Nala is unable to face Sean the next day. In fact, she spends the rest of the week avoiding him. Her routine practically returns to normal as she starts to forget about the two days she spent pretending to be his girlfriend. She is only reminded of it again on Monday when the girl sitting next to her at lunch mentions it. "Hey, what are you going to do?" she asks a vague question.
"Do about what?" Nala doesn't understand.
"Your boyfriend. I saw him in the hall this morning. A girl from another class was asking him out. What are you going to do?"
"Why should I do anything?" she is immediately flustered. "It's his choice how to respond."
"You don't care if he picks up another girl on the side?" the girl is amazed. "Maybe he's going to dump you for her."
"That's his choice," she feigns disinterest.
"Really? I thought you'd be panicking. You're much cooler than I thought," the girl compliments and insults her at the same time.
"What do you mean?" Nala asks. "Why did you think I would panic?"
"If that Mina girl were dating Sean you can bet she would be panicking right now."
"You thought I was like those mindless girls," Nala realizes. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"No, I like you better this way. Who knew the only other girl I'd find who wasn't crazy would be dating that guy of all people."
"You really don't like Sean, do you?"
"I have nothing against him personally. I just don't like his screaming fan club. They disrupt lunch every day. I'm Asia by the way."
"Are you trying to become friends?" Nala is skeptical.
"I thought I was pretty clear. You don't have many friends do you?" Nala reaches into her bag and pulls out her cell phone. There are only two names in the contact list. One is her track coach and the other is her brother. "Ouch." Asia winces sympathetically. Without a word she takes the phone from Nala and inputs her information. "There, now we are friends." She quickly sends a message to herself so she has Nala's information as well.
Nala takes her phone back with a shaky hand. Nothing like this has ever happened before. She wonders if she should have traded numbers with Rain last week as well. She has not seen or heard from her since. They probably aren't actually friends. "So your name is Asia," Nala finally says something.
"Spelled like the continent but with a shorter 'A' sound at the beginning like in the word 'ash'," she explains.
"It's a nice name. I like it." Nala smiles happily at her first official friend. She has never really noticed the quiet girl sitting next to her before. She always wears a black skirt with a matching black top and a red ribbon around her collar. Her hair is lighter than Nala's in braided pigtails down her back. Nala has seen her wearing glasses at some point during the school year but not often. She must wear contact lenses most of the time.
"If I recall, your name was Nala." Asia tilts her head as she thinks.
"Nala Peters." Nala reaches out to shake hands.
"You're strange," Asia giggles as she laces her fingers with Nala's instead. "I hope we can get along from now on, Nala Peters."
Across the room loud whispers from a separate conversation draws their attention. "Did you hear?"
"Yeah, apparently he turned her down."
"He must really like his current girlfriend."
"Bad news for Mina." They are obviously talking about Sean's morning incident.
"You." Trina stands up from her desk, spinning around to point at Nala. "What are you to Sean?"
"We've established this. She's his girlfriend," Asia defends her new friend.
"That can't be. They haven't done anything together in a week," Trina announces. "If you were really a couple, you'd eat lunch with him every day or something."
"He likes to spend time with Maddie," Nala gives an excuse. She does not know Madison's real name though.
"So he likes hanging out with boys more than his own girlfriend. As I thought, you're not really a couple, are you?" Trina continues to argue.
Nala considers admitting the truth right now. It would make things a whole lot easier. Of course she would never live it down though. She hasn't had the chance to discuss her impending public breakup with Sean since she started avoiding him. Before she can open her mouth to admit that Trina is right Asia answers for her. "Just because you can't get a date with him, you go around belittling any girl that does. If I tell him how you treat his girlfriend, I bet he'd hate you."
"Hey, don't do that." Nala tugs on Asia's sleeve, begging her to sit down and stop digging her hole deeper.
"Why not? Do you realize how pathetic they are? Is that the normal reaction to have when you like someone; to attack the people he cares about? It's the same thing as insulting his mother then asking for her blessing to date him. At this rate she's going to ruin her own standing with him. Even if he dumps you, he won't go out with her."
"Thanks, I think," Nala does not completely understand what she is saying. Trina seems to get it though as she quickly sits back down. Her friends gather around to console her but she remains quiet.
"Anyway, I think I have an idea how to help you," Asia is still trying to advise Nala.
"Help me do what?"
"Help you get closer with your boyfriend. You don't like that he eats with his friend instead of you, right?"
"I don't really mind…"
"Why don't you bring a homemade lunch for him?" Asia cuts her off. "No boy wouldn't be happy to eat something his precious girlfriend made him."
"I, I really don't think…"
"I promise you, he'll love it," Asia won't take no for an answer. The more she talks the more excited about the idea Nala becomes. Even if it is a fake relationship, the thought of being able to do something for Sean makes her happy. So far she has been nothing but a burden to him. Maybe she can use this as an apology of some sort.
After track practice, the captain of the team pulls Nala aside to talk to her one on one. "You're time is slipping," he does not beat around the bush. "What's gotten into you?"
"I hear from Trevor that you've gotten yourself a boyfriend," it seems he didn't need to ask in the first place. "Don't tell me you're going to quit the team for him."
"Of course not. We aren't really that serious," she mutters truthfully.
"It's still disrupting your performance. We need to give you an edge. Why don't you try going on a diet."
"Another one?" she protests. "I already lost ten pounds since summer. I don't eat lunch anymore."
"I guess it's impossible then." He strokes his chin as he tries to think of something else. "Ah, your hair. You could cut your hair again?"
She grabs part of her bangs instinctively. It was a hard choice to shorten her hair at the start of the semester as her brother always told her how cute she looked with twin ponytails. He pretended to cry for an hour when she returned from the salon. Sean also told her he likes girls with longer hair. Then again, why should anything Sean says matter?
"Got it? Get your hair cut by tomorrow," the captain snaps her out of her thoughts.
"Um, yes sir," she mumbles unconvincingly as he walks off.
She stands near the changing room pulling on her hair silently until someone taps her shoulder. She practically jumps as she spins around to find Trevor. "What do you want?" she gasps while checking her pulse.
"You don't need to act so surprised. Were you expecting your boyfriend or something?" He is frowning.
"Maybe I am," she does not feel like being nice to him.
"I thought you two had given up going home together. You aren't riding with your brother anymore either."
"Are you stalking me?" she accuses him.
"Not particularly," he denies it. "I'm just concerned. If you're having trouble with your boyfriend, then maybe I can help you feel better."
"I don't need the kind of help you're offering." She stalks into the changing room. All of the other girls have already left. She takes her time changing back into her school uniform, while wondering why she even wears it when no one else bothers. She decides to leave her blazer in her bag and her blouse un-tucked, giving her a less stuck-up appearance.
When she steps outside again, Trevor is still waiting with his arms crossed. He has an annoyed look on his face and is tapping his foot. The source of his discomfort becomes apparent as Nala notices Sean leaning against the gate to the track field. Normally she would have fled before he arrived but with the captain and Trevor taking her time she missed her chance. "Been a while." He waves to her as he approaches.
"What do you want?" she grumbles rudely.
"Don't be like that." He steps behind her, draping his arms over her shoulders and resting his chin on the top of her head.
"Just going on and flaunting it," Trevor scoffs.
"You'd be doing the same thing if you could," Sean spits back.
"Will you two stop it?" Nala tries to shake Sean off but he latches on tighter.
"If you really wanted me to stop, you would try harder," he laughs. She starts to shake angrily. He knows full well she can't. She would have dealt with Mr. Thalmus on her own if she could. He is taking advantage of her inability to act on her own and using it to belittle Trevor. "Are you okay?" he can feel her vibrating below him.
"I think you better stop." Trevor tries to separate them.
"No way, she's mine." Sean drags her out of his reach. "Get your own girlfriend."
"Why do you act like this, man?" Trevor glares at him. "Are you so desperate to show off your new girlfriend? Does it make you feel better about what your last one did?"
"That's right," Sean doesn't even try to deny it. "I want everyone to see that I've moved on."
"It doesn't have to be her, though, does it?" Trevor asks.
"Not really." Sean shrugs.
"Then give her back." Trevor tries to grab Nala again. "You can just go and get a different girlfriend, can't you? Why'd you have to take my girl?"
"Oh, there he goes again, thinking you belong to him," Sean laughs. "You should really clear up his misunderstanding."
"I…" Nala is too nervous to say anything.
"She and I have been together since the beginning of the year," Trevor explains. "We were both pathetic at the summer tryouts. We ended up in the infirmary together once."
"Oh yeah, you were there too, weren't you," Sean recalls.
"Wait, when did you…?"
"I was helping the nurse that day," Sean explains. "If you're comparing who has known her longer I'd say it's about the same." Trevor's face is boiling with rage. "Aw, did I take away your special memory?" Sean mocks him.
"I'm sorry but I don't remember either of you from that day," Nala whispers.
"Shut up, this has nothing to do with you," Trevor shouts.
"Actually, it has everything to do with her." Sean has been smiling this entire time. It seems not much ever gets to him. "I think you've lost this round. If you'll excuse me, I have to walk my girlfriend home." He finally removes his chin from Nala's head but takes hold on her hand instead, dragging her away from the track field. Trevor is left by himself, kicking the grass in anger.
"Why did you do that?" Nala asks in her quiet voice.
"Sorry about that." The smile fades from Sean's face. "I really need to stop this soon, don't I?"
"You really miss Nina, don't you?" Nala reaffirms.
"Like I said, it's not her I miss. I just wanted a girlfriend, that's all."
"But I'm not your girlfriend." She shakes their linked hands to emphasize her point.
"I know, I just… I'm a little bit confused right now. Every time I see you, someone is trying to pick you up. Why are you so popular?"
"That's supposed to be my line," she counters.
"Well I'm me. With you it's different."
"That doesn't make me happy." She starts to pout.
"Sorry," he quickly realizes how insulting he just sounded. "What I meant was, when I see you with them it looks like a shark circling its prey."
"You don't think I'd be on equal footing with them if I were to date them," she understands what he means.
"You just give off that helpless aura. I can't help but worry."
"That's just the type of person I am. I'm not capable of dominating a relationship. It doesn't matter if it's now or in ten years; eventually I'm going to end up as someone else's property."
"If that's going to happen, then I'd rather it be me!" he raises his voice.
Nala stares at him with wide eyes for a long time before responding. "One night," she whispers.
"What?" He leans closer to hear her better.
"You promised me one night. How was I supposed to know it would end up the way it did? I told you not to make me want more, didn't I?"
He finally lets go of her hand. "I didn't realize I was bothering you so much."
"Of course it bothers me." Her eyes are welling up. "How can I keep this up if you keep acting like this? I have to go on a diet starting tomorrow. I have too many things to worry about already. I can't deal with you."
"You're taking track too seriously," he accuses her. "So what if you're not the fastest runner."
"Yet," she interrupts him. "I'm not the fastest runner yet. If I keep improving I could be captain by third year."
"Really? That's amazing." He hugs her. "Good for you."
"Don't." She shoves him away. "Stop acting like a boyfriend."
"But that's the whole point of this, right? Wait, why were we doing this?" he has confused himself.
"You wanted to take your mind off Nina. I wanted help turning down guys like Mr. Thalmus. But now…"
"But now I'm turning into Mr. Thalmus," he realizes. "I'm sorry…"
"Stop apologizing! I'm not mad. I'd rather it be you than him but…"
"But it's not real," he keeps finishing her sentences.
"I want more, Sean. Can you give me more? If not then leave me alone," she gives him an ultimatum.
He goes silent as he starts to think about it. He does not want to start anything based on his old feelings for Nina. His chance to respond is taken from him though as they arrive at her apartment. There is someone already waiting outside the door though. "Celli?" Nala recognizes her brother's girlfriend.
"Hey, Nala." She greets her. "I'm just…"
"What are you doing out here? Come in, come in." Nala pushes her through the door as she unlocks it.
"Nala, is that you?" her brother is already home. "I'm sorry I didn't give you a ride today. I know it must be hard walking after track practice. We should start riding together again if you aren't still mad…" his voice trails off as he enters the living room with a skillet in one hand and a mixing spoon in the other.
"Expecting company?" Nala asks smugly.
"I was hoping you two would take the time to eat dinner together and get to know each other," he gulps nervously.
"I'll just be leaving." Sean backs toward the door.
"Wait!" Corbin stops him. "I wanted to talk to you as well."
"I really don't think this is the time." Sean is still thinking about what Nala said. She quickly wipes the tears from her eyes when she remembers as well.
"What's going on between you two?" Corbin is suspicious.
"Nothing, what did you make?" Nala pushes him back into the kitchen.
"Um, something foreign." He examines his skillet like it might be inedible. He is actually an average cook, having had four years to practice since he and his sister moved out on their own.
Nala rushes back into the living room and starts to set the dining table. After a moment Celli decides to help her. Sean stands perfectly still, feeling completely out of place. When the table is ready, Nala pushes him into the chair next to hers. It is a small square table with a chair on each side. Corbin enters the living room with his skillet which he sets in the center of the table on top of a pot holder. Nala and Celli retrieve the rest of the dishes from the kitchen while Sean simply watches.
"So, how did you two meet?" Corbin jumps right into questioning Sean.
"Brother," Nala is startled.
"Why don't we start," Celli suggests. "I'm sure your sister is curious as to who this strange girl dating her brother is."
"When you phrase it that way, there's nothing left for me to complain about," Nala pouts.
"As you know, I am a student of your brother's," Celli starts to explain. "We met several times in the halls and in class but we never talked for long."
"Skip to the good part," Nala is impatient.
"Nala!" it is Corbin's turn to scold his sister's brashness. Sean smiles as he realizes that the timid girl he knows disappears when she is with her brother. At least there is someone she can be open with.
"It's alright." Celli touches Corbin's arm. "He walked in on me and my previous boyfriend…"
"Having sex?" Nala interrupts again.
"Having a fight," Cell's voice deepens. She is trying to remain as calm as possible. From her point of view she deserves every bit of distrust Nala has for her. "Things got rough and he had to separate us. I actually followed Corbin out of the school so my boyfriend wouldn't do anything. He offered to drive me home and we got to talking. We eventually traded numbers so I could call if things got bad again."
"Sounds romantic," Nala yawns sarcastically before stuffing some food in her mouth. She quickly spits it out again as she remembers that she is supposed to be on a diet. Both Sean and Corbin look extremely annoyed but neither one says anything.
"It was a week before I finally called him," Celli continues her story. "My boyfriend was upset about something and he threatened to kill me. He drove all the way over just to get me and take me home." Celli is smiling as she reminisces.
"That's when I got accused of being her boyfriend by her mother," Corbin takes over explaining. "She was really mean, calling her a tramp and everything. I explained that I was merely a concerned teacher and I helped them both file a restraining order against her boyfriend."
"After that, my mom got weird," Celli interrupts. "She kept inviting your brother over for dinner and getting him drunk. One time she kissed him."
"Celli was so jealous," Corbin laughs. "She screamed something like 'he belongs to me'."
"You have nightingale syndrome," Sean surmises. "Because he saved you, you shifted your affection to him."
"Sort of." Celli nods.
"I didn't really know what to do," Corbin spouts. "It was my fault for putting myself in that situation. I just couldn't leave her alone."
"So you decided to date a student?" Nala crosses her arms.
"It's not an excuse, it's an explanation." Corbin glares at her.
"Do you even care about your career?" Nala shouts. "You can't throw your life away for a girl."
"She's not just a girl." Corbin slams his palms on the table.
"Please calm down." Celli strokes his arm.
"I'm worried about you, brother," Nala whines. "You need to think clearly about this."
"Thinking clearly is out of the question." He shakes his head. "You should know what it's like now. You feel the same way about Sean, don't you?"
"I…" she doesn't know how to answer. She is still conflicted about what happened after they left the karaoke parlor. She has never been happier than when he kissed her that night but she has also never been more scared, not even of Mr. Thalmus.
"How did you two meet," Celli tries to move the conversation along.
"The infirmary," Nala half shouts. "Heatstroke. Nurse's aid," she is too nervous to form sentences.
"During the summer track tryouts she passed out with heatstroke. I was the nurse's assistant," Sean explains.
"How cute," Celli coos excitedly. "It's a high school romance like ours, just less forbidden."
"There has to be more to it than that," Corbin urges him to continue.
"Well, she was kind of out of it so I'm sure she doesn't remember but I was talking to the nurse about her boyfriend. She asked me what kind of girl I liked."
"And? What is your type?" Celli asks excitedly.
"The exact opposite of me," Nala answers with a twinge of annoyance.
"That's perfect," Corbin laughs. "She's a farm girl after all. I doubt any of you city slickers want her but she'd be a star back home."
"Shut up." Nala is blushing now.
"So what happened next?" Celli apparently enjoys talking about romance.
"When she was leaving, she stumbled into me," Sean continues.
"I remember that," Nala mutters to herself.
"Our lips accidentally touched and she joked that I should take responsibility."
"Did that really happen?" Nala is shocked. "I thought our first kiss was in the hall in front of Maddie and Mr. Thalmus."
Corbin's expression changes at the mention of the teacher's name. "Why were you talking to Mr. Thalmus?" he demands.
"He was talking to me." Nala sinks into her seat.
"Stay away from that guy," he orders.
"You don't have to tell me that," Nala responds in a depressed tone. Sean is curious as to why Corbin would say something like that if he wasn't already aware of what took place.
"Um, did you take responsibility?" Celli draws the conversation back.
"I thought she was serious so I ran," Sean answers. Nala can tell that his story has become pure fiction. "I had just gone through a rather bad breakup," he mixes in some truth to keep Corbin and Celli from realizing it. "After making up my mind, I asked her out on the roof of the school."
"And you went with him willingly?" Corbin is suspicious. He is starting to suspect that his sister might have just been dragged along without consent. He knows how hard it is for her to refuse people.
"He was the coolest guy in school!" Nala spouts. "How could I turn him down?"
"So she is the rebound girl," Corbin realizes. "That explains a lot."
"I'm sorry." Sean lowers his head.
"It's not that different than us," Celli interjects. "I'm sure it can still work out."
"I hope so." Corbin leaves the table to retrieve something from the kitchen.
"He really likes you, doesn't he," Nala mutters to Celli.
"I'd be lost without him," she responds. "It worries me though. I'm afraid that he's going to leave me soon."
"My brother's not so shallow," Nala becomes defensive. "He wouldn't have risked his career if he were going to do that. He wouldn't have fought with me about it. I only want the best for him, just like he wants the best for me. We're having this get together for that very purpose. He wants to make sure Sean isn't going to just dump me when he gets over his ex."
Sean flinches as the conversation shifts to him. Why did she have to say something like that? There is no way they can end their pretend relationship with a pretend breakup now. Corbin will never forgive him. "I'm leaving." His chair scrapes the floor as he stands up.
"Um, okay," Nala doesn't feel like stopping him.
"Wait, is that how you two part ways?" Celli is shocked.
"What else is there to say?" Nala asks.
"You could hug or kiss. You could at least say goodbye. Maybe even say 'I'll call you later' if nothing else."
"I don't have his number." Nala holds up her phone to show how lacking her contacts are.
"Seriously?" Celli almost seems angry. "Are you two really dating?"
"We've kept it a secret until now," Nala falls back on their original lie. "It only became public after Mr. Thalmus…"
"Don't," Celli stops her.
"What?" Nala looks up at her brother as he returns to the room.
"Just don't talk about him around Corbin, okay?" Celli whispers. Nala nods slowly. "Here. Input your information," Celli instructs Sean while handing him Nala's phone.
"Why?" He doesn't want to.
"Just do it." Celli shows a scarier side of herself for a moment. After how much trouble she has caused Nala, she is desperate to help the younger girl out in any way she can.
"I'm really leaving now." Sean hands Nala's phone back with his number entered in the contact list.
"Here, I'll send you a message." Nala types something random. "Call me later." She waves as he finally leaves the apartment. Sean frowns as he wonders if she really expects him to call. Up until now, Nala has been the one insisting their relationship was fake. Now she seems more interested in continuing the charade than he is. It is probably his turn to start avoiding her now.
Nala stays up late that night, finishing the homework she was not able to do during dinner with her brother and company. Every few minutes her eyes travel from the papers in front of her on her desk to her silver cell phone on her bed. She has been secretly hoping to receive a message or a call from Sean.
It is not like she plans for them to contact each other all the time, she just can't wait for her first experience communicating with a friend this way. Even if they have nothing to say on a regular basis they can now warn each other of potential obstacles to their secret.
Nala almost falls backwards out of her chair when the light on the side of her phone flickers, alerting her of an incoming call. "Sean?" she scampers across her floor to her bed to answer it.
"Oh, sorry. Were you expecting a call from him?" Asia is the one to respond.
"Not exactly," she is suddenly embarrassed.
"Ha, you're disappointed," Asia laughs at her. "Isn't love sweet?"
"So, are you going to make lunch for him tomorrow?" Asia reminds her of her plan.
"I don't know. I'm not that good at cooking," Nala admits.
"Don't worry. He'll eat anything as long as it's made by you," Asia is overconfident. Nala is sure that she would be right in the case of a real boyfriend. "By the way, Nala, I really don't want to ask you this since we only just became friends, but I need your help with something," Asia's tone changes to a serious one.
"Of course. I'll do whatever I can," Nala is quick to show support for her first official friend.
"I'll explain more tomorrow. If I don't seem to want to talk about it, remind me that I asked for your help. I might need to motivate myself again. See you tomorrow, Nala."
Nala gulps as she hangs up the phone. Asia seems to be in some sort of trouble. There is nothing she can do about it tonight though. Instead she decides to send a simple message to Sean to remind him that they are now able to communicate when apart.
His reply comes three minutes later, interrupting what little homework she has managed to start on since Asia's call. "Why did you txt me? Is there something you need?" he does not seem pleased to be disturbed.
"Sorry. I was kinda hoping you would txt me first now that we can and all." She quickly taps out her response before returning to her homework.
Again his response is delayed by three minutes. "You were looking forward to hearing from me?" he is surprised. "I thought you were mad at me."
"I'm not mad, just confused," she writes back. "We can still talk, can't we?"
When Sean receives her message, he starts to feel bad for planning to avoid her. He did not like it when she did it to him. "What do you want to talk about then?" he decides to see where the conversation leads. At the very least he does not dislike Nala. Perhaps they will remain friends when this is all over.
Nala and Sean spend the rest of the night messaging each other. After midnight they lie down in their beds and continue to wait for the other to respond to random notes about unimportant things like preferences and opinions. It feels to Nala like what a real couple would do, which makes her happy and sad at the same time. She is sure Sean has done the same thing with Nina in the past.
Sean is equally as happy to have someone to share meaningless chatter with. Despite what he said about her being hollow, she seems to be able to speak her mind when with him. Perhaps his carefree attitude puts her at ease. The more time he spends with her, the more responsible he feels. He is not sure he would be happy if she found a real boyfriend. It is not simple jealousy though; he is still concerned that anyone showing interest in her might simply want to control her. He does not plan to let that happen.