Ascent

Jenna doesn't make it a habit to go around saving people, especially when she has errands to run. But when Brendon, the quiet, nervous man in front of her is being stalked by a woman way too old to be wearing a shirt with that much skin showing, she makes an exception. Thus begins the start of their romance. With the help of Eric, Jenna's entirely too sarcastic best friend, the couple embarks on a journey to discover just how deep their relationship can go. Along the way the two must face fears, loss, and their new found feelings of love. The question is: Can they leave behind what's holding them back and start a life together? Or will Jenna's past tear them apart?

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8. Gaining a new friend and rediscovering an old one

"Hi," the girl greets, pulling the headphone out. "You're Jenna, right? I'm Taylor, if you couldn't tell."

"Hello," I answer, still dazed. "Brendon's told me, like, a lot about you," she says. "And I mean a lot."

I'm wishing he'd told me a lot about her. Or anything at all, really.

"Hey, watch it," the man calls from behind me. "Don't go saying that. She'll get the wrong idea."

"But it's true," she trills. "He always talks about his girlfriend. Jenna did this today. Jenna looked so nice in that sweater. Listen to this funny thing Jenna said."

"So much for letting you be my confidant," he replies, petulant.

"Anyway," she says, turning back to me. "It's totally nice to finally meet you. Brendon said you've been, like, really busy lately, so we haven't had the chance to talk yet. I've been asking him to bring you for a few days now, but he said you didn't have time."

"Did he?" I ask, still trying to wrap my head around what's going on. "Oh, um, yes. We haven't really had any time to see each other. It's nice to meet you too."

I shake her extended hand.

It's quiet for a moment as we all look at each other.

"Well, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to playing video games," Taylor announces, ending the silence. "I'm, like, almost done killing the boss."

She bounces off to the room she was previously in, leaving me and Brendon alone.

I face him, trying to formulate words. This was not something I was prepared to speak about.

The fire in his eyes has died down now that I've seen what he wanted me to, his face returning to it's usually soft state. 

I'm glad to see the gentler expression come back. I didn't like the other one.

He sags against the door, appearing relieved.

"Do you understand now?" he questions, voice quiet.

There's a silent pause as I digest everything that's happened. Was she his sister? Why wouldn't he tell me about her then? He told me about his brother. Another idea comes to me.

"You have a daughter?" I finally ask, dumbfounded.

"Yes, Jenna, because I really look like I'm old enough to have a fourteen-year-old daughter."

My confusion leads me to kick into sass mode. I'm not sure where else to go.

"They say that guys seem younger than they are," I challenge. "Plus, there's always adoption."

"No. Just no. Besides, I'm twenty-five."

An awful thought pops into my head.

"Are you dating her then?"

"No!" he exclaims, appearing to be sick. "That's a terrible thing to say."

Thank goodness. That would have been really creepy.

"Sorry, I had to ask."

He rubs the back of his neck with his hand, looking uncomfortable. 

"I just, uh, take care of her sometimes," he says, looking down.

I feel like an idiot. Like I'm the stupidest person in the entire world for thinking Brendon was cheating on me when it wasn't even remotely close to that. I wish again that I could run away, but this time to hide from the embarrassment of it all. I know I had a reason to think that, but now I just feel so small.

Brendon's voice breaks through my thoughts.

"Taylor's my next door neighbor, has been for four years. Her mom used to be a nurse where my dad works, and they were the ones who helped me get this apartment. Now her parents spend a lot of time in Tokyo because that's where they do business at the moment. She threatened to run away when they wanted to move there, so they worked out a deal where she could stay with me while they were off on business trips."

The comment surprises me. I've never met anyone in my building that would do something so huge for someone else.

"They just let you take care of her? I don't think I'd let my neighbors do that if I had a daughter. Then again, they let their dog bark at ungodly hours and they steal my door decorations so I don't trust them with pretty much anything. It's no coincidence that when I got Steve the skeleton right after Thanksgiving, since I like to celebrate Halloween all month long, he went missing the very next day. Then I saw that he was on their door instead. I know it was Steve since he was even missing his third toe because of the time I dropped and subsequently tripped on him. I  couldn't just steal him back because I know they'd make a big deal out of it and try to say I took him from them. I didn't want to go through the fuss they'd make."

He's laughing now, and I'm unusually happy about it. After the rough discussion earlier, it's nice to hear something so pleasant coming from his lips.

"That sounds rather traumatic," he says.

"Oh, it was. But then I fed one of their two plants that always block the hallway orange juice so it would die. I felt kind of bad, but I didn't want to seem weak. I don't think they figured it out."

"Anyway, about my neighbors," he interjects, scared of whatever else I might say. "We've been really close for a while now, with our parents being friends. I guess they just know I'll be a good caretaker and not some creepy kidnapper. They have a two weeks on, two weeks off schedule. Her dad's looking for a job here so they can stay at home, but this is what we're doing for now."

"Oh!" I exclaim, a realization coming to me. "So that's who the pads were for! You really did need them for a friend."

"Why didn't you believe me?" he asks, sounding hurt. 

"I thought maybe you were just saying that so you could get away with dating two people at once. Then there was the phone call where you said sweetheart and the other time honey. Those are also pet names for girlfriends."

"Do I really seem like I have the ability to lie about that? Do you remember how we met? Honestly, I think I'd start crying and break down on the first date with you if I wasn't single."

"That's true, I guess."

"I just can't believe you thought I was seeing someone else," he says, genuinely distressed.

"You thought I was dating Eric," I shoot back. "Even after I said I wasn't. Only once I'd called him and we both gagged at the insinuation did you believe me."

"Yes, but we weren't together then. You didn't trust me and we've been dating."

"I'm sorry," I murmur, looking anywhere that's not his eyes. "But what else was I supposed to think when you had all these things going on with another girl? And with how you purposely avoided me coming to your apartment?"

He opens his mouth to reply, but then can't seem to find the words. He shrugs, sighing.

"I'm sorry too,” he says after a moment. "Not just about disbelieving you with Eric. I didn't tell you about Taylor because it's kind of awkward. Most people our age wouldn't want to date a guy that is responsible for a kid every two weeks. Not unless they have their own. I was worried you wouldn't give me a chance if you knew."

"Alright, fine, you've got a responsibility. So what? You have a teenager to take care of, I have an Eric to take care of. They're really not so different when you think about it."

He chuckles, appearing relieved again that I'm okay with this new development. 

"I guess you're right, considering I know what Eric is like."

"Really, you should have told me earlier," I say, waving a hand at him. "The fact that you're looking after a fourteen-year-old just because you're nice automatically raises your score on the attraction scale by five."

"What is it now?"

"Seven."

"Did you seriously just tell me I was a two? You think I'm only worth a two by myself?"

"Maybe, maybe not."

"What does that say about your standards then?"

"Hey!"

"You started it."

The familiar mood makes me feel comfortable, a welcome change to the past half hour. 

"Are you eight now?" I ask, teasing. "Is this when you flirt with me by being mean?"

"Maybe, maybe not," he says, repeating my words. "Is it working?"

"Next you'll be passing me a note in class, asking if I think you're cute."

"And would you say yes?"

"Should I check the like like box? Or is this strictly yes or no?"

"You're insufferable."

"Pssh," I scoff, "if I was any other way you wouldn't like me as much."

"Says who?"

I smack his arm, and he withdraws like a kicked puppy. 

"Don't be so melodramatic," I say, more of an attempt at soothing than sassing.

"I think your abuse warrants my reaction."

"I barely touched you."

"I don't care."

I feel like I'm glowing, the warmth of the moment and the silly banter restoring my happiness.

Taylor suddenly clears her throat from her position in the hall again, then walks over to where we're standing.

"Do you two usually talk this much?"

Brendon smiles affectionately at her, soft and sweet. Then it twists into a mischievous grin.

"Oh, I don't know," he says. "Do you usually get tickled this much?"

"What?" she asks, before horror invades her vision. "Brendon, oh my gosh, no! Dude! Don't you dare! I said stop!"

She squeals as he reaches for her. She attempts to spring away, but he wraps his arms around her torso and lifts her in the air. She wriggles in his grasp before he drops her onto the couch and mercilessly starts to tickle her.

"Brendon, come on!" she pleads, laughing. "I'm sorry. Please!"

He finally stops his assault, laughing along with her.

I can't stop the joy that floods my heart at the sight. What is it about watching guys interact with younger kids that's so heartwarming? I'm surprised men don't just become friends with single moms and babysit their children just for attention. Actually, isn't there a movie like that?

"Jenna," Brendon coos, now a short distance away from me, "I think someone else might get tickled here."

"Not if someone doesn't want to get hurt," I threaten back, holding my bag like a weapon.

He pouts.

"You're ruining all the fun."

"I think Taylor would disagree about it being fun."

"I totally do!" she chimes. "I think Brendon should be the one who has to, like, suffer for a change."

He looks hurt, and moves to sulk in the corner by the door.

"You guys are terrible people," he complains.

"Whatever," Taylor scoffs.

"Drama queen," I add, making her smirk and high five me.

"I'm beginning to think this was a mistake," Brendon says. "You two should not interact together. As if you weren't enough trouble individually, now you're teaming up."

He has to duck when Taylor throws  a remote at him before I have the chance to find a suitable projectile.

"This was most definitely a mistake," he repeats, slightly cowering in the corner.

We torment him for a few minutes more, giggling with each other. Then she turns to the him.

"So why are you back so early? I thought you were in some emergency business meeting or something. And when did you pick up Jenna? I was pretty sure you told me she was, like, a graphic designer. Was she at the meeting too?"

"You didn't tell her we were going on a date?" I ask the dark-haired man in front of me.

I knew from the phone call, but I ask anyway because I want to know why.

"No," he replies, flustered, "I didn't. If she knew she'd have asked me to bring you back here."

"What's wrong with that?" Taylor asks, hurt. "Are you, like, ashamed of me, Brendon? That's awful."

"I'm not," he answers, even more panicked now. "Look, I'm sorry. I just knew you would team up on me and I was trying to avoid that as long as possible."

I don't want to explain everything to the teenager, so I go along with his story.

"He's a jerk, huh?" I ask Taylor.

"I know, right? You've got it, sister. So you guys were on a date? What are you doing back here so soon?"

"That's right, we were on a date," Brendon says, facing her. "But then you had to ask me your question. Do the words 'don't call me unless you're dying' mean something different to you than they do to me?"

"I would consider not being able to find the cheese balls dying. My stomach was, like, eating itself."

I can see why she called him. He doesn't seem to be unavailable to pick up the phone any time of the day when he's working, no matter what he says he has to do.

"It takes around three weeks to die from starvation, Taylor," he admonishes. "You weren't dying. There's other food here too."

"Well, I'm sorry," she says, looking small all of a sudden. "I didn't know you would be mad about it."

I feel bad for her. I didn't want someone to get scolded for my jealousy and worries.

"It's okay, Brendon," I reassure. "I don't mind. Besides, I think we should have met sooner. I'm glad she called, if you get what I mean."

He ducks his head, guilty. He sighs, pushing back his fringe from his forehead. It falls forward again. I scare myself with the way I want to brush it back with my own fingers.

"You're right, Jenna," he concedes. "You should have met sooner."

He turns back to Taylor, ruffling her hair in an affectionate manner.

"It's alright, kiddo," he coos. "I'm not upset with you. Just try to remember where you put things from now on, okay?"

"Okay," she chimes, the smile returning to her face. 

"What was the other call about?" I ask, hoping that's not intrusive.

I'm not trying to be the psycho girlfriend again.

"She couldn't find their dog when she went to feed him. He wasn't in his usual spot buried under her blankets. It turns out she accidentally let him out when she propped the door open with the bag of dog food she was putting in his bowl, so I had to go search for him.

Taylor sticks her tongue out at him, sulking. Then when she glances at me, her expression brightens again.

"Hey, Jenna," she calls. "Wanna see my bedroom? It's super cool."

She takes ahold of my sleeve and pulls me down the hall. Brendon follows us.

"Sure," I say, like I have a choice. 

Taylor gives me the tour of her entirely black and white bedroom, barely giving me any time to respond to each thing. When she launches into the story of how she got each individual picture on her wall, Brendon sneaks into the spot next to me.

"How did you-"

"Have room?" he asks, finishing my question. "This is actually an office, we just made it her room."

"Oh. That's cute."

"Brendon, stop talking," Taylor interrupts. "I'm telling Jenna about the picture Stacy gave me. Don't make me move you away from her."

"Sorry," he says, giving me a conspiratorial look.

"Yeah, Brendon," I tease, returning it. "Come on."

"Gosh, getting me in trouble with the teacher."

"Anyway," Taylor resumes. "So Stacy liked Jake too, but she told me if I stopped liking him that she'd draw me a picture. Which is a hugedeal because she's, like, the best artist in the world. So of course I was like, 'Sorry, Jake. You're cute and all, but I'm more interested in the arts.'"

She flips her hair back in a dramatic manner, pretending to be regal.

She then begins a new story about the one of a her name drawn intricately into a picture of vines.

"Does she always say 'like' this much?" I whisper to Brendon.

"Yes, although it gets more prominent when she's excited. Don't worry, you get used to it. It's surprising how easy it is, actually. Sometimes I have to stop myself from saying it subconsciously."

"Dude!" Taylor snaps. "You need to, like, get out. You're ruining my stories."

"That's not fair," he protests. "Don't be mean to me."

"We're friends, right? And friends do things for their other friends, like leave. Don't be the guy who sucks and doesn't leave."

He sulks, but retracts to the hallway to give us some privacy.

Taylor has some interesting stories mixed into the saga of her life, and I like listening to her. I just hope I start don't start picking up her language habits.

"Okay, apartment tour!" she chirps, pulling me along again.

Brendon looks startled when we burst through the door, especially since Taylor reaches down to yank him off the couch he's sitting on.

"What are we doing?"

"Apartment tour, apparently," I answer.

"No interrupting me this time, okay Brendon?" Taylor says.

"Okay," he agrees, allowing himself to be dragged.

Brendon's apartment is well laid out, mostly black and white like Taylor's bedroom. They must have their favorite color scheme in common. He likes stripes. Every time there's a burst of color, it's navy blue. Not surprising.

We look at the kitchen, the living room, the bathroom, and even the linen closet because "there's just, like, this absolutely hilarious story about it." So hilarious, in fact, that I would die when I heard it. Wow. I'm not sure I want to hear it then. 

All teasing aside, I genuinely enjoy Taylor's presence. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and she's actually great at telling stories. Just not ones about Stacy.

"To Brendon's room!" she announces, and he looks alarmed.

"No!" he exclaims. "I haven't organized it or anything. Taylor, let's just skip that part."

"No way! I showed her mine. You have to show her yours."

"Come on," I interject. "Please? You've seen my house. And my bedroom."

He sighs, looking resigned.

"Okay, fine."

"Don't worry, Brendon. It's, like, not a big deal," I say, adding in the word to make him laugh.

He does, allowing himself to be pushed to his room.

The inside is not at all like the rest of the house. Everything outside was organized and neat, with smooth colors. This room has three bookshelves, all full and then some. Books are haphazardly stacked in front of others, as well as on the top. How much does this man read? I like books, but come on.

His bed looks fluffy and big, a navy blue striped comforter laying across it. 

On the bedside table are framed pictures. There's one of a younger Brendon standing with a group of people, all dressed in uniforms. He's holding a soccer ball. Taylor and what I'm assuming are her parents occupy another one with him at a fair of some sort, both of the younger people sporting face paint. I'm not surprised to see the bright grin he wears.

The one next to it catches my eye. It's a picture of a teenage Brendon, a dark-haired child sitting on his lap. Who's that? That can't be his brother. He's so young. I'm distracted by the other person in the frame. The boys are encased in the arms of a stunning woman. Her long vermillion hair cascades across her shoulders, mouth stretched into a grin as she laughs at something. What really strikes me are her eyes. They're exactly the same as Brendon's, beautiful pools of emerald. She must be his mom. Something about her gives me the same vibe as he does, even through the photo. I wonder if they're a lot alike. He looks so at peace, holding onto the child's hands as he lays his head against his mother's shoulder. He seems . . . happy. I haven't ever seen him look quite like that, not with such joy and love in his eyes. His father must have taken the picture, as he's not in it.

I feel like I'm delving into something much too personal with the picture, so I tear my eyes away and look around the room. I hope Brendon didn't notice.

The rest of the room isn't particularly messy, his clothes are all in his laundry hamper and he's relatively clean, but the real chaos is on his desk. Not because of papers, or knickknacks. No, it's all pens. What seems to be at least eighty of them are crowding the desk. I think it may be more than that. He has four cups of them, and the rest are scattered across the wood.

"It's the pens, am I right?" Taylor asks, laughing at my expression. "I did that too. He has, like, a hundred or more pens."

"I do not!" he protests. "I don't think so, at least. Maybe after the last one my uncle gave me on my birthday. Probably not though."

"The one who does real estate?" Taylor asks. "The one who spent, like, an entire hour once telling me the super big contrasts between the housing in Cobble Hill and Red Hook? They're both in Brooklyn, you wouldn't think they'd be that different. But apparently there's, like, a huge difference."

"That's him," Brendon replies, chuckling. "At least you don't have to have Thanksgiving dinner with that."

"Back to the pens please," I interject, my question still not answered. "Why do you need so many?"

To be fair, I shouldn't judge him too harshly. I may or may not have a habit of collecting Snapple lids. I like the facts written on the inside. I know, I know. It's weird. Nobody knows but my mom and Eric. I want to keep it that way.

"I like to write things by hand," Brendon answers, shrugging. "Pencils smudge and look less professional. It got around I like pens, so people give them to me as presents. That's why I have so many, at least."

I continue to look around. At first, I don't think his room fits him. It should be collected and calm like he is, maybe with a little bit of clutter to match his nervousness. But then I remember his face when we had our soccer match, and the silly childhood game we played with the frogs. 

I think I like this much better than what I had been thinking. It suits him. The real him, not just the personality he projects.

"It's cool," I tell him, wishing I was more capable of expressing myself. "It's you."

"Thank you," he replies anyway.

He looks like he understands what I really mean, his lips quirking up into a pleased smile.

"You guys aren't going to, like, spontaneously start making out, right? Because I get crushes and all, but, like, I so don't want to see that."

"Oh, is that right?" the dark-haired man asks, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "You understand crushes? I know. Let's tell Jenna just how much you understand, okay?"

Horror fills her face, and she lunges to clamp a hand over his mouth. He catches her arms easily, holding them away so he can speak to me. 

"Taylor's got a crush on-"

"Brendon, don't you dare! Stop it!"

"-my brother Josh," he finishes. "And I'm talking a serious one. She even put her first name and our last one together to see if they work well. They do."

Are they around the same age? I guess the child in the picture really was Brendon's brother. That's a huge age gap.

Taylor wrenches her arms from his grip, delivering a hearty smack to his shoulder. He pouts, rubbing his injury.

"I hate you," she announces, petulant.

"No you don't," he answers, now smiling. "Besides, it's inconvenient if you hate your future brother-in-law."

She responds by hitting him again in virtually the same place, and he glares at her this time.

"That hurt," he complains. "You didn't have to hit me twice."

"Yes, I did. You're, like, the worst friend in the world."

"It's okay, Taylor," I interject. "I think it's sweet. What do you like about him?"

Her cheeks flame up in embarrassment, so I decide to be bold and pull her with me to another room.

"Come on," I say. "I'll tell you why I like Brendon and you can tell me why you like his brother."

The man starts to lag behind, so I stop and face him.

"Shoo," I order, waving him away. "This is girl talk, right Taylor?"

"Right," she agrees, smiling. "Go away."

"But I want to hear-" he tries.

"Shoo!"

He sulks, but leaves anyway.

I sit with the teenager on her bed once we reach it.

"You don't actually have to tell me if you don't want to," I say. "I just thought I'd rescue you from Brendon's teasing."

She looks relieved. But then she peers up at me, shy.

"Well, actually . . . I haven't, like, talked about it with anyone. Not Brendon, obviously. But I haven't told my mom either. She thinks I'm too young to like boys even though I'm almost an adult."

I have to hold in a laugh about her being an "adult." I'm not even an adult, even though legally I am. It's most definitely not the same thing. Still, I want Taylor to be comfortable with talking to me. She seems like a sweet girl, and she obviously doesn't have anyone to talk to about this. Or, at least like she doesn't want to tell her friends.

"Okay, then we can talk," I offer, smiling. "Tell me about him. Is he cute?"

"I think so," she answers, looking down I'm embarrassment.

"What else do you like about him?" I nudge, trying to get her to open up.

"Well . . . okay, I'll tell you."

She crosses her legs in front of her, leaning forward. 

"He's super cute and he's really nice to me. He's always, like, walking across our school looking so sure of himself. He's not a jerk, he's just really confident."

"So the opposite of Brendon then?" I ask, teasing.

"Pretty much," she answers, laughing.

"Why don't you ask him out then?" 

Her face becomes red again, and she shakes her head.

"No way," she protests, mortified. "I couldn't."

"Why not?"

"Because . . . I don't know if he'd be, like, interested in me. Sometimes I think he is but other times I don't know. He always teases me, but he's not mean. Is that good?"

I grin, thinking of how many times I've teased my boyfriends.

"Yep!" I chirp. "That is good. That's the number one flirting move, Taylor."

"Really?"

She's so adorable. Her excitement brings about my own, and I laugh again. I was just like her when I was that age. Not that I'm that different now.

"I hate to tell you, but he likes you," I coo, drawing out the word.

She looks away to hide her blush, but I can see the way she bites her lip to hide the smile.

"Well, I still can't ask him out," she says. "I, like, just started high school. He's a Sophomore. They're all so cool."

"That's only a year difference. I know that seems like a lot, but I promise it's okay."

And you don't think it's weird I live with his brother sometimes?"

"It's not weird," I reply, wagging a finger. "It just means you have better connections. Think about it. Brendon could coincidentally ask him over and you'll just happen to be here."

She's smiling, so I continue.

"Oh, hello Josh," I say, imitating her. "It's so nice to see you. I know, crazy meeting here, huh? Yes, actually, I am free on Sunday. Let's see a movie."

She launches into a giggle fit, collapsing onto her bed to laugh. I can feel my own chuckles escape my throat, and I join her among the fluff of her bedspread.

When she stops, she props herself up on her elbow.

"There is one more thing," she admits, looking nervous.

"What? Is something wrong?"

"A few other girls like him too. One of them is Stacy."

"I thought she wanted Jake."

I'm feeling proud of my memory being able to differentiate Stacy from Samantha and Amy.

"She did. She always wants the guys I like."

I hold back the smile I can feel as I respond.

"Will you give up Josh for a drawing?"

"No way," she answers, serious.

"Then why does it matter? Stacy can go after someone else. I don't care if she's the best artist in the world, she's not as great you."

Her smile is genuine, and she looks so pleased I can't help but feel warm I'm able to help her.

"Besides," I add, coy, "does he tease Stacy? Or any of the others?"

"No," she answers, biting her lip again as she smiles. "He only does that to me."

"There you have it. He likes you, you like him. Perfect."

"Can girls really, like, ask guys out? Are you sure that's not super weird?"

My grin grows wider, thinking of my own experiences.

"They sure can," I answer. "In fact, I asked Brendon out. He was too shy to do it himself. Do you think we're weird?"

"Nope! But wow, really? He didn't tell me that."

"He was probably embarrassed. You can tease him for me later if you want."

She looks down at her fingers for a moment, thinking. She takes a deep breath.

"Okay, I believe you. There's, like, this dance thing in a month. The girls ask the guys to it. I think I'll ask Josh."

"That's great! I'm sure you'll have fun."

"Thanks, Jenna. You're pretty cool."

She leaps forward, almost shoving me off the bed when she hugs me. I wish I had someone this enthusiastic in my life more often.

"Just giving you advice from someone who's older," I answer, laughing.

"So, it's your turn," she chimes, shooting up.

"What do you mean?"

"It's your turn," she repeats. "To tell my why you would like Brendon. Because honestly, even though he's, like, one of my best friends, I can't see liking him. No offense to him."

"Well . . ."

I think for a moment. He's kind. He's funny. I love how passionate he gets about everything. He's silly and ridiculous, but in the most endearing way possible. He makes me feel safe. But before I can say of these things, the sound of the floor creaking outside the door comes to my ears.

I can't believe it. Brendon's eavesdropping. Fine. If he's going to be like that, I have an idea.

I raise a finger to my lips to hush Taylor after she hears it too, gesturing with my head to the door. She seems to get my plan.

"Well," I start again. "I used to think he was really attractive. But the more time I spend with him I change my mind. And he's really dumb. He says all these ridiculous things. Don't even get me started on how weird he is."

I motion for Taylor to talk, and I slowly creep to the door.

"Yeah, I can see why you'd say that. He's, like, pretty lame actually."

I jerk the door open in one pull, laughing as Brendon falls through and lands on the floor. He has to recover for a moment, rubbing the place he landed on his arm.

"Ha!" I crow. "That's what you get!"

"That was mean!" he snaps, upset. "I could have gotten seriously hurt."

"Then don't lean on the door and eavesdrop! You deserve it."

"She's right," Taylor adds, giggling. "You're a jerk for snooping. Not cool, dude."

"I'm the jerk? Jenna's the one telling you horrible things about me."

He looks up at me, still on the floor, and sulks. 

"I can't believe you'd say that about me. Did you really mean it?"

"I don't talk to eavesdroppers," I tease, walking away. 

I'm startled when he pulls me by my ankle until I topple down next to him. I can't say where I landed on my knee isn't sending sparks of pain up my leg, but I can handle it.

"Ouch," I complain, yanking it away from him. "You suck."

"So do you," he replies, sullen.

"You two are silly," Taylor interjects, pulling me up from the floor.

We ignore Brendon.

"I feel so unloved," he whines, and we just glare at him.

He lithely slips off the ground, pretending to sniffle.

I can't say it doesn't make me want to smile, even though I purposely don't.

"Oh, wait!" Taylor exclaims. "I have an idea. You guys wait in the living room, I'll be back."

I give Brendon a curious look, and he just shrugs. We follow the teenagers instruction as she heads next door to look for something.

Brendon sticks his hands in his pockets as he stares at me, rocking back and forth on his heels.

"What's she doing?" I ask, waiting.

"I don't know."

He is quiet for another moment. I wonder what Taylor's trying to find.

"She's not bothering you, right?" the dark-haired man asks, looking worried.

"Of course not," I answer, frowning. "Why would she be bothering me?"

"I'm just making sure," he replies, and then his eyes soften. "Thanks for helping her, by the way. She's been agonizing over my brother for a while now. She wouldn't tell me she was, but I knew."

"I'm glad I could help. You really shouldn't listen in on her though. I think she took it as a joke, but she's shy enough about it as it is."

"I'm sorry," he says, abashed. "I know it was rude. I couldn't help myself. Sometimes I get too curious."

I relate to him there. Just replace "sometimes" with "every second of the day" and we'd be the same.

"You were very good to her," he adds, and I almost melt at the way he gazes at me in appreciation. "It was sweet."

Wow. I wish he would look at me like that all the time. Does he have any more friends in need of advice? No, Jenna. That's selfish. Stop it.

"Was that okay?" I ask, now nervous. "I told her the best thing to do, right? You don't think Josh will reject her?"

I would hate if I told her to go for it only to be the cause of her broken heart.

"Not at all," he reassures. "I think they'd be cute as a couple. They seem to have fun together when they hang out. Josh has kind of hinted at it too. He always looks embarrassed when I mention Taylor."

"Good," I breathe, letting out a relived sigh.

I open my mouth to say something else, but close it a moment later. I'm confused. How did Brendon end up with such a young brother?

"You're wondering about the age difference between us, aren't you?" he asks.

How did he know that? Maybe I'm really easy to read.

"Well, yeah," I admit. "Josh is only around fifteen and you're my age."

"My mom had me when she was eighteen," he tells me, eyes warming. "She liked to tell me I was a pleasant surprise. That's really just a nice way of saying an accident. She waited ten years to have her next child. She was hoping Josh would be a girl. We used to call him Joshella to tease him about it."

"That's so mean," I say, but I don't mean it.

"Well he looks a lot like my mom, so she sort of got her wish. Look, here's a picture of him. One of the only ones in existence pretty much. He hates being in photos."

"Sounds like someone else I know," I say, nudging him with my elbow.

"I only don't like being in them alone," he corrects. "It's awkward."

I take the phone he hands me to look at the picture. He wasn't kidding about Josh looking like his mom. He has the same dark hair as Brendon and his eyes aren't green, but otherwise he's the male version of the woman in the previous photo. He has bird-like features, with soft curves and delicate cheekbones. And I've been calling Brendon the pretty boy. 

I can see why Taylor likes him, and I mean in the least creepy and non pedophile-like way possible.

"Is he anything like you?" I ask, teasing. "Because if he is, Taylor's got a lot to deal with."

"He's not," he answers, chuckling. "He's actually my opposite. We used to argue a lot, but we've since made up. He's one of my best friends."

"Does he kidnap people too?" I joke.

But when Brendon's smile slips from his face, I understand he didn't take it that way.

"I didn't mean it like that," I add, worried. "I'm just kidding with you."

His lips curve upwards fractionally, but there's something distressed in his face as well.

He wedges his hands even deeper into his pockets.

"About that. In all seriousness, Jenna, I would never cheat on you. I'm not that kind of person. But even if I was, I respect you far too much to think about doing such a thing."

"If you were that kind of person, you wouldn't care," I say, smiling. "But I'm glad you didn't know that."

He approaches me, hesitant. When I don't move away, he slips his arms around me for a hug.

His words are quiet and sad when he speaks.

"I'm sorry I made you feel as if I was being unfaithful to you, as well as for being so harsh with you. I know I needed to show you, but I didn't have to act like that. I was scared you'd leave before I had a chance to explain. I can't apologize enough. How long have you thought this was going on?"

He tightens his hug. His voice is starting to break. 

"What am I talking about?" he asks himself before I can speak. "Even a minute is too long."

His words make my heart warm, any residual worry and pain dissipating.

"I'm the one who's sorry," I murmur into his shirt. "I shouldn't have yelled at you or have said those awful things. I was just so upset at the thought of you using me like that."

"Don't apologize," he replies, his tone soft. "You had every right to be angry with that thought. I'm glad you let me show you I wasn't. I guess I should use the term 'let me' loosely. I did kind of kidnap you, you're right. Honestly, I'm extraordinarily sorry."

"It's okay," I answer, voice still muffled by his body. "I think it might have mostly been me. I haven't had the best experience with dating before."

He pulls back to look at me. When I avoid his curious eyes, he doesn't question me on the subject.

"Jenna, will you let me try this with you again?" he asks, eyes wide and earnest.

"So long as you don't mind dating the crazy girl who freaked out on you, sure," I answer, grinning.

I'm joking. For the most part, anyway.

"You're not crazy," he responds, serious.

"Well, maybe not because of that," I chime.

He smiles too this time, tucking his thumbs into the belt loops of my jeans.

The sound of a camera shutter catches our attention.

"Perfect shot!" Taylor exclaims, looking at the screen of her camera.

"Did you just take a picture of us?" I ask, blinking.

"Yep! You guys can, like, start kissing and I'll take a shot of that too," she teases, waving the device around.

"You're so dead," Brendon announces, lunging at her again.

She tries to flee, but he's too fast for her in the end. He lifts her up and spins with her until she squeals her apology. He sets her down, laughing.

"I'm dizzy," she says, but she's giggling too.

I can feel a wide smile on my face, and I don't have any control over it. It may be stupid I'm so happy to see the two playfully interact, but I can't help it.

"Come on, Jenna," Taylor orders, pulling me back to her room. "You too, Brendon."

"What are we doing?" I ask.

"Photo shoot!"

We spend the next hour making funny faces for the camera, dressing up in different outfits. Taylor must have kept around twenty of them in the final cut.

I decide that they're both people I want to keep around. 

 

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