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Day One Hundred and Twelve.


The clock struck midnight as we climbed into the car. Big Rob began to drive - he knew where he was going - as Pep propped her injured foot on my lap and leaned her head against the window, watching me as I worked. It's a good thing she was with me when it happened, because I'm a real man and can handle the sight of blood. If she was with Joe, she'd be fucked. He'd faint.


I had the light on in the backseat as I cleaned the blood away and examined the sole with a frown. I lifted her leg towards the light to get a better look, careful not to look up her dress. If this was Rainie whose foot was on my lap, you can bet your bottom dollar I would have snuck a glance. When you have a friend of the opposite sex, however, you gotta set boundaries. You just have to.


"As far as I can tell, there's nothing stuck in there," was my diagnosis. "You just stepped on something sharp, and now it's bleeding profusely."


Pep dug through the first aid kit and handed me a large band-aid. I had the honour of placing it gently over her cleaned wound. Then I patted her calf, which was my way of telling her to get her damn leg off me.


"So where are we going?" she asked me.


I shrugged teasingly.


"Come on. We're already on the way! I'll already be surprised!"


"We're going to a beach," I answered.


"What? Nick, we were just at a beach!" Pep cried in confusion. "Why couldn't we stay there with all the people?"


"Because!" I replied, unwilling to give her more information. Her frown frustrated me, so I had to elaborate somehow. "Okay, you know how I have relatives from around here?"


She nodded.


"Well, I've been to this place before. And it has to be this beach. And there can't be people around - well, there can, but there can't be all the flashing lights and the city vibe. It just won't work."


"Are you going to propose to me?" she asked calmly.


From the driver's seat, Big Rob howled with laughter.


I sighed, a bemused expression on my face. "No, Pepper. I'm not proposing to you."


"Asking me to Prom?"


"Do I attend a regular high school?" I returned.


"Asking me to my Prom?"


I shook my head in irritation. "Can you just shut up and stop interrogating me? I'll let you know what it's all about when we get there."


Good lord. This was a lesson learned for me. Never do anything half-decent for a girl; she totally takes the kind gesture and runs with it. Even little tomboyish Pep has a wild romantic side. Gag me.


Pep got the hint that I wanted to be left to my thoughts, so she kept quiet for the remainder of the ride. I think that's the distinct difference between Pep and Kevin. They can both chatter away to anyone they meet off the street about anything on God's green earth for hours on end with no signs of stopping. However, if one were to tell Pep to shut up, she would. Kevin, on the other hand, would take that as a sign that you were listening to his ramblings, and it would only encourage him. I think it means that Pep is a better listener. She talks, but she listens, too. I appreciate it.


It took us approximately twenty more minutes to get there, and in those twenty minutes I took a cat-nap. The roads were a little bumpy and my neck was sore, but it was worth it for some well-deserved shut-eye.


"How long are you planning to take?" Big Rob asked through the open window of the driver's seat. Pep was already scrambling down the slope to the beach.


I scratched the back of my neck. I hadn't really planned this out. "Hmm. Fifteen minutes? No, maybe half an hour?" Hell, for all I knew, it could take thirty seconds and we'd be out of there. "... an hour?"


"Alright. I'm going to find a coffee joint. Ring me when you want me," he replied. I nodded. Before he drove away, he shouted out the window, "And don't get into mischief, kid. I told Denise I'd keep an eye on you."


"Do I get into mischief?" I asked him with a grin. Jeez, that's a line he should deliver to Joe or Frankie - not me.


Before joining Pep on the beach, I took a breath of fresh country air. I'd always liked it here. It was peaceful and you could hear crickets at night.


"I like it here," Pep said as soon as I joined her. My thoughts exactly.


"It's nice," I agreed shortly. I paused, thinking of a creative way to present this to her without being sappy or gay or cliché. "Okay, cover your eyes."


"What?"


"Just do it. Don't peek."


"No! You're gonna run away or-"


"Oh, don't even," I groaned. "This is important. Do it."


That seemed to be good enough rationale for her. She placed her palms flat over her eyes, and I waved a hand in front of her face to make sure she wasn't peeking. When I was satisfied, I instructed, "Now lie down."


"In the water?"


Ugh. Girls are so effing difficult and nitpicky. I placed my hands on her shoulders and guided her backwards a few steps. "Now," I ordered. As she began to take a seat, I added, "And keep your eyes covered!"


When she was flat on her back, I lay down beside her and settled my hands underneath the back of my head. "Okay, okay. You can look now."


She let her hands fall to her sides and immediately let out a breathy, "Ha!"


I smiled to myself. That's all I wanted to hear.


The night was black; just as black as it would be anywhere else in the world. But here, on this little secluded beach in rural North Carolina, you could see all the stars in the sky. And it was pretty damn cool.


"This is why I had to come to North Carolina?" Pep asked, her voice squeaking.


"Mm hmm," I replied.


She didn't respond, so I took a second to glance at her. She was flat on her back, staring at the illuminated blackness above, her expression a mixture of awe and confusion. I wondered if she was upset.


"You said you'd never seen a sky full of stars," I said in my own defence. I know I didn't spend thousands of dollars on her like celebrities are supposed to, but fuck. I thought she didn't care about shit like that.


She shook her head. "I haven't. Not like this. Not even close."


I rocked my head back and forth slowly, waiting for her to elaborate, but she remained silent. It kind of pissed me off; it was one of those rare moments that I actually wanted to talk. Still, I wouldn't make any further attempts to initiate conversation if she didn't want me to. I turned my head back to the sky and listened to the crickets. It was nice to hear them for a night; but I imagined living in this place. I would go fucking insane. I'd have cricket-traps set all over the damn place. Those things never shut up. They're worse than Kevin, and that's saying something.


"You think that's the Big Dipper?" Pep asked suddenly, pointing to a cluster of stars.


"I don't know," I answered, trying my best to seem contemplative, like I knew what I was looking for. Stars are cool, but I'm no astronomer. I probably couldn't identify a Big Dipper if there was one. It's like this album my mom has at home; it's a baby book of the four of us. She has pictures that were taken when she went for ultrasounds, and she shows them to us and points out our legs and arms and shit. I can't see anything.


"Remember in Lion King, when Mufasa says stars are great kings of the past?"


"Yep," I replied with a quizzical frown.


"What do you think?"


What did this have to do with anything? "That sucks if it's true."


"How come?"


"What constitutes a ‘great' king?" I questioned. "It's not fair that they're the only guys who get to be up there. I'd rather turn into a star when I die instead of letting fucking raccoons feast away at my corpse underground, but apparently I don't have the option."


Pep chuckled. "You're so deep sometimes. I don't think you'll have to worry about raccoons."


"Damn straight. If I die before I make a will, make sure everyone knows I want to be cremated."


"No, I mean... never mind," she giggled.


I sighed. "I think stars are just fire. That's all they are, and they burn out sometimes."


"And it really doesn't make you think of how small we are? Not even with a sky like this?" She was utterly perplexed.


Grinning, I turned my head in her direction. "Pep, when I'm within ten feet of you, I never feel small." In fact, sometimes I feel too giant. I'm not even a tall guy to begin with. But I have big hands, for the record. Just... yes. I do, I swear.


She locked eyes with me, and for a minute, I worried that she'd taken my last words in entirely the wrong way. There was no hidden meaning; I meant exactly what I said.


Eventually, she gave me a crooked smile. "You're sweaty."


There. That made things less uncomfortable. Thanks, pipsqueak.


"You try playing a show for two hours in 80-degree weather wearing jeans," I returned.


She sat up, leaning over me. "I think you should go for a swim."


I let my cheeks fill with air before exhaling, lightly breathing on her face. "I think you're nuts."


Pep laughed, hopping into a standing position. "Nuts? When was the last time you went swimming?" I didn't answer, and she continued, "Well, I'm going."


I groaned. Ugh, I should've known she wouldn't be able to sit still for more than two minutes. I sat up just as she was tearing off her dress, and I immediately covered my eyes with a cry of distress. "No!" I cried, my hand firmly clapped over my face, "It's too dark! What if there are angry fish in there?!"


"You said you've been here before," Pep replied nonchalantly. "Is it safe?"


Still covering my eyes, I stood up and pleaded, "Please don't go in."


"I'm hot," was her answer. "I won't go too far." I heard her wading into the water.


"I told Big Rob I'd be safe!" I exclaimed.


There was a large splash, and I was forced to remove my hand from my eyes to make sure she was still alive. It was dark; but I could see her head bobbing above the water. People never fucking listen to me. It pisses me off because almost always, the things I say are valid. I don't waste words on things that don't matter.


"You're a pussy, Nick," she called, treading water not too far out. "It's warm!"


I bit my lip and glanced behind me - for some reason, I was sure Big Rob was watching us with binoculars from far away, reporting every move to my mother. When I became conscious of my innermost fear, I realized that Pep had a point: I was being a pussy. God, this was pathetic. I couldn't let a girl upstage me.


With that mindset, I discarded my shoes, socks, pants and shirt beside Pep's clothing and ran into the water, diving into my own waves at the last minute. It was warm. And refreshing. When I emerged from underwater, shaking the drips out of my hair, Pep was cheering.


"There. Now don't you feel better?" she asked, somersaulting in the water before expecting my answer.


"If your leg gets bitten off by a shark, I'm not saving you," I warned her. She only laughed. I continued, "Seriously, you're on your own. This was your idea, and if anyone asks, you dragged me in despite my protests."


"Oh, they'll definitely believe that. I mean, I am so much bigger and stronger than you," she giggled.


I suppose I hadn't considered that. I'd be up to my knees in shit if my mother found out. To avoid replying, I dunked my head underwater again. When I re-emerged, Pep was floating on her back, staring at the sky.


"It really is amazing," she said softly.


I stared at her for a moment before swimming towards the beach, eager to feel the sand beneath my feet again. I waded to shore, contemplating using my shirt as a towel. It probably wouldn't help much. I just had to hope that no one noticed that I was sopping wet when we got back to the hotel.


Once I was dressed and Pep had climbed out of the water, I averted my eyes and busied myself by calling Big Rob for a pick-up.


"I like this place, Nick," Pep told me as soon as I'd shoved my phone into my (wet) pocket.


I nodded in agreement, taking one last look at the stars in the sky. Pep did the same.


"You think you'll retire in a place like this?" she asked innocently.


I snorted with laughter, shaking my head. "I don't really think about retiring."


"If you had to, would you consider this place?"


"I'd consider this place," I repeated. I was sure Rainie would appreciate living on a beach. Girls like beaches.


"You better invite me to visit," Pep said threateningly.


I chuckled again. "Well, where will you live?"


"Hmm. I don't know!" she replied, following me up the hill and towards the road. "Maybe I'll just follow you wherever you go."


"You can baby-sit my kids," I suggested. Pep likes kids; she'll always be one.


"I'm not baby-sitting your curly-haired loser kids," she retorted almost immediately. "I'll have my own kick-ass kids."


"I'll pay you," I offered.


"Forty bucks an hour."


"Fine, but no TV or video games."


"Fine."


We shook on it just as the car pulled up. Done and done.


It was one-thirty by the time we got back to the hotel. I sleepily walked Pep to her room down the hall, and I couldn't have been more excited to rest my eyes. It was disheartening that I had to be awake at eight to take Pep back to the airport before we departed for Georgia, but I could sleep on the bus if need be.


My nap in the car on the way back had left me groggy, and I barely recognized that Pep was hugging me until she squeezed.


"You're the greatest, Nick J," she said. As she pulled away, she smiled and admitted, "I think today was the best day of my life."


I returned the smile. "It better be. I've been awake for two fucking days and I embarrassed myself in front of Rainie and I risked getting eaten by a shark and/or getting bitched out by my mom if she found out."


Pep laughed. "Thank you."


"Only for you, twerp." With one hand in my pocket, I lightly tweaked her on the nose with my other. "I'll see you in the morning."


I'm lucky I was able to find my room. My vision was blurry and my eyes were fighting to roll back in my head. Christ. It took so much effort rip off my damp shirt and jeans that I considered falling asleep exactly as I was. It was only when I'd put on a fresh pair of boxers and stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom, brushing my teeth, that I realized I was alone in the room. Joe hadn't come back yet from wherever he was. With Camilla, possibly? Fuck it; it took too much effort to care. I could only hope that he hadn't been kidnapped and murdered, and if he had... well, fuck him, I needed my rest before I dealt with shit like that.


On my way out of the bathroom, there was a knock on the door. I groaned inwardly before opening it. It was Kevin.


Fuck my life.


Without waiting for an introduction, he pranced into the room and took a seat in the desk chair, followed a few moments later by our band-mates. Lord have mercy. They launched into a discussion of the night's events. I wondered why they couldn't have done this without me or Joe, but apparently at least two out of three brothers were required for group discussions at all times. (Side-note: strike forty-something for Joe. I desperately hoped that wherever he was, he was having less fun than me. It hardly seemed possible, but I clung onto anything I could).


I think I was so preoccupied with the shock of their demanding presence that Kevin and the band were already well into discussion by the time I announced loudly, "I'm tired."


Everyone stared at me as if I'd broken the solitude of a sacred séance.


"Quit being such a princess, Nick," Kevin said, jumping right back into conversation.


Accio nunchucks. I had some big-brother ass to kick.


I would've just laid on my bed and gone to sleep anyway if it wasn't for that rude comment. If I wasn't so wary of the lot of them playing a variety of pranks on me while I slept. But I knew those guys, and I knew they would torment me in my sleep, so I forbade myself from sitting down. To keep myself awake (though just barely), I stood against the wall.


It was three in the morning by the time those shitheads left. Joe still hadn't returned. I still didn't care. I crawled into bed and turned out the light, groaning as I closed my eyes and sunk immediately into a deep slumber.


It felt like I'd been out for about three minutes when there was a series of loud knocks on the door. I was going to ignore it, but Joe mumbled, "Stop... stop it... make it stop..." from the bed beside mine, and I realized that he had, at some point, come home. I had probably been asleep for longer than I thought. The curtains on the window were closed, so there was no telling what time it was. I rolled out of bed and turned on the lamp, checking the time.


Five-oh-seven a.m.


... what the fuck.


I stumbled towards the door, thinking this must be some kind of emergency. It had better be, because I was in no mood to play games. Upon standing, I had come to the realization that my body was sore as hell from playing football the day before. And my head hurt; maybe I was getting a bruise from where Joe threw the football at me. And my lip felt too big for my face. And my eyes were probably bloodshot because it pained me to open them. Yeah, yeah, ‘Princess Nick' me all you want - I was in motherfucking agony and I'd bitch about it if I wanted to.


When I saw little Pep standing in front of me at the door in her pajamas, I opened it a little wider and sniffled, holding the doorknob with one hand and rubbing my eyes with the other.


"Hi," she said quietly. And brightly. Far too brightly for five in the morning. "I know you're really tired, and I'm sorry for bothering you, but would you mind if I slept in here?"


I continued rubbing my right eye with a frown. I was so confused. I meant to ask her why, but it came out as, "Hum-uh-na." Articulate, Nick. Remember to articulate.


She took a step towards me, whispering, "Jesse and Rainie have been fighting for over an hour in the room beside mine."


Even while half-dead, this piqued my curiosity. "Abow wha'?" (About what?)


She shrugged. "It's not important, but they're really loud, and I can't sleep."


I took a deep breath, making sure she knew how annoyed I was, and then I held open the door for her. She stepped inside, making a point to remain as quiet as possible. I really wanted her to tell me what Mystery Girl and Dream Street boy had been fighting about, but I was so tired I couldn't focus. Instead, I shut and locked the door and made my way back to my bed. I sat there for a minute, trying to mathematically figure out how long I had been asleep (it was a simple two hours, but my brain wasn't working properly), and Pep began to drag a chair across the room.


"What are you doing?" I demanded in a hushed voice.


"Putting two chairs together so I can sleep," she whispered back.


I rolled my eyes (which took a lot of effort. Hopefully she appreciated the added dramatic effect). "Stop. Just... get in. I don't care." I motioned to the other side of the bed.


She raised an inquisitive eyebrow as she paused, considering. I didn't see what there was to consider; I hadn't given her an option. I gave her a look that read, all at once, ‘Are you a fucking moron? Get in before I kick you out. You're irritating me, and I have not the mental strength at the moment to contain my anger.' That did it.


Pep tiptoed to the other side of the bed and climbed in, her back to me. I waited until she had put her head on the pillow before I turned my back to her as well and flicked off the lamp. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her to elaborate on Jesse and Rainie's argument, but I swear, before I could spit out the words, I was out like a light once more.


You know what blows? When you're so over-tired, you can't sleep. The next time I opened my eyes and checked the clock, it was a quarter to seven. I tried so hard to fall back to sleep, but for some reason, it wasn't written in the stars, dammit.


I rolled over, thinking that switching positions might help, and I realized that I was face-to-face with Pep. Until then, I had completely forgotten that she was there. I had to stop and watch her for a second. It was weird; I'd never seen her so still. It's a strange thing to notice about someone - how motionless they are - but Pep's not normal, and it's easy to notice things like that about her.


Eyes closed, she asked softly, "Are you awake?"


"Mm," I grunted in reply.


With a sleepy smile, she opened her eyes halfway. "Sorry I woke you up last night."


"S'fine."


"How come you're up so early?"


"I dunno." I blinked a few times to adjust to the light. While she snuggled further into the blankets, I inquired, "What were Rainie and Jesse fighting about?"


She yawned, answering, "Nothing."


I growled under my breath. "You can't just barge into my room at five a.m. and not give me details."


"Since when are you such a gossip girl?" she returned.


I did sound like that fucking gossip girl. "Ex oh ex oh," I told her while keeping a straight face. "What's the scoop?"


Pep sighed. "You'll hate me if I tell you."


"I'll hate you if you don't." What could be so bad about it? There was trouble in paradise, and I couldn't be happier. The sooner they broke up, the sooner I could advance. And trust me, I was ready to advance. I had only been planning it out in my mind for one hundred and twelve days, for crying out loud.


"Fine," she said, throwing her cautions to the wind. "They weren't fighting, dummy, they were having really loud sex."


Oh.


Pep must have noticed the way my face fell the instant she said it, because she added in a whisper, "I'm sorry. I didn't want to tell you. You'd be happier not knowing."


That was for sure. Still, I couldn't lash out at Pep - I specifically asked her to tell me. God, this was heart-wrenching. How could someone who was in that disgustingly sweet boy band attract someone as beautiful and as clever and as wonderful as Rainie? It didn't make sense. Was he even that attractive? I couldn't say; I'm entirely heterosexual.


"Is Jesse really hot?" I asked with woe, my cheek smashed into my pillow.


Pep appeared torn. On one hand, she was in love with that douchecock, and on the other, she didn't want to send me into a spiral of depression.


"He's okay," she answered carefully. "Rainie probably gets along with him really well. Things are never boring with him because he's always travelling, and he's always working on different projects, and he's recognized everywhere he goes-"


"So am I!" I interrupted. Jeez, did she think she was talking to some Joe Schmoe?


"They're around the same age," she pointed out. "He can legally purchase alcohol, and cigarettes, and porn."


"Of course," I said sarcastically. "It's the porn that got her, isn't it?"


Pep rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."


I pouted.


She took another breath before smiling sympathetically. "I know you like this girl, but... but maybe if you spent time apart from her and started dating other girls, this infatuation would fade. And maybe she's not the one for you, anyway. There are tons of girls who want to date you. There are girls who have dated you and who would date you again in a heartbeat."


"Can I have one conversation about my love life without someone bringing up Miley?" I demanded.


"I'm sorry," she giggled. "But it's true. You're a catch, Nick J, like you said. So... just let someone else catch you."


Fucking Pep and her stupid advice. This was just making me feel worse.


"What if you gave that Kendall girl a chance?" she suggested.


"What if I shot myself in the face?" I deadpanned.


"I'm serious."


"She lives in New York," I said sulkily. When I realized what I was saying, I added quickly, "And she's fucking insane."


"Well... I don't know. You can get anyone you want, Nick," Pep finished with a sigh. She held my gaze as she asked, "Why do you want Rainie?"


Pep's eyes are blue, and they scare me sometimes. In fact, all colourful eyes kind of give me the creeps. I like brown eyes because you can't see through them. Blue-eyed people look possessed, and when you find yourself in bed beside one, it's difficult to focus on the conversation at hand because you're afraid they might be trying to rip out your soul or something else demon-like.


"Nick?" Pep prodded gently.


Before I could respond, Joe mumbled in his sleep, "Quiet, Pip."


Thankfully, I didn't have to answer the question, because there was a knock on the door. Pep sprung out of bed to answer it, and it was like she'd never even slept at all. While she bounded towards the door, I rolled over to check the time - seven a.m. My wake-up call wasn't scheduled until eight, which meant that the only person who would knock on my door at seven a.m. would be -


"Hey, Rainie!" Pep exclaimed excitedly.


Joe groaned, shoving a pillow over his head to muffle the noise, and my eyes widened in panic. Shit. Usually I was up by this time and Rainie and I went for breakfast together. In my sleepy, brain-malfunctioning state, I had completely forgotten.


I don't know what I was thinking, but I felt that I should at least pretend that I had remembered, so I sprung out of bed and hopped in view of the door to give her a wave. I tried to seem as awake as possible as I greeted her with a, "Hey."


Rainie, breathtaking as always, looked utterly confused. It took a few moments before I figured out why. First of all, the last time I spoke to Rainie, I heavily implied that I was madly in love with her. Secondly, Pep answered the door in her pajamas, and I appeared behind her in nothing but my boxers. That was so, so unfortunate for me.


"Pep slept here last night," I said quickly. It was better to be honest. Or was it? Shit, probably not. "In the chair," I added. "She slept in the chair."


Pep raised a disapproving eyebrow, but she didn't correct me (thank God).


Rainie shrugged. "That's... cool. Sorry for bothering you."


"No!" I cried. I didn't want to let her get away; I didn't want her to retreat to her room and have loud sex with Jesse again. I had to keep her away from him. "If you give me - us - five minutes, we'll go for breakfast."


Damn that little proton, always an inconvenience.


"If you want to," Rainie shrugged again, like it didn't matter to her.


Well, it mattered to me. "Yep," I affirmed. "I'll - we'll - meet you at the elevator in five."


She was probably building a wall to protect herself because she thought I was a playboy. No, Rainie, no!


Before Pep left to go to her room to change, she eyed me and said dryly, "Gee, that was mighty nice of you to include me, Nick."


"Thank me later," I said hurriedly. I was about to close the door on her when I noticed just how unimpressed she was. "Oh, come on," I breathed. "You'd do the same to me if that was fuckin' Lance coming to call, wouldn't you?"


Then again, if Lance was gay like I suspected, Pep would again be a third wheel. Heh. Sucks to be her.


"You're an asshole," she replied. She turned on her heel and began to march towards her room.


I stuck my head out the door and called after her, "You're still invited! Okay - fine, walk away, but be ready in five minutes!"


It rightly pissed me off to see Joe snoozing in bed as I hurried around him, preparing myself. I snapped my fingers in his face, and when I was certain he was sound asleep, I opened his suitcase and searched through the pockets on the side for eye-drops. I was pretty sure he used them for when his eyes got dry or something from the contact lenses... alas, I couldn't find any. Dammit. I wanted my bloodshot eyes to go away. What kind of girl falls in love with a guy who looks perpetually stoned at seven in the morning?


Ugh. In any case, I ran a washcloth over my face and slipped on my favourite pair of jeans for good luck. God knows I needed it.


Jesus. Loud sex? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? As a virgin (fuck), I wouldn't know. On one hand, loud sex could mean they were enjoying themselves immensely. I mean, that's the kind of vibe they give off in pornos and stuff. Not that I watch porn; I don't have time. Also I wouldn't know where to find it. I would try Google; you can find anything there.


Besides the point. Maybe the sex was loud because they weren't enjoying it. That was possible, right? "Stop! Stop, you bastard! Take it out!"


... shit. Loud sex definitely means one thing only.


Maybe Pep was wrong and they weren't having loud sex at all. Maybe they were grunting and groaning and crying out in ecstasy because they were rearranging furniture or something. Cling, Nick, cling desperately to any shred of hope you can find.


When Pep answered her door, freshly dressed and ready to face the day as always, I immediately asked her in a low voice, "So what exactly were they saying?"


"Hmm? Who?" she inquired as she joined me in the hallway.


"You know... J-Mac and Mystery Girl," I replied, shielding my mouth so that even if Rainie were standing in front of me, she couldn't read my lips.


Pep threw up her hands in horror. "No! I'm not going to discuss that!"


"Please?" I requested in a small voice.


"No. Nick, that's disgusting. Get a life."


"I'll buy you breakfast," I offered.


She scoffed. "You were buying me breakfast anyways."


"I'll buy you one of those lame hairstyle magazines to read on the plane home," I tried again.


She rolled her eyes. "You know, Nick, not all girls are the same."


I shrugged. "Yeah, I know," I answered matter-of-factly. "If all girls were the same, I wouldn't have to ask you what went down last night, because I'd know the sounds she made due to my unintentional overhearing of Joe and Camilla dry-humping through the-"


"Sick!" Pep interrupted, sticking out her tongue in distance. Lowering her voice, she divulged, "Uh... I don't know. He said her name a lot. And then she said ‘yes'."


I scrunched up my nose in distaste. "Was that all?"


"Right there."


"Right there - that was all?"


"Right there - that's what she said."


"Huh?"


"Like... ‘oh, yes! Right there!'" Pep cried.


With the kind of shitty luck the world hands me daily on a silver platter, I hardly even feel it's necessary to mention that Rainie materialized out of nowhere at that moment in time.


This was the second time I had ever experienced what it was like to ‘die inside'. On the outside, however, I laughed nervously and pushed the button on the elevator.


"Right there!" I repeated frantically. "Right there... there's the button."


Rainie smiled cynically, like she knew there was something we were trying to hide. I didn't want her thinking that. I didn't want her thinking Pep and I shared any sort of bond at all. It would have been so much easier if my best friend was a guy. Then again, Rainie might start to assume I swung in that direction, and that would screw me over even more.


As soon as we walked into the elevator and I glimpsed myself in a mirror, I realized that I had forgotten to take care of one very crucial aspect of my appearance. I had been so focused on ridding my eyes of their redness that I had completely forgotten to tame my hair. Obviously the one morning I didn't have time to shower just happened to be the morning that I had massive bed-head.


Perfect. Thanks, world. You win this round.


Round two: breakfast.


It went surprisingly well at first. Apparently Pep and Rainie had bonded at the concert the previous night (and to be honest, I wasn't sure if I liked that idea), and they spoke comfortably with one another. They proceeded to laugh at me as I received my daily phone call from Kendall, who, as usual, asked me what I was wearing. The worst part was probably when she called me ‘baby doll' upon ending the conversation. Really, Kendall... if you had even a sliver of a chance before, you just destroyed it all.


Within ten minutes, however, I realized something. If Pep was mad at me for almost excluding her earlier, she was most certainly getting her revenge. While I spent the majority of my efforts containing my clown-hair and struggling to keep my tired head from crashing into my bowl of cereal, Pep carried on an amiable conversation with Rainie. Once I had propped my head on my hands and rubbed what had to have been the last bit of sleep out of my eyes, I observed the two of them as they interacted.


Pep made Rainie smile. Even if she wasn't saying anything funny, Rainie had this hint of a grin on her face, probably because Pep is just one huge, blinding ray of light (what's that called? A photon? Figures - the proton is a photon), and you can't help but love her. Ugh, I was jealous of my own best friend for her ability to woo the object of my affection better than I could.


Then again, maybe Rainie was more interested in Pep because Pep is a girl. Day by day, I worried more and more that Rainie wasn't into guys. We had eaten breakfast together every day for a week, and even though I was sure she was playing some sort of cruel, taunting game with me, I wasn't entirely convinced that she was interested. I still held firmly to the notion that just because she had loud sex with Jesse, it didn't mean she enjoyed it. I've read tons of yahoo! articles claiming that girls often fake it (which, by the way, is really insulting and adds to the already large amount of stress and fear that accompanies losing your virginity).


"So he told me to lay down on the beach and then he laid beside me and told me to uncover my eyes, and when I opened them all I could see was a sky full of stars. It was so cool." While she was speaking, Pep casually took a slice of toast and jam from my plate and started eating. I glared at her. Fuckin' breakfast fiend.


Rainie placed a hand over her heart and glanced at me. "That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard."


I blinked, forcing myself to join reality once more. Wait, what were we talking about?


"Then we went swimming in the ocean. Nick was scared, but I made him," Pep said proudly, sipping on her orange juice and licking her thumb clean of jam.


Oh, fuck. Here I was drifting off to dreamland like Dopey the dwarf while Pep told Rainie everything right under my nose. That conniving little elf!


"Nick," Rainie gushed, "I had no idea you were a romantic. You hide it well."


"Whoa," I said immediately, unable to let this go without an intervention. "Let's not jump to conclusions, here."


Though she smiled, Pep suddenly looked uncomfortable beside me. Bitch. How could she knowingly do this to me?


"I'm not! I think it's cute," Rainie announced.


I loathe that word with the fire of a thousand suns.


"No," I replied. I didn't really have any more to say than that, but I felt it was necessary to elaborate. "It was nothing. The concert was over, we had nothing better to do... I was hot, anyway. I wanted to go swimming."


Okay, so I had the beach thing planned out for a while. Okay, so I lied to Rainie. But come on - work with me here. Rainie thought this was romantic (barf), which couldn't be further from the truth. The last thing I wanted was for her to think I had a thing for Pep. That I was interested in anyone besides her. Was it possible to make it clearer?


"Hey Pep, tell us about your boyfriend," I added quickly (just to be safe).


I don't know why Pep looked so pissed off, but she purposely took a large bite of my toast and glowered at me while chewing. What? Girls love talking about their boyfriends. They're all over that shit. It's like a competition to see who can snag the best one. It's pathetic, but if Rainie and Pep were about to get into some sort of cat fight over their men... well, that would be totally hot, plus it would detract attention from me, which was perfect. In conclusion, I don't at all regret angering Pep.


All in all, it was a very strategic move on my part. I was disappointed that Pep only shrugged and told us the basic facts of Lance (leaving out his sexual orientation - hmm, interesting. Hiding something, Pep?) I certainly didn't understand why she glared at me again when she had finished, as if it was my fault that she was dating this flamboyant schlep.


Fuck that. If anything, I should be furious with her for giving Rainie the wrong idea about us. It may have been her birthday party, but it didn't mean she could cry if she wanted to. Lesley Gore is a whiny bitch, and I'm sorry Pep, her words are inapplicable to real-life circumstances. So cut the shit, kid, and make me look good in front of my crush like a best friend is supposed to.


(In retrospect, I probably should have said this out loud - maybe it was best to get these kinds of things out on the table right away to avoid future conflicts).


By the time we made our way back to the rooms, it was almost time to take Pep to the airport. Surprisingly (and by ‘surprisingly' I mean ‘unfortunately'), Jesse was awake. My stomach clenched as I witnessed a very lovey-dovey exchange between him and Rainie.


I felt a tug from Pep, who had forgiven me already for whatever I had done wrong (I love that. Not having to apologize, never having to feel guilty about anything because her anger dissolves like salt in water. It's fantastic). It was a good thing we were on decent terms again, because if she hadn't pulled me around the corner, I probably would have stood there staring at the wonder-couple until the end of time.


"What exactly are you trying to do, Nick?" Pep questioned, hands placed authoritatively on her hips.


"What do you mean?"


I hate when people aren't specific when asking questions. They just assume that I've been paying attention to them all along and that I can easily make grand, be-all and end-all connections at the drop of a hat. Some people think they're so great that everyone hangs off their every word; never missing a beat. It drives me crazy. A person should consider themselves lucky if I listen to a quarter of what they say.


"You know what I mean," she replied, evidently unimpressed.


Again with the conceit. How the hell was I supposed to know what she meant when I had been ogling Rainie's cleavage for the past hour at the breakfast table?


I shrugged. I really had no clue. "Right now, I'm trying to get to my room to pack before we-"


"I mean what are you trying to do with Rainie?" she stressed, enunciating as though I was incapable of understanding otherwise. "Are you trying to befriend her? Are you trying to break up her and Jesse? Are you... what, Nick?"


I paused for a moment to weigh-in my response. "I'm not trying to break up her and Jesse. She can do that on her own after she realizes how desirable I am."


Pep laughed dryly (so unlike her). "That's what you're trying to do? You're trying to make yourself seem like the perfect guy for her?"


"Ouch. You say it like it's a challenge," I pointed out with a frown.


Pep sighed. "Really? Like... you really like this girl that much?!"


I glared at her. Duh.


Taking another deep breath, she glanced around the corner before swinging back, presumably to check if Rainie and Jesse were still there.


Before I knew it, she pressed her back to the wall and began moaning, "Oh! Oh, yes... harder, Nick... harder!"


Jesus effing Christ.


My jaw dropped to the ground and my eyes practically bulged out of their sockets as I witnessed the display in front of me. Before I could put an end to it, she - out of nowhere - used her knee to nudge me sharply in the groin.


I doubled over with a low grunt, and she continued to moan, "You like that? Oh... Nick J!"


Though getting kicked in the nuts is excruciating, I was able to channel all my pain into slapping a hand over her mouth, ending it all. When I heard footsteps approaching, I shoved both Pep and myself into the small slot of space beside the vending machine to conceal us, my hand firmly covering her mouth.


Damn you, proton from hell.


I kept her silent for over thirty seconds, shielding my already-bruised private area in case she decided to go nuts (literally) again. When I was finally convinced that everyone in the hallway had retreated to their rooms, I released Pep from captivity. It's hard to describe my expression at that point in time, and not having been able to see it in a mirror, I can only guess that it was by far the most incredulous, horrified ice-glare I have ever dished out to anyone, my brothers included. And that's saying something.


Pep assessed my reaction for a few moments before bursting into laughter as I fell against the wall, finally able to nurse the pain in my groin.


Pep is like Dobby, I decided then. Small, over-energized, and a huge shit-disturber. I'll admit that the little guy grew on me eventually, but fuck, he caused a whole lot of problems for Harry in the beginning. At least Dobby beat himself with lamps and shit after he made a mistake.


"You said you wanted to appear desirable," was her excuse. "I was just trying to help."


She really couldn't see the harm in what she'd done. Was it even worth explaining it to her?


Probably not. As I straightened my back, I instructed, "Next time, I'd appreciate some communication of your ideas before their execution."


She rolled her gleaming eyes. "Oh, fine," she grumbled good-naturedly. "You're no fun, Nick."


"You're enough fun for the both of us," I returned gruffly.


She giggled, skipping alongside me as I took long strides to my room. (I was cautious of running into Rainie after that humiliating display).


"Hey, can I get a picture with you before you leave?" Pep asked.


I stopped at her door to drop her off. "Yes," I agreed. "Pack your stuff first. We're meeting Big Rob in the lobby at 8:15."


"Aye aye," Pep saluted me, and I watched her walk into her room while shaking my head. She was undeniably hopeless, that was for sure.


We were early to the lobby, so Pep put her bags down and we chilled on the couch to wait for Big Rob. She took a digital camera out of her backpack. While she turned it on and dusted off the lens, I rested my arm on the back of the sofa and waited. She snapped a few of pictures of us both - she didn't like the first couple because I wasn't "smiling".


What's the deal with everyone wanting me to smile, anyway? I smile when I'm happy; I don't much like to force it even though my dad always tells us to ‘grin and bear it'. In fact, now that I think about it, it's probably his fault that Kendall has fallen so deeply in love with me. If I hadn't taken his damn advice, she might have taken the hint from me right off the bat. Shit. Apparently Pep's not the only one who blows when it comes to advice. Thanks a bunch, Dad.


"Want to see the pictures I took last night?" she offered while we lazed on the couch.


"Yeah."


She held the camera in front of us and began to flip through the slides. There were pictures of her and Rainie and Camilla in the crowd, pictures of the enormous crowd itself, and pictures of my brothers and I onstage. There were good ones, actually. I hadn't realized the girls had such prime seating; Pep managed to get a couple of close-ups of me.


"That one's my favourite," she said quietly, pausing on a zoomed shot of me at the piano, smiling widely - I couldn't be sure why I appeared so entertained; it may have been because Kevin had just done so many twirls that his legs had gotten horribly tangled in the cord connected to the amp. Yes, that was probably it. It was odd that Pep chose to take a picture of me instead of Kevin and his immense stupidity.


The elevator bell rang, and I looked up, expecting to see Big Rob. Instead, it was Rainie carting her own luggage through the lobby. I gawked at her beautiful figure for a moment or two, and when she finally looked my way, I self-consciously pulled my arm from around Pep's shoulders and kept it to myself. Woops. Wouldn't want her getting the wrong idea.


Rainie, however, barely seemed to notice. She waved goodbye to us before exiting the hotel, car keys in hand. Before she left, she wished Pep and her family good luck on the new baby. (Ha. That was actually funny).


"All ready?" Big Rob asked as he met us at the doors.


"Yep!" Pep exclaimed brightly, swinging her small duffel bag back and forth as she followed him to the car.


I expected her to babble on and on in the car, but she remained mostly silent. It was only while we were lingering near security at the airport that I chose to bring this to her attention.


"Anything wrong?" I asked.


"Hmm? No," she answered stiffly.


"You're being too quiet," I remarked with a frown.


She sighed. "I just think you're a jerk sometimes."


Jeez. You fly a girl across the country to see you, give her a cake, take her to a concert and let her sleep in your bed, and she calls you a jerk. Someone tell me I'm not the only one who thinks this is fucked.


"You're so concerned with how Rainie perceives you. It's lame, Nick. Why can't you just forget about her? Maybe she's not worth it."


"Maybe she is," I responded defensively.


"Maybe she's not," Pep reiterated. "I just... I'd hate to see you waste your time on someone who will never love you back."


My jaw tensed at her words. I replied coldly, "I don't think it's a lost cause."


Pep shrugged helplessly. "Fine."


She was mad again. I read on yahoo! that girls get moody when they experience PMS. Damn hormones. (Side-note: Pep told me once that on the first day of class, her Biology teacher asked, "How do you make a hormone? Slap the bitch!") Pep's been so juvenile until now. Maybe she finally went through puberty or something. It would be a shame; I much preferred her childishness.


Big Rob nudged Pep on the shoulder. "You should get going, kid."


She nodded in agreement, clutching the straps of her backpack. "Sure. Thanks for the drive, Rob."


When Pep turned to face me, I could tell by the look on her face that her smile was semi-forced.


"See you in August, hopefully," she said with a sigh.


"Yeah. Definitely," I agreed. I hate having to be the chipper one. That's her job.


As if it were some sort of dreaded obligation, she wrapped me in a hug, which I returned with a confused frown.


"Thank you so much for everything." There. That, I could tell, was genuine.


"Call me when you land," I ordered.


She nodded. "I will. Have fun without me."


If only to cheer her up, I cracked a grin and promised, "I won't."


It earned a smile from her, and I was satisfied. She gave me a wave before plunking her backpack on the tray and heading through security.


"You know, kid," Big Rob said to me after she was out of sight, "The redhead had it right."


I scowled in his direction. Hired and paid to serve and protect me, yet obviously his allegiance was elsewhere. Fuckin' Severus.


(Snape. You got that, right?)

Chapter End Notes:

In case you were wondering... Lesley Gore . Ha, funny story, Mondays are the worst days of my life because I'm always on the run, so in passing I was complaining to my housemate about how depressing my life was this past Monday. Anyway, finally when I got home on Monday night, I was just chilling in my bedroom trying to finish this chapter, and my housemate knocks on my door and walks in and I'm listening to this song with a frown on my face. Alone. In my bedroom. She told me it was the most depressing thing she'd ever seen.


Anyways, I'm going home this weekend to try to get some work done, and I'm not bringing my laptop home because I know I'd just write. Next update in a few days (it shouldn't take THAT long to get it out because it'll be relatively short), and wish me luck on being productive! I'm crossing my fingers. It's now or never. And by now I mean succeed, and by never I mean fail.


I love you all. I can't believe how many of you like Nick in this story, and how many of you like this story in general... sometimes I just stare at my computer screen and wonder if I'm going crazy. True story. 

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