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Day Two Hundred and Seventy-Nine.

"What's a good word that rhymes with mystery?" I asked, raising my head for a moment to look at Pep for the answer.

"History," she replied easily.

I frowned. "Cliché. Think of another one."

We were in my basement, but instead of playing air hockey, we were doing homework. Pep brought her books over to keep me company, which was good of her, because she had two weeks off for Christmas break and no real need to do homework. I didn't think it was fair that I had to do homework, either, but my mother was upset that I had been slacking lately in that department. What can I say? Homework is very un-rock-star-ish. I know that my family-friendly, clean image projects a ‘go to school and work hard' ethic, but that's bullshit. Unless you're good at it, school sucks.

And unfortunately, Algebra hates me.

"What does a rhyme for ‘mystery' have to do with solving for x?" Pep questioned slyly.

She was just being a little shit, because she knew the answer. See, I told my mother I would be doing homework to please her because I'm an excellent son, but what I was really doing was song-writing in my Algebra notebook. Sometimes inspiration hits at random times and you have to take advantage of it. (Ironically, inspiration hit me hardest whenever I was forced to do something I didn't want to do and needed a way out of it). I started off doing math problems, but I got stuck on the second one and my mind drifted to Rainie. Then I wrote a song about her (hence the need for a rhyme for ‘mystery').

Damn it. I couldn't think of a good way to finish the verse, and Pep erratically drumming two pencils on the coffee table wasn't making it easy to think. With a groan, I dragged my guitar towards me. I wasn't going to let writer's block entice me to continue my homework.

I began to play the tune of ‘Lovebug', and Pep tried to drum along. (She failed, by the way).

"Pepper... why are you drumming your pencils..." I sang along to the chorus. "You're driving me crazy, I hate you... stoooop it right now."

(Haven't I already mentioned that I excel when it comes to improvisation?)

Pep giggled, throwing one of her pencils at my head. Fabulous.

"I said stoooop it... will you quit moving for a miiiinute... if I don't finish my schoolwork, I'll tell my mooooom it's your fault."

"And then I'll never be allowed over again and you'll have no more excuses," Pep finished, failing to sing along.

I put the guitar down and smiled, realizing that she had a point. "Shit. Hey, you know anything about Algebra?"

"I know everything about Algebra."

"Get over here and help me, then."

Pep scooted over and examined my textbook, humming all the while. Suddenly, she looked at me with interest.

"Hey, you know how Joe holds your foot and you do those flips on stage?"

I didn't see what this had to do with Algebra, but I wasn't interested in mathematics anyways. "Yep."

"I want to try."

I scoffed. "I would never trust you to hold my foot. You couldn't support its immense weight, tiny."

"No, no," she laughed. "I want to do the flip."

"That trick requires a lot of skill."

"You told me you and Joe have been doing it since you were eight."

"Well, whatever," I mumbled. "I was an acrobatic eight-year-old."

Pep closed my textbook and I let out a strangled cry - I had no idea how I was going to find that page again - and she stood up, tugging on my wrist. "Come on. I'm good at this. I can do a flip with my hands."

And then, before I could protest, she threw her body upside down and supported herself with her hands, her feet up in the air and resting on the wall behind her.  

"Come on!"

"No," I whined. "What if you fall, crack your head open and die? Then my mom will know we weren't doing homework."

Pep let her feet fall to the ground. "I'm touched that that's your main concern. Don't be a pussy, Nick J."

I hated when she called me that. Being called a pussy by a guy is demeaning enough, but there's a sense of camaraderie that's implied with the word. Being called a pussy by a girl... well, that's when you know you suck.

"Fine," I consented, using the coffee table to push myself into a standing position. "You're lucky these are carpeted floors."

I led her to an open space near the air hockey table, and she bounced up and down in excitement, her scary blue eyes alight.

"You have to go really fast," I told her very seriously. "There's no fucking around when you're up in the air. You spin around so you don't fall on your back."

"Got it."

She held her foot up. I lightly grabbed a hold of her outstretched ankle.

"Now, the trick is-"

"Just count to three, Nick."

It was my turn to roll my eyes, silently praying that she knew what she was doing. I had to admit that the proton never runs out of positive energy, but sometimes she overestimates her abilities. Nonetheless, I counted to three, gave her a little kick-start, and she did it, just like she said she would - even if she did lose her balance near the end and fell onto hands and knees.

I shook my head at her, doing my best to appear thoroughly unimpressed even though inside, I was a little impressed. She grinned at me, and I remarked, "Sometimes I wonder what would happen if someone locked you in a small room, and you had no human contact, and couldn't jump around."

"That's a weird thing to wonder." She sprang up from the floor with zest.

I leaned against the wall and watched her. "Where does all this energy come from?" I asked. "How is it possible that you're always in a good mood?"

"Not always," she laughed.

"Name one time." (Side-note: I hoped she wouldn't mention the time that Shep died, because I immediately thought of it and realized that I was already mistaken).

She pondered it for a moment, and then responded, "Lance broke up with me the other day."

"What?" I demanded. Pausing, I contemplated which question I wanted to ask next. I decided on, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I'm telling you now."

"How come you didn't tell me earlier this week?"

She shrugged. "There were more important things to talk about."

I released a genuine laugh at this. "Like how much I hate Algebra? And how much you annoy me when you tap pencils in irregular patterns against the table?"

Pep laughed along. "Well, yeah!"

Following her back to the coffee table, I asked thoughtfully, "You didn't really like that guy, did you?" I knew I didn't like him, and I always assumed that Pep and I had similar tastes in people. She was simply less vocal about it and better at disguising her true feelings.

"Obviously I did. I dated him. Twice." Resuming her position at the coffee table, Pep reached for her pencil and sat cross-legged in front of her books.

I chose to stand, because I felt I was more intimidating that way and I'd get the answers I was looking for. "How come he broke up with you? Is he actually gay? I won't laugh, I promise." Pep glared at me. I cracked a smile and admitted, "I'll laugh a little bit."

"He just did."

"Without giving you a reason? What a tool. I knew that guy was a dick," I muttered. "You know, Carter is useless with this stuff. I think I need to take on the older brother position in your life. From now on, you need to get all your potential boyfriends pre-approved by me."

As I took my seat, Pep tugged on one of my curls and watched it spring back into position. "Aren't you sweet."

I scowled. "This isn't about being sweet. This is about you choosing a decent guy who doesn't piss me off when I have to be a third wheel."

"Why don't you just not be a third wheel?" Pep suggested.

"If you keep inviting guys up on the roof when I'm about to come over, it's bound to happen at least once or twice, Pepper," I told her good-naturedly.

"Well, thanks for the offer, knight in shining armour," she laughed, "but I can take care of myself."

"Obviously not. Lance sucked." (I fought so hard to resist the urge to add a phallic-like word onto the end of my sentence).

"You met him once."

"He broke up with you for no reason. That sucks."

Pep shook her head. "It wasn't for no reason. It's just not important. No big deal. I'm over it."

I arched a sceptical eyebrow. For someone who had been semi-involved with this guy on-and-off for six months, she was surprisingly nonchalant and indifferent. It was common of Pep to be bright and sunny no matter how the world attempted to bring her down, but she had feelings. I'd seen them.

"Tell me," I said quietly. She couldn't just build up a story and then leave me hanging in suspense. It was unfair. It was like a girl getting you really excited (in the pants) and then walking away without helping you deal with it. (Maybe it wasn't exactly like that, but it was still unfair).

Smiling in embarrassment, she relented. "He told me he didn't think I was into it, and he thought I was into someone else."

The weird thing was that I could count on one hand the number of times I'd seen Pep embarrassed, and this didn't seem like something worthy of her flushed cheeks. It irked me. The way she was looking at me made me think that maybe...

No. It was just a fleeting speculation. It was stupid.

"Or was he into someone else...?" I suggested to break the eerie silence, pointing to my chest. Lance struck me as a creepy guy, and he was a bit too interested in me when we met to be straight. Also, I'm sure I've already mentioned his hairless calves. Come on.

Pep's smile turned from embarrassed to annoyed, and she shoved me away from her with a chuckle. "You'll never let go of that, will you?"

"It's not like I'm holding a grudge," I argued. "Lance can be as gay as he wants. He can frolic around in meadows with bunnies and butterflies for all I care. In fact, I encourage it, as long as he's not coming onto me."

Pep tightened her grip on the pencil, attempting to focus on her work.

But I still didn't feel like working, and I was afraid of another silence, so I commented, "You cleaned your room for Lance."

She shrugged, eyes on the table. "So?"

"Did you always clean it when he came over?"

"I wanted it to look nice," she replied indifferently.

"And that's how I know that you and guys like Lance aren't compatible," I concluded smugly, proving that I was the perfect advisor for Pep's future relationships. I knew her.

Pep laughed. "What does cleaning for guests have anything to do with romantic compatibility?"

It made perfect sense to me, but it was obvious that Pep and I were not on the same wavelength. "I don't know. When I think of the guy you'll end up with, he's gonna have to deal with the sporadic states of your bedroom. Clean, messy, in-between, half and half... you won't clean it for him; you'll just clean it randomly like you always do. Because that's who you are."

Taking a moment to stare at her work, Pep eventually locked eyes with me and grinned.

"What?" I asked. She was looking at me strangely again. It made me uncomfortable.

Apparently I'd done a decent job explaining myself, because she said calmly, "You make me smile."

So it was settled. If I couldn't manage to get myself into a relationship, I could at least give Pep a hand in the future.

"If you really are into someone else like Lance said, then just know that I insist on pre-approving him before you move to the next level," I told her. When she didn't answer, I jokingly added, "If I can't meet him personally, you can give me his yearbook picture and a list of his basic likes and dislikes, as well as a confirmed and signed note of his sexual orientation."

"Oh, he's straight," Pep mumbled distractedly, concentrating on her schoolwork.

I grimaced at the verbal confirmation that Pep had a new crush. It only served to solidify and remind me that I was single and, judging by my recent humiliating attempt to play the matchmaker in Jesse's love life, my love life wasn't going anywhere soon.

Unless... unless I made one last plea. One final attempt to sway Rainie in my direction. One last chance to convince her that we were meant to be. I'd lay my heart on the line and sacrifice my dignity to do it because it was for the greater good.

Yes. That was what I'd do.

For once, I was putting all of yahoo!'s advice aside. It was a hard decision to make, especially since yahoo! had been my most loyal advisor since I discovered how to use the Internet in 2002. But I had tried everything else, and this was my last resort.

The plan was as follows: Call Rainie. Act humble and grievous. Tell her how much I adored her. Remind her of all the great times we'd had over the summer, particularly at breakfast time. If necessary, beg her to break up with Jesse.

"Hello?"

My heart skipped a beat upon hearing her voice. "Rainie," I said quietly. It had been a long time since we'd had a conversation. A real conversation that didn't end in a confusing kiss.

"Nick? ... oh boy," she breathed, sounding less than amused.

My pride was already lagging behind me in the mud, so it wasn't exactly the slap in the face it would have been otherwise.

"I need to talk to you," I told her evenly.

I cursed myself for not having written out some sort of script to follow. The sound of her voice was intoxicating, making it hard to remember what I'd planned to say.

"Uh..." she replied shakily, sounding torn. Finally, she sighed. "Can you make it quick? My mom's on the other line."

"Oh." I paused. Technically, shouting out ‘Break up with Jesse, dammit!' would only take a couple of seconds... but I wanted to delve into the issue a little further, which would require time and much contemplation on my part. "Can I call you back later?" I suggested.

"Gah," she said in annoyance, "I need to go. Just... just come over."

It was lucky I was standing in the middle of my bedroom, because if I was standing next to a wall, the force at which my head snapped back would have cracked open my skull; I'm positive.

"Come over?" I repeated, simply to make sure I was hearing things correctly.

"Yes!" she replied exasperatedly. "Okay, I have to go."

She didn't even bother saying goodbye. She just hung up.

Slowly, I dragged my phone from my ear and stared at it, utterly perplexed. Really? Was she being serious? Because I knew exactly where her apartment building was located, and I could easily follow up on her orders and pay her a visit...

Sweet.

I was racing down the stairs and throwing on my shoes at the speed of light as Kevin called from the living room, "Hey Nick! You wanna play those songs for us you've been writing?"

"Gotta go!" I told him impatiently, throwing open the closet doors and whipping jackets aside in search for mine. I couldn't find it. Fine, no jacket then.

"What? But we were in the middle of something!" Joe cried. After Pep had left in the early afternoon, I'd put aside my homework and sat down with my brothers to get some work done.

"Be back later! Important!"

"But you said you wanted us to check out your songs!"

I didn't have time for this ridiculousness. "They were shit, okay? They sucked. Write a good one while I'm gone."

Before I flew out the door, the last words I heard were Kevin's, exclaiming in confusion, "What is wrong with you?"

When I buzzed Rainie's condo from inside the glass doors of the building, I don't know what I was expecting - but it wasn't the response I'd received, that was for sure.

"Who is it?" droned the voice. I couldn't tell if it belonged to Rainie or Lesbian Friend.

"Nick. I know you said to-"

"Come up."

And then the electronic door was unlocked for me. I still didn't know who I had been speaking to, but I was becoming annoyed that everything I said was interrupted. Unless Rainie interrupted my ‘break up with Jesse' speech with an, ‘Okay! Sure thing!', then I couldn't foresee a successful visit.

As I strolled out of the elevator and down the hallway on Rainie's floor, my nerves started to get to me. I'd always thought of myself as a bold kind of guy (like, if I was a bag of chips, I would be ‘bold bbq'... or maybe ‘cool ranch', but no, in this situation, I was ‘bold bbq'), but this seemed a little too bold. Maybe I was crossing the line. But what line? What was the line between Rainie and I? We were friends once, but we never talked or texted anymore. We made out twice, but we weren't ‘more-than-friends' or a couple.

What also scared me was that I was about to have a conversation with Rainie in which her state of mind couldn't be manipulated in my favour. She was going to be sober, and she wasn't going to be in tears over an altercation with Jesse. She was simply going to be Rainie, and I was nervous about that.

Furthermore - should I have dressed up for this? I left in such a hurry that I was wearing dark jeans and a gray zip-up hoodie. I looked too ordinary and very un-Jonas. Plus, in six days it was Christmas, and I doubted I looked remotely joyous or festive. I didn't even get Rainie a gift, no matter how small. I should have brought her a poinsettia or some other giant, obnoxious seasonal decor.

Fuck.

There was always the option of turning around, driving home, changing, picking up a Christmas flower, and then coming back and trying again. The problem was that Joe and Kevin would laugh at me and it gave me too much time to back out and change the plan. And then when I told Pep about it later on, she'd have a real reason to call me a pussy. I simply couldn't allow it.

Instead, I took a deep breath, patted my hair to make sure the curls were in place, and knocked on the door I knew to be Rainie's.

Lesbian Friend answered, looking me up and down with a sceptical eye. I smiled collectedly and offered her a friendly ‘hello', which wasn't returned. Eventually, she stood aside and let me pass.

If I was a snotty, elitist teenaged girl, this would have been the moment I would have busted out the ‘bitch, PLEASE.' Lesbian Friend was probably the reason Rainie's initials were IB (for ice bitch, of course). Lesbian Friend was destroying her.

"Rainie," she called, leaving me standing in the entrance as she disappeared around the corner. "The kid's here."

Fuck these people. Since when is five years a large age gap? The world is five billion years old - five years is like half a millisecond in the big picture. It was possible that Lesbian Friend was simply jealous that Rainie was secretly in love with me, thus she was looking to demean me in any way she could. In general, I make very solid first impressions and it was probably hard for her to find a flaw in me - the only way she could put me down was to attack my age.

Whatever. Youth is enviable. She'd die first, and then who would be laughing? (Me. The answer is me).

Lesbian Friend poked her head around the corner to tell me indifferently, "She's in her room."

... and her room is where? This girl was by far the worst hostess I'd ever encountered. I had never met anyone more dry, more monotonous, and less enthused to be alive. I was not a fan.

I took off my shoes and ventured a few feet into the apartment. It wasn't very big, and it wasn't very new. It was student-like, I supposed. Lesbian Friend had her sleeves rolled up over the sink in the kitchen, and she looked ready to tackle the most enormous heap of dishes I'd ever seen piled on top of each other.

The kitchen and common room were connected, with three doors branching off. One led to the bathroom. I was about to peer into the second room in search of Rainie when the sound of a zipper coming from the third room prevented me from snooping. Quickly, I changed direction and stepped hesitantly into her bedroom.

"Hi, Rainie," I said quietly. She was standing over an unzipped suitcase on a large double bed, hands on her hips and the slightest hint of a frown on her face. She wore a simple white summer dress with a soft pink cardigan overtop, and her hair hung in delicate waves on her shoulders. It was hard not to fall to the ground and start my begging right away.

She glanced at me, her eyes trailing up and down (I regretted not changing my attire before leaving my house). Rather randomly, I realized that I didn't know what to do with my hands. Should I leave them hanging helplessly at my sides? Should I stuff them into my pockets? Fold my arms across my chest? Pull her towards me and kiss the hell out of her?

"Hey. What's up?" she replied coolly, as though we were simply passing each other by on the street.

Her bedroom was cramped and messy. There were clothes everywhere - the bed, the floor, the desk, the chair, overflowing from the closet. I have a lot of clothes, but normally I appreciate when they're all in the same place.

"What's going on? You're leaving?" I asked with a frown. I tried to keep my nerves out of my voice. She couldn't leave now, not when there was so much left unsaid!

"Going home for Christmas," she answered. "My mom's coming soon to pick me up."

Right. Christmas. I breathed a sigh of relief.

"You can sit down, if you want," she added, grabbing the giant pile of clothes from her desk chair and throwing them on the bed. Gingerly, I stepped in between the clothes strewn over the floor and took a seat, swinging around on the chair to face her.

"How long are you gone for?"

"A week or so. I'll be back just after Boxing Day, probably."

"Jesus," I breathed, "Even the Jonas Brothers don't require this many outfits for a week."

"Ha, ha," she smiled. "I just did my laundry, that's all. Plus, I'll only be back for half a day or something before I have to repack for New York. I'm going with Jesse for New Year's - are you going?"

I nodded mutely as I scanned her clothing once again. Dresses, skirts, fancy shoes, jeans... "Do you ever dress down?" I questioned.

She shrugged, balling up a pair of socks and stuffing them into the suitcase. "What for?"

"To relax. All of your clothes look uncomfortable."

"Don't you wear suits all the time?" she challenged.

What a dumb question. While she was looking at me, I purposely pointed to my attire - jeans and a hoodie.

She shrugged again. "Girls don't get laid in sweats, Jonas."

You know, when I asked her the question, I was simply trying to make conversation. I was not prepared for this response. It actually hurt to hear her say it.

I cleared my throat to choke back the tears. "Everyone should wear sweats once in a while."

"Not my thing. I like to look my best." She proceeded to sift through her clothing in search for something specific.

I rested my foot on the opposite knee and murmured, "I'm sure you'd look better than most no matter what you wore."

She paused for a moment to raise an eyebrow at me. "What brings you here again?"

Here it was. I knew this moment was coming. It was time for me to sacrifice my pride. With a heavy heart, I admitted, "I miss you."

She brushed a strand of hair out of her face. "It's not like I've been away."

I sighed, slumping my shoulders. Strike one. How the hell did Jesse manage to woo this girl? She was un-woo-able. I'd just used one of my best lines on her, and it fell completely flat. What the fuck?

"What?" she asked me sceptically.

"Why do you have to be so cold all the time?"

"Cold?"

The words ‘ice' and ‘bitch' were running over and over in my mind, but I figured I probably wouldn't earn any brownie points for saying them aloud.

"Yeah. You always go out of your way to act like you don't care."

"I do not," she countered, folding a shirt and placing it neatly into her suitcase.

"You do, and it's obvious. I told you I observed people. Did you honestly think I'd pass you by in those observations?"

"You said you couldn't figure me out," Rainie pointed out.

"But I'm trying," I corrected her. "Every time I get close, you do something totally random and confusing that brings me back to square one. I don't get it. Doesn't Jesse ever tell you how closed-up you are?"

Rainie laughed sarcastically. "Who says I'm closed-up around my boyfriend?"

I rolled my eyes. "Come on. If you're like this around me..."

"You're not my boyfriend," she told me matter-of-factly. (Thanks Rainie, I didn't know. Then again, if we were a couple, I'd be dancing in the street instead of struggling through a trying conversation). "I'm closer with him than I am with you."

"Physically," I agreed with a nod. "Do you talk to him about stuff?"

"What stuff?"

I shrugged because it was obvious. "Thoughts. Feelings. Interesting events of your day."

She laughed at me again. "Speaking of putting on fronts, you've never sounded so sentimental."

If she was going to pull out the P-word (pussy), I'd crawl into a hole and die. "Well, it's true. When you're with someone, that's the kind of stuff you talk about - and I doubt you and Jesse have those kinds of conversations."

"Since when are you a relationship pro? You've had two little Disney girlfriends and call that experience? Not everyone's relationships are your fifteen-year-old romances," she said.

Stupid beautiful bitch.

"Seventeen," I corrected her in exasperation. I tugged at my hair, so frustrated that I was contemplating pulling it out. "And I'm not just talking about my own personal experience. How many times do I have to tell you how observant I am? I watch my mom and dad, my brothers and their girlfriends-"

"Not everyone's as perfect as the Jonas family," Rainie interrupted, pausing from her packing to sit on top of her closed suitcase.

I groaned in irritation. "Can't you just admit that you and Jesse only have a physical relationship?"

She stared at me like I was crazy. "Will it honestly make you feel better?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because it means there's something missing; something he can't give you."

She shook her head slowly, a smile forming on her pink lips. "You know... I don't know what it is with you. You say you're observant, but there's something you just can't understand. Maybe you hunt for the best in people and you only see what you want to see, and everything else doesn't make sense."

Where was this going? "What?" I asked in confusion.

Rainie rolled her eyes. "I don't need anything else from Jesse. I have everything I want from him."

"Which is?"

(Side-note: Fuck me for asking a question so stupid. Obviously I knew what was coming as soon as the words escaped from my lips, but by then, I couldn't take back what I'd said).

I was preparing for her to reply with ‘sex' when she answered, "Every girl wants to be able to say she dated a celebrity. I get star treatment when I'm with him. I've got opportunities I never had before simply because of the connection, and so does my roommate - she wants to be a photographer, you know. I get to travel, I get to go to all these glamorous events, and I get to meet all these amazing people. It's worth it."

I don't know how long I waited before speaking again. My brain was whirling so quickly, I can't even remember what I was doing. Staring at her, probably. In disbelief.

"... really?" my voice croaked. I coughed to clear it. "That's why you're dating Jesse?"

I've grown up in this business, and I've met my share of fake people. But... really, Rainie?

She licked her lips indifferently. "I mean, he's a good guy. I like him."

"But you're dating him for the status?"

She could date me for an even higher status. Dammit! Why does Jesse McCartney always win? Is it the blond highlighted hair? The beautiful soul? The boy band experience?!

She sighed drearily. "It's not like I'm hurting him, Nick. If he didn't want to be with me, he could easily dump me and move on."

"I bet he would if he knew why you were with him."

Smiling deviously, Rainie remarked, "He gets what he wants from me."

I could have fallen apart at that, but my mind was still reeling from her previous confession. "Is this why you get so mad at him when he won't spend time with you?"

Rainie stood up, returning to her packing. "Why do you care so much?"

"Do you honestly not know the answer?"

She looked at me expectantly.

Fine. If she was going to make me say it, I wouldn't back down. I could tango with the ice bitch if that's what she wanted.

"By now, I think you're well aware of how I feel about you." I took a moment to assess her expression, and when I was sure it was safe, I continued. "I think you're wasting your time with Jesse. I don't care what you say; I don't think anyone could be happy in a relationship like that." Rainie continued to fold her laundry and stuff it into her suitcase, pretending that my words meant nothing to her.

I hate that. Why do people think it's such a great defence mechanism? Pretending you're deaf when someone's telling you something you don't want to hear is ridiculous. At least do something equally cowardly but more believable, like pretending you forgot you had to be somewhere and have to leave immediately.

"I know there's an age difference between us. But we were friends, weren't we? We were great friends. And we can be a great couple."

There. That was basically a trial proposal. Once we dated for a couple of years, I'd polish it up and present it to her again with a ring.

Rainie appeared conflicted. "It's... weird," she breathed.

"It's not weird!" I insisted. "What's weird is that you're fighting this. I don't believe you when you say you're only in it for the celebrity perks. Nobody's that heartless. And I know you have feelings for me, you're just too stubborn to let them show."

Sighing, Rainie muttered, "You know, you're a pretty confident ki.... guy."

Progress. She retracted the ‘kid' comment. My heart throbbed with hope, even if it was just for a second.

"There's no reason not to be," I replied smoothly.

"Fear of rejection, perhaps?" she suggested.

I smiled lazily. "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game."

"Wise beyond your years, Jonas."

"It's not a matter of striking out for me," I commented, leaning back in the chair and crossing my arms. "It's a matter of patience. So far, you're doing a good job of testing it."

She chuckled with a shake of her head. "How long can you hold out?"

"How long can you resist me?"

Placing a pile of folded clothes into her suitcase, she stopped to stare at me. "I think we both know I've given in before."

"Twice," I chirped.

It was at this moment that Lesbian Friend poked her nosey little face through the door. "I gathered up some shit for you to take home with you," she said, waltzing into the room to hand Rainie an overflowing shopping bag. "It'll go bad if it stays here."

Rainie pouted. "But I already have so much stuff..."

"Take it, babe." Lesbian Friend thrust the bag into her hands with a giggle and left the room without offering me a single glance.

Two observations:

1) Babe? Definitely into Rainie.

2) Ignore me? Horrible hostess. Horrible.

I wondered if she and Rainie had naked slumber parties. Pillow fights. Games of Twister. Drunken confessions of hidden love. Normally, I would have admitted that this was my dream come true, but not with Rainie. She was mine, and I was tired of sharing her.

"What?" Rainie asked me, setting the bag by her door.

"Hmm?"

"You're thinking," she replied with a frown.

"I'm always thinking."

"Sometimes I can't read your face."

"Sometimes you can?"

"Sometimes," she confirmed with a nod of her head.

I watched her finish her packing. It only took a few minutes. When she was done, she put some of her clothes in drawers, and the rest went in a neat pile on the floor of her closet. She clapped her hands together as she scanned her room, satisfied with a job well done. As if she'd forgotten my presence, her eyes suddenly landed on me.

"Question for you."

I shrugged. "Anything."

"Why are you so interested in me? If it were anyone else, I would say it was creepy. You're always looking at me. Whenever our eyes meet, even if it's from across a room, you either look away really fast or you smile."

"Isn't that what it's supposed to be like?" I asked, furrowing my brow. I wasn't going to act ashamed. That would be gutless.

"What?"

I was about to say ‘falling in love', but I didn't want to freak her out. Instead, my sharp thinking led me to the nonchalant answer of, "That's what happens when you're interested in someone."

"But why me? I have a boyfriend-"

"I saw you first," I interrupted.

"-I'm so much older than you-"

"Not that much older."

"-and there are so many other girls who would be drawn to..." she paused, looking me up and down. "This."

I grinned, pointing to my chest. "This?"

"It's been like, two years, but apparently Miley still holds a grudge. You must be good for something," Rainie joked.

For once, it would be awesome to have a conversation about my love life without the mention of Miley. Just once.

I paused, choosing my words carefully. Finally, I sat up and held my hands in front of me, attempting to explain this as clearly as possible. I didn't want to say it more than once. I made sure Rainie was looking at me as I told her firmly, "I'm not interested in anybody but you."

"What about your Halloween date?"

I shook my head.

"What about your little friend? Pep?"

I suppose it took me longer to respond to this question because I was wondering what she meant by ‘little'. Quite literally, Pep was little - but I had a feeling that Rainie was trying to act superior and indifferent by referencing Pep as my ‘little friend'.

The point is that it took me more than a mere few seconds to respond, and Rainie jumped on my hesitation.

"I mean, I think she's good for you," she continued. "She's a ball of energy; the definition of optimist. She gets along with everyone, she makes you laugh, and you're always muttering things to her that you probably wouldn't mutter to anyone else. I observe too sometimes, Jonas. Plus, she's cute. You can't tell me the red hair and big blue eyes aren't adorable."

As Rainie was going on and on, my frown deepened. What was this? I hadn't even mentioned Pep, and yet somehow Rainie felt it necessary to bring her up. Why? Rainie always incorporated Pep, or maybe it just seemed that way because I was afraid of the way she looked at her. Rainie seemed to come on to everyone; male or female.

No. I would not have this.

"You stay away from Pep!" I blurted out. I hadn't realized how upset I was about this until I nearly shouted my thoughts. If Rainie was more interested in Pep than in me, I would die. Still, it was understandable that my outburst seemed out of place, and by the look on Rainie's face, I had shocked her. "What I mean is, I'm not dating her," I calmly added as an afterthought.

Rainie arched an eyebrow. "I'm just throwing out suggestions here," she said cynically. "No need to get so defensive."

"I'm not defensive," I argued, slouching back into my seat. "It's just annoying that people keep thinking there's something going on with us."

"There really isn't?"

"Why would I be here if there was?"

"Maybe she doesn't satisfy you."

"I don't cheat," I told her sincerely. "If Pep didn't satisfy me, I'd break up with her." I let my words sink in for a few seconds before I realized what I'd said, and then I was forced to quickly add, "But again, we're not dating."

Lesbian Friend poked her head through the door. "Your mom's here. She's coming up," she informed Rainie.

When she left, Rainie gave me an apologetic glance. "I have to go."

Fuck. I vaguely remembered that my plan involved her declaration of love for me.

I sat up in my seat, ready to make my last plea. "Fine. But promise me you'll think about it."

"Think about what?"

"About me," I replied. I slapped my hands to my knees as a sign of conclusion. "The ball's in your court now. If this is really what you want, I won't bother you anymore."

Rainie didn't reply. Instead, she lugged her suitcase from the bed to the ground.

"I'm sick of you stringing me along. You know exactly what you're doing, and it's mean." As soon as I said it, I wished I'd chosen a better word. Mean? Way to move past the second grade, Nick.

Still, she had to know. Now was the opportune moment, but for some reason, I felt like I was giving up. "If you want to be with Jesse, then be with him. But do it because you like him; don't be superficial about it. If Jesse's not enough, then leave him." It almost pained to me to say, "He's a good guy."

Rainie slipped on a pair of flats, looking at me expectantly. "Anything else?"

"Yeah." Standing was a better way to assert myself, I decided. So I did. "This is it, Rainie. I know we have something, but I'm sick of waiting for you to see it. You know how I feel. I'm not gonna let you screw with me anymore. It's all or nothing, none of this in-between shit."

To be honest, I impressed even myself with that speech. I didn't know if it was entirely true, but I sounded full of conviction, and that was good enough.

There was a loud knock on the front door. Rainie kept her gaze fixated on me for longer than expected before picking up her suitcase and heading out of her bedroom. I followed, carrying the bag of food that Lesbian Friend had gathered.

Rainie's mother was a short, round woman with triangular blonde hair and rosy cheeks. She was all-smiles as she waited in the foyer. "Callan, it's so good to see you!" she exclaimed, wrapping Lesbian Friend in a hug.

Ah-HA! Callan. I knew that.

"And you," Rainie's mother said with a smile, her eyes locking on her daughter. "I missed you!" Before Rainie could protest, her mother's arms were around her neck.

"And who is this?" she asked, pulling away and staring at me.

With a small, uncertain smile, I gently placed the bag of food on the kitchen counter and made my way to the door.

When I realized that no one was going to introduce me, I held out my hand to shake and said, "I'm Nick." I toiled with the idea of introducing myself as Rainie's friend, but I thought better of it. "It's nice to meet you," I added.

Rainie's mother glowed. I have that kind of effect on mothers. Selena's mom used to insist on giving me hugs whenever we met or parted ways. Pep's mom loved me, too - her love even extended to Elvis. Even though ol' Shep wasn't around anymore, she kept a box of dog treats in the cupboard specifically for my golden retriever.

Extracting my car keys from my pocket, I exhaled and glanced at Rainie, hoping that I'd said everything I needed to say to win her over once and for all. A last-minute, impulsive decision caused me to place a hand on her shoulder and kiss her on the cheek.

"Merry Christmas, Rainie," I told her. Then I gave her one last smile - a smile showing all my teeth, a rarity - and I left.

I wasn't sure how I felt about what had transpired. On one hand, giving Rainie an ultimatum might be exactly what she needed to figure out her feelings for me. On the other hand, it might push her further away from me - but I doubted it. It was a fair ultimatum, after all. It was about time I called her out on her unreasonableness.

Furthermore, I can't say that I wasn't slightly depressed. This marked the third time I had been alone in a bedroom with Rainie. We had made it to the bed zero out of three times.

But maybe our time wasn't up just yet. Like I told Rainie, the ball was in her court - all I had to do was play the waiting game. (And I'm extremely competitive, and I almost always win).

Chapter End Notes:
So, if I were to do another FAQ, the most frequently asked question would be "how long is this story going to be?" My answer:
1) At the very least, 364 days long.
2) I hope to have this story completed by the end of April.
3) In terms of chapters, I won't tell you how many - but there will be ten or less. Could be two, could be ten. I like surprises :)
This chapter was the bane of my existence for the period of time that I spent writing it. I think I referred to one of my other chapters in this story or in HINAF as the bane of my existence, but this is the new one. However, it led me to a newly-inspired summer project: once I'm finished writing this story and LIL, I'm going to edit all of my stories on here and fix up allll the chapters that ever bothered me.
I want to thank all of you so much for reading my stories, and special thanks to those who review as well. It means so much to me, and I really do appreciate every bit of feedback, good or bad. I'm so, so grateful because you've all made me interested in writing again, which has already helped me through some tough times and has inspired me to take chances I never would have taken otherwise.
Examples: After writing Sticks and Stones, I decided I was jealous of Evie for taking guitar lessons... so last September, I found a small music studio near my home and signed up. I've been playing for seven months now and I have a newfound love and appreciation for music. Also, I hate school so much (haha), and my major and minor appear to be taking me nowhere... so I decided, just for the hell of it, to apply for a creative writing class in the fall. I have to submit writing samples to the prof and it's a selective program, so I have no idea if I'll get in... but the fact that I'm even trying is kind of amazing to me.
I've never been a huge risk-taker, but lately I've been inspired, and I think it's because I have so much motivation to keep writing and doing what really makes me happy. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
I feel like I should have saved this speech for the grand end-note upon the completion of this story... because all I really meant to say was thank you kindly for all the nominations in the JBFA awards! I still can't get over the response to my stories and how many great people I've met because of it. I love you specials!
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