"I need you to do me a favor," she says when he drops by her place to hang out. They do that a lot lately, hang out, listen to music, smoke, talk. They see each other more than they see any of their other friends; they are almost like a couple, except for the way they avoid physical contact, and never speak of the kiss that neither of them has forgotten.
"What do you need?" he asks.
"I need you to take me to a party, and pretend to be my date."
Coby winces. He puts a lot of effort into pretending, even to himself, that he doesn't want her. Going out with her and faking romance will be a little more real than he thinks he's up for. "Why?" he asks, "Where is this party?"
"My ex, Gavin, is having a party, and his new girlfriend will be there," Ti pouts, "Eleanor has Justin - she's become permanently attached to him since they got together. I swear, they are never more than an inch from each other when they're together. I'll be the only one there without a date."
"So you need me?" Coby says, "You don't have any artsy friends who would look, you know, more believable as your date? I'm not your type, right?" Just a touch of bitterness flavors his words.
"Please, Coby," she says, her blue eyes starting to water, making it impossible for him to refuse.
Eleanor detests shopping, but she needs a dress for the charity event Mercedes is planning. When she complained to Justin that she'd have to take a few hours from his company to shop for a dress, his eyes lit up and he insisted on accompanying her. Justin loves dresses, runs his hands over them as he peruses the selections on the rack, enjoying the scrape of sequins, the slide of satin. "Red is your color," he decides, choosing some dresses for Eleanor to try on. Eleanor smiles, quite sure that Justin's strong preference for red has nothing to do with her.
"I don't know," she says as she tries the first selection on, "It shows so much skin. I feel so exposed. I can't go out in public like this."
Justin stands behind her, grabbing her hips firmly. "No matter how much skin they cover, clothes are not armor," he says, "No matter how much you're wearing, you're always exposed if you aren't projecting your strength. Look at yourself," he gestures to the mirror, "You're intelligent, you're strong, and you're drop dead gorgeous. Wear that, and even if you're stark naked, you're still untouchable."
"Okay," Eleanor says, trying to exude his own high level of self-confidence, "I'm still not sure about this dress though."
"It's not your dress," he agrees, "Try the next."
"This one is your dress," Justin declares as she tries the second.
It's a longer dress, but the neckline plunges much lower, and there's something about the way it hangs in the back, "I really feel naked in this one," she says.
"The dress is made for you," Justin insists, taking her in his arms, "Feeling naked isn't a bad thing, if you understand that no one matters but you. Let them see you; if you project your strength, all they can do is watch while you own the room."
"All right, you've sold me," Eleanor laughs. She's not sure she could do it on her own, but he'll be with her at Mercedes' event, and being near him gives her a new confidence she's never had before.
"One more," he says, handing her something else to try on.
"This isn't formal enough," she says.
"It's not for your boss' party. It's for the thing Gavin is throwing tomorrow."
"I don't need new clothes for that," Eleanor protests.
"Indulge me," Justin purrs in her ear, and she does, taking the outfit to the dressing room.
"The skirt is really short," she says, checking it out in the mirror.
"You just have really long legs," he says.
Her brow furrows, "That's doesn't make sense," she says, then catches his slight smile and the light playing in his eyes. He has a dry sense of humor, and it's easy to miss his jokes.
Guests start arriving for the party and Justin gets to work on the grill.
"So, that's him, right?" Coby asks, seeing Gavin and Tori as he and Ti join the party in the back yard.
"Yeah," Ti sighs, "Look at him, it's like I never existed."
Coby hugs her, playing the boyfriend role for the benefit of her ex. "I don't get why you're so hung up on him, Ti," he murmurs in her ear, "There are other guys." Like himself, for instance.
"I know," she says, nuzzling his neck, "I got so bored with him, I guess I thought breaking up would stir things up a little. I expected...well, it doesn't matter now, does it?"
Gavin makes a point of introducing himself to Stina's date. "Stina's a wonderful girl. I hope you treat her right," he says.
"Dude, you don't have to tell me. I love Ti, and I treat her just fine," Coby answers, as affronted as if he really were Ti's boyfriend.
"I don't mean to offend," Gavin says, "I just care about Stina and want to make sure she's being taken care of."
"She doesn't need a babysitter," Coby says, really not liking this guy, "I don't 'take care' of her."
Tori and Stina stand on the edges of the confrontation, sizing each other up, wondering what Gavin ever saw in the other.
"Can you feel that tension building?" Justin asks Eleanor, "I think the blond kid is going to punch Gavin. Either that or a cat fight is going to break out."
"If it does, we're going to your room to sit it out," Eleanor answers with a laugh.
Instead of starting a brawl, Tori and Stina pull their men away from each other.
"Why are you so interested in your ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend?" Tori demands when she gets Gavin alone.
"I still care for her, I just want to make sure she's happy. She's very emotional, and I can see her doing something drastic on the rebound..."
"You 'care' for her? What does that mean?"
"As a friend, Tori, I care as a friend," Gavin defends himself, "You have nothing to be jealous about."
"You kind of overplayed the possessive boyfriend role," Ti says, "I liked it, it seemed really real."
"He pissed me off, that was real enough," Coby admits. "Have you ever ridden a wave?" he asks.
"Yeah, surfing is real big in Vermont," Ti laughs, "Of course not, what a stupid question. Why?"
"I wish I could describe what it's like, the intense rush...but, it's dangerous, too. See this scar?" he says, pulling aside his hair to show her the scar hidden beneath. "I came out of the tube in a bad place, and the wave broke on me, taking me down. The undertow pulled me in, smashed me onto the rock. It's like being in giant washing machine, with jagged rocks. That wave almost killed me. But, I still surf. Even though I know that every wave can seriously injure or even kill me, I go out there and ride them. For the thrill."
Stina listens, fascinated. She never knew surfing could be so dangerous.
"So," Coby continues, trying to get to his point before he drowns in his own metaphor, "Love is like surfing, right? I know if we got together, it could end bad. But it could also be a a major thrill. What I'm saying is, Ti, I want to ride your wave. I want you."
"That is most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me," Ti sighs.
This kiss is a real kiss, no pretending it never happened.
The party is over, Gavin and Tori have gone up to his room, the guests are all gone home, and Justin and Eleanor lay together on his bed. Even on night where they don't indulge in their games, they still sleep together, both of them experiencing skin to skin contact like it was still new.
"Why do you call me 'princess'?" she asks him, gently tugging on his left nipple ring.
"Jeanette told me once that real princesses have incredibly delicate skin. She said there was a princess who got lost on a stormy night, and she had to take refuge in a nearby castle. The prince there didn't believe she was a princess, so he tested her by putting a pea under a stack of 99 mattresses. The princess slept on this pile and her skin was so delicate she woke up bruised by the pea buried there. When I heard that, I knew I wanted a real princess of my own. You, princess, have very soft skin. Like sifted flour," he says, caressing her back.
"That's just a fairy tale," Eleanor says.
"Is it? Jeanette never said where the stories came from. I always believed them."
"Who is Jeanette?"
It's only when she asks the question that Justin realizes he spoke Jeanette's name. He's made a lifetime habit of holding up his guard, never letting personal details slip. Being with Eleanor has changed that, he's gained the habit of honesty, he started to relax and forget to protect himself. It's a bit frightening, but he wanted this, wanted her, and knew there would be a price. "Jeanette was my sister," he says, "Half-sister, actually. We had different fathers."
"What happened to her?" Eleanor asks, sensing a family tragedy.
"She got a scholarship and went away to college."
"You spoke of her in the past tense, like she was...gone."
"It is the past," Justin answers firmly, "I don't see them anymore."
"You just left?"
"As soon as I turned 16, I dropped out of school and left, yes. After Jeanette went away, I had no reason to stay."
"But if she was so important to you, why don't you stay in touch?"
"It's the past. Leave it alone," Justin says, his soft purr becoming a growl. He locked his past away when he left it behind, but bringing Jeanette to light has exposed other memories. Jeanette laughing, Jeanette crying, Jeanette screaming...Justin shoves them back into the dark corners of his mind, where they belong.
Coby and Ti go back to her apartment. "You're so beautiful," he says, seeing her without her make up for the first time. He leans close to whisper in her ear, "You're a natural blonde."
She slaps him playfully on the arm, "Don't you ever tell anyone."