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Day One Hundred and Eleven.


 


"Maaaaah."


I don't care that I sound like a sheep giving birth when I wake up. It's not like anyone hears me except for Joe, and Big Rob, and my mom and dad, and the hotel receptionist, and... well, whoever's on wake-up duty, really. On this particular morning, it was Big Rob, and if I sounded like a sheep giving birth, then I was having triplets. It's extraordinarily hard to pull yourself out of bed when you're the only one who has to get up. In the bed beside mine, Joe got to sleep soundly until nine.


It was five-thirty a.m., and we had gone to bed at two, goddammit. We had been discussing our show late into the night, and while I could have excused myself to get some sleep, I wanted to stay because Rainie was there. Actually, it was a great night. Joe's girlfriend, Camilla, flew out to see him, and we all chilled backstage after the show. Having Rainie and Camilla in the same room sent my hormones seriously out of whack. My favourite part was probably when they talked to each other, side-by-side. It was mesmerizing.


I brushed my teeth with my eyes half-closed, the light from the bathroom blinding me. It was way too early, and I had a long day ahead. As soon as I was dressed, Big Rob was taking me to the airport to meet Pep, who was flying in from Los Angeles. (Side-note: it wasn't until yesterday that my mother decided to tell me how early she'd booked the flight. Damn her). We'd go to breakfast or something (my stomach was already rumbling), and then we had some sort of radio interview. We had a few hours off afterwards, but Pep most likely wasn't going to allow me to sleep. She was only here for twenty-something hours, after all. We'd have a quick dinner and head to the venue to perform. It was the fourth of July, and we were expecting a big crowd. Afterwards, there would be fireworks, and I had to give Pep her birthday present... which wasn't really a present at all, but it had to be at night. Jesus Christ, it made me sleepy just to think of how many hours I would have to spend awake that day.


Once I'd thrown on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, Big Rob led me down the elevator and to the car. And when I say he led me, I mean he literally grabbed a hold of my arm and steered me in the right direction. I was flopping all over the place. Normally I need a glass of water and some sort of edible sustenance to wake myself up in the morning. It's also customary to be given more than five minutes to get ready.


Ugh. Damn that little proton.


I slept on the way to the airport. It was unfortunate that it was only a ten-minute drive. Instead of leaning my head against the window like a smart person, I let my head fall forward onto my chest, colliding awkwardly with the seatbelt. Big Rob told me to look at myself in the mirror before we got out of the car. I had a very visible red line across my cheek from where the seatbelt had cut into me. Perfect.


Pep's flight was delayed by twenty minutes. Twenty minutes that I could have spent in bed with my eyes closed and my dreams centered on Rainie. I fell asleep again on one of those uncomfortable airport chairs, my head resting painfully on the back of the seat as I slumped down. I folded my arms across my chest for warmth and let my mouth hang open. I would later come to regret this decision, as someone snapped a picture of me and it turned up on the internet three hours later.


Big Rob shook me back to the world of the living when Pep's plane landed. I dragged my feet behind him to baggage claim. We were standing near a giant marble pillar - I heavily considered falling asleep on it, too, when a flash of auburn hair came into view and Pep bounced along amidst a crowd of people with nothing but a backpack and a large smile. She looked like she was waltzing into her first day of kindergarten.


I took a few paces forward and grinned sleepily, hissing in shock as she threw her arms around my waist with force. Once I made sure my stomach was back in place, I put my arms around her neck to hug her back. It was good to see her. It had been a month or so since I'd set eyes on the munchkin.


She let go first with a huge grin, and I kept an arm around her as we walked towards the luggage dispenser. It was lucky that I did; I was so tired, I probably needed the support to stand.


Pep, on the other hand, was wide awake. Didn't surprise me. "Aw, it's good to see your bitter face again," she giggled. "You look older. No, you just look more bitter. Maybe you look a little tired. Hey, what's that line on your face?"


"Maaaah." I used my sheep-noise again to warn her to leave me alone.


"Oh, no," she said with faux-anxiety, "Did I catch Nick J on a bad day?"


I let my arm fall from her shoulders as I frowned and kicked her in the back of the knee.


"Too bad, Oscar the Grouch. You're going to smile, and you're going to like it."


While we waited for her bag to arrive, she stood in front of me and put her hands on my cheeks, stretching my less-than-amused face into a smile.


"There," she declared in satisfaction. Her eyes gleamed with excitement. "That's the way I like my Nick J."


 I livened up a little when we went out for breakfast. Big Rob dropped us off at this little diner that looked like it had good bacon and eggs. Pep sat Indian-style across from me in the booth, picking at her meal like she was five years old.


"Any calls from Kendall lately?" she asked, chewing on a piece of bacon.


I chomped into toast and replied, "Every day."


"Why don't you just change your number?"


I rolled my eyes. "I can't just change my number every time some psycho bitch harasses me."


Pep burst into laughter. "That's a perfectly good reason to change your number!"


I shook my head, unconvinced.


She eyed me sceptically. "Unless you actually like her..." she trailed off.


I continued to shake my head.


"Hmm," she said in a small voice. "I think you do. I think you're interested."


Scoffing, I retorted, "Does the name ‘Rainie' ring a bell?"


"Ah yes," she giggled. "God, Nick, your love life sure is exceptional."


"So is yours, chipmunk," I returned, sipping on a glass of water to wash down the toast.


"Actually," she said pointedly, a hint of a smile on her face, "I've been seeing someone."


"Seeing someone? Do people still say things like that?" It sounds like something said by squares in the forties.


"Seeing, dating, hooking up with-"


"Too much info," I interrupted with a scowl. Gross. "How did this happen?" I demanded.


She couldn't have been seeing this guy, whoever he was, for long. I talked to her on the phone regularly enough; surely she would have mentioned it if it was serious.


Pep shrugged. "I don't know. He's really funny, though, you'd like him. He got me a pizza for my birthday with my name written on it in Jelly Bellies."


Pft. Amateur. First, my present was going to be better. Second, that guy's a homo, and I'll tell you why: he got that idea from ‘The Princess Diaries'. Straight guys don't watch chick flicks. The only reason I know about ‘The Princess Diaries' is because I watched it with Miley, and afterwards, to make up for the disgustingness of it all, I made her watch ‘The Hills Have Eyes'. (By the way, I still have her nail imprints on my bicep. Jesus).


"What's his name?" I asked, stuffing a forkful of home fries into my mouth. If it was that douche Jake Lancaster again, I'd-


"Lance."


Oh. I smiled to myself. Yep, he was definitely gay.


"What?" Pep asked with a grin. She could tell I was thinking of something.


"Lance? You know who that reminds me of?"


"Lance Armstrong?" she suggested.


I scoffed again. "Pft. He wishes. No, that guy from N'Sync. The gay one."


Pep rolled her eyes, keeping her grin. "You met Lance Bass once. You said he was nice."


"Yeah, and he was totally into me." If straight guys are nice, you refer to them as ‘cool'. Pep had a lot to learn.


"He's gay, Nick - he's not a pedophile."


I shrugged carelessly. "Whatever. You better not introduce me to your Lance, though. I've proven to attract gay men in the past."


"He's not gay!" she insisted with a frown. She threw her balled-up napkin at my head. It hit my square in the nose. I blame it on my sleepiness.


"Alright, alright," I mumbled with a sneer, swatting away her napkin in annoyance.


(He was definitely gay). 


I hate coffee, but I drank an extra-large on the way to our interview at ten. It burned my tongue and tasted like crap, and I don't think it did anything at all to my drowsiness. If anything, the heat made me want to fall asleep again. Caffeine is a lie.


"Look alive, chump," Joe ordered, widening my eyes for me with his hands. Bastard. He got to sleep for three and a half hours longer than I did.


"This is a radio interview," I whined. "No one's going to see my face."


"Lucky thing, too. You have this giant red gash on your cheek, it looks like you slept on a seatbelt," Joe remarked casually.


I glowered.


"Seriously," Kevin agreed, laughing at me. "Did you paper-cut your face? Did you fall on the dull end of a knife? Did someone draw a line across your cheek with an invisible pen..."


And so on. In fact, this taunting continued for so long that that interviewer joined in on the teasing when we were on the air.


"Yeah," I said with a faux-chuckle. "It was tough getting up earlier than everyone else this morning. I accidentally fell asleep on a seatbelt."


I definitely wanted all the listeners in North Carolina to know that. Swell.


"That's a cover-up," Joe joked. "What Nick's trying to hide from you is that he fell into the thin edge of an open car door. Watch where you're going next time, buddy."


Kevin laughed giddily. Everyone joined in.


Thanks, Joe. At this point in time, I decided to start a tally in my head of the number of times he wronged me. This way, I'd have sufficient reasoning when I glued his eyelids shut in the near future


When we were finally done all our running around and my eyes were so heavy it felt like I was lifting weights every minute they were open, we went back to the hotel for a few hours of down-time before the show. I would have given a limb just to climb into bed and drift off, but Kevin came up with the brilliant idea of a giant game of touch football. 


Fuck me. I barely had the strength to walk, let alone tackle and be tackled.


And so the whole lot of us headed out to the large field behind the hotel to play. If it wasn't partly-cloudy, we could have gone to a beach. That would have been perfect. Pep would have been entertained by the sand and the water, and I could have gotten in a couple of hours of beauty sleep. Instead, she was dancing in the spot beside me, eager to throw around a pigskin with a bunch of males.


Camilla and Rainie ventured out as well, dressed very stylishly for a good old-fashioned game of football. I saw Joe give Camilla a kiss and instruct her to wish him good luck as he wrapped an obnoxious sweatband around his hair. I realized then that the girls had no intention of playing. It was probably for the best. If Rainie and I were on opposing teams, I knew I wouldn't be able to hold myself back from tackling her and smothering her with my love.


While the girls set up camp at the side of the playing field, the guys (and Pep) worked on setting boundaries. I stood in the middle of the green field with a pouty face. This was a difficult situation. On one hand, I was so bloody tired. On the other, I couldn't pussy out to take a nap - I had to impress Rainie with my vast range of athletic abilities. And to do that, I had to be on top of my game, which was a tough thing to do while sleep-deprived. It was just a circle of misery, and I couldn't find a way out.


As we gathered in a crowd to pick teams, I caught Pep staring dreamily at Jesse. Ugh, stupid midget whore. Didn't she say she was seeing someone?


I could tell she was overjoyed when Garbo selected both her and Jesse to be on his team. Needless to say, I was incredibly disappointed that I wound up on Kevin's team. He was the sucker I was looking most forward to tackling, and now I wouldn't even get the chance.


I rubbed the excess sleep out of my eyes before the game began. I glanced at Rainie just as everyone was gearing up; I swear she winked at me. God, she was sexy.


Everything went smoothly for the first few minutes. Pep ran around like a little annoying insect, dodging in and out and around people because she was so small. She got a fucking touchdown, for Christ's sake. Jesse threw up his hands in victory and slapped his hands against hers. Pep glowed with pride and adoration.


Well, fuck ‘em all. Kevin was a pansy on the field, so I had to take charge. I took advantage of Joe tripping over his shoelaces to make a run for it. While the ball was firmly in my grasp, I crossed the end line and immediately glanced in Rainie's direction. She wasn't watching, goddammit. She and Camilla were concerned about Joe's well-being.


Ugh. That was strike two against Joe.


When Joe brushed himself off and the game resumed, I paused for a moment when things got slow to ever-so-slyly look at Rainie. She was chatting amicably with Camilla, and when she giggled, she brushed Camilla's arm and leaned towards her. Camilla threw her head back with laughter.


Fascinating. I once read in a yahoo! article that flirty girls always try to make physical contact with the object of their affection. It's a good way to keep the other interested. It was entirely possible that Rainie was flirting with Camilla. I wouldn't blame her; Camilla is drop dead gorgeous. It was hard to decide whether or not this was dampening my spirits. On one hand, Rainie and Camilla would basically be the hottest couple on the face of the earth, and I would devote the rest of my life to instigating a threesome between us. On the other hand, if Rainie was strictly a lesbian, my life was effectively over. I wondered if Lesbian Friend should be warned that her lesbian lover was interested in someone else.


While I was standing in the middle of the field, gazing at my dream couple and wandering away with my thoughts, I was brutally tackled to the ground. By Pep. My vertically-challenged friend who's no stronger than a common house fly.


That was embarrassing. I kind of resented her for it. Way to make me look like a schmuck, Pep.


The worst part was when she pushed herself off of me as I lay flat on my back in the grass, a worried expression etched on her features. "Oh, I'm sorry, pal," she apologized. "Did I hurt you?"


As if that wasn't demeaning enough, the humiliation continued. Using my elbows to prop myself up, I frowned and demanded, "What the hell was that for? I wasn't even doing anything!"


She shrugged, grinning radiantly. "You just looked really easy to tackle."


If Rainie had overheard what she'd said, I really would kill my best friend. When I looked at her, she was smirking. Damn that little munckin Pep.


I would be an epic failure if I wasn't on my A-game for the rest of the game. I stood up and brushed myself off, ready to kick some McCartney ass. No one was keeping score, but it was obvious that my team was losing. That idiot Kevin was ruining me.


With my full attention on the game, we slowly began to improve. One of Jesse's band-mates on my team scored a touchdown. Joe (also on my team), pounced on Garbo right before he hit the end line. Of course, Rainie was probably more impressed with Joe than she was with me, but I had a feeling it was all my doing, anyway.


It was as the skies were clearing up and the sun began to shine that my downfall came about. Literally. I had the ball. I was running. Okay, maybe I was being a bit of a show-off because I was so sure I had this one in the bag. There was no one in front of me; it was totally open.


When I least expected it, arms reached around my waist and I tumbled to the ground. My arms were occupied and couldn't break my fall, so my chin hit the cold, hard earth with a thud. Coughing up shitty-tasting grass, I turned to see who had destroyed my perfect play. It was none other than Sugar Rush boy. I was so infuriated that I flared my nostrils as the other team got the ball. While Pep grabbed it and took off, the others following her, I focused solely on Jesse. That dickbrain. He already had Rainie, what did he need to impress her for?!


I had nobody. And my chin hurt like a bitch. So I tackled him.


In retrospect, it probably wasn't one of my better ideas. After all, Jesse technically wasn't doing anything to warrant a tackle. He let out a cry that sounded like "Ogg" as he toppled over. At this point, I realized what I was doing. I was most likely coming off as an even bigger tool in front of my Mystery Girl. Shit.


So I pushed myself off of him and muttered, "Oh, sorry."


Jesse's incredulous glare wasn't lost on me, but the sight of his puzzled face made me so angry that I had to look away. He sucked. Why couldn't Rainie see that?


I spent a few seconds picking grass off of my shirt when Pep strolled over, looking cynical.


"What was that about?" she asked quietly.


"That guy's a fathead," I mumbled angrily.


She snorted with laughter. "What are you, in second grade? At least use an appropriate insult."


"Douchecock."


"Original. Better."


Pep's eyes shirked from mine for a moment before reconnecting. She took a step towards me and whispered secretively, "Rainie's looking at you."


With my back turned to Mystery Girl, I was completely reliant on Pep to deliver me information. My eyes widened. "Yeah? Does she look pissed off?" I asked, trying to move my lips as little as possible, like a ventriloquist.


Discretely, Pep glanced at her and back at me. "No. She looks confused and concerned."


"For Jesse, or for me?"


"No, she's not looking at Jesse," Pep replied. "She's looking at you."


Wait, what was I doing? Why was I using the proton as a mediator between Rainie and myself? I was bold. I was handsome. I could do it all on my own.


Before I could advance, Pep touched my lip softly with her finger. "You're bleeding, Nick," she pointed out.


"Huh?" I put my finger to my lower lip and pulled it away to analyze it. Yep, there was definitely blood. "Shit," I grumbled. "That Dream Street asswipe drew blood from me."


"It'll swell," Pep informed me, her voice returning to its usual loud level. "You should get some ice."


We were close enough for the girls to hear, because Camilla was immediately on her feet, announcing, "I'll go get some from the front desk."


"Oh, you should sit out, buddy," Garbo said, patting my shoulder sympathetically. "We don't want you to look like a train wreck for tonight's show."


On one hand, sitting out of the remainder of the game would prevent me from showing off. On the other hand, it was apparent that I was doing a terrible job of impressing Rainie, and sitting out while the others played would give me a chance to talk to her. It wasn't a bad trade-off, so I shrugged and plopped myself down in the grass next to her, folding my arms over my bent knees.


"Ouch," Rainie breathed, hissing in sympathy when she saw my lip. "Does it sting?"


"A little," I told her. "I'm fine."


"That was quite a hit you took from my pompous boyfriend," she remarked.


Pompous. That was a negative attribute, right? I could only hope.


"It wasn't too bad," I said honestly. "Jesse doesn't have two older brothers, does he?"


She shook her head. "He's the oldest. He's got a younger brother; I think he's around Frankie's age. Maybe a bit older."


"Oh. Pft. He has no idea, then. The stuff we used to do to each other..." I thought back to my overdramatic physical fight with Joe the week before. "The stuff we still do," I corrected myself.


"Like what?" she asked.


I wiped some blood away from my lips and onto the grass. "Joe and Kevin were into wrestling when they were younger. They used me as their opponent. I lost all but four of my baby teeth getting thrown into walls."


"Rough!" she exclaimed with a giggle.


I shrugged. "Do you have brothers?"


Rainie shook her head, her blonde waves shifting on her shoulders. "I have an older sister. She's five years older than me, though, so we were never really close. She's married with a kid on the way."


I nodded. "You'll be an aunt."


"Yeah," she breathed, her eyes widening. She shook herself out of a trance. "It's a weird thought. I always imagine aunts as old, you know?"


"Yeah. And they give you shitty presents like neon-coloured track suits," I grumbled bitterly.


She laughed. "I don't know what kind of aunts you have, but I'd really like to see you in one of these tracksuits one day."


It was weird how my relationship with Rainie had evolved in just a week. I was still madly in love with her and she still made my heart do this weird jump whenever she was near, but we were able to carry on conversation like old friends. Since I was usually showered and dressed before Joe even got out of bed, Rainie and I often went to breakfast together. Slowly, I found out the basic facts of her life. She was in a Communications program at UCLA. She lived in an apartment with Lesbian Friend, whose name was actually Callan (but she would always be Lesbian Friend to me). She liked toast and orange juice for breakfast with a cup of tea afterwards. She didn't drive. And she was twenty-one.


A whole five years separated us. It didn't bother me. After all, Hugh Hefner is practically prehistoric, and he has nineteen-year-old girlfriends. Besides, Rainie and I got along superbly. We could definitely function in a relationship. Or in a marriage. Age ain't nothin' but a numba. Thank you, Aaliyah, for your wise words.


"Here ya go, kid," Camilla said, handing me a Ziploc bag of ice and crossing her legs as she sat on Rainie's other side. I hated when she called me ‘kid'. It was like she was teasing me for being so young. Rainie never teased me. Rainie never even mentioned it.


While the guys rearranged teams, Pep marched over to socialize for a minute or two. She stood in front of us, smiling at me and my pathetic bag of ice, now held tightly to my bleeding lower lip.


"I'll avenge your fall, Nick," she generously offered.


"Jesse's on your team, Pep," I replied, mimicking her voice.


She shrugged. "Meh."


Rainie had apparently observed this interaction. Shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked up at Pep, she inquired, "Is your name really Pep?"


Pep shook her head. "No. That's just what Nick and his family call me. Joe calls me Pip. I don't know why."


"Because she's got lots of pep," I explained patiently to Rainie. I snorted with laughter. "See?" I pointed to Pep, who was making big circles with her arms for no reason at all. "She never stops moving."


"Cute," Rainie smiled. (I hated that damn word). She turned her attention again to Pep. "Has your mom had the baby yet?"


I don't think it was possible for Pep to appear more confused. She glanced at me for help, and I widened my eyes and nodded my head. Clearly she had forgotten that she had previously told Rainie that her mother was pregnant. Rhonda's Maternity, Pep. Come on!


"Nnnn....no," Pep said slowly. "She's due in... a week?"


"Really!" Rainie exclaimed. "You must be so excited!"


Pep nodded unconvincingly. "Yep...?" I can't explain the relief that washed over her face as Garbo called her name. With a grin, she stated, "Keep your eyes on me, Nick. I'll take him down."


I chuckled to myself as she ran away. It took a moment for me to recognize that Rainie was staring at me.


"You like her?" she asked.


My face fell. "What? No."


"Are you sure you two aren't dating?"


The fucked-up thing about having a girl for a best friend is that people always assume you're in a relationship, and if you're not in a relationship, then it's assumed that you secretly love each other. I can't explain how far from the truth this is.


"Yes! She's like, the size of my leg," I stammered in frustration.


Rainie giggled. "What does that have to do with anything?"


Bemused, I rolled my eyes as I applied pressure to the ice pack on my lip. "We're not dating," I confirmed. "She has a boyfriend, anyway."


She shrugged. "Does it bother you?"


"No."


I didn't like where this conversation was going. I wanted it to end.


Rainie stretched out her legs. "Well, if you ever decide to go for it... then just know that I approve."


I frowned. When would I ever decide to ‘go for it'? Pep had a boyfriend, so it's not like I even had a chance, if I wanted to. Then again, Rainie had a boyfriend, and I wanted her. Maybe she was insinuating that I should give her a shot. Fuck Jesse McCartney.


I heard Pep shout out my name as the players whizzed past, but I couldn't be bothered to look. Gradually, I turned my head towards Rainie and studied her side profile. She was so hot. And her shirt was so low-cut; I was surprised I wasn't foaming at the mouth. She caught my gaze after a moment or two and looked at me expectantly.


"I'm actually interested in someone else," I told her quietly.


For a few solemn moments, the world was just me and her. I caught her; she didn't know how to answer. I think she was smart enough to know what I was implying. Everything else faded away as I anticipated her response. I thought I had a chance. I really, really did.


Before I knew it, my head hit the ground with a ‘thump'. It felt like I'd just been hit with an anvil, and somewhere up above, Yosemite Sam was shooting his guns in the air in triumph having finally caught Bugs Bunny.


"Joe!" Camilla cried in shock.


"Nick!" Rainie exclaimed at the same time. She leaned over me. "Are you okay? Nick, are you awake?"


I think I felt her hand on my forehead, but the pain was so intense that I couldn't even relish the moment. Ow. I had a splitting headache. My eyes opened to the bright sunshine, blinding me.


"What was that?" I managed to ask.


Rainie looked apologetic. "Joe threw the football at your head."


Good God. If it was even possible for me to look like more of a pussy, then Joe pulled it off. I understood that a crowd was forming around me. Pep bent down to ask me if I was all right.


"What did you do that for?" Camilla demanded, and I heard a ‘smack' as she hit Joe on the arm.


"I ‘unno," Joe replied dumbly. "Pip kept calling his name. The jerk wasn't paying her any attention."


Well, I have news for you, Joe. Strike three, brother. Strike three.


I met Pep the first day we moved into our home in LA. It was a sad day, because we had to say goodbye to our lives in New Jersey and make a permanent home out of the entertainment capital of the world, but Pep made it a little better. And by ‘Pep', I mean her dog, Shep. 


It was funny. I've heard of cats who like to explore boxes, but I didn't know that certain dogs were also interested. Pep's dog, Shep, is one of them. He's a Collie and he probably weighs more than Pep. She was taking him for a walk in the neighbourhood as we were moving in; we had a ton of packed cardboard boxes on the driveway. He must have thought the boxes were empty, because he took off towards them, dragging Pep along behind him. There was a crash, and Pep yelled, and Shep barked. He destroyed a whole set of plates and a lamp.


Luckily I was inside the back of the moving truck at this point, watching the whole display from the perfect vantage point. It was great, especially because this tiny fire-head had no control over her beast of a dog.


Shep had tugged on the leash so hard that Pep's hand was bleeding, and naturally my mom made her sit in our new kitchen while she unpacked the box with the first aid kit. I was pretty impressed that she wasn't making a big deal out of being in our house; she was easily within our fan demographic. I realized later that at that point in time, she had no idea who we were (which was kind of insulting. Whatever, she listens to shit music).


Anyway, she hung around for a while with her bandaged hand and insisted on helping us unpack because she felt so bad about Shep's destruction. After a few minutes, my dad declared her ‘Pep', and the rest is history. She left that night, but she was back three days later with her paycheque, begging to pay us back for the dishes and the lamp. We cashed in the cheque and all was forgiven.


Kidding, we never took the cheque from her. But she was invited to stay for dinner. My dad said he liked her spunk. Joe said he liked the nickname we chose for her because it reminded him of his favourite moron from ‘Lord of the Rings', Pippin. Frankie said Joe was wrong; Pep was like Pippi Longstocking with her red hair. Kevin said he liked how Pep could keep up with him in conversation; they both talked at a mile-a-minute. And Mom said she liked her sense of obligation and responsibility. I don't know what I liked, but anyway, she and ol' Shep kept coming around after that, even when he slowed down because of his thyroid problems and stopped breaking so many of our expensive porcelain possessions.


And here we were, two and a half years later, sitting around a table for dinner just like Pep's first meal with us. Except this time it was her birthday meal, compliments of the Jonas family, and we were in North Carolina - which was apparently her first trip out-of-state. Her parents work too much; I guess they never made much time for family trips. I don't really blame them. It's understandable that they wouldn't want to travel anywhere with Pep. I can't imagine being stuck on a plane with her for a number of hours, or even worse, in a small car. She'd explode from lack of space to move.


We were still in the hotel, but we had some sort of private conference room to eat in. We had take-out food for dinner because we had to eat and run; we had a show to put on. I felt kind of bad for rushing Pep's birthday meal, but like I said earlier, she eats so fast it really wasn't an inconvenience to her at all.


While Mom and I were lighting the candles on the cake (that I picked out, by the way - who knew there were cake catalogues?! Fucking amazing), I heard Joe say to Pep at the table, "Nick is really proud of your cake for some reason, so you better pretend to like it no matter how bad it tastes."


I had lost count of Joe's strikes by this point, but he was well over ten.


"Ha!" Camilla laughed out loud. "Pep, save the top left-hand corner of the cake for Joe - he already took a noticeable chunk out of it this morning."


"Shh," Joe whispered shakily.


I knew my cake was delicious. (Side-note: Yet another strike for Joe). Once we were finished lighting the candles, I carried the cake to Pep's side and instigated a round of ‘Happy Birthday'. Kevin, whom I interrupted with my song while he was telling a story, felt the need to attempt to overpower our voices as he finished. This left him behind in the song, and as we finished, "Happy birthday to you," he added, "To you", very quietly.


Pep, eyes aglow, looked to me before blowing out the candles. "Wish," I encouraged her with a nod of my head. I don't know what she wished for, but she shut her eyes tightly and scrunched her nose for a moment before releasing a breath.


I'm sure the cake was delectable. I didn't get to enjoy it, because after I'd finished handing out slices to everyone, it was almost time to go. I meant to shovel down a slice on the road, but as soon as I held the paper plate in front of me and aimed to take a forkful, Frankie discharged a very messy sneeze all over it. My appetite declined immensely.


"How long has it been since I've gone to one of your shows?" Pep asked as we headed to the venue. She was twitching in the backseat beside me - well, maybe she wasn't twitching, but she was moving around a lot.


"I dunno," was my quick response as I stared out the window. I said it as fast as possible because I didn't want Kevin to hear from the front seat.


"You came to that one in April, didn't you? That show we had at the House of Blues?"


Kevin definitely heard. And now he was going to launch into some giant shitty-ass story that nobody wanted to hear.


"The one where we had Jordin Sparks, and we did a bunch of covers, and - oh, remember? Some girl threw her thong and it hit Nick in the face?"


Joe and Camilla burst out laughing. Thanks Kev. That's just great. Totally what I wanted to be reminded of before I went onstage again in an hour. (That thong was signed, too. Kind of gross. Kind of intriguing).


"Oh, I do remember that," Pep said thoughtfully. I could feel her glaring at me in disgust. "You didn't keep it, did you, Nick?"


"No," I mumbled. It's nice that my best friend thinks I'm some pervy underwear-hoard.


Although it had been confirmed that we were all there and we collectively recalled the events of that night, Kevin continued to prattle on anyway. Honestly, all I ask for is a ten-minute period of silence before a show. Ten fucking minutes!


Pep and Camilla grabbed their tickets as soon as we got there and went looking for Rainie, their companion. While Camilla and Joe had some couple-time for a minute or two, Pep gave me a wide grin and exclaimed, "Good luck!"


"Thanks. Have fun."


"Oh, I will," she winked at me. "I get to hang out with Mystery Girl."


I scowled. "Just keep your mouth shut. Don't say anything embarrassing about yourself, or, more importantly, about me."


"What?" She pretended to be offended. "I was going to talk you up!"


"Make it subtle," I instructed her.


"How about this: my friend Nick J is such a great guy, he invited me to North Carolina to watch his show, and he got me a delicious birthday cake. Man, I love that boy." She sighed dramatically before catching my eye. "That good?"


With a cynical raised eyebrow, I replied, "That should do."


"Got it, sergeant. Hey, don't play ‘A Little Bit Longer', okay? I don't want to cry in front of all my cool new friends."


I cracked a smile. "You've heard that one a million times."


"Don't do it, Nick, or I'll tell Rainie the thong story!" she threatened.


With a roll of my eyes and a shake of my head, I waved her off. I really hoped what she'd said was an empty threat, because that song was definitely on the play-list.


The show went well, and afterwards I grabbed Big Rob and tried to book it out of there as fast as humanly possible. I wanted to miss the after-performance discussion because I had to show Pep her birthday present, and I had to do it before I fell asleep. 


That's all I wanted, by the way. A little sleep. If someone had presented to me the option of Rainie, or a good night's sleep, there's no telling what I would have chosen. They were both equally tempting.


Unfortunately, Pep hit it off with Rainie and Camilla like childhood friends. They took their sweet time meandering backstage, giggling with one another and linking arms like schoolgirls. It was hot, and for a brief moment I let myself imagine some sort of orgy, but I had business to take care of.


I grabbed Pep's elbow and dragged her towards me. "Hey. You ready to go?" I asked quickly.


"Nick! You have no idea how many girls want to de-virginize you!" Pep yelled. She must have thought she was still in an audience of screaming girls, because the volume of her voice reached new heights. I felt my cheeks flushing a dark shade of red. Pep chuckled nervously, realizing that both my parents and Rainie were within hearing distance. Lowering her voice, she said, "Uh... I mean... do you?"


I groaned. "Can we go now?" I pleaded.


"Really, though, every time I see you guys perform I fall in love with you," Pep chattered away. "All of you. You're awesome. And Kevin did, like ten three-sixties in a row! And you sang that damn song, you idiot-" She punched me playfully in the arm. "-and I cried. Again. I'm such a fan-girl; it's embarrassing. I fit right in, though."


"Are you ready?" I repeated, interrupting whatever she was about to continue blabbering about.


"For what?" she asked innocently, snapping her gum in my face.


"I still haven't presented you with your birthday gift," I explained, far more patiently than she deserved. "And we have to drive to get it. So can you come with me?"


Pep looked torn. "But it's the fourth, Nick! They're having fireworks at the beach!"


Shit. Who the hell spilled the beans to the proton? That was exactly what I didn't want her to find out about; I knew she'd want to go.


"Fuck fireworks; you've seen ‘em before," I grumbled.


"But everyone's going!" she protested. She took a step towards me and mumbled into my ear, "Rainie's going."


"And Jesse's going," I mumbled back. "Do I really want to watch them act all cutesy?"


"Please?" Pep begged. "I love fireworks."


With a sigh, I gave in. After all, it was her birthday. At any other time, I would have flat-out refused. As I trailed behind her and the others, I checked my watch. 11:32. In the past forty-two hours, I had only had three-point-five hours of sleep. Jesus Christ. Really, it would be a miracle if I was able to stay awake through these bloody fireworks.


Well, fuck me silly. On a two-mile-long beach, Pep decided to set up camp for the fireworks directly behind Romeo and fuckin' Juliet (ie. Jesse and Rainie). There were bonfires and sparklers and American flags everywhere, but I didn't pay attention to any of that. I watched as Jesse stood behind Mystery Girl and threw his arms around her middle, hugging her close to him. I watched as she laughed and pecked him on the cheek. They shared a sickeningly sweet kiss. My stomach twisted. 


"Sparkler, Nick?" Pep's voice broke me out of my trance.


"Huh?" I asked. I rolled my eyes when I faced her. She would have found someone to give her a pile of sparklers. "Where did you get those?"


"That man was selling them for ten cents each," she replied nonchalantly, handing one to me. "Now, do you have a lighter?"


"Why yes, yes I do," I answered sarcastically. What the hell would I carry a lighter around for? My insatiable need for chain-smoking? All the bonfires I start up on a regular basis?


"No need to be saucy," she ‘tsked' with her tongue. "You had one earlier for lighting my cake."


"Why don't we channel some of the high-voltage electric currents from our high-tech stage effects?" I suggested dryly.


"Okay!" Pep exclaimed. She was about to take off at a run before I grabbed her wrist, pulling her back to me. I shook my head, not at all amused by her obliviousness. "Come on!" she urged. "I want to write my name in fire!"


"It's not fire, you little bumblebee," I teased. "You really think you'd have to pay money for fire on a stick? It's sparks."


"Get me some fire, Nick," she pouted.


I pointed her in the direction of one of the many bonfires on the beach, rolling my eyes. God, I need smarter friends. Pep didn't feel slighted in the least. With an excited, "Oh!" she took off.


I turned my attention back to Jesse and Rainie. They were millimetres apart, about to start a full-on make-out session when the fireworks started. I had never been so relieved, and I didn't even realize that I had been holding my breath. As long as I never had to witness them locking lips, Rainie was still pure to me.


Big bursts of light illuminated the sky, and even I had to admit that the fireworks were impressive. They were colourful and loud and big. I stuffed my sparkler-stick into my pocket before folding my arms across my chest and angling my head towards the sky. Pep snuck up on me so quietly I didn't even know she was there until minutes later, when she spoke.


"Sometimes it's like they're coming at you so fast, and they're so close. You have to shrink back even though you know they're not going to touch you," she remarked gently.


I was surprised by how calmly she made this observation, but she was right. I don't think she knew that I had acknowledged her statement.


"It's like..." she continued, as if she was having a conversation all to herself, "It's like, sometimes people come at you so fast and so suddenly you don't know how to take it, even though you know it'll never amount to anything."


I frowned as I stared at the sky. I didn't know what this was supposed to mean. Maybe she'd accidentally sparkled her brain while she was writing her name.


Everyone clapped when the show ended. Jesse and Rainie gave each other one glorious kiss. I scowled and yawned at the same time.


"Okay!" Pep exclaimed, back to her usual bubbly self. "Ready to go?"


"Maaah," I replied. I didn't mean to release my sheep-noise at her, I really didn't. I was just so damn tired. "Yeah. Let me get a hold of Big Rob."


I pulled my phone out of my pocket and got in contact with the big guy, asking him to meet Pep and I not too far from the beach.


"Let's go," I told her.


The sand made walking a chore for a while, but we finally reached grass and then the road, and walking became easier. I realized that I probably should have told my mom I was going to be back late, so I pulled out my phone to send her a dutiful text message (because I'm an excellent son). I lagged a little behind Pep as she bounced along until she drew her right leg up with a hiss, crying, "Ah!"


I looked up from the screen of my phone, my eyes taking a moment or two to adjust to the darkness before us. "What?"


She hopped around on one foot, bringing her other close to her face to analyze it. Her beachy dress was short - typical Pep. No shame as her dress hiked up around her waist. I rolled my eyes. She was like a six-year-old. It was a wonder she hung out with me more than she hung out with Frankie.


"I stepped on something!" she said, and all of a sudden, she sounded breathless, like the pain was too much to bear.


"What?" I repeated. I took a step forward. "Let me see."


I held her ankle for her as I attempted to examine her foot, but the darkness made it hard to see. I shone the light from the screen of my cell phone onto her skin, and it was then that I saw blood.


"Ss," she hissed alongside a sharp intake of breath. "It hurts."


"Yeah, you stepped on something. I hope it wasn't glass," I said casually. I didn't want her to freak out or anything. Girls have the tendency to panic at the faintest sign of any physical harm. "Well, I'm sure Big Rob will have a first aid kit in the car."


I turned back to my phone to continue typing my text message, when suddenly I was hit with a thought. "Wait a second, why the hell don't you have your shoes on?"


She held her flip-flops in her hand. She shrugged. "Nobody but Nick Jonas wears shoes on a beach."


"Are we on the beach anymore?" I demanded. I stomped my foot on the ground a few times, making sure she could hear the sound of the sole of my shoe colliding with the pavement.


"I like feeling the grass squish between my toes," was her lame excuse.


I sighed. "You're a strange little smurf. Okay, Big Rob is waiting just up the road."


I began to pick up the pace, making a mental note to try texting Mom again when I was inside the car. When I couldn't hear her short little breaths behind me, I turned around. Pep wasn't complaining, but she was hopping along on one leg, holding her extra flip-flop. What a trooper, my dad would say.


"Ugh," I groaned. I waited until she'd caught up to me and I leaned down. "Okay, spitfire. Hop on."


"It's okay," she assured me, jumping in place.


"Get the fuck on, Pepper," I ordered, my voice void of good-humour. We had places to go and I wanted to get to bed before sunrise, preferably.


"You know, you just ruined it," she grumbled.


"Ruined what?" I questioned as she attached her hands around my shoulders and wrapped her legs around my waist.


As I plodded along with Pep on my back, she responded, "You were almost a knight in shining armour there, Nick J. You were so close, and then you had to go and ruin it."


As if that was a bad thing.


"I like to stay true to my character," I answered offhandedly. "Wouldn't you prefer me to be myself, rather than someone I'm not?"


I was sure I felt her arms tighten around my neck. "Uh huh," she agreed, her breath tickling my ear. "For some reason, I like you just the way you are."

Chapter End Notes:

Mark Darcy, anyone? Bridget Jones? I like you just the way you are? Love that book/movie.


Anyway, yes you WILL get to find out shortly what Nick's "birthday present" to Pep is. The thing is, it was nearing Day 112 as they were watching the fireworks - so I had to break it into two chapters. Plus this one was super long anyway. Like double the usual size! Next one will probably be long too. But then there will be some short ones. Just a warning :) 


I was pretty sure that I had something else to say in my author's note, but now I can't remember what it is and it's bugging me. Maybe I wanted to credit something in this chapter? Maybe there was a song reference I wanted to give you a link to? I can't remember. Anyway, I'll give you a link to a beautiful song in the next chapter, and it will also be chalk-full of HP references. (As usual). 


I love you alllllll thank you for the wondrous reviews, they are certainly brightening my gloomy week! 

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