Jum

[IN PROGRESS!!] Josh is an American teenager living in London after moving all over the States when he was younger, and determined to make it his home. Meet Michael, the British boy who will help him do so. (BL, some chapters feature explicit content.)

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12. Chapter 11

Chapter 11

In which Josh meets Claire




I took a couple of deep breaths, got out of the car and followed him to the other side of the car park in silence. We stopped by a silver Clio—well at least I think it was a Clio; I told you I was no good with cars—and we'd only stood there for a few seconds when the driver's door opened and a small girl came out, running straight for Michael and jumping into his arms.

"Happy birthday!"

He laughed and wrapped his arms around her, holding her close, and I'd be a liar if I said I didn't feel a sharp pang of jealousy right then.

"I'm sorry, this is very rude," she said, turning to me once he'd put her back on the ground.

"Josh, I'd like you to meet Claire," he said with his usual smile. "Claire, this is my Josh."

My Josh…

I felt my heart soar and my insecurities slowly disappear so it was suddenly much easier to smile honestly when I looked at her again.

She was pretty. Lovely dark-ish strawberry-blond hair all layered to framed her heart-shaped face, big brown eyes that looked nothing but honest, flushed cheeks that matched Michael's and soft lips stretched into a smile. She was quite short, so much shorter than him as they stood side by side, and I was suddenly hit by the fact that they sort of… matched. It was difficult to explain, but they did. Something about her features and her entire style looked just like his and it was… a bit unnerving, really. I suddenly felt that I didn't belong there; that I was the odd one out ruining the perfect picture.

I blinked when she took a step towards me, her smile growing wider. "I'm so pleased to finally meet you!"

And with that one simple sentence she broke the ice and made the rest of my insecurities vanish almost instantly. Just like Michael, she was Adorable personified. There was no way this girl could truly hate anyone unless she'd really been hurt, and I knew in my heart that she didn't have a problem with me. I couldn't explain it but I always tried to go with my instincts and they were telling me that I'd been a fool to worry so much and that this was going to work.

"The pleasure's mine," I said, returning her smile. "I've heard a lot about you," I added, glancing at a very relieved-looking Michael.

"Not as much as I've heard about you, I'm sure," she replied, winking at him in turn.

He smiled at the two of us. "We should go in instead of staying out in the cold. How long have you been waiting?" he asked, turning to her again.

"I got your message but I had to drop Mum off somewhere so I was early anyway. But the car was nice and warm and I had the radio on."

We made our way to the pub—Claire first and me at the rear—and easily found a table since it was close to three in the afternoon by then. I rarely left London so I hadn't been to that many countryside pubs, but Michael hadn't lied; it was nice. There was an open fireplace to the right as you walked in that filled the whole place with that awesome burning wood smell, but we made our way to the left and up some stairs. Every bit of furniture and lamp scattered around the pub was mismatched and yet the whole thing looked right, you know what I mean?

Unfortunately, I was hit again by the feeling that I didn't belong while Michael and Claire fitted right in but I shook my head and took a seat once we'd chosen a table. I was surprised when Claire sat opposite me instead of opposite Michael, who'd chosen to be on my left. I don't know if they did it naturally or if they forced themselves but I clearly felt throughout the meal that they worked together to make sure I wasn't left out.

Despite our protests, Michael insisted on going to order—because it was his birthday and he could do what he wanted, he said—so Claire and I found ourselves alone after only a few minutes. A bit awkward.

"So," I said, slouching in my chair, "I guess this is the part where I get the you-hurt-my-best-friend-and-I'll-kill-you speech, or something?"

She laughed—good. "Oh yes, because my skinny arms would obviously cause you so much pain! No, even if I were stronger than you I wouldn't say that." Her smile faded a bit and she looked out of the window for a few seconds. "You might have the best intentions but you can't know what might happen tomorrow, right? So I'll just say that I hope you treat him right for however long you guys are together, and also that I hope it's a very long time."

Whoa, I really hadn't expected that.

"That's… err… extremely understanding of you."

She smiled. "He's my best friend and I just want him to be happy. And I think you do just that." She paused again and looked at her hands for a few seconds. "I don't know how much he told you about… me."

"He told me about the summer when you were fifteen," I said, staying vague on purpose because I could feel myself growing uncomfortable again.

"I want you to know that… that it's all in the past. I don't love him. I mean I do, but… not like that. Not anymore. Being rejected isn't easy but… he couldn't love me that way even if he wanted to, you know? So I just… I just had to admit it and move on."

I nodded slowly. "He still regrets the pain he caused you," I said quietly.

"I keep hoping he'll stop blaming himself… There was another time—"

I must have gasped without meaning to because she suddenly stared at me, looking worried.

"Oh no, no, no. I meant— Argh, it's coming out all wrong, sorry!" she added, hiding her face in her hands for a few seconds. "It was after we got our GCSE results. My parents were away for the weekend and we'd both done so well that we had a little party just the two of us." She looked at her hands again and I seriously had to remember to breathe. "Nothing happened, I swear. I just… wanted to be honest with you because I don't want any of that stuff causing trouble between you. We never talk about it…"

We were both silent for a bit and I think she realised how much this was bothering me, no matter how hard I tried not to let it show. I mean, I know, it was good that they were both honest about it. Still, I really wished I'd heard about it some other day.

"I'm so sorry. Let's change subjects, all right? I couldn't believe it when he said you'd taken him to see a show!" she added, suddenly a lot more animated.

"He told you, huh?" I asked, rubbing the back of my neck and trying to relax again—that required a bit of work.

"You have no idea! I was out that Saturday but I knew you guys had a date planned so I'd asked him to call me on Sunday morning. And… well he just went on and on about you, about the show, and how wonderful the entire day had been. I don't know if you've ever seen him like that. He's so quiet all the time that you wouldn't think it's possible."

I couldn't help grinning. "Yeah, he kind of did it during the interval."

"You… really get him," she said after a short pause.

"I try to. We're… very different, as you might have noticed."

"I think you're good for him. You're a good guy, I can tell."

"Does that mean I pass?" I asked jokingly.

"You pass with flying colours. But if you hurt him I will kill you," she added with a wink.

Again, I don't know if they'd worked on this together and she'd managed to send him a signal I'd missed, but he came back with our drinks a few seconds after we'd finished talking.

"Present time!" she suddenly said, reaching for the carrier bag she'd brought with her and handing it to him. "If you don't like it or if there's anything wrong with it, I've kept the receipt."

He took a neatly wrapped package out of the bag that turned out to be a ribbed black turtleneck. Nice. I couldn't wait to see him in it.

"I know you don't wear much black but I'm sure it will look really good on you."

"See," I cut in, "that's exactly the type of thing I was talking about the other day. Even if you wear a T-shirt underneath, it won't be as tricky when I—"

I stopped when I realised what I was about to say and they both chuckled, looking away and blushing furiously.

"Yeah, you… you'll look great in that," I concluded, feeling like an idiot.

At least Claire didn't look offended, that was something. But I'd have to watch my tongue because I was too used to blurting out stupid things when it was just him and me. In a weird way, my blunder helped me relax a bit more and I was able to join in the laughter almost wholeheartedly.

I took a sip of my Diet Coke—since they were both driving, I'd gone for a soft drink as well—and cleared my throat.

"Right, my turn now!"

Michael blinked when I reached into my small messenger bag. "What do you mean?"

"Exactly what I just said. Now that you're done opening Claire's present, I can give you mine."

"But you— You said the ticket for Swan Lake was my present! And you said you'd stopped the treats."

"No, I said today marked the end of the birthday treats, and that's not the same thing. But you're right, seeing the ballet was your main present so this is only a small thing. I just couldn't not give you anything on the day."

I took the small rectangular package out of my bag and placed it in front of him. It was obvious from the size that it was either a thin book or a DVD, and once he asserted that it didn't bend at all there wasn't much room left for doubt. He unwrapped it carefully, peeked at the front cover and beamed at me.

"There's a DVD?"

I nodded. "That way you'll get to see Adam Cooper." I turned to Claire and winked. "It's the DVD of what we saw."

"You'll have to watch it, Claire," Michael said, handing the DVD to her. "It's just— Oh thank you," he added, turning to me again and briefly placing his hand on mine.

"Happy birthday," I replied, "and that's probably the last time I say it. This year."

I'd often heard people complain about food taking some time to be served in pubs but ours came pretty quickly. Michael had chosen fish and chips, Claire some sort of toasted sandwich that also came with chips and I'd gone for a pie I liked the sound of: mushroom, beef and ale pie served with some vegetables and Cheddar mash. Oh yes.

We spent the entire meal talking about this and that—Claire wanted to know stuff about my life in the US and in return I asked her about Michael when he was younger. My instincts had been right once again and everything went fine. Despite the not-so-minor revelation, Michael and Claire were so similar that of course I was bound to get along with her.

I learned that she had a boyfriend of nearly half a year and I must admit I was happy to hear that. She was so lovely that I couldn't help wanting her to be in a happy relationship, you know? OK, so a pretty big part of me was extremely glad there was indeed someone else in her life so she wouldn't look at Michael anymore, but I swear that's not all it was. And hey, maybe I'd get to meet him some day? I knew I was getting ahead of myself but it was all going so well that I didn't want to think life would take these people away from me any time soon—or ever.

Before too long, though, it was half past five and Michael apologised for having to go home—with his family around the day before, he'd fallen behind on his homework, no matter how hard he'd tried to catch up in the morning. Out in the car park, Claire told me again how happy she was that we'd met and she even hugged me. Not the way she hugged him afterwards, obviously, but it made me really happy anyway.

"So?" Michael asked as soon as we got into his car—it had been nice and warm when he'd picked me up in the morning but now it was freezing in there.

"She's really lovely," I replied honestly, rubbing my hands together. "And pretty, and funny. She cares about you a lot and seems to think I'm all right. So I'd say it went pretty well, huh?"

"I'm glad," he simply said as he drove out of the car park.

We were silent again for a bit but this time I wasn't as nervous. Still contemplative, though—I couldn't help it.

"What are you thinking?" he asked at length.

"Something stupid."

"Tell me."

"You'll laugh at me."

"You know I won't. I can tell there's something on your mind and I'd like to know what's troubling you."

I propped my elbow against the door and rested my chin on my hand, looking out of the window even though I couldn't really see the landscape anymore because it was getting dark.

"Has anyone ever told you that… that you and Claire look like you could be twins?"

"It's been said before, yes," he said after some time. "Why?"

"You're going to think it's stupid but you… you guys kind of… match. There's something about the two of you that just makes you… fit like two pieces of a puzzle, you know?"

Again there was a pause. "What are you getting at?"

"I just can't—" I took a deep breath. "So many times, while we sat there talking, I couldn't help wonder why on earth you'd choose someone like me over someone like her who so completely matches you. And I know she has a boyfriend and all," I added quickly, "but still. Doesn't make sense."

He didn't answer and I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the side of the road when we stopped at some traffic lights.

"You're right," he said softly—and my heart skipped a beat. Or three. "It was stupid."

I turned my head just in time to see him leaning towards me and in two seconds flat his hands were on my face and his lips pressed against mine. And I had to remind myself to breathe.

"You always do this without warning me," I said, panting a little and feeling my entire face flushing when he moved away just as the light went green again.

"That's for all the times you've nearly made my heart stop. But did it answer your stupid question?" he asked, placing his hand on mine and entwining our fingers.

"I think so, yes… I wouldn't mind if you felt inclined to proving your point again later, though."

He smiled and said nothing, and I continued looking out into the darkness.

When we got back to the station, the car park was thankfully nearly deserted. He turned the engine off but kept the heating on and turned to me, undoing his seat-belt.

"There's one last thing I'd like to get off my chest," I said, fiddling with my seat-belt and hating myself for stopping him when he was just about to kiss me.

"Hmm?"

"Claire told me about… the GCSE results…"

His eyebrows shot up. "She did?"

"She said nothing happened, but since you didn't even mention it—"

He bit his lip. "I didn't because I saw your reaction and I didn't want to make it worse."

"Can you honestly tell me nothing happened? I know you must think this is ridiculous but I'm feeling… under threat right now," I breathed, my throat suddenly parched.

He let out a sigh but his eyes never left mine. "She was upset because she'd been rejected by a guy she liked the week before. We were only very slightly drunk and she kissed me. I let her do it but I didn't kiss her back!" he immediately added when my eyes opened wide, "and she didn't insist. She apologised, cuddled against me and fell asleep in my arms, and it's never happened since."

I believed him, of course I believed him, so why was my heart still beating so fast?

"Claire is my best friend and that's all." He framed my face with his hands and brought our foreheads together—I could see that his entire face was flushed. "And I've nevercared about anyone the way I care about you."

He'd only just finished talking when I felt his lips pressing against mine again. A second later, his tongue was dancing with mine and all I could do was wrap my arms around him and hold him tight.

Dammit, there went my heart again…

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