[eleven]

“You seem to get along with that guy pretty well...”

“Cram it.”

“Geez, San.. I was just making an observation.”

“AJ, you never just ‘make observations.’ You’ve always got an ulterior motive, and I don’t like it.”

Three months into her new job found her having met a group of people she nothing less than adored, along with the working environment they were all in. She’d told AJ everything, leaving out no detail, since her very first day on the job.

That precise afternoon, she joined AJ in their now traditional Friday night dinner, and she’d just run into - and greeted warmly - a coworker, leaving AJ dumbfounded and, as expected, eager to ‘make an observation,’ as he’d so gallantly put it.

“I make the best damn kinds of observations,” he argued with her. “Like this one, for example. You told me to cram it, and I know I hit the nerve I was going after. You’re such a hypocrite, San.”

Sandra sat in silence, shooting daggers at her friend from across the table.

“You’re speechless, Grasshopper,” he grinned. “Is the great AJ right?”

“I don’t have to put up with this,” she groaned, rising out of her chair in the crowded restaurant.

“What? Leaving so soon?” he chuckled. “Just ‘cause you got your own car now doesn’t mean you can just up and leave whenever you wanna..”

“AJ, shut up.”

“That guy’s hair was blonder than Nick’s,” AJ told her. “And his eyes? I’m not color blind, dude..”

“Okay, FINE. So what?!”

“You’re wrong, San...”

“It’s not like Nick hasn’t left me alone lately, AJ. You know damn well he hasn’t. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a hand in his schemes...”

“I take part in no such acts,” AJ said earnestly. “I’m not that kind of person.”

“And I’m the queen of England.”

“Well, your higness,” AJ laughed.”I really don’t.”

“Please,” she groaned. “He called me up DRUNK a few weekends ago. Tell me you weren’t a part of that.”

“Not at first, no...”

“See?!” she exclaimed. “You need to stop this, AJ. For everyone’s sake.”

AJ stared innocently off into space, leaving her fuming. He really DID have to lay off the scheming, she thought, before a bad thing turned worse. She knew Nick wasn’t the front man in those plots; they had AJ’s name written all over them. The flowers, the random office visits, the ‘coincidental’ run-ins on campus while she was there for night classes.. hell, the run-ins everywhere around town. The mall, the grocery store, the park... Nick had even showed up at the library once. It never ended.

She was seeing more of Nick since leaving the office than she had while she was there, and it didn’t take a genius to see who was behind it all.

AJ observed Sandra in silence. He could tell she was upset, but he couldn’t help it. He saw something good in the pair, and he wanted to see if he was right. Well, he KNEW he was right, he just had to show them.

He’d also come to know what had her so... tormented. It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that she had built up the courage to talk, and why she’d confided in him, he didn’t know, but he was grateful. While her story was painful to listen to, he felt it was even more painful to relive day in and day out. He also understood why she was so adamant in not getting near Nick; he didn’t condone it, but he understood her, in his own odd way. That didn’t mean he was going to stop pushing it, however; she had a right to live her life and be happy, as did Nick, and her wallowing in her past wasn’t going to help either one of them.

“Look,” AJ sighed. “I know it took a lot for you to tell me what happened with... well, him,” he paused. “But... that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Nick’s not the same. And you know what? You said guys fitting that description were your weakness, and I think you’re afraid you’d be getting involved for all the wrong reasons, like you did before. That’s not gonna happen, San. You gotta understand that. If I knew Nick was a jerk, I’d be the first one pushing you away from him...”

“Why him, though?” she asked. “Why does it have to be precisely Nick?”

“Because,” AJ shrugged.

“I need a good answer.”

“Because.”

“AJ...”

“Because he’s in love with you,” AJ blurted, watching her gasp. “He has been since day one, and it kills me to see one of my best friends - one of my brothers - feeling that way and not being loved in return, when I know it can very well happen that way. Sure, he’s only admitted to it only recently, but I’ve seen it there since he ran into the damn doors the day he met you. Nick’s never been in love. He thought he had been, but even he knows now that those other times weren’t it. It never hurt as bad as it does now,” he looked straight into her eyes. “Since you’ve been gone from the office, he doesn’t show up there anymore, either. Sure, it was never required of him, or any of us, to be there as much, but he’s stopped going when you did. Kev still goes in when he can, as does Howie. I go in occasionally, too, to cause some trouble,” he grinned slightly. “But Nick... it’s hell seeing him locked in his basement banging away on those drums of his all day long. He’s even off beat about ninety percent of the time, and it’s all your fault. You’ve become all he thinks about, and I really don’t like you denying this, but I know you think about him a lot, too. So do us all a favor and admit at least that. Please?”

He didn’t want to have to see her cry; it wasn’t his intention, but some things had to be made clear. She didn’t blink once; she just watched him as her eyes filled with tears, then spilled over and down her cheeks. Not one slight movement came from her, no signs of reaction on her face, nothing. She just sat back in the chair, her eyes glued to his.

“San...”

She held up her hand. “No. Don’t... don’t say anymore.”

“Sandra...”

“I’ve heard enough,” she told him, getting out of the chair. “Goodnight, AJ.”

Before he could make even one move, she was gone. Flew right through the doors of the restaurant before he could even rise up out of his chair.

AJ sighed heavily. Whatever it was he’d done that night, whatever he’d unleashed, he did not know; he simply hoped it was for the best.

[chapter list | chapter twelve]