This is the very last chapter! It's been an emotional journey guys, haha! Obviously, as always, I am so grateful to everyone who has followed, favourited, reviewed, beta'd, PMed, emailed, tumblr'd, and most of all READ! And that includes my other fics (wink wink, nudge nudge, go read Alone). Keep an eye out for a high school reunion sequel, along with a mini-fic I will be writing about Jess' college troubles.
Ztofan, you are my lovely beta/roomfriend/confidante/penpal and I want to say THANK YOU! :DD
Chapter Twenty – The Dance
"Come on everyone, squeeze a bit closer!"
Joan's voice rang out in the living room, the tone of happiness and excitement very evident in her voice. Jess felt herself jostled around as her friends crowded into the middle of the room, closing her in.
"Ow, Sadie that was my foot!"
"Oh, get over it, it's gonna happen a million times tonight anyway."
"Jess, your hair is kind of in my face. And my nose."
"Oh, sorry! Hey, is that better? Schmidt, are you okay? You look like you're gonna-"
"Alright, on my count guys! One, two…"
Snap. Her Mom pressed her finger down and everyone heard the familiar sound of the Polaroid camera whirring and producing the photo. "Well," Sadie announced. "I'm pretty sure that photo was both hilarious and horrifying."
Jess giggled, sweeping her bangs out of her face. Tonight was the night. The big dance. The buzz of excitement was fizzling like electricity around her, and she knew that everyone was dying to leave her house, get to the dance and have the most memorable night of their lives.
"Okay, just the dates now!" Joan cried happily as Sadie rolled her eyes. Nervously, Schmidt fiddled with his suit jacket, trying to make himself look presentable as he and Jess were shoved into the centre.
"Chill out Schmidt," Jess whispered to him as he put his arm around her waist. "You look great. What's the problem?"
"I just realized…" he straightened up a little, looking upset. "I just realized my belt doesn't match my shoes."
Jess stared at him. "Seriously?" Snap. "Mom! Are you going to take any normal pictures of us?!"
It took them a good half hour to get to the car, by which point Bob was in a terrible mood. Taking Schmidt to one side and ignoring Jess' protests, he gave him a stern warning. "If you lay a hand anywhere below this point-" he pointed to Jess' shoulders as she went a deep shade of pink, "I will find out. I have a fingerprint duster, and don't think I won't use it."
Gulping, Schmidt nodded as they climbed in.
When they arrived at Shermer High, students were already milling about the entrance taking photos and meeting friends. A wave of nervousness swept over Jess and she tugged at the velvet covering her chest, suddenly feeling constricted. Her dress wasn't too out of fashion, was it? Did her hair look okay? Was she just completely kidding herself coming here?
Sadie laid a hand on her arm, comforting her. "It's just a dance," she shrugged. "It's supposed to be fun."
Schmidt led her into the school, Jess' arm locked securely in the crook of his elbow. She had noticed a change in Schmidt since the party – he seemed taller, more confident. Beforehand he had seemed so uncomfortable in his own skin, hunched over and scared. Now, he strode purposefully into the hall, a smile on his face. He was untouchable.
The hall was decked out in shades of silver, blue and green, in keeping with the Under the Sea theme. Flowing material that Jess guessed was supposed to be seaweed hung from the ceiling, and shells littered the tables. Jess thought it was beautiful.
"Okay, phase one is complete," Jess overheard a group of jocks saying in hushed tones as they handed a suspicious-looking bottle to a couple of uneasy nerds. "Phase two, spike the punch."
She let out a soft giggle and shook her head – typical. She would have thought the jocks would have the stones to do the spiking themselves. Smart move though, letting someone else get their hands dirty for them, especially people who were so eager to please. She might have done that, once upon a time. Now she did what she damn well pleased, in true Jessica 'NTBFW' Day fashion.
"Jess!" she turned to the sound of Cece's voice, and her jaw nearly dropped to the floor. She was absolutely stunning in red, smiling brightly as she approached them. Jess had never seen her with curled hair before, and it was a little startling. "Schmidt," she frowned at him, "trying to catch flies there, are we?"
Schmidt abruptly snapped his mouth shut, apparently not as self-aware as Jess in that moment. Jess rolled her eyes, nudging him. He was her date, after all. "Hey Cece," she replied, grinning. "Who are you here with?" It struck her as odd that Cece's date wouldn't be the talk of the school in the weeks running up to the dance. Whatever the girl did or said seemed to be a hot topic.
She shrugged. "No one. Should I have a date?" she stared pointedly at them, almost daring them to say yes. Jess smiled and shook her head. Wow, she really had come a long way since their detention. She looked like she couldn't give a shit any more about what anyone thought. "They should be so lucky," she added, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth.
"Cece, you look…" Schmidt started what Jess was sure to be a heartfelt compliment, but was cut short as Jessica P appeared by Cece's side, looking a lot like she had just sucked on a lemon.
"Jess," she greeted with the ghost of a smile. Unsure of an appropriate reply, Jess merely saluted, immediately regretting it when Jessica's head drew back and she stared at her like she had just sprouted another arm. She transferred her gaze to Schmidt. "Ceec…no offense, but you're already dateless, and talking to guys like this is gonna do nothing for your social life."
Jess nearly choked on air, glancing at Schmidt and registering the hurt and embarrassment on his face. "Um, rude," she snapped, tightening her hold on his arm.
Jessica waved her off. "Oh, hun, I'm not talking about you!" she giggled, almost to herself. "I'm talking about Schmidt. I said no offense, God, I'm just telling my friend what I think."
"Shall I tell you what I think?" Cece cut in, before Jess had a chance to bite back. Fuming, Jess looked at her, fully intending to ignore her attempt to calm the situation down and continue to defend her friend. She got it – Cece and Jessica were best friends, and that meant that sides had to be taken, but that was no excuse for Jessica to be so unabashedly mean. She would have thought even Cece could see that. Jess folded her arms, waiting for a chance to interject.
Jessica turned to Cece, playing with a piece of her hair. "What?"
"I think you should take your self-centered comments and fuck off Jessica, or so help me, I will take those words and shove them so far up your ass, you'll be shitting sideways for a week."
Jess' jaw really did fall open then. She almost let out an involuntary laugh.
"Excuse me?" Jessica cried, stepping back. Cece rounded on her, and in that moment Jess could see how truly angry she was. She suddenly knew what it was like to really be Cece's friend, have her defend them so unapologetically, and it felt amazing.
"You heard me," she snapped, making Jessica flinch, her bravado gone as quickly as it had arrived. "Bitch."
Huffing, Jessica stalked away, clearly not wanting to get into a fight she would lose. When she was gone Cece took a moment to compose herself, taking a deep breath and pushing her hair out of her face. After a quick glance to the ceiling, she smiled at Jess and Schmidt. "You look beautiful Jess, is that the lipstick I gave you?"
"Uh, yeah. Are you okay?"
"Oh, fine. It's like ripping off a Band-Aid. Would you mind if Schmidt and I went and got a drink?"
Laughing, Jess motioned for them to go ahead. She was pretty sure Schmidt was still in shock as Cece dragged him away, and the what the hell is going on look he shot her over his shoulder as they left didn't go unnoticed by her.
"What in the hell was that?" Paul asked as he and Rachel came up behind her. Jess just shrugged, a smirk tugging insistently at the corner of her mouth.
"Times are a'changin' guys. Times are a'changin'," she sighed happily.
When her date didn't come back for half an hour Jess decided there was a good chance she'd been ditched, and she couldn't have been more pleased about it. With Paul and Rachel attached at the hip for the night, Jess was free to dance with Sadie until her feet hurt. Winston and Sam joined them for a while, singing loudly and 'bro-fiving' over their heads while Jessica P glowered at them from her seat.
When the ballots came round for 'King and Queen of the Sea', Jess was quick to tick Winston's name in the box. She struggled for a couple of minutes, unsure of a queen, until finally her pen came to rest by Roxy Kinney. Sadie smiled widely at her when she noticed. "Cece will probably win," she said to her friend, "but it's nice to rebel sometimes isn't it?"
By the time it came to announcing the winners, Jess had consumed an awful lot of punch, and she and Sadie were giggling uncontrollably at Shiller attempting to hit on Mrs. Hardy while they sipped from plastic cups. "I feel kinda sorry for him. You'd think someone would have told him to stay away from the punch."
"I feel sorry for Mrs. Hardy's husband," Jess replied, and they dissolved into fits again.
Someone tapped the microphone and everyone winced at the sound, focusing their attention on the stage in front of them. Shiller had finally left poor Mrs. Hardy to her own devices, and was attempting to present the King and Queen as soberly as possible. "Oh god, I hope this is over soon," Sadie said, her voice muffled behind her hands as she hid her face.
Winston and Cece won, obviously, and everyone stood to clap and cheer as they received their crowns. Sadie left Jess to go and see Roxy, and for the first time that night, she was alone as she watched Winston offer Cece his hand, helping her off the stage and leading her to the dance floor.
She felt warm and fuzzy from the punch, and found herself wondering if anyone had caught the spiking culprits yet. She hoped not. It seemed a couple of the chaperones were happy to enjoy the benefits, and everyone was in good spirits, including Jess. She thought about Nick, and whether or not he actually would have enjoyed it, had he come. She imagined him sitting down at the table, brooding silently as she danced with her friends, letting a smile pass over his features whenever he thought no one was looking. She decided that the answer was yes.
As she watched Cece and Winston dance together, Cece smirking at something he said, Jess sighed to herself. If, six months ago, someone had said her year was going to end this way, she would have laughed in their face. Yet here she was. As more people filed on to the empty dance floor she saw Schmidt approach the king and queen, asking to cut in. Jess giggled to herself at his chivalry. She couldn't blame the guy for trying. It stung a little when she realized no one would be asking her to slow dance with them tonight. She'd had her dance with Nick, and it had taken a lot for him to do that for her. She knew it was wrong of her to let sadness creep in, but the combination of alcohol and music and couples was starting to seep into her heart against her will.
Paul and Rachel were nearby, Rach laying her head tentatively on his chest as they swayed slowly. As they moved, Paul glanced up over her shoulder and spotted Jess watching them. He smiled at her, and she raised her cup to him, eyes sparkling, in a gesture that said I'm glad you finally got the girl.
"I guess everything worked out well for us then, huh?" came Sadie's voice as she appeared beside Jess. Paul lifted Rachel's chin with his thumb and forefinger, leaning down to kiss her softly. It looked like a good first kiss.
Suddenly she felt tears blur her vision. She wasn't sure where they had come from, but it shocked her how quickly the feeling of emptiness had washed over her. "I guess," she echoed, her voice wavering. Sadie stared at her for a long time before she placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Jessica Day. What are you still doing here, really?" she asked simply. Jess turned to look at her, mouth slightly open, eyelashes glued together with tears. That was a very good question.
She had come because she thought she was missing out on something, but it was only now that she realized all she wanted was to be with him. She had put on her prettiest dress and piled her hair on top of her head and worn the lipstick Cece had given her, but all she wanted was for him to see it and tell her how amazing she looked and maybe help her out of it, if he knew what she meant. In fact, she felt like she didn't really want to do anything anymore if she couldn't share it with him.
"Go," Sadie ordered, giving her shoulder a little push. "You've had the dance experience. It's time to go actually do what you want."
Jess laughed, swiping a hand over her eyes. "The dance…" she trailed off, unsurely.
"Who gives a shit about the dance?" Sadie asked, incredulous, making Jess laugh harder.
"Um, okay. I'm gonna go."
Sadie grinned, waving after her as she made her way to the door. She was overcome with a sense of exhilaration as she pushed it open, starting to run down the hallway towards to entrance of the school. This feels like a good decision, she thought. She was done worrying about Schmidt, and Sadie, and what other people thought. It was liberating to finally do something for herself.
She burst out of the school. There was a need building up inside her chest, a lump in her throat. She took a deep breath of fresh air, trying to calm her wildly beating heart. This felt right, going to see him. Nothing had ever felt so right.
Starting to descend the front steps, she came to an abrupt halt at the bottom, a gasp escaping her lips. He was there. She should have known he would want to surprise her, that he would come and try to sweep her off her feet the way he knew she wanted but never quite understood.
He was walking across the grass towards her, still in his favorite flannel and baggy jeans. He carried nothing with him, his hands shoved in his pockets. It didn't matter that he didn't understand why she wanted him to go to the stupid dance. Jess didn't think she'd ever seen anything so perfect.
"Nick!" she shouted as he came within earshot. She heard him laugh as he sauntered a little closer, shaking his head, obviously amused that she had had the same idea as him. Her stomach flipped, her toes tingled. This was it.
"Jess," he replied, smirking as he looked up from his shoes and locked eyes with her.
"I love you." She said, the words coming out soft and breathless. He stopped, the smirk slipping off his face. It looked like he had stopped breathing, and Jess was tempted to point her finger at him and shout "HA! Now you know what it feels like!" but she didn't. She just waited, eyes bright and wild.
"You do?" he asked shakily, still standing a few metres away from her. She nodded, giggling at his surprised expression. How was it possible that he didn't know?
"Yeah, I love you. I know we're young and," she inhaled sharply, "…and everybody tells you stuff like this is short and sweet and that this is probably our stupid hormones or something, but…well, no. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me. I think I want to be with you forever."
Nick said nothing, just stared at her, the beginnings of a grin starting to take over his features. Jess squeezed her eyes shut, forbidding embarrassment to envelop her. "Maybe we won't be together that long, maybe you'll get mean and I'll get fat and we'll both get ugly and sick of each other and break up. But maybe we won't."
"Are you done?" he asked, barely holding back laughter. She held up her hand, breathless, grinning at him.
"I'm nearly done, I promise. So I know I'm going off to college soon and you're going to law school and we're gonna be miles apart and there's gonna be temptations and beer and freedom, but I don't care. I love you."
There was silence as Jess heaved a deep breath, putting her hand to her chest. In hindsight, she wondered if maybe she should have waited to see if he loved her too before she emptied her entire soul to him. But that had never crossed her mind, because she just knew. "Nick…do you-?"
"I love you too," Nick stated matter-of-factly, cutting her question off with his answer. "Obviously." Jess beamed at him, feeling her jaw start to ache with all the smiling she was doing. Nick kicked the ground at his feet. "I don't have a big speech or anything, I feel kinda shitty about that now. It's just me."
Jess laughed, tipping her head back. Just Nick sounded pretty damn good to her. "Well," she said eventually, "you always were better at showing rather than telling."
He shrugged, his expression mirroring hers. "Then come here, you crazy lunatic."
Flashing an excited grin, she nearly tripped over her own shoes as she ran to him, throwing herself into his arms and letting him lift her off her feet. Nick Miller loves me! was all she could think about as they stumbled, Jess lowering her face to his and kissing him, a fumbling, sweet kiss, full of promises. "I love you," she whispered against his lips, knowing she'd never get tired of it. He silenced her with another kiss.
Nick lowered her slowly to her feet, his lips still pressed firmly to hers as he tangled his hand in her hair, the immaculate style she had strived for long gone. Smiling, Jess pulled away, running her fingers through the hair on the back of his head. "Why did you come? You didn't need to."
He shrugged. "I don't know why I do half the things I do around you, Jess. Don't ask me because I just don't know."
She wound her hands into his shirt, burying her head in his neck. "You wanna get out of here Miller?" she felt him nod against her, and her heart fluttered against her ribcage.
"Not so fast, lovebirds!" Cece shouted as she exited the school, spotting them embracing near the grass. The crown glittered on her head as she smiled at them. "We've been looking for you. What about our deal?"
"What deal?" Nick asked, genuinely confused as Jess suddenly realized what Cece meant. We've been looking for you. The club. Their secret meeting, the one they had discussed in detention. She had forgotten about it.
Winston and Schmidt followed close behind, the doors closing with a bang behind them. Unlike Cece, Winston had removed his crown and it dangled from his fingers as he started to descend the steps. "You can't go back on a deal, Day," he announced, a smirk on his face. Jess let her hands fall to her sides, her fingers intertwining with Nick's. "We arranged a secret meeting tonight," she explained to him. "You wanna go?" she bit her lip when Nick fixed her with a stare.
"Course I wanna go." He said, and she breathed a sigh of relief. He tugged on her hand, pulling her towards the steps, where the rest of the group was waiting. "But what's the plan?" he asked, and everyone was quiet as they racked their brains for somewhere to go.
"I have an idea," Schmidt eventually announced, grinning from ear to ear.
The five of them barely made a sound as they crept through the entrance to the locker rooms. Schmidt knew that nobody locked the back door of the school swimming pool because it was already stiff, and it was easy to jimmy it open with the force of three guys against it. And now here they were, slipping through the locker rooms and finally emerging into the wide open space.
Nick and Winston immediately started pulling the foam sheets away, exposing the sterile-blue of the water beneath. "Wait," Cece started as she gratefully took Schmidt's jacket from him and wrapped it around herself, "you don't have to do that, it's not like we're going in." she paused for a second, before fixing Jess with a horrified look. "Right?"
Jess wrapped herself around Nick as he returned to her side, grinning. "I'll go in."
Everyone looked at Cece, whose pained expression soon turned to defeat. "All right. I suppose I am Queen of the Sea."
Jess laughed, shaking her head at the absurdity of the situation. Were they really spending the dance in a freaking swimming pool?! She never would have anticipated it, but she didn't really care. Spending one day with these people in a classroom a few months ago had set in motion a chain of events that had actually changed her life. Jess couldn't think of anywhere else she'd rather be.
"Let's do this," Nick chuckled, pressing a kiss to the top of Jess' head and wrapping an arm around her shoulder as the five of them stepped up to the edge of the pool. Jess stuck her head forward and looked at them all, excited and alive as they stared into the water. She saw Cece reach for Schmidt's hand.
"Wait." Everyone looked at Schmidt. "I just want to say…let's keep in touch after we leave. Yeah?"
Slowly, the group nodded, acknowledging for the first time that there was a connection between them that wouldn't be easily broken. "Of course," Winston replied, fixing the crown atop his head again. "We're all friends." The word echoed around them, and Jess felt happiness swell in her chest. Finally.
"Okay guys," Jess announced loudly into the space, her voice bouncing off the walls. She grinned at them all as they bent their knees, ready to jump. "Let's go get ourselves another detention."