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Day Three Hundred and Eleven.

What confused me was that three weeks later, I still didn't know where I stood with Rainie. The phone call I'd shared with Pep on New Year's had worried me. I wondered if maybe Rainie wasn't ready to hop back into another relationship so soon, or if she'd flake out on me within the first month. For this reason, I didn't put any pressure on our relationship in its beginning stages. I never questioned her on what we were.

But I really wanted to know.

It would have been especially helpful to put a label on our relationship the night of my mother's potluck. Why? Well, because Kevin decided to invite Jesse, who was his new wingman now that they were both single. The problem was that my mom had secretly given me permission to invite Rainie, and I couldn't have both of them in the same house. I'd told mom that Rainie was just a friend, and since I technically couldn't call her my girlfriend, I had no way to explain to Kevin why he couldn't invite Jesse. I couldn't ask Rainie for advice because I didn't want her to know that Jesse had been invited. I couldn't ask Joe for advice because it would require telling him that Rainie and I were sort of an item, and he would probably smack me upside the head. The only one left was Pep, and she told me if Rainie was really over Jesse and ready for a new relationship, it wouldn't matter.

This is the reason Pep's advice is complete shit. It's useless to me. What was I supposed to make of that?

Instead, I followed my gut and told Kevin that I had invited Rainie specifically for him. She was single and looking, and inviting Jesse to the same barbeque would only ruin what he could develop with Rainie.

When I told Pep, she rolled her eyes and laughed at me. Not only did I have to keep away from Miley the entire night, but I had created for myself a new task: to keep Rainie away from Kevin. I had dug myself a rather large hole. A trench, if you will.

To be honest, I was genuinely surprised (and genuinely relieved) when Selena and her family didn't show up at my doorstep carrying a bowl of potato salad. For a while, I had truly suspected that my mother was conspiring against me to ruin my life with ex-girlfriends.

"What's this for?" my mom asked with a laugh as I wrapped my arms around her and propped my chin on her shoulder. She returned the hug half-heartedly, her hands filled with plastic plates and cutlery.

I gave her a warm smile. "I just wanted to."

The real reason was that I was thankful, so thankful that Miley was the only ex in my life tonight when my mother could have bestowed on me even more misfortune.

The great thing about my mom is that I know exactly what to say to her in order to actually see her heart melt. It's strange that having four sons didn't toughen her up. Whenever I did something nice, yet simple, her eyes would well up with tears.

"Oh, Nick," she breathed, tilting her head to the side with affection. I was feeling good about myself until the tears vanished and she thrust the paper plates into my hand. "Go put these outside on the table."

Defeated, I did as I was told. I was heading to the backyard anyways; that's where the party was. There wasn't an enormous crowd, but there were enough people to cause me to retreat to a corner and observe everyone's interactions. The group wasn't small enough for me to participate actively. Miley's parents were present along with Miley and her sisters. Pep, Carter and their parents had arrived. And then there were a couple of families that I didn't know too well because they were friends with my parents - they had young children who were running around with Elvis.

There was a giant table set up near the back of the house where my mother was compiling all the food for a buffet-style of serving. While my dad worked the grill with a couple of his buddies and Kevin served drinks, the rest of the guests (including Joe, the lazy schmuck) sat around on the patio and talked. I had to laugh - already, Pep had a small baby in her arms. I didn't even know which family it belonged to, but she'd managed to locate and steal a baby in less than five minutes. Leave it to Pep.

I winked at her after setting up the plates and jogged back inside to get myself a Coke. Just as I pulled one out of the refrigerator, there was a knock on the door. My stomach knotted, fearing that my mother had invited Selena after all. Upon opening the door, I heaved a sigh and smiled broadly. It was only Rainie.

"It's you," I breathed.

She looked at me like I was acting weird before stepping inside. "It's me," she agreed.

My mother was in the kitchen, but otherwise, no one was in the house. Because the coast was clear, I shut the door and leaned forward to give Rainie a kiss. Which she returned. I still hadn't gotten used to that.

"So who's here? Anyone I know?" she asked as her purse fell from her shoulder to her forearm.

I shrugged. "You know Miley?"

She shook her head. "Not really."

"You know my brothers."

She nodded, looking deflated. "Camilla and Danielle aren't here, I guess."

I shook my head. "No, but Pep's here!" I gave her a smile, meaning to excite her. She wasn't excited.

"Of course she is," Rainie said dryly.

I shrugged helplessly, placing my hand on her lower back and guiding her towards the back door. "Don't worry, everyone's dece. I'll introduce you."

"Dece?"

I wanted to hit myself. Kevin and his damn abbreviations were consuming my speech. "Decent," I corrected myself.

I would not get sucked into this abbreviation trend. I'd take a permanent vow of silence before I let that happen.

As soon as we stepped onto the patio together, Joe materialized in front of us with a fake smile. "Hey, Rainie. Good to see you," he greeted her while giving her a hug. While they were in an embrace, he glared at me, informing me that he did not approve of my guest at all.

He was probably jealous that he didn't have a guest to bring. Or, from the way his eyes were shooting daggers at me, he was upset that I hadn't notified him earlier that Rainie was showing up. Joe had proved to be an unhelpful and unsupportive confidante in the past; it wasn't my fault I had to keep things from him.

"Rainie!" Kevin exclaimed, thrusting a bottle of beer into someone's hands and making his way to us. Oh snap. I hadn't expected him to pounce on her so soon. "I'm glad you're here!" he cried, throwing his arms around her while she laughed in surprise. "How have you been?"

Rainie had barely gotten the word ‘Fine' out of her mouth before Kevin interrupted with, "Great! I was just thinking about you a few minutes ago; my parents' friend asked for a Sex on the Beach, and I was like, hey! That's Rainie's favourite drink!"

Well, fuck me sideways. I never knew that. It was also mildly upsetting that Kevin was talking to my (sort of) girlfriend about sex (on the beach). I didn't care if it was a type of alcoholic beverage - if Rainie was going to have sex on a beach, it was gonna be with me.

"Do you want one, bee-tee-dub? I'm pro at bartending. I can mix a drink like nobody's biz."

(Side-note: Bee-tee-dub = BTW = by the way. Biz = business - you know what? Fuck it. I was sick of explaining Kevin. He had nothing to say worth explaining).

Rainie was obviously well aware of Kevin's inability to keep his trap zipped, so she simply nodded in response to his query, knowing that she'd be interrupted if she spoke.

"C'mere, I'll make one for you," he urged. "And I'll introduce you to everyone, too."

Fucking pieball. That was my job. I knew I shouldn't have told Kevin that I invited Rainie for him. Less than five minutes after she'd arrived, I already knew this was bad news. (Side-note: What an idiot. When was the last time I'd done something for Kevin's benefit? He should have known better than to believe me). Thankfully, as Rainie was dragged away, she gave me a pleading look that settled me. As long as she was just as unimpressed with Kevin as I was, we'd be okay.

Still, I was disheartened, so I went to sit with Pep, who was softly cooing to the baby.

"Isn't he the cutest, Nick?" she asked with a grin.

I eyed the baby cautiously. He was looking at me with interest. I shifted my gaze to Pep. "The very cutest," I agreed monotonously.

"His name is Braden. Isn't that right? Yes, yes it is!" She scrunched up her freckled nose and let the baby grab onto her index finger. I couldn't help but smile - Pep could get excited about anything. Like a baby. Sure, they're small and cute and all, but they don't really do anything exciting. Real people are ten times as exciting as babies.

(Except for Kevin. Kevin is not exciting. If I kept telling myself this, I had no reason to worry about Rainie falling for him while he showed her the ropes of the Jonas household).

"You wanna hold him?" she offered.

"Nah, I'm good-" I began, but before I could finish, Pep was transferring the bundle of chub into my arms. I sat stiffly for a moment or two, frozen in place.

"Cradle his head, like this," Pep instructed, readjusting my arm to support his neck. The baby stared at me with wide eyes. They were blue, and they looked like Pep's eyes. Jesus Christ. This baby was like three months old, and already he was trying to own my soul with his eyes. Terrifying. I hoped brown eyes were a dominant gene; otherwise my children were getting their eyes dyed. (Side-note: Was that possible? I made a mental note to check it out before having unprotected sex).

I glanced at Pep for reassurance. "What am I supposed to do with this?" I asked, utterly lost. I wasn't used to babies. I remembered when Frankie was born; I was never too interested in holding him. He looked miniature and fragile, and I didn't want to be the reason for breaking my brother.

"Just hold him, silly," she returned. Her head loomed over my shoulder so that we could both stare at the tiny human in my arms.

"I finally understand the meaning of ‘button-nose'," I murmured in awe.

"Look at his fingers," Pep pointed out. "They're so small and chubby!"

"I like how his wrist has rolls in it," I added.

We continued to stare in disbelief at the baby, pointing out all of his features to each other, until I finally had to admit that maybe babies weren't so boring after all. I could marvel over this kid for a long time, even if he had nothing at all to say.

"Nick, he's smiling at you!" Pep exclaimed with a giggle.

Instead of returning the smile to the baby, I tore my gaze from him for a moment to glance at Pep. She was so mesmerized, it was kind of funny. Not funny. Endearing. Just a little bit.

"So cute!" crooned a voice from behind me. I turned my head quickly to see Rainie standing with Kevin, observing Pep and I and the baby.

Pep leaned away from me and gave Rainie a smile. "Hi, Rainie."

"Hey, you," she replied pleasantly. "Whatcha got there, Nick?"

I raised my eyebrows and looked at the baby again. I hate when people waste their breath on dumb questions to make conversation. Had she honestly never seen one before? It was pretty obvious what I was holding.

"His name is Braden... right?" I asked, looking to Pep for confirmation. She nodded.

"Aw," Rainie cooed, placing an arm on the back of my chair to get a closer look. "Is this your brother, Pep?"

Pep couldn't help it. Her immediate reflexes told her to shrug and answer casually, "No, my brother's playing Frisbee with Joe."

Rainie glanced at Carter in confusion. It was then that I remembered that we had told Rainie so long ago that Pep's mother was expecting a child. It only made sense that this was the child in question. Pep caught my eye and I gave her an urging glare.

"But this is my new brother," she corrected herself awkwardly. "Yeah... I love him."

Good one, Pepper. Not unbelievable at all. That's just great.

The baby started to squirm in my arms, and I must have donned an expression of horror, because Pep laughed and said she'd take him back. I watched her roll up the long sleeves of her sweater as she prepared herself, and it was as I was handing the baby to her that I remarked, "Hey, is that my shirt?"

Pep looked down in surprise. "Yeah, I guess. You left it at my house a while ago. I'll give it to you when I leave tonight."

I shrugged uncaringly, and I opened my mouth to ask Rainie what she wanted to do when I realized that she was eyeing Pep and I curiously. If I wasn't such a moron, I would have refrained from pointing out that Pep was borrowing my clothes in front of her. It was lucky that Joe wasn't in the vicinity, or he would have obnoxiously shouted, "Awkward!"

I cleared my throat and suggested to her, "You wanna play Frisbee?"

"Yeah, let's go," Kevin answered for her. "People can get their own drinks from now on; I'm done." He set his beer on the table and walked with Rainie to the grass. From behind him, I gave him the dirtiest look I could muster. Jerk. He may not have been aware that he was doing it, but he was stealing my Rainie.

Just as I was standing to join them and ‘wow' them with my sharp Frisbee skills, a brown-haired, evil beauty approached.

"Hey, stranger," Miley said with a reluctant smile.

I sank back into the chair, my smile fake and weak. "Miley. What's up?"

Rather than answer my question, she gave Pep a genuine, bright Miley-smiley. (Side-note: That's what they're called. No one's got a bigger Miley-smiley than Miley). "Oh my God, I haven't seen you in forever!" she cried.

"Yeah!" Pep agreed, gently rocking the baby back and forth. "How are you? What's going on?"

And so, for the next minute and a half, Pep and Miley engaged in polite yet boring conversation while I tried to inch behind Miley to make my way to the Frisbee game. Unfortunately, she was standing almost directly in front of me, making it hard to escape from my position on the chair without her noticing. So annoying.

Was I listening to their conversation? I would say that on a scale from yes to no, I was barely. Certain words caught my attention, like when Pep said ‘Nick'. One word of Miley's caused my stomach to knot, and that word was ‘Avery'.

With that, I snapped to attention and stood up to include myself in the conversation.

"I apologized!" I insisted out of the blue.

Both Pep and Miley glanced at me like what I'd just said was incredibly unrelated to the discussion.

"To Avery," I added, head hung low. "I said I was sorry."

"Three weeks later," Miley continued with a frown. "Do you know how long it took me to find a girl who was perfect for you?"

She waited for me to answer. I shrugged. "Probably thirty seconds as you scanned through your cell phone contacts - Avery was your backup dancer."

Miley rolled her eyes. "You know, you're such a jerk sometimes. Would it have killed you to think about someone besides yourself for once?"

"Ouch!" I exclaimed, furrowing my brow. "That's not fair. You weren't even there."

"She told me what happened."

"You don't know my side of the story."

"Nothing you have to say could justify leaving your date stranded at a party with no one she knows!" Miley argued.

"Why are you sticking your nose into this? This doesn't concern you."

"Because she was devastated, Nick!"

"She was not," I scoffed. "We'd been on two dates!"

"And that's the stupidest thing you've ever done!"

Wrong. The stupidest thing I had ever done was kissing Pep to make Rainie jealous. Good try, Miley.

"Don't leave," I instructed to Pep, who had been slowly backing away as our argument grew heated. I locked eyes again with Miley. "What do you want me to do? She doesn't want to talk to me."

"Can you blame her?"

Exasperated, I threw my arms up in the air. "Why are you so mad about something that can't be fixed?"

"Because you didn't even try to fix it! It's so typical of you to avoid the problem until it goes away. Pretend like it didn't happen. This is exactly why we broke up, because you refused to confront any of our issues-"

"Hey," I interrupted her firmly. I grabbed a hold of Pep's shirt (or should I say my shirt) as she again tried to back away. If she left, I'd be all alone, and Miley would be even worse. She was holding herself back around Pep; I could tell. The proton had to stay with me.

I didn't have a follow-up to what I'd just said, but I didn't watch to re-hatch what I had thought was laid to rest two years prior. I sighed as Miley folded her arms threateningly across her chest. "Miles, let it go. I made a mistake, that's all."

"And you hurt one of my friends, Nick," she said, toning down the volume and anger in her voice. "I tried to do something nice for you, and you didn't take it seriously, so you hurt me as well. I wanna be friends with you again, but not if you won't even try." She shrugged sadly, letting her eyes fall to my chin. "Maybe we're just better off apart."

I paused to let her words sink in. She looked me in the eyes fleetingly before rejoining the crowd on the patio. My shoulders sank as I looked at Pep. She was pretending to be completely immersed in the baby, but I knew that nothing had escaped her attention.

Heaving another sigh, I asked, "You wanna tell me I'm a jerk?"

She raised her eyes from Braden, her face sincere. She eyed me cautiously before replying, "I don't think I need to tell you what you already know."

Once I got half a can of Coke and some appetizers into my system, I wasn't feeling so bad anymore. I joined the Ultimate Frisbee game and carried my team to victory. To make myself feel better by convincing myself that it made up for me acting like a jerk before, I told Carter he won the MVP award.

However, Miley still wouldn't look at me, so I figured it wasn't enough. There weren't enough chairs as we all gathered for dinner, so I leaned against the back of the house and observed from afar as I ate. Rainie and Kevin were getting along far too swimmingly. I didn't approve, but she seemed to be having a good time, and I couldn't take that away from her. She was prettier when she smiled.

Halfway through my meal, I was struck with a brilliant idea, and I needed to tell someone about it. I scanned the area for Pep and found her on the buffet table against the wall. She, too, had been too late to claim a chair, and had cleared an area on the table to sit on. I made my way towards her with a smile on my face, which she returned all too willingly.

"What are you thinking?" she asked, her smile growing.

"What makes you say that?"

She chuckled. "You look so pleased with yourself."

Pep always knew.

"Here's my plan," I told her, leaning in close so that no one would overhear. "I can maybe make things up to Avery with your help."

"Why should I help you?"

"Because you're a good person," I replied without a second thought.

Pep took a bite of her hamburger, her pupils shifting back and forth in contemplation as she chewed. "Okay. What's your plan?"

I nodded in delight. "You know that show you and Lance bought tickets for?"

"The comedy show? Yeah."

"You said the humour was Office-like, remember?"

"I said I assumed it was Office-like-"

"Whatever," I interrupted her impatiently. Keeping my voice low, I murmured, "You're not dating Lance anymore, so your ticket is up for grabs. I'll give it to Avery."

Pep frowned, perplexed.

"Think about it. Avery loves The Office; she's always pulling out ‘that's what she said' jokes. She'd have a great time. Plus, she's single. Lance is single. Lance is way too interested in celebrities - case in point: me - and Avery has connections. They're perfect for each other."

Pep mulled this over. I gave her time, nodding my head in encouragement. It was a good idea.

"My ex and your ex..." she trailed off thoughtfully.

"It's good, right?" I urged. "Avery won't have to be lonely and resentful, Lance's insatiable need for celebrity gossip will be satisfied, and the world will go on."

A smile crossed her face, slowly but surely. "Nick J, are you doing something for someone else that won't benefit you at all?"

I laughed, pushing her shoulder playfully. "Hey. I'm not that bad."

Pep laughed along with me, teasing me for a while before consenting, "Okay. Let's do it, then. It might just work."

We were secretly working out the details of transferring the ticket to Avery when Rainie's voice interjected, "Am I interrupting something?"

I looked at her in confusion, shaking my head. She pointedly glared at me, and that was when I realized what it must look like. Pep was sitting on the table, and I was standing between her spread legs as we laughed and murmured things to one another. Yeah. It looked bad.

Immediately, I stepped away, clearing my throat in the process. "We were just talking about Pep's boyfriend."

"Ex-boyfriend," Pep corrected me.

"Same deal," I brushed it off. I swallowed, turning my attention to Rainie. "Have a good supper?"

She nodded brusquely. "Do you wanna show me where the bathroom is?"

"Yep. Sure," I agreed awkwardly.

Just before I opened the door, I glanced at Pep one last time. She pushed her plate away even though it was half-full of food. Her legs dangled lifelessly off the table, and I saw her shoulders raise and lower as she sighed.

I wondered briefly if, within a thirty-second exchange, I'd made the happy proton turn sad.

The month of January meant that the night sky popped up early. By the time everyone was finishing up their meals, the sun had already set. Mom put Joe and me on cleaning duty while everyone else retreated indoors.

"What the hell is this, Nick?" Joe demanded as soon as we were alone. He was stuffing paper plates into a garbage bag while I wiped down the surfaces of the tables with a damp cloth.

"What?"

"You know what. What are you doing with Rainie?"

I shrugged. "I invited her for supper, that's all."

"Why? Have you pounced on her already? I mean, Kevin told me she broke up with Jesse a while ago, but... you have, haven't you?" He was trying to analyze my facial expression. The problem was that it was dark out, and my face was void of expression, anyway.

"We're not officially dating," I told him as casually as possible. "We're seeing each other."

"Oh, God," he groaned, far too dramatically for the situation at hand. If the earth was cracked down the middle and he was seconds away from falling into a pit of molten lava, then his ‘Oh, God' would be reasonable. Otherwise, no.

"What was that for?"

"Nick, you're such a fuckwit," he insulted me. "You never date another bro's ex-girlfriend."

"Jesse McCartney is not my bro," I replied with fervour.

"Well, he's mine, and so are you."

"Enlightening, Broseph," I mocked him. "These rules don't apply. They weren't in love or anything. I'm sure Jesse's fine without her."

"Doesn't matter. Rules are rules."

"I'm breaking them."

Joe threw a used, balled-up napkin at my head. It landed inside the collar of my shirt. With disgust, I pulled it out and threw it in the open garbage bag that he was holding.

"What would you say if I asked Miley out?" Joe asked. "It's direct violation of the rules of brohood."

"It's different. You're actually my bro through the unfortunately unbreakable bond of genetics."

"Fuck genetics. Bros are bros," Joe insisted.

I was starting to lose track of where this conversation was heading.

"No, brothers are bros," I corrected him.

"What about brothers from another mother, huh?"

Taking a break from wiping the table for a second, I straightened my back and stared at him. "I can't follow what's going on here, but I'm going to assure you that I don't see Jesse as a bro."

"It doesn't matter. He's your bro whether you like it or not. He's Kevin's bro, and he's my bro, and you're our bro, so he's your bro by association."

Good God. This was the most tangled web I'd ever experienced. I'd heard the word ‘bro' so many times in the last two minutes that it had lost all meaning whatsoever. It had become a meaningless one-syllable animal noise, like ‘quack'.

"I never chose to associate with you cretins," I mumbled in my defence.

Joe sighed, using his forearm to drag all of the garbage from one side of the table to the end, where it tumbled into the garbage bag. "You wanna know what happens when you go against the Bro Code, Nick?"

Rolling my eyes, I suggested sarcastically, "The chair? Guillotine? Chinese water torture?"

"I'm serious."

"I'm gonna go with nothing, because the Bro Code isn't real."

"Oh, it's real," he assured me gravely. "The bro you've wronged gets a free for all, and none of your other bros can save you. A punch to the face, a stab in the back-"

"And then the real law will step in and all of you will rot in prison for aiding the bastard." I mulled over my words for a moment before adding matter-of-factly, "You're more my bro than his, anyway. We've been bros for seventeen years. It doesn't matter what I do; you should be on my side over anyone else's."

Joe shook his head sadly. "I can't, bro. Rules of brohood. I have to abide by the law."

None of it made sense. I would never break up with Rainie simply because it was against the rules outlined in the imaginary and illegitimate ‘Bro Code'. When had Jesse and I had any one-on-one bro-bonding? He was better friends with Kevin than he was with me, and I was better friends (and lovers) with Rainie than with Jesse.

Hey, that reminded me. "What about Kevin? He's been flirting with Rainie all night."

"Don't put the blame on someone else," Joe snapped. "You broke the code. And what do you think Mom and Dad are gonna say, huh? She's like two times your age."

"Five years!" I exclaimed in exasperation. "If anyone mentions the age gap again, I'll flip my lid."

Joe snorted. "Flip your lid? Oh, good God, help us all - Nick might flip his lid!"

I rolled my eyes as I continued to wipe down the tables.

"Dude, it's true. Where do you see this going?"

"The same place I see all my other relationships going," I answered calmly.

"... in the garbage?" Joe questioned innocently, pointing to the garbage bag he was holding.

"Fuck off. No, I mean I see it going far."

Joe sighed. "But what about..."

I gave him a few seconds to finish. When he didn't, I urged, "What about what?"

He hesitated before concluding, "I just don't think Rainie's right for you. That's all."

I shook my head. "You don't know her like I do."

He wasn't done yet. "You've been obsessed with this broad for so long. What if you've missed out on someone else?"

"What if she's the one I've been waiting for?" I returned.

"You're just a kid. You're not supposed to have ‘the one' yet."

I was seriously sick of the word ‘kid' being thrown in my face like it was the worst thing I could possibly be. Sorry for being born after you, Joe. It was, after all, my decision to make mom and dad wait three years before conceiving again. I didn't blame them, by the way. With a mindless chatterbox like Kevin and a moron like Joe, it's a wonder they tried again. Third time's the charm, they say.

"Just because you let ‘the one' out of your grasp, doesn't mean I can't have ‘the one', either," I retorted.

Joe was upset that I'd indirectly referenced Camilla, so I received a plastic cup to the face. (Side-note: What was it about my face that made people want to throw things at it? I'd noticed that it was a recent trend, and I couldn't say I approved).

I scowled, muttering, "Stop it." I picked up the cup from where it had landed on the table and whipped it at him. If I had a wand, I'd anti-alohomora his mouth and petrificus totalus him until the next morning.

Joe took a menacing step towards me, and for a second I was afraid he was going to pound in my skull with the flimsy, plastic cup. At the last minute, he stopped himself and retreated. From the look on his face, it had taken a lot of effort to restrain himself. "I really think this is a bad idea, Nick."

I gave him an indifferent glance, up and down. "I think those shoes are a bad idea, but I keep my mouth shut."

"You're a dick," he muttered, gathering the last of the garbage and heading inside.

But really, who wears shiny silver converse shoes and expects people to take them seriously? Christianity wouldn't even exist if Jesus paraded around the Middle East in silver converse shoes. Suck on that, Broseph.

After Joe and I got Mom to approve our cleaning job, we were allowed to join the younger crowd in the basement while the older crowd socialized upstairs. While skipping the last step with an upbeat hop, I noted that everyone was sitting around the coffee table as Kevin poured drinks into shot glasses.

"Grab a piece of floor, guys," he told us, "We're playing ‘I Never'." Kevin proceeded to fill up shot glasses - one for each of us.

Motherfucker.

Joe's eyes lit up enthusiastically as he exclaimed, "Shotty going first!" He leapt to the table, taking a seat in between Miley and Carter.

Wait a minute. Carter was here? This wasn't legal. Now, I know I'm not of legal drinking age, but this kid was fourteen, and Kevin was filling up his shot glass just as substantially as everyone else's. How early do kids start these days?! Thank God Frankie was upstairs with Miley's younger sister playing some sort of game that involved ‘training' Elvis to jump over a basketball.

"Take a seat, Nick," Rainie said with a sly smirk.

I shook my head slowly and suspiciously. "I don't play ‘I Never'. That's a girls' game."

Kevin chuckled. "You're just afraid that you'll never get to drink."

While everyone proceeded to laugh at me, I cut them off with, "I don't play drinking games in general, okay? They're stupid. And there are adults upstairs."

"Can't hold your liquor, Nicky?" Miley taunted me.

Can't hold your tongue, Miley?

Ignoring her, I whined, "What if they come down here?"

"Then you kids hide the shot glasses under the table while Rainie and I take responsibility for the vodka," Kevin answered matter-of-factly.

Why did this seem so staged? It was as if it had been planned long before I got here. Why does no one tell me these things?!

"Vodka is by far the worst substance in the entire world," I shot back. "There's no way I'm drinking it."

"Then you better hope no one calls you out during ‘I Never'," Joe replied. "Sit down, you pussy."

If Joe didn't watch out, I'd pull his lips up over his head and kick him into a wall.

Joe patted my back as I took a seat next to him and happily chirped, "Don't pout, Princess. It's more fun with more people."

I shook my head at him and turned to Carter. "Do you agree with this?" I asked him quietly. He only smiled at me. What a little bitch. If he was a Weasley like I thought, there was no doubt in my mind that he was Percy the traitor.

"Does everyone know how to play?" Rainie asked. "Someone begins a sentence with ‘I never' and they say something they've never done. Everyone at the table who's done it before has to drink. For example, I could say... hmm." She was cute when she was in deep thought, but I was too busy to care. I was busy realizing that Rainie was the one who had suggested this game, and Kevin was playing along merrily because he was trying so hard to be with her.

Man, it was such a bad idea to tell him that I'd invited Rainie for his enjoyment. I can't even explain how badly it failed. Next time, more thought was required.

Rainie finally thought of something and continued, "I could say, ‘I never got a record deal', and you three and Miley would have to drink."

Joe had his mouth wide open and the shot glass three inches from his lips as Rainie grabbed a hold of his forearm and forced him to lower it. "That was an example," she told him. "You shottied first, remember?"

Joe seemed almost disappointed, but he obeyed. "Okay, me first. Let me think. Uh... I never... oh wait, I did that."

I exchanged a glance with Pep from across the table, shaking my head and rolling my eyes. She giggled quietly.

"I know!" Joe cried after much contemplation. He turned to me with an evil grin, and my heart sank. Already I could taste the vodka sliding painfully down my throat. I could feel the unsettling warmth in my stomach. The dizziness in my head. And he hadn't even spoken yet. With his lips curled as the ultimate sign of revenge, Joe announced, "I never disobeyed the Bro Code."

That was it. As soon as I acquired a chainsaw, Joe was going down in the worst way possible.

"Joe, you just eliminated half the people at this table," Kevin pointed out. "The Bro Code only applies to guys."

"Thank you!" I agreed, my fear washing away.

"I know what I said," Joe replied. Again, he looked at me. Everyone looked at me. The fear was back.

"Oh, come on," I pleaded in frustration. "It's hard to judge. The Bro Code doesn't have written rules."

"Every bro knows the Bro Code unless that bro is a girl," Joe told me seriously. Kevin nodded from the head of the table.

"Knowing and abiding by the rules of the Bro Code is your entrance to manhood," Carter added. Little bastard. Percy Weasley indeed. Fucker.

"Fine. I'll drink," I snapped. "But that's it. I'm not getting drunk with my parents upstairs."

"One shot might do the trick," Joe snickered. "Drink up, bro."

I sighed, staring helplessly at the full shot glass in front of me. With a frown, I visually measured it with Joe's.

"Wait a second. Mine is bigger than Joe's!"

"That's what he said!" Carter chirped. Miley burst into laughter, followed by Pep, followed by even Joe.

"I'm serious," I said, failing to see the humour in this situation. "I want a smaller shot glass."

"That's all we have; I checked. Deal with it," Kevin said mercilessly. "Quit being a princess and drink up."

Hesitantly, I placed my thumb and index finger on the glass, bracing myself for the worst experience of my life. I picked it up and dragged it slowly to my mouth, holding my breath so I wouldn't have to smell it. Then, as quickly as possible, I tilted my head back and downed it.

Slamming the empty shot glass on the table, I shut my eyes tightly and stuck out my tongue in disgust. I couldn't imagine a worst after-taste. I would rather eat wood.

"Suck it up," Joe told me. "That'll teach you to go against the Bro Code."

Pep was smiling at me, clearly enjoying herself very much. At least that made one of us.

"Alright, my turn," Miley said. "I already got one. I never took a girl on a date and didn't call her the next day."

I was in the midst of swallowing away the disgustingness as she spoke, so I choked on my own spit before croaking, "Hey! You're singling out the guys again!"

She flashed me a dirty look. "Be thankful I didn't mention stranding the girl on the actual date, Nicky."

Ugh.

"I'm not doing this again," I said firmly.

"Dude, I've done it too," Joe told me. "We'll drink together."

Joe wanted to link arms with me to take the shot, but that was a ritual in which I refused to partake. Kevin refilled my shot glass and I drank it swiftly, forcing it down my throat with (a lot) of effort.

"For a second there, I thought it was coming back up," Pep remarked.

"Fucking nasty shit." I wrinkled my nose and made a face. Crazy Russians. Why the hell did they invent this poison?

"I hope it killed you inside," Miley said sweetly, batting her eyelashes. She leaned back in her chair, declaring, "Rainie's turn."

Rainie propped her forearms on the table and smiled sympathetically at me. "Should I help you out, Nick?"

"Please," I muttered bitterly.

"Mm... but this is so fun," she stated. That was when I knew I'd lost. "I never... had to ask another girl (or guy) to pretend to be my girlfriend (or boyfriend) to get rid of a stalker for me." Rainie shrugged, and all eyes were on me again.

"What?" I asked in confusion. That one actually didn't apply to me.

And then it hit me. Kendall. I'd completely forgotten about her.

This is why I don't play drinking games. It's because they're poorly designed. All other competitive games I can win with ease. Drinking games are just fucking impossible, especially when everyone around the table is out to get you. Even your own almost-girlfriend. Fuck my luck.

With my eyes only on Rainie, I uttered breathily, "I hate you."

She tilted her head seductively to the side. "Drink up, cutie."

I shut my eyes to mentally prepare myself as Kevin poured me another shot with pleasure. "Can I have a chaser?" I inquired.

"No," Kevin answered easily.

"Come on," I begged.

"Take it raw, Nick."

"That's what she said!" Joe piped in with a clap. He said it with such passion that everyone paused to glare at him. He shrunk back in his seat, adding, "It was funny in my head."

Joe's hilarity wasn't making the liquor go down any easier.

As I sat with my shot glass in my hand moments before I took the plunge, I glanced at all three of my enemies. "I just want you to know that when it's my turn, you're all going down." With all seriousness, I enunciated slowly, "I will fuck you up."

They began to argue that I had but one chance to make them take one shot, so it was highly unlikely. Instead of listening, I took the shot. I slammed the glass down again, shaking my head wildly and thinking of simpler times, like when chugging Kool Aid was badass.

"I love his face when he's swallowing," Miley commented.

"And when he shuts his eyes, like it will make it all go away?" Pep added, simpering.

"Yeah! And when he scrunches his nose up and sticks his tongue out," Miley laughed.

Did they not realize that I was in the room? They were speaking of me as if I wasn't there.

"Nick's a vodka virgin," Joe told them good-naturedly. "He's currently being raped."

"I'm not a vodka virgin," I retorted, lightly punching his shoulder.

"Oh yeah!" Joe exclaimed with a smile. "Your cherry was popped last year on Garbo's birthday, right?"

"Yes," I grumbled. Truth be told, I had one large sip of Camilla's vodka tonic, swallowed, wanted to throw up, and instead chugged an entire bottle of Coke to drown out the taste. Everyone watched and laughed, but unfortunately, it was less embarrassing than the time I took a swig of my mother's red wine because I thought it was grape juice and spit it out all over the floor.

What can I say? I'm a manly guy. Beer is my thing. All other drinks are for girls. Except for whiskey, but I haven't made my way there yet. I'm saving it for my wedding night.

"My turn. I got a good one," Kevin said. Even before making his statement out loud, he grabbed my shot glass and started pouring. Jesus Christ, I was going to die. With a goofy grin, he laughed his way through, "I never had a dream about being sold to a slave driver when I was ten!"

"Ha! Let the raping continue!" Joe guffawed.

"Not even fair!" I shouted, and Joe hissed at me to lower my voice. "You're all ganging up on me! There are rules against this, I'm sure!"

"I'm sure there's a rule or two in the Bro Code. But hey - those are just unwritten laws, right?" Joe replied with a smirk.

I can't explain how much I hate when people throw things back in my face. Joe was walking on a rope so thin, if he held so much as a feather between his teeth he'd fall to his death.

I groaned as Kevin slid the shot glass my way. My stomach was turning. Throwing up in front of Rainie was so unappealing to me.

"Guys," I whined, "This is the fourth shot in four minutes."

"I'm so excited to see how this turns out," Miley said quietly, squirming in her seat.

I stared the glass down, taking a deep breath. I could get through this. There wasn't much more they could hold against me, was there? There wasn't much else that I'd done and no one else had. Wasn't this game supposed to be about sexual stuff, anyway? I almost wish we'd approached it from that angle; I would have barely had a shot in my system by now.

The fourth shot was the hardest because I was well aware of what to expect. It sat in the back of my throat for a second or two before I was able to force it down, and then I had to work on forcing back a gag. I don't mean to be racist, but I hate Russia. I hate it. I made a decision to hand out free beer to fans if we ever toured there; just to show them what real alcoholic beverages were supposed to taste like.

Kevin looked next to him. "Your turn, Pep. Should I start refilling Nick's shot glass?"

Pep glanced at me, and I made a conscious effort to open my eyes and plead with her. I shook my head as pathetically as possible. It was my way of begging. Lord, have mercy. Pep, have mercy. Please let me survive the night.

She arched an eyebrow, unimpressed with my pleading. I thought I was done for. I'd have to accept that I acted like a jerk to her when we were in front of Rainie, and this was my punishment.

I couldn't feel the alcohol in my system, but I didn't want to verbalize my begging because I was afraid my words would slur or I'd say something stupid. I hoped Pep could read my eyes. They read desperation.

"I never..." she trailed off, still looking at me.

Please?' I mouthed.

Suddenly, her gaze transferred to Kevin. With a smile, she finished, "... interrupted the President in the middle of a story."

Kevin laughed out loud and obligingly downed the shot, admitting defeat. (Side-note: Obama is a pretty cool guy. The Jonas family wanted excommunicate Kevin when he made that huge mistake, but ol' Mr. Pres let it slide).

The game continued, and as everyone watched Carter and waited for his statement, Pep flashed me a grin. I gave her a sincere nod of thanks. I'd never been so grateful. I always knew she was good for something. When my family (Joe and Kevin), people I used to love (Miley), and people I currently loved (obvious), turned against me, she'd still be on my side. That trusty little proton. I owed her another Coke.

It was probably about an hour later when everyone began to leave. We had given up the drinking game long ago, but before we put down the shot glasses, I had been forced to take two more shots. That was six shots in a matter of fifteen minutes. Do you know what that can do to a guy like me? I was a rock-star and a role model; I didn't have time to drink on a regular basis. I couldn't build up a tolerance. I wouldn't admit it out loud for fear of appearing like an alcohol prude, but it was true.

What was really unfair was that everyone else had had at maximum three shots. Everyone was doing just fine except for me. I made the mistake of standing up to go to the bathroom - good lord, did I ever regret it. It was then that I understand just how much the vodka was affecting me.

For the remainder of the hour, I sat at the table with my head in my hands and tried to keep my mouth shut. When people started to move towards the air hockey station, I laid my cheek on the table and closed my eyes.

"You okay?" Pep asked before she joined the group.

"Bad news bears," I mumbled in reply.

With a giggle, she removed her top layer (my shirt). She balled it up and put it underneath my head as a pillow, patted my shoulder, and skipped off to join the others. I focused on channelling all my energy towards not seeming drunk while nearly passed out on the coffee table in my own basement. If my mother knew the shenanigans I'd gotten into, I'd be forced to do Algebra problems for the rest of my natural-born life.

I opened my eyes some time later to a pair of arms wrapped around my stomach and lips behind my ear.

I received a soft kiss and a gentle squeeze before someone whispered, "Poor Nicky." For a moment, I was confused. Miley called me ‘Nicky', (which I hated), and this was far too intimate a position for Miley and I to be with my almost-girlfriend in the same house. It was when a strand of honey-coloured hair fell in front of my eyes that I realized it was Rainie.

While my eyes fluttered open, she kissed my cheek and propped her chin on my shoulder. Because I was sitting on a stool, I could feel her chest pressed against my back. "Gonna stand up?" she asked softly.

"Why?"

"Everyone's leaving. I think your mom wants her sons upstairs to say goodbye."

Unable to move my head, I shifted my eyes upwards in attempt to see Rainie's beautiful face. "Can you stay?" I murmured.

With that, she snorted unattractively, ruining the sweet, private conversation we'd been having. "No way am I gonna be here when your parents discover how plastered you are."

My soon-to-be girlfriend. So kind. So caring. Not at all distressing.

It was time to force myself up. I sighed and raised my head slowly. As I did so, Rainie removed her arms from around me. When I stood up, I realized it was just the two of us in the basement. I took a moment to blink repeatedly and orient myself before staring at her.

"I'm glad you came," I told her with a smile. Whether it was for affection or for my own support, I can't remember, I put a hand on her shoulder.

She chuckled. "Y'know, I expected you to really come out of your shell when drunk. All you did was lie on the table and groan. I want you sober next time I see you."

"Which will be ta-morrow," I said pointedly.

"Ta-morrow?"

"Ta-morrow," I repeated. Grinning, I closed my eyes in anticipation of a kiss. My hand moved from her shoulder to her hair. Somewhere along the line between soft kisses and a bit of tongue action, I noticed that my fingers were tangled. I pulled away with a pout.

Rainie laughed as she untangled my hand from her hair. "Let's go upstairs. Take a deep breath and try to stand upright in front of your parents."

Halfway up the stairs, I asked her breathlessly, "Kevin didn't come on to you while I wasn't looking, right?"

I couldn't see her face, but I didn't like the way she said, "Don't worry about it."

As soon as we reached the landing, I brought a hand to my face. My cheeks were warm. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the hallway - yep, red rosy cheeks. I didn't bother to analyze myself further.

I said a few goodbyes near the front door, trying my hardest to keep my balance. I stumbled every so often, but I didn't think anyone noticed. However, what might have given me away was the insistence in my voice as I said my farewells to the Cyrus family. All was well with her parents and sisters, but when it came to Miley, she ignored me. She hugged Kevin, she hugged Joe, she hugged Frankie, and she hugged my parents, but she completely bypassed me even though I was certain I had my arms open.

"Bye Miley!" I exclaimed as she slipped on her shoes. No response.

"Really glad you came!" No response.

"You look FAB, by the way." No response. Kevin snickered and said abbreviations were something I couldn't pull off.

As a last resort while she was heading out the door, I cried shamelessly, "Say hi to Justy for me!"

(Side-note: The next morning, I can assure you I regretted this).

When I turned around and shook my head sadly, my father was staring at me in confusion. I offered him no explanation.

Pep said a quick goodbye to me and whispered good luck, but the way she leaned towards me was, in my mind, a social cue that she wanted a hug. My mood was improving, anyway, so I pulled her close to me with a smile. I had passed the ‘tired' phase of drinking, and I found myself in the ‘upbeat' phase.

"Thank you for helping me," I slurred in her ear.

I wasn't sure if she knew that I was referring to earlier on during the drinking game, but she giggled, "Shh." Our parents were nearby.

"Pepper..." I drawled lazily.

"Yeah?"

I hadn't really planned to go anywhere with my utterance of her nickname, but she was expecting something from me, so I put my hands on her shoulders, distanced us, and told her as seriously as I possibly could, "It's really important to me that Lance doesn't call you Pepsi. It's wrong."

With a half-smile, she nodded. "He doesn't call me Pepsi."

"I hate it."

The smile faded. "Hate... Pepsi?"

"You're Pepper," I answered her, shutting my eyes in frustration. Why wasn't she following me? In my mind, I was being very clear.

"Okay..." she trailed off, perplexed.

"No, but only I'm allowed to call you that."

She put a hand on my wrist and tore it away from her shoulder. "Lance calls me Sarah."

"I hate that too."

Rolling her eyes, Pep asked, "Well, what do you want him to call me?"

"I don't want him to call you."

She shrugged, averting her eyes. "He doesn't anymore."

I nodded slowly, refusing to shift my eyes from her face. I was thinking.

It took Pep a while to realize that I had no intention of moving my other hand from her other shoulder, so she finally looked at me again and asked, "What?"

"You wanna stay with me for a while?" I asked quietly. It was sincere, too. Sincerity is typically associated with drunkenness.

She opened her mouth to respond, but instead she turned her head to look for her parents. "Ready, Sarah?" asked her father.

"Um... Rainie's waiting for you," Pep muttered to me. Without another word, she backed away, and my hand fell from her shoulder. I watched her as she walked out the door and her mother put an arm around her. She really was a good little proton.

I turned around to see Joe watching me curiously, his expression pensive. Odd. Joe rarely thinks.

Rainie was watching me, too. Maybe it was my incoherent brain, but I could've sworn she wore an expression similar to Joe's.

With a forced smile, she announced, "Well, I better be off."

She thanked my parents. She hugged Kevin, she hugged Joe, she hugged me. I tried to kiss her cheek in the process, but she pulled away. I was about to tell her I'd call her when she interrupted me with, "Thanks again, guys. See you soon."

When she was gone, I avoided speaking to my parents and immediately headed to my bedroom to sleep off the vodka. Joe appeared in my doorway as I was struggling to find my toothbrush. (It was in the bathroom, where I always kept it. I had no idea why I was desperately searching through my sock drawer).

"What do you want?" I asked.

"You really think Rainie's ‘the one'?" he questioned.

Sighing, I pivoted on my heel to face him. I rubbed my eye sleepily. "I loved her before I even knew her name." That was solid proof.

He shook his head, seeming almost angry. "You're fucked if you think this is the way it's supposed to be."

"You'd be fucked if you had six shots in half an hour, too," I retorted. (Side-note: I wasn't quite sure I grasped what we were talking about, hence the unintentional change of subject).

"Just think about it," Joe said. Then he closed my door and I was alone.

Think about what?

All I could think about was brushing all the vodka off my teeth, changing into pajamas without falling over, and drilling a hole in my head because I was sure it was going to be less painful than the aftermath of this drunken mess.

It was as I was peeling off my shirt that my phone buzzed on my nightstand. I'm not entirely sure why it was absolutely necessary to lunge for it like it was an epic race (me vs. the voicemail), but I grabbed it in record time and fumbled to open the text message. The writing looked smaller than ever before, but I managed to make out that it was from Pep.

All of the letters blurred together on the screen, and I could only pick out a few words: promise, ever, pepper. Promise ever pepper. Why was everyone trying to confuse me? I frowned and shook my head, stuffing my phone into my drawer and allowing myself to fall on my pillow.

(Side-note: The next day, it would take me until three o'clock in the afternoon to find my phone).

(Side-note #2: Upon finding it, I would reread the text message. In its entirety, it read: i promise only you will ever call me pepper).

Chapter End Notes:
Second longest chapter. Party! Next chapter will be really choppy, just so you know. But important! I think. Have you noticed that I've started to tie up some loose ends? If not, then I think you'll know by the next chapter.
Housekeeping - no offense whatsoever to any of you who own silver converse shoes. I just thought it was Nick-thing to say. He likes to take little jabs at people sometimes, as you may have noticed. Also, the slave driver dream - I remember watching a clip on youtube of all three of them in a vehicle, and Kevin saying that Nick had a dream about a slave driver, and Nick was like "hey, you weren't supposed to mention that".
Enjoy your Monday! I know I will, cuz I'm done class. Suckers. :)
PS Don't forget to vote for your favourite stories in the JBFA Awards - a voting section is up in the forum!
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