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Amanda awoke the next morning to the sound of Brian's laughter echoing through the living room of the lodge from outside on the deck. She rolled over and pulled her sweatpants up under the oversized shirt she wore as a pajama, and climbed down the ladder in her bare feet, padding out to the deck, rubbing her eyes. "What's going on out here?" she asked, still groggy.

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

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

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

Brian held up a box of Bisquick.

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

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

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

He perked up instantly. "I saw some tin foil!" he exclaimed. Brian's laughter died down as Amanda gave him The Look over Nick's back as Nick dove into the little cupboard under the grill. "Here," Nick resurfaced holding the tube of Reynolds Wrap.

Amanda ripped a sheet off and laid it on the grate. "There you go, now try making your pancakes."

"You're a friggin' culinary genius," Nick exclaimed, kissing her cheek. She smiled. Making him happy felt good. "See this, Frick? My girlfriend's a culinary genius," he said proudly.

"Well, don't get too excited until it actually works," Amanda said, blushing.

Nick kissed her a second time and turned to start his cooking. Amanda sat down on the deck chair opposite Brian. As she sat, she caught a glimpse of herself in the sliding door's reflection. "Ugh!" she cried, reaching for her hair in disgust, "Oh my God, I have gotten way too comfortable around you guys when I'm willing to wander downstairs looking like this. It's like something from the black lagoon," she complained, trying to detangle the rats nest that was her hair with her fingers.

Brian laughed, "I've seen worse," he said. "Although, I must say --" he eyed the shirt she was wearing, which was an XXL Yankees baseball jersey. "Your choice of teams kind of blows."

"I like it," Nick announced from where he stood at the grill. He pointed the spatula at Amanda, "The lagoon creature and the pin stripes," he clarified, winking. He turned back and stabbed the pancake mess he was making with the spatula like a night brandishing a sword against a fire breathing dragon.

"And what team do you like, outsider?" she asked looking at Brian. She gave up on her hair - after all, if Nick liked her hair looking like she was Bellatrix Lestrange or something, then far be it from her to actually put an effort into getting it tamed just yet.

"The Sox and the Braves," Brian said in a tone that meant this should've been a given.

Amanda snorted, "You cannot be serious. Remind me -- how many pennants have either of your teams won again? Compared to the pin striped glory? Oh- oh, like ... two? In, like, 100 years?"

"I like the Sox, too," Nick called out.

Distracted from Brian's crappy choice in teams for a moment, she turned to Nick, and said - in a dead panned voice, "Say what?"

Nick laughed, "Yeah, I know. It's weird. As a Yankees fan I'm not allowed to like the Sox and as a Sox fan I'm not allowed to like the Yankees, but..." he shrugged, "I dunno, I like'em both. The Yankees win, that's for sure, but the Sox... they've got personality."

"Exactly," said Brian, pointing at Nick, "Even when the Sox suck, they're entertaining to watch."

Amanda shook her head and was about to respond to that when Nick announced, "Pancakes are served." He moved the spatula, intending to serve them up on plates, but wasn't quite sure how to go about doing so. Instead, he picked up the entire sheet of tin foil and carried it to the table, dropping it down between Brian and Amanda. "Tada," he exclaimed.

It looked like a tan blob.

Brian blinked at it, and Amanda could tell the way his nose was flaring that he was trying to resist cracking up again. Nick held up forks, "Here ya go," he said. "Try it."

"You go," Brian said, nodding at Amanda, "Ladies first."

Amanda reluctantly took the fork from Nick and stabbed a scoop of the pancake blob onto it. She studied it, dangling pitifully from the fork, and then shoved it into her mouth.

"Well? How is it?" Nick asked as she chewed slowly.

She felt like a cow chewing cud. "It's... wet, kind of..." she said. She frowned, "I'm sorry, Nick." Amanda spit the blob into her hand and scowled at it. "Ugh. It's really, really gross. You know when Eggos like get frost bit and they taste... kinda soggy or... something?" she asked.

"Oh ew," Nick made a face.

"Yeah," said Amanda throwing the spit out piece of pancake crap onto the tin foil. Nick rolled it up.

"Go on, make fun of me now Brian," he said, tossing the ball of foil and 'pancrap' into the garbage can next to the grill.

Brian took a deep breath, trying to resist the urge to obey this command, and said, "I think I saw a diner on the way through town."

"Oh thank God," Amanda cried. They all laughed, and she quickly excused herself to go upstairs and change and tame her hair before they went into public.

Brian looked at Nick. "Don't ever try grilling pancakes again, okay? It's just a bad idea," he said.

"No problem," Nick laughed.



Three hours later, they'd eaten and Nick had gotten them geared up in shorts and bathing suits and light leather jackets. Amanda had needed weatherproof hiking sneakers and Nick had dragged her into an Outdoor Outfitters shore in the town. He'd bought her a pair of really cute, light sneakers that were eggplant purple in color and laced with funny little bungee cords instead of traditional laces. "Trust me," he'd said, "You'll need'em."

Amanda had felt bad. She hated how much money he was spending on her - between the trip itself, activities, food, and random oddities like the sneakers and her insatiable need for Red Bulls at every gas station they'd stopped at so far. He was investing a small fortune in her needs. So far, the only things he'd allowed her to pay for had been her cigarettes, some post cards at the Grand Canyon, and a couple cups of coffee. Even the post card stamps he'd insisted on paying for, claiming that the post office charged less if he bought a coil of 30 than if they bought two books of 15. Amanda was pretty sure that they charged the same amount no matter how many stamps you bought, but she wasn't positive. Granted, she didn't have the money for must else than what he'd allowed her to buy herself, especially since she wasn't getting paid while she was on the road, but still. She felt like a heel.

She had to admit, though, the kicks were the best fitting pair of sneakers she'd ever had, and she was pretty sure they'd be residing on her feet until they basically disintegrated and fell off.

Nick and Brian drove the bikes away from the lodge, with Amanda on Nick's back, wearing a backpack stuffed with three changes of clothes for each of them and some "other stuff" Nick had packed before she and Brian could see what it was.

Nick led the way, Brian's motorcycle humming a couple feet to the side of them, as they drove through some gorgeous mountainous country side. The mountain air was wonderful, but cold. Amanda was glad that Nick had made her wear the jacket for the ride, and wished she'd worn pants instead of the shorts, but he'd insisted on shorts. Her legs were covered in goose pimples.

The scenery was breath-taking. The Rocky Mountains loomed to one side and tall Christmas-scented trees surrounded them. Amanda gasped in the scent, which mixed pleasantly with the familiar smell of Nick (a smell that was quickly becoming one of her very favorites in the whole world) and his leather jacket. The air was so clean compared to LA, it almost stung in her lungs.

Nick drove over a long, skinny bridge that stretched over a deep abyss-like gorge. Far below, Amanda could see a white-capped river rushing by. Some people were standing on a walking bridge below, wearing helmets. "Beautiful," Amanda whispered, staring down at the river and the depth of the gorge.

On the other side of the bridge, Nick turned onto a winding dirt road that led into the deep woods. He had to slow down the bike to keep rocks from pelting their bare legs as they flew out from the tires. The road was probably ten miles long, Amanda thought, by the time they reached the end. A large parking lot, with a big sporting goods outlet was at the end. A school bus and a bunch of cars were parked in the driveway area, and a sign as they pulled into the lot said, "Lost Paddle River Adventures".

"We aren't--" but Amanda's voice was lost in the wind and hum of the bike, even to herself, so she didn't bother finishing the sentence. There was no way in hell Nick could hear her, and she had a feeling that, even if he could hear her, he wouldn't have answered.

The noise from the motorcycles attracted attention from a large group of people clustered around some florescent blue rafts by the river bed. A couple had on construction-worker orange helmets and life vests, others were awkwardly holding long wooden oars. Nick and Brian parked the motorcycles and the three of them climbed off. Nick helped Amanda remove the ping-pong ball helmet and kissed her nose.

"Are we seriously doing this?" Brian asked, laughing, "Are you nuts?"

Nick beamed, "You don't even know the half of what we're doing."

"We're white-water rafting?" Amanda asked, both scared and excited at the same time. "Seriously?"

"Yup," Nick beamed. "Welcome to a 3-day, 2-night river adventure!" The way he said it, he easily could've starred in an ad on TV for the company, he was so enthusiastic.

"Are they even going to let us do it? I mean, I dunno for sure about Amanda, but I'm confident in saying that none of us are really very experienced with this type stuff," Brian worried, "Well, other than maybe you, Scuba Steve."

Nick laughed, "The tour we're going on is for like families with little kids," he explained, "If a six year old can do it, I think we can." He turned and started trotting excitedly toward the river, pulling Amanda along behind him.

"Yea but I bet they expect a lot less out of a six year old," Brian said to Amanda, "Plus, who knows, the six year old could be freakishly strong." He scurried to keep up with Nick's long strides, as Amanda laughed back at Brian's comment.

"You must be Nick, Brian and Amanda," called a very built, very athletic looking woman who looked like she was probably once a gym teacher. "My name is Pat, and I'm going to be one of your river guides." She stuck her hand out for the trio and Nick shoot it excitedly. "You ever done this before?"

"No," they chorused. "And I never thought I would, either," Brian added. Amanda smirked at him.

"Well this adventure is perfect for you folks then," Pat told them, "It's a good one for beginners, so no worries. We're all gonna have a great time! Follow me down to the bank and we'll introduce you to the rest of the team."

Brian leaned over so only Nick and Amanda could hear him as they walked along behind Pat. "I bet she's got a better six pack than Nick or I," he whispered.

"She's probably got bigger balls too," Nick whispered back. Amanda hit his arm and he cracked up while Brian shook his head, laughing silently.

When they reached the bank, Pat started introducing them to the other people that were going to be in the fleet of rafts heading down the river with them over the next few days. Then, a tall, dark haired guy who sort of resembled a young Eugene Levy, with the thick frizzy-hair and glasses, turned around and extended his hand to Nick. Amanda stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of him, and Brian walked into her by accident. "My name is Ben," he said, his voice deep, "Where are you all from?" He looked from Brian to Amanda and smiled.

"California," Nick answered. "That's Brian, and my girlfriend, Amanda. I'm Nick."

"Hello Brian," Ben said cordially. He turned to Amanda, "And his girlfriend, Amanda." Amanda met his eyes. Brian shook the guy's hand, but his eyes didn't tear away from Amanda's. He reached out for her hand as Nick picked up an orange helmet and someone shoved an oar into Brian's hand. "I'm really excited to be going on this river trip with you," he said exclusively to her now that their attentions were distracted.

Amanda's jaw set as he took her hand forcefully and shook it. She squeezed his hand bone as hard as she could. "Oh I'm sure you're delighted, Toby," she said whispered sarcastically.

"Quite a grip, this one," he announced loudly enough to regain Nick's attention. "She must be very feisty. How on earth do you keep track of her?"

Nick forced a fake sounding laugh and quickly snaked his arm around Amanda's waist possessively. He grimaced at Ben, jealousy firing up inside him like an angry monster that had been dormant, yet was now ready to destroy anything that got in its way. "Yeah. That's what I love about my girlfriend," he said. He kissed her on the side of the face near the neck and tugged her away from Ben, "Come on, baby," he said, employing a nickname he hadn't really used before when referring to her, "Let's go fit you into a life jacket."

Brian smiled, oblivious to the tension between Nick, Ben and Amanda. "Nice meetin' ya," he called to Ben as they turned their backs and Nick led the way, still not letting go of Amanda, over to the pile of life preservers that were sitting on a rock near the water's edge. Ben watched, smirking, as Amanda glanced back over her shoulder at him nervously.
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