Title: Best Kept
Parts: Two of two.
Disclaimer: I do not own either of them, or their siblings.
Summary: Ten years' worth of hoping and pining and aching and secrets you swore you'd never tell, but still it's all just water flowing through a busted pipe.
Notes: For mathkid's birthday. Un-beta'd, save for roughly 1/3 of it four years ago. Permit me its flaws. Easily one of the hardest things I've ever had to finish.
Things were pretty quiet for awhile, minus the occasional awkward moments and blushes that liked to dislodge my brain when she caught me looking at her. I was doing the best I could, though—meanwhile just waiting for this weird secret... bizarre feeling I was suddenly experiencing for her to run its course and fizzle out. Because I knew it would. Eventually.
So what if a year had passed and no such luck? That didn't mean I wasn't EVER going to fully recover from post-first-(real)-kiss trauma. These things took time, I told myself.
... I hoped.
It was hard, though, because being around her was... I couldn't begin to describe it. I'd sit next to her at lunch, or watch her during basketball practice and try not to focus on what she was doing, and for awhile I'd think it had worked. Only, later, when I was usually in the middle of some mundane activity, like homework or eating or lobbing lacrosse balls back and forth with a teammate, she'd cross my mind and I'd suddenly realize I could recall every slight movement, vocal inflection, even the squeaks of her shoes on the court, and... well, needless to say, it was seriously hampering my ability to focus on getting over what had me so riled up in the first place.
Buttercup, on the other hand, seemed to be doing fine. Better than me, at least. Whether that made me feel relieved or disappointed wasn't something I could easily say.
We still did stuff we'd been doing ages before together—faked a cold, skipped a class, snuck around, that sort of thing. One morning I'd opened my locker to find a scrap of paper that had been stuffed through the crack, perched on top of my little used textbooks. I recognized her handwriting immediately, and had agonized over the endless possibilities "Meet me in the courtyard for lunch, BC" implicated. By the time 12:15 had rolled around the pounding in my limbs was near unbearable, and I strolled to the courtyard on legs that threatened to crumple beneath me every time I took a step. Once outside I took to floating instead, which really wasn't much better considering the jumble of thoughts cluttering my brain and preventing me from focusing, but, well, at least I wasn't walking.
I reached the courtyard and sat on the one bench on the east side, the sun-soaked cement warming my legs. No sooner had I settled then Buttercup zipped in, the breeze from her flying ruffling my hair.
"Hey," she said, and I looked up, eyes lingering maybe too long on her small smile before looking her directly in the eyes.
Plastering a stupid grin on my face, I raised my hand in greeting. "Oy. So what's the occasion?"
She held a large Tupperware container and sat next to me, placing it between us. "Um, well... happy birthday."
I blinked. "... Oh." Anniversary of me and my brothers' creation coming up? God, how out of it was I?
"Look, this isn't really your actual gift or anything," she quickly added. "It's like, um, well, you're getting something really from me later, but this is just like till then... look, well, just—just open it. Come on." She nudged the container toward me, and I lifted it to my lap.
"Er... thanks," I mumbled, grasping a corner of the lid but not prying it off. "You... you know, you didn't have to—"
"Just open it, you big loser. I was up late getting it just right, so cut the Good Samaritan crap and take the damn thing."
I made a face at her and obligingly opened the top. An incredible aroma hit me all of the sudden, and I gaped at the foil-wrapped packages inside. "What... "
"It's lunch," Buttercup said shortly, and pointed. "That little one there is shrimp scampi, that other little one's got red-skinned potatoes in it, and that bigger one's chicken alfredo. And, um, there's a cupcake over there in the corner—I would've made a whole cake, but I'm already doing that for you and your brothers later today, so I thought that'd be kinda pointless... anyway, um, I've got a coke here and a fork... "
She bent and dug in her backpack, and I sat there, mouth open and brain numb—She did this for me, I thought, and my heart rate quickened. She... she did this for me. She did this for me. She was up late—
And did this—
"Hello? Hel-lo? Earth to Butch," she said, poking me in the arm with the fork.
I just shook my head. "I can't... I can't believe you—"
"Hey, shut up and eat your damn food, we've only got about half an hour left."
As I bit into my first forkful of chicken alfredo I swore to God I would never look at it the same way ever again.
She frequently asked me if I liked it, and time and time again I said yes, and eventually she was convinced and started asking my opinion on joining basketball vs. joining volleyball and we debated on the topic until the last bit of food had disappeared between my lips, save for the cupcake.
Buttercup pulled it out and unwrapped the foil, sticking a single candle she drew from her pocket in the center of the chocolate confection. "You know the drill," she said, blushing a bit at the clichédness of it all, then shook it off and continued. "Make it quick, though—faculty member finds me with a lighter, I'm screwed." She pulled one out from her jeans pocket and flicked it over the candle, murmuring, "Happy Birthday, Butch," as it caught and a flicker of flame ignited the wick.
She raised it up a bit, and when I looked at her I saw the fire dancing in her eyes, and before I could stop myself, I thought—
I wish I could kiss you again.
And the one little thought snowballed into an avalanche, and in that instant all I wanted was for things to be different, things to be real, I wanted it to be okay for me to think of her and want to see her and brush my hand along hers and smile when we passed in the halls...
If it was all made okay then nothing would be wrong, and I could feel the way I did with no regret or guilt or shame.
Her face blurred in my vision as I focused on the candle, closed my eyes, and drew in a deep breath—
"Crap!" she suddenly hissed, and my eyes snapped open just as Buttercup set the cupcake down on the bench and pinched the flame between licked hands. She yanked the candle out and rolled it into the grass a second before Mrs. Conrad appeared, frowning, at our sides.
"She didn't have to give us detention," Buttercup grumbled, kicking a rock along the pavement. "It's not like we're required to eat in the cafeteria."
"Hey, at least she didn't find the lighter," I said airily in an attempt to be reassuring. "And, um, actually, we are required to eat in the cafete—"
"Oh, plug it. Hasn't this school heard of non-conformity?" She sighed. "I'm sorry I broke the candle, though." Buttercup had stepped on it unintentionally and almost seemed apologetic—which, coming from her, was a lot.
I shrugged it off and ignored the slight twinge of disappointment I felt. "Not a big deal, really. The cake's the best part of it, anyway." With every gradual minute that had passed from my almost-wish, I grew more certain that it would've been a big mistake. And silly. Just plain silly. Honestly. What was the matter with me?
"Speaking of which, how do you like the cake?"
I tore off a bit and chewed thoughtfully. "Needs salt."
"Hey, you're the one asking stupid questions. Try a piece for yourself." I broke off a chunk and handed it to her. She begrudgingly took it and popped it in her mouth. We shuffled back into the school in silence.
"It's good," she said finally, voice soft.
I listened to the faint echo of her words in the empty hall. "Yeah." I finished it off just as the bell rang and students exploded into the halls.
Later that week, on the real birthday cake, I wished for an A on my math test. It came back the next day with a big red "C" scrawled at the top.
By that time I had put things back in perspective.
"Her name is Rachel," I was telling Buttercup a month later as we stood on a precipice overlooking the coast on the outskirts of town.
She pitched a rock, watching it make a low arc before it broke the surface of the water. "Oh. Yeah, I know her. We did a project or something in Language Arts together before." She tossed and caught another rock into the air before chucking it, too, over the edge.
I waited for her to say something more, something like, "I don't think you should go out with her," or, "You know that girl has an ingrown toe? It's really gross," or maybe just, "She isn't your type, I am so not down with that." But she only dug her shoes in the dirt, kicking around for more rocks to throw. I watched her expression intently, praying for the slightest twitch or hurt look, wanting an excuse to, well, think that Buttercup wanted me to be with her instead as much as I did. Or something along those lines.
Her expression remained bored, nonchalant as she looked at me and asked, "Where you guys going for your first date?"
I bit my lip to hide my disappointment and shrugged. "Thinking about a movie."
"Yeah?" Without waiting for a response, she turned her attention back to the ground and said, "You ought to take her to the skating rink. She likes skating; she rollerblades to school everyday." Buttercup kicked up a rock and caught it in her hand. "She'd like it, probably, if you both went to a skating rink. Or the skate park, if you wanna save some cash."
"Do you mind?" I blurted without thinking, too wrapped up in wondering why she was telling me all this.
The question seemed to take her by surprise, and she threw me a funny look. "Mind? Why the hell would I mind?"
It stung me to hear that, and I wished that she would hurl that rock at me and scream, "Of course I mind, you idiot, I wanna go to the frickin' skate rink with you!" but she shrugged and drop-kicked it to join its little rock friends in the water.
I turned away. "Dunno. Just wondering, I guess." The casual tone of my voice came as a surprise to me. It seemed too easy for me to pretend like I didn't care, when that clearly had never been the case.
"Can I ask you something?" she asked suddenly, and I faced her, eyes lifted in question and a strangled hope caught in my throat.
Why don't you ever take me to the skate rink?
Because, I'd reply, and then I'd kiss her and promise her tomorrow.
She lightly tossed a rock up over and over again, catching it with the same hand. "Why are you going out with her all of a sudden? Girls have been crushing on you for years. What makes her stand out?"
I let my gaze drift out to the horizon where the sun was setting. "She was the first one who came up to me and confessed." I heard the rock hit the ground, and I blinked and looked back at her. Her gaze was focused somewhere along the skyline, her arms crossed and an unreadable expression on her face. I followed her gaze back to the sun and murmured, "That takes a lot of guts."
We stood there until the sky was dark, and just as I was about to suggest we go home, she uncrossed her arms and said softly, "You're right. It does."
I had gone out with Rachel five times, our only body contact the occasional hug and the frequent hand holding. On the sixth date she tried to kiss me. There was no seventh date.
It hadn't been a messy breakup, and she hadn't cried or screamed or thrown anything. We didn't part muttering curses under our breath or pitch moldy fruit at each other's bedroom windows late at night afterwards. All in all, it was a most undramatic ending to a most undramatic relationship.
When I told Buttercup she shrugged and said noncommittally, "Don't worry. There'll be others."
Like you? I wanted to say, but all I did was not look at her and nod.
"Twelve seconds left on the shot clock, Buttercup going for the three, aaaaaand BAM! Right through the hoop!"
Our half of the gym went into an uproar for what seemed like the hundredth time that evening. First Freshman game of the season, and Buttercup was already taking names and kicking ass as Townsville High Freshman A Team's star center.
Stan Whitfield, Jr., was up in the box, enthusiastically relaying the events of the game. I'd never thought you'd needed a commentator for a high school basketball game, but then again I wasn't the one running the school anyway.
The other team called a timeout and Buttercup caught my eye, her ponytail bouncing as she walked to the sidelines, out of breath but managing a grin. I smirked back at her and mouthed, "Twenty-two points!"—the number of points she alone had scored this game—and even though her face was flushed already, I could tell she was blushing.
She turned her attention to her coach, her body in profile, and I watched a bead of sweat trickle down the line of her neck—
—and forgot to breathe.
My tongue flicked at the corner of my now dry lips, and I blinked and hastily directed my attention elsewhere. Coincidentally, my gaze landed on the line of cheerleaders seated by the players. One of them—Mary Anne, was it?—was looking at me, and beamed when our eyes met, fluttering her eyelashes.
Inwardly I grimaced, but out of habit I still managed to smirk back, watching Buttercup out of the corner of my eye.
She tugged her hair out of her ponytail as the coach droned on and gathered up the loose strands to redo it, licking at the sweat on her lower lip.
My eyes fell away from the cheerleading section and I felt my throat close up, staring fixatedly at the sliver of pink darting across her lips.
I stared at her till the game ended and forgot to cheer when she made the winning shot.
"You didn't have to play it so cool, you know," she teased as we bummed around in the hall outside the locker room. "All, 'Ooh, I'm too cool to cheer,' and everything. 'Fraid of ruining your rep or something?"
"What rep?" I questioned her, ignoring the bit of shoulder that peeked at me from her too big sweatshirt. With, um, little success. It was just the way it kept slipping through the neckhole; it was like it was winking at me or something.
I cleared my throat and shrugged. "You could say that final shot of yours was so extraordinary I lost all feeling in my legs, or something."
Oh, God, Butch, I told myself, stop staring at her neck.
She tugged her wayward collar up, and it immediately slid back down. "Suuuure. I totally believe you."
It'd never occurred to me that a peek of Buttercup's bare shoulder would be something to obsess over. In a desperate attempt to get my mind going somewhere else, I coughed and asked, "So are you heading out with the rest of the team to celebrate?"
Pushing at the exit door with her back, she waved her hand in a noncommittal gesture. "Meh. Don't much care. I'll stop by for a bit, I guess. Hey, you wanna go do something? Or are you busy tonight?"
Moonlight glinting off her shoulder. Highly distracting. Hasty flight home strongly advised. "Um, yeah. Maybe tomorrow."
I started dreaming about her that night.
It started off innocently enough—we were just playing basketball in the park. But it was hot, really hot. And there was a lot of sweat. And I couldn't stop staring at her. And then she noticed, and then she came closer, and then I woke up and realized the A/C had crapped out and the unnatural autumn heat wave air had put me on the verge of suffering a heat stroke.
After cracking open the window I stared into the night, recalling her laugh, her smile, her raspy half-voiced whisper and lowered eyelids, green irises sparkling at me as her bangs curtained around them like feathers.
My hands tightened into fists on the windowsill, wishing it had been real. Of course it hadn't been. And neither were the thousands of dreams that followed.
I had (somewhat) mixed feelings about how to deal with my dreams involving Buttercup. On the one hand, it could be really, really… nice. On the other, it was really, really uncomfortable having to face her in the mornings after. And she wasn't stupid. She noticed when I kept avoiding looking at her or talking to her for too long, and got very keen on harping on me for it.
Me, well… we'll just say I became one hell of an actor before I was able to fake normalcy with her again.
"Hey," she said to me the morning after the first dream, and I mumbled, "Hey," back. I looked at her sly little smirk and thought of sweat on her skin.
I wasn't an idiot. I quickly blinked hard to get my mind back on track and learned to hone my acting skills. In fact, the dreams and, uh, "mornings after" were so frequent that I was practically a contender for the Oscars by the time I was fifteen.
So everything was going great, then. Just great. Minus the fact that I was dreaming about her smile and laugh and green-eyed glances, all of which disappeared the instant I opened my eyes.
Yeah. Everything was going just great.
So, Buttercup, I practiced internally, got a date for Homecoming? Because if you didn't... Ugh. Awful. No way I'd ever say that. Or, um, say that like that.
I heard steps at the top of the stairwell and looked up, seeing Buttercup. "Hey."
"Hey," she said, and hopped down the stairs. "Geez. I can't wait for this dumb dance to be over and done with. I'm getting sick of seeing all those stupid decorations up on the walls."
"Oh yeah? Funny, I thought the blue and orange streamers really pulled the place together."
She gagged. "They could've at least picked colors that matched and didn't scream at me to burn them every time I blinked."
"Mm," I muttered, only half listening. I cleared my throat and as we started down the next set of stairs I said, "Has anybody asked you to Homecoming yet?" Oh God, I hoped that sounded casual.
She instantly snorted. "I'm not going."
I reverted into cocky friend mode. "That doesn't answer the question, smart ass. I asked if somebody asked you."
"Does it make a difference? I'm not going." She jumped onto the railing of the stairs and continued, "I don't see why it's such a big deal. Just another stupid dance."
But it'd be less stupid if we went together. I tried to work up the nerve to say it out loud, but cocky friend mode was operating on auto-pilot, and I said something stupid about being in high school now.
"A dance is a dance. Why did you wanna know anyway?" she asked as she hopped down and we made our way to the exits.
I tilted my head a bit so she wouldn't see me blush as I shrugged and said, "Just curious."
I pushed the doors open for both of us and we took off. As we flew I kept trying to think of a different way to say it, something that wouldn't sound too mushy, or obvious, or—
"No," she said suddenly.
It took me a moment to figure out what she meant. "No?"
"No. What about you?"
Oh, crap, I hadn't expected that one. I cleared my throat and tried to pull off sounding careless, which didn't work one bit.
I practically whispered, "A few girls have asked me, yeah." I paused, before adding, "Can't say it does much for my male egotism to be asked by a girl, but... I guess I'll blame it on their hormones. Maybe they were PMS'ing."
"What'd you say to them?" she asked, and she sounded so disinterested that it stung. But you never would've been able to tell with me; I was getting better and better at this acting bit.
"I told them I'd think about it. But... I wanted to make sure you were going. You know it wouldn't be any fun without you. For me. Misbehaving is so much more enjoyable when you're with a good pal."
"Flattery will get you nowhere." I could practically hear her smirking.
It was about that point I realized we were almost home, and I was running out of time to ask.
I mentally braced myself and said through clenched teeth, "So nobody's asked you?"
"You asked me that already. No."
Of course I had. Unlike acting, stalling just wasn't one of my strong points.
I closed my eyes and prayed my voice would hold steady.
"Does that mean I'll have the honor of being the first?"
And oh God, I knew it. My eyes squeezed shut even tighter, if possible. I was done for. She would know that I was crushing on her, and she'd be so mad, and she'd hate me forever for not meaning it when I said, "Nothing's changed," and she'd never, ever say yes—
"Okay. I mean, yeah, you're the first, and okay, I'll go."
My eyes flew open and my brain seemed to go dead for a minute. I looked at her, and I knew I must've had the stupidest expression on my face, but... brain was... being... stupid. Couldn't be helped. Thankfully my mouth knew how to pull off cocky friend tone in backup mode.
"Yeah?" I said. "Cool."
"Nonono, get this—stop laughing, stupid, I've got a good one... shut up!" Buttercup shrieked, giggling as she shoved at me. We'd already broken dress code, broken in, and broken the school administration's spirit (we were blatantly ignoring the fact that they had our home addresses and we'd be seeing them first thing Monday morning).
"Ok, ok," I wheezed, trying to stifle my laughter. I leant against her, our backs pressed together, and waited.
"Wanna go home and play Zookeeper? You be the lion and I'll feed you the meat!"
I snorted as she fell over onto her side, cackling. When she'd wound down, I quipped, "That'd probably work better if you were a guy."
"Shut up, and don't discriminate against a girl's right to deliver horrible pickup lines used by boys."
"My face is leaving in ten minutes. Be on it."
She whacked me playfully against the shoulder. "Ha ha. Repeat joke," she crowed loudly. "C'mon, are you out of material already?"
I yawned. Genuinely. "Not out. Tired. There's a difference."
She gave me one of those looks that basically said she didn't believe me. "'Tired,' sounds more like an excuse And besides, it isn't even midnight yet. How could you possibly be tired now?"
"I was up all night—"
—waiting anxiously for us to go to Homecoming together—
"—playing video games. I'm pretty beat."
Buttercup shifted her body so she could look at me. "Well, take a nap."
I immediately scooted my butt forward and laid myself flat on my back. "Ooh, concrete. Comfy."
She sighed and yanked me by my shirt collar, and suddenly my head was propped on her lap. "Better, you whiny little girl?"
My throat clenched and my heart felt like it was about to go into cardiac arrest, but thankfully my brain immediately shifted gears into auto-pilot. I flashed her a grateful smile and my throat made a fast recovery. "Why, thank you, you sweet thing."
She snorted and looked away, muttering good-naturedly, "I'm not as easily bought as those other girls, you player."
"Never said you were like those other girls, did I?" I replied, and she simply smirked, then leant back, resting both her hands on the roof. My eyes drifted from her to the sky and back again, and eventually I really did fall asleep, resisting the urge to flirt with her further and instead memorizing the smell of her clothes as I drifted into unconsciousness.
The summer preceding our Junior year Buttercup received a short letter that basically told her I was dead.
Obviously it was wrong. I had just taken a few weeks longer to return from my mission than had been scheduled. Frankly, I was pretty offended that they barely gave it a month before deciding that I'd kicked it. Brick was pissed as all hell at me for having listed a contact in case something happened to me, but I couldn't give a shit. The first and only thing on my mind when I finally blasted my way out of captivity was to find her.
I didn't care that I looked like hell. I didn't care that I had to start walking once I got into Townsville because I just didn't have the energy to fly anymore. I'd already heard about the letter from Brick, and when he'd stopped screaming at me long enough to catch his breath, I took off.
I found her in the park just as dusk was settling in, standing in the middle of the basketball court rolling her ball along her hips. The last shreds of light haloed around her silhouette, and I paused at the asphalt, my heart thudding in my chest as I unwittingly breathed her name.
She stilled. The ball dropped and she turned, and I swear, I could've cried when I saw the look of disbelief on her face, mixed in with hope, relief, even pain—
The next second her right fist had connected with my face and I hit the ground.
"Ow!" I choked out; I was still in pretty rough shape. "What the hell—"
She slammed me back against the ground and fisted her hands in my shirt. "What the HELL, you idiot! Do you have any idea what you put me through? Do you have ANY IDEA? I thought you were DEAD! Why would you tell them to send me that? How could you do that?"
When Brick had told me about the letter I'd known Buttercup would be upset, but I'd expected her reaction to be... sadder. Any thoughts of remorse flew from my mind as I struggled to sit up and shoved her back, shielding myself from more hitting.
"Hold up! It was a mistake! I'm not dead, I'm not—"
I cut off as the blows ceased and stared at her. The remorse came back in a tidal wave as, for the first time ever, I watched Buttercup start to cry.
She bit her trembling lip and choked back a sob as she weakly hit me on the chest, letting her hands clench my shirt again. "I thought you were dead," she whimpered, voice cracking as she said it, and the pain in my chest was worse than anything I'd felt in the time I'd spent away from her. The tears kept coming, tears I'd never imagined Buttercup would have in her, each one stabbing at my heart like a dagger. "It said you were dead, I thought you were dead and that I'd never see you... never get to... to talk to you, ever again..."
Oh my God, I'm sorry, I thought to myself helplessly as I watched her cry. Don't cry, Buttercup, please, I'm sorry, just don't cry...
I reached for her shoulders, brushing her hair out of her face on the way. "Buttercup, I'm so sorry."
She choked out a sob and took a shuddering, hiccuping breath. "And you stupid piece of shit, look at this! You're making me cry, I can't believe I'm crying."
I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and pulled her close, relieved and yet disappointed that through all that crying she wouldn't be able to hear my heart hammering in my chest at her nearness. Her grip on my shirt tightened, as if she was afraid I was a dream and would disappear if she didn't hold on.
Never. I'd never leave her.
"I can't believe you made me cry," she hissed against my shoulder, and I shifted so I could touch my forehead to hers, closing my eyes against that expression because if I didn't, if I looked, I would either shatter or worse, kiss her.
"I'm sorry," I whispered again, but it'd never be enough, there weren't enough apologies I could make that would ever make this better. "I'm sorry, Buttercup. I'll never make you cry again."
I stared at her, trying to keep my expression neutral, trying to keep the sheer happiness from bursting onto my face. "Seriously?"
She wasn't looking at me, so I couldn't see her expression, but she shrugged and nodded. "Sure. Why not?"
I couldn't believe it. I'd spent the past two years working up the nerve to ask her to our Senior Prom. I'd set myself up for disappointment, for an explosion of anger from her because I'd allowed my feelings to get in the way of our friendship.
I guess I was pretty good at keeping a secret. She had no idea. But that was going to change. Prom was the big night. I was going to tell her.
I fretted and paced endlessly in the days leading up to the dance. I picked her up in a limo under the pretense that it was our last year in high school and we'd be going out with a freaking bang. She wore a dress that was so girly I couldn't help but make fun of it, and when she was done snapping at me to shut up, face tilted towards the window with a faint blush on her cheeks, I stared and bit my lip to keep from telling her how gorgeous she looked.
And then of course someone spiked the punch that I kept retrieving glass after glass of for Buttercup because I couldn't work the nerve up to ask her to dance more than twice.
She sucked down a lot of it and was one of the few really smashed students. After calling our limo out early, I hooked one of her arms around my shoulders and took her outside for some air, where a light rain was beginning to fall.
"Limo!" she cried when she saw our limo pull up, and as it rolled to a stop she pulled away from me and fell against the passenger door, laughing.
I started to pull her off. "Come on, Buttercup, you'll ruin your dress—"
She twisted around to face me, back against the door, and pulled me close. I paused as she pulled my body flush against hers, a cheeky little grin on her alcohol-flushed face, and I stared at her, that grin, those lips, the hair in her face as the rain matted it down against her skin...
A roll of thunder pierced the air and the rain began coming down harder. She suddenly laughed, a pretty sound that bubbled out of her throat. I swallowed and reached out a hand, brushing past her hip, fumbling for the handle to the door.
"We should... get out of the rain," I said quietly, then, when she didn't budge, wrapped my other arm around her waist and pulled her aside. She let me, probably due to all the alcohol in her system, so I cheated and held her to my side a little longer than necessary as I pried open the door and led her inside.
She giggled again and laid down on the seat, and I shifted her legs so I could have a little room to sit.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
I turned to Buttercup. "Where you wanna go, Drunken Princess?"
"Imma stay riiiiiight here," she slurred, playing with the locks on her side of the car, still lying down.
I shrugged at the driver. "Guess we'll stay here for a while."
He mentioned something about going out for a smoke and left, taking shelter under the canopy of the building as he lit up. I looked back at the girl with her knees in my lap. The most beautiful girl in the world. My first choice. My best friend. My best kept secret.
She extended her arms and flailed, making grabby motions with her hands. I smiled and reached out an arm, and she latched onto it and clambered up to a seated position.
"Butch," she giggled, then adopted a very serious expression. "You are soooo awesome."
"And you look—" She hiccuped. It was kind of adorable. "You look really good in a suit."
My heart pinged at her words. "Yeah?"
She nodded, smiling this lazy smile, and rested her chin on my shoulder. Before I knew it she'd undone my jacket so she could play with the tie, and I tensed as her hand drifted along my chest, terrified she could sense that secret hammering within.
"Buttercup," I started as she loosened my tie—
"Mmm?" she intoned, and then nuzzled my cheek—
I gasped and pushed her back a little, darting a glance out at our driver through the steady rain and wondering if he'd seen. Buttercup's hands wove into my hair and pulled my face back to hers, and I froze as she drew close to me and whispered, bumping the swells of our lips together.
"I love you."
My mouth dropped open in shock against hers, and she kissed me.
Everything stopped. Everything.
Even though I knew she was drunk, I had carried my feelings for her for so long now that to hear those words, from her, from Buttercup...
My chest suddenly felt light, lighter than it'd ever been, and the relief was so overwhelming a part of me wanted to break down and cry. No, I couldn't do that. Instead I shut my eyes and kissed her, weaving my arms around her and deliriously happy that she wasn't pushing back, pushing me away.
This kiss was nothing like the one from six years ago.
I shook as I touched her, kissed her, afraid I was doing something wrong, wasn't kissing her in just the right way. She didn't seem to have any complaints; she was kissing back, and my mind reeled as her tongue met mine and before I knew it I was on top of her against the seat of the car.
"Buttercup," I panted in the one moment I pulled away for air, "I love you."
She smiled into another kiss. "I love you, too."
I couldn't take this much happiness. The second time she said it affected me just as much as the first, sending my heart dancing and my senses into a state of numbness, and I crushed my lips against hers.
"God," I whispered, unable to keep all that joy inside. "God, I love you so much!"
I couldn't stop kissing her, touching her, I wanted to do it forever, because I'd love her forever, and I'd never bother with this secret again for the rest of my life, our lives—
"Bubbles, too," she said, voice a little muffled as I kissed her.
Her lips went back to working against mine. I suddenly tasted alcohol.
I pulled back, eyes wide with fear and praying I'd imagined it. "What?"
She grinned at me, flushed and beautiful and drunk. "I love you, and Bubbles."
And just like that I was drowning.
"I love everybody!" she shouted, waving her arms around. "Even Blossom. Even your brothers! And the Professor, and the Mayor, and Miss Bellum—"
I sat up, the pressure back in my chest, the weight of it heavier than ever before and building as she said each name.
She hadn't meant it. She was drunk. Is drunk. I'm such an idiot.
"I love you, Butch," she drawled, and I forced my gaze to the window, wishing it were true.
"I know," I said, voice cracking as a sudden heat flared in my chest, behind my eyes.
"I love you."
Stop saying that, I wanted to say, but even in my head I couldn't keep my voice steady.
Her hands drifted along my arm. "I love you so, so much—"
"I need to go outside," I said hastily, struggling to keep my voice level and failing, failing. I fumbled for the door handle (it was already blurring in my vision, why was my vision blurring) and ripped my arm away from her grasp, pouring myself out into the torrent of rain that buffeted the car. The sudden, stinging cold felt wonderful, nothing like the heat that had overtaken me inside, the disbelief, the elation, the crippling disappointment.
I thought she'd meant it. I'd actually thought she'd meant it.
It was hard to see through all the rain and I was already soaked. My suit was ruined. But I'd messed up worse things that night.
I laid a hand on my chest, remembering how she'd touched me, kissed me.
I'd carry that memory forever. Like my secret.
The weight in my chest settled, made itself home. I'd never get rid of it.
I edged back into the car, soaking the leather upholstery. At some point the driver had gotten back into the car; I hadn't seen him through the downpour.
"Hey! You're going to have to pay for water damages."
"I'll take care of it," I muttered, shutting myself back in. I glanced at Buttercup, still sprawled on the seat, eyes closed.
I leaned over her, brushing a strand of hair away from her face and loving her. "Hey," I whispered. "You ready to go home?"
She made a small, unintelligible noise.
I cracked a smile. "Okay."
As the car began to move through the city, she shifted, and I reached a hand for hers. She clenched mine and mumbled, eyes still closed and voice heavy with sleep, "I love you, Butch."
I smiled and looked out the window, knowing better than to hope.
"I love you, too, Buttercup."
Even after all that, even after all those years and that heartbreak and agonizing, we became roommates in college.
I resolved to drown my feelings, to always keep them from surfacing and screwing everything up. The problem with me falling in love with her was I hadn't done enough in the beginning to keep it from happening, hadn't tried hard enough. So now I had my work cut out for me. But I swore I'd do it.
I could fall out of love with her. I'd promised her that nothing would change, after all.
The first night proved me so, so wrong. It was utter hell for me. We stayed up for hours watching movies and playing games and when she fell asleep I just sat and stared at her for what felt like hours more, wanting her.
A week into the college life didn't help much, either. College was a weak distraction. I mean, it wasn't that I didn't have enough to worry about once classes actually started (although I was already skipping by Day Two), and the parties really started getting underway. It was partly force of habit and partly due to us literally living together that kept her on my mind. Like, all the time. And prevented me from sleeping.
One afternoon the weather was nice enough for me to get some studying done outside. Studying meaning napping. I sat myself in the grassy area outside the dorms and was just about to lie down when the breeze suddenly picked up, and before I knew it a sheet of paper had plastered itself against my face.
I picked it off by its corner and gave it a dirty look. Just as I was going to crumple it up and leave it to Mother Nature, a girl came running up.
"Sorry! I'm sorry, that's mine," she panted, pausing to breathe when she reached me.
"Oh, yeah?" I looked from her to my paper attacker. "Professor Foley, Economics," I read. Something clicked in my head. "Say, I'm in this class."
She raised her eyebrows. "Really? I don't believe I've seen you."
"Yeah, well, I'm one of those types of kids... you know, too smart to go to class?"
A corner of her mouth quirked. "Too something, if you ask me." She reached for her paper, and I automatically pulled back.
"Judge not, lest ye be judged, Miss..." I darted a look at the sheet in my hand. "Kendall."
I thought getting together with Kendall would help me in my quest to fall out of love with Buttercup. It didn't.
I still made the effort. Real friends played. I played. Real friends even flirted sometimes. So I flirted. Real friends were comfortable with each other, or supposed to be, so I thought if I joked and teased enough we'd be okay. I'd be okay.
I lost track of the time. I'd been with Kendall for something like three years when she asked if I wanted to fly back with her to meet her family over the summer. It hadn't felt like three years. Then again, I'd been pining for Buttercup for ten.
When Kendall had asked, my mind flew to how much I would miss her. Not Kendall. Her.
I shook my head. That wasn't fair to either of them. I needed to get over her.
"Sure," I said. Kendall looked up at me in surprise.
"What? You really want to go?"
"Yeah. You're my girlfriend, aren't you?"
She knitted her brow in thought. "Yeah. I guess I am."
All the girlfriends, all the dates I'd had over the years, and still Buttercup was the only girl I ever had fun with. Nothing could compare. No one ever did.
That day is permanently etched into my memory. Skirt. Hair. Coconut. Pennies and wishes. Jade on a gold chain slithering along her skin like the touch I can't give her. Two men I would have killed, should have killed, for her. The way the world stopped when she told me she loved me. Again.
I almost believed it. But she was drunk, and it had happened before, and I knew better than to hope.
"I love you," she'd said, and I ran away to hide in the hall so she couldn't see me break down.
Then I had to go and screw everything up. I wanted to drink my sadness stupid. It worked.
And for that mind-blowing moment of bliss when she kissed me, touched me, I didn't care. I didn't care that she was drunk, that I'd made some stupid promise when I was a stupid twelve-year-old, that it would ruin our friendship and she'd never speak to me again.
I took advantage of her because I thought I deserved one small moment of happiness from the only bright spot in the shit stain that was my life.
Stupid. I was so, so stupid.
I almost told her, after the stupidity and the tears and the morning sun spilled across her body as she slept. I wanted to. I was ready for this all to be over. My best kept secret was suffocating. The weight of it crushed me and grew heavier every day. And it wasn't fair to her. She needed to know, so that if I ever got drunk, got stupid again—
She could kill our friendship there. For her own good. She'd be justified. I'd promised nothing would change, after all.
There's a layover, and on our way to the next gate Kendall suddenly announces, "I've had enough of this."
I dart a look back at her. "What?"
She crosses her arms and stops, the flood of people parting around her. "I'm done trying to play Fairy Godmother. I've had enough."
I snort, making a face at her. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm breaking up with you," she says resolutely, and several people turn to stare as they pass. She studies my blank face for a moment and cocks her hands on her hips. "Oh, come on. Show a little emotion, would you?"
I'm not sure I've heard her correctly. "I... what?"
"You didn't feel anything at all when I said I was breaking up with you, did you?"
I realize that when a girl says this to a boy, there can only be one answer. "Yes, I did."
"Don't lie, Butch," she sighs.
"But I know you're joking—"
"I'm not joking," she states vehemently. "Look, I'm not arguing. I've got another flight to get on in the next twenty minutes, and you've spent the entire journey so far brooding over Buttercup, the love of your life—"
A sudden flare of panic goes off inside. My eyes widen and I instantly go on the defensive. "No—what? Where would you get that idea, we're just friends—"
She holds up a hand, cutting me off. "Butch," she says quietly, "I'm not arguing this point with you. I'm breaking up with you. My parents don't even know you're coming."
"Wha—you lied to your parents?"
"I thought you'd have had the sense by now to quit putting yourself and her through all this—wait, why'd you sound so surprised just now?"
I blink and shrug. "Dunno. You just don't... strike me as the type who lies."
She gasps in offense. "I lie all the time!"
"What color is your jacket?" I ask, pointing at her black jacket.
"Black. I mean—" She scrunches up her face in a way that would have any other guy down on his knees, ready to propose. She does a ton of adorable things like that. "Damn you. You caught me off guard, that doesn't count."
"Why are you breaking up with me?" I ask.
"Because you're wasting your time with a girl you don't really love," she responds, honestly and without a trace of malice or regret. "Don't get me wrong, you're a good-looking guy, Butch. But you've never been into me, and I've always been okay with that because you're nice enough and fun enough and just the right amount of bad boy to set my heart aflutter, but come on. You're breaking the poor girl's heart."
My own heart nosedives at her words. "What do you—what does Buttercup have to do with this?"
She stares at me in disbelief. "Are you really this thick, love?" The announcer for our gate suddenly comes on and Kendall starts. "Oh my God, I need to catch my flight—"
I grab her arm as she breaks into a run, holding her fast. "What does Buttercup have to do with this?" I repeat, voice urgent.
"Oh, my God, you dense, dense prat, she's in love with you!" Kendall exclaims, taking my head in both hands and shaking it.
The hope that suddenly ignites in my chest is easily stamped out. I know better than that.
"No, she isn't," I say, the very sound of the words killing me.
"Butch," Kendall says firmly, looking me in the eye. "Don't argue with me. You can disbelieve me all you want, but don't argue. Don't argue until you go and find out for yourself." She lets go and starts to back away. "If you do find out that I was wrong, you can come out to Long Island and spend the summer with me and gloat about it all you want." She pauses, briefly, and smiles. "For what it's worth, it was nice while it lasted. Though I don't think my parents would've liked you much."
I dumbly watch as she disappears into the crowd.
I don't go after Kendall.
I don't really take her advice, either. I don't care enough to chase her, and I know better than to hope that anything she said is true. I'm done setting myself up for disappointment.
But a breakup means I need a friend to talk to.
I panic when I come back and find the dorm empty. Most of her stuff is still there, but there's clothes missing, she's not picking up her cell, and she didn't tell me, she didn't tell me anything—
I fly to Townsville in a matter of seconds, zooming down the familiar streets until I'm in front of the house with the bright red door. Her dad might know, I tell myself. Her sister might. Somebody must.
I buzz the doorbell a little too hard; it sparks at the pressure and I hastily draw my hand behind my back. Almost instantly the door cracks open, and a pair of soft blue eyes peer around it.
"Hey, Bubbles," I breathe, trying to keep the urgency out of my voice. "Where's Buttercup?"
"Bubbles, who is it?"
My heart leaps at the voice, and Bubbles jumps back as I push the door open. Buttercup stalls, cradling a gallon of ice cream in her arms that she's in the process of devouring.
We stare at each other as Bubbles glances back and forth between us.
Buttercup lowers her spoon back into the tub and says in a level voice, "Butch? What are you doing here?"
Can she hear it? Can she hear my heart drumming, begging, straining for her with every desperate beat?
"Butch?" she says again, in a voice that sounds more like "What the hell?" and I blurt out the second thing that comes to mind, because the first is three words I can never, ever say to her.
"Kendall broke up with me."
"Didn't even make it to the second flight, huh?" Buttercup says through a mouthful of ice cream. She offers me the spoon, and I take it and dig into the carton.
"Nope," I muffle between bites. We're perched on the rim of the fountain in the park, sharing her rapidly melting gallon of French Vanilla.
"Sucks to be you," she says supportively. "Kendall was pretty hot."
I grunt and hold the spoon out of her reach when she makes a move for it. She glares at me, and it just makes me want to kiss her. I jam the spoon in my mouth to keep from doing so. She retaliates by maneuvering the ice cream away.
"It's all gonna melt, you know," I mumble around the spoon, trying to grab the ice cream. It really only serves as a feeble excuse for me to get my arms around her.
"You're taking the breakup well," Buttercup says, simultaneously playing Keep Away with what's left of the gallon and attempting to snatch the spoon out of my mouth.
I finally grab the carton away and find it's all already melted. Lame. I sigh as I set it and the spoon aside and wash the stickiness off of my hands with water from the fountain.
"I guess." I wipe my hands dry on my jeans and rest them on the concrete, my left one settling next to Buttercup's right hand. A fly lands on me, and she swats it away. My skin tingles where she brushes against me, briefly.
Her hand hovers for a bit above mine, then rests back on the concrete again, a little further away now. A slight breeze ruffles my collar, and I stare at her hand, wanting to touch her.
"Did you love her?" Buttercup asks, and I look at her face, my heart twinging at the word 'love' passing through her lips. She's staring at the sky, transfixed by a cloud. I stare at her a long while, trying to come up with any answer other than I love you.
"I don't know," I finally whisper, shoving my shoe into the grass. "I guess not."
She nods thoughtfully. Her hands drops onto my knee, clenches, and I place a hand on hers as she shakes me. "Don't worry. It's not the end of the world. There'll be others."
No, there won't, I think heatedly. I want to keep her hand on my knee forever, with me forever. There will never be others. There'll only ever be you.
She starts to stand and I automatically tighten my grip, my arm straightening as she rises to her feet.
"Wait, Buttercup," I say, loud and abrupt. She halts, twisting her hand in my grip. I squeeze harder and my gaze bores holes into my knees. I can't bring myself to look her in the eye. "I'm not ready to leave yet," I say, wanting to sit next to her for just a little while longer, hold her just a little bit more.
After a second she obliges me, and this time she scoots a little closer, grips my hand a little tighter. She rests her head on my shoulder and sighs, thinking that she's reassuring me, helping me deal with my breakup. She's wrong.
There will never be anyone else, I think sadly to myself, closing my eyes and resting my cheek against her hair. I'm never going to love anyone as much, if at all. And this is all I'll ever get, her head on my shoulder, her comfort, her friendship, because if I ever let her find out I'll risk losing even that.
Breakups are nothing. Nothing like this.
She turns her head into my shoulder and whispers, "You liar. You said you didn't love her."
I open my eyes in confusion at her words, my vision unnaturally cloudy. She loosens her hand from my grip and wipes at the tears—tears? I'm crying?
"Shit," I hiss, and push her away to scrub at my face. What the hell, what the hell?!
Buttercup pushes my hands back, holds them fast as she pins my wrists to the concrete. As she looks me dead in the eye that hope, that stupid, incessant hope twitches, and for one insane moment I think she might kiss me.
Those lips of hers part and whisper, "I thought she was smart, but Kendall's an idiot."
I blink at her, my own mouth parting in disbelief. Kendall? Why the hell does she keep talking about Kendall?
Buttercup shakes her head slowly, a sad smile on her face. "She's an idiot. She's an idiot, to leave you."
That hope that never goes away, never learns, never dies no matter how many times in the past ten years I've killed it, she's killed it, instead of falling into despair it morphs and expands into inexplicable rage. She keeps talking about Kendall, she keeps talking about Kendall when I don't care about Kendall, I don't give a fuck about Kendall—
"I can't believe she made you cry," Buttercup says, and I can't believe she just fucking said that to me.
"This isn't about Kendall!" I shout, the words sounding inhuman as they tear out of my throat, and I almost blast her away but catch myself at the last second and twist, firing at the fountain instead. Concrete and water explode into the air, and as we scramble to our feet, drenched in water from the busted pipes, ten years, ten years' worth of hoping and pining and aching and secrets I swore I'd never tell pour out of me. Like the water from the busted pipes.
"This isn't about Kendall! This isn't about her, or Rachel, or any other girl that ever came up to me and asked me out! You think I really give a damn about them, about her?!"
True to her nature, Buttercup deals with confusion by twisting it into anger.
She screams back, "Then what the hell are you so pissed off about?! Why are you, you, damaging public property, why are you crying, for Christ's sake, I'm your best God damn friend and I've never even seen you cry—"
I shake my head, shake my head, unsure if it's tears or water blurring my vision, trying to keep it in but it's too much, ten years is just too much.
"It's never been about them," I hiss, gritting my teeth and trying, trying to keep it in.
"Then what the hell is it?!" she shrieks.
It's too much.
"It's YOU!" I bellow, and just like that, it comes pouring out of me, water spraying from a busted pipe. "It's you, you, it's always been you! I love you! I've been in love with you ever since we were twelve God damn years old!"
Stop, my head screams at me, because the look on her face is the one I've always feared, one of shock and disbelief and betrayal, and my head screams Stop you will ruin EVERYTHING but I don't care, I don't care.
"I tried to distract myself, I tried, God, but nobody was ever good enough, nobody compared. You're so perfect, it was too hard, I couldn't—and I'm sorry, but I couldn't stop, so I didn't say anything because I didn't want to ruin it, ruin us, but it was too hard, and you said you loved me and I was so happy but you were drunk—"
"Butch, stop," she says, her teeth gritted, but I can't, I can't.
"I love you, I love you so much, I don't care about anyone else, it wasn't Kendall, it wasn't anybody, I just wanted to see you and stay here with you a little while longer, I just wanted to hold your hand and pretend for a little while longer—"
"Stop it," she hisses at me, tears welling in her eyes, and I don't even care that I swore I'd never make her cry. Today's a day for breaking up, breaking everything.
"I can't!" I scream at her. "Don't you get it? I love you!"
She suddenly shoots up to me and shoves me into the well of the fountain, or what's left of it, and as I cough up water and clamber to my feet she fumbles for me, and I still can't tell if it's tears or the water that blurs my vision, streaks down my face, her face...
I take her face in mine and whisper, "I love you, I'm sorry—"
"Shut up," she says desperately, and presses her lips to mine once, and my chest swells with stupid hope that never learns, never dies. "Stop it, Butch," she hisses against my lips, and kisses me, setting that stupid hope aflame again and again. "Stop already, okay? Just stop."
The jade is cool against my skin, and I brush my hand along the chain, glancing at the door to the restaurant.
Brick sighs and asks, pointedly, "What time is it?"
"It's 'Butch's girlfriend is totally late,' time," Boomer mutters, and I swat at him with the bread knife.
"Shut up. She'll be here soon."
"You know, for a loudmouth like you, you've sure been quiet about this chick," Brick grumbles. "She must be hot, if you won't say anything. Scared we'll steal her away?"
I shrug, eyes still on the door. "I doubt that." A smug, warm smile lights up my face. "She'd never leave me."
Boomer snorts. "Must be brain damaged."
"Wanna bet?" I ask, smirking at my brothers.
"How much?" they both respond, and the door flashes open, instantly drawing my attention.
I blink in surprise. "She wore the skirt."
"Huh?" Boomer's eyes widen in confusion.
Brick catches the change in my expression and turns. "Final—"
He cuts off as Buttercup plants herself in the empty seat, fidgeting with her skirt.
"I will never get used to this thing," she groans, and I reach to fix the clasp on the necklace I gave her.
"I can't believe you wore it," I tease, and she gives me a warning glance and reaches for her menu.
Boomer and Brick gape at us. I lean over and peck her on the cheek.
"Hi," I whisper, and she blushes and pecks me back.
"Hi," she mutters, biting back a grin as she avoids my brothers' stunned expressions.
"Butch," Brick says slowly. "Tell me who this is. Really. Because this... this can not be who I think this is."
"Oh, I'm sorry!" I pull Buttercup's chair closer to mine. She lets me. "Boomer? Brick?" I drape an arm around her shoulders, and one of her hand reaches to touch mine as she flips through the menu.
"This is Buttercup," I say with a smile, and press my lips to her hair, heart twinging at the softness of her eyes, the feel of her hand gripping mine.
"Buttercup," I whisper. "My best kept secret."