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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3. What about these makes them have . . . wings?

It turns out I'm right. The next week is grueling, changing all the details necessary for the new colors. I've lost count of all the cups of coffee I've had to drink, I think I've only taken a shower twice, and I must have bags under my eyes.

Eric stepped into my room about halfway through and looked like he had to hold back a shriek. He admonished me for mistreating myself to get my work done, then tried to herd me to my shower. He said I should see some sunlight that wasn't on my computer wallpaper, but he shut up when I threw my half-empty cup of orange soda at him in a fit of rage. I think I've lost myself somewhere along the sea of mottled colors on my screen.

Six days of obsessive changing, two breakdowns, and what I think may have been a coffee induced mini-coma, I'm done.

I make myself presentable to go meet Jason and Maggie, praying to every deity I can think of they like this one. If they change their minds in a week I'm going to end up on one of those late night programs where they talk about people who snapped and killed someone. 

After several screeches and hugs, I'm told the designs are loved. For now. Maggie attempts to get me to do that crazy yoga pose, but I lie and say I hurt my leg over the weekend. I even have to convincingly adopt a slight limp on my way home so they don't get suspicious.

Once I'm finally done laying in a puddle of misery and self-pity, I accept the crisis is over and head over to the grocery store to get some more coffee. I drank all of my beautiful liquid finishing the project.

I cross the patterned linoleum floor, scanning the aisles for the ground substance I worship. In all honesty, I think I could make a shrine for coffee and not feel weird about it at all. If I don't drink it there is no walking, talking, or thinking. There just isn't any living going on in general.

Let's see here. Nope, not dark roast. I need something really light. Is that a blonde roast? How come they only use a hair color for that one? Can I email Starbucks and ask them questions? Probably, but I bet I won't get an answer back. 

The sound of something spilling onto the floor catches my attention. Some silly guy has knocked over all the pads in the feminine aisle, now looking flustered. And familiar. Is that Brendon?

He continues to collect the fallen items and scrambles to put them back on the shelf. 

I want to talk to him, but I don't. After the last time I think it would be beneficial to avoid helping shy quiet guys I may or may not be interested in. I don't want to gain ten pounds from eating the ice cream Eric would insist upon.

But he's looking so frantic and earnest in his attempts to organize the packages how they were. I am reminded once again of his puppy-like appearance. Jenna, just turn around. Besides, he obviously has a girlfriend he's getting the pads for. Don't encroach on someone else's relationship. He'll be fine. No he won't. Look, now he's gazing at them anxiously, confused. No. No.

Ugh. Okay, fine. I'll go see if he needs any help. But just because I feel sorry for him. This is strictly a gesture made out of pity, not because I want to talk to him. Because I don't.

What do I say? 

"Hi, we left things awkwardly. But to make this even more awkward, let me talk to you while you handle feminine products."

I think I'd rather die first. Can I be funny? Yes, that sounds good. Eric's funny when he doesn't know what to say and that usually works out for him. Except I don't have a chiseled jaw line or biceps the size of apples.

Not that Brendon is into that though. Or maybe he is. What if he's gay? Maybe that's why it got awkward. That would explain his fear of the cougar lady. Not that he needed a reason. What if I'm hitting on a gay guy? I'm not sure it would be the first time considering the way the guy I had a crush on in my freshman year of high school acted. Wait. I'm not hitting on Brendon at all. Purely out of pity, Jenna. Keep that in mind. Just be funny.

I loop around my aisle while he's still arranging, coming into the one he's in. I creep up behind him, trying to hold in my laughter. He's going to get scared so bad. 

But what if he doesn't think that's funny? What if he's mad? It’s too late to back out because any second he'll turn around and just see me there, leg slightly lifted in a step as I pull my hands up close to my chest like they do in cartoons. I don't know how to sneak so this makes me feel more competent. I'm going to have to go for it.

I nudge forward those last few steps and step up to be closer to his ear. To be honest, I'm surprised he hasn't noticed me yet. If this was when dinosaurs were around he'd be a Velociraptor’s lunch right about now.

"Wanna come to my basement?" I ask, breathing into his ear.

He squeaks, a noise far too high pitched to be expected from his vocal chords.

He whirls around, looking like he's ready to flee, cry, and punch someone all at the same time. I get that way sometimes. Like when I have do math problems. Getting kidnapped, doing alegebra. Same thing.

"Jenna," Brendon breaths, still looking startled. But then he peers down at me, surprise filling his eyes. Like he can't actually believe I'm here.

It’s a grocery store, not a remote island off the coast of Japan or something.

Wow. I had forgotten how attractive Brendon was. The messy locks of hazel hair, the shock of emerald in his irises. My breath catches in my throat for a second as I gaze at his face. Alright, screw platonic feelings. My heart doesn't seem to care I'm trying to keep a sense of pride. It's too busy beating erratically in my chest, like I'm the one who was just scared.

"Jenna?" Brendon repeats, but this time it's a question. 

Quick, go back to being funny.

"Have you seen your stalker lately?" I ask.

"Not recently," he replies after a pause. "Why did you do that to me? You nearly gave me a heart attack."

He doesn't seem angry. If anything, he's looking more amused by the second. He just needed to start breathing again.

"I'm sorry. I couldn't resist. You should really be more aware of your surroundings."

He smiles, and I realize how much I like it. There's something special about the way his lips just curve upwards in a soft, warm manner.

"Maybe you're right," he replies. "But you shouldn't sneak up on people. You're lucky I didn't throw my groceries at you."

He gestures at the plastic basket in the crook of his arm.

I can feel the grin that crosses my face. He's acting normal again. I want it to stay that way.

"So," I start, turning to the display he was attempting to fix, "which ones do you need?"

He looks embarrassed, scuffing his foot against the floor awkwardly.

Why can't guys understand there's nothing weird about this stuff? It's not like we take pads and make a pentagram out of them to summon a demon.

"I don't know," Brendon admits. "Something about . . . wings? I don't see any bird designs on any of these."

I can't stop the bubbling laughter that escapes me, and before long I'm leaning against the shelf to hold myself up.

"Why are you laughing?" he asks, offended. "I don't see anything funny here."

Aw. The poor guy really is trying. 

"I'm sorry," I say, bring myself back under control. "It's just that you don't understand. It's not about birds. That's a good one though."

He's growing increasingly flustered, so I reach out and pat his arm.

"It's okay. Don't be embarrassed. I didn't mean to laugh at you."

I scan the packages, looking for what he needs. Once I spot it, I drop it in his basket. He has chocolate, pain relievers, and a small stuffed animal in there.

"Wow, your girlfriend is lucky to have someone like you. That's a lot of goodies."

His face flushes, a sharp breath coming from him.

"No," he says hurriedly. "I, um, I'm not . . . I'm not in a relationship. These are just for a friend. Really."

He fusses with the collar on his shirt.

There's something inexplicable about the way my heart lightens when I hear his words. Fine, Eric was right. I'm interested in him.

For a moment, doubt crosses my mind. What if he's one of those guys who wants to hook up with someone else while he's dating a girl? He doesn't seem the type. No, he would sound like he was lying. He's bad at deceiving people, at least in my experience. Not to say he's even attracted to me all. He hasn't made it all that clear.

"How's, um, you know. How's your . . . guy?"

The acidity in his voice when he says guy surprises me. I've never heard him speak like that before. Wait. My guy?

"What?" I ask, thoroughly confused.

Irritation cross his face, and he folds his arms across his chest. I don't think I like whatever's going on right now.

"Your boyfriend, Jenna. I was asking how he was."

Now I'm sure I don't like it. His tone is abrasive, and it's not a sound my ears are enjoying. Not like his usual cotton candy tones.

"Brendon, I don't have a boyfriend."

He pauses a moment, confused. Then his face retracts back inside again.

"You're telling me you didn't go on a date with the guy who texted you last week?"

"A date? With Eric? Oh, you're hilarious."

His gaze hardens, not liking the humor in my voice.

"I don't see how it's funny," he says, almost in a hiss. "I also don't appreciate being led on."

What's wrong with him? And being led on? When did I do anything to lead him on? If anything, I'm the one who was made to feel something might have sparked between us in our short time together.

"Excuse me?" I ask, angry now. "I don't know what your problem is, Brendon, but let me tell you something. Eric and I are just friends. That's it. No romance, no relationship, just platonic feelings. And if you would remember correctly, you're the one who made it awkward last time. I didn't do anything to lead you on. Why are you acting this way?"

He attempts to hold my glare, but ducks out halfway through.

"I'm not acting any way," he answers, looking down. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You don't believe me, do you?"

This man is so frustrating right now.

"Whatever, Jenna. Sure, I believe you."

His eyes are sad when he looks back up, and something inside of me hurts. 

"I'm sorry if I bothered you," he mumbles. "I'll just check out now, leave you to your shopping."

I frown at him. I feel the urge to set things right, to convince him I mean what I said. For him to be here again at the exact time as me makes me feel it can't be a coincidence. I don't want to lose the second chance meeting over something that isn't even an issue. It's decided then. I'll call Eric and sort this out.

"So you're done shopping?" I ask.

"What?"

"Do you have everything you need?"

"Yes, but why are you asking?"

"Come with me," I order, taking hold of Brendon's sleeve. "We're checking out and then I'm proving to you I'm not dating Eric."

"I said it's fi-"

"No protests. I can temporarily kidnap you if I want. Stop talking."

He sighs, but lets me pull him along anyway. I want to smile at the curious look on his face, despite the fact there's exasperation there as well.

We check out separately, but I keep an eye on Brendon to make sure he doesn't slip away.

I feel kind of creepy, like a hawk watching their prey so it doesn't escape, but I want to see where this goes. I haven't ever met someone like Brendon. If he turns out to be a jerk, then fine. But a gut feeling tells me otherwise. Call it a woman's intuition.

I tug him out of the entrance, leading him to the quiet area beside the store.

"Jenna, this is really unnecessary."

"I said no protests. Shush."

I press number three on my keyboard for Eric's speed dial. He's right after my mom and the pizza delivery place by my house.

I tap the button to put him on speaker phone, gesturing for Brendon to be quiet when he begins to speak again.

"What is it?" Eric asks as he picks up the phone, sounding irritated. 

"What's with the attitude?" 

"You called in the middle of me kicking this guy’s butt on the battlefield."

"Can't you give the new video gamers a break? They're just learning."

He has competition issues. He once made me cry when he wouldn’t stop bragging about the way he won our hockey match. He felt bad enough afterwards to buy me ice cream though, so I guess it wasn’t so bad. Especially since he's too worried it'll happen again to do any serious bragging now.

"This guy said he slept with my mother."

"Don't they all say that?"

"Yeah, but I don't care. I'm too worried it's true. With all the books my mom has been reading on releasing her inner woman since her divorce, she goes after anything that moves."

Brendon looks so shocked right now.

"That's quite disturbing," I say. "You know, I’d really like to not even think about that."

"Tell me about it," he answers before crowing in victory. "Ha! That's right! You gonna go cry to your mommy now? Oh yeah. I'm the master of this game."

"You really need to get out more," I say, holding in a laugh as he starts to sing.

"This coming from the girl who once spent two weeks locked in her house, marathoning her favorite TV series.”

"Hey!" I exclaim. "That's mean! I had to know if Tiffany was going to survive the brain transplant! And what if Jessica and Steve didn't get back together after he cheated on her? I needed to know."

Brendon's smiling broadly at me, and I glare at him to try and make it go away. It's not my fault Med Team: Los Angeles is the best show ever. The man ignores me, attention turning back to the phone.

"Just sayin'. Don't judge me, or I'll judge you," Eric comments, snickering. "So anyway. Why did you call me?"

I look pointedly at Brendon, letting him know I think he's being silly.

"Remember how I told you about that guy at the grocery store?" I ask.

It's cute the way he flushes, like he's embarrassed I've been talking about him.

"Yes," Eric answers, "It's not like that was a long time ago. My memory isn't that bad."

"So you didn't forget your sister's birthday was last week? Even after she reminded you four times?"

"The point here?" he hisses, irritated I'm right. 

"Well he's standing next to me and he wants to know-"

"Wait, what?" Eric interrupts. "He's next to you? Look, if this guy is stalking you or something, let me know. No creepy dude gets to stalk my best friend."

"Excuse me?" Brendon asks, astonished. "Stalking her? Creepy?"

There's silence on the end of the line.

"Was that him?" Eric finally asks.

"Yeah," I reply, sounding apologetic. "I may have forgotten to tell you that you're on speaker phone."

"I see," he answers, before being silent for another moment. "What the hell is wrong with you? You have to tell me that kind of stuff, Jen! And hey, you listen up buddy! I don't care if you heard me or not, if you're bothering Jenna I've got a nice baseball bat that needs using."

"First off," Brendon replies, anger sharpening his eyes and voice, "I'm not your buddy. My name's Brendon. Second, I'm not bothering her, alright? So get off whatever high horse you're on."

"Whoa, guys!" I shout, growing flustered at their conversation. "Calm down, okay? Eric, he's not following me. We're at a grocery store, people go here all the time. Not everyone is out to get me. Brendon, Eric is just protective of me. He's my best friend, so be nice. Stop yelling at each other before I use that baseball bat."

They're quiet, and I can only imagine that Eric's expression is just as sheepish as Brendon's.

"He started it," the man in front of me mutters quietly, and I'm almost positive the voice on the phone does the same thing.

"You're both such children," I say, sighing.

Leave it to me to find all the little kids in adult bodies.

"Now that you guys aren't at each other's throats," I start, "I would like to actually do what I called you for, Eric. We've gone way off topic."

"What do you need?" he asks.

"Brendon is under the impression that we're dating, and I can't convince him otherwise."

It's quiet for a second, but then I have to hold the phone away to not be deafened by the burst of obnoxious laughter.

"Oh my god, that’s hilarious!" he exclaims through his chortles. "Me and you dating? I get it now, dude. You were insecure. But oh, man, are you wrong."

"That's what I told him!" I respond, laughing as well.

"I don't follow," Brendon says, radiating confusion and discomfort. "What's wrong with dating Jenna?"

Eric has to chuckle for another minute or two before he can bring it under control.

"Ah, that was a good one. Look, grocery guy-"

"Brendon,” he corrects.

"Whatever. Jenna and I are strictly friends. We could never date each other. Look, babe, I love you. You know that. But there's no way on earth I would even consider being with you in a non-platonic way."

"Ditto," I reply. "I wouldn't touch you with a thirty foot pole if it was like that. Especially if you'd been playing football that day."

"It's the stench of the game. It's called being a man."

"It's called you need to take a shower. Or three."

"So, wait," Brendon interjects, “you two aren't dating?"

"This guy is a little slow on the uptake, Jen bear. Where did you find him?"

"I told you, at the store. Why do you have so many different nicknames for me?"

"Well I can come up with another one for you right now, but it's not one you'll like. It involves the area-"

"Excuse me," Brendon interrupts weakly. He looks like he's going to faint.

"What?" we both ask.

"You said . . ." he tries, "you said he uses your shower in the morning.

"I said he hogs the shower in the morning," I correct. "Sorry, Eric, but it's true. You take all my hot water."

"You're besmirching my good name!" he bemoans.

Eric is really weird with his vocabulary. Sometimes he uses words I've never even heard of, but other times he talks like he's been smoking some sort of substance too much.

"Only because it's true! You made me late to the movie I saw last week because you were trying that new shampoo you have to leave in for ten minutes."

"And my hair is beautiful and silky now. So you can zip it, Skippy."

"Anyway," I say, turning to Brendon. "What about it?"

He looks at me in disbelief.

"If he's using your shower in the morning, isn't he sleeping over?"

"Sometimes. And you want me to say what about that?" I ask, not seeing where he is going.

He runs his fingers through his hair, an exasperated look on his face.

"So doesn't that mean you guys are . . . intimate?"

The sound of glass shattering comes from the phone, followed by Eric's cursing. 

"What the hell, man?" he asks, sounding astonished. "Why would you say something like that? You made me drop my plate. Just no, dude. That's wrong in so many ways."

I'm still too shocked to do anything besides stand there with my jaw on the floor. It takes a moment for me to recover from the surprise.

"Brendon, gross!" I finally squeal. "I wouldn't, no I couldn't ever do that with Eric!"

"So you're not sleeping together?" he asks again, this time with relief.

"Stop saying it!" I screech again, trying to stop visions of me trying to be intimate with Eric.

Oh, I think I'm going to be sick.

"You're deranged, bro. I can't imagine even trying to . . . I need to find my toilet so I can barf."

Despite our illness, Brendon is standing there all smiles.

"Don't you guys think you're being melodramatic?" he asks, his grin splitting his face.

"Not at all," I say as Eric continues to make noises on the phone. "I can't believe you could think that. I'm sorry if I gave you some sort of impression, but I don't know what's wrong with you to even go there."

"What else was I supposed to infer from that comment about the shower?"

"I don't know. Anything else! You're telling me you've never had a best friend use your shower?"

"No, not really. I mean, of course I have friends, they just don't sleep over at my house."

"Okay," Eric says, breathing heavily like the drama queen he is, "I feel better now. Jen Jen, he was obviously jealous. Cut the guy a break. It's partially your fault for being so oblivious with what you say. You don't comprehend other meanings of your words often. That's why I asked if you said anything, dummy. Anyway, listen dude and friend dudette, I have to split. Daryl invited me to play pool, and I'm not missing the chance to wear my leather pants. But you two have fun! Try not to get too smitten with each other!"

And with that he hangs up. Stupid man. 

I can feel the blood rushing up to my face, and when I look at Brendon his color matches mine. Why did Eric have to have such a big mouth? I hope he gets a rash from those pants. It would serve him right.

"Right," I begin awkwardly when Brendon doesn't speak, "I'm sorry about Eric. He doesn't have a filter."

He rubs his hand on his neck, looking down.

"No, it's fine,” he murmurs, “I'm sorry for making you guys feel uncomfortable."

Wait a second. That's why I called in the first place. Brendon's jealous. That's so cute. Why is it also immensely satisfying?

"So," I say, a coy smile making its way onto my face, "jealous, huh? I wasn't aware you were interested, pretty boy."

"What?" he asks, flustered again. "I'm not, uh, I'm not j-jealous. Not at all, nope."

"You're still a bad liar," I coo, my smile growing wider.

"I-I'm not lying," he stutters, looking away.

"Uh huh," I answer, moving closer to him. "If you're not lying then why were you so upset when you thought Eric and I were, as you said, intimate?"

"I just, um, I didn't . . . well, you see, about that. I just didn't want to interfere with your relationship, that's all! I wanted to make sure you knew I wasn't trying to date you or anything."

I know he's probably faking it, but it doesn't stop his words from hurting a little bit.

He looks at my face, and quickly backtracks.

"Not that I wouldn't want to date you!" he adds, ruffled. "There's nothing wrong with you or anything. Actually, there's a lot of great things about you, so I don't see why anyone wouldn't want to date you. Wait. Did I actually just say that out loud?"

His breathless and panicked response leaves me with a warm feeling in my chest. Since when did I like skinny, shy guys? Since they were this adorable and kind, that's when. 

"Yes, yes you did,” I answer, smiling again. “So, you’re saying you'd like to date me?"

"Jenna, I don't-"

"Come on, Brendon," I sing. "Just admit it."

He runs a hand down his face, looking more embarrassed by the second. When I don't relent in my gazing, he sighs.

"Yes," he admits. "I do want to go out with you, Jenna. I understand if you don't feel the same way. Honest, I'm not trying to be creepy-"

"Shh," I hush him before he starts to ramble. "Here's my number and address. We'll go get some coffee."

I go to hand him a slip of paper with my information on it, but I have to place it into his limp hand when he doesn't reach for it.

"What? Did you just-"

"How does six sound? Does that sound good? Yes? You're not responding, so I'm going to say six it is."

"Jenna-"

"You can get tea instead of coffee, because you're lame. So you'll be ready?"

"Um, okay. Yeah. But Jenna-"

"See you then, pretty boy."

I pat his arm as he still tries to piece together what just happened.

I turn on my heel, managing to walk gracefully despite my excitement.

As soon as I round the corner though, I let all my inhibitions go. It's time I do a happy dance. 

It really shouldn't be this much fun to catch a guy off guard, but I can't stop the glee as I hop around in a circle. I do this for a few minutes, only stopping in my tracks when greeted with an unexpected sight.

Oh my god. Brendon is standing right in front of me. 

"How long have you been there?" I ask, horrified.

He's grinning. That means he saw. I wasn't expecting him to recover so quickly. Or that he'd be going this way.

"Just a while," he answers.

"You didn't see that, you hear me? Nothing of any sort like that has entered your vision, not if you know what's good for you," I threaten, trying to ignore my burning face.

"See what?” he asks innocently, still grinning. “I didn't see anything.”

"You're damn right you didn't."

He lets out one badly suppressed laugh, trying to cover it with his hand.

"So six?" he asks, unable to contain the lilt in his voice.

"Six," I answer back, trying, and failing to keep my composure. "Don't be late or I'll have to borrow Eric's bat."

"I got it," he answers. "See you then."

He brushes past me, whistling an upbeat tune. There goes any and all advantage I'd gained with my surprise earlier. Oh well. I guess that's just part of life.

Once I'm sure I'm not going through premature menopause, as I feel warm enough to be having a hot flash, I drive home.

This could be fun.

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