All In by elleinad
Past Featured StorySummary:
In a situation that is unfamiliar and unprecedented, Nick and Coll are both trying to navigate relationships and life without veering too far off their own paths or too far from each other. They'll try to maintain their status quo - but they'll discover they each accept and expect different things. Will their friendship bend or break as they twist about in their new scenario? And how will their other relationships and obligations influence them and fare along the way?
Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Nick
Genres: Drama
Warnings: Sexual Content
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 64 Completed: No Word count: 144535 Read: 60836 Published: 09/06/18 Updated: 08/06/21
Story Notes:
+ takes place in 1999 as the ITMT kicks off +
+ new take on old story +

1. Chapter 1 by elleinad

2. Chapter 2 by elleinad

3. Chapter 3 by elleinad

4. Chapter 4 by elleinad

5. Chapter 5 by elleinad

6. Chapter 6 by elleinad

7. Chapter 7 by elleinad

8. Chapter 8 by elleinad

9. Chapter 9 by elleinad

10. Chapter 10 by elleinad

11. Chapter 11 by elleinad

12. Chapter 12 by elleinad

13. Chapter 13 by elleinad

14. Chapter 14 by elleinad

15. Chapter 15 by elleinad

16. Chapter 16 by elleinad

17. Chapter 17 by elleinad

18. Chapter 18 by elleinad

19. Chapter 19 by elleinad

20. Chapter 20 by elleinad

21. Chapter 21 by elleinad

22. Chapter 22 by elleinad

23. Chapter 23 by elleinad

24. Chapter 24 by elleinad

25. Chapter 25 by elleinad

26. Chapter 26 by elleinad

27. Chapter 27 by elleinad

28. Chapter 28 by elleinad

29. Chapter 29 by elleinad

30. Chapter 30 by elleinad

31. Chapter 31 by elleinad

32. Chapter 32 by elleinad

33. Chapter 33 by elleinad

34. Chapter 34 by elleinad

35. Chapter 35 by elleinad

36. Chapter 36 by elleinad

37. Chapter 37 by elleinad

38. Chapter 38 by elleinad

39. Chapter 39 by elleinad

40. Chapter 40 by elleinad

41. Chapter 41 by elleinad

42. Chapter 42 by elleinad

43. Chapter 43 by elleinad

44. Chapter 44 by elleinad

45. Chapter 45 by elleinad

46. Chapter 46 by elleinad

47. Chapter 47 by elleinad

48. Chapter 48 by elleinad

49. Chapter 49 by elleinad

50. Chapter 50 by elleinad

51. Chapter 51 by elleinad

52. Chapter 52 by elleinad

53. Chapter 53 by elleinad

54. Chapter 54 by elleinad

55. Chapter 55 by elleinad

56. Chapter 56 by elleinad

57. Chapter 57 by elleinad

58. Chapter 58 by elleinad

59. Chapter 59 by elleinad

60. Chapter 60 by elleinad

61. Chapter 61 by elleinad

62. Chapter 62 by elleinad

63. Chapter 63 by elleinad

64. Chapter 64 by elleinad

Chapter 1 by elleinad
Author's Notes:
Six pairs of socks, ten tops, four pairs of jeans, three pairs of shorts, and 13 other miscellaneous articles of clothing were packed tightly into a roll-aboard. A one-way plane ticket to Germany was lying near the handlebar, all edges crisp and new.

"Looks good!" Coll exclaimed quietly to herself, hands on her hips, looking over what was the final product of two hours of work. Triumph.

She sighed heavily and mindlessly began adjusting her long ponytail as she moved across the room to her desk. She plopped down into her desk chair and rolled her computer mouse around to rouse it back to life.

The glow of her email inbox was the first thing to appear on the screen. Its browser window sat atop a wallpaper image she had swiped from the internet: a vintage photo of a man playing guitar and a woman standing on the front porch behind him.

She refreshed the email window, waited.

"You've got mail."


_1 new message.


Coll - can't wait to see you tomorrow - well, more than tomorrow for you, I guess. Do you need anything before you go? Let me know how it went with packing the bag I sent you haha.


She rolled her eyes and smiled, looking back over at the suitcase. When it had first arrived, she was positive that an entire summer's worth of clothing and shoes wouldn't fit. She protested, asked for an accommodation, pleaded for an extra bag, but this was the tradeoff, she told herself, for the opportunity to travel all summer with her friend, at basically no cost to her.


Nick - so excited to get to Germany and see you, too! The bag is packed, it was a challenge, but I made it happen. I should be all set, but I'll let you know if anything comes up. It was not really necessary to book it first class, but thank you. I'll be well-rested and ready for whatever when I arrive.


She sent it off and shut the computer down, unsure when the next time she would use it again would be. The clock on the wall indicated it was time to head out for dinner soon, and she popped into action to change her clothes.

Upon opening the closet that was now mostly lacking seasonally appropriate clothing, she hung her shoulders in defeat.

"Shit."



Becka watched as Coll fidgeted with the sundress she was wearing as the four of them waited for their buzzer to go off and their table to be ready. The low hum of Friday night family time created a warm ambiance around them; their parents were making small talk with another couple standing near them, Becka bit her nail.

"What's up with you?" She asked.

"Me?"

"Yes … ?"

"This doesn't fit me; it was the only thing I had left to wear, though."

Becka raised her eyebrows, suspicious. "You were able to pack ALL of your summer clothes in that tiny little bag?"

"The good ones."

"Damn."

Coll nodded with a smile; it was indeed a triumphant moment.

"I'm so sad you're leaving me." It was a sentiment Becka had expressed at least once a day for the past month. Being three years older than Colleen, she had the "displeasure of being employed full time." Her summer would be full of clinical observation and training as she completed her master's degree.

"I know you are, but you're so excited - remember - to be on your way to your dream job!" Coll expressed with a spirit of optimism turned up a few notches for Becka's sake.

"Yes, I remember," Becka said flatly, resting her head in her hand as Coll patted her head and giggled.

"It's buzzing." Eric held up the flat, flashing disk. The family moved into action behind him as he made his way to the hostess stand.

Upon being seated, Becka pointed out that "Nick's on" as she pointed a single, casual finger into the airspace above them.

"Careful Becka, people might think you like the Backstreet Boys." Coll teased.

"Oh, please." Becka retorted. "I do appreciate a good pop song. Plus, as you know, you can like several genres." She widened her eyes at Coll, who surprisingly enough was very fond of 80s music and classic rock, not a very poppy person in many ways.

"Did you memorize all the songs yet?" Jill asked, winking at Becka, as they both knew she hadn't. Early on, she expressed that it was her goal to learn all the songs on the new CD before leaving for Germany, but it hadn't happened. Between finishing junior year, finals, and wrapping the last few shifts at her job in the school bookstore, there wasn't a lot of time for pop culture.

"You know I haven't. BUT I do have a whole transatlantic flight to work on it." Coll smiled as she flipped her menu open.

"It's okay, sweetie; I'm sure they won't mind."

"You'll learn fast enough after all those concerts."

"I'm not planning on going to the show every single night…."

"We'll see." Becka slid her hand over the glossy cover of her menu and raised her eyebrows at Coll. "Once you're there. With them."

"I know you think I'm going to turn into some roadie girlfriend, but I'm not."

"'kay." Becka smiled.

Coll rolled her eyes and continued with the menu. Becka had been teasing her mercilessly for the last three weeks about which guy she was most likely to hook up with. The reality of the situation for Colleen was that she had no objections to casual relationships - and had been out with several men in the past few years since starting college. The thrill of this trip, however, was in the prospect of being able to explore Europe and write all summer. The idea of getting involved with anyone she'd see every single day while traveling internationally was unappealing in many ways.

"All those cute male dancers…." Becka sighed wistfully.

"Stop."

Giggling, Becka closed the menu and sat back into the booth. "Just let me be a little jealous." She stated as she tucked some of her blonde curls behind her ear.

"Be jealous all you want, none of the little fantasies you've concocted are going to materialize." Coll batted her eyelashes at her to emphasize the point.

"Well, except for that pre-loaded, free laptop gift thing."

"Nick just wants her to have what she needs for the experience; it was very generous," Jill interjected.

"Yeah, Beck."

"The rest of the little fantasies… sure, they may not happen. But I'm not taking my bets off the table."

"To be perfectly honest, I would be more comfortable if we changed the subject." Eric parlayed his feelings into the conversation for good measure.

Coll took a long sip of the water a waiter had just poured her and looked at Becka over her glass.

"When are you going to check out those apartments?" Coll asked.



As Coll was hopping into bed that night, Becka knocked gently at the door.

"Yes?" Coll asked, her voice weightless and on the verge of laughing. She knew it was Becka on the other side of the door, and she knew why.

Becka opened the door and pouted at her.

Coll rolled her eyes and giggled, "Becka, we discussed this."

Becka jumped into Coll's bed and wrapped her arms around her sister's smaller body.

"I know, I'm just going to miss you so much."

"You don't even see me that often as it is!"

"I know, but summer is our time!"

"Come visit me while I'm away."

"I might have to."

"Look, I'll email you almost every day." Coll laughed.

"Almost every day?! Are you already planning on forgetting us regular folks?!"

"Not at all, Becka. You know I'm teasing you."

They were both quiet for a while as they laid there.

"What if the next person you're in bed with like this is a Backstreet Boy?" Beck asked.

Coll rolled her eyes again and turned over to click the light off. The room fell dark, and Coll spoke softly. "You know I'm not equipped for that job."

"I'm not talking about a full-blown relationship."

"I think I've done the casual thing enough to know it's overrated."

"Even with a celebrity?"

"Becka!!!" Putting her elbow into Beck's side, Coll put the cap on that.

"Does John know you're leaving for the summer?"

Coll sighed. "No clue. I didn't tell him." Knowing she had not expressly told many people about her summer plans, she doubted he knew. "Maybe he heard it from someone else." She said simply as her mind wandered off. John, the upperclassman she dated for about four months this past winter, still popped into her life now and again, but she had not heard from him in several weeks. They had a fun and casual relationship, but Coll broke it off with him once it was clear he was far more into her than she was into him. He was a good-looking senior who played on a co-ed soccer team with her friend Melanie; she met him at a game she went to in October. He asked her out almost immediately, took her to a moderately expensive Thai restaurant on Mass Ave, and kissed her goodnight when he dropped her off. They always had fun and good conversation, but she never developed any strong feelings for him. He, on the other hand, was fascinated by Coll. On more than on occasion, he had flowers sent to her dorm room. If she had to be somewhere off campus after dark, he offered to walk her home, and he always picked up the bill. He left her sweet notes in the mornings after he spent the night if he had to leave before her. All very sweet, but none of it touched her, and she wasn't interested in going that deep that fast. At least not with him.

"He was so into you." Becka mused. "Wish anyone would pay even half as much attention to me as he did to you."

"He was a little bit annoying."

"Only because you didn't feel the same way about him. That shit is NOT annoying when it's mutual."

"Someday, Beck." Coll sighed and closed her eyes.

"I just am going to be alone forever."

"You are not."

"Well, there aren't any prospects, and I can't exactly invite a guy back here. 'Hey, come over to my parents' house.'… not to mention everything else I'd have to explain."

"It's not worth worrying about for a first date."

"There's just so much to think about." Becka was devolving into sadness; she pressed her hand to her forehead.

"Hey, come on. Someday the perfect Mr. Becka is going to come along, and he's not going to be afraid of any of that stuff." Coll reassured her.

"We'll see."

"Someday, Becka."

Chapter 2 by elleinad
Author's Notes:
Walking off the plane, through the breezeway, Coll felt a pang of nervousness in her stomach. The change from artificial, stale plane air, into the humid heat of German summer sent an unseasonal shiver up her spine as she rolled her bag over several consecutive breaches in the corridor. Each tiny bump was reminding her she was really there.

After months of planning, it was happening. What had started as a casual offer had turned into a full-blown production. Nick's invite was stunning: come to Europe for this leg of the tour, travel, write, enjoy- a real summer experience. Coll's reaction was a mix of 'don't tease me' and 'please let this be real.' The offer firmed up after a few emails.



-

… seriously, consider it. I would love to see you. It would be amazing for you. We are going to some really awesome places. I don't know what to expect exactly- once the album drops, I might have a better idea. Either way, YOU will love Europe and be able to enjoy it more than I will. Everything would be taken care of expenses wise, so you really can't even say no.

-



He was right. She couldn't say no to an offer like that.

In May, the axis had turned. No one was expecting the album to blow up as much as it did, tickets sold out in under a day to the tour, things were heating up to a level no one had experienced before.



-

-- Umm, so … i saw TRL today on a TV in the common room. Holy shit, Nick.

-



Even still, Nick assured her it would be a good time; she should absolutely still come and promised they could make at least a couple of day trips together. Coll wasn't sure what to expect other than a lot of moving around and being on the go. The idea of it thrilled her, though. She had never done anything even remotely like this before.


Spotting "Colleen Parker" scribbled in fat black marker across a small whiteboard held by a man in a button-up shirt, was the relief Coll was looking for. People rushed around in her all directions as she made her way over to the man with her sign.

"Ms. Parker?" He asked with a slight accent. She nodded, and he reached out to shake her hand. "Miles, nice to meet you. I'll be taking you to the Ghent International!"

"Sounds great, thank you."

He reached for her bag, and she allowed him to take it.

"How was your flight?" He asked as they begin their way to the car.

"Wonderful." She smiled and followed in his trail.


Coll dipped her key into the lock and waited for a small green light to flash, letting her know the lock had disengaged. She pushed the door open and was delighted by what she saw.

Leaving her bag and backpack in the entryway, she moved into the spacious suite. Luxurious king-sized bed, sleek fixtures, a bathroom the size of her room back home, plush carpet, floor to ceiling windows; she took it all in as she approached a large bouquet and a basket full of snacks.


_ You made it! I'll see you after rehearsal. Just chill and enjoy. - N


She slipped the note back on to the table and smiled as she pulled a banana from the basket, suddenly realizing she was a little hungry. She stepped over to the window and looked out at a beautiful German cityscape - the first time she really saw Europe at a standstill. Germany stood still, but her head was spinning.


Four knocks on the door jostled Coll from the reverie she had fallen into while settling into the room that evening. She had taken a long bath, blow-dried her hair, changed into some comfy clothes, and ate more of her snacks. She was flipping through the TV options when the knocks broke the relative quiet.

She hopped off the bed and rushed to the door.



Nick could hear movement beyond the weight of the door, his hands pressed against either side of the jam, waiting.

The door opened, and Coll's wide smile, big brown eyes, and Boston College sweatpants were within touching distance. He said nothing as he wrapped his arms around her.

"I'm so glad to see you!" She exclaimed.

"It's amazing to see you." He sighed happily, with a lot more relief than he was expecting, into her shoulder, still holding her close. A sense of calm ran through his body - she was here; she was normal; she was different. She was simple ” a breath of fresh air.

Their friendship was 19 years old ” the same age as Nick. "Lifelong friends" was not even an exaggeration in their case. But they had not physically been together in person in over a year.

It was a relationship that surprised nearly everyone. As college friends, Coll's mom, Jill, and Nick's mom, Jane, had been close for many years when Colleen was born in 1977. When Nick arrived three years later, the women had found an even deeper means of connection and friendship as mothers. Living in the same city for the first 12 years of Nick's life made meetups and playdates very regular. They had quite literally grown up together. As time moved on, the families found themselves in different geographical places but made an effort to take a vacation to the Jersey Shore together every year until Nick turned 15. With Nick's budding career, Coll's academic interests, and the rush of regular life persisting in the background, the familial relationship struggled to sustain itself, and a new normal evolved. What was once inseparable friendship and constant communication had devolved into occasional phone calls and annual Christmas cards. But as young people in modern society, Nick and Coll were blessed with the convenience of email, and most recently - although sporadic - text messaging.


Nick was the friend Coll spoke about that none of her other friends had ever met. He was the allusion. He was a fantasy to everyone else. But he was the friend she had the most consistent contact with - as words were the way she felt most comfortable expressing herself, email was an excellent medium for her. She enjoyed telling him the stories of her day, even though generally they were quite bland, especially compared to his. For Nick, Coll was a steady, regular point of contact in an otherwise changing landscape of his life and lifestyle. She was unchanging in any way that was meaningful in respect to him. She was a real person in his celebrity world- what she thought was dull and ordinary was different and exciting to him. She had gone off to college in Boston, a massive lifestyle shift for her, but save for the first week of September the past two years; their communications were unchanged. Daily or even multiple times per day, emails were exchanged, links were passed, pictures were shared. AOL had made things even easier with AIM. Their friendship maintained; they were both up to speed on each other's lives: exams, roommates, summer jobs, and term papers for her - rehearsals, recordings, funny fan stories, meetings, and travel plans for him. They had almost nothing in common except their friendship. And they both cherished it. That regularity and familiarity were hard to come by elsewhere, especially for Nick.


Despite their slight age difference, Coll never came about as an older sister figure. With so many of his own younger siblings and four bandmates who were all older than him, there was no need for that role. Colleen was plainly and simply a close friend. The craziness of a tour schedule did not seem like the best avenue for reconnecting with an old friend in person, or so Coll had thought. Still, for Nick, tour life was, traditionally anyway, the most regular type of life he had the opportunity to experience most years. Having Coll along for it made all the sense in the world to him.


"Thank you for the flowers and snacks," Coll said as she closed the door behind them. He stepped into her room and glanced around, making sure everything was as he requested it to be for her.

"You're welcome. How was the flight?"

"It was great. First Class is no joke." She giggled and tucked a piece of hair behind her ear as he took a seat on the edge of the bed.

"Man, it's just so good to see you!" He smiled.


The last time he saw her was last April, just over a year ago. The guys were in Boston for an event, and they were able to meet up for dinner one night. It was a total of eight hours they had together, but it was an excellent opportunity for them that didn't come up often.


He was 18 at the time; she had just turned 21, and she teased him about it. "This is pretty much the ONLY thing I've got that you don't." He remembered it well, recalled thinking that it made no sense for it to be true. She was a brilliant, hard-working, scholarship student. He had just gotten lucky. "I wish I had an interesting life like you. So many stories, so much happening all the time. So exciting. You're so lucky to have all those experiences. I wanna have experiences." He remembered she was pretty bent on the idea of stepping outside of her perceived boring normalcy to attain the qualities she felt all writers should have: well-traveled, correspondence and interaction with interesting and notable people and love beyond friendship. "Ugh, I'm just so ... basic." He distinctly remembered she followed it up with a hard stab into a piece of chicken on her plate. He recalled that was the first time he considered inviting her out for the tour - she wanted experiences, and that would certainly be one, and he knew it would be awesome to have her around.

End Notes:
let me know
Chapter 3 by elleinad
Author's Notes:
"It is amazing to be here and see you. To see you, just in general, amazing. But to see you here! To see you doing this! My mind is blown." She spoke to him as she moved around the side of the bed to grab the remote and click the TV off before sitting next to him. She was excited too, of course, for the opportunity of this tour, this experience, to broaden her horizons, to become more cultured. But at the moment, she was reeling in what this all meant for him.

They looked at each other for a moment, the silence was there, but it was not uncomfortable. He looked different to her for some reason, but she couldn't place what had changed about him.

"Can I take you for dinner?" he asked.

"I'd love that. I just have to change." She smiled, he nodded.

"Unfortunately, it's too much effort to leave the hotel, so we'll just go downstairs if that's alright."

"For sure." She agreed, thinking he meant that after a long day, he didn't want to bop around the metropolis. Little did she know at the time, it was much more involved than that.

There was so much for her to learn. So much innocence to be left behind.

"I can drink here legally!" Nick called out to her as she changed her clothes in the bathroom.

"Wow, Carter. I'm sure that is really new territory for you as well." She responded sarcastically. He smiled to himself with a light laugh as he looked around the room. Her jacket draped over a chair, her headphones and a walkman on the desk with a small notebook and a pack of gum ” the simple artifacts of her life - another relieving comfort.

As they ventured down to the restaurant, Nick dialed his speed dial save #3.

"Hey. I'm heading to dinner downstairs. … Coll is with me now. I know, I should have. Well, I'll see you in 2 minutes. Yes, sir." Nick laughed as he hung up, shoved his phone back into his pocket, and pushed the call button on the elevator.

"Billy." He informed her. She nodded. "Bodyguard. He gets anxious real easy."

Coll pursed her lips, not sure what to say.

For as much as she and Becka speculated about this experience, her naivety was surfacing rapidly. She questioned whether she was out of place - in Europe, in this scenario, and in Nick's life right now in general.

She left it to simmer as she stepped into the elevator.

Billy was waiting for them when the doors opened in the lobby.

"Coll, Billy, Billy, Colleen." Nick made quick intros as the two shook hands.

"Whatever you need, you let me know. You don't go anywhere without me or my permission."

"Oh, I-"

"I haven't given her the riot act yet." Nick interjected.

Billy gave him a look; they were all silent as Coll's eye darted between them.

"Colleen, it's great to meet you." Billy bowed his head in her direction, "I'll be at the bar." He stated matter of factly as he moved into the restaurant, leaving them alone but not out of eyeshot, never out of eyeshot.

The nervousness was evident on Coll's face, but she didn't say anything as they were seated in a large booth in a quiet corner of the restaurant.

She slid into the booth as her eyes scanned the rest of the surroundings. She could see Billy, sitting at the bar, phone to his ear, about 60 feet away from them.

"Is he always that intense?"

"Billy? Yes."

"Do I -"

"Look, I don't want you to worry about anything. The only thing you have to do is let him - or Jen - know if you're going somewhere. I'll get your pass and stuff tomorrow. You just have to be careful. It's a little crazy out there."

Nick made short work of filling her in on some of the current threats: crowds - massive, unruly, loud crowds -were the number one issue at the moment. Anywhere the guys went, there were crowds. Marks - as Nick called them - you do not lose your mark. Lose your mark, and you're in trouble. Marks included passes, tickets, passports, IDs, or any other travel-related or tour related materials and any information about where you should be and when. And finally, lone crazy fans - or small groups of them. "As a female who has any association to any of us ..." he grinned before going on, "particularly me - you're at above-average risk for assault."

Coll's eye nearly popped out of her head. She knew important things were happening for them right now, but they were bigger than she could comprehend, especially from afar. For all she did know though, there were significant gaps. Her college friends weren't into BSB or their music, though they would dance to it at bars when it came on. She wasn't in the demographic, so she had missed a lot of the details on the public response.

"I mean, I saw TRL."

"Right, so…" Nick sighed, brushing his hand across the smooth tabletop for no reason. "Don't befriend them. It's too dangerous." he laughed.

"Thank you for the advanced warning … ?"

"Look, you've got the security of the entire operation; it's just that our operation is much smaller than theirs."

"Who's?"

"The fans."

Dinner was, after the scare wore off, fun, relaxing, and enjoyable. Conversation flowed easily, the food was delicious, and three rounds of drinks were consumed.

"So what else should I know? Anything? Tell me about the people." Coll inquired honestly as she pushed some rice around on her plate.

Nick's eye got wide. "Well…." He began with the people she already knew and ventured into people and particulars she could never have imagined to ask about.

In the time it took to eat a single meal, a whole new version of reality made itself apparent - and accessible to Coll.

"I just want you to have fun." He said, genuinely.

End Notes:
if you're reading along i'd love to know
Chapter 4 by elleinad
Author's Notes:
The following morning Nick met Coll at her hotel room door promptly at nine, as promised. Billy was five paces behind them as they headed to a conference room on the tenth floor. “I figured you’d benefit from this schedule rundown. Plus, you can meet some people.”

“Cool.”

“There will be food. Most importantly.” Nick mused as they rode the elevator down four floors. He kept his hands in his pockets; she twirled a chunk of her hair around her finger, Billy stood attentively behind them, watching.

“You’ll be friends by the end of next week,” Nick stated randomly. Unsure who he was speaking to or which subjects were to be friends, she kept quiet.

She heard a small laugh coming from behind her and glanced over to see Billy shrug slightly. It was between them.

“I’m hoping so,” Billy said.


Coll had met all the guys at one point or another, though it had been years since she saw any of them. The reintroductions were warm and friendly. There was a palpable buzz of anticipation and excitement amongst the entire group - managers, bodyguards, dancers, producers - everyone, it seemed, understood this was something bigger than they were accustomed to. In a group this large, of this kind, seeking out the bigger, more money-making ventures was a high like no other. The curiosities scrambled around in Coll’s head; her imagination was running wild. For as fast as her imagination was moving, she still wondered if it could keep up with the impending reality of all that was to come. As she sat into an oversized swivel chair at the large conference table, her eyes scanned the room, her level of preparedness for this was, she discovered, incredibly lacking.

“Alright people, listen up, first show is tomorrow…” Jen began as the room erupted into a chorus of claps and hollers.

Jen was a woman of about 5 feet four inches in heels. Her tiny frame was no indication of her huge presence. When she spoke, they all listened. She spoke to the group for a few rambling minutes then handed it over. “Paul is going to take it from here. Tim, you can run the backup.” Referencing the tour manager and his assistant, Jen stepped aside.

There was a lot of after-meeting musing about; Coll sheepishly stuck by Nick although a bit in the background, unsure how to enter into this situation any more than she already had.

“You must be Colleen!” A young woman with long tight curls place her hand on Coll’s back as she approached Coll from behind to introduce herself.

“Hi, yes.” Coll gave her a friendly smile in return.

“Angela, great to meet you!” Angela wrapped her arms around her in a big hug.

“Oh.” Coll embraced the woman as well and tried to act natural.

“I’ve heard so much about you! Apparently, we are going to get along just fine! I can’t wait to get the inside scoop on Carter. Like, for real, we are all counting on you.” Her face was so symmetrical, her long dark hair styled just right, and her smile was dazzling.

“Oh, well, I-“

“Oh god, look at me, girl, I’m such a mess. Can’t even get my head straight. Damn, I’m one of the dancers. Figured Nick had given you a roster or something, with all these people.” She laughed, “Can’t imagine coming into this without knowing anyone. Or, just one person! But anyway, really glad to meet you. I gotta run, I’ll see you on the bus, babe!”

Coll didn’t get a chance to inquire about that before Angela was gone from sight in a flash. Fast talker, mental note taken.

As Coll turned back to find Nick, she came face to face with a different member of the entourage: A.J.

“Coll!” He gleamed. “Really, honestly glad you’re here.” He reiterated what he said earlier.

“I’m so glad to be here.”

“Let us know if you need anything.”

“Will do.” She nodded as A.J. back away from her with a small wave.

Coll watched as Nick interacted with several people who she hadn’t met yet. He seemed relaxed, confident, excited. And she felt proud of him for it. When she had seen him last year, the guys were still recording Millennium, morale was good, but no one knew what to expect. Fans were anxious. Now that the results were in, everyone seemed a bit more settled. People were feeling a bit more secure. The space they were in now was also terrifying in some ways they hadn’t even come to consider yet.

Nick finished up what he was talking about, introduced Coll to the small group, and then excused them from the conversation. He made eye contact with Billy and hung his arm around Coll’s shoulder, leading her out of the room. Billy followed behind.

“Wait, so, I met Angela,” Coll began with a small giggle, “she said something about seeing me on the bus.”

“Oh yeah, Angela. She’s cool. Thought you two would get along. Set it up so you can share a bus with her and one of our other dancers. Of course, you can crash with me any time, too, but figured you’d be more comfortable with the girls.”

“I’m up for whatever.” She smiled.

Nick laughed and assured her that was the best attitude she could have.

In the interest of self-preservation and preparedness, Coll spent the next several hours in her hotel room relaxing and continuing to get acquainted with the music Nick had preloaded on her laptop. The guys had a bunch of interviews to do during the day before rehearsal, and based on the morning meeting; she felt she better use the downtime while it was available. She wanted to be a bit more primed for rehearsal, which she agreed to attend. Nick had tried to convince her to get out and see the city, but she insisted she wanted to see the rehearsal and could venture out the next day before the show. She was also anxious to meet Brian’s fiancé Leighanne, who would be there as well.


Leighanne and Coll hit it off immediately. Brian had warned Coll playfully that one of Leighanne’s lifelong dreams was to have another ‘normal’ female on tour with them.

Even with Brian’s warning, and also withstanding the fact that Leighanne was a southern belle, Coll could not have expected Leighanne to warm to her as quickly as she did. Leighanne offered long hugs instead of handshakes, complimented Coll on even her most basic wardrobe staples, and asked questions with genuine interest. Leighanne was kind and calm and selfishly in need of a friend. They spent an hour before the show hanging around backstage, eating, drinking, and just having fun together before going out to some seats in the stadium to watch the rehearsal.

“You must be pretty used to all of this by now?” Coll asked, gesturing widely.

Leighanne shrugged, “I mean, I don’t know if you ever really get used to this.”

“Fair enough.”

“How old did you say you are?”

Coll shrugged. “22. Though only as of about 50 days ago.”

Leighanne laughed, “You’re pretty put together for a 22-year-old. Maybe you’ll rub off on Carter a little.”

Coll laughed. “Let’s not set any expectations.”

Leighanne held up her cocktail to cheers Coll, “to infinite possibilities.”

Coll looked at her with a broad smile, “To infinite possibilities!” She agreed as she clicked her glass against Leighanne’s, and they both took long sips as the lights dimmed around them.

Chapter 5 by elleinad
Author's Notes:
oh snap now are getting somewhere ;)

While Nick and the guys did press all day before the first show, Leighanne and Coll decided to venture out into Ghent for some lunch and see some sights.

“This is the first time I’ve left the hotel except for the rehearsal!”

“I don’t blame you though, I try to get as much suite time in as possible.” Leighanne agreed as she adjusted her sunglasses on her face. “Plus, this humidity is rough.”

Leighanne had a relaxed spirit and was easy to talk to. Coll felt a kinship with her and was excited to have her around.

“Humid? For a Georgia girl like you?” Coll asked with a smile as they stepped off the sidewalk and onto their day.


The buzz backstage that night was palpable. The energy level was high, people were practically vibrating with excitement.

It was a big night for obvious reasons, but also it was a night that would influence the trajectory of so many things for years to come. They hadn’t just hit a milestone, they were right in the midst of it.

In the stadium that night, swaying and dancing to the music alongside Leighanne, Coll indulged in every second of watching her friend do what he had dreamed of doing for so long- on this scale, with this massive, enthusiastic audience. She watched Nick closely all night, she couldn’t help it. She felt proud and excited - that much she knew - but there was something else that was less familiar - like she had just discovered something wonderful.

During the instrumental interlude, Leighanne turned to Coll and smiled widely “This is how I fell so hard for Brian.” She began, pressing her hand into her chest. “There’s something amazingly sexy watching someone you like, do something they love.”

Coll opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t. Leighanne had put words together that were better than anything she might come up with, and they all felt true and unfamiliar at the same time. She didn’t know what to do with it but, a shiver ran up her spine suddenly.

The energy persisted for hours after the show ended. Backstage, everyone was teeming with adrenaline, there was champagne, there was hugging, there was yelling. Coll’s head spun, and her stomach was full of butterflies. Upon returning to the hotel, she fell into a restless sleep.


After leaving Ghent, the group spent a few days on the buses - traveling overnight three times. Coll fell in comfortably with Angela and Andrea on their bus, and the three of them navigated the nuances of bus living together. Andrea had toured before and provided some insights for a more enjoyable experience on the bus. Angela disregarded almost all of Andrea’s tips until little by little, the benefits of obeying her rules became apparent. Everything was moving so fast - the learning, the adjusting, and the pace of the actual movement around Europe.

They had two hotel nights and two shows in Birmingham. The first show was great - and special in its own way, but the shows that followed that opening night kept topping each other as everyone got more comfortable and more amped up.

Watching from the audience always had Coll feeling a bit of a jumble. She couldn’t quite identify what the feeling she kept experiencing during shows was. It was unsettling; it kept her attention, it was like a craving for more of something. It was warm and also distant at the same time. Like she could just barely grasp it. All she knew was she had never felt anything like it before, it wasn’t entirely bad, but it was wildly unfamiliar. Leighanne would continually comment on her own experience, but Coll couldn’t take ownership of any of those for herself as Leighanne’s connection was obviously different. There was no way Coll would be feeling the same way watching these epic performances as Leighanne was. For Leighanne, it was watching her future husband live out his dream. Coll had no idea what it was for her, but she told herself it was just the newness of everything, the allure of lights and stage. But it still kept her awake at night.



-

Beck, this is going to be quick because I have to get back on the bus soon and just happen to have an ethernet here. Anyway, can you please send updates on the apartment search?? Dying to know when you’ll finally leave the nest. *crying face* JK. See if you can come out between July 11 and 18 - we will be in Spain then! I know you’re dying to meet a Spanish hottie *wink wink* let me know. Oh, and how are mom and dad?

-



Coll waited for confirmation that the email sent before disconnecting and folding her laptop away and shoving it into her bag. She grabbed her water bottle off the desk and checked the room over once more. She took her suitcase and trolleyed out of the room, leaving another suite behind.

As she arrived in the lobby, she spotted Brian first.

“Hey, sunshine.” He said as Coll approached.

“Hey! Am I late?” She looked at her watch.

“No, you and I are the only ones on time.” he smiled. “Well, Leighanne, too, she just went to check something.”

“Ahh, I see.”

“Howie and Kevin are consistently five to seven minutes late for everything. I know Nick and A.J. both wandered off last night with some girls … we’ll probably see them last.” Brian took a quick headcount on where everyone might be and when they might show up. As he spoke, a ball of anxiety crept into Coll’s throat. “Did you sleep, alright?” Brian asked. Coll’s gaze was set on the front desk of the hotel, her mind running circles around itself. She didn’t hear Brian’s question the first time.

“Coll?”

“Hmm?” She snapped her attention back to him.

“Did you sleep, alright?”

“I did.” She lied, “Gotta love those hotel beds.” She has slept poorly, restless, and her head stuffed with things to think about after last night’s show.

“YES, YOU DO.” A.J. suddenly commented as he approached them from behind. “It was a great night, thank you for asking.” He grinned and adjusted his sunglasses on his face after dropping a small duffle bag to the floor.

“We don’t need the details,” Brian replied.

“I wasn’t going to provide them,” A.J. smirked. “Though I’ll hope we get some from Nicky because I-“ As he began, Coll felt a wave of sunken misery in her stomach, she dreaded what he was going to say, and she caught herself in a conflict. Was she just uncomfortable talking about her best friend’s sex life? Was it because she was nearly positive Nick was still with Mandy…

Weren’t they ... dating? Or, coupled up? Was it over? Was he cheating?

Any of those possibilities could have caused a slight off-putting feeling. Or was there a different reason for the murky, unidentifiable malaise?

“I’m here, let’s roll!” Jen yelled to them as she exited the elevator, raised her hand in the air with a snap, and continued walking. Brian laughed and ran over to her. Coll exhaled deeply, relieved the conversation was interrupted. She stood quietly until further orders were given. When Nick did finally join the group that morning, she avoided him, unsure how to reconcile the things she knew for sure about him sleeping with someone last night and the things that were still unknown to her about her feelings about him and whatever he had done.


They were entering into the third week of the tour when Coll woke up around 5 am in her room in London. They had arrived two days ago after a week on and off the buses, it was a relief to be staying in one spot for a few days, but the sleep did not reflect that. It was a rainy, muggy morning, and condensation was accumulating on the window. She got dressed and decided to make her way to the hotel lobby, where she knew she could get some coffee.

It was a surprise to see Nick when she arrived at the coffee bar. She smiled to herself, and her pulse quickened as she snuck up behind him.

End Notes:
interested to follow these two some more? i'd love to know
Chapter 6 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

"You're up early!" She chirped.

He was startled a little as she plopped down across the cafe table from him.

"Wow, it's too early to be so… peppy."

"Ugh, trust me," she sighed "I'm not actually. Was just happy to see you." She adjusted the chair underneath her. "No, but seriously why are you awake?" She asked and looked around a bit. She spotted Billy a few tables over with a newspaper in front of him and waved a little.

He shrugged, "just wasn't sleeping well, had a lot on my mind." He rubbed the inner corners of his eyes with his left hand, pressing the bridge of his nose.

"Anything you wanna talk about?" She asked kindly, briefly making eye contact with him that sent a little shiver up her back.

He shrugged again.

She sighed and tried to wave the waiter over.

"Just like, so much happening. Here, at home, then I've got Mandy all up in everything."

She hadn't heard him talk about her so much, she actually heard everyone else talk about her more than he did. And in the past week, she put it together on her own that they were still some level of together though it definitely was not exclusive. She was afraid to bring the subject up at this point; she knew the basics from past emails. Nick and Mandy met at a show she was one of the artists at, she was trying to launch a music career, she was recording an album, she was blonde...

"What's going on at home?"

"My mom has been acting kinda nuts lately." He sighed heavily. "It's all of this. She gets carried away. It's the money."

Coll nodded, understanding. Nick had mentioned that a few times in passing over email, but she was never able to get more of the details. And she didn't push for them. He knew he could talk to her about it if he wanted to.

"And Mandy?" Coll realized she might have sounded a bit more interested than she intended. She had to admit, she did want to know what they were doing, and what he was doing without her, but she didn't want to let on that she was quite so interested.

Nick pressed his lips together.

"It's just for fun." As the answer slipped off his tongue, he knew it was the truth. Though lately, it felt less and less fun.

Enough said. So maybe it is just casual.

Coll nodded as the waiter came over, she placed her order and clasped her hands together on the tabletop as he retreated.

"Fun is ... good."

Something inside him hurt. "Good" was not a word he would use to describe any of his romantic relationships. "We do have some fun. But it's not ... serious. Not for me, anyway." He spoke over the unfamiliar guilt that flowed through his chest. It caught him off guard.

What was there to feel guilty about?

"Is it serious for her?"

"She wants it to be more serious than it is. I guess that's why when she is all up in my business, it feels annoying - because, for me, it's not what it is for her. That's part of the reason I need to break it off with her."

"Oh, I didn't realize it was … ending." Coll said casually, not sure what else to offer. She still wasn't clear on their relationship or what either of them was trying to accomplish in it. But she wondered what he meant by 'all up in his business'... because she was the one here, following him around Europe.

"It should." There were many reasons he had considered breaking up with her, but truthfully, guilt for sleeping around wasn't one of them. Until Coll mentioned Mandy's name today, Nick had never once felt guilty messing around with other girls while he was with her. His desire to have the freedom to be with whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted was selfish, and it was why he convinced her to go along with his open relationship scenario. What usually felt like age-appropriate selfishness and surface-level questionable behavior suddenly felt like a giant ball of tar sitting in the pit of his stomach.

He didn't get what he wanted from Mandy, but he still had not felt a satisfaction beyond fleeting instant gratification with anyone else either. He knew his behavior was erratic, reckless, and generally irresponsible, but he had no known reason to change it.

Keeping Mandy in the picture was selfish; it gave him the trappings of a relationship without commitment. Mandy got to call him her boyfriend, and he got to maintain his lifestyle. Everyone could be happy with that, right? Except he knew it wasn't right, but he never really felt it was so wrong either.

"I'm not a good boyfriend." But that was what she wanted, so at least he tried to give her something.

Brushing it off, burying it a bit deeper, he assured himself he would fix everything with Mandy when he saw her next. Letting her go would be the best thing for both of them, he told himself. Then he could do whatever he wanted without guilt... right? He was feeling guilty for wanting an open relationship with Mandy, not for actually pursuing things outside of her once she agreed to it…

... that had to be it.

But just in case it wasn't, he tried not to let on too much about his reckless behaviors to Coll. It was embarrassing.

"Just break up with her and be single."

Coll assumed whatever it was Nick was doing was not too far off from what most of the people she knew at school participated in, and she used that to justify the things he had revealed, though they were minimal. He did not explicitly say he was sleeping around, and she assumed he didn't know she knew he was.

She was one of the only people she knew of who had not slept with half a dozen people or more, so maybe she just didn't get it.


The next two hours were spent just talking about anything and everything. They eventually moved to a more comfortable booth and hung out till 7 am when they both felt sleepy. Nick suggested they go back upstairs and watch a movie and hopefully doze off, Coll nodded in agreement, her senses suddenly heightened, and they went back to Nick's suite to browse the options available. After settling on something and watching it for twenty-four minutes, they both fell asleep on Nick's bed.

That night at the show, Coll and Leighanne toasted Guinnesses to their standard, "infinite possibilities" and also "rainbows on everything," which Leighanne added at the end. The two of them were developing their own relationship - one that was separate and unique from the relationship of the group or of Nick to Brian and Nick to Leighanne. Both of them felt so lucky for it.

As Coll watched the show that night, she sipped her beer and focused mostly on her own thoughts... and also closely tracking Nick around the stage. She hadn't nailed down what it meant, and she wasn't sure it mattered, but watching him on stage felt nice. Underneath the murky, unfamiliar feeling, she decided it was oddly enjoyable, so she did as much of it as possible.

Was there anything so wrong about wanting to feel good? No. She justified it.

She was looking for - or waiting for - clues.

After her morning chat with Nick, she found herself turning his situation over in her mind all day. She was preoccupied with it. She couldn't shake the fact that he seemed moderately depressed - at a time when he should be euphoric about the things happening in his life. And why was he still hanging on to this Mandy thing? He didn't seem joyful about it at all. And what exactly is the allure of sleeping around that she just couldn't seem to grasp?

Her thoughts ran away from her, but she made sure to keep her eyes on Nick.

"What do you think they think about while they're up there?" Coll asked Leighanne, not taking her eyes off the stage.

Leighanne smiled at her, "you should ask them!"

"You don't have any inside scoop?" Coll laughed.

Leighanne shook her head, "You're an insider, too!"

Coll raised her eyebrows, "Not the same way you are."

"Trust me, whatever it is Brian thinks about is WAY different than whatever it is Nick thinks about."

"Oh, I wasn't asking specifically about Nick…"

Leighanne smiled, "I know."

Leighanne hopped along to the music for a few seconds before smiling at Coll again, "You're really cool, you know that, right?" Coll laughed and shook her head. "No, I am not. I am the most basic, boring, normal person. This is the most excitement I've seen in my life."

Leighanne looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "You so totally are not. And …this hasn't even started yet." Leighanne gestured widely to everything. "Not even close."

The following morning Coll was on her way to the hotel restaurant to grab some breakfast when she decided to stop by Nick's room and see if he wanted to join. They would be in London for another two nights before heading back to Germany, and though the guys had a few press events, they had the next two nights off. Coll hit a hard left at the end of her hallway and made the paces to Nick's suite door. She knocked four times and waited.

Nick opened the door, surprisingly more awake than she had expected.

Instantly he knew he had made a massive mistake. Again. It was one thing allude to his reckless and questionable behavior and feel bad about it, but it was entirely another to be looking at her while he was going about it. This was exactly what he wanted to keep her in the dark about.

"Hey, I'm going to get breakfast, do you-" She trailed off as she heard a female voice say something inaudible from somewhere in Nick's suite.

He winced.

"Oh. Oh god, I'm so sorry…" She whispered as a crushing embarrassment flowed through her body. She covered her mouth with her hand. Nick's face was pale but flushed red through his cheeks. She suddenly noticed too that he was holding a towel around his waist, and a warm fog crept out of the room behind him. She felt her heart lurch up into her throat, and a feeling of incredible loneliness swept over her.

He hung his head and shuffled his feet uncomfortably. At that moment, every piece of him knew he had to stop doing this. He also discovered that whatever enjoyment he got from these escapades could not make up for the lowness he felt right now. "I was just about to take a shower." He stated evenly, his guilty conscious banging at every space in his chest.

Coll nodded and backed away slowly. "So sorry!" She mouthed to him, cringing, backed away quickly, and hurried off.

As she waited for the elevator, she reminded herself that Nick's private life was none of her business, and she didn't and shouldn't care whether he was committing any relationship fouls or who he was committing them with.

Of course, it is normal for a friend to care about that stuff, though, she thought.

Her stomach flipped over a hundred times as she rode the elevator down, her imagination was running wild.

Who was he with? How did he meet her? Was she a fan? Does he do this often?

How much longer could she play it off like she didn't care? And why was she so turned on while simultaneously being so put off?

Salacious thoughts whirled around without aim. She walked through the motions of gathering breakfast and going back to her room without a lot of cognitive thinking in the matter. Her brain was too busy processing Nick's situation. Her stomach felt nervous, and her back tingled.

Upon arriving back to her room, she set her plate down on the desk and threw herself into her bed. Her phone vibrated in her back pocket.

It was so uncommon to receive text messages from anyone at all, but her phone was letting her know that she had one from John.


_ r u in boston at all?

_ im in europe w a friend

_ :( but also wow

_ hows ur summer?

_ fine. wanted to hang.


Coll rolled her eyes and slipped her phone back into her pocket. She had bigger things to worry about right now.


Everything moved slowly for the rest of the day, painfully slowly. Coll called Billy to let him know she was heading out for the afternoon and would be back before dinner. He asked if she needed anything, but she assured him she was okay. Which was true. In all the ways Billy could help her anyway. Coll disappeared into the dampened city, eager to be somewhere no one knew her, and she could be away from the hustle for a while.

She was preoccupied all day again about Nick. What she had witnessed this morning lasted a maximum of one minute, but it unlocked a floodgate inside. Thoughts she had been trying to suppress for weeks flowed out, thoughts she didn't even know she had poured over the barriers she had built up.

She popped into a cafe for a coffee and sipped it slowly at a small table, thinking about Nick's sex life to an unhealthy degree. She had her self working overtime keeping her thoughts to even just X-rated.

The history of London and the draw of royal and beautiful places were no match for the thrill of the quest to somehow quench whatever thirst had been activated this morning.

London could wait, she had to indulge herself first.

She jumped from one department store to the next, making excuse after excuse to no one but herself to wander through the lingerie department, linger by the perfume counters and even convinced herself to try on a slinky little slip of a dress. She grinned at her reflection in the dressing room mirror, thinking about the sort of compliments she might receive while wearing it, and from whom. Her entire body felt like one frayed nerve ending, but she continued to tell herself it was nothing more than curiosity - something she had imagined - a story she should probably write maybe … a task she had put off entirely thus far.

Innocent curiosity, nothing more.

That seemed logical.

It was four o'clock when Coll arrived back to the hotel, as she turned the corner of her hall, she saw Nick sitting outside her door with his head in his hands. Her heart began banging away in her ears from the inside.

End Notes:
let me know
Chapter 7 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

"Hey." She said softly as he noticed her approach and got to his feet.

"Hey, look, I'm really sorry about this morning and what you-"

Coll shook her head. "No need to be sorry. You're a grown-up." She giggled and slipped her key into the door, unlocking it. He followed her in.

"No, I know, but I…" For all the time he spent sitting there waiting for her, he hadn't been able to bring his thoughts into words.

"It's really just none of my business," Coll assured him as she took her jacket off and threw it over a chair. "I don't really understand the dynamics of you and Mandy and whatever agreement you have. It's none of my business. You know what you're doing." She smiled weakly.

He absolutely did not know what he was doing but let her believe it anyway. Also, he realized he hadn't even meant to apologize for anything he made her think regarding Mandy; he just felt he had to apologize to her … for everything.

"Also I pass no judgment, Becka slept around a ton a few years ago. I get it. People have … things." She shrugged, though she actually had no idea exactly how much sleeping around he was doing; she imagined it could be however much he wanted as there was no shortage of willing participants. "But you should probably just let Mandy go. I mean, you're here apologizing to me ..."

The twinge of guilt settled into him, he had no idea what was happening. Was it just because he felt like she was a better person than he was? How come he could talk to Mandy after screwing around with other girls and feel okay about it, but talking to Coll made him feel like a heaping pile of trash? The possibilities made him uncomfortable, he ignored them.

"What did you buy?" He asked with a sigh, motioning to the shopping bag she had brought in. She smiled and tried not to blush as she hid her face behind her hand, casually pretending she had an itch.

"Oh, nothing. Just a dress." She stated simply, leaving out mention of the perfume she also bought that cost about the same as two textbooks.

Nick nodded as he watched her run a hand through her hair and reach for a water bottle on the desk. He had a hollow feeling in his back as he watched her sip from the bottle, and as she returned it to the surface of the desk. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the desktop. He caught her eye and noticed his mouth felt dry. He became aware then that she smelled absolutely divine.

"Do you want to hang out tonight? Howie and I were going to up to place his friend owns over near Notting Hill."

"Yeah, I'd love to! Is it okay if I tell Leighanne? And I guess Brian? We sort of spoke about doing something."

"Sure, yeah. I think Howie mentioned it to Brian already."

"Alright, cool."

"So. We're good?" He asked, sadly.

"All good - not to worry." She nodded, swallowing back some anxiety, hoping the awful feeling she had would pass, but also knowing she was totally wearing that dress tonight. She calculated that she should have time for a quick nap. She was exhausted, her brain was on overdrive, but it had no clue in what direction it was meant to be heading.


As Coll approached Nick and Howie in the hotel lobby that evening, she immediately questioned the dress.

"Oh god, am I overdressed??" She asked, self-conscious due to the blank look on their faces.

"Huh?" Howie asked.

"No! No, you look… great." Nick smiled as he shoved his hand further into his pocket.

"Oh, yeah, no Coll… you're great, you look great. Awesome dress." Howie stammered.

Coll looked at Nick, who was grinning at Howie's reaction.

Coll's dress was a floral, primarily red and black silk - it was clinging to all the right spots, but it wasn't revealing or overdone. It was a great summer evening dress. It landed above her knee in a whimsical, thin rolled hem that moved effortlessly ever so slightly even when she stood still. The spaghetti straps followed the curve of her slender shoulder to her mid-back before the fabric spread out down into a deeply curved and lightly cowled back. She had to admit it fit her like a glove, and she felt confident in it until she thought she might be overdressed.

Awkwardly she adjusted the small crossbody bag she had across her chest, banging it against her hip gently.

"You look awesome," Nick assured her as Coll's eyes caught his. She found herself savoring the small window of opportunity to swim around in that deep abyss of light blue while she had it. She smiled weakly at him and began telling herself some lies in an attempt to hold it together. Nothing is happening.

She took a deep breath, "Are we waiting for anyone else?" She asked casually, even though she knew full well that Brian and Leighanne had decided on a romantic evening dining along the Thames.


Howie's bodyguard, Jay, accompanied the three of them to the restaurant that night. Dinner was delicious, and the cocktails were spectacular.

"I'm so full." Howie groaned.

"This was beyond amazing," Coll said as Howie's friend, Camino, swung by their table again to check on them. They all spoke for a few minutes, and before long, Howie was following Camino back into the kitchen to check something out. Jay watched from his spot at the bar as Howie left the table, but Nick and Coll remained seated, he got up and followed Howie, only after checking on Nick.

"You good?"

Nick nodded.

Jay looked between Nick and Coll and slowly backed away from the table.

"I know you, Carter." He smiled and pointed at him.

Coll watched as Nick flashed a wide smile and shrugged. Jay disappeared into the kitchen behind Howie and Camino, and Coll resumed her indulgence.

"Alright, this is our chance," Nick said mischievously.

"For what?" Coll asked as she took the final long sip of her drink, fittingly called The Hill, which was basically a cosmo.

"To get out of here."

Coll narrowed her eyes at him. "Why would we leave this magical haven of delicious libations?!"

"So, we can have some unsupervised fun."

After the day she had, that sounded so much dirtier than it was probably meant to.

"Okay." She agreed without much thought as she slid out of the booth to follow him.

"Do you really feel like you're being supervised when you're with one of the guys - the guards?" Coll asked as they exited the restaurant.

"Not always, but today."

"So, what do you wanna do?" She asked as she walked alongside him slowly.

"Just … whatever." He smiled.

The evening had brought drier weather, and the sky was much clearer now, the fresh air felt nice.

"Are you gonna get in trouble for this?"

He shrugged. "What are they gonna do? Fire me? As long as we don't let on that, I'm… me … we'll be fine. Most of our fans are in bed by now." He joked.

She crossed her arms casually over her chest as they walked.

Coll felt comfortable enough admitting to herself, finally, that she was attracted to Nick.

Okay, that's not so terrible, that's normal, he's good-looking, this is okay.

She worked herself into a loop of inner dialogue where there was an attraction, and that was it, she assured herself. It's natural, inevitable even! But there are no feelings that mean anything. She willed herself to believe it, no matter how many times she had to tell herself - it had to be true: There is an attraction. There are no feelings. The end. Great. It's settled.

"How's your work been going?" Nick asked as they crossed a street into a more residential neighborhood.

"Work?" It was a distant concept, she had to admit.

He smiled and laughed a little, "the writing!"

"Oh," She blushed. "I haven't really gotten into anything yet."

He nodded, "I know it's been a little nuts."

"Yeah," She laughed lightly, "I guess inspiration hasn't struck yet." The truth was that even if inspiration had struck, she wouldn't have known it. Her mind was too busy processing everything else, there was no space for inspiration to take up residence at this time.

"Are you having fun, though?"

"God, yes. I am loving it all, it's crazy, but … yeah. Thank you again, this has been awesome." She said. "I do have one question, though."

"What's up?"

"Am I sexxxuaaal?" She teased as she did a toned down, mocked up version of his signature dance move.

"Very funny..." he laughed, "very nice job."

She giggled and pushed some hair behind her ear.

"We know what Howie's answer is to that," he said with a grin.

Coll rolled her eyes.

"You look hot, just accept it." He said.

Shit.

She blushed so hard her face felt like it was on fire. She hoped he couldn't tell through the darkness and the distance between them as he was several steps ahead of her now.

Before she could respond, he was on the curb, flagging down an approaching cab.

"What are you doing?" She asked as a black taxi came to a slow stop in the road where Nick had shuffled over to meet it. He opened the back door and gestured for her to get in. Still unsure what was happening, she obeyed anyway. He closed the door behind her as he ran around to the other side and hopped in as well.

"Bunny Jackson's, please." Nick said to the driver, who nodded and began to accelerate again, "Best dive bar in London. Jay told me about it." He explained with a grin.

Her mouth dropped open. "He knew your little plan? To sneak off?"
"No, of course not. But at least now he might put it together that's where I went."

She smiled at him and raised an eyebrow. "You would be fun in Boston." She stated simply as another floodgate opened in her imagination.


They spent the next four hours singing along to live music, toasting cocktails to various things, and having long, intoxicated talks at the bar or in deep, plush booths between two levels at Bunny's. The alcohol tempered any anxieties either of them had, and the unfamiliar feelings felt less unfamiliar for a while.

Just two people having fun together.

"Okay, first Paris, then Boston." Coll negotiated as she lifted a small glass to her lips.

"Fine, Paris. Boston. New York." He counted off the places they decided they would need to spend more time in than this tour would allow, "Then Marathon. Because you still haven't been to my house."

She nodded. "Marathon. Right. Florida. God's country." She teased as she lifted her glass to toast to that.

"Okay, now you especially need to come because why do you hate Florida so much?"

"So much?!" She exclaimed, "No. just an above-normal amount."

"But I wanna know why! Florida is gorgeous." He laughed, running his hand through his hair as he adjusted himself on the barstool. "Why do you not like Florida an above-normal amount?"

"Okay, first, there are no seasons."

"Well, we mostly have the one greatest season. I mean, is there some season that is better than summer?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yes. Fall."

"Okay, now I know you're crazy." He reached over and put his hand on her thigh, leaning into her a bit. Her body instantly ignited. "I thought you might be crazy when you said that we should add Kentucky to the list, but now I know for sure."

"I mean, Brian loves it there." She retorted as casually as possible. "But anyway, yeah, Florida might be pretty, but you've never been to my Boston in the fall."

"I've been to Boston a lot." He reminded her, taking his hand back off her thigh, leaving her body fully lit.

"Not my Boston." She corrected as they both took long sips of their drinks.

He wondered what her life was really like in Boston. He knew she was busy with school a lot, but she often mentioned Melanie, soccer games, concerts on the common and a couple of bars she and her friends went to regularly. He wondered what they'd do there together and if he would fit into her life there at all, even if it was just a short visit.

What did she mean when she said I would be fun in Boston?

"That's why we are putting it on the list."

"Fine. Paris, Boston, New York, Marathon." She repeated.

"Then we can go to Kentucky if you really want."

She shrugged, "We'll see." She looked at him and blinked away the trance he set on her, "To unknown destinations." She lifted her glass for the 90th time that night.

"To seeing where we'll end up."

She looked at him curiously but asked no questions. His eyes scanned her face, taking particular notice of the line that swooped from the back of her ear and around her jaw before wandering over her lips and back to her eyes.

She was so pretty he almost didn't recognize it. Her hair was falling in loose, waves around her back and shoulders - they were the perfect kind of messy. He had noticed her hair was not even fully dry when she came down to the lobby earlier.

Did it just dry that way? Shit, has she always been this pretty?


She pushed her glass into his gently, breaking their eye contact again. She could feel him looking at her still, though, as she sipped. She didn't hate it. She swallowed hard.

"Let's play the game again," Nick said excitedly as he put his glass on the bar top.

"Sure." She smiled. About an hour ago, they had a rousing game of 'would you rather,' and Nick had been thinking up new ones since they finished.

"Okay. Would you rather have twenty toes or twenty fingers?" He asked an air of innocence played in his voice, thinking for sure this one the best one of the night.

She thought about it, tilting her head, "are the toes all on my feet? Or are they where fingers should be? Do I still have fingers?" She asked, seriously.

He hadn't really thought that much into it. "I don't know... toes where fingers should be, I guess?"

"In that case, I'd rather have twenty fingers."

"Interesting.." he nodded.

"I'm thinking like, you could wear big shoes to cover up the fingers as toes thing. But you would still have functioning hands...you could also probably get plastic surgery..."

"True. Good point." He nodded. "To twenty fingers!" He lifted his glass and they toasted. "Your turn."

"Okay. Would you rather ... give up sex or money?"

His eyes widened. "Do I get more sex if I give up money?"

She narrowed her eyes at him. "No."

"The same amount I have now?"

"Sure."

"Is it the same quality?"

She rolled her eyes "I don't know.... yes. Same as now."

"I'd rather give up sex."

"Really?" She was surprised, also a little sweaty.

"Do you think I'm some sex-crazed weirdo?"

"No, I'm just surprised. Why?"

He shrugged. "Sex is fun, but you know ... it's not like amazing." He explained. She did not know, but hearing him talk about it was dangerous. "Sometimes, I do better on my own." He laughed. She nearly spat her drink out but managed to swallow it before giggling.

"Jesus, okay. Well then. Your turn..."

"Would YOU rather give up money or sex?"

"Money. I don't have that much of it anyway." She answered quickly.

"Oh, I see, that was only an interesting question for me because I have a lot of both??"

She shrugged. She had no idea why she asked, but all the pent-up tension from the day had to escape somehow, though this did barely anything to satisfy it. It was just an excuse to get some insight, which she received...

So he is having a lot of sex? Best to wrap it up now.

"I feel like this game needs more context." She speculated, in an effort to move the subject to a safer place.

"Probably true." He agreed.

She sipped her drink quietly, wondering what sort of mess she was simultaneously creating and sidestepping and how much longer she'd be able to stay out of the mud of it. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Nick was looking at her, and she turned to face him again.

"Do you want to take a walk?" He asked. It was already one-forty in the morning, but he wasn't asking if she wanted to go back to the hotel, he was asking her to go on a walk. To spend more time together.

She nodded. He threw some money on the bar and slid off his stool, she followed behind.

They walked through some quiet residential streets, making small talk as they went about the colorful row houses and anything else that came up.

He found himself wishing Coll was someone else, or that she - as she was- was someone he had just randomly met tonight, no history at stake, because he desperately wanted to do something, even if it was just holding her hand. He checked himself - did he want to take her back to his room? Did he want to kiss her? It wasn't any of those. At the moment though, he just wanted more of what they had been doing all night. He couldn't remember the last time he had real fun with a girl, actual dialogue, something that felt comfortable and good enough to keep wanting to do it.

He thought about how he had said he'd rather give up sex than money, and even though it was just a random conversational question, he wondered why the sex he was having was not worth holding on to.

He watched as she walked alongside him, her body moved easily, she wasn't trying to do anything for his sake. He was well accustomed to knowing when someone was acting in a way that was not natural to them; he had seen countless women walk, stand, talk or act in a way that they thought made them more attractive to him. He had forgotten what natural beauty looked like and how it handled itself - it was such a distant memory that watching her that night gave him that feeling of elusive newness.

Coll knew they had both been drinking a lot that night, and that was probably a factor. However, she felt at ease, her belly still got that little nervous feeling when she thought of him in any state of undress, but her thoughts were a bit more linear now than they had been earlier and spending time with him felt good instead of convoluted - it was relaxed between them. The unidentified malaise was tolerable, even enjoyable at times. The happiness had outweighed the bad parts of it. For a brief moment, she felt a sense of peace, she felt completely blissful. The air was perfect, the night was quiet, there was nowhere to rush off to, no one was screaming or taking pictures. The things she had thought would make this summer memorable had their place, but it was this perfect moment that she would remember for years to come.

Realizing that he might be getting himself into something he shouldn't, he tried to look away as she walked a few paces in front of him and held her arms out to her sides as she began to twirl around on the sidewalk, but he couldn't.

Her feet were light on the pavement, bending so that only her toes touched the ground. Her dress swung away from her legs as the air lifted it easily.

"It's such a beautiful night." She said quietly, tilting her head back, wrapping the night air around her in an invisible blanket as she moved.

Her hair flew back gently, and a relaxed, wide smile played across her face. His peripheral vision narrowed, he couldn't see anything else.
She enjoyed two full spins, the carefree feeling was a good one, and it had been so long since she had it.

She looked over her shoulder and saw him smiling at her. Full sobriety took over, and suddenly, she saw something new about him, something in his demeanor, something about the way he looked at her. And in the space of one second, she knew she was done for. She knew her work just got a lot harder.

Chapter 8 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Leaning on the countertop, with his hands on either side of the sink in the bathroom the next morning, Nick looked himself over in the mirror.

He looked and felt tired. He stood there - slightly hungover - pensive, and in deep thought.

He recounted the last few moments of the night before. It was three o'clock when he and Coll arrived at the door of her suite. They lingered for several minutes, he hung on her door jam, trying to prolong the night, she smiled and pushed her hand through her hair, and they hugged for an extended period of time. It took every ounce of self-control he could muster to not try anything with her, but it also felt like he was finally doing something responsible. Still, he had allowed himself to indulge in what remained of that perfume he was so drawn to, and to put his hand on the part of her back that her dress didn’t cover. He knew he had stepped into dangerous territory, and now he had to sort out what it meant that he had and that he enjoyed it.

Looking into his own eyes, he began to convince himself that whatever he wanted last night with Coll was a product of being intoxicated. That was a likely enough actuality, he could believe that.

He convinced himself that there was no possible way he could have had a bad time with her.

So that part didn’t count, really. He told himself.

She was the only person untouched by celebrity - or who was not wrapped up in the fantasy of fame - that he had spent any time with at all in the past year or more. She was just there for him, there was no threat of her wanting him for any selfish reason, so his guard could come down. And that, of course, had to be the reason he had as much fun as he did and felt the things he felt, whatever they were. That’s what he calculated. It was a simple equation.

While all of that was true, his subconscious mind was working on the other truth: because of those same reasons, he was falling for her. He just wasn’t ready to know that yet. His defenses were building up, creating cognitive darkness around the full truth.

The time he had to contemplate, everything was cut short by an aggressive knock on his door.

He left the bathroom and his reverie behind and went to the door. Upon opening it, he saw Billy standing in the hallway looking incredibly pissed off.


Down the hall, Coll didn’t wake until eleven, when her phone began to ring. In a daze, she made her way to the device to see that it was Eric calling. She silenced the call and sat back down on the bed. She began to gather her thoughts about the previous night and the day going forward.

Last night almost felt like a dream, but as she checked herself this morning without the influence of any substances, she knew she was waking up into a new reality: a reality where she was fully aware of and admitting to herself that she was falling for Nick. In this reality, she knew she held on to him for longer than she should have when he hugged her at the door last night. In this reality, she was obsessed with the feel of his hand on the exposed skin of her back. In this reality, she was totally and utterly clueless as to what to do.

She would go on hiding the truth from everyone else, and even trying to talk herself out of it, but she had to be honest - at least with herself that this was more than innocent curiosity and simple attraction. She genuinely enjoyed their talks no matter how random or juvenile they were, she enjoyed the heat that rushed through her body when he put his hand on her thigh, and she felt more a sense of adventure sneaking off with him four miles from their hotel than she did even coming all the way to Europe to begin with. He excited her in ways she hadn’t felt before. It was the most excellent feeling, but it also terrified her.

What an epic fucking mess.

If what had happened last night had happened with anyone else, she would not be waking up alone. The mountain of history and the cherished past between them was either going to be the glue that held them together as they had been or the thing that kept them apart in the way she really wanted them to be.

She spent the rest of the day consumed by her own thoughts.

He said I looked hot, what did that mean? And “to seeing where we end up” … ? was that REALLY related to fictional travel plans?

And then, of course, there was the way he looked at her - no, into her. It was a crazy revelation, but at least now she knew what she was working with, and she knew she had to continue to try and get herself past it. It had to be a fleeting phase.

Maybe it will wear off. It can’t be this way… you can’t fall for your best friend.

In an attempt to avoid as many people as possible, Coll ate a granola bar she found in her bag and stayed in her room most of the day. She spent time checking emails and trying to distract herself with writing projects that had been untouched for weeks, though very little progress was made.


--

Coll, can’t come out till the 21st. It’s just easiest that way, where will you be then? Ugh, that’s SOOO long from now. Miss you too much. How is everything? The apartment search is alright. Meh. I need to get out of here ASAP though, dad is obsessed with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire - and the dad jokes just don’t stop. “is that your final answer??”’ he just doesn’t get tired of it… SAVE ME.

-

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ColleeeeenPea my baby bee, miss you so much, please send me photos from your magical summer in europe. -Mel


-

Colleen, please call when possible. Do you have enough money? dad.

-

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unread: Boston University News: New Mural on Campus east.

unread: Let’s Reset Your password

unread: omg lol

unread: cats

unread: (no subject)

-

My life is even more mundane than I had originally thought, She considered the sad fact as she pressed her hand to her forehead and opened a neglected word document as she sighed heavily.

The cursor flashed at her, marking the middle of an unfinished sentence. She stared at it for several minutes before hanging her head in defeat. So boring.

That evening, Coll was watching a British drama on TV when Nick knocked on her door. As she opened the door and saw him there, she willed herself to act as she normally would despite her newly semi-understood feelings about him.

As Coll opened the door, Nick felt that similar wave of relief he felt the first night she was with them in Germany, seeing her for the first time in so many months. She was so normal, and he was reminded that being in her presence was relaxing, especially after the day he had.

“Cute outfit,” he commented with a smile.

She looked down to remind herself what she was wearing and blushed a little as she giggled at herself, standing there wearing a matching pajama set covered in rubber duckies.

“Thanks, I try.” She replied. “Anyway, what’s up?” She asked.

“I got reamed out about last night.” He explained as he came inside.

She swallowed hard, trying to hide any emotion that might bubble up. The feeling of last night being something of a dream still remained even after a long day of talking herself in circles about it.

“Billy was... angry. If there is a word bigger than angry… maybe that.” He laughed lightly, remembering the look on Billy’s face earlier that morning.

“Enraged? Incensed ...” Coll offered as she followed him into her suite.

“Like a combination of those.” He sighed as he crashed down onto her bed, reclining into her pillows. Her heart skipped a beat.

“I guess I understand that.” She nodded.

“It wasn’t dangerous at all.” He defended himself again.

She tilted her head at him. “A little risky, though...”

“It was worth it.” He smiled at her, and she felt her heart in her throat. What does that mean?

She nodded slowly with a conservative smile, “It was really fun. And we didn’t get trampled, so that was a plus.”

“So what did you do all day? I didn’t see you.” He asked as she sat on the edge of the bed opposite him.

Nick listened as Coll reiterated what Becka said in her email and relaxed further into the comfort of the pillows on her bed as she spoke. It was easy being with her; she was uncomplicated, drama free, and constant. Do not corrupt her. Do not corrupt her.

His world outside of this room was a rush of madness, he was always in motion, operating at a high energy level. But in this moment, he was able to breathe. He didn’t have to be “on,” which he enjoyed greatly. He didn’t have to pretend, or act, or follow any scripts... he could just sit there and enjoy the fact that it wasn’t all about him for a minute.

He watched her talking, watched as her hair fell over her shoulder, and she picked at one of her nails. He watched her closely, falling into a state of distraction - she was familiar, but she also felt new.

“Nick?” She asked, looking at him curiously.

“Hmm?”

“What’s up? You zoned out for a minute.”

“Sorry, so what did …?” He trailed off. Had she mentioned Melanie?

She smiled at him, “Melanie, yeah, she wanted pictures - and my dad is worried I’m going to run out of money.” She recounted both stories, not sure where she lost him the first time.

“Do you need money?” He asked, concerned.

“No. He’s just being a dad.” She giggled, “Are you seriously okay?”

“I’m great. It’s just nice to chill.” He sighed, “You’re easy to chill with.”

They made casual conversation, she told him about her unfinished writing projects, he elaborated more on what Billy said, she told him about a funny story she saw on AOL that morning, and he mentioned that Mandy would be out in a few days to visit.

They flipped through the channels and talked about the immediate future for a few hours until they both fell asleep on her bed.

Waking up in the middle of the night to see Nick asleep next to her was a bit startling at first. As she remembered what had brought them to being asleep in her bed, the shock wore off, and a natural sense of comfort and security took over, which she loved and also hated. As she laid there in the dark, she could feel it deeply that unless she could move past these feelings, she was most certainly setting herself up for a profound heartbreak that would result in a tainted friendship - if one remained at all - and the death of romantic possibility. But having him there next to her was so good.

End Notes:
i would love to know if you are reading + hear your thoughts
Chapter 9 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

The week that followed was incredibly hectic, lots of shows and lots of travel by bus around Germany. In some ways, Coll appreciated it, as it kept her and Nick from having too much time together, which she thought was something that would give her more time to process her feelings away from the romantic inclination they were on.

On the other hand, she still made every effort to sneak time in with Nick, talk with him, or even just watch him. It was a constant battle of wills - her will to go back to seeing him as nothing other than her friend and her uncontrollable will to want to feel the warm, fuzzy sensation she felt when she was with him.

As time passed, Coll decided that Nick must not have felt anything between them that night in London, as there was no indication that he had or that he wanted to clarify it. Still, she couldn't shake the way he looked at her, the way he lingered at the door, and even some of their interactions since then…

… it has to mean something.

It made her uneasy knowing her own feelings but being in the dark about his. Did she even have a right to know? She tried her best to just be okay with whatever it was or would or wouldn't be, and just for good measure, she tried to talk herself out of her feelings, though, for the most part, she enjoyed the feelings, even if they were unrequited.

Mandy was able to come out for four days between her already scheduled activities. Based on what she overheard or happened to acquire through various means, Coll came to understand that Mandy was NOT willing to change her plans to extend her time with Nick. This was likely fine since Nick had made it clear he was interested in ending things with her anyway.

For as much as Nick knew for sure that breaking up with Mandy was the best thing he could do for both of them, something else kept tugging at him, telling him he should hang on a little longer.

Avoidance is a powerful force, especially when it's not even clear what exactly you are avoiding.

To keep himself from having to face any of the realities he was thus still in the dark about, Nick's subconscious mind offered the solution of keeping things up with Mandy through her scheduled visit, putting the breakup off as long as possible. As long as he was tied to her still, he could continue to hide behind his boyfriend facade. And while that was comfortable, he knew he had to end it before she left again. Reckless behaviors thought themselves up as a means to that end.

Letting Mandy on all week was an unkind thing to do, but, he rationalized, he'd never done a single thing right by her - what could a few more days of being a horrible boyfriend hurt?

Plus, it wouldn't be right to break up with her as soon as she got there anyway.

And if they weren't breaking up, he had to act normal until they did.

And acting normal wasn't terrible - they'd both get what they wanted and be on their separate ways by the end of the week.

He also knew though that he didn't want Coll to know to what extent he was getting his, even if she could conceptualize it was just for appearances.

Could she? Why would she think of it at all?

That was the story he convinced himself of. It was decided - keep up the facade as long as possible.


Mandy wasn't as much of an airhead as Coll had initially come to think she was. Based on what Nick told her, Leighanne's insight, and other clues she picked up along the way, she had figured Mandy to be a tragic case of girl-loses-herself-for-boy. Upon meeting her, though, she realized maybe she had it wrong. While she certainly was a bit of a Barbie girl, Coll got the sense a lot of that was also a put on. Nick and Mandy were in one big charade with each other. And Mandy knew exactly what she was doing.

It was apparent that Mandy was sticking it out with Nick, hoping he'd eventually want more with her so that she could get more out of him. At the same time, Nick was using her for his out sordid goals, too.

Watching them interact was strange, and Coll knew some of that could be jealousy, at the same time, though, she would never want what the two of them had, even if it meant having the opportunity to explore her feelings with Nick.

For all the reasons Mandy made Coll uncomfortable, she decided to keep her distance but mustered up as much kindness as she could for Mandy. It was unsettling watching Nick do things she didn't think he should do with other people, but it was even worse now that she also had developed feelings for him.

While Coll tried to keep her distance from Mandy, Mandy seemed to seek Coll out whenever possible. Unable to tell if she had an ulterior motive or not, Coll kept her interactions with her as limited as possible. Was Mandy trying to get on her good side? If so, why? Was she just faking it? Or was she being genuine?

"You gals ready?" Mandy asked with a peppy enthusiasm as she approached Leighanne and Coll, who were finishing up their dinner in catering that night before the show. "First time I'm seeing this show live, don't wanna miss the opening!"

Leighanne looked between Coll and Mandy as Coll opened her mouth to speak.

"We can meet you out there if you wanna go ahead."

"No, no, I'd rather we go together."

"Alright, just two more minutes. They don't start on time ever anyway." Coll explained.

"Ahh, typical." Mandy sighed as she adjusted her freshly minted pass around her neck.

"Did you eat?" Leighanne asked.

"Not much, but yes," Mandy responded as she hovered near the table.

Leighanne and Coll finished their meals quickly and moved into action, settling Mandy's anxieties.

"Coll, I love the way you've dealt with your hair," Mandy commented as she reached out and touched Coll's ponytail as the three of them walked the hallway to the stadium door.

"Oh, thanks," Coll replied awkwardly, not sure what Mandy meant by her comment.

"It's so hard to have stringy, mousey hair like that, my sister's is like that. Lifelong struggle."

Leighanne's eye widened, and she and Coll looked at each other, stunned.

Coll smiled at Mandy, unsure what else to do. "Yes, it's so hard." She agreed sarcastically. "I've really had to work to overcome it."

"You've really managed it well, what color are you using?"

"This isn't a color, it's natural."

"Stop!" Mandy gasped.

Coll laughed as they continued down the hall, totally thrown off by Mandy's comments and motives. Totally annoyed positive that she had to avoid her at all costs after this. As the three of them watched the show that night, Coll analyzed what she knew about the situation with Mandy and began to identify her pattern. It had only been a full day, but Mandy had given her enough information. If other people were around, Mandy went to extremes to interact with Coll, to be super nice to her- when no one else was around, her interactions were less frequent and also not as kind.

Throughout the show, Mandy was also analyzing, and she frequently looked at Coll to see how she was reacting to the show, specifically to Nick. When Nick spoke, she watched Coll. When Nick sang, she watched Coll. When Nick came around their side of the stage, she watched Coll. The information she was gathering should have upset her, but it didn't.

The three of them headed backstage before the encore to hang around the lounge for the remainder. Mandy wandered off, Leighanne scouted for a soda, and Coll reclined into a sofa. It was freakishly quiet for a few minutes.

As the guys were coming back off stage, Mandy was returning from the bathroom but delayed her entrance as she observed.

Everyone was sweaty and energized, there was hollering, and the momentum hadn't burned off yet. Brian embraced Leighanne when he saw her, Kevin, A.J., and Howie were all removing some part of their costume or headset and taking seats around the lounge, chatting amongst themselves. Nick made a beeline to Coll and sat next to her, she smiled at him and reached her arms out, Mandy could see his body relax as he fell easily into her for a hug, Coll made a comment about how great the show was, he responded, they laughed about something together… Mandy waited for him to notice she wasn't there, but it didn't happen. She smirked to herself and made her way over to them.

"Hey, there you are!" Nick smiled up at her.

"Great show!"

"Thanks!" Nick nodded as Coll stood and walked away from them, Mandy watched Nick as he watched her go, before sitting next to him in the seat Coll had left.

"So, you liked it?" Nick asked her.

Mandy sighed, "I did, there was so much more to it than I expected." She nodded thoughtfully.


First thing the next morning, Coll took a quick shower, got dressed, and settled into a seat on the edge of her bed while she dialed Becka at home. Feeling the awkwardness and wanting to avoid it with Nick, she took her frustrations with Mandy to Becka, who, as a future therapist in training, was reasonably decent at navigating these types of things. She made quick work filling Becka in on everything that she had observed and experienced with Mandy in the past day.

"Now, please try to make your analysis brief as I am calling you from Switzerland."

"She's trying to make you jealous."

"Of what? I'm not trying to have what she's got."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes." Coll breathed heavily. "She's not making me jealous."

"Are you sure?"

Becka was the only person Coll couldn't really hide from, but she relied on the buffer of distance and auditory loss to cover up most of her signals. "Yes, I'm sure." She lied. "She also said she was surprised at how well I dress considering I'm on a college kid budget," Coll added, bringing the conversation back to a safer spot.

"What the hell?"

"I know, really bold statements…." Coll bit her nail.

"So she's all nice and such in front of Nick, but when he's not around, she's a bitch?"

"Basically. I mean, she's not 'a bitch,' she acts bitchy. So many backhanded compliments… so far, anyway. It feels like she's trying to dig something out of me."

Becka sighed. "A reaction, probably. They are both using each other. You should try to just stay out of it. Let him deal with her. She probably wants to play little miss victim."

Coll could hear it in Becka's voice that she was loving analyzing these two.

"It's about her manipulating the situation to put you in a position where you're victimizing her - she's going to push you to the point where you are outwardly avoiding her, making it look like you don't like her. Then she's going to go to Nick and whine about it. She is hoping Nick will step in and defend her to you - so she can see: look, he's on my side, look he's defending me, he must love me."

"You know I don't have feelings for him." Coll reiterated randomly, mostly glazing over everything Becka had said, distracted by her own desire to make sure Becka left this conversation convinced that Coll's feelings for Nick were unchanged.

"I hear you telling me that you don't. But no, I don't KNOW anything." Becka smiled.

Coll rolled her eyes and tapped her foot on the floor in front of her.

"Trust me, she is smart enough for this, too," Becka said. "She sounds like a master manipulator. These things come easily to them. You might have to play into her hand a little."

As Coll opened her mouth to speak again, there was a knock at her door.

"Becka, I've gotta go. Thanks… I guess… for the insight."

"Keep me posted."

"Bye." Coll hung up the phone and moved in the direction of the door. Relieved, in a way, to be off the hook with Becka for the time being.

"Good morning, sunshine!" Brian's wide smile greeted her.

"Hi!"

"Leighanne is sleeping late, but I'm dying for a crepe, she said you'd be awake and also that you love crepes…?" Brian asked.

Coll smiled, "She's right."

"She always is.."

"You know we are in Switzerland, right?" Coll asked.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. But last time we were around here, we went to this place, and it was amazing. And if I wait for Leighanne, I'll miss it." Brian explained, cheerfully with a laugh. They had to head out to Rome around two o'clock that afternoon, so she was sympathetic to both Brian's desire for crepes and Leighanne's desire to sleep.

"Alright, I'm down."

"Great! Let's go. Tom is waiting downstairs."

"Alright, give me three minutes," Coll said, holding the door open for Brian. He watched as she quickly brushed her hair out, slipped her feet into sandals, and grabbed her bag.

"Why are you actually awake this early?" Brian asked.

Coll thought about which answer would be most acceptable. She didn't want to tell him she planned on eating breakfast so early there was no chance of running into Mandy or Nick, or that she had to call Becka for emergency therapy as soon as she could this morning. "I didn't close the blinds last night, I was up with the sun."

"Ahhh."

"You weren't interested in having crepes just you and Tom?" Coll smiled as she and Brian left her room, pulling the door closed behind her.

"I'm not sure Tom eats sugar." Brian began, "He's so buff." He said in his best girly voice.

"We will find out!"

Chapter 10 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Breakfast with Brian was more entertaining than she expected. Brian was constantly singing, making sound effects to go along with whatever they were doing, or cracking jokes. Coll could barely keep up with his quips, but her face hurt from smiling so much. Brian asked about her life back home, about Becka, and about her parents. He asked about college, and what she wanted to do in the future. She was surprised he was so interested but was happy to fill him in on things as she knew there was certainly an allure to her slow and boring life when one was living at the pace he currently was. Coll hung back as Brian greeted a couple fans who spotted him in the restaurant on their way out, relieved they were being extremely respectful and kind. Brian, of course, was more than happy to oblige them but also made it quick so he wouldn’t draw more attention to himself and they quickly departed after that.

As the three of them arrived back to the hotel an hour later, they ran into Nick and Mandy by the elevators.

Nick looked surprised to see Coll and Brian together and inquired about it before anything else.

“We went to get breakfast.” Brian answered.

“Just the two of you?” Nick asked, looking between Brian and Coll.

“No, Tom too. I don’t have a death wish, unlike some people.” Brian joked.

Coll laughed, Nick looked uncomfortable. Mandy was busy looking at herself in a mirror, fixing her hair, but still watching the scene behind her. She had seen a lot more than she let on in the past day or so.

Coll looked at Nick curiously as Brian interjected, “Let’s go make sure Leigh’s awake.”

“See you guys later,” Coll said as she followed Brian into the elevator, she and Nick looked at each other until the door closed completely.


On the plane to Italy that afternoon, Coll sat a couple rows behind Nick and Mandy, next to Angela with Andrea across the aisle from them. Angela talked a lot about various things, and Coll did a lot of nodding and smiling, agreeing when appropriate, offering only small snippets of dialogue as she was desperately trying to sort out what the status was between Nick and Mandy. He had told her several times he wanted to end it, and that it had to end…

but, obviously he was still sleeping with her - did he still plan on ending it? What was he waiting for? Was he going to be the ultimate scumbag for sleeping with her and then turning around and breaking up with her the next day? Was she telling him things that made him change his mind?

She felt like a crazy person, it was none of her business and she had to get herself back to behaving that way.

Upon arrival at the hotel in Rome, Coll and Angela made plans to take quick naps and meet up for some sightseeing in the early evening. She wanted to be as far from the hotel, Nick and Mandy as she could be as she assumed, since it was their night off, the two of them would have plans together and she wanted to protect herself from knowing too much about them.

“I can’t stay out all night.” Coll warned as they took the elevator to their rooms.

“Me neither, but why?” Angela asked narrowing her eyes.

“I have to wake up early.” Coll began, “Extra early.”

“For what reason?”

“I want to get an early start?”

“Just tell the truth, chica.”

“I want to get to breakfast before Mandy does.”

“Wow you really dislike her more than I thought.”

“No, I really, don’t care either way about HER. She’s just …” Coll sighed, “She’s annoying.”

Angela could see there was more to it than that, but stayed quiet.
“Okay.”

Later that night, Angela looked for clues, listened for hints, and tried to sort out why Coll was taking her avoidance of Mandy to this level but didn’t ask any questions. Just listened. And around midnight she and Coll made their way back to the hotel.


On that third morning of Mandy’s visit Coll rose early to get to breakfast before Mandy and Nick likely would. “Just in case.” Coll told herself as she slipped out of her room before 7am.

Success was hers as she settled into a seat next to Brian at a long table with her plate of eggs, ham, fruit and a tiny scoop of beans. She was actually surprised though to see almost everyone else except Nick and Mandy awake as early as they were.

“I just love the idea of eating beans for breakfast.” Coll mused as Brian and Howie both nodded.

“It is actually a pretty good option.”

Getting to know the guys individually was one of the most rewarding parts of this trip for Coll. She had found a friend and confidant in Leighanne, who also inspired Coll’s imagination in many ways, but the guys were different. She was fascinated by all of their stories, all of their accomplishments. She hadn’t realized it, but they were interested in her for the same reasons. Mutual friendships were developing and it was a nice change of pace for all parties.

“Thanks for joining us!” Howie announced sarcastically as Nick entered the room, sweatpants and teeshirt on, feet in sliders.

Nick smirked and made his way over to the breakfast spread. He nervously brushed his hand through his hair without saying anything, just tried to stop any further commentary before it started by staying quiet and began to pour himself a bowl of cereal.

“Looking like you had a good night.“ A.J. stood up with his plate as he looked Nick over and trailed off down the buffet line. He plopped a breakfast sausage next to a waffle and came back to the table.

Around the table, smirks and hollers erupted in Nick’s direction. Comments about having a wild night, banging headboards and other sexual commentary ensued.

He looked uncomfortable and continued to stay quiet. “You know how it is.” He said quietly as he took a seat with the others at the table as well, sitting diagonally across from Coll.

A bunch of heads nodded and mouths full of breakfast “mmhmmed”

Coll laughed under her breath. “Well to be perfectly honest I wouldn’t really know.”

30 days. That’s how long it took for this to come up, she had to remember to tell Becka whose original bet was 4 days. “Four days?! You think the subject of my virginity is going to come up in four days?! With near strangers?!” Coll was exasperated by all the things she and Becka had spoken about that night but she remembered this one thing in particular. It only seemed like a big deal to everyone else. She was completely comfortable with it. May as well get it out of the way now.

“Wait. What?” Nick narrowed his eyes at her as Coll but her lip. “You haven’t …?”

She shook her head, eyeing him trying to determine what he was thinking, feeling an odd mix of pride and vulnerability.

Coll had contested the issue with loads of people over the years: her sister, her friends, her boyfriends, but she realized now that it never explicitly came up with Nick. For her it was a non issue, but for some reason it was fascinating to others who had been sleeping with everyone they ever so much as glanced at for the past ten years.

He was looking at her, quiet for a moment, his mind reeling. He shook his head.

“Look, I’m not a prude. I’ve done just about everything else.” She stated as she brought her glass to her lips. She could feel the others looking at her. “I just never felt ...” she started, stopping to think what she was trying to say, noticing how quiet it had become, “I just want to ... have that with the right person.” She pondered the rest of her sentence. “I never felt enough ... to, you know... I just want to only go all in with someone I want to really go all in with.” Her eyes drifted up and landed on Nick’s hand grasped around a water bottle.

She sat there quietly, hands on her elbows leaning slightly into the table. Nick’s eyes bore into her, his mind a tangle of thoughts. Why did he care so much?

It was a maturity he didn’t have, and that he felt he was off the hook for. He should be young and reckless while he could, he should do whatever he wants while he still can... but why didn’t she want that, too? The thoughts ran around in his head silently. He tried to convince himself it was okay he didn’t have the same morals she did, but he couldn’t quite tell ... did he want to?

“I think that’s great.” Brian shrugged. “Good for you.” He eyed Nick from across the table who was still staring at Coll, and he saw it when Coll’s eyes wandered before landing on Nick’s catching his gaze as Nick quickly looked away.

The moment was brief, but something about it struck him.
“What about that guy from last winter?” Nick asked, unable to believe what she was telling him - or still trying to validate his own morals, hoping she was even just a little bit corrupt.

“What about him?”

“You used to tell me he spent the night and stuff.”

Coll smiled at him, “Yeah he did. A person can share a bed with someone and not have sex with them.” Had he forgotten the two of them had done it?

Some casual conversation took over and breakfast continued. Just as Coll was getting up to leave, Mandy pushed through the swinging doors and briefly greeted everyone before gathering her breakfast.

As she finished, she rounded the table to find the only available seat was the one next to Coll which Brian had just recently vacated. As Coll realized Mandy would bet sitting next to her, not too keen to sit through a meal with her, she began her exit.

“Where are you off to?” Mandy asked sweetly looking down at Coll as Coll reached for her room key on the table.

“I’ve got a train to catch.” Coll said quickly and stood up. As she stepped away from the table Mandy somehow managed to spill her juice all over Coll’s bottom half.

A unilateral gasp was heard around the table and Coll stood there dumbfounded.

“Oh god, I am so sorry.” Mandy stated plainly, remorse only moderately evident in her voice. She quickly looked across the table to Nick. Coll stood there looking at her feet and pants, soaked in juice as a few of the others sprung into action to get some napkins and help clean up.

“Mand. What the hell?” Nick asked, coming around to their side of the table.

Coll bit her lip so hard she thought it might bleed. She looked up to make eye contact with Mandy and smiled a frustrated but sympathetic smile at her.

She took a deep breath before opening her mouth to speak. Nothing came out.

Mandy stared at her, watching her as she moved in slow motion.

Coll took a few steps out of the juice puddling at her feet and shook her sandal off.

No one said anything for a few minutes while the mess settled.

Coll left the restaurant without a word. Mandy looked on as Nick as he watched her disappear, his face concerned and frustrated. She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t.


After a quick shower and changing her clothes, Coll went ahead with her day as planned. She set out into the city without a real idea of where she would go. She was hoping to find some streets to wander and a cafe and a bookstore or two to pop into. The day was a blank canvas, away from the stress that was Mandy, and all hers to enjoy.

Coll returned to the hotel that night around 10 pm, which she timed so she would have no chance of bumping into Mandy as she would be at the show. It worked and she made it to her room undisturbed. She spent the rest of the night doing things that were supposed to be relaxing but ultimately made no difference to her overall demeanor. She was still spun about thinking about Nick and Mandy and their status.

Chapter 11 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

"Is she honestly trying to piss me off? I have barely seen her, and she is still making me mad." Coll told Leighanne as the two of them ran on side by side treadmills in the hotel gym the next morning. Leighanne was kind enough to bring a plate of food from breakfast for Coll, as she requested, so she could avoid Mandy. After watching Coll pick through the food she brought, and hearing Coll's complaints about Mandy all morning, Leighanne finally decided it was time to work in an inquiry for the question of the week. She saw her shot, and she took it.

"Look, you know I don't love her either. And you also know I love you so much." Leighanne breathed heavily, arms pumping at her sides, "But, I also know you well enough to know a few backhanded compliments wouldn't tie you up like this. Are you sure there is nothing else going on?"

Coll turned her head briefly to look at her. "Well, SHE, in general, is pissing me off ... doing all of these things cumulatively ... the juice!"

"I think that was truly an accident."

"Ugh. No, I swear, she has been needling me this whole time. Like she's trying to get something out of me."

Leighanne didn't say anything as she continued her jog, wanting to get whatever else she said right and wanting to crack the code on Coll... without her knowing that's what she was trying to do. She didn't know enough yet and decided to drill further into Mandy's possible motives instead.

"Maybe you are just the lightning rod."

"What do you mean?"

"She's probably seeing all that's going on, with all the fans, all the attention Nick is getting..."

"Okay."

"But you're here. You're the one who is close enough to take her anger out on. Even though she's mostly just… weird to you…"

The hum of the treadmill, their feet hitting the rubber, and their labored breathing filled the space between their commentary. Both of them were thinking that what Leighanne said made sense, but both knew this was just the surface of the reason.

"If it were me, and I didn't know you, I would feel threatened by you, too."

"What?? Leigh! I swear on a hundred bibles I'm not interested in Brian!"

"No, I know!" Leighanne smiled, "I mean, I kind of get it - It's easy because you're gorgeous, and you have a close relationship with her boyfriend, and you're here...."

"Okay," Coll replied, processing all the pieces.

"There's also the very likely possibility that she thinks you're into him."

Coll laughed it off and rolled her eyes, her stomach doing flips inside.

Coll reached in and lowered the speed on her machine to a walking pace, Leighanne followed suit, and the two of them walked for another fifteen minutes.

"You're still coming out tonight, right?"

"Yes, I'm not going to be the only one to stay here!" She replied angrily.

No further words about Mandy were exchanged that morning. Coll was in her thoughts about it but uttered not another word.

As she finished her walk, she speculated on what might happen that evening. Mandy was set to leave them the following night, so everyone planned to go out in the city as there was no show scheduled. According to Leighanne, it would be simple enough with a VIP set up, to avoid massive crowds. Coll wasn't so sure about that but knew she couldn't be the only one not to join them.

"Just stick near me and Brian," Leighanne interjected.

Coll shook her head. "I'm getting so good at being your third wheel," Coll replied.

"We love you!"


Three vodka tonics and an hour on the dance floor later, Coll excused herself and made her way over to one of the booths in their VIP area to sit and chill for a minute. She was warm, thanks to the near cardio workout of dancing and the alcohol. She reached for a glass of water that was sitting in front of her, figuring it had to belong to someone in their group, she drank it without thinking twice. She slumped back into the soft cushion of the booth and watched as everyone continued their good time. A.J. was making out with a woman he had invited in from the other part of the club earlier, Brian and Leighanne were having their good time without their third wheel, the dancers were at the bar doing shots, Howie and Kevin were flirting with some random women… and Nick and Mandy were making out in the middle of the dance floor. Coll lowered her head, subconsciously narrowing her eyes at them.

She watched them for a while, for longer than she should have.

Nothing is happening. She assured herself. NOT jealous of Mandy

She just felt like Nick deserved better, she rationalized.

It is upsetting to see a friend caught up in something that's bad for them.

She rationalized.

This is bad for him. Her brain was working overtime to put a fence around the emotions.

He's confused. He's got too much going on right now to know what's really happening here. She's taking advantage of him. That makes sense, right?

"Coll." Angela's loud voice jolted Coll out of her reverie.

Silently, Coll looked up as Angela slid into the booth next to her.

"Girl, you alright?!" Angela had to practically yell over the music for Coll to hear her, for her to hear herself.

Coll nodded.

"Damn girl, how much did you have to drink?"

"Not enough." Coll sighed as she looked back to Nick and Mandy, still making out. Still obnoxious. Her stomach hurt. The reality of her situation was settling in, the walls were getting harder to build.

The night went on, Coll hung with Angela, and a few of the other dancers at the bar for a while had a couple shots with them and stayed mostly quiet. Stealing glances of Nick and Mandy when she got a chance. She was lost in her own thoughts, made worse by the head-pounding music, the alcohol, and the discomfort of the situation at large. Why hadn't he come to hang with her at all? What was he thinking about the big reveal of this morning?

An hour after figuring out Coll's plight, Angela pulled her aside. "Come with me to the bathroom." She yelled as she took Coll's hand and led her away from the crowd. Coll brought her drink with her.

The dimly lit bathroom was quiet, but the deep hum of the music persisted.

"What's your deal with Carter? Are you catching feelings?"

"Am I what?" Coll asked, never having heard that expression before.

Angela leaned against the sink counter and sighed. "Do you have feelings for him?"

"No." Coll laughed.

"Then why do you keep watching them?"

"I'm not."

The two women looked at each other, each trying to figure the other out.

"Look, just know it's obvious," Angela warned as she spun around to check her hair in the mirror. Coll watched her, unsure how her hair could move at all with all the products she knew Angela used. Shifting her gaze over to the stalls across from them, Coll sighed and dropped her shoulders.

"I'm not jealous of her." Coll asserted.

Through the mirror, Angela looked at her and smiled.

"Are you telling yourself or me? Because I didn't ask."

"He doesn't even want to be with her."

"Yet, he is." Angela mentioned, "And also, you care about it."

Coll was quiet, she had no defense. Her senses were out of whack, her mind was tired. She couldn't think of a good rebuttal, so she just didn't respond.

Coll pepped herself back up and returned to the dance floor with Angela, who silently dedicated herself to making sure Coll didn't do anything stupid the rest of the night.

"I know how you college girls get," Angela spoke directly into Coll's ear as she swung her arms around Coll's neck while a Britney Spears remix played.

"Angelllla. I swear, I am fine." Coll smiled weakly.

"Coll, you have to do you!! You're too beautiful."

The two of them were tipsy, and there was frequent giggling.

"Ang, I've got this," Coll assured her as they swayed together. "You don't have to worry about me."

"Listen, you're not some naive little girl, don't play that role. You are better than this. You are better than her, his loss if he doesn't know it."

"I'm not trying to have him know it!"

"Don't be that person."

Coll didn't really know what she meant but shook her head. "I'm not jealous."

"Don't talk yourself to it. Don't wait for him."

"What?"

"Don't talk yourself to where you want to be!" Angela reiterated in a louder voice.

Strobe lights glinted above them, the room was pounding with energy, someone bumped into them, and the drink in Coll's hand spilled a little. She looked up and saw Nick across the room in a beam of brief light, he was alone, she felt a wave of relief. She blinked her eyes hard, adjusting to the changing light and the sway of the alcohol. What did it mean to be relieved? Her eyes found him again as the lights spun around, but this time she was with him. A small fire started in the pit of her stomach.

"She's no good for him!" Coll yelled as Angela continued to sway to the music with her arms around Coll's neck like they were slow dancing at prom.

"I know!"

Coll smirked and took another sip of her drink, looping her arm around Angela's.

"He told me it was over with her, why is she still here?" Coll asked, sincerely.

Angela shook her head and rolled her eyes.

"You are not going to be his rebound. Over my dead body."

"What?"

"You aren't rebound material. You deserve more - you deserve everything."

Coll looked at her curiously.

"Someone told you about the virginity thing."

Angela nodded. "Wish it would have been you!"

"It never came up," Coll said. "Also, that's not 'special' I'm just a regular person. I'm not special." She said sadly.

"Oh, please."

"I swear, Angela, I'm so normal."

Angela shrugged, "Around here, normal is special. Also, you're surprising. I like surprises."



Things were winding down as the clock ticked past 2 am. Coll, Angela, and a few of the other dancers were sitting in a large booth, finishing off their last drinks. Angela was leaning on Coll's shoulder as Coll sat stoically watching as Mandy hung from Nick's neck. He seemed tired or annoyed. But then again, who wasn't? Mandy had her face close to his, nuzzling his neck, kissing his mouth.

Suddenly Coll's eyes met Nick's. Her skin crawled, and her reaction to look away was delayed. He smiled at her before Mandy had her mouth on his again.

Coll leaned further into the booth, slipping down in her seat, covered her face with one of her hands, and quietly told herself nothing was happening.

The threads that were holding her together were thinning, Coll felt herself losing the control of her emotions, she felt herself beginning to spin slowly off the course she had set herself on.

"I'm drunk, and I want to go back now." She said as she swallowed back some tears. Angela nodded in agreement into Coll's shoulder.

Chapter 12 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

In his hotel room that night, while he was getting undressed, Nick noticed he was not nearly as drunk as he ought to be. He sat on the edge of the bed and massaged his neck with his hand.

Mandy sighed as she came out of the bathroom and into his suite, still wearing the clothes she went out in. She sat next to him on the edge of the bed, her body a bit tense. She leaned in and put her face close to his, and they kissed for a minute.

She pulled back and smiled, weakly. “Nick, I’m leaving in the morning.”

He looked at her curiously. “I thought your flight was after dinner?”

“I’m leaving early.” She said as she stood back up.

“Did something come up?”

She smiled at him. “Not for me.” He was lost. “I think you know it’s over between us.”

Taken aback, his mouth fell open, was she really going to make this that easy for him?

“I came here thinking I’d give it a chance. I even honestly wanted to … like, find some way to get you to prove to me you cared.” She began shaking her head, “I’m not upset. I’m relieved. I know the truth now. Or, maybe I knew all along, but… now I realize. We were never anything worth keeping.”

Nick’s mind was racing. Was he supposed to fight her on it? Agree with her? Was she really saying this?

The tone of her voice was softer than he would expect it to be for what she was saying, and he was confused by all of it.

“It’s pretty obvious what’s happening here.” She smiled, her eyes wide, honestly feeling kind of excited by all of it.

Is it?? Why is she smiling? Why is she being so calm?

“I really like you, and we have a lot of fun, but… that’s it. We are both in this for the wrong reasons. You know that.” She put her hands on her hips, looking down at him, still sitting there.

He opened his hands out, “I mean…”

“You have opportunities right now that I don’t want to stand in the way of. I like you enough for that - to let you experience what’s meant for you right now.” She started moving around the room.

“Wait-” He stood up, trying to take an active role in whatever was happening.

“No.” She shook her head. “These past few days have been interesting. And I know my place in this equation - I don’t belong here, or with you, not now, not ever really but especially not any more … We had fun, it was good for a while.” She sighed, “I knew you didn’t feel the same way about me as I felt about you - but I had hoped you would eventually. Now I know, that’s stupid. I was stupid! I don’t want to be that person. It wasn’t obvious to me until I came here this week. I don’t want to waste any more of your time, and I especially don’t want to waste more of my own.”

He had so many questions he couldn’t decide which one to ask first.

“I just wanted to have one more night of selfish, reckless fun.” She admitted.

“Tonight?”

She nodded, “But I honestly don’t feel great about it right now. I spoke to Andrea, and I’m going to crash in her room tonight.”

“You are?”

“Nick, listen to me. I honestly am just - excited for you. I can see the way you are with her. It’s sort of sweet. And she is just… I don’t know, she’s good for you. I really wanted to hate her, but I can’t.”

“Who?!” He asked, his eyes narrowed at her.

“…Coll.” Mandy stated plainly.

His heart sank into his stomach. “What?” His heart began to race, his body temperature was rising.

“After all this, you really don’t have to play dumb.” He assured him.

He watched as she walked around the room, grabbing various things and shoving them into her bag.

“I don’t know, I’m just relieved.” She sighed, “It’s not me and I am relieved.”

“Mandy, I swear I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Okay, Nick, that’s fine.” She rolled her eyes, “I’ll pretend I believe you. It really doesn’t matter. It’s over and we both know it.”

“Okay, but…”

“You don’t have to protect me.”

“Protect you from what?” He asked, frustration evident in his voice.

“The fact that you’re in love with her and not me.” She shook her head.

He stood very still, his body tensing up. His throat constricted and the room started spinning.

She didn’t know if he was playing or not, but just in case he was that oblivious she didn’t ruin the surprise for him that Coll was in love with him as well.

Chapter 13 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Mandy stood outside Coll’s room the following morning, hesitant to knock but knowing it was the right thing.

She brought her knuckles to the surface and pounded three times.

She noticed her breathing was shallow and shook her shoulders back and took a deep breath. A few seconds later, the door opened, and Coll appeared.

Mandy looked at Coll and smiled before she began speaking. She could see right away Coll was confused to see her standing there. “I just wanted to say goodbye. And I’m sorry.”

She couldn’t blame Coll for being confused. The whole situation had surprised her, too.

“What?” Coll asked plainly.

“I’m leaving a little earlier than I planned. So I’m heading to the airport now. I’m sorry if what I did made you uncomfortable.” Mandy explained as she adjusted a bag on her shoulder.

Coll looked absently to either side of Mandy, not sure what she was talking about but figured she meant the backhanded compliments. But Mandy looked totally genuine, which was a different experience.

“I, umm… sure. No worries.”

Mandy considered how much would be appropriate to say. She took a deep breath and decided to keep it short.

“It was great to meet you. I hope things work out.” She smiled and began to back away.

“It was nice to meet you, too,” Coll said, not really sure if she meant it. “See you soon?”

“Probably not, but if things turn out…” She began, “Well, I guess I’ll know.” She smiled widely.

“Alright,” Coll looked at her curiously, gave her a small wave, and Mandy was off.

She closed the door, replaying the conversation in her mind. She had absolutely no clue what Mandy was talking about. She continued on with getting ready for her day as planned but did so a little slower than she had been in case any new information about the situation would present itself before she left.


The curiosity was killing her most of the day, and she decided to head back in time for dinner with the guys before the show so she could ask Nick what was going on. She took a cab to the venue and called Billy to let him know and asked him to meet her outside because she didn’t have her pass with her. He met her outside the venue with a temporary pass, and she slipped it over her head.

“Thank you.” She smiled as they walked by a large crowd of fans waiting outside. They looked with only moderate curiosity.

“I don’t really love the idea of you going out by yourself.” It was a sentiment he expressed every other day.

“I know you don’t. I appreciate that. But no one knows me.”

“Not yet.” He said as he swung a door open for her.

She shook her head. “You don’t have to worry,” she assured him as they walked to the lounge. “No one will ever know or care who I am.” She laughed.


“Hey, Coll!” Kevin said as Coll walked in behind Billy.

“Hey!” She smiled sweetly. Kevin watched as she barely slowed down for him, lifted her bag off her shoulder, and quickly walked further into the lounge, dropping it on a couch before making her way across the room to Nick. He shook his head, smiling to himself.

Nick was sitting at a table playing a video game on some handheld device she had never seen before.

She plopped into the seat next to him. “Hey.” She said.

“Hey.” He said, looking up quickly and turning the device off. She looked at him surprised as she looked between him and the device but decided to ignore the possibility he had just canceled his game mid-play.

“Look, I hate to be … nosey.”

“But…” He smiled.

“But what happened with Mandy?” She asked quietly, trying to appear more concerned than eager.

“We broke up.” He shrugged with very little emotion.

“You broke up with her? You two seemed pretty cozy at the club.”

“It was mutual.”

Coll narrowed her eyes at him. “So it’s over?”

“Yeah.” He nodded casually. The details of the situation were too revealing, so he left them out.

“And she just.. took it?”

Nick shrugged. “She was okay, yeah. She practically did it for me.” Understatement of the year.

“How do you feel? Relieved?” She asked, concerned. “Now you can … do whatever you want. Guilt-free.” As the words came out, she felt a deep sadness in her belly. That was the last thing she wanted for him, but it felt like the best conduit for getting back to neutral with him; and presented a deflection from her own feelings, which was of the utmost importance at this time, even if it was a betrayal to her own desires.

Nick swallowed hard, pushing his heart back as it crept into his throat. “I’m good. It was better for both of us.”

As she sat there, she thought about the night before, watching him with her, and knowing that what she felt was, in fact, jealousy. She was jealous of the physical closeness Mandy had with him and the fact that she got to feel his hands on her skin, and she considered how the fact she was jealous factored in now that Mandy was out of the equation. Spending the past week avoiding Mandy and, therefore, also Nick did nothing to redirect her feelings. She was nearly positive it actually made her even more interested in him. As she sat there looking at him, hearing him tell her it was over with Mandy, she knew the happy feeling that gave her was wrong but didn’t care. The breakup was good for him, and it was good for her ... and it sounded like it was good for Mandy too, so in the end, what did it really matter if it delighted her that Nick was genuinely single?
At the same time, she figured he would go on living his life, sleeping around, doing whatever he wanted ... because he could, and why shouldn’t he? Coupled with the fact that she also knew, in reality, a relationship with him would be hard - she had to finish school, he had to finish this tour... he had this life, and she had that life. They only existed in this same space- this same life - for a brief flash of time.

Getting over him before anything happened would be her best bet, but it would be impossible.

“She seemed oddly calm when I saw her,” Coll explained after a moment of silence between them as she tapped her finger on the tabletop.

“Wait, you saw her?” He asked as he sat up a little straighter.

“Yeah, she came to my room to say goodbye this morning. I asked her if I would be seeing her soon, and she said, probably not.” Coll explained.

“…What else did she say?” He asked, nervously.

“Honestly, don’t remember, I was thrown off by the fact she came to say goodbye to me at all. She was saying something like, if it works out, or … if it turns out…? I don’t know, I didn’t really get it. She was kind of a bitch to me all week.” She shook her head, “Whatever, honestly… you can do better.” She turned in her seat away from the table and stood up. Nick sat there quietly. “Like, a lot better,” Coll added as she returned to where she dropped her bag and rummaged around in it for a minute. “God, I am starving.” She said randomly.

Nick watched as she moved across the lounge to get something to eat, his heart was beating loudly in his ears, and he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. He felt different, lighter in some ways, and heavier in others. Without his boyfriend facade, and having zero interest in sleeping around after that disappointment he felt getting caught in the act, he had very few hiding places left.


It wasn’t her original plan, but once she was at the venue, it didn’t make sense not to watch the show that night. Leighanne was excited Coll decided to come back after her day out, and the emotional fatigue was enough that Coll didn’t have the stamina to venture back into the city that night. Leighanne was also excited to get back to their tradition of toasting to “infinite possibilities,” which she had adamantly avoided doing with Mandy because it was, as she told Coll, “something sacred.”


“This is my favorite song right now,” Leigh commented as the opening chords to Back to your heart filled the arena alongside the incessant roar of the crowd.

“I love that you have favorites from week to week.” Coll giggled. Last week Leighanne was all about Larger Than Life, commenting on the dance sequences often.

Leighanne shrugged, “These tours get long, I try to keep it interesting for myself.”

Coll bit her lip as the two of them turned their attention back to the stage.

In the second bridge where Nick took the lead from Brian, Coll felt a tingle in her spine. She wondered how this would play out - would she eventually break down, crying at his feet, unable to go on pretending? Would anyone catch on to her? Angela was already on to her… was anyone else? Was Leighanne?

The sound of Nick’s voice was too much at the moment. She felt dizzy with overwhelm.

“Enjoy the rest of the show, I have to call Becka,” Coll said quickly as she leaned in to touch Leighanne’s shoulder.

“Right now?” She asked, confusion in her voice.

“I know, terrible timing.” The only thing I seem to be good at these days.

“So, you’re not coming back?” She asked, sadly.

“I’ll see you in the lounge after!”


Coll managed to get past Billy and out to the parking lot behind the venue where their trucks were without him noticing. The night air was still, and the sky was perfectly deep blue. She found a spot to sit on a low curb under a light on the side of the building and brushed a tear off her cheek as she dialed Becka’s number.

“Hey, Little!” Becka’s sweet voice came across the line, and it was a massive comfort.

“Hey.” Coll sighed heavily, slumping her shoulders.

“What’s up? You sound funny.”

Coll shook her head and blinked back some tears. “Something happened.”

“Okay…” Becka said calmly. “Are you hurt?”

“No.” That didn’t feel right. Lots of things hurt. “I’m still in one piece.”

“Okay. Good start…Tell me?”

“I can’t.”

“You called me for some reason.”

“I can’t tell you what happened.” She cried.

“Well, I promise I’ll still love you even if you ask me to help you hide a body.”

Coll rolled her eyes. “It’s nothing like that.”

“I mean, I figured.”

“It’s worse.” Coll choked.

Becka smiled, “Okay… well, you’re gonna have to tell me because now I’m panicking.”

Coll pressed her sleeve into her eye, absorbing the tears.

“I - I made a mess.”

“Did you have sex??” Becka asked excitedly.

“No.”

“Oh, okay.” Becka replied, “Did you want to?”

“Becka,”

“Sorry. I’m listening.”

Coll was quiet. Just say it.

“Is this something I need to worry about? Just tell me that.” She asked, sincerely.

“No.”

“Okay.” Becka took a deep breath, “I know you are scared. But you can tell me. It’s just the two of us.” Coll could hear Becka turning on her clinical mode, she appreciated it in some ways.

Coll wiped her nose and sniffled. “Okay.” She sighed. “You can never utter a single word of this to another living being.”

“I’m very good at client confidentiality.”

“You better be.”

“We can fix it whatever it is.”

“I …” Coll began, looking up and out at the trucks in front of her, knowing that after she spoke these words out loud, there was no turning back. Things would be different. She braced herself. “I am in love with Nick.”

Becka was stunned into silence, a broad smile spread quietly across her face. “Oh my god.”

Coll began to sob.

“I just cannot believe this.” Becka giggled.

“It’s not funny, Becka. I swear I’m suffering.” She began. “But it feels so good.” She cried.

“Suffering? Wha- I just-“ Becka couldn’t even find the right words. “What’s happening? I need details… Also, just to be clear, this is not ‘worse’ than having a body to hide.”

“No…I’m not sure.”

“It’s going to be alright. Just tell me what’s going on. What are you going to do?”

“Act awkward til my body just spontaneously combusts, I guess.” Unless that is what is happening right now already…?

“You should tell himmmm.” Becka sang.

“No. Becka, that’s literally the last possible option.”

“Why?”

“I don’t even know where to begin with that. SO so many reasons.”

“It might help you feel better… you are obviously not feeling fabulous about it.”

“What even would I say?”

“Exactly what you told me, ‘i’m in love with you.’” She made it sound so simple.

“No. Some words are best unsaid, Becka.”

“Yes, some words are. Not those words, though.” Said honestly. “It’s NEVER best to not tell someone you love them. Or are IN love with them.” She said honestly.

“I can’t, Becka, I swear, I would ruin everything.”

“Coll, just relax.” Becka spoke softly, “To be fair, I am a bit upset. I didn’t put actual money on this because I’d be rich right now.”

“Stop, please, this is really not funny.”

“What’s NOT funny about love?”

“It’s serious Becka, I’m going to ruin everything and… I don’t know.” Coll held her hand to her forehead.

“Tell me more. What happened? When did this happen?”

“This will cost eight hundred dollars if I tell you everything now.”

“Call me on Nick’s phone then.” Becka laughed lightly.

“He’s at the show.”

“Can you email me?”

“No, it’s too permanent.”

“Coll, once you delete an email, it’s gone forever.”

“No, I don’t believe that.” She shook her head.

“Alright, well, I need to know!! Don’t mom and dad still pay for your phone?”

“Yes, but this is international.”

“Then who cares, just tell me!”

With a deep breath, Coll began the story, tracking it back to the first time she felt that then-unidentified malaise she felt watching Nick on stage. “Leighanne told me. It was a warning, I know that now…”

“Huh?”

“She said this is how she fell so hard for Brian… watching someone you like do something they love.”

She continued through the incident in London and their night at Bunny’s, making a note of the thigh touch and the lingering at the door.

Becka was enthralled.


Coll’s conversation with Becka was cut short due to a low battery on her phone. She got back on her feet and approached the door she had exited through and pulled it to no avail. Suddenly she realized that she was locked out.

“Shit.” She said to herself as she tried the door once more and then began moving forward along the building to see if there were any other doors.

She walked until she got to the main entrance and was able to enter the building but couldn’t go any further without a ticket. She reached to her neck to grab her pass from under her shirt, but it wasn’t there. Her stomach dropped, and she panicked.

“What the hell?” She said, touching her neck again to be sure. It wasn’t there.

Chapter 14 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Her mind went into overdrive. She knew her permanent pass was in the hotel room. The pass she had on earlier was the temporary one Billy brought for her. She hadn't taken it off, but she had slipped a sweater on before the show because it was always freezing in the arenas. It must have fallen off and out from under her sweater without her noticing. It must be floating around somewhere between the lounge and the stadium door. She knew she had it not even ten minutes ago when she left her seat and went backstage...

She stood there, unsure what to do next. No phone, no pass, no ticket, and no bag, no money… all of that was still in the lounge. Two Italian ushers were looking at her like she was crazy, and she began to consider her options.

The only real choice was to go back to the door she left through and wait for someone to come out.

She walked back to that door and sat next to it with her back against the building. She calculated how long she might be waiting…

Leighanne knows I went to make a phone call, but she probably didn't think it would mean leaving the building, plus, basically lead her to believe I wouldn't be coming back anyway. Back to Your Heart is just about the middle of the show… was probably on with Becka for about fifteen minutes?

She looked out over the parking lot and sighed. Defeated. She hung her head, pulled her knees up to her chest, and curled her body into a ball. All of the exhaustion from the past week wrapped itself around her, and she felt heavy. Some tears began to pool in her eyes again, and she let them fall into her lap without caring. She was already too far gone.

There were only two thoughts that were able to sustain themselves as she sat there. The thought of waking up in the middle of the night to see Nick's body in her bed, providing the comfort and security she so desperately wanted right now. And the thought of Nick warning her: lose our mark, and you're screwed. That was true in so, so many ways.

The quiet stillness and warmth of the July air, along with the compounded fatigue, was the perfect lullaby. She fell into an uncomfortable sleep.

While she slept, a simmering panic had made its way through their entire operation. Several minutes before the show ended, Leighanne returned to the lounge and inquired with Billy and Tom about where Coll was, and that's when they realized she was missing.

"Haven't seen her," Tom said.

"Yeah, thought she was inside with you!" Billy replied, getting on his feet, concern evident in his voice.

"She left in the middle to make a phone call, she should be around somewhere."

Tom and Billy looked at each other then to Leighanne.

"The middle? She hasn't been through here … I've have been here since the show started." Tom said.

The three of them stood there quietly for a moment, unsure of what to do. Before Leighanne knew it, Billy was on the phone, and Tom was running out of the lounge.

"You stay here," Tom instructed as he left.

Leighanne waited anxiously alone in the lounge while the show wrapped, and the security team dispersed. For as long as Coll had been gone, Leighanne figured she could have encountered any number of issues.


Coll could tell Billy was trying his hardest not to express the full spectrum of his concern and anger to her as he walked her back to the lounge after finding her outside as soon as they checked every possible place she could be inside.

"You scared the shit out of us." He explained as nicely as possible.

Until now, he had only asked her if she was okay. He wondered what had happened and asked if she needed a doctor, to which she laughed. She had woken up, confused, to Billy shaking her shoulder, asking her if she was hurt and reaching to check her pulse.

"I don't know what happened, I had the pass you gave me. And that door locked behind me," Coll explained again. "Also, did you seriously think I was dead? Dead people don't usually sit."

"Let's not tell Nick this happened," Billy said, ignoring what Coll had just provided.

She looked at him curiously, she understood his request but knew Nick would find out anyway.

In fact, he already knew because the guys came off stage before Billy and Coll returned as Leighanne was unable to keep it under wraps that Coll had gone missing.

Before they even arrived back to the lounge, Nick was barreling out the double doors and into the hallway still fully in his stage clothes, ready to start a full-blown run when he saw them approaching.

"Holy shit." He sighed with relief, his shoulders visibly relaxing even as several new emotions were bursting out inside of him.

Coll smiled softly.

"What the hell happened?" He asked, exasperated. "Leighanne said you were gone for half the show."

"Sorry, I got locked out of the building, and my phone was dead."

"Why did you go outside?" He asked. "Why weren't you two together if you went outside?"

It's really not that ridiculous of a thing to do. "To make a phone call." She explained calmly, her whole body aching and tired. She ignored the part about why Billy wasn't with her.

"Without anything? No pass? No Billy?" Unrecognizable emotions scrambled to the surface and emanated out of his body - his hands open, his arms out, his neck tense, his eyes glinting. She looked at him and bit her lip. It has to mean something.

At that moment, looking at her in the hallway, sorting out if she was, in fact, okay... it happened.

Things boiled over.

He knew it without a doubt: he no longer saw her as just his friend, and he was terrified and inspired by that fact.

The truth was no longer avoidable. It had been that way he just wasn't ready to know it - but ready or not, he knew it now. He knew it then with complete, undeniable certainty. He was in love with Coll. Mandy was right.

The event of the night punched a hole in the canopy his defenses had woven around his feelings for her. Things in his cognitive darkness were becoming illuminated. The things that light touched were scary, and he felt the weight of them all in that moment.

Their friendship. The years they had invested in it and the fact that that friendship was comforting.

Their different lives. She had college and her life in Boston, he had tours and albums and photo shoots all over the world.

His past compared to her future. He had what now felt like a mess of mistakes behind him that he'd have to come clean about if anything were to happen with Colleen, while he had made it clear she was looking for something more substantial to take things further.

Her normalcy - the thing he found most fascinating and relieving about her - how could she be both normal and something more than his friend? Was finding out worth the risk?

It all felt heavy. But alongside those risk factors were infinite, thrilling possibilities. For every part that felt scary, there were things that felt so right.

The scare of loving her bumped up against the fascination and thrill of loving her. His eyes caught hers, and they looked at each other for a moment.

"I was nervous." He admitted.

As he came closer to her, she tensed. After days of convincing herself Nick did not feel anything toward her that resembled what she was feeling toward him; the way he was looking at her in this moment threw her off. The way he was acting threw her off, the way he was talking threw her off. It has to mean something. She was a nobody who sat in an empty parking lot, and this was throwing him into an emotional tailspin. He was a superstar who, just a couple of weeks ago, went out without security into a major metropolis, and that was fine. His eyes were flashing dazzling shades of blue at her - expressing more concern than the incident warranted... why?

She shook her head with a small smile. It was sweet that he cared, but she was tormented by it.

"I had a pass, or… I thought I did." She said. "Didn't seem like a threatening situation … it's an empty parking lot."

He was still sweaty and pumped up on adrenaline from the show. She hated him for it - for standing there, looking at her like he cared, for being gorgeous while sweating, for tormenting her. Why does it feel so good to be tortured like this? Her spine felt weak.

"What happened to her pass?" Nick asked, looking specifically at Billy as he wrapped his arms around Coll's shoulders in an all-consuming hug.

Billy shrugged. "I have no idea, it was a temp, maybe the closure came loose, we will check everyone's tonight."

The tension in her body eased as she stood there with her arms around his waist. She relaxed into his embrace and enjoyed it while it lasted.

He had wrestled with the way his feelings appeared to be changing for several nights, even before Mandy came around. He hadn't made much progress as his subconscious mind was doing an excellent job keeping things suppressed. But little by little, the barrier was compromised. No boyfriend facade, no desire to sleep around, feeling unidentified things with her even when totally sober… But this incident had blown it open.

He couldn't deny it, but he couldn't act on it either. He stood there, doing the most he could do, holding on to her.

"It's not his fault, Nick. Look, I'm fine, so we can just forget this whole night ever happened." She said as she pulled away to look at him. His arms loosened around her, and she hated him again for making her want things she didn't think she was entitled to. She looked up at him, still sweaty and gorgeous, still concerned. It has to mean something. Her stomach flipped.

I could never forget this night.

"I take full responsibility for this," Billy stated plainly. Coll looked at him like he was crazy but didn't have the energy to argue with either of them.

"I thought I was going to have to call your parents and explain this to them and -"Nick began, looking Coll over to be absolutely positive she was okay. It was a thrill that he felt throughout his body to look at her, but he noticed she looked tired and puffy-faced. "Are you seriously, okay?"

"I'm totally fine. I fell asleep." She nodded. "Just my butt hurts from sitting on the pavement." She giggled. "Are you okay?"

"I thought something bad could have happened!" He explained with a sigh. "Look, come back in here and don't move." He placed his hand on her back, leading her into the lounge where everyone was relieved to see her. Even through her clothes, she could feel the warmth of his hand on her back, and it made her feel dizzy.

"I'm fine, I'm fine." She said before anyone could ask. She rolled her eyes as Nick continued to lead her to a couch and instructed her to sit there and wait for him while he went to change.

"Sure, great, I'll be here." She said as he walked away, still watching her. Leighanne came over and inquired about what happened and asked if the call to Becka was worth it. Now that everyone knew she was okay, they went about decompressing from the show in their usual manner. Soon enough, the lounge was quiet again, and it was just the two of them sitting there and Billy and Tom, joined by A.J.'s security, Q, outside the doorway.

"Thank God you are fine," Leighanne said, gently placing her hand on Coll's shoulder.

Coll looked at her with her eyes heavy from fatigue and nodded. It took most of her remaining energy not to cry.

Leighanne wrapped her arms around Coll and laughed, "If you ever need a stand-in sister, I can be that."

Coll sighed into her shoulder and nodded. "Thanks."

"You can tell me anything," Leighanne explained as she pulled back from Coll to look at her again. "Anything." She repeated for emphasis, raising her eyebrows at Coll.

There was something in her look that Coll knew to mean she was on to her.

Coll covered her face with her hands as the room began to spin. Should have stayed out for the night.

Chapter 15 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Nick insisted on accompanying Coll back to her room that night, claiming he wanted to verify with his own eyes that she had her permanent pass there. Uninterested in putting any space between them, Coll put up no fight about it but continued to assure him it was there. He knew it was, he just also wanted to be.

“It’s gonna be right there in my notebook next to my walkman. I swear.”

“I believe you, I just wanna see it.”

“Okay. You know that you believing me means you shouldn’t have to see it, though, right?” She laughed lightly as she pushed her door open.

“Alright, you don’t always have to be so smart.” He smiled.

Nick followed her into the room, and she went straight to where she knew the pass would be. She plucked the notebook up off the desk, flipped open to the spread the pass was hiding in. She pulled it out and held it up to show him.

“Look. Happy?” She asked.

Well that’s kind of a loaded question. “I am.” He said.

She tossed the pass back down on the desk and proceeded to take her sweater off and throw it on to a nearby chair. She slipped her sandals off and ran her hand through her hair.

“You are welcome to hang out, but I’m putting my pajamas on.” She giggled as she grabbed some articles of clothing up off the dresser and headed to the bathroom.

“You want me to?” He asked, trying to hide his nerves.

She turned back to look at him, she hated him again for standing there, looking gorgeous and like he was very interested in what she wanted. It definitely has to mean something.

She was exhausted, but her interest in spending time with him was able to override it.

The surge of pure delight in the idea of him being there with her was all that mattered. “Of course.” She smiled.

He dropped his duffle bag to the floor, relieved.

As she closed the bathroom door behind her, she tried to shake her emotions off. She talked herself through acting normal, being his friend, keeping things based in reality ... but as she looked at herself in the mirror, she knew she was in too deep. She knew she was stepping further into a murky puddle of complications by letting him be close to her and enjoying it in this way. She also knew deep down, that for as much as on paper, it sounded complicated and messy, the fact she was still interested in being with him meant it must be real. No one voluntarily jumps into something messy like that unless they have to. And she had to ... but not yet. For now, she could just indulge herself and play it cool. But she knew, eventually, she’d have to jump.


“I know that nothing of particular interest is on right now, but in general, I think the TV here is better than it is at home. The character development is better. The comedy is well-timed… different, but good.” She commented as they both watched the screen while Nick flipped through channels randomly. She was propped up on her elbow, leaning into her pillows. He was sitting casually next to her.

“How much TV did you watch?” He asked with a laugh.

“I know, I know, I am terrible… at being young and in Europe.” She yawned.

“Do you want me to go so you can sleep?” He asked.

She looked at him and shook her head. “Just stay.” She said, surprising herself as the words came out.

He tried to stifle the smile that wanted to cross his face, “okay.” He agreed.

She shifted her body to slip further under the covers and reclined back deeper into her pillows, turning toward him more.

He turned the TV and the lights off, the room fell dark and quiet. He nervously slid into a more comfortable position next to her.

Her body relaxed fully, and she wondered how it was possible - to be in bed with someone you’re in love with, without them knowing, and feel relaxed instead of full of butterflies. But it didn’t matter- she was lucky, having him there in her bed again, the exact thing she didn’t know she needed right then, even if he had no idea, even if it was just them laying together, sleeping. It didn’t matter - he was there.

“Goodnight, Snickers.” She said quietly, recalling an old nickname she hadn’t used for him in several years.

A warm euphoria pulsed through his body as he smiled widely and laughed lightly in the dark.

“Goodnight, Coll.” He said as a strong, happy undercurrent flowed beneath his words.

Her heart skipped several beats out of rhythm, and she hid her smile under the covers.


Nick had to be up early for some press events the guys were doing before the show, but he woke up before the alarm. He disabled it so it wouldn’t wake Coll, and slowly he slipped out of her bed.

He stayed as long as he could, lingering in her room, observing her space, enjoying the tranquility of her aura. When it was finally time to leave, he made mention of the fact that he was going, but Coll slept through it entirely. He closed the door behind him as quietly as possible and made his way to the elevator, duffle bag hung over his shoulder, smiling as he walked.



“Dude!” Brian exclaimed as the elevator opened, and he saw Nick standing there, about to get on.

“Hey.”

“I was just at your door.”

“Oh,” Nick said, shyly.

“Were you… with someone?” He asked, confused… wouldn’t he still be in his own room?

“Um… yeah.” That was a safer answer than the truth.

“Oh.” Brian nodded, and they stood there quietly together. “Was Coll okay last night?”

“Yeah. She’s good.” Nick nodded with a smile, hanging his head and covering his mouth with a superfluous hand movement, trying to hide it from Brian but failing.

“Billy was pissed.”

“I know.”

Test that again… “But I’m glad Coll’s alright,” Brian stated, using her name again.

Nick smiled again and shifted from one foot to the other, running his hand through his hair, “Me too.”

Damn.


By the time Coll checked her email the following morning, she had a four-page message from Becka in her inbox. She opened it, scrolled through quickly, picking up a few bits of it.


Cut out?? …in love … happy!…

Nick… Mandy? college….

your career? …. hotel rooms? tour….

Boston?…love…work?….

happier? ….CALL ME.


She sighed as Angela came up from behind her and sat down at the adjacent computer in the business center. Quickly she closed the email from Becka and turned to face Angela.

“What’s up? We have so much to discuss. Mandy!? Oh my god. Also, I heard about last night.”

Coll’s stomach dropped. “What happened last night?” She asked, unsure what Angela had heard.

“That you fell asleep in the parking lot?” Angela reminded, “Damn, you forgot?”

“Who gives you your info?” Coll narrowed her eyes at her as Angela laughed lightly.
“Again, I would like to hear these things from you! But you disappeared yesterday. Anyway, though, I heard that one from Howie. He also told me about Mandy.” She replied as she began to connect to the internet.

“Okay, first of all, I got locked out of the building without a pass, and THEN I fell asleep while I waited like, an hour or more for someone to come out the door.” She rolled her eyes, remembering the situation.

“Traumatic,” Angela said sarcastically.

“Just want to be clear I didn’t go out to the parking lot for an intentional nap. I went to make a phone call.”

“Understood.” Angela nodded, “And it was A.J. who told me about the virginity thing.”

“Of course it was.” Coll roller her eyes.

“What’s your plan for the day?” Angela asked.

Coll rubbed her forehead, “I don’t have one.”

“Come shopping with me!! We can catch up over shoes.”

“Okay.” Coll smiled, “But honestly, where are you putting shoes? My bag is so full.”

“If I find something that won't fit, I'll ship it home to mom.” Angela laughed.

Coll nodded, “Clever.”

“We only have a few hours, but that’s enough. I assume you are skipping the show tonight?” Angela smiled.

“That part I did plan on, yeah.”

“Alright, let me just check this real quick, then we can pop back to my room for my bag and head out. Do you need to do anything before we go?”

“Nope,” Coll said, patting her bag that was on the chair next to her. “Ready to go.” She had planned on escaping so somewhere for the day, but that was as far as she got. Angela’s offer was good enough.

“You better be ready to talk, too.”


Coll considered what her options were with baring her soul to Angela as she followed Angela back to her room. She could go ahead and tell her and avoid Angela picking up some twisted version of the story from someone else, or she could continue to play it off. Both felt uncomfortable, but the former seemed like a better option. Becka knowing her little secret was one thing, but Angela was here - flesh and blood - and that was a comfort. She was also pretty sure the Angela honestly already knew.

“I know you are already on to me so, here’s the deal….and, wait, you cannot repeat this to anyone.” Coll began, taking a deep breath, as she and Angela left the hotel.

“Oh my god.” Angela squealed. “Okay, I’m so ready.” Already knowing what she was going to say, Angela just couldn’t wait to hear her actually say it.

Coll rolled her eyes, “I had to call Becka last night because I could not sit through the rest of that song, the rest of the show…” She sighed. “It’s pure torture sometimes. It’s crazy, I don’t know what happened.”

“I dooooo!!!!” Angela clapped her hands together. “You have the feelings!!!”

Coll smiled, “It’s terrible and awful, and it feels amazing and confusing and horrible and excellent.”

“Wow, yup, you’ve got ‘em good.” Angela nodded, still smiling widely, patting Coll on the back as they strolled along the sidewalk. “You’re in total love with him, I knew it.”

“I didn’t,” Coll admitted.

“Well, now what??” Angela asked excitedly.

Coll shrugged. “That’s my problem.” She sighed heavily, “He slept in my bed last night.”

“WHAT?” Angela gasped with a laugh.

“Literally just sleeping, don’t get too excited.”

“Damn, girl. Are you moving fast or slow? I can’t tell.”

“Me neither.” Coll said, “All I know is…falling asleep next to him was so wonderful. Like, so relaxing. And waking up without him there was a bummer…. God, I hate him so much.”

“Damn, girl, you are IN IT.” Angela laughed, “You should tell him how you feel!!”

“He doesn’t feel the same way about me, I don’t want to put myself through that.”

“How do you know he doesn’t?”

“Well, I don’t. I thought I did for sure, but now I’m less sure. He was so freaked out last night. Like, why? That has to mean something…? But then, he had his opportunities to do or say something - and he didn’t. He was IN. MY. BED. Angela. We know he knows how to get what he wants when it comes to women, so I’m guessing he just doesn’t want it.”

“You really think he’s gonna do same with you as he does with anyone else?” Angela asked, surprised.

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“Colleen, you are not the usual situation, especially now that he knows - which reminds me… we also need to back up and talk about this whole waiting for marriage thing you’ve got going.”

Coll’s eye got wide, “Okay, seriously, who told you that?” Coll asked, frustrated.

“I told you, A.J.!”

“That’s not what I said. That’s not what’s happening.”

“Okay, see this is why you need to just tell me things yourself.”

“There are no rules. I’m not ‘waiting for marriage’ … I’m waiting for the right situation, with the right person.” Coll explained. “But you’re right… now that he knows that there’s no possible way…” She trailed off.

“No, Coll, that’s not what I mean… also, that is NOT how it works.” Angela stated. “What are you learning at that college??”

For the next two hours, while Angela tried on shoes and sunglasses in various places across the city, Coll lamented and vented her frustrations with herself and the reality of the situation she was now in. Angela offered as much assurance as she could and encouraged Coll to let things unfold naturally. She also expressed concern for Coll as a post-Mandy rebound and dug for more clues.

Angela left Coll at her room before heading to her own room to shower in time to leave for the venue. She gave her a strong hug and assured her again that the secret was safe with her.

“Thanks for tolerating me all day.”

“You’re fine, I love you.”

Coll smiled, “Have fun tonight.”

“You too.”

“I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“Goodnight, beautiful.”

“See ya.”


After a long shower and a nap, Coll returned to the business center to email Becka back.


- -

Hey, Sorry about last night. My phone died. Remind me to tell you more about that someday.


If it had not died, I would have told you that I was positive he did not have any similar feelings for me, but now I’m not sure.


Please don’t worry about me, or about this, I’m so happy in my torment.


I know I sounded like a mess, but, Becka, I swear I’ve never felt bliss like this before. It is messy, and I know that. On paper, it sounds like it would be an even bigger mess, it would be hard and risky to be in a relationship with him, but I still want it. I want him. And if I’m still interested even after recognizing how hard and weird and risky and crazy it would be to get into this, it must be real.


I don’t know what’s happening. He slept in my bed last night. It was pure bliss.


I’m just going to enjoy what it is right now. Please don’t tell mom. She counts as one of the living beings you are not to utter a single word of this about.


I’ll call you when I can.


Let me know if you are for sure coming out!

- -

Coll reviewed her rough draft of the email once, then again, making edits each time. Then a third edit for good measure. It felt too permanent to get into precise details. Her final draft to Becka was much slimmer and didn’t mention the word “relationship” or her sentiments about wanting him. She could delete them from the email, but they were indelible in her being.

She sent it off and hung her head, holding her forehead in her hands.

End Notes:
i know you can't leave feedback, and completely understand why!! but I still want to say i hope you're enjoying if you are reading! And i would love to hear from you if so - you can email me if you'd like theradioup {at} gmail {dot} com
Chapter 16 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

It seemed to Coll that her heart was maintaining an average rate of two hundred and fifty beats per minute now just as a standard. Between her fatal attraction, the pace of life, and trying to stay out of emotional trouble and failing, there was a lot to grapple with. When Nick showed up at her hotel room, though, she was positive it sped up even a little more.

"Hey." he smiled as a sense of ease flowed through his body upon seeing here there in her familiar rubber ducky pajamas.

"Hi!" She said, surprised to see him. She noticed he was freshly showered with a duffle bag over his shoulder, and quick math told her he had come here straight after cleaning up after the show. Her pulse quickening with every nanosecond, he looked at her, standing there in his white tee-shirt, hair still a little damp and messy.

"Are you about to go to sleep?" He cringed, hoping the answer was no.

She shook her head. "Nope, just hanging out." She stepped aside to let him in. "I've been in my pajamas since seven…" She laughed. "Again, I'm like, really excellent at being young and in Europe. Also, I took a nap in the middle of the day, so…" She explained.

"Mind if I join you?"

She felt the butterflies taking flight in her belly. "Of course not." She said.

"Full disclosure, A.J. might show up to hang, too."

"Oh, cool." She replied a small twinge of disappointment banged inside her chest.

"Sorry, I guess I did just crash your night … again…and invite him into it, too." He laughed lightly.

"You didn't crash anything." She said.

"How was your night?" He asked as he flopped down on her bed, making himself comfortable, which immediately made her feel weak throughout her body.

"It was nice. Relaxing. Stayed out of trouble…" So far, anyway. "How was the show?"

"Good. I think?"

She smiled. "Are there still one million girls who are so jealous of me right now?"

"Definitely. Maybe even two million."

She nodded, "Maybe." She propped her arm up on the pillows and turned to face him.

"Kind of surprised you're not with one of them right now." She teased.

It was a joke, but it felt heavy, "Hilarious."

She smirked at him, and he quickly changed the subject by telling her about something funny that happened at soundcheck and about some botched dance moves. As he was recounting the minor events of the evening, there was a knock at her door. He got up to answer it.

"What up," A.J. said as he entered the room with several bottles in his arms.

"Oh good, you brought the party," Coll said as she made herself comfortable sitting against the headboard of her bed.

"That is something you can always count on." He exclaimed as he set the bottles down on the desk in Coll's room.

"Are you surprised A.J. isn't with one of them either?" Nick asked with a light laugh looking at Coll as he slid back into his reclining position on her bed.

"One of who?" A.J. asked as he began prepping three drinks.

"Some chick."

"Nicky, you invited me here, Coll is sane, I'm down. Can't do crazy every night."

Coll didn't answer immediately, just smiled, and accepted a solo cup from A.J. when he handed it to her.

"Happy to be recognized as sane, at least," Coll said as she lifted her cup, taking a sip.

"Thank God someone has some, honestly."

"Speaking of honest!" Coll perked up a bit, looking at A.J., "You need to start paying better attention." She narrowed her eyes at him.

"Me?"

"Yes, you. Telling Angela I'm a virgin and waiting for marriage." She reminded.

"Well, isn't that true?" He asked as he took a seat in one of the armchairs in Coll's room.

"No. I haven't slept with anyone, but I never said I'm waiting for marriage." She clarified, "Not like that would be so horrible either if I was."

"What are you waiting for?" A.J. asked, genuinely confused.

"I know you clearly missed it, but you were sitting right there when I explained it!"

Nick sat quietly, his imagination running wild thinking of the main players in this narrative: Coll, sex, marriage…

Coll looked at Nick, but she couldn't look for long.

"I'm waiting for the right … situation." She explained, looking now at A.J. again.

"Okay, so you're waiting for the person you're gonna marry. Same thing." A.J. commented.

"Not necessarily." She said. "Just something more than anything I've ever had."

As they spoke, Nick ran his hand through his hair, he remembered exactly what Coll said that morning at breakfast, even though he had yet to sort out precisely what it meant. All in.

"But don't you want to just… do it? For fun?" A.J. asked.

"Look, I get it, it's unusual. But no, at this point, I don't want to just do it for fun, or to get it out of the way, or to see how great it is, or to get more experience or whatever other reasons people love to give me to do it."

The two of them were listening intently.

"It's not about that for me. There are plenty of other things I can do for fun. Also, I think a lot of the fun is in finding the person to begin with. Figuring it out. I mean, clearly, I wouldn't know, but … if it's your right person, then the fun you have in bed is even better... I have to assume. Just like with anything else… I mean, if it's the right person, you could sit there and do nothing together and it's better than it would be with someone else."

Nick's body temperature was rising with every word she said. He remembered the distinct feeling of the realization he had the previous night: knowing for sure he was in love with her and suddenly understanding that he would have to be accountable to his sordid past with women. He remembered apologizing to Coll for his behavior while with Mandy. He remembered the guilty feelings. It felt like he had already cheated somehow - like he cheated himself out of the experience Coll was talking about.

A.J. looked at her, then at Nick, who was staring intently at Coll as she looked at A.J.

"Yeah, maybe. But very few things are as much fun as having sex, pretty much no matter who it's with."

Nick and Coll both shrugged. Surprised, A.J. looked at Nick, narrowing his eyes. "Bro."

Coll's heart rate was so high she could hear the beats in her ears. It felt like anything Nick said in this conversation had the potential to ruin her or give her hope she wasn't entitled to. She almost didn't want to hear it.

"Maybe she's on to something," Nick said and quickly took a sip of his drink. "Maybe it's better that way… we wouldn't know… any of us." He laughed.

His words triggered an immediate fever inside of her. Was he joking? Was he serious? She couldn't help herself, she looked at him, and they made eye contact as a smile was trying to spread across her face, but she bit her lip to stop it from happening fully.

A.J. sat there, observing, suddenly feeling very much outside of whatever was happening.

Coll looked away from Nick and back to A.J., "Yeah, maybe I'm right." She shrugged, "But it's not about fun or no fun, or what's more fun or anything about fun. Fun is inevitable. For me, I want something more than fun - deeper than fun."

"You're missing out." A.J. shook his head.

"How can I be missing out?" She narrowed her eyes at him, "What I don't yet have, can only exist for me. No one else has it - they have their thing, not mine. That's what I'm looking for. My experience with that person. I'm not looking to just have sex. I'm not missing out, it just hasn't happened yet."

As the words rolled out of her mouth, Nick shivered visibly. Surprised by himself, he sat incredibly, still hoping no one had noticed.

"Are you okay?" Coll asked, turning to face him again.

"It's cold in here."

She smiled at him, "No it's not."


As the night wore on, and the conversation changed, Coll relaxed into their hang out. The three of them spent a couple hours watching T.V. and talking about everything from the next city they would be in to recap of the pranks they wanted to play on the rest of the guys or the band in the next few weeks. They even discussed the dinner options available in the cafeteria at B.U.

It was 3 am when a movie they had put on ended. Coll had fallen asleep about halfway through it, and A.J. left around two o'clock to go smoke a cigarette and go to bed.

Nick sat there quietly, staring at the screen as it rolled through credits, realizing his options and weighing them.

He could turn the T.V. off and go back to his room, or he could stay.

Leave or stay.

He looked at Coll, sleeping soundly beside him. Her breathing was steady, her body was still. His mind wandered.

He thought about her that night in London, watching her spin around on the sidewalk, lingering at her door, hugging her for longer than he should have. He thought about the feel of her skin under his hand. He thought about the massive feeling of relief and comfort he felt that first night in Germany and the panic he felt when he thought something had happened to her.

He got up quietly, turned the T.V. off, turned the lights off, and got back on the bed with Coll.



"I swear I won't sleep in your bed every night," Nick promised as they left Coll's room the following morning for breakfast.

"Nick, it's fine." She giggled. a lot better than fine. "It's nice to have a roommate again." She continued as she followed Nick out into the hallway.

"Oh, Melanie sleeps in your bed too?" He asked jokingly.

"Not usually, though it has happened."

Nick raised his eyebrows at her.

"Sorry to tell you it was nothing dirty or fun. When men suck, we women have to stick together. And men have been particularly sucky in the past two years. So yeah, she's ended up in my bed a few times after some shitty things happened."

"Men are shitty to her or you?" He asked as they approached the elevator, and he pushed the call button.

"Both!" Coll replied, "But anyway, no, I don't mind you sleeping in my bed." She explained again, as the elevator arrived. She kept her tone of voice even, trying to be subtle about exactly how much she did not mind it.

"Alright. Well, promise I will sleep in my own bed sometimes." He said, not necessarily wanting to do that but knowing it was the right thing to say. Only sometimes? Does he realize he is torturing me? "Listen, since we have the day off, do you want to do one of those day trips I promised you finally? Probably should have planned that…"

Coll wrinkled her nose as the elevator doors opened again and they exited, Billy promptly joining them as he had been waiting for their arrival. "Yeah, in all your free time, you totally should have planned a day trip." She said sarcastically. "Honestly, It's kind of hot to do much touring around the city. I was kind of thinking to sit by the pool all day and read a book. Any interest in that?"

"I can do that," Nick said quickly, trying to hide his excitement at the prospect of spending the day lounging poolside in her scantily clad presence.

She smiled, "Okay."

Chapter 17 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

After breakfast, everyone dispersed to do whatever day-off things they had planned, and Nick and Coll took up residence on two lounge chairs by the pool while Billy relaxed at the bar on the pool patio. Only one other family was out there with them, it was quiet and warm and the perfect opposite of their usual venue.


"Are you planning on doing some poolside laptop work or something?" Nick asked with a smile as he watched Coll dig something out of her tote bag that sat between their two chairs.

Coll had packed her day bag as if she might actually do any normal poolside things like read the only book she had brought from home, put some words on paper in her journal, or listen to music on her Walkman. Even In the simplicity of their afternoon, though, there was too much happening to concentrate on any of that. Nick was shirtless, she felt half-naked even in her one-piece, and she already had a little buzz from a complimentary glass of Prosecco a poolside waiter had brought her when they first arrived. There wasn't enough bandwidth in her brain for much more after the emotional swell of having a crush on him took up most of it.

She sighed as she pulled out a Red Sox hat and tugged it down over her head. "No, I brought it because I wanted to try connecting to the internet later in the business center. I noticed they had ethernets in there the other day when I went to use the computer. There are no ethernets in the rooms. I just didn't want to stop back later to get it." She shrugged.

"Gotchya." He nodded. "How's the novel going?"

She rolled her eyes, "You'll be the first to know once any significant progress has been made." She explained with a grin. "You know it's not happening right now…"

"I'm teasing you." He said as she relaxed back into her reclining position. And mumbled something about inspiration being a dark horse.

"So, what happened with the shitty guys?" Nick asked after a long period of silence - which he deemed long enough that he didn't appear too eager.

"Huh?" She turned to face him.

"You said Melanie ended up in your bed…"

"Oh." She realized, "I mean, it's whatever. Not always over guy problems but mostly… Anyway, just the usual stuff." She adjusted her sunglasses on her face.

"I don't know what usual stuff is." He laughed.

"Well... for example, Melanie was dating this guy Ted for like, I don't know, maybe 3 months last semester. He was super nice, he was always up for whatever … easy going. She needs that because she's got a lot of baggage… anyway, turns out he was seeing this other girl who goes to some other school at the same time and never even told her. Like who does that?"

Nick's stomach turned.

"So she found out because she was at his place and found a note from this other girl, and when she asked about it, he didn't even understand why she was upset."

"So, she broke it off?"

"Yeah, because she wants someone who doesn't have several girlfriends - or side affairs or whatever it was. And I get it, college guys wanna do what they want to do, but he lead her to believe it was a relationship between the two of them. That's what she wanted. Not really a lot to ask for but yeah… So that was pretty low. She was upset about that for a while, maybe like four days or so. The first night she slept in my bed… she's great, and she deserves a great guy."

"Any other examples? Ones that maybe aren't things I have done?" He asked, nervously.

"You did that?" Coll asked, her tone wavering between surprised and terrified.

"Well, Mandy…."

"Mandy agreed to that whole thing. Whatever it was… I don't know why." Coll laughed, "But she did. That's different, you told her."

"Alright."

"Seriously, Nick, you aren't a Ted." Coll said, reaching out to touch his arm, sending a weak feeling through his body, "You're a good guy."

He wasn't sure, but it was nice to hear.

"But yeah, I have more examples." She smiled. "Guys are weird."

"Let me hear them."

Coll recounted the top four most memorable moments from the past couple of years with college guys being morons, and Nick listened intently. A lesson in what-not-to-do he supposed.

As Coll was wrapping her stories, the waiter passed by with another glass of Prosecco. She looked up at him curiously, and he smiled politely. "Prego."

"Grazie mille." She replied and took the glass off his tray. He bowed his head and was gone in a flash.

"I love this country." She said as she brought the glass to her lips.

"Looks like this country loves you a little bit, too." Nick laughed.

"Maybe he heard all my stories and felt bad."

"Maybe he's just attracted to you," Nick stated plainly.

Without responding, she took another long sip and settled back into the chair. "As soon as I'm done with this, I'm going in." She mentioned as she looked straight ahead at the empty pool.



The height of the afternoon brought bright sun, dry heat, and several dips in the pool to cool off as the afternoon wore on.

Nick spent the majority of their time together trying to look at Coll as much as possible without her knowing. The sunglasses helped - and he knew he could take long glances at her without her noticing, especially when her eyes were closed as she reclined on her lounger or while she was swimming, and so he did. He was surprised again - and distracted - by how pretty she was. He had lost track of time watching her float, watching the water move around her curves, watching her hair flow out all around her as she enjoyed the buoyancy of her body in the water.

Everything felt different in the best possible ways.

When she smiled, he felt a weakness in his back.

When she laughed at something he said, he felt happy.

When she lifted herself out of the water at the ladder, he couldn't help but notice everything - her arms, her thighs, her back … everything was soaking wet and appealing, and he caught himself imaging sleeping with her, feeling oddly uncomfortable in that reverie while simultaneously enthralled by it.

She had noticed him watching her at times and enjoyed the fact that he was. The case for him maybe being into her was mounting, and she was collecting the data, analyzing it as she went. The idea that he might have some reciprocal feelings for her put her a bit more at ease - it felt maybe she didn't have to battle her feelings back so hard… like maybe they were in something together even if she didn't know what that was. Even still, being with him was bliss… she felt everything and loved the vast majority of those feelings. But she tried to maintain some caution as she felt everything.


"This is the perfect day," Coll said as she rested her head on her folded arms at the edge of the pool, letting her body relax in the water. Nick was sitting on the edge next to her with his feet in the water.

He looked at her and smiled. "Yeah."

"What are you doing tonight?" She asked as casually as possible even though she was anxious over his answer.

He looked at her curiously. "Eating dinner with you?" He shrugged.

She wasn't sure why it surprised her, but it did. "Oh, you don't have plans?"

"Plans? No."

"Honestly, just figured you would."

"Well, I do if you consider I 'planned' on hanging out with you all day."

"I just don't want to keep you from whatever you … do. Or want to be doing."

"You're not. This is what I want… to be doing." He explained, and the words sounded more serious than he wanted them to.

Her heart fluttered, and a shiver ran up her spine. "Fair enough." She relented. "What's for dinner then?"

"Let's go somewhere."

"Is that complicated?"

"It doesn't have to be."

Coll looked in Billy's direction, "Billy coming?"

"We can escape him," Nick explained, feeling the anticipation build up inside, hoping to recreate some of the magic from London.

I'm done for.



An hour later, they were making their way back to Coll's room, discussing their plans for the rest of the evening as they walked.

"Alright so meet me back upstairs after you get -"

"Oh my god," Coll said, cutting him off, as she sped up a bit as they were approaching her door which she had noticed was cracked open.

Nick looked ahead of her curiously and spotted what caught her eye, "Wait!"

He sped up as well, reaching her before she reached the door. "Wait." He said, putting his hand on her arm and pushing her aside gently. She looked at him for answers. "Just in case," he said as he moved ahead of her. That means something. She thought as he pushed her door further open.

"Shit." He stated as he took in the scene.

"Oh my god." Coll brought her hands to her mouth as she observed the situation in her room: completely ransacked.

A lamp was overturned, the bed was unmade, every drawer was open, there were hangers on the floor, even the minibar was cleared out… no more suitcase on the floor, no more jacket draped over the chair... she started walking quickly around the room, looking things over closer.

"My suitcase is gone. Everything is gone." Coll said, her voice trembling from the panic.

"Oh my god."

"Nick, holy shit what -"She didn't even know what to say, the room was spinning, and her mind was reeling. "I just… oh my god."

"Check the safe." He said quickly. She hurried to do that, but her hands were so shaky it took a few tries to get it open. Everything that was supposed to be in there was in there, though it wasn't much. Just her passport, her wallet, and her silver ring that she had taken off before going to the pool.

"Thank you, Jesus." She sighed with relief as she lifted the items out of the safe and held them close to her body before slipping the ring back on her finger.

"Thank god I had my bag with me! My laptop, even! Holy crap. This is crazy." She started rambling, "Oh my god. I have no clothes!" The realization sounded even crazier out loud, "No shirts, no shorts, no pants … no shoes. Oh my god, all I have left is this fucking bathing suit..." She said. She realized that she didn't even have underwear but refrained from mentioning it.

"Okay, first, we are going to call Billy and Tim and the hotel management," Nick stated as he watched Coll plop down, defeated on the edge of the bed, staring blankly ahead at nothing.

"Crap. That dress I bought in London… and that fancy perfume." She stated quietly. A running list of all the items that were in her bag started racking up in her head. "My B.U. sweatpants… My pajamas."

She sat there staring now at him blankly as he dialed Billy. She tried her hardest not to cry as she thought about how much it would cost to rebuy everything.

"Coll, we can replace all of that." He tried to be as reassuring as possible.

He was trying to take care of her, and she loved that, but that made her feel even more things she was afraid to feel. She was positive now there was no way out of this with him, she was in it even deeper than she initially thought.

She covered her face with her hands as Nick moved in to kneel in front of her, with one hand holding the phone to his face waiting for Billy to answer, he placed his other hand on her bare leg above her knee.

Instantly, she felt the rush of warmth through her body as he touched her, it got mixed up with the anxiety of the situation, but she looked at him, and it felt like things would be okay, even though she had no idea how.

She watched as he explained quickly to Billy what happened and asked him to come to her room as soon as possible. The way his voice sounded concerned but also confident made her dizzy, and she felt herself falling into trusting him.

A few tears slipped out of her eyes as he finished on the phone, and she brushed them away quickly. He moved his hand off her leg and took her hand in his as he flipped his phone closed. The impulse to take her hand was carried out without hesitation, but as he looked up at her, he realized he was actually enjoying the fact that she might need him at that moment.

The feeling of his hand wrapped around hers was so natural it almost didn't make any waves, but the fact that he reached out and took it was giving her immense pleasure. It wasn't the physical contact, it was the fact that he had emotional thought to do it. It means something. Her heart skipped a beat out of rhythm, and she took a deep breath.

"Coll, it's okay, everything is going to be fine. We can replace everything. The super important stuff is safe." His voice was sweet as he pushed some hair behind her shoulder.

The soft graze of his hand on her shoulder and the sweet gesture were enough to send a shiver up her spine. it means something. The imaginary evidence pile toppled over. She was almost sure of it now: she wasn't the only one with feelings. She smiled softly at him but shook her head sadly.

"I promise." He said as his thumb rolled over her knuckles.

Her eyebrows furrowed together, and another tear slipped out of her eye. She wasn't sure how to feel the happiness of what he was doing for her and the stress of the robbery at once.

They sat there quietly for a minute, her hand still in his.

"I feel so dirty." She said after a while.

"Why??"

"Like, who wants all my clothes?" She sniffled, "All my stuff? Like... that's so weird."

He looked at her, her face was blotchy, and she was trying so hard not to cry. He wasn't sure what to do, but he knew he wanted to be the one to fix this for her. "I'm so sorry." He said, "This sucks. But we can fix it."

Trying to think logically amidst the hazy lustful and emotional things she was feeling in that moment, she found herself beginning actually to calculate the value of everything that was gone. It made her stomach hurt.

"Maybe I should just go home." She thought aloud.

"What?" His heart sank, "No, what? Why would you do that?"

"I can't afford to replace all of that stuff … and if I can't take care of myself, I shouldn't be here." She brushed a few more tears off her cheeks.

"No. You're not going home over some random person being a jackass. I'm going to take you shopping, and we will get you all new stuff." He explained. "I don't want you to leave."

She looked at him and caught the hint of nervousness in his glance. His offering to take her shopping to replace everything wasn't just for her - it was for him, too. The thought of her leaving bothered him.

It means something.

Before their conversation could continue, Billy and Tim arrived at the door.

The four of them talked through everything for about ten minutes before calling the hotel manager up to the room. Half an hour later, it was determined the incident was caused by a door that didn't close all the way and another guest coming into the room. Coll had stopped in her room after breakfast, and housekeeping had already been through. Even the minibar had been cleared, so they mostly ruled out the possibility that hotel staff were to blame. The manager assured them they would investigate further, though.



"Thanks a lot, we appreciate it," Tim said, shaking the hotel manager's hand as he left with a sympathetic nod.

"Alright guys, let's try to move on from this, Coll what can we do?" Tim asked turning to face her. "Do you need to go anywhere tonight to get some stuff?"

Coll shrugged sadly, shaking her head, not even sure what to do next.

"I feel like a moron." She admitted.

"Don't." Tim and Nick both said at the same time.

"It's my own fault."

"It was a mistake. Even still, a decent person doesn't just rob someone." Billy added.

"I'm such a moron. I'm sorry." Coll turned away from them, into Nick's direction, and covered her face with her hands, shaking her head again, feeling ashamed.

Tim looked at Nick, "Just let me know what you need." Nick nodded.

Tim and Billy slowly made their way out of the room, leaving Nick and Coll alone.

"Come upstairs with me, I'll get changed, and we can go shopping," Nick said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. She sighed and slid her tote bag onto her arm and let him lead her out of the room.

She was quiet as they made their way to Nick's suite. He pushed the door open and let her in ahead of him. "First, let's put your stuff in the safe." He smiled. She nodded and pulled her passport and wallet out of her bag and handed them to him. He went to the closet as she watched from the edge of his bed.


She looked so defeated sitting there with her tote bag at her feet, her hair pulled into a messy bun on top of her head, still damp from the pool, and her cheeks were still splotchy from crying. All he wanted to do was take care of her, and that was an unfamiliar feeling, but it was one he didn't want to let go of.

"We should be able to get you a few things tonight, at least. We can finish it off in the next few days. You're going to have a cool new European vibe going by the time this is finished." He smiled.

She shook her head sadly, "I really can't let you do this, Nick."

"Why not?

"I will just have to use the money I have, and then when I get back to Boston I'll look into starting work earlier-"

"Coll, Let me help you. This is an easy one."

"It's not your responsibility to-"

"It doesn't matter. You need help, and I can help you." He said, "You don't want to live in that bathing suit for the next month, do you?"

She thought it over for a few more seconds, "Fine." She gave in, "But I'm going to pay you back…. someday."

"If you really want to, but I don't think it'll matter." He explained as a vision of the two of them ten years in the future flashed in his mind.

"How will it not matter?" She asked as they made eye contact. The only situation she could imagine in which it might not matter made her feel too much. Each of them felt a little warmer for a moment.

He shrugged it off, "I just don't think it'll be necessary." He said, "Let me take a quick shower and then we can go out and see if there is anywhere, we can at least get you some new pajamas," he began, "I know that's the most important outfit of the day."

She giggled softly, "Alright." She said as she slid back along his bed and laid down. "I'll be here. Hopefully, nothing else ridiculous happens to me in the next ten minutes."

"Alright, don't worry, you're gonna be okay."

“Collypop! What the hell happened.” Brian asked as he and Leighanne approached Nick and Coll in the hotel lobby with Tom not far behind. Billy had sent a text to the rest of the team to give them the summary of the day’s events at the hotel, and word traveled to Brian and Leighanne naturally as they were out for the day with Tom accompanying them.

“Collypop?” She asked, smiling involuntarily.

“See it made you smile!” He grinned.

Coll rolled her eyes, “Yes, thanks for that.”

“But seriously what happened??”

“I don’t know.” She said plainly, not really wanting to recall the whole situation.

Nick filled them in as Coll accepted a hug from Leighanne.

“Damn.” Brian sighed.

“Do you need anything?? Obviously, we are gunna have to replace your stuff but do you need anything in the meantime??” Leighanne asked concerned.

“I don’t know, I just-“

“We’re gonna go out and see if any stores are open, get a start on it at least,” Nick said, looking at Coll who was still fully defeated and still wearing her pool clothes under a teeshirt he had given her.

“Can I give you something to wear out at least?” Leighanne asked.

“Sure,” Coll replied with little emotion. Her body was tired and her mind was fragile. Everything felt full to capacity. The week had been so long.

“Come with me, you guys wait here - give us fifteen minutes,” Leighanne said as she took Coll’s hand and the two of them left the scene.

Waiting until the two of them were well out of earshot, Brian turned back to Nick, “Alright so - what’s up?” Brian asked, as he folded his arms over his chest.

“Not much, been dealing with that for the past couple hours…”

“No man, I mean, you and Coll … what’s the deal?” Brian prodded.

“What do you mean?” Nick asked.

“Nick...”

“What??”

“Did you sleep with her?”

“What?! No.”

“Are you trying to?” Brian asked.

Fuck

Chapter 18 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

As Coll entered into Leighanne and Brian’s room, she made the impulse decision to fill Leighanne in on her situation. There is already enough turmoil, why not take it all at once?

“Listen… Leigh, I have to tell you something,” Coll said cautiously with urgency in her voice.

“What’s up?” Leighanne looked at her concerned, as she placed her bag on the bed and walked to the closet where she had her suitcase open on the floor and a few things hanging up.

“This is so…” She searched for the right word, “overwhelming… I honestly am like … blissed out and suffering at the same time…?” She shook her head, “I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve truly never dealt with this before.” Coll began as she pressed her fingertips into her forehead.

“Aw, sweetie, I know, it’s so shitty what happened, thankfully it’s all stuff that we can replace. The most important thing is you are safe. Thank goodness you also had some of your things with you… can you imagine?” Leighanne was speaking and rummaging through her things at the same time.

“No, no… sorry, I mean… yes, that sucks, for sure. But…” she looked around the room anxiously. “I need to tell you that …” she took a deep breath, “I need to tell you that I’m in-” she paused, thinking quickly about Leighanne inevitably telling Brian about this later. Screw it.”I need to tell you that I am in love with Nick and I don’t know what to do about it and he’s so freaking beautiful, and he’s torturing me, and he’s slept in my bed the last two nights in a row, and I’m just really overwhelmed.” Her confession was brief and rapid and full of torment, and a few tears collected in her eyes.

Leighanne looked up at her blankly from where she was kneeling near her suitcase,

“Oh my god.”

“I know.”

“That’s so great.” She smiled.

“Is it?” Coll asked, honestly still unsure. It felt great, but whether or not it was actually great for so many other reasons was still unknown.

“To be honest, I kind of had a feeling.”

“I know you did.” Coll shook her head and covered her face, “What should I do?”

Leighanne sighed, maintaining her smile. “Well, first, you should change your clothes.” She began to pull a few things from her bag and off the hangers and made a small pile for Coll. “Here. Good options in this pile, I have to say.” She lifted the collection into Coll’s arms and turned her in the direction of the bathroom. “Take whatever you want.”

“Alright, but think about what I should do while I change.”

“I think you should tell him.” She said immediately, not needing to think.

“Why does everyone keep saying that?”

“Who else?” She asked, surprised to know anyone else had been informed.

“Becka... Angela...”

“Whoa am I the last to know??”

“God, I hope not. But don’t feel bad no one knew forty-eight hours ago.” Coll explained as she shuffled into the bathroom to change.

Leighanne smiled to herself as she sat on the bed and waited for Coll to finish changing.

“Seriously, tell me what to do.” Coll pleaded as she came out into the suite again, wearing one of the tunics Leighanne had picked for her, running her hands through her hair to fix it up a bit. “You are my stand-in sister right now!”

“I really do think you should tell him.” Leighanne said kindly, “I think you’ll never regret being honest.” She explained as she slipped her shoes off.

“You literally don’t see any problems with me telling him I’m in love with him?” Coll asked, exasperated that no one seemed to see it her way. Maybe she was wrong, perhaps it was just that simple. But how could it be?

Leighanne sighed, “I know you do, and I recognize that’s very real. But no.”

“Why?”

“I think he feels the same way,” Leighanne said with a smile.

Coll’s stomach turned, and her cheeks blushed. “What makes you think that?” She desperately wanted to know what things an outsider thought must mean something.

“Look, let’s chat tomorrow on the way to Vienna, you have to get out there before the stores close.”

“Alright.” Coll sighed, “please don’t tell Brian.”

“He already knows...”

“What?!” She exclaimed.

“Well, he thinks. He suspects.” Leighanne explained, watching as Coll’s eyes got wider and wider. “Don’t worry about it,” Leighanne replied with a giggle as she stood up next to Coll.

Coll narrowed her eyes at Leighanne, but she didn’t have enough energy or time to get more information. “Fine.”

“Go on.” Leighanne smiled and made a small hand motion toward the door.

“Thanks for the clothes,” Coll said sadly.

“Love you.” Leighanne smiled.

“I love you too.”

“See how easy that was!”

Coll rolled her eyes, “Goodbye and goodnight.”



Between Leighanne’s room and the lobby, Coll focused on pulling herself back together and remaining calm… and thinking about how wonderful it would be to finally take a shower later.

She took a deep breath as she stepped off the elevator and walked toward where the guys were sitting.

“I’m ready,” Coll said as she approached.

“Awesome, let’s roll.” Nick smiled as he got to his feet.

“Have fun!” Brian chirped as he stood up and wrapped his arms around Coll, “Glad you’re okay, little.” He winked. She smiled at him, calling her the nickname she had told him Becka uses for her.

“Thanks, Brian.” She said.

Tom and Brian walked off in the direction of the elevators, and Coll looked between Billy and Nick.

“Let’s get some pajamas!” Nick laughed.

“I’ll never get over my duckies.” She pouted, pressing her hand into her chest.

“I know, that’s probably the hardest part of all of this.” He sarcastically agreed as the three of them set off toward the back exit of the hotel for a more discreet departure.



They were able to get to several stores before they started closing up for the night. Nick spent the entire evening trying to lift Coll’s spirits. He made her laugh by suggesting ridiculous articles of clothing, insisting that she needed certain things she clearly didn’t, adding funny graphic tees and socks to her pile, and generally just keeping things fun.

To appease him, she gave him full authority over finding her a new pair of pajamas to replace the “legacy ducks” as he called them.

She was feeling a lot better about everything by the time they were done with the pajamas and had gathered a few essentials and a few of the things Nick insisted on getting her that amused him that wouldn’t take up a ton of space in her luggage. At one point, she ditched Nick and Billy to gather the more personal items, and when they met back up twenty minutes later, Nick had another small bag of stuff for her, “it’s a surprise,” he explained when she asked what it was. He smiled, and it melted her. He was taking care of her, and she was enjoying it too much.

On the way back to the hotel, he bought her a cone of gelato, and they threw coins into every fountain they passed.

“Wish for life without drama,” Nick suggested, “Or at least tour without drama.” His laugh drowned out by the moving water as he stood on the edge of the fountain above her.

“That would have been a good one, but I already wished for something else.” She explained.

“What?!” He asked excitedly, making eye contact with her.

“I can’t tell you, duh.” not yet anyway… She smiled, her heart pounding in her chest knowing what she wished for, knowing it was silly but still feeling attached to it.

He fake pouted at her, and her spine tingled.

“You know I can’t. Otherwise, it won’t come true.”

“It depends what you wished for. If you wished for something that’s already happening, it doesn’t matter. Some things are just meant to be, you can’t screw them up.” He said as he hopped back down off the edge of the fountain.

Their eyes met, and her body felt instantly warm, her mouth instantly dry. Already happening.

He was standing now on the ground next to her again, looking directly into her. It might have lasted four seconds, four minutes, or four hours … she had no idea. His words had unlocked a floodgate inside of her. Another new emotion poured into her awareness: Conviction. She knew it now absolutely: He was the one she had been waiting for.

He was the reason she never stuck it out with anyone else.

He was the reason she was happy right now instead of miserable.

She didn’t just want him, she had to be with him.

He was her all in.

And there was no turning away from it, she was in it. It wasn’t an attraction or a crush, or even just being in love, it was the starting point of something - she knew it. That something might be messy and hard, but it was wonderful.

infinite possibilities.

She felt it deeply like a missing piece was found and popped into place.

What he had said was right and real: when something is meant to be, you can’t mess it up. But you also can’t make it go until it’s ready. And she couldn’t go all in without him.

Things began to make more sense. Rapidly, it came into focus.

That sense of calm she felt with him, the way he turned it around for her, the way her hand felt like it belonged in his, the shoulder graze… nothing had ever felt as right or good.

He was the reason.

He was the difference between who she was when she got to Germany a month ago and who she’d be when she left him in a month from now. He was the reason for what was happening to her. He was the difference between the life she knew with him in the background and the life she wanted with him alongside her.

He wondered what she was thinking as he stood there looking at her, still, in her shorts and bathing suit with the tunic Leighanne had given her, chlorine still in her hair and the flints of light from the water flashing casually on her arm. He was looking at her for longer than he should have and he didn’t care. Her big brown eyes seemed a little darker, but her spirit was much improved. Everything about her was drawing him in, and he was unable to stall it. He didn’t want to. He already knew so much about her, but now there were new layers of her he wanted to explore, new things to know, and new interactions to have. She was tired, he could tell, but she was looking at him like there was no other person on the planet like he was the only one, and he enjoyed that too much.

This was a memory she’d hold forever, standing there in the Italian dusk next to that fountain, looking at him and him looking at her. The night she realized he was the one.

She smiled at him, and he smiled back.

He was terrified, but it wasn’t stopping him. He had bypassed wanting her physically hours ago, he was moving at top speed toward something else- someplace he’d never seen or been to before. Unknown destination.

“Let’s go.” He said and held his hand out to her. She placed her hand in his, and they wandered slowly back to the hotel, Billy followed behind them, grinning.

Can’t mess it up.

Don’t mess it up.

Chapter 19 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

"Sorry this was sort of a bummer way to spend your night off..." Coll apologized as she stepped into the elevator behind Nick. Billy had left them in the hotel lobby after they were all safely inside the hotel. "And that you didn't get to ditch Billy." She laughed lightly.

He narrowed his eyes at her. It was no bummer at all. "It wasn't a bummer. I had fun." Nick smiled at her as he pressed the button for his floor.

"... me too." She admitted.

"Sure, it would have been better if all your stuff didn't get stolen, but we still did what we were gonna do."

She couldn't even be mad about the events of the day anymore, he was right: they still had their good time together. Only one hurdle remained for the immediate future, being okay with going back to her room - or asking to stay in his. She bit her nail nervously and looked at him, adjusting the shopping bags in his hand.

"Alright, well. I'm exhausted again." She laughed as she reached across to press the button for her own floor.

"You want to go back to your room?" He asked, surprised.

"... I-" She wasn't sure what to say. She didn't want to, but she didn't want to ask for what she really wanted either.

"That room has bad vibes." He added.

In a world where they were just friends and unquestionably no more than that, she would tell him. "Yeah, it kind of does." She sighed.

"Stay with me." He was trying to keep his tone even. He wanted to keep her in the dark about the excitement he felt about the prospect of sleeping next to her again.

In the world where they were in love with each other, this was the perfect solution for both of them. All the present hearts were pounding.

She took a deep breath and nodded, "okay." She smiled, "Thank you…. For everything. I honestly-"

"Coll, don't worry about it. I'll tuck you in," He laughed, "and we can put on one of those crazy British comedies."

All this time... She opened her mouth, her heart felt like it was firing off small sparks that were trying to combust fully into raging fires. She almost told him something dangerous but stopped before she could.

The elevator opened on her floor, and Nick pushed the button for the door to close again. "Also, pajama fashion show."

"Oh, obviously." She agreed sarcastically. "But first, I need to take the longest shower of all time."



In the quiet of the next minute or so that it took to get to Nick's floor, she thought about what Angela, Becka, and Leighanne had said, that she should tell him how she felt. And she thought about what she told herself - she would have to eventually, but it didn't have to be now. She could go on enjoying the bliss of being around him without having to bare her soul. But she also knew it would only get harder to contain herself around him, especially when she was sleeping in his bed, wearing funny tee shirts he picked out for her and while she was positive he was feeling something for her as well. And most especially, now that she had felt that missing piece fit into place, she didn't want to let it slip away.


While Coll showered, Nick flipped through the channels until he found something he thought she might like. No British comedies to be found. He settled on something about sharks with subtitles. He stared at the screen while it played but wasn't paying attention to it. He was processing a variety of thoughts that distracted him. The thought of telling her he was in love with her, the thought that she might be in love with him too, and the fear that she wasn't. He thought about how just a few feet away, behind a single wall, she was naked. He thought about touching her, he thought about kissing her, he thought about sleeping with her...

But why would she want that? She wouldn't want her first time to be with someone like me. Who ... was... for so long, so clearly was not on the same page about this...

Had he blown it with her already?

He thought about being with her in Boston, and about her being with him at home in Florida. He thought about cooking with her, ordering take out and eating it on the back patio, floating aimlessly in the pool with his arms wrapped around her as the sun went down.

He thought about her at the fountain and on the sidewalk in London.

He thought about having to tell her he'd slept with nearly a hundred other women and how awful that felt right now. He would tell her how awful that felt. He would prove to her they meant nothing, and she meant more. How?

He thought about her being a constant fixture in his life, not just in his inbox.

He considered what it would be like to be able to end a show every night and go to bed with her, consistently, without question.

He thought about being the one to make her feel better and loving the way it felt to do so.

It all felt like it made sense.

He wondered if he was moving too fast or just fast enough - it was hard to know since he'd never ventured this direction before. He'd never felt this way about someone before. Had she? He would've known. Right?

"Nick?" She asked as she approached him, wearing her new pajamas, towel drying her hair as she walked.

"Hey."

"What's up?"

He swallowed, "Cute." He smiled, referring to her pajamas. He had settled on a print of cows and sheep jumping over little fences against a light pink background. "A pretty decent runner-up to the ducks."

She smiled and nodded at him, "Agreed."

"None of those cute British shows you like, but there's something about sharks. It's not in English, but … you can sort of get the sense of what's happening."

She giggled and looked at the TV, "Thank you."

His heart jumped into his chest as she began to crawl into his bed.

"I am so tired. I don't think I've ever been this tired in my life." She stated and pulled the blanket up closer to her face as she slid comfortably into the pillows.

He smiled at her and stood up, "You've had a long week."

"I mean, yes, but I can't even imagine how you must feel…" She closed her eyes and smiled, "These pajamas are so soft."

He laughed as he wandered in the direction of the bathroom. "I feel great."

When he emerged again five minutes later, he was shirtless and wearing a pair of shorts. She tried not to let on that she noticed and enjoyed that as he slipped into the bed with her.

"Want me to turn this off?" He asked as she turned toward him.

She nodded.

He quickly turned the TV and the light off and turned in her direction as he laid down.

"How are you feeling?" He asked as they laid in his bed in the dark.

"So much better. Thank you so much." Coll said, "You're the best."

He desperately wanted to broach the broader feelings at hand with her, but they were both too tired.

"I'm glad." He smiled, "and you're welcome."

He didn't allow himself to overthink his next move. He leaned over and gave her a one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek. It surprised her, and she felt an explosive feeling in the pit of her stomach, and a wide smile involuntarily spread across her face. The feeling of her skin under his lips and the reaction his gesture elicited made him the happiest he had felt all night - a goal he wasn't expecting to reach or surpass as there had been many happy moments that evening.

"Nick."

Her voice in the dark, her body in his bed, his lips on her skin -- these were things he could get used to - sweet and secure points in his hectic days.

"Yeah?"

She wanted to keep talking about anything. But she was so tired. "I just realized…"

"What?"

"I don't have a bag to put any of my stuff in…"

They both laughed a little as they thought it over. "you can put your stuff in my bag tomorrow, and we will get you a new suitcase when we get there."

"I can't believe that happened still…" She said with a yawn.

"I know. We've had stuff stolen before but never … everything."

"Like what?"

"Jewelry, money… we were dumb and didn't know any better. Left shit out…"

"Oh, like you were dumb and didn't check that your door was closed all the way?"

"You're not dumb."

"Still feeling a little dumb."

"Don't beat yourself up over it."

"Either way, thank you."

He smiled and reached out across the sheet for her hand.

"You're welcome." He said as he laced his fingers through hers under the covers. I love you.

She didn't know what it meant, she was too tired to overthink it. She just let it be and enjoyed it. It felt good. She nodded and closed her eyes briefly.

"Goodnight, Collypop." He smiled.

She couldn't even roll her eyes at how obnoxious it was, she just looked at him, still smiling, so thrown off by how in love with him she was, and simultaneously so profoundly sure about him.

"Goodnight, Nick." I love you.


Around 3 am something startled Coll awake, and her eyes opened, adjusting to the darkness in Nick's room. She looked over at him, asleep with a line of moonlight cast across his bare shoulder. She took a deep breath and adjusted her body with as little movement as possible to turn toward him more.

All the things that were supposed to make this summer amazing paled in comparison to the thing that was actually making this summer amazing: discovering that something so familiar was, in fact, so unknown. Europe was beautiful, and the tour was exciting, and she enjoyed the days she went out sightseeing, but what she was seeing and experiencing in Nick was changing her life in a way that nothing else could - in ways she wasn't even fully aware of yet.

For as amazing as it was, and even considering how sure she felt about him, there were still parts of it that were scary… parts that told her she had to protect herself.

He is so young.

He has so much going on.

He is NICK CARTER.

But he is also just Nick. Her Nick.

But what if that got messed up in the process of trying to make that more?

This setting was so unreal - maybe too far from reality to even trust decisions made inside of it.

Things had moved fast - from attraction to certain love to the impactful snap of that piece fitting into place.

What if he didn't feel all the way the same about her?

What if he wasn't interested in what she wanted?

What if she just told him how she felt?

She was looking right at him, sleeping and gorgeous and so good for her. Right?

She had never been so tired in her life, but what she had in front of her was too good to sleep through. She reached over, as gently as she could, and used the very tip of her index finger to move a piece of hair out off his face, holding her breath as she did so.

She knew she should try to protect herself. But how? How could she defend herself and continue to experience this bliss at the same time? And how could she reconcile the need to protect herself while also knowing how sure she was about him? If protecting herself meant missing out on any of him, she wasn't interested.

She thought about all the anonymous girls and women who screamed for him, who yelled out fantasies and cried over him. She thought about what it would be like to experience him in the ways they alluded to… it made her body feel like an inferno. The memory of his hand on her back, and his kiss on her cheek were so innocent, yet they were still making her insides vibrate. They could go so many places she had never been before… but would he want to go there with her? Was he scared off - or worse, turned off - by her confession of virginity? It didn't seem like it... but there might be only one way to find out. or maybe she was just getting too far ahead of herself. But maybe not.

After a period of time watching him sleep, the relaxation took back over, and she drifted off again. There was very little delineation between dreams and reality that night.

Chapter 20 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

For an hour before she woke up, Nick laid in his bed next to Coll switching between watching her sleep and staring at the ceiling. He was trying to process what was going on and what to do next.

He tracked back in his memory to the week before the tour started, the emails he exchanged with Coll about the suitcase and her arrival… and the nights he spent at home drinking and smoking and hooking up with a random girl he met at a bar in Marathon. What was her name?

He moved forward to that first night in Germany and the sense of relaxation that washed over him when he saw her there in the doorway. She was the reason for it then, and she was the reason for it since.

He recounted the moments after that when he felt that sense of serenity again: having coffee with her that early morning last month, napping next to her after that… hanging out in her room, listening to her talk about Melanie and Becka... seeing her in the lounge after the show, and her hugging him… that night they went out with Mandy to the club when he barely drank anything even though the stress of the situation with Mandy was real …

… waking up with her the past several mornings.

She was the reason.

She was the reason he hadn’t felt the urge to drink himself into a stupor over Mandy, she was the reason he felt relaxed instead of anxious the entire tour so far, she was the reason he didn’t want to sleep around anymore.

She was the reason he felt guilty that morning she caught him mid affair in London.

He was feeling, thinking, and acting differently now than he was before the tour started … and she was the difference between that older version of himself and this current one. And he had to admit he was enjoying it greatly. It wasn’t a raucous good time, it was a constant, subtle feeling of ease. How could something that unfamiliar feel so good?

and how do I keep a hold of it?

Solid relationships had eluded him this far, stability was not a quality any of his romantic relationships had ever had before. Could she be the difference there, too? And how would that even happen? You can’t just tell your best friend you’re in love with them. Right? But maybe she isn’t totally turned off to the idea.

Whenever he thought of her as more than a friend, it was a prolonged thought. Not just one night, not just a fleeting attraction he wanted to get his hands on. He wanted more than that. She was the reason.

He thought about her the previous night at the fountain and the way she was looking at him. It had to mean something. She looked calm and steady and intense… confident. But confident in what? And did it have anything to do with him? He wondered...

She lingered at the door in London, too…

He thought about her that night in the corridor backstage with Billy after she fell asleep outside. Who did she have to call? And what did she have to say that she couldn’t say it inside? Or in front of Billy?

His mind wandered to her body in the pool, floating carelessly around as the sun warmed her skin and water beaded up on the parts of her body that didn’t go fully under. She was gorgeous in a way he rarely experienced, unaltered, unencumbered. His thoughts slipped under her shirt, around her curves... In his mind, he was kissing her deeply, and she was happy with that. In his imagination, she was open to the idea of letting him get close to her that way. Maybe that could be the reality.

He was staring at her pondering how he might tread into that territory when a phone started ringing in the room and startled her awake.

She opened her eyes to see him looking at her, which was another startling reality. She didn’t have much time to think about what waking up to him watching her meant as he recognized the ring as his own and moved into action receiving the call.

She laid there as he slipped out of bed. He quickly grabbed his phone and flipped it open to answer as he looked back at her, wondering if she had caught him staring at her.

She was stretching herself awake and working her way up into a sitting position when she became more aware of his side of the conversation.

“Oh, she’s actually right here let me get her for you.”

Coll looked at him curiously, still sleepy and groggy.

“It’s your dad...?” Nick whispered as he held his phone out to her. Her eyes widened at him as she reached out to take the phone.

“What?”

“He said he’s been trying to get a hold of you for days.”

Coll’s stomach turned over nervously, “Hello?” She said as she pushed the phone to her ear.

“Colleen, hi.”

“Dad… what’s up?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but-“ he paused, wondering why Coll was with Nick and not in her room, which he had tried previously that morning, “we haven’t heard from you. Your mother is worried. Are you okay?”

“Oh, ugh…” she was relieved there was no problem at home, now she had to sort through her own stuff and figure out what was worth sharing, “Yeah, I’m fine, sorry..” she became self-conscious of how tired she sounded, her eyes darted over to Nick quickly.

“Well, we haven’t heard your voice in a while, and I called the hotel. They connected me to your room, but there was no answer.”

Her mind tangled up a hundred thoughts. “Oh…” she began. shit shit shit

“Did you … just wake up?” Eric asked before Coll could answer his first question.

“Ummm,” She had to be cautious. She sat there, thinking quickly about what to say next, looking at Nick, who was eagerly watching from a sitting position on the bed now. This is Nick’s cell- not the room, he doesn’t have to know anything… “Well, I’m not sure why they connected you to my room because we already checked out.” She lied.

“Oh…” Eric replied, “ you sound like you just woke up.”

“Just haven’t talked too much yet today.” She said quietly, pressing her fingertips into her forehead. “maybe our checkouts hadn’t processed fully in the system yet.” She lied.

“I see, early start, then I guess?”

Coll looked at the clock on the nightstand, 6:06. Not unreasonable for touring.

“Ugh,” She began, “Yeah… well, you know… tour life.” and why was Nick awake and staring at me before 6am?? She looked at Nick closer now, he did seem like he’d been awake longer than she had been.

“Colleen,” Eric sighed, “I’m sure you’re having a great time, and we really are so happy for you, but we really need you to be in more regular contact with us. I know you speak to Rebecka but, we would like to hear your voice every once in a while, too. I only called Nick because I was starting to worry something was wrong.”

“Sure, I’m sorry. I understand. I promise everything is fine, just busy.” She agreed, wanting to speed the conversation up. She could tell Eric was not pleased as he was using not only her full name was also Becka’s. “I’ll do better.”

“Thank you. I’ll let you go. I’ve got to go to a meeting on campus now anyway, but I’m glad I was able to catch you.”

“Okay.”

“Have a great rest of your day.”

“Thanks, you too, talk soon.”

“Bye..”

Coll hung up and closed the phone gently and sat quietly for a moment, looking at it in her hands.

“Is everything okay?” Nick asked.

She lifted her head and looked at him again, he looked concerned. He looked beautiful and jostled from sleep. He looked like something she wanted to see every morning.

“Yeah.” She smiled and handed the phone back to him, “I have been awful about letting them know I’m still alive.”

Nick took the phone from her and nodded.

“At least they actually care.” He snorted, thinking about his own parents.

“I’m sorry. I gave them your number in case of an emergency.”

“That’s fine.”

She was quiet. “Have you been up a while?”

He blushed, “Yeah, like an hour...” he trailed off, not sure what to say, knowing she caught him watching her sleep.

She smiled at him and shook her head, “Aren’t you exhausted?”

He shrugged.

There was a silence before he started talking again, “Coll, I-“

She sat there, feeling hopeful about whatever he was going to say next, feeling stupid and vulnerable over whatever it might be.

He wanted to say something more critical but couldn’t. “I noticed you left out the part where all your stuff got stolen...” he smirked.

She hung her shoulders with a twisted smile, “That’s the last thing they need to know.” She explained, “Someday, that will be a funny story I tell randomly at Christmas dinner. Until then, they are better off not knowing, and the rest of us are better off that way too.”

“Why did you tell him we already checked out?”

“He said he called the hotel and they connected him to me in my room, but no answer, obviously. Thank god he called your cell and not your room…”

It took him a minute before he understood what she was saying. If Eric had called Nick’s room and nick answered at six am and told him he was with Coll, more explanation would be needed. Her parents would hate us together…. wouldn’t they?

They were both quiet for a couple seconds of solitude, each of them thinking of what to do next.

“Wanna get breakfast?” He asked.
“Sure.” She smiled even as a small bit of disappointment bumped around in her torso. For a moment, she had thought they might broach a more profound subject, but maybe it was better they didn’t. At least for now.

“Don’t forget we have to put your stuff in my bag.”

“Oh, right.” She said as she stretched her arms out in front of her. “Should be fun.”


Ten minutes later, they were both dressed and staring at Nick’s overflowing suitcase.

“Hmmm…” Coll hummed as she thought about how to proceed, arms crossed over her chest.

They had already refolded everything and put some stuff in Coll’s remaining tote bag and unzipped the extension on his suitcase.

“I just want to take a second to recognize that at this particular moment in time, you are traveling with more clothing than I am.” She smiled.

“Very funny.” He said, tilting his head at her, making her giggle. “Okay, you sit, I’ll zip,” Nick said, pointing to the suitcase on the ground.

“Okay.” Coll moved into action to sit on his suitcase. Her body weight pushed it closed while he worked around her to zip it. It was still a bit of a struggle, but he eventually got it.

“Okay. The first order of business is to get another bag.” She said as she stood up again.

He nodded, “Well, first first is food because I’m starving.”

“Right. I meant first thing on the list of things that still need replacing. I would never stand between you and your food.” She said sweetly, teasing him.

“Ahh, you know me so well.”


They made their way to breakfast to see A.J. and Howie already there and slipped into seats next to them.

“Hey, yo.” Nick said happily as he plopped into his seat next to Howie.

“Hey, guys.”

“Good morning,” Coll said with a smile as she took her seat next to A.J.

“Coll, I’m so sorry about what happened yesterday,” Howie said, looking at her with his big puppy dog eyes.

“Oh,” she shook her head, “It’s fine. It sucks but at the end of the day … it’s just stuff. It was my own fault, should have been more careful. We fixed it enough for now.”

“That sucks.” A.J. nodded in agreement. “But hey, at least you have a great excuse to do a lot of shopping now.”

“I guess...” She sighed.

“By the way,” A.J. turned to face her more, “I’m really sorry if what I said the other night offended you.”

“What you said?” She looked at him and took a sip from the glass of water a waiter had just placed in front of her.

“Yeah, about you missing out… and…”

“Oh,” she shook her head. “No, I was not offended.”

“Well, if I made you uncomfortable…”

“Trust me, you didn’t. I’m not that delicate, A.J.” She said, “You were honest, and so was I. Trust me, I’ve heard so much worse.” She added as she rolled her eyes, thinking about the many sordid and strange conversations she’s had with people about sex. “But, thanks for thinking of me. I’m fine. No worries.”

“For the record, you’re probably right in the long run.”

She shrugged, “Right is a moving target.”

He pondered the thought for a moment before nodding slowly. “So we’re cool?”

She nodded.

“Great.” He smiled, “You’re gonna enjoy it. Someday.”

“I have no doubt.” She replied as her eyes met Nick’s briefly before she took another sip of her water. Catching his glance in the middle of a conversation about sex created another unknown feeling inside of her. Something that felt like fiery anticipation and also, something serene. She took a deep breath and sat deeper into her seat.

“What happened?” Howie asked, looking between the three of them.

“Nothing, D.” Nick said.

“So, how was shopping?” A.J. asked, changing the subject.

“Really good.” Coll nodded. “Considering.”

“Is this a new ensemble?”

“Indeed…. pretty much everything you’ll see me wear from now on is a new ensemble.” She giggled. “I have no idea what this is made of, but it’s so soft.” She gushed and rubbed the shoulders of her tee-shirt with her hands.

“I’m glad you’re handling this so well.”

She pursed her lips, “well… today.”

“Yesterday, she was threatening to go home.” Nick pouted.

“I was overwhelmed.”

“I don’t blame you,” Howie added.

“But I’m feeling much better now.”

“It was the gelato.” Nick laughed.

Coll smiled at him shyly, leaning on her elbow at the table’s edge. It was you.

Chapter 21 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

The trip to Vienna was mostly seamless and uneventful, which was a massive relief to everyone, especially Coll. But on the plane, Jen announced they would be having a group meeting before soundcheck that night, and everyone had to be there. She emphasized "everyone" several times but did not disclose the reason for their impromptu meeting.

"She's crazy," Leighanne whispered to Coll, who was sitting next to her as per Leighanne's request.

"Why do I have a bad feeling about this?" Coll asked as Angela approached in the aisle.

"Colleen." She said calmly, kneeling down next to Coll's seat.

"Hi." Coll smiled.

"Girl, I just heard about what happened yesterday. Are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm okay," Coll nodded, appreciating Angela's concern.

"What the hell happened? That sucks so bad. Do you need anything?"

"Just my own stupid mistake. I'm good for now, we went out last night to get some stuff…"

"Damn…" She sighed, "Well, you do seem … a lot better than I was expecting. If all my stuff got stolen, I'd be livid. For like, years."

"Nick made it all better!" Leighanne leaned in and whispered.

"Ohhhh," Angela smiled, "Alright, alright, you'll tell me about that later."

Coll tilted her head sideways at Angela, "Of course."

"Alright, girl. Well, if you need to borrow anything, let me know."

"Thank you."

"We'll talk later? There's something I wanna tell you, too." She bit her lip.

"There is?"

Angela nodded happily. "Later."

"Okay!" Coll replied as Angela stood back up and returned to her seat.

"Alright, tell me more," Leighanne said quietly.

"I can't talk about it here, we will talk later!"

Leighanne batted her eyelashes, "Fine fine…" She sighed as she reclined further into her seat. "Just tell me one thing - does he know how you feel?"

Coll shook her head, "Well… I haven't told him, but anything is possible."

Leighanne shimmied her shoulders a little bit and giggled, "This is so fun."



Between check-in and the meeting, there was about half an hour that Leighanne decided was best used getting the info she wanted from Coll. She followed Coll to her room, impatiently waiting to be fully inside to start the inquisition.

"Alright, spill it!" Leighanne exclaimed as she closed the door behind them after they entered Coll's suite.

Coll dropped her tote bag on the desk and smiled as she looked around her room.

"Oh my god."

"What?" Leighanne asked, too distracted, looking at Coll waiting for answers to notice what Coll had.

"Look at this!"

Leighanne looked around the room to see what Coll was referring to and was pleasantly surprised.

"AHHH!" She shrieked. "We can cook dinner!"

Coll laughed as Leighanne walked over to the small kitchenette no one was expecting to be in her room.

"Okay, this is great. I would love to cook something tonight. Are you cool with that?"

"Sure, of course." Coll agreed, watching as Leighanne practically pet the small stovetop. "Assuming you're cooking for me, too." She joked.

"Obviously," Leighanne said as she walked back to the living area of Coll's suite. "Okay, now, you can spill it."

Coll sighed, "Part of me thinks I can just wait and see, enjoy what it is right now, and the other part of me thinks I have to tell him… soon."

"Me too."

"This is going to sound crazy…"

"I promise you, it won't," Leighanne assured her as she sat in one of the armchairs near a coffee table. Coll quietly made her way to the other chair and bent over her knees, propping her arm up to cradle her head in her hand.

"Last night, I was looking at him, and I felt like… so sure. Like I just knew it… he was it."

Leighanne smiled widely. "I totally get it."

Coll looked at her directly, "But it makes me feel crazy. Like, how could I know something like that? At the same time, I felt SO sure. In the same way, I am sure that Becka is supposed to be my sister. Like, no question."

Leighanne nodded, "I know. It does sound crazy, but it's not."

"How can I feel so sure about him and not even know how to tell him? How does that work?" She asked.

"Because you're trying to be logical, you're not really able to forget everything else that's still also true."

Coll nodded. "And he is so young, Leigh. Like, he's a teenager. I'm young! I feel like … this is too big of a feeling, too big of a thing for how old we are."

"Okay, yes, he's young, that's real. But, look at everything else he's got going on - all of that is massive for his age too, it doesn't matter."

She hadn't thought of that. "I guess so…"

"You're both adults."

Coll nodded, "Honestly, I just love… sleeping next to him and having my hand in his hand and …" She paused, visibly blushing.

"Wait - how often is that happening?" Leighanne asked, narrowing her eyes at Coll.

"Not often enough." Coll sighed, closing her eyes. "There were three instances of hand-holding yesterday, and I hate that I am attached to every single one of them."

"Who is initiating all of this??" Leighanne asked.

"He initiated all the hand-holding," Coll said quietly, thinking back to the magical feeling of the night before, him holding his hand out to her at the fountain, interlocking her fingers with his under the covers...

For herself, she was sure Nick was interested in her in some way beyond friendship, but she kept that to herself for the moment to see if Leighanne might offer her personal option, unbiased.

"Leigh, I don't know what to do. But it's getting harder and harder to do nothing. I'm nervous I'm going to do something stupid, but the more I think about it, the more likely that seems actually..."

"I get it. I really do." She nodded, "But wait, the hand holding… where? When?"

"First it was like, a comforting handhold - while I was panicking about my stuff. Then on the way home last night. And then before we fell asleep… in his bed." She finished as she covered her face with her hands.

"I think he's got something going for you, too. I really think he does. I don't really know how to explain it, but… Nick is kind of reckless with women. But... I mean, for me, honestly, the biggest indicator is what I've just learned. Colleen, he's been in your bed three nights in a row." Leighanne began, "If nothing else, that means he's not running his usual games." She paused, "Because something better came along. The fact that maybe he recognized it as something better is huge for him."

Coll looked at her and shook her head in disbelief.

"Like that actually shows some kind of maturity."

"Or do you think that means he's just not interested?"

"No. Coll - he's spending the time he usually spends hooking up with whoever, on you. That means something."

"Okay. I get what you're saying… also, London." She paused, "I know he feels something, Leigh."

"What happened in London??"

"I wish I had told you all of this so much sooner."

Leighanne was smiling widely, "Me too. But I understand. You had to be in it."

"I just know he feels something, but I have no idea what. On the other hand... "She began, looking past Leighanne, her eye caught the clock on the nightstand, "Holy crap, we have to go!" She exclaimed.

"What?!"

"We have two minutes to get to the tenth floor." She informed Leighanne as the two of them got on their feet, grabbed their essentials, and headed to the door again, eager to not piss Jen off even more than she apparently already was.

"Ugh, this meeting is really probably going to be so useless," Leighanne whined as Coll pulled the door to her room tightly behind her.

"Most likely."

"Listen, I just want you to know, it's okay if you're not sure what to do about the things you're sure about. Being that sure of something is probably a really new experience for you. It is for most people." Leighanne explained as they walked to the elevator.

"Thanks, Leigh."

"Everything will work out. It's okay if it's a little messy."

Coll sighed, "Honestly, part of me likes this crazy, tormented feeling. But the other part of me wants to see what's beyond it." She ran her hand through her hair and slumped her shoulders. "I'm scared for the same reasons I'm sure."

"Love is nuts, Colleen. Just enjoy all of it." Leighanne shook her head nostalgically. "If it wasn't real, it wouldn't feel scary. Brian always says something about 'if she doesn't scare the shit out of you a little bit, she's not the one'…" she laughed lightly, "There is power in that, Colleen."

"Ugh," Coll groaned.

"We can talk more later if you want. So excited to eat something I cooked myself."

Coll smiled as they exited the elevator again.

The two of them were the last to arrive for the meeting with no time to spare. Unsurprisingly, there were no empty seats at the long conference table, but no one was standing around the room either, except for Tim and Jen- who was entirely displeased with their just about late arrival.

"Ladies, sit!" She commanded.

Leighanne quickly made her way to Brian and plopped down in his lap.

"Wha-"Coll began.

"Colleen!"

She looked around quickly and nervously.

"Sit!"

"But-"

"Siiiittttt." Jen motioned her hand from high to low, indicating what she wanted Coll to do.

A.J. was in the seat closest to where she was standing; he reached out for her hand and pulled her into his lap.

"Don't wanna get her any more riled up. Trust me." He whispered with a laugh.

"She hates me."

"You're fine." He said, wrapping his arms around her and resting his head on her shoulder.

"Great!" Jen smiled. "Now, let's get started. I don't want to be here all day."

Coll sighed and looked across the table to Nick, who smiled at her and shook his finger sarcastically.

"Off the top, I don't want anyone to think this meeting has anything to do with Coll's incidents this week…"

Coll's face felt hot as everyone directed their glances at her.

"What?!" She whispered angrily.

"Don't worry," A.J. said, patting her leg.

"... We just want to go over a few important things." She continued "for safety."

"Oh, sweet baby Jesus," Coll whispered, hiding her face in her hands.

"Now, let's first talk about the passes. Everyone needs to have their pass on the venue at all times. They are wearable for a reason. If your pass is not on your body, you should not be at the venue. When not on the venue, the pass needs to be secured. You should always check your pass for flaws that could compromise it staying on your body. If, for some reason, you are leaving a venue, someone needs to know about it or accompany you. No one should be alone at any point outside of a hotel. As for distance traveling of ANY kind, any distance, no one is to go out unattended or at least without telling someone where you are going! If your name is Howie, Kevin, Nick, A.J., or Brian, you do not leave the hotel without security!" Jen looked specifically at Nick, "That means you, Carter."

Nick held his hands up, faking innocence. His smile told a different, mischievous truth, though. "If you leave the hotel, someone from security goes with you. End of story. No excuses. Don't ask for an exception. Nick got lucky in London, but we can't bet on it again. Billy, Jay, Tom, Q, and Murphy are all on strict orders going forward. They will not be bribed out of working, you will not fool them into letting you leave their sight."

Brian frowned playfully. "Fine, fine, fine."

"No sneaking off, no playing games."

"Quit playing gaaaaames." Brian sang out randomly, making everyone laugh.

"Now to review hotel based security… if you have anything of value - monetary or sentimental or otherwise - lock it up. I understand the safe is only so large. Let's be sure to check all doors, locks, and spaces for valuables during, and as we are leaving hotels. Please continue to lock valuable items up in the hotels- passports especially. Coll got lucky in Italy… you two, your luck is not going to last forever!" She pointed to Nick and Coll at the same time. "It's time to get serious about the most valuable things."

"She seems to think I have good luck…?!" Coll mused quietly to A.J., who laughed lightly from behind her.

"Yeah, this definitely does not feel at all inspired by Coll," Angela stated with a giggle as Coll peeked at her from under the hand she had now shielding just her eyes from everyone.

"It really wasn't!!" Jen swore. "These are important things everyone needed to be reminded of. Coll's a prime example right now, but it wasn't about her." Jen smiled at Coll.

"Right." Brian laughed. "We believe you."

"I'm so mortified," Coll stated mostly to herself, but A.J. responded by telling her she was now officially inducted.

"You don't get a whole meeting about you unless you're in…"

"Oh, so this mortification I feel is just some twisted rite of passage?" She asked quietly.

He nodded.

"Now, I do have one thing for you specifically, though, Colleen." Jen announced, "Your new luggage." Jen pointed to a small suitcase in the corner of the room. "Brand new, all yours. We put a lock on it as well."

"... thanks." Coll said quietly as everyone looked at her again. Her cheeks were on fire, and she could feel herself nervous sweating.

"Oh, and one more thing!" Jen shouted over the dull drone of people beginning to start up their own sidebar conversations, "If you have a guest in your room, please be sure to escort them to the lobby when they leave." She smiled widely and clapped her hands together once for emphasis.

"I don't think that's about you," A.J. said with a smile.

"Can't tell you how relieved I am about that," Coll said in A.J.'s direction, not even sure if she was being sarcastic or not.

"Alright, everyone can go now," Jen said as waved her hands at them, indicating they could go.

Coll didn't move. "I'm so embarrassed," she said.

"Seriously, don't be."

Nick came over and stood in front of them and held his hand out to Coll, "it's okay," he smiled.

Coll put her hand in his and stood up next to him, allowing A.J. to stand up as well.

"She means well." A.J. assured her.

Coll shook her head.

"Well, at least now it's official." Nick said, and Coll looked at him curiously, "You're one of us."

"That's what I said." A.J. exclaimed, "You're in. And she got you a brand new suitcase."

"Colleen," Jen's voice interrupted them from her left side.

Coll looked over at her as the guys watched. "Hey. Jen…"

"I really was half expecting you to ask me to get you back to Boston ASAP last night…" She smiled, "But I'm glad you're hanging in. Let me know if you need anything else." She said as she stepped away and back into a conversation with Tim.

"Does she hate me or not? I can't figure it out." Coll asked quietly.

"She doesn't at all. She's probably just … confused."

"Confused?"

"I mean, she's right, who would put up with all of this unless you, like, are obligated. Being paid to be here, or romantically attached to someone." A.J. laughed.

Coll looked at Nick quickly then back to the suitcase, still sitting in the corner.

"Guess I'm just special, then."

Chapter 22 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Leighanne and Coll had finished dinner and were reclining on Coll’s bed finishing off the last of their wine around 11:00, waiting for the guys to come back from the show.

“I’m sad we couldn’t go for our post-dinner stroll around the city.” Leighanne said as she rested her head on Coll’s shoulder. It had started raining halfway through dinner and Leighanne had to let her plan for walking to some shops go.

Coll giggled, “I’m sorry, baby, we still had such a lovely romantic evening regardless.” Coll teased.

Leighanne laughed, “I know, it was like the perfect date night in, really.”

“Minus Brian.”

Leighanne shrugged, “If I can’t be with Brian, you’re my top choice.”

Coll sighed heavily, taking a long sip of her wine. Leighanne had cooked them a nice meal of fresh ravioli and salad and they spent the hours talking about everything from Leighanne’s wedding dress to how they’d stay in touch once Coll went back to school. It was exactly the kind of relaxing night Coll needed.

Upon arriving at Coll’s room, Nick and Brian both immediately started complaining about being hungry and inquired about the status of any leftovers.

“We only made enough for us.”

“Why??” Brian asked.

“Because there were only two of us!” Leighanne laughed.

“There is some cheese.” Coll said casually as she took another sip of her wine, catching Nick’s eye in the process.

“I feel betrayed.” He said.

“Snickers,” Coll shook her head, the warm buzz of champaign flowing through her body, pressing her hand into her forehead, “If you’re hungry just order something. I peeked at the room service menu earlier, it looked good.”

“Snickers?” Brian asked, “oh that’s good…”

“Brian, let’s go upstairs.” Leighanne said as she got to her feet and walked in his direction. “I’m sleepy.”

“Is there food up there?”

“I’m sure the nice hotel people would be happy to bring you something.”

“I’m gonna eat the cheese.” Nick said, opening the small fridge.

“Alright, let’s go, Leigh.” Brian gave in.

“Date night is over??” Coll pouted.

“Date night?” Brian asked.

“Yeah, it was so fun!” Coll smiled, “It’s been so long… well, for me.” She laughed lightly, realizing it had actually been quite a few months since the last date she went on.

“Awh, it was so fun.” Leighanne said, giving Coll a hug. “Thanks for letting me wine and dine you.”

“Any time.”

“Goodnight, guys.”

“Night.” Coll waved as the two of them left the suite.

“Wait, how long has it been since you’ve been on a date?” Nick asked as the suite door closed behind Leighanne and Brian.

“God, I don’t even remember.” Coll said honestly, “Months…” she mused, as she walked back across the room to the bed and sat on the side of it.

“That surprises me.” He began. It made her nervous.

“It shouldn’t.”

“Like, how does that happen?” He asked, walking over to stand in front of her.

She looked up at him, unsure what to say. “How does what happen?”

“Are all these Boston guys blind or something?”

She blushed. “You know how guys are…” she replied as she tucked some hair behind her ear and he sat down next to her. “Don’t worry, it’s no real loss, there isn’t anyone I want to go on a date with … there.” Her eyes shifted, hoping that last part wasn’t too obvious.

After spending most of the day away from, but speaking about him, she felt a crazy urge to maintain proximity to him now that he was there. Her internal timer was ticking, she wasn’t sure how much time remained but she could sense it was very little before she might explode.

She wanted to be closer to him, she wanted to feel his hands on her skin again, she wanted to have an excuse for him to stay with her again, she wanted to tell him everything he was doing to her. It was all she could really think about as he sat there next to her. She tried to focus as he began speaking again.
“But still. Seems crazy to me...”

“There are not a lot of romantic date nights in college. There’s a lot of going out in a group and some random guy slips his arm around your waist and tries to get you back to his apartment.” She explained. “That’s not me.” She thought it over, “Then again, it doesn’t really matter because the alternative wasn’t any good either.”

“The alternative?”

“Even when I have been ‘dating’ people, the dates… the dating… usually kinda boring.” She said. “Like, John. He took me on dates but … they were boring. I mean we had a good time together but, it wasn’t exciting.” She shook her head, “Like, don’t get me wrong. My life is generally pretty mundane to begin with, but that’s why it’s even more important to be with someone who can make it a little more exciting… or at least, make it feel a little more exciting.”

He narrowed his eyes at her, “I feel like I should know more.”

“About what? John?”

He ran his hand through his hair, “You… your life.” He couldn’t remember the last time he cared to know anything extra about someone. She was the difference.

Her eyes got wider and her imagination started running wild. Is he flirting? He already knows so much. But maybe it is mostly surface level? As far as stuff that matters goes, anyway... What exactly does he want to know? What is safe to tell him?

She barely knew herself these days, she felt like an entirely new person recently.

“What do you want to know?” She asked quietly, she couldn’t help herself from giving him a bit of a sultry eye, her own flirt filter falling apart at the seams as she noticed his eyes actually shift to a darker, more mysterious shade of blue as he sat there, so close to her and still not close enough at the same time. It made her spine tingle.

His eyes scanned her face before a small smirk appeared on his mouth.

“Whoa.” She held her hand up, sensing that was the direction he was headed. “Do not ask me a would you rather right now.”

“Damnit.” He hung his head in playful defeat.

She rolled her eyes and scooted back against the headboard behind her.

“Just ask a regular question if you have one.”

“I just feel like I’ve missed some critical bits. The fact that you’re obsessed with pajamas, all that stuff you told me about guys being shitty to you… the virginity thing. I need to catch up.”

She smiled, “I’m an open book, what do you want to know?” She asked, bringing her knees up closer to her chest, relaxing a bit into the reality that he, again, wasn’t hooking up with someone and was instead with her, talking.

“Well, what happened with John? I thought you were into him.”

She shrugged, “He was nice. He took me out, he bought me flowers, he checked in … he was reliable. But it wasn’t … exciting. And after a while all his nice guy stuff actually became annoying… probably because I didn’t feel the same way about him.” She watched as Nick lounged deeper across her bed, propping himself up on his elbow. “I didn’t realize it at first because we did have a good time together, but he was just, boring... and everything we did was boring, or at least… tepid.. I don’t think he realized.”

“Like…”

She took a deep breath and settled into a series of stories about her time with John - about how he played it safe with her, with school, and life in general, never challenging himself and certainly never challenging her. She gave him the footnotes version of the stale pattern they fell into physically where they would snuggle in her bed and make out for fifteen minutes before he would slip her shirt off her body and kiss her everywhere above her waist, and about how it was enjoyable but she didn’t miss it when it was over. She told him about how he always wanted to walk her home, and about how he always wanted her to meet his parents because he knew they would love her.

“Anyway, he was safe. And that was nice for a little while. But there was no excitement for me. And then it became obvious he was more into it than I was, so… ” She summarized, “He was always in love with the idea of me. But not actually with me. I think he wanted to be.”

“He told you he was in love with you?” The sentiment made him jealous, even though he knew she didn’t reciprocate, the thought of someone else doing what he wasn’t - but wanted to - made him feel heavy with jealousy.

“I thought I told you that part? Maybe not… you had a lot going on.”

He honestly couldn’t remember if she had or not and he was frustrated with himself for it. What else had he missed? The fact he felt that so deeply now, and couldn’t even recall if he knew it before, was proof again, he was in love with her.

“What did you say back?”

“I don't remember….?”

“You don’t remember?!”

She covered her face with her hands, ashamed. “I said, ‘no you aren’t’...”

Stunned, he laughed, “Okay, you definitely never told me that! That’s cold…”

“Well…”

“How could you tell?”

She looked past him and her eyes wandered aimlessly around the room for a second before landing on him again, “He cared about me. He wanted me to be happy. But I got the sense that it was more for his own fulfillment. Like, if he could make me happy and keep me around, and do nice things for me... that proved he was doing something right. But he wasn’t aware of me, he didn’t know - and never seemed compelled to find out - about the things that make me, me. Like, I fit into his little pocket of what he thought a relationship should be, and that was enough for him. Like he was trying to check a box off not like he was trying to add anything to his life. There was an empty space and I filled it. I want more than that.” She explained honestly, “He was thrilled I went out with him, he was thrilled to call me his girlfriend for a while, and he was thrilled he had someone to take care of… but it wasn’t me he was thrilled about, just that there was someone there. Maybe I was a good person to have there but it wasn’t about me, it was about having the box checked. You know what I mean? Like, just the idea.” She paused, pressing her finger into her cheek and tilting her head at him, “I’m glad he wasn’t truly in love with me because I wasn’t in love with him. And I imagine that’s a hard place to be … in unrequited love.” Her heart was pounding, and she had no idea she would be so willing to say so much.

Nick was fidgeting, unsure how to absorb all of what she was saying but desperately wanting to.

“Also, yes, maybe that was cold, maybe I could have found a better way to say it. But.. it was true… still is.”

“He’s still in love with you? Or thinks he is?”

She shrugged, “I have no idea. I just mean, if he still feels the same way, it’s still true that he’s not in love with actual me.” She dragged her nail thoughtlessly over her thigh, watching the light red mark it made, “He texted me a few weeks ago. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

“What could he have done differently?” He asked.

“Nothing.” She said, “People shouldn’t have to change for each other - not like that, not your personality. I didn’t want to change him. I don’t want to change anyone, I just want to find someone who can bring out the best version of me and vice versa.” She pushed a piece of hair back behind her ear.

Nick nodded, understanding what she meant but feeling like it was a way of thinking he hadn’t done for himself ever before. But she had defined the thing he felt - like a better version of himself.

“How do you know?”

“Know what?”

“If you are both being the best version of yourself? Or if someone else is the best version of themselves?”

“You’ve really picked up some excellent interviewing skills, haven’t you?” She teased him with a laugh.

“Sorry…I-” he blushed and she thought it was sweet.
“I’m joking, it’s fine.” She smiled, “The best version of anyone is not the bored version. He was happy, maybe that was the best version of him. I just didn’t feel drawn to it. It’s funny because, on paper, he was the perfect boyfriend but in reality it was really dull.” She said, “Stuff like that can be so deceiving.” like how on paper you seem all wrong but in reality…

He looked at her and his heart skipped a few beats as she spoke again. ”But really, you just know. It’s a feeling. You can see it when someone is their best - if you care about them. That’s why I’m like…” she lifted her hands out to sides of her body, “no clue about John. I didn’t feel connected to him. He was there and he was nice but I wasn’t invested.”

“And he never tried to sleep with you?” Nick asked.

She couldn’t help it, a small smile appeared on her face as she considered how interested he was in this. “I mean, if I had let him go further he would have.” She said, “But once I figured out he wasn’t what I was waiting for it was over.” She looked at him and felt her belly fill up with a feeling she hadn’t felt before. “Sometimes you have to do some stuff to figure it out - or so I thought. But,” she inhaled deeply, “sometimes you don’t.”

Nick was moving now to sit next to her against the headboard, he left barely any space between them, his arm touching hers for many inches.

They were both quiet for a few minutes, lost in their own thoughts. The room was quiet except for the sounds of rain on the windows.

“Nick?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really glad I’m here.” She said quietly, turning to look at him as she slipped her hand into his. It felt like a bold move and also like the most natural thing simultaneously.

“Me too.” He smiled at her as he leaned his head back against the bed, squeezing her hand in his gently.

“Also,” She began again, tilting her head down to look at his hand in hers, feeling like she wasn’t fully in control of her words, feeling like she wasn’t even sure what she was actually about to say, “last night, at the fountain…” her voice was light and serious at the same time. She watched herself as she used her pointer finger to trace the shape of his fingers wrapped around her hand.

“Yeah?” His heart rate increased as he eagerly awaited the rest of her sentence, knowing that something happened at the fountain last night, remembering the way she was looking at him.

“I saw something.” She whispered.

“What?” His mind was reeling, she could not finish this thought soon enough…

She knew it was right and true what she had seen last night, when things came into focus, when she knew she had arrived at the starting place of something bigger, when she knew he was it.

She lifted her head back up to look at him and paused for a second, remembering what Leighanne had said. “It’s okay if you’re not sure what to do about the things you’re sure about. It’s okay if things are a little messy.” She locked her eyes on his and felt it was safe to go on... “The best version of you.”

Chapter 23 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Collypop!” Brian exclaimed as he slid into the seat across the table from her.

“I need to come up with some equally obnoxious nickname for you.” She replied, not looking up from her plate where she was pushing a scrambled egg around with her fork. It was 5:45, she had barely slept all night and he was definitely too perky.

“Awh, you like it.”

She sighed and put the fork down, flipped her hair over her shoulder and looked up at him, smiling and rolling her eyes.

“What’s up?”

“Need to talk to you.”

“About what?”

“What else!?” He stuck his hand out.

She really wasn’t quite sure, “You want to know what happened last night after you left…?” She asked nervously.

He raised his eyebrows at her, “Well, yes, but that’s not what I was referring to.”

“Oh.” She sighed with relief. “So… you have boyband drama?”

“No! Leighanne's birthday!”

“Oh.”

“I can’t hang with her at all that day, so that’s where you come in!”

“You don’t have to ask me to hang out with her I do that, happily.”

“No I know, but I wanna plan something for the two of you to do. She would probably love the spa.”

Coll nodded, “Most likely, yes.”

“You wanna do that?”

“Brian, there are very few women who do not want to go to the spa.”

“Alright girls day at the spa it is!”

“What do you need from me to make it happen?”

“Nothing, you just sit back and get pampered.” He said in his girly voice.

She giggled.

“Alright now, I also need your help later. I have an appointment with a jeweler this afternoon.”

“Ohh, fancy.”

“I need your help with that.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

She smiled and laughed lightly, “Alright. I will go with you.”

“Thank you,”

“You’re welcome.” She said as she crossed her arms over each other and leaned into the table.

“Now, about last night...”

Coll shook her head, blushing and looking away from him and they both smiled softly to themselves..


The yellow hue of the lights in the elevator was beginning to give Coll a headache, but she was glad the lights were still on at least. A good sign. The thing can’t be entirely broken if the lights are still on..

“I swear shit like this doesn’t happen to me at home.” Coll stated firmly as she looked up at Brian sitting across from her on the floor of the elevator. It had been thirty minutes since they left the jeweler’s studio with a fabulous gift for Leighanne, twenty one minutes since they boarded the elevator, twenty minutes since their elevator stopped moving, fifteen minutes since they gave up trying the buttons and attempting to get a signal on Brian’s phone, and five minutes since Brian’s last mention of Tom and how he would definitely be in the process of rescuing them, unless of course he, too, was stuck in the elevator he took down four minutes before they did to scope the route, and two minutes since Brian checked the time.

“What doesn’t?” He asked.

“Getting locked out of buildings, losing important documentation, getting robbed, getting trapped in elevators...”

A smile spread across his face, “...falling in love with your best friend...”

Immediately she hung her head, shaking it and bringing her hands to her forehead.

“I knew you were already on to me but, did Leighanne tell you?” She asked, peeking up at him briefly.

He shook his head, “She wouldn’t tell me anything you told her in confidence… But you’re right, I had a feeling. So it’s true?”

Coll tilted her head back up, still holding her hand to her forehead, a small smile unable to hide in her expression.

“It’s okay.” Brian laughed. “You can tell me.”

Coll’s eyes wandered around the small space before she took a deep breath and made eye contact with him again.

“It’s true.” She admitted, “But ... It’s more than that.”

Brian nodded slowly, understanding.

“It’s... bigger.” He offered.

“Yes… bigger. It’s like... The way I feel right now ... It’s scary, I mean ... look at the kind of luck I have ...”

“I know I don’t know you that well yet but Leighanne loves you and that means something. Plus, what I do know about you is mostly good...”

“Mostly??”

“Just teasing you.” Brian laughed, “but seriously, I don’t know you that well yet but I know him and … I know it’s scary. So I know that it’s especially scary with him... I get it. .”

“You mean because he’s my friend or something else?” She asked nervously.

“Just everything. Love is scary, I think you know that, conceptually. It’s different when you’re living it.. Nick is young.... so are you. You’ve got your thing, he’s got his... but no matter who it was or when, it would be scary. I know there are special considerations with him, this situation, I get that. But don’t be scared.”

“What should I do?” She asked.

“I’m not really one to give relationship advice, but in the long corridor of life some doors will be closed, some you have to kick down, some will be locked... some will be wide open. And some you have to knock and wait patiently.”

She locked her eyes on his, thinking about what he had said. “That’s deep.”

He smiled and shrugged.

“What kind of door do you suppose I’m at right now?”

“Well, I know it’s not locked.” He said thoughtfully.

Coll smiled, her heart fluttered. Especially after last night, she knew this particular door was not locked but, he would know better than anyone.

“So I should knock and wait patiently?”

“I think ultimately it’s best to do what you feel drawn to. When I met Leighanne everyone was suspicious, they didn’t think it could be as intense as I was saying it was.” Brian began, “But I knew it. It was the surest I’ve ever been... about anything. And I didn’t have a logical reason to know that, it just was like ...”

“I get it.” She said quietly. “Like... unmistakable.”

Brian smiled, “Completely.”

Coll shook her head, unsure how she got to where she was, unsure exactly how to move forward, “how come I feel both things- so sure and so scared?”

“I think that’s part of it.”

“It feels crazy.”

“It is - but that’s okay.” Brian reassured her, “It’s okay if it’s a little crazy. Unavoidable, really.”

“I don’t want to screw anything up for him.”

“Like what?”

“Anything, everything...”

Brian looked at his hands in his lap, “He couldn’t be negatively impacted by something like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like someone feeling the way you do about him.”

“But what-“ Coll was interrupted by the elevator creaking into motion again as the lights flickered briefly.

“Oh thank you Jesus.” Coll sighed with relief, “I didn’t want to scare you but I really have to pee.”

Brian laughed as he got to his feet and helped Coll up onto hers. “Well I appreciate that.”

Coll smiled and tucked some hair behind her ear.

“Coll,”

“Yeah?”

“You’re good for him.” Brian said honestly.

It made her happy and nervous at the same time, just another dichotomy for her to grapple with. She smiled anyway, “What makes you think so?”

“It’s my job to know!”

She bit her lip, “Thanks for talking.”

“You’re welcome, little.”



The driver took Coll, Brian and Tom directly to the venue, calculating there was not enough time to stop at the hotel since the incident with the elevator had delayed them and Brian had to get to soundcheck.

“Tom?” Coll asked sweetly, leaning over herself to get closer to him in the front passenger seat.

“Colleen.” He smiled.

“Could you please do me the world’s biggest favor and save me from being the highlight of another meeting?”

“You need a pass?”

“Yes please.” She batted her eyelashes at him as Brian laughed lightly. “Silly me, i thought I could make it three days in a row without any issues… really thought we’d be stopping back to the hotel before going to the venue.”

“Of course, stick with me when we get there I’ll hook you up.”

“And no one has to know?”

“Our little secret.” He nodded, “Just don’t let anyone get a good look at it.”

Coll relaxed back into her seat for the remainder of the trip to the venue.
Upon arrival there, Brian hurried off to soundcheck, leaving his purchase from the jeweler with Tom for safekeeping and Tom took Coll to get a pass for the night.

“Thank you, I appreciate it.” Coll said as she slipped the pass Tom had given her over her head before quickly checking the closure by tugging on it from three different angles

He laughed lightly at her.

“Trust me I know how absurd this is.”

“Stay out of trouble tonight?”

“Tom, I swear, I actually have always been trying to just that.” She held her hands up at her sides, “I swear. Not particularly good at it apparently but, yeah.”

He smiled and waved her off down a long corridor as she set off in search Leighanne.



After searching all the usual places backstage with no luck, Coll walked into hair and makeup to see Leighanne, Angela and Andrea sitting in three separate stations, chatting happily about something.

“Oh, thank god you’re back,” Angela exclaimed as she noticed Coll arrive.

“No seriously... thank god.” Coll sighed. “I swear, I really do go from one day to next without incident at home.”

“What? What happened now?” Andrea asked looking back at her.

“We got trapped in an elevator.” She explained as she stood there with the three of them looking at her.

Angela looked at her blankly for several seconds before she burst out laughing, “How does his shit keep happening to you?”

“No idea. Also, I feel so naked. I don’t even currently own a handbag, and we didn’t have time to stop at the hotel for me to get anything before we came here and I didn’t bring anything with me when I went with Brian so now I’m just…” she held her hands out to her sides, “here.”

Leighanne stood up out of her seat and motioned for Coll to come over, “Can I do your hair?”

“Is it really that bad?”

Leighanne laughed, “Not at all I just really wanna do someone’s hair.”

“Oh.” Coll smiled softly as she headed over, “Sure.” She said as she plopped into the seat Leighanne was in. Any excuse to sit here and do nothing for a while... “Wait, I don’t know if it’s such a good idea to put a burning hot tool near my face… my luck is so bad right now.”

“You’ll be fine.” Leighanne giggled.

Andrea smiled at her, “You need a bag. We should go shopping.”

“Shopping for sure but first, Angela was waiting for you to get here to tell us something!” Leighanne explained as she started running her hands through Coll’s hair, smiling at her in the mirror.

“Ohh...What’s up? Oh, is this what you mentioned in the plane yesterday?”

“Yes!” Angela’s face lit up, bright and happy, and she was so excited. She couldn’t put her finger on it but Coll recognized something in Angela’s expression.

“Well?! Tell us!!”



Coll focused on the sounds of water lapping around her body as she floated aimlessly on her back in a large inner tube in the hotel pool. She was thinking about him again, and trying to stir the courage up inside of herself to get the message to him somehow. He was watching her and she knew that, and she loved it.

With her eyes closed, and her fingertips caressing the surface of the water beneath her, she let her mind explore the thoughts it wanted to...

He had done so much for her in the past month. He had given her this incredible opportunity, introduced her to friends she knew she’d have for life and took care of her when she needed it. But he had also given her space and time and tools to do what she loved, even if she wasn’t actively doing it, he set her up for it.

He didn’t understand her entirely yet but he was trying and he wanted to, she could tell.

He gave her feelings she had never had before some of which she didn’t even have words for.

He made her feel safe enough to say things that spoke intimidating volumes.

He was absolutely it and he had to know. She needed him to know.

She saw it in him at the fountain: caring, optimistic, playful, funny, dedicated, supportive, comforting, selfless … the best of him. And she saw what he could be - the things she wanted to witness him become. There was more greatness inside of him. She wanted to see it come out. She wanted to be part of it.

She wanted him. She wanted what she knew he could be and she wanted what he already was. She realized that she had been willing to tolerate whatever mess being in a relationship with him might create, but now she actually wanted it. If it was going to be a mess - a difficult, complicated and emotional mess, that’s what she wanted. He was worth the complication. She stirred restlessly now, her imagination taking over, pushing beautiful and wonderful prospects to the front of her mind.

She slipped herself out of the tube and down into the water. Her body felt heavy with the things she wanted to say but hadn’t let out yet.

Nick was sitting on a lounge chair on the patio watching as Coll re-emerged from the water in the shallow part of the pool, pushing her hair out of her face in the process. The water slipped effortlessly over her skin, her curves were emphasized by the illumination of the pool, catching everything above her waist in the perfect combination of light and shadow. He was torn between keeping a safe distance and being in there with her.

She had the pool to herself and no one else was on the patio. He wasn’t even sure if the pool was technically open right now. It was past midnight, a crescent moon was hanging behind some wispy clouds in the sky and everything was dark and oddly quiet. His mind was a tangle of thoughts as he watched her.

She wanted to go swimming, that's what she told him. Everyone else had gone out after the show - but as they were deciding, she went to him and made the request.


”You never go night swimming in Florida?" She had asked him, positive it was part of his daily life. Her face was bright and happy and he knew deep down he had something to do with it, and that made him happier than he had felt in recent memory outside of last night.

Her innocent fascination with night swimming, the invitation to join her and the alluring nature of her soaking wet body was pushing him to a place he wasn't sure he should go yet but nothing was going to keep him from having another night alone with her.

A.J. had caught on, and the fact that Nick was staying at the hotel tonight with Coll instead of going out with them was the final piece of evidence he needed.

“You’re into her.” He said, looking at Nick in the loading dock earlier that night. It wasn’t a question, he wasn’t looking for confirmation. Nick nodded with a smile. “Careful with that.” A.J. advised as he placed his hand on Nick’s shoulder briefly before walking away. ”I’ll miss my wingman.”

That statement was the reason why he was sitting on the lounge chair while she was in the water. He couldn’t deny that he had several concerns about himself in this situation with her. He had never experienced anything like this before. It would actually matter - he would feel the impact if he screwed it up, which was an entirely new reality for him. And for those reasons and for several others, he wanted to take his time. He didn’t want to get too close too soon, he didn’t trust himself with her yet. He felt like an entirely different person recently.

If he had to wait, that was fine. She was worth the wait. But there could be small steps forward. If the opportunity arises…

Their conversation the night before had propelled them into a space where it was obvious they were talking around something significant. He was terrified of it and she was intimidated it, but when they were in that space together, it felt less daunting.

He could have taken the opportunity the night before, she was right there in front of him, with her hand in his, looking at him again like he was the only person on the planet, her face so close to his. He could have kissed her then. He could have reached up and put his hand on her cheek, leaned in and kissed her. He could have told her, “Colleen, I’m in love with you.” But he didn't. What she had said to him had felt so good, he wanted to enjoy that for a moment - and he wanted to enjoy kissing her - he wanted to know both of those things uniquely.

She wasn't sure why, but she could sense he wanted more than he was going for and was approaching it all very slowly. She thought about what Angela had said, about him treating her differently because she wasn't like anyone he was usually with, and she thought maybe that was real.

Angela had said a lot of things in the past twenty-four hours that stuck with Coll, and she was recounting them in her mind as she swam back in the direction of the tube which had floated further away from her. While Leighanne curled Coll’s hair for fun during soundcheck, Angela had revealed that she was experiencing her own little love affair with A.J.'s bodyguard, Q. A total bombshell to everyone. She spent twenty-five minutes gushing about him and her feelings toward him to Coll, Andrea and Leighanne. Angela had revealed that she and Q had been taking long walks around the hotel parking lots some nights while he waited on A.J. and that they had kissed each other on several occasions behind the buses. Coll was fascinated and admitted she had no clue any of this was going on. “I didn't want to tell you until there was something to say, really." Angela explained herself with a smile.. “I’m glad you know about it now, but mostly I wanted to say…” Coll slipped back into the tube and closed her eyes as she conjured the memory up,


Colleen.” She remembered that Angela’s voice was so serious, more serious than she had ever heard it before. “I know you didn’t ask… and I know, I have an overbearing sister thing going on here. But you’ll never get what you want this way. Not with him, not with anything.” She had said it directly to Coll, leaning into the armrest of the chair Coll was sitting in, “Especially with him. If there is someone who makes you feel things you’ve never felt before… someone who looks at you and turns your insides into a gloopy mess… someone who you feel so good with…”

Coll opened her eyes again and glanced back to where Nick was sitting, now reclining in the lounger looking up at the sky. “If you find someone who makes you … you …then you have to tell them. You have to do whatever it takes to keep that. If they make you happy, relaxed, secure, safe, inspired, optimistic … If you find that, you gotta be… brave. You gotta be brave and tell them. It’s for you. No one ever got what they wanted by staying shy and playing it safe and pretending they didn’t want what they know for sure they want.”

The knot in her stomach tightened as her hand dipped into the water, sending a new ripple across the surface.

The fact that Angela had used the same phrase to describe what Coll might be doing as Coll had used to describe John was a sticking point for her. Playing it safe… it was something she thought made John boring, and she didn’t want that for herself. But keeping her relationship with Nick safe was important to her, and keeping herself safe was a concern too. But playing it safe was something she knew she didn’t want. ”you have to tell them. the memory persisted as Coll drifted across the calm water in the tube, her eyes settling as often as possible and more often than was reasonable on Nick.

He was gorgeous and too far away. “Come in already!” She called out to him.

He felt a weakness in his back and looked around without purpose. Feeling less and less in control of his own body, he slowly stood up. He pulled his tee shirt off and flung it over the back of the chair. She watched as he went to the steps and began to make his way into the pool slowly.

“It’s so warm.” He commented as he reached a part of the depth where it was more appropriate to swim. He made his way over to her tube and dipped under the water completely for a moment.

He slicked his wet hair straight back as he returned to the surface and it sent a vibration up her spine. He smiled at her, his heart caught in his throat, as he reached out for her tube and hung gently on the edge of it.

“Hey.” He said as he flicked some water off his nose.

“Hey.”

“when you find someone who makes you you.”

“Do you have anything going on tomorrow morning?”

“We have a couple radio things.”

She nodded, “Are they going to ask you what your favorite color is again?”

He laughed, “Probably.”

“Maybe you should change it up.” She suggested, “Imagine the impact…” the part of her brain that hadn’t generated anything in a month moved into action concocting an imaginary headline for TigerBeat. “Nick Carter reveals his true feelings...” She smiled, “Subtext: about orange… I’m getting rusty.”

“You’re fine.”

“It’s like riding a bike, it’ll come back once I’m back at school.”

The reality of that situation sent a pang of something that felt like regret through this chest as she adjusted herself in the tube so her body was in the water and her arms were wrapped around the edge.

It was a better position for looking at him which was all she wanted to do for the rest of the night, and the night felt like it held a lot of potential. Her stomach filled with butterflies and her feet paddled in the water a little quicker for a moment as a surge of excitement pulsed through her.

It was 12:50 by the time they re-entered the hotel. Nick was holding all of the stuff they had with them when they arrived at the pool and Coll was clutching a towel around her body. They boarded the elevator in relative silence, relying only on body language to communicate for those few minutes it took to travel upstairs.

It was less than ten minutes ago that she had asked him a question he delighted in being asked. “Can I stay with you tonight?” She asked it quietly as her face passed closely by his as she floated in the tube. It gave him a rush of exhilaration, and a conservative smile had spread across his face. Since the night before, he had desperately wanted to find some excuse to lay beside her again all night, but with an express invite, he didn’t need an excuse. He loved the idea of living a life where he didn’t have to find excuses - only pursue purpose. And the thought that maybe she could give that to him was overwhelming. “Of course.” He had replied quietly as they looked at each other in a way he wasn’t sure they had before.

Chapter 24 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

From his position a few paces behind her, Nick watched as Coll walked barefoot down the quiet hall, the towel still wrapped around her shoulders, covering everything above her waist. What he could still see was hard to stop looking at.

“Nicky.” She said happily as she looked at him over her shoulder. “Need my key.”

“Oh.” He shuffled through the things he was carrying to hand it to her. Her fingertips grazed his palm as she took it from him and couldn’t breathe for a minute.

She opened the door to her room and they walked in. She removed the towel and tossed it across the bed before heading to the closet. He took the opportunity to look at her entirely again. “I want to take a quick shower,”

Something about the way she was moving was making him nervous, “Okay.”

“I can meet you upstairs if you want.”

“I can wait.” barely. He said as he watched her moving, gathering things in her arms.

“Okay.” She smiled as she retreated into the bathroom.

He stood there looking blankly at the closed door for several minutes, his mind turning over a hundred thoughts.

She had made the first move, asking if she could stay with him that night. Why? What does it mean? And he knew he had looked at her in a much too telling way several times in the past few hours.

“Do you want to go swimming with me?” She had asked, approaching him in the dressing room after the show. Her voice was sweet and sincere like she actually wanted him to go with her. She hadn’t asked anyone else. She wanted to be with him and he could tell. The idea of going out had been floating around since after soundcheck, and everyone was excited about that plan it seemed except for her. She would have gone, she would have had fun but it wasn’t what she wanted tonight. During the show, Coll had worked up the words to ask him for what she wanted. “I know everyone is going out… but I was hoping you’d stay back with me. I don’t exactly have anything to wear for that type of thing either currently.”And when she asked him, he could tell it had been on her mind and he wanted to find out why.

Everything she had said to him in the past twenty-four hours left him reeling.

“The best version of you.” It had undone something inside of him, and it made him feel a happiness he wasn’t familiar with.

“it’s even more important to be with someone who can make it a little more exciting..” He wanted to do that.

”Sometimes you have to do some stuff to figure it out … sometimes you don’t..” He felt the weight of everything … everything she said, everything she referenced, and especially everything she had implied. It was a scramble but he wanted to untangle it more than he ever wanted anything in recent memory.

As she peeled the damp suit off her body she thought about how crazy she felt, she had asked him if she could spend the night and that felt like a massively bold move, but to sleep alone tonight would feel all wrong. For every single thing that felt so incredibly right, there was something nagging - something that felt opposed. It doesn’t matter, it’s okay if it’s a little crazy. I did something brave, and I knocked and now I will wait patiently… that’s the middle ground. But that internal timer kept running down and even if she truly wanted to wait patiently, her instincts might get the better of her.

She showered as quickly as possible, slipped into her pajamas and towel dried her hair before returning to where she had left Nick. He was looking out the window of her room when she re-entered.

“I’m all set.” She said as she ran her hands through her hair.

He turned back to her and smiled, “I have something for you upstairs, I should have mentioned it earlier, but I forgot.”

“What is it?” She asked, her stomach flipped over inside and she felt a surge of excitement.

His body felt weak. “You’ll see.” He said, his eyes glinting a brilliant shade of blue at her.

Quickly, she shoved a few things into her tote bag and they left her room to make their way to his.

He opened the door to his suite and she entered behind him. He tossed his stuff onto the table near the door and quickly went to his closet before returning with a small shopping bag. Coll recognized it from the night they went shopping. It was the extra bag he handed her when she met back up with him and Billy after telling them she was not, under any circumstances, shopping for underwear with either of them.

“These never made their way to your suitcase when we moved your stuff over.” He smiled as he handed the bag to her.

She looked at him curiously as she took the bag from him and peeked inside. “Oh my god.” She gasped, “Where did you find these?” She dropped everything else she was holding on the desktop behind her and lifted an ultra-soft set of rubber ducky pajamas out of the bag.

“They were in some other area of the store, I don’t know why.” He explained as he indulged himself in the smile on her face.

She stood there, holding the pajamas, running her hand over the soft fabric and thinking about how sweet it was that he found these and bought them for her. You have to tell him.

“Nick, Thank you.” She said simply, looking between him and the pajamas in her hands, thinking about everything he was and everything he could be. Everything. He could be everything.

“You’re welcome.” He said.

Her stamina for not doing or saying something to him about her feelings was dwindling. The longer she put it off the messier it would get. The risk of screwing up their friendship was still something she felt deeply, but ever since that night at the fountain, the risk of screwing up her chance with him in a bigger sense loomed much larger.

She inhaled deeply, trying to settle herself. “I… I love them.” She pushed some hair behind her ear and placed the pajamas back in the bag. “That was really sweet of you.” Her voice was quiet and her words sent a wave of that unidentifiable happy feeling through his body. it’s happy but it’s different…

He rubbed the back of his neck casually and told her to make herself comfortable. “I’m gonna hop in the shower.”

She nodded and he backed out of the living space slowly - enjoying the reality of looking at her right then and wanting to get back to her as soon as possible.

Once he was fully out of view she covered her face with both her hands, thinking of what to do next.

She was thrown again. Not even half an hour ago she had resolved to wait patiently, but now that felt even harder to do. How can I be patient when he is constantly doing things that stoked the fire?

She realized suddenly that if she moved quickly, she could get Becka on the phone for a brief moment of support. Quick calculations told her it was only seven o’clock in Connecticut, perfect timing for reaching her.

She walked quickly into the bedroom area of his suite where she picked up the phone on the nightstand and went through the process of dialing out internationally. She kept her eyes on the bathroom door as the phone rang, on high alert for when his shower would end and she’d have to get off the phone. She knew she didn’t have a lot of time but she hoped Becka would be able to work quickly.

“Hello?”

“Beck, it’s me.”

“Oh my god, I’ve been emailing you for days!! Ugh it’s bad enough you left me here alone the least-”

“I am so sorry.” Coll began, cutting Becka off and wrapping the cord of the phone mindlessly around her fingers, eyes still on the bathroom door. “And I know I’m being so selfish right now calling like this and not asking how you are or anything but I need you to overlook it because I have literally maybe five minutes to talk and I need you.”

Becka smiled to herself and walked with the cordless phone to another room, “I’ll let it pass this time. What’s up? Are you okay?”

“Something is happening with Nick and I need you to please tell me what to do.”

“What’s happening? Last I spoke to you, you were happy being miserable.”

“That’s still true but I might want to move out of the miserable because I’m not doing anything with him phase and into the miserable because of other reasons phase. We have slept in the same bed like, five nights in a row. He bought me half a wardrobe. He held my hand three times and, I know... it sounds pathetic I have an exact number, he kissed me on the cheek, dove pretty deep into a discussion about me and John and I think he’s the one because I saw him at the fountain and he was perfect and I’m so confused and so sure at the same time.”

“Hmmmm,” Becka hummed, “do I have time to ask for details on any of that?”

“No.”

“Is cheek kissing the extent of the physical aspect?”

“Yes, but there is ... tension.”

“Okay, so you guys are like ... what? Friends with really, super innocent benefits?”

“I guess so. I don’t know, I want more, I don’t know how much longer I can suppress myself. Tell me what to do.” She said quickly.

“Colleen, as much as I would love to tell you what to do, that’s not how it works. Which you know because I did sort of tell you what to do the other night but I’m assuming you didn’t do that...” Becka smiled to herself, “I can’t really tell you what to do especially not about this. I can only live vicariously thr-.”

“Okay, maybe you need more info. I am so sure he’s the one Becka, literally the same way that I am so sure you were always meant to be my sister. I feel so sure about what I saw and how I feel.” Coll explained, her voice strained with stressed.

“Colleen, get a grip. It’s okay. You’re in love with him.”

“Right. But I’m not sure what to do next. What do I do about being in love with him?”

“Listen, I don’t know as much as I’d like to before making any suggestions but I do know that you don’t have to be sure about every single thing right now. And, there’s no one right answer. Just go with what you feel short term.”

“I feel… crazy. I want… him. I want him, Becka. But, it’s not a short-term want. Am I supposed to tell him that?” Coll asked nervously.

“Coll, you aren’t ‘supposed to’ do anything. You’re in love with him, and that’s really exciting. But that doesn’t mean you are required to divulge everything immediately if you’re not comfortable doing that.”

“But I need to say something because I’m going to explode. You told me I should tell him but I’m not sure. Not sure how to do that or-”

“I know I told you that you should tell him, and you totally could.” Becka sighed, “But there are plenty of ways you can move forward - so you don’t have to keep yourself all tied in a knot - without dumping everything out verbally. Honestly, I’m just relieved to know you’re considering it- the night we got disconnected you sounded like you were convinced that going on forever in secret love with him would be best… which, it’s not. To leave this unsaid for now, is okay. To leave this unsaid forever… not as much.”

“Yeah, I was considering that, but that was before I knew for sure about him. That was before the fountain. That was child’s play practically compared to what I feel now.”

Becka was quiet in wide-eyed contemplation for a moment. “What about a fountain? I’m a little confused. Are you sure you only have a few minutes?”

“Yes.” Coll said, tuning back into the sound of the shower running. “I was afraid of messing up our friendship. Now I’m afraid of messing up a significant portion of my life.” “If it’s meant to be you can’t screw it up.”

“Alright, well … I get it that you’re feeling really … sure … about him. Maybe you’re unsure about how he feels about you?”

“Yes. I think I know, but yes, unsure.”

“My best advice is to focus on what you want short term, be present. If you want to spend the next five hours looking at him, do that. If you want to kiss him, kiss him. If you want to sleep in his bed, sleep in his bed. It’ll all come together. If the words aren’t there yet, it’s okay. If the situation doesn’t feel right for saying something yet, that’s okay. You have time. You can say a lot without speaking a single word.”

Coll sighed, “In that case, I’ve already said a lot.”

“You know what else?” Becka began, nearly bypassing what Coll had just said, “The relationship part of a relationship - that part where you don’t have a choice but to say things because someone is depending on you and where you have to do things because that’s the right thing and where there is a lot less of the playful stuff that gives you butterflies…. a lot less mystery... that part lasts so long. It lasts as long as your relationship. Just enjoy this stuff, Coll. Seriously it’s all good. You’ll get to the truly difficult parts, you’ll get to the part where saying what you feel directly will be the only option, but for now, you can just enjoy what it is if you want. This is butterfly time, just indulge in it. Why put all this pressure on it right now? I mean, I don’t think you’d be wrong at all to tell him, ‘Nick, I'm in love with you’ … not at all. You’d be fine to do that. And if that’s what you decide you want to do when you get off the phone with me, great! But it’s not your only option.”

Coll took a deep breath and pressed her fingertips into her forehead. “Alright. That seems fair.”

“At some point, yes, you’ll have to tell him, it doesn’t have to be now. You’re asking me what you should do and that’s what I think you should do: follow your feelings, enjoy it and don’t think everything needs to be decided today. It’ll all come out when it’s supposed to.”

“That makes sense.”

“You know I think he should know. And I think you deserve to experience telling someone you’re in love with them … on your own terms. No one else’s excitement about the prospect of your relationship with him should influence you - not even mine,” She laughed lightly. “and no one’s negative reaction to it should either. What’s important is that you feel good about it, him and what you do or say and when.”

“Yes.”

“Which is why you have to stop asking everyone else what to do.” Becka grinned, knowing she was certainly not the only person Coll has asked.

Coll shook her head with a small smile, her eyes still locked on the bathroom door.

“Do you trust him?” Becka asked.

“Yes.”

“Then stop overthinking and fall into it.”

“What?”

“You are in love with him... you have to fall. But you’re overthinking it and you aren’t trusting yourself, so until then trust him.”

Coll smirked to herself, “Alright, I hear you.”

“This lightning-fast therapy is not really my preference. I know you better than anyone so it’s feasible in a pickle but can you call me tomorrow please?”

“I will try.”

“And check your email before you call if you can so you can compose some answers to my MANY questions which I’ll be drafting as soon as we hang up. Starting with the fountain thing and something about a wardrobe?”

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Coll hung the phone up and stood there quietly, biting her nail. The shower was still running. She moved back into the living area of Nick’s suite thinking about what Becka had said as she took a seat on the couch

Chapter 25 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

She was sitting with her legs tucked under her on the couch when he came back into the suite, he looked at her and ran his hand through his hair nervously.

He breathed as deeply as he could manage to, but it felt shallow like there wasn’t enough space for breathing after his fascination with her took up all the space inside of him. Slowly, he made his way to the couch and sat down next to her. His body felt heavy from carrying all his feelings around for so many days. It was time to offload some of them.

He was fidgeting, nervously cracking his knuckles and clearing his throat. She watched him and turned in to face him more, letting one of her legs swing down in front of her and keeping the other under her body.

“Nick,” She said, the sound of her own voice surprising her.

“There’s something else I’ve been trying to figure out.”

“About what?”

“You.”

“What’s that?” She asked, looking at him as a suspicious smile crept along her mouth. Suddenly she knew there was no going back to being just his friend, there was no way to forget what she saw or what she felt at the fountain, things had already changed, and they weren’t terrible or ruined. He was still a safe spot.

He looked at her, scanning her face before starting again. Don’t screw it up. “Why didn’t you ever mention that you were a virgin? Did you think I’d … think it was … weird or something? Like did you specifically not want to tell me?”

She was surprised. She sat up a little straighter.

“No. Not at all, it just never came up. I mean, you found out… from me… eventually.” She paused, flopping her arm down onto the couch between them, “Do you think it’s weird though?” She asked quietly.

“Just surprising.” She had heard that too many times for it to make a wave.

“Surprising I didn’t tell you or surprising that that’s the way it is?”

“Mostly that that’s the way it is.”

“Is it confusing more than surprising?”

He looked at her, “Maybe.”

“I think people got the wrong idea about me, and that, by the way. I’m not trying to prove anything. And I definitely don’t feel like my way is better than anyone else’s. It’s just… my thing. I’m just looking … deeper.”

“Deeper?” It sounded unfamiliar as it escaped his mouth, though it was exactly the way in which he was falling for her, faster every second.

She blushed and twirled a piece of hair around her finger mindlessly. “I just want to do that one thing with the right person. The person who is right for all the things, not just sex.” She was talking, she could hear herself speaking, but she felt like she was outside of her own body. She looked him in the eye briefly before looking down at his hand creeping closer to hers, “I don’t know how to explain it but …” She paused to check back on his face, trying to get a sense of what he was thinking.

He was watching her closely, searching for clues. He didn’t even know what exactly he wanted - there were too many things to focus on just one. He didn’t know what he was hoping to see, but he was positive it was going to involve her and it was going to change him in a way he couldn’t even fully imagine. He just knew it.

“How will you know though?” He was getting nervous.

“What do you mean?”

“When you find the right person?”

She hung her head, trying to hide her smile. She already knew. “It is - or,” She swallowed back some anxiety, “it will be… it will be rather obvious.” She lifted her face and their eyes met.

He wasn’t sure how he could keep it together the rest of the night after this. His mind was running wild, imagining her in all states of pleasure.

“But I think you know it’s a little more complicated than that …” She finished and she knew this was her breaking point.

Complicated. He couldn’t speak.

She was dizzy now.

“The problem is...” she began, not knowing why or who was in control of her body right now because she certainly didn’t feel it was her. “Even if I think I’ve found the person, and it feels obvious... how can I really know? If I’m not in a relationship with them already. How will I know where they stand?” She paused, her eyes landed on his. Tell me. “What if the right person - or the person I think is the right person - isn’t ready for the same thing I am? Or they don’t want the same thing I do? I would have no idea. And could they still be the right person if they don’t want the same thing I do?” She asked seriously, surprising herself as it fell out of her mouth. “Can you even ask someone to go deeper when you haven’t been anywhere at all with them?” Her eyes were staring into his, it hurt to blink, it hurt to be so close to him and not close enough at the same time.

His mouth was dry. He swallowed. He had to move.

Stand up.He couldn’t.

“Just having sex doesn’t mean anything but BEING with someone who means something … being with them that way does.” Her voice was light and airy, she wasn’t sure if she was breathing anymore, all the breath she had was carrying the words off her tongue and into the air space between them. They flowed out and they could never come back. “What if he’s not ready for that? To go deeper? I wouldn’t know...”

“To go all in...”

She inhaled deeply as his hand moved in closer briefly before lacing his fingers through hers, holding her hand loosely.

She continued to unravel.

“If it’s meant to be you can’t screw it up.” He whispered reminding himself as he shifted ever so slightly closer to her. His other hand moved closer to her body. They were talking circles around themselves.

“What?” She asked, not entirely sure she even heard whatever he just said. “What does what…” She trailed off, watching his hand move to her thigh. She took a few shallow breaths.

Her blood was moving so quickly she could practically hear it, her entire body was lit up with raw emotion that had nowhere to go.

He began pulling her closer to him and she allowed it. She moved into him and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. His hand ran up her back and gently played with the fringe of her hair.

She felt his other hand now on her face, he tilted it up.

Neither of them said anything as their faces drew closer together, both sets of eyes moving slowly across the other’s face.

He smiled as their noses touched. His lips grazed hers softly. Her mouth curved into a nervous smile beneath his.

“What are we doing?” She whispered.

His eyes met hers and he found what he was looking for.

“Going somewhere.” He said before putting his lips on hers and kissing her softly.

Several thousand nerve endings in her body tingled with delight and she felt weak all over. She moved her hand to the back of his head, accepting his kiss even deeper now. The encounter persisted for several minutes as they found more comfortable placement between them.

“Nick, we-“

“It’s okay.” He said, wide-eyed, worrying what she would say next.

She nodded, “It’s more than okay.”

His lips reclaimed hers and another long set of making out ensued.

The kissing was blissful, too good to risk with conversation. And too good for this couch.

“Nick,” Coll said quietly, pulling away from him briefly, biting her lip into her mouth, trying to think clearly while he looked at her. “No one ever got what they wanted by staying timid and playing it safe and pretending they didn’t want what they know for sure they want...” She smiled. “...fall into it…”“Let’s go to your room.”

He didn’t know what it meant, but her eyes were dark and mysterious and he needed to know more. He got up and followed her without question. He watched as she crawled into the center of his bed where he joined her immediately.

“I just want to keep kissing you.” She said and he didn’t hesitate in honoring that request.

Kissing him was bliss and let herself enjoy that without thinking about anything else for the rest of the night.

They spent the next five hours making out and not talking about it.

Chapter 26 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

It was five forty-five when Nick began talking about having to leave soon and six thirty by the time he actually left the bed. In the process of getting up, in between kisses, he mentioned how much he hated having to stop kissing her. She nodded and her nose brushed against his, a piece of his hair drifted across her forehead and it made her spine tingle.

“Go.” She finally said quietly as he nuzzled his face in her neck.

He smiled at her as he left the bed, taking a lot of the warmth with him.

She slid into a sitting position and messed with her hair nervously as she watched him move around the suite before disappearing into the bathroom for a few minutes. She sat there quietly reeling in her emotions, mindlessly twirling a piece of hair around her fingers and smiling to herself for a few minutes before he re-emerged.

“My lips are puffy.” He laughed lightly as he crawled back into the bed with her briefly.

Suddenly her face dropped and her hand went to her own mouth, “oh my god.”

He laughed, “It’s okay.” He shook his head, “it was worth it.”

She blushed more than she wanted to as he leaned in to kiss her again. His hand on her cheek, his lips on her lips … it was still unfamiliar in the best way even after hours of experiencing it.

Her brain felt fuzzy as he pulled away and he slipped back out of the bed and got dressed quickly.

“Are you going to be okay? You didn’t sleep at all.”

“I’m going to be fine.” He said with a smirk. “Probably better than fine.”

She didn’t know what to say. It didn’t even feel real. There had been no sleeping. They spent the entire night kissing each other, looking at each other and feeling immediate confidence in where they placed their hands on each other. His hands on her neck, back and shoulders, her hands in his hair, on his arms … nothing was awkward even in the uncertainty. They laughed, they flirted, and they smiled so much it made their faces hurt. There was barely any speaking, only a few stray, memorable sentences. It was pure fantasy, but it had actually happened.

“I’ll see you later, at soundcheck or dinner or wherever.”

“Okay.” She said as he leaned in and kissed her again. They looked at each other, neither knowing what to say, but knowing that what they had started was too good to disrupt with anything heavy. “I’ll see you there.” She confirmed.

His eyes were bright and giving her chills. “Bye.” He said softly.

“Bye.” She said and watched him leave.

Protecting herself was out. She was in uncharted waters with him but she felt safe. He was the safe spot. She couldn’t protect herself from the thing that made her feel safe. She knew she had no idea what to do next, and she was still unsure how or when to broach the scope of the situation - to tell him how she felt. The prospect of kissing him again was all that really mattered at the moment. It didn’t even feel wrong - it didn’t feel like a betrayal to herself in his interest - it felt like doing something she wanted to do with someone she trusted. And she trusted that for him this was something he wanted at least in part the same way she did. She didn’t have to know more than that to enjoy it for a while.

She laid there for an hour contemplating it all. Remembering the feeling of his lips of her jaw, his warm breath on her cheeks, his lips on hers… the feeling right before he kissed her, knowing he was going to, the tingling sensation she felt through her entire body. Perfect.


There was more disappointment in leaving her than he anticipated. He ran through a series of the memories from the night before as he made his way to the lobby.

“Do you have to sleep?” She had asked him around three-thirty in the morning. He remembered it hadn’t even crossed his mind until she asked. She was looking at him like she was concerned but also like she was hoping he would say no. Which he did. “Why would I sleep?” He remembered the look on her face, he wasn’t sure how to describe it, but she looked happy - in a way, she looked like she couldn’t even believe how happy she was. It could have been a look that conveyed any number of amazing things and that made him feel heavy in a thousand exciting ways. There was so much more to find out about her and he wanted to know it all. Infinite possibilities.

A smile spread across his face.

“You’re amazing.” She had whispered it as his mouth explored the curve between her ear and her cheek. He recalled that it made him feel so weak he almost fell deeper into her. She had no idea what she was doing to him - and neither did he.

He had kissed her so much and for so long, but it still wasn’t long enough. She had let him kiss her lips, her cheeks, all along her jaw... he hadn’t tried to do anything else, there was enough goodness in that. He hadn’t even had enough of those things yet.

She was so beautiful and he wanted to indulge in everything that meant, piece by piece. He wanted more, but he didn’t want it yet. For the first time, it was good enough to cherish, there was no reason to have it all at once.

He knew she was unlike anyone he had ever been with but actually being with her made that even clearer. Simply kissing her was satisfying in itself and having her limbs tangled up with his was comforting. It was an unfamiliar feeling - but it felt right. It consumed him and he was okay with it.

He spent the day in a tired, distracted state looking forward to seeing her again. He couldn’t remember the last time - or any time - he wanted to see someone again like that.

In between interview questions, and sometimes even during, he kept going back to the moment before he kissed her when he looked at her and he saw it. He saw her the way he was meant to see her. With his defenses now fully compromised and completely broken down he was able to see her clearly: gorgeous, perfect, reliable, happy, attentive, smart ... challenging him in a way he never knew he wanted to be challenged. He looked at her and he saw her. He saw everything. She was it. How did I miss it before?

Below the surface, the simmering fears were bubbling up. He barely trusted himself to believe what he saw, and he certainly didn’t trust himself with her. And why should she trust me? She knew his history, and despite everything she had said - everything she had implied - he didn’t trust himself to believe she’d want him to be the one for her and he wasn’t sure he could be. She was so pure and he was tainted. She was perfect and he would corrupt her. She was precious and he didn’t know how to hold something like that without breaking it. He was reckless and he didn’t want to wreck her, but he felt the very real fear that he might. Maybe you CAN mess it up.

Chapter 27 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

After relaxing in his bed for a while, Coll pulled herself together and headed back to her room to grab her things and bring them to the bus.

Upon opening the door to the bus, she immediately heard someone crying and a man’s voice speaking. She stopped to evaluate what was happening before slowly climbing the stairs and peeking in.

“Ang?”

“It’s Coll, it’s fine.” She heard Angela say through her sniffling.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m back here, Q is with me.” Angela replied, her voice drawn and stressed.

Coll proceeded into the bus, dumping her bags near the couch on the way. She found Angela sitting on the edge of her bunk with Q on his knee in front of her.

“What’s up?” She asked, concerned.

Angela shook her head sadly, “It’s Jen.”

“Jen?”

“Jen.”

“What did she do?” Coll asked kneeling down next to Q and placing her hand on Angela’s back.

Angela looked at Q as a tear rolled down her cheek.

“She said something to Angela about us.” Q explained, looking briefly at Coll.

“She said it’s not appropriate...” Angela added.

“Seriously??”

“You know how she is.”

“I mean, barely... but... wow.”

“She said ‘I’m not going to stand in the way of true love but either keep it under wraps at work or don’t work together’ so basically...”

“You’re always at work, what does she expect?”

“And neither of us are quitting our job.” Angela said firmly looking at Q with wide eyes.

“So what now?”

“Maybe she’s the one who needs a new job.”

“We will have to tone it down I guess.”

Coll looked between them, “I was completely clueless until I was told expressly what was going on - how much further could you possibly tone it down?”

“That’s exactly right. She’s just bitter.” Q said, squeezing Angela’s hand in his.

“I’m sorry guys. That sucks.”

“I just wish she had said it a little differently.”

Coll nodded.

“She made it sound like we were ... bad people.”

“I understand her position, but she definitely could have expressed it better.”

“You have to go.” Angela said quietly looking at Q.

“I know, I’m sorry,”

“I’m here!” Coll smiled.

“Thanks babe.”

“I’ll see you later alright?” Q said and leaned in to kiss her before leaving.

“I feel so bad.” Coll said sadly after Q had left.

“Don’t worry about me.” Angela said as she brushed some tears off her face. “Tell me about last night! You two were the only ones who didn’t come out!!” Angela smiled and managed to look about as excited as she was despite the redness of her eyes and cheeks.

Coll smiled, “Will that make you feel better?”

Angela nodded as she slid into her bunk and laid down while Coll sat on the edge of the bunk across.

She took a deep breath. “We went to the pool like I wanted to.”

“Yeah…”

“And then to his room.”

“YEAH?!”

“And then he kissed me.” It sounded so much simpler than it felt.

Angela smiled widely and shimmied her shoulders. “YES! Carter! Okay, more details please.”

Coll shook her head, smiling in disbelief this was a story that she was now able to tell, but unsure how to properly put it into words.

“It was perfect.” She said. “I’ve never kissed so much and slept so little in my life and I... can’t wait to do it again, honestly.”

“Yes yes yes!! Ugh I’m so happy for you.” Angela looked delighted, “Ugh you’re so lucky you don’t work here.”

Coll pouted, “I’m so sorry this is a thing for you.”

“Me too. More details though, please.”

“I don’t know what to say, we just… kissed. All night.” She explained, “It was incredible.”

“That’s so hot.”

Coll nodded, biting her lip.

“Did he say anything?”

“There was not a lot of talking …”

“Really?”

“Just kissing.”

“Just kissing and like, truly nothing else?”

Coll looked at her and nodded slowly, “It was really good kissing though. Such good kissing.” Her eyes wandered off, “Very intense. But yeah. It was virginal even for me.”

Angela laughed, “I’m just surprised! I didn’t know he was capable of stopping there.”

“Maybe you were right about what you said … about him doing things differently.”

“I guess so. I didn’t think it would be … THAT different across the board. I’m impressed. You’re rubbing off on him… all mature and stuff.”

“I think it was really just so enjoyable as what it was…”

Angela took more notice of her friend’s demeanour, “Girl, you are like… glowing.”

“I feel like i am going to fall asleep sitting here though.”

“You really did not sleep at all?”

“Not a single minute.”

“Holy shit. Did he?”

Coll shook her head.

“Damn.”




“Nick!” Coll called to him from down the hall as she approached. He turned to look back at her.

“Hey.” He smiled, “What’s up?”

“Hey.” She blushed looking at him, “Umm, can I borrow your phone? I promise I won’t leave the building with it.”

“Yeah of course, it’s in my bag in the dressing room.” He adjusted his earpiece while maintaining eye contact with her.

“Thank you.”

“You don’t really have to ask.”

“No of course, I-“ She began, but didn’t finish. She couldn’t think straight for a moment.

“Do what you have to do.” He said and looked around to see the others had made their way fully down the hall, “Hang out after?” He asked.

She could feel her cheeks turning red again, she knew they were off to the next city overnight. “On the bus?”

He nodded.

She smiled, “Should I bring my pajamas?”

“Obviously.” He replied happily as he leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek quickly before hurrying off down the hall, leaving her standing there grinning, savoring the feel of his lips on her cheek and looking forward to the night ahead.


She had spent a lot of the day in her own head, remembering things she had said to him, things he had said to her, things they had done… and she revisited some of the highlights again as she made her way back to the dressing room.

“You’re amazing.” She wanted to say more but settled on something true but short.

“I just want to keep kissing you.” The memory made her blush - she had done a handful of things that felt incredibly forward, but he made her feel safe enough to do them and that filled her with a sense of joy she had not known before.
His hands in her hair, caressing her shoulders under the sleeve of her shirt, his lips on her face… it made her feel dizzy with bliss.

“To go all in.” She was thrown off by the fact he had remembered this specific phrase she had used in conversation with him only once. He remembered and she felt a million emotional things about that.

“Going somewhere.” It gave her chills.

It felt like months had passed but it was mere hours ago that she was calling him to come into the pool with her. In less than twenty four hours, the axis her world spun on had changed.

After locating his phone she found soft chair to sit in and settled in for a longer than average chat with Becka. She covered everything from the robbery, to the fountain to Brian’s ‘long corridor of life’ and topped it all off with the events of the night before.

“Holy shit Colleen, this is your life.”

“I am the absolute happiest person on the planet today.”



They had barely boarded the bus before they were kissing each other again. They came together hastily, he was throwing his duffel bag wherever it would land, she was kicking her sandals off. They both wanted the same thing.

“I thought about this all day.” He said as he leaned in to kiss her, holding her face in his hands. It was rapidly becoming her new favorite thing.

“Me too.”

“I’m so tired but I ...” his word words drifted off as her eyes grazed over his face, “don’t care.”

She smiled and he continued kissing her.

Her brain was full of gray space and her body felt weak in his embrace. They moved slowly to the back of the bus where his bed was and fell easily into it together.

They had been kissing for fifteen minutes when he pulled away from her and said he was sorry.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to take a shower.”

She pushed him gently off of her and wrinkled her nose, laughing lightly. “Hmmm probably true..”

“I’ll be fast.”

While he was showering, the bus lurched into motion and she changed into her pajamas. As much as she had loved and appreciated the gesture of the duck pajamas she had to admit it all felt too innocent for how she felt and how she wanted to be seen by him. Regardless, she smiled at her reflection in the mirror - they were not exactly the right size even though he was with her when she chose the others. These were a little more form-fitting and clung more closely to the curve of her hips on the bottom, while the top accentuated her chest. It was as good as she could have hoped for from such an innocent and modest garment.

She was sitting with her back against his headboard mindlessly playing with the ends of her hair when he returned to the bedroom. He crawled over to her and sat as close as he could.

They looked at each other briefly before moving into action again, eager to resume what they had started. They didn’t have to speak about it or fuss with formalities right now. They just fell into it and stayed there for a while each time.

“Nick,” Coll said with a laugh in her voice, smiling as she pulled away from him twenty minutes later. His hand was on her back and her legs were tangled up with his.

“Yeah.”

She wasn’t even sure what she wanted to say. “Did you sleep at all today?”

“For like, an hour.” He said, “somehow there was an hour… and I slept through it. So I’m fine.” He smiled and leaned into her again, but she stopped him.

“Wh-“ She began to speak but it was hard, he was looking at her and his eyes were scintillant.

“Colleen.” Her name on his lips lit her up, she felt feverish.

“We won’t even get where we are going til seven a.m. tomorrow, plenty of time to sleep… later”

“Okay.” She was barely able to get the word out before his lips were on hers again.

The two of them carried on their passionate kissing fest for the next several hours, pausing only for more direct access to air or to reposition. The night went on around them, they each had their unanswered questions, but nothing else mattered.

He woke up the next morning with her head on his shoulder, a streak of soft morning light stretched across them in his bed. Her entire body was snuggled into his side. He knew they had fallen asleep around 1 am, after having fought off the fatigue as long as possible. He felt the unfamiliar happy feeling again as he laid there quietly next to her. He resolved to lay there and enjoy it for as long as it lasted.

Chapter 28 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Nick and Coll spent the next five nights caught up in an enjoyable make out habit. As far as either of them could tell, it was their little secret though they had each told their key people but neither of them knew it. Their new routine included sneaking off after the show, making out for long stretches of time, stealing kisses when no one was looking, laughing and joking about whatever came up, flirting with each other all night and talking about everything except what it all meant.

Their conversations stayed mostly casual and short, to leave as much time for kissing as possible.

After their last show in Barcelona, they boarded Nick’s bus for the trip to Madrid overnight. They had spent so much time on buses in the past week, but their new status, though undefined, made it much more enjoyable.

“What are you going to do after graduation?” Nick asked, looking at Coll who was sitting with her knees pulled into her chest against his headboard. He was laying next to her and reached out for her hand as the bus moved steadily along a long stretch of highway.

“No clue.” She shook her head, as she placed her hand in his, “I don’t know what I want … to do.”

“You want to write.”

“Yeah but for who? About what? From where?”

He smiled, “You’ll figure it out. Or,” he looked at her, “something will come up.”

“Hopefully.” She sighed, “maybe I’ll just start a blog or something. Like a web page? I don’t know. What are you doing next summer?”

“I’m sure whatever it is I’ll have no choice about it.” He began, as he rolled his thumb over her knuckles., “At least you’ll have a choice.”

She nodded, “I guess… you have options in almost every other way though.” As she finished her phone started beeping across the room..

“Is that you?” She asked.

“I think that’s yours.” He smiled and pulled her down to lay next to him, kissing her once she was close enough.

“I don’t know, doesn’t matter.” She waved it off, “Will you have a lot of time off after the tour?” She asked, wrapping her arm around his waist.

“I am not sure.”

“I mean, seriously, they have to let you off for a while, right? Hopefully.”

“Normally I wouldn’t mind either way.”

“Normally?” She asked as the phone beeped again.

“I really think it’s yours.”

“If it is, it’s not important.”

“It’s distracting me from what is though.” He said as his eyes locked on hers as he slid out of the bed and crossed the room to check his own phone. “Not mine.”

“Ugh, check mine then, it’s in that bag right there.”

He watched as she sat up on the edge of his bed and tucked some hair behind her ear.

He reached into her bag and pulled her phone out. A small red light in the corner was flashing.

“It says you have two new texts.” He explained, reading off the front of the screen.

“From who?”

He flipped the phone open for more info. His heart sank.

“John.”

“John?!”

“Yeah.”

She rolled her eyes, “What do they say?” It wasn’t worth getting up over.

“You want me to read them?” he asked, looking up at her.

“Yeah, sure.”


He clicked into the first one and opened it.


- walked by the common 2day - thought abt the pmpkin fest. We had so much fun that nt. I miss snuggling w/ U like that. sorry 2 bother u. I thought U should know.


He felt anxiety stirring up inside as he previewed it.

He clicked into the next one.


- Not sure where ur at w/ it but i’d love 2 see u when u get home 2 boston. can go 2 that thai place u love.

Home to boston. It was a reminder that her life mostly exists without him in it.


“What does it say?” Coll asked.

“It's kind of long.”

She rolled her eyes. “Just read it."

“Umm…” He began, trying to suppress the sinking feeling it all gave him.

Her tangled up in bed with someone else.

The reality that her life was in Boston, away from him.

The fact that John knew what her favorite Thai place was while he had no ocassion to know it....

He knew her past, he knew who she was. But he still had a lot to catch up on about the present, who she is today, who she could be, who she wanted to be. He knew suddenly that if anyone was going to have her future, he wanted it to be him.

“Seriously. Nick. What’s wrong?” She asked nervously as she got up and met him where he was standing, dumbfounded and anxious. “You look like there is a crisis.”

“No. No, nothing…” He said as she took her phone from him and read the messages herself.

“Oh good grief…” She moaned as she clicked through the messages. “Whatever.” She closed the phone and tossed it back into her bag. “Actually, wait.” She took a step closer to the bag and pulled the phone back out again and powered it fully off..

“Maybe you were wrong about him…” Nick said as Coll put the phone back into her bag and began walking to the bed.

“How so?”

“Maybe he is in love with you for real.” He said as he followed her.

“He’s not,” She said plainly. “And it doesn’t matter either way.” She sighed. “He might be- or he might think he is- in unrequited ‘love’ with me … but like I said, that is a hard place to be, I would imagine.” Even though she didn’t have to imagine, she knew it was both good and bad from the past few weeks. Though, she was nearly positive what she was experiencing with Nick now was not unrequited, even if they didn’t define it as love out loud yet. “Maybe it feels okay for a little while - it might even feel good.” She had to admit it did, she knew that much from her own experience, But over time, that will drive you crazy. “So maybe he likes chasing me around or whatever. It doesn’t matter.” She sighed and shook her head clear of the thought. “In any event, it is none of my business. But I must have underestimated the snuggling…” She trailed off with a smile, flirting with him.

“Are you going to call him?” He asked as he sat next to her against the headboard.

She took a deep breath and moved beyond feeling slighted that he did not pick up on her mention of the snuggling. Men… “No, why would I? I told you how I feel about him.” Her eyebrows furrowed together as she looked at him again.

“Well, when you get home… to Boston.”

“No. I’m not going to call him.” She smiled at him, realizing he hated the idea of her having anything to do with John, surprised he felt at all bothered by it. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t want to talk anymore. At all. About anything.” She explained and crept in closer to him.

“Oh.” He smiled as she leaned in, placed her hand on the back of his neck, and kissed him.

Everything about her was surprising him. The fact nearly every day she did something that was more forward than he ever expected she would be, the fact that she hadn’t asked any serious questions about what was going on between them - about what they were doing - the fact she hadn’t called him out on not doing so either yet… and especially the fact that she hadn’t stopped him or put up any resistance at all the previous night when he nervously slid her tank top over her head.

Even though it took every ounce of self-control he had in him to leave it at that, he was nearly positive she would have let him go further. But just in case that wasn’t so, he couldn’t bring himself to risk messing it up and pushing her away. He didn’t understand it. He didn’t understand her. But he loved both.

She easily slid into him when he put his arm around her empty waist and pulled her in closer to him after she had drifted too many inches away. When he kissed her bare shoulder, she smiled at him in a way he was sure no one ever had before. And when he told her she was gorgeous she responded by simply saying thank you. She didn’t ask him to validate something she was insecure about, she didn’t point out something she thought was wrong with her, she didn’t dig for anything. Like what he had said was enough. Like she wanted to cherish it rather than interrupt it.

Before he knew the things he only recently learned, he hadn’t thought much about her personal life. In the abstract sense, he just expected she had experienced certain things. Now that he knew she hadn’t, the picture was blurrier. She seemed comfortable with him and he was beginning to think she might want more. But he still felt intimidated. She had hinted at things she had done with John or others, and she had explicitly stated that she had done nearly everything else …. but by default, he was thinking of her as innocent and pure. She was already completely different from anyone he’d ever been with or imagined being with, and combined with the facts, the surprises and the mysteries he was overwhelmed by her. She fascinated him.

For as much as he was terrified of getting as close to her as he really wanted to for fear of messing it up entirely and pushing her away, she was just as intimidated by the situation. She tried not to let it show. She tried to play it cool. She didn’t want him to feel obligated to her. She didn’t want to put too much pressure on him to do or not do anything. She knew she had already revealed too much and simultaneously, had barely scratched the surface of what she wanted him to know. The dualities were countless.

Every time she felt like she just had to ask for more clarity as if she simply could not go on not telling him she was in love, he did something to make her feel like there was no question he felt the same way, and it tempered her. Reaching out for her hand, smiling at her as he came off stage every night, kissing her collarbone, asking her about her life, sliding his hands under her shirt and up her sides, talking about the future and putting himself in it… it felt real. On the other hand, it felt precarious and she didn’t want to disrupt a good and possibly fragile thing with talking. Real and fragile. Revealed too much but haven’t said enough…



“Do you want to go out tonight? Without Billy?” Nick asked as the two of them shuffled around the back part of the bus getting ready the next morning.

She stopped what she was doing and looked at him curiously, thinking. “No show tonight?” She couldn’t keep track anymore.

He shook his head.

Her eyes narrowed, “Will Jen allow such a thing? Is there enough time to submit my application and obtain the proper permission?” She asked sarcastically.

“I’m serious though.”

“I would love to go out. Without Billy.” She said, “I just don’t want you to get in any trouble. With Jen or otherwise.” she began.

“What’s she going to do to me?” He said, coming to stand in front of her.

Coll shrugged, “I mean, she barely wanted Leighanne to run out for groceries last week. And let's not forget she made little old me the subject of an entire group meeting.”

He laughed lightly remembering how mortified she looked sitting across the table from him that day.

“It was eons ago but I do remember when I first got here you told me it was too much effort to leave the hotel.”

“I mean, yeah, it is sometimes. But, I have a better lay of the land now. And sometimes it’s worth it.” His eyes were glinting at her again.

“So when we went out in London, you-“

“Actually had no idea what I was doing? Correct.”

“And when you suggested going out in Italy-“

“Would have happily taken the risk.”

She smiled, “I see.”

“But we did go out, we just had Billy with us which is like, how it’s supposed to be. So we only broke the rules once.”

“And you want to break them again.” She stated with a smirk.

“Correct.” He said. “For a good cause.”

“Which is?”

“Taking you out.”

Her eyes lit up, “I mean, I love that. But is it actually dangerous? For you?”

He shrugged. “I know it IS crazy at times when we go in and out of places, but the chances of someone recognizing me

without knowing I’m going to be there … seem low. Also, don’t you sort of think that bringing a bodyguard around makes it more obvious?”

“I guess I do, yeah.”

“So unless you tell me you’re worried about it, I’m good.”

Even if it would make her the subject of another group meeting, she didn't care. “I’m good.” She smiled.

“Good.”

“Awesome.”

“Just don’t tell anyone.”

“I wouldn’t.”

“If i make him think we are just staying in, he won’t bother us.”

“I’m just following your lead.”

He moved in closer, placing his hands on her face. It was absolutely and unconditionally her new favorite thing.

“Just be ready at 8:30.”

She nodded as he leaned in to kiss her.

Chapter 29 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Hey.” Coll said as she opened the door to see Nick standing there. He was dressed in khakis and a casual white button up, and he was hanging on her door jam, looking gorgeous.

“Hey. Sorry i’m late.” His voice was apologetic, but his face was happy.

She shrugged, it made no difference at all, he was there. “No big deal. I knew you were coming.” She said quietly.

He nodded and smiled widely at her before leaning in to kiss her.

“Ready?”

She nodded as she exited the room and joined him in the hallway now, pulling the door closed tightly behind her.

The two of them were quiet as they made their way down the hall to the back stairwell.

They hurried down the stairs and ended up in a long, empty corridor. “I scoped this earlier,” he explained as she looked to him for their next move. She followed him for a hundred yards or so to a door that lead to the loading dock. A few hotel workers were lingering there, smoking and talking. They barely paid any attention to Nick and Coll’s arrival on the scene. Nick took her hand as they walked up the loading dock to the street.

“I like this hiding in plain sight thing you’re doing.”

“Hope for the best.” He said. “By the way you look really nice.”

“Thanks,” She said, blushing. “… but, nice?”

“What’s wrong with nice?!” He exclaimed as they arrived at a corner.

“Three people worked on this look, Nick. Dig deeper.” She teased, thinking back to the earlier part of the day when Andrea brought out three dresses, four tops and two skirts and Angela talked through each option extensively.

“Wait,” He began, “Three people know we went out?”

“No. No one knows anything.” She said. He looked confused. “You know every single article of clothing I have right now. And I figured jeans, a tee shirt and flip flops wasn’t exactly the right thing for wherever it is we are going.” She began, “And i knew you didn’t want me to tell anyone.” She smirked, “So this morning I started talking up Andrea and Angela about going out tonight…” her eyes were wide recalling the steps she took, “it was stunningly simple. They basically took it from there. They dressed me up themselves. Look at these shoes! All of this is Andrea’s.” She smiled. She loved the ensemble Andrea had lent her, and it fit her surprisingly well. “Anyway as we were finishing up getting ready I basically told them I wasn’t feeling so well.”

“Seriously?” He smiled.

“Yeah.” She laughed, “I didn’t really have a lot of options. I wanted to just ask someone if I could borrow something but that would have lead to a lot of questions and any of those answers would have blown our cover. So short of going out and buying something, I had to get creative.”

“So then what?”

“I had to sort of ease into it though, I dropped a few hints earlier in the day, so it wouldn’t be like totally out of left field.” She laughed, “They got all big sister on me immediately. I think they were worried about Leighanne, actually, because of her birthday spa day tomorrow. I don’t know, but they got really concerned, real fast. I had to talk Angela out of asking the kitchen to make me chicken soup. She brought me to my room and asked me a hundred questions about if I need anything and…” Coll shook her head laughing at the memory, “Anyway she is crazy. Amazingly caring, and crazy.”

Nick laughed, “Oh my god.”

“I’m surprised they fell for it. But I did have to dry heave a little...” She wrinkled her nose, “for emphasis.”

“You did all of that?” He laughed.

“Yeah. I’m a very dedicated actress apparently… So if anyone asks, I was sick all night.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, so now we both have some skin in this game.” Coll giggled.
“Well, I appreciate that.”

She shrugged, “I was happy to do it.” She turned her head to face him and he remembered what started the whole conversation.

“Alright so you look way better than nice I just-“ He paused, looking at her, “I-”

“What?” She asked, searching his face.

“You look incredible.”

Everything he did was chiseling away her stability of not telling him explicitly how she felt … every time he looked at her, kissed her, said or did something amazing … the platform was compromised. She started to teeter.

She laughed it off, “I was teasing you. But thank you.”

“I like your hair up like that. It’s fun.”

Andrea had given Coll a high ponytail, a bit of teasing at the base made it “party perfect” as she called it. When Angela insisted that Coll lay down and relax later in the evening though, it was moderately compromised.

“Oh, yeah. It is kind of fun.” She responded happily. “So where are we going?”

“I made a reservation.” He said shyly, but she almost didn’t catch it.

Her eyes widened at him, “Oh. Wow. Fancy.”

“Is that okay?” He asked nervously, “You said you hadn’t been on a date in months.”

She looked at him, taken aback, slowing down her walking pace involuntarily, “This is a date?”

“Do you want it to be?” He asked nervously.

“Do you?” She asked with the same nervous tint to her tone. “Sorry that was dumb, obviously you do- or you must, or-” She stopped herself before she could ramble any more.

“I mean… Yeah. I do.“

her cheeks were turning red and her eyes were all dark and mysterious again. “Me too.”

He smiled and hung his head briefly. “I should have asked you more specifically maybe.”

“What? No. No it-“ She shook her head, not even sure what she was trying to say, “it’s fine.”

“Let me do it now.”

“No, it’s re-“

“No, come on I want to.” He was smiling and perfect and destroying her.

“Okay.” She relented with a deep inhale, “I did dry heave for this.”

“Alright.” He said and licked his lips. The two of them were standing in the middle of the sidewalk now, facing each other as life went on around them. “Colleen,”

She smiled, “Yes, Nickolas.”

“What are you doing tonight?”

She pretended to think about it, “I have no plans actually.”

“Would you like to have dinner with me?” He asked with laughter in his voice.

She tilted her head at him, “dinner?” She asked. “Sure we can eat dinner together.”

“No I mean...” he looked at her and she was smirking, teasing him, pushing him. “I mean I want to take you to dinner.”

“Ahh.” She said, “you want to take me to dinner.”

“Yeah…”

“In a car? Or…?” She knew he could do better than this.

He blushed, “I want to take you out for dinner, on a date.”

Her legs felt weak as he spoke to her, “Ohh I see.” She giggled. “That’s nice… that you want that.”

He understood what she was doing, and he wanted to get it right. He wanted to impress her or at least satisfy her.

“Can I- or, would you like to go on a date tonight? For dinner… with me?”

Her heart was racing and she loved him even more than she had just seconds before. “I would love that.”

So in love with youHe still had her hand in his, his eyes were bright and he was laughing lightly. He pulled her in closer to him and slipped his arm around her waist. “I can work on that...for the future.”

The abstract future had come into fantastical focus a few times in the past week and it all felt much too amazing to get attached to, but she couldn’t help it, his presence in her future was quickly becoming one of her top concerns in life. She latched on to any fragment or shred of hope for how that might be.

She relaxed into him, watching as his face changed from happy and bright to slightly more serious. He leaned in and kissed her softly.

She was teetering again but as usual, he caught her. Restoring stability in her certain uncertainty - he was in it with her.


When they arrived at the destination, they both looked at each other, concerned.

“Well this isn’t what I was expecting.” Nick said quickly.

Coll laughed, “It’s not?”

“No… I-“

“You weren’t expecting a senior citizen convention?” She said quietly.

He laughed nervously and ran his hand through his hair. “No, I…”

He scanned the restaurant, older couples or smaller groups of older people were scattered throughout, there were no other young people at all. Shit. “Let’s go somewhere else.” He said quickly.

“Wait, no.” Coll smiled, grabbing his arm as he turned to leave. “Wait. Okay, I know that It’s not our usual scene but, let’s stay.” She suggested, “That might be a good thing for you. The chances of you being recognized here are incredibly low.”

“True.”

“So really, that’s excellent.” She tilted her head at him and couldn’t disagree. “Let’s stay.”

“Are you sure? We could definitely find something more… upbeat.”

Coll looked around again, taking in the scene. “Look, the bar is totally empty, let’s get a drink and see how we feel after that.”

He agreed and they bypassed the hostess stand and went to the bar. They settled in at two plush bar stools and Coll tucked the small crossbody bag Andrea had lent her away on a small hook under the bar.

“Is that Andrea’s too?” Nick asked.

“Yes.” She rolled her eyes, “So how were all the things you did today? Did they ask you anything more interesting than the usual?”

He smiled to himself, looking away from her briefly. “Not really anything new. We did some a cappella though.”

She nodded, “Nice.”

“Thanks. But… nice?” He said, mocking what she had said earlier. “Five people worked on that song... dig deeper.” He laughed.

She laughed, tilting her head back, “Sorry, I know. That’s better than nice. It’s awesome you guys can do that so well.” She explained and popped a cocktail menu open. “I walked right into that though…”

He nodded, still laughing lightly at her, watching as she flipped a couple pages past the beers. She lifted her eyes from the menu and he was looking at her, smiling.

“What?” She asked.

“Nothing.” He shook his head, smirking at her and casually reaching for another menu.

She bit her lip as she returned her attention to pretending she cared what the menu said. She could barely read it anyway. It means something.

They made small talk, placed a drink order, and found various excuses for body contact as they sat for a while at the bar together. Despite the place having an older atmosphere than they had expected, it was beautiful and the vibe was enjoyable.

“Can I ask you something?” Coll asked as she spun the liquid around in her glass, looking up from it to him.

“You just did,” he laughed.

She tilted her head at him. “Oh you’re so funny.” She said sarcastically.

“Go for it.”

The way he looked at her made her weak, she desperately wanted to ask him so many things, but she stuck with the original plan.

“Why are you shy around me sometimes?“

“Shy?!”

“Yeah.” She leaned into the bar on her elbow, placing her hand behind her neck. “Like, you go out on stage every night and you’re …” She trailed off, “You know…” She laughed.

“What?! I’m what?!”

“You know…” She smiled. “I just mean like, sometimes you … start to say something and then, you don’t. Or, you stop short.” She explained, “Not just with saying things…” her mind tripped over the memory of him pulling her tank top off, and leaving her that way. Even though every inch of her skin was craving for more of his touch, more exposure to him. It still was.

She knew she had set herself up for him to call her out, too, but he didn’t. “I guess i don’t want to say … or do … anything I'm not sure about.” He couldn’t lie to her. He looked back at his drink, “That’s not a problem on stage.”

She lifted her glass again, looking at him in the process. Before she could comment back on it, the bartender arrived with another round of drinks and two plates of tapas that they didn’t order.

He began speaking to them about each dish and they looked on with interest but had no idea what he had said.

”Well then.” Nick stated with a smile as the man walked away and shuffled back into his work.

“I caught like four words of that actually.” Coll said proudly.

“You did?”

“Not enough to really understand anything but, yeah.” She giggled. “Becka speaks Spanish sometimes… I’ve picked some up along the way.”

“Did I know that?”

Coll shrugged, “Maybe?”

“What part of it did you catch?”

“Spicy.” She began. “And tomato.” She giggled. “He also said ‘enjoy’ and ‘hot’ but…”

“Spicy tomato. Okay...” he grinned, “when Becka speaks Spanish she talks about spicy tomatoes?”

She laughed, “Not usually… then again I guess I wouldn’t know..."

“Is she fluent?”

“No, she used to know more. Now she mostly only speaks it for fun, to impress people… or try to. Or when she’s emotional.”

Nick nodded, “An emotional woman speaking another language… every man’s dream.”

“Not every man but certainly there is one.” She mused, “Maybe it won’t be ‘another’ language for him.”

“Is she dating anyone?”

Coll shook her head no, “She’s complicated. You know…”

He nodded, understanding, as he reached to the plate.

“Whatever this spicy tomato thing is looks good at least.”

The bartender seemed to have a thing for providing tapas without invitation, but then indulged him by enjoying another two plates that he put in front of them.

“I have no idea what eighty percent of that was but it was delicious.”

“Are you sure you want to be here?” Nick asked as he leaned in closer to her, sliding his hand over the smooth wood of the bar. Coll looked at him and they both started laughing.

“Is that your way of saying you want to leave?”

They were both laughing about it when an older woman and her husband approached, without any small talk the woman began speaking, directly to Coll.

“Your husband looks just like my husband did a hundred years ago.” She explained with a heavy accent and a smile as she nodded enthusiastically, placing her hand gently on Coll’s arm.

Coll looked at Nick briefly and smiled, “Oh he’s not my -“

“We couldn’t help but notice how in love you two are. So nice. Reminded us of us, a hundred years ago.”

Her body stiffened and she felt a physical chill.

“You’ll still be in love a hundred years from now.” The woman winked at Coll and squeezed her wrist gently as she walked off. The husband followed behind, nodding an acknowledgment at Nick and then at Coll as he passed.

Coll looked at Nick, his face telling a story she couldn’t decipher and they both started talking at the same time, nervously trying to navigate the awkwardness.

“Well that was sweet.”

“Gotta love old folks.”

She smiled, unsure what he meant by what he said. She took another sip of her drink and looked over her shoulder to see the woman exiting the restaurant with her husband’s hand on the small of her back. She could tell.

They were both quiet for a moment, lost in their own thoughts.

“I think you’re right. We should go.” She said as she leaned in closer to him.

Her eyes were dark and mysterious and he nodded without hesitation.

“Where though?” He asked. He had planned on them lingering over dinner for a while and he had a few places plotted out that they could potentially pop into afterward depending on the mood but he wasn’t feeling particularly confident in any of them so he pretended that part of his plan didn’t exist.

She shrugged slowly, taking a long final sip of her drink.

“Somewhere no one else would be.” She said quietly.

“Does that exist?”

“... it does in Boston.”

“Where?”

“Come visit me and I’ll show you.” She said decisively, putting her glass back on the bar.

He watched her as she grabbed Andrea’s bag from the bar hook and swung her legs around the stool and slid off. He quickly threw a few big bills, far more than necessary, on the bar and she took his hand. They walked back to the elevator atrium in relative silence.

“I really wanted to take you on a date.” Nick said as they landed in the atrium.

She felt dizzy, spinning around on her wildly compromised platform.

“You are.” She giggled, “Right now.”

“Like a real date. Because now how is it any different than London?”

“London was fun,”

“But we weren’t on a date.”

“Maybe we were.” She said casually as she hit the button for the elevator. He watched her moving: confident and graceful and perfect. There were so many things he wanted to say but couldn’t. Another missed opportunity.

It made his chest ache, like he wasn’t good enough for her.

“We are out, Billy isn’t with us, no one knows we are gone… and we’re together. Everything you wanted.” She said as she turned back to face him, swinging her arms over his shoulders, “We can just meander around until we find … whatever we want. It’ll be fun.” Her smile was so genuine, she was so easily able to flow around whatever he was doing. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw - or made - anyone else smile like that. The fear of messing any part of this up was sparking up inside again, he took a deep breath to simmer it.

She was standing in front of him and he focused his attention on that. She was there, her arms around his neck, smiling at him … he saw it again: everything she was, everything he wanted. He opened his mouth to speak as the elevator came. She smiled at him and backed slowly into the open elevator. “Don’t be upset. come on.”

She didn’t know what he was thinking, or why he seemed convinced this wasn’t a date but she certainly hoped and felt like it was.


He followed her out of the elevator and onto the street where they walked for a while, taking turns without direction, just following the quiet.

“It’s fun to sneak away.” She said quietly as he smiled at her.

He pulled her in closer, danced her into a turn, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders, he kissed her and she pressed her forehead into his, “You’re cute.” She said as he put his lips on hers again.

“You’re beautiful.”

She felt the purest happiness she had ever experienced. She desperately wanted to hear him say other amazing things to her, even though it compromised her stability. It was worth the risk of falling not just into him but completely- toppling over into new territory. Tell me.

He put his hand on her neck and kissed her deeply.

It was still an absurd reality to him- that she was the one he was kissing, that he wanted to kiss her so often, and right now especially, the fact that he felt like he let her down. He hadn’t felt humbled like that before with anyone but he didn’t want to run from it, he wanted to fix it, he wanted to do better for her. He had to do better.

He felt stabilized by her - but he was constantly questioning how she might be feeling about him.

The words almost fell out of his mouth in that moment, he almost said it. He got so close again. He almost told her, “Colleen I’m in love with you.” But he didn’t. His mind went into overdrive. He had to do better for her. He needed to know if she could trust him. He knew that much. Before he could go anywhere else with her, before he could tell her anything more serious. Before he let himself fall any deeper into her, he needed to know.

She took his hand again and they continued walking slowly through the night.

After a while they were walking along the river, the night air was hazy around them and they found a bench to sit on.

“This is perfect.” She said happily as they sat.

Chapter 30 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

She had no idea what time it was or where they were but it didn’t matter. No one had called or texted, no one knew they were gone, no one recognized him… everything was perfect.

“Remember when we used to go to the Jersey Shore and your mom bought us those tee shirts?”

“The really ugly tie dyed ones?”

“Yeah, we passed someone earlier with a tee shirt that reminded me of them.” She laughed. “Ours were particularly hideous … we loved them though.”

“I hope the evidence never surfaces.”

She smiled at him and adjusted her body so she could put her head on his leg, relaxing horizontally on the bench.

“It’s so beautiful here.”

“Yeah Spain is awesome.”

“Have you felt homesick yet at all?” She asked, “I guess it hasn’t been that long...”

He smiled and started playing with her hair with one of his hands as the other draped over the back of the bench.

“Actually I haven’t.” You’re the reason.

“That’s good.”

His heart caught in his throat thinking back to his life back home… where he had done so many things that he felt made him someone she could never trust enough to let him have what he wanted. “Have you?”

“No,” She said, thinking about it. “I honestly don’t know where I’d be homesick for. I guess Boston feels more like home now than Connecticut… but I don’t feel homesick for either.”

“You don’t miss it?”

She shrugged, “I miss things, I guess… honestly haven’t thought of them til now.” She smiled, “But, home is a moving target.”

He looked at her curiously, so many questions flooded to the surface and he tried to suppress them.

She reached up and took his hand from the back of the bench and laced her fingers through his, bringing it closer to her body.

Tell him

She was quiet for a few seconds, he was playing with her hair gently, the air was so still, the stars were still visible and she felt like she was in a dream. Tell him now.

Her ponytail fell across his lap and caught the moonlight, the weight of her on him was something he had grown to love the last few nights - if her body was touching his, he was delighted. He smiled to himself thinking of the past week and what might happen next, but it got caught on the fears… the snag in the system.

They stayed on the bench for at least an hour, with her head on his lap, his hand in hers and the conversation flowing freely between them but neither of them made the statements they really wanted to.



The door to her hotel room had not even closed all the way behind them and they were already kissing and removing anything that had to go: bags, shoes, jewelry… Nick’s shirt was next, he unbuttoned it from the top as she worked the buttons from the bottom, kissing the entire time they did so. He shrugged it off and let it land where it would as they made their way to her bed.

Coll’s hands ran over his arms and shoulders, fully exposed outside of his tank top. He was working her top out of her skirt and she was indulging in his every movement.

She felt herself falling back against the bed, his hands supporting her, letting her down gently. She slid into the bed and he straddled himself above her, still kissing her.

Do better.

Suddenly she felt the energy shift and he pulled away from her. “I really am sorry it wasn’t a real date.” He said randomly, annoyed with himself.

She sighed, “I honestly don’t know what you’d classify it as? What was not right about it?”

“Well, I blew it by not even asking you out right the first time.” He said, frustration evident in his voice. He fell beside her on his back. “Then the place was all wrong, then it just seemed like … I don’t know, casual. I mean, it was great, I had fun...” He stopped talking, trying not to blow it any more than he already thought he had.

She moved so she was propped up above him now.

“Well you’re welcome to give it another go, but it felt like a date to me.”

He was quiet. She watched him, his mind in a deep mysterious tangle.

“Nick, what did you really want to do tonight?” She asked, honestly trying to figure him out.

“This.” He said simply even though he meant more by it than she knew. Her question opened a door to a different kind of communication - just like her question earlier had. He wanted to talk to her, and be honest and explain everything to her but there were so many things in the way. But if he was going to try it, he wanted to do it in a way that felt special.

She smirked at him. “Then why so much apologizing about the date?” He was quiet, a small smile on his face.

“Shyyyyy.” She sang.

“I wanted it to be perfect. Like I wanted to have dinner, like, real dinner, at the perfect place.”

“It was perfect.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“Well, I am capable of loving something that isn’t perfect, but I’m telling you it was. Why does it matter that what we did wasn’t pre-planned? And now you have ‘this’ so what’s the issue?”

“Because I fucked it up. I fucked it up from the beginning this morning.” He shook his head. “I just wanted more.”

“Of?”

“You.” Everything.

She smiled and tilted her head at him as a tingle crept up her spine. “What makes you think you can’t have that?” She asked him, but she knew it had to mean more of her in the non-physical ways, too. And she wanted to see what that meant to him.

He took a deep breath and looked at her again, she was hovering over him, propped up on her hands on either side of him. He sat up straight and she reclined into sitting on her knees in front of him.

“Colleen.” He began, his tone more serious than she anticipated. need to know. “Do you trust me?”

She scanned his face, thinking about what provoked him to ask her at that moment. She could tell this was something he has been wondering for some time. “Entirely.”

He looked relieved, shook his head in disbelief and smiled a little.

“Is there some reason I shouldn’t? That you think I wouldn’t?” She asked, curious to know what he was thinking.

“You know me.” He said sadly, “What I’ve done, how I’ve been…”

She shook her head, “That’s why I do.”

He didn’t understand it. “I’ve done legitimately stupid things. I’ve been a bad person…”

“So you want more of me… but you’re afraid to go for it because you think I don’t trust you.” She stated. “And that’s why you’re shy and stopping short when you start to do or say things… because you can’t be sure since you doubt that I trust you.” She pieced it together out loud.

His body language was telling her she was right but he was still quiet.

She bit her lip. I can fix this.

“I know you and that’s exactly why I trust you.” She saw that she had to reel him back in from whatever long, self-deprecating thought process he was in. “You are not a bad person.”

This was the heaviest thing they’d spoke about since they started whatever it was they were currently doing with each other.

“I understand what’s happening though.” She moved her weight off her legs and crossed them in front of her. She slid a bit closer to him and reached out for his hand, tangling her fingers up with his.

“You’re thinking about some of the things I know about you but you’re forgetting that I know a lot more. You’re thinking about… that morning in London, about Mandy… you’re wondering why I would trust you - knowing some of what you’ve done and knowing what I haven’t.” She began, he hung his head, “You’ve done… things. And some of them were probably a little reckless.” She paused and shifted closer to him. “But I know you aren’t actually a reckless person. You aren’t careless, or reckless or stupid. I don’t see whatever reputation you think you have. At least I don’t see it out of context.” She took a deep breath, the room was quiet for a moment. “And you’re not acting reckless with me … which must mean something.” Their eyes met. “I don’t know everything you’ve done in the past however many years or with however many people. I do know that you probably took advantage of your situation, which is normal… and maybe some of that was careless. And then, maybe, people assumed something about you and because you didn’t know yourself well enough yet you fell into believing that about yourself.”

Her words fell into him like bricks, filling in holes, leveling him out. Stabilizing him even more.

“Plus if you didn’t have anything you felt was worth holding on to, it makes sense you weren’t really careful with it.”

He couldn’t speak. She had him pinned. It was exactly right, he had no idea how to hold something that meant anything, he had never had it before.

She went on, “So maybe you did a few stupid things. That doesn’t make you a stupid person.”

He hung his head, squeezing her hand gently in his. “How are you doing this?” His voice was full of something unrecognizable, something that landed between sadness, frustration and wonder.

“Doing what?”

His eyes landed on something across the room as he considered the reality, “You make sense of me.”

She smiled. “Look at me.”

It made him feel heavy. He did.

“I know you.” She was looking directly at him, “I know you are capable of doing amazing things the same way you are capable of making mistakes. Just like everyone else.” Her eyes landed on her hand holding his, “You’ve already done amazing things… more than you probably even realize.” She added quietly.

She thought about how safe she felt with him and how even that first night kissing him was relaxing and amazing even against a backdrop of unknowns and history they both wanted to maintain. She thought about how he made her feel comfortable enough to say things that surprised her even as they came out of her mouth. She thought about the fountain and she couldn’t keep a smile from spreading across her face. “Nick, I-“ ”no one ever got what they wanted by being shy and playing it safe.” She couldn’t have what she wanted without him knowing this either. “I can tell you I trust you and you can hear it but it won’t make a difference until you feel like I do - or let yourself believe that I do. Let yourself see it: when we’re together I feel safe, I feel … relaxed. I’m happy.” The best version of myself. “Because I trust you and I don’t have any reason not to.”

He reached out and pulled her closer to him.

“What do you see?”

“What do you mean?”

“With me? How are you able to feel that? You were fake dry heaving and I couldn’t even -” He stopped, annoyed with himself, “I wasn’t even good at asking you out. And I said you looked nice which is not even close to what I actually thought. I don’t even know your favorite Thai place.”

She looked at his hand in hers and she remembered how uncomfortable he looked when John texted her, and she remembered how she felt that night she had to leave the show to call Becka. “I see that you have been with me every night, I see that you really care about me and what we do together. I see how you work so hard for the things you want. I see how committed you can be to something. I see the best version of you.” She explained honestly but caught herself stopping short too, she saw so much more than that. “And I don’t have a favorite Thai place. I have an annoying ex boyfriend who thinks he knows everything.”

He brought her hand to his face and kissed the inside of her wrist. She felt it deeply that he cared for her, she just wanted him to say it. She couldn’t be mad at him for it, she wasn’t telling him how she felt either. Both of those realities frustrated her but she had to deal with this first.

“But you worry too much. About me.”

“No, Coll, I-“ He had to stop, she was looking at him and he could see her clearly again, it was overwhelming.

“I’m not going to break. I’m not that fragile.” She wasn’t sure how to say what she wanted to say. “Just-” she inhaled deeply, “please don’t be afraid of that one thing you know is true about me. It doesn’t mean all the things people interpret it to mean. I’m not so delicate. I don’t always trust myself, but I always trust you.”

“Same.”

“And I like being with you… I want to hear what you want to say, even if you think it’s messy, or ‘not perfect’...”

“Why?” He asked. Those were words he had never heard before.

She furrowed her eyebrows at him. This might require a bold move to make a point. “Why wouldn’t I?”

He was quiet, looking at her ponytail that was now fairly misshapen but somehow even cuter.

“You can be imperfect, Nick. I know that in your celebrity world that’s less acceptable but, with me you really don’t have to be perfect. I can handle it.” She took a deep breath and looked away from him for a second, “but tonight is perfect.”

”I am capable of loving something that isn’t perfect.”

His lips grazed hers again and they both knew there was more to say that neither of them were saying. But there had already been so much talking.

She wasn’t convinced that he understood how deeply she trusted him, but she knew they both needed him to. She pulled away from him and stood up off the side of the bed. She hesitated for a second but maintained her courage. With her back turned to him, she worked her top fully out of the waistband of her skirt, finishing what he had started. She crossed her arms, and grabbed the back of the top in her hands, quickly pulling it off and tossing it into an armchair. She then twisted her body to reach the side zipper on Andrea’s skirt and slid it off, tossing it to the armchair as well.

She looked back at him, feeling a little more self conscious than she was expecting to but somehow still confident in this move. He was watching her closely, a surprised smile on his face, he made a move like he was about to get up but she stopped him by returning back to the bed and placing her hands back on either side of his body again. The heat from his body spread across her skin and she tried to savor the feeling.

“Would I do this if I didn’t trust you?” She asked him seriously. “Would I have said everything I’ve said?”

He shook his head and his hands went to her bare arms, pulling her back into him, kissing her softly at first, then deeper.

“I trust you enough to be like this with you…” He was overwhelmed by her in the best possible way, “and I trust that you understand it doesn’t have to be more than this right now. I trust that you won’t do anything I don’t want to…. and that you’ll know.” He was listening intently, moving his hand cautiously up her arm. “I trust that you got caught up in some things that weren’t real, and that you treated them that way...” Her eyes were scanning his face again “And I’m trusting that you’ll know it when you have something that is real...” her eyes landed on his and she kept them there, “and that you’ll try to treat it like it is.”

He opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. She had completely untangled his messy mind, she had made sense of things he had not even realized he was confused by. And she had given him more access to her in a lot of ways, but he had no idea what to do with it.

She deserves better. Do better. Don’t mess it up.

He had mumbled it to her more than once that if something was meant to be, you couldn’t mess it up. And he had questioned that several times privately but he discovered that the question was not whether it was meant to be or not, but what exactly was meant to be. He had full confidence that he could mess up just about anything but he still had no idea where they were headed, or exactly how much steering to do. But she was laying there with him, barely anything between his skin and hers and that was all he wanted from her. Another new reality for him. Unknown destinations.

“Is there anything else I should know?” She asked as she used her finger to move a piece of hair off his forehead.

He was quiet for a few seconds and she waited patiently.

“Probably.” Pathetic.

She could tell he was sorting something out, overwhelmed in some ways. She smiled softly at him, “I trust that you will tell them to me when you’re ready… and that none of them would change how I feel.” Tell him. She swallowed hard, pushing some anxiety back down, feeling so frustrated with herself, but also like she might have made some space for him to say something he wanted to. ”Knock and wait patiently.”

His hand was on the back of her bare neck and he was falling deeper. His head dropped, nuzzling his face into the curve of her shoulder. I am so in love with you… i want to tell you.

She closed her eyes and placed her hand on the back of his head, pushing her hand gently through his hair.

Just say it. It’s meant to be. You can’t mess it up.

Chapter 31 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Happy birthday!!!” Coll exclaimed happily as she arrived at the door of Brian and Leighanne’s hotel the following morning. Leighanne had the door open and was leaning out, smiling at her as she approached.

The guys had been gone for a few hours already, Nick left her around four a.m. after he took what she referred to as a ‘nap’ lasting about two hours. He assured her he would be fine but she wasn’t convinced. “Is coming to the show tonight on the schedule for Leighanne’s birthday?” He had asked. “You think Brian would set it up any other way? Of course we will be there.” She remembered the way he grinned at her as he leaned in to kiss her again before asking her if she would ride with him overnight again. The memory of it made her dizzy.

“Thank you!!” Leighanne smiled, bringing Coll back to reality.

“I’m so excited to be your birthday buddy today!”

“Awh, you’re the best.”

“Did you guys have fun last night?” Coll asked as Leighanne stepped out into the hallway with her. Coll knew Brian had taken Leighanne for a pre birthday dinner to celebrate and make up for the fact he wouldn’t see her most of the day today and wouldn’t have the chance to celebrate her the way he really wanted to on her actual birthday.

“We did! The two of us and Tom.” Leighanne laughed.

“Oh man.”

“I love Tom but, you know…”

“Sure.” Coll nodded feeling slightly guilty she had alone time with Nick but Leighanne had to have her birthday dinner with Tom.

“I mean he wasn’t like sitting with us at the table but, close enough.” She explained, “Oh, Brian gave me this and told me to give it to you.” Leighanne held an envelope out to Coll, “he said he tried your room and Nick’s last night but couldn’t find you.”

Coll looked at her nervously, “Oh,” she took the envelope, “What is it?”

“Not sure he wouldn’t tell me.” She smiled, “so where were you last night?”

“I was sick...? So I didn’t hear him come around...?”

“Yeah, I heard...” Leighanne looked at her suspiciously. “Feeling better?”

“Much.”

Leighanne laughed, “you can tell me I’m not going to rat you out.”

Coll sighed. She was a terrible liar and everyone was catching on. “I’ll tell you later,” she said quietly and ripped the envelope open, she snuck a little peek at it without taking the papers out.


Leighanne’s birthday agenda: for Coll’s eyes only!!!!!!


Coll smirked as she read what she could of the folded paper as they arrived at the elevator.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.” She said quickly and followed it up with a yawn. “Tell me more about dinner.” She smiled, trying to keep as much of the day’s attention on Leighanne as possible.


Halfway through breakfast Leighanne decided that it was far too cold in the dining room for her liking and

went about finding someone to discuss it with. Coll used the time she had alone to preview Brian’s master plan.


Coll, thank you so much for being there today. I owe you one. Maybe two.

Love you, Little.

Here’s the plan - where to be and when.


Sometime before 10:00am Coll and Leighanne wake up

Between 10:00am and 10:30am Hopefully eating breakfast!

11:30am: Driver pick up side entrance at the hotel to drive to Spa

11:45am: Arrive at spa - massages and mani/pedi !! (omg so jealous.)

3:30pm: driver arrives at the spa to bring you back to the hotel

3:20pm - 4:00pm: Get ready to come to the venue (he will wait for you!)

4:15pm: driver brings you back to the venue

4:30pm: soundcheck surprise for leigh.

6:00pm: dinner surprise for leigh in the lounge

7:00pm: Coll tells Nick how she really feels.


Her eyes darted up from the paper, processing what she had just read. After a second the shock wore off and she continued reading.


7:01pm: Nick experiences the height of happiness.


She smiled to herself, rolling her eyes and moving past it, but the nervous feeling in her belly remained.


7:30pm: get ready for the show

8:00pm: Tom has something for Coll and Leighanne at the stage door.

SHOWTIME

Coll off birthday duty

SEXYTIME


Leighanne sat back down in the seat across the table from Coll as Coll was finishing reading over the day’s agenda, smiling.

“They said they would adjust the temperature… I really wanted him to agree with me that it’s too cold in here but I’ll take what I can get.”

Coll smiled, “you have that thin southern blood. Did you mention that?” She laughed.

“Actually yes. And i am used to air conditioning but this is extreme.”

“In other news, Brian is so funny.”

“What is it?!”

“It’s a secret!!”

“Ugh, fine.”

“We are going to have so much fun today.” I think.



“Leigh, I love your birthday.” Coll sighed heavily as she reclined into a plush lounger next to Leighanne in the ‘quiet room’ of the spa. Brian had booked them each a ninety minute hot stone massage and it was pure bliss. They had half an hour of decompression time before their nail appointments.

“Me too,” Leighanne replied with a smile and took a sip from her glass of cold cucumber water. “I feel a bit old.”
“You’re a goddess,” Coll explained as she adjusted her ponytail and closed her eyes.

“I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“Ahh yes, my mother who birthed me at seven years old. For sure.” Coll giggled.

“At this rate, I’ll never be anyone’s mother.”

“What?! Yes, you totally will.” Coll assured her. “If you want to.”

“I really wanted to get married sooner but…” Leighanne turned to her. “You know, business.”

“It’ll be worth the wait.”

“Yeah.” She agreed. “It will… just annoying sometimes.”

“I understand.” She said, even though she knew for sure she did not understand it entirely at all.


“Can you just say whatever it is that you’ve been trying not to say all day?” Leighanne smiled.

“Say...?”

“Yeah please just tell me. I’m dying of curiosity.”

“Bu-“

“I know there is something.

“Today is supposed to be about you!”

“Then tell me what I want to know!”

Coll sighed heavily. “Fine. Something happened last night.”

“What?”

“I wasn’t sick I made that up.”

“I know.”

Coll rolled her eyes and sighed, “I have a good reason though.”

“I’m listening.”

“You swear you won’t tell?”

“Yeah, yeah, I swear.”

“Fine. Nick wanted to go out without Billy but didn’t want anyone to know we were doing that so I played all day like I was going out with Angela and Andrea - I have no going out clothes so they lent me some stuff. Once I was dressed and fully convinced they would have fun with or without me, I played sick and went back to my room fully dressed. Then Nick met me there a couple hours later and we went out.”

Leighanne pouted, “you got to go out without Billy but Tom was on my birthday date.”

Coll cringed, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. Go on.” She smiled, “I’m so into this whole thing you’ve got going on with him.”

Coll gave Leighanne the summary of the night’s events culminating in a ramble of thoughts that Leighanne could barely understand.

“I have to tell him ... like ASAP.” Coll finally concluded, rubbing her forehead with her hand. “But I can’t. I know I can’t yet. I shouldn’t.”

“You should, but, I’m sorry can you just rewind for a minute to the part where you were naked.”

“I was not naked.”

“Well close enough.”

“It was not that big of a deal on the surface - he’s seen me in a bathing suit… plus it’s not that big of a deal anyway.”

“A one piece.”

“Well, I used to have a two piece but…”

“I had to make a bold move to prove a point. That was the best I could think of in the moment. And it does have significance... More than him seeing more of my skin than usual.”

“It has a lot of significance, Colleen.” Leighanne began.

“... what do you mean?” the seriousness in Leighanne’s voice made her question everything.

“He’s vulnerable with you. You’re vulnerable with him.” Leighanne explained sweetly, “that’s real.”

“Yeah…”

“He doesn’t do that … he doesn’t … act like that with women. That’s not the Nick Carter I know. But we have known this - he’s different with you. He’s got no experience with this.”

“He’s been with plenty-”

“Not like this.”

Coll swallowed hard, looking past Leighanne and into the distance, unable to focus on any one thing as her mind ran circles around itself. She was as sure as she had ever been about how she felt and as sure as she had ever been that she couldn’t tell him yet.





When Leighanne and Coll arrived at the lounge that night before soundcheck the guys were having a smiling-as-wide-as-possible competition which Leighanne promptly discouraged. “That’s how you get wrinkles.”

“This wasn’t even on the agenda! How do you find the time.” Coll laughed.

“Let’s see yours!” Howie shouted. Coll smiled as wide as she could and everyone clapped.

“That’s good, that’s good.”

“That hurts my face.” She giggled, “let me see yours.”

Howie smiled as wide as he could. She laughed so hard she cried.

“Look at mine.” Nick said and smiled so wide he couldn’t keep his eyes open.

“WRINKLES!!” Leighanne shouted at him as Brian skipped over to her.

“It’s just for funnnnn.” Brian sang. “Did you have a good time?!”

“Of course!” She smiled as he leaned in to kiss her.

“Did you have fun, too, Little?” Brian asked, looking at Coll.

“We had a great time, it was awesome.” She said as she began pulling her hair into a ponytail. “I’m starving though.”

“Oh my goodness, me too,” Leighanne said. “They only had almonds and cucumber water there.”

Coll laughed, “That’s true.”

“How was the spa?” Nick asked as he approached her while Brian and Leighanne walked out of the lounge hand in hand.

“Amazing.”

“Were you spoiled?”

“Completely.”

“Brian told me about the agenda.”

Her heart rate sped up thinking about Brian’s 7:00 pm joke. “Oh?”

“Sounds like you had a lot of surprises.”

“Oh. Well, most of them happen after four, so, they are still surprises to me, too.”

“Ahh, I see.” He nodded. She wondered, as she had many times in the past week, who knew what was going on between them.

“How much did he tell you?” She asked.

“Not that much, just that there was an agenda for ‘Coll’s eyes only’ so you’d know when to have Leighanne certain places for her surprises.”

She nodded, “so far so good.”

He looked at her thoughtfully and it made her nervous.

“I have to make a phone call before soundcheck.” She said quickly. “I dropped the ball on calling home… again.”

“Need my phone?” He asked.

“If you don’t mind....”

“I don’t.” He explained simply, his eyes bright and pouring into her completely.

“That would be great.” She said it, she knew she said it. She felt the words come out of her mouth but she didn’t hear them, her heart was thumping so loudly in her ears, it drowned out everything else.

Four minutes later they were making out in a closet somewhere in the corridor. She had followed him to get the phone but they didn’t make it that far.

“I missed you.” He said quietly somewhere between kisses. She was so tired but her adrenaline was kicking in and she felt dizzy. “I missed you too.” It was true, she had thought about him all day - as she read over Brian’s agenda, through the massage, in the car on the way back to the venue… “last night was perfect.” She said again.

He shook his head in disbelief and continued kissing her.

“We don’t have to hide this if you don’t want to,” he said.

It made her stomach hurt. She searched his face trying to find out what he wanted. “Who knows about this?”

His face nuzzled her neck, “you smell good.”

She giggled, running her hand through his hair, “Nick, seriously, who knows?”

He looked at her, “just the guys.”

She nodded, “and Leighanne. And Angela. And Andrea, i think.” She added.

“It could be everyone.” His thumb traced the line of her jaw and he watched as it did.

She didn’t know what it meant. Everyone everywhere or everyone in their bubble? And what exactly would they be told? What had the others been told? How was he defining this? What even had she told the girls really? She couldn’t think straight. Way too many questions for the moment. She was quiet for a second then started kissing him again.

Her mind was fuzzy as he kissed her, and even more so when they had to stop. They continued on their way to the phone, she called home quickly, they snuck in a few additional minutes of kissing and then hurried back to reality in time for soundcheck.

Brian’s surprises included singing happy birthday to Leighanne at soundcheck and the five of them covering her in silly string - followed by a birthday cake and giving her the gift he bought for her at the jeweler’s at dinner, and finally, a bottle of champagne for she and Coll to enjoy during the show.

“Happy birthday again!” Coll said happily, as she finished pouring two glasses for them.

“Thank you so much for everything.”

Coll smiled sweetly, “I’m so glad we’re here together.”

“Me too. Infinite possibilities?” Leighanne asked as she raised her glass of champagne to Coll as the lights dimmed and the crowd roared up around them.

Coll nodded as she pushed her glass into Leighanne’s. She took the smallest sip she could manage, in an effort to make her one glass last as long as possible… she was far too exhausted already to be drinking.

“I hope all your birthday wishes come true.” Coll giggled.

Leighanne’s face lit up even more and she looked at Coll wistfully, “I think they will…” she stated simply.


Before the buses left that night Coll found Brian to return his envelope to him. Before she could say anything he swung his arm around her shoulders and walked her over to a quiet spot in the dark parking lot.

“Okay,” he smiled. “What’s up?”

She smiled at him, and held the envelope out.

“Thank you again for a great day.” Coll said quietly. “You probably don’t need this but I wasn’t sure what you wanted to do with that receipt… I know no cost is too great for Leighanne but, you were very generous to me today. Thank you.”

“Thank you for being there when I couldn’t be.” He said genuinely. “I’m glad you both had fun.”

She nodded, “Look at how pretty my nails are!” She laughed as she held her hands up.

“Oh my gosh.” He said in his girly voice. “So gorgeous.”

Coll smiled as he wrapped his arms around her.

“Leighanne only had to listen to about thirty minutes of my emotional tailspin. Which sounds like a lot but by comparison, is not actually that much.”

“She never minds being a great friend. And she loves you, so...”

“Sorry I couldn’t deliver on your seven o’clock request.”

Brian shrugged, “I was just teasing you.”

“I know. But… it felt real.” She laughed.

“Are you okay with everything? You seem a little... I don’t know what to call it.”

“I’m tired in ways I’ve never been tired before.” She explained, her voice was happy but she was exhausted. “Mentally, physically … ways I’m not even sure what they are called. All of it. I’m sure that sounds absurd to you and you are much more exhausted than I am.”

“Only physically most of the time.” He said as he rubbed the back of his neck.

She was quiet for a moment as they looked at each other, “I don’t know what you know...”

Brian shrugged, “Not much. He’s been pretty quiet about it… like, careful. I mean, I know the basics. I hope that’s okay…?”

She shrugged, “Of course.”

“But yeah, he’s been kind of modest about it. Which is different for him… like, he’s being mature. Everything he has said to me has been a complete one-eighty from anything else I’ve ever heard him say about women.”

“Well... that’s... probably good.”

Brian nodded, “you know I don’t mean to get all in your business about this or give you advice - especially advice you might not even be asking for. But just as insight… he’s terrified.”

“Yeah, I can tell that he is sort of. What’s your theory?”

“Not scared of you but ... the potential.”

She inhaled deeply, “Okay.” That is not the same as the theory i worked up…

“He has never had this before. He’s never even considered he could have it.”
“Have what? Me?”

“Well that too, but… something real. Someone who actually gives a shit. Someone who will let him do what he does without using it to their own advantage.”

“That’s sort of sad. I mean I’ve been in relationships I wasn’t crazy about but never felt like I was being used... or completely misunderstood.”

Brian nodded. “I feel some kind of kindred spirit thing with you. Maybe it’s because we both love Nick.” He laughed.

“Probably.” She agreed. “Brian, honestly…” She sighed, “I’m not trying to rush anything. I get it. And I’m not comfortable with, like, making any moves that are going to leave him feeling obligated.”

He was swaying on his feet.

“I feel like I’ve done a lot of stuff … put myself out there … but he’s hesitating.” She inhaled deeply, “Which is okay… I mean, I understand everything, I think…I tried to tell him - I did tell him - that he doesn’t have to worry about me...”

“You know he loves you.”

She nodded, “he has always loved me. I want to hear him tell me how he feels now. I want to hear myself tell him how I feel now! But I’m choosing to trust that he will tell me whatever it is he wants me to know when he’s ready. I told him that.”

Brian looked at her, wide-eyed. “You told him that?”

“Yes.”

“What did he say?”

She shrugged and shook her head, “It was a whole thing…” She rubbed her forehead, “I can’t be upset about him not telling me exactly how he feels. I’m not telling him I’m in love with him either. But I feel like I can’t be the one to say it to him first because he will feel obligated, that’s what I mean. I don’t want him to feel like he has to be something to me or do anything… I just want him to be himself. And if that means hesitating and moving really, painfully slowly, then, that’s what I want because I want him to be himself.”

“Why do you think he would feel obligated?”

“Because I know he cares about me and he doesn't want to hurt me.” She looked at him and pursed her lips. “Can I tell you something that is absolutely between us only?”

“Of course.”

“Like, even more so than the rest of this. I didn’t even tell Leighanne...”

“It’s safe with me.”

“I think he doesn’t trust himself to love me. Not the way he knows I want … and not the way I think he wants to. I think he wants to love me in a way that is more than he’s ever exerted himself for someone else. In a way, I feel like he’s already done that. But he doesn’t know if he can - he doesn’t know if he is capable. Or he thinks he can’t for whatever reason. Like he thinks about Mandy, and … whoever else. And he knows he wants to love me more than that … more than saying things and then not being able to follow up on them. More than saying things he thinks I want to hear that he may or may not actually understand or mean. More than just sleeping with me… more than only wanting to sleep with me. Because he knows that’s what I want.” She said.

She wasn’t sure what the look on Brian’s face meant. “I think that’s probably right.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, I mean, it makes sense.”

“I trust him though. And I think he trusts me.” She looked at him and could tell there was something he wanted to say. “Brian?”

“Yeah, no, that’s good.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Just … like…” he shuffled nervously on his feet, “I mean it is what I said… he’s scared. But look at what you’ve done to him.”

“What?”

“You’ve made him think about it.” Brian smiled. “He’s already exerted himself more for you than anyone else. He’s afraid but he’s doing it anyway. That means something.”

She smiled softly at him, “maybe that’s true.”

“Remember what I said in the elevator?”

“Yes, knock and wait patiently. I think that’s what I’m doing.”

“But there is not just one door, it’s a series. Some - you have to kick them down. Sometimes you have to knock and wait patiently several times.”

She folded her arms over her chest, “See you could have mentioned this whole door behind a door thing then…” she smirked at him.

“You’re smart. Trust yourself.”

She nodded, “I’m not sure I’ve had enough sleep to even have the right to think about it right now. Like I’m in a fog. I think I slept two hours last night. And like, four hours total the forty-eight hours before that.”

“What exactly are you two doing all night?”

She tilted her head at him. “Tonight we are sleeping.”

“Let me walk you back.” He smiled and swung his arm around her shoulders.

“Brian,” she began thoughtfully, “please don’t push him. I’m not going to push him.”

“I won’t. He knows I think you’re great. He knows I think you’re good for him.”

“He does?”

“How could we talk about you at all without it coming up?”

“Why are you so good?” she asked, turning to look at him.

“It’s my job!” he laughed as they got to the door of Nick’s bus. “But seriously, it is.” He said and made three loud knocks on the door.

Nick appeared a minute later, holding the door open.

“Hey.” he smiled.

“Hey.” Coll said.

“I’m out.” Brian smiled and gave Coll one last hug. “Thanks again, Little.”

“Goodnight, Brian,” she said quietly before he scurried off back to his bus

“You okay?” Nick asked as he looked at her.

She smiled softly at him, “we need to sleep tonight.”

“Okay.” He grinned.

“Promise me we will sleep tonight before I get on this bus.”

“Promise.”

“A full sentence please?”

“I promise you will sleep tonight.”

She grinned at him and shook her head. “Not totally convinced but I’m too tired to stand here any longer.”

“it’s hard because you’re so pretty and all I wanna do is kiss you.” he said as she boarded the bus finally, kissing her when she reached him.

“Same to you.”

He laughed. “You can show me how good you are at snuggling.”

“Ohh so you did hear that.”

He nodded as she followed him into the living area of the bus..

She dropped her tote bag and slid her sandals off immediately, yawning in the process.

“This is for you.”

She looked up to see Nick with his hand on a large box that was sitting on a table.

She looked at him curiously as she walked closer to observe, “It’s huge and it has some fancy brand name on it.” Her skin felt warm as her brain scrambled the piece this mystery together.

“I know!”

She smiled at him, “Okay.”

“Open it.”

“Wait, where did it come from?”

“Can anything be a mystery?”

there is literally no shortage of mystery ...

“Just open it.”

She lifted the top of the box open and placed it on the table. She worked a sticker off some crisp tissue paper and flipped those aside to reveal what she assumed was a handbag in a dust cover. She looked at him and he was grinning, with his hands in his pockets watching her. She lifted the package out of the box and worked the drawstring open and away from the merchandise.

She grabbed the bag by its handles and held it up in front of her.

“Nick. This is … this is gorgeous.” She said quietly admiring the leather, the hardware, the shape...

He was so happy watching her.

“Nick, this is way too beautiful and I feel like I shouldn’t even be touching it.”

“Do you Iike it?” He asked.

“I love it. I more than love it. I just -“

“I know how girls are about bags. And I know it’s like ... a thing.” He said, “I just kind of went based on your original... I don’t know if it’s your style… I know you’ve been wanting to replace it.”

She didn’t even know what to say, it was overwhelming. It was too generous, it was too much. “It’s perfect. Thank you. Seriously… wow..” She placed the bag on the table and touched both sides of it with her hands. “I love it. That was really sweet of you. Way too much but very sweet.”

“Why too much?”

“This bag probably cost more than I make in a semester.”

“But it’s a gift.”

“I know and I appreciate it so much. I love it. You’re so generous.” She said as she left the bag on the table and wrapped her arms around his waist.

“It’s not a big deal...”

“It’s a very big deal to me.” She said as she pressed her forehead into his chest. “Like a really big deal. You’re the best.”

“I’m glad you like it.” he said as his hands moved across her back

“I definitely more than like it, but the fact that you thought of it …” she inhaled deeply and closed her eyes, her face still hidden against his body, “I love that the most.”

Chapter 32 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Nick I swear I have never been this tired in my life.” She said as he crawled into the bed with her. She was already comfortable with her head on his pillow and her body curled into a sleeping position on her side.

“I know.” He laughed lightly, “I’m tired too. But I don’t regret staying up all night with you… multiple nights in a row.”

She smiled as his arm slipped around her waist pulling her closer to him.

“Me neither.” She said quietly, a small smile playing on her face, “I’m glad we did.”

He was quiet but his eyes were wide and she could tell he was thinking about something - maybe something that had happened the night before.

“What?” She asked.

“Can I kiss you just a little bit?” He asked as his face closed in on hers, his nose brushing against hers. Her adrenaline began to pump again, and her body fell into a battle of instinct versus desire. She smiled at him as his lips grazed hers, waiting for an answer.

“I would be disappointed if you didn’t.” She said quietly and he kissed her softly, moving his hands around and up her back. Their legs tangled together and her arms wrapped around his.

After several minutes of making out, he asked her if she wanted to be the little spoon, she laughed at him and nodded, reeling in the good feelings kissing him always left her with.

“Too tired to show you proper snuggling tonight.” She said as he clicked the lights off and wrapped his arms around her.

“Something to look forward to.” He said quietly as they settled into their new positions.

“Good point.”

“I thought about you a lot today.” He said as he threaded his fingers through hers, she smiled and nodded, “ I thought about you too… but I’m so sleepy.”

“It’s okay. Sleep,” he said quietly as she relaxed into him more.

“Nick?”

“Yeah.”

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“Everything.”

He pulled her in closer to him and within a few minutes he could tell she was asleep. He stayed awake a while longer, thinking about her, the future… and all the things he had to tell her but still hadn’t.



Coll was sitting in the lounge with her laptop checking her email for the first time in well over a week as the guys prepped for soundcheck the following evening. A long ethernet cable connected her laptop to an available port that Jen had located earlier in the day and tipped Coll off about before she left the hotel. Leighanne and Andrea had gone out shopping for a while but Coll opted to stay back to continue catching up on the sleep she was still lacking. She woke up in time to take the ride to the venue with the guys - computer across her lap, new handbag perched on top, Brian to her left asking questions about her new acquisition.

The emails contained nothing of true importance other than some life updates from Becka and some photos from Melanie who was back home in Colorado. She replied to what she could and was in the middle of composing a response to Becka when a new message came through from John.

She was taken aback, her eyes darted around the room wondering what the chances of him emailing her as she was sitting there checking emails were.


-

Coll,

Saw this and thought of you. When will you be home? Did you get my texts?

Miss u.

-


She opened the attachment, and waited patiently for it to load. Once it began to build up in front of her she was surprised to see a photo of three small dogs sitting on the footbridge in the Boston common. Immediately she remembered a moment they had together on that bridge.


-

“I love that about the fall though... because it gets dark out earlier and people start to notice nature more. They notice the dark, they notice the sky… it’s crazy how a little change in timing like that can make you see something you’ve known your whole life differently... That slight change in timing changes everything. I love that that’s possible.” She said as they walked across the footbridge. “I think people don’t understand how much impact timing can have.”

“Like what?” He asked.

“Anything.” She shrugged, “Like this. People don’t realize everything is the same - same place, same time of day... but completely and utterly different. They see it different, they act different toward it, they do different things because of it. Everything changes ... just because of timing.”

-

The memory flooded through her and it felt relevant again. Same, but completely different. She took a deep breath. Timing. She looked up and saw Nick standing with the guys, adjusting their earpieces and about the leave for soundcheck. He smiled at her before they turned to leave and she felt her heart flutter. Her cheeks flushed and she clicked out of the email and sat there quietly for a moment with her forehead in her hand.

”It’s crazy how a little change in timing like that can make you see something you’ve known your whole life differently.”

She had spent that night with him at the Pumpkin Festival, an annual event she enjoyed going to each year. He was happy to be along for the ride with her but didn’t take much interest in it himself. She delighted in the many hot apple cider options while he told her he might try a sip of hers. She wanted to take pictures of the best jack-o-lanterns while he didn’t want to get in anyone’s way doing so, and she wanted him to be her partner at the square dance pavilion but he refused.

“I’m no good at dancing.”

“John, it’s not a recital it’s just for fun, it’s hokey fun. It’s a freaking square dance. I promise no one will be watching you. Come on.” She tugged his arm and stepped in the direction of the dance floor.

“I’d really rather not.” He said. “Let’s walk to the north end instead.” He suggested with a smile. She sighed deeply and relented. He took her hand and they walked across the footbridge and out of the park.

That’s when he made the comment about how it felt like it was the middle of the night because it had been dark for hours already but in fact it was only 9 o’clock and she responded with her thoughts on the matter.

She had tried many times to pull him out of his comfort zone, and to give him a chance, but it was exhausting without reward - a completely different type of exhausting than she was experiencing with Nick.

Shaking her head free of the thoughts, closed out of his message window, she returned her attention to the email she was writing to Becka.


-

… OMG i just got another email from John. Did i tell you he texted me the other night and Nick got so uncomfortable about it? Sorry, I truly can’t remember if I told you or not. That was after we had a looooong conversation about John and how he was playing it safe and being boring all the time. (I did tell you about that! Right?)

-


She paused, suddenly fully piecing it together that what she had observed about Nick and explained to Brian was Nick playing it safe too. But he was doing it in a completely different way for a completely different reason. While John played it safe for his own good - afraid to step beyond his comfort zone, afraid to look silly - Nick was playing it safe for her sake. It was exactly what he had said that night in Spain: he didn’t want to do anything he wasn’t sure about … with her. It was why he asked her if she trusted him. It was why he felt more secure with the date night plans and less secure when they changed. It was why he was moving so slowly and hesitating - not for himself but because he cares about her and what was happening between them.

John played it safe because he didn’t want to lose her once he had her, but ultimately that was his downfall. Nick was playing it safe until he knew for sure he could give her what she wanted.

A small smile crept along her mouth as she thought about him, his hands nervously sliding under her tank top to remove it, his face nuzzling her neck in the closet … ”we don’t have to hide this…”, his arms wrapped around her in his bed the night before.


-

… God, Becka, I cannot wait to see you and discuss all the many, many things.

-


She finished sending Becka’s email, left John’s unanswered and after a few minutes she closed the laptop and wandered over to a couch across the lounge. She fell into it carelessly and sat there with her feet tucked under her, looking around the lounge as various people went about their business. She fell into a distracted state, thinking about Nick and the future. There were so many abstract fantasies she wanted to live out with him but she also wanted to enjoy what they had now. Eventually she gave in to her body’s yearning and fully laid down across the couch, feeling sleepy still but not sleepy enough to quiet her active mind.


When Nick returned from soundcheck he found Coll laying on the couch in the lounge and looked down at her curiously.

“Hey.” He said with a smile that made her feel unstable again.

“Hey.” She said. “How did it go?” She asked, bringing her hand to her forehead.

“Fine.” he laughed, “You okay?”

She nodded.

“Are you sure?” He asked as she sat up and he took a seat next to her.

She sighed, “Yeah, just… a little annoyed. John emailed me.” She hated that he kept popping into her life. It felt like an interruption - something that was keeping her from focusing on the things she was enjoying.

“John? Again? Why?”

She wasn’t sure what tone he was using but it had hints of frustration in it.

She shrugged, “just sent me a picture of some dogs.”

“That’s it?”

“The dogs were sitting on this bridge in Boston and he said it reminded him of me.” She ran her hands over her bare legs, realizing they were cold and she should have worn pants instead of shorts.

“Why does he try to talk to you so often?” Nick asked.

She shrugged, “I don’t know. Is it weird? Should I be worried?”

“Did you write back?” He didn’t care if he sounded too interested.

She shook her head, “No. And I didn’t respond to those texts he sent me either. I thought ignoring him would get the point across but apparently that isn’t working.”

“Maybe he thinks he still has a chance.” Nick speculated, hoping she would confirm again that he did not.

“You know he doesn’t.” She said.

He felt relieved.

The same but completely different. She swallowed back some anxiety as he looked at her.

“Maybe you should tell him you’ve moved on.” He suggested, some happy undertones in his voice.

She could feel her pulse quicken. “What would I say?”

“I’m ... seeing someone else.” His eyes met hers and she felt her back go weak.

“Seeing?”

They stared at each other. “Tell him about me.” He smiled. “Whatever you want.”

She could tell her eyes widened more than she wanted them to, her mind was fuzzy again. “Wh-“

“Nick let’s roll.” Brian yelled to him. “Meet and greet tonight.”

He grinned at her as he got to his feet again, “Whatever you want.”

He hurried off leaving her sitting there wondering what the hell it meant. ”whatever you want.”

She groaned and slid deeper into the couch again as she watched him leave the lounge.

Whatever I want to call it? Or whatever I want it to be? Or just tell him whatever I want?

The room was spinning a bit, she closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. ”Tell Him about me.”



Chapter 33 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Nick had insisted that Billy accompany Coll to pick Becka up from the airport on the morning she was set to arrive. Even though it seemed like an odd request, Coll figured it was ultimately one of Jen’s many paranoias at play and didn’t question it much. Coll invited Leighanne along but she said she didn’t want to interrupt what little time the two of them would have one on one.

Before she knew it, Coll was standing in the airport, Billy a foot or so behind her, on high alert as usual, though she had no idea why. She was swaying ever so slightly on her feet nervously, twisting her silver ring around her finger mindlessly as passengers from Becka’s flight began to pour out into the terminal.

Finally, Coll spotted Becka’s blonde bob in the crowd.

“Yayyyy!!” Coll sang happily, smiling and skipping in Becka’s direction.

“Ohhhhh damn.” Becka smiled as she approached Coll who was holding her arms open ready to hug her.

“Whaaat?! Ahhhh so happy you’re here!!”

Becka let go of her bag and they embraced each other tightly.

“You are so glowy!!!” Becka exclaimed.

“What?” Coll laughed as she pulled back to look at Becka. “What does that mean?”

“You are … literally glowing. And I know it’s not because I’m here.” Becka’s face was bright with excitement.

Coll rolled her eyes, “Of course it is.”

“No. No, it’s definitely Nick.” Becka said she adjusted her bag on her shoulder, “you really look so happy.”

“I really actually am.” Coll said.

Becka smiled, “I’m so glad for you.”

“Thanks.” Coll blushed, “How was your trip?!” She asked as Billy neared.

“Ohh it was fine, fine. I slept the whole time.”

“Really? That’s great. Oh! Becka, this is Billy. He’s my shadow.” Coll giggled looking at Billy who smiled and held his hand out to Becka.

“Nice to meet you.” Becka smiled at him, shaking his hand.

“Welcome aboard.” Billy said with a smile and a nod.

“Technically he is Nick’s shadow. But, today, honorarily mine.”

“Whatever she needs.” Billy added.

Coll rolled her eyes and looped her arm through Becka’s. “Let’s get out of here.”

“I’ll take this for you.” Billy said as he reached for Becka’s suitcase.

“Oh, sure. Thank you.”

“Thanks, Billy.” Coll said, “He’s great.”

“So what’s the deal? He literally just follows you around?” Becka asked quietly.

“It’s silly but yeah.” Coll said, “Their manager is slightly paranoid, doesn’t like anyone going anywhere alone. Even me for some reason.”

“Is he listening?” Becka asked as she looked over her shoulder at Billy following them.

“No, he’s too busy watching and being stoic.” Coll said, “but don’t reveal the secrets of the universe just in case.”

“I love that you think I know everything. But in reality I do not know nearly enough about what’s been going on here.”

“Just relax, all will be revealed.”

“Did you really have sex and not want to tell me?” Becka asked quietly.

“Becka. Seriously. My whole life cannot boil down to this one thing.”

“I know I’m sorry.” She sighed, “just jealous.”

“Jealous of me not having sex?”

“No, of course not. You have prospects though.”

“Oh, please. And if you could refrain from sleeping with any Backstreet Boys that would be great.”

“Jesus, Colleen.” Becka rolled her eyes. “Oh and by the way, i’ve been thinking about this John stuff and I think I figured it out.”

“Figured what out? It’s not that complex… he’s desperate.” Coll said, “Also, i know that analyzing people is a hobby of yours but-”

“It’s not a hobby, it’s a job.”

“It’s only a job when they are your clients!”

“Well, practice.” Becka shrugged.

Coll sighed, “Forget it, we have so many more important things to discuss than him.”

“I am so ready for this.” Becka laughed.

They kept their conversation casual and light until they were safely in Coll’s suite back at the hotel. Becka began digging all the juicier details out of Coll about the past few weeks with Nick. Coll was just as eager to get Becka’s perspective on things and the two of them them chatted happily for several hours until they had to leave for the show. It became clear to Coll as they were changing and getting ready to leave that becka was withholding advice and providing only encouragement or reminders. “I don’t want to influence you any more than I may have already. I can tell this is … something. Something significant for you. I want you to trust yourself and you are - you decided what you want to do and you’re doing it. That’s what matters. You know more than you think. Brian is right… some doors you need to kick them down, some you don’t… but you’ll know when.” It was the thought that kept Coll silent company throughout the rest of the night.

At around 5:30 Leighanne showed up at Coll’s door with Tom. “Is she here?! Also, hi!”

Coll smiled as Becka came to the door behind her.

“Ahhh!!” Leighanne shrieked as Coll moved out of the way and Becka embraced her happily.

“I’m so glad to finally meet you!” Becka said.

“Same! Oh my goodness I was dying so come down but I wanted to give you two your time.”

“Ladies.” Tom said solemnly from the hall.

“Yeah, we gotta go.” Leighanne explained.

“Tom, to what do we owe the pleasure of your company this evening?” Coll asked curiously with a laugh looking at Tom who she assumed should have been with Brian.

“Special orders.” He said casually.

“Mysterious. Come in while I grab my stuff.”

Tom waited while they gathered everything and then escorted them to the van in the loading dock.

Becka and Leighanne spent the ride to the venue chatting and getting to know each other while Coll stayed mostly quiet lost in her own thoughts until her curiosity couldn’t stand any longer.

“Something is going on... I can tell.” Coll said quietly looking at Tom who was sitting in the front passenger seat. He turned to look at her. He shrugged and smiled a little.

“Probably some random threat Jen is worried about.” Leighanne interjected from the second-row seat behind Coll. “Don’t even worry about it.”

Leighanne and Becka were looking at Coll who was still intently looking at Tom.

“But Billy came with me this morning… it’s not a Leighanne thing. I know people recognize Leighanne...” But no one knows who I am…? I don’t even know who i am in this equation right now. And certainly, no one else cares.

Tom’s eyes darted away briefly, “I am not sure what the issue is today. Just a precaution. Everything is fine.” He assured her. “Jen just wanted one of us with everyone.”

“But what caused the need for a precaution?”

Tom was quiet, “Just another day in the life.” He said simply.

Coll relented silently and sat back in her seat, looking out the window as they rode along. She could accept ‘just another day in the life’ but … that wasn’t her life. Becka gave Leighanne a look, Leighanne shook her head and changed the subject by asking Becka a question about her summer so far.




“This must be Becka!” A.J. said happily as he approached Coll and Becka in the lounge that night as the guys arrived back from their day of press and an afternoon photoshoot. He wrapped his arms around her and she looked only mildly terrified.

“I told you, very friendly!” Coll laughed as the rest of the guys gathered around to greet Becka.

“Holy crap, the last time i saw you in real life you were like, sixteen.” Becka smiled as Nick reached her. He laughed and she assured him that he never looked better.

“Yes, little Nicky is all grown up now.” Howie teased. “Becka, nice to meet you. I’m Howie.”

“So great to meet you, all of you, wow, thanks for having me.” She said sweetly.

“Little’s big sister!” Brian squealed with delight.

“He’s picked up calling her that now, too.” Kevin explained.

“She’s everyone’s little sister.” Becka smiled, “just like Nick is everyone’s little brother.”

“We have to initiate her.” A.J. mentioned.

“Please don’t haze her.”

“Not hazing, silly.”

“Just tequila.” Nick added.

“These lightweights think tequila is so horrible.” Angela added as she joined the group.

“Beck, this is Angela,” Coll introduced her, “And yes, you have both heard so much about each other.”

“Have for sure!” Angela exclaimed as she gave Becka a hug.

“Ahhh yes, Angela, my stand in!”

“Oh i just adore this one.” Angela clapped her hands together, looking lovingly at Coll.

“Alright alright,” Coll blushed.

“Coll is definitely my second favorite person on this tour.” Brian added.
“It’s a close tie for first for me.” Leighanne shrugged.

“What?!” Brian gasped.

“Basically we all really love her.” Nick laughed, looking at Becka. Coll’s stomach flipped knowing it wasn’t the admission of love she wanted from him, but hearing the words still made her dizzy. She spent the next hour in a bit of a distracted state as she explained things backstage to Becka, introduced her to anyone she missed the first time, and went through the motions of a typical night.

Becka enjoyed the camaraderie backstage, everyone did a shot of tequila to celebrate her arrival and Howie and A.J. both immediately began talking up a plan for a night out while Becka was with them. Coll smiled as she watched them all interact with her, she fell in easily, and that felt like a good thing.
“Hey.” Nick said as he crept up behind her poking her sides with his fingers.

“God, you scared me a little.” She laughed as she almost dropped the plate of food she was holding.

“Sorry.” He smiled, moving to stand in front of her, “Meet me in the hallway in five.” He said quietly and walked off casually, leaving her standing there watching him go.

She took her food to the table, and settled in next to Kevin, made small talk for exactly three minutes, took exactly 4 bites of her food and then excused herself saying she would be right back. “Don’t let them take this.” She said to Kevin with a laugh, pointing to her plate.

“I’m on it.” he assured her.

“Thanks.” She left the lounge as casually as possible and found Nick standing at the end of the corridor.

“What took you so long?” He asked as she approached.

“Long?! It was four minutes… but you said we didn’t have to hide.”

“We don’t, it’s still exciting to sneak around though.” He reached out and pulled her into him.

“how was your day?” He asked

“It was great. How was your’s?

“Fine. I’m glad Becka is here.”

“Me too.” Coll smiled. “You can probably tell, but she is very excited about the show.”

Nick laughed, “Yeah, it seemed that way.” He took her hands in his and looked at her closely, “was everything okay at the airport?”

“Yeah, but what’s going on? I feel like something is going on.”

He took a deep breath, “Jen knows about Spain.”

Her eyes got wide, her brain started spinning up stories, “She does? She hasn’t even scolded me.”

“No, she’s not going to. She didn’t even get that mad at me. Not like it matters.” He smiled, thinking back to the conversation he had with Jen about it. “I don’t know how but, she’s very … chill. I don’t think all of it is naivety either, I think she really is just … chill.” Jen said, “So while I’m pretty sure she won’t be alarmed, I don’t want to scare her. I think she wants to know what’s going on and that keeps her chill. I don’t know her that well, obviously, but, I pay attention.” She smiled, “And I also don’t want to misstep with her if she’s going to be around a while… if she is as big of a deal to you as I think she is… I want her to feel supported not guilty. I think we all know it wasn’t her idea to sneak off without security...”

“Okay… well,” Coll began again in his silence. “That’s good. How did she find out?”

“There is a picture of us.” He watched for a reaction but she seemed especially calm. “basically she is … worried about you. She doesn’t want you to get hassled.” She was quiet, thinking. Nervously, he went on. “So that’s why I wanted Billy to go with you. In case someone recognized you… I know it seems far fetched.”

She smiled widely at him. “I mean, only because you’re okay with going out without security and the chances of someone recognizing you are a lot better than the chances of anyone recognizing me.”

“I know.” He hung his head briefly, “I know.”

It means something. “It’s because of my ‘above average rise of assault’ right?”

He nodded and placed his hand on her cheek. “It did make me think twice… but we can have fun without going out.”

It made her legs feel weak and she had to look away from him for a second. He took both her hands in his.

“What is it a picture of?” She asked.

“Of us at the bar.”

“... with the old people?!”

He nodded, laughing a little. “I didn’t see it, she said someone behind the bar took it.”

“Maybe that’s why the bartender kept giving us food.”

“Maybe.”

“How did we not notice someone with a camera? Or taking a picture?” She asked. Thinking back to that night though, she knew it was entirely possible. They were so involved in each other, she was so sure the old people were a safe space…

“Am I being really super naive?” She asked.

“Maybe.” he smiled and wrapped his arms around her again, “But that’s fine.” He held her close to his body and she rested her head on his shoulder.

They were both quiet for a minute. “I think I should probably sleep in my own room tonight.” She said sadly with a pout as he held her.

“I know. You probably should.” He agreed, “I’ll miss you.”

“It’s been so long since I've slept alone. Well, I’ll be with Becka but… obviously not the same.”

He laughed, “I’ll try not to be jealous.”

She smiled and leaned back to look at him. “It’s okay if you’re a little jealous.”

He laughed and put his arm around her shoulders and turned them both around to start walking back to the lounge.

“We should arrive back there separately to fully experience sneaking around.” She mentioned.

“You’re into that… sneaking around.”

“I might be, yeah.” She nodded.

“Okay, you go.”

“I’ll see you later.” She said, kissing him on the cheek before she turned to leave.

“Coll.” He said quickly without thinking what his next sentence would be, just knowing he wasn’t ready to see her go just yet - feeling like there was something else to say.

She turned back to face him, “Yeah.”

Not the time. “Make sure Becka sways.” He said happily.

She laughed, tilting her head back, “Let me see you swaaaay.” She danced a little, “She will not need any encouragement.” She assured him, “See you later.”

She followed the corridor back to the lounge while Nick stood back and watched her go. Each of them knew another opportunity had just passed.

Chapter 34 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

In their seats that night, Leighanne popped a bottle of champagne and poured it into three small plastic cups to celebrate Becka’s arrival. She had asked Tom, who was sitting with them thanks to Jen’s persistent agenda if he wanted any but he declined.

“No drinking and job-ing. Got it.” She replied. ”This place has a no glass rule.” Leighanne rolled her eyes. “But anyway, to infinite possibilities?” Leighanne asked as handed Becka and Coll each a cup before raising hers, looking at Coll.

“As always.” Coll smiled, “I guess we can share that with Becka.”

“It’s sacred. We can only toast to infinite possibilities with good people.”

Becka looked confused.

“She wouldn’t toast at all with Mandy.”

“Relieved i rank somewhere higher than Mandy.”

Leighanne laughed, “let’s do it.”

“Infinite possibilities!” Becka exclaimed.

“Such a good one.” Coll laughed as their cups all came together.

“So anticlimactic without the clink.” Leighanne pouted.

“I’m so excited to see this.” Becka smiled widely as she looked in the direction of the stage as the lights dimmed and the crowd roared up louder around them.

“So innocent.” Coll giggled as she placed her hand on Becka’s shoulder and directed her to a corner of the arena, “it starts up there.”

“Oh, whaaaatttt?!”

“Yup.” Coll nodded and took a sip of her champagne.

Watching Becka enjoy the show and having her there to dance alongside them against the backdrop of what essentially was the soundtrack of her summer left Coll feeling happy and energized. And as they left their seats before the encore, Becka grabbed her hand and squeezed it, “This is incredible, Colleen.” She smiled. While she wasn’t sure what she meant by it exactly, Coll knew it was true. Even if Becka only meant the show, everything that was happening was incredible.

“Really glad you enjoyed the show, Becka.” Nick said for about the fourth time that night as Becka continued to recall and mention things she loved between the lounge and the hotel hallway.

“Watch out Becka might be your new biggest fan.” Coll laughed.

“Also, I need to learn to dance like that.” Becka stated blankly.

“You do?” Coll asked.

“Yes. I think so.”

“We can teach you.” Howie said.

“No you can’t. She has two left feet.”

“Yeah, unfortunately, that’s true.” Becka admitted.

“Well it could be entertaining for the rest of us if she wants to try.” Nick added.

“Sleep on it, Beck.” Coll giggled. “You might feel differently in the morning.”

“It’s an open offer.” Howie said.

“I appreciate it.”

“Goodnight guys.” Howie waved as he proceeded down the hall.
“Goodnight.”

“Here give me the key.” Becka said turning to Coll and holding her hand out. “Let you two say goodnight…”

Coll smiled at her and took the room key from her pocket and handed it to Becka as Nick leaned against the wall outside their door.

“Night, Beck.” Nick said.

“Goodnight, Carter. See you in the morning,” She said, “See you in a few.” She said looking at Coll.

Coll nodded as Becka proceeded into the room and the door closed behind her, leaving it the all but entirely shut so Coll could get back in.

“I’m sad I have to say goodnight to you, too.” Nick said.

“Same. But, you’ll probably sleep better.”

He laughed, “I like staying up with you more than I like sleeping.”

She smiled at him and moved in closer. “Could be useful even if it’s less fun.”

“We’ll see.” He said as he pulled her in close, kissing her. “You’ll get some Becka time so it’s worth the trade off.”

“I’ll see you in the morning.” She said before he kissed her again.

“Goodnight.” He said.

“Goodnight, Snickers.” She smiled as she backed away from him.

He opened his mouth so say something else but nothing came out. She looked at him once more before pushing the suite door open and smiled softly as he began to walk away.

I love you.

Coll closed the door behind her and kicked her shoes off near the door.

“Okay, so, I am exhausted but I have several hundred questions I need to ask you.” Becka called out from the bathroom where she was washing her face as Coll reentered the suite.

“What?” Coll asked, smiling and hanging on the door jam of the bathroom, watching Becka.

“First,” She said, her eyes closed, bringing a washcloth to her face. “It said nothing in my Backstreet Boy book about how underutilized Howie is.”

Coll looked at her curiously through the mirror, “What? Why would it say a thing like that?”

“It also didn’t explain how Nick snagged that solo on the CD.” Becka continued without answering.

“What solo?” Coll asked as Becka finished with her face and moved across the bathroom and past Coll through the doorway. Coll followed her back into the suite.

“All yours tonight… or whatever it’s called. To be honest I have only had the CD in my car for like, a week, so I’m not as looped in as I’d like to be. From now on can he send us a few back up copies? Dad broke my first one i had to go buy it again.” Becka explained as she pulled her suitcase out of the closet and opened in on the floor. “I’m also wondering like, do they get to pick the clothes for the show...? Do they approve them at least? Who came up with the concept?”

“Becka, I don’t know.” Coll sighed, overwhelmed with the inquiries and suddenly feeling really sad she wasn’t about to snuggle up next to Nick in his bed, and simultaneously really guilty about it. She pulled her rubber ducky pajamas out and retreated to the bathroom while Becka continued to ask questions.

“Also, you really did not prepare me for how pretty everyone is. Leighanne is gorgeous. Brian is gorgeous. Angela is gorgeous…”

“Sorry Becka,” Coll giggled. “It was not the most pressing issue.”

“I just really was not prepared for all of this.”

“Imagine how I feel.” Coll yelled back.

Becka smiled to herself and shrugged a little considering it.

“Alright, alright,” Becka replied as she turned the bed covers down and slid in effortlessly. “Oh my god this bed is so comfortable.”

Coll changed, brushed her teeth and washed her face before returning to the bed and joining Becka.

“I’m a little sad that I’m not your top favorite blonde at the moment.” Becka pouted as Coll curled up next to her.

“Oh please.” Coll rolled her eyes.

Becka smiled at her but was quiet for a few minutes thinking about what she had seen so far.

She had been looking for it, of course, but it wasn’t hard to see that the way Nick behaved around her - the way he looked at her - meant something.

She had noticed Coll sneak away from dinner to meet Nick and the happiness on her face when she returned to the table was evident.

The way Nick’s face brightened when he saw her as he arrived at the venue that night.

The way he looked back at her and smiled on his way to soundcheck.

When he made his way to her immediately after coming off the stage…

He wanted her there and he loved that she was. It was all obvious.

“I don’t really blame you.” Becka began again, turning toward Coll in the bed.

“Huh?”

“If someone looked at me the way he looks at you, they’d be my favorite, too.” Becka said quietly.

Coll smiled, “Someday, Becka.”

Becka inhaled deeply, “Goodnight, Little.”

“Night, Beck.”


Becka drifted off to sleep easily but Coll was restless, still energized from the show, still sad she wasn’t with Nick. She laid awake for an hour before she decided she had to get up.

She wandered down the the hotel lobby lounge where she sat with a magazine for about twenty minutes before she got restless with that too. Admitting defeat, she began to make her way back upstairs. She considered knocking on Nick’s door but decided she could spare him a single night - at least one of them should get some decent sleep.

As she entered the elevator atrium, she saw A.J. giving a woman a hug and a kiss goodbye. She turned her face quickly, pretending like she hadn’t seen him - like she didn’t know him, but he saw her. The woman retreated, passing closely by Coll as she did so.

Coll looked up once she was gone.

“You’re up.” He said.

“So are you.”

“What’s your reason?”

“Just restless … couldn’t sleep.” She explained quietly. She was about to ask him why he was awake but the answer had already been made pretty clear.

“Where are you off to? Or… where did you come from?” He asked, pulling a baseball hat further down his head, shielding his eyes a bit more.

“I was reading a magazine in the lobby.” She replied, “Are you okay?” Coll asked, narrowing her eyes at him.

He shrugged, “I’ll be fine”

“Okay.” She said. The two of them stood there motionless and silent for what felt like a long time.

“Well, I guess-”

“I just keep doing stupid shit that I know is stupid shit, but I can’t seem to help myself.” He said, interrupting her as she reached for the elevator call button.

She looked around scoping the scene.

“Wanna talk?” She asked.

He looked at her thoughtfully, trying to decide. “I’m not sure you’d understand it.”

“Just try me.” She encouraged. “You don’t know what I have to work with.”

He sighed heavily, adjusting the hat again. “I feel like all I do is spin my wheels. Nothing ever changes my situation.”

“Your situation?” She asked.

“Just feel anxious and … not as happy as I should be.”

“I’m … really sorry you feel that way. I know that sucks.”

“You do?”

She nodded and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m here if you want to talk about it.”

“I’m not sure.”

“Ok.”

“Everyone always says talking about shit makes it better. Talking about it sometimes makes it worse.”

“You’re right. I think what people really should be saying is that talking about it helps you figure out what you are feeling… to process it, figure out what to do… it helps you feel less alone. Doesn’t really solve anything inherently, just makes a resolution easier to achieve or… helps you see the picture a little clearer.”

“Isn’t that sort of terrifying? To see it clearer?”

“Sometimes, sure. Admitting it out loud and then continuing to hear yourself say things you only previously felt makes it real. But then you know what you’re up against. A lot easier to tackle something you can see… easier than swinging around in the dark.”

He was quiet, thinking through what she had said. “You just don’t strike me as someone with problems.”

Coll smirked, “I wouldn’t would I?”

“What?”

“Everyone has something. Most people hide it pretty well. Some of us aren’t hiding it- it’s just so blended in it isn’t really obvious anymore.”

He didn’t know what she was talking about but it made him feel a little more willing to talk.

“I feel like there are only bursts of happiness but nothing lasts.”

She put her hands on her hips and stood up a little straighter.

“Nothing?”

He shrugged, “the shows…”

She smiled, “You love your job.”

“Well, that part.” He took a deep breath before going on, “I’m happy at the shows. At least I’ve got that.”

“And that energy stays with you?”

“I guess it does, yeah. At least for a while. But like, that’s it. I need something that will last, something I just have all the time. Something I can rely on… I guess. I don’t know.” He explained, “And I keep doing stupid bullshit…”

“Like what?”

He gave her a look but said nothing.

“Like….” She held her hand out to the side, “Her?”

“Have you ever heard the phrase sex, drugs, and rock and roll?”

She tilted her head at him, “Okay.”

“Not something you’re too familiar with, huh?”

“Not as they relate to each other but, separately, I know some.”

“With one notable exception.”

“Alright, but I know enough to know…” She bit her lip, “Everyone wants to feel and be happy. And in the process of trying to find that, we all do things that give us, like you said, bursts. But eventually those bursts aren’t enough any more, or they create more problems than they solve because of the things we are doing to feel them. Like, the shows… it’s awesome that you have that. But…”

“But?”

“The other things… aren’t positive experiences for you in the same way. That’s why they are bursts… sleeping around, doing all these things… just bursts. They don’t last because they aren’t meaningful to you. You’re right, I don’t have the experience you have - but I can tell you that there is no real joy in carrying on with things that don’t mean anything to you, even if they feel good in the moment. It doesn’t matter what they are. It’s actually possible that doing those things is keeping you from whatever it is that will really actually fill that void.”

He sighed heavily and dug his hands deeper into his pockets, walking in a small circle, tilting his head back. They were both quiet for a few minutes. She cracked her knuckles as she watched him.

“You are a lot deeper than you let on. So maybe we do have more in common than I originally thought. But the main difference between you and me…” he began, “I’m still looking for my thing and that’s why I don’t have it. You’re just too afraid to have yours.” His words sank into her and felt heavy.

“What?”

“Nick.”

“What about him?”
She asked nervously.

“There’s nothing for you to be scared of. But that’s not the case for me.” he said, “Just admit it.”

“Admit what? You know what we are doing…” She blushed.

“You’re in love with him. It’s bigger than just hooking up. I don’t even know the details, but I know it’s bigger than hooking up.”

She sighed. “Okay, fine. yeah. I’m in love with him. I haven’t even told him that though.”

“Exactly.”

She narrowed her eyes at him, “You think I’m afraid to tell him that?”

“Well, what other reason could you have for not telling him?”

“I thought we were talking about you, not me.”

“The point is, he’s your thing right? He’s your meaningful thing… the reason you feel secure and happy. All you have to do is say it. I’ve still got to find it.”

She hung her head, “Okay, so, yes. Nick makes me feel… amazing.” Her pulse quickened as she thought back to the night before, her fingers intertwined with Nick’s, his lips on her skin. She shivered. “And I love that. And I think I make him feel good, too, which i also love. And that is … meaningful. I do want to hold on to that. But I’m not… afraid. I’m just… waiting.”

“But why?”

She felt dizzy, maybe she was afraid but she was telling herself she was being cautious.

“You don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

“Neither do you. You don’t have to find everything that’s meant for you. Some of it will just… show up.”

“I’m not good at being patient.”

“I think you are selling yourself short a lot here.”

“Same to you.”

“How so?”

“You THINK you make him feel good…?”

She felt like crying but maintained her composure. “You have to admit this is sort of an intimidating situation I'm in…”

“Colleen,” He looked at her, “The other day he said something about wanting to live a life of purpose, not just live the consequences of things he’s done…”

“He did?”

“You think you have nothing to do with that?”

She had no idea.

“Let yourself see it.” It was exactly what she had said to Nick.

“Okay to be fair though, I didn’t know that happened.”

“I know he’s a bozo, but… not about you. Not about the life that has you in it.”

It means something.

“Well, someday you’ll be not a bozo about someone, too.”

He shrugged, “He does give me a little bit of hope, I have to say.”

She smiled softly at him, “That’s good.”

They were both quiet again, each of them lost in their own thoughts for a moment.

“I’m surprised you didn’t go find Nick… when you couldn’t sleep.” He said randomly, breaking the silence between them

She tilted her head at him with a smile, “I figured one of us should sleep tonight at least.”

A.J. nodded.

“Still surprising?”

“Yeah.” He laughed.

“I thought about it.” She admitted, tucking some hair behind her ear.

“I guess i’m glad you didn’t.”

She pursed her lips. “I know this just… happened.” she motioned widely with her hands, “But if you ever want to talk, you can just let me know. I know you think - or at least, you thought - I wouldn’t relate, but in some small but significant way I think I did. Plus, i have years of experience talking people out of their storms.” She said quietly.

“You do?”

She nodded. “I’m no expert, but, i’ve learned a lot.”

He looked at her curiously as she reached again for the elevator button.

“I think i’m ready for bed now.” She said.



It was not even six o’clock the next morning when someone knocked on Coll’s door. Becka looked at her in the mirror as they were both getting ready in the bathroom. They had a few hours of bus travel ahead of them that day and Coll had just finished giving Becka the run-down on what to expect.

“Would you believe this is actually very normal? First week I was here someone was at my door, I swear like, every hour.” Coll said as she went to see who was knocking.

She smiled when she opened the door to see Nick standing there.

He felt the familiar feeling of relief upon seeing her there, similar, he knew, to that first night in Germany but different now. Now, he felt like he could rely on it. He could rely on her. She should know.

“Good morning.” She said sweetly, barely finishing before he was kissing her.

“Hi.” he whispered as he paused from kissing her briefly.

“How was your night?” She asked him.

“Lonely.” He said quickly before kissing her again, savoring the opportunity to do so, unsure what the rest of the day might bring that would keep him from having more chances.

“Did you sleep well at least?”

“Not really enough to make it worth it.”

“Actually, I didn’t either.” She explained, thinking back to several hours earlier, climbing back into bed with Becka around 2:40 after saying goodnight to A.J. “Very restless.”

“So we may as well stick to what’s fun I guess.” He said smirking at her. “Anyway, Howie’s bus is busted, he’s gunna ride with me. You two wanna come?”

“Obviously.” She said, feeling excited about the prospect of spending that time with him. “What’s wrong with his bus?”

“Something with the AC.”

“Ahh, problematic.”

“Good morning, Carter,” Becka said as she emerged from behind Coll.

“Hey Beck.” he waved.

“She’s been prepped for her first day of touring,” Coll explained.

“I need coffee asap though,” Becka added. “Breakfast?”

“Let’s roll.” Nick smiled.

Chapter 35 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Coll woke up disoriented on the lounge couch. She looked around the immediate area and began to remember what had happened.

“Shit.” She whispered to herself.

She sat up on the couch and looked around. The lounge was quiet, she realized, and empty except for Billy who was sitting in a chair by the door with his feet propped up on a crate, watching some sporting event on a very tiny tv.

“Billy?” She asked. The way her body still felt so heavy, she knew she had been deep asleep for a while.

He looked over at her and smiled, “did I wake you?”

She couldn’t tell if he was joking.

“What time is it?”

“About 9:30.”

“Holy shit.”

He laughed as she pressed her hand into her forehead and then ran her hand over her face. She touched the top of her head and smoothed her hair a bit mindlessly. “They thought about waking you. Leighanne convinced them to let you sleep.” He said, “she saved you some dinner.” He pointed to a covered dish on a table diagonal from her.

She looked between him and the table for a moment before taking a deep breath and swinging her legs off the side of the couch to stand up.

9:30… i slept for… four hours or more? Holy shit.

“You must have been really tired.”

“Yeah, wow... I slept through dinner? All that commotion?”

He laughed and returned his attention to the game, “That is pretty impressive. They didn’t even pull any pranks on you!”

She giggled as she moved in the direction of the table. She lifted the cover to see what Leighanne had saved for her and smiled at her selection.

“Oh she’s good.”

Coll left the plate and Billy briefly and retreated to the nearest restroom to wash her face off. Still amazed she slept so long, she looked her features over in the mirror.

For as much as she knew she needed that sleep she just got, she also knew this threw her schedule off again.

Her eyes were still a little puffy from sleep and her ponytail was really sloppy.

She thought back to that night in Spain and wearing Andrea’s clothes and the perfect ponytail… the old woman who said she could tell they were in love. It filled her body up with anticipation. She closed her eyes and leaned over the sink, pressing into her palms.

“You don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

She shook her head free of the thoughts and turned to return to the lounge without fixing her hair.

As she made her way through the plate of food Leighanne left for her she made small talk with Billy, and before she was even done eating, everyone was arriving back from the show.

Leighanne and Becka arrived first, asked her how she was feeling and how her nap was.

Soon after, the guys arrived back to the lounge as well.

“Sleeping beauty, how do you feel?” Kevin asked.

“You weren’t joking about being tired.” Brian laughed as he patted her on her head.

“Are you okay for real?” Nick asked with a concerned smile, leaning over the table across from her.

“I can’t believe I slept through everything.... but yeah I feel fine now.” She giggled as Becka approached across the table.

Becka and Nick looked at each other each of them thinking back to their conversation earlier


-- “why are you acting surprised? You’re the one who kept her up all night.” Becka asked, looking at Nick.

“She was with you all night!”

“Don’t play me, Carter.”

He looked at her and laughed, “I’m not??”

Becka narrowed her eyes at him. “Well she went somewhere in the middle of the night.”

Nick’s stomach dropped. “What?”

“You seriously weren’t with her? You two didn’t sneak off somewhere?”

“No. I seriously went to my room took a shower and went to bed. I didn’t see her at all.”

--

“Loving this hair situation.” Leighanne giggled as she touched Coll’s ponytail.

Coll blushed and her eyes met Nick’s again. He smiled shyly at her and everyone began about their regular after show business.

“You look really cute.” He said.


Upon arriving back at the hotel, Howie mentioned he was going to get a drink at the bar and several members of their group decided to join him. Becka declined mentioning that her jet lag was catching up to her, but encouraged Coll to go if she wanted to.

“Go have fun! There is no possible way you could even be tired right now.”

“No I’m going back up with you. I want to get back on a normal schedule.”

“Alright, whatever you think.” Becka smiled as Nick came over to them.

“We are going to go upstairs.” Coll said before he could ask.

“I’ll walk with you.” He nodded.

The three of them, along with Angela and Q, rode the elevator up to their floors together and again, Becka took the key from Coll to get a head start, leaving them to say goodnight to each other.

Nick and Coll lingered in the hallway outside his door saying goodnight for as long as possible until there was a silence. Nick moved in closer to her.

“Stay with me tonight.” He said quietly, slipping his hand into hers.

“You know I want to.”

“I want you to, too.”

“I don’t want to leave Becka alone, and I really need to get back on some kind of normal sleep schedule. If I’m able to sleep tonight then-” She paused, noticing him watching her closely. Not just her face but her whole body. She felt warm.

He smiled softly at her running his hand up her arm. “But it’s so lonely.”

“Tomorrow night, I promise.” She whispered.

“That’s so long from now.” His other hand crept up her neck and he was nuzzling his face against hers.

“You’ll be okay.” She said quickly before he started kissing her softly.

“Well,” He began, pulling back slightly to look at her, “if you change your mind…” he smiled and something about the look on his face ignited a fire inside of her. She had been attracted to him, turned on by him, enchanted by him and drawn to him before but this was different, this was a different intensity. Her spine tingled and her eyelids felt heavy.

“I-“

“It’s whatever you want.” He said as he placed his hand on her cheek, looking from her eyes to her lips and giving her the chills.

He kissed her again, slowly and deeply and she wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“Nick.”

“Yeah?”

Her mind went blank, she didn’t know what to say.

She ran her hand through her hair nervously and took a deep breath. “Sleep well.” She said and turned to leave him at his door.




Coll showered and got into bed with Becka who was half asleep already.

“By the way… Where did you go last night? Originally I thought to Nick but he said no.”

“Sorry i woke you. I tried to be as quiet as possible.”

“No, it’s fine.”

“I just wandered around for a while then I was talking to A.J.” She explained.

“Ohhh.” Becka yawned, “Okay tell me more tomorrow.”

“Goodnight sleepyhead.” Coll said and flipped the light off. She remained sitting upright against the headboard while Becka drifted off into a deep sleep.

Her mind was racing and she tried to settle herself but there were so many things to consider. And most of them delighted her.

She thought about being on a beach with Nick - maybe in Florida, spending the day between the sand and the sea and being undisturbed by the rest of the world.

She thought of him driving with her in the passenger seat singing along with the radio, to taking silly photos together… more sneaking off away from everyone.

She thought about Brian and the corridor of life.

She thought about the old woman at the restaurant.

She thought about A.J. and their conversation the night before.

She thought about the photo of them in Spain.

She thought about becka and trusting herself and Bunny’s, and Florida and Boston and sex and running her hands through his hair and the bag and the fountain and she thought about his face that first night in Germany. Why did he seem so relieved?

She thought about calling him at the end of a long library session, him keeping her a secret to the fans … or not. Either one worked.

She imagined them making big decisions together…. him in her life and her in his.

She thought about handing him everything and trusting him with it.

All in.

She thought about the way he made her feel that night in the hallway - like her entire body was craving his.

She slid into a laying position and closed her eyes, willed herself to feel sleepy and tried her very best to settle the thoughts of him.

It didn’t work. The intensity he left her with had remained and the sleep she got earlier was making this harder now.

She wanted him. And she wanted him to know it.

Her eyes were wide, staring straight ahead blankly into the darkness. Her heart was pounding.

“If it’s meant to be you can’t screw it up.”

She had to tell him.

She laid there fully awake and a little bit terrified, but so desperately wanting to see him.

Finally she worked up the courage to put her feet on the floor... slowly she made the choice to stand up and go to Nick and tell him everything. Tell him everything.


Quickly she moved into action before she could change her mind. She moved quickly to the door of the suite and out to the hallway, being careful to be as quiet as possible as she pulled it closed behind her.

The steps she took down the hall to Nick’s room were quick and gentle, truly sneaking away to him.

She stood there hesitant for a few minutes cracking her knuckles and messing with her hair on the hall side of his door. She knew that these words had to be spoken but that once they were out there was no going back. But she didn’t want to go back.

Standing there, she told herself she would figure out how to navigate it if he seemed freaked out or obligated. She was so consumed by the need to tell him something real that the concerns she had all along about things she had only projected on him were taking a backseat now.

She pressed her fingers into her forehead, took a deep breath as she looked at the patterned carpet under feet, she hadn’t even bothered putting her shoes on. She closed her eyes briefly.

Finally she knocked.

Her body felt like it was moving in slow motion with a dull ache of anticipation weighing her movements down.

Her stomach didn’t know where it belonged in her body and her heart was pounding.

He opened the door and he smiled at her. She was frozen in place for a moment before she entered his room quickly.

“Nick, I just-“ she began but he cut her off, quickly reaching for her and pulling her in for a kiss that lasted anywhere between fifteen seconds and an hour - she had no idea. Time essentially had no place in her life when she was with him, she noticed. His mouth on hers was too good, a massive distraction from everything else. So good, it made everything else seem small and insignificant, it was all consuming.

He was excited to be kissing her again, after accepting that he wouldn’t get to tonight.

“Were you going to say something?” He asked as he pulled away from her briefly.

His face was still so close to hers, his lips grazed hers as he spoke and she was sure she would explode. Her body felt hollow and heavy at the same time. She was holding her breath. The floor felt like it was tilting under her
She searched his face and tried to bring the courage back up. She shook her head, she couldn’t think clearly, everything was foggy. “I just-“ she licked her lips. She smiled, say it. Just say it. Nick, I’m in love with you. Just say it. “Nick… I’m …” Shit. “I love…”

His eyes were wide, his body tensed.

Her mind went blank. “I love kissing you.” Dammit

He smiled and brought his hands to her jaw, and began to kiss her again, slower this time and deeper. Too deep for not talking about how deep it was, too deep for ever going back to not kissing him. Her mind was in a race against her body - one of them was going to win. Her instincts were screaming, running for an answer, but her body was running fast toward more of him, not caring what it meant because it felt so good. She felt some tears in her eyes and tried to blink them away but he noticed.

“Are you crying?”

“No…?”

He smirked at her, “you always do that.”

“Do what?”

“When you don’t wanna tell the truth so you say something else but you say it like .. will they buy this?”

“I do not…” She hung her head, hiding her smile, knowing for sure that is exactly what she always did.

“You do. It’s cute.”

He knew her - she felt it. It felt right. It made her dizzy.

She looked him in the eye, “I just…” She couldn’t think. His eyes staring into her was destroying her. There was nothing left, she couldn’t think. “Happy,” she breathed.

His lips landed on her cheek, the feathery touch sending a chill through her body.

“Me too,” He said quietly before putting his mouth on her cheek, then her neck. She didn’t know what to do, her body felt like it didn’t belong to her, she felt him moving her closer to his bed and guiding her back so she was laying on it.

“Nick.” She said quickly as he kissed her neck.

“Coll.” He took a deep breath, “I-“ Tell her. But only if you can do it the right way. “I love-” his mouth felt dry. She was watching him and he lost his nerve. “I love kissing you too.” pathetic.

She was simultaneously annoyed and in ecstasy, she didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear but she loved it anyway.

“Do you still feel like you want more?” She asked quietly.

“Of course.”

“... me too.”

He slid his hand under her pajama top and across her stomach, then around her back, pressing his face into the curve between her neck and shoulder as he did. She laid there quietly indulging in the feel of his hands on her skin. She thought about the fans and how many other women he could be with right now but he was with her. He wanted her.

He began working her top off by unbuttoning it. She looked at him and sat up a bit so he could slip it off her body entirely. He traced a line with his finger tip from her bare shoulder to her wrist and she fell into a deep bliss, her eyes closed and her head tilted back.

While he wondered how much of this she experienced with other people she thought about how he was better at it than anyone.

He kissed her jaw and her neck and made his way down to her collarbone as his hands found hers and he laced their fingers together on either side of her body briefly.

He looked back at her, she was happy, he could tell. But he hated that anyone else might have ever had more of her than he had… and he knew she might feel the same way about him.

“Is this okay?” he asked.

She nodded.

He let her hands go and began using them to slip the straps of her bra over her shoulders kissing the spot they were and working his hands around to the clasp.

She felt her body relax.

He easily unhooked her bra and removed it. The stray light in his room caught her curves and he felt himself falling deeper into her.

“You are so perfect.” He whispered as he began kissing across her newly exposed skin, her hands settled on his shoulders and in his hair and she let him do whatever he wanted.

His mouth was moving so slowly across her skin, savoring every inch of it. Her body was on fire and she felt so many things it was hard to concentrate on any of them.

“I was really trying to be okay with leaving you alone tonight.” He said. “But I’d rather sleep next to you.”

The teetering was so severe.

She shook her head, “I don’t want to be left alone.”

“You'll never really be alone.”

A wave of pure joy rushed through her, for all the things she had thought to say to him or that he might say to her - what he was actually saying was wonderful.

“What?” She asked breathlessly.

“You are incredible.” He replied, not really answering her, as his lips landed on hers again.

They spent the next hour in near silence, with his mouth all over her, her hands in his hair, his body on top of hers… there wasn’t anything to talk about. One tantalizing thing led to another, from her lips to her jaw and across her collarbone, to the center of her chest and the curve of her breasts.

Now she was laying nearly naked under a sheet, her body turned on its side, facing him, both of her arms piled under her head.

He smiled at her, reaching over to push some hair over her shoulder.

Her eyes fell darker as he slid closer to her, draping his arm across her waist.

“You are so gorgeous.”

She closed her eyes and hid her face in her arm.

“What?”

Her heart was racing.

“Nick…” she looked back to him and reached out to touch his arm.

“Yeah.”

She remembered why she came to him in the first place and her belly felt nervous. So much had happened since then - he made her feel even more things she wanted him to know about but had no idea how to articulate. And she wasn’t sure now was the best time for it anymore… she wanted to enjoy it without any risk of throwing things off. But she knew that if she was truly committed to going all in, telling him was part of that. but maybe not right now.

“Coll.” He said before she could begin.

She was silent, watching him talk.

do better.

“I want to be something.”

“What do you mean?”

“I want you to have perfect things. You deserve perfect things.”

She connected his two statements and understood them.

“I want to have things that are perfect for me… which has nothing to do with being perfect at all.”

He felt a tiny explosion inside his body and he knew he’d never love anyone else the way he loved her.

He leaned in and kissed her again, softly.

His mind wandered back to Italy, the fountain and the way she had looked at him. He had never experienced anything like her before.

“So much has happened.” She whispered.

He nodded. “I’m really glad it did.”

It punched the air out of her lungs, his voice was so sweet and sincere and she knew his feelings for her were unquestionably the same as hers.
“Nick, I don’t want to go back.”

“Stay here.”

“I mean to before. Before … all of this.”

“I don’t want to either.”

Chapter 36 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

After four knocks on the suite door, Becka finally emerged to let Coll in. It was still early, Nick and the guys had just left for some television appearances and wouldn’t be back until later in the day for the concert that night.

“Hey,” Coll said casually. “Sorry, didn’t bring my key with me when I left.”

“Heyyy!” Becka smirked, still very sleepy looking but very interested. “Did you take anything when you left?” She asked, looking at Coll’s bare feet.

“No. I was in a rush.” Coll mumbled as she moved into the suite and quickly made her way to the bed.

“Oh. So… where’d ya go?” Becka asked as she closed the door.

“Take a wild guess.” Coll said as she got into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin.

“Now I need to sleep for real. If you want to go out we can I just need a couple hours. It’s still early anyway.” She explained as she glanced at the clock: 06:07.

Becka laughed lightly, “I am fine. But really what happened?”

Coll shook her head and covered her face with her hands. “I couldn’t sleep. Of course I couldn’t sleep. I went to Nick’s room to tell him everything. To tell him I’m in love with him and ... everything.”

Becka’s eye got wide. “Oh my god. What did he say?”

“No, I mean... that’s what I went there for. That’s not what happened.”

“You didn’t tell him?”

She shook her head.

“What?? Why not?”

“I got … distracted.”

“Oh.”

“Becka, I am so, so deep in this. But he has no idea.”

“I’m sure he has some idea...”

“Maybe a little after last night.”

“Okay so what happened?” She asked as she sat on the edge of the bed.

“It involved very little clothing.” Coll said matter of factly.

“I’m listening.” She sat up a little straighter.

“I told him I wanted more and that I didn’t want to go back and that he’s amazing and…” She paused, thinking back to his mouth all over her skin. She swallowed hard, “God, it was so good.” She said, remembering everything she felt the night before.

Becka looked at her with a soft smile and her eyebrows raised.

“What?” Coll asked.

“No, nothing. Go on.”

“It’s okay, you can say whatever you want.” Coll said as she adjusted the pillow under her head.

Becka sighed, “What changed your mind about wanting to tell him?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. I was laying here, wide awake because I took that four hour nap… and I just felt like I had to tell him something real, my whole thing about him feeling obligated and responsible is me projecting that onto him. I just wanted to say something real.” She explained, “And I just kept thinking about everything… everything that’s happened, everything that everyone has said…”

Becka nodded, thinking it over briefly, “Well, you didn’t tell him you’re in love with him but it sounds like you actually did tell him some real things… which is what you wanted.”

“What do you mean?

“You told him you wanted more…”

“I did.”

“That’s real.”

Coll nodded, “I really do feel like this is all mutual, I just really, really want to know for sure where he stands.”

“Of course.” Becka said quietly, tracing a shape on the comforter with her finger, trying her very best to listen and not give advice.

“We are both beating around the bush.” Coll sighed, “I started to say it… but what I ended up with was ‘i love kissing you’ - which is also real but, epically lame to say.”

Becka giggled, “I think that’s endearing.”

Coll pressed her hand into her forehead, “He said some things, too.”

“Like?”

“He said he wanted to be someone and that he wanted me to have perfect things. And I understood that … what that really means.”

Becka smiled, “He wants to be perfect because that’s what you deserve and he doesn’t think he is.”

“Right. He is playing it safe until he’s sure he can give me what he knows I want. I’m positive that is what’s happening. He told me in Spain … he doesn’t want to do anything he isn’t sure about.”

“No, I get it. I get why he is doing that.”

“Right.”

“So now you’re back to waiting, too.”

“I trust him. I trust that he is going to tell me what he wants me to know when he is ready for me to know it.” She resolved, “that’s what I’m sticking with.”

Becka was quiet for a moment, “Okay, then we are trusting him.” She nodded.

“Also, I told him that ‘perfect for me’ has nothing to do with being perfect at all. Should I have elaborated?”

“How so?”

“By telling him he’s perfect for me!” She stated, frustration in her voice.

“Well, I think the implication was there, Coll.” She giggled.

“I know, I know.” She closed her eyes briefly, “I have to just… stick with that. I’m sticking with that.”

“Okay.”

“I just get confused or, like, I don’t know… when I think about it too much or think about what everyone has told me about it.”

“Honestly, you probably need to stop talking about it so much with everyone else, it IS confusing you. Too much input. But just so I understand… I know what I’ve said, I know what Brian has said… and Angela. Who else is giving you advice?”

“Brian has actually never given me advice. He’s given me ... proverbs.” She laughed. “That long corridor of life thing was ... really unexpectedly deep.”

“I know, I know, but who else?”

“A.J.”

“What did A.J. say?”

“He said I have nothing to be afraid of.”

Becka narrowed her eyes. “With Nick?

Coll nodded. “With telling him. Specifically with telling him that I’m in love with him. But, maybe … all of it. I don’t know. I think he was frustrated.”

Beck sighed heavily as she stood up and rounded the corner of the bed before getting back into it. She reminded herself that the best thing she could do for Coll was support her - not try to guide her to any other decisions, just support the ones she already made. But she still has options.

“Well, you can always change your mind. There’s always time.”

“Not much.”

Becka looked at her curiously.

“After you leave, I have eight days til my flight back to Boston.”



After three live TV interviews during which Nick participated at the absolute bare minimum, Jen decided it was time to find out why.

Before she could get to the dressing room, the guys were already taking care of it for her.

The four of them were speaking around him as he sat with his head in his hand.

“I don’t care that you’re quite, honestly. I get it - there’s a lot going on.” Howie stated.

“I don’t care either I just want to know what’s up.”

“Are you planning on telling her how you feel any time soon, or…?” A.J. asked.

“Oh, this is a Coll thing?”

“You haven’t told her?”

Brian went into defense mode. “Guys, come on…”

“Nick- dude, this is crazy. The two of you are dense!” A.J. exclaimed, “You can’t drag this on with her.”

“Guys don’t bug him.” Brian pleaded.

“I’m just trying to find out what’s going on.” Kevin said cooly.

“He’s in love with her but he won’t tell her.” A.J. explained.

“Dude!” Nick exclaimed.

“It’s true.”

“Why don’t you want to tell her?” Kevin asked.

Nick sat there quietly, bent over his knees, squeezing the bridge of his nose.

“She’s a virgin.”

“That’s why?”

“That’s really kind of personal, I-” Brian tried to speak but was overrun.

“She told us.” Howie defended.

“She was really open about it, actually.” A.J. added. “Nick, dude how long has it been…?”

“Guys!” Brian yelled, “Don’t be disrespectful.”

“Rok, chill. She totally did not hide it at all, she spoke about it for a while with me.” A.J. explained.

“She did?” Kevin asked.

“Yeah, she was really chill about it. She wasn’t shy at all.”

“I like her, she’s good for you.” Howie nodded in Nick’s direction as Nick lifted his gaze to look at them.

“Yeah, if you screw this up we are getting rid of you and keeping her.” Kevin laughed.

“Ideally, we can keep both.” Brian mentioned.

A.J. adjusted his sunglasses, “She’s super hot, dude.”

“Guys.” Brian sighed, “Come on, she’s-”

“Maybe he just needs a little encouragement.” Kevin said, interrupting Brian again.

Brian sighed heavily and looked at Nick who just shook his head.

Kevin looked between Nick and Brian for a minute before continuing, “Are you sleeping with her?” Kevin asked quietly.

“No, but he wants to be.” A.J. interjected.

“J…” Nick lamented.

“I don’t blame you or anything.” A.J. shrugged, “She’s gorgeous. A little mysterious though...”

“Dude.” Brian glared at him.

“When are you going to talk about the fact that she’s leaving? You’re not seriously going to pull your same usual shit with her, are you?”

“What day is she leaving?”

“Yeah, how much time do you have?”

“I don’t want to say anything until I’m sure.” Nick finally said. Brian perked up a bit having heard it.

“Sure about what?” Howie asked.

“Oh you’re sure...”

“I mean - sure I can do it.” He said sadly.

“Do what?” Brian asked, anxious to know more.

“Do everything the right way. Give her what she wants, the way she wants it.”

She was right.

Brian sat there thinking back to what Coll said that night after Leighanne’s birthday. The fact that Coll understood Nick before he did and that she was exactly right about it surprised him enough that he was silent in his contemplation.

“And I don’t know what I would even say at this point or when.. or how…”

“I do!” Howie raised his hand. “How about… Colleen, I’m in love with you…?”

“Or a more casual, ‘Collypop, I’m in love with you’ whatever...” Brian said happily, unable to stay out of it, excited by the very real prospect of this working out for the two of them.

“I don’t want to say anything unless I know for sure I can follow through.” Nick explained, quickly realizing he had already said things to her that he had no fear of following through on. “This doesn’t have to be a secret.”

“Why couldn’t you?”

“Tour, school...”

“That’s an excuse and you know it. That’s logistics.” Kevin began.

“First of all, if that was true, why are you in the predicament you’re in with Kristen? And also… cover what?”

“Hey don’t bring Kristen into this! You’re scared because you don’t want to mess it up.”

“Is that so horrible?”

“What would mess it up is you not telling her and pulling your same usual shit. And-“ A.J. began but was interrupted.

“Nick,” Brian Stood up from the chair he was sitting in, before Nick could respond, “You love her. We all know that. You’ve never had that before - it’s pretty obvious this is something different. You can’t compare it- don’t use the other experiences to compare it - it’s totally different. You’ve already done everything different with her and she-”

“Nick!” Jen’s voice came across the room and everyone got quiet and looked at her, having not noticed her standing there for the past several minutes. “A minute please?”

The four of them stood quietly as Nick got to his feet and followed her to the hall.

“Details.” She said as she leaned against a wall, clutching a padfolio to her chest.

He shrugged.

Jen smiled, “Coll is wonderful. I actually really like her. I don’t share ethernet information with just anyone... I’m happy for you.”

“But?”

“But, I need you to be on when you’re on. I know, you’re tired and busy, and in puppy love which is super cute and all of that… but, that’s what I need.”

“I know.” He nodded.

“Don’t make me pull out the big guns…” She looked at him with her eyes wide. He shook his head with a small smiled. “So what are we going to do?” She asked.

She watched as he fidgeted, running his hand through his hair.

“Why is everyone involved in this?” He asked even though he already knew that everyone was always involved in everything.

“Aside from the fact that we are all living on top of each other and it’s unavoidable, I’m pretty sure it’s because of what everyone said in there… she’s good for you and because everyone can see the impact.” She smiled as she backed away from him. “You don’t have anything to be afraid of.” She turned and continued walking, leaving him there alone as people went about their business around him.

Chapter 37 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

The day went on, Nick remained distracted though most of it was untelevised. The guys continued to hassle him when they had the chance and fifteen hours after Becka had gotten back into bed with Coll, everyone was in VIP at a swanky Spanish night club for a night of fun.

Despite how long of a day it had been, energy was generally high. Everyone had their own reason for it.

Becka was returning to the bar when she caught a glimpse of Nick smiling at Coll as she leaned into him. His hand slid up her back and she closed her eyes and melted into him, a smile plastered across her face. He was holding his drink in the other hand, someone bumped into it, he was unbothered. They were in their own world. Coll looked up at him, said something and they both laughed. Becka smiled to herself while her stomach knotted up with a starkly unfamiliar anxiety. She continued her way back toward them anyway.

“Can I borrow her for a minute?” Becka asked sweetly but loudly so they could hear as she approached them.

“Beckaaaa.” Coll sang, “where were you?”

Nick laughed as he and Becka made eye contact. “I’m gunna go get another drink.” Nick said, “either of you want anything?”

“I do!” Coll said, “another please.” She handed him her almost empty glass and kissed him on the cheek quickly before he walked away with it.

“Becka-“

“Colleen,” Becka wrapped her arm around Coll’s waist, “you are so beautiful and I’m so glad you are so happy.”

“Awh Beck-“

“Seriously,” Becka said, “I’m so happy for you.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.” Becka kissed her on the cheek. “I hope he knows how lucky he is.” Becka smiled as she squeezed Coll’s arm gently.

Coll shrugged, “I’m not rushing him.” She said even though it was out of place.

“I know.” Becka appeased her, knowing she was at peak tipsiness.

“I want him so bad though.” She wrinkled her nose as she leaned closer into Becka’s ear

Becka laughed, “someday, Colleen.”

“He is so beautiful.” Coll said just loud enough that Becka could hear it. “He is everything.”

Her stomach lurched up into her throat, “He might be, yeah.” Becka agreed.

“He doesn’t know it but… he is.”

“Well, I hope he knows I’ll kill him if he hurts you.”

“You worry too much!” Coll moved to stand in front of Becka, snaking her arm around her neck, pulling her in to speak into to her ear again as the music played loudly around them. “He will hurt me someday. It’s inevitable. But please don’t kill him if he does. I can stand a little hurt. He’s my soulmate.”

She knew Coll was drunk but it still hit her hard. She hung her head and laughed nervously.

“We are all going to fuck up and do stupid shit and hurt each other. When it happens though we are all going to lean on you so… just be ready.”

“Okay, sure.” Becka brushed it off.

“I know you are trying to stay out of it.” Coll sighed, tucking some hair behind her ear, her eyes floating around the room.

Becka hung her head.

“But if you think I’m wrong, I hope you’ll tell me.”

“I don’t think you are wrong about anything.”
“I hope that if you think I’m going to fuck it up, you’d let me know.”

Becka caught Coll’s eye and the vision of Nick’s hand sliding up her back as Coll leaned into him flashed in her memory. “You couldn’t.”

“Just please don’t withhold everything. Please,” Coll pleaded.

“I’m not. I wouldn’t. You know I can never really lay the full force of clinical process on you.” Becka said with a laugh. “Listen, I’m going to go get some air outside.”

“Are you okay?” Coll asked as Nick approached them again, holding a short glass out to Coll.

“I’m fine, just warm. I’ll see you in a bit.” She smiled casually as she walked away from them.

Coll watched as Becka navigated through the crowd and away from her as Nick’s available hand slipped into hers.


Becka maneuvered her way to an exit and pushed the heavy door open with both hands, a welcome rush of fresh air hit her skin as she did so.

She walked a few hundred paces away from the building to a curb on the edge of the back parking lot where she took a seat and curled her knees into her chest, letting her head hang above them.

She could feel the tears in her eyes and didn’t fight them off as she got caught up in thoughts of Nick and Coll and her parents and Connecticut and Florida and soulmates for several minutes before she heard a voice break into the silence around her.

“Hey, are you okay?” Howie asked as he walked over to her.

Becka looked up to confirm it was his voice she heard. “Hey. Yeah. I’ll be fine.” She said quietly, wiping a tear off her face as inconspicuously as possible.

Howie looked around, unsure what to do but positive that Becka had been crying.

“Do you want me to go get Coll for you?”

Becka snorted, “No.” Realizing that might come across rather harsh, she went on, “Thank you for offering but, no.”

“Well,” He inhaled deeply, “I guess you’re stuck with me then.” He said and sat down next to her.

She looked at him curiously. “Why are you even out here?”

“I had to call someone. Time zones…” He explained, “You don’t have to tell me.” He began, stretching his legs out in front of him and leaning into his palms behind him. “But I know enough to know that no woman sits alone outside crying, while all her friends are inside partying for no reason. So unless you tell me you actually want to be alone…”

She wasn’t sure what it meant but she was looking at him and he seemed genuine.

“Alright.” She said. “You are welcome to stay.” She smiled softly at him, “Not sure why you would, but…”

“Well, you’ve already ruined my good time, Becka.” He smiled, “How could i go back in there and have fun knowing you’re out here… sulking…?”

She laughed lightly and shrugged at him, and brushed another stray tear off her cheek.

“But I can commiserate with you.” He said.

She pursed her lips at him, “We’ll see.”

They sat there in silence for several minutes before Becka began to talk. “I just sort of realized, like,...” She brushed her hands together slowly, looking into the dark distance. “No one is ever going to love me the way Nick loves my sister.” She said breaking the silence they had been sitting in, “and I’m not sure I’ll ever love anyone the way she loves him either, actually.” She looked at him, checking his reaction.

“Why do you think so?” He asked curiously, his eyebrows furrowed.

He seemed calm but surprised; she went on. “I don’t think it. I know it… and worst of all I understand why.” She could feel the tears in her eyes again.

Howie looked at her thoughtfully, unsure what to say.

Becka pushed her hand through her hair aggressively, letting the short chunks fall out of place. “Seriously, you know what I mean. The way he looks at her... don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for her, of course. Coll being happy is something I truly always want. Plus, I love Nick, so I’m happy for me too. If he’s gunna be around awhile, I’m glad to like him.” She smiled, “But you can just see it. They’re different. But yeah... The way he was looking at her earlier... no one will ever look at me like that.” She said as a few tears gathered in her eyes. “In his world, she’s it. You can tell.”

Howie inhaled deeply, that was true, the guys had discussed it several times, including that afternoon while Nick was in the hall with Jen, marveling mostly at how Coll seemed to create an environment for Nick that he could be more present in. He wasn’t waiting on someone else to screw him over, he wasn’t suspicious of her. He just saw her and she made him better. She was patient, and he wasn’t acting recklessly.

“Coll makes him better. She makes sense of him, I guess. Why couldn’t you do that for someone?”

“It’s not that I couldn’t …” She began, tugging at her hair, “it’s that they won’t stick around long enough to find out.”

“You mean...”

“God, it’s so frustrating.” She hung her head, “I’m supposed to know better. I’m sorry, this is embarrassing…” She sniffled. “I barely know you, I shouldn’t be-”

“Don’t be embarrassed.”

She turned her head to look at him, “I mean, I guess you did stay.”

He smiled. “I wanted to.”

“You know him, probably better than most people. You know this - he wants her in his life. Like, she belongs there. He feels like she belongs there. No one wants me in their life like that because…” She paused, the tears trickling out of her eyes again, “No one wants me in their life like that because it comes with so much baggage. The way I am... “ She knew she shouldn’t be spewing all of this on him. But he sat down… She shook her head sadly, the frustration with herself building up, “no one could love me like that. I’m not pure and perfect and sensitive and patient. I have real problems. I’ve been through so much shit. I have trauma, it makes me hard. It makes me difficult to get close to. No one is ever going to stick it out for me to find out. Most people get scared off.”

He had no idea what she was referring to but knew this wasn’t the time to ask. “Well honestly, that’s Nick.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nick has shit and baggage and weirdness and lord knows he is difficult… but Coll is sticking it out for him.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Shit is shit, no doubt and we all have it - but mine is … wild. Most people don’t have any reference point for it. But you’re right I guess. Are there any guys out there as sensitive and perfect as Coll is though?”

Howie laughed lightly at her question.

“Yeah. They’re out there.” He shook his head, “I think you’d be surprised.” He said.

She grinned, “Maybe. But I doubt it.”

“I really do think - whether it looks like a love song or not - there is someone for everyone.” Howie smiled, “I do believe in true love. If Nick and Coll have that then I’m happy for them. I believe you can have it too regardless of whatever you think is different or difficult about you.”

She thought it over, turning to face him. “I know you’re just being polite - you don’t have to deal with this.”

“I’m being polite but I also actually care.”

She looked at him curiously.

“It sounds like you have a lot to say but you think no one wants to hear it…”

Becka took a deep breath, “People want to hear it." She sighed heavily, "They just don’t like what it is after they’ve heard it. I already know that. I’ve already dealt with my shit. I will deal with my shit forever, and that’s okay. But someone else comes into it and they have to deal with it now too. I’m fine with it but they can’t believe that, so they get scared off. Because how could someone truly be fine after all of that? After everything, I’ve been through? So they have to be fine with it and me and trust me all at once. I’m telling you, people get scared off.”

“What about someone with mutual shit?”

She tilted her head back and laughed, “No. Lord, I truly hope not. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

They were both quiet for a few minutes.

“It’s interesting though,” Becka began, “You didn’t ask.”

“Ask what?”

“What I’m talking about.”

“You said it scares people off.” He began, “I’m not scared to know it. I just figured if I know you better first, it’ll be harder to get scared off.”

Taken aback, she looked at him suspiciously, “You have a twisted sister or something?”

He smiled, “You could say that.”

She laughed, “how many sisters do you have?” She couldn’t remember what she had read.

He inhaled sharply, it was a question he hadn’t sorted out the right answer to yet. “Two.”

“Are they best friends?”

“Of course.”


Becka and Howie returned to the party and Becka slipped through the crowd to find Coll. Howie followed closely behind.

“Oh my god, are you okay??” Coll asked.

“I’m fine!”

“Where were you?”

“Just outside - I told you.”

“All this time?”

Becka honestly wasn’t sure how long she was out there for, or how long she and Howie had sat on the curb for.

“I’m completely fine, I promise.”

Coll smiled as Howie came into her consciousness. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Howie said, “I’m going to get a drink, you want something?” He asked looking at Becka.

“Sure. I’ll have a vodka tonic, please.”

“You got it.” He said and disappeared into the crowd.

Coll looked between Howie as he walked away and Becka for a second before a suspicious smile fell across her face, “Wait, are you into him?” She asked.
Becka giggled, “No.”

“Oh please.”

“Just having fun, mom”

“Stop,”

“You are such a little worry wart. Just relax.”

“Beck-“
“I’m not into him. He was outside while I was, we were just chatting.”

“Chatting about what?! In English or Spanish?”

Becka laughed, “Relax, seriously. Maybe I just like hanging out with him while you’re off with your husband.”

“Wow, do not say that.”

Becka shook her head and reached out for Coll’s hand. “RELAX.”

“Becka, are you seriously okay?” Coll asked again, noticing Becka’s eyes were a little splotchy.

“I’m fiiiine!! Are you??” Becka looked Coll over briefly.

“I’m happily buzzed.” She explained, “I even discovered that I’m excellent at dancing.”

Becka laughed as Coll demonstrated a pitiful set of dance moves.

“Incredible, truly.” She responded with a laugh, “Where is Nick?”

Coll pointed to the bar. “I was in the bathroom.”

Becka nodded.

“So seriously, what’s up with you and Howard?”

“Oh my god, nothing. Can’t a person have a friend?”

“A person or a Becka?”

“Wow. That hurts.”

“Come on, you can tell me.”

“Colleen, please.”

“Old habits die hard.”

“Yeah, they died hard already though.” Becka said, “they are basically dead now.”

Coll narrowed her eyes at Becka, “Are you being dark and mysterious again?”

“I’m always dark and mysterious.”

Coll rolled her eyes as Becka backed away from her, lip syncing to the Aaliyah song that was blaring over the speakers.

“And he’s not my husband!” Coll yelled out to her.

Becka laughed and rejoined Howie who smiled widely as he slipped his arm around her waist, handing her a drink.

Chapter 38 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

After three additional cocktails, making out with Nick in a dark corner, coaching Angela through an emotional moment in the bathroom and dancing with A.J., Coll found herself leaning into Nick on the edge of the dance floor, marveling silently at how he still smelled amazing even after so many hours into the evening.

“I’m a little tipsy.” she whispered into his ear.

“What?”

“I’m tipsy.” She repeated it louder.

He laughed, “I know.”

She bit her bottom lip into her mouth, attempting to keep some words in, her drunk mind no longer sure about why that was her default.

“Do you want to go back?” He asked.

“Do you?” She inquired thoughtfully.

“It’s whatever you want.”

Oh my god. “Why do you keep saying that?”

“Saying what?” He asked as he watched a lock of her hair fall in front of her shoulder.

“Telling me it’s all whatever i want?” She couldn't tell what her tone was, but she so desperately wanted an answer and she was too far under the influence to overthink it. Maybe that's a good thing. It's okay if it's a little messy.

“Because it is.” His eyes met hers and held her gaze for several unending seconds.


--

She had barely even picked up the receiver of the payphone when Nick appeared and wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, nuzzling his face in her neck.

“I’m glad you came by last night.”

She felt heat rush across her skin. “Me too.”

“Tonight?” He asked, resting his chin on her shoulder.

She smiled, “That’s the plan.”

She turned around in his arms and he kissed her.

“I really do love kissing you.” He said.

Her heart fluttered uncontrollably and she nodded again, “I love it too.”

--


“What do you want?” She finally asked.

“I want to do what you want, the way you want to do it.” he said seriously. “Not just tonight.” He took her hand in his and pulled her in even closer.

She felt her heart in her throat and she knew her face was probably conveying things to him involuntarily.

“Are you sure?” She asked.

“I don’t always trust myself, but i always trust you.”

Yes. He nodded as his other hand slid across her cheek. The sound around them was drowned out, the only things that mattered right now were the things that happened in the space between them.

“I’m not rushing you.” She said quietly.

“I’m not rushing you either.”

She nodded. “I know. But I want to know what you want …” Her filters were compromised but it felt okay.

“I want to be the person who knows your favorite things.” He said. She felt the teetering again. “And sends you pictures of dogs.”

She shook her head with a smile, “You can be so much more than that. If you want to be.” Said too much.

His stomach hurt.

“I trust you.” Didn’t say enough.


Across the dance floor, in a less crowded part of the club, Howie was lacing his fingers into Becka’s under the table at a semi-circular booth the two of them were sitting in.

“When did you learn Spanish? In school?”

“Some in school. My mother spoke it sometimes. But I am mostly self-taught…”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I started when I was about twelve, maybe thirteen.” She paused, considering how she had definitely made herself out to sound like total mixed up mess of a person all night, “I know it’s weird. Surprising.”

“It is a little.” Howie said, “impressive.”

“I know you’re probably wondering why.”

“Honestly there is a lot I’m wondering about with you… in a good way.”

She blushed as she leaned into her elbow on top of the table. She lifted her eyebrows at him.

“Alright, so, why? Why did you want to teach yourself Spanish?”

“I had this fantasy that I would flee- run away to somewhere and be someone else.” She explained wistfully. “I wanted so desperately to be someone else for so long. I figured I could just leave, settle in somewhere else and create a new persona. Change my name.... My name is so lame.”

“At twelve years old you wanted to run away to another country and speak another language and develop a new persona?”

She nodded.

“Okay … why?” He laughed.

“Because my life was a shit show. I know now it was a distraction. I mean I was twelve, so every twelve-year-old girl’s life is already a shit show and mine was like a bigger shit show.” She looked away from him, “I just thought, like, someday I would run away and drop every difficult and dented thing about me and leave it all behind. But then I grew up and I realized you can’t really do that. You can run from people, you can meet new people who won’t know what you don’t tell them…” she paused and looked at him again, “but you can’t forget yourself. I can’t change my past.”

“Right.”

“So now I’m just glad I know Spanish I guess.” She chuckled, “I used it at the airport.”

“Coll said you only speak it when you’re emotional.” He said.

She felt his thumb pressing into her palm.

“Or as needed,” She nodded, “But, yeah, I guess that’s mostly true. I… I don’t know... it just comes out.”

They sat in a mutual silence as the club energy spun around them.

“You don’t seem dented to me.”

“You never feel someone’s dents at first.”

“Becka-“

“See… such an awfully lame name.” She said quickly, redirecting the conversation.

“I like it.”

“I wanted to be a Camilla, or a Pamela. Or a Ruby. But my mother picked Rebecka and I guess that makes me feel at least one positive thing about it.” She explained, “at least my name isn’t Colleen.”

“What’s wrong with Colleen?”

“Col … leen.” She said, “like, Coll tilt? Coll almost fall over?” Becka giggled, “I don’t know, she doesn’t love it either. You get what you get I guess.”

“How do you think I feel?!”

“You were named after your dad!”

“How did you know that?”

“I read it in my Backstreet Boy book.” She said matter of factly.

“Oh... you’re serious.”

“I mean, yeah. I wasn’t going to come here clueless.” She smiled.

“Which one do you have? If it’s unofficial we should go over it.”

“Thanks, professor Dorough.” She teased, “but I’ll just go with the observations and on-site learning.”

“For what it’s worth… I think Rebecka is a good name. It sounds strong.”

Chapter 39 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“I’m going to hang with Howie.” Becka said softly from the hallway.

“Nooo Becka, come in here.” Coll stepped aside and held her arm out, motioning for Becka to come into Nick’s suite.

Becka stood there not moving, and began to laugh.

“Colleen, no.”

“What? Yes. Please. I asked you to please not slee-“

“Colleen!! You asked me to walk you over here. You watched me change my clothes and pack my bag… what is the big surprise?

“I’m just-”

“Nothing is going to happen.”

“You’re into him!” Coll moaned.

“I’m not into him. Stop saying that and just relax.”

Coll sighed and her shoulders visibly slouched. “Fine. Just … don’t do anything stupid.” She said quietly, her eyelids felt heavy.

Becka giggled, “Colleen. Anything I do could not be any stupider than anything else I’ve ever done.”

Confusion rushed across Coll’s face “... what?”

“Don’t worry about me.” Becka said as she leaned in and gave Coll a kiss on the cheek. “Have a good night.”

“Night Beck!” Nick waved as he passed by behind Coll.

“Night!”

Coll raised her eyebrows, “Please Becka.”

“Don’t worry so much.” She laughed and backed away. “I’m the one who should be worried about you.” She looked at her sister knowingly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Coll rolled her eyes as Becka retreated down the hall to meet back up with Howie.

She pushed the door closed and walked back into the suite where Nick was waiting for her.

He silently wrapped his arms around her.

“I’m still a little bit drunk.” She whispered.

“I know.” He laughed.

“Feels good though.” She giggled as she left him and took a seat on the edge of his bed. Slowly, she slipped the shoes Angela lent her off before standing back up. While Becka had changed out of her club clothes Coll didn’t want to waste time, she wanted to get back to Nick as quickly as possible.

“I’m gonna take a shower.” She said. “Can you unzip this, please?” She turned her back to him and motioned to the zipper on Becka’s dress she had borrowed. He smiled to himself and gently pushed her hair over her shoulder before starting in the zipper.

He worked it down slowly, enjoying the sensation of undressing her, revealing more of her skin inch by inch. He took the zipper all the way down and she turned back to face him. “Thank you.” She leaned in to kiss him softly but thoughtfully, and he placed his hands on her hips.

“I’m going… in the shower.” She said again, giving him a look he didn’t recognize.

“Wh-“

She smirked at him as she turned away again and worked the dress off her body as she made her way across his suite. Once it was off entirely she left it where it landed and looked over back at him, her inhibitions were so low and she was enjoying it. She slid her finger under the strap of her bra and began to push it over her shoulder. “Nick.” Her voice was full of something neither of them recognized.

“Yeah.” He said nervously.

“You don’t need an exclusive invitation do you?” She asked and continued stepping in the direction of the bathroom.

He was stunned speechless but moved into action quickly following her path, pulling his shirt off as he did so.


Howie pushed the door to his room open and Becka followed him in, she dropped her bag by the door and watched as he began removing his shoes and watch.

“Make yourself comfortable.” He said.

Becka has already changed into some leggings and a tank top and was eager to sit down so she made her way to a chaise in his room and fell into it casually.

“Was Coll okay?”

“She’s totally fine. She just gets really protective sometimes… like a nervous little chihuahua.” She rolled her eyes.

Howie laughed and made his way over to the chaise and sat down next to her.

“She means well, she’s just … really into her sister role sometimes.”

“Gotta love sisters.” He took a deep breath, “Becka,”

“Yeah.” She smiled at him.

“You told me a bunch of reasons why you think no one will ever love you the way Nick loves Coll.”

“Thanks for the reminder...” She said sarcastically.

“Still kind of curious though … why did you say that you think you’ll never love anyone the way she loves him either?”

Becka looked beyond Howie to the darkness outside his window. The room was dimly lit, a relaxing shade of warm, dark yellow and outside it was the deepest blue. “I don’t think I’ll ever trust anyone like that.”

He didn’t know what to say, everything he thought to respond with felt like asking, or being intrusive, and even though she had shared a lot, he still wanted to be careful.

She smiled, shaking her head, astonished at her own discovery, “It’s crazy. I seriously never realized how much I wasn’t experiencing until I saw them together.”


With her back pushed against the cool ceramic wall of the shower, Coll braced herself with one hand on Nick’s shoulder and the other pressed into the wall behind her as his mouth made its way eagerly across her skin.

Her body was still lit up over the way he had finished undressing her, the way he had lifted her up onto the vanity and traced his fingertips across her back to unsnap her bra, sending a shiver up her spine and making every nerve ending in her body tingle… the way he looked at her and told her she was gorgeous. It made her dizzy. She was still spinning and she still wanted more.

Now, his hand was moving over her damp skin and across the front of her leg. Her body felt like it was melting into his.

Her hands crawled down his arms and crept back up slowly, savoring the feeling of his flesh in her hands. Slowly she raised her knee along his leg, sliding her foot up the wall behind her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him, swinging her knee away from his body in the process, providing him more access.

Nervously he worked his hand up her thigh and closer to the part of her she wanted him to touch the most.

He was hesitating again. “Sometimes you stop short… not just with saying things.”

She curved her hips in his direction, arching her back away from the wall. Her entire body aching for him to do what she wanted.

He took the hint, some confidence returning.

Her hand was on the back of his neck now, squeezing gently as she felt him inching in closer … poised to give her what she wanted.

The anticipation was intoxicating. She felt her breathing becoming more and more shallow.

The water cascaded over his back, he was kissing her and his other hand grazed over the outside curve of her breast as it made its way up her body to her face.

“I trust you.”

He slid his fingers into her and deepened their kiss.

A wave of relief and pleasure flooded her body. She felt herself unraveling even more.

His lips moved across her cheek, she closed her eyes briefly.

He was moving slowly, unintentionally driving her even closer to the edge.

She pressed her hips further into his body, unsure if she could ever feel close enough to him.

He kissed her shoulder, she closed her eyes.

His fingers were working her in a way she had never experienced before, his thumb pressed into exactly the right spot, in exactly the right way.

She tilted her head back as he began kissing her neck.

“You are so perfect.” He groaned.

Her body was putty, her heart was racing.

“I swear i’m not.” she mumbled into his shoulder.

“Perfect for me.” He said it so quietly but she heard it clearly.



“Wait…” Becka yawned, covering her mouth with her hand, “So that plane did not actually say ‘backstreet boys’ on it?” She asked as she hugged a large throw pillow closer to her body, resting her chin on it as she watched Howie move around the room shirtless for a moment before returning to the bed where she was reclining now.

“NO! It was all fake.” He laughed as he sat back into the pillows next to her.

“Oh my god.” She looked at him blankly. “ i feel like I’ve been conned.”

“If you really watch closely, you can see it. It isn’t even in every shot. I dunno why. A lot of the time when you see the plane, it’s blank. It’s not even on there.”

“I never noticed.” She smiled, “To be fair though, i’ve only see the video a couple of times.”

“I don’t know if it’s super obvious or not but, yeah, it’s not real.”

Becka shook her head, “Really thought you guys had your own plane. Now I feel so naive.”

“Maybe someday.”

She smiled and ran her hand through her hair, “Ahh yes, someday… so many things are possibly going to happen someday.”

“What else?”

She shrugged, “I don’t know, everything. Like… someday, my life will feel like it’s my own.”

“What do you mean?”

“I feel like i’m just in this purgatory space of my life right now. Like, half way or less to everywhere. Still in school, still single, still not convinced I’ll ever not be … still living at home which is like, the ultimate in young adult purgatory.”

“What’s the rush though?”

“No rush, just… want something that’s my own I guess.”

He nodded, “I get that. Being in the group and stuff.”

“You ever wish you were solo?” She asked.

“No, not really. That was the plan for a while - that’s how I always thought it would end up. Me… solo. But, this happened. Didn’t plan on it, didn’t expect it.” He looked right at her and she felt her body tense up a bit. “But we met and it was a good fit. We can do more together than I can do alone.”

“You wanna rif a little solo right now?” She asked, tilting her head at him flirtatiously.

He grinned and held his hand out to her. She put her hand in his and looked at him excitedly. “It’s a place I’ve never been and it comes from deep within... and it’s telling me that I’m about to win first prize.” He sang.

“You do that for all the girls don’t you?” She asked as he pulled her in closer to him.

“Only the really beautiful, mysterious ones I want to get to know better.” He said as his face got closer to hers.

“Oh.”

“There aren’t that many.”

His eyes were tired but bright and her hand was still in his.

“Don’t lie.”

“Okay.” He said, “You’re the only one.”

“Oh, please.” She laughed.

He smirked, “Becka?

“Yeah?”

“Can I kiss you?”

Her eyes met his briefly, she nodded slowly as he leaned in and pressed his lips against hers.


Coll watched the numbers on Nick’s bedside table clock switch from 3:46 to 3:47. The two of them were laying in his bed in the dark, with only the light from outside highlighting the scene in his room.

She was laying on his bare chest, her skin pressed into his. They had been laying there in silence together, his hands running gently up and down her bare back between the edge of her lace shorts and the top of her shoulders, indulging in the softness of her skin, enjoying the weight of her on him, loving the experience of holding her and nothing more. He had never been with anyone in this state in this way - and the newness of it was intoxicating.

She was in a state of euphoria, the sense of relaxation she felt was unknown to her before tonight.

They hadn’t said anything in several minutes, each of them tangled in their own thoughts.

“What are you thinking about?” She finally asked.

After a silent second and a deep breath, he answered. “Why were you using the payphone earlier? You could have used mine.”

She lifted her head and looked at him, shifting her eyes, her eyebrows furrowing together, “Seriously? that is what you’re thinking about?”

He shrugged.

She laughed, “I figured if I used the payphone my call would have to be even shorter.”

“Oh.” He said as she sat up on the edge of the bed.

He watched as she left the bed and walked to the dresser where she grabbed a tee shirt of his that was draped over the edge and pulled it over her head.

“No ducks tonight?”

She flipped her hair out the back of his shirt and smiled at him. “Love my ducks, but this is a little sexier don’t you think?” She giggled and struck a brief pose with her hand popped out to the side.

He nodded with an approving grin and she smiled.

He didn’t know it but she hadn’t even brought her pajamas down with her, as Becka changed into her leggings and tank top Coll intentionally grabbed only a pair of clean underwear and an outfit for the next day.

“I love doing all of this with you but this isn’t necessarily the more I want the most.” She said quietly as she crawled back into bed with him. She could feel the influence of the alcohol leaving her body completely, she knew that was the last slightly uninhibited thing she would say that night. She also knew she was more sober than not and the statement she just made was genuine.

He was quiet as she snuggled into him. He wrapped his arms around her and she rested her head on his shoulder.

She thought about asking him again. Asking him if he wanted to tell her what he had really been thinking about now, but reminded herself she didn’t want to push him.

He couldn’t tell her what he had been thinking as she asked or even before that.

Earlier, she had been naked in his arms and it made him nervous. He thought about if she had even been like that with John. Were there parts of her John knew that he didn’t? Were there things John had experienced with her that he hadn’t? He couldn’t ask. She hadn’t asked him what he had done or with whom, it didn’t seem fair.

He thought about the things he said to her that he wasn’t afraid of living up to - and the things he hadn’t said yet that still scared him.

He thought about being better for her.

He thought about Boston and missing her and sleeping alone.

He thought about being in love with her.

He closed his eyes briefly.

“Nick.”

“When will I see you?” He asked.

“What do you mean?” She asked as he rolled onto his side to face her.

“When you go back to school.”

Her heart pumped harder. She smiled, laughing lightly “It’s whatever you want.”

“I want to see you as often as possible.” His eyes caught hers and they were soft and sweet and interested in what he was saying and he felt comfortable. “I want to be better for you.” He admitted. As the words left his mouth he noticed he felt relieved.

“What do you mean?”

“I want to be something to you… in your life. I want to be with you. I want to be good enough.”

Her heart felt heavy. “Perfect for me.” Her hand instinctively reached for his, “There is not a single thing about you that isn’t.”

He shook his head and she swore she saw a tear catch in his blink. She was tired, she knew he was exhausted, it wasn’t the time to talk about it. She wrapped her arm around him and cuddled him closer to her. He was getting closer to where she most wanted to meet him and she felt happier than she had all night. It means something… it means everything. “I want to be with you, too.”


Chapter 40 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Nick watched as Coll brushed her hair out in front of the closet mirror in his room the next morning as he pulled his sneakers on. She was wearing one of the tee shirts they had bought in italy and a pair of jeans she thought were too expensive but admitted were the most comfortable she’d ever had. His tee shirt she had slept in was hanging over the edge of the dresser again and he felt himself smiling.

An overwhelming list of the things she had said to him the night before - and in the past month - had been running through his head in an endless loop since he woke up forty minutes ago.


“I want to be with you too.”

“The more I want the most.”

“I’m not rushing you.”

“You can be so much more than that. If you want to be.”

“What do you want?”

“There’s not a single thing about you that isn’t.”

“I don’t want to go back.”

“I know you and that’s exactly why I trust you.”

“You can see it when someone is their best - if you care about them.”

“I saw something.”

“I’m just following your lead.”

“With me you really don’t have to be perfect. I can handle it.”

“Look at me.”

“Is there anything else i should know?”

“Can I stay with you tonight?”

“I’m not going to break. I’m not that fragile.”

“I see how committed you can be to something.”

“I know you.”

“You would be fun in Boston.”

“I’m just looking … deeper.”

“You’ve already done amazing things… more than you probably even realize.”

“You’re amazing.”

“I’m trusting that you’ll know it when you have something that is real… and that you’ll try to treat it like it is.”

“I’m an open book, what do you want to know?”

“I want to have things that are perfect for me… which has nothing to do with being perfect at all.”

“It’s okay if you’re a little jealous.”

“I just want to find someone who can bring out the best version of me and vice versa.”


She was messing with her hair now, pulling it up, checking both sides, letting it back down… unsure what she wanted. She ran her hands through it and then gathered it all to one side in front of her shoulder.

As he watched her move through the most mundane parts of the day and he felt the weight of a million realizations hit him at once.


They wanted the same things.

She felt safe with him.

She didn’t expect anything from him.

She had faith in him.

She accepted him the way he was.

She didn’t push him.

She cared about what he wanted and she wanted him to have it.

She felt comfortable with him.

She was optimistic about him.

She wasn’t giving up or running away.

She was patient.

She was genuine. She relaxed him. And all of it came naturally to her.

She really did trust him.

“You won’t believe it until you feel it.”


His head was spinning thinking of everything. The things she had said and done, the fact that she so willingly let him say and do what he wanted… the way she swung her knee away from his body. The way she kissed him on the cheek at the club. The night she showed up at his room, the tears he knew he saw in her eyes, the way she looked at him at the fountain.

She’s in love with me. It finally sank in. It finally made sense. How long has she been trying to tell me and why hasn’t she?

“Wait.” Her voice interrupted his reverie, jolting him back to attention, “Can you see through this shirt?” she asked casually turning to face him. “I still think this shirt is so silly, by the way. But I know it makes you happy. Hopefully not because you can sort of see through it.” She giggled.

He had his elbows on his knees, sitting on the edge of the bed looking at her and he saw it again - the possibility of life with her. But this time it was bolstered by the confidence that she wanted the exact same things.

But why hasn’t she told me? Is she afraid of something, too?

She noticed his eyes seemed extra intense and they looked at each other for a moment. She could tell there was something going on inside of him but she had resolved to let him come to her and that’s what she was sticking with.

“I trust that you will tell them to me when you’re ready… and that none of them would change how I feel.”

“Well,” She took a deep breath, navigating out of the silence. “It’s the only shirt i have down here so, whatever.” She turned back to look in the mirror and messed with her hair for another second while watching him through the glass. “We should go now, I have to grab my bag from the other room.”

“I’m not rushing you.”


After hours of avoiding or simply not being able to have any discussion about the events of the previous night, Coll and Becka finally got around to broaching the subject.

They had traveled by plane that morning to get to Germany. The guys rushed off to do a few radio interviews before the show and Coll and Becka decided to spend some time at the pool before heading to the venue later. Coll kept insisting they could skip the show if Becka wanted to maximize her time in Europe but she refused.


“Does Nick ever sing to you?”

“Sing to me?”

“Yeah, like … when you’re alone?”

Coll grinned and shook her head, “no actually.”

“Oh.” Becka’s mind was reeling. “Not even that one song?”

Coll shook her head. “He hasn’t. Maybe, someday. What song?”

Becka snapped her head back in Coll’s direction, What?

“That would probably sufficiently push me over the edge honestly.” She giggled. “Like, I’d instantly turn into one of the fan girls.”

Becka laughed, “You aren’t peppy enough for that.”

“Okay.” Coll sighed as she reclined further into her lounge chair. “I’ve waited long enough. Spill it.”

“Nuh uh… you spill it first.” Becka smirked as she put her sunglasses on.

“Beckaaaa.” Coll groaned. “Come on.”

“Mine’s not that exciting. Just tell me…”

“Fine.” Coll relented easily knowing she would probably end up losing anyway. “Okay just let me spew random thoughts.” Coll said anxiously. Becka adjusted into a more comfortable position on her chair and gave Coll a thumbs up.

“I’ve told him that I trust him, and I want to hear things he wants to say even if they are messy, I have told him he can be imperfect. I told him I’m capable of loving things that are imperfect. I also told him that I can tell him I trust him a million times but he won’t believe it until he feels it. I told him I saw the best of him- and that he brings out the best in me, that when I’m with him I’m the best version of myself and that I’m relaxed and happy. I told him I want to be with him, and I’ve told him that sometimes you have to do things with people first to know and sometimes you don’t and that I only want to go all in with someone I really want to go all in with.” She was rambling and Becka was trying to keep up, having heard some of this before but not all of it. “I told him that he is amazing and incredible and -“ she closed her eyes briefly thinking back to all the places he had touched her the night before. “I told him he could be so much more than just someone who knows my favorite things and send me pictures of dogs. And I bas-”

“Colleen.”

“Yeah?”

“Those are all pretty powerful things.”

“Okay.”

“But you said them and he’s still there.”

“What?” Coll asked, turning to look at Becka.

“All of these things are just as powerful as you telling him you love him. But you’re afraid to tell him you love him because you don’t want to pressure him. Does he appear to feel obligated to you right now?”

“No.”

“So why do you think he will feel obligated to you if you tell him you love him.”

“I’m not sure anymore.” She said as she hung her head.

“Maybe that means something.” Becka said quietly.

“I still feel like he should make that move first.” Coll said, “I feel like i’ve made it pretty obvious how I feel without saying it explicitly.”

“Couldn’t we say the same for him?”

Coll shrugged.

“I know what you want and I understand why. I know you think that you telling him how you feel will make him feel obligated or something but I also know that you have recognized that is a projection.” Becka smiled as she sat on her hands, “but if we consider your corridor of life thing, Nick is facing doors too. What kind of door is he at?”

Coll looked at her blankly. “Oh, come on.”

“How come it’s cute when Brian proverbs on you but not when I do it?”

Coll rolled her eyes, “I am pretty sure my door is wide open.”

Becka considered that for a moment, “No matter how wide open a door - your door - might be, if a person - or, Nick- is afraid to walk through it, it won’t matter…” Becka said as felt her body tense up. “Your door is wide open but it has all sorts of things about it he has never walked through. So it’s open but it’s scary. Make it less scary. Maybe he needs to feel less like he’s trying to get something or do something and more like he belongs there - like this is something that belongs to him. Like he deserves it. Tell him, show him he belongs there, that he deserves to have it.” Becka looked back at Coll to check her response, she was sitting there in attentive silence. She had felt and seen enough in the past twenty four hours that she set aside her decision to stay out of it for the greater good. “I think he needs to know someone is willing to risk it for him.”

“Risk what?”

“The vision you had for how life would be.” “No one will ever love me the way Nick loves my sister.

“Wh-“

“Like you didn’t expect this. He has all this baggage right? He’s got weird family stuff, he’s got this inane life, he’s got crazy responsibilities... It’s okay. He has done things that maybe you’d prefer he hadn’t ... It’s okay. You’d have to tolerate a lot of bullshit… but it’s okay. You’re risking your ideal for him... the life you can have with him. Some new ideal.” Becka explained, “Show him - or tell him - that it’s okay. Let him know, somehow, that you are willing to take the risk with him… the door is open, but he needs to feel good about walking through it. He doesn’t want to let you down.”

Coll looked at her carefully examining her body language. “Are you completely positive we are still talking about Nick?”

Becka nodded. “But I get it.”

“I understand what you’re saying. I really do. But I want him to know just as much as I don’t want him to feel pressured. I understand that people need to take their time. I understand waiting until you’re ready and I know it sucks to be pressured to do something you aren’t ready to do.”

“My point is he might be ready, he’s just terrified. You keep making it sound like it’s something negative… flip the script: you’re finding ways to help him feel comfortable doing something he wants to do.”

“Okay.” Coll said as she began to piece it together, “what would a person want? In order to feel safe going into something new like that? How do I prove i’m willing to risk it?”

Becka shrugged. “Same as you wanted from him… An invitation? An assurance? It’s not different it’s just that you might be the more able party.”

Coll bit her nail nervously. She knew what she felt last night, the way he was acting … like he was getting closer to where she wanted to meet him. But now she was thinking not only about Nick but also Becka and ultimately Howie, and she wanted more information. No possible way that suddenly became a thing.

“Okay.”

“I know that is scary too.” Becka said, “but look, if it comes down to it… I have faith in you that with thirty seconds or less of insane courage, you can end this torment.”

Coll looked at her curiously, “Insane courage?”

Becka smiled, “If you’re leaving here and he hasn’t said it yet - you have to do it. That’s where Angela is spot on - it’s for yourself. And I think all you’d need is thirty seconds or less of insane courage. Tell him how you feel. You know he’s going to say it back… and deep down you know it’s because he means it, not because he feels like he has to say it.” She looked across the pool for a moment, “It’s so obvious, Colleen. He’s totally into you.”

Her insides were jumbled up again, thinking about him being in her life in the way she wanted him to be. “I know he’s a bozo, but… not about you. Not about the life that has you in it.”

“I mean, what’s scarier? You’ll either fuck it up trying or fuck it up staying quiet.” She felt like she was talking more to herself than anyone else. Shit.

“Okay. Yeah, I mean…” Coll sighed, “Yeah. You’re right.”

“Look, I am so beyond happy for you. I wouldn’t encourage you to do something I didn’t know for sure you wanted to accomplish. In any case, Sometimes it’s not the pushing that’s bad, it’s the timing. It is just about finding the right time to push.”

Timing.

“Alright so what happened last night? Anything you want to tell me?”
Becka sighed heavily. “Well.”

“Well what?”

“There was kissing. But that was it.”

“Truly?”

Becka nodded, thinking back to what had happened the night before.


- -

They had made their way through undressing each other nearly entirely when Becka shifted away from him abruptly, placing her hand on his bare chest.

“I don’t think I can do this … all of this … with you right now.”

“Okay.” He said, scanning her face trying to get a sense of what had changed.

“It feels too soon.” At that moment she didn’t know why. It all felt unfamiliar. “I’ve done that a lot. I don’t want to do that with you.” Her voice was quiet but she felt relief throughout her body as she said it. It felt like the right thing to do.

He smiled.

“I swear it is actually a compliment.”

“I understand.” He said and slid a few inches away from her.

She smirked at him, “I didn’t say stop everything.”

- -



“You slept with him didn’t you?”

“Well, yes literally I slept with him, I fell asleep, he fell asleep, we were together and sleeping.”

“You swear you didn’t have sex with him?”

“I swear.” She replied, “But i really don’t know why.” Lies. I know exactly why. She could feel Coll looking at her knowingly and casually covered her face with her hand.

“You know how Nick feels…” Coll stated her discovery.

Becka smiled. “Maybe.”

“Becka…”

“I get it, Colleen. I need to know someone is willing to risk it for me, too. To risk getting into my mess, to risk being overwhelmed for a while, to risk sticking it out for me. I am a risk. I’m not a sure thing.”

“Someday you will be a sure thing to someone the same way Nick is to me.”

Becka’s mouth twisted into a sad smile, “My point is, Nick doesn't know he's a sure thing to you yet because he feels like he totally isn't, he feels like a risk. He feels like isn't capable. He wants to be a sure thing. He wants to know he can be. No matter how deeply you know it ... he has to feel comfortable enough to walk through your very open door.”

Chapter 41 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

-

ColleenPea (will i ever tire of calling you that?!),

Missing you like crazy! Miss our pizza dates and late night chats.

Just wanted to tell you I’m heading back to Boston a little earlier than originally planned. Mark found me a gig at that cute club in Cambridge - but they want me to come in for training earlier so I can be up to speed for when the college kid invasion happens. Makes sense… plus it’s way too hot here in the CO! When will you be back? PUHLEASE send me pictures!! PLEASE.

Also not sure if you care or whatever the status is but I heard from John today. Thought it was about league but it turned out to actually be about you… he asked me if I had spoken to you and when you’d be back. I said I had spoken to you a couple times but wasn’t sure of your plans. He said he never hears back from you…so i guess he has tried a few times?? I refrained from telling him to leave you alone but, just say the word and I’m on it.

Anyway, that’s the story from over here. Cannot wait to see you again real soon. Senior year!!!?

LUV U.

Mel.

P.S. your away message still says you are studying for finals haha.


-



“You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.” Andrea mentioned casually from across the table as she chomped into a baby carrot while watching Coll click through her emails.

“Huh?” Coll said snapping back to attention, licking her lips. “What’s up?”

“Nothing. What’s up with you?”

“No, nothing.” She said quickly as she navigated to her away message to change it. She stared at the text for a moment.


ColleenPea is away: “studying for finals like you probably should be, too.”

It was a relic from a past life. It felt so far in the past.


She dragged the cursor across the text and deleted it.

The text marker blinked back at her again, she wasn’t sure what to write. It had been forever since she composed even a single meaningful sentence.


“Ohh updating your away message finally…” Becka commented as she returned to the table with a cup of coffee, catching a glimpse of Coll’s screen in the process.

“Why didn’t you tell me it still said something about finals?”

“Honestly thought you knew.”

“I really didn’t. Whatever. I’m never on anyway so… ”

“What are you changing it to?” Angela asked from her place beside Andrea. “I know it’s like… a big deal. Agonized over mine before coming out here.”

“Agonized?”

“I’m a little over the top but you love me.” Angela grinned, making Andrea giggle.

Coll shook her head with a smile, “True enough. I was thinking just to leave it blank.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Why?”

“People will think you’re dead!” Becka exclaimed.

“Why are you so dramatic?”

“I mean… I was kidding.”

“How about the classic standby… song lyrics.” Angela giggled. “BSB song lyrics!”

“Oh, good idea.” Becka agreed.

“What? No. I’m not seventeen… or thirteen.”

“I vote for BSB lyrics.” Andrea giggled, raising her hand.

“Please tell me that’s not what you did.” Coll cringed.

“Open up your heart to me, And say what is on your mind’ … “ Angela sang with faux emotion. “That’s a good one.”

“What song is that from?” Coll asked, “Also, again, no. I’m not doing that. That sounds like an invitation to talk to me not an away message.”


ColleenPea is away:

| going somewhere | unknown destinations | infinite possibilities |

Feeling satisfied, she logged off and shut the computer down before standing up and leaving the lounge quickly without saying a word.

Andrea, Becka and Angela watched her go and shrugged at each other as she left.

“She’s in this so deep.” Becka said.

“Yup.” Andrea smiled.

Angela nodded aggressively.


Coll made her way to hair and makeup where she was surprised to see Nick getting his hair trimmed.

They smiled at each other as she appeared in front of him, gently placing her hand on his knee.

“Hey, what’s up?”He asked happily.

“I just wanted to see you.” She said sweetly as she leaned back against the vanity in front of him.

He looked at her and reached out for her hand and used his thumb and forefinger to twist her silver ring around her finger. It made her spine tingle.

“I need to borrow someone’s digital camera so I can send a photo to Melanie.”

“Oh.”

“She’s been asking all summer.”

“I have my camera.” Tami interjected motioning to her bag mid snip. “I’m almost done here, feel free!”

“Oh, thank you!” Coll smiled and took Tami up on her offer, reaching into her open tote bag and grabbing the camera. “Mind if I take a few practice shots so I’ll be ready when you’re done with him?”

“Go for it. The beauty of digital.”

“Might have to have you take one of us, Tami.” Coll said as she messed with some of the settings and took a few practice snaps.

She moved to bend down next to Nick and held the camera out in front of her. “Smile, Carter.” She said with a laugh as she leaned in closer to him.

They both smiled and she snapped the photo quickly.

“What are the chances that turns out?” He laughed.

“Pretty terrible.” She giggled as she flipped the camera around to check. Their tiny faces appeared on the screen and she realized that was the first photo she’d ever seen of them the way they were now. His face was bright and playful and she looked happy and relaxed. “This is actually cute.” She said quietly as she stood back up. “Will still have you take one, too, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not.”

“What’s up with Melanie?” Nick asked.

“Not much. Just enjoying the last bit of summer I guess. She said she’s going back to Boston a little earlier than she originally planned.”

Boston. It was a concept he hated to think about. Her in Boston. Her life in Boston. Her life away from him.

“What’s so great about Boston anyway?” He asked randomly.

She narrowed her eyes at him and laughed, “What?”

“I mean, like,” He didn’t know what he meant, he was just annoyed. “Why is she going back sooner than she originally planned?”

It was a weird enough thing for him to ask that she realized suddenly that his question wasn’t really about Boston, or Melanie’s plans, and it wasn’t really a question at all. “We have a major airport, you know.” She looked at him knowingly and he felt his stomach in his throat. She grinned at him and returned her attention to the camera.

Tami ran her hands through his hair and smiled at him in the mirror.

“All done, want me to dry it?”

“Nah, it’s good.”

“Coll?” She asked, “For your photo?”

Coll stood up a bit straighter, amused that Tami asked her. “The damp look works for me.”

“Really can’t go wrong with this one. He’s beautiful either way.” Tami added with a grin as she unsnapped the cape from around Nick’s neck.

Coll giggled and nodded in agreement. “That’s true.”

He raised an eyebrow at her and she felt her heart rate increase.

“Let’s get that photo.” Tami exclaimed, smiling at the two of them.


After Tami took their photo, they snuck away to a storage closet off the corridor to make out for several available minutes.

His hands moved with more confidence, his energy felt a bit more passionate and she was as deep as ever in her feelings for him. She could tell something had shifted after last night and while she had considered everything Becka told her, she was feeling confident that she was in fact building up his comfort and assuring him he belonged in the future.

“I gotta go.” He said quietly.

She nodded, “I know.”

He kissed her again.

“What are we doing tonight?” He asked.

She smiled, “well, there’s a hot tub at the-“

“That sounds perfect.” He cut her off with another kiss.

She giggled and gently pushed him away from her, “you have to go. I don’t want Jen getting mad at me.”

“I’ll see you after.”

“Good luck.”

“Bye.”


Four hours later, Coll returned to the lounge with Tami’s camera during the encore. Tami had encouraged her to hold on to the camera for the night and take as many photos for Melanie as she wanted.

She sat with her laptop at the table closest to the Ethernet hook up and started the computer up again.

Leighanne went to sit on the couch while Becka grabbed a water bottle from the fridge and joined Coll at the table, resting her head on her arms. She watched as Coll connected Tami’s camera to the laptop and navigated through various folders to bring up the photo files.

She opened the images and scrolled through them back to the first one she took.

In her less staged, slightly crooked, mid-haircut photo, she could see clearly how happy she looked. With his face so close to hers, his blue eyes came across almost as pretty as they were in real life, they looked comfortable and content and she felt some butterflies in her stomach. Tami’s photo was less candid - Nick was standing behind her with his arms wrapped around her giving her a kiss on the cheek. She was smiling widely and he was giving the camera a side eye. She saved them both.

“That is so cute.” Becka said.

She set the photos she wanted to save to transfer to the computer and looked at Becka, “I’m going to the bathroom while this works.”

“Okay I’ll be here.” She said, sitting upright again to take a long sip of her water.


As she was returning to the lounge, Coll heard Nick call her name from down the corridor.

She turned to see him coming and smiled as he ran ahead of Kevinto catch up with her.

“Hey!” She said as he swung his arm around her shoulders.

“How was your night?”

“It was fun. Show was great.”

“Thanks, babe.” He said casually as Brian ran up beside them.

“Hey, did you get your pictures?” He asked, pushing a towel over his head.

“I have them transferring to the computer now.” She explained, still distracted by the fact Nick had called her babe.

“You’re obviously sending the one you took of us to Melanie, right?” He asked.

“Of course, Brian.” Coll assured him.

Everyone returned to the lounge and Coll checked on the file transfer as Nick stuck beside her and Howie came over to see Becka.

“I’ve never been this tired in my entire life.” Becka moaned as Howie pet her head and laughed as Nick took the seat beside her.

“Alright, I think these are done moving over.” Coll said as she leaned across Nick to reach the computer, angling it in her direction. He pulled her into his lap.

She turned to him and he smiled at her, still sweaty and gorgeous from the show, she knew she blushed but she didn’t care. She turned back to the screen as Nick’s arm snaked around her waist, pulling her into him more.

He watched as she clicked around some on the screen, “You’re sending them to Melanie?”

“Is that okay?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll tell her not to sell them to any tabloids.”

“Very funny.”

“Do you want to approve them?”

“No, it’s fine.” He laughed lightly.

“I promise we can trust her.” She looked back at him and smiled, “Go get your stuff and I’ll be done with this by the time you are back.”

He agreed and she stood up so he could go, Howie followed behind him and Becka looked to Coll. “Have you told Mel any of what’s gone on? With Nick?”

Coll shook her head, “I wanted to tell her in person… she will get the hint from the photos but, i’ll save the rest til I see her.”

Becka nodded and watched as Coll finished her email back to Melanie.


-

Mel,

I miss you too! I’m happy for you about the job!

John has texted me and emailed me a few times … i’ve ignored them all except his first one, i just told him I was in europe with a friend. Since then he’s just been asking when i’ll be home and telling me he wants to hang out when I’m back to Boston.

You wanted to see pics of my magical summer in Europe… so here you go. So much to tell you…

So so much.

Miss you a ton. I’ll call you as soon as I’m back in the USA.

(If you could just be really careful with the photos…) Love you

P.S. I have a new nickname you might like just as much as ColleenPea…

CollyPop. It’s obnoxious but, it came from Brian, so it’s sort of adorable.

Coll

-

Chapter 42 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

While Coll lamented the slower than normal speed of the internet, Becka remembered that she had left her hoodie in the dressing room and left the lounge to go and get it.

“Maybe too many photos?”

“It didn’t say I reached the limit it’s just taking forever to attach them all…”

“If you have to cut one of the pictures, cut the one of Brian. I won’t tell.” Becka giggled as she walked away from the table.

Coll gasped sarcastically. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”


Becka arrived to the dressing room and was immediately cornered by Nick.

“I need to talk to you.” He said, placing his hand on her back and leading her to a quieter corner of the room.

“What’s up, Carter?” She smirked knowingly. “Also just please don’t let me forget my hoodie.” She said casually as he paced a few steps in front of her.

Nick looked at her briefly before hanging his head in defeat, “Am i fucking this up already?”

“Fucking what up?”

“Everything.”

Becka smiled softly at him, “No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She smiled as she leaned back against the wall behind her.

He ran his hand through his hair and looked around the room.

“I’m in love with her.” He admitted. “Shit.” he realize that was the first time he had said it out loud.

“I know you are.” Becka said happily, pressing her knuckles together. “She would love to hear it…”

“And i’m pretty sure she is in love with me … which is somehow even scarier.”

Becka stood up a bit straighter and quickly plotted a course of action. “What are you scared of?” She asked.

“Of telling her. I know enough to know I can’t say that and then not back it up. So until I’m completely sure I can back it up, I don’t want to say it. But it’s hard.” She could see he was frustrated with himself, with the situation, “And I’ve said so many other things that I’m starting to feel like maybe I’m leading her on.” He was getting upset and she could tell, “I’m nervous that i’m not good enough for her, that I can’t be what she wants…” he admitted, “Or that… i can’t do what she wants.”

“Okay so, forget you know what she wants, or whatever it is you think she wants. Forget all of that for a minute. What do YOU want with her?”

“Everything.” He said immediately. She watched him as he stood there, his eyes locked on something in the middle distance as his mind wandered.

Her in his bed

His hands in her hair

Kissing her

Her laughing at something he said

Her laying next to him, holding his hand

Her on the couch in the living room watching tv and bringing her a glass of wine

Her on his bus when he opened the door

Her going to visit him

“I want her with me.” His hands gestured out in front of his body, holding something imaginary. “The first night she was here, it was like, I felt so relieved. And everything that has happened since then… I want her around. I love having her around. I want to take care of her. I don't want to rush anything. She makes me feel like I can relax but also like I still want to be better and try harder. I don’t know how to explain it.” He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, “I want to be the person who sends her stupid dog pictures and checks in and makes it exciting and knows her favorite Thai place.” He was exasperated, “I just want to be with her… whatever that means.”

Becka’s mouth twisted into a pout, “Have you asked her what she wants? You are stressing over it but are you even sure you know? Have you asked?”

“She wants … everything.”

“So you want the same thing.”

“No I mean, she … She said she only wants to go all in with someone she wants to go all in with.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”

“She doesn’t want anything surface level. She wants deeper. More than that.”

“Is that different from what you want? What you just described sounded pretty all in to me. It sounded like you putting in a lot of effort … to show up for her and to know her.” Becka explained, “Why couldn’t you live up to that?”

He slumped his shoulders, “I do want that. I want it with her. But I don’t trust myself … she’s so good and I… I destroy things.”

“What did you destroy?”

“Mandy… other people.”

“What happened with Mandy?”

Nick gave her the highlights and she was surprised by them, she wondered if Coll knew as much as he had just told her. “That sounds like Mandy actually just willingly chose to both participate and to end it so you could have what you should have - what she felt like you wanted. You didn’t destroy her.”

“But she must have been upset, and I obviously wasn’t a good boyfriend.”

“What does being a good boyfriend look like?”

“Showing up, not sleeping around, being honest, being … real.”

The fatigue in her body was slowly being replaced with adrenaline. “And you aren’t like that with Coll?”

“I am right now but I’m also not her boyfriend...?”

“I mean, would you suddenly start acting differently if you were to begin referring to yourself that way?”

“No.” He said immediately, “I want to be better. I want to be… just, better.”

“So what’s making you think that you’re going to destroy her- if what you’re doing now is what you said makes a good boyfriend and you want to be better than that even.”

“What if I screw up?” He asked, his eyes brimming with sadness.

She took a deep breath and considered the ways she could go. “She doesn’t expect you to be perfect, do you feel like she does?”

“But she deserves that.”

“I mean certainly that would be nice… if everything was perfect all the time. But she knows it won’t be and she’s still there. You think she wouldn’t forgive you?”

“I guess it depends on how badly I screw up.”

“What would be the ultimate screw up?”

“Cheating on her.” It seemed unfathomable. He didn’t even feel comfortable saying it.

“Have you ever cheated on anyone? In your Mandy equation it sounds like she agreed to that whole thing. So that doesn’t really count, you established the expectation.”

“I guess so… I’ve just never committed to anyone like that before. What if I’m not that person?”

“Why is that what you wanted with Mandy? Why didn’t you want to commit?”

“I just wanted to have fun and not care.”

“Okay and that’s how you treated it.” She smiled, “The way you feel will impact the way you act… it already has.”

“I just … love her. I don’t even know what it means, I just know that I do.”

“You care about her so deeply, I can tell.”

He nodded.

“You can’t compare Coll or how you feel about her and how things might be with Mandy and that whole situation.” She explained, “This is different. You’re different with her. This is you and her this isn’t -“ she paused, reminding herself this was about him, “this isn’t every past relationship or attempted relationship. This is its own thing.”

“Okay.”

“Trust her, Nick.” Becka urged, “She’s not going to break. If you’re worried about your life and her life and Boston and touring and college and all of that, I get it. Sure, that adds a layer of complexity to your situation. But if you’re worried about your ability to love her, and show up for her … if you’re worried that the way you are is somehow not good enough for her … or that you aren’t what she wants … you shouldn’t.” It felt too real. Shit.

“I can’t help it.”

“I think the fact you’re considering how she feels and being really thoughtful proves you are exactly what she wants. Also considering how she’s like, literally never been so glowy.”

“So what?”

“Nothing.” She shook her head and pushed some hair behind her ear thinking back to the two of them in the club, in their own little world.

“What should I do?” he asked.

“Unfortunately that’s where I tap out.” She smiled, “All I can say is… just don’t try so hard to be something or someone that you think she wants that you lose track of the fact that who you are right now is also what she wants. If you’re going to try to be someone - do it with her. Let her be part of it. You have nothing to be afraid of.”

“Okay but what about who I’ve been?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if she asks me how many people I’ve slept with?”

“What if?” Becka shrugged, “you’ll tell her the truth.”

“She will hate the truth.”

“Do you hate the truth?”

“I do now.” He said seriously.

She felt it, she understood it. Her body felt tense.

“She will hate it.” He said again in her silence.

“Maybe.” Becka shrugged, “But she won’t hate YOU. And she will … know. She will understand. And she won’t judge you for it. Give her a chance.” Give him a chance.

He narrowed his eyes at her.

“I know how you feel. I know you feel damaged ... like you don’t deserve it or like, how could someone like that ever be with someone like me...” Becka turned her head briefly, looking blankly across the room, gathering her thoughts. She thought about Howie and Coll and people who don’t run away from people they care for deeply. “There is nothing you can tell her that will scare her off.” and hopefully I can have that, too.

“I doubt that.”

She shook her head. “You shouldn’t.”

He was quiet, stewing in his own thoughts.

“Listen,” She brought her hands together in front of her body, “you know my story.”

He looked up at her and nodded.

“She’s used to navigating shit with people. She’s put up with so much. Hard, messy stuff. Wildly complicated, layered stuff.”

He was quiet.

“You know Melanie?”

He nodded.

“Between us she has dealt with a million different dramas. You know she has been through it with me. And mom, too. Melanie’s got a whole other set of things. You can’t hand Coll a problem she won’t be willing to sort through.”

“What happened to Melanie? More extreme than Ted?”

“Ted?”

“The shitty boyfriend.”

“I don’t know who Ted is but, yes. More extreme than Ted. In any event, It’s not my story to tell, but trust me... she will not be scared off by whatever dark and stormy stuff you’ve got in there.” Becka explained as she pointed casually at him. “Maybe, Nick, the confusion in you … all the trouble, all the drama, all the chaos… maybe it will all make sense to her. She might not love it, she won’t love that there are things in your life that cause you chaos… But she will love being the one to help you calm those storms. And it’s not going to undo the fact that -“ She paused, “it’s not going to change anything about how she feels. Just tell her. Tell her everything. You will not regret it.” Her stomach twisted into a knot. "

“Okay.”

“That’s a human thing not a clinical thing.” She clarified.

He smirked.

“Nick, when you find the right person, I think that’s just what happens. Someone sees everything: good, bad, ugly, complicated, but to them, it’s not. To them it’s simple…” Goosebumps appeared on her arm and she ran her hands over them thinking about Howie and not having sex with him and understanding why. “It feels real, it IS real, and you don’t want to mess it up, I know. Just… don’t waste time waiting for some fictitious story you made up to come true.” shit. Becka said, “You’re sabotaging yourself. You keep telling yourself that there are things about you she can’t accept, and honestly that’s not even your choice - it’s hers and also you’re wrong because she does accept it.” She wasn’t sure if she had said too much already but told herself again it was for the greater good. “You are just waiting but you don’t have to.” She closed her eyes briefly, “There is no point in time where you will truly feel ready to tell someone something so important, it doesn’t exist. Things like that … they aren’t ever best unsaid. ” She felt tears stinging in the back of her eyes but breathed them away. “It sounds like you have a lot to say but you think no one wants to hear it…”

Nick sighed heavily, “Okay. I… that’s helpful.”

“Good.” She relaxed, feeling like she had said too much but also like she might have helped. Relieved she might not have to go on risking it more.

“So, wait … Melanie is adopted too?” He asked.

Becka shook her head. “Adoption is the least of my issues, Nick. Melanie’s story is best left to Melanie to tell. I’m sure Coll could give you a brief and more accurate backstory than I could.” Becka inhaled sharply, “But I really think your time is best spent discussing something other than Melanie’s personal traumas.” She looked at him knowingly.

“Probably.”

They looked at each other for a long second as Howie approached from across the room, “What’s up guys?”

Becka’s spine tingled as Howie’s eyes met hers. She looked back at Nick for a split second, then back to Howie. “I need to grab my hoodie.” She said casually, giving Nick the chance to simmer.

Howie held it up and smiled at her, “This one?”

“Oh, thanks!” She smiled at him, “Yes. That’s the one.”

Chapter 43 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“I was thinking about what you said - or what you asked. About when we would see each other when I’m back in Boston.”

“You were?”

“Of course.” “...like he belongs...” “ love Boston and I love the idea of you being there with me. I also love the idea of leaving Boston sometimes to go and see you.”

He grinned at her as she pushed the water out around her and moved to the edge of the pool where she lifted herself up to sit on the edge. He was temporarily mesmerized by the way the water cascaded off her body.

“I’m not sure how comfortable it’ll be for the two of us in my little bed.”

He smiled, laughing lightly. “We can go to a hotel.”

The idea of hiding away in a hotel with him in Boston made her feel warm with excitement.

“Either way, it’ll be fun to have you there sometimes. I know it might be a little complicated but, the alternative is worse, so...” He came closer to her, “Even if we don’t leave the hotel....”

He placed his hands on either side of her, pressing his palms into the tile surround of the pool as the water lapped at his bare back. She was sitting in front of him, leaning back on her hands, looking happy and relaxed. He thought about what Becka had said and he thought about everything he wanted to say. He thought about her leaving and getting on a plane back to Boston and that made him more uneasy than anything.

“Come home with me.” He said abruptly with an apprehensive smile. “I heard you tell Tami school doesn’t start til september. Come home with me.”

Her eyes widened and her mouth went dry. “What?” For all the wonderful things she had wanted to hear him say, this one hadn’t crossed her mind.

“To Florida.” He said, “come to Florida with me. We can be alone there.”

A smile spread across her face. “Okay.” It sounded too good to say no to. “But-“

“I know you hate Florida … but, I’ll make it worth your while.”

She laughed lightly as his eyes glinted at her.

“I think I can tolerate it for a little while…”

“Colleen.” He reached for her hands, weaving his fingers through hers, holding on to her tightly.

She was teetering again, the resolution she stood on was being chiseled away rapidly now, and she was losing her balance.

He was looking at her in a way that made her feel vulnerable and exposed but she delighted in it. Her eyes wandered between his shoulders briefly and back up to his face where her eyes met his.

“Do you ever wonder why this never happened before?” He asked.

“This?”

“With us.”

“No.” She smiled, “also it was illegal until just recently.”

He shook his head and laughed lightly.

“You think I’m a kid.”

“I don’t at all.”

“You think I’m a teenager.”

“Technically, you are a teenager,” She grinned, “but you’re also you. You have more life experience than most forty-year-olds.” She leaned in to kiss him, placing her hands on either side of his face, “you are amazing.”

He brought his hands to her wrists and they looked at each other for a moment. He felt relieved again, with her there, so close to him. Life with her felt like a risk of so many things but she made him feel safe.

“This isn’t casual for me,” he said, looking down at her legs dangling in the water in front of him. He thought about being with her at home, being with her everywhere. “I don’t want to do what I usually do. You’re not usual.”

She smiled softly, “I know. It isn’t casual for me either.”

“And there is no one else.”

She nodded as she pulled away from him, taking his hands in hers.

“There would never be. While we’re together, if we are together...”

While? If? “Okay.”

He was quiet for a moment, looking at her and thinking about how good she was. “I am so sorry.”

“For what?” She tilted her head at him.

“That I’ve done stupid things that would give you a valid reason to doubt me.”

She shook her head. “I don’t doubt you.”

“There is nothing you can tell her that will scare her off.”

“I’ve been with a lot of people.”

“Okay.” She replied, unfazed. “And I’ve been with none.” she laughed.


They were both quiet for a moment. His hair was falling in his face the way she and so many others loved and a tiny fire started in her belly.

“Remember when you asked me I trust you and I said I don’t always trust myself but I always trust you, and you agreed?”

He nodded.

“I know there is some overlap there but … is this the thing that’s keeping you from feeling like I trust you? Something that’s keeping you from thinking it’s possible I could?”

How does she know everything? “maybe.”

“Why don’t you just tell me how many people you’ve slept with.”

He felt a pang of guilt in his chest and she could see it on his face.

“Just tell me. It’s not going to change anything.” She wasn’t asking out of curiosity, she was inviting him to resolve this. “I promise.”

“I honestly don’t know.” He said sadly. “Eighty? Ninety?”

“Okay.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

She sighed, “I guess it makes me curious, but… it doesn’t bother me.” She smiled softly at him.

He shook his head slightly.

“I trust you entirely.” She said gently, “Do you feel it yet?”

He had felt it, at times, but it came and went. And when he did feel it, it was terrifying.

His nerves were a fiery mess of activity. His core was on fire. He knew he had to tell her.

His hand slid behind her head and he kissed her softly on the cheek, sending a chill up her spine. He nodded into the curve of her neck and her hands braced his arms.

“Let’s go back to the room.”





Across the patio, Howie and Becka were laying completely horizontally on two plush lounge chairs, holding hands and looking up at the night sky making conversation about whatever came to mind.

“Things like this almost make me believe in heaven.” Becka said randomly.

Howie smiled, “Almost?”

“Just to be clear, I mean the heaven people talk about.” She sighed, “The heaven of the sky.”

“What sort of heaven are you convinced about? Any?”

She shrugged, “I believe in science. Energy…”

“That things don’t really go away they just become new things.”

“Right. That feels powerful to me and reassuring. Ultimately isn’t that what heaven is supposed to be… for the living? Something reassuring and powerful.”

Howie looked at her carefully and thought it over. He nodded, “do you think about these things a lot?” He asked with a smile.

She just giggled and looked back up briefly before closing her eyes.

Howie watched her, enjoying the way the things she said made him feel. He had never thought of it that way before but it did feel reassuring. “I like that… reassuring.”

She nodded slowly.



In the elevator, Coll snuggled into Nick’s body, clenching the towel around her shoulders, his arm wrapped around her as he leaned against the wall.

When the doors opened he silently took her hand and they walked down the hall to his room, she waited patiently as he opened the door and let her in ahead of him.

She plucked the towel from her body and draped it over the closet door knob as he slipped his arm around her waist.

“Have you always loved being in the pool?”

She twisted a piece of hair around her finger as she slinked back against his arm, smiling shyly at him.

“I feel like I missed out on knowing you better.”

“You had a couple of things going on.” She said quietly, thinking about all the things he could be the only one to know. “You could know best.” Her eyes glinted at him in the dim light, “There’s no rush.”

His hand moved up her arm, she relaxed into him and she gently pulled him in closer to her, wrapping her arms around his waist.

His hands moved to her shoulders and then up to her face, sending a nervous pulse through her body.

“Colleen.”

The way he was saying her name was making her feel an even deeper attraction to him. “Nickolas.”

“I want to tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“There is so much.”

“I’m listening.”

He shook his head, a tear rolled off her cheek. She wasn’t sure if he noticed it or not.

“You make me feel like things are possible.” He said it quietly, but there was urgency.

Her chest felt constricted, she could feel her face blushing, “What kind of things?”

“Everything. Real things. Amazing things. Things that matter.”

“I’m glad.” she whispered, on the verge of crying again, before he kissed her.

“I want more.” He said, his forehead pressed into hers.

She was nervous, unsure what he was getting at but desperate to know it. “Me too,”

They had said this before - it was time to elaborate.

“You said the more you want the most…” he lifted his head up to look at her again.

She nodded. “Yeah.”

“What do you want the most?”

“You.” She said simply without hesitation. “In my life. Not just this summer, not just when I see you every day…” she said carefully.

He smiled but he looked sad. “I want to be with you but only the right way.”

“What’s the right way?”

“The way you want it. All in.”

His words flowed into her and she felt so serene for a second.

“How do you remember that?”

“Because it sounded so good.”

“...the right time to push.”

She inhaled deeply. Her heart was racing. She teetered too far. Finally, she was toppling. fall into it.

“Nick,” She breathed, as he traced a line up her arm with his finger, sending her into an even deeper abyss. “You want all in?”

“I want it with you.”

It was one of the most beautiful things she had ever heard.

“That’s exactly what I want, too.”

All the options for what to do next were terrifying, but finally, not telling her was more terrifying than the rest.

“I trust that you’ll tell them to me…”

His thumb was grazing slowly across her cheek and she felt so weak.

“Colleen.” He whispered. “...when you’re ready for me to know them.”

“Yeah.” Every nerve ending in her body was tingling with anticipation.

His eyes caught hers. “I love you.”

The words hit her and she barely believed they were real but at the same time, they felt so familiar - like they belonged to her - even though she had never heard them from him before.

“No. I’ve always loved you. I have always loved you. Now... now it’s that I’m in love with you.” He said looking at her directly, holding her face in his hands.

She smiled at him as her heart fluttered wildly inside her chest. “I’m in love with you.” He said again, enjoying the sensation of the words in his mouth. “God, I am so in love with you.” This time, he said it with a lot of relief and a smile.

“I’m in love with you too. I have been.” Every muscle in her body relaxed and a few tears spilled out of her eyes. He wrapped his arms around her and she buried her face in his neck. “I’m in such crazy, disorganized, ridiculous love with you.” She whispered.

“I should have told you sooner.” He sighed, “everyone told me I should tell you.” He held her tightly to his body.

“I’m glad you waited until you were ready on your own.” She pulled away from him and touched his cheek.

“It just didn’t matter anymore. I had to tell you. I love you so much.”

Chapter 44 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

In a haze of pure happiness, Coll returned to her room the next morning to find Becka curled up on the bed crying hysterically. She dropped everything and moved fast in Becka’s direction, suddenly feeling more concerned than happy.

“Hey, what’s going on??”

Becka’s face was splotchy and she shook her head, maintaining her stare into the distance.

“Beck…” Coll said firmly, “Did something happen with Howie?”

Becka shrugged.

“Talk to me.” Coll said calmly as she sat next to her and placed her hand on her hip.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Just … say everything.”

Becka sniffled and closed her eyes again, pressing some more tears out.

--


“What else did Coll tell you about me?”

“Not much actually.”

“Well, she told you I speak Spanish when I get emotional.”

“Actually Nick told me that she told him that,” Howie admitted, running his thumb across the back of her hand he was holding in his.

“Oh.”

“Sorry, that’s kind of how things are around here … you get your info from various sources by way of other sources.”

“I see…”

“I’m kind of glad I didn’t know a lot.”

She smiled. “Why?”

“So I can find out for myself.”

She smirked at him and tilted her head slightly, “I’ll admit I only read a little bit of the book.”

He laughed, “So you don’t know that much about me either…”

“Not like I would even if I had read the whole thing. Not the really good stuff. The worthwhile stuff.”

“True.”

“So tell me something the book wouldn’t publish.”

“I already told you about the plane!”

“Something about you, silly.” She laughed and slid ever so slightly in his direction on her lounger.

His eyes shifted, “What do you want to know?”

“Anything.” She shrugged.

“Something you can analyze?” He laughed.

“Just something… jeez, is this how you are on first dates?”

“Alright alright. When I was younger I was a little… chunkier. People called me doughboy.” He pouted.

“Doughboy??”

“Yeah because of my last name…” He laughed.

“No, I get it, I just… wow.” She smiled, trying not to giggle, “I’m sorry. Kids are terrible.”

“Yeah.” He sighed, “Brutal.”

“The worst…”

“There is one thing I keep thinking about.”

“What’s that?”

“You said you weren’t patient or sensitive.”

“Huh?”

“On the curb the other night. You said you weren’t like Coll.”

“Complete opposites in most ways, yeah.” She smirked.

“But doesn’t your job demand a lot of patience?”

“Let’s be clear, it’s not technically a job til you get paid actual dollars for it.” She laughed.

“Even more so then.”

“I guess I meant like, patience as a quality people might find attractive. Nick is lucky Coll is so sensitive and patient and … she’s not blinded by emotion. I am sometimes.” Becka said, “I get triggered.” She took a deep breath, “We are all lucky she’s like that, actually.”

--


“He scares me.” Becka finally stated.

“He scares you?”

“Yes.” Becka squeaked.

“Why?”

Becka looked at her, sadness in her eyes and tears on her cheeks. “Because when I’m with him I feel like I could win which also makes me feel like the pain of losing is so significant. That’s part of why I didn’t sleep with him. It felt like it could be something real and I didn’t want to fuck it up or get attached.”

Coll considered the idea momentarily.

“Like, he could be something real and that’s never happened before.” She cried, thinking back to her conversation with Nick the day before, knowing for sure now that she understood him perfectly.

“But isn’t that good?”

“No it’s jarring and weird and it makes me feel vulnerable.” She wiped some tears off her cheek.

Coll sighed, she had heard it all before. Becka had been saying it for years about how she felt like she had the upper hand with men - like she was untouchable emotionally. “I’ve already been hurt as deeply as a person can be hurt… I’ve already been as sad as I could be so no one can do anything to me that’s any worse than that.” And they had spoken about it at length before. Coll always mused that it would be so wonderful when Becka discovered that she is capable of being hurt by someone else because that would mean something magical.

And she smiled at her sister again now. “Becka,”

“I know what you’re going to say and I guess you’re right in some ways. I guess right now I’m just dealing with the fact I felt anything at all. It’s like I said about the doors, and walking through them even if they are open. I could tell... ”

Coll pouted at her playfully, reached for Becka’s hand and held it tightly and they sat there together in silence for a while.


--

“I can tell there is something. You told me there was. But I’m not asking because I want to know you better first.”

“I know.” She smiled and splashed some water at him.

“But eventually... you’ll tell me?”

“It depends.”

“On?”

“Everything.”

He smiled at her.

“It’s okay for you to like the mystery. It’s normal.”

“I think I just like you.”

She felt her stomach tighten up inside. “That’s fine too.”

“Fine?”

“You can enjoy the mystery but… you might think I’m more mysterious than I actually am. It makes me a bit nervous.” She dipped her shoulder back under the water as he swam around her.

“You’re less mysterious than I think?”

“I guess I’m just afraid it’s not all that interesting.”

“I doubt that.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“Where there’s smoke there’s usually fire.” Howie said.

Treading the water in front of him, Becka smiled at him sadly. “And where there is fire you’re likely to get burned.”

“Maybe I like the heat.”

Her heart was thumping in her ears as she looked at him. She tried to check in with her own feelings and define them but she didn’t recognize them.

--



Becka let out a loud sigh and Coll looked at her again, “You and Howie?!” She smiled.

“Trust me no one is more upset about this than I am.”

Coll twirled a piece of hair around her finger as Becka sat up a bit straighter against the headboard. “Anyway… how was your night?”

“Well… Nick told me he’s in love with me.” She blurted out.

Becka’s face brightened significantly and she brought her hand to her mouth.

“Oh my god! You’ve been here for at least six minutes and didn’t mention it?”

Coll smiled and pushed the piece of hair behind her ear. “Becka…”

“Oh my god Colleen, tell me everything.”

“It was just like… perfect and sweet and … I don’t know I just feel so relieved.”

“And you finally told him then too right?”

Coll nodded.

“So, so good.” Becka pressed her hand to her chest. “I love it.”

They looked at each other for a moment and Becka felt a pang of anxiety in her chest.

“Now what?” Becka asked.

“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

“Well, I’m scared shitless and you are beaming like a supernova, so…”

“Actually, Becka…” Coll bit her lip, “I think he does make you happy, you just have to let yourself be open to it.”

Becka shook her head, “I get it. I really do get it… but what can I even do? I’m leaving tomorrow and he’s staying here and we have completely different lives and this whole thing was probably just a fun little weekend fling.” She felt it deep in her belly that that wasn’t true but it sounded like it should be.

“So what happened?”

“It was just different. I don’t know. I didn’t feel like I wanted to prove anything or like I had to be someone or like I wanted to push him just to see how far I could get. I just wanted to be there. It was nice to just... be there.”

“Did you talk about any of this with him?”

“He said he liked me.”

Coll’s eyes widened, “And?”

“I said, that’s fine.”

Coll laughed, “That’s almost as bad as when John told me he was in love with me and I said ‘no you aren’t’...”

A small smile appeared on her face. “It’s not anywhere near as bad as that.”

“Alright, well… fine?”

“I know,” Becka cringed.

“What about thirty seconds of insane courage?”

“Who said I didn’t use my thirty seconds or less of insane courage?”

“Did you?”

Becka shrugged.

“Just tell me what’s going on in your head.”

“I know enough to know that if someone wants to be in my life nothing will stop them. And I know that it works both ways.”

Chapter 45 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

After their early morning chat, Becka fell back to sleep for a couple of hours. In the quiet of the suite during that time, Coll floated from one thing to the next… folding her clothes and repacking her suitcase, taking a shower and wringing her hair out - all the while finding it felt a bit in need of a trim she wondered if Tami might help her out that evening once done with the guys. She sorted through her toiletries - still at the bare essential level and dug into Becka’s looking for something to tame her fly always until Tami could assist. As she did these things her mind wandered to thoughts of Nick and reliving the night before, a wide smile happening across her face as she did so. She thought about Becka and Howie and how crazy the idea seemed, not just because of coincidence but because Howie was so pure and kind and patient while Becka was a fiery ball of sarcasm and wit and possessed so much baggage and emotion it just seemed like an odd match. She thought about Melanie receiving her email and what she might think of the implications associated with the photos. And finally she found herself thinking about Florida. He had asked her to go home with him. It was such an enticing prospect there was no way she could have forgotten it, but it was so brief and minor in the landscape of all that happened last night. How would she tell her parents? Was there a reason to? Was there a way to make it seem like a convenient stop over on the way back to New England? Was there a way to tell them she and Nick were … what? Dating? Together? Involved? On the brink of greatness?

As she was mindlessly pulling a brush from Becka’s bag through her hair, the door the the bathroom swung further open and Becka walked in drowsily, startling Coll out of her reverie.

“You scared me.” Coll spat out. Suddenly realizing maybe that was a poor choice of words based on Becka’s admission from that morning.

“Sorry,” Becka winced, “I need coffee and Advil and I need it ASAP.”

“I’ll be ready when you are. I think we should explore the city a bit today. So that when you get home you have a couple stories you can actually tell.”

“Oh sweet innocent Colleen… I’ve always got a story to tell.”

Coll rolled her eyes and left Becka alone.


Becka downed three Advil with a small glass of water and started in on a cup of coffee as Coll browsed the menu of a small cafe near the hotel.

“I love Europe but they need mugs. Big mugs. And ice. Iced coffee… it’s not that far fetched is it?”

Coll giggled.

“The results should be the same in the end.”

“Is there anything else you can tell me about last night?”

“I told you just about everything.”

“Everything? No. You didn’t. I don’t even know where this happened. What were you wearing? What happened after?”

“I was wearing my bathing suit. The only article of clothing I came here with that I still retain ownership of. It happened in his hotel room.”

Becka eyed her sister from across the small table. “Ok. My mistake I thought you’d feel a little more emotional about it than a hypothesis in a game of Clue.”

Coll tilted her head, “Honestly. Haven’t had a lot of time to think about it.”

“Liar.”

“What can I say really? None of the other details even matter.” She smiled.

“I’m just looking for a distraction.”

Coll’s gaze settled on Becka’s. “You know that’s not the answer.”

“Not sure I’m ready for an answer right now.” Becka sighed as she turned her attention to the menu and Coll watched for a long second before deciding to let it go.


They hadn’t even gotten to the check portion of their meal when Coll’s phone was beeping with messages from Billy.

_ send me your location

_ Jen’s orders

Coll rolled her eyes and dialed Billy’s number.

“Is this your life now?” Becka asked.

Coll stared at her. “No.” She said before Billy picked up.



After a fun day of casually exploring the city, Coll and Becka arrived at the venue about half an hour before the guys would be suiting up for their skateboard flight across the arena. They were wrapping up an on-site radio interview in the lounge when Jen approached the girls in the corridor.

Coll sighed and smiled at her softly, holding the wide brimmed hat she had worn all day up like evidence in trial as Jen neared. “Was this the absolute best you could do?”

“Short of sending Billy along for girls day out, yes.” She explained with an air of happiness in her voice, though she retained her authoritative tone. “I’ll take it now unless you want to keep it.”

“No, thanks.”

“I appreciate you cooperating.”

Coll rolled her eyes.

Billy informed her on the phone that morning that Jen was not comfortable with Coll out in the city all day unaccompanied and undisguised. To her it made no sense. Whatever blurry and dark image there was of Nick and her in Spain could not possible implicate her in a life of having to hide, or the probability of being recognized in a sea of people. And while Billy sympathized with her, he also asked for her location so he could bring her the hat Jen wanted her to wear - her idea of a compromise. Knowing she was too honest to not wear it, Jen felt okay enough with that for now.

“Is there really nothing else I should know?” Coll asked

Jen looked at her kindly, “Not a single thing.” She said quickly before retreating down the hall with the hat squished between her ever present clipboard and her chest.

“I don’t believe you!” Coll boldly called out after her but she didn’t turn around.

“You should have kept the hat.” Becka scoffed as Coll ran her hands through her hair.

“I’m going to find Tami.” Coll said blankly and walked off in the opposite direction Jen had, leaving Becka standing there nodding, accepting the abandonment.



From her standing position in the front row that night, swaying along to the music next to Becka, she watched Nick move around the stage. She hadn’t seen him since that morning, when he rolled over and kissed her and said good morning in a raspy voice before trailing kisses down her neck. They enjoyed those quiet, kissable moments for a few minutes before getting up and ready and parting ways in the elevator.

-

“See you later.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”


-

The memory made her heart swell.

She watched him a bit closer than normal. She had fallen into a state of ease after the malaise she felt earlier in the summer, those nights she tracked him around the stage incessantly. Once things had started happening between them, she began to relax and enjoy the show in its entirety more. Once she had the promise of being with him later in the night, there was no rush to consume everything during this hour and a half. She had gotten to see him do things and know parts of him no one else got to, the things he did on stage were still impressive and tantalizing but she had something better so she watched the whole show. But tonight she was watching him again. And tonight is was not as her friend, not as someone she was trying to hide an attraction to, and not even as someone she was involved with. She was looking at him and watching him knowing it was something else, but she didn’t know what to call it. Did it matter?


“Your husband is really into it tonight.” Becka shouted.

That’s not it.“You have to stop calling him that.”

“Oh please. I did it twice.”

Coll shook her head.

What should I call him?”

“Ni-“

“Your soulmate?”

Her cheeks flushed red and her legs felt weak for a moment.

Maybe.

Coll looked at her as Leighanne placed her hand on her forearm. “You’re so pretty.” She crooned wistfully. Coll rolled her eyes with a smile knowing Leighanne was on her fourth glass of champagne.

“Listen.” She said returning her attention to Becka, “You don’t hear me calling Howie all sorts of far fetched things.”

Becka’s affect changed, her stomach twisted. “Because it’s not plausible.”

Nick being my husband is plausible? Coll took a long sip of her beer and turned back to the stage. She could have swore her eye caught Nick’s and he smiled at her. As he did, two girls behind her started screeching even louder than they had been and she felt a smile spread across her face.

She was standing there looking at him when all of the things rushed through her at once. She had told him, finally, that she was in love with him. But she knew there was more. She knew she had to tell him about the depths of it, the fountain, the feeling, the vision. She thought of Becka I would want someone to tell her she’s it. She’s the one they’ve waited for, I’d want her to know.

For at least another minute, the girls behind her assured themselves and each other that Nick had in fact noticed them and smiled. All the while, Coll stood, entranced in the moment, reeling in the good feelings the anticipation of the night ahead left her with and realizing she was the absolute happiest she had ever been. Unmistakable. Meant to be. Can’t screw it up.

Chapter 46 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Becka averted her eyes and took a deep breath as Coll approached her.
“Hey, did you decide?” Her voice was sweet and careful. Coll had told her earlier in the day that it was obviously completely up to her how she wanted the two of them to travel that night and not even thirty minutes before this moment, they discussed it again.

_

“This morning you told me it felt like it could be something and then this evening you said it wasn’t plausible and so I’m just wonder-“

“Colleen, I have no clue what’s happening. I have one thousand percent never felt like this before.”

Coll paused and reached her hand out to Becka’s arm. “I get it.”

_


“I know you want-“

“No. No no. Please don’t care what I want. I can survive the night away from Nick.”

“I know you can, I just… still thought about it.”

“Well, don’t.”

“I’ll go with Howie.”

Coll perked up. “That’s completely what you want, yes?”

Becka smiled, “Yes.” She shrugged, “I don’t know, Colleen, what any of this is or means or whatever but, for tonight, yeah. That’s what I want.”

“Okay.” Coll nodded, her mind reeling over thoughts of Becka and Howie together. “Let’s go.”


With her suitcase rolling along easily behind her, Coll made her way to Nick’s bus with Becka in tow.

“Are we bad people?” Coll asked again.

“Coll, I’m positive that we aren’t.” Becka smiled, as Coll turned back to look at her. “Don’t feel bad. We are both getting what we want. We’ve spent our whole lives together.” Becka rationalized with a laugh, “What’s a few nights?”

Coll rolled her eyes with a smile. “I know, i just feel like … weird about it.”

“There are no rules, Colleen. We had fun didn’t we? Talked a lot… had experiences together… what does it matter that we sleep in different places tonight?”

“And every night you’ve been here practically.”

“Coll, if you really would rather snuggle with me tonight just say the word.” Becka teased.

“That’s why i feel bad! I would not rather!” She laughed.

Becka giggled, “Okay, then we are even.”

“This is what I mean!! Are we bad people?”

“No. We just wanna have fun.”

Obligated, Coll thought it over. “Fine. But when i’m back to Boston we are having a weekend just the two of us.”

“Okay.” Becka nodded, “Will do. I’m there. You’ll be back to America in a week anyway.”

“Oh shit, I forgot to tell you.” She paused her walk and turned to face to Becka. “I’m going to Florida.”

“Florida?”

“With Nick. After the tour ends. Before I go back to Boston.”

“For how long? Weren’t you going to stop and visit the parents?”

“I actually have no clue. And yes, I was.”

Becka laughed lightly. “Okay, so I’ll see you in Connecticut. Remind me to congratulate him on getting you to Florida.” She sighed heavily as she pulled harder on her suitcase handle.

“I didn’t realize I permeated such an enduring disgust for-”

“Hey, why is your’s rolling with such ease?” Becka asked, exasperated as she motioned to Coll’s suitcase.

“Because I have the absolute bare minimum inside of it.”

“Multiple pairs of adorable matching pajamas is not the bare minimum.”

“For me it kind of is…”

“Ladies!!” Nick’s voice called out to them from down the line of buses. “We gotta go!”

He was laughing as he jogged over to them. He quickly took Coll’s bag from her and kissed her on the cheek before grabbing Becka’s from her as well in one swoopy movement.

“My hero.” Becka swooned sarcastically as she and Coll fell into rapid step behind him.

“Your stop, Ms. Parker?” Nick asked as they arrived at Howie’s bus, looking to Becka for confirmation. She nodded and he rapped his knuckles against the door. They saw Howie approaching the door and Coll quickly gave Becka a hug and said goodnight.

“Love you. See you in the morning.”

“Love you, too.” Becka said quietly.

“It’s okay to be a little afraid.” Coll whispered before backing away. Becka smiled softly at her as Howie opened the door.

“Night guys.” Nick waved quickly before taking Coll’s hand and the two of them continued on. Coll looked over her shoulder back at Becka who waved her off.


“You came!” Howie smiled. He was freshly showered and had a small towel hanging over his bare shoulder.

She laughed lightly as he reached out for her suitcase. She climbed aboard and the door snapped shut behind her.

“Well, plan A fell through.” She teased.

“Oh, so I’m just your consolation prize?” He asked as he let her suitcase down.

She was quiet for a moment and he turned to look at her. She was smiling shyly and shook her head, tucking some hair behind her ear. “I think it only counts as consolation if you’re upset plan A didn’t work out.”

“Ahh I see.” He nodded.



Nick flung the door to his bus open hastily, pressing his back against it to hold it open for Coll who smiled and moved in past him. He followed her, carrying her suitcase up the steps and letting it down near the couch past the entryway.

She turned to face him and suddenly his hands were cupping her face in and he was kissing her. She relaxed into him for at least two minutes before he paused to ask her how her day had been.

“Not as excellent as last night but, overall it was pretty good.”

He smiled and pushed her hair over her shoulder.

“Jen made me wear a ridiculous hat all day.”

“A hat?”

“Yeah. All floppy and big and … ridiculous.”

“A hat.” He stated, curiosity in his tone.

“She claims people might recognize me …? That’s insane right? How and why would that happen? Recognize me as what?”

Nick rolled his eyes. “She’s testing you. I’ll talk to her.”

Coll narrowed her eyes, “Testing me?”

Nick shrugged. “She is who she is.”

“Testing me for what? Does that mean nothing is going on?”

“Yeah. She’s crazy but she knows what she’s doing.”

“So she doesn’t actually think I’m going to get mobbed?”

“Probably not. I think she was a little worried after the photo but… no. She just wants to see if you’ll … do it.”

“Do what?”

“Follow her lead.”

She looked at him perplexed.

“I’m telling you… you’re in.”

She pursed her lips to one side, “What does that actually mean?”

He took her hand in his at her side, “it means eventually people will find out how crazy in love with you I am and she wants to be ready for that. She wants YOU to be ready for that.”

“Nick…”

“There’s nothing to worry about she’s just … she used the Spain thing as a launch pad for being paranoid.” He laughed lightly, moving one of his hands to brush her hair over her shoulder, noticing it looked particularly shiny.
“So I’m not going to end up in some tabloid or attacked by crazed teenagers or -“

“I can’t say it won’t happen but… that’s what she wants to avoid. She knows it gets a little nuts when people start asking us if we have girlfriends or whatever.”

“It did seem odd... she doesn’t make Leighanne wear hats…”

“Because it’s not necessary … she kind of hazed you.” He said with as much empathy as possible but he was smiling.

“I feel stupid.”

“Don’t.”

“I did it for you more than her.”

“I know you did.” His hand slid up her arm, “you’re the best.”

“Okay.” She conceded easily as he leaned in to kiss her.

“Did you do something to your hair?” he asked.

Her eyes met his and she smiled.



“I have wine.” Howie mentioned as he gazed into the fridge.

“What color is it?”

“Pink, actually.”

Becka shrugged, “that works.”

“Not sure where this came from but… it’s here.”

Becka smiled as she gave her hair a final squeeze into the towel in her lap.

“Shower was surprisingly nice.”

“Yeah,” Howie nodded as he poured out a glass of rose for Becka. “This one is pretty decent.”

“Tell me more, oh great mobile-shower connoisseur.” She giggled as she tucked her foot up under her.

“Just got lucky I think… good water pressure.” He explained as he brought the glass to her and sat beside her with his own.

“Thank you.” She said as she took the glass from him. She brought it to her lips and took a sip, silently considering a tangled string of thoughts. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

A small pang of guilt reverberated through her chest. “This is almost against everything I believe in but… for the greater good. And just to be clear, I’m asking for your insight… your experience with him. Not his story.”

“Got it. What’s up?”

“Is Nick always like this or is it a Coll thing?”

“Like what?”

She thought about it again for a moment, trying to honestly sort out her reasons for asking.

“Concerned.” She said, “Careful.”

“Did he say something to you?”

Becka’s eyes wandered, and she tried not to let on too much.

In her silence, Howie went on, “This is not his usual. Which is a good thing.”

“I see...” she nodded, “so he’s what...? Usually? Like...” she took a long breath and a stab at it, “kind of a player? It’s been so long since I’ve spent any significant time with him and I know he’s grown up …but he seems a little more… subdued. Not just compared to what I’ve known but compared to what I expected.”

“I don’t want to call him a player but he’s not usually really like ... trying to be anyone’s boyfriend let’s put it that way. I mean, he’s nineteen...”

“Sure. Yeah. So… he likes to date? Sleep around? He told me about Mandy.”

“Yeah, I mean ...”

Becka rested her arm on the back of the couch and pressed her hand casually into her forehead, swirling her wine around in the glass with the other.

“He likes that fleeting, no-commitment stuff?”

“I guess.”

“He gets excited about the potential and then loses interest?”

“Well… not anymore it seems.”

“He wants to see how many people he can create even the slightest connection with because some other things are disconnected?”

“Are you really asking me anymore or...”

She smiled, “I get it.”

“You see this a lot, don’t you? In your program?”

“No, not really. I work with kids. I mean, sure, I’ve seen it… in case studies or whatever but, not with my actual people. But, they have their own things...”

“Oh.” Kids?

“I get it because that’s how I was.” She said, “and still have to actively try not to be.”

“That surprises me.”

“Why? Because it’s the opposite of Coll? I told you, we are true opposites.”

“I don’t know her that well yet.”

“You know she’s a virgin.”

“She mentioned it.”

Becka wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “Either way, I get it with Nick. I don’t know what his demons are... I just know enough to know he’s used sex the same way I did. To escape and test and push the boundaries and see how far you can go...” She paused.

“So,” Howie hummed, “you’re saying Nick shifted because of Coll?”

“Well actually, that’s what I'm asking. Is that what happened? That’s more or less what you suggested.”

“Oh. Right…”

“And yeah, I do think that. I guess that’s true. When you get to something where it actually might matter if it breaks, you stop.”

Howie was looking at her, interested by not terrified.

“I don’t think he wanted to be that way he just enjoyed it while it was happening.”

“Of course.”

“He loves her. I guess that’s the biggest difference.” Howie explained as he slid further into the couch, reclining into it deeper. “And she loves him which actually is maybe even a bigger difference.”

She could feel her palms starting to sweat and her nerves on edge. “Loneliness is such a powerful force.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t speak for Nick, but for me, a lot of it boiled down to feeling alone. That’s what I eventually figured out.”

His eyes were trained on her and she looked away briefly, “Loneliness is tragic.”



“Did you hear back from Mel?”

“Actually I haven’t checked my email today.” Coll replied as she finished buttoning her pajama top and slid into a sitting position on the edge of Nick’s bed.

“Oh.”

He was running his hands through his hair and examining it in the mirror.

“I’ll check tomorrow.” She said as she was reminded of Melanie’s last email to her and what she had said about John, feeling annoyed again he had asked Melanie about her under the guise of something Melanie actually cared about. Why is he still so interested? Why doesn’t he get the hint? Maybe I need to be explicit. Maybe I *do* have to tell him about nick. Or not Nick exactly but … a relationship. What is this called? Does it matter?

“Coll?”

“Hmm.

“What’s up, SC?”

“SC?”

“Space cadet… you were out there for a minute.”

She hung her head, “sorry.” don’t talk about it. “Sorry, what’s up?”
He smirked at her but said nothing.

She smiled as he leaned in closer to her. “Did you smile at me during the show?”

“You saw that I did.”

“There were two girls behind me who did such an excellent job convincing themselves you were smiling at them I started to question what I saw.”

He laughed, “it was you.” His arm slipped around her waist and she turned into face him.

“I win.” She smiled.

“I like looking out and seeing you there.”

She nodded as he leaned in to kiss her.



She ran her finger tip along the rim of her glass, “Honestly, is there anything worse than feeling alone? It’s worse than being sad. Sometimes being sad is sort of… beautiful. But feeling alone… feeling lonely… it never is. Even when other people are around you can still feel alone and that’s the worst. To be in a room full of people and still feel so alone…” She looked at him and he nodded, feeling his heart rate increase with every word she spoke. “It’s horrible. Because it’s from within you. It took me too long to realize that.”

He watched as a tear rolled off her cheek and she pushed it away with her finger.

“Like just being sad is different. People feel for you when you’re sad - they can see it. Being sad is catharsis. You just… feel it and you let it out. And yeah, sometimes it takes a while to get it all out. Sometimes you won’t ever get it all out. But at least you can try. Loneliness is different, there’s nowhere for it to go. It just is. feeling alone… it’s so isolating and no one would know. No one can see it.”

“You’ve felt that way before.”

He wasn’t asking but she answered anyway. “Many times.”

His mind drifted back to the day after the award show last year, the phone call from Pollyanna… the deep loneliness he felt.

“I understand.” He breathed, “you’re right.” How does she articulate all of this? She’s had a lot of time to think about it.

“Exactly. You must know how it feels especially. Everyone paying attention to you, people everywhere… but still feeling alone because no one gets it. Whatever ‘it’ happens to be. There is no other word for it… it’s tragical.”

“That’s very true.” He agreed. “So what do you do when you feel lonely?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “Well, it’s been a while actually. But… stupid shit.”

“Like?”

“I didn’t realize it when I was a kid that I felt alone because no one had experiences like I did. The aloneness wasn’t from being by myself physically it was from feeling so separate from everyone. So as I grew up I kept trying to feel less alone… physically. Thinking that would solve my issue. But it doesn’t. Because feeling alone is an inside thing. But it took me forever to really understand that. Sometimes I think maybe I did know it, but I didn’t understand it. Like, I used to tell people everything about me thinking that if I told them they would understand and I guess I hoped that would help. But no one understood. And a lot of them left. So I stopped telling people who I really am.” She felt a tear roll off her cheek, “I did so many reckless things. I got it in my head that if I was with someone ‘special’ … they would make me feel less alone. They didn’t have to know everything about me, they just had to be with me in a way no one else could be. I don’t mean physically… but that’s where I figured it would start. I’d be with people and hope it turned into something more. So I stopped telling people everything. I stopped telling people who I really was and none of it made any sense but … I just thought, maybe if I could be with someone that way, I would feel less alone.” She shook her head, “obviously that was stupid. But I believed that for so long. And I just… kept trying to find that person who would make me feel less alone. I slept around a lot. Like, a ton.” Her stomach turned. He didn’t wince. “I was just… waiting for something to click.”

She looked at him briefly, trying to get a sense of how much he actually wanted to know.

“Did it help?”

“No. Sometimes, temporarily. I mean, it was fun at times. But no. I never felt like...” she paused to think about how to say it without saying it.

“You don’t do that anymore.” He said before she could continue. His eyes were intent on watching her, the air between them felt warm and heavy.

She smiled shyly. “Eventually I got bored. It wasn’t exciting anymore, even the gamble of doing it and seeing if it might work the way I wanted it to, it wasn’t exciting anymore. It was all neutral. Just a holding pattern... Sure having sex is fun but, I got bored of just having sex. And that’s all it ever was.” She hung her head and he reached out, placing his hand above her knee. “Which meant there was nothing to be afraid of. But not having anything to be afraid of made it hard to stop, and hard to protect myself.”

“You didn’t have anything to be afraid of because…” They looked at each other and she let him twist his fingers into hers and she looked away again. “Because nothing could be as bad as whatever came before? Because you had already been hurt?”

Her eyes darted up to meet his. “What?”

“You felt like it didn’t matter what happened with people because you weren’t afraid of being hurt by them… because it wasn’t any worse than the hurt you already felt, or - the hurt of feeling alone.”

Her mind went into overdrive. How does he know that? Colleen knows that but she wouldn’t tell him that, would she? When would she have even seen him today to tell him that? Was it before? Why would she? “... did Colleen tell you that?” she asked nervously as she took her hand from his.

“No?”

She stood up quickly and took a step back from him. A splash of wine spilled over the side of her glass a bit from the sudden movement.

“What’s wrong?”

“No, how did you know that?”

“That’s what you just said.”

“No, i-”

“You said when you get to something where it might matter if it breaks, you stop.”

She looked at him, startled and warm and feeling completely overwhelmed.

He stood up next to her. “Becka.” His voice was calm and quiet.

“What?”

His hand moved slowly to her arm where he touched her shoulder and she didn’t flinch. The heat spread instantly across her skin. “How do you feel right now?” His tone was somewhere between concerned, curious and flirtatious.

Terrified.

Chapter 47 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Tengo miedo.”

His eyes turned sad. “Por que?”

“Honestly, I feel like I talk too much about myself.” She said solemnly, dropping her head into her hand, holding her palm against her forehead.

“You don’t. Also, I want to know all of it.”

Her eyes wandered around the room for a second before meeting his again.

“Rebecka. I want to know you better, but I’m happy to do it on your terms.”

She felt his hand run up her arm. Her mind was racing through everything she knew better about. She thought about leaving things unsaid and how there is never a time to feel truly ready for something so important. She thought about Nick and Coll and telling Nick to give her a chance and trust her and how she knew she should do the same. And she desperately wanted to, but couldn’t. Not yet.

“I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“I know.” his hand found hers and he led her back to his bed where they sat on the edge of it together.

“That changes things.”

He shrugged, “For me it doesn’t. You won’t be here but I’m still going to be fascinated by you.”

She looked up at him and he wrapped both of his hands around hers.

Silence fell between them and Becka’s back tingled, enjoying the feel of his hands around hers, like it made sense. “I like you. But you scare me.”

“So that’s a good thing.” he smirked.

“I’m not like everyone else. It’s like backwards and opposite and -“

“I don’t want you to be like everyone else. I just want to know who you are.”

“I’m a mess.”

“I don’t think so.”

She breathed back some tears and looked down at her hand in his. Thirty seconds of insane courage. Just thirty seconds or less of insane courage. “I don’t feel alone when I’m with you.” She said quickly, her heart pounding in her chest. “I didn’t sleep with you because I felt like something real was happening. You’re the thing that it would matter if it broke.”

He nodded. “Something real is happening.”

“It is?” She asked nervously. And that’s why I don’t feel alone. Because i’m not.

“You’re here even though you’re scared.”

true.

“And I like it a lot.”

She couldn’t help it, she smiled softly at him.

“I haven’t stopped thinking about you. Not just you but the things you’ve said…”

“Oh?”

“You’re interesting and quirky and deep and beautiful. And I want to know more. I want to know all the real things about you.”

”I think you’d be surprised.” “Why?” She asked quietly. She didn’t know why she asked, she just didn’t know what else to say.

“Why?”

“I’m so-“

“Mysterious? Risky?”

Her senses went into overdrive.

“You’re the kind of risk I want to take, Becka. But at the same time, this mess you think you are … I don’t see it that way.”

“Wh-“

“I see pieces of some story that you haven’t told me yet. Not just one story - all of them. All the stories that make you who you are. It’s not a mess, the pieces all work together- they come together in a way that built you. So how could that be a mess? You’re you.” He began, “There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do, that I wouldn’t want to do, to discover every single piece of what makes you, you.”

A tear popped into her eye and she moved quickly to brush it away but he stopped her, reaching for her other hand before it reached her face.

She glanced up at him and away quickly as the tear escaped her eye and traveled down her face.

“I’m not afraid of whatever it is. Because I’m not afraid of you or what it means that I feel the way I do or what it means that when you’re with me you don’t feel alone. And I’m not afraid of what it means - what I know it means- that you feel scared of me.” He smiled. “I want you to decide when you tell me and tell me because you want me to know not because you think I should. I’m willing to wait.”

She inhaled deeply and slowly, making it last as long as possible, using the time to try to think straight. “There’s fight or flight… fight or flight… you know fight or flight.” She began, he nodded… unsure where she was going with this. “But we also have freeze.”

“Freeze?”

“Yeah. It’s neither fight or flight it’s just … freeze. Pause. Stop.”

He looked at her thoughtfully, “okay.”

Nervously, she licked her lips. The anxiety was bubbling over. “I feel like that’s where I am.” He was looking at her and listening intently. “I don’t feel like I have to fight and I don’t feel like I have to flee… I just feel like I don’t know. I like it right here even though i’m terrified.”

“I don’t know either, but we can figure it out.” He said, “together. If you want.”

“It’s okay to be a little afraid. “I’d like that.”



Coll moved her finger along the line of shark fin tattooed on Nick’s shoulder. The low hum of the AC, the wheels on the road and the occasional jostling of cargo created a muted soundtrack in the background. They had made out, got undressed, fooled around and were now relaxing in his bed, both of them scantily clad and in no rush to change it.

“What’s your next tattoo going to be?”

“Not sure yet.”

She smiled against his chest, “There’s always another…”

He nodded as his fingertips traveled up her bare back. “Coll.”

“Yeah.” She responded but he didn’t speak again right away. She lifted her body off of his to look at him. “What’s up?”

“I’m not a good boyfriend.”

She pursed her lips together and pulled the sheet up and held it to her chest. “You weren’t a good boyfriend to Mandy because you didn’t love her.” She began, “but I know that you love me. I knew it before you even told me.”

“I do love you.”

“I love you, too.” she said quietly as his hand slid behind her neck.

“Will you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“When you’re ready.”

She knew what he meant and it sent a wave of heat through her body. “I will. But, you’ll know.”

“You trust me that much?”

She nodded as a small smile played on her lips. “There’s more to tell you before that.”

His face lit up with curiosity, “Like what?”

She smiled and leaned down to kiss him. “There’s no rush.”



Laying next to him, with their bodies rolled in facing each other and her fingers tangled into Howie's again, Becka was enjoying the simple intimacy of being present with him. He had made her laugh, telling her a story about something Brian had done earlier that day, and he had kissed her for a while. It was casual but it felt like anything but.

“Tell me more.”

“About?”

“You.” She said happily. “We certainly talked enough about me.”

She watched as something in his expression changed ever so slightly and he took a deep breath. He squeezed her hand in his. “Becka. My sister is dead.”

“Excuse me?”

“My sister died. Last year. She had lupus.”

“Oh my god. I’m so sorry to know that.”

He nodded.

“How old was she?”

“Thirty seven.”

“Shit.” Becka whispered. “I am so sorry. What is her name?”

Is? “Caroline.”

“I wish I knew that sooner.”

“I’m telling you now so you’d know you’re not the only one with baggage and there’s more for us to know about each other.”

She felt tears stinging in her eyes. “I’m sorry to know that’s part of it.” She felt her heart beating faster than normal as she pressed her available hand into her chest, “But I’m glad you told me.”

His eyes locked on hers. “I have a feeling you know what it’s like to lose someone important. To lose them too soon.”

She felt her lungs filling up and her nose start to tingle as tears pooled in her eyes. She blinked them away, pushing them down her cheek as his hand moved to her face.

Chapter 48 by elleinad
Author's Notes:


“What time is your flight?” Howie asked quietly.

“One.”

The bus had been parked for an hour and they were trying to extend the time they had but it was rapidly running out.

“I know we are just going to see what happens but… when will I see you next? Do i have anything to look forward to?” She asked cautiously.

“I know for sure that we will be around in September…”

“Connecticut?”

“Boston and Long Island…. can I get you to either of those?”

She smiled, “I’m always up for a trip to Boston.”

“We can send a driver for you…”

“That’s excessive.”

“It’s up to you.”

“I’ll think about it. In the meantime, if you wanna talk … you can call.” She said sweetly.

“I will absolutely call you.” He said definitively, “and also probably text you because of the time zone thing.”

She wrinkled her nose at him, “don’t be offended if I don’t write back. It costs so much to send texts.”

“Does it?”

“Yes! It’s like thirty cents a message. And it takes forever to type everything out… three clicks to get a freaking E... It’s hard.” She giggled.

“I’ll give you a hundred dollars before you leave and you can let me know when I have to re-up my balance so you can send me messages and not worry about how much it costs.”

She rolled her eyes. “Just call me after eight eastern and it’ll be free.”

“But with the time difference-“

“You’re only in Europe another week. There’s also email.”

“Fine. I’ll still give you a hundred dollars though.” He said before leaning in to kiss her neck.

“Do you have three hundred and thirty three point three three text messages worth of things to say to me?”

He pulled back to look at her. His face was serious but also smiling and she knew that whatever he said next might destroy her.

“For starters.”

She lifted her eyebrow at him, “I guess I could learn to love it...” she said and he moved in to kiss her again.

“Okay. Call. Or text.” She conceded.

He nodded but inside his heart felt hollow. “I will.”

“You better.” she mumbled against his lips.


Becka insisted on taking a taxi to the airport so that no one else would have to “suffer or wear a silly hat” and even though Coll tried to convince her otherwise, Becka won in the end.

In the hotel lobby, Leighanne along with Andrea and Angela said their goodbyes to Becka, made her promise to keep in touch and and sent her off to the taxi queue with Coll.


“I cannot believe you are really going to leave and not tell me every detail.” Coll mused, realizing that time was basically up and that Becka’s silence on the night before was more intentional than a result of being busy.

“Call me when you’re in Florida and I’ll tell you everything.”

“Is there really nothing I should know urgently?” Coll asked, shielding her eyes from the bright sun and looking in Becka’s direction.

Probably. “Well.” Becka took a deep breath before falling into a contemplative silence for several long seconds.

_
“So, just let it play out, no strings attached.” She reiterated.

“If that’s what you want.”

“You said-”

“I’m fine with that, but I want you to know, nothing is going to happen… me with other people, it’s not going to happen… you’re a tough act to follow, Becka. I’m not interested.”

She blushed.

“I like you a lot and i want to explore that. If that means letting it play out… then i’ll do that. If that’s what feels comfortable to you.”

She inhaled deeply and nodded, “I think that’s best. It sounds sort of exciting actually…”

He nodded as his hand moved along her arm to the back of her neck.

“What time is your flight?”


_

“No.” She finally said simply. “It’s something…” her eyes were wide but a little sad, “but I have no idea what. We are just letting it be what it is. Call, email… and see what happens.”

“Are you going to tell mom?”

“Probably should. Not sure.” Becka shrugged with a small smile as she wrapped her arms around Coll, “I love you and I’m so glad I came.”

“I love you, too.”

“Don’t worry about anything. I gotta go.” Becka smiled sweetly as she stepped off the curb to hand the driver her suitcase before turning back to coll quickly, “thanks, Little.”


Coll watched her leave and stood silently on the curb for several minutes before another traveler bumped into her, jostling her out of the reverie she had fallen into. She took a deep breath and turned to go back to the hotel lobby where Angela, Andrea and Leighanne were waiting on her.



Across the city, Nick and the guys were waiting for their cue to be live on TV and when he noticed Jen was not actively working, he took the opportunity.

“I heard about the hat.” Nick said casually as he approached Jen in the green room.

Jen pouted, “She’s very cooperative. That was definitely the most ridiculous yet realistic hat I could find.”

“I think you’re scaring her.”

“That was not my intention. But - you know as well as I do that when it’s YOU and there’s a HER… it’s going to get attention. I can’t even swing this as a publicity thing, she’s not trying to be famous.” Her eyes wandered to the side thinking about Mandy and how she hadn’t seen much action over her departure.

“Okay.”

“I hate it, too. Trust me I don’t get my jollies on making people wear hats they definitely don’t want to wear… but I would hate it a lot more if something happened to her. And i KNOW you would hate that even more than I do. Of course it’s more likely something happens to her at a venue or something but, still. I had to see if she would trust me.”

“Well, now that you know, can we lay off the hats?”

“No more hats. But I was right: she’s not naive - she asked me if there was anything she should know. And I wanted to test it… to see if keeping her informed keeps her chill. So now I know.” Jen nodded, appreciating her own approach. “But if you’re going to reveal she’s your girlfriend or whatever we need to discuss it.”

“I can’t tell people I have a girlfriend?”

“Do you?” Jen asked casually as she flipped through some pages on her clipboard.

His heart rate increased and he suddenly felt the pang of worry again.


The lounge was quiet most of that evening as the guys were hosting a meet and greet after sound check and the dancers were doing a stretching session with a local yoga teacher. Having known all of that beforehand, Coll floated the idea of skipping the show that night but Leighanne convinced her to come along.

Despite her efforts to get Coll there, Leighanne ended up on a long phone call with her mom, leaving Coll without much to do. After a brief conversation with Tami, Coll used the time to check her emails.

Even though an hour had passed since doing so, the annoyance it left her with still lingered. Now she was sitting quietly on a couch with her arms crossed over her chest, tapping her pass against her arm mindlessly, her eyes fixed on a coffee table in front of her while Leighanne carried on with her mom across the lounge.

Melanie had gushed about how happy Coll looked in the photos she had sent and had caught the implication of them all.

Her mom had sent her an email just inquiring about her wellbeing, asking her to please call in the next forty-eight hours.

And then there was the email from John.

In a silent rage, she drafted an angry message back to him on impulse but deleted it before she could send. She stood up and walked around trying to calm down over it, returned to the screen to draft another email but deleted that one as well before turning the whole thing off and retreating to the couch.

She was deep in thought about it and Nick and defining things and telling people and a million other things when Leighanne plopped down next to her and inquired about her melancholy, but Coll didn’t want to chat.

“I’ll be here if you want to talk.” Leighanne said sweetly.

“Thanks,” Coll said absently as she got to her feet and left the room.

She wandered down the corridor aimlessly looking for any kind of distraction that wouldn’t inquire about her down mood.

There were signs in the corridor, she read them to waste time.

There was a water fountain so she stopped for a sip.

Her neck felt warm so she adjusted her hair into a ponytail.

And she spent some time studying the options in a vending machine but kept finding herself distracted thinking about the email.


_

Sent you some emails and texts …

thinking a lot about you...

I just thought you should know…

i was stupid …

when you get back to boston…


_

“Chica!”

Coll snapped back to attention upon hearing Angela’s voice.

“You don’t want any of this. I know it looks exotic, I’ve tried them all, trust me.”

“What?”

“The chips.” Angela motioned to the vending machine.

“Oh.” Coll shook her head, “Aren’t you supposed to be stretching?”

“We’re all done.” Angela smiled, “Come with.” she looped her arm through Coll’s and began walking back down the corridor with several other dancers trailing behind them. “You okay? You looked a bit distracted, and I know you don’t like chips that much.”

“What? No, I’m good.”

“Hmmm…”

“I’m fine. I was just … bored? Because Leighanne was on the phone.”

“Why don’t you ever want to tell me the truth?” Angela giggled. “Something happened? With Nick?”

“No.” She said, “Not Nick. Nick’s great.”

“He better be, I’ll beat his ass if he-”

“Angela…”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Nick is great.” Coll reiterated with a small smile.

“Okay, Nick’s fine so … what? You’re sad about Becka leaving?”

a reasonable out. “... yeah…?”

“You know you’re the worst liar.”

She hung her head. “yeah I know. I’m fine about Becka. It’s john.” She admitted.

“Tell me.”

Coll gave Angela the brief version of the story and Angela asked if she could read his email. Coll agreed and they went back to the lounge.

Angela made herself comfortable in a seat at the table with Coll’s laptop opened to the email. While she read, Coll stood by, annoyed, biting her nail.


“Who is Regina?” Angela asked as she arrived at the end of the email.

“It’s a pizza place.”

Angela looked up with her eyes narrowed, “Pizza? He wants to take you to a pizza place?”

“Yeah.” Coll rolled her eyes, “I guess.”

“He’s trying to win you back with… pizza?”

Coll shrugged, surprised that was the part Angela plucked out to comment on. “I mean, it is really good pizza.”

“It’s pizza! You’re with Nick Carter and he thinks pizza is going to give him an edge?”

“Alright-”

“Pizza isn’t even good enough to begin with for what he’s talking about feeling for you, but now on top of that, he’s got legitimate competition, not to mention you’re in love with Nick and-”

“Okay! Alright…”

Angela slumped her shoulders. “You have to just tell him. It’s over, i’ve moved on. I’m dating America’s most desirable dude.” Angela said sweetly, “Why don’t you want to do that?” She asked as Coll pushed her hands through her hair, sighing and shifting on her feet.

“Talk to Nick about it. He will know.” Angela said quietly. “I can’t believe i just said that but, yeah.”

Angela stood up and shifted the computer back in Coll’s direction. “I have to go get ready. I love you and he sucks for not taking a hint. But don’t let this take away from your happy time. Eventually you’re going to have to go back to real life, deal with him then.”

“I know.”

“And i don’t mean that Nick isn’t going with you back into real life, because obviously he is… i just mean, like… you know.”

Coll nodded as she sat back down with the computer, “Thanks.”

“I'll see you later.”

Returning her attention to the screen, Coll closed out of John’s email and began mindlessly browsing the AOL homepage. She was lost in a story about Lance Armstrong when Jen took a seat across the table from her.

“Can we talk?” She asked as Coll looked up.

Still annoyed from the previous events of the night, Coll took a deep breath before responding, attempting to conjure up some zen for this new situation.

“Have my pass, see? Nice and secure.” Coll waved it at her. “My passport is all locked up in Nick’s room and my wallet is in my bag which is …” she pointed to the couch across the room, “Right there where i can see it.” She finished it off with a big smile. “Oh and I don’t have any desire to leave the hotel tonight, so, you don’t have to worry about that either.”

“Impressive.”

Coll relaxed her smile and crossed her arms over her chest, leaving her sentence unfinished on the laptop. “What’s up?”

“So… You didn’t actually have to wear a hat yesterday.” Jen began, “And i’m sorry.”

“I figured.” She nodded, “Also, Nick told me it was a hazing.”

“Well, hazing is a little harsh… I just needed to know that you’d trust me.”

“I get it. It’s your job… They are like your puppies…”

“Exactly. And I have to be very protective. Especially of my baby puppy.”

“I really do understand.”

“The Spain thing … you guys got lucky. Leighanne has had several incidents with fans. Nothing crazy but… we adjust.”

“I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I just want to know if anything changes. I want to know what’s going on. Even if you think I won’t like it.”

“You will know. I promise.”

“... alright.”

“It’s up to the two of you.”

“What is?”

“What people know and when they know it. At least that’s what I want. That’s part of my job- keeping the ball in your court as long as possible.” She explained,

“Well, I appreciate that.”

“Eventually something happens but at least if it’s you two sneaking out without security then I’m sort of off the hook.”

“Personally, I have no issue following rules.” She began, “But I’m also not a nineteen-year-old guy. And in general, there are a lot less rules for me to follow, so I get the rebellion.”

Jen smiled, “I know.”

“And he would have me believe it’s all you, and mostly I do believe that…” she smiled, “but he also wanted Billy to go with me to the airport when Becka got here… so, while maybe he’s loosened up on it, I know he got freaked out a little bit, too.”

Jen was quiet, leaning in on her elbows. “Colleen,” She began, “It’s not my nature to butt in on other people’s love lives, unfortunately, it’s part of the job right now. Especially with Nick, it gets a little heated with the fans. Is it wildly unlikely someone would recognize you from a single photo? Yes. Is it unlikely that even if someone recognized you anything bad would happen as a result? Also, basically, yes. But it’s not going to stay that way. The more together you are, the more visible this is, the more intense it gets. That’s not to scare you, that’s just to be honest. And if something happened to you because of this - because of your association with him - he couldn’t live with himself. And that makes my job harder.”

Coll nodded slowly, “I appreciate all the concern. I just always want to be informed. That’s all.”

“I know that keeping you in the loop is key to you being chill about it and the more chill I can get the better,” Jen explained easily as she stood up and walked away from the table and out of the lounge.

Chapter 49 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Okay, so…” Coll began suddenly as she watched Nick unlock his hotel room door, shifting her bag in her hands. He came off stage that night and suggeted they go back to his room, order room service and watch movies and ‘whatever else happens' and she was giddy over the thought of it. But she needed to get the lingering thoughts of the email out of her mind in order to enjoy it. “I just want to mention this and move on and not think about it anymore.”

“What?” He looked at her concerned as they entered the room. She dropped her things on the floor and stepped in the direction of this bed.

“I hate that this comes up.” She said, looking at him as he waited for her to explain more, still sweaty and looking gorgeous for it as usual.

“What’s up?”

“John emailed me.” She said carefully, eyeing him for his reaction.

“Again??”

She nodded. “I guess ignoring him really, really isn’t working.”

“What did he say?” He asked, curious and frustrated.

She was quiet for a second, thinking about all of it. “A lot of stuff actually.”

“What? Like what?”

She rolled her eyes, “I hate that this comes up. I hate that he emails and then I talk about it. I hate thinking about him. I hate that he gives me a reason to think about him.” She sighed. He looked at her as he came closer and she could tell he hated it too. “He said what he usually says - let me know when you’re back, i miss you, thought of you because of some random thing…” She explained, “But then he also said he’s still in love with me.”

His face turned, his eyes got cooler and he furrowed his eyebrows.

“I’m honestly not sure what to do about it. But I know for sure I need it to be done with… again… for super real.” She turned her body into his direction more as he reached out to touch her arm. “Because it keeps … interrupting.”

His hand snaked around her waist, pulling her into him. “He doesn’t love you… not really. Not like I do.”

“I know.” She said quietly as she wrapped her arm around his neck.

His face moved in closer to hers and his hand inched under her top.

“More importantly..." Her eyes met his and her body tingled, "I’m not in love with him. I’m in love with you.” She said as his lips grazed hers while she spoke before sinking into a deep kiss once she finished.

The kissing continued and they both forgot about John and everything else for the rest of the night.




Having fallen asleep prematurely, the curtains in Nick’s hotel room had remained open all night. As soon as the sun came up the next morning, they were awake and relaxing in bed together kissing and plotting how to spend the day. Nick marveled at the span of time they had without any commitments: one full day and until two o’clock the following day.

“That’s so much time.”

She smiled against his lips as his hand slid further up her side over her skin, .

“What do you want to do with it?”

“This.”

She smirked as he nuzzled his face into her neck.

“And?”

“Some more of this.” He said, “And whatever you want.”

“I like your ideas so far.”

“And order fancy room service for dinner again.”

“So basically never leave this room?”

“Not unless we have to. Like if there is an emergency evacuation.”

“Oh you don’t want to see me in my big floppy hat?”

“No I like your face and I like being able to see it perfectly.” He explained, “Plus she said she wouldn’t make you wear hats anymore.”

“I know. Lucky me.” She smiled as she pushed her hand through his hair gently.

“I’m so glad you’re here.” He whispered as he leaned in to kiss her again.

“Me too. So… Florida?” She asked as his mouth moved along the line of her jaw.

“You still coming with me?” he mumbled.

She nodded.

“I have a pool.”

She smiled, “I know you do.”

“I know you like that.”

She shrugged, “it’s such a luxury.”

“We can go on my boat.”

“I like that.”

“What else do you want to do?”

It doesn’t matter. “It’ll just be fun to see where you live. To see Nick at home.” She mused. “I guess I should cancel that other flight…”

“Jen can fix it tomorrow.”

“Okay.”

“I promise you’ll like it.” he leaned away from her, “My Florida.”

“I have no doubt.”

He smiled and pushed some hair over her shoulder. She leaned in to kiss him again as someone began knocking at his door.

“Ignore that.” He whispered against her lips and she nodded in agreement but the knocking persisted.

“It’s nothing.”

“Well, it’s something but…”

“It’s nothing important.” He said quietly as he slid his hand across her stomach under her shirt. “Just keep ignoring it. it’s my day off.”

She nodded as she moved comfortably under him and his spell, letting him put his hands and lips wherever he wanted, trying to ignore the knocking.

“Are you sure you don’t want to check the door?” She finally asked.

He hung his head above her and sighed in frustration.

“They aren’t giving up.”

“I see that.”

“It’s okay, go check.”

He sighed heavily and slowly made his way out of the bed and to the door. She snuggled deeper into the warmth he left behind and waited patiently for him to return.

But what she heard next terrified her.


“Mom?!”

“I knew you had two days off and I came to visit!” Jane’s voice traveled into the room and ignited an unrecognizable and jarring fear in the pit of Coll’s stomach.

“It’s been so long since I’ve seen you and I wanted to come and see the show and spend some time with you.” She explained. “You don’t call…”

For a moment she was frozen, unable to move before finally getting out of bed as quickly and quietly as she could. She grabbed as much evidence of her presence as she could reach without being seen and escaped to the bathroom where she closed the door gently behind her.

She stood as still as possible in the dark and just waited for something to happen.


“I’m glad they are booking you nice rooms…My own room is alright. A little small, even for Europe.”

“Mom, I-“ Nick nervously tried to redirect her but failed as she walked past him into the suite.

“Nice handbag.” She commented flatly as her eyes fell on Coll’s bag, perched on the desk in Nick’s suite.

“Oh, that’s…” Shit. “Coll’s…” Nick looked around the empty room surprised to discover Coll had mostly disappeared from the scene and was impressed. “She must have left it here last night. We were hanging out.”

Jane looked at him closely, “I didn’t realize Coll could afford a bag like that.”

Nick shrugged, unsure how to respond.

“If she’s around I would love to see her.”

“Sure, yeah, she’s… in her room.”

“Well, tell me how everything else is going? I saw that it’s over with Mandy.”

He shrugged again as Jane looked around the room. “Mandy needed to do her own thing.”

“Never liked her much, honestly.”

“She was actually really great about everything.”


Coll breathed in deeply and quietly as she listened. Still need to find out what happened there.


Jane’s eye caught the handbag again and she stared at it for a moment. “Why don’t you get dressed and meet me downstairs?” She said.

“Sure, yeah…”

“See if Colleen would join us.” Jane smiled a bit too widely and turned quickly to leave. “See you in ten.”



Nick watched Jane leave and continued staring at the back of the door for several seconds after she was gone. What the fuck?

Finally, he turned to walk to the bathroom door where he pushed it open gently to find Coll standing there at full attention, her eyes wide with her hands over her mouth.



The look on his face was one of pain and annoyance.

“I wasn’t sure what to do so I hid.” Coll said quickly as her hands moved to the sides of her face.

“Why is she here?” He asked, frustration evident in his voice.

“Do you think she could tell? That I was here?” Coll asked nervously.

“She is up to something.” He said plainly.

“Do you think she will suspect anything is going on? With us?”

“She shouldn’t have come here.”

They were having two different conversations and simultaneously, no conversation at all.

“I mean, is she going to tell my mom? I haven’t even had a chance to tell anyone … I don’t even actually know what I’m telling them. Do they still talk? I honestly don’t-”

“She should have told me she was coming.”

Coll paused and snapped back to attention. The look on his face was scaring her. “Jen must have known.”

His eyes locked on hers. “Jen must have known.” He repeated, the accuracy of her statement settling in. “Jen must have known.”

Coll hung on the door frame as she watched him begin to pace the room. “Nick.”

“I just can’t figure out why she came here now. We will be back in the states soon. Why did she come all the way here now?”

Feeling self conscious and also silly for it at the same time, she bit her bottom lip into her mouth. She didn’t know the current status of their relationship but he had made enough comments … and the way he looked right now told her it wasn’t good.

“Maybe she genuinely just wanted to see you.”

“No.”

Chapter 50 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Coll took a deep breath, trying to calm the storm in her head as she stepped out of the bathroom and back into the suite. She watched as Nick began to ready himself and she followed suit.


As he was dressing, Nick sputtered off a list of grievances and talked through a bunch of random thoughts on why Jane might actually have come to Europe, convinced that her intentions were not so pure. Coll tried to keep track of them as she got dressed, but he was moving through them fast.


stole money…

lied about money…

forged a signature…

hadn’t seen her for months...

drinking a pint of vodka before noon…

arguing with him before he left for the tour…


There were several questions she wanted to ask but let him continue.

Once dressed, he began thinking out loud through a scene where they could arrive downstairs separately and he could take her bag with him to further support the story that she had left the bag in his room.

She refrained from articulating the fact that no woman leaves her handbag behind and just agreed to go along with it, hoping maybe Jane wouldn’t catch on. I can play dumb if I have to.

“I’m following your lead.” She said carefully as she spun her silver ring around her finger nervously. “It’s whatever you want.”

“This messes up my day off…” He said sadly.

Coll pouted. “I know.” She could feel her headache intensifying by the second.

He walked up to her and cupped her face in his hands. “At least you’re here.”

She nodded, “It’ll be okay.”


In the elevator he kissed her deeply, making her feel weak all over as they passed the fourth floor. “I’ll see you down there.” He said quietly as the doors to the third floor opened. Slowly, she stepped away from him and onto the landing, before turning to look at him once more.

He smiled sadly at her as the doors closed again. She couldn’t help but laugh a bit at the vision of him holding her handbag as the doors closed between them.

She walked across the hall to the other set of elevators. Their plan was for her to wait several minutes there before calling another elevator, spacing out their arrivals. Her mind wandered as the elevators rode by in each direction without stopping for her or anyone else.

Thinking about Jane knowing what was going on with them made her anxious and she didn’t know why. She knew she wanted to be the one to tell her parents and the idea that Jane might get to them before she did was part of it. But why did she feel that unsettling terror when she first heard Jane was at the door? Why had so much apparently transpired between Jane and Nick that Nick never mentioned?

Does mom know they have these issues? How often do they speak these days? When was the last time they spoke? She knew the two of them had drifted but she was sure there must be the occasional casual email… Right? When you’ve been friends that long…? Unless maybe she knows something I don’t that added more space between them… Maybe Becka knows… she’s around more, she would know... Her eyes scanned the space around her and landed on a large bouquet of fresh flowers in a vase on a table near the elevators. She felt slightly dizzy on her feet for a moment. Mom and dad love Nick. If they did find out, it would be fine, even though they should find out from me. But they don’t… wouldn’t have a problem with it… right? No, of course not. Except for the celebrity thing, everything is normal. But maybe they’d be concerned about the friendship bit… or the celebrity bit. They would probably worry about Nick’s… lifestyle… being gone so often… and school. I guess that’s fair. I don’t actually know how that will work out either… so it might be a challenge to get them on board. But they’ll see it… they’ll know it’s real… right?

After another minute of tormented thinking, she called the elevator to her and boarded it quickly once it arrived, eager to get back in Nick’s aura.


She was empty handed as she exited the elevator. She took careful, slow steps across the lobby to the hotel restaurant and spotted Jane and Nick already sitting at a small table in the middle. No sign of Billy though.

Coll made her way to them and gently said hello with as much sweetness in her voice as she could muster.

“Hi Jane.” she said with a smile, placing her hand on the back of Jane’s chair.

“Oh, Colleen…” Jane got to her feet as Nick looked on suspiciously, “So wonderful to see you.” she said as she wrapped her arms around Coll. “Nick told me he stopped at your room on the way down and you weren’t sure if you’d be able to join us.”

“Oh...” Coll shrugged, “No of course, I wanted to see you.”
As they parted, and Coll took the third seat at the table, Nick started in on his story.

“Hey, here’s your bag, you left it in my room last night…” He said as he picked it up and handed it to her. “after you left.” He added as his eyes met hers.

“Oh.” She said, “Thanks. Yeah…” She realized this story made no sense but went with it. Wouldn’t he have just given me the bag when he ‘stopped by’ my room’? She hoped Jane wouldn’t think it through that critically.

She took her bag from him and placed it near her foot as she settled in.

“I’m so glad to see you, Colleen. You look great.” Jane said.

“Thank you so much.”

“Things are good?” Jane asked happily, sitting up straighter and turning her body in Coll’s direction.

Nick shifted in his seat nervously.

Coll nodded, “They are, yeah! Really good.”

“Enjoying your big summer adventure? Spoke to your mom last month... she said you were excited to do some writing.”

Last month… okay… Coll glanced at Nick, “I’ve loved being here, yeah. It’s all so exciting. I honestly haven’t done much writing but… it’s been very inspiring.”

“That’s wonderful, sweetie.”

Coll nodded politely and reached for her water glass.

“How are things otherwise? School? Are you seeing anyone?”

She was startled by it but resisted the impulse to look at Nick. “Well, i’ll be starting senior year in September and that’s exciting. It’s a little intimidating… life beyond college, but we’ll figure it out - I’ll figure it out.” She smiled, considering if she wanted to go on but waited.

“I’m sure you will. So there is no one special in your life? A gorgeous girl like you - I would be shocked if you didn’t have a boyfriend.”

“Oh, umm…” She paused, briefly terrified knowing she was an absolutely awful liar. just tell the truth. “No, actually... there is… someone. It’s sort of new - but, yeah,” She smiled.

Nick’s heart rate was increasing and he shifted uncomfortably in his seat again.

“I’m so happy for you. You must miss him, being out here. Especially if it’s newer.”

“Oh,” Shit. “Yeah, of course.” She agreed randomly, looking back to Nick who looked terrified. She knew her reasons for it, but found herself wondering why he might want to keep their relationship from her.

“You’ll have to tell me more later.” Jane smiled as she reached out to touch Coll’s arm.

Relieved there was an opportunity to put this discussion off, she took a deep breath and tried to relax.

“So,” Coll began again, nervously trying to redirect the conversation. “How was your trip?”

“Oh it was fine. I was in New York with Aaron and decided to come out from there so it was a little easier.”

“Oh, sure. Makes sense. How is Aaron?”

“A handful.” She laughed.


After about an hour of sitting with Jane and Nick, listening to Jane question just about every factoid about the tour so far and the tour coming up that Nick mentioned, and peppering him with other inquiries, Coll excused herself from the table. Nick eyed her as she did so and she tried to ignore him but it was hard. She made her way back through the lobby. She approached the front desk and asked for a phone to make a call with.

The connection was made, the phone rang several times, the shrill made her head hurt. Finally, Becka’s voicemail picked up.

“Becka, it’s me. Call me on my phone or Nick’s when you get a chance, please? I have to ask you something… Jane showed up. Nick’s pissed. I just need to talk to you.”

She hung the phone up and pushed it gently back in the direction of the receptionist, smiling weakly in appreciation before walking away again.




Jane monopolized most of Nick’s day while Coll stayed at the hotel trying to keep herself entertained or distracted. She waited on Becka’s call, she checked her emails, she remembered that she never dealt with John and didn’t know how to… all the while sipping on water, trying to keep her headache from getting worse and failing.

She was about to attempt a nap when Howie knocked on her door, asked if she was up for some coffee and behind him, a room service attendant with a coffee cart waited patiently for an answer.

“Why do I feel like there’s more to it than just coffee?” She asked with a laugh.

“Come on, I need you.”

“It’s fine, i figured you’d come around eventually.” She laughed as she held the door open for them.

“Where’s Nick?” Howie asked as the waiter pushed she cart into coll’s room.

“Oh… Jane showed up this morning.”

“His mother?”

“Some other Jane in Nick’s life I should know about?” She asked.

“Weird.” Howie stated simply as the two of them watched the attendant finish setting up their coffee cart before excusing himself and leaving them to it.

“So.” Coll smiled as she took a seat in the edge of her bed. “What’s up?”

“Becka.” He sighed. “She’s… in connecticut.”

Coll laughed, “You’re not the only one who misses her.”

Coll slid back along the bed to sit against the headboard, pulled her knees up into her body and watched as Howie poured two cups of coffee.

“Oh, actually, i should probably pass on the coffee…”

“Why?”

“I’ve had a raging headache all morning.”

“Oh, alright.”

“I appreciate the service though.” She smiled, “Alright, so, sit and spill…” Coll laughed as she motioned to the space in front of her and Howie sat down with his mug.

He was quiet for several seconds, she watched him thinking.

“She told me there was something… like a secret. But she didn’t tell me what.”

Coll nodded. “I know.”

“I don’t want to ask her anything that might be too personal or triggering. She said she gets triggered.”

Coll didn’t budge, trying to remain neutral, unsure what he knew and what he didn’t.

“But I also don’t want to just jump to conclusions or create some story…”

“Then don’t.” She said, “just trust that she will tell you when she’s ready.”

Howie looked at her thoughtfully.

“I don’t know what you know, and I don’t want to be the one to tell you something that should come from her. But, I will say, her biggest hurdle is trusting people. She needs to feel safe enough.”

“What can I do?”

Coll moved her finger tip over the seam of her jeans. She thought about what Becka told her Nick might need and knew it was partly Becka speaking her own needs. “Safe enough to walk through.”

“What?”

Coll smiled. “Okay so, a few weeks ago Brian told me about the corridor of life.”

“The what?”

“... the corridor or life.”

“Never heard of it.”

She had honestly figured it was Brian lore, that everyone had heard it already. “Really?”

“Yeah what’s that?”

“Some doors will be open, some doors you have to kick down and some you have to knock and wait patiently.”

Howie thought it over, “that’s deep.”

“I know, right?”

“So what does that have to do with Becka?”

“Your door might be open but she still has to feel safe enough to walk through it. But… she must trust you a little bit at least…”

“I guess.”

“She is difficult but… I promise she’s worth it.”

“I wish there was more I could do from here.”

“Maybe there is.”

Howie looked at her curiously.

“What?”

“I think… she’s…” His eyes met hers and she was waiting anxiously to hear more. “Incredible.”

“She’s the best. I’m not saying that because she’s my sister.”

“I know.” He nodded, sliding his hand around his mug, “you wouldn’t.”

“Well, I might.” She shrugged with a smile and he laughed. “But Howie,”

“Yeah?”

“There is so much greatness inside of her that none of us know yet.”

“What do you mean?”

She sighed and thought about Nick and the fountain and how this was true for him and for herself.

“There’s the Becka that’s thrown caution out the window and didn’t care … and she was a wonderful person, too, just… reckless and confused. But there’s a Becka that’s absolutely terrified because she found something that matters… and I don’t know that Becka so well yet. But I want to know her just as much as you do.”

Howie’s shoulders relaxed and he smiled widely.

“Tell me more … about how you’re feeling.”

“Are you okay?” Howie asked as Coll stretched her legs out in front of her and reclined deeper into the pillows on the bed.

“I’m okay, just my head is killing me. Keep talking though, I swear I’m fine. And I need to know everything.” She giggled and briefly closed her eyes before looking back at him.

“Alright, alright, but i’m calling room service for Tylenol and a giant bottle of water for you.”

She rolled her eyes. Everyone’s little sister… “I’ll be sure to mention to Becka that you took very good care of me and my headache.”

Chapter 51 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

With a heavy sigh, Nick banged his knuckles on Coll’s door three times. He had just left Jane at her room after a long, overextended afternoon with her.

Coll was slow to get to the door as she felt dizzy upon standing. The chances that Nick was the one knocking were pretty good and that was enough motivation to get her there.

“Hey.” He said with a weak smile as she opened the door. His shoulders relaxed and he exhaled heavily. Relief.

“Hey! How’d it go?” She asked.

“Not really how I wanted to spend my day off.”

“I know.” She whispered, the sound of her own voice creating even more chaos in her head.

He noticed then that she was wearing her pajamas and the room was dark. He narrowed his eyes at her, concern quickly taking over. “Are you okay?”

“I’ve just had a pretty wicked headache most of the day.”

“Did I wake you up?”

She shook her head and moved aside to let him into the room. “No, I was just relaxing. Where’s your mom?”

“I’m supposed to meet her later for dinner. Just downstairs.”

“Oh, nice.” She said simply as they embraced each other in a hug.

“I was going to ask you to come, but you shouldn’t have to suffer through it, too, and especially if you already have a headache.” he sighed, “I can bring you something back.”

She smiled as she walked back toward the bed, “That would be amazing. But I’m happy to pop a few more Advil and rally for you if you want me to come with.”

He watched her as she snuggled into the pillows and he took a seat on the edge of the bed next to her, reaching out for her hand as he did.

“You can think about it.” She said simply, “If you want a friend, I’m there.”

“I’ll make dinner as short as possible either way.”

She smiled, “What time are you meeting her?”

“Six.”

“Oh,” Her eyes wandered to the clock on the nightstand. 4:11 you’ve got time.”

“Just want to get it over with.”

“I’m sorry she’s stressing you out.”

He hung his head but didn’t say anything. His fingers laced through hers and she tugged his arm gently, “Snuggle therapy?” she asked as she adjusted her body to make room for him to lay down.

He smiled as she wrapped her arm around his waist.

“I know it’s not what you wanted today but, even if it doesn’t do anything for you, the snuggle therapy will make me feel better.” she giggled as his body relaxed into hers and he held her close. She was warm and comfortable and she didn’t need him to explain himself or defend anything. She wasn’t asking for anything. She was just there to wrap her arms around him and let him be.

“Trust me, it does something for me, too.”

She nodded into his shoulder and ran her hand over his back.

“Coll?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

She smiled, “Me too.”

He squeezed her tighter, closer to his body. Feeling the need to keep her with him, feeling like he had to protect her while simultaneously relying on her for it too.

There were so many things she wanted to say and ask but she knew he needed the break and she wasn’t feeling up for it anyway.

He asked her how her day had been and she told him about her chat with Howie. She knew he didn’t want to talk about Jane so she asked him a couple questions about Florida and he seemed to brighten at the thought of being there with her. Still, something in his demeanor was off. She chalked it up as the result of being between two obligations he didn’t want to deal with and didn’t question it.

After a while, he fell asleep and she just enjoyed laying next to him.

Her mind wandered as her hand played with his hair gently while he slept with his head on her shoulder.

She thought about Howie and Becka and calling her mom. She thought about the gaps in her wardrobe that still needed to be resolved and wondered if she had what she’d most want for Florida. She thought about Jane creating chaos in Nick’s life and wondered if she had caught on to the inconsistencies in the bag story. She thought about school and Melanie and when she might see Nick, what cities she might be able to meet him in… She thought about the fountain and turned her body into his more.

She roused him awake gently at 5:30 and he moaned about having to do anything except lay with her all night.

“Would it help if I go with you?”

“I honestly am not sure.”

She nodded, understandingly.

“You don’t want her to know about us. Neither do i.” He said. “I want people to find out about you from me.”

She smiled softly at him. The thought of people knowing anything about them that was significant enough to think about beforehand made her feel warm inside and it distracted her briefly.

“I don’t trust her.” He continued. “I don’t know what she is capable of.” He said.

“You think she would say something before you had a chance to?”

“I think it’s possible.”

“But she doesn’t know. Or, well…” she took a deep breath thinking about the bag story from earlier that day but didn't mention it. “My thing is, I just didn’t want her to find out and potentially tell anyone who maybe should hear it from me.” She explained.

“Same. But I still really do want you there just to be with me.”

“Then I’ll go.”

“You feel better?” He asked.

She shrugged, “I feel well enough. And for you… I’ll make it work.”

“You don’t have to do this.” His voice was tired. He looked at her carefully and was overwhelmed by her again. don’t destroy her.

She could tell there was something he wanted to say and she waited patiently while he gathered his thoughts.

He shifted away from her to sit up on the edge of the bed.

“If you want me to go, I’m there. If not, I’m not insulted.” She reiterated, giving him another chance to back out.

“No of course I do.”

“Okay.” She eyed him carefully, “But…”

“She’s horrible and I don’t want you to have to deal with it.”

It hurt her heart and she slid into a sitting position as well, leaning against the headboard. “I don’t want to pry into this uninvited… your relationship with your mother is… your’s. I don’t want to-” He was quiet, tormented. She shook her head and shifted to summarize. “I understand there is something going on with the two of you… but I’m on your side. And I’m happy to be.” She tilted her head at him.

“I don’t want her to be involved in this.” Both of them looked at each other in silence as their own thoughts swirled around.

Suddenly he moved into action, placing his hands on her face and looking her straight on. “I love you. You’re real to me.” he kissed her quickly before standing up abruptly. “I don’t want her to ruin this.”

“Ruin it? What could she do?” She asked as he began pacing around the small space between the bed and the window.

He grunted. “She would find a way.”

She sighed and ran her hand through her hair. She didn't know what that could mean, and was still distracted by her own concerns to entertain his too much without any real clue as to what she could possibly do. All she knew was she wanted to be with him and he didn't want to deal with Jane alone... so the answer seemed obvious. “Well, I like you too much to let you suffer solo so… let’s pretend it’s the summer of ninety-eight, we are just friends, you and your mom are both regular normal people with a regular normal relationship as far as I’m concerned and nothing is weird. Okay?” She asked, “Does that work? We are just friends eating dinner.”

He smiled at her and gave her a look that heated her body up in a way she wasn’t familiar with, “I can’t be just your friend.”

It made her weak, she blushed. “It’s pretend. You can act. For two hours. And then…”

“Then?” He asked as she got to her feet and stood in front of him.

“She will think we both went back to our rooms and she won’t know I’m snuggling you.” Her arms crept around his neck and she smiled at him.

“I promise people can know, I want them to know. I just also want to protect you.”

She nodded, “I get it. I appreciate it. I’m following your lead with the world and with your mother.”

“We just have to survive the next few days and then we will be in Florida and no one will bother us.”

“Sounds amazing.” She said quietly as a thousand butterflies fluttered away in her belly.

“I’m so sorry.” He said quietly.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about.” She said. “Help me think of a profile for my fake Boston boyfriend who she is definitely going to ask me about.” She laughed.

“I hate that you have an imaginary boyfriend in Boston.”

“Well, me too. Since reality in Europe is so great…”

He shook his head, “I’m just annoyed.”

“I know. But it’s okay. We will go to dinner together, play it real casual and when it’s over, I’ll snuggle the crap out of you.”

“But we could have been doing that all day. It was supposed to be my time off. And I was supposed to spend it in bed with you.”

“Yeah, that would have been nice. But it’s okay.”

“I just want more.”

“Nick, I am in no rush.” She said, “Are you?”

“No. I don't know. I just… want more.”

“Me too, but it’s no rush.” She smiled, “honestly I hope you always feel that way.”

“What?”

“Like you want more.” She said quietly as she kissed him on the cheek and slowly back away from him. “I’m going to change my clothes.”

He watched her drift across the room, his body felt full of anxiety over the thought of the world knowing her and the mystery of what they could do to her. But heavier than that at the moment was the fear of what his own mother could do.


Dinner with Jane had started off casual and non-threatening. There was even some laughter. Coll engaged Jane in topics from her world to give Nick a break, but by the time Jane inquired about her boyfriend, Coll was no more prepared to answer.

“So tell me more about your boyfriend.” Jane smiled, reaching out to touch Coll’s hand. “You haven’t said anything about him! You always were so modest…”

“Oh. Umm…” she began, “sure yeah well, he’s… brunette.” Shit.

Jane looked at her curiously. “What’s his name?”

name? Shit. “Joey.”

“Yeah? Where’s he from?”

“He’s from…” she hummed, “Milwaukee.”

“Joey from Milwaukee! Wow-what brought him to Boston?”

“Oh, I suppose the warmer temps.” She joked. “Just kidding ... no, umm, well BU has a really excellent program.”

“Which program?”

“Oh, umm fine arts program. He’s an artist.”

“How do mom and dad feel about that? They always wanted you to end up with a professor or Yalee or something… safe.”

Coll’s eyes narrowed involuntarily. Her parents had at times floated a fantasy that she and Becka would end up with Yale grads, or Yalees as they were affectionately known, and ‘keep it in the family.’ Eric and his sister and their father were all Yale graduates and Becka was a current student. Eric taught in the mathematics department and Jill worked in the libraries. But once Coll broke the trend and went to BU, the storyline lost its luster. She knew her parents didn’t actually care who either of them ended up with, so long as they were happy. While part of her felt Jane was also just saying all of this in jest, she also could tell something else was going on. “Ahh, well, they’ve let that go these days...”

“We used to joke about you two ending up together.” Jane smiled, “You two were so cute together but of course it was just a silly thing parents do.”

Coll tried to smile through her nerves, “Just like that whole Yalee thing…”

Jane smiled casually at her before turning her attention to Nick. “Certainly I wouldn’t complain if you two did somehow end up together, but obviously, it’s not going to happen. Too much potential in you to sacrifice it all for this lifestyle. I mean, who would honestly want to get involved in this… seriously, anyway.” Jane sighed, eyeing Coll, “so much chaos, so much… competition.”

Her heart dropped and she knew it was written all over her face. She couldn’t help but look at Nick and she knew Jane saw the way they looked at each other. She felt it deeply that she was being set up. She knows. And he was right.

Trying her best to keep her cool, she shrugged, “Oh I guess if it was absolutely true love, it would be worth it.” She smiled at him with a cheesy, fake adoration and tilted her head, but his demeanor was less comfortable still and not even interested in playing it cool apparently.

Jane shook her head, “this is why I always worry about Nick.” Her eyes shifted in Nick’s direction before locking back on Coll’s. “No good, sensible woman with her own ambitions would get into this. That’s why he keeps ending up with airheads and gold diggers.”

Coll sat back slowly in her chair, convinced that Jane was on to them but still unsure what to do besides play it off.

“Mom…”

“It's just the truth, Nickolas. No self-respecting woman would even attempt a serious relationship in these conditions.”

Nick hung his head, defeated and Coll opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out.

Chapter 52 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Rebecka?” Jill called from upstairs as Becka entered into the foyer and closed the front door behind her.

Incredibly immediate welcome. Alarming. “...Yeah?”

“Hi!” Jill was smiling as she appeared at the top of the stairs.

Becka looked around anxiously, “Hi. What’s up?”

“There’s something for you in the kitchen!” Jill said happily as she watched Becka drop her bag onto the bench near the door. She had been waiting all day for this moment.

“What?” She asked curiously as she dug her phone out of her bag and shoved it into her pocket, remembering that she had to call Coll back as per her message earlier.

“Go see.”

Becka looked at her, suspiciously, “okay.”

Jill was giddy as Becka removed her jacket before walking into the kitchen and followed her as she did so.

Apprehensively, Becka peeked into the kitchen from the hall before stepping all the way in. The bouquet caught her eye, and her stomach sank. “What is this?” She asked nervously even though she already knew.

“A huge and lovely bouquet!! I’ve been dying to know who it’s from all day… you hadn’t mentioned anyone…” Jill’s voice was full of sweetness as she eyed the bouquet briefly again for the hundredth time that day before returning her attention to Becka. “It’s absolutely gorgeous…”

Becka looked at her stoically, trying to process her thoughts. Slowly, she looked back to the flowers and stepped closer to them. Nervously, she reached out for the attached card, which she could tell had respectfully been left undisturbed.


“B-

Whenever you want to tell me, I’m ready to hear it.

And it won’t change anything.

-H.”


Her heart was beating so fast, and the room was spinning a bit as she folded the note closed again.

Jill was busying herself now with filling the tea kettle with water but kept a watchful eye on the situation happening at the kitchen island. “So?”

“Oh, it’s nothing…” Becka said quickly as she shoved the card into her back pocket and rushed away from the kitchen as tears welled up in her eyes.

“Becka-“Jill asked after her.

“No, I swear it’s nothing,” Becka responded loudly from the hallway.

Jill looked blankly between the empty space Becka left and the bouquet, all her curiosities even more pronounced now.

Becka made her way to her room and shut the door before pulling the note out of her pocket to reread it.

“B.” “-H.”

Her head ached, her throat swelled. She made her way to her bed and crashed into it as the tears flowed silently over her face. She laid there, her mind running wild with a million different thoughts, her eyes overflowing, and her body heating up more with every passing second.

After several minutes she got to her feet again. She paced the room for a minute before flipping her phone open and composing the eighth text message she had ever written.


_ does it work?

_ hey! Does what work?

_ texts. Guess so

_ of course it works. How r u

_ got yr flowers. Thx

_ :)

_ sweet of u. pqttX

_ enjoy. pqttX?


ugh. embarrassing. She sniffled and began to try again, pecking away at the keys, annoyed by the process but compelled to continue.

_ prett

_ pretty?

spanish. Less letters. _ si

_ tu tambien


She closed the phone shut before gathering her hair in her hands and exhaling slowly.




“Does she say shit like that to you a lot?” Coll asked solemnly, her eyes fixed on something across the room as she sat on the edge of her bed, her head resting in her palms, her elbows pushing into her knees. Her tone hovered between sad and annoyed… but she felt a surge of protectiveness, and frustration that she couldn’t act on it earlier.

He didn’t respond. She didn’t look up.

They had arrived back at her room just a few minutes ago, and neither of them had said anything since saying goodnight to Jane in the elevator. Dinner had ended casually, with everyone playing their part and Jane sufficiently tiring herself out on questions and three rounds of drinks. Coll’s head continued to pulse - a mix of anxiety and the headache that lingered from earlier, and now: thoughts about the events of the evening mixed in.

“That’s why you think you’re not good enough.” She stated, slowly sitting back up, inhaling deeply, looking at him as he stood leaning against the desk in her suite, his head also bowed in defeat. “I thought it was…” her words trailed off, her eyes rolled at the thought, “Bimbos. Stupid women who were using you… trying to get more out of you than you could give. But it’s your own mother? I, like, don’t have words for this. I never knew… not really.”

“It’s gotten worse as things have … gotten better.”

“You did tell me she gets spun up about the money. And Becka… Becka mentioned some kind of family drama… I guess I didn’t think much of that at the time…”

He nodded as he leaned heavier into his palm.

Coll was quiet, her discussion with Becka running through her mind again suddenly. So it’s open, but it’s scary. Make it less scary.

Her head pounded. Maybe he needs to feel less like he’s trying to get something and more like he belongs there - like this is something that belongs to him. Like he deserves it.

Slowly, she started again. “I know you are trying to protect me but,” she took a deep breath, “I’d rather just know everything. Same as I told Jen… I can handle it; I just need to know whatever it is.”

He shrugged, “I don’t even know what she’s capable of anymore.”

She didn’t respond. Her eyes moved around the room.

“I’m pretty sure she knows. And… It’s fine.” she began, admitting defeat as she got to her feet and walked in his direction. “I’m not interested in fighting … her or it or whatever. It doesn’t matter.” She placed her hands on his arms, “Remember when you told me that I make you feel like things are possible?”

“you do.”

“That’s what matters.”

“Which is why I want to protect you.” He said in frustration.

She shook her head, “I appreciate that so much. But those real, amazing, important things that I make you feel are possible are the things worth protecting.” She looked at him carefully, “willing to risk it.”

“But isn’t she right?”

“About what?”

He looked sad, and it made her nervous.

“Getting involved in this.”

“No. She is wrong.” She said definitively. “She’s wrong about a lot of things. Nick, your mother spent an hour deliberately saying things that would make you feel bad, saying pointed things to both of us. Saying my parents want me with a Yale grad, saying I would be crazy to get involved with you, telling you you’re destined to be with an airhead… but in reality none of that is true. She knew what she was doing, and I hate that she would want to make you feel like you don’t deserve something good - like you’re not … enough for it. Or like I’m too good for you- like I’m not an adult who can make my own decision. But she’s wrong. I know your life is chaotic, I’m still here. Is it intimidating? Yes. But it’s okay. And I’m not an airhead. And I don’t care about whether you went to Yale or not. And neither do my parents. I didn’t even go to Yale!”

He smiled weakly at her.

life with him. Some new ideal. “I think-“she stopped, “I know you are enough. And anyone who makes you feel like you’re not... good enough or stable enough for something that isn’t fleeting and meaningless is wrong. So let her do what she will do, and we will do what we will do…”

“Which is?”

“Whatever we want.”

“I want to be with you, and I want it to be normal.”

“That seems unlikely to ever happen… not just because of your mother.” She wrinkled her nose, “But we can be together, and it can be our version of normal. Just… tell me what you want…”

“Everything.

“Me too.”

“I want everything with you.”

Her heart rate increased, her body felt warm again. “You can have it.” She said thoughtfully, “you can have everything. All the amazing, real things that matter are possible, and you can have them.”

“They aren’t possible without you.”

Her heart was in her throat, and she fell in even deeper love with him instantly.

“And I’m not going anywhere, so let me help you protect them. I’m on your team.”

His hand slid around the side of her face drawing her closer to him, “I’m not used to this.”

She didn’t even know exactly what he meant, but she felt it deeply that she agreed. “Neither am i. It’s not always gonna be easy, and I’m okay with that. Nick, that’s part of it - that’s all in.”

He nodded, understandingly, and kissed her.

“I love you.” He said.

She was overwhelmed thinking of the past eighteen hours, the many things she still wanted to tell him, and the apparent fact that there hadn’t been a good time to do it yet. She closed her eyes and leaned into him more, his arms wrapping around her, a fleeting feeling of relief swept through her.

“I love you, too.”

End Notes:
i would love to hear from you if you are reading! it's so uplifting. my email is theradioup@gmail.com
Chapter 53 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Tami's comb slid easily through Coll's hair as Coll sat quietly, watching Angela pace aggressively around the area near the vanity.

In the waiting for Angela to continue with her vent session, while feeling very relaxed due to Tami's hair brushing, Coll's mind had wandered back to that morning, talking to Becka from the third-floor atrium of the hotel.


-

"I'm pretty sure she knows about Nick and me… which I was trying to avoid, but…"

"Yeah…" Becka sighed heavily. "I barely know anything, but there were a few times when I overheard conversations or mom saying something - or mom just literally outright told me some stuff. Not much. You know mom… so zen. Kind of like you…"

-


"I just think he really is wrong on this one."

Tami discreetly poked Coll's shoulder to bring her back to reality, noticing she was a bit zoned out.

"Huh?"

"I think we should be able to tell Jen what we want. It shouldn't even make a difference."

"Oh, yeah, I mean…" Coll looked at Tami who nodded, "Yeah, maybe,"

"Right!"

"Right." Coll agreed, unsure what she agreed to.

"I think Jen would appreciate that direct approach if nothing else," Tami interjected as she clipped a chunk of Coll's hair to the top of her head.

"What are you-" Coll began, looking at Tami again but trailed off upon Tami clacking the straightener excitedly. Coll smiled at her and turned her attention back to Angela.


The night before, she had fallen into a restless sleep next to Nick. She had been on edge the entire day, and it hadn't left her even after she told him she didn't want to go to sleep angry, and he did his best to make that happen. He kissed her, made her laugh, snuggled her and reiterated that Florida was just a few days into the future. And she was much happier after kissing him for a while, but her headache was still lingering when she fell asleep, and at four-thirty that morning, she left the bed to call Becka.


--

"She's just a narcissist. I wish i had a more impressive evaluation for you but unfortunately... I don't."

"It was awful."

"The self-medicating adds up… So she doesn't know that you know that she knows…"

"No idea… but should tell mom. Just… what would I even say?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like, what is it? Is he my boyfriend? Just tell her I'm ridiculously in love with him?... it all seems like, not enough. The word boyfriend isn't enough. For how I feel..."

"Well, the good thing about moms is you can say exactly that, and it's okay," Becka said sweetly.

"True, I guess. Did you tell her about Howie?" She asked as she twisted a chunk of her hair around her finger.

"I wasn't going to. But, a gigantic bouquet showed up and then I kind of had to. I couldn't talk my way out of that one… and I couldn't tell if I actually wanted to or if I had just been caught off guard."

"Flowers?" She asked excitedly.

"Yeah, earlier today while I was out. It was here when I got home. It is… huge. There was a note. It was a thing. I cried. I cry a lot now…"

"Becka!? What did the note say?"

"Well, it said a lot more than it said. You know.."

"No, I don't! And what did you say to mom? She saw the note?"

"No, she didn't see the note. Of course, she was super respectful and waited for me to come home, insist it was nothing for an hour and a half, and then waited while I just kind of unloaded on her." Becka inhaled deeply, "I just said he was really sweet and … I don't know. I told her what I told you… he scares me… I did kind of the same thing you're going to do- word vomit and cry until something sticks."

"Well, how did she take it?"

"Like a classic pro, of course. Sorry if I stole your thunder."

“I don’t want thunder.”

-


Angela was three sentences into her newest monologue when the door swung open, and A.J. appeared looking spooked. "I need to talk to you." His voice reeled, and he looked directly at Coll.

"Me?" Coll asked, surprised.

"Yes." He said as he closed the door behind him.

"Wh-"

"You need to wait your turn!" Angela yelled. "She's busy right now."

A.J. looked around, "With what?"

"Are you blind?! With me!" Angela exclaimed. "also, hair." She motioned time Tami.

"Ang, I need-"

"She can deal with you next; I'm in the middle of a thing."

"I have to get ready soon!" His voice got louder.

"Oh, and I don't?!" She shouted.

"Well, not quite as urgently, don't you think-"

"I got here first."

"Guys!" Coll interrupted, "Please. The yelling..."

They looked at her, and A.J. started in again. "I need to talk to you. Please."

"What's wrong?" She asked, concerned and overwhelmed again.

"It's private," he said, eyeing Tami, who was in the process now of straightening Coll's hair.

Coll sighed and looked from A.J. to Angela, who was standing with her arms crossed over her chest. "Can it wait five minutes?"

A.J. considered it briefly, "fine."

"Great, just five minutes," She smiled weakly at him.

Defeated, he turned to leave. "Five!" he shouted on his way out.

"God, so rude!" Angela scoffed as the door closed again.

Everyone was quiet for a second.

"You can just both stay in my room; I'm not in there most nights anyway..."

Angela's eyes lit up. "I never thought of that."

"Yeah, just, don't bother making a big deal of it now, we can work it out, and you can deal with Jen after the break. Everyone is so … depleted right now."

Tami nodded in agreement.

"Such a good point."

Coll pursed her lips, eyeing Angela, relieved something came out of her mouth that settled her a bit.

"You're such a little smarty pants."

"I mean, I get it… you want to snuggle your guy."

"Oh god, it is so much more than snuggling…"

Coll blushed, "okay, whatever, the details don't matter that much I still get it."

Angela tilted her head, "By the way, did you ever get back to John after that pathetic email he sent you?" Angela asked sweetly, her energy completely shifting on a dime.

Surprised and slightly alarmed, Coll looked at her. Shit. "... no."

"Damn. You've got bigger problems than I do."

"That is honestly probably the least of them at the moment."

Angela took a deep breath. "I feel better now."

"Oh. Great."

"You should deal with that. What did Nick say? Was he pissed?" Angela asked, looping back around on the topic.

Coll held her hand out to the side of her body, "Ang... "

"You didn't tell him."

"I told him about the email. We just didn't talk about it." Thinking back to that moment, her body felt warm. "And then I woke up, and Jane was here, so.."

"Can I know about the email? Who is John?" Tami asked gently.

Coll opened her mouth, but Angela was talking again.

"He's Coll's ex. He's sad about that for obvious reasons. He's in love with her but isn't man enough. Wants to take her for pizza. He told her he's in love with her over email." Angela rolled her eyes, "Doesn't take a hint." She turned her glance back to Coll, "Your summer really did not go according to plan, huh?" Angela giggled.

"That is one way to put it."

"Listen, thanks for talking… I'm sorry I'm so… hot-blooded."

Coll shrugged, "It's what makes you so endearing."

"You're the best," Angela said sweetly as she leaned in to hug Coll. "Thanks, Little."

Coll smiled, "You're welcome."

Tami and Coll watched in silence as Angela left the room with a big smile on her face.

"Well," Tami smiled as she spun coll's chair back around, so Coll was facing the mirror again, "I'm a great listener if you want to vent."

"It's a tempting offer. I don't even know what to say."

Tami continued with Coll's hair for a few minutes before she made eye contact with her in the mirror, "Pizza??"

"I know." Coll rolled her eyes.

"Forget him. Let's talk, Carter!"


An hour later, Coll was on her knees in the dressing room, shuffling through Nick's duffle bag. Her heart was pounding, and she could feel the anxiety bubbling over. Just relax, just relax.

She had hurried to the dressing room to get the phone after finally getting out of the conversation Jane had locked her in earlier, cornering her in the corridor after she had spoken to A.J., telling her she wanted to talk… it made her body feel ice cold.


-


"I think you know what I'm going to say."

"Honestly, I don't," Coll said plainly, trying to keep her voice as level as possible. There was a myriad of things Jane could say, all of them terrified her.

"I know what's going on."

"With?" Coll asked, casually running her hand up her opposite forearm.

"With you."

"Me?"

"And Nick… you could have told me…" Jane smiled, tilting her head. It made Coll uneasy.

"Not sure what you mean…?"

Jane gave her a look.

They stared at each other for several seconds before Jane began again.

"The bag, the looks… I can see it." She said quickly, "Colleen, you don't want to get involved in this…" her voice was matter of fact, not sympathetic or protective… just factual.

Coll didn't respond. Her heart rate was peaking, and her legs felt like lead.

"Nick isn't good for you. You need someone who can commit. Someone more mature."

"Jane-"

Jane tilted her head. "You want to risk your future… and your friendship for a summer of fun?"

She didn't know how to respond, but she wanted to try. "I-"

"Of course, you love him. Everyone loves him. And he knows that he can have any girl he wants, and he does." The way she said it cut into Coll with unsettling precision.

She could feel the goosebumps on her skin, the prickly feeling of the anxiety poking at the back of her neck. She felt a hundred words pile up on her tongue, but her mouth wouldn't open. She couldn't speak.

__


Upon pulling his phone out, she faced another jarring reminder.

New text from Mandy. Mandy? Why? Now?

She stared at it for a few seconds before dismissing it.

Holding the phone in her palm, trying to relax, she closed her eyes for a moment.

it doesn't matter. None of this matters. Just deal with the big thing first. Mom will get it. A classic pro. No thunder.

She slumped her shoulders, defeated, and dialed home.

Between the lounge and the dressing room, with the full-body resolve to call home, she decided she would start by telling Jill she was changing her plans and going to Florida instead of back to Boston and see how that landed. But when Jill's voice came across the line, her emotions took over.

"Hello?" Jill's voice was even and unbothered. upon hearing it, Coll closed her eyes and every exhausted, stressed out and worried part of her erupted. She started crying instantly. "Colleen?"

"...mom…"

"Sweetie, what's wrong? Are you okay?"

She sobbed into the phone, pressing the back of her hand into her eye, sitting back off her knees, her body feeling weak and heavy at the same time. "I don't know… why I'm crying just to hear your voice."

"Baby..." Jill laughed lightly, "I'm so glad you called! Have you been so busy?"

"I need to tell you something."

Jill smiled, "Okay."

"I-" She breathed in deeply, "I… I just…"

"Whatever it is, it's okay."

Her stomach flipped, "I don't want you to be upset."

"About?"

"Anything." She cried.

"Please tell me. I promise it'll be okay."

There was a long pause, Coll shook her head, clenching her eyes shut and pushing more tears out and over her face.

"It's Nick." She had to pause to regain the resolve to go on. "I love him. I fell in love with Nick." The words fell out quickly.

Jill bit her lip into her mouth, stifling a smile. "With our Nick?"

"Yes."

"Oh, sweetie. Why would I be upset about that?" She laughed lightly.

She was confused, "What?"

"What?"

"Why aren't you like… shocked and dismayed?"

"Dismayed?" Jill laughed lightly.

"Yeah."

"Honestly, Colleen, I knew something was up..."

"What?!" Coll practically yelled.

"You barely wrote, you didn't call… you're in Europe, and we didn't get a single email about -- anything." Jill said sweetly, "I thought for sure you'd have sent something about the rivers, the Eiffel Tower… something. So I knew. When you were quiet."

She sat there flabbergasted, unmoving, her face damp and warm. "I-"

"Plus, what's not to love? Nick is great. We get it."

"We??"

"Well, obviously, I floated the idea past your father."

"Mom, I swear-"

Jill smiled to herself, "I would love to know more. Please."

"About Europe?" She cried, pressing her hand to her forehead.

"You and Nick…"

"You're happy about this?"

"If you are…"

"I just-" She didn't know what to say, she didn't know what she was expecting or what she even wanted. She just felt overwhelmed by everything and had no words left.

"Colleen, it's okay. We love Nick."

"But-"

"I could tell something was up, and when Becka came back, I knew for sure. I asked her how you were and she got all … red."

"Red?!"

"Yes, I was surprised. She's usually better at covering than that. Of course, now I know, her defenses were all compromised, too."

Coll shook her head in silence.

"She started babbling about a woman named Angela and third-order experiences - didn't address you much at all. She didn't tell me too much about her travels either. She did, however, ramble off the most ubiquitous facts about Germany which told me she didn't actually experience them, just looked them up before she came home knowing I would ask.so you were both acting weird. I just knew something was going on. Or multiple somethings as it were."

"This is giving me a headache." Coll groaned.

"Just tell me… you're happy?"

She swallowed down the anxiety that had crept up. "I am. Really happy. I wanted to tell you myself."

"I know."

"I would have waited till i saw you," she pushed her hand through her hair, "that's what I wanted to do, but I was nervous about Jane."

"... Jane?"

"She came here, and some stuff happened, and even though we were trying to play it cool… she found out."

"What's the concern, though?"

"I thought she would say something to you before I could."

Jill was quiet.

"Mom?"

"I'm glad you told me."

"... me too."

"When will I see you?"

"Well," she inhaled deeply, feeling much more relieved, "I'm actually going to Florida with Nick for a few days, and then I'll be up."

"Oh."

"Yeah, I've never been to his place in Florida, so…"

"Right, yeah. That will be nice."

"You're doing the thing." Coll sniffled.

"What thing?"

"Where you are trying to be chill, but you're not actually chill. I know it. I've been doing it for two days."

Jill laughed it off. "I am, as you call it, chill. I just always worry about you. Both of you. And, honestly, it's a lot for me right now."

"Yeah. Same."

Jill took a deep breath, "I'm happy for you."

Coll exhaled nearly all the stress that remained in her body, and with it, she released the only thought she had wanted to share with Jane but hadn't, "I love Nick. And I am not afraid of what that might put me through. Even if I should be."

Chapter 54 by elleinad
Author's Notes:


By the time the show ended that night, Coll was asleep on the couch in the dressing room. It had been a while since she’d seen a dressing room with a couch but it was warmer, cozier and when she finished with Jill, her headache surging again, she took the opportunity. She hadn’t even considered venturing back into the venue, unsure how she wanted to proceed with Jane.

“Colleeeeen…” Nick sang happily as a drop from the icy exterior of his water bottle landed on her arm. “Wake up sleepy head.” He laughed.

She opened her eyes and looked at him smiling at her but didn’t say anything.

“What’s up? You okay?” His voice was lighter than she had heard it all day.

She slowly sat up. “Hey. Yeah, I’m okay.”

“I’m sorry we are over exerting you.” He laughed, taking a sip from the bottle.

“No, I’m fine. I swear.” She looked around as casually as possible, “where’s your mom?”

His smile faded quickly, sensing there was a specific reason she was asking. “In the lounge. Why?”

“No, nothing... just curious.” She dismissed it and stood up, “come on-“

“Did she say something to you?”

Her pulse quickened, Should have planned that better… “Well-“

“Did she?” The concern present and heavy in his voice.

“Well, it-“

“Oh my god. She-“

“It’s okay.” She said calmly, “I mean, we spoke. We had a little chat, it’s not a big deal.”

He eyed her suspiciously and she smiled kindly at him. “I promise I’m fine.” She said, knowing, ultimately, that’s what he was worried about.

She kissed him on the cheek and he wrapped his arms around her waist. For a moment, she let the guard she had up the past two days down. We’re alone. It’s safe. He kissed her and she swung her arms around his neck.

“I want you so bad but that might mean there are things I can’t protect you from. And I don’t want to be the reason you sacrifice your potential.”

She shook her head softly, locking her eyes on his, “I think my potential includes the ability to find a way to work within this situation.”

He was quiet in his contemplation about her statement before smiling. His hand moved toward her face, her eyes met his. “I can’t wait to be home with you,” He said as he brushed his palm against her cheek.

Her body felt like putty again, her heart fluttered, “I love you” she whispered as he pressed his forehead into hers.

Suddenly the door to the dressing room slammed shut abruptly, startling them both for a moment.

He looked between her and the door briefly.

“Please tell me what she said to you.”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me. It matters that she thinks she can say whatever bullshit she said to you.”

“She’s not going to change my mind and It’s just going to make you mad.”

“I’m already mad.”

She pouted, “Okay.”

He was tormented thinking that he wasn't able to protect her even from this. This should have been easy.

Coll took a deep breath, “She told me that she could tell something was up between us. She said ‘you don’t want to get involved in this’... she said…” she paused, he was looking at her and his jaw was tight, holding the anxiety there. “She said ‘Nick can have any girl he wants, he knows it and he does’....”
His face was unmoving for a second. His hands slid from her back to her hips and he backed away from her ever so slightly.

“She said that?”

She could hear the anger in his voice.

Coll nodded sadly. “I know that's not the case though. Well, I’m sure plenty of girls want you, i just mean like - you know. And she isn’t upset about us. She’s just … rude about it. She doesn’t care what we do- what you do. She just wants her way… whatever that is, I don’t know.”

“Money.”

“Well-“

“I don’t want her to hurt you.”

She thought it over for a moment. “Right… well, I’m okay with what she said. Because I know the truth about you. What she said didn’t hurt me. It was that she said it at all. That she wanted to say it to me. That she wanted to say something to me that she thought would make me doubt you.” She explained, “I trust you. And that’s all that matters to me about it. I’m glad I know now… how she can be. Please don’t worry about me. You have enough to think about.”

“I want to think about you though.” He said, pulling her in closer to him again. “Having a reason to think about you means you’re mine. That’s what I want.” As the words escaped his mouth he felt a surge of maturity, the feeling like he was finally getting it right - doing right by her and wanting it that way.


The urgency she felt to get to his suite that night and close the rest of the world out was intense. She made quick work of gathering her things at the venue, meeting up with Angela to pass her room key off, checking in with A.J. before he disappeared for the night… things she had to get done not just because she cared but because she needed to be beyond them. She needed to be alone in the dark with him, secure in his embrace, relaxed into his body. She needed to run her hand through his hair and feel that full body happiness that came from hearing him tell her he loved her.

When she finally got there, she could feel the rest of the stress leaving her body.

The remaining anxiety dissipated as his hand snaked up the back of her neck and crept into her hair while he kissed her. She smiled against his lips, her entire body feeling euphoric and tingly.

The tension she didn’t realize she was still holding throughout her body released as he undressed her down to her lace shorts and bra and kissed along her neck and jaw.

Her worries floated off as his finger tips dragged slowly across her skin.

Things that mattered mere hours earlier, didn’t matter anymore.

Jane was leaving early in the morning, so early in fact, they had already said goodbye to her. It was quick and the primary concerns were largely left undiscussed.


-

“I only wish you’d told me.”

“I asked him not to.” Coll said before Nick could respond. She marveled silently how it seemed to be getting easier to lie. “I was hoping we could have a little more time under the radar…”

Jane looked at her incredulously as Nick started in.

“We’ll be back to the states next week. I’ll call you sometime soon.”

“Do you promise?”

“Yeah.”

-


His hand was pressed into her bare lower back, he was seducing her in a way that felt new and raw. And she loved it.

She realized that she felt so much urgency to be there with him like that tonight and such incredible relief in it because of the shift she knew was taking place

She could feel herself getting closer to him in the ways that mattered most to her these past few days. Little by little, she knew, she was handing him things and he was holding them; carefully. But he was handing things to her too, and letting her in places he hadn’t let anyone else go before. He was acting on it - finally understanding that she did trust him and that gave him confidence to let her see these broken, sensitive things about his life. She proved she wasn’t scared off, and that she was okay with whatever weirdness she’d have to endure for him and he let her.

They were both in something deeper now, but they were in it together.

“Colleen.” He mumbled against her skin, anchoring her back in reality.

“Yeah.”

He pulled away from her, his body hovering above hers. He looked at her but he didn’t say anything.

Without thinking, she moved her hand to his face and pushed her fingers through his hair gently. She enjoyed the fact she could do that and the sensation it left her with. She smiled at him and he remained quiet, watching her.

She thought about the things he’d been through … with Jane, the things he’d been through with other women because of her incessant belittling. She refused to be part of it, she refused to make him repeat any of it.

“You make me feel so safe.” She said quietly.

The corners of his mouth turned upward into a smile.

“I love you.” He said simply. The words came easily to him when they were for her; it was an unfamiliar experience. He had told her he loved her - that he was in love with her multiple times, more than he had ever said it other women combined. And this time, he knew it was real. He understood that the things he felt for her could only be defined this way. In his eagerness to express so many things to her, this one phrase summed up most of them. He’d have to find ways to show her the specifics, but it excited him.

Her heart beat harder, faster… “I love you, too.”

His fingertip traced over the curve of her hip and slid under the band of her lace shorts. He looked at her cautiously. She smirked, tilting her hips in his direction, encouraging him to go on. Her mind immediately wandered back to that night in the shower with him after leaving the club. Instantly her body reacted - her heart rate increased, her core heated up remembering the feeling of him touching her where she most wanted him to, the way no one else ever had. And she wanted to feel that again.

Slowly he worked the garment off her body, savoring the smoothness of her skin as he pushed it down her leg with his hand. He continued by turning his attention back to her hips, caressing her with his hand as his mouth trailed down her neck, through the valley of her chest and across her stomach. His hand nervously moved further down her torso until there was nowhere left for it to go. She adjusted her body slightly, unfolding, making it easier for him to do what she wanted him to do.

His fingers teased her briefly, touching her gently. Relaxation radiated through her body, watching his eyes move across her body, nearly entirely exposed to him now.

His mouth returned to her face as he slid his fingers easily inside of her. His hot breath on her face combined with his lethal touch were creating a storm of complete pleasure inside of her.

“Nick…” she breathed as his available hand swept across her upper back.

“This is all I want right now.” She didn’t know what it meant but her mind was too tangled up to think it over. “I want to make you feel good.”

She pressed her hips into him, his fingers gaining deeper access, her body unfurling into his touch.

She had never experienced anything like this before. She didn’t feel self conscious or shy, she didn’t feel pressured or unsure. She wanted more and simultaneously didn't want to move on from this yet.

He had no idea if she had ever allowed anyone else this much access to her before and he hated not knowing. But he loved that she gave it to him.

She hid her face in his shoulder as she braced her hands on his arms, breathing a bit heavier as he took her all the way.

He kissed her cheek and she turned her face to his.

He kissed her lips and she moved her hands to his face. It was hard to believe any of this was real - him, the feelings, the enormity of it all... it was overwhelming but it was also exciting. "You're amazing."

“I know this isn’t the more you want the most.” He said, sliding his hand up her arm.

She blushed, he remembered… “There are very few things I don’t want with you...”

Chapter 55 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Coll pushed her cellphone back into her pocket, wondering what was going on with it’s consistent failures. As she did so, she noticed that the lounge had emptied out significantly since she began her attempted call. It was the evening of the final show and she had just tried to call Becka with no success.

Suddenly, she felt Angela’s arms wrap around her seemingly out of nowhere.

“Thank you so much.” Angela said quietly with a huge smile, hugging Coll in tighter. She was careful not to brush her face against coll’s shirt as she was already dressed and had her hair and make-up done.

“Oh. Hi.” Coll laughed, caught off guard by Angela’s hug.

Three nights ago, Coll had left her room key with Angela for the first time. Last night, she did it again. Angela was so appreciative but they hadn’t seen each other all day for Angela to tell her so. Leighanne had convinced Coll to go out shopping with her that afternoon and they didn’t arrive at the venue until about an hour ago.

“How was your night, Little?”

She could feel her cheeks blushing, “it was good.” She had spent the first part of the night with Nick, Leighanne and Brian in Brian’s suite, chatting over room service and watching a horror movie, and the second part of it with Nick in his suite, talking and making out. They talked more than they made out for the first time in weeks but that was still just as blissful. “Yours?”

“Incredible."

She blushed harder, “I’m glad.”

“Baby girl, you are the real MVP.” Angela said as she pulled back to look at Coll.

“You’re welcome. I wasn’t using it. I hope you’ll use it again tonight.”

“We are planning on it. You are the best.” Angela smiled before walking away casually.

Coll stood there distracted, thinking about what Angela had said.

So much more than snuggling. Incredible.

A rambling list of things from the recent past came to mind as she wandered slowly out to the corridor following the path Angela took ...

Mandy’s text

Becka’s flowers

Howie’s note

Angela’s night of ecstasy

Nick’s laugh, her hands in his hair, his warm breath on her neck...

She knew she wanted to go all in with him. She knew she wanted more. She even knew it was inevitable. But she also knew that she didn’t want or need to rush, and that her morality, though strange to others, had gotten her this far, to exactly where she wanted to be. But hearing about Angela and Q, knowing that all around her people with same or lesser feelings were doing what she wanted to do made her question herself briefly.

“Little!” Brian’s voice cut into her stream of consciousness and she was startled by it, and she looked up quickly to see him jogging towards her in his blue stage suit. “Come with!” He looped his arm through hers and she started jogging with him to keep up

“Where?”

Brian didn’t say anything as they turned the corner to see the entire crew gathered up.

“Nick was looking for you. You belong here.” He explained as they came to a stop. He let go of her arm and walked happily over to where Leighanne was standing.

Nick approached her with a casual smile that made her heart rate increase.

“We wanted to do a big circle tonight.” He said, “You should be here.”

She felt a surge of happiness rise inside of her. Traditionally the guys, dancers and band would circle up for a prayer before the show. Occasionally Leighanne would pop in, sometimes Jen … but Coll never had. It felt like something sacred. More sacred than Leighanne thought their nightly toast was. This was a new level of inclusion.

They held hands through the circle and he kissed her before he hurried off with everyone else to get prepped for the start of the show.

Once the bulk of everyone had left the scene, Coll and Leighanne made their way back to the lounge to get the champagne Leighanne had on ice.

“It’s actually rose champagne. I figured we should do something extra special tonight.”

“Oh very fancy. Never had it.” Coll replied happily. “I-”

“Colleen!” Jen’s voice interrupted her sentence and stopped her in her tracks.

Leighanne slowed to a stop alongside her as well, “I’ll meet you in there.” She said sympathetically before leaving Coll alone to wait on Jen.

“How are you feeling?”

Coll tucked her hair behind her ear and shrugged slightly, “I’m good.”

Jen looked at her suspiciously. “You sure?”

Yesterday, before they left the hotel to get on the buses, Jen found Nick and Coll over breakfast and slid a magazine into Coll’s hands.

_

“No idea how she got this done so fast but,” Jen began, “Leila and I think your mom might have leaked this.” Looking at Nick, she handed the magazine to Coll.

“Leila?” Coll asked, “Who is Leila?”

“The publicist.” Nick stated stoically, keeping his eyes on Jen.

Her eyes widened as the headline caught her attention. “Nick’s new chick…. Wow, terrible headline.”

Jen looked at her, confused by the reaction.

“But also, holy shit.” Coll said calmly as she slid her hand across the glossy cover. The image was taken from a distance but she could see clearly it was of the two of them looking rather cozy in the corridor of some venue or is that a dressing room?

“Ah, you are real.” Jen smirked.

“Wait. What happened?” Nick asked, snapping to attention, craning his head to see the cover.

“Look, it’s still… not major. I would say you have until TRL tomorrow at the absolute max.” Jen explained as Nick took in the cover.

“For what?” Coll asked.

“For whatever you two want to do. Once this pops, it’s going to explode.”
Cautiously, Coll handed the magazine to Nick.

“Can someone just explain to me in plain english what the motive is exactly?” Coll asked, feeling a sense of urgency to understand, while simultaneously feeling dumb for having to ask. “I am not convinced she-”

“Jane wants Nick to be as … exposed as possible. Because she knows that stories like this drive interest and interest drives conversation and more media coverage and ultimately that makes more money. And she wants a piece of that. So she feeds the system what it needs” Jen explained, “to keep producing the outcome she wants. Even if it’s not the best thing for Nick or you personally.”

“If she wants media drama for you why was she seeding the idea that I shouldn’t be with you?” She asked, looking at Nick.

He scoffed, “to create more drama.”


_

Coll nodded, “Think so…”

“Okay.”

“Thanks for checking.”

“Of course.” Jen sighed, pursing her lips and looking at Coll thoughtfully, “Colleen…I know that living in this bubble sometimes makes it hard to know what’s real. But, I can tell this is … something. And on a personal level, I actually really like you so I’m a little more concerned than normal.”

Coll laughed, “You mean more concerned than you were about Mandy?”

“Maybe a little bit.”


Leila had suggested having Nick call into TRL to “address it.” She thought that staging a conversation with Carson would give Nick the opportunity to take back the dialogue however he wanted. At first, he was entirely unconvinced, and Coll stayed quiet, unsure about the pros and cons of any of the options.


-

“Take the power back. Especially because it’s your mother… Before you can’t. It can still come from you. This is one little headline. But there will be more. The longer you wait the further it gets from you - from the truth - from what you want people to hear.”

Coll looked between Jen and Nick nervously as Jen spoke.

“You want to be with her right? And you don’t want to have to hide it. You will hide it until you’re open about it. You’ll always keep it private but you won’t have to hide it if people freely know.”

He looked at her for a moment in quiet contemplation. In that moment he saw it again: the life he could have with her. He saw her in the future, he saw her on the beach in Florida and at a bar in Boston, and in his bed in a hotel in any city. He saw everything.

“I’ll call.”

-


Leila had no problem getting Nick some airtime on TRL and no more than seven hours after the magazine first appeared in their lives, Nick had confirmed there was in fact a ‘new chick’, breaking a million or so hearts - according to Carson - in the process.

“I was pretty shocked you let us go shopping this afternoon.” Coll smirked.

Jen’s heart dropped and Coll could see it on her face. “What?”

“...What?”

“You went where??”

Shit. “Oh. Uh-”

“Oh my god.”

“Leighanne said you knew!!”

Jen stood up straighter and Coll could see her mind spinning. “Please don’t be mad! We are both completely fine and nothing happened and it’s the last show and Leighanne has fancy champagne that’s pink and please don’t make it a thing… she’s so excited.” Coll pleaded, placing her hands on Jen’s arms. “Please. Don’t make it a thing.”

“My stress level, Colleen!”

Coll pouted, trying not to laugh.

“Listen, can we just be stressed out together, then?”

“You do not seem stressed at all!”

Coll rolled her eyes. “We both know that half the people in this building hate me right now. And I’m trying to be chill about it but it’s definitely not just ‘no big deal’ to me. None of this is no big deal to me. It’s actually a very big deal to me.”

She hadn’t let on much, but she was preoccupied by it since yesterday morning.

Nick had asked her last night if she was okay with everything, she could tell he was nervous to know the answer. Even still, she was honest.

.

“I feel like I don't know enough to know. I feel completely clueless,” she paused, thinking about him that night at the fountain and all the things she did know for absolutely sure … “but only about some of this.” He looked at her, wondering what she meant but she continued before he could ask. “If someone has to put up with weirdness and chaos, let it be me.” Pressing her hand into her chest, she went on, “I’m on your side and I’m not so fragile. It doesn’t need to be easy or perfect. It’s okay if it’s a little messy. Nothing that’s easy is worth it anyway,” she concluded.

He shook his head, unsure what to say. He hadn’t expected her to be so cool with it, he hadn’t expected her to ask for it… “How do you do this?”

“Do what?”

He remembered what Becka had told him - you can’t hand Coll a problem she won’t be willing to sort through.

“You just like… make sense of stuff.”

She laughed lightly as she rubbed her eyes with the sleeves of her shirt. “Don’t get me wrong this does intimidate me. I don’t want to create any problems for you, your career… whatever. And honestly, some of the concerns about the fans do reach me. I’m not that dense. Like, yeah, I am naive about some of this. But I'm also just like … okay with it. Okay with what I do know and okay with being naive.” She explained, “Because I also know that you are worth it. And absolutely no risk to my potential.” She grinned as he wrapped his arms around her.


-

Chapter 56 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

_ it's me long day. In FL now luv u

Finishing her text, Coll eyed Nick as he did another pass of a towel over his hair.

Forty minutes ago, they had arrived at his house after seventeen or so hours of traveling. He had rolled their suitcases up the path and into the foyer, told Coll he would give her the full tour tomorrow, and smiled widely at her. "for now, shower and bed."

She had nodded in agreement, but in between executing the two steps of his plan, she asked him if she could text Becka from his phone.

"I'm pretty sure mine is just…" she yawned, "done. Broken. Tired. Refurbished one too many times."

He looked at her and barely followed what she was talking about but smiled at her standing in his room, wearing one of his tee shirts, with one hand on her hip and the other holding the phone out to the side, waiting for Becka's response. Her hair was damp, and her legs were bare.

He felt his body reacting to her again as his temperature spiked. He thought back to sliding his hand up her leg and over her hip in the shower as the steam rose around them; the way she looked at him and bit her lip as she wrapped her hand around him, kissed him deeply, and worked him over the edge…

"Definitely need a new one." She said mostly to herself, breaking him out of his reverie. He returned his attention to her in the present.

"Is she really gonna respond now? At two am?"

Coll smirked, "Most likely. I'm the Little!" She reminded him enthusiastically. "I'll just give it a minute. If not, at least she will see the text in the morning and know I'm here." As if on cue, the phone buzzed in her hand.

She reviewed the message as Nick moved to sit in front of her on the foot of his bed.

_ call tomrw luv

After reading Becka's reply, she closed Nick's phone and handed it back to him.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome." He said, taking the phone from her and tossing it casually into a nearby armchair.

"Bedtime?" She asked sweetly as he reached out to her.

He nodded and pulled her into him. She laughed and fell back along the bed with him.

"It is definitely bedtime," he said before leaning in to kiss her.

She giggled and rolled off the side of the bed and on to her feet. "Which side is yours?"

He looked at her curiously as he stood up on the other side of the bed as well.

"I usually sleep in the middle."

"Really?"

"Is that weird?"

"No." She shrugged and reached for the blanket, "I just wanted to make sure."

"Like I would mind if you slept on my side…" He said with a smile as he flipped the light switch, and the room fell dark.

She grinned at him as they both got under the covers and crept in closer to each other.

Finally She snuggled deeper into Nick's bare chest, pulling him closer to her, reveling in this reality. Everything is fine. Her body relaxed into his embrace, and she felt the exhaustion of the day settle in.

"I'll show you around tomorrow." He said quietly and she nodded into him silently. "I'm so glad you're here, though."

"Me too."

"I love you." He said as his hand moved over the top of her head.

She smiled, her spine tingled, it was still a thrill to hear it and to say it. "I love you too."

"Goodnight, Collypop."

"Goodnight, Snickers."

They fell easily into a deep sleep. So many things had been settled - things had finally been said, they were alone together, no bus, no hotel, no shows and nowhere to be tomorrow. Infinite possibilities.



Coll woke up the following morning alone in Nick's bed. She snuggled deeper into his pillow, feeling the warmth of the sun illuminating the room and a soft wind floating in from outside. She looked around cautiously before rolling over and easing up on to elbows to find Nick sitting on the balcony off the bedroom.

She slid out of his bed and slowly walked in his direction. Feeling a surge of energy pipe through her body as she approached him.

"Good morning." She said quietly as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind.

"Ahh, sleeping beauty is awake." He laughed, bringing his hand to her arm.

"I was looking forward to waking up next to you…"

"It's almost eleven." He laughed. "I've been up a while already."

"How come you are not as exhausted as I am by everything? And jet lag…? You have so much more to deal with than I do…"

He smiled, "Just used to it." He explained, "Plus, I had to check some things, so I just got up."

She didn't question him, just nodded into his shoulder. She noticed then how warm it was, and that the sky was perfectly blue and the ocean was glistening out ahead of them. "Pretty nice view you've got here, Carter." She sighed.

"I know," He smiled softly as she nuzzled her face into his neck, and her hair fell across his shoulder.

"Thank you for sharing this with me." She whispered.

He turned his face in her direction, and she peeked up at him.

"You might change my mind about Florida this week."

"Wow...." He said as she stood up and turned to stand in front of him.

"Colleen," He said as he got to his feet.

"Yeah."

His hands slid around her waist, "I love you." Swinging her arms around his neck, she smirked at him. "It feels easy now." He looked at her, "to tell you."

"I love you, too, and I love telling you so."

He kissed her, and she felt dizzy.

"I have something for you…" he explained, dragging his thumb across her cheekbone.

She narrowed her eyes at him, "What is it?"

He didn't say anything. He took her hand and led her back through his room and down the hall.

"I asked Maggie to help me out…" He said as they arrived at a closed door.

"Maggie?"

"She checks on the house while I'm away, gets the mail, cleans up…"

"Oh."

"She's like, seventy-three years old."

She nodded, "seventy-three years young it sounds like."

"She is peppy, yeah." His smile melted her as he pushed the door to the guest room open. "My closet is a mess, so figured you'd have more space in here."

She looked at him curiously, "what…?"

Stepping fully into the room behind him, she saw there was a rolling rack full of clothes and a few accessories on the bed. A wide smile lit up her face. "Nick… you-"

"Just wanted to help … fill in some of the gaps… I know we should have gotten more stuff in Europe, but it was so crazy and I asked Becka to send me your sizes and kind of just had to get creative from there but hopefully you like some of it. I ordered it, and Maggie came to pick it all up and unpack it."

She covered her mouth with her hands clasped together, looking at him intently.

"I'm excited about this one." He said, pulling a hanger with a black dress off the rack, holding it up to show her, raising an eyebrow in the process.

Her hands moved away from her face, reaching out to touch the dress.

"Wow, Nick, you really did not have to… but," she paused to look around more, "wow, that was really thoughtful."

"I just wanted you to have what you need, that's all." He placed the hanger back on the rack as she explored the other articles, "Also, you didn't have date clothes."

"Ohh, I see." She smiled, "well, what do I need date clothes for?"

"For all the dates I'm taking you on."

"You're really spoiling me."

"You should get used to it."

"Oh, this is going to continue?"

"It's fun for me." He said, putting his arm around her shoulders, pulling her into him. "What else do you need?"

"I don't need anything else." she giggled, "Well, maybe coffee… maybe pants."

"Coffee, sure. Pants… I don't mind you not having any."

She started laughing as he nuzzled his face into her neck, kissing her and making her squirm in delight.

Chapter 57 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

“Maybe it is still too futuristic to have a phone in your pocket…?” Coll mused, rubbing her fingertips into her forehead as she looked down at her lifeless phone laying on the empty counter. The cell phone she had brought to Europe was a refurbished Nokia she had been using for seven months in Boston. It had already been on the fritz when she left but she brushed it off, preferring email and knowing it would get barely any use and she would be surrounded by ways to make contact if she had to.

She had just used Nick’s house phone to call her parents and let them know she had arrived safely in Florida and to not bother trying her cell because it was not cooperating.

While she was doing that, he felt a pang of anxiety - thinking about her at school and getting back on tour, knowing he would want a reliable way to reach her and sorting out the options for resolving that before he left her in Boston.

“It’s not too futuristic.” He smirked at her, “we can get a new one in Orlando. If it’s a little newer maybe it’ll hold up better.”

Using his finger to flick the side of the phone, he sent it spiraling around the surface of the kitchen island.

Standing up a bit straighter, she narrowed her eyes at him, “Orlando?”

He shrugged with a shy smile, and shoved one of his hands into his pocket, “If you want to come with.” His other grazed the surface of the counter. “We have to be there for two days to shoot a video. My idea was…”

She was smiling softly as he stumbled through it.

“I was hoping… that you’d come with me. I’ll be busy but there's plenty to do there. And then we could go to connecticut.”

Her eyes lit up. “We?”

Everything had been moving so fast and there was so much to think about that the plan for getting back home hadn’t ever been discussed. She had imagined it a few times, how it might play out, but none of the scenarios she had come up with had him with her in Connecticut.

“It’s up to you.”

“I would love it if you came with me.” She gleamed.

Unable to contain the happiness, he grinned at her. “What about Boston?” he asked nervously, rubbing the back of his neck now.

She tilted her head at him, “You want to go to Boston?”

He nodded.

“Really?” she asked, “to my pathetic dorm room…?”

“I mean, I don't care so much about the details, I just want to be with you.” He said easily, “we can get a hotel, or, whatever…”

Thinking about him walking across the campus lawn with her made her heart swell. “That would be amazing.”

He rounded the island and came to stand in front of her. “It was on the list of places we wanted to go together.” He reminded her as their eyes met. Her body felt surprised and comforted all at once, it was a memory from their night at Bunny’s that she hadn’t thought of recently and though it paled in comparison to other events of that evening, it still made her feel a million things. She was silent in response but also smiling eagerly at him. “Are you ready for the house tour now?”

“Think so.” She giggled.


They took their time moving through the house. He pointed out little things about certain rooms - the view from here, the benefit of that… and he mused randomly on life back home. Some of the spaces seemed exactly as she imagined them, others felt different but she couldn’t pin poin why.

“This part usually feels a little lonely.” He said.

“Which part?”

“Being home after being on the road for a while.”

“Oh.” duh, Colleen. “Right, yeah. Makes sense.”

“So that’s pretty much everything.” He said, turning to face her as she continued down the stairs behind him arriving back in the foyer. “Welcome home.”

It made her spine tingle. “It’s beautiful.”

“Well, it looks a lot prettier with you in it.”

“Such a flirt…”

“It’s not flirting, it's just the truth.”

She rolled her eyes at him as he kissed her on the cheek and stepped off the final stair, leaving her one step above him. “Coffee?”

She had noticed that there was not a lot of stuff in the house, food, of course included. “Why do i have a feeling you don’t have any here?”

“Because I don’t. But I know a place. Plus then I can show you around town a little.”

“I’ll put pants on for that tour.” She giggled.

“I guess I can live with that.” He said, “by the way…”

His voice sounded a bit lighter, like he was about to tell her something even more exciting. “Yeah?”

On the plane back to the states, she had decided that she couldn’t leave Florida without telling him everything. As the minutes ticked by in Florida, the urgency mounted… painfully slow. Mentally, the checklist of things she wanted to resolve with him was lengthy. She knew she couldn’t go back home or start classes or see Melanie without knowing she had told Nick everything. Italy. The fountain… why I really knocked on his door that night. What I wanted to say to Jane but couldn’t… All of it. That’s he is it… Everything. He’s everything. That I want everything with him… and exactly what that means.

“I made a reservation at the Waldorf for sunday.”

“The Wal-”

“We can take the boat there in the afternoon, check in, get ready, go for dinner… relax.”

She wasn’t even sure what her reaction was. It was a mix of surprise and nervousness but there was something else… “The spoiling thing was no joke.”

“I know i'm a doofus but… sometimes I can be really serious.” His eyes shifted from his hand on the banister to her on the staircase. “I like being serious about you.”

His words fell into her, and she felt them ignite something deep within her that she didn’t recognize. For a moment she felt hazy and wobbly on her feet, like her body had lost it’s strength. Like every part of her felt… Open…

“That is part of your charm.” She said plainly, trying to keep her tone in check.

He laughed lightly and began to step away from the stairs. “Go get dressed and we can start the next tour.”

“So many tours…” She giggled as she turned to retreat back up the stairs.

She moved through the motions of tracking back to the guest room, unzipping her suitcase, browsing the clothes on the rack… It was overwhelming. The modern beauty of the space, how generous he had been and the feeling his statement about being serious had left her with. As she pulled on a pair of shorts, her mind reeled back to something Brian had said quietly to her as they hugged in the loading dock before he and Leighanne departed for the airport.

-

“Don’t forget, some doors are wide open.” He smiled, “And not all of them are his.”

She looked at him curiously. For all the harkening back to Brian’s metaphor she had done that summer, she didn’t piece it together immediately. “Huh?”

He hugged her again quickly but didn’t say any more. “Gotta go.” he grinned with a laugh, “Have fun in florida.”

“Brian.”

“You’ll know.” He kissed her on the cheek and shuffled over to the van.

-



She pushed her hand through her hair. Her imagination had her tangled up in bed with him again, and driving in the car, and hugging him backstage... Everything. She checked herself in the mirror. Her eyes were wide and her cheeks were red. … open.

Chapter 58 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

Once Coll was dressed, she met Nick in the foyer where he was ready to go, baseball cap on, and sunglasses in hand.

The humidity hung heavy in the air as they moved from the house to the car. For the first time in a long time, she knew things were moving at a normal pace… but with the impending resolution of so many things, normal felt sluggish.

"These sunglasses are pretty great. It's not easy to successfully buy someone sunglasses..." Coll commented randomly as she tilted her head back into the headrest of Nick's car. He looked at her as he slid the car into reverse. Her eyes were closed, and she looked relaxed, he smiled.

"They look good on you."

She smirked at him and shook her head gently. "Thanks."

His hand returned to the steering wheel, and he navigated out of the driveway. "I can tell she drove the car."

"Maggie?"

"Yeah. It's not all jumpy and weird. Also, the volume all the way down..."

Coll laughed, the gear shifted back to drive, he eyed her. She looked at him, "I'm ready to experience a typical day in the life of Nick Carter at home."

The image of her splashed in warm sunlight, sitting in his passenger seat in her shorts and tank top, looking relaxed and happy was something he had imagined for a while, and he knew he'd want to remember for a long time.

"I feel like it's not."

"Huh?"

"No, just… nothing. Let's go."

The way he looked at her made her feel a million things, and she turned to look out the window as he began driving toward town. A Nirvana song started up on the stereo, but he kept it low. Even though it was hot out, she rolled the window down to enjoy the breeze. They were both quiet as they drove, and she kept glancing at him, indulging in the marvelous opportunity to see him doing something so utterly normal. The way his face looked as he concentrated on the road ahead, the way his arm draped casually over the steering wheel at a stop sign, the way his hair stuck out from under the baseball cap, the way he smiled every time he looked at her … each move he made sparked a tiny fire inside of her. More. Everything. Open.

"No one worries about you going out around here?" She asked as he pulled into a parking spot parallel to the sidewalk.

"I'm sure some people do… but it's fine. No one hassles me around here." He explained as he turned the car off, and she reached to open her door. "The place is up there."

"Perfect!" She hopped out of the car and met him on the sidewalk. He took her hand in his and lead her up the block.

"Does it feel supremely quiet, or are we just not used to this?"

"Well, no one is screaming."

"What is that impulse exactly? I wonder about it sometimes…"

"To… yell?"

"Yeah, the screaming and the … crying. Like, why?"

He laughed, "No idea, honestly."

"I mean, I know you're hot." She reasoned, "But like, I don't think I've ever screamed upon seeing you. Are you insulted?"

"Nah. It's cool. I know you like me. You just have a weird way of showing it."

"Realistic. That's how I'd describe it." Her explanation made him chuckle. "Anyway… Where's the coffee, Carter? It's like a million degrees out here, I'm getting iced."

He chuckled and recoiled slightly away from her, "Oh, okay, little miss cranky."

"Cranky? Oh boy… for someone with three sisters, you should know that this most certainly is NOT cranky."

"Feisty, I like it,"

"Coffee, Carter."

"It's right up here, I swear it'll be worth it…"

He ran ahead of her and grabbed the door to the cafe, opening it as she approached.

"After you…"

Upon entry, an enthusiastic older woman who hurried out from behind the register to give him Nick a hug.

"We missed you!" The joy was evident in her voice, and Coll watched happily as the greeting unfolded.

"Ah, I missed you too,"

The woman released Nick from her embrace and quickly transitioned to hugging Coll.

"Welcome!"

"Oh, uh, thank you."

Nick laughed at the surprised look on Coll's face.

"Coll, this is Gloria, Gloria, this is my Colleen."

"Absolutely gorgeous!" Gloria smiled kindly as she pulled back to look at Coll, placing her hands on Coll's arms. My Colleen. "Perfect!"

Coll blushed uncomfortably and eyed Nick for the next move.

"Coffee??" Gloria asked, clapping her hands together.

"Oh, yes, please."

"Alex! Nick's home!" Gloria yelled out as she made her way back behind the counter.

"That's so sweet," Coll said quietly, looking at Nick as they stepped up to the counter. He nodded.

Gloria took their orders and prepped their drinks, and refused to make any money. Nick shoved a few twenties into her tip jar, Alex came to say hello to Nick, and the two of them took their coffees to the back patio. Coll slid into the booth side of the small table Nick motioned to, and he took the seat across from her. The patio was lushly decorated with potted plants, long tables with benches, and throw pillows on the booth seats.

"You come here often?" She asked.

"That sounds like a pickup line."

"You're right."

"I come here mainly to see these guys,"

She brought the straw of her drink to her lips, "I like discovering this other part of your life...."

Me too.


Their afternoon was spent strolling aimlessly around town, sitting for lunch, and chatting with a few local shop owners who welcomed Nick home and were excited to meet Coll. They asked her about school and Boston, and she casually answered while her mind ran wild with all the things she had to resolve before returning to that life. Around two o'clock, Nick suggested heading home and enjoying the rest of the day on the beach.

"I know you like the pool, but that can be later…"

She smirked, "I love the beach."

"Good."

"Isn't that one of the qualifications? For Nick Carter's perfect girl? I love the beach and Journey and the color green, and I'm supposed to love scuba diving, but I'm not sure if I do. It seems like a claustrophobic nightmare." She cringed.

He laughed, "I think I can overlook it."

"I do actually like Journey though,"

"Thank god."

Chapter 59 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

With her fingertip, she traced the deepest line of his palm. The feeling of her skin against his, even in this small way captivated him. Part of her still felt a thrill from the plain fact she was able to access him in this way. Every time she reached out to touch him, she felt it. Lucky.

She glanced up at him briefly. He was waiting patiently on her, reclined across the blanket, propped up on his elbow. A shadow from the cabana bent across his bare shoulder, and it pulsed a rush of energy through her. It reminded her. Things couldn't ever be the same after this, after the things she felt, after the things she had fantasized about doing with him. "I don't want to go back."

"Triple platinum." She said confidently.

"Triple?"

"Hmmm…" Humming, in response as she looked down at his hand, opened in hers, holding it steady on her thigh. "That's a thing, right? Did it already happen?"

The way she giggled when she said it made him feel a hundred things. "Do you actually know what you're looking at or no?" He asked, his voice light and playful.

"No, of course not."

He sighed, "You said you were gonna read my future."

"I mean, I was joking." She laughed, "Pretty sure there is some hocus pocus to that anyway, even if I did know what I was looking for." She folded his fingers back into his palm and held his fist between her hands momentarily...

"Hocus pocus?"

"How can your palm lines really predict the future or reveal some secret truth? Plus, if I could read the future off your hand, I would have mentioned it before."

"I have no idea… you said Melanie told you."

Coll rolled her eyes. She released his hand from hers before leaning back into her elbows on the blanket beneath them. "I said she researched it once. For a project. I don't think there's anything your palm can tell me that I don't already know. Your future looks very bright. And secrets are secrets til you tell them, aren't they?"

He narrowed his eyes at her. The water had nearly all evaporated from her hair, leaving it with a salty sheen, her white bathing suit clung to her body in a way that he enjoyed too much and her skin was glistening in the sun.

Becka had ordered the bathing suit and sent it along for Maggie to collect with the other things she was picking up from stores and deliveries. He wasn't sure why, but white felt like a surprising but also appropriate choice. And the way she looked in it made him want her even more than he already did.

More. "Well, what were you looking for then?" His tone was flirtatious and interested, and it heated her up even more.

It made her think of her list of unresolveds…

"There might be one thing you could tell me." Her head tilted in anticipation of his answer, and she mindlessly adjusted her sunglasses.

"What?"

She sat up straight, pulling one of her knees into her body, resting her chin on it. "I just think about this sometimes, and I guess I'm curious…" There was a brief silence. Really want to know. "What really happened with Mandy?"

He brushed his palms together, keeping his eyes on her as he did so.

"She knew."

Intrigued, she couldn't help but inquire. "Knew what?"

Hanging his head, he shifted uncomfortably. "She said it was obvious what was going on, and she wanted me to have what I should have." Interested in her reaction, he eyed her as he continued, "She said she could tell I was in love with you."

Coll's jaw locked into place, and she was taken aback. "What?" The memory of Mandy at her door rushed back to her. It felt like years had passed since then. "If things work out…" “She-”

"I was going to break up with her, but she beat me to it."

"Wow."

"I was an idiot…" he began.

Quietly, he processed more thoughts.

"I didn't know… I've never felt like that. The way I felt - the way I feel about you. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know what to do with that…even once I knew I didn't know."

"You didn't want to do anything you weren't sure about." She reminded him.

"Right, but…"

"When did you know?"

"That I was in love with you?"

She nodded.

"When you got locked out." He said, The surprise was evident on her face, but he continued. "When did you know?"

"Wait, really?"

"Yeah, why?"

"I left the building that night to call Becka…" She began, "to tell her I was in love with you."

"That's where you were?"

"Yeah… you were singing Back to Your Heart, and I couldn't stand it anymore." Her smile widened. "And then I cried about it. And fell asleep on the sidewalk." she laughed. "Actually, though…" She paused, pursing her lips. "I knew before that. That was the first time I admitted it to anyone, though".

"You did?"

"That night in London… I don't know, I was all jumbled up, trying to convince myself it was something else. You were still with Mandy. And doing … whatever you were doing."

"Being an idiot." He offered.

"It was complicated… or at least it seemed like it was."

"I really wanted to do something, but also I didn't. I didn't even know what I wanted. That was such a great night…"

Tucking some hair behind her ear, she looked away briefly. Returning her hand to her face, she hid from him momentarily. She knew she was blushing as the feelings he left her with that night resurfaced.

"I'm glad nothing really happened… physically. Because Mandy was still a factor."

The discomfort in remembering the things that happened in the days, weeks, and years before he had kissed her was acute. He moved into a sitting position next to her, and she instinctively leaned into his bare shoulder, "Where have you been my whole life?" he asked as his hand crept behind her neck, bringing her face closer to his.

Their eyes met, and she responded quietly, "Waiting patiently."

He kissed her quickly, dragging his thumb over her cheek before continuing.

"I was such an idiot. I was so stupid." He groaned, "About everything."

She shook her head, "With me, you were careful. I appreciated it. I knew I was in love with you, for a while I wasn't admitting it to myself. I figured it was mutual… I could feel it."

The annoyance he felt with himself was evident. "I should have told you sooner, though."

She shrugged, "You told me at exactly the right time." Her hand crept into his, "I didn't want to say anything… because I didn't want you to feel responsible or obligated." She began, "and also because I was having fun. I didn't want to mess that up." Her emotions were bubbling up, and she took a deep breath to calm them. "When you asked me if I trusted you, I knew for sure you meant because of all this history you have with women, and because of the particular history I don't have. Then I started thinking it must be bigger than that like maybe you didn't trust that you could be what I wanted - or that you could love me the way you knew I wanted."

"That's exactly how I felt."

"I know how much it sucks to feel rushed or pressured to do something you aren't ready to do, and I didn't want that for you. Or with you. I don't want something fleeting with you. I wanted you to have whatever time you needed to feel okay about that. You had to feel it for yourself that I trusted you that way. I hope you do… now." She sighed, "Either way, I knew you didn't want to tell me you were in love with me until you knew for sure you could back it up. Because you care about me so deeply. I wasn't in any rush." She paused, swallowing back some anxiety. I might be now though.

What she was saying was heavy and full of things he wanted to hear, but at the same time, it made him feel lighter.

"How do you understand everything?"

"I don't understand everything, I understand you." She rolled her thumb over his knuckles, calculating if she could work in something else. Can’t mess it up. "Even still, for as sure as I was about being patient, I almost did say something. That night I knocked on your door; I went there to tell you I was in love with you but … it didn't happen."

"What happened?"

Her cheeks blushed, and she took a deep breath. "Sometimes when I'm with you, things get a little hazy… in a really, really good way." Her mouth twisted into a grin, "you make me feel a lot of things, it's overwhelming. You were kissing me…" even just remembering it made her feel hazy and tingly, "and I just wanted to enjoy that. Honestly, all summer, I felt pulled between moving to the next thing and wanting to enjoy what was happening. But that night, by the time I could think straight again, I knew, or… I remembered… I had to be patient. Or at least that there was no rush."

His eyes scanned her face, and he dropped his head, kissing her shoulder gently.

They were both quiet for a moment before he spoke again.

"Did he pressure you?"

"Who?"

"John."

Oh. “No. Not really.” She said.

"I hate that he loves you. I hate that he has gotten close enough to you to know how amazing you are."

She rolled her eyes. "He doesn't even know me practically. Please don't worry about him. I've never been with anyone the way I've been with you. And I never wanted to be." She explained, "Physically or emotionally."

His hand moved to her thigh and instantly she was back at bunny's, absolutely smitten and falling fast for him, but she wasn't intimidated this time "There is no part of me that John or anyone else has had or knows or understands that you haven't or don't or won't or can't." She smiled. "And I'm going in the water now because it's so freaking hot."

Suddenly she was on her feet and walking quickly to the water and directly into it. Without hesitation, she surrendered to a small wave that crashed against her, and he got to his feet too, still reeling from what she had just told him. "there is no part of me that anyone else has had that you haven't… or won't." It made his skin crawl. in a really, really good way.

"Look at me, enjoying Florida!" She yelled back to him as another wave crashed against her, making her laugh.

He made his way to her, and as his hand reached for her hip, one of the smoldering embers inside of her ignited, her entire body simmered in the heat he activated. He wrapped his arms around her waist, and she leaned into him.

"I feel really lucky right now." He said.

"Me too."


Chapter 60 by elleinad
A droplet of water trickled off her nose and into her wine glass, making her giggle. She eyed the bottle, nearly empty, sitting a few feet back from the edge of the pool, and she was sufficiently loosened up and enjoying the sensation.

She took the final sip from her glass and placed it carefully on the smooth pavement surrounding the pool before pushing back off the wall gently and paddling away from it and in Nick's direction.


It was well past eleven o'clock, and they had finally made their way out to the pool an hour or so ago.

"I know you don't know what you're going to do, but… what do you think you'll do after graduation?” He asked as his arms slid easily around her waist underwater as she approached him. It was a discussion they had started earlier in the day, she had mentioned feeling clueless, and he knew she was too smart to have no ideas.

"I don't know anymore… not most of it." She smirked, her body floating in closer to his, letting him hold her, "It's not so straightforward."

"It's not?"

"Parts of it..."

She leaned back against his hands, her hair splayed out on the water, and the moonlight caught the lines of her collarbone and jaw. Her arms floated out to either side of her body, completely relaxed. It made him feel lightheaded.

Her comfort with him, her smile, their entire day so far… he watched her for a minute.

"Colleen,"

His voice sounded serious, and she looked back to him. It means something.

"Yeah?" she raised up out of the water, his hands slid up her back.

The curve of his bare shoulders created an unsettling feeling in her belly. His hair was slicked back and falling in pieces near his ears. He was perfect.

"What about the stuff you know you want?" He asked, "Tell me that."

There was a tingle in her spine and anticipation coursed through her belly. Considering how to articulate so many things succinctly, she gently bit the corner of her lip into her mouth. Some new ideal. Safe enough. "I know that I want to do good work and that I want to be with you."

The relief reflected in his posture, his shoulders relaxed. He hung his head as his hands went to her shoulders, she anchored herself - wrapping her arms around his body.

"I was hoping you'd say that."

She pursed her lips, her eyes landed on a droplet of water on his cheek. The image of him standing above her at the fountain that night in Italy came to mind. The conviction strengthened. Everything. Tell him everything. "There's more."

"Tell me."

They were both quiet, indulging in the moment while simultaneously their individual thoughts were running wild, the calm ambiance of the night surrounded them.

"There are a million things I don't know… There are things about this that I'm not sure about… logistically or …" Jane, Jen, fans, media, school, tours… It doesn’t matter, “Whatever. But I am..." “...no risk to my potential.”

She took a deep breath, "so completely sure about one thing."

"What?"

"I trust you. Entirely. You know that." Now. "And I-" His hands crept up to her face, and she paused to savor it, taking in the way his eyes were glinting, the way his skin felt against hers, the way everything just made sense with him. Her foot slid easily along the smooth bottom of the pool. Say it. "I know that … you're it." The words left her mouth, and she felt the tips of her ears burning and a rush of blood to her face… Her mouth twisted into a smile, and she shook her head. Now. "You're it. I've known it since Italy."

For her, it felt like an eternity that it took for him to process the sentence. For him, he couldn't wait to respond. "Italy?"

"At the fountain." Her hand slid up his side easily. "I was looking at you, and I saw it… I saw everything. Just… I saw everything, Nick." Her eyes were brimming with tears, but she didn't want to let them out. "I didn't want you to feel pressured or obligated before, and I don't want to scare you now."

"You're not, I swear, I'm not scared." he pressed his forehead into hers, "I love you."

She closed her eyes, releasing the tears.

“There are hundreds of things I am not sure about with this, but I am so sure of that. You're the one. For everything." Everything. She was speaking quietly - her voice navigating along the lines of her breath. "I am completely sure about that. About you. About being with you - wanting to be, needing to be… everything with you. I was sure then, and I still am. It was … unmistakable. You're the reason."

His eyes were dark, staring at her. "I could be the one, Colleen. I want to be good enough for that."

Relief. "You are… both of those things. You know that."

"I want to be."

"You are. I am so sure about it. But I want you to know it's more... it's bigger and... deeper. I saw the best version of you. Everything you are and everything you can be and everything I want. Everything I want to have. I just realized… that's it. You're it..." Her whispered words filled him with excitement, "I felt it. Like something that was missing had shown up, like things just made sense… Everything I want, I want with you. It was like all of a sudden, I realized - why I never wanted to go all-in with anyone else. Why I waited. I should have told you, but I didn't know how to say it without it sounding crazy or scary and like I said I didn't want to push you, and even today, I don't know I just-"

"It doesn't scare me." His voice was confident. "It did - or it might've - but it doesn't anymore. You just make so much sense of me… to me. I didn't know what that was like. You are so perfect, and I didn't want to break you. You deserve everything. I knew what you wanted but I didn't know if I could be that. I didn't want to fuck it up. I always fuck it up."

"You couldn't."

He moved his hand to the back of her neck. "Colleen, this feels different."

Her entire body felt so weak and weightless, but safe and secure in his arms.

"This is really intense," she whispered.

"You make me feel things that I don't know about, you make say things I don't usually say."

She smiled shyly at him, "You're vulnerable."

"I'm in love with you."

"That’s kind of the same thing." She whispered as he kissed her along her jawline. "Nick…"

"Yeah."

"There's more." She felt his finger creep under the strap of her bathing suit. She felt serene and energized at the same time by it. "You make me feel a lot of things." "when I think about you and everything … there is always more. There always will be, and I love that. I love that there is more of everything with you." She breathed in deeper as he looked back to her, "But," her heart was pounding. She felt so close. "I-" What is this? What am I trying to say, actually? What's left? "That's what I want. Now that I've thought of that… of the reality of a life with you in it. My life with you in it like this. I don't want to think about any other option. It's not scary."

"That's what I want, too. I want to be with you. Nobody else." His eyes locked on hers, and the universe she existed in changed, again.

Everything she had ever known about him felt new again. She knew him but not like this. She had heard his voice before but not with this undertone. She had been kissed before but not like this.

For a moment she was caught between the euphoria of breaking into new territory with him and wishing she had experienced everything with anyone else just to be able to feel it new again with him…

She didn't have to ask him if he was sure or what should happen next. She just nodded as his thumb pressed gently against her lip.

"Let's go back inside", he said quietly.

There was something in his eyes that told her that was exactly what they should do. "Okay."

Chapter 61 by elleinad
Author's Notes:
This one was a challenge...

Coll bit the corner of her towel into her mouth gently as she watched Nick lock the back door behind them. Throughout the day, she had noticed him doing these ordinary things, the fascination drew her in, and she paid particular attention to it. She appreciated each instance, knowing there were so few opportunities to see such things. Observing him in his own space, moving through his home life and now, the way his fingers gripped the latch and pushed it into place, holding it just a second longer than was necessary… it made her skin shiver. How can someone so amazing be so normal?

He turned to face her, and they were both quiet for a moment, but there was no silence. She could hear her heart beating in her ears, nervousness creeping in as she considered everything she wanted.

From the outside, he seemed at ease but inside, he could feel the anxiety even through his fingertips… knowing the night was not nearly over and anticipating what might be next, torn between waiting on her and making a move.

He had felt it throughout the day that things were shifting into a higher gear. What she had said on the beach pushed him, what she had said in the pool stoked the fire even more. She had said so much, but he still wanted to hear more. He remembered what she had said in Europe, about how she would tell him when she was ready and that he would know. There was no question that she wanted the same things he did; he just wasn't sure when or if that time had arrived. “... I always trust you…"

The living room was dark, but the lights were still on in the kitchen, partially illuminating the scene between them. The cool air in the house touched her skin, and she clenched the towel tighter around her body.

"What would you have said?" He asked suddenly, moving his hand over the top of his head.

"When?"

"When you knocked on my door that night."

The butterflies returned, and she felt them fluttering inside. "I told you… I was going to tell you how I felt."

"But… what would you have said?" The way the emphasis landed on different words, and the way his voice strained at the end told her he needed to hear whatever it was.

Remembering that night, laying there restless in the dark, the urge to tell him everything… it was all crystal clear again. The intensity of the desire she felt to be near him escalated; he was too far away, there were still things she hadn't experienced with him. She still wanted him just as badly… worse. "It probably would have been a jumbled mess..."

He stepped closer to her, and her breath became shallow.

"I just knew I wanted to tell you… something real. I think you've heard anything I would have managed to say by now."

His palm landed on her cheek, and she blushed under his touch, and she relaxed a bit, knowing he just wanted to hear it again. "I guess… I would have said…or tried to say, I'm in ridiculous love with you. And it feels like a really big deal." She paused, "… that I want to go all in with you."

He smirked at her, "I love hearing you say that. All in."

"That's what you are to me. A commitment. I know you are worth the hard parts..." She whispered.

Commitment. That felt right.

Commitment. Not obligation.

"I want that," She said, "with you. We can have that even if we aren't together all the time."

"Yes," he breathed, pressing his forehead into hers, sliding his other hand around her waist. "That's what I want. With you. All in."

She nodded into his palm.

He started kissing her, and she felt that dull, hazy feeling throughout her body again. Her towel fell to the floor, and they left it there as her arms were put to better use holding on to him.

Slowly, he guided her through the living room and the foyer and up the stairs, making an effort not to break their kiss. She let him take the lead and followed him through the house.

He backed her against the wall at the top of the stairs, and began to slip the straps of her bathing suit off her shoulders, kissing her deeply as he did so.

Though there was hardly any, there was too much space between them. Though he had his mouth on hers, he still wasn't close enough.

She hummed happily in response to his lips on her shoulders, tilting her head back against the wall, feeling less and less in control as he cast his spell over her. Trust him. Fall into it.

With urgency, he started moving again, guiding her further down the hall, through the dark of his room and to his bed where she fell against his sheets.

The warmth coming off of him and the softness of his bed relaxed her as his body covered hers. Her hand held the back of his neck loosely.

“you’ll know.”

His mouth moved to her shoulders, and he resumed working her out of her bathing suit, releasing her arms from the straps and tugging it gently over her chest.

The heat from his mouth was all over… her neck, her collarbone.

"Nick." she murmured as his hand slid over her breast, his mouth on the other. "I love you."

His only response was in the continuation of what he was doing. She was relishing it - giggling softly, curving her body into his, gripping his shoulder.

Every thought in her head was of him, of them, of random things she didn't even know… dizzy with overwhelming bliss she couldn't define. It wasn't one thing, it was everything.

"You are so beautiful," he said as he finished separating her from her bathing suit, and her arm fell back against the bed.

Soon, he was covering her again, pressing his skin against hers, making her moan softly.

His hand slid up the back of her neck, and his fingers pushed through her hair, sending a tingle up her spine. She pulled him in closer to her and reached for the waistband of his swim shorts.

"Why?" She asked quickly. "No."

He captured her mouth in his again while helping her push the shorts off.

Her mind went blank. There was nothing, only feeling, only bursts of warmth and color… nothing else. Complete emptiness for a noticeable moment and then, the single realization that she had everything she was waiting for and no hesitations. Exactly what I wanted, exactly … even better. Everything.

The thought stood alone, prominent and confident, clear, and unmistakable. More, everything, now.

A rush of adrenaline coursed through her body, and she pressed her hand into his chest. "Nick." She whispered against his mouth, "I want more."

"You'll know."

Though she had said that to him several times, he knew it could only mean one thing right now. He pulled back ever so slightly to look at her. There was something new in her expression he wanted to study.

The serious look on his face put every nerve ending on even higher alert.

"I don't want to wait anymore." Her voice was nothing more than a whimper. It hurt to speak. It hurt to say those words, to release them from the deep place they had lived forever. It hurt even though nothing was holding them back, even though it was the easiest thing to know to say. She didn't have a choice; she had to tell him. She needed him to know. She had to have him. "Go deeper with me."

His heart was pounding against his chest. It was the most wonderful and terrifying thing he had ever heard. Through the nervousness, he smiled at her. He knew.

"Coll..." "...Can you even ask someone to go deeper…"

"I waited…" there was audible aching in her voice as she dragged a single finger across his hip. "But I don't want to wait anymore. I waited for you."

He didn't say anything, but she knew what he was thinking. "I‘m sure. It's what I want." She explained quietly, "I want you to have everything. I want to have everything with you."

After weeks of wanting her so badly, he was still surprised by it and unprepared for how he felt right now. Safe, capable… the click of the missing piece, the feeling she had told him about.

"God, Colleen…" he breathed, "You're perfect." He managed to articulate, "You're so perfect, and I'm so in love with you."

He brushed some hair out of her face gently and kissed her cheek.

"Nick. I trust you."

He looked along the slope of her nose, her cheek's curve, and back to her eyes. "You're so pretty."

Blushing, she smirked at him. "So are you."

He hung his head. For everything she had said, he felt like his words weren't enough.

"I love you for everything - not this. Not just this…"

"I know."

"I would wait longer."

"I know you would. I don't want to." Holding his face in her hands, she looked at him carefully. "I don't need to. I'm sure… about you."

The excitement he felt was muddled for a moment by the anxiety of responsibility. He dropped his head into the curve of her neck as her hands roamed across his bare back. She loved feeling the way his muscles tensed as his body moved above hers.

Her response gave him a boost of confidence, and he focused on her again.

The tips of his hair grazed her bare stomach as he kissed down her body to her thighs and back up slowly. He teased her, trailing kisses around and so very close to the place he knew she wanted to feel the warmth of his mouth the most.

"Please, Nick." She whispered, and he listened. His hands moved over her thighs and pushed them further away from each other, and she offered no resistance as he moved in closer to her. Instinctively, her hands went to his hair, tugging gently.

Her mind wandered as her body reacted to what he was doing.

She thought about the soft green grass on the campus lawn and the tie-dye shirts.

The bench in Spain.

Spinning on the sidewalk that night on Notting Hill.

The blue stage suit.

Pulling on the door outside the venue to no avail.

Her arms felt weak, but she couldn't move them away from him.

She thought about him in her bed and her in his and how he held her hand that afternoon in town. Her thigh grazed the side of his face.

She thought about him at her door in Germany. He flicked his tongue, and she bit her lip into her mouth.

She thought about being fourteen with him and 34 with him. She twitched as he activated a hundred feelings inside of her.

"Tell me what to do." He mumbled against her skin.

Everything. “You already know.”

He seemed unsure, and she didn't know why.

"Everything." She said as he kissed the inside of her thigh, eyeing her in the process.

He didn't budge.

She looked at him curiously… Nervous? Not possible.

"Are you ...nervous?"

He moved back up her body to face her again, "Are you?"

"A little bit." She admitted. "You've done this so many times and… I..." she trailed off, noticing his eyes shift.

"No." He said, "I've never done this."

"Wh-"

"I've never been with someone I'm in love with."

It shattered every remaining ounce of worry, and the fear dissipated completely. She was fully exposed to him, but she was safe; he was with her physically and mentally… emotionally, in every way. Everything.

Her smile widened, but she was speechless. "I want you to be … okay." His lips were feathery on her cheek.

"I'm so much better than okay." She said as she wrapped her hand around him, making him groan in approval.

He kissed her deeply, enjoying the feeling of her hand wrapped around him, tugging gently. His breathing became shallow, and he pulled away from her abruptly and crossed the room in the dark.

Moving quickly, he opened a drawer, pulled out what he needed, and returned the bed. She watched as he went through the motions quickly and adjusted their bodies, so he was poised to give her what they both wanted.

Every inch of her skin yearned to touch his and she slinked further beneath him to get closer.

He looked up at her behind a curtain of messy, out of place hair.

She smiled seductively at him as her arms rested on his shoulders and her foot slid along his leg.

"It's okay," she whispered.

Nervously, he pushed into her slowly. He felt her tense up for a moment and then relax, letting her body flow around his. She felt a wave of pressure move through her, and a small, unrecognizable sound escaped her mouth.

Finally, she felt close enough to him.

Immediately he knew something was different. It was different, he was in love with her, and he knew that made it different, but it felt different… He felt it at all. He felt her, not just what her body was doing to his. He felt the way she was relying on him for security when her hand grasped his shoulder and the way she wanted to give more of herself to him as her leg slid along his. He felt the warmth of her skin against his and the safety it provided. He felt the anticipation and nervousness of wanting to take care of her and the comfort of her words; the confidence it gave him. She trusted him enough for everything and believed he was good enough for it. He felt it. Relief.

He felt her skin meshing with his own… her body responding to his from the inside out ... he hadn't ever noticed it before. It felt right.

He moved slowly and steadily, letting her get comfortable.

Unfamiliar feelings flooded her body, and she was overwhelmed by them. His mouth covered her breast and her body tilted in his direction.

"Are you okay?"

She nodded.

He pushed deeper.

She hummed in agreement, he continued.

To take in as much of her as he could, he moved carefully across the next several minutes, losing track of time. He kissed the inside of her wrist and the tips of her fingers. She was on fire and giggling and excited and tranquil all at the same time.

"Does it feel good?"

At that moment, The question almost didn't make sense. She nodded, unable to articulate anything.

Good…? Not even close to the right word…

She couldn't fathom a way it could feel anything other than amazing. To have him with her, alone and naked in the dark, his hands all over her… knowing he wanted the same things she did, feeling the wave of pressure moving through her body that meant he was finally close enough… so much better than good.

The skin on her torso shivered slightly as he moved his tongue across her chest, savoring the softness of her curves and the small moans and hums she was responding with.

She couldn't think or see straight; when she closed her eyes, all she had were colors… deep teal greens, bright golden yellows…

"Colleen…"

"Closer," she said, "I want you closer."

He sighed, "you feel incredible."

She smirked, grasping his forearm tighter, and he pushed deeper, triggering a new set of reactions. Her eyes closed, her body curled away from the bed, her hand covered her face.

There were shades of blue that reminded her of him... that would always remind her of him.

He cupped as much of her breast as he could in his palm. He said something but the words didn't process, everything was blurry, and she felt everything inside of her rushing toward him, and finally, truly, completely felt close enough to him.

She raked her hand up his back, and he pushed his hips into hers, rocking quickly before falling against her, pressing his forehand into her shoulder, feeling her hand on the back of his neck. He closed his eyes and relaxed into her and realized that while he was her first in a lot of ways, she was his in ways that were also significant.

Neither of them moved, and there was stillness and only the sound of breathing for several moments before he lifted his body off of hers slightly. She moved her finger slowly across his bare collarbone.

"How do you feel?"

There were a thousand possible responses, but the one that seemed most urgent was the one that came out, "Safe."

"Me too."

End Notes:
I would love to know if you are reading. I understand entirely why reviews are turned off, email? theradioup@gmail.com
Chapter 62 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

As she scrunched her hair into a towel one final time, Coll caught herself smiling. Watching Nick crawl back into bed, she felt overwhelmed with feelings, flooded with happiness.

The things that had happened that day were weaving a tapestry together in her mind, a picture that would never fade. Things he'd said, feelings she felt, experiences they had, the colors she'd seen… blended together as a memory emerged. Grateful for her natural impulse to fortify it for all time, she reminded herself she was still in it, still present and creating more. The memory was important, but so were the very real things that were currently taking place.

She draped the towel over a knob on his dresser and turned to join him.

Smiling at him in the dark, she crawled across the bed and nestled into his body. Her hair was still damp from the shower they had just taken, but he didn't mind when she laid her head on his shoulder. He wanted her as close to him as possible.

Wrapping his arm around her, he pulled her in closer, turning his body into hers.

"Are you okay?" He asked.

"Yes." She smirked. He had asked her twice already, once in the shower as he traced a line along her collarbone with his finger and again while she was combing her wet hair out. She had the same answer each time, but she appreciated his concern. "are you?"

"I'm great." He sighed, "I can't wait to do it again." he said quietly as his hand slid up her bare back under her tank top.

She knew she blushed more than she wanted to. "Same…" his nose brushed against hers, and she closed her eyes briefly, thinking about his body on top of hers, his lips on her fingertips. "Thanks for being patient… about the first time."

He noticed a tear in her eye… "I love you." He kissed her cheek, and she did nothing to stop the tear from falling. "You did it for me."

"What do you mean?"

"Where have you been my whole life?" "Waiting patiently." “You were patient. While I was an idiot."

"You're not an idiot. It was worth it." She whispered before he kissed her. "All of this was worth the waiting. You are worth it and what we have is worth it. I love you." Her hand moved to his face, and she looked at him closely as silence between them lingered. It was apparent that he was thinking about a million things and sorting through a million words. "I can tell you're not saying something."

"What?"

"There's something you want to say. I can tell."

He inhaled deeply; a feeling of peace filled him up. "I can't hide from you… but I actually think I like that."

"Please tell me." She whispered sweetly.

Unsure of what exactly to say, he was quiet.

She let her hand creep up his neck to his hair, "Whatever it is, I want to hear it." Even if it’s messy.

"I want to give you the more you want the most." His voice was shaking ever so slightly, "I know I haven't yet, but I really want to."

She smiled happily. "You're the only one who can."

It made him nervous and energized at the same time.

"I want you with me." The words carried the weight of anxiety and worry; she could hear it dripping off the syllables. Similar worries had crossed her mind, too, about life once reality started back up.

"I want to be there…" she began, "but even if I can't be… we can still have what we want. That actually is exactly the more I want the most… the relationship where we want to be together, but if we aren't, it's still okay… what that means. That kind of thing."

He looked across her face and back to her eyes, "When you said it was a commitment, that felt right. Like it made sense. What we have..."

"Yeah," She whispered, "That's how we can have all the things that matter - amazing and real things you told me feel like are possible."

He kissed her softly, and she smiled against his mouth.

"You make me so happy," she said quietly, her face bright with contentedness even in the dark. He inhaled deeply and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in tighter again. "Everything we want is possible; it's no rush. I love you, and I want to take all the time that's involved in getting Everything we want. We will figure it out."

We.“You’re amazing.”

She smirked at him.

"You're tired…"

She nodded, "I am, but I will talk to you about this forever if you want. Or need. I want you to know… I don't expect it to be easy or perfect; I expect parts of it to be complicated. But the parts that matter most aren't… I'm sure about you. Just like I said earlier. You should know that entirely for sure now."

He nodded, "All in."

She kissed him softly, "Let me wake up next to you in the morning?"

"Of course."

"Thank you."

"Goodnight." He said quietly as she hid her face in his body.

Coll fell asleep quickly, and while he was also exhausted, he stayed awake a while longer just to enjoy feeling her in his bed, in his arms, with him in every way that mattered. His mind wandered backward and forwards. Thinking about being with her in Boston and the things he wanted to do before that. The way she was laying in his arms, with his hand slipped between her bare back and her tank top, reminded him of another evening where he found himself falling even deeper into her, and more moments he wanted to have with her. " What we have…"


-

She shook her head and took a deep breath, "I don't want to go to sleep angry." Coll said quietly, looking at Nick lying across from her.

"Okay." He grinned mischievously.

A small smile played on her lips, and she adjusted her arms under her pillow, propping herself up a little.

"What?" He asked, eyeing her suspiciously, curious about what she was actually after. His body heated up with hope there might be a chance to do some of the things he knew would make both of them happy before she fell asleep that night.

"I haven't had a chance to look into this myself so, I'm going straight to the source…"

His interest was piqued.

"There is or - there must be a song I haven't heard."

"... one of ours?"

"Angela and Becka have both referenced a song I didn't recognize."

"What do you mean?"

She smiled, "well, Becka asked me if you ever sing to me, and I told her that you hadn't… which now that I think about it makes me think Howie must have sung to her. But anyway, she said, 'not even that one song?' And I was like, 'what song?' But she didn't answer. And when she first got here, she asked me how you managed to snag a solo, but she asked me like a million questions as once, and I never got around to that one. You know what I'm talking about?"

He nodded. "I didn't upload it to your laptop."

"What?! Why not?"

"Well, we don't do it in the show so,"

"I want to hear it! It's a solo?"

He shrugged, "I mean, it's not, but… it may as well be."

"I can't believe there is a whole track I don't even know about."

"I sent you the cd!" He laughed.

"Yeah, but… I barely had time before I came out here. With finals and Everything... and I was really into larger than life, so I just kept replaying it."

"Well, something to look forward to." He smiled, and she snuggled back down into her pillow.

"It's going to turn me into a fangirl, isn't it?"

He laughed and wrapped his arm around her. "I'll sing it to you if you really want."

"I do, but it doesn't have to be now. Maybe when we are in Florida." She explained quietly, "Just in case."

"In case of what?" He asked as his face closed in on hers.

"In case it does something to me that I don't want to act on, knowing I'll have to face your mother a handful of hours later." The honesty in her voice created a wave of heat through his body.

He laughed and kissed her, "you surprise me a lot."

Her palm moved across his cheek slowly, her hand gently creeping into his hair.

"Colleen."

"Yeah." She whispered as his hand traveled up her bare back, pulling the shirt up as he did.

"You are so incredibly sexy." His face nuzzled the curve of her neck, and she closed her eyes, pulling him in closer to her as her skin heated up.

"You do a pretty good job making me feel like I am."

"I want to do a better job." He said as he gently pulled her tank top off entirely.

She smiled at him as he began kissing her face and jaw slowly.

The feeling of his warm hands moving across her body sent her into a state of relaxation she reveled in, especially after the day they'd had with Jane.

"I don't understand." He said quietly.

"What?"

"How I never saw it before."

Her eyes shifted a shade darker, and she shook her head.

"What if you had never stabbed that piece of chicken?"

"What??" She giggled.

"When I saw you last year, you were upset because your life was boring, and you stabbed a piece of chicken like, really hard."

She started laughing. "Please don't talk about chicken and or stabbings while I'm half-naked."

He smiled widely at her, "But seriously, what if I hadn't told you to come with me, what if you stayed in Boston? "

Her mouth twisted, and he could tell she was trying to stifle her laugh as she became clear on what he was getting at. "If it's meant to be, you can't mess it up." She leaned in to kiss him, pushing her hand deeper through his hair. "And it couldn't have happened any sooner. It happened like it was supposed to. I would have come to my senses eventually."

"Maybe when you got around to hearing the whole cd..."

The implication of his words, he could tell, did something to her. She looked at him knowingly, like they had a secret between them, and even though the room was dark, he could tell she was blushing. "Basically, it is unavoidable. The way I feel about you," she mumbled against his lips before he started kissing her again. "But that song is going to destroy me, isn't it?"

-


The comfort of Everything about her eventually lulled him to sleep. The security she provided, the way the smell of shampoo lingered in her hair, the warmth of her body against his… the memories of getting close to her, things he never wanted to live without again. "Everything I want, I want with you." No rush.

Chapter 63 by elleinad
Author's Notes:

With both hands in his pockets, Howie nervously paced a small area of pavement outside a red brick building. He had expected typical New England, old-world charm, but the campus was more intimidating than he anticipated. He had passed through a large gate in an ominous stone wall and walked across an expansive grassy yard to get where he currently was.

He had tried to stand still, confident this was the place Coll told him about, but it was hard to relax. Coll had been very detailed in her description, and the map seemed to confirm it. He realized suddenly that he didn't know Becka well enough to know if she operated on or simply close to schedule, but he assumed she was pretty punctual. He had checked his watch, adjusted his hat, and swayed on his feet so many times he was starting to feel nauseous.

Every person who exited the building startled him. None of them were Becka.

He checked his watch again. 1:01. His nerves flared up. Any minute now…

He had asked Coll how long might it take for her to actually leave the building after class ended, how likely she was to stay to chat with the professor or someone else, might she be with someone else when she did exit the building? I can't imagine it would be more than ten minutes if so. Since it's summer, not many people will be on campus, she hasn't mentioned any friends or anything from this class…

Six grueling minutes passed before Becka shoved the heavy door open. The gesture caught Howie's attention once again. This time, it kept his attention.

"Becka." He shouted as he walked towards her instinctively.

Her face was puzzled for a moment, looking in his general direction. Upon realizing it was him, and her expression changed, her face brightened, and she smiled. "Wh- what on earth!? How are you here?!" She laughed happily as she dropped everything she was holding carelessly onto a bench between them and ran into his arms. She was surprised by her own reaction, but she couldn't help herself. She was actually thrilled to see him.

"I missed you." He said as he held her close, relief evident in his voice.

"I missed you, too." She admitted. "I thought you were supposed to have time off!" She pulled back from him to speak again. "You should have time off."

"I do! This is it!"

He could tell she felt silly for not immediately understanding that by the way her face changed. "You came here to see me? On you time off?" Her voice was happy, and it made him smile so wide he felt like a fool.

"I have a few days off."

"Didn't you just get home? Did you even go home? How did you know where to find me?"

He laughed at her questions, "I went home for two nights. I couldn't stop thinking about you, and it seemed stupid to stay home alone when I could come here and see you."

In her chest, her heart was beating rapidly, her temperature was rising, and her anxiety was creeping up. "Are you by yourself?"

He nodded, "And of course I had no clue… Coll helped. The map helped."

As the information settled in and the story came into focus, she smirked, "you came all the way here for me? Instead of sleeping and relaxing and enjoying silence at home? You got on another plane, went through airport security, drove…? Or something? To get here to the middle of nowhere Connecticut."

"Is that so crazy?" His laugh made her weak as she wrapped her arms around his neck. "Also, this isn't the middle of nowhere. It was like, two hours in the car from New York."

"No, I know. I mean…" His face was serious-looking, and she told herself to stop talking. "Right. Of course, yeah…"

A warm breeze blew through the narrow space between them, and he swallowed back some anxiety.

"I told you you were the kind of risk I want to take."

"You did, yeah."

"Yeah. But sitting at home isn't a risk. You left, and that was fine. You had to. I didn't have to let it be like that - that the next time I'd see you is in Boston. That wasn't very risky… to just wait. So I'm here."

Her cheeks blushed bright red. "I see." The weight of her body fell easily against him, confident it was okay to do so, hanging from his neck. He felt sturdy, and she liked that. "what about work?"

"I have to be in Orlando on Tuesday." He answered quickly, wanting to focus on the present and immediate future without obligations in it. "Do you have plans tonight?"

Her eyes rolled, "I almost exclusively never have plans."

"Okay, well, now you do. I made reservations." Before she could ask, he continued. "It's a surprise."

"Well," She began, "I hope you like apartment shopping." She laughed. "I have four appointments tomorrow. Those are the only plans I actually have."

"What time?"

"The first one is at noon."

"We'll be back by then."

"Back from where?"
"It's still a surprise." He said quickly, "So this is Yale?"

She pouted at him, realizing she wasn't going to get any more info on his plans. "This is it."

"It's pretty."

"Yeah. It's pretty." She looked at him and turned back to pick her things up off the bench, and he followed closely. "I usually go home now."

"Take me with you."

"… are you sure?"

"... are you?"

A thousand considerations clamored around in her head briefly before she nodded simply.

"Let me hold this." He said.

She looked at him suspiciously.

"I know you've got it, but let me."

Silently, she slipped the books from her arm to his and adjusted her bag on her shoulder. "You're sweet."

"It should have mentioned that in the book." She giggled as he took her hand in his, "I'm fine with books, but I prefer the first-hand experience."

"I'm only a little terrified of your research tendencies."

Her smile became devilish, and she raised her eyebrows at him.


---


"Can I ask you something sort of personal?" Coll asked as she watched Nick moving around his room.

His eyes got wide as he turned to look at her. "Sure." He chuckled.

She was sitting on the edge of his bed with one leg dangling across the other, her elbow perched on top, cradling her chin. She bit her nail as her eyes darted from one corner of the room to the other before landing on him. "Where is all your stuff?"

"My stuff?"

She smiled, "Yeah, besides your technology cave… you don't have stuff. Like… pictures on the walls, or silly stuff from when you were a kid. Action figures… a box in the corner that says 'misc'... Like, where's your stuff?"

"I guess I don't have stuff."

"But, how? Or like, why?"

He shrugged. "There is not a lot of stuff from … home, I guess, that I wanted to keep."

She searched his face and found it looked sad. "I'm sorry."

"I only want things here that I like." He began, "I find my own stuff along the way… or not."

She tilted her head, smiling at him, "yeah, but… you've been around the world and done so many things, and there should be like, a picture, or something. You don't even have your awards on some fancy display case." She motioned to his dresser, where the Moonman sat unceremoniously next to a comb and some loose dollar bills.

His eyes landed on the statue, and he rubbed the back of his neck, "Yeah, that - maybe… I'm barely ever here, honestly. I don't need much."

"No, I know, I-" She began as he made his way over to her and plopped down on the edge of the bed next to her.

"I just haven't found a lot of things that seem worth the space."

She pursed her lips as he took her free hand in his. It was strangely profound for him. She had sensed him going deeper in recent days, in multiple different ways. This felt like a confirmation.

"Everything I need is in this room." He said as his eyes poured into her.

Instantly, her heart rate increased, her fire ignited. "Nick."

"That's how I feel right now." He said sweetly, "I like having you here."

She sat up straighter and brought her other hand on top of his. Her heart throbbed as she leaned in his direction, "Okay, well, maybe a picture of us then."

"That would be good." He flashed a smile before he pulled her into him entirely, wrapping his arms around her. "That would be nice."


--

The long, scenic way home was unnecessary, but Becka took it anyway. She said it was so she could show him around, but really it was just some time to settle her nerves. Along the route, she pointed out her favorite place for coffee on campus, just outside the Yale gates and the place she would stop for coffee closer to home if she had a morning class. The elementary school she didn't go to but thought had a cooler playground, a restaurant where she spilled wine and ruined a favorite pair of jeans and a professor's house also got mentions.
"I only know he lives there because it's so close to home, and one time my car wouldn't start. He drove me home."

"Nice guy." Howie nodded in approval.

"Nice, obligated, same thing, I guess." She laughed lightly as she navigated the car to the side of the road.

"Is this your place?" Howie asked as Becka pulled up along the curb in front of a sprawling ranch.

"No, it's up there." She said carefully as she shifted the car into park. She sighed heavily and turned her body in his direction, and he watched her curiously.

"You okay?"

She nodded with a smile and leaned in closer to him. "I know you're nervous about this."

Instinctively he moved in closer to her as well, reaching out to take her face in his.

"Remember what we agreed on?"

She was quiet.

"Figure it out together."

She closed her eyes briefly, "Right." Her head dropped, ashamed she had forgotten for a moment. "Right." Her eyes met his again.

Everything was warm and blurry and he kissed her. Snaking her arms around his body, she felt it. The weight of a thousand thoughts suddenly felt lighter, as if she wasn't carrying it along anymore. Relief.

Chapter 64 by elleinad
“You sure about this?” Becka asked as she pulled the key slowly from the ignition.

“Yes! Are you?” The excitement in his voice was palpable.

“Yes.” Her rapid response let them both know she was at least moderately confident in this decision.

“Good.” He nodded.

She took a long look at him before moving into action. “Alrighty…”

He shook his head at her as they each exited the car.

“They already know about you.” She smirked at him as she rounded the front of the car, her free hand grazed the warm surface of the hood as she did so. “About this.”

His eyes widened slightly. “They do?”

“Yes. Of course.” She replied easily, tucking a chunk of blonde hair behind her ear. “That gigantic bouquet sort of broke the ice.”

He watched in silence as she swung her bag over her shoulder.

“What I’m saying is they know this isn’t a study session.”

“Okay.”

“They also have a bit more info on you than they would in most cases.”

“Most cases!”

“We don’t have a book on any of the other guys either of us bring home.”

“I see…”

“You’re used to being known.”

“Not by your parents.”

She didn't respond as they approached the front door and she reached for the handle, pushing it open into unfamiliar territory - a place and experience she hadn’t shared with someone before now.

The relaxed atmosphere of a well lived in home struck Howie as he entered the foyer behind Becka. Photos in frames, jackets on hooks, shoes lined up haphazardly by the door … It felt homey and welcoming. He noticed a pile of mail on the corner of a hall table lined with frames and a vase of flowers. There was an armchair beyond the doorway to the living room, tall ceilings to accommodate the length of the staircase, and warm sunlight flooding in through the many windows.

“I’m home and I have a visitor!” Becka called out as she arranged her bag on a bench lined with other signs of everyday life.

“We are in the kitchen!” Jill called back.

Becka turned to Howie and grinned happily through the simmering nervousness. “Leave your stuff.” She motioned to the bench.

“Wait,” He said nervously, suddenly realizing he should have used the time in the car better, “Is there anything I should know?”

“Start with Mr. and Mrs.”

“Of course.”

“It’s Jill and Eric. They will tell you to call them that but will love it that you started off formal.” she whispered. “They will love you. Just be yourself.” She leaned in and gave him a quick kiss before turning in the direction of the kitchen. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Look who came to visit!” Becka said happily as she presented Howie to Jill and Eric who were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee together and working on a crossword puzzle. “It’s Howie! A real, live Backstreet Boy, in your kitchen,” she laughed.

Jill and Eric both got to their feet to greet him with hugs and handshakes.

“Welcome, Howie.” Jill said sweetly, pulling him in for a gentle hug.

“Mrs. Parker, it’s so nice to meet you.”

“So wonderful to meet you and to have you here. What a fun surprise for Becka.” Jill’s voice was warm and soft as her hand touched Howie’s arm. Becka blushed.

“Pretty cool for us, you're not the first Backstreet Boy in this kitchen.” Eric mentioned.

“Actually he is!” Becka corrected, “Nick hasn’t been here since you renovated. So technically...”

“Ohhh, well then!”

“Thanks for having me, Mr. Parker, it’s really great to be meeting you both.” Howie chuckled as they shook hands, “I hope I'm not interrupting. I wanted to pull off the surprise for Becka.”

“Not at all, it’s good to have you. And please, call me Eric.” He said as he motioned for Howie to sit, taking his own seat as well. “Coffee?”

Howie looked at Becka who smiled and pressed her hands together.

“Thank you, yeah. I’d love some.”

“I'll get it.” Becka carefully made her way through the kitchen to the island where everything she needed was set out from the first round.

Becka worked on the coffee while Jill and Eric peppered Howie with predictable questions about Europe and the tour.

“It's his day off, we can send you an interview article or something to read later.” She interrupted, “I also have the book upstairs!”

“No, I don't mind.” Howie laughed and Becka returned to the table and placed a mug in front of him.

“I fixed it for you,” she smiled.

“Thank you.”

She winked quickly and took the seat next to him with her own mug.

“We brought the book downstairs. It’s on the coffee table now.” Eric said, looking at Becka over the rim of his mug. “We wanted to be informed.”

She blushed. “Anyway! Yeah, so as I was leaving class Howie sideswiped me with his little surprise…”

“So, did Rebecka show you around Yale?” Eric asked. “The signature Becka campus tour… three coffee shops and a parking lot.”

“That’s actually exactly what I saw, yes.” Howie nodded.

“Okay that’s not true, he saw the quad.” Becka added, “I know he found that on his own but he still saw it.”

“Maybe someday I'll get a more traditional tour.”

“You don’t want it, trust me. So boring.”

Jill shook her head with a smile, “So difficult to impress this one.”

Becka pouted playfully even though she wondered if it was true.

“That’s alright. I love a good challenge.” Howie said happily as he turned to smile at her which instantly turned her insides into a ball of fire.


_


“It’s sort of pretty, actually.” Coll mused, twirling a piece of hair in her fingers as she looked out at the storm clouds rolling in. “Dark and moody. Super mysterious looking.”

He looked at her like she was crazy. “No. This ruins everything.”

“Everything?”

“Yeah, I wanted to take you on the boat.”

“Well didn't you say that's how we would get to the hotel tomorrow?”

“Yeah but that’s like… different.” He groaned, “that’s not for fun.”
She laughed lightly, “I’m pretty sure boating to the Waldorf for the night is literally for the purpose of fun, no?”

He tilted his head at her. “You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, but we could leave earlier and do your fun stuff on the way if you want.” She suggested, “You’re right. It’s not a good day for a boat trip but it’s not all bad…” The tone of her voice changed slightly, “I'm not particularly disappointed by the idea of staying inside all day with you while it’s all dark and stormy outside.”

Catching her drift, his eyes widened. “Oh?”

Her lips popped and she played coy.

“What do you want to do then?” He slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her into his body, kissing her once she was close enough, making her giggle.

“What would we have done that day you had off in Europe if your mom hadn’t shown up?” Her face was so close to his and she couldn't help but feel the warmth he created inside of her, a slight pain at the thought of being far from him often in a short time.

“Oh, that’s what you want to do?” He asked.

Her shoulder pressed into the glass for stability. She nodded.


_


“You’re going to have to tell me eventually,” Becka said abruptly as she shoved half the hanging garments in her closet to the side, creating a caucus of metal clashing as the hangers banged together in the process.

“Tell you what?” Howie asked nervously.

She turned to look at him standing in the middle of her bedroom, the sight of which made her feel weak.

“Where we are going.”

“Oh.”

“What did you think I meant? I just want to know what to bring so I am dressed correctly.”

“It’s a date.” He said simply. “Date clothes.”

Pondering all the variety in the definition of a date, she rolled her eyes and returned her attention to the closet, “You’re such a man.”

He laughed lightly and began looking around her room more closely as she continued gathering her things.

“How old were you here?” Howie asked, pointing to a small photo on Becka’s dresser.

She looked to see what he was referring to as she brought a dress to her bed and dropped it down. Her cheeks flushed red immediately, “ha… five?”

“You’re cute.” He said, looking back at the photo. “Who is this?”

“Oh, a friend.” She said casually, “a family friend.”

“You look so much alike.”

She turned quickly away from him, busying herself again with the closet. “It’s the hair.”

“I think it’s the eyes.” He said as he studied the picture more.

Cautiously she snuck a peek over her shoulder to see if he was still interested in the photo. Shift gears. “Okay just tell me if it’s going to involve a lot of walking or not.”

“Walking? No, not really.”

“So we aren’t going to the city?”

“Not tonight.”

She pursed her lips together. “Interesting…” She spent the next ten minutes gathering things into a leather duffle bag, trying to bring her heart rate down, before announcing that she was ready to go.

Howie followed closely behind her as she trailed down the stairs, dropped her duffle in the foyer and then proceeded into the living room where she let Jill and Eric know they were leaving and alluded to an indefinite ending to the night. Howie thanked them for the visit and Becka gave Jill a long hug. As she did that, he took notice of the photos on the living room wall closest to him. Another photo of Becka and the family friend caught his eye and in the context of the array, nestled among wedding photos and school pictures, it felt slightly out of place.

“Alright,” She sighed as she approached him again, “Ready?”

“Is this the same woman from the photo upstairs?.”

Suddenly realizing how many things were in the house she hadn’t considered, Becka shot Jill a look but she was stoic and unwavering in her happy demeanor. Classic pro.

“Have a great night, you two.” Jill said simply as she and Eric left the room.

“Thanks, will do… Yes, that’s her.”

“That’s so crazy you look so much alike.”

She could feel the warmth in her cheeks and quickly began to busy herself with her hair pretending there was something about it that needed fixing.

He watched her shove her hand through her hair and sensed something had changed in her bearing like she had been jostled momentarily, but also that she was trying to adjust back.

“It’s the eyes.” She said casually as she reached for her duffle. Shit, i said hair earlier, didn’t I?

Unable to place her reaction accurately, he let it be and held his hand out, motioning for her to give him the bag.

You’re fine. “Excited?” Inhaling slowly, she place the handles of the bag in his palm.

“Of course. Are you?”

“Soy la más emocionada que he estado”

He laughed as he opened the front door for her, “that better not be sarcastic.”

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