt blind. She reached out her hand for Nick, but couldn’t find him. It was raining so hard that she had no idea which way the house was. She started to panic.

Then Nick appeared out of the rain, his shirt and jeans plastered to him, too, a sultry look in his eyes. It was like an updated version of the Quit Playing Games video – and this time it was not cheesy. He grabbed her, pulled her to him, their thin-from-the-water shirts provided basically no separation and she could feel the definition of his chest and abs against her.,

He smirked. “It’s raining a little,” he laughed.

“Just a little,” she agreed.

Neither of them could keep their eyes open. The rain kept falling into it. Amanda felt like a newborn kitten with the hazy eyes. She blinked up at him. “Actually its more like tsunami of the sky or something,” he laughed.

“I do kind of feel like I’m drowning,” she admitted.

Another roll of thunder echoed across the sky, and the rain was suddenly alight with a flash of lightening. Nick looked up, “Shit, we’re gonna end up electrocuted or something,” he laughed. “C’mon.” He took her hand this time, their fingers locked firmly together, and ran through the rain.

Only dense shapes were visible because of the way they had to squint in it, but soon they’d come up to the house. The barn door was slamming open and closed to their right, and the ducks could be heard quacking loudly, panicking because of the storm. Nick ran for the barn instead of the house, ducks and all, and Amanda followed him. Once they’d stepped out of the rain, Nick pulled the barn doors closed and slid the latch across them to keep them closed, locking them from the inside.

The ducks scattered away at the velocity of their entrance, running into a couple of the empty horse stalls, honking and quacking all the way. Nick turned to Amanda and shook like a dog, sending water flying in every direction. She just stood there, feeling heavy, waterlogged, and cold. Nick laughed, “Aw, you’re soaked. C’mere.” He stepped closer to her and reached for her shirt, “Let’s get this wet stuff off you.” He winked.

Amanda laughed, “What if they come out here?” she asked.

“Through the frickin’ typhoon?” Nick pointed at the window – the rain was still pouring just as hard as it had been before.

He pulled his own shirt off and laid it over a saw horse, then kicked off his sneakers, which had started sloshing as they filled with water. Amanda kicked her shoes off, too, though they hadn’t been sloshing. Nick had made her pick a really good pair. He turned to her. “There’s some hay over there,” he pointed, “We could use it.”

Amanda laughed, “You wanna romp in the hay?”

Nick smirked, “Uh-huh…” His hands flew to the bottom of her shirt again, “I wanna have sex on it, too,” he said, his voice again low and sultry.

Amanda laughed, “That’s what romp in the hay means.”

Nick kissed her neck softly, “I was being cute,” he said.

“In that case, it worked,” she whispered.

He pulled her shirt off and laid it over the saw horse next to his, then kicked off his soaking wet jeans. He stood there in just boxers while she struggled with the button of her own jeans. He stepped over, “Troubles, bubbles?” he asked. She giggled. He reached down and undid the button himself. She stepped out of the jeans and laid them across the saw horse, too. She was painfully aware of being in just underwear, and of a donkey peering over his corral at them.

Nick scooped her up into his arms fireman style and carried her into an empty stall, where a pile of hay was leaning against the wall. A pitchfork stuck out of one side of it. Nick lay Amanda into the hay and lifted the pitchfork, putting it into the next corral. “That didn’t seem like a good idea to keep that there,” he explained.

“You’d probably stab yourself with it,” Amanda laughed, “Imagine that emergency room trip? ‘I got stabbed with a pitchfork while having a romp in the hay’?”

Nick laughed, “That’s almost as bad as the 4-hour erection.”

“What?” she laughed, “You didn’t.”

I didn’t,” Nick laughed, “I’ve never taken that crap. But…” he smirked, “AJ wanted to see if it was a high once, a long time ago, and he took it without planning to have sex or anything and I mean…” Nick paused, “This is really not a story for foreplay,” he laughed.

Amanda laughed and reached up, wrapping her arms around his neck, “Well, I definitely wanna hear it later.”

Chapter Thirty-Nine by Pengi
"Mum? Pop? Can I talk to you?"

Brian's parents were in the kitchen. His mom was using a brush to paint a honey glaze over the ham, leaning over the open oven in an apron and slippers. His dad was picking at the green beans that were sizzling in the pan on the stove. His mom stood up, swatted his dad's hand, and closed the oven door. She adjusted a timer, then turned to her son. "Of course you can, Baby Duck," she said, pulling off the oven mitts she'd had on.

His dad had sat down in a chair at the kitchen table, and Brian pulled one out for his mom. "It's kind of..." he looked at her and he could feel his heart breaking already. "You need to sit."

Both their eyes softened and his mom's became fearful. "Brian, honey, what is it?" she hadn't sat yet. She was taking off the apron.

"Please, come sit down," he said quietly.

She put the apron down and came over, sitting slowly, hesitantly, knowing once she'd sat she was going to hear something irreversible and horrible. "What's the matter?" his dad asked, sitting forward in his seat.

Brian couldn't sit. He started wringing his hands. "G'Lord, I didn't want to tell y'all over the phone, you know?" he asked, pacing. "I wanted you to hear it from me, not Kevin or a doctor--"

"A doctor?" his dad's eyes narrowed, "What doctor?"

His mother started to stand up, "It's not your heart? Oh my Baby Duck, not again?"

Brian took her hand and made her sit back down again. He looked at her hand, it was older than he'd ever remembered it being. The skin hung loose, and there were wrinkles that he'd never seen before. It had been too long since he'd been home to Kentucky. He looked into her eyes. "It's not my heart, mum."

Somehow the words brought no relief to the tension.

"What is it, son?" his dad asked.

It was the moment of truth. Brian took a deep, shaking breath. "I have leukemia," he said quietly.

Both of his parents were speechless, staring at him with horrified, shocked expressions. "That's cancer," his mother mumbled after a moment, "My baby's got cancer." She looked at her husband.

Brian's dad leaned forward and laid his hand on her back and started rubbing to soothe her. "How long have you known, son?"

"The night we cancelled the tour."

His mother cupped her face with her hands, "But you're getting treatment, right? They're helping you. You can beat it?"

Brian turned and walked to the counter, leaning against it for support. "I... opted to forego treatment..." he said.

His mother burst into sobs, his father took a long shaking breath. The family was not a stranger to these words, Brian's uncle had once said them as well. They knew what opting out of treatment for cancer meant.

"Not my Baby Duck," Jackie cried, "Please not my Baby Duck. Lord, why my baby?"

Brian closed his eyes, his heart swelling in his chest. "I saw a doctor in Colorado," he said quietly, "And I haven't...told anyone this...but he said -" Brian paused. "He said the prognosis is..." he took a deep breath, "It's bad, ma."

"How long?" his father asked, his jaw set boldly. His arms were around his wife protectively as she fell apart.

"Couple months," Brian answered. He hadn't told Nick or Amanda or anyone what the doctor had said that night. But when he refused the treatment again, when he walked away, he'd known it was to two or three months.

He'd lost three somewhere along the way to Boulder. Probably in the rapids, getting sick had worn his body down. He'd been feeling worse and worse since, and he'd been coughing and throwing up blood - something else that he hadn't told anyone, though he was fairly certain that Amanda knew. It hurts all the time.

His mother stood up, and wrapped her arms around him in a bone-crushing hug. "Oh my baby," she muttered into his shoulder, burying her face against him. His dad joined them, standing beside them, and tucking his long arms around them both. "My baby, my baby..."
Chapter Forty by Pengi
Dinner was very quiet that night. Nick and Amanda had come in after the rain stopped to find the entire Littrell family standing together in the kitchen still. They'd broken apart long enough only for Jackie to call Brian's brother, Harold, who drove over immediately to see Brian. When the ham was finished cooking, Jackie had half-heartedly put together potato salad and thrown some corn on the cob in to boil, but by the time dinner had arrived they were hardly hungry at all.

Brian was seated beside Jackie, who clung to him like he was about to evaporate before her eyes. She kept her arms wrapped around his frame, telling him to eat more green beans, that they were healthy for him, and pressing her face into his shoulder, muttering incoherent prayers under her breath. Brian's eyes were distant, his mind reeling deep in thought. His father kept patting his mom on the hand in a comforting manner.

Nick plucked a piece of straw out of Amanda's hair and silently laid it on the napkin beside her plate, not even that caused a smile to crack the gloominess of his countenance. He'd been worried about the stop in Lexington, about how Brian's parents would handle the news. He knew it would be the hardest stop on the whole trip - apart from the last stop, when he returned to Los Angeles, and left Brian with his wife and son. That, Nick had realized long ago, could very well be the last time he ever saw Brian alive.

Thinking of that moment made him ache. He grabbed Amanda's hand under the table and squeezed it, glad she was there. She looked at him with sad eyes. He was so thankful that Amanda was there, that she would be with him when they left Brian behind.

Brian had been right in the beginning when he said that Nick needed another person to share the experiences they were having on the road trip with him. You'll need someone to look back on this with, Brian had said, Once I'm gone, you'll need someone who was there. Having Amanda was like a blessing that Nick couldn't have imagined. She was rapidly becoming everything to him... he loved her so deeply that he sometimes thought his heart might explode with it.

Harold was the one that broke the silence after the food had all been eaten and they were sitting around the table, looking at each other awkwardly. "So, tell us about your road trip," he said.

Brian's eyes lit up, "Oh it's been amazing. Nick's done a wonderful job with planning it."

Nick reddened, "Nah..."

"No you have, Nick," Amanda piped up, "It's been unbelievable."

Harold smiled, "I saw on Pop Stuff you've been to the canyon and ballooning and rafting..." he shook his head, "That's amazing."

"We skydived, too," Brian announced, laughing heartily at their shocked expressions.

"You jumped out of a plane?!" cried Jackie, "In your condition? Oh g'Lord!" Amanda laughed, seeing where Brian had learned the expression.

Brian smiled, "It was great, ma! I got to see all of Nebraska under my feet!"

Harold's eyes were aglow, "What was the water rafting like?"

"Crazy!" Brian answered, "Harold, you'd love it. You and Kevin should go together sometime, you'd both love it. Seriously. When Mason's older..."

They talked for several more hours about the experiences they'd had. Harold was full of questions and Jackie and Harold Sr. responded appropriately to the stories, their eyes widening and Jackie gasping and laughing. They spent several uproarious moments listening to the stories about Nick with his 'mountain lion' and ripping up the police officer's tickets. "You should've heard it, ma," Brian was wheezing, "'About that.. can you come bail me out?' What a way to break the news!"

Nick cracked up, "It's better than what I did to poor Kevin the last time I got arrested..."

"What'd you do?" Amanda asked, having never heard the story.

Nick turned scarlet, sorry he'd mentioned it. Brian laughed, "He left a voice mail on his cell phone. 'Kevin I'm in jail and the cops yelled at me. Come get me, k'bye, thanks'."

"I was high," Nick whispered, laughing. "Which is why I was arrested..."

"Kevin still has it on his phone," Brian laughed, "He says he's never deleting it because it's blackmail."

Nick shrugged, "It won't get him much, everyone in the world has heard the story practically anyways," he laughed, winking at Amanda.

Eventually, though, it came time for the party to break up as the little hours started creeping up on them. Harold had to go home - his own wife and kids were waiting for him - and Brian went out to his car with him to say good-bye. They were gone for quite a while.

Nick and Amanda helped clear the dishes and food off the table, packing it up in Jackie's tupperware bowls and balancing it precariously in an extremely over-packed fridge. It was while they were loading the dish washer that Jackie came into the kitchen and pulled Nick aside.

"Now you listen here, Carter," she said, her chest puffed up and a determined look on her face, "Just because Brian's--" she paused, not wanting to say the word dying, "-- doesn't mean you can't come around here anymore. You got it?"

Nick smiled, "Thanks mum," he answered, smiling and planting a kiss on her pudgy little cheek. He hugged her.

"I mean it you," she said, spanking him gently, "I'm already losing one son, I don't need to lose any others." Jackie wrapped her arms around Nick's waist. "Please."

"I will visit, and call, all the time," he promised.

Harold stood by the car, staring down at his feet. "You know, I was always jealous of you," he said quietly. "Even when you were little and you were stuck up in St. Joseph's, but especially since you've been in the band and all..." Harold sighed.

Brian smiled, "I'm really lucky," he admitted, "But so are you."

Harold nodded, "I am." He paused, "You've been a great brother, Brian. A pain in the ass sometimes, but a great one."

Brian smirked, "I'll always be your pain in the ass, Harold."

"People live through this stuff all the time you know," he said carefully, not looking into Brian's eyes, but somewhere to the left of his face, into the distance. "They wake up one day cured or they just live with it. Don't give up, little bro, okay?"

Brian nodded, but he already knew that wasn't going to happen for him. "I won't give up," he told Harold. "And hey... even if I do leave, it's not like it's good bye forever, right?"

"Hell no," Harold smiled, his eyes finally connecting with Brian's, "I mean... Of course not. What an awkward thing to have said 'hell no' about." They both laughed. Then Harold shook his head, "Christ, Bri, if I had even a portion of your faith... I can't believe you're strong enough to stand here and talk about death so calmly. When the hell did you get to be so strong?"

"I've always been strong," Brian answered, smirking.

"Oh is that so?" Harold asked, "C'mon, let's go... right here... throw down the gloves..." he hulked into a tsumo wrestler stance. Brian cracked up - they'd wrestled so often as little boys on this very spot in the drive way it was incredible.

Brian waved him off, "eh.. I don't want to hurt you or anything."

"Fair," Harold smiled. "Well, I gotta get home."

Brian nodded, "So do I."

Harold's eyes suddenly filled with tears, and he quickly embraced his brother, "Don't you go dying before I can get down there to see you, okay? I want to see you again. Better. When I have more time."

"I'll do my best," Brian answered, hugging him back.

"Where are we going next?" Amanda asked Nick that night as they were sitting in the bedroom, drawing again.

Nick laughed, "Have I ever answered that question when you ask it?"
Chapter Forty-One by Pengi
"I should've known we couldn't drive through Chattanooga without you stopping at the aquarium," Brian said as Nick started bouncing in the passenger seat in excitement as they passed a sign saying they were only 3 miles away from the Tennessee Aquarium.

"We're almost there - almost there - almost there!" sang Nick loudly, like a little child. He was clutching his digital camera, a huge grin on his face, poised as though the moment the Hummer came to a stop he was going to run out the door.

Amanda laughed, "Oh my gosh are you in your thirties or your tweens?" she asked teasing him, leaning forward between the two seats, "I swear you're five."

Nick let out a weird, barking laugh, "Just you wait til you see what we're gonna dooo!"

The Hummer pulled up to the impressive looking building, which was flooded with people. Two school buses were pulled up to the entrance way and children (who were acting much calmer than Nick, who had literally begun squealing when they got in the parking lot) were pouring out onto the sidewalk. Brian drove around until they found a parking spot - way across the lot from the building. "And of course we have to park in East Cupcake," Brian laughed, rolling his eyes as Nick literally flung the door opened and leaped out of the Hummer. "G'Lord, that boy's going to drive me insane before the day's over."

"He's a little nuts about the fish," Amanda observed.

Nick was hopping from one foot to the other at the front of the hummer, calling, "C'moooon you guyssss! Hurrrryyyyy! I wanna see the fish!!"

Brian glanced over his shoulder at Amanda, "A little nuts?"

Nick kept glancing at his watch as they walked across the parking lot to the doors. Brian started to get in line for tickets behind the two school buses worth of kids, but Nick shook his head, "No, no, that's not where we gotta be. C'mon." He led the way through the doors and to the front desk, where he held a hushed conversation with the receptionist who gasped, nodded, and pointed. "Thanks!" Nick waved for Brian and Amanda to follow him as he raced down a corridor that was painted two shades of blue to look like ocean waves. A random orange fish shape was plastered here or there with the aquarium's logo in the center of it.

They reached a door at the end of the corridor, having passed two large fish tanks with turtles that peered at them curiously. Nick had paused momentarily to look at them, but then bolted down the hall once again, seemingly extra energized at the sight of the sea creatures.

"Is he always like this around fish?" Amanda asked.

"You should see him at Seaworld with the dolphins," Brian said, laughing. "Though if ya'll continue the trip, I'm sure you'll be at Seaworld eventually. There's no way in Hell Nick would've planned a road trip without Seaworld." Brian laughed, "Nick barely plans a weekend without Seaworld."

Nick was rapping on a door marked Employees Only. Amanda started to get a feeling she had an inkling of what their day was about to include.

A girl with bright red hair and green eyes, who was probably twenty or so, opened the door and beamed at Nick. "Hey! You made it!" she gave him a hug, then turned to Brian and Amanda. "Brian!" she rushed over and gave him a hug, too. Amanda felt third wheel.

"Amanda, this is Jess," Nick explained, "Jess, this is Amanda."

"Hey Amanda, it's so cool to meet you, I've seen a lot about your trip online," she beamed, "So awesome you included the aquarium on your way through!"

Nick was practically ready to pee his pants, "Can we go now? Huh? Please?"

"The tank's last," she said apologetically, "You just missed morning feeding. You'll have to wait for afternoon. We're on our way down to the penguins right now... c'mon in, we'll get you geared up."

Brian leaned over to whisper in Amanda's ear, "Jess was one of our dancers on the This is Us tour. She left to get a degree in Marine Biology."

"Ah, so that's how you guys know her," she said, feeling better that it wasn't like a sweetheart of Nick's or something.

Brian laughed, "Yeah. She's really bendy," he added, "She was some kind of championship gymnast as a kid or something."

As long as she didn't ever date Nick I'm fine, Amanda thought, Like I could ever follow up a gymnast in bed, jeez.

Jess dug out some huge rubber pants and gloves, which she handed around to the three of them, keeping a set for herself. "There are the get ups," she pointed to a fleet of rolling coolers, "And there's the fish."

Nick was already half into his gear before Brian and Amanda had even realized they were expected to get it on now. Jess gave them each a cooler to pull along behind them, and they headed off through the aquarium. Jess stopped at an employee breakroom for a moment, and returned with three bright yellow hats with the aquarium logo on it. "Here ya go," she said, handing them each one, "Employee hats." She pulled her own on, and they continued onward.

The school buses full of little kids were just starting to pour into the entrance as they went by it. Several of the children gawked up at them as they walked by, pulling along the fish coolers. One little boy pointed at Brian and whispered, "Look, he works for the aquarium!" he muttered in a reverent voice.

Brian laughed and whispered to Amanda, "And to think I haven't quit being a Backstreet Boy to do this full time! What am I thinking?"

Jess led them into another door marked "Employees Only" and inside this one was an elevator. It was a funny looking elevator, though, with a grate for a bottom. Jess held the door as they all rolled their coolers in and stood there. "Okay so I'm going to warn you now, this is going to feel kind of weird - the floor submerges."

"Submerges?" Amanda asked.

"Yup, we're actually going down into the penguin tank now," she explained, "See the penguins are sub level, the people stand at a rail above and look down at the tank. We're coming in through the south entrance, in the Rock Hopper colony. The elevator will submerge about waist deep in water, and the doors will open to the entrance cage, which we use so the penguins don't get stuck under the elevator." Jess smiled and hit the button that made the descent begin.

The water rushing up from the floor was such a weird feeling, Amanda was reminded of the scene in Titanic when Jack and Rose take a lift into the lower decks and the elevator fills with water. Part of her wanted to panic. She clung to Nick, watching it rise around her, and he laughed, smiling at her.

Just as Jess had described, the doors opened to a cage large enough for them all to climb out into. A little black and white bird with an orange tuft of hair on his head was standing expectantly on a rock just outside the cage, watching them. "He knows it was feeding time," Jess explained.

Nick was grinning. "I love penguins."

"Ok, let me get this straight," Amanda whispered, "You love penguins, but hate ducks?"

"Ducks bite," Nick said with a shrug, "Penguins are just sexy little bastards." He pointed, "See? Look at that. He looks like he's got a little tux on."

The penguin looked at them. "Gork," he said. Jess opened up the cage door and led the way out into the tank, rolling the coolers along behind them. As soon as they were out of the cage, the penguin jumped into the water and started swarming around their legs, darting between them and pecking at the coolers. Brian laughed.

One by one, all the penguins started coming over. People were laughing and pointing from the railings up above as the birds got excited about their lunch. Jess led the way to a rock that was built with a ramp that led up out of the water. She pulled her cooler up that ramp, "Leave yours down there guys and come on up."

They followed her up onto the rock, and were immediately followed by 20-30 of the little birds. Jess motioned to the cooler, "Go ahead, one of you can start feeding them the fish."

"Me!!" Nick cried, leaping forward. He flung the cooler open and the little birds quickly swarmed around his feet, grabbing at the rubber pant legs and gorking loudly, flapping their wings and their little feet, dancing side to side.

Brian laughed, "Aw, it's just like Mr. Popper's Penguins!" Amanda laughed, watching as Nick was mauled as he lifted up a fish. "Or trying to leave a concert venue," Brian shrugged.

"Ah!" Nick cried. One penguin had climbed it's way into the cooler and was flapping, jumping on the fish trying to get at the one he was holding up over his head. "Dumbass," he said to that penguin, "You're standing on a crap ton of fish and you want this one?" He threw it into the water and about ten penguins threw themselves over the edge of the rock, like synchronized swimmers.

The one in the cooler was still hopping up and down, flapping his wings, so Nick picked a fish up from under him and slid it into his mouth. The penguin swallowed it so fast he barely had time to taste it, then flipped over the edge of the cooler, into the water below.

He picked up an armful of the fish and chucked them into the water, "There ya go birds," he called as they all flocked around the fish.

The day went by so quickly, Amanda couldn't believe it was almost over already as Jess was leading them up a long spiral staircase to the room over the huge central tank that housed all the fish.

They'd fed five different kinds of penguins - including little tiny ones that were about three inches tall, and they'd visited with some seals who did tricks and painted them pictures, clutching the paint brushes in their mouths. They'd patted a 103 year old sea turtle, whose back was covered with barnacles, and touched a ray, who had decided he liked Amanda because he kept jumping every time she touched him. Jess had laughed and said it was a sort of mating thing - he liked the way she touched him. ("Yeah well, get in line, bucko," Nick had said to the ray, sticking out his tongue.) They'd even gotten to play with a baby orca whale, who had been brought to the aquarium for a rehabilitation program after breaking one of its fins during a hurricane. Nick had stroked the whale's stubby nose and it had reared up and pressed it's face against his cheek like it was kissing him.

Now, they had just been given a crash course in scuba diving (or Brian an Amanda had anyway, Nick had been correcting things that Jess said wrong about the art of diving, like a know-it-all kid in class), and brought into the central tank to see the sharks and tropical ocean fish.

Amanda felt like she was naked in the form-fitting wet suit. Her hair was pulled back into a really tight bun, and a pair of goggles hung around her neck. At the top, Jess helped them all pull on heavy air tanks and got them acquainted to the feeling of the mouth pieces blowing the oxygen into their lungs. Brian was reminded of the O2 machine at the hospital.

Nick waddled over to Amanda, who was getting flippers put onto her feet, his flippers already on, and kissed her cheek. "You're sexy in that outfit," he said, grinning.

Amanda laughed, "You just think that because we're about to see the fish."

"The fish are sexy, too, but you're sexier." He took her hand in his and grinned, looking in the direction of the tank - which from this angle looked like a giant in-ground pool. "Maybe I can certify you and I can take you out to see the corals in Australia sometime." He said it like Australia was in the backyard.

Amanda laughed, "See how this goes first," she instructed him.

Brian waddled over and struck a pose, "Does this suit make me look fat?" he asked in a valley girl voice, which reminded Amanda of Paris Hilton. Brian was tilting his hip toward them all sexy-like.

Amanda burst out laughing, but Nick jumped up and said, "Uh, like yeah - totally! Does mine?"

Brian clucked his lips - much as his mom had done at Amanda's ankles - and shook his head, "Like oh my God, don't they make these in like better colors? Black is so last season!"

"Are you three ready to go?" Jess called, laughing from the ladder that led into the tank, "Or are you going to stand there being strange all night?"

Brian looked at Amanda, and, still in the Valley voice, said, "Are you coming or what girlfriend?" Amanda laughed and joined him and Nick at the side of the tank, not entirely sure what she was about to get herself into.
Chapter Forty-Two by Pengi
The tank was like another world, and once she was submerged in it Amanda completely understood Nick's excitement... and she knew that, if she was given the chance, she would definitely take Nick up on that offer to explore the reef in Australia.

Everything seemed blue in this other world, and peaceful. The water made time seem slower, and the sound of her breath on the oxygen tank, although it reminded her a little of Darth Vader, was relaxing and comforting, like being reminded that she was alive.

The fish clustered around them - the smaller ones, anyway - interested in what they were at first, giving little love nibbles on the wet suits and their finger tips. Amanda saw some that reminded her of Marlin and Dory and started humming just keep swimming, just keep swimming in her head as she followed Jess, Brian and Nick downward, deeper into the tank.

The tank was built to look like a natural ocean habitat, with plastic coral and real coral that had been rehabilitated and grown there mixed in. Little creatures were everywhere, with funny bodies that glided and swam along. Amanda was in amazement every time she looked a different direction. Giant yellow fish passed within inches of her face, blowing bubbles into the water. A crab scuttled by below her on one of the rocks, clicking his claws at her. She felt like a mermaid with the flippers.

Brian pointed at a big fish with a funny shaped head, that looked sort of like a character on Fraggle Rock. Brian's eyes crinkled in his goggles and bubbles escaped around the mouth piece of his oxygen tank as he laughed.

At one point Nick swam up beside Amanda and wrapped his arms around her, grinning. He took her hand and pulled her around a large rock, where there was a huge grey shark. His gills flexed as he breathed in the water, his yellow eyes darting around at all the littler fish around him. Nick pointed at the shark and grinned. Amanda felt a little afraid the thing was about to snap Nick's arm off, but Nick seemed okay with it even if it did, he was too enthusiastic that the shark was there. Luckily, the shark didn't seem interested in snacking on Nick.

Amanda's favorite moment, by far, was when they were down at the bottom near the sand that lined the tank, and a tiny purple sea dragon came out from a cave in the rocks, dancing through the water, a yellow fin on his back quivering as he moved. She reached out a hand and the little sea dragon spun around it enthusiastically like something out of The Little Mermaid.

They explored all over the inside of the tank, touching the fish and waving at people watching from outside in the viewing areas. Jess picked up a sea urchin and laid it gently in Brian's hands. It felt prickly, like he imagined a porcupine would feel, and he decided that from now on he'd called sea urchins 'sea porcupines' instead. Not that he'd referred to sea urchins often, but if he ever got the chance to again, he was going to call it a sea porcupine.

Nick and Amanda were floating somewhere in the middle of the tank when a school of brightly colored fish swam around them. It was like being in a storm of confetti, and Amanda's eyes glimmered with excitement watching them all swim around her. Nick tapped her to get her attention, and pointed at his goggles winking one of his eyes, his heart, and then at her. She smiled and repeated the motion, ending it by holding up two fingers. He laughed, sending bubbles around the mouth piece he clutched in his mouth.

In the Hummer, on the way to the hotel Nick had booked for them, they were all chattering excitedly about the things they'd seen at the aquarium. It had been a beautiful day, and Amanda was sad to see it over. With a pumping sensation, nostalgia flushed over her as she realized that this had been the last stop before Brian's house in Marietta. The trip was almost over.

The hotel was a lot nicer than the one in Omaha. It had two rooms, a kitchen, and a big jacuzzi on an elevated platform by a huge picture glass window, overlooking the lights of the city below. Even though they'd spent the whole day in the water at the aquarium, the first thing they did was order champagne with strawberries from the room service, and turn the jacuzzi on.

The hot water felt so good on Amanda's back, which kind of ached from all the swimming and walking they'd done all day. A jet was pressing right into her spine and she closed her eyes, sure she was in heaven. "Oh fuck yeah," whispered Nick as he lowered himself into the heat, too. Brian was sitting on the side, his legs hanging into the water, kicking lightly, letting the jet streams catch his feet. He was munching on a strawberry.

"This is amazing," said Amanda, "This whole day's been amazing, actually." She looked at Nick, "I have to hand it to you, the fish were great."

Nick beamed.

"I liked the penguins," Brian said, "And the seals. Baylee's going to love it when I tell him that beach ball painting was done by a seal!" He smiled sadly, "Nick, someday you should bring Baylee here for me, okay?"

"Okay," Nick agreed, smiling, "It'll be fun."

They sat in silence as the implication of Brian's request sunk in a little bit, the unspoken purpose being that Brian wouldn't be there to take him to the aquarium himself. Nick ducked under the water, letting a jet run into the back of his neck, hoping to relieve some of the sudden stress that had built up there.

Brian looked at Amanda, "You need to tell him," he said quietly, "Tonight."

Nick popped back up and shook his head out, the water going every which way. Amanda hadn't eve had time to respond to Brian. Her heart started pumping up in her throat somewhere. Even though they were under water, she could feel her hands go clammy.

Brian stood up, shaking his legs off, and pulling a towel off a small rack beside him. He rubbed them down. "I'm going to go to bed, I think," he said, "We're driving to Marietta tomorrow and... I want to be awake and refreshed to see my wife and son."

Amanda's stomach turned to knots. He wanted her to tell Nick right now. She could tell the way he looked at her as he dried off, expectantly. She nodded.

Brian tossed the towel down in a corner, "See ya'll in the morning," he said, and padded off across the hotel room to one of the two doors to the bedrooms.

"Night Brian," Amanda and Nick chorused. He disappeared inside.

Nick held his breath and went under the water again. Amanda was panicking. How could she even word it? In all the times that she'd started to tell him, the actual sounds of the words had never crossed her mind. Nick, I'm a journalist. I work for Pop Stuff Online.... Nick, I'm sorry, I've lied to you.... Nick, I love you, but you need to know that I'm secretly a member of the paparazzi that you hate so much.... "Pa-pa, pa-pa, paparazzi". Somehow, Lady Gaga was definitely not the way to go.

Nick came back up, smiling at Amanda. "Are you having fun so far on the trip?" he asked.

She nodded, "Yes, I love it."

Nick beamed. "Aren't you glad you came?"

"Yes," she answered. Tell him! Tell him! her heart screamed.

Nick inched closer to her, kissing her neck softly. The tension in her body surged through her like electricity. He nuzzled her, his nose tickling her temple. "You're so tense, baby, why?" he asked.

"Nick, I need to tell you something," Amanda's voice was choked.

He pulled back from her neck, his eyes curious and a little frightened. "What's the matter?" he asked. He was kneeling on the seat in the jacuzzi beside her.

Amanda took a deep breath. "I'm a writer," she said quietly, trying to decide how to word the confession.

"I know," Nick said, nodding.

The sentence surprised her, "What?" she asked.

Nick smiled, "I know you're a writer. I've seen what you write."

Amanda blinked in surprise. "You- all this time you-" she stammered, "You've known?"

Nick laughed, "Well you told me the first time we met that you were a writer, remember? But I don't think your poems are crappy... You said they were crappy the first time we talked..." he paused, "I think your poems are really nice."

"My... my poems?" Amanda asked, confused.

"Yeah," Nick blushed, "The other night in Kentucky, I kinda-sorta stole one you'd been working on out of your notebook, but it's really good, I love it. Really. You're a good writer."

Amanda's mind raced, trying to wrap around what he was saying. He meant her silly poems, he had no idea she meant that she was a reporter. He was thinking of poems about freckles - which she'd wondered where that page went, by the way - not about Pop Stuff Online.

"Nick," she tried to start again, but he only smiled and interrupted her.

"You should submit your stuff to publishers. Maybe ones your dad doesn't own, maybe having the same last name as him will make them take your entries more seriously, you know?"

"Nick, that wasn't exactly what I meant by writing," she said, but he was off on a tangent now.

"You could, like, produce your own anthology of poems, you know? And people all over the world could read'em. You're so talented, baby. Then you wouldn't have to work for your dad anymore, doing all his crap grunt work, picking up shit for publishers and stuff," he rolled his eyes, "So ridiculous. You're a great writer."

Tears sprang into Amanda's eyes.

"Really, you are," Nick said, "I'd read anything you wrote."

The irony of his kind words made her heart swell and the tears fall down.

"Manda? What's wrong?" Nick reached out a hand gently, touching her shoulder as she covered her eyes and gasps came out of her mouth. She hated how, when she got really emotional, she started sounding like a seal. Now he looked truly worried, "Baby? Baby, I didn't mean to make you cry... What'sa matter?"

"It's not you," she cried, "It's me."

"You made you cry?" he asked, confused, inching closer to try to hug her.

"I love you so much," she said, looking at him with tears streaming down her face, "I can't even begin to tell you how much I love you... More than anything in the world..." She was gushing, her heart pounding, her head swimming. The hotel room was a blur around her.

Nick hugged her close to him, her tears pouring into his neck. "It's okay, baby," he whispered, "It's okay..."

"No," she cried, "It's really not okay."

He stroked her back, "Tell me what it is, baby. We can fix it, we can make you happy again. Just say the words."

"I'm so afraid," she whispered, "That you'll never love me again."

Nick looked shocked at this idea, "Amanda, I could never not love you. Ever. No matter what you did or said, ever."

"Ever?" she asked tentatively.

"Ever," he confirmed, promising her. Then, as though he thought that were the end of the conversation, he kissed her and climbed out of the jacuzzi.

Amanda turned and watched as he dried himself off with a towel, too, "Nick, I wasn't finished..." she said slowly.

He paused, standing above her in his swim trunks, the towel around his neck like he was a lifeguard or something, looking down at her. "What is it?"

Amanda stood up. "I haven't... I haven't been completely... honest... with you about everything."

Nick felt as though he'd been quickly dunked into a vat of ice water. "What do you mean?" he asked, the wind very much taken out of his sails. His hands tightened around the towel. "What haven't you been honest about?"

"My dad is Eric Golde, Nick," Amanda said slowly, "He owns like 15 news papers and magazines and news blogs," she said.

"Yeah, Golde publishing," Nick nodded, "You told me about that."

Amanda hesitated. "Golde Publishing puts out a lot of media outlets," she said slowly. "My dad- he owns Pop Stuff."

Nick was hoping his brain would stop working. "What are you saying?" he asked.

Amanda swallowed hard. "Nick, when I first met you... out back at the hotel in LA... I- I was there- I was there for the press junket," she admitted.

Nick stared at her. "You were picking stuff up for one of the publishing companies," he said, repeating what she'd told him that day.

"I was," she conceded, "A story. On you."

Nick blinked rapidly. "A story? But that would mean you're like a reporter or something," he laughed stonily. She nodded slowly. Nick stared at her. Then he turned, suddenly, quickly, on his heels and walked away across the room to the kitchen.

"Nick," Amanda called, climbing out of the jacuzzi. She pulled a towel around her, and hurried after him, slipping on the wet tiled platform stairs and coming down hard on her ass. The step stabbed into her back, cutting her at the bottom of her spine. She could feel blood where it scraped. She let out a gasp of pain, but stood up anyway, hurrying after him. "Nick," she called again.

She was about to follow him into the kitchen when he came back out. The towel was gone, he was six-foot-four of angry, half naked, flexed man flesh at this point. His eyes were livid and dark blue, almost black.

"Nick, what're you --"

"Go home."

"What? Nick, I--"

"I SAID GO HOME," he screamed, throwing a punch into the wall. It broke the wall, and a big hole the size of his fist was left there. He stepped by, further into the hotel room, away from her.

Amanda blinked in surprise, and her voice came out hysterical. "But Nick, I--"

Brian's door opened, and he stood in the door frame, illuminated by the bedside lamp behind him. His eyes were wide when he saw the hole in the wall by his door.

Seeing him there, Nick pointed at Amanda, "Amanda is leaving," he announced to Brian coldly.

"Nick..." it was Brian's turn to try to calm him down, he looked up from the hole in the wall, his expression a little fearful.

"She's a fucking reporter," Nick's words were sharp, venomous. He looked at her again and picked up her duffle bag. He crossed the room quickly and shoved it into her arms so hard she stumbled backwards. "Go the fuck home!"

"How am I supposed to get home?" she asked, tears springing to her eyes.

Nick reached for his jeans and rummaged a moment, looking for his wallet, then cursed when he remembered it was gone. He looked at Brian, "Give me your wallet," he demanded.

Brian disappeared into his room.

Tears were streaming down Amanda's face, "Please, can't I explain to you, Nick, what happened?"

"I don't want to hear it," he hissed, "You fucking lied to me, you made me believe that you loved me."

"I do love you," she sobbed. But he didn't listen.

Brian reappeared with the wallet and Nick took it out of his hand roughly, opened it and took out Brian's cash. He counted it quickly, then shoved it all at Amanda's chest. Most of it fell from her grasp on the floor. There was at least a thousand dollars there, all in fifties and hundreds. It rained around her ankles. "There, now leave," he snapped.

"What's this for?"

"You don't recognize it? It's your fucking payment, whore," Nick yelled. He turned and went into his bedroom, slamming the door so hard the wall shook.

Amanda dropped to the floor with a gut-wrenching wail, the carpet scraping up her bare knees. The money sat around her like confetti and she was sadly reminded of the school of fish, or of the day after Mardi Gras. She'd never sobbed so hard in her life as she hugged her duffle bag, and gasped, unable to draw in air.

Brian knelt down beside her, his hands shaking, and he wrapped his arms around her, not sure what else he could do.
Chapter Forty-Three by Pengi
Brian had waited patiently while Amanda changed out of the wet bathing suit into her pajamas in his room, and he poked his head in to talk to Nick. "I'm going to drive Amanda to the airport," he said slowly.

"Let her take a cab," Nick replied coldly, staring down at his Gameboy.

"Don't you want to know that she gets there okay?" Brian asked, his eyebrows knitting in concern.

"I really don't give a damn," Nick said. He turned off the Gameboy and rolled over so that he was back-to Brian, his chest rising and falling as he breathed.

Brian hesitated, "Well... I'm going to walk her down to the lobby at least."

"Whatever," Nick said.

Brian frowned and closed Nick's door just as Amanda came out of Brian's room. The duffle bag was slung over her shoulder, and she held out the money to Brian. "I don't want your money," she whispered.

He looked at it, and counted off three hundred. "At least let me pay for the plane," he said, handing the wad to her.

Amanda shook her head, "I'll charge it on my company card," she answered, "I'm not a whore." Her voice was shaking, and she wasn't sure she believed her words herself. She felt tears threatening her eyes.

Brian's arms were gentle around Amanda's shoulders as he walked with her to the elevator. They were silent. The scenario playing and replaying in both their minds. Nick's livid face, the glow of his eyes, the sound of the wall breaking... When the elevator door opened, they walked across the lobby slowly. Each step made Amanda's eyes and throat burn with more emotion. She couldn't believe this was it.

When they got to the door, she spotted a cab waiting out front. Brian had called for her. Amanda looked up into his gentle blue eyes, and realized she couldn't speak to say any words. She wondered if she'd ever see him again, and realized just as quickly as the thought went through her mind that no, she probably wouldn't. He was staying in Georgia to die.

"Brian, I-" she gasped.

"Shh," he said. He held out a piece of paper with his cell phone number on it. "When you get back to Los Angeles, call me and let me know that you made it there safely, okay?" Amanda nodded. Brian forced a smile, but she could tell it was hard. His eyes, too, were starting to mist. "I'm sorry," he said, "That it had to end like this." He stuffed his hands into his pockets.

"I'm sorrier," she whispered. "But I got nothing less than what I deserved. In fact, he went too easy on me."

Brian didn't answer. It wasn't a statement he could either confirm or deny. It was just a fact, something that they both knew. He sighed, "I called and there's a flight that leaves in three hours for Los Angeles," he said slowly, "It's a United."

"Thank you Brian," she said.

Brian reached out his arms and wrapped them around her softly one more time. He could feel tears falling from her face onto his neck, and she shook as she started crying.

"I don't know how to say good bye to you," she whispered.

Brian shook his head, "So don't say good bye, just... see ya later... or 'gotta go'." He sang the last part as he often did in interviews, but his voice broke just a little.

Amanda felt her heart swell as he did his familiar little sing-song voice, "But, I'll probably never see you again," she whispered.

He squeezed her extra tight. "Look me up in Heaven." Amanda's tears flowed even harder at this. She didn't want to break the hug, but she felt his arms loosen, felt him back away. "You're gonna miss your flight," he said.

Amanda nodded, numbly, and turned, stumbling toward the cab. Her feet felt like cement, her head a lead balloon. She opened the door to the cab and threw her duffle bag inside on the passenger seat before climbing in herself. "Where to?" the cab asked.

"Airport," she answered.

Amanda unrolled her window to stare at Brian. He was standing there, hands balled into fists, staring back. He looked so small, and pale. Amanda noticed for the first time that he did actually look like he was sick.

As the car started to move, she quickly cupped her hands to her mouth, "Did you find it?" she yelled.

"Find what?" he asked.

"Something beautiful?"

But the cab had moved too quickly, and whatever he had yelled for an answer was drowned out by the sound of the engine and the rushing air.

Brian let himself back into the hotel room and found Nick sitting on a chair looking out a window onto the parking lot. The spot where Brian and Amanda had been standing was below there, and Brian had a feeling Nick had watched them saying good bye.

"Are you okay?" Brian asked carefully.

Nick turned to look at Brian, his face was red and tears were pouring across his face. Nick so rarely cried that the sight rebroke Brian's heart for about the millionth time in the last twenty-four hours. Nick shook his head slowly.

Brian sighed and walked over, pulling up a chair beside Nick's.
Chapter Forty-Four by Pengi
The evening sky was pink and orange as the sun set, but it was still hot out. Brian had called almost two hours ago, so Leighanne knew he was almost there. She was clutching the phone, sitting on the front steps of their steel-blue house, watching the driveway, praying silently for God to bring him to her a little faster.

Baylee was playing on the lawn, in shorts and a t-shirt, running through the sprinklers as they watered the grass. He'd flung off his sandals and his hands were in the air as he ran, shouting happily. Despite his yelling and running, it was Baylee who spotted them first. "Daddy!" he screamed, running across the grass.

Leighanne stood up as the red Hummer pulled into the circular driveway and stopped in the space Brian always stopped in. When the door opened and Brian climbed out of the Hummer, she dropped the phone, her grasp unable to hold it up any longer, her breath short.

Baylee collided with Brian's legs and scrambled up the height of him. His soaking wet clothes leaving dark water stains on Brian's own clothes. He wrapped his arms around his father's neck, smothering his cheeks with kisses and squealing over and over again with excitement. Brian laughed, hugging him tight, not even caring that he was soaked. His heart leaped for joy at the feeling of his little boy in his arms, warm and wiggling.

And then he spotted Leighanne.

"Hold on buddy," he said, lowering Baylee. Leighanne was still standing by the stairs, frozen. "I gotta hug your momma." He stood there, as motionless as she was for just a moment. A fraction of a second. And then they both, simultaneously, broke into a run for each other.

They met in the middle, at the end of the long walk way, at the edge of the lawn. Their arms wrapped around each other and their mouths met. Leighanne's hands tangled into Brian's hair, he clutched her, fingers digging into her back, as though if he let up she might disappear.

Nick watched from the passenger seat of the Hummer. Baylee looked at him, "Hiya Uncle Nick," he said.

"Hey Baylee," Nick answered, his voice raw and scratchy.

"Are you sick, Uncle Nick?" Baylee asked.

Nick shook his head, but then shrugged. "I dunno. I'm okay, though," he added at Baylee's look of concern. Being sick, he suddenly realized, had probably taken on a whole new meaning lately for Baylee. He wasn't sure how much Brian and Leighanne had explained to him.

"Okay," Baylee answered, content with Nick's assurance that he was okay. He rushed off after Brian, and quickly attached himself to his parent's legs.

Nick watched as Brian and Leighanne lifted Baylee up between them, and Brian kissed his son's cheek happily. Baylee let out a shriek of laughter and joy, his eyes squinting with the intensity of the happiness he felt now that his daddy was home. Leighanne looked so relieved, so glad for Brian's presence... The whole scene made Nick's heart ache.

I'll probably never have that, he thought, a little bitter at the happy family, Every time I fall in love, the girl turns out to be a psycho bitch.

Lowering Baylee, Brian turned to look at the Hummer, and beckoned to Nick to follow him as they started going inside. Nick climbed out of the car and slammed the door shut. He stopped to close Brian's door, too, since it had remained opened when he got out, and then headed toward the front door, which they'd left wide open for him behind them. He could hear them laughing happily in the next room, a sound that echoed through the large open foyer of the house. Nick rubbed his arms, feeling a little cold, and followed the sound of a happy family.

Amanda's plane had only been in the air for two hours. She was seated between a business man in a suit and tie, who seemed intent not to notice she was crying by staring at his laptop and blasting rap over his head phones, and an extremely obnoxious high school aged boy who kept turning around to talk to his friends in the row behind them. She'd already used the barf bag twice.

She couldn't get the angry words Nick had said out of her head. The look of revulsion and anger that had flashed in his eyes were like poison to her, but she couldn't stop drinking it. Like a record on repeat, her mind just kept torturing her with the images and sounds of the fight.

The sun was just coming up as they passed over the Rocky Mountains. When the plane was just about in Los Angeles, she pulled her cell phone out and hit the first speed dial - which connected her to her father's office. She'd made a promise to herself, and in her heart to Nick, that it would be the first thing she did when she got to California.

"Golde Publishing, Eric Golde's office," came the honey-sweet voice of the current twenty-year old her father had working as his secretary, "Annette speaking."

"Hello Annette, this is Amanda Golde, Eric's daughter. I'd like to make an appointment to see him in about two hours," she said.

Annette sounded like she should be popping gum bubbles and watching the Care Bears. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice carrying a giggle, "Mr. Golde is busy all day."

"I'm sure he is," Amanda said, rolling her eyes, "But this is urgent. Tell him it's about the big story he's got me working on. Tell him I'm done with it." She figured the wording would get his attention.

Annette covered the mouthpiece of the receiver with her hand and Amanda could hear muffled talking in the background. Annette returned to the phone a moment later, "He says he can make room for you. I'll pencil you down for nine-thirty, m'kay?" she asked.

"M'kay," Amanda answered, repeating Annette's obnoxious tone. She hung up and leaned back against the chair, closing her eyes. She did not feel like facing her father today, after the horribleness of the fight with Nick, but she'd promised.

Two hours later, Amanda was sitting nervously outside her father's office. Annette was sitting behind her desk, a little blonde pixie of a thing with too much cleavage showing, staring at Amanda from behind her iMac. At nine-thirty, on the dot, Annette stood up. "Mr. Golde will see you now," she said.

Amanda walked into her father's office, feeling overwhelmed and tiny as she always had. His office looked more like a rich man's library, with heavy volumes of books and magazines lining the walls all around him on dark mahogany shelves. He had one of those green shaded lamps with the little gold pull switch and pens engraved with his name.

Eric Golde was a little guy, short but heavy. He wore a cream colored button up shirt with brown slacks and suspenders. A manuscript sat in front of him, and he was highlighting words in it, scratching out sentences and paragraphs and grumbling to himself, "Bullshit, complete bullshit." Tearing apart another person's life work was what he did everyday.

He didn't even look up as she crossed the room, limping slightly, the cut on her back aching more and more, still carrying her duffle bag, wearing pajamas, her eyes blood shot, and her hair sticking out in odd angles. "Hello Daddy," she said.

He grunted.

"I'm here about the story," she said.

This got his attention. He looked up at her, dropping the highlighter he'd been using onto the desk. "Yes?"

"I'm done with it," she announced boldly.

Eric held out his hand, "Let me see, we'll get it edited and sent down to print."

"I haven't written it," she said.

"You just said you were done with it," he snapped. "Which is it?"

Amanda took a deep breath. "I am done with it, Daddy," she said. "I'm not writing the story for you."

Eric stared at her, his eye twitching. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he demanded.

"It means I'm not writing the story," she said again, her voice growing in confidence. "Brian Littrell and Nick Carter are real people, daddy, and I refuse to disrespect them like that."

"They aren't people," Eric snapped, "They're celebrities."

Amanda laughed bitterly. "I knew you'd say that."

"That's what they get for getting into show business, honey. The press."

Amanda shook her head, "That's just their job. They have a right to have private, personal lives that the world doesn't know about. They have the right to keep secrets."

Eric glared at her. "Amanda Jane Golde, I expect that story on my desk today by five o'clock. Or else."

"Or else what, daddy?" she asked, "You'll fire me? I'm sorry, but you can't fire me, daddy, because I quit."

"Quit?" Eric was legitimately surprised by this. He stood up, "What do you mean you quit? I'm your father. You can't quit."

"I just did," she answered, also standing, matching his height.

"Look at you," he said, looking her over finally, "You look like shit. You're throwing your life away for some stupid man that's going to trample you and throw you away. You've seen the stories we've written on him, about the women he's walked all over and dumped. Look what he did to that Hilton girl."

"He didn't do that," Amanda said, recalling Nick's vehemence when they'd talked about it. "Nick Carter is nothing like you think he is."

Eric rolled his eyes, "And you think you know him? That he loves you? When should I expect the wedding?" he scoffed.

Amanda shook her head, her stomach plummeting to the ground. "He doesn't love me," she answered, voice shaking ever so slightly, "But I do love him. More than that, I respect him. I just wish I'd realized how pathetic you are before I let you make me hurt him like I have. But I won't let it happen again. I quit your filthy rag magazine."

"Get out," Eric snapped, "And don't come crawling back here when you can't pay your rent, either."

Amanda stood up, "I won't. I promise. I know you wouldn't give a damn anyway." She walked out of the office, not even once looking back.
Chapter Forty-Five by Pengi
Nick had found his way up to the guest bedroom where he always slept when he stayed over at Brian's house. He was there so often that Leighanne and Brian had finally done the room over in shades of green and put up artwork that they knew Nick loved. Brian had even affixed a Nerf basketball hoop to the back of the door.

He'd been laying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, for over twelve hours now.

Brian and Leighanne had chosen to keep their distance, to let him cool down. Brian had hoped Nick might even take a nap and wake up relaxed. But finally, after twelve hours of not hearing a peep out of him, he agreed that they should go up and check on him. They waited until after Baylee had gone to his art class.

The door creaked opened, but Nick didn't move to see who it was. "Hey Brian," he said, his voice still raw from emotion and now from lack of use.

"It's not Brian," Leighanne said. "Can I come in anyway?"

"It's your house," Nick answered.

"It's your room," she replied.

Nick sat up and scooted over so she had room to sit with him. She took the invitation and sat down on the bed, both facing each other. She'd left the door open, Brian was sitting on the floor just outside, worried, but not wanting to overwhelm Nick with the presence of both of them.

"Brian told me about Amanda," she explained carefully. Nick diverted his eyes from Leighanne's and stared down at the bedspread. "I'm sorry, Nick."

"Yeah, me, too."

Leighanne waited, allowing a moment to pass, letting the words she was about to say play over in her mind, working out the bits she wanted to edit out and perfecting them so that they'd come out right. With Nick, you only got one shot to explain things right. "Do you remember when AJ was doing the drugs and alcohol really hardcore?" she asked.

Nick looked up at her, confused a moment. "Um, yeah, of course."

"He's changed since then, because he saw what he was doing was wrong and that he was hurting the people he loved, right?" Leighanne asked.

Nick caught the connection. "This is different," he said, shaking his head. "She purposely set out to get a story on us, that's all she was there for."

"Maybe at first," Leighanne answered slowly, "But I know Brian believes she changed, and from what he's told me, I do, too." She smiled tentatively. "And you know how picky I am about the women you date, huh?"

Leighanne had always run interference on Nick's girls. She'd always known when Nick was dating a loser, always called the girl on it. He hadn't always listened, but in retrospect, she'd always been right.

He sighed, "You didn't actually meet her."

"If she didn't love you, she would've published the story by now, wouldn't she?" Leighanne asked.

Nick frowned. "She could've, I haven't checked."

"Brian and I have," Leighanne answered.

Nick stared at the wall. "I wouldn't be able to trust her ever again," he said slowly, "She lied to me." He sighed. "I know lots of people lie, and that lies should be forgiven and all that, I get that. I don't have problems forgiving her, well maybe a little, but after it's been awhile I know I'll be cool to forgive her. But I dunno if I could ever forget what she did. I've been busted way too many times by girls..."

"You have," Leighanne agreed, "You've been put through the mill by women."

"What kills me is I really trusted her," he said, "Like I say that all the time with girls, but this one I actually did trust. I told her so much, confided in her. I really let her see me for who I am. And she knew it." He dug into his pocket and pulled out the crumpled up sheet of notebook paper with the poem on it. He dropped it onto the bedspread between them. "And then she did this."

Leighanne reached out and ran the backs of her finger tips across his cheek gently. "But Nicky, sweetie, she lied to you before she knew you."

"So?" he asked, "What difference does it make?"

"If AJ did some of the things he did and said when he was drunk now wouldn't it hurt worse than it did then?" she asked.

Nick hesitated, "Yeah."

Leighanne shrugged, "I'm just saying that maybe she changed because she fell in love with you."

"Then why didn't she tell me sooner?" Nick asked.

"Because she was terrified?" Leighanne guessed, "I know I would've been terrified of losing you if I were her. You're a great guy, Nick. How sweet and amazing you've been to my husband is proof of that. She doesn't deserve you for what she did, Nick, but you deserve love. Just think about it, okay?"

"Yeah," he nodded, "I'll think about it."

Leighanne got up, "Are you hungry?"

He thought about it. "Not really."

"Are you sure? We were thinking about ordering a pizza when Baylee got home," she explained, "And maybe a movie?"

"What movie?" he asked.

"Well, Baylee will probably pick, so there's a fifty-percent chance it'll be either Toy Story or Transformers."

Nick smiled. "Okay, I'm in."

Amanda found the yellow slip of paper taped to her door when she got home, reminding her that rent was overdue.

She let herself into the apartment. It smelled musty from being closed up for almost a month. She walked around opening the windows and letting the air in. She went to the fridge before she remembered that she hadn't been home to restock it with food. The only things in there that weren't expired was mustard, ketchup, some Twinkies and Kool-Aid. She had Twinkies and Kool-Aid for dinner.

Amanda sat on the window sill, staring up at the sky.

It wasn't until almost ten o'clock that night that she remembered she'd never called Brian to let him know she'd gotten home okay. She wasn't even certain he really cared. Probably not, she thought. She imagined them in the car, happy, talking and laughing together. They'd probably already forgotten she'd ever been there.

She texted Brian, rather than call, just two simple words: "home safe."

It was one in Marietta when the text came. Brian had been asleep, Leighanne hugging his arm and Baylee squished between their legs, hugging his knee... a Littrell family pig pile.

He groggily reached over to the night stand with his free hand for the cell phone when it vibed. He flipped it opened and saw Amanda's text. He smiled, saved the number to his contacts, and replied, "G2K, TY" and dropped the phone back onto the night stand, and fell back to sleep.

Amanda slept on the couch that night, staring at the colorful-flecked snow on her TV screen. Her cable had been shut off. Everything was breaking to pieces, and she felt like her life had become nothing more than the static hiss that came out of the TV.

Days passed. She'd gone out to get cigarettes, coffee, and some stuff to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She'd put in a couple job applications at local papers and magazines but nobody was hiring because of the economy. She'd gotten so desperate to ask for an application at the grocery store, but the manager there had taken one look at her resume and said she was over qualified.

Amanda spent the majority of her time smoking and writing. Poetry - dark, angry, disjointed words - flowed out of her onto the computer screen. On the Internet, she found herself opening and staring at the two boys' Twitter accounts. She refreshed them every thirty seconds, waiting for one of them to post something... anything.

A week went by before a change occurred on one of them. It was Nick's.

NickCarter@BLittrell back in la

Her heart pumped with hope. Would he visit her? Of course not, she reprimanded herself for even thinking it.

But she continued to check their Twitter accounts everyday, certain that if anything happened it would show up there. She found herself getting desperate and pathetic enough to try Googling them, finding fan websites, staring at pictures of them smiling and happy, and remembering them the way they'd been at their best during the trip.

She dreaded the day when she would log on and see something about Brian... but each morning when she woke up, she checked every entertainment news outlet she could possibly think of to make sure it wasn't out there. She knew that one day she'd turn on the Internet and she'd see Brian's smiling face on the main news screen. It was a day she was not looking forward to.
Chapter Forty-Six by Pengi
It had been almost a month since she'd left Tennessee. Her land lord was knocking on her door everyday, and she'd gotten a crappy part time job at a dairy bar on the board walk on the scurvy end of the beach. She was coming home exhausted, dirty, and smelling like french fry oil.

On the day when she finally heard something, she came in the door after her shift, at six in the afternoon, and checked the Internet for news about Brian. She held her breath as she clicked on each of the sites she'd stored into her favorites list, and sighed in relief when none of them had anything about Brian on them.

Her cell phone rang from inside the pocket of her pink and white striped apron that she had to wear at work, and she pulled it out. She didn't recognize the number or the area code. "Hello?" she answered tentatively. She'd sent out a couple poems to some publishers in New York, she half hoped it might be one of them.

But it was better.

"Hallo, Amanda." His voice was weak, changed considerably, but it was definitely Brian.

"Brian!" she cried, her heart pounding in her chest, "Oh God, I've been so worried about you," she gushed, "How are you feeling?"

He answered by coughing raggedly. The sound was awful. She closed her eyes, trying to block out the implications of that sound. She'd heard it too many times when Piper was sick. "I'm okay," he said after he'd stopped coughing. Never the truth, she thought, shaking her head.

"You don't sound okay," she accused.

Brian chuckled, "You know me, hun," he said. He suddenly sounded sleepy. There was a pause, and she half wondered if he'd fallen asleep. "Amanda?"

"Yes Brian?" she asked.

"Can you come out here?"

"To Georgia?" She looked down at the apron, at the stupid plastic name tag with her name on it.

Brian's voice was soft. "I understand if you can't," he said, "But I really need to -" he paused, coughing again. Amanda, again, closed her eyes, barely able to bear the sound. "I really need to talk with you," he said.

"I'll come," she said. She wasn't sure how she was going to get a flight, she had like a hundred dollars to her name. But she'd get there if she had to sell her soul to do it. "I don't know where you live?" she asked.

"I'm at Grady Memorial Hospital," he answered.

The building was dauntingly huge. Amanda was reminded of the afternoon laying in the sunflowers with Nick, "So this is what it feels like to be an ant." She smiled at the sound of his voice echoing in her head. She missed that voice. She'd finally been able to hear the voice in her memories in tones that were not like the ones he'd last used on her. It had taken weeks. She'd been desperate enough to cling to even the anger he'd lashed upon her, but she was infinitely more comforted by sound bytes like this one about the ants.

"I'm here to see my friend," Amanda said when she got to the front desk, "He's in oncology, cluster D, room 26," she read the paper she'd scribbled the information down on.

"You're going to take the elevator up to the fifth floor, go across the catwalk, take the elevator down to the first floor, take a right off the elevator and follow the orange line on the floor. That'll be oncology. The receptionist there will tell you how to get to D-26."

Amanda muttered the directions to herself as she walked through the hospital. It looked more like a miniature city or a carpeted mall than a hospital. She passed a bunch of stores and a food court. She passed people that looked sick, people with casts and crutches and wheel chairs, people who looked elated, carrying newborn babies or wrapping their arms around ready-to-burst pregnant bellies.

Hospitals are strange, Amanda thought, They carry so much sadness, and yet offer so much hope.

She followed the orange line on the floor and found herself going through what felt like airport security. A sign demanded that all fruit, flowers, and other "foreign" substances of the like be left on a table before entering the doors. A pile of stuff lay on the table provided. Bouquets of wilting flowers, a banana that was turning brown in the air conditioning, a half eaten Snickers bar.

The receptionist looked up when Amanda entered, and immediately pointed at a machine affixed to the wall that dispensed Germ-X. After she'd liberally applied the antibacterial, the receptionist asked, "Who are you here to see?"

"Brian Littrell," Amanda answered, "He's in D-26."

The receptionist pointed to the left. "Follow the curve all the way to the back. The second pod on the left is D. Go ahead in there. 26 is the room on the right. Have you had a cold at all in the last 48 hours?" she asked.

"No," Amanda answered.

"Cough? Sinus infection? Sneezing?"

"No," Amanda replied, a little scared by the way the receptionist was running Gestapo on her.

She smiled comfortingly at Amanda, "I'm sorry. We have to ask. If you've been sick we have to make you wear a face mask." She held up a cotton mask with rubber straps that hooked onto the ears.

"It's okay," Amanda answered. She felt sick now. This was scary, intense stuff. If this is what it was like outside the room, what the hell was she about to see inside? She was terrified.

The walk to the pod wasn't long. She passed several open rooms and heard people coughing and moaning inside them. TV's played and tinny, disjointed laughter escaped from the rooms where people were watching sitcoms. It sounded unnatural - laughter. The pod was a closed-in, extra germ-free area. She sighed, not liking that Brian was buried this deep. It was like trying to crack into the CIA or something. A sign warned her to use Germ-X again, so she did, pumping a puddle of it into her palm before stepping inside the pod.

The door to room 26 was closed. Amanda inched toward it, and knocked.

"Come in," Brian called.

The room had a window that looked over a playground. Leighanne and Baylee were out in the playground and Amanda could see Baylee trying to run up a slide whlie Leighanne sat on a swing, sipping a juice box. Brian was laying in a position that told her he'd been watching them, but he shifted the moment she came in the door.

"Amanda," he said, a weak, but warm, smile spreading across his face. He'd lost a lot of weight, which was impressive considering how tiny he'd been to begin with, and his lips were chapped. She smiled back, even though it was hard to believe this sunken-eyed man was the same Brian she'd known. "Have a seat," he motioned to a plastic chair that was right next to him, and she sat down in it.

Honestly, a part of her had expected Nick to be there.

"How are you doing, Brian?" she asked, taking his hand.

He smiled, "Ehhh, been better," he laughed, his eyes twinkled for just a moment, and Amanda could see the old him flickering just beneath the surface. "You?"

"Been better, too," she said with a laugh. "I quit my job."

Brian nodded, "How did your father take that?" he asked.

"He told me not to call him when I got evicted," Amanda laughed, "And I won't. I'd rather --" she'd been about to say die but somehow the word seemed tacky, "--live on the streets than go back to ask him for help," she amended.

Brian smiled, "There's our spitfire girl. I'm proud of you for having the guts to leave. Besides," he said, "I'm sure there were a ton of papers fighting to pick you up the moment you left Pop Stuff. Which one picked you up?"

"Umm, Joey's Food Shack," she answered, "But I probably lost that job, too. I didn't exactly request the time off to come," she laughed.

Brian's eyes fogged with concern. "You haven't gotten a new paper job?" he asked.

"No," she answered, "I mean I still have my account on the Associated Press, that doesn't expire for awhile yet, but nobody's going to pick up something on beach bums at Santa Monica, you know?" she laughed, "I don't really have time - or energy - to research anything else just yet. I'm trying to save enough to pay my overdue rent." She smiled sadly.

Brian sighed. "Well, that's... sort of what I wanted to talk to you about," he said slowly.

"What? My crappy job at Joey's Food Shack?" she laughed.

"I need a favor, Amanda," he said, "And I don't know if you'll want to do it, but if you will... well, I'd really appreciate it. It would mean a lot to me." Brian's jaw flexed with nerves as he spoke. "It actually may help you out, too."

"What is it, Brian? Anything," she said.

Brian looked her right in the eyes, "I need you to write the story."
"One Night Only: Brian Littrell, Live at Turner Field" by Pengi
One Night Only: Brian Littrell, Live at Turner Field
Pop Stuff Online - Tobias Winterson

Backstreet Boys' manager and ex-member, Kevin Richardson, announced this morning that Brian Littrell, one of the infamous Traveling Backstreet Boys, would be doing a one-night-only live solo performance at Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves, next Tuesday evening. Tickets are on sale exclusively at the Backstreet Boys' website (, but are not limited to fan club members only. Tickets are $39.99 across the board, and there is a rumor that there will be standing room only, free seating available the day of the concert for any who show up without a ticket.

This is the first time that Richardson has released a press statement of any kind since the cancelation of the Backstreet Boys' New Beginnings world tour almost four months ago.
"Backstreet Boys Brian Littrell's Last Show" by Pengi
Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell's Last Show
Pop Stuff Online - Tobias Winterson

At last, after four months of waiting, answers have begun to surface. Pop Stuff Online received an exclusive press release today from the Backstreet Boys' manager, Kevin Richardson, revealing that the concert scheduled to take place at Turner Field on Tuesday is going to be Brian Littrell's last show. The release did not go into details about Littrell's health condition.

The concert is expected to be broadcast live on Fox and CBS, as well as in various countries around the globe. (Check your local listings.)

Tickets are, again, available online exclusively at the Backstreet Boys' website.

Rumors have been confirmed that free standing room only admission will be available, but space is limited and will depend upon the amount of seats sold through the Backstreet Boys' fan club.

All proceeds are being donated to the St. Jude's Children's Hospital.
Chapter Forty-Seven by Pengi
Nick, Kevin, AJ, and Howie arrived to Turner Field in a sleek black limousine.

The parking lot was crawling with photogs and reporters from various news stations from around the globe. AJ spotted one he recognized from Japan. "This is nuts," he said, taking a swig of Perrier water.

The stadium was packed. The stage was as far back on the field as they could set it up and still have room for the stage crew to get behind it and for Brian to get off and on it. They'd cleared off a special VIP area to the left of the stage for Brian's family, the four Boys and their wives, Leighanne, and Baylee. Fans filled every nook and cranny of the stadium, though. The field, which was all general admission, was packed like sardines. The stands were scattered with signs, which were held high, saying things like "we love you Brian!"

Amanda was backstage. "How do you feel, about to take the stage for the last time?" she asked, holding up the little micro-recorder.

"It's bittersweet," Brian answered. The crowd could be heard cheering, and random cries of his name echoed around the backstage area. People were scurrying around like crazy, ducking in and out of the little curtained-off dressing area they'd set up for Brian. "I wasn't going to tell the fans," he said, "But I realized that it wasn't fair to them not to say good-bye."

Amanda made notes about the expressions he was making, the looks in his eyes, the sounds and smells of the backstage area. "And what made you change your mind?" she asked.

"Kayleigh and Brianna," he said without hesitation, "I owe them."

Amanda smiled. "Are you scared?" she asked.

"No," he answered, shaking his head.

"Even though the stands are packed?"

He laughed, "I'm a little nervous I'm going to start throwing up midway through Angels & Heroes or something, but we've played crowds like this before..."

"Did you know there are over 51,000 fans in the audience right now? You're causing a fire hazard here at Turner Field, how does that feel?"

Brian cracked up, "Well if you promise not to smoke, I'll feel a lot safer."

Amanda laughed. "I just have a couple more questions for after the show, then I should have everything I'll need."

Brian beamed, "Thank you again for doing this for me. It means a lot to me."

"It means a lot to me that you'd ask me to do it," Amanda answered. She reached out and took hold of his hand and squeezed. "You're a great man, Brian."

"You're on," a pipsqueak of a roadie announced, tucking his head into the little dressing area.

"Enjoy the show," Brian said, winking at her.

"I'll be in the press box with the camera," she answered, standing up and tucking the micro-recorder into her purse.

Brian stood up as she left the room and took a deep breath, steadying himself. His hands were shaking. They make have done sell out shows at the Tokyo Dome before, but this was completely different. This wasn't just any show, and he wasn't buffeted by his brothers. He made his way toward the stage. The lights had gone out, and a flashlight was being held up for him. He followed the glow in the dark stage tape, and, his heart beating a tattoo in his chest to the same beat as the fans shouting his name (BRI-AN, BRI-AN, BRI-AN), he ran onto the stage.

The lights were hot and they made him sweat. In the center of the stage sat a stool and his microphone stand. He moved quickly, kicked the stool back just a little bit so he could stand before it, and clasped his hands around the microphone as the single white spot light hit him and the beat started throbbing behind him.

"I've lived a lot of life
I caught a dream or two...
It's been a sweet ride..."

He caught sight of Nick, staring up at him, and he smiled and waved. Nick waved back.

"But I've faced my share of nights
and searched like we all do
looking inside
Now I'm standing here
Cos You've made it clear...

He pointed to his chest as he sang the chorus, his eyes scanning the crowd, trying to look at every one of the fans, trying to tell them all how much he loved them. He smiled and wiggled his fingers, pointed, made the heart shape with his hand.

"I'm finally wide awake
I'm finished being known
It's a new day...
I can feel it on my face,
In hopes of a midnight sun
That won't fade away...
Now I'm bowing down,
And I'm crying out..."

Brian pulled the microphone from the stand and dropped to his knees as the lyric called for it, his arms splayed over his head, eyes closed. The fans were screaming...

"This heart inside me beats because
You loved enough to take my cross
And I'm alive...
You gave Your life to shatter death...
So even after my last breath...
I'm alive... forever... forever more
Forever, Lord...

Amanda could feel the tears streaming down her face. The song was the epitome of the courage that Brian had shown over the past four months, the resolution and the determination and even the joy in the face of death.

She took picture after picture as Brian sang. He covered a couple of his favorite Backstreet Boys songs, and did most of his album, including In Christ Alone, and, of course, Welcome Home, You.

He'd been on stage for two hours. His voice was starting to run raw and Amanda knew that the concert was going to wrap up really soon. The fans were mellowed out after he'd sung a beautiful version of Amazing Grace. He had opted to sit down on the stool halfway through the show, and was getting paler the longer he sat in the hot stage lights. He splashed a bottle of water over his head and ran a hand through his hair.

"The last song I'm going to sing for you," he said, putting the bottle down at his feet, "Is one that I wrote over the last couple months. Because of that, there's no music, so you'll have to imagine that part." He laughed, and smiled as the fans screamed loudly in response. "Maybe Nick'll be kind enough to mix it for you one day and sing a cover," he smiled in Nick's direction. Again, screams ensued. "Okay," Brian said, pulling out a page from his pocket, "So, um, here is goes. It's called Hard Times."

The entire stadium was completely silent the entire way through, aside from Brian's own foot tapping and his voice.

"What is a life at the end of the song
What is hope when you're just holding on
To that last note... that hangs in the air
Tell me, what is life... cos all I know is it ain't fair

You're gonna see hard times, baby
You're gonna see hard times, my love
But even when you can't see me
I'm smiling down from above

Where is God when you feel this alone?
When you're helpless... and you have no home
No place to go... where they understand
What is life... when it doesn't go like you planned?

You're gonna see hard times, baby
You're gonna see hard times, my love
But even when you can't see me
I'm smiling down from above

Even when you can't see me...
I'm smiling down from above...

Oh... you're gonna see hard times
Cos that's just the way life goes
But just when you think you can't take it
When you've lost all your hope
I'll always be there

You're gonna see hard times, baby
You're gonna see hard times, my love
But even when you can't see me
Yeah, I'll always be there

The silence carried for long seconds after the last note of Brian's rasping voice died away, echoing off the stands of the field. The first one clapping was Nick. One by one, the stadium erupted. Brian leaned into the microphone, "Thank you," he said, his voice low. Tears were streaming down his face now as he bowed. The fans shouted, whistled, screamed... Leighanne, Baylee, Nick, Kevin, AJ, Howie, and all of the others in the VIP box were on their feet. Nick was jumping up and down. Amanda had the camera steadily trained on Brian, catching every single look of elation as the roar echoed through the stadium.

He covered his face with his hand, trying to compose himself. Then he leaned into the microphone, and, looking directly at Amanda, he said, "Because... I don't know... how to say good-bye to you..." She smiled, knowing he was quoting her. He looked up into the crowd, "And... it's not really good-bye anyway... because I'll see you all again one day..." he took a deep breath. "I guess there's only one thing left for me to say."

Brian smirked, leaned into the microphone one last time, and sang out, "Gotta go!"

And with that, he ran off the stage.
Chapter Forty-Eight by Pengi
Nick was the first one to get backstage. He blasted into the dressing room where Brian was bent double over a trash bin, throwing up. Nick skid to a stop. He'd been about to jump on Brian, freaking out with excitement. Brian's entire body shook as he held onto the rim of the can, his face buried into it. He had no idea that Nick was there. Tears were still streaming down Brian's face. "Oh Lord," he muttered into the can, shaking his head, "I dunno, Lord, I dunno how much longer I can take this," he whispered.

Nick licked his lips, standing there awkwardly, feeling like he'd walked in on a private moment, knowing he wasn't meant to see Brian like this.

He took a silent, but deep breath, and hyped himself back up again, so that Brian could keep his privacy. "Hey!!" he shouted, pretending he'd just come in the room a split second before. "That was frickin' amazing, dawg! Why didn't you tell me you were working on that song? We could've put together music for you..."

Brian stood up and turned away from the bin, his face was flushed now from the throwing up and he forced a smile. "Figured it would give you something to do," he laughed.

"It was amazing," Nick said, "You were amazing."

Brian sank into one of the chairs he and Amanda had been sitting in before he went on stage. "I'm really glad I did it," he admitted, "I thought at first that saying good-bye to the fans would seem morbid or something, but... it just felt good. It felt right, you know?"

"You did it wonderfully," Nick answered, sitting down opposite of Brian.

"Unfortunately," Brian said, "The rest of my good-byes aren't going to be so easy." His eyes locked with Nick's.

The curtain fluttered and Amanda walked in, "Are you ready for the last couple of--" her voice died away as she saw Nick. She froze, a deer caught in the headlights.

Nick stood up quickly, his face unreadable.

Brian looked between them. "Oh yeah. Nick, Amanda's here."

"What is she doing here?" Nick demanded, not looking away from Amanda, but addressing Brian.

"Brian asked me to write an article for him," she answered, even though the question hadn't been to her.

Nick tore his eyes away from her to look at Brian, "You what?" he asked, dumbfounded.

"I asked Amanda to write the story," Brian answered calmly. He could feel every muscle in his body tensing up, praying.

Nick looked at Amanda, "Hasn't she written enough stories about us to last a lifetime?" he demanded.

Amanda could feel a lump rising in her throat. His voice still carried the angry tone - the one that she'd worked for weeks to lose from her memories of him. She felt cold all over.

"This story's different," Brian answered, "Because she's writing it from her heart.... with love."

"I'm sure," Nick said. He shook his head, "I'll see ya at your house later, Brian. Congratulations on the concert and stuff." He pushed around Amanda carelessly, and ducked out of the curtained off dressing area.

Amanda stood frozen to the spot. Brian sighed, "I'm sorry," he told her, "I didn't know you'd both come back here at the same time." Though I'd hoped it would've gone better than that if you did, he added in his mind.

"It's.. it's okay," she whispered. She forced a half of a smile, "At least he didn't call me a whore this time." Amanda diverted her eyes, keeping them carefully away from Brian's, knowing she'd sob if he caught her gaze. She dug into her purse and found her micro-recorder, "I just have a couple more questions, and then I'll be done and I can write the article tonight."

"Okay, shoot," Brian said, his heart torn in pieces for Nick.

Nick was out back of the field, smoking again. He'd snuck his pack into his pocket and was sitting on an old milk crate. He took a long drag and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes.

"You quit, too?"

He opened his eyes and looked up. Amanda was standing there, wearing ripped jeans and a faded blue t-shirt. Instead of the heavy Doc Martins, she had on the sneakers he'd bought her in Boulder. She had a small camera strapped to her wrist.

He closed his eyes again, hoping she'd go away.

Amanda approached him and stuck out her hand, "My name is Amanda Golde," she said, "I'm an unemployed journalist, and I'm here to write an article on your best friend, Brian."

He peeked at her. "Oh?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered. She pulled up another milk crate. "I used to work for Pop Stuff Online, but then I met this guy who showed me that lying and exploiting people only ruins lives and friendships," she said, "And love."

"Smart guy," he said. He shook her hand half-heartedly.

"What's your name?"

"Bob," Nick answered dryly, "Bob Saget."

"Okay," Amanda pulled out her notebook from her bag. "Mr. Saget, can you please tell me how you felt watching Brian Littrell's concert tonight?"

Nick sighed, "Strange. I never realized how much I love his voice before," he said slowly, "How much I took his presence for granted, I guess."

"Are you going to tape the song?"

"No, I'm a crappy singer. I heard Nick Carter might tape it someday, though."

Amanda smiled a tiny bit. "Sorry, Mr. Saget, I forgot that you weren't Mr. Carter for a second there."

"How could you possibly get us mixed up?" he quipped.

Amanda hesitated, "I'm not sure, Bob," she said slowly, "Because.. well. Right now, Nick won't speak to me."

Nick looked at her carefully. Her hands were shaking as she held the notebook and pen, which she'd scribbled a couple notes onto. He looked into her eyes, searching them for a long moment. "Why won't Nick talk to you?" he asked.

"Well, Bob," she said, "I lied to him... and I broke his heart. I didn't mean to... at least not at first. But then the longer I waited, the harder it got to tell him. I tried to a couple times, like in Boulder, just before Brian got sick again. But something came up every time. Once, we got stuck in a 'tsunami of the sky'," she laughed quietly.

Nick smirked, "I heard you romped the hay after that."

"Damn news gets around fast," she muttered, "If even the dad on Full House heard that."

"Well, you leaked your own story, what can I say?" he asked.

Amanda shook her head, "I'm such a dumb bitch," she laughed. But the laughter stopped abruptly. "Anyway, Mr. Saget, when Nick found out... he was really, really angry, and I didn't get a chance to tell him after that... how much I love him."

Nick rubbed his chin slowly, then took a drag off his slowly burning cigarette. He blew the smoke into the air, then tossed the cigarette onto the ground and stomped it out. "And how much is that, exactly?" he asked.

"More than anything else in the entire universe," she whispered.

Nick leaned toward her, "Anything else?" he asked.

"Anything," she answered quietly.

"Even more than me, Bob Saget?" he asked.

"Much more than you. Sorry, Mr. Saget," she answered.

Nick's lips formed a smile, just a half an inch from her face, "I would definitely find a way to tell him that if I were you," he whispered.

She looked into his eyes, so close to hers. Their breaths mixed. "Nickolas Gene Carter," she whispered, "I love you more than Bob Saget."

Nick cracked up, and kissed her.
Chapter Forty-Nine by Pengi
Nick snuck back into Turner Field, where Brian's dressing room was. Amanda was snapping last minute pictures of the fans leaving the stadium, getting some comments for the article. Brian was talking to his parents. Jackie was clinging to him tightly, kissing his cheek, and his dad and brother were both standing, looking misty-eyed and proud.

"Sorry for interrupting," Nick apologized, stopping at the curtain. "I can tell you later, Brian," he whispered, backing away.

"Tell me what?" Brian asked.

Nick stopped and re-entered the tent. He paused. "Amanda and I just made up," he said, a grin crossing his face.

Brian's eyes widened with joy, "You did!?" he cried. He parted from his mom and wrapped his arms around Nick. "I'm so happy, Nick!"

Nick's grin only widened, "I'm happy, too."

Brian patted Nick's back, and gave him an extra squeeze before letting go of him. "I'm so relieved to know that you've got someone to take care of you..." he laughed, "'Cos Lord knows you need it." His eyes danced as he laughed.

Nick laughed, too. "Thank you, Brian."

"No, thank you, Nick," Brian answered solemnly. "For everything."

Brian rode home with Leighanne and Baylee in their own car. Leighanne was driving, and Baylee was in the backseat, singing I'm Alive quietly, making facial expressions just like his dad's. Brian smiled, tired, watching Baylee in the mirror over his visor. Leighanne reached over and held his hand as they idled at a stop light. "Did I mention how proud I am of you, baby?" she whispered.

Brian turned his hand to squeeze hers back. "You are a beautiful woman, Leighanne," he whispered, "And I love you."

She smiled, and lifted his hand to her mouth, kissing his knuckles. "I love you, bear," she answered.

"You make me a lucky man," he said, sighing happily, listening to Baylee in the backseat.

Leighanne felt her heart stir. She looked at him. "Brian?" she asked.

"Hm?" he hummed, half asleep.

"The only good-bye you're saying tonight is to the fans," she said.

Brian blinked his eyes open and stared at her silhouette against the city lights. "I'm not saying good-bye," he said. He squeezed her hand.

"Okay," she answered, "As long as you know that."

Brian smiled, and closed his eyes again. Leighanne drove home, her hand clutching his.

The house was flooded with cars. The after party was at Brian's, and they'd done a great job of setting it up. Inside, music played and streamers were hung up all over the place. Kevin, Nick, and Amanda were standing on the lawn, waiting for Leighanne, Baylee and Brian - the guests of honor - to arrive.

"Don't think I'm not still pissed at you," Kevin said to Nick, who had gushed about Kevin forgiving him for being such a douche by leaving a note to tell him where they were going. "I'm just glad you did what you did, Brian needed it."

"Which means I was...." Nick said, leading.

Kevin sighed, "Which means you were right," he said.

"No, no, wait..." Nick grabbed Amanda's micro-recorder. "Now, say it with enthusiasm!"

"Fuck you," Kevin laughed, pushing the recorder away.

Amanda laughed as Nick hopped from foot to foot, "C'mon! Sayyyy it!"

The headlights illuminated the driveway, and Nick handed the recorder back to Amanda, turning around excitedly. "He's here!" he cried, bounding toward the driveway.

Amanda smiled, watching Nick run to greet his best friend.

"I'm sure Brian already told you this," Kevin said, looking at the goofy grin on Amanda's face as she watched after Nick, "But if you hurt him, you've got four other Backstreet Boys to answer to."

Amanda smiled, "Brian did tell me that," she said.

Leighanne parked the car where Brian always did, and Baylee leaped out and ran toward Kevin. "Uncle Kevin!" he yelled, excited, "Uncle Kevin!" He leaped at Kevin, his arms wide and smile even wider.

"Baylee!" Kevin scooped him up into his arms and squeezed him, "You're getting so big."

"I know!" Baylee answered, "Pretty soon you won't be able to pick me up anymore, huh?"

Kevin laughed, "You've heard that a few times."

Leighanne's cry filled the air.

Amanda, Kevin and Baylee all looked toward the car. Nick was pulling the door opened, panicked, fumbling to get it. "Shit," Kevin whispered. Baylee wiggled in his arms, but he held him tight.

Amanda's skin felt like it had frozen and shrunk tighter around her body. Because of the angle of the car, all she could see was Nick, kneeling beside the passenger side, and the silhouette of Leighanne, illuminated by the dome light, as she leaned across the seats.

Howie came out of the house and Kevin pushed Baylee into Howie's arms, "Hold him," he demanded. Howie's hands braced Baylee's back, holding him tight to his chest.

"What's going on?" he asked Amanda, confused.

She couldn't speak to answer him.

Baylee started to get nervous, "Daddy?" he called, watching as Kevin reached Nick's side at the car.

Amanda started walking towards the car, feeling numb, as Baylee started to cry behind her. As she got closer, her head began throbbing, and she could hear Kevin and Nick, both shouting.

"Nick, you need to move, you need to get out of the way," Kevin was shouting, pulling at Nick.

"No!" Nick was yelling, "No, stop it!"

Kevin pulled Nick up by his shoulders, pushed him out of the way, and leaned into the car. Nick was shaking so hard... Amanda had never seen anyone tremble like that.

Amanda laid her hand on his shoulder and he turned around, his face red. He laid eyes on her, and he flung himself into her, clinging to her. He slid to his knees slowly on the driveway, his face pressed into her stomach, hugging her legs. She closed her eyes.

"Make it stop," Nick begged her, his voice shaking.

"I don't know how to," she said, just as desperate as he sounded.
"Something Beautiful" by Pengi
Something Beautiful
Associated Press – Amanda J. Golde

Nick Carter is sitting on the floor in his apartment, his blonde hair is greasy from lack of showering. He kind of smells, but in a good way, I guess. Around him are spread thousands of pictures, taken from three different cameras. He looks like he’s sitting in an ocean of memories. It’s a good image for what is probably going on inside of him, I’m sure. I know I’m drowning in my own memories, and I have far fewer to sift than Nick does.

His hands move over the pictures, touching certain ones and closing his eyes. The memories they contain, I’m sure, are playing behind those eyelids, like movies. He’s trying to select it – the one picture that will sum it all up, the one that he’s going to give me to include with this article I am writing. But it has to be the perfect one, he says, studying the pictures carefully.

I already know which one it is. But he has not yet seen it.

You see, the perfect photo was given to me, hand selected by Brian Littrell himself. “This,” Brian had said, handing it to me when I asked him, “Is my something beautiful.”

We embarked, the three of us, a couple months ago now, on an incredible journey. Though I did not know it at the time, it was a time of growth, of change, of love, of pain, of laughter, and of tears.

In April, the Backstreet Boys were supposed to go on tour. You know this part of the story already, where they cancel the tour one day before they’re supposed to leave. What you didn’t know was that it was because Brian Littrell had been rushed to the hospital during the middle of the night. Nick only recently told me the story, about how Brian had been sharing a hotel room with Nick, and he suddenly awoke in a pool of sweat and coughing blood.

“It was the scariest moment of my entire life,” Nick confessed, his eyes far away from the room we were sitting in. “He was diagnosed within five hours of that moment, when I woke up and found him like that.”

Leukemia is a cancer of the blood, where your usually good-guy white blood cells become the bad guys and start killing you literally from the inside out. It’s a draining disease, but the treatment is even worse. Which is why, when Brian was diagnosed and given the option, he refused the treatment.

“We thought he was nuts,” said AJ McLean, “Why wouldn’t he want treatment, you know?”

“I was looking for quality,” Brian told me, “Not quantity.” As he explained to me once, he wanted his son, Baylee, to have good memories of him – memories of playing baseball and going fishing – rather than of hospital visits.

“Brian was an amazing father and husband,” Leighanne, Brian’s wife, told me, “Even in the last moments of his life. When he came home from the road trip, he did everything he could with Baylee. They spent so much time together. And as for me, well… Brian and I had never been happier.”

The road trip, which Brian had asked Nick to plan during his initial hospital stay, was designed to find the something beautiful for which Nick is searching the pictures that surround him. Nick’s imagination, partnered with no worry of cost, created an amazing trip, jam-packed with experiences and sights that none of us ever dreamt we would see. Or at least I hadn’t.

From sleeping in the depths of the Grand Canyon to white water rafting in Colorado, we experienced everything. We even skydived from 13,000 feet. Brian experienced life in new and intense ways during the time that he was allotted. “I want to die living,” Brian said, “Not live dying.”

And he certainly did that.

Not only that, but Brian did it with a finesse, a flair, that few people have. His faith in God was so incredibly strong that he never once complained about his illness. “My illness is a blessing,” he confided, just before taking the stage at Tucker Field last week. “It has allowed me to see what life is really about. It’s about jumping out of the plane…”

One thing that you never would’ve heard Brian say, over the entire past four and a half months of his life, was the word good-bye. “It’s not really good-bye,” he said every time that he needed to say it, “It’s see you later, or gotta go.”

Even his final trip to the stage was capped by the trademark words.

“He told me that he wasn’t saying good-bye just before he died,” Leighanne said, her eyes brimming with tears, “And I suppose a part of me knew then, and just didn’t want to believe. He was so peaceful about it… so calm. It was beautiful.”

Brian died on the way home from Tucker Field, with his wife and son by his side, though neither were aware of his passing until they’d safely arrived in the driveway. “It was so like Brian,” Leighanne said, “To sneak off while I wasn’t looking to make it easier. He’d said what he had to, and then he flew away.”

Now, Nick and I are back in Los Angeles. Nick is struggling with the loss, and I’ve heard him try several times to call Brian on his cell phone. But of course, all he gets is the voicemail outgoing message. But even that, Nick says, is enough, because he can at least hear his voice again.

The pictures are beautiful, all of them. There’s some cacti over by Nick’s knee, and one of a baby raccoon he thought as a mountain lion in his bed beside that. There’s one of Nick smiling on the raft as we were battling the white water, my head is on Nick’s lap as I laugh from nerves. There’s one of Nick and I suspended upside down over a gorge when we went bungee jumping, and one of Brian, Nick and I under the water at the Tennessee Aquarium, surrounded by little red and blue fish.

Nick’s got a few semi-finalists. A sun set over the mouth of the Grand Canyon, with the pink, orange and purple glow. Another is of the view from the lodge we stayed in in Boulder, looking out across the tall aspen pines to the Rocky Mountains. My favorite of the ones Nick has selected, though, is of Brian and I free-falling from the sky, hand in hand, the wind blowing out faces and arms upwards. He’s also got a couple of the hot air balloon we rode in New Mexico, and one of the Littrell house in Lexington, Kentucky in the fading sunlight.

As beautiful as all these pictures are, though, they aren’t what Brian selected as his something beautiful.

The picture is simple enough. I actually was the one who took it. I was sitting in the back of the bus, and the two boys were sitting in the front. It was during our drive from Boulder to Omaha, before we switched to the Hummer. Brian was having problems driving the bus, and he was stripping the gears. Nick was trying to tell him how to do it. The picture is simply the backs of their heads as they were laughing and talking, the road stretching ahead, a solid double yellow line as far as the eye can see.

“It’s not what the picture is,” Brian had said, staring at it, with tears streaming down his face. “It’s what it represents. That was my something beautiful.”

In a minute, I’m going to get up and go give this picture to Nick, and tell him what Brian told me. Brian said that when I show it to him, Nick is going to laugh, toss back his head, probably shed some tears, and keep the picture forever.

And, as usual, Brian was absolutely right.
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