"Jacky-boy!" Jared called out in the school hallway. I turned, rolling my eyes at his nickname. He just liked it, don't know why - no one else called me that. He caught up to me and threw and arm around my shoulders. "Hero City this afternoon?"
"What about Lauren?" I asked.
"I don't think she's a Hero City kind of gal," he said. "Besides, I think my best friend asked me to make some balance in my relationships and I guess he's right - but don't tell him I said so. He's a real prick when he's right."
"I am not!" I protested while Jared laughed at me, but with good humor.
"Jack! Jack, wait up!" Derry called out, quickly joining us. "Hey, Jack. Want to grab a drink after school at Quigley's?"
"Um, Jared and I were going to hit up Hero City," I said, vaguely - or not so vaguely - wishing I hadn't agreed to meet Jared.
"Are you into comics and video games, Derry?" Jared asked.
"I've been known to play," Derry said, smiling.
"Why don't you hang with us, then? I'll share Jack with you at Hero City, you share him with me at Quigley's and we can work out custody later," Jared said, grinning. I shoved him.
"Uh, yeah, Okay. Meet you at your car, Jack?" Derry asked.
"Yeah, totally," I said, trying to sound strong and not at all like my best friend was making implications.
Derry smiled and left for his class.
"Luke was right. You guys look good together," Jared said quietly, near my ear. I shivered.
I turned to face him, remembering Luke said he wasn't angry with me. I still felt guilty at not telling him, and worse that I hid my feelings for his brother.
"I'm sorry," I said.
He looked at me steadily. "Don't be. I already knew who you were. Who you love is important, but it doesn't change who you are - and who we are with each other. Right? I mean, you never said I wasn't worth being friends with because of who I dated, just how I dated. Am I right?"
I nodded. "I'm still sorry," I said, my words not carrying far in the noisy hallway as annoyed classmates broke around us like water around a large rock. "For not telling you. I thought you'd be mad. For...liking Luke. I thought you wouldn't like that, either."
He sighed. The corners of his mouth turned up. "After Luke, I learned my lesson. Coming out isn't about me. I did become a bit more aware, though, and I thought I had you figured. I could see you were into Luke, and that he was equally oblivious." He paused. "I was hoping if I ribbed you enough about dating you'd show up with a guy on your arm or just tell me so I'd get off your case."
I blinked a few times and looked away from him. "I didn't want to make a rift between us."
"What were you going to do, Jack?" he asked, placing a hand on my shoulder. "Wait until college to find a guy - if we even go to separate colleges? Or were you going to marry a guy in secret and never tell me?" He shook my shoulder. "Don't hide from me, Jack. You're better than that. We're better than that. Other people hide things; fear reactions. Not you and me. We fight and we work through it. We're us, Jack."
I looked at him, unable to stop myself from asking one more time. "Even if Luke had been interested in me, too?"
The corner of his mouth turned up. "Luke would have been lucky to get you, Jack. He needs someone that won't give up on him, that will call him out when he gets skittish and anxious. These guys he's dated, they haven't looked into him to see who he is - or didn't get the chance. They just see the fantastic Benson genes on the outside, you know? Can't blame them there, of course."
I rolled my eyes. "Of course."
"Are we done with this feelings business now?"
"God, please," I groaned and we both laughed.
"I wasn't kidding about the genes," he said as we walked down the hall. "Did you know studies show that teachers expect more attractive students to perform better, which nets them better grades and more attention - plus less punishment. Being pretty equals better grades, Jack. It's a fact."
Part of his charm.
Harvey, the guy at Hero City, was now sporting green hair. I gave him a small wave and said, "Nice color, Harv. Why'd you go with green?"
He sighed. "I'm a natural blond, but I started to go gray early. I had the idea to go back, but do you know what happens when you try for blond while having blue hair?" He pointed at his head. "Green."
I raised an eyebrow and felt a giggle coming on. "Sorry I asked."
We burned through a few bucks at the video games and then did some window shopping. Derry and Jared were flipping through comics and showing each other covers, claiming I should draw them in the poses. I have to admit it felt pretty good. Of course I immediately felt a lot of pressure because I'd want to get a drawing like that right. Nothing is easy, is it?
We started the walk over to Quigley's, since it was nice out, and Jared started in. "You know, people used to treat comics like they were evil. They tried to tie them to violence and delinquency."
"Kind of like how people talk about video games," Derry said.
"Exactly." They continued on in that vein for a bit, but I got tired of it.
"Derry," I said, breaking into their back and forth. "Is your concert season over?"
He looked pleasantly surprised. "Sort of. There's a summer group I like to work with, plus there is the Park Playhouse theater group that will be putting on musicals over in Memorial Park. Why?"
"I've never heard you sing, but it's something you enjoy," I said, flashing a warning look at Jared as he smiled at me. Looking back to Derry I bobbed my head as I continued, "I was just wondering. I thought it would be nice to get a chance to hear you."
He gave me an appraising look, one with some amusement and pleasure. "I'll keep you posted."
Once we arrived in Quigley's we ordered up drinks and Jared went nuts because they had lemon bars, so he got some for each of us.
"You know," I said, adopting my best 'Jared' voice. "A recent study said lemon bars are the preferred dessert of bisexual people."
"I'm not dating you," Jared said, then bit off a bit of the treat. "Maybe Derry, but not you. That's just weird."
"Uh," Derry said, looking between us. "Jack and I aren't dating."
Jared nodded as he chewed and waved with his hand. Derry gave me an inquisitive look, but I just shrugged. I had no idea what Jared was doing, but I figured it'd embarrass me.
"Here's the thing," Jared said. He sipped his drink then placed his palms together as he looked at Derry. "He's my best friend. He'd have been great for my brother, but you know...my brother and my sister have relationship issues that kind of evolved from the lousy way my parents broke up." He tilted his head, still fixed on Derry and continued. "See, my sister and my mother were really close. After things...happened...my sister got really angry. She's kind of never stopped being angry. Luke was different. He lost faith in the idea of relationships, but he also doesn't want to be alone. The longer a relationship goes on, the more stressed he gets until he has to get out." He held up a hand to Derry who looked confused. "I'm saying this for your benefit as much as Jack's. He's the best. Luke says you were his first big mistake - the breaking up part."
"Well," Derry said uncertainly, but Jared kept going.
"So I can see hanging out with you has been a really good thing for Jack. You've taken his art to a level he hasn't reached before - and hell if he isn't happy. So if you are kind of thinking this might be worth taking a risk on, I'm telling you he is. But with me dating, and that always makes stress between Jack and me. If he starts dating at the same time I am - I need assurances."
"What are you talking about?" I asked through clenched teeth.
Jared looked at me with some amusement. "You've been bitching at me for years about my bad dating habits. You think I didn't listen? I'm hanging out with Derry now to show him we can spend time without it being awkward - just like you could with Lauren if you'd give me a chance."
"We aren't dating!" I said, a bit of a whine in my voice.
He looked back and forth between us. "I know. But...maybe that will change, right? So I need to work with Derry, here, to make sure that between my dating and yours, you and I don't lose each other."
"Well, if we date, I'll call you, okay?" Derry said and rolled his eyes.
"Okay, well I know he won't ask you, so just keep it in mind, okay? You're going to have to tell him you're dating so he knows." He paused. "I mean, I'll bet you it'll come as a shock to him. You'll be hitting your first anniversary and he'll be like 'what?'"
"I would not!" I said indignantly.
"He would," Jared said confidently. "So once you've got him, call me, so we can work out custody every other weekend and alternating holidays or something. Cool?" Jared asked as he smiled and gained his feet.
Derry leaned back and looked at me. "He can ask if he wants to. It wouldn't be the first time he asked me to do something."
"Like making out with you?" Jared asked.
I looked at him and asked, "You knew?" while Derry raised an eyebrow at him in surprise.
"The key to appearing omnipotent is to know just enough," he said, holding his fingers less than an inch apart. He pulled his phone out and checked it. "Well, Lauren and I are cooking tonight. Yay." He paused and looked down at us both and said, "You know, she isn't perfect. I haven't been a perfect friend, and I think you guys may have had a bump or two. But I'm going to ask you to give her a chance - give us a chance - because things aren't the same without you. Okay!" he said, throwing a hand in the air. "Feelings are officially off! See you!"
He departed, looking a bit smug. I looked back at Derry, who was blushing a bit. "Sorry about him. He's a great guy, means well. I don't know what's gotten into him lately, though."
Derry studied me for a moment. "Is he right? Your artwork has never been better?"
I shifted on the chair. "Well, that's all kind of subjective, but...yeah. Having you to model has been really beneficial."
"Why do you think that is?"
I cleared my throat. "Well, reference for one thing. Drawing from memory may sound great, but it presents a lot of problems, like forgetting details. Having someone right in front of you helps make sure it's much more accurate."
Derry tilted his head. "That's it?"
I hesitated. "It helps to...if I...enjoy my subject."
He dropped his chin down and looked at me. "Really? That's how you want to say it?"
I sighed and rubbed my hands on my jeans. A nervous smile flickered across my lips. "I like drawing you."
He was silent for a beat. "Anything else?"
"I, uh, like spending time with you. Listening to music with you. Swimming with you. Just...you."
His tone changed, getting direct once more and it kind of threw me as he said, "I stole your drawing."
"You what?" I asked, confused.
"From the competition. I stole it from the classroom."
I stared at him for a moment. "Why? I'd have given it you."
He narrowed his eyes and stood up. "Come here."
I stared at him.
He smiled, blushing slightly and waved his hand at me. "Come here, please."
I stood slowly, wondering what he was up to. His fingertips brushed across the back of my hand and then were gone as he turned and I followed him. He took me over to where we'd sat the first time we had come here; on the wall between the chairs we'd sat in was my drawing.
"I told you they post local artwork. People should see what you can do," Derry said quietly.
I stared for a moment, feelings a little mixed up. "I wanted to change the hair." I looked at him. "I figured out the colors to combine to get your shade of red. I was going to change it."
"I know. Well, I do now," he said and smiled. "Maybe you can draw it again, instead. It's great work, though."
I looked at him with strange thoughts tumbling around my head. I wanted to ask him out, but my mind was coming up with reasons - or less than that - to derail the idea. One question stuck with me.
"What about Josh?"
Derry tilted his head and chuckled. "What about him?"
"He asked you to the concert. Isn't he...interested in you?"
Derry laughed. "I think he wanted to stick it to Luke, somehow. He asked me and I went because it was Panic!"
"But...Luke said you guys were kissing."
Derry frowned lightly. "He tried a little. I wanted to listen to the show, so I pushed him off." He tilted his head. "He was kind of pissed. Maybe he thought I owed him. I don't know. Why are you asking about him?"
"Because," I said and took a deep breath. "I want to ask you out, but I'm afraid. I...wasn't good to you before. I don't know how you feel about that. Or me."
Derry leaned to one side. "Well, why don't you ask me what I think about what happened before. And how I feel about you now?"
I grimaced. It was out there, now. I let out a nervous chuckle. "We should make a band based on how I feel right now," I said. "Panic! At the coffee shop."
Derry smiled. "Ask."
I sighed. "It's okay. I should-"
I shuffled my feet. "How do you...how do you feel about what happened before. Between us."
"I felt a little used. A little hurt. Confused. I understand better, now. Enough to know it was a mistake and that you regret it."
I kept looking at him.
His gaze softened. "That I forgive you."
I let out an unsteady breath. "How do you...feel...about me now?"
He took a step closer to me. "I feel like you're someone who sees me in a way no one else has. Or maybe can." He smiled, his cheeks flushing. "That drawing of me on the deckchair...it's amazing. I look hot, and I don't think I look like that." He paused. "But you see that, don't you?"
"Yeah," I said softly.
"So you want to know how I feel about a guy that draws me like I'm a glamorous pin-up and calls it truth? How I feel about a guy that makes me think he's a neat freak just to make a good impression?" He inched closer. "How I feel about a guy that cares about what I feel?"
I stared back at him. "Yes."
He looked at me, again, with his eyes shifting subtly as his gaze moved over my face. "I feel that I want him to ask me out. I feel like he should take my hand - realizing that he's also taking my heart. And I think he should kiss me."
I stared at him. "You mean now?"
He laughed. "Yes, Jack. Now. Right now."
"This is so cool," Lauren said as she stood beside Jared. She had a small bouquet of flowers clutched in her hand and smiled as Jared shifted beside her.
"So I'm thinking the flowers should be between you," I said. "Jared, maybe put your hand on hers? The one with the bouquet?" I adjusted them. They shifted some more, probably feeling a little self conscious.
"Like this?" Jared asked.
"Good, yeah," I said and sat down across from them and selected pencils to start the drawing with.
Derry leaned down and spoke into my ear. "Delia will be jealous you haven't gone back to the drawing of her and Ahmed."
"Ahmed won't stop making faces," I replied neutrally. "Maybe I should just draw Delia."
"Might be a good idea anyway," he agreed. "Ahmed is a record for her, but it won't last forever. You don't want her scratching his face off a drawing like that."
I snorted in amusement.
"Weren't you just doing general sketching today?" he asked, lowering his voice.
"I am," I said quietly as I made the first few strokes on the page.
"So you won't draw details like their hands or flowers today, right?"
"So why do they have to hold them like that?"
"Because their arms will go numb," I said quietly.
He poked me and I looked up at him, grinning. "That's why you wanted me to hold that stupid microphone."
I glanced at Jared and Lauren and started to sketch again. "I did need it to get your fingers right."
He looked at me knowingly.
"Hey, there's a reason the second drawing had you lying down," I said reasonably.
"You were horny?"
"No," I said, unconvincingly. "That's the one you're going to sit for."
"I don't know," Derry said teasingly.
"Hey, it was my dad's idea," I told him.
"He told me I was drawing you like a French postcard," I paused my drawing and looked up to him. "Sounded like a project I could really get into."Previous Chapter