Author's note: This is a preview chapter for a novel-length Ghostwriter project that I am working on centering around the lives of the Ghostwriter team when they are adults. This chapter occurs somewhere in the middle of the story and once I am confident that I am ready to publish that story, I will delete this chapter and re-publish it as part of the bigger fan fic. I hope you enjoy.

Crimson and Clover

Summer 2006

Tina Nguyen awoke from the bed feeling nice and snuggled. It took a few moments for her to register the nice, warm body wrapped around her. Maybe too warm. Tina knew she couldn't simply nudge Alex off of her because past experience had taught her that doing so would only make him hold on tighter. She, however, knew exactly what to do. The first step was to tickle Alex's ribs. Right on cue, he began to shift. She then started to lightly poke Alex's belly and side. Alex prided himself on his workouts that hardened his abs, but Tina felt some flab around his abdomen. "Ha", Tina thought. Alex was starting to let himself go a little bit. No wonder he kept pestering Hector to go to the gym with him.

After a few more pokes, Alex's body took the hint and he turned over to continue his snoring. Alex's quiet snores were quite soothing to Tina's ears and tempted her to get back to sleep. "No," Tina thought. It was important that she get up. This was the first day of Alex's week-long vacation and as the new mistress of this apartment, she needed to stake her claim. As many times as Tina slept over, this place did not feel like hers to command until it felt as thought it was her space as well. When Alex and Tina established her permanent living plans last night, Tina began to have ideas running a mile-a-minute over what she planned to do with Alex's uninspired dynamic. Furniture was set up at strange, awkward angles and it seemed as though Alex just halfheartedly threw miscellaneous items wherever they were convenient.

Just thinking about her and Alex's shared space excited her too much that she couldn't just stay in bed, no matter how inviting and comfortable that option was. After cooling down, Tina got up and put on one of Alex's oversize T-shirts. Not only did putting on Alex's shirts increase Tina's sense of belonging, but she always felt that doing so allowed her to have Alex with her no matter where he was. This little exercise, seemingly insignificant and silly, would prove to be helpful in the future when Tina would be up all night worrying about some late-night assignment her Detective would be on that put him in the line of fire.

She went to the bathroom to brush her teeth when she saw how tangled up and greasy her hair was. "Gross," Tina said to herself before she began to wash her face. Alex didn't have any face moisturizer and Tina didn't think to bring any from her house. However, she saw the box of tampons that Alex embarrassingly threw at her during their argument about whether or not they were already living together the night before. Typical. After washing her face with bar soap, Tina walked out of the bedroom; she looked around the living room and realized how daunting her task would be. She pondered how in the hell was she going to fit all of her DVDs, movie equipment, books, clothes, artwork, and various miscellaneous items into the already crowded apartment. Tina looked around the cramped living room and saw four bookshelves already full with stacks of smelly books on the floor with no other place to go – these books mostly comprised of mystery novels, true-crime books, and criminology text books.

As Tina walked towards the kitchen, she overheard Alex's police radio sounding off some static from its tiny speakers. Tina turned it off habitually. Alex was on vacation damnit, and Tina didn't work overtime on her documentary in the prior weeks so she could have this weekend free just to be reminded about their real world. From her view, she saw some trees in the concrete sidewalk blowing outside the curtain-less windows and knew that there must have been a breeze. She walked up to the kitchen window wanting to open it to let some air in before she would make her breakfast tea. However, when she tried to open the window, she realized that it was stuck only allowing her open a small crack that she'd have to hold up for it to stay in that position. She also noticed a small bullet hole through the window. She wondered how that bullet hole got there on their floor before she realized the shape of it revealed that it was shot from the inside. Desperately, she pulled and pulled but it was no use.

"Ok…" Tina thought resigned to the permanent state of the window.

"Gotcha!"

All of a sudden Tina felt fingernails tickling the side of her ribs. The sudden tickling sensation startled Tina and caused her to instinctively leap into the air. Tina stumbled and turned. Gaby Fernandez eyed her up stifling a laugh. Tina just remembered that Gaby had slept over last night after having a few too many drinks.

"Cô gái này!"

"Huh?"

"Geez, Gaby, you scared me."

"That's why I said 'gotcha.' Come on, make me a cup of tea too, please?" Gaby grabbed a stool – one that Alex "borrowed" from the family's Bodega- and made herself right at home. Tina's sense of hospitality overpowered her slight annoyance at being sneak-attacked by the younger Fernandez.

After settling in with their tea, Tina and Gaby sat at the table, naturally gossiping about the going-ons in their lives. From Mickey's, Tina's camera man, over-the-top sex life to Melissa, Gaby's roommate, hooking up with a Dutch Geography professor from Gaby's department at Hunter College. What everyone at first thought to be a weird mutual attraction evolving to a fling ended up with him proposing and her accepting.

"Gee, that was fast, how long have they been together?"

"Four months, now, can you believe it? Time flies by. It seemed like it was only yesterday when I invited everyone out for drinks at that dive in Queens and dorky Andrew couldn't keep his eyes off of Melissa. Apparently it's true love," Gaby said batting her eyelashes at Tina.

"Well, Melissa is pretty dorky too." Tina sipped her tea and imagined tall, strawberry blond, pale Dutch Andrew being instantly attracted to short, darker-skinned, loud Melissa before continuing. "Are you sure he's just not looking for a way to get citizenship?"

"You know, I'm not sure," Gaby said, entertained by that idea. "He's white and Western European, they won't give them trouble if it's a marriage of convenience." Gaby was referring to USCIS (formerly known as INS).

"Yeah, but Melissa is Latina. Even if she is a citizen, they might try to deport her instead."

The two of them laughed hysterically, not truly knowing just how true that statement could be in some places.

"I'll get out of your hair soon, I promise. Let me just wake up first," yawned Gaby.

"No, stay as long as you like. Alex would love to see you before you go."

Gaby appreciated Tina's gesture. Even if Tina wasn't truly sincere, she knew that Tina did not want Gaby to feel unwelcome. "Yeah, if he ever wakes up."

"Ha-ha, I know. Unlike him, I could hold my liquor."

Gaby rolled her eyes at that statement. Tina liked to think that she held her liquor well but too much alcohol tended to make Tina the giddiest person in the world. "I haven't seen Alex drink so much in forever. I swear his face was totally red last night. I thought he was going to jump out of that window."

"Yeah, luckily they don't seem to open," Tina said with a tinge of frustration, "But you know, he deserves to let loose. He's been working so hard and it's good he's finally getting recognized. Anyway, thank goodness he's a happy drunk." Tina took a big gulp of her tea.

"Yeah, sometimes I think I like him better drunk."

"Gaby…" Tina said with a hint of disapproval.

Gaby smiled at Tina's trying to reprimand her. On one level it was said in such a protective manner – Tina protecting Alex was much too sweet for Gaby. On another level, it sounded as if Tina was taking sisterly tone with Gaby. That in itself wasn't so unusual after all these years they've been best friends, but it was nice to hear once again.

"Yeah, I can only imagine how hammered he'd be when he gets married." After saying that, Gaby quickly shut her mouth. Tina gave a short look of discomfort, but made no sign that alerted Gaby that she had said anything she oughtn't. For Gaby, it wasn't a matter of if with Alex and Tina but when.

"Tell me the story again, Tina."

"Which story?"

"I need a pick me up, so the one with the happy ending, the first one."

"Oh geez, you mean that story?"

"Yeah."

"You heard it a million times, and you were there when it happened."

"No, I wasn't. I was still at Middle School in Hurston."

"But you were still around."

"Just do it for me."

"What if Alex overhears me?

"So?"

"Well, it's a little embarrassing."

"Oh come on, he loves that story too, I bet. I mean it's your two's first time."

"GABY!"

"Well, I didn't meant it like that. I mean it's you two's first time being official..."

"No."

"Why not?"

"I'm too tired to tell this story. Plus, I forgot some details."

"I don't care. Use your imagination. I'm sure it'll make it more exciting."

"No."

"Come on!"

"How would you like it if I kept pestering you to tell me the time you lost your virginity to Jeffrey Baxter," Tina said while giving Gaby an exaggerated look of disgust, "you might as well as lost it to that creep Calvin Ferguson."

"Hey, Jeffrey was very cute and sweet!" protested Gaby, "Plus he was in college, so it was a step up for me at the time."

"Yeah, and he was also an idiot."

"Judgmental much? He simply marched to the beat of a different drummer, that's all." Gaby knew Tina's criticism of Jeffrey wasn't too serious since Tina, at the time, agreed that dim Jeffrey was cute.

"That's a nice way of saying he was an idiot."

"Whatever," said Gaby rolling her eyes. "He's a brilliant actor now."

"When was the last time you saw one of his plays?" asked Tina her tone changing from disdain to one of true curiosity.

"Two years ago, and he was very good. He had great comedic timing. He played the physical goof very well."

"I don't think that was acting."

"Ha-ha. Hey! Don't change the subject."

Tina just gave Gaby a sharp look that meant she wasn't in the mood.

"Oh, please oh please tell me."

"No."

They continued to go back and forth with Gaby's "please oh pleases" outnumbering Tina's "no's". In the end, Tina finally relented.

"Ok, but you better cook some toast. This story will be a while."

"Sure, but there's only one problem."

"What?"

"You have no bread."

Tina made a noise to indicate the level of her annoyance. "You should pay me to tell you this story, this is like the hundredth time."

"I will when you turn it into a movie."

"Ha Ha," Tina said sarcastically.


Fall 1996

Tina's Freshman and Alex, Lenni, and Jamal's Junior year of High School.

The busy halls were crowded with noise, activity, and a youthful energy that was infectious, exciting, and disruptive.

"So, how do you like high school so far, Tina?" asked Lenni walking with Tina.

"It's not too bad so far, but of course it's only just started."

"Yeah, once you reach Junior year, it'll seem like you've been in school forever. I can't wait for graduation."

"But won't you miss it?"

"Miss what?"

"You know - all of this?"

"Sort of, but I think I'm ready to move on. I feel like I could be doing other things than spending so many hours inside a classroom."

"Huh," replied Tina thoughtfully. She thought that Lenni sounded exactly like her older brother Tuan. Both of them were musicians and it started to seem normal, to Tina, that all teenaged musicians wanted to drop out of school to work on their music. Tina was an artist as well, but the idea of dropping out of high school just didn't seem like a viable option to her. Just as Tina and Lenni turned a corner, Tina noticed a poster for the upcoming Homecoming dance.

Lenni noticed Tina eyeing the poster. "Are you going to Homecoming?"

"Well, I want to, but I don't want to go without a date."

"Why not? A lot of people do." Lenni saw that Tina was uncomfortable with that suggestion. "You know you could just go with Jamal, Jasmine, Tuan and me."

"I don't want to be an extra wheel or anything."

"Nah, you wouldn't be."

"Wouldn't it be weird, though? I wouldn't want to be completely surrounded by couples."

"Tina, you know Tuan and I aren't going out anymore. He's only offered to take me as a favor since I didn't have anybody else to go with. Plus we're performing a song together, so it makes sense."

"Yeah, but…"

"It won't be weird. Tuan and I are just friends now and we're fine with that. Besides, he used to drive me crazy with his bossiness."

"Yeah, I lived with him."

"How are the Leaping Dogs doing anyway?" Lenni asked referring to Tuan's rock band.

"Oh good, actually. He and his band just signed up for a 10 city tour opening for Semisonic along the East Coast in a month."

A light bulb flickered in Lenni's head. Finally an opportunity the Ghostwriter Team had been waiting for. "You know, Alex hasn't asked anyone to the dance yet," said Lenni slyly.

"I know," Tina responded sheepishly.

"Well?" asked Lenni with a smirk.

"Well, what?" asked Tina.

"Don't you think he might ask you?"

"What gives you that idea?" Tina convinced herself that this suggestion came out of leftfield.

"Well, it seems sort of natural, you know?"

"No, I don't know."

"Come on, Tina."

"I don't know what you're talking about, Lenni. We're just friends, you know?" Tina said. Lenni gave Tina a skeptical look. "We're just friends and that's ok. Besides I'm sure he has plenty of other girls he could go with."

"That's for sure. He grew even taller over the summer and now a lot of the senior and junior girls are eying him up."

"Really?"

Lenni burst into a small fit laughter. Lenni thought it hilarious that Tina so readily believed that Alex had become the stud of Walt Whitman High. That said though, he did grow up to be quite handsome and he was starting to get a reputation for being a ladies' man. Another factor that led to this reputation was that his relationships tended to fizzle out due to the lack of interest on both parties. However, it only made Alex look like a heart-breaker and therefore more desirable by many. One night, Gaby had told Lenni and Tina that there seemed to be a running theme with Alex and his dates. According to Gaby, Alex would start out showering the girl with attention and begin the courtship with a bang. However, after the initial attraction waned, he would then grow bored with having to keep up with the relationship and the girls would grow impatient with Alex's lack of enthusiasm. Sometimes, the girls would complain that they'd be willing to go to the next step when he wasn't. All of these stories made Lenni laugh with amusement. Imagine a teenaged boy unwilling to take advantage of a girl's willingness to be bedded. She would later write a song about it titled "It's Just Hard Enough". In her liner notes, Lenni would dedicate the song to her "virtuous friend, Alejandro." She, of course, wouldn't write the song until after they had graduated high school when neither of them could be considered "virtuous".

"Hey, guys."

"Oh, hi, Alex," said Lenni.

"Hi," answered Tina slightly.

"So what's up? Anything new?" Alex asked casually.

"No, nothing yet," responded Lenni cheerfully.

Tina stood there looking at Alex then back at Lenni when she felt she was looking at him for too long. She wasn't usually this quiet or uncomfortable around Alex, but talk of homecoming tensed her up. When Tina looked back at Alex, he smiled at her. Tina smiled back in return.

"So…"

"We were just talking about Homecoming," said Lenni hoping that one of them would take the initiative. Lenni, Gaby, Jamal, Hector, and even Casey (who had just returned to Detroit to live with her recovering alcoholic mother) knew that Alex and Tina still had feelings for one another. But for some reason that none of them could quite understand, Tina and Alex would not admit to it. The team never quite understood why Alex and Tina had decided to just become friends during Alex's 8th grade year and Tina's 6th when things seemed to be working out, even heating up. When Gaby and Lenni wrote to Ghostwriter about it, he had told them that Alex and Tina were still very young (a little too young to be thinking about romances in his mind) and needed to figure things out on their own. He also told Gaby to try not to meddle and to not assume that Alex and Tina would ever get back together in that way again. Two and a half years later and it seemed as though the tension between Alex and Tina had actually grown worse.

"Oh really?" said Alex widening his smile.

"Yeah," answered Tina sheepishly. She didn't return the smile.

"Are you going, Tina?"

"I don't know, maybe. Are you?"

Alex hesitated and looked around. He started rubbing the back of his head then said, "I don't know, I was thinking about skipping it."

"Really, why?" Lenni asked sharply.

"I don't know, they're usually so lame, you know? Last year, I was bored out of mind."

"How could you be bored with Carrie Hewes? She was the co-captain of the Volleyball team."

"Well, I was," said Alex, quick to forget his short stint of being Carrie Hewes' boyfriend. "I think I would rather just stay home and read a mystery novel or something."

"Yeah, they can be so dumb…Anyway, I have to go to Algebra, I'll talk to you guys later." Tina walked quickly to her class.

Lenni turned to face Alex and simply shook her head before heading towards her class.

"What?" asked Alex, clearly confused about the situation at hand.

A week had passed and nothing occurred between Alex and Tina. Homecoming was coming up in two weeks and it looked as though Tina would end up like Alex and skip it. Tina didn't know exactly what was wrong. Alex and her were just friends, she was the one who told Alex that they were just friends and it was ok. To be fair to Alex, he never stopped giving hints that he liked her but she was too afraid to act upon those hints. What was she afraid of really? Was she really afraid or did she not even want to explore what could happen with Alex? Maybe he was just being friendly and his feelings for her were just platonic. It was ridiculous anyway. She was only 15…well almost 15. Wasn't she too young to be thinking about these things on those terms? Still, seeing Alex day after day and knowing he was unattached and uninterested in asking her stung. Alex, she thought, was very handsome…ok, she thought he was incredibly handsome. But he grew so tall and he just seemed so much older now. He now had a deeper voice, was not as clumsy (though still pretty goofy), and exuded a confident demeanor that had always been there but was now exaggerated with age and physical maturity. Tina noticed that all these pretty girls really were eying him up despite Lenni laughing at the idea. Any girl would be lucky to go on a date with him. Tina, meanwhile, still felt so young. She resolved to herself that she had served her purpose as the first childhood crush and Alex had already moved on. What Alex and her had as kids was really nothing much she convinced herself.

One afternoon, just as Tina was getting out of Photography Club, she heard somebody yelling after her from behind. Tina hesitated to turn around, not daring to hope that it was Alex.

"Yo, Tina!"

When Tina finally slowed her pace and turned around, she saw a familiar face. She hid her disappointment well.

"Oh, hi, Victor," said Tina.

"Hey, what's the matter?"

"Wait, what?" Tina responded puzzled at the question.

"You look a little down, girl."

Tina did not expect to hear such bluntness from an acquaintance so soon into their friendly greetings. "Oh, it's nothing," Tina quickly responded, "I just got out of Photography Club and I ruined some of my prints," Tina lied.

"Aw, that's too bad, I bet they were some pretty nice pictures...Well, anyway, I haven't seen you in a while, what's going on?" asked Victor animatedly.

"Nothing much. How are you?"

"You know the last time we really saw each other? It must've been that time you were questioning me about the Dragons and I was a suspect when you got your jacket stolen."

"Oh yeah, but you weren't a real suspect. It was just that a good detective…"

"…follows every lead…I remember." Victor gave her a charming smile as he interrupted.

Tina couldn't help but smile back. Victor Torres was very easy to be around. Tina knew of Victor Torres through their mutual friend and member of the Ghostwriter team, Rob Baker when the team cleared him of vandalizing Hurston Middle School four years prior. He had a mysterious past, being a former member of the Latino gang, the Thunderheads, that made him interesting.

"Yeah, I just got out of track practice. That's why I'm a little…funky, ya know," said Victor as he pretended to smell his armpit. He was clearly amused with himself. Tina couldn't help but give a small, encouraging laugh.

"Oh, how was it?"

"It was good, you know how it is…"

"Yeah," Tina agreed, even though she never ran track before. "I was just on my way home."

"Hey, me too. Listen, do you mind if I walked with you?" When Tina gave Victor a look that clearly showed how surprised she was by the offer, he quickly added, "you know, it's almost dark and it's not too safe…you know."

Tina wondered how many times Victor said "you know" in their short exchange. That didn't matter at the moment. "Sure, why not," Tina said. Even if it wasn't really that dark, Victor was cute and wanted to walk her home.


Summer 2006

"Oh yeah, I forgot about that part," said Gaby. "Oh, Victor…" Gaby thought dreamingly of Victor. "He was cute, wasn't he?"

"Yeah, he was," said Tina. She continued to stir the tea. "Gaby, are you sure you want me to tell this story? I don't think I'm remembering it right. I feel like I'm forgetting things."

"Oh, no. Not this story again." Alex yawned as he wobbled his way to the kitchen counter. He stretched her limbs out and cracked his neck.

"Eeew," responded his sister in kind.

"What? It's natural," said Alex, winking at Tina.

Tina just shook her head and smiled. "Anh, do you want anything to eat?"

"Nah, my stomach is still upset."

"Yeah, all that you drunk last night would've upset your stomach," said Tina jokingly reproaching him.

"More like all of those spring rolls he ate," added Gaby. "You're still such a pig."

"Hey, a man's gotta eat."

"You barely left any for the rest of us. Poor Rob is already so skinny. I'm sure Hector appreciated it since you made him so self-conscious about his body last night," Gaby said sarcastically. "You know how Hector is…"

"I didn't make him self-conscious. I just told him that we were both getting a little out-of-shape and that we needed to head to the gym or to the park for some exercise. Anyway, even if I did make him self-conscious, he needs to get over it. He wasn't always like this."

"Well, considering what he's been through, it's understandable, don't you think?"

"Yeah, I know but…"

Tina coughed. As much as she enjoyed the fact that this banter was getting her off the hook from retelling this story, she didn't want the two Fernandez siblings to have a heated blow-out.

"Tina, do you want me to fill in some of the holes?" offered Alex. "I think if you tell it, it might be a little one-sided." He smirked at her.

"Excuse me, Mr. Fernandez, but I believe that I have the ability to be objective." Tina cupped her mug and sipped refusing to look at her boyfriend.

"Uh huh…" Right when Tina gulped her tea, Alex went in for a kiss.

"Well, if you're going to help me out here, you better brush your teeth first," Tina said.

Gaby made a gagging noise. "I think I may have to join in. I could only imagine what Alex is going to put in this story."

Alex gave his sister an exaggerated agitated glance.


Fall 1996

Meanwhile at Lenni's apartment above the Fernandez's Bodega.

"I can't believe you aren't going Alex," whined Gaby hoping to annoy her older brother into submission.

"What do you care? You don't even go to our school, Blabby," said Alex stuffing popcorn into his mouth.

"You have to go," said Jamal. "I mean I'm going and I don't even go to your school so that means you have no reason not to go." Jamal said referring to the fact that he went to the High School of Science.

"That's because you're taking your girlfriend Jasmine. I don't have a date," Alex responded refusing to be swayed.

"Well, you could have," replied an irritated Lenni, unable to hold it in any longer.

"Yeah, who?"

"How about those girls that have been checking you out?" asked Gaby, half-sarcastically.

"I don't have any girls checking me out," shot Alex defensively. His cheeks betrayed him as he began to blush. "And don't say 'checking me out', it sounds weird coming from you."

"Why don't you ask Tina? She doesn't have a date either," offered Lenni.

"Tina? Why?" asked Alex.

"Why? Is the idea of asking Tina really that horrible for you?" asked Gaby accusingly. Though she was Alex's sister and loved him as much as any sister could, she was loyal to her best friend and did not want to see her hurt.

"No, but Tina wouldn't be interested." Alex wondered how this conversation snowballed in this way and didn't understand why they were all ganging up on him all of a sudden.

"What gives you that idea?" asked Jamal, truly curious. He had been there when Alex first laid eyes on Tina as 11/12 year-olds and obviously fell for and like the rest of the team, had seen their "relationship" blossom then evaporate without any sort of explanation.

"I just know," Alex said hoping to convince everybody in the room that that was a good enough reason.

"How?" asked Lenni.

"We had a talk and we're fine being friends." Alex thought that this was all well-established and therefore old news by now.

"Yeah, two years ago!" shot Gaby.

"Well, she hasn't shown any interest in me since then." Alex blurted saying more than he had intended.

"Why can't you two go as friends?" asked Jamal. "It doesn't have to be romantic, I mean, you two are good friends."

"That would just be too weird," said Alex.

"Why? If you're so fine with being friends with her, then it shouldn't be weird," said Gaby completely sarcastic now.

"I don't want her to say no, ok?" Alex said immediately, regretting it right away.

The team finally became silent.

After some dead air, Alex took the opportunity to finally get away from this assault. "I don't appreciate the third degree from you guys…if I wanted to go then I'd just go!" Alex was angrier than he thought. He stormed out of Lenni's.

Realizing that confronting Alex in this manner might not have been the wisest thing to do, Jamal said, "Let me handle this." Jamal ran after Alex.

"I just don't get it," said Gaby after Jamal had left.

"Yeah, I know. It's so obvious that they like each other," said Lenni grabbing two Snapples from the fridge and handing one to Gaby.

"I know! Remember the last Rally? Alex and Tina stood next to each other. They always find some way to stand next to each other or be near each other" Gaby twisted off the cap and took a big chug.

"Or smile at each other or give each other looks...we all noticed that." Lenni sipped on her drink.

"Yeah, Alex is always looking at Tina! It's so obvious," an exasperated Gaby said. After landing back on Earth, Gaby reflected upon the situation.

"You know, maybe Alex has a point," said Lenni, "if we all see that Alex has been giving Tina all of this attention, then it seems that it doesn't make sense if she doesn't notice it either. I mean he has shown Tina that he was interested, but she always seems to sort of shy away from it. Maybe…she doesn't care for the attention he gives her."

"Tina's just shy, you know that," said Gaby defensively. "Maybe she doesn't notice the attention or she thinks he isn't giving her any attention and it's all in her head. I wonder about that stuff all the time too. You know how it is. It's different when you're the one in the situation. We're lucky because we get to notice it from the outside, but people get dumb once they are in the inside."

"Whose side are you on?" asked an amused but bewildered Lenni.

"Nobody's! I just want to give you a full picture here. Tina is very shy, like totally out-of-this-world-I-hate-being-around-strangers-I-rather-be-shot-and-die-than-talk-in-public-can't-show-my-true-feelings-"

"Ok, I get it, Gaby. We all know that, but Tina seems fine when she talks to us or when she interrogates witnesses or suspects for our cases. Plus, she was taking those acting classes with Hector and she seems better now."

"Yeah, but that's different. That's Tina's job. She's not really putting herself out there, you know? I've spoken to her about this."

"You have? Did she tell you that she liked Alex?"

"Not exactly, but I can tell."

"How, Gaby?" Lenni asked skeptically. She knew that Gaby had the tendency to let her imagination get the better of her and sometimes reality got in the way.

"The way she talks about him or the way she looks at him when she thinks nobody is noticing and the way she finds any excuse to come to the Bodega."

"But Gaby, she's your best friend, why would her coming to see you mean she wants to see Alex? Maybe you're letting your own imagination get in the way of what's really there." Lenni backed up before saying this next thing. She didn't need another Fernandez to lose it. "No offense, but you do that all the time."

"Hey!" responded Gaby. Instead of exploding, Gaby just continued. "Trust me on this one. She's always coming by for things she doesn't have to, like buying detergent when there are stores closer to her house or dropping off a sheet of paper to me or something. Anyway, I know she adores Alex, and I know Alex likes her a lot. He talks about Tina the way he never talks about any of his other girlfriends."

"Really? He talks about Tina?" asked Lenni. This was certainly news.

"ALL THE TIME! 'Tina is so amazing' this and 'did you see what Tina did?' that and don't forget the 'she's really something.' It's so annoying. Ok, it's sort of cute, but still annoying."

"Huh…" Lenni said, taking a big gulp of her drink.

Instead of going down to the Bodega, Alex rushed towards the basketball courts. He was supposed to help his parents with a shipment in an hour and a half, but he wasn't thinking about that at the moment.

"Hey, Alex!" yelled Jamal.

"Hey, Jamal," Alex said in a more sober tone. Alex found a basketball nearby and was shooting it into the baskets in-between his dribbling. Jamal noticed that Alex was handling the ball with more aggression than was necessary.

"What happened back there?" asked Jamal catching his breath. Jamal considered himself to be in great shape - being a black belt and all - but he had trouble keeping up with Alex at the rate he was going.

"I don't know, man. I didn't mean to blow up like that. It just happened." Alex didn't bother looking at Jamal when he answered him. He went up for a shot and missed.

Refusing to be ignored and not wanting to waste that effort chasing him down, Jamal decided to just ask it. "I'm just going to ask you this straight out. What's going on between you and Tina?"

"Nothing." Alex tried for another shot and missed again.

"And that's the problem." Jamal crossed his arms and gave Alex his signature I know what you're really up to look.

"Why are you guys making a problem when there isn't one?" said Alex, finally looking at Jamal.

"Because we know you two like each other. And the fact you two won't do anything about it is annoying the rest of the team."

"That's not true, Rob isn't annoyed." Alex laughed, a little pleased with himself.

"It helps that Rob is hundreds of thousands miles away. Even Ghostwriter is wondering what's going on." That got Alex's attention. Had the omnipresent being named Ghostwriter been asking questions too? Could Ghostwriter somehow read their thoughts? Alex quickly dismissed that thought, as he knew full well that Ghostwriter could only read and write. However, Ghostwriter could understand and feel the emotions of the team members. Knowing that made Alex uncomfortable because that meant that Ghostwriter might have the potential to delve deep into their thoughts and psyche. Even though they had known this mysterious spiritual being for nearly five years now and considered him to be one the family, there was still much the team and Ghostwriter himself didn't know about what/who he was or what he was really capable of doing. "Ghostwriter knows about you two only because Gaby writes to him about it all the time. It's gotten to the point where he even asked us what was going on. He's really worried."

Alex stayed silent.

Jamal took the silence as Alex's consent to keep going. "Just admit it. You know you two have feelings for each other."

"No, we don't." Alex shot and missed another one. "Man!" Alex wanted to throw the ball to the chain link fence.

"Alex, I know you like her, you've pretty much told me. Just last week you said…"

"No, I didn't say I didn't have feelings for her. I said that we didn't have feelings for each other."

Jamal understood what Alex had meant now. This was a bit surprising to him. Alex was always so sure of himself. He was never too shy to say anything or approach someone. "Why are you scared of her now, man? You weren't before and besides, that's unlike you. I mean it's Tina. That's all. It's just…Tina."

Alex thought for a moment. It was just Tina. What was he so afraid of? It was he who initiated their first kiss in the dumpster after being chased by a fat bald man who they filmed destroying evidence, right? Then it was he who always offered to walk her home and it was he who kissed her again at the doorsteps. Maybe he was tired of putting himself out there for her. She never did it for him. Why was she worth the effort? He only thought that she was so smart and creative with those movies she was always making and stories she wanted to tell on film. Let's not forget that she was so pretty…beautiful even. She never failed to allure him with her long black hair and cute figure. And her smile. She could make him melt with that smile that was warm, friendly, and cute but also a bit flirtatious…inviting even. Alex tried for another shot and made it into the net. "She knows how I feel, and she hasn't done anything to indicate that she changed her mind about just being friends. It was at this basketball court where she told me that we were just friends and that that was ok. I tried to convince myself that being friends was good. Who was I kidding?"

"You can't hold her to that. She was just a little girl when she said that. You were young too. You shouldn't beat yourself up about it." Finally, some progress, Jamal thought.

"Yeah, well, she sure acts like she's still a little girl sometimes."

"She's not the only one. You do too, well a little boy, I mean," responded Jamal. Alex gave Jamal an annoyed glance, then went for another shot. "If you really like her, you have to make the first move. You know how Tina is."

"I don't want to talk about this anymore, Jamal."

"Fine," said Jamal tired of this circular conversation. Ghostwriter was right. They should have just left well enough alone. Jamal then snuck behind Alex and stole the ball right from under him and went for a shot. He made it in. "You know how I did that?"

"You're naturally gifted," said Alex, making a slight joke about Jamal being the brown guy.

"Ha-Ha, no, it's because I'm in love."

Alex just shook his head.

After talking about how Jamal and Jasmine's relationship was heating up, the two friends departed the basketball courts. Suddenly, Alex knew what he wanted to do. "Hey, Jamal, I'll see you at Homecoming."

"I think we'll see each other before then...wait, what? Really?"

"I'll talk to you later!" Alex shouted as he ran towards Tina's. He felt light on his feet.

When Alex knocked on The Nguyens' door, he felt a little knot in his stomach. He hadn't expected to get there so soon. What was he doing here? Maybe he was making a mistake. Before he could turn around and run away, the door creaked open.

"Oh, hello, Alex."

Alex looked at the tall Asian lady in front of him. Mrs. Nguyen was a long-limbed woman with a long face accentuated by her short hairstyle. She always seemed strict to Alex and made him nervous. How was she going to be like if he started dating her oldest daughter?

"Hi, Mrs. Nguyen. How are you doing?"

"I'm quite well. Thank you for asking Alex. Would you like to come in?"

Before Alex could answer, Mrs. Nguyen motioned him in.

"Would you like to see Tina?"

"Yeah," said Alex nervously. As Mrs. Nguyen left to go towards the hall, Alex exhaled.

"Hi, Alex!" screamed Linda, Tina's 8 year-old sister.

"Hey, Linda!" Before Alex knew it, Linda rushed towards Alex and wrapped her arms around him.

"I haven't seen you in a long time! How are you?"

Before Alex could answer, Linda started telling him what happened at school between two of her friends who were no longer talking to her because she refused to lie about how ugly their outfits were.

"Linda!" yelled Tina. "Get out of here," Tina said sternly.

"Aw, no fair! Alex doesn't come around much anymore!" whined Linda. "and and...I want to talk to Alex."

"Well, so do I," replied Tina.

Alex's heart skipped a beat upon hearing that. Maybe this wouldn't go so badly after all. After some back and forth, Tina finally got Linda to leave them alone, well, with Mrs. Nguyen watching them in the kitchen.

"Sorry about that, Alex."

"No problem, Tina."

After greeting each other, they settled on sitting on the couch. In awkward silence. Alex didn't realize he was taking up more than 2/3 of the couch space, but Tina didn't mind it. The silence was deafening and neither of them knew why they weren't saying anything.

Tina finally spoke. "So…would you like a…"

"Oh, well, Tina. Listen, I came here to ask you something."

"Yes?"

Alex felt a bead or two of sweat falling down his cheek and he was sure that his armpits smelled pretty musty now after that impromptu basketball game. However, he needed to keep his cool and tell Tina what he came there to tell her.

"Tina…I…I…"

Tina's eyes grew wider and she wasn't sure what to make of Alex at the moment.

"Listen, Tina, ."

Despite Alex's rapid-fire delivery, Tina understood every word.

"Oh, Alex…"

"Yeah?"

"I'm really happy you asked, but…"

Alex's heart sank at the word "but". He went all the way over here, mustered up the courage to ask Tina out on a date, only to be shot down. This was confirmation of all of his suspicions. Why did he let the gang convince him otherwise? "But you don't want to go with me?" Alex said without letting Tina finish her statement.

"No, it's just that Victor Torres already asked me, just now actually, and I accepted."

Alex couldn't believe it. What if he had been there an hour earlier? He could have been the one taking Tina to the dance. What was Victor Torres doing over at Tina's anyway? Did he walk her home? Are they going out? Did he like her? Worse…did she like him? Alex felt he had a sure-fire way of finding out.

"Cancel on him," demanded Alex.

"I can't do that!" responded Tina not meaning to sound as if she was reprimanding him for bad language.

"Tina!" yelled Mrs. Nguyen. "Don't be rude, he's a guest."

Tina ignored her mom. Seriously, considering the situation, was etiquette really important at the moment?

"You won't do it because you just don't feel the same way about me the way I do about you, you never have!"

"That's not fair…"

Alex saw Mrs. Nguyen watching this scene and felt embarrassed and a little ashamed. He quickly apologized to Mrs. Nguyen and left the house. All Alex thought about was running away from there as quickly as possible. He wasn't sure where he was going but he knew he needed to get out of there. After running for about five minutes, he wasn't quite sure where he was exactly but knew that the sun was setting pretty soon so he should make his way back to the Bodega. Just then he heard someone yelling for him.

"Alex! I've been calling your name for the past 5 blocks. You know how stupid we look?"

"Oh, is that all you care about?" Alex instantly knew who it was. In the future, Alex wondered why the fact that she ran after him didn't surprise him at the time the way it should have. Although he couldn't truly figure it out, he would forever by grateful.

"Don't twist my words, Alex Fernandez!"

"Yeah, well…"

"Well what?"

"I want you to say it."

"Say what?"

"Say you don't have feelings for me. That's how you feel, right?"

Aggravated and turning red, Tina looked as if she was ready to explode. "This is all your fault!"

"How is it my fault?" asked Alex, confused and a little frightened at the direction this was going.

"If you just asked me earlier and not as an afterthought or out of pity then I wouldn't be going with Victor Torres, who by the way is a true gentleman. He opened the door and pulled up a chair for me when we got ice cream and everything."

"Oh that's nice, that's because he's got experience!"

"Look who's talking?" scoffed Tina. "You're the one with a date every week and breaking girls hearts by teasing them then forgetting them."

"What? That's not what I do."

"Liar!"

"No."

"Yes"

"No!"

"Si Si, tu est."

"Don't use your Freshmen Spanish on me."

"Hey, at least I'm trying to learning Spanish, I don't see you or anyone else taking the time to learn Vietnamese, well, except Ghostwriter."

"Yeah, well…" Alex didn't know what to say after that.

"Well what?" asked Tina with her arms crossed.

Alex just stood there not knowing what to say exactly.

"I'm one too, you know."

"One what?"

"A gentleman. I used to hold out the chairs for you…I used to pull out the computer chair for you when you typed to Ghostwriter and I held doors for you and let you in places first and I make sure I don't do anything rude while I'm with you."

"You don't think you do anything rude?" Tina laughed.

"No, I don't think I do. I'm perfectly polite when I'm with you." Alex was getting angry that Tina didn't notice his valiant effort being a total gentleman.

"Yeah, well, you don't have to bother. We're only friends, remember?"

"Whose fault is that?"

"Don't blame this on me."

"You were the one who told me that whatever happened between us happened in the past and that, what was it? Oh yeah, that we were friends and that was ok."

"Yeah, because you stopped calling me or you felt weird about not asking me to go out and you stopped walking me home and whatever."

"Yeah, well, you didn't have to be so quick to say that we were 'good friends'. I remember that."

All of a sudden Tina just lunged at Alex hitting him with everything she had.

"Hey! Hey! Stop that!"

"That's it! Just don't talk to me or go near me anymore."

"That's a bit hard, isn't it? I mean you're always at the Bodega." Alex felt proud of his comeback.

Tina reacted by hitting him again, this time even harder. Alex tried to block her assault but she got a few blows in. He didn't know she could hit that hard. Her eyes were watery and her face was bright red. Finally, Alex grabbed hold of her wrists to stop the assault. He all of a sudden pulled her closer to him and held her. He squeezed her until she stopped shaking with rage. At first Alex thought he was only doing that to calm her down but recognized quickly that this was more for him. Alex dreamt of this moment but this was hardly the ideal circumstance. He still couldn't help but feel happy at his current position. Right when he was about to soak in the embrace Tina undercut him in the gut.

Alex got the wind knocked out of him and when he finally came to, Tina was already gone.

Tina ran all the way to her house. She didn't care who she ran into. When she finally made it home, she saw her dad, Linda, and her mom sitting on the couch watching some Vietnamese-dubbed soap opera about an evil brother and a good brother and their martyred mother. Tina ignored her father's questions of where she had been and what had happened and ran straight to her room. When Chi was about to get up to investigate, Minh stopped him.

"Anh, let me handle this," said Tina's mom.

"But, what happened? I want to know if she's hurt," said her concerned father.

"It's ok, let me talk to her, please."

He knew that she could handle this better than him, so he submitted.

"I want to see what happened too!" yelled Linda.

"No," both of them said strictly.

"You stay here and talk to your father," said Minh.

Linda couldn't think of anything more boring at the moment. Then Chi started making goofy faces to appease his daughter. Despite being eight, not three, that did the trick.

Tina didn't hear a knock on her door when Minh came in. Her parents didn't believe in having locks on their children's doors. Tina hated how the idea of privacy was considered "too American" and "utterly ridiculous" to her parents. What was worse was still having to share a room with Linda even after her brother Tuan moved out. Her parents were still convinced he'd come back eventually.

"Tina…" Minh saw Tina sobbing into her pillow.

"Chau, what happened? Where's Alex?"

At that mere mention of his name, Tina screamed into her pillow.

"I see…" After a few moments of Minh caressing Tina's back and pulling her hair out of her face, Tina finally looked up to face her mother. Her face was raw and tired from crying.

"Mẹ, he was so mean."

"Was he?"

"Yeah, he blames me for everything that happened between us."

"WHAT happened between you two?" asked Minh, unsure where this was going. She never had to deal with this from Tuan. Tuan usually kept his romantic liaisons to himself or he would talk to Chi. This was Minh's first time to deal with this sort of thing. She was usually so sure when dealing with Tina's problems such as later bedtimes, types of clothes she was allowed to wear, curfews, how many people on the street she was allowed to bother to film, and the like. However, her baby and romance? That was foreign to her. Minh's sisters and brothers had trouble with their daughters as well and Minh tried to learn from their examples, but had forgotten everything when it was finally her turn to face this situation. She finally resigned to herself that if she didn't offer Tina the best advice, then she'd learn from it for when it was Linda's turn.

"Nothing! I just don't get it, we're friends."

"It sounds like he likes you, Tina."

Tina thought for a second. He did like her, didn't he? This should have been a relief to her, but instead it felt like the end of the world.

"I just didn't think he did…I…I…I was sure he just didn't like me that way, but he thinks that I led him on or something."

"Did you?"

"MOM!" Whose side was she on, anyway?

"Tina, I've known that Alex has liked you for a very long time, I even told you he did."

"You're my mom, you would say anybody liked me, plus you hardly see him, so how would you even know?"

"It's obvious when your friends are here, Tina. He looks at you differently than the way the other boys do."

"He never asked me out or anything, how was I supposed to know?"

"He's a boy, they're different."

"Did ba (dad) ever make it hard for you?"

Minh thought for a moment. Truthfully, it wasn't too hard for Chi and her. She knew him since they were children in their village and they both had a mutual attraction towards one another when they reached that point in their lives. Add in the fact that both of their families approved of the relationship and even encouraged it and what you had was a pretty simple affair. None of this complication in the courtship stage. However, for Tina's sake…

"Yes, he made it hard."

"Really?"

"Yes, you know how your father is. He has trouble expressing his feelings, you know that." Minh said, surprising herself by acknowledging how true that statement was.

"I just thought it was just his English," said Tina referring to her father's difficult grasp of the English language.

"Even in Vietnamese, he has trouble saying how he feels. That's the way Vietnamese men are."

"He seems to express it just fine when he yells at us or is commanding us around."

"Tina, your father yelling at you kids is…well, one part of it is that he just wants what's best for you." Tina knew that was coming. "But another part is that he yells because he's frustrated he can't speak to you the way he really wants to so it comes out very harsh."

Upon reflection, Tina knew her mother was right. Tina wasn't quite ready or in the mood to get into the psychological make-up of her father just yet. "If you're right about Alex, then it's too late."

"Tina, you're so young, why is it too late?"

"Because I'm going to the dance with Victor Torres."

"It's only one dance, Tina."

"Yeah, but Alex won't want me now. He thinks me not canceling on Victor means I don't like him."

"He's just mad that he lost this chance. He'll calm down and when his head is clear-"

"But, I hit him."

"Tina!"

"I did, many times. I couldn't control myself; I wanted to hurt him - badly. I don't know what came over me."

"I'm sure you didn't hurt him too badly," Minh said. She was actually entertained by the idea of her tiny daughter attacking the tall fit boy. However, she was also horrified that Tina displayed herself in such a disrespectful manner.

"I told him to never talk to me or even stand near me."

"Oh Tina," Minh said smiling, "that would be difficult with you being best friends with his sister."

"I know, now I have to stop talking to Gaby." Tina started to sob again.

Minh chuckled at Tina. She wasn't sure how she got such a dramatic daughter. Just then Chi uncharacteristically knocked on Tina's door and entered without waiting for an answer.

"Tina," said Chi uncomfortably. "It's the phone. Gaby. She wants to talk to you."

"Go on, Tina," said Minh encouragingly.

Alex stormed into the Bodega and ignored his family's calls to start stocking up the cans of cat food. Gaby and his mother Estella had a look of confusion as Alex ignored their calls. Alex went to his room and fell to his bed. He started angrily punching his mattress when Eduardo came in.

"Alejandro, don't you ignore me when I talk to you. Where were you this afternoon? It's almost dark and I need you to help with the stock." Eduardo eased up after seeing a visibly troubled Alex. "Alejandro, what happened?" Eduardo approached his son.

"Nothing, Papa. I'll go and help. Sorry about rushing past you."

"No, no, it's ok. Tell me, niño,"

"I'm not a niño anymore."

"Alright, hijo," said Eduardo.

The two of them sat on Alex's bed for quite some time. Eduardo waited for Alex, ready when he was. "Why are girls so hard to figure out?" Alex finally asked.

"Ah," Eduardo thought. Of course. He knew this time would come sooner or later. He prepared himself for this ever since Alex had asked him for advice on talking to women/girls almost four years ago. Or was it five? Anyway, he had expected to have this talk sooner.

"What girl is giving you a problem, now?"

"Does it matter?" answered Alex exasperatedly.

"What do you think, Alejandro?"

Alex thought for a moment. Of course it mattered. He knew that he couldn't keep this from his father any longer. This whole thing started the first time Alex asked his father about girls. He was writing different ways he could tell Tina that he liked her. However, nothing sounded right and as soon as he called her, he'd just hang up. His father caught him throwing balls of paper in the trash and wondered what was going on. After their talk, Eduardo asked Alex who it was he was talking about, and Alex, of course, didn't tell him anything. "It's Tina, Papa."

"Tina! You mean out of all the girls I see you take out, it's Tina that's giving you the problem?" Eduardo laughed.

Alex couldn't help but laugh a little at his father's awkward phrasing. He began to laugh at the situation he found himself in, although it didn't take away the sting. "Yeah, sort of funny, huh?"

"Well, she is a very pretty girl." Eduardo looked at Alex and smiled.

"Yeah." Alex answered without looking at his papa.

"And you two have been friends for a long time."

"Yeah."

"So what's the problem?"

"I don't know. We kind of got into a fight. I mean I said some really mean stuff to her, Papa." Alex read a look of disapproval on Eduardo's face. "I didn't mean to say those things, it just came out. I just wanted her to feel something, something bad, I guess."

"Yeah, I know how you feel."

"Really?"

"Oh yeah, I never told you this story, but your Mama and I…when we were younger in El Salvador, about 17 or 18, I don't remember, anyway, she broke my heart. Si, it's true. We had a time where no mater what, we ended up fighting all the time. I don't really remember why, but we were both young and hot-tempered, plus El Salvador is very hot so it makes us a little…uh…"

"Temperamental?"

"Si, that's the word. Anyway, we were going through a bad time. Finally after a bad fight, she said to me that I was too hot-tempered for her and that she needed to be with someone more mature. She said she needed to find somebody who knew what he wanted. I was 18, Alejandro, I didn't know what I wanted…your Mama…she can be so serious…"

"What did you do?" asked Alex, not wanting his father to lose focus.

"Oh, we started fighting. It was…explosive. I called her all sorts of bad names- the worst I ever called her. Finally, I told her that I was the best thing to happen to her and she'd be nothing now she wasn't with me and would continue to be nothing."

"What did she do?"

"She said that I was already nothing and that she already had plans to go out with another boy. I was so embarrassed. The other people in the street, well, they laughed. I actually wanted to run and away…go someplace nobody could find me, but I was too proud, Alejandro. So I just laughed and laughed at her and said I didn't care about her anymore and that she could do what she wanted. I said that if that boy broke her heart and treated like trash, don't come crying to me because I'd have girls lining up at my door easy."

"You actually said all of those things?" Alex didn't understand how his parents would have been able to reconcile after that.

"Sí."

"Why did mama forgive you? That sounds really terrible."

"Well, your mama and I…deep down we knew how much we cared for one another. She wanted me to wake up…sorry, to grow up. She was right. We were both getting older and I was still acting like a child. If I didn't shape up, she could have found somebody else."

"Really?"

"Well, I knew that in the end, your mama and I would be together. I just saw this as an… obstáculo…eh, you know a short problem." Eduardo saw Alex not totally understanding where Eduardo was taking this.

"What did you do for her to forgive you?"

"It's embarrassing, Alejandro, but I well...I cried to her."

"YOU CRIED?"

"Yes yes, I cried my heart out to her and told her I was nothing without her and that I'd do everything to prove to her that I deserved her."

"Weren't you embarrassed though?"

"No, I didn't care about that. Thinking back and remembering, yes I am embarrassed now, but at the time, I wasn't because all I cared about was getting your mama back."

Alex just sat there silently reflecting. Eduardo wasn't sure what Alex was thinking. Eduardo felt an inclination to continue. "Sometimes, women and men need time to figure things out, Alejandro. It may seem impossible at the time, but if you feel it's worth it, then you should fight for it. But don't forget to respect the other person's wishes too. Sometimes you lose a fight and have to move on."

"But how can you fight for what you want if the other person doesn't want the same thing? And how can you tell if the other person doesn't want what you want?"

"Well, you see, I…" Eduardo was stumped. "Well, you see…it's just something you feel. Comprendes?"

"But…"

"Believe, Alejandro. When you find someone you are willing to fight for, you know. Don't be afraid of getting hurt Alejandro. The only thing worse than pain is regret."

Alex thought it was such a corny thing to say and it didn't seem very useful. However, Eduardo had planted a seed in Alex's mind. Was Tina worth fighting for?

Alex started to remember the time when he ran for Class President at Hurston Middle School. In the years to come, when Alex would feel sentimental, he would sometimes wonder why this particular memory came into his head at that exact moment. Whatever it was…there was no denying that it woke him up.


Fall 1992

At the height of election season, Alex Fernandez was a popular candidate and it looked as though he would sail into victory. That is until somebody started a damaging smear campaign. The campaign consisted of clever posters aimed to humiliate him and make the voters second-guess their confidence in Alex. The illustrative showed off embarrassing personal secrets that nobody else knew except for Gaby and Alex himself. It had gotten so bad that he was literally laughed out of school one day. Principal Kelly didn't exactly help when she made an announcement that this type of malicious behavior would not be tolerated. This now ensured that the entire school knew about the posters. When the team brainstormed ways to help Alex continue his campaign (without resorting to the dirty tricks by the unknown assailant) Tina came up with the idea of doing a video to help Alex's campaign. The purpose was to showcase Alex as a strong candidate for office. After Tina convinced Alex that his ambitious idea to make a video of him beating up a giant chicken wouldn't be possible with their limited resources, they decided on what they should do. They woke up early one morning (and with the help of a four year-old Linda) and went to work on their campaign video.

"Tina, do you think the video turned out ok."

"Oh yeah, definitely, even if we had to do a lot of takes, thanks to Linda."

"Hey!" Linda responded. It wasn't her fault she couldn't remember her one line, "it's too dark." Tina and Alex laughed as poor Linda crossed her arms and pouted.

"You didn't have to walk us home, Alex."

"I know, but I thought it'd be nice," Alex said avoiding eye contact. "You know," Alex quickly added shrugging his shoulders for emphasis.

"Yeah. I really hope you win the election Alex," Tina said quickly. She saw Alex facing her and quickly added, "I mean, you deserve it after all that mudslinging. I really want to find out who's responsible for this."

"You really mean that?"

"Of course, I wouldn't lie to you…to a friend."

"Yeah, I know you wouldn't lie. You really think I deserve it, though?"

Tina laughed at Alex's redundancy. "Yeah, why do you think I'm doing this video for you?"

"I thought it was just you being nice…because we're friends and all."

"Speaking of friends," Tina said, "how did you get so many pen pals?" Tina was referring to Alex's dozen or so pen pals. They were from around the world and they all so happened to be girls. His mother told Tina and Jamal that "Alex couldn't help it if he wrote such charming letters," before embarrassing him.

Alex lowered his head too embarrassed to look at Tina. "Well, I got started when we did a Pen Pal assignment at Washington and well, I liked it a lot. Oh and don't listen to Gaby. They're not my girlfriends."

Tina tried hard not to laugh but it was obvious she was amused. "Ok, Alex."

"Anyway, you can write to them because you don't see them every day. You don't even meet them in person. So it lets you write with more…freedom. I can open myself up more."

"Yeah, that's cool." Tina understood how writing in near anonymity would be enticing.

"Tina?"

"Yeah, Alex?"

"How did you get into making movies? Gaby tells me that you go to Washington on some weekends to edit your footage yourself." Alex wanted to make sure that Tina knew he was paying her a compliment. "I mean that's really cool, most kids I know don't even know how to work a VCR, but you know how to make movies that we can put in our VCRs."

"Oh, it's not that big of a deal really," Tina said nervously.

"Come on," responded Alex.

"Well, when I was little, I used to stay at my parents' tailor shop everyday. My parents had to watch me because Tuan was too young to do it. They thought it was best if I went to work with them so they could keep an eye on me. But I didn't really have any other kids to play with. I was sort of just stuck with my mom and dad and their customers. Sometimes my aunt or uncles could come and bring my cousins and that'd be really fun but it didn't happen too often. Well, I think I was misbehaving too much because my parents said that I kept getting in the way of everything and that I wouldn't shut up."

"Really?" Alex asked, surprised. Tina being a chatterbox like Gaby? Who knew?

"Yeah. So my dad had the idea to buy a used TV for me to watch in the back while they worked. So I ended up watching TV, a lot of TV. I used to spend the whole day watching old movies. During the day, that's all they played. I would watch PBS and Sesame Street and all that. It was actually Tuan and PBS that taught me English because my parents only spoke to me in Vietnamese at the time before they gave up. I loved all the stories. I was too young to think about making movies, but I remember knowing that I wanted to do something with movies. I would act out scenes and memorize lines. It was so fun. I used to go up to my room and just pretend I was in a movie. That's how I started watching Lana Barnes movies when I found out she lived in Brooklyn too, I made a promise to myself that I would meet her one day." Tina turned to face Alex who just gaped at her. She didn't mean to talk so much.

Encouragingly, Alex said, "you mean the action star?"

"Yeah," Tina figured she might as well continue, "they used to run her movies marathon-style all the time, and she was my idol. She was never afraid to speak her mind, she knew how to throw a punch, swing on a vine, fly ad airplane, ride a horse and jump over cliffs, all of that. I could never be that way."

"Who says you can't?"

"You mean swinging over pools filled with crocodiles or sky diving out of a burning airplane? Somehow I don't think I can."

"You know what I mean."

"Well, I just know I'm not that kind of person."

"What kind of person? You never know what you can do until you try." Alex said that with admirable confidence.

"I think I'm right about this." Tina wanted to let the subject drop.

"Let me tell you something, when I took swimming lessons one summer, there was this boy who would make fun of me and tell me I was going to drown. I was so scared and I thought I'd never be able to swim. But after that guy made fun of me, I had to prove him wrong. By the end of the summer, I swam faster than him. So you never know what you're capable of unless you try. I mean you make these great movies already just imagine if you just…well you know."

"You think my movies are great?"

"Well…I think, you know they're cool."

Tina smiled, but didn't know what to say to that. The two of them walked side-by-side with Alex periodically dribbling his basketball. Linda was frolicking in front of them. Tina warned Linda to be careful while Alex told Tina to let her run around a bit. Kids needed to let loose sometimes. He called Linda and bounced his basketball towards her. Linda tried to catch it but her arms couldn't fully grasp the ball and she ended up dropping it. The ball rolled towards the park.

Alex and Tina instinctively ran after her as she chased after it. Running into foot and bike traffic forced Tina and Alex to maneuvering around pedestrians, carts, and cyclists. When Alex finally got a hold of Linda, Tina caught up with them, but was in such a panic rush that she didn't stop in time and tripped over the two of them. They toppled over each other. Tina and Alex began to laugh hysterically.

"Ow!" Linda yelped. Linda began crying over some pain on her knee and Tina checked it out.

"Oh, Linda, it's nothing. Not even a scratch." Tina was slightly embarrassed at Linda's behavior. She knew what was coming. Linda was a pro at manipulating people to gain sympathy to get her way.

"But it hurts!" Linda's crying worsened. Now Tina was really embarrassed.

"Hey, Linda…" Alex chimed in. Linda gave Alex her attention. "Let me take a look at that knee."

"Ok…" Linda said stifling her tears.

Alex pretended to carefully examine her perfectly fine knee. "Ah, I see the problem," Alex said. "You have a broken…tear under your skin."

Linda screamed. Her crying grew more violent. Linda wasn't faking it anymore.

"Alex!" Tina yelled.

"Uh…Linda, I mean that it's ok because I know how to fix that."

"Oh really?" Linda said after a few more sobs.

"Yeah, let me see." Alex then rubbed Linda's knee in a circular motion then gently tapped her knee. "There, I fixed it." Alex smiled at Linda.

"Really?"

"Yeah, you don't believe me?"

Linda thought about it for a moment. "I believe you." She finally said. She sprung back up and started skipping.

Alex turned towards Tina and realized she had been smiling at him. He blushed. They continued on their path to the Nguyen's tailor shop.

"Hey, Tina," Alex said, "do you want to see something cool?"

"Sure."

"I want to see!" exclaimed Linda.

"Ok, look." Alex took the basketball and spun it around his index finger. However, he lost balance right after the ball spun on his finger and it flew out and hit Tina right on her face.

"OW!"

"Oh wow, Tina! I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to, I'm really sorry, Tina. I'm sorry-"

"Alex, it's alright!" said Tina. "The ball just took me by surprise that's all. I'm not that delicate."

No she wasn't, Alex thought.

When they reached the tailor shop Linda ran inside to aggressively hug her mom. Minh looked out to Tina then at Alex. She gave an uncertain look then went back to her sewing. Tina's father, Chi, was animatedly talking to one of their customers. Upon hearing Linda's noisy entrance, Chi propped her up and showed her off to the customer.

"I have to go inside and help with the shop. My mom thinks I'm not helping enough." Tina said with a tinge of disappointment.

"Oh, yeah, it's cool. I have to go back to the Bodega and sweep the sidewalk then help water the vegetables and unpack the supplies."

"Parents always make you work."

"I know, just when you're having fun, they have to ruin it!" Alex said giving an exaggerated gesture then waving his hands, almost hitting Tina in his excitement. "Alejandro, you have to put your family first!" said Alex mockingly.

Tina laughed hysterically. "Tina, you have to work hard and 'spect your parents," Tina said in her best impression of her father. "Tina, stop dreaming in the clouds, we came all the way from Vietnam with nothing to give you a life here. If you were in Vietnam you'd be working in the streets and selling cigarettes."

"Alejandro, you want to get paid? I'll tell you what you get paid with!" Alex then raised his backhand to imitate his dad threatening him with a smack, "You get paid with…"

"…the clothes on your back, the food on the table, and the roof over your head!" both of them said.

Both of them bowled over laughing. After the laughter subdued, Tina had noticed Alex already stopped laughing and was looking at her. When she noticed, he quickly looked away causing Tina to turn towards the tailor shop window and notice her mom staring right at her. She turned back to Alex to say her goodbye. It looked like he wanted to give her a hug, but Alex instead gave her an enthusiastic hi-five then ran back to the Bodega. Before Tina walked into the store, she heard Alex yell out to her. "Hey, Tina! Thanks for everything. Your video is going to win me the election for sure!" Although Alex didn't win the election, due to Calvin Ferguson's aggressive smear campaign, Alex would later be grateful that this allowed Tina and him to have this memory.


Fall 1996

If Alex wondered if she was worth it before, now he knew for sure what his answer was. Tina was someone to fight for. He knew it. Yes, he was afraid to go after her, but he wasn't a coward, he has just never been tested. He ran to his closet to look for something. He found his nice black slacks and sports coat and his nice tie…his only tie. However, he couldn't find the shirt he wanted to wear. Eduardo just looked on not knowing what Alex was doing.

"Papa, do you remember that green shirt I wore to Auntie Karina's wedding?"

"Sí"

"Do you know where it is?"

Tina and Victor saw more of each other in the following two weeks leading up to Homecoming. No, Gaby did not blame Tina and Tina did not have to find somebody else to be her best friend. Tina and Alex, however, did avoid one another. If one was talking to Lenni, the other one would just pass by hoping not to be noticed. Unfortunately for them, it didn't work.

The Friday before Homecoming, Victor took Tina out for an early dinner. He had been trying to make a play for her, but it never felt right. Either Tina would shy away from him or he saw an opportunity and tried to go for it only to get cold feet. He would have to settle for hand-holding (which took a week of casual meetings in order to get that far).

"This restaurant is good, I've been here before and it's well, you know…good."

"Yeah, I was here before too."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, one time, Gaby, Lenni, Jamal, Hector, Casey, A- and I went here to…hang."

"Oh." Victor and Tina sat in a brief silence. They looked at each other and Tina just offered a small smile to Victor. Victor seemed a little disappointed. "You guys are pretty close, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess you can say that."

"Guess? You guys have a reputation at school."

"What do you mean?"

"You guys go around trying to solve the problems around here, and some people are scared when one of you guys approach them."

"What do you mean scared?"

"Just that you tend to only talk to them when you need information." Victor laughed. He glanced at Tina who was not amused. "Oh come on, you have to have known that you guys can be a bit…well, scary."

"That's not fair. Yeah, sometimes we ask questions and whatever, but just because one of us says 'hi' or wants to know 'what's up' we really mean it."

"I know, I know, no need to get defensive."

Tina crossed her arms and looked away from Victor.

"Come on, Tina. I didn't mean to make you mad." When that didn't help matters, Victor reached out and touched Tina's hands. Tina wanted to snap them away, but being touched by Victor Torres wasn't so bad. "Wow."

"What?"

"You let me grab your hands." Victor smirked at her.

"Why is that so surprising?" Tina was ready to slide her hands away if it wasn't for the fact that she wanted to make a point.

"Well, usually when I do something that direct, you find some way to back away."

"No, I don't. We held hands before."

"Yeah, but not like this." Victor then grabbed Tina's hands and kissed them. That, Tina minded, but she didn't have the heart to pull away after what he said to her. "Girl, that was nice."

Tina gave Victor a half-hearted smile.

"You have real self-esteem issues, you know that?"

"I don't like the way this dinner is going."

"Sorry. I don't want to talk about you like that and this dinner isn't exactly going the way I want, but I have to say it. You're really shy, Tina Nguyen."

"Nice pronunciation of my name. You didn't pronounce the 'n'."

"Yeah, there are a lot of Vietnamese people in my building. Why do you pronounce the 'n' at school?"

"Because some families do. Not mine though, but it's easier. When I was younger, nobody knew how to pronounce it, and all the teachers would pronounce it 'nu-win' or 'n-goy-en' when it's really more like 'wuen'."

"So you let other people tell you how to say your name."

"That's not what I said!" Tina was getting annoyed with Victor. He starting to be a smart-ass.

"That's not how I meant it to sound, but I just think if it's pronounced a certain way, you shouldn't have to make it easier for people. If they care, they'll say it right."

What Victor saw as yielding to other people, Tina just saw as being accommodating to other people's inability to speak Vietnamese. And yet, how hard was it really to say Nguyen correctly?

"Hey, Tina." Victor said sensing Tina's discomfort. "Let's start over, I didn't mean for dinner to go like this. I speak my mind, but sometimes that means I say things before I think." Victor goofily shrugged his shoulders.

"No, this is a good conversation." Tina wanted turn this conversation around and she knew Victor didn't intend for dinner to turn out like this.

"Really?" asked a bewildered Victor.

"Yeah, I think it's good to talk about these things."

"Huh." Victor looked at Tina, obviously never experiencing a date quite like this.

"Yeah, I mean the conversation isn't exactly…polite, but it's interesting."

"I never met a girl like you Tina."

"I'm sure you have."

"If I have, I never got into it this deep."

"Why not? There are a lot of girls out there."

"Well, just waiting for one to be worth my time, I guess."

Tina knew that that was such a pick-up line but she really didn't mind it. "I'm not that shy, you know?"

"Oh yeah?" Victor asked, slyly smiling. Was Tina hinting at something?

"Yeah, I'm taking acting classes."

"Oh, you want to act?" asked Victor disappointed that Tina had no hidden innuendo.

"Not necessarily, but I want to make movies and I think taking acting classes will help me when I have to direct or even write scenes. It allows you really dig deep inside of you and you don't know what comes out. It's scary but sort of-exhilarating at the same time." Tina was proud of herself for saying "exhilarating".

"Oh, so you write?"

"A little bit. I'm not great at it. Sometimes I feel like my writing is derived from other places, like other movies. It's hard to find anything original."

"You should write what you know, I do."

"Oh yeah, Rob told me you wrote. I remember that rap you did at Hurston. It was really deep."

"Oh yeah, you remember that? That's what I mean; you have to write what you know. Hey, how is Rob? Is he still in Australia?"

"I haven't written to Rob in a while, but he seems good. He wrote me about an idea about writing about the Outback, although he's never seen it. I joked that I was going to turn his book into a movie…I told him that I was going to name it 'A Dingo Ate My Baby'."

"Holy crap, does that really happen?"

Tina gave a look to the side. "Well, it happened once to a woman and she was accused of having some sort of religious ritual and sacrificed her newborn and went to jail. However, they discovered new evidence later and found that a dingo really ate her baby. They made a movie out of it with Meryl Streep."

"Oh."

Well, Rob got the joke, Tina thought.

During their walk back to Tina's after dinner, Victor tried to grab Tina's hand but she instinctively pulled away not realizing what she had done. Victor hung his head low. When Tina looked up at Victor, she saw his disappointment.

"Victor, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that."

"Yeah you did."

"No, it's just I'm not used to well…this public affection."

"No, it's alright. I know you're not used to it, that's why you didn't let me grab your hand. I told you that you were shy." Victor said triumphantly then offered Tina a friendly smile.

Tina had had enough. She was getting tired of having other people tell her who she was or how she acts. I'll show him shy, Tina thought. Tina grabbed Victor's face and laid a kiss on his lips.

Victor was taken by surprised and was simply speechless. To make sure he got the message, Tina went in for an even deeper kiss. This time, she wasn't sure when she would let go.

At Tina's door, Victor and Tina were certainly holding each other's hands publicly. After their goodbyes, Tina entered through the door and saw her brother Tuan. There was no mistaking that big head of his. He was watching MTV2 and The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" was playing.

On the TV, she saw the front man with big black hair, red lipstick, swinging his microphone, with the set changing backgrounds every so often. Tina loved this song and didn't care if people scoffed when she said it was her favorite Cure song. Tuan was one of the scoffers.

Monday, you can hold your head

Tuesday, Wednesday stay in bed

Or Thursday - watch the walls instead

It's Friday, I'm in love

Saturday, wait

Tuan turned around and saw his sister. He smiled at her, but then couldn't help himself. "Well, look at who it is…what's up, player?"

"Shut up, Tony-Baloney."

"Is that any way to talk to your elder? Make me some tea, and no back talk."

"You've only been back for two days and you're already being a pest." Usually Tina would have said this with teasing, but something in her voice indicated that she was bothered.

"Oh come on, little sister, you know I didn't meant that." Tuan didn't know what he did but he wanted to diffuse the situation.

"What did you mean, though?"

"About what?"

"You called me a player."

"Oh, I was just joking, I didn't mean anything by it."

"Something must have made you say that."

"I was just joking that you're going out with that new kid when Alex asked you to the dance."

"Who told you? Was it Lenni?"

"No, it was Linda. Tina, it's not that serious, I just thought it was funny. I wanted to congratulate you."

"LINDA!"

Tuan didn't understand why Tina was acting this way. Surely, it wasn't that serious, was it?

"What?" answered Linda.

"Stop telling the whole world my business!"

"That's not fair, you tell your friends everything I do!"

"She's got a point," said Tuan.

"Stay out of it, Tuan. Linda, that's different!"

"How?" asked Linda. She wasn't going to back down.

"Yeah, how?" asked Tuan.

"Because you're only eight, you have no business to tell."

"Yes I do! Just because I'm not some teen queen fighting away boyfriends doesn't mean I don't have a life too!"

"Who taught you speak to your older sister like that?"

"YOU DID!" Both Tuan and Linda answered.

"Ugh!" Tina went to her room and closed her bedroom door behind her. Linda knew better than to come in at this moment. Tina was angry. She wasn't sure why. She had a great time tonight. Tina dropped to her bed and thought about everything…Victor, dating, the kiss, and then making out - the first time Tina made out with anyone…then the handholding. It felt good and Victor was obviously more than just a little interested in her. Tina suddenly sat up felt a tear go down her cheek…then another. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed uncontrollably. This was a great night. What was wrong?

THE NIGHT OF HOMECOMING

Linda and Minh helped Tina fit into her dress. This was actually Tina's first real formal dance. The Hurston Junior High prom was a nice dance, but this was a real formal dance. She bought a crimson, square-necked dress with a vertical seam and a skirt that went down to her knees. It was a simple but perfect dress for Tina. It gave her a nice silhouette. Minh was able to tailor the dress to fit Tina perfectly. Although Minh had intended to make the dress looser as to not show too much, she couldn't help but want to make Tina look perfect. Her lipstick was also crimson red and she lightly put on some blush. She thought about putting on her red headband, but Minh thought it'd better if Tina used a matching red thin ribbon to tie around her slightly curled hair. This gave her a nice clean look and yet allowed her hair to flow down.

"One more thing, Tina," said Minh. Minh grabbed more of that simple thin of red ribbon and tied around Tina's waist. Tina looked at her reflection and tried not to be too immodest, but she couldn't help but beam at the sight of herself. This was exactly the look she was going for.

Victor Torres had already arrived when Minh was putting her final touches on Tina. When the three girls came out, what they saw was an awkward scene between Chi and Victor in the living room. It wasn't anything too uncomfortable and Chi was being as cordial as he could to Victor, but the tension was obvious. When Chi saw Minh come out, he impulsively said, "(Tuan should be here)." In Vietnamese.

"(Chi, you know Tuan had to rehearse with Lenni at the school. And we shouldn't be talking in Vietnamese in front of a guest who can't speak it)." Minh responded in kind.

"(I don't care to be polite for this one.)"

"Chi!" Tina fought everything to not give any part of that conversation away to Victor, but Minh gave it away.

Although Victor didn't know what they were saying, he got the hint.

Chi knew he was wrong, but couldn't shake the feeling. It wasn't this boy's fault. All he did was have an interest in his daughter. But he couldn't help it. Any boy wanting to take his daughter out was bad news. What made it worse was that Tina couldn't even find a nice Vietnamese boy to date. It was getting to the point that even a Catholic would do. Hell, any Asian would do at this point, even Chinese.

Victor stood up when Tina had come out of her room and exaggeratedly dropped his jaw. He ignored Chi and Minh's exchange, as did Tina.

"Wow, Tina, you look good." Victor wanted to shake the attention away from him by focusing on Tina.

"Thanks, Victor."

There was an awkward silence as both Tina and Victor felt her parents' gaze with Linda looking on - fighting off her fits of laughter.

"Um, we don't want to be late." Tina finally said.

Chi then said, "(She can't go out there like that)." Tina didn't notice it before but her father looked almost astounded at the sight of Tina. Minh told Chi it was all right and that they should trust Tina. Tina was embarrassed for Victor having to listen to her parents speak Vietnamese in his presence.

"Have her back home by ten," said Chi smiling, being as pleasant as he could.

Before Victor could say yes, Tina interrupted. "Ten? Dad…"

"Ok, Eleven." Said Minh.

"Eleven?" asked Chi. Was his wife losing her mind? You know what happens to girls after ten?

"Yes," answered Minh firmly. She wasn't sure she was doing the right thing, but at this moment, all she wanted was for Tina to have a good night. She sensed something lost and sad inside of Tina and she wanted her girl to forget any trouble she was having.

"Twelve?" asked Tina hoping for the best. She liked where this was going.

"Eleven Thirty," Chi said sarcastically.

"Thank you, Ba." Tina beamed at the opportunity to take advantage of her father. Tina hugged her father. It had been a while since Tina had hugged him, Chi realized. Chi pulled Tina in for a tighter embrace. After a moment, Chi finally let go. It didn't even occur to Tina to stop hugging first. Chi eyed Tina up and down. Tina thought she saw his eyes water, but it could have been her imagination.

"Tina, don't…." Chi then looked at Victor, then back at Minh and Linda then back at Tina. "Be good girl, huh?"

"Da Ba."

Once Victor and Tina were safely out of the house, both of them laughed out of sheer relief. Victor then grabbed Tina's hand. His touch sent a small shock through Tina's body. She fought her nervous reflex and allowed Victor to lead her to Homecoming.

At the Bodega

"Alex, you look fine…"

"You sure?"

"Yes…" said Gaby, feeling exhausted after watching Alex fix his hair for the past thirty minutes or so. Before that he was picking out different ties before he decided on a nice blue one to go with his clover-green shirt. It was the end of summer and he wouldn't be wearing that color for a while. The rest of the ensemble was easy because Alex only had one good pair of dress shoes, which he polished with religious determination, and one really good pair of black slacks for these kinds of occasions.

"Are you sure, I don't need the coat or something?"

"Alex! If you wear a coat, you'd be sweating puddles. It's hot outside."

"Yeah, but I thought it'd be nice." Alex wanted to look perfect.

"Why do you want to look that nice for? You're not taking anybody."

Alex turned back to his reflection to fix up his hair again doing his best to ignore his sister.

Gaby felt she said something too harsh. "Alex, I'm sorry. I'm just tired and I've been helping you for like two hours now."

Alex didn't say anything.

Gaby then went to Alex and helped him straighten out his tie. "Here." She then fixed up Alex's hair. "Now, you don't look so dorky."

"Do I look dorky?"

"No, Alex, you look fine. Maybe even handsome."

"Get out of here!"

"No, I'm serious. You do Alex."

"Thanks, Gaby." Alex went back to his reflection and couldn't help but admire the way he looked. Gaby was right.

"Ok, don't get carried away now." Gaby couldn't take how pleased he was at himself.

Alex gave Gaby an annoyed glare then started to make his way out of the Bodega.

"Tell Jamal and Jasmine I said 'hi!'"

Before Alex could go, his Mama and Papa stopped him.

"Alejandro, you look so handsome"

"Gracias, Mama, but I'm running late."

"I know…it's just…oh Alex. Be good, huh?"

"Si, Mama."

Eduardo didn't say anything. He didn't have to. He put his hand out to Alex and offered him a firm handshake. Alex took his father's hand and his father pulled Alex in for a hug. "Alejandro…don't be afraid," Eduardo whispered into Alex's ear.

"I'm not afraid, Papa." Alex smiled and left. Eduardo knew Alex was ready to conquer the world.

Alex briskly walked to Jamal's where they would go and pick up Jasmine and walk to Walt Whitman High. When Alex greeted Jamal, Jamal sensed something was up. "Hey, man, you look like you're preparing for something."

"Maybe I am," smiled Alex.

After Grandma CeCe was done taking multiple pictures of Jamal and Alex in their outfits, she finally let them go out to meet Jasmine.

"So, Alex…I think I'm going to tell Jasmine."

"Tell her what?"

"That I'm in love with her. She's the one, Alex."

Alex knew that he wasn't the only one with a mission tonight.


Summer 2006

"Don't skimp on the details!" complained Gaby.

"What are you talking about?" asked Alex. Tina was equally confused.

"You know this story won't have the same impact without Lenni's story," explained Gaby.

"I thought you wanted us to tell you our story," said Alex.

"Yeah, but Lenni is sort of the reason why this story happened. Plus she told us what happened, so it's not like we don't know."

"Gaby, I don't remember everything that Lenni said," said Tina.

"Yeah, plus it's going off-tangent already." Alex stomach started to growl.

"Oh come on, we've made it this far."

Tina sighed. Gaby always loses focus. "Alright, but don't get mad at me if there are holes or whatever."


Fall 1996

At Walt Whitman High School, Alex and Jamal and Jasmine walked into the gym. They were late and the place was packed. It didn't take long to find Lenni and Tuan.

They gave each other obligatory hugs and hi-fives.

"Has anyone seen Tina, yet?" asked Jasmine who winked at Lenni. Lenni smiled.

"No, she isn't here yet," answered Tuan. Tuan saw Alex and tried to give him a supportive smile, but Alex looked preoccupied with looking around. "Alex, can I talk to you?"

"Oh, uh, sure," answered Alex still looking around not paying close attention.

Tuan turned, winked at Lenni, put his around Alex and led him away. Tuan was still his charming self and Lenni knew if Tuan asked, she still would.

"You still like him, don't you?" asked Jasmine noticing Lenni looking at Tuan.

"Who?"

Jasmine and Jamal looked at each other and laughed.

"Hey! That's not funny," answered Lenni. It wasn't very nice for two attached people to be mocking their single friend who was still pining for her ex.

"Lenni, it looks like Alex isn't the only one looking to get with his 'true love' back," said Jamal.

"Ha Ha, very funny." Lenni rolled her eyes. She made a mental note to get Jamal back.

"You know, we're just giving you a hard time. But it seems like you and Tuan get along nicely still," said Jamal.

"Yeah, I know, but how long is that going to last? It's nice when he's here, but he's never here. He's always out touring or hanging out with these new older people. We're just not on the same page. Today, it was so fun talking to him, but he kept name-dropping all of these musicians I've never heard of and we didn't really have much to talk about other than music."

"Yeah, Jamal, you need more than just one thing in common to have a relationship," said Jasmine chiding Jamal.

"Yeah, luckily we don't have that problem, right Jasmine?"

"Mmmmhmmm…we can talk about that later" Jasmine then turned to face Lenni and winked at her.

Lenni laughed. Jamal knew what was up and said, "Yeah, but I was hoping we wouldn't be doing much talking tonight."

Lenni burst out laughing while Jasmine feigned to be insulted. It was odd to see Jamal acting like some sort of romantic lead male with one-liners. He was still the Ghostwriter team leader to her…that same 11 year-old boy.

"Alex, I wanted to ask you something."

"I was wondering why you wanted to talk." Alex didn't expect to be talking to Tuan one-on-one tonight, though it made sense if Tuan knew of Alex's plan.

Tuan looked uncomfortable but went on. "What exactly are your intentions with my little sister?"

Alex wasn't prepared for that. "Um…"

"I need to know that if you some how get her that you wouldn't hurt her, on purpose, I mean."

Alex still didn't completely understand.

"Listen, Alex, I'm asking if you plan on playing her or something." Tuan sounded more aggressive than he intended to be. However, this was his little sister and as much as he liked Alex nobody was above his vengeful wrath.

"Of course not, Tuan! I would never want to hurt Tina." The thought of anyone thinking otherwise made Alex's blood boil.

"Well, what if she and this Victor guy hit it off or something? Are you going to get in her way?"

"I wouldn't be getting in her way, his maybe…"

"But you would be. What if Tina made up her mind and then you come along and you make her confused over what she wants?"

"Look, man, I don't know what to say. I just want her to know how I feel and that I'm…I'm sorry. The rest is up to her and I'll respect whatever she decides, but I have to let her know."

Tuan sized Alex up and said, "Good answer."

Alex exhaled. He didn't realize Tuan could be so scary.

"So, how's this Victor kid? Should I be warned of anything?"

"No, Victor is a nice guy, really."

"So you have no problem stealing a nice guy's girlfriend?"

Alex had to think for a moment. For anyone else, this situation could seem morally questionable. However, for Alex, everything was clear.

"I'm sorry if I end up hurting him for his sake, but I won't be sorry if things go my way."

Tuan couldn't help but smile at this kid. I like this guy a lot, Tuan thought.

It was another ten minutes before Victor and Tina arrived. Tina saw Lenni, Jamal, and Jasmine talking near the staging area and greeted them. Victor nervously met the close-knit gang. Feeling his apprehensiveness, Jasmine told Victor, "it's alright, we don't bite." Jasmine knew full well what that feeling was like. She still didn't understand everything that held this group together, but she felt that Jamal would tell her everything when he was ready.

The group laughed.

After a few pleasantries, Victor asked Tina to dance and both of them hit the dance floor. When Tina and Victor were making their way to the floor, Tina noticed Alex and Tuan talking. What were they talking about, Tina wondered. Just then Alex looked up and saw Tina watching him. She and Alex locked eyes before Tina looked away. Victor was too focused on leading Tina to the dance floor to notice.

The DJ just changed the song to the Mighty Mighty Bosstone's "The Impression That I Get." Victor jumped up and down to this song. That was one thing about Victor, he certainly wasn't afraid to dance. He was good at it. Tina got swept up in Victor's excitement and joined his crazy dancing that oddly mixed with the horns and speed of the song. Victor's dancing sort of reminded her of how crazy Rob used to dance. The team would always comment on how Rob's body contorted in ways they didn't know the human body could. One thing was for sure, Alex would never dance like this. He never danced, ever. She wondered what it would have been like if she went with Alex instead. She turned in the direction where Alex and Tuan were but they were already gone. She felt a tinge of disappointment seep through her despite Victor's infectious energy.

After the crowd dissipated for a small break. The DJ made an announcement that Tuan and Lenni would be performing a small set list after the break.

Alex took this opportunity to go up to Tina and Victor. However, Tina and Victor had already made their way to Jasmine, Jamal, Lenni, and Tuan.

"Hey, Victor."

"Hey, Alex! How you doin' buddy?" Victor put his arm around Alex and disheveled his hair. Victor was clearly still high on excitement.

"Tina." Alex said.

"Hi, Alex," Tina responded giving Alex a momentary glance.

After a brief but awkward conversation between Victor and Alex, Alex tried to get Tina's attention when Victor pulled her away and said, "sorry, but I see my friends over there and I want to say 'hi'." Victor reached out to shake Jamal's, Tuan's, and Alex's hands before he and Tina made their way towards the Track team.

"Lenni, we should get ready," said Tuan awkwardly.

"Yeah…talk to you after the set," said Lenni. She held Alex's hand to encourage him and left with Tuan.

"Hey, man, don't sweat it," said Jamal worried for his best friend.

"Yeah, you still have a chance to talk to her," offered Jasmine. Jasmine was also worried about Alex. She knew he was like a brother to Jamal and didn't like to see anybody beat himself up the way Alex looked like he was doing.

Alex apologetically made an excuse to leave and stomped off. This wasn't going the way he wanted. Maybe it'll never happen.

Lenni and Tuan performed their small set list. The last song they performed was the first one they ever did. It was during Lenni's eighth grade graduation and Tuan and her wrote a rap/rock inspired song called "Nothing Can Come Between Us."

It's gonna be all right (All Right Now!)

Always stay true

Nothing can come between us (Nothing can come between us)

I'll always be there for you (I'll always be there for you).

Nothing's gonna stop the love of friends (Nothing's gonna stop nothing's gonna stop)

After the last song, the crowed erupted into huge cheers. Somehow, in the past two years, Lenni and Tuan became known for that song in the Brooklyn school circuit and would periodically perform this piece in the schools in Fort Greene. If the song lost some of it's intensity, there was no denying there was an still intensity between Tuan and Lenni tonight. The rawness and emotion of this performance may be due to the fact that this would be the last time they would perform this song. They both didn't know that at the time, but they knew that this time it was different. After Lenni and Tuan performed the song, they stepped down, both dripping with sweat. After being hoarded by Lenni's classmates, they were left alone in a corner of the gym.

"Man, I look terrible," huffed and puffed Tuan.

"Losing your stamina old man?" Lenni asked teasingly.

"At least you still look good, Lenni."

"Thanks, Tuan."

"Listen…" they both said. Then they both reacted uncomfortably.

"Lenni, I don't know about you, but I still feel something."

"Tuan…"

"Lenni, let me finish. I just can't be with you right now. I have so many things I want to do, and I just can't keep this up. Even though I still like you, I don't want to keep thinking about how unfair it is that I'm leaving you behind and going through all these exciting things, you know concerts, bands, gigs, staying out all night, touring…I want to enjoy it."

"Tuan…it's ok, you can enjoy it," Lenni said.

"But Lenni, I can't…not if you're still there. I…I have to let you go so I can move on fully. Do you understand?"

Lenni nodded.

"This makes me an asshole, right?"

"No, it doesn't. I understand." Lenni lied. She didn't understand. She was going to let him go out and have fun and not guilt-trip him. What was the problem? The truth was that she felt he lied about having feelings for her.

"Lenni, I'm sorry I had to tell you this way, but after that song, I just felt it again and I can't fall back into that trap. I think I may go."

"Yeah, you should." Lenni said curtly. Both Tuan and Lenni were startled by her response.

Tuan was on his way out before he turned back to Lenni. "Lenni?"

"Yes, Tuan?"

Tuan wished he hadn't turned around. Seeing Lenni again made him feel like a full-fledged asshole now.

"Watch out for Tina for me, please?"

Lenni looked at Tuan, then at Alex standing with Jamal and Jasmine, then at Tina listening to Victor telling her a seemingly animated story.

"Of course I will."

"Thank you, Lenni."

"It's not for you, Tuan. Tina is one of my best friends, I'd do anything for her."

Tuan nodded than ran out.

Lenni started to breathe rapidly and she felt convulsions coming on. However, she got a hold of herself. Not tonight Lenni thought. She made her way back to Jamal and Jasmine and Alex.

"Hey, you guys mind if me and Jasmine stepped out for a bit?"

"No, you go ahead, don't worry about me," said Alex. He knew this night was a big night for Jamal too. The last thing he wanted for was him to ruin Jamal's night.

"Are you sure, Alex?" asked a concerned Jasmine.

"Yeah, go ahead." Alex gave her an encouraging smile. That was all Jasmine and Jamal needed to go off.

Jamal gave Alex a concerned look, but he had to take this jackpot. They both walked towards the entrance hand-in-hand in a state of euphoria.

"Hey, Alex…" said Lenni.

"Lenni, you alright?" Alex knew Lenni wasn't. For all his talk, Tuan sure didn't have a problem hurting Lenni tonight.

"Yeah, I'm fine. You don't look so good though."

"I've just been waiting to make my move, but he isn't letting her get out of his sight. Lenni, I was looking forward to this night since…I forgot how long ago it was. Now, what did I build myself up for? For nothing."

"Alex, I think Victor senses something between you and Tina. It was sort of obvious when you guys shook hands and you and Tina kept avoiding eye contact. We all felt the tension."

"I wasn't avoiding eye contact."

"Yeah, you were."

"Well…"

"You're not going to chicken out now, are you?" Lenni was on the verge of yelling at Alex. No, this had to work out.

"No!"

"Then when the next song comes on, you ask to cut in and dance."

"But I…"

"Believe me, it'll be a good one. I'll talk to the DJ to put in a good song. Do it when the DJ makes his announcement."

"Lenni, I…"

It was too late. Lenni already set the plan in motion.

Great, Alex thought. He then saw Victor try to kiss Tina on the cheek only to have her slightly pull away before she let him have a small peck. That was all Alex needed.

"Ok, boys and girls…sorry, ladies and gentlemen…I'm going to play the next song right about now, so get your partner together because this one is going to be a good one."

Alex bravely strode up to Victor and Tina. Both looking at him. Tina, though unsure what to make of the situation, was happy, almost relieved when Alex came over. She had wanted to talk to Alex this whole night. Wanting to apologize about her behavior, but when they were together it was too awkward. People kept looking at them and she was with Victor who seemed to be showing a possessiveness she didn't know he had until tonight.

"Hey, Victor, do you mind if I ask Tina for one dance?"

"Wait, Alex…I know we're cool and all, but…"

"It's only one dance Victor, I haven't spent any time with my friend all night," said Alex.

The opening strings of "Crimson and Clover" by Thomas James and The Shondells came on.

"Yes, Alex. I'll dance with you," said Tina without waiting for Victor to give Alex the ok. "I'll be back, Victor." She gave Victor a sympathetic but quick –almost dismissive- smile as she and Alex made their way to the dance floor.

There were couples swaying all around them on the dance floor. The lights dimmed and there was a comfortable silence. Every couple felt as if it was them and only them that existed.

Now I don't hardly know her

But I think I could love her

Crimson and clover"

Ah

Well if she come walkin' over

Now I been waitin' to show her

Crimson and clover

Over and over

For the first few verses, Alex and Tina just danced slowly. Alex's hands were placed on Tina's hips while her arms clasped around his neck. Luckily she was wearing heels. Tina knew something was up. Alex never dances and yet he asked Victor to dance with his date.

"Alex…" Tina said breaking off the silence. "I wanted to talk to you for a long time now." Tina paused not sure how to finish her thought. Alex gave her some time to finish but she didn't.

"Tina, I want to tell you how beautiful you are." Alex said finally breaking his silence. Funny. He had no fear whatsoever. This felt like the easiest thing in the world. So natural. Was this all that he had been waiting for? If it was, then he knew what he did was right.

"Alex…" Tina felt her heart beating faster. She always dreamed of the day he'd call her beautiful.

"I really mean it, Tina. Tonight you are just, out-of-this-world, but you're always beautiful."

Tina felt a tear fall down her cheek but she kept it in check.

"I also wanted to say I was sorry Tina, for everything I said. I didn't mean to hurt you or anything…"

"I know, Alex. I'm sorry for hitting you."

"Tina, that didn't even hurt."

"Well, it's the thought that counts, right?" Tina was sure she bruised him, even just a little bit.

Alex and Tina both laughed. They kept on dancing.

The singer continued.

Yeah

My mind's such a sweet thing

I wanna do everything

What a beautiful feeling

Crimson and clover

Over and over

Alex couldn't think of a better feeling. He couldn't think of a place he'd rather than be than where he was at this exact moment.

Tina rested her head on Alex's chest. She felt his heart beating too. The warmth of his body exuded into her. This is what she really wanted. "You look very handsome, Alex."

"Tina…" Alex didn't want Tina to think she'd have to repay the compliment.

"No, I mean it. I noticed you right away, and I couldn't keep my eyes off of you. The past few weeks where we didn't speak to each other…I couldn't…I hated it."Alex got out of his daze and looked down at her. She looked up at him, looking sorry. "We never not spoken to each other for that long before. And…I have to tell you Alex…I kissed Victor."

Alex didn't say anything. He decided to look back up and noticed Victor staring at them. Victor didn't look angry though. He looked defeated. Alex regretted what he had to do to Victor, but this was bigger than him. He then saw Lenni approach Victor. That helped ease whatever guilt Alex had.

"Tina, that doesn't matter. I've dated other girls too. And kissed them."

They continued to shay on the floor.

"I love you." Alex softly said. He'd been trying to wait for the right time to say it since they started dancing. He waited for Tina's response. "You're the one I've been waiting for."

"Alex…" Tina said, no longer afraid. "I love you, too."

Alex reached down and kissed Tina. In the past, he would have been afraid that he was being too pushy, but she said what he'd always dreamed of - he couldn't help himself. He'd never be too pushy for her ever again.

Tina responded to Alex's kiss by jumping up and kissing him back. After she landed back down to Earth, Alex and Tina just gazed into each other's eyes.

"Tina, I knew it when I first saw you that you were going to be somebody special to me. I hardly knew you but I knew that I could love you."

"Alex, nobody knows that, especially 11 year-olds."

"Maybe, nobody knows that, but for me and you, I knew."

"Maybe Ghostwriter knew, that's why he let me join the group. Unless you had something to do with that."

"You think Ghostwriter, would grant requests like that?"

The idea amused the both of them to no end.

The music sped up quickly and the psychedelic sounds repeated the lines

Crimson and clover, over and over…

All of the couples around them separated and sped up their dancing. Except for Tina and Alex who kept their slow pace.

After the song was over, Alex and Tina couldn't fight it any longer. They both reached out and gave each other a long kiss on the dance floor. Their classmates were whispering to each other, pointing and giggling. That was the last thing on Alex and Tina's mind. They were in paradise.


Summer 2006

Alex and Tina were worn out.

Gaby smiled thinking about the memory. If only other people could have that sort of fairy tale. She wondered if Alex and Tina truly knew how lucky they were to have found each other. "That's such a cute story," Gaby said, breaking the silence. "Good thing Lenni was there to console Victor, huh?" Gaby winked.

"Gaby…" Tina responded. "I admit that I did feel less guilty when Lenni and Victor got together that night."

Alex had enough talk of Victor Torres for one day. "I'm going to take a shower. Tina and I have some plans today."

"We do?" asked Tina.

"Yeah, I thought we'd hang out today, maybe do some shopping for our place."

Tina was charged up and beamed at him. "Ok, well, hurry up. You overslept and wasted precious couple time."

Gaby gagged again.

When Alex left the room, Gaby looked at Tina. "Now, tell me about the time you guys broke up for a year and got back together."

"Shut up, Gaby."

"Or how about the other time you guys broke up after he graduated college and got back together."

"Get out."

Gaby laughed and Tina offered her some more tea.

"Gaby…"

"Yes, Tina?"

"Do you still wonder, what happened to Ghostwriter?"

"Every day. Do you?"

"Some days, I do and I just want to write to him and tell him everything. I miss him. But those days are happening less frequently now…I'm afraid I'm going to forget him."

Gaby felt all the energy get out of her. Deflated, Gaby said, "You're never going to forget him Tina. You are just…moving on. At least you and Alex have each other…I don't have anybody."

"Gaby…" Tina wanted to console her but she knew Gaby wanted to leave well enough alone for now. Tina would not forget this, though, and was determined to get to the bottom of this. Something was wrong and Tina was going to help her "sister" out.

Speaking of Ghostwriter made Tina think of something Jamal had told the team years ago. It wasn't a good memory. It was the time where Jamal had almost jeopardized everything. However, looking back…she was sorry for the way the team had treated Jamal when they heard what he did.


Fall 1996

"Jamal! I know you didn't drag me all the way out here just to talk." Jasmine said. She grabbed hold of Jamal and pulled him closer. "Jamal…I just want to say that you…you mean a lot to me." She kissed him and continued. "I want you to know that I'm there for you…completely." Jasmine looked at Jamal, hoping for a response.

Jamal wanted Jasmine. Wanted her in every part of his life. He knew he loved her and couldn't wait to tell her. However, he felt that he couldn't really be honest with Jasmine. Ghostwriter. That would always be something he couldn't tell her. How right was it for him to expect Jasmine to give him herself completely over if he couldn't do the same. He was going to tell her…he knew he should have consulted the team first, but he knew Jasmine Mitchell and knew it was now or never.

"Jasmine, we have to talk…"

"Jamal…" Jasmine wasn't expecting such dire seriousness to come out of his voice. She knew better than to think he was dumping her. The uncertainty made her uneasy.

"This is going to blow you away, and I don't know if I should even tell you this...it might ruin everything…I mean everything. But I LOVE you…"

"JAMAL!" Jasmine screamed. She couldn't believe she heard that. Her bliss was interrupted, however.

"Jasmine…let me finish. I love you, completely…but I can't really love you completely unless I let you know everything about me…Jasmine…"


Ending Notes: I want to thank my Beta, Matryeshka a.k.a. Eville Penguin, for taking so much joy in cutting and slashing my work and telling exactly what I needed to hear in such wonderful snark. I also need to thank my good friend, Lunar, whose creativity and support helped me through the toughest times.

I also want to thank my little brothers and sisters for helping me get back to my teenage-self and allowing me to realize that I am not too far from that person. And to my friends who were not only supportive but receptive to my obsession with this project.

Word.