Rewind (Book 2)

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Chapter 26: Take it Easy

“I’m a jayaholic,” I stand up and admit my problem to the group before me as I take my turn, deliberately skipping the other people’s turns. My patience was running thin...

The therapist stares at me blankly, “I don’t believe that I’m familiar with that term.”

“It’s when you become too absorbed in everything that is Jay Taylor and everything that you’re not,” I explain it to him in clear ‘Aqueela terms’.

“It’s not healthy to make one person your everything. These days, we tend to choose partners different from ourselves because they represent and manifest the characteristic traits we wish we had,” he replies back as if getting the gist of where I’m currently at.

The small group of people all wait for some kind of response. It was a mistake thinking that attending group therapy would help with anything. My problem is unsolvable because it can’t be understood, not even by me.

I leave, bumping into Landon on the way out. He’s right on time for his anger management counseling. If anything, he’s coming along nicely. There’s a definite improvement in him and I think that Sarah’s the sole cause of it.

I think back to the argument I had with Jay yesterday:

“I hoped to.”

“Explain it to me,” I had said in turn.

“Years ago I signed a contract with one of my biggest sponsors. It was under Decoda’s advisement. The contract states that I move up to Tokyo to live and race there for the next couple years. I am to coach and market racing. After five years have passed, I am to travel for the next five. In return, I’ll pull in more investors with new market strategies for myself in place. I’ll be more promoted worldwide. My sponsors will guarantee their support. My income would also be upped significantly,” he’d elaborated.

“Then why did you ask me to stay if you knew you wouldn’t be able to yourself!” I raised my tone at him as dread crawled into my soul. It was about money and fame for him, nothing else.

“Look, Aqueela, it’s complicated. I thought I could get out of it, but-” he cut himself short, “forget it, we’ll talk about this when it gets closer to the time when I have to go.”

“You forget it because I won’t. You lied to me, you said you’d stay. I don’t want you to go,” I confessed weakly and honestly.

His blue eyes shone with softness at hearing me admit it. “I don’t want to go either, but I don’t have a choice. I signed the contract because my circumstances were different back then-”

“When do you leave?” I asked hesitantly.

“Three months from now,” he’d answered. “We still have time.”

“For what exactly, Jay?”

I didn’t let him answer. I walked away.

I force myself from my thoughts and head in the direction I find myself going - Jay’s house. I need to patch things up with him. He needs to do what’s best for himself and I should have been more understanding, especially considering that he’s been so open and forgiving towards my own situation.

Jay signed his life away when I left him. It’s not his fault that he has no free will over his life (for the next ten years), it’s mine.

I knock on the door with uncertainty welling up inside of me. Gland opens the door, making it evident that the ‘Dung Beatles’ are crashing at Jay’s place for a while.

He frowns down at me accusingly, “What did you say to my boy Jaykie yesterday? The poor guy’s been down all day.”

Feeling guilty, I sigh in regret. “Can you just get him for me? I need to talk to him.”

“He’s not here,” Gland insists, lying straight to my face.

“I can see him, he’s literally right there,” I tell Gland in a matter-of-fact way as Jay walks past to the kitchen, failing to see me at the door. His mind is clearly elsewhere.

“You’re seeing things you deluded child,” Gland closes the door in my face, siding with Jay over me for the first time ever. It makes me realize that I’m the one in the wrong here.

I roll my eyes in frustration and knock again. This time, FeeBee swings the door open to greet me. Her face falls upon seeing me. She stares at me blankly as if she cannot recall who I am exactly, “I know the face, but I forgot the name,” she snaps her fingers as if waiting for the answer to come naturally to her. “Can’t quite put my finger on it. Can’t place you.” You’ve got to be kidding me. “I know you, don’t I?” she eventually asks, still clueless.

I saw her just yesterday!

I huff in impatience and aggravation, “Can you please just call Jay?”

She nods but continues to stand before me. I open my mouth to ask her again when she suddenly turns around and shouts at the top of her very lungs, “Jay!” She yells in a barbaric voice as I block my ears, my heart racing from the unexpectedness of it all. I never knew she could scream like that. Girl’s got a pair of lungs on her. That’s one way to get him running. I could have easily done that myself.

She turns back to me and smiles at me sweetly and innocently. “He must be upstairs,” she explains, feigning to be a civil person before turning back around, only to transform back into the real raging lunatic that she is, “Jaaaay! Jaaaaaaaaay! Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay! Some stranger is here to see you! Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!” she shouts even louder that her voice begins to echoes. She glances back at me before speaking normally as if she isn’t mad in the head, “He’ll be here soon.”

I hear hurried, panicked footsteps before Jay appears before in distress. “What? What is it?!” He asks FeeBee in concern as he takes her in with inspection from head to toe. “Are you alright?”

I muffle my laughter.

FeeBee looks at him as if he’s the crazy one here. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Because I thought you were being axed or something,” Jay seethes, agitated by her stupidity.

She shrugs cluelessly and leaves after that.

Jay’s attention shifts to me instead.

“Hey,” he glances down at me in confusion, taken aback by my unexpected presence.

“Can’t believe I ran into you here,” I say lamely, feigning it to be a coincidence. I don’t really know how else to say what I want to say.

Jay chuckles at my awkwardness and surveys the area as if to get it through to me, “Well yeah...this is my house.” He motions around, “I live here, remember?”

He opens the door and gestures for me to enter. I do. He closes the door after me before following me in. “You need something?” he asks, uncertain and careful as not to anger me further than what he managed to do yesterday.

“Just dropped by to say that I’m sorry for the way I reacted,” I apologize instantaneously. I take a seat at the kitchen table and turn so that I’m sitting sideways in the chair. “I just...” I pause and take in a deep breath, “I just got you back and now I have to say goodbye again. Ten years is too long, Jay,” I drop my head and avert my eyes to the floor, “it’s too long,” I conclude as I drop my hand to rest on my knee, expressing my perspective.

It would be double the time we’ve already been separated. A decade from now and we will both be different people. I can’t face that or see that through.

He squats down before me, getting on his haunches to kneel down in front of me. He guides his hand to mine. “I promise you, Aqueela,” he swallows as if it’s just as difficult for him, “if I could stay, I would.” He concludes in determination, “You know I would.”

Only he has enough patience to handle me.

I nod, forcing a small faint smile. “I know,” I confirm through clarification.

“Look, I just want to make the best of these three months before I go. I just want to enjoy my time with the people I care about. I just want to take a moment to breathe and take it all in before I leave, you know? Can you help me make that happen without the constant reminder?” he asks, trying to ease the atmosphere.

I glance away and grin slightly. “I suppose I could pull a few strings.”

“Thought so,” he says with a genuine smile as he releases my hand and gets back up to his feet.

Inside, I know he’s conflicted about a lot of things, more so than he lets on. He can try to deny it, but he’ll always be an enigma. He’ll always have his secrecy and mystery. I can live with that, but maybe he can’t.

“Are you free right now?” he asks when noticing my apprehension in staying around. He takes my silence as his answer. He inclines his head to the side as he inspects me with a boyish, upbeat grin. “Want to get an ice cream? Just me and you. It will be for old times’ sake,” he suggests, trying to mend what was broken.

He knows I’ll never say ‘no’ to ice cream. That would be madness.

I break into a smile and nod. “I’d love to!”

“Great,” he says in relief in the fact that I accepted his offer, “it’s on me.”

*~*~*~**~*~*~*

“Did you hear about Troy?” Jay asks me as he drives us to Dave’s food court. He takes his eyes off the road just in time to see me shake my head. He nods and then brings his eyes back to the road. “He’s planning on going on some excursion to better himself for Jezel. Even after he apologized several times, she wouldn’t take him back. I feel bad for the idiot.”

“That’s awful. Bells didn’t mention it to me,” I state, feeling terrible on Troy’s behalf. It’s obvious how much he likes Jezel. I think it’s safe to say that he’d do anything for her.

Jay nods, “Yeah...he came to see me about it. He was serious. It was like seeing a glimpse of the old Troy again. He said he wants to find himself because he feels like he’s lost himself somewhere along the way. He has hit a midlife crisis. Everything he has done, he’s failed at - college, Rome, modeling, frat club and this latest cosmetics course he took. His stupidity is a front because he’s actually afraid to achieve. He’s afraid of success because he believes he doesn’t stand a chance, so he doesn’t even try. He’s used to failing. When talking with him, I realized that the guy’s a little broken. If anything, going away to better himself may be a good thing for him after all.”

“That’s if he survives. Have you met him? How is he gonna survive an excursion on his own?” I question, worried about my friend. I know Troy’s not as crazy as he wants us all to believe, but I didn’t think he’d ever admit it to anyone. Then again, Jay’s the right person to go to when seeking out deep answers to difficult questions.

“That’s exactly what Max said, especially since Troy’s venturing out into the wilderness. He’s going all out, Bear Grylls style. Jezel doesn’t even know. Troy wants to keep her in the dark about it because he knows she’ll try to stop him,” he elaborates and I can tell that he himself cares about what might happen to Troy.

There’s a single moment of comfortable silence as if he’s considering something.

His eyes drift back to me as he vents his thoughts aloud, “I was thinking of tagging along, you know, to make sure he doesn’t get himself killed.” His eyes flicker over my expression, seeking advice. “What do you think?”

“I think that if this is something Troy is serious about, he needs to do it alone. He’s not dumb, he’ll find a way to come back to us, especially if he’s doing this for Jezel. I’ve never seen him so hung up on someone before,” I admit, expressing my true opinion seeing as he asked for it.

He glances back at the road, a subtle grin on his face as he states the obvious. “You have a lot of faith in your friends.”

“So do you,” I say quietly.

He shakes his head at my nerve as his eyes find mine again, his gaze fixating on me. We both share a content smile, satisfied for the time being. I know it won’t last. I won’t be content and satisfied when he leaves.

It’s as if he reads into my thoughts because his own smile slowly fades behind a frown of contemplation. The fact that he’s going away will always be a silent, lingering divider floating between us. We don’t need to talk about it to know that the day is coming. It’s on the horizon and it’s coming fast.

We say nothing more as he parks the car in front of the food court. He’s out in a flash and before I can react, he’s opening the door for me and offering me his hand. Unfortunately, I was just about to open the door myself and so I almost end up hitting him in the face. He dodges just in time. I’m an accident waiting to happen - a lost cause.

I quirk an eyebrow in his direction, taking the open initiative to tease (it’s in my blood), “Gentleman, huh?”

He sends me a charming grin before winking at me, “What can I say?”

I laugh and take his hand for a brief moment as he leads me inside.

Frankenstein immediately groans upon spotting me. “You’d better not cause a riot or stir up nonsense. I just got my customers back.”

“Rude,” I huff.

“I’ll keep her in check,” Jay assures Frank with confidence.

He sounds so sure about that. I’ll just have to prove him wrong and remind him that I cannot be tamed. Dare he forget that I’m like a wild huntress on a killing spree!

“Thanks,” Frank says before greeting Jay properly. He seems to be a fan of Jay seeing as Jay and Xavier paid for the damage done to his store. They happened to be his saving grace, especially seeing as he wasn’t insured.

“Hey, guys,” Dylan greets upon seeing us. He’s working with Frank, Blubber, Simo and occasionally Bells (when she feels like it) on a new store design, among new ice cream flavors etcetera. He glances from Jay to me before a devious grin spreads across his lips, “Don’t correct me if I’m wrong, but are you two on a date?”

“She wishes,” Jay jokes, making light of the uncomfortable moment.

I swat him on the chest much to his own amusement.

“Oh, so it’s one of those situations,” Dylan teases, backing Jay up on this one.

Jay laughs aloud and I find myself trapped and embedded in the reviving sound, “You called it.”

“Pft,” I scoff and playfully roll my eyes at the two of them, silently happy that he’s happy.

“Notice that there’s no denial on her part,” Jay cleverly points out, always the perceptive one paying attention to minor detail.

Dylan guffaws as I fidget in discomfort.

I shake my head at them and turn to Simo instead, fed up with Dyl and Jay’s teasing. “The usual, Sims.”

Simo, always smiling, makes one bubblegum ice cream and hands it to me before giving a strawberry flavored ice cream to Jay. He knows us all too well by now. I better be his favorite customer.

“You the man,” Jay pays Simo as he catches up with me.

“Simo a man, yes. Not Simone!” Simo calls after Jay, still apparently rooting for Zac. He’s convinced that Jay’s no good.

Jay gawks at me. “What’s he on about?”

“Dunno,” I lie, not willing to explain it all to him. I’m much too lazy for that.

He pulls a face at me when he sees me squirm. “Still don’t get how you can love bubblegum anything. It’s disgusting, tastes like medicine.”

“I wouldn’t know what medicine tastes like. I’m invincible. I don’t get sick,” I lie as I help myself to one of the tables facing the open pane window.

“Please, I know better,” Jay takes the liberty to remind me as he takes a seat beside me, “I was sick with you that one day. You’re a weakling,” he jokes, the meaner side of him coming back to light. I find myself not minding it one single bit.

It was the day after our first date.

I open my mouth to insult him just when his phone rings. Not paying attention to his surroundings, he tries to fish his phone out of his front pocket in time to answer the call. His movements are absentminded and he ends up accidentally spilling his strawberry ice cream all over the front of my shirt.

My mouth falls agape at his actions, the coldness of the ice cream seeping in.

“Jay,” I say flatly, “I’m going to end you.”

“Why?” he asks, oblivious as ever as he turns his focus back on to me, ending the call. It’s then that he sees the mess he’s made. “Oh sh - I’m sorry. I never meant to do that,” he apologizes as he hands me a napkin.

I glare at him accusingly. “And you say that I’m the klutz.”

“Don’t get why you’re the one complaining when I just lost quarter of my ice cream because of you.” He then shrugs carelessly, a glint of mischievousness in his eyes as he deliberately adds fuel to the fire, “It’s an act of revenge after all of these years. You owe me like a bazillion jackets anyway. Consider us finally even.”

“Your story started with me spilling bubblegum ice cream all over you, and now your story will end with you spilling strawberry ice cream all over me,” I threaten him, obviously just kidding around. I’m merely messing with him for the heck of it, because I can.

“Well actually,” he starts, “to be more accurate, my story started the day I really met you.”

“The memories are vague,” I confess as I try to picture him as a child again. That would be a sight to see.

“For me, they’re vivid,” he states with a wistful smile as he thinks back to that day. “Mason,” he begins and I have to flinch at the name knowing fully well that he’ll be coming back tomorrow and Jay will most likely resort to killing us both, “was bullying you.”

A ghost of a smile traces my lips and my heart sinks at the reminder. “Wasn’t he always?”

“Yeah, but c’mon, at least I had your back,” he reminds me, keeping his distance all the while, “well, I mean, I tried to always be there.”

“You were,” I assure him, “I just never knew it.”

“I watched him wipe away your sand angels and it struck a nerve in me. I couldn’t do anything at the time because my foster parents were there. If I did, Mason would say something. It didn’t help that he was the favorite,” he explains it for the first time. “So instead, I just befriended you.”

“But then you vanished,” I say as I begin to recall the chain of events.

“It’s when I was taken back to the orphanage,” he tells me as he recollects his thoughts. “I broke out but dropped out of school. That’s when I got caught up in all that mess. I went off the radar until Greg brought me back. You could imagine my surprise when I returned to school only to find that you were still around, but all grown up and attractive-” he stops himself shorts when he sees my face. “What? It’s true,” he declares boldly with a half-hearted shrug.

I laugh, amused to hear him admit to it so easily.

He ventures on, “I passed you in the hallways, but you never remembered me. Somehow I preferred it that way. I avoided you afterward. Not knowing me was in your best interest, I believed that. And maybe I still do.”

“Knowing you is in my best interest because knowing you makes me happy,” I tell him truthfully. “It’s not like I didn’t notice you in high school, I did. Everyone did. Obviously, I did. I just steered clear of you because you were intimidating and way out of my league.” I don’t miss the lopsided grin forming on his lips at hearing the last five words. I ignore his tainted reaction and continue, “You were always so quiet and absorbed in your own world. You were best known for your short temper when pushed,” I give him my side of the story, my version of it all.

“When I saw that Mason was still tormenting you after all the time that had passed since I’d been gone, I got angry. That’s how the ‘short temper’ rumors sparked. I’ll admit, I went about it the wrong way. It was stupid, but so was I back then,” he brushes it off with a slight chuckle.

“You still are,” I joke and then add thoughtfully, “I wish I could rewind back time to thank you. I wish I’d gotten to know you sooner,” I end, reminiscing back to the days where everything was still alright.

He breaks out of his own reverie and smirks down at me with affection before playfully nudging my arm with his elbow, my heart taking a plunge at the gesture. “I mean, I had the hugest crush on you right throughout high school. I never noticed anyone else because it was always you from the start.”

He presses his lips into a thin line and breaks our gaze before breathing out lightly. “Honestly, you had me from day one. You made me a goner right from the start and I’d subconsciously been one ever since. I was carrying a torch for you.”

“But you never spoke to me,” I point out the facts, now inquisitive to hear the rest of his story. He’s never told me any of this before.

“I never intended to,” he admits, his blue eyes carefully flitting back to me as if awaiting my next words. “It’s why I pretended not to know your name. I didn’t want to know you. I didn’t want to drag you down to hell with me.”

I do a double take, concerned. ”Jay...”

He laughs humorlessly to himself, brushing the matter off as not serious. “But as they say, heaven help a fool who falls in love. You drove me to the point where I couldn’t help it. I had to know you again.”

“It’s what I do best,” I boast kiddingly, finding comfort in the conversation instead of finding it incredibly awkward as it should be with an ex. His openness with me is in actual fact rather reassuring. “So...” I test the waters and take my chances in diving in head first (here’s hoping that I don’t fall and hit my head on a rock on the way down), “tell me more about kid ‘Taylor’. What made you drawn to me?” I muse, genuinely curious to hear the answer.

He answers instantly as if having thought about it himself too. “Like I said, we were at the park and Mason had just erased all your stupid sand angels. They were anything but original,” he jokes before getting serious again. “I was watching but did nothing. The sun had just set and it was getting late. I remember contemplating on speaking to you but ended up talking myself out of it. The wind blew and I could tell that a storm was on the way. I turned to walk away, but it was at that moment that you lifted your face and looked my way. I caught your gaze. You had this happy-go-lucky look in your eyes and I froze. Before I knew it, I was drowning. You gave me this fleeting smile - a smile that you’d simply give to any passing stranger, one that you would not recall the next day but one that would be imprinted into my head for years to come, one that meant nothing to you but meant everything to me. Killer smile, end of story.”

I fall silent, wishing with everything in me that I could remember that day. “You mean, beginning of story,” I correct with a ghost of a smile that I hoped was as ‘killer’ as he recalled.

Jay merely nods, saying nothing more.

I change the subject, “Have your birth parents ever tried contacting you?” I ask, breaking the deafening silence. I might as well get him to answer all my questions now whilst he’s willing. I might never get the chance otherwise.

I don’t miss how he immediately tenses up when being put on the spot - under pressure. It’s definitely a touchy subject for him. No doubt.

He slowly recovers and then shakes his head when relaxed again. “No, they haven’t,” he confesses. It’s quiet for a second as if he’s hesitant to tell me more, but he eventually comes out with it, making it evident that he trusts me and that he’s done hiding secrets, “But I’ve been looking into the matter. I am going to find them someday,” he assures me in conviction and sheer determination as if truly believing it, “and when I do, I’m going to finally get all my answers.”

“Promise me that when you do find them, you’ll take me with to meet them. I want to be there for you when you face that day,” I admit in all my truthfulness. If we aren’t anything, he’s still my friend - probably one of my closest.

Jay scoffs at me playfully. “There’s no one else I’d rather take.”

I hold up my pinkie finger to him. He stares at me for a second before just going with the flow, as per usual, as he finally lifts his pinkie finger to mine.

“Promise?” I question as he curls his pinkie finger around mine. It’s important to me because although he’s free from his past, he’s still locked down to this part of it. I want the best for him and that includes overcoming the last of his hardships, the pieces he’s still broken by - his own family.

“If it’s necessary, then yeah,” he grins, making the commitment and actually seeming to mean it. “The day I trace them down, you’ll be the first I call,” he gives me his word, satisfied with the outcome of my request.

I first gape at him, having not been expecting him to agree so easily. I quickly console myself and send him an appreciative grin before changing topics yet again, “Why is Leban so protective over you?” I ask, wanting to be caught up with his life and all that I’d missed out on since I’ve been away.

Jay laughs as if what I asked is funny. “Because he’s honestly full of crap. He’s just like that because of the circumstances in which we met.”

“Which is?” I press for an answer before I lose the opportunity in itself. Jay’s unpredictable. He’s cool with the questions now, but his mood can change in an instant. I’m exploiting his good mood to my advantage.

“Ask him,” is his answer.

Sensing that he won’t be answering that specific question anytime soon, I drop it and let it go. However, it’s not like Leban will ever give me a legitimate answer either. He still hasn’t warmed up to me. I’ll just have to get it out of Goku, any means necessary.

“What’s your real deal with Mason?” I ask casually. “I know you blame him for how things went down, but surely that can’t be why you hate him. It was out of his control. It was his parent’s fault, not his. Surely you get that.”

“I do,” Jay shrugs, usually reasonable enough. “We have our differences, and yeah, I guess it’s mostly my fault. I’ve always hated him, not because I envied his place in my family or because he was the biological favorite, but because he hurt you,” he concludes bluntly with his explanation. “So that’s my deal with him. That’s the real deal. That’s why I hate him. It’s not because I felt like he tore my only family apart, but because I know he tore you apart. You, Aqueela.”

I bite back a smile and avert my eyes from his as I stare out the window, steering clear of his intense stare. “So this our new slate?”

“It is if you say it is.”

I fix my gaze on him, waiting for the ridicule or trash talk, but it doesn’t come. I gawk in amazement. He’s not giving offhanded insults anymore, nor is he being standoffish towards me. He’s truly forgiven me this time.

“So long as you stop putting me on a pedestal,” Jay grins teasingly, flicking a stray strand out of his face.

In spite of the fact that he’s joking, he’s still half serious.

I do put him on a pedestal, but I didn’t realize that it bothered him. It’s just my natural response. It’s automatic when it comes to him or anything he does. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. I can’t help it. It’s completely subconscious and unintentional.

I try to deny it in protest, “I don’t-”

“You definitely do,” he cuts me off adamantly.

“I don’t mean to,” I reply back softly. “It’s just that you have such a good heart. I see it. You’re basically incapable of doing any wrong.”

He sighs as he makes his point crystal clear. “There you go at it again.”

“Sorry.”

Jay shakes his head profusely at me. “You have no idea how wrong you are about me,” he disagrees with my assumptions. “I’m a walking screw up. I’ve stuffed up so many times. I am just better at hiding it. I’m worse than Zac. I mess up and I still do every day. I feel guilty all the time.”

His piercing stare intimidates me for the moment, locking me in place as I listen to him with attentiveness. “You should know that I’m not all I’m cracked out to be. It’s about time you knock me off from that pedestal of yours, Lawson. I don’t deserve to be there.”

“Yes, overlord Jay, whatever you desire,” I remark in sarcasm, sick of the seriousness.

He makes Susie look less controlling. He’ll kick Susie right off her child emperor throne where she overthrows and overrules all and take her place as supreme ruler.

I don’t need to know about all the mistakes Jay made when he left, as he implied. He can keep it to himself or he can share, it’s up to him. I won’t mind either way. It doesn’t matter to me because nothing can change my view on him. His selfless actions reflect his selfless heart. No mistake can erase who he really is.

“Listen, Aqueela, this may be a little impulsive, but I was thinking, and maybe this might be selfish and stupid of me to ask, but...” he tears his eyes away from my wandering gaze as he falters in his words. I hear his sharp intake of breath as he collects himself before he lifts his face back up to mine, the desperation evident in his expression and the hope shining through his electric blue eyes as he finally demands the unexpected and unpredictable, “Come with me.”

I never thought that three little words could have so much impact and weigh so heavily on my soul. My heart stops.

I end up staring at him blankly in silence, unbelieving of what he’d just asked me. He’s not the type to pluck up the courage and take the initiative to do these kinds of impulsive things. That’s usually where I come in. He’s my opposite. Nonetheless, he’s taking the risk on putting himself out there for me.

“What?” I say meekly, in turn, astounded yet at the same time completely befuddled by his will. He cannot be serious. This is beyond out of character for him. Then again, I am dealing with a different person, a different Jay Taylor.

“Look, I know it’s a lot to take in, but I mean it. Just come with me. Don’t even think too much about it. Just come with, that’s all I’m asking,” Jay reinforces what he’d said, confirming that I’m not imagining any of it.

“Jay,” I sigh softly before putting it into perspective, “you’re asking me to drop everything and go with you across the world for ten years?” I state more than ask seeing as he’d clarified his request enough as is. “That’s a decade.”

Since when did we swap roles? He’s now the dreamer and I’m the realist.

He begins to ramble in apprehension upon detecting my doubt. “I know it’s selfish to ask, but I figured that right now I don’t really have much to lose. Neither do you. You’ve always wanted to see the world. Here’s your chance to-”

"Jay,” I stop him before he gets carried away further, “I can’t do that.”

His stare falters as if he had been expecting an entirely different reply. I find myself feeling guilty in the moment for crushing his spirit. His expression says it all.

I bite my bottom lip as I tear my eyes from his and look blankly ahead of me instead. “You’re asking me to leave it all behind again when I just found the courage to face it all. I can’t do that again,” I tell him, explaining my reasoning and hoping that he’d accept it with little difficulty.

“I’m sorry, but no,” I conclude gently, fierce in my resolve in not giving in just because he’s Jay Taylor, but also letting him down easy.

I don’t even have to think about it because I know what I want and leaving Minnesota isn’t it. I care about Jay, I do, but that’s not enough anymore. He needs to understand that. I can only hope he understands that.

I have a job here. I have a home here. I have family and friends here. My life is here. He can’t expect me to just pick up and go again, even if it is with him this time. I just can’t do that...at least not right now. My heart and mind are not in the right place. It would be too much to handle, and I’m not prepared to deal with all the stress of moving away for ten years, not even knowing if I will ever return or not.

Then again, I hope I don’t end up regretting this decision either.

Moments of uncomfortable silence passes between us. It feels as if the tension lasts a lifetime, never-ending in its pursuit.

Eventually, I gather the nerve to peer up at him, only to find him staring down at the table quietly with his hands clutched tightly and his jaw clenched. He’s disappointed and evidently hurt. He was caught off guard by my reaction. He hadn’t been expecting a simple ‘no’ from me. He didn’t see the rejection coming from a long shot, especially because - like he said - I tend to put him on a pedestal.

He swallows and then slowly nods, keeping his eyes cast downward. “I shouldn’t have asked. I knew I shouldn’t have asked.”

All the words that I’m about to say die at the back of my throat.

It seems that he’s finally realized that I’ve changed too. In the past, I would have done anything he’d asked of me. However, I’m not sure it’s worth it anymore. We’re both leading different lives and that’s not about to change anytime soon. We’re in different stretches on life and my pages are a couple of pages behind his. I’m not ready to journey and live life abundantly like he does. I’m afraid that I’ll never see Minnesota again. I’m petrified of leaving.

He bravely lifts his face back to mine, his blue eyes wallowing in sorrow as he comes to accept my decision. The corner of his mouth tilts up in a half smile as he stares at me a second longer. “Aqueela Lawson, always the unattainable.”

I narrow my eyes at him in warning. “Don’t say that.”

He lifts a hand to his hair before sparing me a lazy grin, the stand I’d taken just about shattering under his persuasive expression. He shakes his head to himself. “I always seem to miss the mark with you.”

“Don’t be angry at me,” I plead with him, fearing it. “I just feel like now’s not the time for me to be moving about aga-”

“You don’t owe me a reason, Lawson,” he assures me with an indifferent expression on his face, his inner walls shifting back into place as he closes himself off to me once again. “I get where you’re coming from, and although unexpected, I understand completely. You don’t have to explain yourself to me.”

He must see my doubt because it’s then he offers me a dazzling yet amused smile. “I’m serious. It’s all good, Klutz. I’m not angry. I promise. You can tell your face to relax now.”

I laugh in ease and scold him. “Don’t be rude, Jay.”

“Can’t make any promises there, Aqueela,” he winks teasingly, seemingly over it already, “you know how I am.” He’s not going to hold a grudge because of my choice. He’s going to just leave it be and pretend as if he’d never asked and as if I’d never said ‘no’. He’s moving forward.

“Whilst you’re partially irritated with me, I think it’s as good as any time to break it to you that Mason’s arriving in Minnesota tomorrow morning,” I get it off my shoulders as fast as I can, taking the gap.

It takes him a second to register and process it before he gives me backlash and slams his fist down on the table in fury, “No, no, no. You’re not serious are you? No. No! Dammit, no! No, no, no! Hell no! No. No. No. No! N-”

I cut him off abruptly. “Jeez, Jay, chill out.”

“No!” he snaps at me, losing his easygoing and laidback temperament with just one word, one name - Mason, Mason Montry.

“′No′ your favorite word now?” I joke at his expense.

“No.”

“Yes,” I insist.

“No.”

“Yes indeed.”

“No!”

“Woah, there. Take it easy, Jaykie. Roll with the punches.”

“No!”

He’s handling this better than I originally thought he would.

This story might end well after all.

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