When the dismissal bell rang, Joe took his time turning the corners of the hall, knowing he would have to make up an excuse to stay behind, alone, with Stella. A satisfactory one. Because sometimes Nick was lame and liked everything to go in some perfect order, an order that included Joe and Nick getting home together.
When Nick had looked between them suspiciously, he finally asked a logical question that he thought would settle things. "How are you going to get home? You can't just walk, Joe. You'll get ravaged..." Not having thought that far ahead, honestly, Joe shot Stella a pleading look, and she looked back at him, eyes bugging a little. Really, since when was she a cab driver, but after another earnest look from Joe she sighed.
Turning Nick to face her more, Stella put on her perfect smile and answered, "I'm giving him a ride Nick. He'll get home by-" she noticed out of the corner of her eye that Joe was shaking her head and her shoulders slumped a little, but she kept smiling, "-he'll be home." Nick just gave her another suspicious, evaluating look before nodding his head in agreement.
Slapping Joe on the arm, Nick started to walk off, "See you Joe. Don't - get into trouble."
With Nick no longer visible, Joe pulled Stella down to the stairs by the elbow of her shirt and she glared at him. "Joe, how many times do I have to tell you not to stretch my shirts out?!" Her hiss only caused him to shrug. He had way more important things to deal with.
"You... remember what I told you when we were seven?" Joe asked the question without so much as an introduction.
Sighing, she thought about it for a whole second before landing on the question, "That orange crayons taste better than the blue ones?"
"No, not that," he said, exasperated, but quickly added, to his defense, "But seriously, they do."
"Yeah, yeah, okay Joe..." Stella rolled her eyes, but a soft smile was set on her lips. "What of the million things you told me when we were seven are you talking about?"
"What I said about Nick...?"
"Um..." With her manicured nail, she tapped at her chin, thinking, eyes raised up in focus. Shaking her head, letting her hand drop loosely over her knee, she looked at Joe, a scrutinizing sort of looking in her narrowed eyes. "Joe. Seriously, we were seven. I'm pretty sure I was wrapped up in my Barbies and Ken dolls-"
"-Ken is not a doll."
Laughing a little, she indulged sarcastically, "Yeah Joe, Ken was an action figure, because he totally drove a corvette, right?" Joe nodded his head and she rolled her eyes again. "Anyway... Like I was saying, I don't know how good your memory is, but I got nothin' so if you have something in mind, you're going to have to refresh my memory, just a little bit." Her index finger and thumb were held out in front of her, signifying just how much a 'little bit' was, and her eyes were squinted.
"Stell..." he pleaded, but she shrugged, putting her hand on his knee and patting it condescendingly. He pushed her hand away and let out a frustrated sigh. "Fine. Remember when I told you that I - that I..." Joe growled at himself, running a hand through his hair, but he ended up pulling at it instead of letting his fingers just slip through. This time Stella was gentler as she laid her hand on his knee, sincere. He pushed his eyes to look her in the face, scrunched up his face in one last attempt to get out his aggravation, and then blurted out, "That I had a crush on him! That I - had a crush on Nick... Do you remember?"
That was it. He'd said it. And then a hyena jumped out of Stella's stomach or something, because she started cracking up like she'd never get another chance to laugh again. Doubled over in his lap, Stella slapped at his leg, snorting out, "Oh my god! That was hilarious...!" He just groaned, pushing her off his lap with his elbows and set his face in his hands, feeling his face heat up. He should have known it would be like this.
After a few more seconds, Stella started to gain control of herself, and her face fell when she saw Joe's demeanor. Usually he'd be laughing with her, causing a raucous so loud they'd get kicked out of the deserted halls by the janitor, or a teacher. He wasn't though."Oh." Stella surprised herself when her voice came out small, soft, and apologetic. "You're serious. I..." she shook her head a little. If it weren't for the way he looked, she wouldn't be worried about what was to come, but he looked terrible. It wasn't going to be one of those things where they had a new inside joke to keep from Nick later on, she supposed. "Don't remember, Joe. I'm sorry." He looked up at her, sucking in a breath, straightening himself out. "What's up, huh?"
Jaw clenching a little at the sound of baby-talk-softness in her tone, Joe decided to take what he was given and to work with it. There might not be much time left after he said anything to get any of this sort of emotion from her, his best friend, so he took it, and his jaw eased, and he wiped a strand of hair from her face, putting it behind her ear. He wanted to hug her. To just keep hugging her as long as he could until he had to tell her, but he knew he couldn't. If he did, he'd probably never tell anyone. It was days like these that he felt himself being eaten up. It was terrible, and he wondered how much of him was going to be left after a few more days of Nick being openly affectionate, until he would be nothing but bones.
"You still...?" she prompted before biting her lip in concern. She didn't want to hear what he had to say. She knew she didn't. But at the same time, she knew whatever it was, she'd still love him, that he'd still be her best friend, and so she wanted to be there for him. For a moment she wondered if it was terrible that she had never expected anything this legitimately deep to happen between them. Then she realized a part of her had always wondered. A very deep, dark, hidden part of her that most of the time she didn't acknowledge... But a part of her never the less.
Closing his eyes and drawing in another breath, readying himself inside and out to have it knocked out of him the moment he answered, Joe replied, "I guess it wasn't just - a ... I guess it wasn't just like, a crush, Stell. It must have been - I don't know. It never -" He found himself unable to form full sentences. He had his eyes closed so tightly he was beginning to see shapes and stars, and his head was starting to hurt, a headache forming in the base of his neck, working its way up. And she just let him keep going, and if it weren't for the fingers locking around his hand, he would have completely run out of courage.
"It never really... um... went away. Like, God Stella, I think I'm in love with him." He had thought he would crumble, curl away into dust, but instead, his back stayed up straight, his lungs filled to capacity every other inhale. He was sort of proud of himself, in a weird, kind of hopeless way.
Then he felt himself being pulled down, his elbows being tugged on, and his hand was no longer being held. Stella pulled him into her body, wrapped her arms around his shoulders awkwardly. "What do you need Joe? Why are you telling me? Why... aren't you telling him?"
He backed out of her hold at that, mouth hanging open a little disbelievingly. Her surprised look didn't help any, but at that he wished he hadn't pulled out of her arms quite so harshly. "You think - you think I could actually tell him? Stell, are you nuts?" He shook his head at himself. "No of course not. I am. But Stella, seriously, he's my - he's my brother. I can't tell him that!"
Listening to him say something like that, like he couldn't tell Nick anything made something click in her head, and she sighed as realization dawned upon her, and then laughed a little. "Oh my God Joe... You don't even know how ridiculous it is of you to say that, do you? But to be fair, I didn't see what was going on right under my nose."
Despite the seriousness of everything her laugh, and her smile helped to bring Joe off of whatever ledge he was standing on. "Yeah, you do usually recognize most things for what - what do you mean, Stella?" His curiosity had overwhelmed him, and he couldn't even finish agreeing with her.
Without thinking too much about it, Stella leaned forward, placed a warm, solid kiss against Joe's cheek as his eyes widened, confused, kind of alarmed. Really, what was she doing? But she pulled away, a reassuring smile on her face and nodded her head a little as if that was supposed to mean something to Joe. He nodded his head back, but it was clear he had no idea what he why he was nodding, and she sighed, exasperation clear.
"You tell him Joe. You tell him. And then you kiss him on the cheek, just like that, and you see if he doesn't lean into it, doesn't blush after, doesn't sputter nervously for a few seconds. He'll ask you, probably, what you thought you were doing. So you tell him again, and again, and again, and again until he gets it. You'll see, Joe. You'll see." Joe listened carefully, brows furrowed in concentration, in thought, like he was watching it unfold in his mind before he shot her a glance silently asking if she was sure she was sane. She gave him that condescending smile, and then asked cockily, but honestly, "When have I ever led you wrong?" She hadn't, ever, really, and so that was Joe's resolve.
And if it worked, he didn't tell Stella until she was on her knees begging for validation, and when he gave it to her, she hopped up from the ground, threw her arms around him and hugged him until Nick stepped up behind them, clearing his throat, and as Joe pulled away, smoothed his hand down Nick's bicep, the look Nick gave Joe of absolute and total adoration was so familiar to Stella she had to place her face in her hand, embarrassed at herself that she hadn't seen it sooner.