Bed of Roses
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Chapter Forty
Chapter Forty-One
Chapter Forty-Two
Chapter Forty-Three
Chapter Forty-Four
Chapter Forty-Five
Chapter Forty-Six
Chapter Forty-Seven

I want to set a place for you at my table
We can sit forever watching re-runs on cable
Seems as though our paths were never meant to meet
But I just look at you and know you're pretty sweet

"I can't believe you talked me into doing this."

Alli smiled. "Oh, I can. In fact, I think that David and I were in this same position not too long ago."

Nick grimaced. "Remind me one more time why he's not joining us for this happy little family reunion?"

Alli's famous smirk appeared. "Jen set him up on a blind date."

Nick made another face of distaste. "Poor, poor guy..."

Alli shrugged. "I'm not complaining. After all, we get to hear the horror story after dinner at my apartment when he meets us for Egyptian Rat Screw."

Nick shook his head with a small smile. "You're so obsessed with that game."

Alli's jaw dropped in indignation. "I am not! It's tradition, remember?"

How could I not remember? While Alli and David had been dating, whenever Nick came home, they would get together and play a concentrated game of Egyptian Rat. Over those card games, Nick had really gotten to know David and--he rolled his eyes at the memory--respect him. Alli's former boyfriend was the reigning king of card games, and Nick's pride had been wounded countless times while attempting to battle David. However ornery he was about finally sitting down with only Alli and David, he was also determined to beat the other man. In every other sense, David had the advantage; he was Alli's latest confidant, he was closer to Alli's high school friends, and he was more loyal than Nick had been in the past four years where Alli was concerned. Be it macho pride or simply excess testosterone, Nick was firm in his search for at least one chance where he could reign supreme over Alli's former boyfriend. He sighed.

"Yeah, I remember. Are we going inside?"

Alli eyed him in amusement. "No, I thought we'd wait a few more minutes for old times' sake. I mean, hell, the last time I did this, Doc practically had to drag me out of the car."

Nick grinned. "I get to drag you? Oh, this should be fun..."

Alli rolled her eyes. "No, there will be no dragging. Things are different now than they were before."

Nick smirked. "Meaning that you no longer see Holly as the green-eyed, estrogen-driven kleptomaniac from hell?"

As opposed to buckling beneath Nick's obvious jab, Alli smiled sweetly. "Aw, Nicky finally knows what estrogen is..."

Nick rolled his eyes. "Shut up."

"Such a stud with the comebacks, too..."

Nick arched an eyebrow. "You know, we could just bypass the laws of tradition and I could kick you to the front door."

Alli grinned. "Like a soccer ball?"

Nick grimaced again. When he had been about eight, his mother had signed him up for Little League soccer in attempt to make him more athletic and more "like those other little kids that have so much fun". Unfortunately, during his first game, Nick had kicked the soccer ball into his own team's goal, where the ball had then proceeded to hit his teammate on the head. Alli, who had been cheering him on in the stands at the time (and was also much more athletically inclined than her best friend), never missed an opportunity to remind him of it.

"You know, you're not funny," he told her matter-of-factly, trying to ignore the mischievous glint in her eyes.

"That's a pretty bold comment, considering my present company," she shot back, hiding her smile. Nick's jaw dropped.

"I am too funny!"

Alli smirked. "Oh, really? I beg to differ..."

Nick snorted. "Yeah, well, there are a lot of people who would beg to differ with you..."

Alli nodded solemnly. "And they would all have to ask Mommy's permission first."

"You know, speaking of Mommy's permission...I think I might need it to be hanging out with you and your family, so I'll see you around..."

Alli groaned. "Carter! You are coming inside, even if that means that I have to do the dragging..."

Nick frowned. "I thought you said 'there will be no dragging'?"

Alli gave him a pointed look. "I thought you said that you were coming inside?"

Nick rubbed a nervous hand across his face. "Remind me why I would agree to come inside?"

Suddenly, all humor dropped and Alli faced him seriously. "Because you care about my father and you owe him a visit. You've been on tour, so you were excused from the obligatory hospital visit, but now that you're in Tampa, it's common courtesy that you stop by and have dinner." The familiar twinkle returned to her eye just as Nick was beginning to look guilty. "Besides, you have to meet his new girlfriend so you can make sure that the ugly green tint is gone and everything..."

Nick smirked. "Does she really put up with you?"

Alli smiled. "Yeah, she does. Otherwise, I wouldn't even be halfway convinced that she could put up with you."

Nick rolled his eyes for the countless time that evening, managing to bite back his own smile. Truth to tell, he had missed Alli's infamous sarcasm. She was the only person he knew who could back him into a figurative corner with wit alone, and he knew that his ego needed the experience occasionally.

"I'm going inside."

Alli smiled cheerfully. "And I'm right behind you!"

Nick grabbed her by the shoulders and placed her in front of him. "Oh, no you're not. Lord knows I don't want you staring at my ass all evening."

Alli whimpered from in front of him and turned to pout. "But's so pretty...and round...and big..."

Nick groaned. "Big?! You little punk!"

Before either of them could continue the friendly banter, the door opened to reveal a very amused blonde woman.

"Alli, you never told me you had a little brother..."

Immediately after seeing the horrified look on Nick's face, Alli burst into giggles. Although Alli had never been too much of a hug person, she jumped up the remaining porch steps and smiled warmly at her father's girlfriend, pulling the older woman in for a hug.

"Holly, I've got to give you credit...that was good."

Nick groaned. "Why the hell am I always the one who gets picked on?"

Alli smiled from over Holly's shoulder. "Because you're a big target, and we all know that you're too slow to actually act on any threats you might make after being teased."

Nick groaned again. "Well, shit, Al, don't hold back or anything. It's not like I have feelings..."

"Or common sense," Alli agreed. "Tell me, Nick, do you always use language like that when meeting someone for the first time?"

A small crack indicated that Nick's palm had successfully found his forehead. He cringed before looking back up to Holly with a guilty smile and holding out his other hand for a more proper greeting. "Hi, I'm Nick."

Holly's expression was as close to a smirk as Alli figured it had ever been. "Hello, Nick. I've heard an awful lot about you from Alli and her father..."

Nick took one look at the mischievous grin on Alli's face and cringed again. "Don't believe everything you hear."

Holly smiled innocently. "So you weren't a cute, well-behaved little boy?"

Nick's eyes widened in surprise and he finally took the chance to focus on Holly. "No, I was!"

Alli's ever-present smirk returned as she cast a knowing look in Holly's direction. "As you can see, however, things change."

Nick removed his hand from his forehead long enough to pinch his best friend, which elicited a yelp from Alli. Satisfied that he had engaged in a successful round of payback, he returned his gaze to Holly and began inspection.

Her bright blue eyes shone from under blonde curls that just barely brushed her shoulders. Her bangs dusted well-sculpted eyebrows, and her row of straight, white teeth absolutely screamed Colgate. There was a warmth about her that set him at ease, but a suspicious aura of perfection that allowed him to see just why Alli had previously been so hostile to her prospective stepmother. Alli had never been anything that remotely resembled normal, and her abnormality often included an immediate hatred for pretty, preppy blondes that looked less than the intelligent girl Alli had taught herself to be. Her cynicism and skepticism were walls that Nick was all too familiar with, having been down the normal stereotypical blonde road himself not too long ago. But that's all changed now. I'm not the same person I used to be...

He shook his head slowly. He wasn't about to revisit the identity search that evening. Not when he was supposed to be playing family reunion with his best friend's father.

As if on cue, Holly smiled again, showing off the row of dazzling white teeth. "John tells me that you and Alli have known each other since you were in diapers."

Alli snorted indignantly. "I don't know about Carter here, but I was never in diapers." She glanced triumphantly at Nick. "I did, however, help to potty train pretty boy."

Nick's brow furrowed so closely that Alli was sure his eyebrows were going to fall into his eyes. "You did not!" He smiled sheepishly at Holly, who seemed to be biting back a smile. "She didn't. I know she's three years older, but she definitely never had anything to do with me going to the bathroom..." He winced, praying that that sentence really hadn't sounded as bad to Holly as it had to him. God, why does Alli get to be the one who's so good with words?

Holly shook her head and cast what looked like a warning look in Alli's direction. "Well, Nick, do you still like ravioli?"

Nick's face registered confusion. What the hell?!

Alli smiled gingerly and pulled Nick into what looked like a headlock. "You knucklehead..." she joked, leaning down to whisper in his ear. "She's trying to change the subject. Holly's not near as comfortable with banter and sarcasm as Dad is, so you're going to have to bear with her. The only thing she knows to do is ignore it." With a small smile, she released him. "And that'll teach you to call me old."

Nick rolled his eyes and attempted to fix his hair while he shot a charming smile at Holly. "I definitely like ravioli. Is that on the menu tonight?" He glared discreetly at Alli and lowered his voice to an annoyed whisper. "You messed up my hair."

Alli rolled her eyes. "Carter, it was already standing on end. There's not a chance in hell that I could've messed it up."

Holly nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, John cooked. He's such a wonderful chef when it comes to Italian food."

Nick smiled. "I remember that much. When I was younger, I used to love coming over to Alli's house for dinner."

Holly smiled nostalgically at the two. "It's so nice that you kids have so much history..."

Alli gave her a doubtful look. "Hol?"

Holly smiled. "Yes, Al?"

"You've got the boyfriend look again. Carter and I aren't dating."

Nick's incredulous, horrified look returned. "Yeah, and we won't ever be dating."

Holly laughed. "Alli seems to be more of a sister to you."

Nick smiled. "No, she's definitely not related to me. I don't think God is that cruel."

Alli smacked him, and his smile widened.

"So, Holly, is John anywhere around?"

Holly laughed at the look on his face. "Yeah, he's in the den. He'll be glad to see you, Nick. From what I can tell, you're like a son to him."

At the tenderness in her voice, his smile faltered. "Well, he's definitely like a second father."

Holly nodded. "He's a wonderful man."

"Unfortunately, Nick never picked up that trait," Alli interjected, and Nick smacked her. Alli's smile widened that time, and Holly couldn't help but laugh at the perturbed expression Nick was donning.

"Give it time, Al," she teased, and Alli winked at her.

*     *     *     *     *

"You know, if we were dating, that would officially be the most wacked-out version of Meet The Parents the world has ever seen."

Alli smiled sweetly. "At least you didn't set the backyard on fire."

Nick looked at her pointedly. "Your father didn't let me near the grill for a reason, Al."

Alli burst out laughing at that, which caused Nick to smile. Truth to tell, dinner had gone extremely well. Holly and Alli had gotten along "splendidly", according to John, and the older man had been every bit the same as Nick had remembered. Now, if only my family could be as normal as Al's family is...

"You're really lucky, you know that?"

Said with an imploring look, a tiny hint of a frown, and a heavy sigh. Alli didn't even glance in Nick's direction before delivering her answer with a small smile. "Yup." Immediately afterwards, she turned the radio on and up and began jamming to the song that was playing. Nick just smiled again and shook his head.

It never failed. He'd known Alli for at least nineteen years, and he could probably count on one hand the number of serious discussions he'd successfully had with her. Alli had never much cared for tears and drama unless it involved the cast of Dawson's Creek and her weekly popcorn binge. He watched her intently until she opened her mouth, at which point he shook his head fervently.

"Oh, God no, Al. Don't sing. Please don't sing. I didn't even do anything that might remotely justify that kind of torture tonight..." He wasn't even sure when they had started playing Guns 'N' Roses, but he should've been paying attention so that he could switch the station before Alli could attempt to imitate Axle Rose. Now, the song was already in full swing, and he knew from experience that Alli would do serious damage if he tried to mess with the radio.

Alli just grinned wickedly at him before launching into the first verse of "Welcome To The Jungle". Nick sighed and slumped further into his seat, trying to ignore the off-key attempt at melody going on beside him. He arched an eyebrow and glanced over at her for a moment as the chorus began.

"If you start trying to air-guitar when Slash's solo thingy comes up, I'm going to kick you out of the car and make you walk to your apartment," he informed. Alli just stuck her tongue out at him and began singing more loudly. Nick rolled his eyes and sat back, trying to get lost in the lyrics so as to avoid being once more amazed by the glares of the drivers around them. "Do you always have to play the music so loudly?"

Alli burst out laughing. "Are you seriously asking me this? How long have we known each other, Carter?"

Nick frowned. "My ears are ringing, so I'm thinking that 'too long' might about cover it."

For what had to be the first time in history, Alli turned the music down and frowned at him in return. "You look a bit too serious for me to retort. What's up?"

He groaned. "Nothing, okay? Turn it back on, or up, or whatever."

She arched an eyebrow and glanced in his general direction before switching lanes. "You're going all moody on me. Axle Rose can wait."

Nick smiled forcedly. "Aw, you're postponing your scream fest just for me?"

Alli rolled her eyes. "I thought dinner went well, didn't you?"

Enter confusion. "Yeah..." Nick furrowed his brow. So typical of Alli to confuse the hell out of me. "Why?"

"Because, if dinner went well, then you have no reason to be in a bad mood."

He folded his arms across his chest petulantly. "I'm not in a bad mood."

Alli chortled. "Well, that was convincing..."

He sighed heavily and shut the radio off for good, causing Alli to shoot him a look of death. "I'm not in a bad mood. I promise. That song just...well, it was a bit ironic."

"How so?"

Nick gave her a breadbox look. "We're going to see David. At your apartment."

"Thank you, Captain Obvious..."

Nick groaned aloud. "Can you just not be sarcastic for, like, two minutes?"

Alli smirked at him. "Fine. Make good use of you time, though, because the clock is ticking."

Nick closed his eyes briefly. This was the part where he was supposed to be the honest, soul-bearing best friend who asked for advice and allowed himself to be counseled into a good mood again. Of course, the soul-bearing part didn't exactly fit the whole manly image he'd been working for. He blew a stream of air out between his lips and begged the testosterone gods to have mercy while Alli's wit was resting. "He's not going to like me."

"What makes you think that?"

He looked over, just to make sure that the frown on her face was genuine. It was.

"Al, I'm not stupid, okay?"

"Contrary to popular belief, right?" There was a smirk in her voice, and his jaw tightened at the sound of it.

"My two minutes aren't up yet."

She smiled slowly. "Okay, I'm listening."

He sighed again. "I'm not stupid. I know that you were upset when you left, and you were really pissed at me. David was there to listen, and I know that you rant to hell and back when you're pissed. You told him a lot of shit about me."

"Did I? What makes you think that?"

Nick laughed bitterly. "The amount of shit I heard about him when you two broke up."

For once, Alli kept her mouth shut. Though the break-up between David and herself hadn't been terribly bitter, she had said more than one thing that she wasn't proud of. God, the blonde kid has a point. Is he seriously worried about running into David again?

"Nick, he's not going to hate you."

Nick's reply was serious and blunt. "He still likes you."

Alli snorted. "He does not. If he did, something would've happened by now."

"It did. You kissed him."

"I was out of sorts."

Nick cracked a knowing smile. "Al, I know you. You're always out of sorts."

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, so are you."

"I'm not David."

Alli cast him a skeptical look. "No shit, Sherlock."

He gave a huge sigh of exasperation and slumped further down in his seat as she pulled into a parking place and shut the ignition off. As he continued to huff, Alli's features formed another frown of concern.

"Are you really that worried about him?"

Nick gave her a serious look. "We're not supposed to like each other, you know. I'm the protective best friend and he's the prospective boyfriend."

Alli groaned. "Carter, you're being ridiculous. He's the ex-boyfriend, and if anyone should be doing the protecting at this point, it'd be Doc."

"Point proven," Nick muttered. He knew that he should sound triumphant, but the victorious feeling wasn't there. Alli sighed and got out of the car, waiting for Nick to follow her before locking the doors.

"I thought this was about you being worried that he's not going to like you?"

Nick's brow furrowed. "Maybe it's about me being worried about him liking you."

Alli sighed heavily for the countless time and tried to eliminate her frustration by shoving the doors to her apartment building open. "Okay, considering just for a moment the possibility that I am the object of affection again, which I'm not...why would you care if he likes me?"

"I don't know."

Alli rolled her eyes. "Yeah, me either. I think you're being paranoid. In fact, I don't think you even know what you're pissed about anymore."

Nick's features contorted in confusion when he realized that Alli was right. Dammit. It sounded reasonable before... He stopped. Before I opened my mouth. Well, shit.

"God, could it have taken you guys any longer to get here?"

Alli burst out laughing at the pathetic expression on her friend's face. "Aw, Doc, we came as fast as we could."

Be nice, Carter. Nick sighed heavily and put on a smile. "Yeah, Al broke about a thousand traffic laws in the process."

Alli's face registered indignation. "I did not!"

Nick shrugged. "Okay, maybe just a hundred. You did, however, manage to piss off every driver within a ten mile radius."

David nodded knowingly. "Ah, the ears are still ringing?"

Nick frowned and jiggled his finger in his ear. "What?"

The two men shared a laugh as Alli pretended to sulk. Inwardly, however, she was keeping a close watch on Nick. I wonder what his hang-up with David is?

"So, are you two ready for a good game of cards?" David asked with a grin, following the other two into the apartment. Alli shrugged.

"Sure, but I'm also up for a round of blind date gossip."

David groaned immediately, and Nick laughed.

"Was it really that bad?"

David smiled sadly. "Get me drunk first, and then I might have forgotten enough about tonight to be kind to the girl the next time I see her."

Alli popped him upside the head on her way to the kitchen for the deck of cards. "And you men say that we're melodramatic..."

"She drag races at midnight for fun!"

Nick frowned. "Sounds interesting, man. Why didn't you join her?"

David laughed bitterly. "No thanks, I like my life."

Alli gave him a disbelieving look. "There's got to be more to it than that."

David rolled his eyes. "Yeah, there is. She insisted on driving because she believes that the roar of an engine increases the amount of testosterone to our brains and therefore renders all men incapable of logical thought."

Alli groaned. "I swear, you guys hate any girl that poses just a minor threat to your masculinity."

Nick laughed good-naturedly. "Hey, man, I give you props for just remembering that bullshit."

David and Nick slapped a high-five, and Alli frowned. Okay, why was he worried again? "Well, boys, are we going to play or not?"

David grinned and pulled a chair out. "Give me the deck so I can deal, hon."

Alli made a face as she handed the deck to him. "Why can't I deal?"

David gave her a knowing smile. "We're playing Egyptian Rat Screw, Al, not fifty-two card pick-up."

Alli shook her head and began muttering. "Quit hating on me because I can't shuffle."

Nick smiled sweetly at her. "Oh, we will. Just as long as you don't try to do it again anytime soon."

Alli smacked him lightly. "I hate you both."

David cackled evilly. "More fuel for fighting, dear. You might actually win if you have a reason for revenge."

Alli smiled at her former boyfriend. "Aw, look, Carter, David taught his ego how to talk. Isn't that cute?"

Nick winked at David. "Can you teach me?"

David laughed. "Carter, I'll have your ego crying first."

Nick shook his head. "Don't count on it, Rastrelli. The tables always have the possibility of turning. You might want to get stock in Puffs while you still can."

David cracked a grin. "Them be fighting words, Carter. Are you willing to wager a bet?"

Nick opened his mouth to rise to the challenge, but took one look at the death glare Alli was shooting him and changed his mind. "No, I don't need to bet. I think the shock on your face will be enough reward, D."

David smirked. "We'll see about that. Who's starting?"

Alli, who was already wary of the tension in the room, volunteered. "I am." With a heavy sigh, she placed her three in the middle of the table. David threw his seven on top, and the floor shook as three hands reached for the deck.

"Victory!" Nick cheered as his fingers emerged with the cards tucked tightly between them. David rolled his eyes.

"Enjoy it, because it ain't gonna last."

Alli shot him a look of condescension. "Ain't ain't a word, Doc."

"And Carter ain't a victor," David returned with a smile as Alli placed a face card on top of Nick's Jack. "Very admirable try, though."

Nick rolled his eyes as David tried in vain to beat Alli's Queen. "Oh, get over yourself."

David shot him a smirk. "Resorting to pop lyrics, Carter?"

Alli groaned. "Okay, enough. I'm going to resort to popping the both of you if you don't shut the hell up and play. It's just a fucking game, okay?"

They managed to engage in tight, polite small talk for about two minutes before the competitive spirit returned. The pile, by that point, had grown relatively tall, and whoever managed to gain the cards would gain an obvious advantage over the other two players.

David dropped a Jack with a humongous grin. "Beat that, Backstreet Boy."

Nick smirked. "You do realize that luck has more to do with the order of the cards than strategy?"

David rolled his eyes. "You talk too much, Nick. Play."

Alli sighed heavily. "You both talk too much. Doc, I think that blind date must've ruined a lot more than just your evening."

David's taunting expression changed to a frown. "Al...I'll be good, okay? It was a bad night."

"Obviously," Nick muttered, just as he dropped a Jack of his own on top of the pile. Immediately, three hands covered the pile in an attempt to gain the large number of cards.

"Dammit, Al, your knuckles ought to be registered as a lethal weapon!" Nick cried as the force of Alli's blow registered. Of course, he and David noticed at the same time that Alli's hand was sandwiched between the two of theirs. "Oh, I think I won that set..."

David groaned and glanced helplessly in Alli's direction. "He's going to gloat, isn't he?"

Alli laughed. "Hell yeah! Are you kidding? This is Carter we're talking about..."

Nick stuck his nose in the air as he collected his rewards. "For your information, I can be very mature about things like this." He remained silent as he laid his next card on the table, just to prove his point. In fact, the other two were almost convinced that he actually had matured when he let out a tiny whoop of excitement. "Holy shit, did you see how many cards were in that stack?"

Alli rolled her eyes. "Yeah, Carter, I think we got it."

Nick grinned widely. "Just checking."

"No need," David muttered between clenched teeth. I cannot
fucking believe this...he cannot win this game. Not after all of that
shit he did to Alli this year. He does not deserve to hold this over
my head, dammit.
He wasn't a competitive person by nature, but
something about being in the same room with Nick amplified the "out
for blood" part of him infinitely. He knew from the look on Alli's
face that she was beyond annoyed with him, but he also knew from
Nick's frequent glances in Alli's direction and the rapidly
decreasing space between Nick and Alli that Nick had more than
friendly feelings for his ex-girlfriend. Of course, knowing Nick,
he's got no idea that he likes her. That kid gives a whole new
meaning to the world "clueless"...

"Well, I'm out," Alli announced, throwing the last of her cards onto the pile. "That's the rest of my deck."

The hopeful look in Nick's eyes didn't escape David. "You can always slap back in, you know."

Alli smiled at him and ruffled his hair. "Yeah, Carter, I know, but I'm going to take advantage of the break and hit the bathroom."

Nick wrinkled his nose. "I so did not need to know that..."

Alli laughed. "Play nice, okay kids?"

David rolled his eyes before smiling innocently in Alli's direction. "Yes, Mom."

Alli stuck her tongue out at him before rounding the corner. As soon as she was out of earshot, however, he turned to Nick and dropped his deck on the table.

"Okay, Carter, game over. What's your deal?"

Nick followed suit, setting his cards down lightly in front of him before shooting his trademark perplexed look in David's general direction. "What do you mean?"

David stared at him incredulously. "With Alli, Nick. You were an asshole to her, and now the two of you are fine. What the hell are you trying to do?"

Nick glared. "Funny, I don't remember any of this being any of your business."

"Kind of like my relationship with Alli wasn't any of your business?"

Nick groaned inwardly. Fuck, this isn't going to be any easier than I thought. "Look, David, I was an asshole..."

"I think we've already established that."

Nick shook his head slightly, fighting the urge to smile at the thought that he had Alli to thank for the knowledge of words like "established". She always had been smarter than he was. In a way, she was smarter than he would ever be.

He shook his head again. "I just want to be a friend to her, David. The same friend to her that I was when you met her, and the same friend that you are to her now. That's all."


Nick had the faintest feeling that he should've been surprised when his subconscious agreed with David's blunt wording. Shit.

"Well, what the hell do you think I'm trying to do?"

"Bag her," David shot back frankly.

Nick choked on the breath he'd been inhaling, and his eyes widened to twice their size.


David rolled his eyes, leaned in, and lowered his voice. "Look, Carter, I may not know you too well anymore, but I know that you've changed, and I know why Al left that tour. I don't want you turning her into another one of your little conquests. Unlike the other sluts starring in your twisted game of `Who Wants To Fuck A Backstreet Boy?', she actually cares about you, and she doesn't deserve to be treated like the other girls that you keep around for the hell of it. She isn't one of your little groupies, and she's not into mind games. Leave her the fuck alone, okay?"

Nick winced as he felt the familiar flush on his skin and roar in his head. He knew he had a terrible temper, and he had been fighting to keep it in check, but, well... What's that Alli used to say? "You can't win 'em all."

"Where the FUCK do you get off?!" When David continued to glare at him, he groaned. "Look, ass, Al is my friend, okay? I may be dumb sometimes, but I'm not stupid. I'm not going to jeapardize some nineteen years of friendship because I couldn't keep my dick in my pants. She may be pretty..." Pause. What did I just say? Pretty? Where in the hell did that come from? "...but there's no way I would ever take advantage of her like that. The thought didn't fucking even cross my mind, and that's saying something. I care about her too much to treat her like the groupies that don't even care for themselves, got it? I would never intentionally hurt her."

David smirked. "Then what the fuck was the tour about, Nick? You had to have known that Al hated your behavior."

Nick bit his bottom lip, and his voice registered guilt. "Look, man, you have to know that I had no idea how any of my shit was affecting her. Had I known that it was hurting her, I would've stopped, or done something that might allow her to be less affected by everything."

David snorted indignantly. "Like you are now?"

Nick sighed. "I think I've managed to clear things up between the two of us, don't you?"

David shrugged. "Only because, though Al doesn't take your shit, she does buy your bullshit. She believes you because she cares, and it's only going to end up hurting her, Nick."

Nick frowned and ran a hand through his blonde locks, making a mental note to get them cut. "Look, David, believe it or not, I do know how to be there for her. I used to be her best friend, and I'm slowly easing back into that position. Al is one of the people I cherish most in this world. I'm not about to do anything that might damage the relationship we have any further."

David shook his head incredulously. "And you think that falling in love with her is going to help matters?"

Nick groaned and dropped his head into his hands. "God, you and AJ should hang out. You two say a lot of the same shit, you know that?"

David rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Al might have mentioned it."

Nick chortled. "Yeah, well, she's right."

"So are AJ and I. Nick, you may not see it, but it's pretty fucking obvious that you've got more than protective, friendly feelings for Alli."

Nick arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Okay, either the flow of competitive testosterone has shut off your brain, or a healthy dose of daily soap operas is sparking your imagination, because there is no way in hell that I care about Alli as more than a friend. I don't fall in love."

David rolled his eyes again and dropped his head into his hands just as Nick had done earlier. "Oh, for the love of..."

Nick sighed. "I don't, okay? Not right now. Maybe further on down the line, I could have something like Brian or Kevin has, but not now. Right now, I've got a best friend who's going to be there whenever I get tired of the chick between the sheets. I get sex, I get Alli, and I don't have the fucked-up 'When Harry Met Sally' thing going."

David studied Nick intensely before recognizing the serious glint in his friend's blue eyes. At that point, he smiled knowingly and shook his head. "Mark my words, okay Carter? You will fall in love with Al. You're going to want to take care of her. When you do, though, don't be a jerk. Don't treat her like shit. You and I may have been tight--hell, we may still be tight, since you've decided to drop the asshole act--but I won't hesitate to kick your ass if Alli ever comes crying to my doorstep." He looked up again to study Nick's reaction. "You got me?"

Nick shrugged. "Whatever, man. Romance and Alli don't mix. Besides, didn't I give you this exact same talk at one point or another?"

David chuckled lightly. "History is doomed to repeat itself, right?"

Nick shook his head. "I still think that you and Age are crazy. She's just Alli."

David smirked. "Do you have any idea how many times I've had to say that to myself since I met her? I know what it's like to be attracted to the girl. She's an oddball, but she's a very, very lovable oddball."

Nick laughed and looked up with a smile. "For once, D, I might agree with you."

David nodded and held out his hand. "Okay, so...truce? I think Al was ready to kick us out with all of that competition."

Nick grinned. "Yeah, truce...but I'm still going to whoop your butt."

David clucked his tongue. "Wishful thinking," he sing-songed, just before Alli bounded into the room.

"Oh my freaking gosh...Nick, you dork! Why didn't you tell me?!"

Nick frowned, but gladly returned the hug he had suddenly found himself in. "Tell you what?"

Alli squealed again. "Brian? Leighanne? HELLO?"

Nick laughed. "Oh, that...I thought you knew?"

"Hell no! She just called me to tell me, and she's so excited, and she wants me to be a bridesmaid, and Brian was tickling her in the background, and they sound so happy together, and..." She trailed off with a nostalgic sigh. "I'm so jealous, man. I need to find my Pacey."

David rolled his eyes. "Oh, God, not this again..."

Nick frowned. "You know, we didn't even hear the phone ring?"

Alli laughed. "I'm not surprised. You guys were pretty caught up in this game. I could hear you all shouting from my bedroom."

The two men exchanged guilty looks. David cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, we decided to mature."

Alli smiled. "Aw, no more Tarzan?"

David shook his head. "No way, babe. The sight of Nick in a loin cloth scares me."

Nick cast a mischievous grin in David's direction. "That, and D and the apes got along way too well..."

Alli shook her head in amusement. "Knock it off, you two. Be nice."

Nick grinned. "We are nice." His grin widened when he received another hug. "Whoa, what was that for?"

"Brian and Leighanne! Cuteness in a whole new form, dude, I swear. Those two are going to give Barbie and Ken a run for their money."

David laughed. "And as long as they don't mass produce for a profit, we'll all be okay."

"You're just bitter about your blind date," Alli scolded, and David made a face.

"Did you have to bring that up?"

Nick rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "Hey, speaking of bringing stuff back up, can we get back to this card game?"

Alli nodded. "Yeah, no kidding. I've got to try and slap in."

The other two men looked at her doubtfully, and she pouted. "I said 'try'."

David shook his head and placed his card in the middle of the table. "Don't hold your breath, Al. Carter's gotten good."

"And getting better," Nick joked, laying another Jack down on top of the pile. David caught his eye, and the two shared a knowing glance.

"You'd better be," he laughed. "'Cause I'd hate to have to kick your ass."

"No need," Nick told him with a small smile, and a silent understanding passed between them.

"I'm taking your word for it," David said quietly. Alli watched the two of them with a perplexed expression before rolling her eyes and decided that deciphering the macho code of communication wasn't worth her time.

"Or you could just play the game."

Nick laughed. "Yeah, that might work." As soon as he spoke, he laid a card down, and two hands quickly replaced his. "Dammit!"

David smirked as he removed the pile from the table. "Watch the deck, Nick."

Nick shook his head at his own stupidity. "Will do." As his eyes drifted to the determined expression on Alli's face, he couldn't help but smile. Something about her expression always made him want to laugh out loud.

He paused in his thoughts. He had the smallest inkling that his smile wasn't supposed to be that wide.


"Long Island"
lyrics and music by That Dog