Better Than You

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Chapter 5

Getting kids to play an intense game of soccer was definitely not a bad idea. As soon as the game was over, they were too tired to argue over which movie to watch so we just put on whatever Evie, princess of the house, wanted to watch, which thankfully wasn’t Peppa Pig. Somehow, in her three years, her brother had been a big enough influence that when I asked her what she wanted to watch, she said, “Avengers!” With how pleased everyone was with that answer, I wondered why no one thought of just having a Marvel Movie Marathon in the first place.

Keeping score of an intense game of soccer with a bunch of competitive kids, however, was a bad idea. Someone would claim that the other was cheating, someone would actually cheat, and the two big kid, role models in the group didn’t do so much scolding because we wanted to win, too. Instead, we just laughed, making faces at each other whenever our little partners sped past our legs and defied the rules to make a goal. It didn’t help that Evie was exclaiming “GOAL!” every other minute because Bryce couldn’t properly explain to her when she was supposed to say it. The way he grinned at her when she shot up with a big smile, cheering like the soccer world’s biggest fan, it didn’t seem like he wanted to.

So in the end, Bryce and I settled with telling them we had tied because the scores they were announcing were completely wrong and they were already fighting about it. Maybe it would’ve been a good learning experience for these kids to know how to lose graciously but there were two bigger kids right next to them who were still learning.

I’d won by a point, though. Just saying.

An hour later, halfway into the movie, the kids were fast asleep in between us on the couch. I watched as their chests moved up and down to their slow, peaceful breathing. No one would’ve guessed that the little angels had big mouths on them.

I stood from the couch to make more room for Evie, who was curled up in a little ball by her sister. I adjusted one of the throw pillows under her head and moved to sit on the ground to continue watching the movie. Bryce seemed to get the same idea because ten seconds passed before he was seated next to me.

He leaned over. “Should we carry them up to your room?”

“I don’t want to wake them,” I said. “Their parents will be back soon anyway. I think they’ll be fine. You can go home if you want.”

“I kind of want to watch the rest of this, if you don’t mind,” he said gesturing towards the movie. I nodded as he continued, “Your cousins are cute.”

“They can be a pain,” I said with a laugh.

“So can you.”

I narrowed my eyes at him and he took his eyes away from the movie for just a second to shoot a smirk down my way. “I can be cute, too?”

Bryce laughed, soft enough because he was conscious of the three sleeping figures behind him but loud enough for one of them to stir. “Sure.”

Then he turned on his side to face me, the light from the TV screen illuminating on side of his face and the reflection of the movie playing in the corner of his dark eyes. “I think we should try to make this work.”

I stiffened. “What?”

“Our teams,” he said. “Practice. I think we should try to find a way to make things work out. I mean,” he said, cocking his head towards the kids we’d put to bed, sound asleep. “We don’t make such a bad team.”

“Oh,” my shoulders relaxed. Now I felt bad that he was being the mature one and saying it first. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“Did you just say that I was right?”

“I said that you were right, not that I was wrong,” I replied. “Get over it.”

Instead of countering me, he started laughing. “I like it when you get like this.”

“Get like what? Why are you laughing?”

“You know, when you go acting like you hate me.”

“I never said that I hated you,” I said. “If I hated you, I’d be doing everything in my power to not be sitting next to you right now and I would’ve shut the door in your face when you were at the front door and I would’ve tripped you while we were playing a while ago.”

That only made him laugh more. “Ooh, so scary.”

I reached over to cover his mouth with my hand. “Would you stop it? If you wake them up, I’m pretending to sleep so you can go entertain them on your own.”

He grasped my hand, pulling it slightly from his mouth. “If I pretend to sleep, too, you and I both know they’ll be waking you up,” he pointed out. I mean, the whole day, when they whined, it was my name they were calling out, not his.

“I hate you,” I muttered, wiping my hands on my shirt.

“Actually,” he began. “I’ve been doing some thinking and I’ve come to the conclusion that you definitely don’t hate me.”

“Well yeah, I don’t actually hate you,” I said.

“But you want to.”

“I can’t," I said because it was the truth. I couldn’t hate him. Not for some desire to adhere to the angelic side of my conscience but because of circumstance and the people surrounding it. Our moms were together all the time and I knew it’d break both their hearts if their kids hated each other. We grew up with our moms pushing us together eery chance they got because they wanted us to be as close as they were. It wouldn’t be fair to hate Bryce Jacobs just because he kept taking things that belonged to me– my family’s attention, pride, love. To his defence, it wasn’t like he’d stolen it from me. They’d just given it to him and he relished in it.

“So you’re saying that if you could hate me, you’d go all Kody Taylor on me.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know,” he drawled out. “Kody Taylor, Austin Collins. Those two drama queens who like to make a show about hating each other.”

I laughed. “I don’t think they were making a show about it.”

“I do,” he said. “I swear I saw them making out by the bleachers the other day.”

“Why were you watching them make out?”

“Not the point, Maddie. And I wasn’t watching them make out. I was walking to practice and I just happened to see them under there. One minute they’re all ‘I hate you’ and the next, they’re all over each other.”

“Then, no. If I could, I wouldn’t go all Kody Taylor on you because I wouldn’t be all over you under any circumstance.”

“Still wasn’t what I meant,” he grumbled.

“It’d be like kissing my brother,” I added meaningfully. I scrunched up my nose as I faced him and pinched it playfully between his two fingers.

“No, it wouldn’t,” he said. “We’re not even remotely related and – can we stop talking about this?”

“You started it,” I said, resting my head back onto the edge of the sofa, careful not to make any big, sudden movements that could wake my cousins.

“I was trying to lead to fixing the problem between our teams,” he said.

“How was that conversation going to come up out of the quarterback and the head cheerleader’s love life?”

Bryce laughed incredulously. “I don’t know. I forgot that getting way off topic was one of your talents. I’ll try to be more straight to the point with you next time. Can we talk about the whole team fiasco?”

I cringed. “I’m sorry about the other day. I didn’t mean to–” I paused. “Okay, that’s a lie. I kind of meant to but I didn’t think it’d actually hit you, much less hurt.”

“It didn’t hurt,” he assured, forgiveness lacing his tone, eyes glinting with amusement like he was expecting me to defend myself instead of tell him straight up that I actually had been aiming for his head. “I’ve got a hard head.”

“Oh, I know.”

“But,” he said pointedly. “I don’t know anyone in the world as stubborn as you, Mads. I swear to God.”

“Me? What did I do?”

“You do realise that most of the time we get in trouble, it’s always your fault.”

“Not true,” I said, voice raising a fraction and arms crossing in front of my chest. “You have no proof.”

“Remember that one time when we were kids, you wanted to go to the park late at night. You ran off alone and you didn’t even tell anybody. I followed you and tried to tell you not to because it was dangerous but you went anyway.”

“I thought I saw a puppy running that way and I didn’t want it to get lost.”

“It rained and we both got soaked and eventually we didn’t find our way back until half an hour later. Our parents were about to call the cops.” I remembered that day and the grounding that came along with it. I remembered feeling bad that Bryce was receiving the same punishment for something I’d done and I remembered Mom saying how lucky I was that Bryce was there with me otherwise who knows what would have happened to me.I remembered wondering why Bryce being there with me made such a big difference.”

“You didn’t have to come,” I said.

“Stubborn,” he said again. “I rest my case.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Would you like me to roll over and bow to you whenever you do something that I can prove wrong?”

“Like what?”

“Like your team treating mine like we can’t play when you and I both know that my girls are just as good as any of your guys. We’ve training just as much as you guys have and we’ve won gold, which is more than you guys can say.”

“The guys in our category are insane,” he said.

“Then maybe you guys should consider trying to be the same instead of just making excuses for losing.”

“Oh, come on, Mads,” he said. “Even you’ve got to admit that the girls in the other teams don’t play like–”

“How would you know? Have you even been to any of our games? We’re just as intense as you guys are. If you guys would just pass us the ball, you’d see that.”

“I can’t control what the other guys do,” he said.

“You’re the captain,” I told him. “Of course you can.”

“Yeah, well it doesn’t help when you and the rest of girls start spending the rest of training to show us up.”

“Someone has to,” I said. “We don’t appreciate being belittled because you think you’re the superior gender.”

“Even if we are?”

I grabbed a throw pillow and whacked him on the face with it. “How can you be the superior gender when you make a big scene of tripping during a game?”

“Oh, so you must be the superior gender, crying over those girly movies?”

“Hey, I saw you tear up when we watched that dog movie with our moms.”

“And you totally cried when you sprained your ankle the whole time until someone came to fetch you.”

“I was six!” And I never cried over a sprained ankle again any of the seven times after that.

He laughed. “Still.”

“Fine,” I said. “No superior genders. Being a girl doesn’t make me better than you. Maybe I just am.”

“Better than me?” he repeated. “Wanna bet?”

Bryce didn’t need an answer from me. It had been an unspoken race to be the best between us ever since either of us could remember. Even if he was recognised more for things, I’d bet my money a hundred times on me. Bryce had a male’s advantage. I had an underdog’s motivation.

He took my smile as an answer as we turned back to watch the rest of the movie.

I didn’t know when I’d fallen asleep; only that the TV was turned off, that my head had been resting comfortably on the corner of Bryce Jacob’s shoulder, and that Evie, Miles and Penelope’s parents were carrying them from the couch one by one. I sat up before Bryce could wake up and realise.

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