Alli walked into the coffee shop, rubbing a hand over her tired
eyes. She walked slowly up to the counter and set her purse down, waiting for service. Just as she was scanning the menu,
she felt two hands on her shoulders.
"So nice of you to be on time..."
She cracked a small smile at the husky
voice and laughed. "I was going for the whole fashionably late thing, actually."
She could hear the smirk in his tone
as he responded. "Exactly how offended will you be if I tell you that you missed?"
Alli set her mouth in an annoyed
line. "Offended enough to walk out."
She knew that he was grinning behind her. "Okay, but only if you promise to walk
right into the Foley's next door and buy yourself something decent."
Alli tried to look horrified, but her smile surfaced
anyway as she turned around to face him. "Since when were Patagonias and pajama pants out of style?"
He shrugged sarcastically.
"Oh, I don't know...since McDonald's stopped serving breakfast a few hours ago?"
Alli rolled her eyes and smacked him.
"Oh, aren't you funny..."
He laughed, running a hand through his brownish-blonde locks. "Well, I must be doing something
right. After all, this is, like, the seventh time you've agreed to meet me for coffee."
Alli smiled innocently at him.
"I'm just feeding a growing addiction. Ignore me."
His eyes lit up. "Really? Aw, Al, I didn't know you felt that way..."
rolled her eyes again, but she couldn't help the good-natured smile that had been stretching her features since she'd arrived.
She hadn't had the best two weeks, but David's presence that past week had been enough to keep her smiling when she should
have been frowning. He was the only person she knew that could truly match wits with her, and she didn't feel pressured to
be anyone else around him. They had decided long ago that they were better off as friends, but she hadn't realized until recently
just how much she'd missed his friendship.
Just to show him how much she cared, she smacked him again before pulling
him into a warm hug. "You are such a dork, you know that? I'm glad you're wasting time with me."
David dropped his
easy smile and frowned concernedly at her. "Al, quit that. I'm not wasting time with you. I'm catching up on lost time. We're
friends, remember? We're supposed to hang out together and drink coffee and laugh and cry and all that. It's in the job description."
laughed to mask the tug of his words on her bleeding heart. "How do you know?"
David shrugged. "Truth to tell, I really
don't. But, see, when we hang out, I make you smile, and you make me smile, and if we're both smiling, I figure it definitely
can't be a bad thing."
Alli gave him a doubtful look. "Okay, honestly now, Doc...which chick flick did you pull that
David's jaw dropped in mock insult, though he had to fight the urge to smile at her nickname for him. Due
to his recent counseling habit and his initials (D.R.), Alli had discovered that Doc was more than appropriate for the soap
opera turn her life seemed to have taken. Of course, the nickname was very characteristic of Alli. Heaven forbid that
she even remotely resemble someone else...
"I'm hurt! You act like I have no sense when it comes to women!"
chuckled. "Amanda would argue that no guys have any sense when it comes to women..." Her voice trailed off, and David easily
slipped into the role of the kind adviser.
"You sound like you miss her a lot."
"Can I help you folks over here,
or were you just going to poke fun at each other until we close?"
Alli and David both quieted at the annoyed/amused
tone of the clerk behind the counter. They quickly ordered their coffee and waited patiently until it was served, then made
their way to their usual table in the back of the shop. Once they were seated, Alli smiled lightly at her companion and took
a sip of coffee. Her smile, as predicted, was immediately replaced with a look of pain.
"Ow! Hot, dammit! Ugh..."
nerve of those people," David agreed, shaking his head. He bit his bottom lip to keep from smiling at her, but she caught
his amusement anyway.
"You're mocking me."
She rolled her eyes. "You're an ass."
batted his eyes innocently at her. "Nah, I'm an angel."
"Yeah, one that fell out of the sky and onto his ass...why'd
you make fun of me when the coffee was hot?" she pouted, trying to keep a straight face. His expression was admirably solemn
as he delivered his next line.
"Well, see, I figured that, if I kept in good humor, then you wouldn't be tempted to
sue the place like the McDonald's lady did way back when."
Alli rolled her eyes, but she was laughing with him nonetheless.
"You know what? I think we share a brain, because NO ONE is as big a dork as I am, but you sure seem to fit."
you?" David teased, smirking. "I don't know about that one, but we could always give it a go..."
Alli rolled her eyes
at him. "You know, you're like a decent Nick."
David frowned at the mention of their old friend. "You know, you never
did tell me why you aren't calling him Carter anymore."
Alli shrugged and stared down into her cup. "He's not my Carter
David gave her a doubtful look. "That's it?"
All sighed. "That's it for now. As we stand, I'm more
worried about Barbie coming in and painting my old bedroom some ridiculously girly shade of pink for free after she bats her
eyelashes at the painter-people."
David chuckled lightly. "My bitterness radar is beeping at me."
sarcastically. "Must be those new batteries we bought yesterday."
David's expression turned suddenly serious at her
heightened sarcasm. "Al, why don't you like Holly?"
Alli groaned. "Because she reminds me of the dolls I refused to
play with as a kid. She's like Britney Spears's twin or something, and it bothers me."
David rolled his eyes knowingly.
"I'm going to try again, so listen carefully. Al, why don't you like Holly?"
Alli heaved a huge sigh and closed her
tired eyes, running a hand through her auburn curls. "Because I think Dad's falling in love with her."
if possible, deepened as he took a sip of his coffee. "Why is that a bad thing?"
Alli groaned. "Look, Doc, you know
me. You've known me since way before I ever left Tampa in the first place. So you know how Dad and I are together. We're a
really dysfunctional family of two. It wasn't perfect--hell, sometimes it downright sucked--but we were there for each other."
She sucked in a breath, trying to avoid shedding the tears that she could feel coming. She was too tired to keep her emotions
in check and too frustrated to bother with pretending that things were fine. She knew that she could trust the man before
her. "All of a sudden, it's like he's not there anymore. I've been so tempted to get him a hearing aid and a leash, but I
doubt it'd do any good. He doesn't listen to me when I say things anymore, and he can't help but stare directly at Barbie
when I'm trying to have a decent conversation with him." She shook her head and dropped it into her hands, trying in vain
to soothe her headache. "Dammit, now I know how Skipper felt all those years."
In some ways talking to Alli was much
easier for David than for AJ, because David had already mastered deciphering "Alli reasoning" without laughing. Instead of
giggling at her analogy, he covered one of her hands in his and sighed.
"Al, you're right--I do know you and your father,
and I know that you'll never be second best. He's just caught up right now."
Alli made a face as she lifted her head.
"Yeah, well, I wish he'd learn to untangle himself." She frowned. "Doc, I really don't want to compete with this lady."
offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "Maybe she doesn't want to compete with you either, Al."
Alli let loose
with a bitter laugh. "She doesn't have to. He's wound around her little finger just as tightly as her platinum blonde hair
around the freaking curling iron." She made a strange noise in despair. "Dammit, I don't even need a freaking curling iron!
What the hell does he see in her that he can't get from me?"
David sighed heavily. "Honestly?"
Alli gave him
a pointed look and arched an eyebrow. "No, I want you to lie to me," she deadpanned, and he rolled his eyes good-naturedly.
woman that he can spend the rest of his life with."
Alli's eyes narrowed to mere slits as she stared menacingly into
her coffee cup. "Yeah, well, he tried that once. He ended up with a few rusted needles, leftover heroin, and a neat little
message on notebook paper before he heard brakes squealing in the driveway."
David winced. Of all the times he had
talked with Alli, he had never grown comfortable discussing her mother with her. The one person he knew who she'd been truly
honest with regarding her family situation was Nick, but Nick was nowhere to be found. He sighed.
"Maybe Holly's not
Alli gave him a doubtful look. "And maybe she is."
David looked hopefully at her. "Maybe you could
give her a chance?"
Alli looked annoyed. "What the hell for? Doc, I can already tell that she's uneasy around me, and
Dad barely says two words to me whenever she's in the room. I hate being the third wheel, and I especially hate feeling that
way around someone who's always been my sure thing."
David frowned. "I thought Nick was a sure thing?"
frown deepened to an expression of pent-up anger and pain. "Yeah, well, so did I."
David took another sip of coffee
and welcomed the change in topic. "But what about the rest of the Backstreet family? From what I remember, you guys were always
Alli nodded. "Yeah, we were...we are...we're just taking a break right now."
David raised his
eyebrows slightly. "Oh? You certainly mention their names a lot."
Alli groaned. "They're friends. Aren't you supposed
to talk about your friends?"
David nodded. "So then you guys must still be talking on the phone, right? I mean, being
friends and all..." He trailed off when he saw the sheepish look on Alli's face. "Okay, Al, out with it."
She bit her
bottom lip and began swirling her cup around. "I kinda haven't spoken to anyone but Amanda since this whole thing started."
sighed. "Okay, that's not good. But at least you're talking to Amanda."
Alli winced. "And I, um, haven't exactly talked
to her in the last week and a half."
Alli closed her eyes against the tears she could feel burning
the backs of her eyes. "Because, as much as I love and miss them, I really, really don't want to hear about Nick and all of
the shit he's still doing because I wasn't a good enough friend to set his ego and attitude as straight as the erection he
finds someone to satisfy every night."
That time, not even David could manage to suppress his smile. "Love the wording,
Alli laughed bitterly. "Yeah, you love the wording and I hate that it's true."
David smiled warmly at
her. "You still care about him is why."
Alli paused before nodding thoughtfully. "Yeah."
David looked surprised.
"You aren't going to disagree with me?"
Alli's sheepish smile was exhausted. "I couldn't think up a creative way to
lie about it."
At that, both of them laughed. It wasn't a hearty laugh, but it was enough to ease the tension that
had been mounting throughout their conversation. They hadn't really talked in four years, but the communication was comfortable
and safe. For some reason neither could understand, they trusted each other. Alli needed a friend, and David was happy to
take over. His eyes twinkled as he drained the rest of his coffee and looked at her.
"You know what I think?"
groaned. "No, but I have this really wacky feeling that you're going to tell me anyway."
He chuckled. "I think you
need to give the rest of your Backstreet family a call."
Alli's smile faded. "You know what?"
He looked up inquisitively.
"I think you're right."
* * *
Six hours later found Alli sitting on her couch in her tiny apartment,
holding her portable phone with trembling fingers. It shouldn't have been that hard to call, but she was suddenly afraid that
they'd hate her for not calling them back sooner.
She swallowed her doubt forcefully and began dialing Kristin's cell
phone number. For some reason, she felt more comfortable calling the older woman. She listened to the monotonous ringing for
a few moments, lost in thought. She nearly fell off the couch in surprise when Kristin's voice answered.
took a deep breath in attempt to ease her nerves. Something wasn't right. "Hey, Kris."
"ALLI?! Thank God! I was just
about to call you."
Alli's stomach lurched and her heart constricted. "Why were you about to call me?"
shook her head on the other end, frantically trying to ignore Kevin's driving habits as they sped in front of a red Mustang
convertible, missing it by inches. "I'll tell you later. Where the hell have you been? Everyone's been worried sick, hon!
We were afraid you weren't going to talk to anyone until Nick got his act together, and who knows when the hell that's going
Alli laughed meekly. "I'm sorry. Things have been really crazy around here. Daddy made it out of surgery all
right, though, and they're expecting him to fully recuperate."
She could hear Kristin's sigh, and the older woman's
concern eased her nerves a bit. "That's great, Al. I'm sure you're completely relieved that nothing too serious happened."
laughed lightly. "Yeah, it's nice to know that I'll have a parent around for a little while longer." *Unless, of course, Barbie
finally manages to make a Ken out of him...*
"You sound like something's wrong."
Despite the concern that laced
Kristin's soft voice, Alli knew better than to believe that everything was all right on her end. "Yeah, well, so do you. What's
Kristin smiled meekly from her position in the passenger's seat. "Kevin's driving."
Alli flinched. She
had known the Backstreet Boys for a relatively lengthy amount of time, and was therefore very familiar with their driving
skills. She also knew that, because they rarely had time to drive their own cars between touring and promotion, they were
always rusty. She suddenly felt for Kristin. "Dear God, why?"
Kristin managed a strained laugh. "Well, we're in Lexington
tonight, so Kev has his car and his house here."
Alli smiled in understanding. "Sounds like a blast. So where are you
guys planning on going, provided that you don't end up mangled and mashed between a truck and a convertible on some deserted
Kristin grimaced. "Al, you're not helping..."
Alli grinned. "Kidding, Kris. Where's the date tonight?"
took a deep breath and closed her eyes, both to steel herself against Kevin's sudden left turn and to prepare herself for
Alli's reaction. She knew the younger woman well enough to know that Alli wouldn't like her answer. "The hospital."
grin was immediately replaced with a frown as she leaned forward in her seat. "The hospital? Kristin, you're not funny, okay?
You've seriously got me worried now."
Kristin shook her head. "Al, much as I hate to say it, you should be worried."
eyes narrowed in the direction of the phone as her heart pounded in her chest. "Why?"
Kristin felt tears prick her
eyes at the concern in her friend's voice and the helplessness of the situation. "Al, honey, Nick collapsed onstage tonight
at the show. Fortunately, it was the encore, so they just thought he was playing around, but he hasn't been doing so well
lately. I'm sure you don't want to know, but he's drinking himself into oblivion and there hasn't been a single night that
he hasn't had a girl in his room. Not only that, but he doesn't look alive onstage anymore. I can't remember the last time
he looked happy." She bit her lip and let a tear slide down her cheek. "Alli, I'm sorry to have to tell you this over the
phone, but we're all really worried about him. He's starting to scare me. I mean, I know the phase, because Kevin went through
it, but there's something underneath this that he's not telling us. Nick hasn't ever been this distant."
even try to fight the tears that were suddenly flowing down her face. "Shit. Is he going to be okay?"
a shaky laugh. "Oh, yeah. You know Nick. He was just being an idiot, and he wasn't aware of what he was doing to himself.
He'll be fine once he actually gets to sleep and starts to consume more water and food than Jack and Jim Beam."
bit back a sob. "Kris, do I need to drive out there? I swear I will. Daddy'll be fine with Holly until Nick gets better. He
doesn't sound like he needs to be alone right now, and..."
Kristin began vehemently shaking her head, already knowing
too well where the conversation and Alli's visit would head. She didn't want the two to hate each other any more than they
already did, and she had the feeling that watching Alli leave again would definitely kill Nick. The first time had obviously
been bad enough. "Al, hon, calm down and listen to me, okay? There's no reason for you to drive all the way to Lexington on
a Saturday night in traffic. He'll be absolutely fine, and we'll knock him back into shape." She stole a sideways glance at
her boyfriend. "Kevin's pissed enough that Nick won't want to mess with him for a long while."
Alli sniffled. "You're
sure? Kris, I don't want him to feel alone up there. Holly can stay with Dad. It won't be any trouble, and I could apologize
for running out on him, and..."
Kristin's firm voice interrupted her. "Don't you dare apologize, Alli. You did the
right thing. He needs a reality check, and your leaving has hit him hardest so far. With a little prodding from Kevin, I'm
thinking that you could have your Carter back sooner than we all feared." She frowned. "Now, who's Holly?"
voice went cold immediately. "Dad's girlfriend."
Kristin frowned. "Was he always dating someone? I mean, I don't remember
you ever mentioning..."
Alli interrupted her. "Kris, I'm really sorry, but I don't want to talk about her. I'm still
worried about Nick. Are you sure he'll be okay?"
Kristin sighed. "Listen, honey, if it'll make you feel better, I'll
call you the second we find out anything about his condition, and I'll call you again when he wakes up." She smiled tightly.
"Look on the bright side--at least he'll have to stay sex-free and sober tonight."
To her dismay, Alli didn't laugh.
call me. Let me know if he's okay. And, if for any reason, he needs me..." she swallowed the lump in her throat, "I can be
down there as soon as possible. Just say the words."
Kristin sighed. "Al, it's really not necessary."
"I know, but I think he needs a friend right now."
Kristin laughed bitterly, to Alli's surprise. "You know, I know
I sound like Amanda--she's been giving him hell since you left--but he doesn't deserve one."
Alli closed her eyes against
the pain in her chest. "He's got one."
Kristin nodded. "I'll tell him, Al. I promise."
Alli's voice was little
more than a whisper. "Thanks, Kristin."
Kristin smiled through her concern. "No prob. Just don't forget to call every
now and then, okay?"
Alli nodded. "I won't."
That said, both girls ended the phone call. Kristin and Kevin sprinted
into the hospital to find out the news on the man they considered their little brother. Alli, on the other hand, waited patiently
by the phone with tears streaming down her cheeks.
For once, she didn't find herself thinking that it shouldn't hurt