It's a Cruel World, Sir

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26 | Safe

I blink, staring at the room as Nikki let’s out a low whistle. “Chase is in a league of his own, isn’t he?” she comments.

“I can’t stand him,” Whitler mutters on the other side of me.

It looks exactly like the rest of the house: a mess of texts and notes. The only difference is that there’s a king-sized mattress directly in front of us tucked under a cracked window. There’s not a bed frame, just a mattress and box spring, but it almost takes up the entire wall anyway, leaving just enough room for a stack of books on either side. Chase clearly made the bed before he went to the living room because the thin, grey comforter and three pillows lined along the wall are the only things in the room that look relatively put-together. Even the makeshift nightstands made out of stacks of books on either side of the bed are a disaster, pieces of ripped paper and worn spines hanging off. A pile of manila envelopes are gathered around the sliding closet doors on my right, papers and sticky notes riddled between them, while a collection of yet more books are on my left, carelessly thrown in the corner.

“He really needs a life,” I say, sighing.

“It does kinda feel like he lives for his job,” Nikki agrees, “but I like that about him.”

Whit rolls her eyes. “Is there anything about Chase you don’t like?”

She tilts her head, thinking about it, making Whit even more irritated, before she snickers. “Not that I can think of. What about you, Cupcake? Anything you don’t like about Chase?”

It’s my turn to roll my eyes. “I’m not dignifying that with an answer,” I grumble as I step into the room and collapse on the bed, not bothering to lay the correct way.

“Which means no, there isn’t,” Nikki says, completely smug. “Where’s the Cupcake that nearly punched him in the face a month ago? Hmm?”

“She’s asking herself why she’s friends with you,” I mutter.

Nikki laughs and lays next to me, playing with my hair. Whitler combs the room—sliding open the closet doors, checking out the window next to it, tapping the crack in the window above the bed, sifting through the papers on the floor—before she sits on the other side of me with a sigh.

“Satisfied?” Nikki asks with a raised brow.

“No,” she says tersely. “This place is too... bare.”

Nikki snorts. ”Bare? Seriously? It looks like a library threw up in here.”

“Yeah, I can see that, Nik, but there’s nothing... personal. He doesn’t have any posters or plants or—shit, I don’t know, but you’d think a guy who just lost his parents would at least have a picture of them or his friends or something, but he has nothing.”

“He said he just moved, Whitler. Maybe he decided to buy a ticket and leave everything behind,” she reasons. “That’s what people do when they lose their parents, right? They have, like, a mental breakdown.”

“But he’d still have something to remind him of them.”

“Do you have something to remind you of your dad?” she shoots back.

“That’s different.”

“Maybe it isn’t,” Nikki says. “We don’t actually know anything about his personal life.”

“Why are you so quick to defend him?” she demands, glaring. “Things aren’t lining up, and you’re acting like its no-nevermind!”

“He’s allowed to have secrets—especially from us. He doesn’t actually know us, you know.”

“Yeah, and we don’t actually know him, Nik! What if his secrets are important? What if they’re dangerous?”

She snorts. “Newsflash, Whit: we have dangerous secrets. Imagine what’d happen if the school found out why you really missed all of those days two years ago.”

Whitler’s face is grave, eyes bleak. I’m not sure what they’re talking about, but her expression keeps me from asking anything.

“Exactly,” Nikki says, giving her a look. “Everyone has secrets, and everyone’s entitled to those secrets, so stop writing Chase off just because you have trust issues.”

It’s quiet for a moment while she watches Whitler thinking of some way to retort. After a few beats, Whitler goes back to the stack of folders and roots around without a word, which means Nikki’s won the debate for now.

Shaking her head, Nikki turns to me, grinning. “Now that she’s pacified, you wanna tell me how Chase—of all people—managed to weasel his way into your heart?”

“No,” I answer honestly. “Can’t we talk about something else? Anything else?”

“Hell no!” she says. “You and Chase just declared your love for each other—we’re not talking about anything else for the next century.”

“Declared our... Nikki, I just said I liked him! We’re not getting married!”

“Yet,” she mutters.

I glare at her.

“I’m just saying, Cupcake. The fact that you like anyone is momentous. The fact that you said it in front of everyone is even better. How can you expect me to not talk about it?”

“It’s just... I don’t know,” I groan. “It’s all so weird to me.”

She nods understandingly. “Seeing as how you’ve never been interested in anyone, I can see why, but isn’t it exciting?”

I think about it for a minute before shaking my head. “Not really.”

Her eyes widen. “What?” she demands. “Are you telling me that you don’t have, like, butterflies?”

Whitler snorts. “Butterflies are just pretty warning signs,” she mutters.

“Everything’s a warning sign to you,” Nikki retorts easily.

Whitler huffs. “I’m just saying.”

“And I’m not asking the peanut gallery, thank you,” Nikki grumbles, eyeing Whit, “I’m asking Cupcake.”

Whitler mutters under her breath, making Nik open her mouth again, and I sigh, already done with it.

“Stop it,” I order.

“Don’t worry, Cupcake; I’m too excited about this to let her ruin my mood,” she assures me, grinning.

“I take it back,” I mutter. “Kill each other.”

Nikki smacks my shoulder lightly. “Just give in and tell me about the fluttering in your stomach or the sense of surreality or something.”

I roll my eyes. “Well, I definitely don’t have any fluttering in my stomach or whatever.”

“Then how do you feel?” she pries, undeterred.

I roll onto my back and stare at the ceiling. There are water stains all over the popcorn texture, the ugly brown marks making the raised bits look like burnt kernels.

After a minute, I say, “Relieved?” It sounds more like a question, though.

“Relieved?” Nikki parrots, equally confused. “What?”

“Maybe not relieved, but comfortable? Or is ‘solid’ the word I’m looking for?”

She blinks. “Okay, Cupcake, you’ve lost me.”

“I lost myself too,” I grumble, ruffling my hair. “Look, you remember the first time we ever hung out? We went to that mall downtown, just the three of us?”

“Yeah,” she says slowly, still confused. “We had to wait outside for Leon to pick us up because someone had popped Whit’s tires.”

“Right, and those guys ganged up on us just after the mall closed.”

“Outnumbered three to one,” she recalls, making a face. “Pretty sure it was the worst odds we’ve ever had because I just remember trying to figure out how me and Whitler were going to take out three guys each before one of them managed to get to you.”

Whitler chimes in, “That was before we realized what a monster Cupcake was in a fight,” she says, shaking her head. “Remember how she used the plastic bag our snacks were in like it was a rope and wrapped it around that guy’s neck after he took a swing at you? I thought she was going to strangle him to death.”

“I was so pissed,” Nik agrees. “All of that good chocolate, just thrown on the ground like it was worthless.”

I roll my eyes. “Okay, I get it. I lost my temper. Not the point.”

“Then what is?” Nikki wonders.

I’m silent for a minute. “Do you remember how you felt when you saw Leon pulling up in his stupid, run-down truck? When he jumped out of the driver’s seat without hesitation, ready to take them down?”

“He looked like a man on a mission,” she says, fanning herself. “It was so hot.”

“Not exactly what I was going for, but okay,” I say, rolling my eyes again.

“I’m kidding, Cupcake,” she assures me, throwing an arm around me and cuddling up to my side. “Well, not really, but I guess I also felt like we had already won because he was there, you know?”

I nod slowly, staring resolutely at a particularly dark stain on the ceiling. “Whenever Chase is around, it feels like... everything’s going to be okay. Like there’s not a problem he can’t solve. Which is stupid. I know it is. I’m not saying Chase can fix everything because he can’t, but, I guess, the things that can’t be fixed aren’t as important when he’s around.” I look over at the mess of books masquerading as a nightstand and sigh. “And as... as dumb as it sounds, right now, I just feel really... safe.”

Before I know what hit me, Nikki squeezes me tightly, squealing right in my ear. “Oh my God, Cupcake! That’s so cringey and corny and perfect! Who knew you had it in you!?”

I groan. “Why are you like this?”

“Because you’re growing up right in front of my eyes!” she continues squealing. “Chase is so lucky!”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I mutter.

“I would! He somehow managed to get the forbidden fruit! Or is it the forbidden Cupcake?”

I shake my head. “You’re an idiot.”

Despite the insult, her eyes are sparkling. “Have you guys kissed yet?”

“What?” I keep my face resolutely blank.

Her eyes widen. “You have!”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Oh my God! When? Where? How long? Was it as good as you’d thought it’d be? Was it as good as I’d thought it’d be?”

“Woah! One question at a time, Nik!” I say. “First, what makes you think we’ve kissed? I haven’t said anything.”

“You don’t hate to,” she says, rolling her eyes. “Any time you control your face like that, it means you’re hiding something!”

I glare at her. “Maybe I’m just not affected by it.”

"Please, Cupcake, I wasn’t born yesterday,” she tuts. “You’re affected by everything in some way, especially when it comes to Chase.”

“She has a point,” Whitler mutters.

“Aren’t you busy snooping?” I growl.

She chuckles, though, unperturbed.

“Just give up and tell me!” Nikki demands.

I cross my arms, grumbling. “Fine. What do you want to know?”

“Everything,” she says simply.

“Nikki,” I groan, “I’m not going to give you play-by-play.”

“At least tell me whether he’s an aggressive kisser or not,” she whines. “He strikes me as the type of person that pushes someone against the wall and kisses them to shut them up.”

My face heats up. “What kind of imagination do you have?”

“The best kind,” she says, wiggling her brow.

I roll my eyes.

“Now tell me~”

“I guess... both,” I mutter.

Her eyes widen. “Both?” she parrots.

I nod. “The first kiss was disgustingly soft,” I explain, face burning, “but he has no problem shutting me up when he thinks I’m ‘speaking nonsense.’”

She grins. “I knew it.”

I roll my eyes again, trying to hide how hot my face is. “Can we please stop for the night and lay down?” I beg. “I’m dead tired.”

“I’d be tired too if I just discovered human emotions~” she teases.

“Nikki, I’m serious.”

“Fine.” She pouts. “You’re no fun.”

Ignoring her, I look over at Whit, who’s reading some paper she found. “Ready for bed, Whitler?”

“Thought you’d never ask,” she says, dropping the paper and standing up.

“Both of you are boring,” Nikki whines, following Whitler’s lead.

“You’re just too hyperactive,” I argue, joining them.

She sticks her tongue out at me as she unzips her skirt, letting it flit to the ground. “At least I have fun, unlike some people,” she says, kicking her skirt and flats out of her way.

“What are you doing?” Whitler asks.

Nik raises her eyebrow. “Taking off my clothes? You don’t honestly think I’m going to sleep in a pencil skirt and blouse, do you?”

“How can you get naked in the enemy’s territory?” she hisses.

Nikki snorts. ”Please. Chase’ll have to get through my boyfriend first, so I think it’s safe,” she says before adding, “Of course, I’m not against him peeking.”

She shakes her eyes, grumbling “Isn’t he supposed to be Cupcake’s?” under her breath.

Nikki and I both stop, blinking at Whitler as she toes off her shoes and unbuttons her jeans, muttering the whole time about being without ‘armor’ in ‘foreign territory.’

When she notices us staring, she stops what she’s doing. “What?”

“You just admitted Chase belongs to Cupcake,” Nikki points out.

She keeps her face resolutely blank. “What else am I supposed to do when she feels that strongly about him?”

The grin on Nikki’s face is almost as scary as when she found out I liked Chase. “You’re warming up to the idea, aren’t you?”

“No,” Whitler says immediately. “I still think he’s hiding something. Even if he’s not involved with Preston, and even if he claims he cares about Cupcake, I think there’s stuff he’s not telling us, and that tells me that I can’t trust him.”

Nikki’s having none of that, though. She grabs Whitler’s hands, grinning. “Aw~ It’s because Cupcake said she felt safe, isn’t it?”

Whitler peels Nikki’s hands off of hers. “What kind of friend would I be if I ignored it?” she retorts.

“You’re such a softie~”

I sigh, shaking my head as Nikki continues teasing Whitler, and slip out of my grey sweats. Thanks to Nikki’s grilling, I hadn’t realized how hot I was this whole time, but now that they’re off, the breeze from the cracked window feels good, so I toss them in the corner of the room without a care—as if this place needed to be messier—before crawling into bed.

Nikki jumps in shortly after, giggling to herself, and Whit turns off the light before laying on my other side.

Just when everything quiets down, Whitler lets out a long breath. “I know I’ve been a real asshole lately, but it’s just because I’m worried,” she says. “You two know that, right?”

“About Chase? I know,” I assure her before Nikki can answer.

But Whit shakes her head. “Not just him. It’s this whole thing—the threats, Preston, fucking Canty—Chase is just the icing on the cake.”

“The Cupcake?” Nikki cracks absently.

I don’t have to see Whitler to know she glaring. “Shut up.”

Nikki laughs, but I lightly backhand her before she can say anything. “He’s not involved with them,” I say firmly to Whit.

“How can you be so sure?” she wonders. It’s not as demanding this time, like she genuinely wants to know if I have actual evidence.

“The way Preston acted when they saw him,” I say easily. “Ignoring the fact that he saved me—which I think should take him off of your suspect list by itself—the way they reacted when they saw him would tell you that they’ve never even heard of him before.”

“They could’ve been acting,” she points out.

I sigh. “Can’t you trust me on this?” I ask. “Just this one time, can’t you just trust my judgment?”

“I want to,” she says. “I really do, Cupcake, but you never tell us when things are going bad for you. Never. As long as it doesn’t affect us directly, you keep it to yourself. So how am I supposed to believe you?”

“Honestly? I don’t know if I would believe me in your case either,” I say, “but I was serious when I apologized in the living room, and I’m serious now: I’ll work on relying on you if you will just... trust me when it comes to Chase.”

She stares at me, searching my face. Even in the dark, I can feel Nikki holding her breath the whole time, waiting.

After a few beats, Whitler murmurs, “Okay. I’ll trust you.”

Nikki swells with happiness.

“But,” Whit interrupts, “if I find out that you’re hiding something—anything—to protect us again, I’ll lose my shit, Cupcake.”

“Like you haven’t been losing your shit?” Nikki mutters.

Whit glares but doesn’t say anything, looking at me expectantly.

“Alright,” I agree.

She lets out a breath. “Now, go to bed. We’ve got a long day tomorrow.”

“Yes, mom,” Nikki chirps.

I shake my head again and roll over, closing my eyes.

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