Rewind (Book 2)

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Chapter 34: Playing Hardball

“You shall not pass,” I hand Landon a form, taking this very seriously.

He rolls his eyes at me and snatches the formal form from my hand as he scans it over, “Is this really necessary?”

“I’m not authorized to let visitors in unless they sign the formal agreement. Until then, you are not permitted access into this tree house by right of Oog and gang,” I explain the rules to Landon.

“I didn’t even want to see the stupid tree house. I have better things to do with my time. You’re the one who invited me, along with several others, to the ‘grand opening’,” Landon scoffs as he reluctantly jots down his signature.

I flip through his ten sheet page, “Sign here,” I command. He sighs and does as told. I flip to the next page, “And here.” He shakes his head and quickly signs again, not at all happy about being compliant with the law of the tree house. “Here,” I show him a third time. I turn over to the next pages. “Sign again here, here and here.”

He signs them all in a rush, mentally cursing me all the while in doing so. Th eidiot should really read first. For all he know, he could be seeling his soul over to me...ah well, some prefer to learn the hard way.

“Is that all?” he questions irritably as he shoves the pen back into my hands and tries to get past me. I stand in his way, effectively stopping him. “I’ve already been standing in the line of people for hours on end,” he complains, “and Sarah’s already inside somewhere. How come she got a VIP pass and I didn’t? Even Ryan got a special pass,” he points out, failing to notice the complaint box beside me.

“That’s right, sucker,” Ryan smirks tauntingly from behind be, already in the tree house, as he lifts his eyes from his phone for a split second in order to meet Lan’s furious gaze of jade. He then deliberately passes on by slowly as if to just rile Landon up further in his jealousy.

Ryan certainly has no fears. He isn’t afraid of Grey and he clearly couldn’t give a crap about Landon either. He lives to annoy people, whether he knows them or not and whether they’re terrifying or not. He’s a person after my own heart.

Landon sighs before he arches a brow at me, gesturing to the small space in between us, “Do you and I have a problem, Lawson, or are you just trying to piss me off? Is this a matter of playing hardball just to get to me?”

I shake my head and grin happily, “Nah. The tree house is just undergoing maintenance issues. There’s a spacing problem. We’re currently overcrowded. We’ll be with you shortly.”

“I can’t believe this dumb tree house has been put on display. Are people actually paying the entrance fees? Are they buying into that? I wouldn’t go for it,” Landon queries, making some conversation whilst he waits impatiently.

We only charge people we don’t like - that being Grey.

Speaking of which...

“Who’s holding up the damn line this time?!” Grey, himself, calls from somewhere in the back of the line of strangers.

"Of course, it’s Landon the loser,” Xavier answers Grey, a few people ahead of him. He then faces forward, narrowing his eyes at Landon, “Go in already, asshole! You’re holding up the entire line!”

Talk about ‘rage issues’...

Landon immediately spins around with his fist in the air as he meets Xavier’s angry stare, “Pipe down! Don’t make me come over there!” he threatens his brother-in-law without a flicker of shame, even at being in public.

Grey leaves the line, cursing me loudly as heads on home. His patience has worn thin and he’s had enough.

“Thanks for coming. We’ve hope you’ve had a good stay at ‘The Dung Inn’,” I hear AJ say to one of our customers. “Just a reminder to please feel free to contribute to Oog’s initiative to help homeless hobos. If you’d like to invest or partner with us, send us an email. Thank you. We hope to see you again on your next visit,” she says politely before bidding the stranger goodbye, even managing to score a tip for her services.

She nods at me.

I nod back, receiving the silent message. I finally step side and allow Landon entrance into the magnificent tree house. When one leaves, we let the next one in.

While speaking to Lan, I motion directly to AJ, “This is AJ Hamilton and she’ll be your tour guide for today-”

“We’ve met several times before,” Landon scowls at me, interrupting me.

I frown up at him before laying down the rules yet again, “That attitude will not be tolerated in ‘The Dung Inn’.” This is the third time I’ve had to toe the line with him. He adamantly refuses to accept my authority. However, I know Grey and Zac will give him a run for his money.

“Follow me, Sir,” AJ gestures him over.

“Just call me ‘Landon’ like everyone else who knows me personally usually does,” Lan replies back moodily. He’s more temperamental when Sarah isn’t with him. “The only one who should refer to me as ‘Sir’ is that dipsh*t Xavier.”

“Language, Sir,” AJ sighs, sick of dealing with troublesome customers. She proceeds by giving him the rundown, “Please note, when we enter the underground catacombs (the squirrels hunted down) and secret passageways, you are required to wear a hard hat for your own safety. Construction is still under way. No pictures will be allowed to be taken when crossing through Oog’s ‘Hall of Fame’, although you are allowed to have your picture taken with the great Oog himself. Other than that, flash photography is prohibited. Please do refrain from touching Gland’s creative arts on for display. Any objections will be handled with ‘the accused’ being directly transferred out of the tree itself.”

“I didn’t mean to touch it. Jeez. Uptight people,” Laiken wines under his breath before our security - Susie and Blubber - kick him out of the tree house. He tries to fight them from within his handcuffs, but Susie manages to shove him out completely. She’d make a better linebacker than he ever did.

“Save it for the judge!” Susie yells at her brother before pushing him outside, forcing him to take the twirly ‘Slide of Shame’ on the way down the tree. Seeing as it is a waterslide, the punishment is getting soaked wet.

If Max were here, he’d demand to be the judge.

Landon witnesses it all and glares my way accusingly. AJ sees and sends him a sheepish smile as if to explain, “We don’t tolerate bad behavior here. This is a peaceful place.”

“There’s nothing here,” Landon glances around. “There’s nothing but floor and walls. Don’t tell me that I stood in line for nothing.”

AJ laughs at his reaction before knocking the cutout cardboard copy down, revealing the true tree house filled with rooms, bridges, fancy furniture, a hot tub, a flat screen tv, a golden colored toilet and much more wonders of the galaxy.

This is what the band spent with the very last of their money. I think it’s a fabulous investment. One would think ‘Tree House Masters’ were here.

“Woah...” Landon trails off, caught speechless for the first time. He’s impressed, despite not admitting to it.

AJ continues on with her prepared speech that she now has memorized, “Also, if you are in any way associated to Aqueela Lawson, you are required to help in the construction and building of the tree house,” she informs him of the most important rule. “Failure to comply will result in a legal case against you.”

“I did not sign up for that,” Landon argues, suddenly realizing where his girlfriend has been all this time - helping build.

“You actually did,” I tell him and show him the fine print on the countless forms I just forced him into signing.

Landon ignores me and turns back to AJ with a plan to carry through, “Fortunately, I am in no way associated with a person of such. Never heard of him,” he lies before walking on ahead, ready to explore the caverns of the tree house in works.

I glare after him for refusing to acknowledge our friendship and for referring to me as a ‘him’.

“He’s gonna be a tough one, worst one of the day,” AJ groans in dismay before following after him, shouting to him that it’s dangerous to walk alone when going into the maze of corn where the irrigation plant is being set up. He shrugs carelessly, unfazed by the warnings.

Landon and I could be great friends.

“So this is what you do in your free time?” Keagen asks, showing his face for the second time today. “No wonder you never got work done when working for me. You are something else.”

I smile and take it for what it is, “Thanks, but now I feel bad, you got me a compliment and I didn’t get you anything.”

He shakes his head at my immaturity before getting back on track, “Anyway, I want a refund. This was not worth the cash, especially since I kind of live here now. I demand a refund for all the worthless garbage I saw today.”

Yeah...I charged Keagen for the entrance fee...sue me!

“No take backsies,” I shoo Keagen away. “One rule for all.”

“Get out of my way, I live here,” I hear Zac telling the people off as he pushes past them to enter the tree house. I allow him to go inside, just because. Troy and Ramos try to follow in after him as if they’re with him, but our security is not having any of it. They’ve been told to be on the lookout for these two looney tunes.

“Aww come on little ones, let me in,” Troy begs Blubber and Susie, popping up out of nowhere for what feels like the billionth time just today. He’s putting ‘Jack In The Box’ to shame. “I promise I’ll behave this time. No flat irons, you have my word.”

Susie rolls her eyes at him, despite her love for him, before reminding him of the obvious, “Troy Story, I’d love to welcome you in, but Jay’s only request was that we ban you and Ramos from ever entering this tree house. You two are forbidden.”

“But za why?” Ramos, standing beside Troy, asks with his nose high in the air as he looks down on all of us, except for Troy.

“Because you dumbos burned the last one down to ashes,” Blubber speaks on Susie’s behalf. “CoolGuyJay only gave them - ‘The Dung Beatles’ and FeeBee - permission for the tree house so long as you stupidoes stay out.” He points up to the skillful drawings of Ramos and Troy with big red crosses through their faces, “Hence the sign.”

“I don’t even know who those people are,” Troy tries to go in, only for Simo to step in and stop him. Troy walks into his protruding belly of fat instead. He can’t walk through Simo, it will be like walking through a wall of jello.

Susie points back up to the sign.

Troy tries to sweet-talk her into getting entrance, but he goes about it in the completely wrong way as he pinches her cheeks and talks down to her in a degrading manner, “Cuchi cuchi coo! Please let us in now Susie snookums, I plead with you.”

Blubber shakes his head and repedtedly points back to the sign.

“That doesn’t even look like us,” Troy argues as he inspects my perfect drawings. “Who the hell drew these anyway?”

I made Troy ugly and Ramos fat - thus, I crafted accurate pictures.

“Looks on point to me,” Blubber defends my natural-born talent.

“I’m hideous!” Troy whines and points to all the zits I drew on him. He glances at Ramos’ picture, “Yes, I’ll admit that Ramos is on the pudgy side and definitely has a square-shaped head, so his picture is quite fine, but my picture looks like an improvement of Grey’s face. That’s an insult! BroGrey is fugly as heck! Not a lot of time was spent in creating him, whereas I am practically a prince of some sort.”

Ramos glances down at his form, clearly offended and self-conscious with his now apparent chubby appearance. He stares at Blubber and Simo for a second too long before releasing a relieved breath. He smiles to himself in content.

“I demand to see BroJay this instant!” Troy jots down a complaint about his picture not capturing his best features before filing it into the complaint box. He’s forgotten about the larger issue at hand, that being in the fact that he’s been banned for life from ever entering the tree house. All he cares about now is his picture representing him accurately. “Where is he?” Troy asks me instead, aware that if anyone will know, it will be me.

“He’s been gone for the past week. I’m surprised that you’ve only noticed now...” I change my mind after hearing myself say it aloud, “wait, actually, I’m not.”

“When zat beautiful soul getting back?” Ramos questions, ready to suck up to Jay in order to get in.

“Tonight,” I answer. “He’s been away with Decoda at racing events,” I explain briefly, unwilling to dwell on the fact that this is just the beginning of what’s to come. He’ll one day leave for good and I’m not prepared. “He left me in charge and he specifically said not to let you two,” I point accusingly at the both of them, “come anywhere near his house. I get it, considering the last time you guys were here you tried to bulldoze his house by digging up a grave for a fake funeral with what could have been a real body.”

“I don’t take orderz from Split Ends,” Ramos tries to push past me, but Simo immediately proves to be an obstacle in his way.

I sigh and shake my head at them, truly disappointed that they haven’t managed to break in yet. “This is the tenth time you idiots have tried to sneak in,” I glance at the culprits who desperately seek to get inside, “give up now,” I direct my gaze to Troy, “or I tell your sister when she and Max get back from their honeymoon tomorrow afternoon.”

Troy turns to walk away as if giving in, but immediately turns back around and makes a run for it passed me, sprinting inside. He stupidly stops to catch his breath and cheer himself on. When he starts to run again, I trip him and he ends up falling face first just outside of the entrance way.

“Nice try, loser,” I smirk down at him as Blubber and Susie drag him to the ‘Slide of Shame’.

“Not the hair! My hair will get wet! I spent three hours styling it to perfection!” Troy’s muffled complaint is heard before I hear the splash of water. “Noooooooo!”

I grin deviously and turn to Ramos challengingly. He pouts and gives in, voluntarily going down the slide after Troy, aware that I’ll kick his ass to the moon before bouncing him over to Mars and Pluto and back.

I spin around to meet Simo’s gaze, “Hold down the fort, I’m going to go and find Oog. Things are beginning to get out of control. This operation needs to be shut down before Jay gets here.”

“Too late.”

I turn on my heel to face him. I wince and send him a sheepish smile with apologetic eyes, “I know you said to keep things under control, but I guess I got slightly carried aw-”

“Oog’s in my room,” he answers me, already caught up on what’s happening. “He keeps referring to my bedroom as a ‘common space’. He and Gland are building a fort out of blankets and pillows. I’ll have to crawl into my room just to get inside.”

I flinch back in regret, instantly feeling guilty for allowing things to get so out of hand, “I’m so sorry. I’m so so so sorry. I never meant-”

He flashes me a carefree grin when intervening, “I don’t fight any of this chaos,” he gestures around to the tree house filled with strangers and then to all the cars parked outside his house, “anymore. I embrace it now. It’s the only way I win.”

Jay is a winner. He’s winning at life.

“So relax, I guess I’m onboard,” he thoughtfully adds as if to guilt-trip me, “even if my own parking was taken and I had to park about a mile up the road.” He sees my face and chuckles. “Relax,” he advises, consoling me, “I decided a long time ago that if this is what life has to be like in order to have you in it, then I’ll gladly bear it. Besides, I figured I’d be coming home to something like this anyway. It was expected, definitely predictable, par for the course.”

A smile spreads over my lips as I eagerly meet his playful gaze. I stare at him a second longer, taking in his presence and upbeat persona. “I missed you,” I confess without a second thought in mind. “A week felt like an eternity...without you anyway.”

His easy-going grin is instantly washed off of his lips by an invading frown as my words slowly resonate with him.

He says nothing and motions me to follow as he leads me down the tree house in the direction of his room in order to find the only one who can put a stop to the tree house madness. “Last I saw,” Jay informs me with an indifferent tone of voice as if shifting his walls back into place, “he was in here.”

“Oog blecorating! Blecorating! Blecorating Jaykie’s room all day long!” he belches out at the top of his lungs from somewhere inside the fort, under the mass of pillows and blankets covering Jay’s entire room - the same room I’d been sleeping in whilst he’s been away.

Jay and I, for the fun of it, continue to listen to their conversations as we wait just outside the fort - his room - and out of sight.

“My boy Jaykie is gonna love the new look to his room. We’re gonna revamp this b*tch. It’s our gift to him for all the good he’s done in our lives,” we hear Gland say proudly to his fellow comrades. To him, building a fort is considered to be revamping.

“I only wish we could do more to express our gratitude because I honestly have no words,” Jam adds, believing the fort to be the gift that will please Jay when in actual fact he could do without it.

“He’s done so much for us. He gave us a home when no one else would,” Gland states as he reminisces back to all the times Jay had helped him and the others out.

“He gave me hope,” FeeBee chips in, agreeing with her boys. “He gave us all a chance,” she makes an actual intelligible comment for once. “We got another shot because of him.”

They all murmur in agreement in response to her sincere words.

I glance to Jay to see a hesitant half-smile flickering across his face at hearing a genuine ‘thank you’ come from them for the first time ever.

He’s never been properly thanked before. Instead, he’s always been the one that people take advantage of. His heart for people is his weakness and others tend to exploit it and take him for granted, even me at times. However, it’s moments like these that make it all worth it, and that’s just judging by the content look twinkling through his eyes of blue.

I nudge him teasingly, only for the half-smile to transform into a full-blown one that just about knocks me dead.

“They may all be incredibly stupid in a way I still cannot fathom, but they’re all family now,” he tells me quietly, “and family takes care of family...no matter what.”

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

“So Jay’s seriously okay with them burrowing underground? With all of them living in his backyard? With all the secret tunnels and underground passageways? With you and them raising hell?” Benley asks me, stunned by the news.

Ben knows that Jay would usually lash out and freak at something as extreme as this, but these days it seems that he has lost all the fire and anger he used to carry with him. If anything, he’s given it all to Grey and Landon.

“Why would he care what happens to his house?” I voice my thoughts aloud, opening up to my dear alcoholic friend, BoyBand.

“What do you mean?” Benley quirks an inquisitive eyebrow, sensing that something is up. “Why wouldn’t he care?”

“He’s leaving in two month’s time,” I tell Ben, knowing that he’d keep it a secret, “and he isn’t planning on ever coming back here.” I elaborate, “That’s why he couldn’t care less about what happens here. If anything, he’ll give them this house before he goes. It’s not like he can sell it now. This entire home is sentimental.”

From the corner of my eye, I spot Troy and Ramos dressed up in disguises as they try to sneak past Simo in order to get into the tree house. If they weren’t banned, they wouldn’t even bother with the tree house. For them, it’s the thrill of getting caught.

Ben sighs empathetically as he stares down at me in sorrow, “I’m sorry, Aqueela. I really am.”

I shrug in dejection, “It’s always been his dream.” I avert my eyes to the floor, “In a way, he’s finally achieved his lifetime goal. As hard as it is for me to admit this, I’m happy for him. It’s a bittersweet moment, but if he needs to do this, then I won’t stand in his way.”

“Why don’t you just go with him?” Benley asks bluntly. “It’s what you want, isn’t it?”

I shrug a second time, unsure of the answer myself, “I don’t want to take the risk of leaving it all behind again. I’m afraid I won’t be enough for him. Jay’s on an entirely different level to me. If I were to go, and if things were to fall apart again, it would all be for nothing. The sacrifices made will be pointless, worthless. The thought is too terrifying.”

“There’s always a million reasons not to do something, Aqueela,” Ben shakes his head at me, making it evident that he disagrees with me.

“I’d rather him leave and acknowledge that we didn’t work because we didn’t try than lose him knowing that we tried and didn’t work out,” I confess to him shamefully.

Benley laughs humorlessly in turn before clearing his throat, “Aqueela, I love you like a sister and everything, so don’t take offense to what I’m about to say, but don’t you think it’s about time you stop being stupid?”

I frown and fold my arms over my chest, “I’m listening.”

He clarifies sternly, “The way I see it, you have two options here, you can stay behind knowing that you will definitely lose him, or you can go with him in the possibility of never losing him again.” He smiles slightly and gives me a pat on the shoulder, “Take the risk, Aqueela. From one friend to another, you’ve come too far to back down now. You guys deserve a chance if anything, don’t take that away from him, or yourself.”

“Ugh,” I pout moodily at hearing his pivotal advice, “I hate it when you make sense. I wish you’d be drunk all the time.”

He grins, “Whatever. At the end of the day, it will be your choice.” He changes the subject and tugs me after him, “Now c’mon, I want to check out the underground section they got going on. Are they mining for gold, or are we about to find some fossils?”

I roll my eyes and let him walk on ahead. I glance sideways to see Jay helping by carrying some heavy things into the tree house. He shouldn’t have to, but he volunteers anyway. I swallow back the smile and drag my eyes off of him.

I get back into focus and quickly run after Benley.

It’s pitch dark underground. Fortunately, some lights have been installed on the side of the walls. There are no signs up yet, just a ton of eery looking pathways. I hesitate and choose one randomly, having lost sight of Benley.

I notice the plastic construction fencing, but ignore it and jump over it, in search of all the people. Knowing Oog, he’d let them past the warning signs in any case.

The further I go into the tunnel, the more it starts to feel like I’m entering some kind of cult.

I jump out of my skin when I hear a voice from behind me, “You shouldn’t be down here, Baby Girl Eela.”

I turn to face Gland and raise both eyebrows, “Why not?” I ask wearily as he towers over me in an intimidating manner.

“Oog and us boys are busy rehearsing for something important,” he says vaguely.

Yup, definitely stepped into a cult...

“Welcome to the annual ‘Anti-Jayeela club’! We reunite once more brothers and sisters!” I hear Oog call aloud some distance further up the tunnel.

No wonder this section was blocked off...

I begin to shake my head at Gland in protest, “No. No. Oh no. Don’t you guys dare.” I push him out of my way and march my way down the tunnel to where I hear Oog practicing with Jam and FeeBee. “Don’t you guys dare start things up again!”

“Aww come on,” Gland tries to persuade me, “it worked so well last time.”

I nod, “Yeah, except Jay was a different person back then,” I bring the facts to his attention. I can’t be the only one who sees it. “He’s just got back, let him relax a little.”

“Back from where?” Gland asks, puzzled. “Grocery shopping? ’Cause I’m seriously starving.”

“He’s been away for a week,” I roll my eyes, not the least bit surprised that they had all failed to notice that Jay’s presence in the house has been lacking.

“He’s been away for a week?!” Gland repeats after me, still lost.

I scoff impatiently and continue to walk onward, “I don’t have time for this.”

Gland tries to make himself an obstacle in my path, preventing me from reaching his buddies. I’m not having it. I have worked myself up into a rage and find it easy to duck past him and keep a steady move on my warpath leading to destruction. I’ll have a fit if this club actually takes place again.

“What is the meaning of this?!” I yell, immediatly silencing Oog and his minions with my superirorness.

“We’re just trying to help,” Jam says sheepishly, being the first from the self-proclaimed warriors to speak up. “Using reverse psychology always works on Jaykie.”

I shake my head, “Please don’t,” I resort to begging.

“Plans are already in works, Eela. Don’t try and stop us, you’ll only get in our way,” Oog tries to persuade me into joining instead of fighting against the craziness. Well actually, he’s just threatening me. It’s funny ’cause he kind of needs me alive for his plan to be successful.

“You don’t understand,” I argue, not convinced, “it won’t work this time.”

“It will!” FeeBee protests on cluelessly. I can bet that she’s just here for the show. She’ll follow these idiots into her own grave.

“What Eela not telling Oog?” Oog asks, immediately picking up on the underlining hint lingering behind the reality of my words. He frowns, “Oog can see you hiding a secret in those eyes,” he persists relentlessly.

Oog is an undercover genius, that’s at least one thing I’m convinced of. It’s scary. If he were ever to rule the world...

“He’s leaving, Oog,” I answer after much hesitance.

“How long?” Gland questions, curious and just as confused as the rest of them.

“Ten years,” I reply back softly. “Ten years of traveling, racing and coaching. He’s bound to never come back here. It would be pointless to.”

A miserable quietness falls over them as they stare at each other in bewilderment, having been caught off guard entirely. Jay never let up any clues. They never saw any of this coming. It’s come as a complete shock and they’re not sure how to react to such news.

“Tell me you’re joking, Flower,” Jam grumbles out, seemingly unhappy for the first time since knowing him. “He can’t just up and leave again.”

I bite my bottom lip, feeling exactly what they’re all feeling, “I’m sorry,” I apologize, “but try to understand this has always been his dream. We have to support him in this and accept his decision, even if it means we have to say goodbye.”

“No!” Oog stubbornly stomps his foot, throwing a tantrum, “Oog not say goodbye. Oog mad! Jaykie’s a big dumb dumb head. Oog first kill Jaykie before letting him go. Oog furious. Oog will not let him escape.”

A bit extreme there. He expresses his love for people differently.

FeeBee, surprisingly, is the first to come to her senses, “I’ve known Jay for the longest time and I know that he deserves to be happy. For once in his life, my best friend deserves to be happy. Enough with the hardships.”

Gland reluctantly nods in agreement before engaging in eye contact with me, “And you’re sure he wants this?”

“Yeah, positive,” I insist, “racing is his everything.” I glance at all of them and take in their morbid expressions. I sigh loudly, “You guys know that as well as I do.” I tuck a loose strand of my hair behind my ear before continuing, “He’s always the selfless one doing everything for everyone. He always looks out for us. It’s about time we let him have one. He’s worked for this all his life. He’s earned this. Who are we to take that away from him?”

Oog slowly nods, “You’re right, Eela. Jaykie needs to go through with this. He needs to do this,” Oog finally comes to accept it, his English lessons with Gland paying off.

“I’m going to cry all the water out of my body,” FeeBee whimpers before the four of them all embrace in a loving group hug, their personal way of saying goodbye to Jay without actually going up to him and saying it right out.

I step back, slowly retreating from their bizarreness. It feels like a personal moment, one that I shouldn’t have to be here for.

“Shut down the tree operation, Oog,” I remind him over my shoulder as I stomp back to a place of light - higher ground, “it’s stressing Jay out and he could do with some peace and quiet while he’s still around.”

It’s when I get back from the underground (Grey’s first home) that I discover that the sunny weather has blown over. The storm is here. The thunder, rain, and lighting is an indication of that. I tear my eyes away from the dark sky and turn to leave instead.

With music brewing from the full tree house, I retire to Jay’s room, not up to spending the rest of the day with more people. I need a break. I need an escape from the crowds of strangers exploring Jay’s home.

On my way there, I spot Jay sitting on the roof. I stop to stare. He’s by himself with just a portion of shelter covering him from the rain pelting heavily down all around him. I grin excitedly to myself and rush up toward him before eagerly taking a seat beside him.

Without even having to look, he greets me, “Hey,” he says softly as he keeps a steady gaze on the black sky above filled with gray clouds.

The blaring music and tumultuous thunder fade to background noise - white noise - as I fix my attention on Jay solely.

“I’m thinking we go camping,” he says randomly, out of the blue, as if he’d been thinking over it for some time now. “I’m more of a city guy as you probably know, street cred and all that, but I’m up for some relaxing by the lake, soaking up some sun, jet skies on the lake, maybe some wakeboarding too.”

You can take the man out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the man. You can take Jay out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of him. If he ever lived on a farm, he’d probably die. He’s got city blood through and through.

He turns to face me, shifting slightly, as his gaze strays to me, “What about you? You in or are you in?” He teases in jest, aware that he stole my line, leaving me with no options. “I just feel like getting away a bit. I want to do something I wouldn’t usually do. I want to clear my head. I’ve heard camping is great for that kind of stuff.”

I laugh lightly, “You’re talking to the wrong person, City Boy, I don’t know shiznit about camping either. I never got the opportunity to become acquainted with the great outdoors and mother nature and all that other crap.” I joke, “We can meditate on the decision together.” I smile up at him fondly, “What spurred this on anyway?”

He shrugs carelessly, “I’m not gonna get time to do this kind of thing when I go. I like experiencing new things. Camping is something I’ve always wanted to do, but never actually done. You know me, I want to say I’ve done everything before I die.”

I nudge him in the side with my elbow, “Hey, don’t talk like that, ’mkay?” I shake my head defiantly and frown slightly, “I don’t like it.”

“You worried about me, Lawson?” he teases, a boyish fleck to his blue eyes as a mischievous smile saunters across his lips.

The wind picks up and I shiver involuntarily before nodding at him profusely, admitting it, “Of course. You’re always so reckless and fearless, it’s those kinds of characteristic traits that end up getting people killed.”

He returns a warm smile, moved by my well-placed concern, “I’m careful,” he defends himself, seemingly unconvinced of the fact.

I scoff in disagreement, “Yeah right.” I joke, “Then I’m careful too.”

He grins and weighs it out in his head before giving in, “Yeah alright, I see your point.”

“You need to kickstart some brakes on your life too,” I give him my opinion, “you’re zooming through it all. You’re passing us all by. The least you could do is stop to wave.”

He protests, “But there are still so many things I want to do.” His eyes light up as he speaks passionately about the rest of his hopes and dreams, “I want to skydive, I want to bungee jump, I want to travel the whole world, I want to climb the highest mountains, I want to watch sunsets over the ocean, surf the waves, explore and venture every dark corner of the earth, I want to fall asleep under the stars...” he pauses and sighs wistfully to himself, “I want that. I want all of that out of life, you know?” he asks me as if seeking out someone who can relate to him. “I want it all, but with you.”

My heart skips a beat or two as I blink up at him with a blank expression, intrigued by how earnest he is. He demands a lot out of life, whereas I’m pretty much okay right where I am. I’ll die happy if I haven’t accomplished any of those things he just mentioned. I love life the way it is, but if anything, I’d kill to have even half of his zealous spirit.

He notices my stillness and figures it out for himself. “I don’t know, maybe I’ve just lost all sense of what my purpose is, but I feel like there’s got to be more to life than just staying in one place. I know you feel differently, but how can you not want to see what the rest of the world has to offer?”

It doesn’t faze me because I already have everything I need.

He must pick up on my discomfort because he changes the topic, “I’m serious about the camping thing though. Everyone and anyone are invited. I figured it would be cool for those who have to go back to New York soon. I’m sure Keagen, Laiken, Mas and AJ will appreciate it. I know I will. It would be a good chance to talk to Mason about some unresolved things before I leave.”

“How are you guys doing now?” I ask. “Brothers yet?” I raise an eyebrow, realizing that he’d actually referred to Mason by his name and not by his surname.

“Getting there,” Jay chuckles and looks elsewhere. “It’s not as easy as you’d think. We’ve got a lot of issues to get over. Usually, it’s easy. With Mason though, we’ve got different sides to the same story.”

I don’t say anything.

Jay senses my disappointment and adds more, for my sake, “But for the most part, we’re on track. I promise you that. I’m actually trying at something for once.”

“Good for you,” I reply, cheering up at hearing the last bit of his news. “I know it’s hard to forgive sometimes, depending on the person and depending on the extent of the situation as to which you were hurt. It was really hard for me to forgive Zac and Lars after what they did, but with time, I managed to anyway.”

“Zac?” Jay queries, perceptive and alert as always.

I cringe at my slip-up. Jay and the others all know how Lars tried to frame me and how he put me in harm’s way, but I left out the part where Zac was involved too. I explain it briefly to Jay, ignoring the surge of anger coursing through his eyes.

“Don’t hate him,” I plead with Jay, trying to get him to listen to reason. “He didn’t have a choice at the time. He didn’t see any way out of it. My father manipulated him and took advantage of him. He knew Zac would be nothing without him and exploited that weakness to his will.” I sigh as my eyes linger on his, “I know Zac can be a bit much, but inside he has a golden heart. I believe that. I really do.”

A laugh slips from his lips as he shakes his head at me in amusement, “You say and think that about everyone, Aqueela.” His tone quickly grows bitter the more he dwells on it, “You see the good in everyone when there’s no good at all. You always have. It’s who you are.”

“That’s not true,” I argue in protest, “I only see the worst in Grey,” I kid, merely teasing. Grey just so happens to be my punching bag and Jay knows it.

“Yeah, but even you guys are close now,” he points out in a matter-of-fact way. I open my mouth to argue yet again, but he shushes me, “Don’t even try to deny it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Nothing gets by me,” he winks playfully, unconcerned about it.

I roll my eyes at him before mimicking him repeatedly in a deep tone of voice that I hope somehow matches his.

Despite my mockery, his goodness shines through. He suddenly shrugs off his leather jacket and leans over to place it over my shoulders. I arch an eyebrow at him, confused by his actions. He smiles halfheartedly, “You were shivering again.”

“Thanks,” I say through a cough, feeling awkward. I still haven’t quite recovered from those sickly babies. Grey was right, I was ill last week and this cool weather isn’t helping me much in getting back to my old bubbly self.

“Just a heads up,” Jay adds with a sly smirk, “this,” he gestures to his jacket sprawled across my back, “is one of my favorites. Try to not completely destroy it, alright? You have a bad track record with my jackets, with my property in general.”

“That’s not true,” I lie, pretending to be in denial, “your property just seems to hate me,” I conclude lamely. I’ll hand over this one to him.

He pulls a face and feigns a cringe on my behalf, “That was weak, Lawson,” he rags on me, referring to my futile attempt at a comeback, “what’s going on with you?” He places his hand against my forehead, “Are you getting sick? You do feel kind of warm.”

Ashamed, I slap his hand away and change topics, “How did your racing week go?”

“People have stopped trying to get an intake on my personal life. I didn’t bring Mason into any of it. That’s not how I want things to go down.” He explains himself, “I know that you brought him back to help with my sponsors and fans, but I can’t use him like that. As much as I’d rather not think about it, he’s still my brother.”

I nod, a small smile laced upon my lips.

He’d rather have his entire career sink than bring Mason into the chaotic equation. He’d rather put Mason above his career.

I place a hand over my mouth as I let out a soft yawn, feeling the fatigue. “So wakeboarding huh?” I ask, looking up at him tiredly.

The corners of his mouth tug up into a smirk before he suppresses a chuckle, “It took some time, ask Leban and Kyle, but I eventually got the hang of it. I also took on some imminent wipeouts and bails firsthand, though, I can’t say it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun.”

“I’m in,” I answer excitedly, the idea swimming through my mind along with the rest of my thoughts. “Xavier and Emma have a speedboat,” I tell him as it occurs to me. “It will be awesome,” I muse as I lazily daydream about all the things we could do.

I bring my knees up to my chin, curling up to keep warm and cozy. I yawn while listening to the soft fall of the raindrops above, the storm starting to pass over.

“You should get some sleep. You look beat,” Jay says, breaking the silence. “And before you say something and complain, I mean it in the least offensive way possible,” he finalizes before I can ask him what he’s implying or say to him that he’s trying to tell me that I look downright terrible.

“Aww snap!” I click my fingers with a small shake of my head. “You ruin all my fun. Killjoy. Buzzkill-”

“Go to bed, Aqueela,” he orders, deliberately interrupting my rant with his impeccable timing.

“Mhm no. Nah-uh,” I refuse him, staying rooted in my position as I get in touch with myself to reconnect. “I’m going to stay up here a little longer,” I tell him sweetly as I stare up into his eyes. “But I can see that you’re exhausted, so go on already,” I encourage.

He doesn’t need to be told twice.

I follow his movements with my wandering gaze as he slowly stands up and dusts himself off. I stifle a grin when he reaches up to run a hand through his messy hair - he does that way too often. He stretches his arms out behind his head before yawning. The action causes his shirt to rise up slightly, uncovering the bottom planes of his abs.

I force myself to tear my eyes away and look at the blinkering sky instead. Oblivious to what he’s unintentionally doing, he sends me a ghost of a smile before disappearing inside the house, retreating to bed, in dire need of a good night’s rest.

I wrap myself in his jacket, pulling it closer to me as I cling to it, the cold air now nipping at my cheeks. Still, I remain in my spot, thinking about what it would be like to travel and do all the things that Jay has envisioned for his life.

Watching sunsets doesn’t sound all too awful to me...

It’s a few minutes later when I decide to join him and go to bed too. If I stay out a second longer, I really will be sleeping under the stars. I can barely keep my eyes open. At this rate, I will pass out at any given second.

I lazily and tiredly force each step as I drag myself to Jay’s room. I get down on my knees and crawl through the fort. I reach Jay’s bed, only to find him lights out on the floor of blankets instead. He’d obviously had a hectic week with racing and all Decoda’s crap. His walls are closing in and I feel for him in the moment. He’s under a lot of pressure these days.

I take off his jacket, loving the feel to his room. Those ‘dung beatles’ have outdone themselves. This is perfect weather to sleep in a fort created out of blankets and pillows. Props to them, the floor is more comfortable than the bed. Those guys deserve an award of some sort. This is the best feature to the whole house yet - it definitely beats Oog’s personal ‘Hall of Fails’.

I flop down beside Jay, uncaring whether he’d care by the time morning rolls in. Knowing how he is, he’ll most likely be ticked. I can practically predict him saying that he’ll take the couch next time and yadah yadah yadah ya. Frankly, I could care less.

I glance up at his form and his rising chest as he breathes in and out softly, definitely fast asleep. I carefully trudge my way over to him before laying my head against his chest, cuddling up close to him. Satisfied, I flatten the palm of my hand and rest it on his chest as well, able to feel his steady heartbeat beneath my fingers. It brings a happy-go-lucky smile to my face as I close my eyes, preparing to officially pass out.

His muscles suddenly go rigid and I feel him tense beneath me, “Aqueela?” he murmurs sleepily, stirring awake with my presence in his room.

I nod into his chest, “Sssh. Sleep time now.”

He breathes again and relaxes, tucking a strong arm over me as he gently keeps me in place. “Is the fort still intact?” he asks gruffly, out of it. That’s the only thing that’s bothering him right now in this moment. Typical. “You didn’t break it, did you?”

I grin tiredly and shake my head with a roll of my eyes, ”No, Jay,” I emphasize for his own sake, “I didn’t break your lame fort. I was extremely cautious so not to damage anything. I’m unable to wreak havoc when tired. My powers leave me.”

“I should hope so, this fort was a gift, you know?” he mutters soundlessly. I don’t think he’s conscious of what he’s saying. If he was, he’d either kick me out of his room or leave himself.

“It can be rebuilt, you know?” I tease him in spite of his exhaustion. He’s prone to sleep a lot due to overexerting himself in everything he does. He always gives his best - his all - something I’ve always admired about him.

“And my jacket? Did you have mercy on it? Or did you destroy that with your mind of destruction too?” he asks, paranoid and clearly distrusting of me with his things - can’t even blame him.

I giggle and open my eyes as I stare up at him with affection, only to find his eyes still closed. I already miss the sea of blue. “It’s fine too, Jay. Go to sleep. You don’t even know what you’re saying right now, that’s how gone you are.”

“I’ll dream of you,” he assures me as he tenderly runs a hand through my hair.

I merely smile with a new reply, my eyes fluttering shut on their own accord, “I got mad skills, I even haunt you in your dreams.”

“You always do.”

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