A/N - sorry for the epic hiatus. Had a lot going on IRL and writers block was a huge challenge. Thanks for sticking with me - I'm committed to finishing this fic!
ARMS OPEN: CH 7
Cece dug at the ice in the bottom of her glass with a straw, a nod in the direction of the waiter signalling him to bring another over to her table. She shifted in her seat, boredom growing as she looked at her watch and wondered what was keeping her usually oh-so-punctual friend. Jess chose the same moment to bluster through the door, hurrying over to take a seat, puffing air from her cheeks and dropping her bag loudly under the table.
"Tough morning?" Cece raised a brow.
"Ugh, the worst. It must be a full moon, because the kids in my class are just bonkers today. Jason cut his own fringe with my fabric scissors, Gina emptied all the hole punch bottoms on the floor because it 'looked like confetti', and Antonio nearly poked his own eye out with a paper plane..." She sighed heavily and gratefully accepted the alcohol free cocktail Cece slid across the table top at her.
"Okay, well for the next hour you're not allowed to think about school. Lunch is on its way - I ordered your usual - and I want to hear all about this so called Mr Perfect!"
"I thought you said no one was perfect?" Jess challenged.
"I'm willing to hear you out…" Cece smirked "…and he must be doing something right, because you're seeing him a lot these days."
"Speaking of which, he messaged me while I was on my way over here about dinner tonight."
"Yeah? Another VIP table at some swanky new restaurant I take it?"
"No, actually…" Jess narrowed her eyes, aware of the veiled sarcasm beneath Cece's question "…he says he wants to cook me dinner at his place, so we can have an evening away from all the loud music and crowds of people. Just us two. Something special, you know. It's not all about fancy places and networking. He wants to get to know me better."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like a bitch." Cece saw the slightly wounded look on Jess's face "That's great. Sounds perfect. So tell me more about what's been going on – with all the craziness of Shivrang's family visiting, I feel like we haven't had the chance to hang out much recently."
"I'm not sure where you want me to start, but we sure are having a lot of fun…"
"Fun?Just fun? Because I thought that was part of the problem with you and Dr Sam?"
Jess took a thoughtful sip of her drink before sitting back in her chair with a little shrug.
"It was. But, honestly? This feels like it could be different. We have fun, but there's definitely scope for this to turn in to something more. Something serious. He was very obvious about that just this morning, actually…"
"And that's what you want?" Cece was careful to keep the tone of her question neutral.
Jess considered the question as she chewed a mouthful of her lunch. She'd been in several serious relationships since moving in to the loft, but they'd always left her feeling a bit like Goldilocks: none of them felt quite right for one reason or another.
She was looking for something she couldn't quite put her finger on, but Jess knew that once she found it, the wait would have been worth the heartache of what had come before. She owed it to herself to explore what lie ahead with Logan, and she promised that this time she wouldn't read in to everything so much, wouldn't over analyse every detail and tell herself they should be something different to fit this idea of love she'd clung on to since childhood.
Jess always had this image of what the perfect relationship should be like in her head, but so far that had gotten her nowhere fast. It hadn't escaped her that to others she seemed like a fantasist, searching for something that didn't exist. She knew the guys shook their heads in despair at her notion of true love, but no matter what had happened in the past, Jess remained a hopeless romantic – she wouldn't give up on finding her soul mate.
He was out there somewhere, Jess knew it.
She could feel it.
This time, it would be different. She needed it to be different.
"You know, I think I do want it. I'm ready to find myself someone I can see a real future with, Cece. I'm so sick of making the wrong choices with guys. I want to see where this goes. Logan checks so many boxes." Jess used her fingers to list them off "Treats me well – tick, shares my interests – tick, good career – tick…"
"Tall, handsome, great body: tick, tick, tick…"
"Girl, please – don't even try to tell me that's not part of the equation!" She raised a knowing brow at her friend.
"Hey, it's not my fault if his personality happens to be wrapped in a wholly pleasant exterior…" Jess grinned.
"I knew it!" Cece laughed "Well, now you're going to have to invite me over for dinner so I can meet him properly and assess his suitability for you myself."
"Deal. And I know you have your reservations about Logan, what with him coming on so strong and all - but if you meet him and see what he's like for yourself, I'm sure you'll change your mind."
Jess realised she'd been worrying her napkin between her fingers on the table. She trusted Cece implicitly, and although Jess wouldn't immediately admit it, her best friends approval of the guy she was dating really did mean a lot to her. She wanted everyone to see Logan the way she did.
Schmidt was already enamoured with him, Winston hadn't said much either way, and Nick was clearly going to take a little work. But Cece's opinion was the one she really cared about right now.
"In all seriousness Jess, you're my best friend and I just want to see you smiling again. If you're happy, then I'm happy."
"I am." Jess nodded confidently.
"Then, so am I…" Cece shrugged with a smile, giving Jess's hand a squeeze from across the table.
"Okay. Great. Well, then enough about me – how are the wedding plans going? Have you finalised the guest list yet? You know Schmidt is still convinced this is all some kind of elaborate ruse just to teach him a lesson…I honestly don't think he'll accept you've moved on until he sees you marry someone else with his own eyes."
"See that right there, is precisely the reason I am marrying someone like Shivrang." Cece rolled her eyes "A man who behaves like an actual adult, not an overgrown man-child like Schmidt who thinks the world revolves around him, and can't even maintain a serious relationship without throwing it down the drain."
Cece's gaze dropped to her plate but Jess pretended not to notice. They both knew it was painful for her to think about how Schmidt had ended things – especially when it was the first time Jess can remember seeing her friend truly happy with a guy. Cece had let her guard down for him, and been burned. So now she'd built it back again twice as high, which is why Jess was still a little confused by the engagement to Shivrang. But Cece seemed committed to seeing it through, and at no point had she given Jess any indication that she was regretting the idea. Until she knew otherwise, Jess had to assume this is what her friend wanted, and would give her complete support.
"Shivrang has real plans. He has life goals. He wants to build a future - and I'm a part of it."
"Do you love him, Ceec?"
Jess's question came unexpectedly, the words having been spoken the very instant she thought them to herself. Cece visibly flinched, and when no answer came straight away, they both fell silent - knowing that was an unspoken answer all of its own.
Cece took a moment to contemplate her words, before taking a deep breath and looking her best friend right in the eye.
"Sometimes love isn't everything you think it's going to be, Jess."
Nick collapsed with a groan onto the couch, his body sinking into the groove he had carved into the cushions over the years. He ached all over and was grateful for the chance to relax uninterrupted. The others were either at work or sleeping, meaning he could lay around in a t-shirt and his underwear without a care in the world for a few blissful hours. In the week since his uncomfortable kitchen encounter with Logan and Jess, he'd buried himself in work - including the shifts that meant doing the deliveries alone. The physical exhaustion he experienced meant he could escape the mental toil that had been plaguing him - even if just for a few hours. He'd work all hours he could manage, until every single muscle in his body was screaming for mercy and pleading for him to rest, then it was all he could do to get back home and crawl into his bed to pass out from exhaustion. He didn't care how damn much it hurt, because channelling his frustration into something productive was easier than wallowing in the searing resentment he now felt whenever he was back at the loft.
It was becoming painfully clear that Logan wasn't going anywhere fast right now. The way Jess breezed in to the apartment after dates with him made Nick's stomach squirm with jealously. She seemed so happy, and that was great - but Nick just didn't like the guy, and no amount of Jess forcing them to spend time together was going to change that. He was civil, but purely because of the kick in the shins he knew he'd receive under the table from Jess if he wasn't. By increasing the hours he worked, he was able to avoid some of the encounters he had been finding more and more difficult to navigate – and it had been several days since he'd seen anything of Jess at all. The closest he'd gotten was walking into the living area one morning just as she closed the door behind her when leaving for work. The sweet scent of her perfume had hung in the air, and Nick had closed his eyes as he breathed it in deeply, her face filling the blank space behind his eyelids despite the way it made his chest ache.
Sighing loudly, he grabbed the TV remote and flicked aimlessly through the channels, not paying much attention to what was on – he just needed something for his brain to focus on long enough to keep his mind distracted. Enjoying having the couch to himself for once, he stretched his legs out in front of him, propped himself up with cushions, and started eating the enormous sandwich he'd lovingly constructed (his thinking was: make it big enough for two meals, save himself a second trip to the kitchen). A cool beer rested on the floor, and as he reached the tips of his fingers down to grab it, he sent the bottle toppling over with a thud, a pool of liquid puddling on the hardwood.
"Shit!" He grumbled, reluctantly sitting up again and reaching for the nearest absorbent material within arm's length to mop up the spill.
This happened to be a blanket belonging to Schmidt, but Nick was pretty sure he'd be able to hide the incriminating evidence long enough to for the beer to dry. Then he'd spray it with some cologne, shove it in the back of Schmidt's drawer, and hope to avoid suspicion.
Hearing the door to the loft swing open, Nick panicked and hid the blanket under a cushion to his left, head popping up quickly over the top of the couch like a meerkat as he expected to see a flustered Schmidt returning early from his meeting. The mop of dark curls and glasses holding a stack of workbooks told him otherwise, and his half chewed mouthful of sandwich nearly choked him as it stuck in his throat.
"Jess…" he croaked.
"Oh, hey, Nick…" She grinned, using her index finger to slide the frame of her glasses higher up on her nose and setting the pile of books down on the side table "I was beginning to forget what you looked like!"
He smiled and nodded, not really knowing what else to say as she approached the couch. He was suddenly reminded of his choice of clothing (or lack thereof) as Jess stopped a few steps away, taking in his attire whilst frowning.
"Ew, Nick - put some pants on or something. You're not a fourteen year old boy anymore, sitting in your underwear eating sandwiches all day is just not cool, man."
"I beg to differ." He shrugged, biting off an extra-large mouthful just to prove a point.
"It's your first day off in a while, don't you have anything planned for this afternoon?"
Nick's brow furrowed and he glanced repeatedly between himself, the TV, and his sandwich before looking up to meet her gaze.
"Sure." He mumbled, crumbs spewing from his lips. "You're looking at it…"
"Did you come home early just to annoy me, Jessica? Or is that an added bonus?" Nick narrowed his eyes.
"It wasn't my intention, but you just make it so easy." She smiled sarcastically at him before walking to the kitchen and pouring herself a mug of coffee "I came home early because I have a ton of marking to do before my date tonight."
"Oh. Even better." He muttered under his breath, picking up his beer to down what was left in a single mouthful.
Jess had taken up residence at the end of the couch, and although he was happy to be in her company, Nick was slightly aggrieved at having to share the living space earlier than planned. She'd repeatedly promised not to disturb him, but the loud, melodic humming regularly coming from her direction hadn't gone unnoticed. Nick couldn't stop looking at her every time she did it, watching her mouth intently, finding his gaze lowering to where the vibrations thrummed in her throat and drifting to linger on the dip where her neck met her collarbone. It was increasingly distracting, so he'd moved to the far side of the sofa and turned the TV up to drown her out. The muscles in his back and neck were becoming tight and uncomfortable now that he wasn't lying prone on the cushions, and no amount of re-positioning was helping.
Jess frowned as she noticed Nick fidgeting constantly, stretching his neck side to side and wincing for the third time in ten minutes. She played her lip through her teeth for a moment, then placed her pen and workbooks decisively to one side, turning her head to see him grimace in discomfort whilst squeezing the skin at the base of his skull beneath his fingers.
"You okay?" She asked.
"Hmm?" He looked up, shaking his head slightly "Oh, yeah…it's nothing."
"Doesn't look like nothing – are you in pain? Seems like you're in pain…"
"I'm fine…" He insisted "…just hurt my neck a little doing the delivery yesterday. Must have pulled a muscle or something, I don't know. No big deal."
Jess sighed and joined her hands together, flexing outwards so the joints cracked loudly.
"Okay, come here." She offered, pointing to a spot on the floor just in front of the couch.
"Come…" Jess repeated, crossing her legs and moving forward "…sit down, and then thank me later."
"Seriously Jess, I'll be fine." Nick lied and shifted away from her slightly, his arms pushing into the couch and pressing his back firmly against the cushions "I don't…"
"SIT!" She instructed, in her most forceful 'teacher' voice.
Against his better judgement, Nick huffed in resignation and slid reluctantly to the floor, positioning himself stiffly in front of Jess. Her knees touched his shoulder blades softly as she leaned closer, and he could already feel his body temperature rising uncomfortably. He felt Jess place her hands on his shoulders and the warmth of her skin permeated the material of his t-shirt immediately. It was the most glorious torture he could put himself through.
Jess giving the guys a neck massage was nothing unheard of in the loft, she'd done it for Schmidt and Winston in the past, however it had been quite some time since Nick had been the recipient. He had no doubt about the fact it wasn't the most sensible thing to do, given where his mind was at these days – but his neck really was hurting him, and she had insisted.
Her hands squeezed gently at his neck muscles, getting a feel for where the problem area was. She heard Nick suck in a hiss of air when she applied pressure on his left side.
"Wow, you are just a mess of knots and tension Nicholas – no wonder you're hurting."
A shiver skittered down the length of his spine as Jess's thumbs pressed hard into the muscles beneath his skin. His eyes closed with a satisfied groan, breathing becoming slower and deeper with every slow sweep she made – the circular rhythm radiating across the tops of his shoulders sending him into some kind of hypnotic trance. With each movement of her fingertips, Nick felt his body relax a little more. The tightness in his muscles just melted away at her touch - which was poetic in its irony, given that she was the reason for all of his tension in the first place.
Neither of them spoke as she concentrated on easing the pain from his body with her hands, the loft quiet save for the low background noise of the TV news channel.
His mind started to wander, and he was so caught up in his own imaginings that Nick thought it was all in his mind when he felt Jess's fingers edge under the collar of his t-shirt. The sensation of her skin resting directly on his was jarringly sexy. Her fingertips grazed once across his collarbone, and Nick felt like someone had set off a firework in his chest. He wanted so badly to allow his head to drop backward into her lap, but somehow he managed to retain a modicum of restraint over his actions.
Then, as quickly as her hands had dipped in to the front of his shirt, they were gone again - leaving Nick struggling to catch his breath because his body was practically begging for her to touch him like that again.
Jess cleared her throat from behind him and he felt her shift away slightly as she dragged her hands upwards, her thumbs back to massaging the sides of his neck, pressing firmly into the muscles until suddenly hitting that sore spot he had begun to forget about. An excruciating pain shot through him, so intense that he jolted forwards.
"Ow!" He yelped loudly, sitting upright with a sharp intake of breath.
"Sorry!" She replied, removing both her hands at once.
"What the hell, Jess?" Nick span to face her "Why did you do that?!"
"It was accidental - it wasn't like I did it on purpose…" Jess frowned.
"Dammit, now it hurts more than before. I told you I didn't want to do this!" Nick raised his voice, eyes darkening.
"What has gotten into you, Nick? I already said I was sorry."
"Sure, because that makes it all okay…"
"I was only trying to help, you jackass!"
"Yeah? Well maybe you should have just kept your hands to yourself!"
Jess reeled backwards like she'd been shoved, and Nick looked away as the mood in the loft noticeably shifted. A door was heard being flung open, Winston appearing in the hallway seconds later looking thoroughly pissed.
"Damn it, guys! What the hell are y'all yelling about? Some of us are trying to nap!"
"Nothing…" Grunted Nick, standing up and repeatedly rubbing his sore neck.
"Yeah, it's nothing…" Jess muttered, getting up quickly and walking towards the kitchen. Passing Winston, who was wearing nothing but his underpants, she shook her head in disdain "…and does no-one know how to get dressed in this damn apartment anymore?"
Winston shot Nick a warning look that required no words and quickly retreated to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him. Jess busied herself with boiling the kettle and opening cupboards until she found the chamomile tea, taking some deep breaths to calm herself down and stop the prickling heat of tears behind her eyes.
Nick's soft footsteps approached from the living area, coming to a stop somewhere near the kitchen island. Even from behind he could tell he'd upset her, her shoulders were rounded as she leant away from him, and he hated himself for it.
"I'm sorry, Jess…" His quiet apology reaching out to her like an olive branch "…you did nothing wrong."
She refused to turn around, staying silent even as she heard him sigh sadly and tap his fingers gently against the counter.
"I was being a jerk…I'm just in a lot of pain, is all. But I shouldn't have taken it out on you…I didn't mean to make you feel bad, I hope you know that."
Jess remained with her back to him until he finally disappeared down the hall and into the bathroom.
Only once Jess could hear the sound of the shower on full blast did she then reach for a mug, trying her hardest not to let her shaking hands knock it over as she poured the water over her teabag, wondering what the hell had just happened – and why it bothered her so much.