Chapter 27: Rolling with the Punches
I force myself to get up even though I’d rather sleep. I promised Mason I would pick him up from the airport, which means Zac needs to move out or he and Mason will be sharing the living room together. It will be a blood bath, I’m convinced of it.
I drag myself out of my bedroom and to the kitchen, in dire need of food...lots of it.
I stop short in my tracks when I don’t see Zac. He’s usually up before me. Confused, I glance around the living room only to find that he’s nowhere in sight. Typical Stokes.
I shrug and start making breakfast, but drop the bowl in disgust when hearing it.
“Zac,” I groan in repulse, “do you have a girl over again?” I ask in a reprimanding tone, feeling at unease in the fact that I have to act like his mother. Then again, she did abandon him. I have to have some sympathy on him.
Zac’s head pops up from behind the couch as sits up upon hearing my voice. He scoffs and laughs as if I’m the mad one here. “Do I have a girl over?” He laughs louder as if nervous. “D-do I have a girl here?” he repeats yet again, stuttering slightly. “Are you hearing yourself right now, Aqueela? You sound ridiculous,” he chuckles as if what I said is hilarious.
I raise an eyebrow at him with a knowing look when his shirt casually rolls off of him. He’s barely decent.
He scrambles to say something in turn, a little panicked, as he cranes his neck toward me. “I didn’t know you’d be up,” he finally confesses.
If anything, he looks flustered.
“Who is she?” I question in irritation at his lack of shame and at his lousy excuse for his inappropriate ways. I thought he had a thing for Mia. I shouldn’t have put it past him to have a billion girls waiting for him on the sidelines.
Zac runs a hand through his dark hair and shrugs. “None of your business you nosey, lovable dork.”
I narrow my eyes at him in warning. ”Zac,” I say flatly as I begin to near the couch in order to see who it is.
Zac panics and before I question it, I hear the voice:
“I am so embarrassed.”
I’m stunned to the core when Mia slowly sits up too in order to face the music, making her presence right beside Zac known. Her makeup is all over the place, smudged, and her hair is a wild mess. Her brown eyes easily give her away, conveying her utter edginess. I can put two and two together. Her subdued manner says it all. She’s usually a little more highly strung so this is out of the ordinary for her.
Zac’s a rambunctious beast whom’s efforts have certainly paid off. His initial unwelcomed advances have now been welcomed eagerly by Mia. The girl no longer resents the moron, and instead, now finds him exhilarating. I, however, still hold some contempt for the brother from another mother - literally.
I slap my forehead and close my eyes in repulse, covering my face with my hands at the sight when realizing that she probably just got here. “Ga! It burns! It burns!” I tease as I humiliate them further. I peak through the gaps in my fingers to see Mia’s face redden, Zac unfazed and unastonished at being caught red-handed. Fortunately for me, they’re keeping it at a PG rating.
“Go away, loser!” Zac laughs and playfully throws a pillow at my face, one that I proudly and swiftly catch before it is able to hit me. “You’ve mistaken me for someone who cares. Some privacy please,” he demands as if he owns the place.
I roll my eyes at him, no longer hungry, as I rather venture toward the shower. His audacity is astounding. He never seizes to amaze me with this unending nerve.
When I’m done getting dressed, I return to bid them my personal goodbyes. “I’m going to fetch Mason, try to get the place cleaned up by the time I get back,” I tell the newfound couple in nonchalance.
"Aqueela!” Zac whines as he just about jolts off the couch at me interrupting them yet again. “That’s twice now,” he warns me in a threatening tone of voice, in spite of the fact that I’m paying for this hotel room and not him.
I point upward and use the words Jay once used on me. “My roof, my rules.”
I grab my bag and keys and leave with style, slamming the door shut after me as he and Mia go back to making out. I lock the door, deciding to spare room service today - I’m in a good mood.
I come face to face with Jay propped up against the adjoining wall with one leg up, arms crossed over his chest and looking sullen as ever. He’s half asleep too, almost as if he’d been waiting all night for me.
“Why so somber?” I question as I snap him out of his tired daze. “Still mad at me?”
After I told him why I invited Mason back (to help him with his racing career), Jay pretty much lost it and took out, what felt to be years of pent up fury, on me. To say he wasn’t impressed would be an understatement.
His grim expression sets me off as I continue to pester him. “Why so gloomy, Mr. Despondent? Why so dejected, repressed one? Why so woebegone, oh pensive one? Why so unobtrusive, Sir Withdrawn and forlorn? Why so dispirited, young-”
“Aqueela, stop,” he mutters in disdain, “I get it.”
I grin, satisfied that I managed to get under his skin and rile him up. However, at taking another look at him, I change course, my bubble of exuberant joy having been burst. “Have you been here all night?” I ask, concerned upon noticing his extreme fatigue.
He shakes his head. “Naw, feels like it though.” He taps the side of his head as if to symbolize his current pain, “Got a migraine. Oog and his stupid band were practicing all night. They’ve gone nocturnal. Couldn’t sleep.”
“Practicing for what?” I quirk an eyebrow in curiosity. I thought that the not so famous ‘Dung Beatles’ dismantled under the pressure.
He shrugs. “Like I’d know. I’m too scared to ask. Ignorance is a bliss, in this case anyway.”
I watch him push himself off the wall and straighten up before me. The next words slip out of my mouth before I can stop them. “Why are you here?”
“To apologize...again,” he sends me a sheepish look before averting his eyes to the floor, seemingly disheartened and downcast. I can’t help but blame myself. I shouldn’t have invited Mason without having first discussed it with him. “I spent the night mulling over the unreasonable way I reacted. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” I set it aside for the meantime. “It’s my fault,” I get to the point, “but hey, listen,” I start all too quickly, “I’ll catch you later, I gotta get to the airport or I’m going to be late for Mason’s flight. He’s due to land any minute now.”
“Then let’s get going,” Jay states in an easygoing manner as he leads the way, easily putting up a calm pretense that I manage to see right through.
Beyond lost, I trail after him wearily.
I think he might be planning on assassinating Mason, why else would he want to tag along? Plus, he’s in a foul mood as well. It’s not a good combination.
Just as Jay presses the elevator button for us to go down, the doors open and out springs Benley, bursting forth with a frantic expression on his face:
“Aqueela, I need you!”
Jay rolls his eyes and sighs to himself as if used to this, not at all surprised. “Here we go again.” He knows that I coexist with my friends and that we are codependent on each other. We define one another. We live in harmony...most days. Other days, it’s like living in a zoo.
Before I can ask Benley what his problem is, he’s already thrusting his cell phone in my face, clearly on a solo mission here. I take it from his hands and scan the message he’d sent just a little over two hours ago:
“Woah Ben,” I take a step back teasingly, “I’m flattered and all, but I can’t be your wife. I can’t marry you-”
He rolls his eyes and snatches his phone back. I watch in wonder as he taps on his phone screen, zooming in on the name he sent the message to, and then only hands the phone back to me.
Message sent to AJ Hamilton.
My jaw hits the floor and I end up gaping up at him in astoundment before thumping him over the head, so much so that Jay has to pull me back from him before I give the moron more brain damage than he already has.
“Are you stupid?!” I exclaim in horror, my expression now matching Benley’s. “How can you propose to her over the phone? We’re going to lose her!” I shake my head, falling straight into panic mode. “Oh no, I can’t afford to lose her! She’s the best thing that’s ever happened-”
“I know that!” Benley yelps out in agreement, cutting me short. “It was on impulse,” he explains, “Bex was annoying me, and sending the message to AJ just felt right in the moment.” He loses his supposed ‘cool’. “I messed up!”
“Yeah, you did, you absolute lunatic!” I scold him before Jay tugs me away from him, almost as if I pose a danger to BoyBand’s life.
I am about to give him another mouthful when Jay chips in. ”Okay, Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” he forces out, “ease up already. Calm down.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down!” Benley and I yell out at Jay simultaneously as if having read each other’s minds.
Jay flinches back and winces at the loudness of our voices before narrowing his eyes at us accusingly. “Mason is going to be left wondering where the hell we are if we don’t go now,” he reminds me of my priorities.
“Woah, what we miss?” Max and Bells ask as they too arrive on scene for reasons beyond me. I didn’t plan any of this. It just happens. These situations call for me and end up falling into my lap.
“A fight club between dumb and dumber over here,” Jay answers in nonchalance.
Bell and Max automatically turn to me for an explanation as if I hold all the answers. Clever children, I do.
I immediately shoot an accusing finger at Benley in turn, needing someone to blame for all my yelling. “He proposed to AJ in a message!”
"What?!” They both exclaim in shock as their heads whip to Benley in unison as if seeking an explanation as to why he’s being so dumb.
“I didn’t mean to,” Benley stresses out whilst pacing up and down the hallway in panic.
“I thought you were supposed to be the rational and logical one from all of us,” Max states, now as panicked as Benley and me. “Oh man, what if she says ‘no’?” he mumbles to himself, distraught. You’d think it is him in the current predicament. Max is empathetic like that - he feels what you feel.
“Not helping!” Bells snaps at her fiancé, just as panicked as the rest of us, the exception being Jay.
“He’s right!” Benley raises his tone as the thought occurs to him, no thanks to Max. “What if she does say ‘no’? Heck, she’s not even responding and I am certain that she’s already seen the message. This is really bad. Really, really, really, really, really, really, really, bad.”
“Well if someone proposed to me over the phone, I wouldn’t be sure how to respond either,” Bells gives her opinion on the matter - not that it is needed, I think Benley has got the gist of it. Nonetheless, she still defends AJ.
Jay, always the optimist, intervenes in an act to comfort Benley., “I’m sure there’s a reason as to why she hasn’t-”
“She probably hates you now,” Max insists to Benley, cutting Jay right off. “I’m sure of it,” he nods to himself as if believing it.
Jay scowls at Max as a result. “What is wrong with you? Knock it off. He’s a wreck.”
"Exactly," Max states as if convinced that he’s in the right here, “he needs to hear the truth.” He then glances back at me with a questioning look to his eyes as he gestures to Jay, “Who crapped in his box of chocolates this morning?”
I, not so discreetly, change the subject and ask the same question I asked Jay. “Why are you guys here?”
“Why are they here?” Max asks in turn, pointing to Jay and Ben as if he has the right to ask.
I shrug. People just pitch up uninvited. I love it. I’ll never be lonely.
Bells offers me an impish grin. “I baked cookies.”
Still doesn’t answer my question...
I grab the tin of cookies from her hands eagerly. “Say no more, I’ll happily join the dark side.”
“We came to visit,” Bell explains further, “figured you could do with some company. Max and I miss you. Feels like forever since we caught up, just us.”
I grin in affection, taken aback by their gesture, and ‘aww’ at them before pinching Max’s cheeks. I adore these two way too much - my best friends in the entire universe, my other halves, my family. I can’t bear the thought of living a life without them in it, even if five years have passed.
Max cheekily swats my wandering hands away from his face. “Don’t make me get emotional, Aqueela,” he grins in ease, humoring me.
I stifle a smile.
“I’m offended,” Benley crosses his arms over his chest at not being included. I know that he’s just joking in order to get his mind off the mistake he made. He’ll do anything to keep the thought at bay. He glances at Jay next. “What about you?”
Jay shrugs carelessly. “Meh.”
“Yeesh,” Benley steps back from him, “someone really did crap in your box of chocolates this morning,” he sides with Max, of all people.
“I’m starving. Can we eat now?” Max, unfazed, pleads as he begins making his way to my hotel room. He helps himself, unlocking my door with a spare key - one that I assume he and Bells had made without telling me. It’s unsurprising. Typical of them. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t beat me to it. I had a spare key to their house made on the day I came back.
I try to warn him, “Max, I wouldn’t-”
He ignores me and opens the door before heading inside. It’s a second later when I hear him screech and gag loudly as if horrified before he rushes out my hotel room, mortified by what he’d seen.
That will teach him to act first and ask later!
Max shivers in disgust, making out as if he’s about to faint. “I’ll never be the same again.” He bends over his knees as if about to vomit, trying to catch his breath. “So gross, so gross!”
He’s so dramatic, they weren’t even doing anything bad.
I pat him on the back, being the supportive person that I am. “There, there. We’ll get through this together.”
“Come on, Aqueela!” I hear Zac shout from inside. “Control your damn friends! That’s strike three now.”
I laugh just as Max raises an eyebrow at me. “You saw it too?”
I nod. “Unfortunately.”
“Saw what? Saw what? Saw what?” Bells questions repeatedly, childish as ever, as she shakes Max back and forth by the shoulders. She hates it when you don’t include her, or if you leave her out of the loop. She must know everything about everyone all the time.
“Keep it down!” Leban yells as he passes us by, momentarily stopping to greet Jay, and enters his hotel room that happens to be beside mine. I hate being neighbors with Satan. At least, I have Goku. He’s crashing at Leban’s until they both return back to South Africa.
“Don’t make me relive it,” Max shudders over-dramatically, going back to the ‘Zac and Mia’ topic as he deliberately ignores Leban. He ends up eagerly telling Bells everything in any case as if he cannot contain himself. “Zac and Mia are trying to outbreed rabbits.”
“Goodness!” Bell gasps before grinning ecstatically, delight spreading across her delicate features. She loves hearing the latest gossip. It’s what she lives for. “I totally saw it coming,” she lies, but we all decide to let her have this one because none of us are up to die young.
"Wonderful!” Benley remarks sarcastically. “Everyone’s love life is going well, except for mine,” he complains, seeking reassurance.
Jay frowns silently to himself as if pondering deeply on something running through his mind. I nudge him in his side to get his attention. “You okay?” I query in concern.
He quickly replaces his frown with a half smile and nods down at me. “Yeah, all good,” he confirms. “I’m just so consumed and invested in my own world that time is passing me by. I’m losing track of a lot of things,” he elaborates his thoughts aloud whilst still maintaining that specific vagueness about him. “But it’s fine,” he adds thoughtfully, “I’m just glad Mia is happy.”
“Can we please go now?” Benley begs, worrisome and desperate. “I need a distraction, anything to take my mind off AJ. Let’s just fetch Montry-”
“Excuse me?” Bells interrupts venomously upon hearing the surname. “Montry who now?” she asks with a dark deathly look to her eyes. “I sure hope this is a Montry that I’ve been fortunate enough to not have met,” she states threateningly, placing her hands on her hips as she flashes Benley a glare that could kill nations.
“I also sure as hell hope it isn’t my girl’s ex,” Max buts in, backing Bell’s up as if agreeing with her hatred toward him - Mason. “If it were him, I’d probably go on a killing spree, starting with you,” Max fails in threatening Ben. If it were me in LeyLey’s position, I’d laugh. Max can’t hurt a fly.
Benley senses his second mistake of the day and acts on it. “Uh-oh,” he gulps nervously when they inch forward menacingly as if it’s all his fault and if he’s solely to blame.
Jay shakes his head at Benley in disapproval for letting the secret out. “Way to go, man. Nice one.”
“Today is just not my day,” Benley grimaces, not dodging Bell’s hit in time. She winds one on his upper arm. I hear the sting and almost feel bad for him.
“It’s never a day for idiots,” Max insults him as if the poor guy hasn’t received enough criticism dished his way as is.
“You’d know,” Benley insults Max back.
“Why would you bring the devil back to Minnesota? Why?!” Bells shouts at Benley as she gets up all in his face. She takes him by his jacket and roughly pins him against the wall.“You will tell me what I want to know, Benjamin MacAllister. Who did this?” she interrogates him, traumatizing him in the process.
“My name isn’t even Benjamin,” Benley points out timidly.
“Who is responsible for this account of evil?!” Bells slams him against the wall a second time, fury overtaking her as she unleashes her wrath on him.
Benley falls quiet in fear and immediately juts out a finger in my direction, wasting no time in selling me out. Traitor!
Bell’s head snaps back to me and I find myself shivering in apprehension. She stares at me blankly for a second before clarifying. “I thought you were joking when you said you were getting him back.”
“Me too,” Max groans in agreement, the two of them being ignorant idiots.
I shrug carelessly. “Boom?”
Bells folds her arms across her chest and glowers at me. “Kaboom,” she ends dryly.
“End of the world as we know it,” Max adds flatly, unimpressed as he and Bells rack their brains and recall our last conversation on Mason.
“Tell me about it,” Jay sighs in despair as if the world truly is ending.
“Um...can you let go now?” Benley asks softly, cautious of Bells. I can’t blame him for being petrified, she’s insane.
“Oooh, yeah, sorry ’bout that,” she apologizes as she releases her hold on the scruff of his denim jacket. She gently pats him down as if she hadn’t just turned on him a second ago. “I’m still watching you,” she tells him in warning as she steps back from him, her claws retracting. He is let down from the wall as she points from her eyes to his as if to keep him on his toes.
I zone out of the back and forth conversation to answer my ringing phone, ignoring Benley’s pleas of help as Jay yanks Bells off of him. I knew she wasn’t quite finished with him just yet. She needs more time for her head to level again. They’re going to have to literally roll with the punches until she cools down.
“Not the hair! C’mon, Bella!” Benley protests, his whines of agony falling on my deaf ears. I’ll let her torture him for a minute longer. This call is important. He wouldn’t call for nothing.
“Hey, Keags,” I greet from my side of the line in a chipper voice, “how’s it hanging?”
“Tim says you haven’t pitched for work,” he jumps straight to the point, being as ‘Keagen McCray’ as ever. He doesn’t do ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’. It’s too sappy for him. He prefers bluntness, and even coldness, if it means he doesn’t have to get attached. He’s emotional and petty like that, only because he can’t handle the depressing reality that sometimes comes with life. He’s above it, or so he likes to think.
“About that...” I falter as I try to think of a plausible excuse other than being afraid of change. I’ve only ever worked for Keagen and he barely tolerated me. Tim won’t manage. I’ll end up breaking him. He’s not tough enough. He’s too soft around the edges...or maybe it’s just me.
“Don’t ‘about that’ me, Aqueela!” he snaps at me, having lost his temper. “Get your act together. I didn’t bust my ass for you just to have you throw away your passion. Wake up and live the dream. It’s right in front of you,” he concludes firmly, offering me his solid advice once again.
Keagen is the mentor in life that I’ve always needed. Without him, I tend to stop being accountable for myself and walk astray. He taught me to be independent and I’ll never downplay that. Keagan, as harsh as he may be, is a true friend.
“Alright, McCray, alright. I’m sorry. I’ll make a plan,” I assure Keagen before he hangs up on me.
His rudeness comes as no shock. Typical Keagen. He doesn’t mean to be rude, he just can’t handle conflict. He distances himself and rather replaces people with work. He doesn’t have time to get close to people and he knows it, so he simply doesn’t. I was the exception.
“Your boyfriend?” Max asks, wagging his eyebrows at me mischievously, making it apparent that he’d been eavesdropping all the while. He has no shame, even when leaving Jay to do his dirty work and stop his future wife from killing Benley off. She’s always had it out for him, ever since he flirted with her cheerleaders at the game all those years ago.
“Uh-huh,” I lie, seeing the fun in his gullibleness. It’s his punishment for eavesdropping on my call and for leaving Jay to deal with his crazy fiancée. She’s now attacking Jay too whilst Benley covers his face as if to evade her piercing talons.
“Ooh la la! I sense a romance blossoming! Love is blooming!” Max winks giddily and suggestively, naive as ever, before shoving his elbow into my side as if to nudge me playfully - it just hurts because he’s not gentle. “Aqueela be on the move again,” he chimes mockingly before breaking out into a random love song, now pulling kissy faces at me.
I roll my eyes at his immaturity and shove him out of my way, only for him to keep following after me, continuously taunting me with a relationship that doesn’t even remotely exist. He’s holding it over my head. Some people will never grow up...truthfully, I hope I’m one of them too.
“How are you doing?” I hear Jay ask and then turn to see that it’s Troy. Jay’s been sympathetic toward him ever since he opened up to him. “Still hanging on by a thread?”
Troy nods solemnly. “Jezel’s not talking to be. I don’t even care anymore. Why should I change? Why does it have to be me?”
He’s clearly rethought the whole excursion thing.
“Because how can you expect others to when you’re not willing to yourself?” Jay challenges him. It seems to be his favorite hobby these days - challenging people. Then again, from day one, he was always the first person to accept a challenge. He accepted me.
I clap my hands to ’round them up. “Let’s get going, you mutts!”
“Run for the hills!” Troy agrees, swept up in the hype as he turns around and runs straight into the elevator doors, head first.
“Never a dull moment,” Jay sighs as he pushes Troy aside to enter the opening elevator.
We head to the airport in our respected vehicles, Troy tagging along in spite of not knowing what’s going on. I guess he could use the distraction too. He and Benley currently have more in common than they both realize.
We end up getting stuck in traffic too. Nonetheless, we make it in time...two hours later...with no time to spare.
“Honestly,” Jay states as we all look around for Mase seeing as he landed long time ago, “I’m dreading this with every fiber in my being, with every bone in my body and with every breath left in my lungs.”
I giggle and place my fist in front of my mouth to stop myself from laughing at his misfortune. “Would you relax?” I suggest with a grin. “He just wants to help. He’s different now,” I try to convince him, but end up failing. Jay will not be swayed.
“He better be,” Jay grumbles, displeased with the entire idea of seeing his brother again. Even after five years, there’s still so much bitterness and misunderstanding between the two.
“Speak of the devil,” Bells scoffs as she points to the familiar mop of brown hair waltzing towards us confidently in his stride. However, he’s carrying a guarded expression as if he cannot fathom why we’re all here to fetch him. The less he knows, the better.
“Maggot!” I exclaim in excitement as I sprint over to him and tackle him into a hug, just about knocking him right over with my force. I’ve missed him.
He places his bags down to return the hug as a chuckle leaves his lips. “Hey, Leech, long time. Could’ve been earlier had you gotten here on time,” he replies back sweetly and jokingly before his weary eyes meet that of the others. They all seem to be holding matching expressions - anger. The only one who hasn’t been affected by Mason is Benley. The guy is just grumpy because AJ might call it off between them. However, the others all hold contempt for Mason and Mason alone.
“You left my sister’s heart in pieces,” Troy is the first to speak up, “I want you dead. Pity that I forgot my light saber, RPG and bazooka in my coffin,” he concludes in a serious manner, his brotherly side on for full display.
Honestly, Troy just needs a match and he could obliterate the universe. No need for ‘the force’.
Thinking back, Troy was the most infuriated when Mason broke up with Bells for me. He acts like a complete idiot, but his baby sister means the world to him. He’s protective when he needs to be, when it’s necessary and essential, depending on the circumstances.
“That was five years ago,” Mason tries to defend himself as he sends Bells an apologetic glance, his brown eyes swirling with mixed emotions. He’s anxious about this reunion, that much is obvious. I’d be anxious too if I saw all my enemies lined up waiting to take a shot at me.
“Doesn’t matter,” Max adds sourly, before subtly yet deliberately showing Mason the ring on his finger, just about flashing Mason the middle finger. He’s actually getting possessive over Bells. That’s a first for him. He’s usually not the jealous type.
Mason notices and then glances Bell’s way, only to see her engagement ring too. He glances between the couple before catching them all off guard with his next following words, “Congratulations.”
Just wait until he sees the triplet...
Bells quirks an eyebrow in his direction in uncertainty as she processes it. “Thanks,” she whispers quietly in return as if only now forgiving him, finally extending him an olive branch of peace as she welcomes him back home.
Mason shrugs as if it’s a ‘no thanks necessary’ situation.
Max reaches out and shakes Mason’s hand, a smile plastered across his lips. “If she’s cool with you,” he motions back to Bell, “then so am I,” he clarifies in ease, not the type to hold grudges either, hence him being my other half. He just copies Bells on her emotions. He’s smart enough to be supportive of her if he wants to live to see the next day.
“Not cool,” Troy argues like a hothead.
Mason’s gaze lands on Jay - who happens to be standing stiffly in his spot as if restraining himself with all his might - next. His eyes zero in on Jay as he offers him an unsure, half smile.
Jay stays unmoving, being sure to keep his dark, vindictive glare focused on Mason. It’s almost as if he’s using up all his energy to maintain a balance of self-control within him. He’s more than ready to lash out and hatch up the past, but he’s carefully holding himself back.
“Hey, brother,” Mason hums, teasing Jay in the hopes of breaking the tension between them. Nonetheless, his attempt at humor is lost on Jay. He’s testing boundaries and Jay might just react negatively to it.
I watch in hopelessness as Jay folds his arms over his chest before purposely looking away, refusing to even meet Mason’s gaze. It’s the lowest form of disrespect. Jay has crossed the line this time, not Mase.
Unfortunately, Jay has allowed his old self to get the better of him. He’s being possessed by his past spirit. It’s now that I see that the changed Jay is the preference for me. I’ve realized that the happier Jay is the greater one.
I don’t enjoy glimpsing upon past Jay, I’d much rather have present him any day.
Mason turns back to me as he subtly motions to Jay. “He’s handling it well.”
I nod. “Better than I thought.”
“I was expecting a punch to the face or something,” Mason jokes, even though he really shouldn’t - now is most definitely not the time.
“That can be arranged,” Jay mutters aggressively from underneath his breath. “Stop talking about me like I’m not standing right here or I might just retaliate and actually do it,” he threatens, falling down to Grey’s level of wit. “You’d be lucky if I don’t act on my current thoughts,” he threatens begrudgingly, unimpressed.
“I stand corrected,” Mason jokes yet again, pushing his luck as if wanting to see just how far he can take this before landing himself in the hospital.
Before I can tell him to stop, a hand is placed over my eyes from behind. “Guess who?” a familiar voice chimes playfully into my ear.
“Laiken!” I screech at the top of my lungs as he laughs aloud as if thoroughly amused by my upbeat reaction to him being here.
He moves out from behind me and hands me his luggage. “Make yourself useful, Peasant Law, and help this knockout out. I didn’t come back for nothing,” he teases.
I absentmindedly take the luggage from him before sending Mason a look, narrowing my eyes at him. Mason merely winks at me, clearly in on this too. They’d been planning this all along.
“You lied to me!” I hiss at Laiken and hit him upside the head.
I automatically drop his luggage to the floor when he scoops me up into a hug. “C’mon Law, you love it,” he insists before greeting Bells with a hug next.
“Yeah!” Max feigns happiness and claps his hands as if enthusiastic, even giving a jump of joy, when in actual fact he’s just being sarcastic and rude. “The jerks are back,” Max groans aloud when he sees Bell share a smile with Edwards and Montry - his very own personal high school tormentors.
“Sorry about that, Mills,” Mason apologizes, guilt evident in his expression. He feels awful about it, that’s clear.
Laiken sends Max a carefree smirk. “So it’s gonna be like that now, huh Mills?”
Laiken lives on the up side now and he knows it, nothing will faze him from his dream life. He couldn’t care less about Max’s whining.
“We cool,” Max chuckles in order to let them know that he’s just messing with them, “we cool,” he clarifies in confirmation, forgiving them.
We’ve all grown up since then. Max gets that. He gets that Mason and Laiken were just kids when they behaved like real animals - deranged bullies.
When noticing that he’s too quiet, I glance his way, only to find thee great ‘JT’ (in the racing world, it’s the name he’s best known by) has been swarmed by a flock of fans begging him for his autograph. He’s preoccupied and absorbed in the attention. For now, he has to force a smile onto his face.
“AJ?!” Benley’s astounded voice catches me off guard as his gaze sweeps over someone behind me.
AJ stops and points to herself, clueless.
Like he’d be taking to anyone else...
Benley grins and scoffs at her daftness.
I place a hand over my mouth and hold back a smile as she, AJ in the flesh, races up to us - more specifically, Benley.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” is the first thing that comes spilling out of her mouth.
It takes Benley a second to register her words as it slowly resonates with him. He breaks into a breathtaking smile as a result when he clicks what she means by that. He leans down to press his forehead against hers, seemingly at his best once again. “Yeah?”
“I didn’t reply because I wanted to tell you in person,” she adds excitedly, confirming her decision, before reaching up to kiss him, smiling against him all the while in doing so. She pulls away to meet his warmhearted gaze. “I’m going to cry.”
Benley chuckles as he brushes his thumb under her eye to wipe a tear away. “You’re already crying, babe,” he points out the facts, delighted and over the moon to have her here with him.
“Stop it you two,” Bells wipes at her own eyes, her sensitive heart melting at the sight of them, “stop being so cute, you’re going to make me cry as well.”
Someone should break it to her that she’s already crying too...
AJ turns slightly in Benley’s grasp in order to send Bells a sweet, sugary smile over her shoulder in response. She turns back to her fiancé when he whispers something in her ear. “I love you too, Ben,” she concludes with a genuine grin, happy-go-lucky as always.
Another couple down, Grey will have to be next.
I watch in amusement as she clouts him over the head. “That’s for proposing over the phone,” she laughs before pecking his lips, “and that’s for finally proposing.”
“No!” Troy shouts in despair as he forcefully separates them, pushing in between them and ruining their moment as he unleashes his inner beast. “If I can’t be happy, no one can!” He insists with jealousy, hitting rock bottom this time.
“Dang Troy,” I wince, embarrassed for him as I tug him away from the couple, “back at it with your craziness.”
“Group hug!” Bell squeals in joy as she wraps her arms around Benley and AJ. Troy joins in despite the fact that he was just peeved with them.
“Whoo! Excitement and things! OMG! Oh my gosh! Girls just want to have fun! Pink!” Max gushes in sarcasm as he teases his fiancée, squealing and jumping up and down for emphasis before he too hugs an irritated looking Benley and a seemingly overjoyed looking AJ.
Bells hits Max on the chest for mocking her. He raises his hands up in apology, yet seems anything but apologetic.
“Who are you?” I hear Troy ask once the group hug has ended and pleasantries have been exchanged. He’s been off his game ever since Jezel left.
“Keagen McCray,” he answers from within his usual suit and tie, accompanied by a hat. He makes a decent Neal Caffrey.
“Keag!” I laugh in glee when noticing his presence. “You’re here too?”
“Surprise, surprise,” he says dully before pointing to Laiken, making it obvious that Laiken is the one who orchestrated all of this.
Laiken merely smirks at me in turn and offers me his best cunning expression, pulling it off well with all that charm.
I shake my head at him and then turn to the others in order to introduce Keagen to the group. “Guys, this is my bo-”
Jay, riled up to the brink of no return, cuts me off with a punch to Keagen’s face.
"Jay!” I gasp at the unexpectedness of it all as Keagen falls back under impact, covering his bloody nose soon after. The poor guy’s in shock. No one saw that coming, especially not me. It’s out of character for Jay.
Jay casually shakes out his fist with an indifferent expression on his face as if unfazed by his actions and by his short temper.
“What the hell is wrong with you?!” I try to yank him back, but he just shakes me off and continues on walking ahead as if he cannot take any more of this. Mason is a reminder of all that he lost and he hates it. He’s intolerable of it. He becomes fallible when Mason’s around.
“What just happened?” Keagen asks as he steadies himself, wiping the blood away from his nose, still in shock. He didn’t even do anything. He just happened to be collateral damage, an obstacle in Jay’s destructive path.
I bite my bottom lip, feeling accountable for Jay, as I visibly wince. “I have no idea. He’s not usually like that, not anymore.”
“Oops,” Max scratches the back of his neck as if responsible. “I can’t help but think that this might be my fault.”
“What did you do?” I hiss at him in irritation. If anything, I was expecting Troy to somehow be involved, but he’s been playing on the down low today. Max is enough of a handful to replace him for the meantime until he decides to come back to us.
“I may possibly have told him that you got yourself a new boyfriend, that being Keagen over here,” Max confesses, flinching back before I get the chance to smack him. He then gestures to Keagen’s nose, “So yeah...then that happened.”
“Now that’s more what I was expecting from him,” Mason nods, satisfied.
“Keep getting into fistfights, Taylor. Let’s see you drive your entire career into the ground,” Decoda lectures Jay, exasperated with having to keep any eye on him twenty-four seven.
“Maybe that’s what I want!” he snaps at her, agitated in the fact that everyone is at his house again, and in the fact that Mason is one of them. Although, he was the one who invited us all over, specifically Keagen seeing as he now feels remorseful and regretful of how he handled the situation.
She lifts an eyebrow as she inspects him calculatingly. “Why on earth would you want to sink your own career?”
Jay shifts in place as if uncomfortable with the question. Instead, he fixes his attention on Keagen. “Like I said before, I’m really sorry about...” he motions with his hand to Keagen’s face as if not wanting to repeat his previous brash actions, “that.”
He felt terrible when I explained to him that I was going to say ‘boss’ earlier and not ‘boyfriend’. Keagen may not be my current boss, but he’ll always be the best boss to have ever walked the earth, well besides from Boss Man himself.
Keagen, holding one of Jay’s ice packs to his nose, sends Jay another one of his fearsome scowls as if not quite over it just yet. He ignores the millionth apology coming from Jay’s lips and turns to make conversation with Gland. “So what did you say you do again?”
Gland sits up straight in his seat and crosses his one leg over the other, trying his utmost best to adopt a professional look about him so that he’ll be taken seriously. “I’m a full-time gangster,” he adds boastfully, “and part-time rock star,” he sips his tea in a posh way.
“What?” Keagen queries. “What does that even-”
I intervene on Keagen’s behalf and send him a ‘shut up and smile’ grin. “Just go with it, Keags. It’s what he does. Accept it.”
“Okay,” Keagen catches on and wisely opts out of arguing with Gland.
“WhiteBoy and B-Dawg over here have never approved,” Gland says in an accusing manner as he points at Laiken and Benley respectively. He’s acting like they started this debate when in actual fact they’d both been minding their own business up until now.
Laiken frowns. “We never said-”
“Let it go,” Benley suggests as they both share a knowing look, well aware that they’ll never make Gland’s good books because he burns them all. He doesn’t have any good books, only bad, and they so happen to fit the bill.
Keagen, intelligent, agrees with Gland on everything for the sake of survival. “Being a gangster is important in order for society to run its day-to-day operations.”
"Thank you!” Gland throws his hands up in jubilance and exasperation. ”Finally, someone gets it!” He grins and throws and arm around Keagen, pulling him in closer as he takes him in. ”You, I like you. You’re ace dawg,” he tells Keag, failing to notice Keag’s discomfort. “You’ve officially been welcomed into my posse.”
“Superb!” Keagen retorts in subtle sarcasm as he composes himself and fixes up his appearance again when Gland finally releases him. “I’ve always wanted to be in a gang, ever since I was a little boy. You’ve made all my dreams come true.”
“Kiss ass!” Laiken coughs loudly.
“Suck up!” Benley follows suit, stooping down low to Laiken’s level of maturity - none, so immaturity. AJ merely grins, entertained.
“I’m like a genie,” Gland agrees, not picking up on Keagen’s blatant sarcasm.
“I retired,” Troy tells Gland.
Bell immediately notices Keagen’s obsession with his appearance when he reorganizes his look after Gland unintentionally messed it up. “Organized and neat? Takes pride in appearance?” Bell prods, pressing for answers. “I like you,” she sends Keagen a friendly smile, agreeing with Gland’s conclusion on him.
“Thanks...I like you too?” Keagen questions more than states, puzzled and perplexed by all the attention. He’s almost as overwhelmed as Jay. It’s just unfortunate that Jay snapped under all the pressure. It was too much and he was pushed too far.
A grim expression evades Max’s face as he takes in the little exchange between the tw., “I don’t like what’s happening here,” he interrupts the conversation with a frown.
“And I don’t like any of you,” Troy adds playfully, his arrogant side popping back into place.
Bell rolls her eyes at the two in response. She sees me watching and it’s as if my face reminds her of something. “Aqueela,” she pauses, “Max and I want to get married in the next couple days or so, and I want you to be my maid of honor. What say you?”
“Anything but ‘no’,” I tell her in enthusiasm and shoot her a thumbs up. “I got your back, always.”
I then get up to follow Jay when I see him leave the room in order to get a moment to breathe alone. It been a rough ride for him today and I can’t help but empathize with him. No one should be expected to breathe alone. I will breathe with him, or for him.
“What do you want?” he asks in acknowledgment, his tone not exactly the politest.
“You’ve had a long day,” I try to ease him into talking it out.
He catches on to what I’m doing all too quickly. “You’re stupid if you think I’m going to spill and divulge all my inner thoughts to you.”
He’s at conflict with himself yet again. He’s fighting against himself. He’s at war with himself and I hope the side of him that I admire comes out on top.
“Don’t call me stupid,” I pout playfully, unoffended by his coldness.
“I make up for it by calling myself stupid more,” he says in turn, a faint lopsided smile tugging at the corner of his lips. “They cancel each other out,” he insists stubbornly, too narrow-minded to see any other view besides his own.
“Yeah, in ‘Jay world’ maybe,” I tease, pushing him over the edge just that little bit further. “To the rest of us here on Earth, you’re just being plain mean. You’re being a good for nothing looney tune.”
“I can’t believe I actually missed you calling me that.”
Two words are all it takes to see that stupefying smile of his take on full formation and slowly spread across his lips.
All the words I’d just been about to say start to rearrange and reposition in my head until I’m left with nothing to say but garble. I swallow back my words, hopelessly lost. Everything I’d been about to say dies at the back of my throat as my pulse quickens.
It comes as a punch to the stomach and now I have no choice but to just roll with it, simply because his smile is ‘killer’.