Author's Note:

At long last, the story is off hiatus! I have a pretty solid outline of what's going to happen next, and now the problem will be putting the plot into words. But at least I have a plot now.

Enjoy, review, and re-read, if necessary — it's been a very long time. I myself have had to re-read parts to make sure the story's somewhat consistent!


Almost immediately after Bryce leaves, mom comes in, a glimmer in her eyes.

I cock an eyebrow at her. She looks positively conspiratory with her mysterious smile and air of excitement.

"What is it, mom?"

Mom says nothing, but waves what she's holding with a little smile that looks as if she is in on some big secret but I am not. It's a digital camera. I stare at her, blankly, not understanding.

Wordlessly, she sits down on my bed. I sit up so I can look over her shoulder. She turns on the camera and goes to the photo stream.

"Ta-da," she says. "So adorable."

My mouth drops and I snatch the camera out of her hand.

"What?! You took a picture?"

She grins like a little girl. "I should print it out, hmm? Such a cute picture."

On the screen, me and Bryce are sitting on the backyard steps. We're sleeping. My head is on his shoulder, and his head rests on mine. He's holding each of my hands with one of his own; our fingers are locked together. Mom managed a terrific shot — she got in some of the beautiful, blazing sky, a few wisps of clouds, and all the prettiest parts of our backyard. It doesn't feel urban at all — it feels like nature. A thin white line trails from his left ear, and another from my right, meeting up around our clasped hands, and disappearing into the folds of my hoodie. We'd been sleeping with the headphones still plugged in.

My face reddens slightly. For some reason, I feel embarrassed, but happy at the same time. I'd woken up to Bryce's gentle shakes, so I didn't know he had fallen asleep, too. And the way our heads rested on each other… I admit it's a very cute picture. I think a part of me is glad that mom didn't wake us up immediately, but had taken time to capture the shot.

"It looks so professional," I breathe out, handing the camera back to her. She notes my red face with a grin.

"Your dad thinks so too. I should frame it."

I nearly splutter. "It's not that good," I say hurriedly. "Just saving the file would be enough."

God. If we had this framed, I can't imagine how much my brothers would make fun of me.

"Just kidding, Jules." She takes the camera, turns it off, and puts it behind her. She takes my hand and holds it in hers.

"What's the matter, mom?"

"How does the picture make you feel?" she asks. All the girlish giddiness is gone from her voice in an instant. She looks serious, now, her honey-brown eyes — the same color as my own — observing me steadily.

"Happy," I tell her. "Um. Embarrassed. Why?"

"Why? Why happy, and why embarrassed?"

I shrug. "I dunno. It's nice to sit like that with someone — we've never sat like that before." I see the picture in my head, see how easily Bryce's cheek rests on my hair. "I dunno why I'm embarrassed either. It feels… so close."

Mom sighs.

"Jules, honey, remember what I told you when we had that big talk a few years back?"

"Which one?" I ask her.

"The one a few days after he planted your sycamore," she says.

I nod. I remember. Mom had cautioned me to be careful — she'd told me to not lead people on with false hope, because playing with the feelings of someone who likes you is a horrible and cruel thing to do. Back then she had meant Bryce, of course; she said that, if I found out that we were just friends, I should tell him that directly, and be done with it.

"You said, leading him on is the worst thing a girl could do to a boy who likes her," I say. "Why?"

Mom smiles. "Nothing. I'm glad you still remember. Always keep that in mind, honey."

I raise an eyebrow quizzically. I don't get what mom's going on about. Did she think there is a boy at school who liked me?

"Okay," I say, puzzled. "I'll remember it."

Mom sighs. She stands up.

"Also, Jules, I'm sure you know about the Loskis and all that. Try to look out for Bryce if he doesn't seem himself, alright? Always ask him what's wrong."

I roll my eyes. "Will do. We talk all the time anyway — he'll tell me if something's on his mind."

"Okay honey. Just remember that friends are precious — always look out for each other. Great friends don't come along often — sometimes, someone can go a whole life without having a true best friend. I'll email you that picture."

She winks, takes the camera, and walks out.

ooo

"Matt, what are you doing?" Bryce yells, his voice carrying loudly across the field. "Why is the left undefended?"

"Sorry!" the sandy-haired boy shouts back at Bryce as he quickly backed up to a defensive position, sounding frightened.

Too late. A tall guy in blue, probably Tom Lucciano, is already moving forward to take advantage of the crack in defense. He maneuvers the ball with ease, passes by two defenders struggling to rush in from the sides, and shoots, a mighty kick that sends the ball flying to the upper right corner of the goalpost.

Bryce leaps sideways, a blur in white. He almost doesn't make it, but his fingertips reaches just enough to divert the ball's course. It flies off at a precarious angle, missing the side of the goal by a foot.

I watch as the white shirt defenders cheer. Bryce gets up, runs to the ball before others can get to it, and sends it flying back to the other side of the field. The blue team backs up. The white team's strikers take it up, and starts to zigzag it to the other goalpost. The direction of attack has reversed.

Soccer practices are usually very boring to watch, where the team do running and foot exercises, practice ball control, and try to improve their scoring accuracy. But once in a while, there will be a large, intense mock game. Varsity soccer is split into two sides by the coach, and they play a game against each other. Everyone gets to play; nobody warms the bench for an entire game. Your performance in these mock games are what decides your real playtime, so most people give it their all.

The score is currently still 0:0. The blue team has been on the offense ferociously, while the white team has defended splendidly. This isn't very surprising; whatever team Tom gets put on, Bryce gets put into the opposite, and usually that determines the tone of the game — Tom's team would be on the offense more often, while Bryce's would be on the defense.

A whistle pierce the air, and Coach Clemens bellows. "Raymond, come back! Pierce, go replace him! Shut it, Bisho. I'll put you back up later; the younger guys need their practice. Jackson, Cole, next time learn to support better when Tom sees an opportunity to attack! Michaelson, you weren't fast enough to fill in the defense! Work more on your burst speed. Loski, good job, but watch where you send the ball afterwards! Don't send it where there's no support!"

"Yes, coach!" comes a chorus of replies from around the field. Matt Raymond, the freshmen who botched his part of the defense, jogs back to the bench, looking abash and depressed. Another freshmen, Pierce, goes up to take his place, giving Matt a sympathetic pat on the shoulder on the way.

The kid takes a seat on the row below mine, head bowed, eyes downcast, looking like it's the end of the world. I scoot over so I'm behind him.

"Don't worry too much about it," I say to him, trying to make my voice kind. "Nobody is perfect."

He turns around and looks at me, startled. I think — I may be wrong — but I think he is close to tears. Freshmen tend to be overdramatic. They think if they make one little mistake, they won't get any play time, ever.

"Tom is," he says, his voice thick. "Jeff Bisho is. Ingleton is. And Loski. He is."

"No, they're not," I say, sighing. "Well. Tom may be. But I've seen all the rest make stupid mistakes."

"They're always at the right place at the right time," he protests. "And Loski doesn't even let anything in. How's he not perfect?"

"He's missed lots of goals," I say, shrugging. In soccer, you can measure how good a goalkeeper is with what's called the GAA, or Goals Against Average. Bryce's GAA usually hovers between 0.8 and 1.2, which is remarkable for a high school player, though he's not invincible. It means he still lets in an average of 1 goal per game — and in soccer, a point is all it took to make or break a match.

"No," Matt insists, stubborn. "Most of those are penalty kicks. It's really hard to stop penalty kicks."

I don't bother saying anything back. I'd only tried to comfort the kid, but if he wants to keep thinking he's horrible, it's not my business to tell him no. I suppose it must be pretty tough being a freshmen on our school's varsity soccer; we've won the state championship ten years in a row now, and each year the pressure builds higher. You don't want to be the team that breaks the streak. Tom Lucciano being captain probably doesn't help much, either, since he's a superb soccer player, and had basically carried the team to victory for the past two years. With him leaving this year, next year will be the most challenging championship yet.

I turn back to my calculus homework. It's Friday, the last day of this short, three-day week. I knew that if I leave off my weekend homework, I'll never finish it at home, so I told Bryce I'd come with him to practice and try to finish my work there. I'm almost done — calc is usually pretty simple, although sometimes tedious. Thank goodness Jeremy isn't at the mock games, probably being absent or late for whatever reason, yet again. If he were here, I'm sure my eyes would've been glued to his slender, running form.

As I plug in formulae and find derivatives, I'm faintly aware of some more people coming and going, on and off the bench, and whistles blowing. A couple of them are sneezing — if you've ever been soaked in sweat in the middle of winter, you'll know what it feels like.

Something plonks down on the row in front of mine. I look over my book to see a green Jansport backpack.

"Math?" asks a cheerful, but almost magnetic voice.

My head snaps up so fast, my neck gives a protesting crack.

"Ouch," I hiss. And then I see who it is. "Oh. Hi, Jeremy."

He's in his soccer uniform. The fabric is thin, and as it flows over the skin and muscle beneath, I find myself mesmerized, wanting to see more. Which is completely shameful. A thought creeps into my head, whispering about how his uniform will be soaked and sticking to him after practice, but I forcefully brush it away. My thoughts are so lustful it's almost ridiculous.

Jeremy gives me his signature smile, and that's all it takes to get me to blush.

"What's up? Waiting for Loski?"

"Uh. Yeah. Why are… what are you— er, here?"

"Why am I here? Well, I'm coming to practice." His gaze turns to the games going on right now. "I had no idea the mock game was today!" he exclaims, probably lying right out of his teeth. He smiles at me again, looking embarrassed, making me kind of wanting to hug him. Or even better, kiss him. "I hope I didn't miss too much of it."

He is, in fact, over forty minutes late to practice. And from what I've seen, he actually does this quite a bit, and manages to get away with it. The coach loves him, and that helps, because if anybody else were late to half as many practices as Jeremy, they'd already be kicked from the team.

Jeremy is a natural charmer, especially to adults. He's talkative, humorous, tall, attractive, friendly, and sycophantic (a fancy word for ass-kissing) — in a subtle but expert way. Even my mom fell in love with him after meeting him only once, during a parent-teacher conference day. On the way back home she seemed exceptionally curious about my own blond-haired, green-eyed crush. Her conclusion of him was "a very cute, very nice, and very handsome young man". To be honest, it had scared me a little to hear mom describe any guy older than ten as "cute".

Anyway, the point is, he is lovely, people love him, and he isn't afraid to use that. Personality-wise, Jeremy is pretty horrible. But his looks — I don't think I should even get started.

"Oh." is all I manage, as he says "see ya", and runs off to talk to the coach — probably to give another excuse. Something about history, or homework, or some club activity.

I try to focus on my math for the rest of practice, but it doesn't quite work out because I'm almost done anyway, and because Jeremy is on the field. With an exasperated sigh, I put down my pencil and calculator, and resign to watching Jeremy play on the blue team. He is indeed quite bad as Bryce says, but who am I kidding? I'm not watching him for his ability to play soccer.

A sharp whistle blows again, and a bunch of people on the bench leave to substitute for people coming off the field. Jeremy stays on, probably because he's only just arrived. I see him exchanging words with some of his teammates coming on-field. Nobody seems too happy talking to someone who missed half of the mock games and still manages to stay on the team for some reason.

"Aren't you trying to get over him?" A voice asks in a slightly mocking tone.

I look to my side to see Bryce climbing onto the bleachers to sit next to me.

"Oh, Bryce! No, I wasn't looking at…"

He lets out a little sarcastic sound. "Your eyes were fixed right on him."

He's drenched, like the rest of his team, and his black hair is plastered to his forehead. His blue eyes have a hard edge.

"I didn't mean to…"

"Just stop already. You were looking at him; admit it."

"I just… fine. But I didn't mean to!" I say, contrite. "Though I still shouldn't be. I'm sorry."

His gaze softens and he sighs.

"Was it hard?" he asks, meaning the math homework. He's one of the very few sophomores in our school who's also taking AP Calc, which is a relief. He doesn't like the sciences as much as I do, nor history, but at least we're in the same math class. Math seems to be the only subject he's really good at… that, and physics.

"Hard for me is easy for you," I answer, relieved that he isn't going to nag at me about my staring at Jeremy. "You know how it always goes."

He grins, because it's true. My head isn't wired to understand math; I have to work at it. For him, it's as effortless as kicking a ball.

"Are you done with practice?"

"We're done with the first half," he says. "But we're pretty much at a stalemate. Right now the second half just started, but coach probably just wants to see how well all the new guys play under pressure, and give the older guys a chance to rest up."

"I see," I say. We sit idly, chatting about school. I make a pointed effort to not look at Jeremy running, and find that, as long as Bryce is beside me, I can do it with no problem.

"… Juli?"

I wake from my small trance. "Oh, sorry. What were you saying?"

"You're done with math right?"

I glance down at my problem set, and nod.

"Do you want to go home first? You don't have to wait for me."

"No, I'll wait."

"It's going to be another forty minutes," he warns. "And then I have to shower and change before we can head out."

Plus another forty minutes' ride home. Which means another hour and a half before I'm home, probably in time for dinner.

"I'll call mom to let her know," I say. "I'll wait for you."

"It's going to be boring," he says with a frown.

"I don't mind being bored."

"Well, just go home."

I raise my eyebrows. "Now that's a nice thing to say to someone who's waiting for you."

"You don't have to wait for me."

"You don't want me to?" The thought is a little sad.

"No, I want you to, but…"

"But?"

"But you're going to be staring at Adams." He looks hard at me. It's a statement, not a question, and I blush.

"Maybe," I relent in a small voice. "Since you won't be here to keep me distracted."

"Precisely," he says. "I don't want you to stare at him."

"I don't want to stare at him either! But I can't help it."

"You know, you're kind of creepy."

I grimace. "You don't say."

"But you still want to wait?"

I nod. He frowns.

"Oh! I know," he says suddenly, after a second, and reaches over me to grab his backpack. He rummages in the pockets to produce his new iPad, which his dad had given him as an apology gift — as if seven hundred bucks can make up for critically injuring your son. He hands the iPad to me. "Here's something to keep you distracted."

"You brought this?"

"I wanted to see if I could use it to take notes."

Our school is a liberal one. Since many Mayfield families are stable and reasonably well-off, most kids at school have electronics to aid them in their academics. We're allowed to use laptops and tablet computers to take notes, and many people do, since typing is often faster than writing. The reason I don't is because my laptop is a six-year-old, second-hand HP model, and if I unplug the power cord, its battery life lasts a grand total of eleven minutes. That said, I've seen many people taking notes with their iPads, and it does look convenient.

"Well?" I ask. "Did it work?"

"I don't like how there are no actual keys you can feel," he admits. "I had to look down a lot."

"What did you use this for? Econ?"

"Yeah."

"Don't you have to draw graphs for that?"

"Yeah, but there's an app for it. That's about the only good thing. The graphs look nice."

"But you won't know how to draw it when you're in an exam," I point out.

He nods. "That's why I'm not going to take it to school anymore."

"What a waste though. It's not as if you use it at home."

He shrugs. "Doesn't matter. Anyway, you can use it. Just, uh, don't stare at him."

I laugh a little. "Alright, I won't. I promise."

He looks somewhat skeptical, but in the end he shrugs, and starts to show me where to download the game apps. I'd never owned an iDevice before, but the interface is easy, and within a few taps we've arrived at the most popular games in the App Store.

"Buy whatever you want," Bryce says, shrugging. "A 50 buck iTunes gift card was also part of the apology gift."

"You're not still mad at him for doing that?"

He hesitates, then nods a little.

"I just… don't get why he has to buy it. I don't get why he can't make dinner, like he used to do, and make something really fancy, and apologize to all of us then. It's more…"

"Sincere?" I offer.

"Yeah. Than buying a gift."

"I didn't know your dad cooks."

"He used to," Bryce says. "The last time he cooked was…"

He looks up, brows furrowed.

"A few years after we moved here," he finally decides. "He had a fight with my mom, and that was the last time. Now he doesn't offer to cook, ever."

"Well, was his cooking any good at least?"

"Horrible," Bryce says, and grins. "But everything was still fine, because we knew it was the thought that counts."

And now, he doesn't even bother with the thought part anymore.

The rest of his sentence lingers in the air, unsaid, and as quickly as a sand statue being washed away by the tides, his grin fades. I pat him on the shoulder.

The whistle blows, and the coach bellows out a list of names to come back to the field as a swarm of freshmen jog back to the bleachers.

"I'll be another half an hour," he says as he stands up. "Don't stare at Adams!"

"I won't! Really!"

Bryce shakes his head, hops down to the ground in a few steps, and runs over to the goalpost. Halfway there, he turns back to wave at me.

Like my mom said, great friends are hard to come by, and you may go a lifetime without having one.

Me, at fifteen, before the prime of my life, and I've already found my best friend.

Aren't I lucky?