She had beautiful lips, not too full but not too thin, with the arch of a perfect cupid’s bow. They were the color of a dusky rose, pink with a hint of brown – enough to be interesting, but not necessarily striking. She rarely wore lipstick – at most, a hint of gloss, but nothing that upset the perfect balance of color and shape and texture.
He’d been thinking about her mouth a lot lately – the way she smiled, the way she laughed, the way she tasted when he kissed her. He thought about kissing her quite a bit, mostly because he didn’t get to do it nearly as often as he wanted.
“Whatever it is, you can tell me,” she said abruptly, breaking into his reverie.
“W-what?” he mumbled, dropping his fork with a loud clink! He flushed, sliding his hands into his lap, and tried to remember how to act like an actual adult human being in public. They were sitting at their usual booth in Renwick’s, the cloudy, gray sky betraying the earliness of the day.
Of course, having his hands in his lap was not exactly helping matters at that very moment, but it still seemed like the safest of all options. He shifted in his seat and adjusted the splay of his coat over his legs, trying to think about anything other than her perfectly-shaped mouth and all of the ways she could possibly use it, given a bit of guidance.
“Whatever is distracting you – just tell me,” she reiterated, her voice gentle but firm. “We are friends, aren’t we?”
He swallowed hard, forcing himself to meet her gaze. “Yeah,” he assured her. “We are.”
And that was precisely the problem, because he wanted to be way more than just friends with Janine Kishi.
He had no idea how or why or even really when it happened, but it had. Somehow, after living across the street from her for fifteen years, after attending the same school with her from kindergarten all the way through high school, he’d only become truly aware of her in the last year. She’d always just sort of – been there, never really a playmate or a friend, more like his kid sister’s friend’s older sister, and, in later years, a fellow BSC sibling. Their sisters’ club had brought them into each other’s orbit on occasion, and she’d always been polite to him, but also aloof and untouchable. She was one of the few who’d never sought his attention, and maybe that’s why it had been so easy to take her for granted.
Then she started popping up in his life where he least expected it. She’d helped him apply for colleges, and scholarships, and had saved him from the inevitable meltdown that accompanied being an undeclared college junior. He’d met up with her again last New Year’s Eve, and his awareness of her had been growing steadily ever since.
She was as nice and kind as always, but in the last year he’d also discovered what great fun she was, so clever and witty and bright, once she’d been drawn out of her shell. He enjoyed talking to her, mostly because of how little they had in common. She could go on and on about chemistry and physics and quantum mechanics and other stuff that flew straight over his head, but she was also a keen observer of human behavior, and sometimes had that lateral turn of logic he needed to find the breakthrough in his class case reports.
And yet, for all of that, there still a strand of sweet naivety, an innocence of heart that was rare to find in anybody over the age of eight. There was none of the jaded cynicism that defined most of the social scene at UCLA, and none of the melodrama that most girls their age reveled in. She seemed to have no idea just how attractive she was, or indeed, have much in the way of romantic experience at all.
Thus, his dilemma: trying to pursue a relationship with someone who had no interest in playing a game he’d become quite the expert in. It usually wasn’t difficult for him to convey his interest or his intentions to the object of his affections, but she was either inadvertently or deliberately missing all of the usual signals: the body language, the staring, the flirting – hell, even the kissing.
He thought that they’d made the transition beyond friendship after a steady stream of dates over the summer, all of which had included a great deal of kissing, but she still thought what they had was casual. Which had been fine, really, because who was he to ask for exclusivity when thousands of miles and three time zones separated them?
It hadn’t really hit him just how much he was kidding himself until he’d come back to Stoneybrook for Christmas break. Oh, he’d liked talking to her on the phone more than going out with girls at UCLA, and looked forward to their random conversations, in whatever form they took. He liked that he could email her about anything, from a dumb roadside sign that had made him chuckle in passing, to deep philosophical questions about life, to a plea for exam help in the middle of the night. He’d looked forward to seeing her whenever they were both home at the same time, and had enjoyed the cache of memories they’d made together over the summer to tide him over in the meanwhile.
But actually seeing her again at Christmas, an entire year after this had all started, had cemented everything for him. She was warm and witty and brainy and hot as hell, and he wanted her all to himself, distance be damned.
Janine cleared her throat, breaking into his thoughts and making him aware that yet another long, awkward silence had stretched out between them. “So tell me what’s troubling you, and maybe I can help you work through it,” she suggested, tilting her head, gazing at him with no small degree of concern.
Could he do that, though? He knew she appreciated directness, but could he really tell her that he couldn’t stop thinking about her, or fantasizing about her, or that he now lived in a state of perpetual low-key arousal because of it? That he could barely even look at her without picturing her beneath him, panting and sweating and crying out his name? That he was tired of stroking himself to sleep, only to wake up hard and frustrated the next morning? That he wanted to take her away from civilization for a while and do things with her that he’d never wanted to do with anyone else?
He shifted again, leaning back in his seat, and nervously scratched at the back of his head. “Well…” he started, his voice faltering, “I – don’t really know – how to say this – ”
“Just say it,” she urged with a kind smile, one that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“I love you,” he burst out, the words pouring out as if of their own volition. “I think about you all the time – I even dream about you.” He reached across the table, taking both of her hands in his. “I want you, Janine,” he added thickly. “I want you so bad that it hurts.”
All she could do was stare at him in response. It was as if she’d been struck into a stone statue right in front of him: her features frozen in place, her eyes glazed and unfocused.
His heart was beating so hard and fast that he was sure it’d burst right out of his chest. “Say something,” he pleaded softly, clutching at her hands, feeling a hot flush rise up the back of his neck.
Slowly, he became aware of the shallowness of her breathing, the clamminess of her hands, the pale, sickly cast that crept over her countenance – and her silence, her stone cold silence, which was starting to speak volumes.
Still, he was caught off guard when she suddenly pulled away from him, withdrawing her hands from his grip and standing abruptly, leaving the table – and the restaurant – without so much as a word. He hastily shot to his feet, dropping a handful of cash on the table before gathering their coats and following her.
Outside it was bleak and cold, the slate-grey clouds hanging low overhead with the ever-present threat of snow. Janine had managed to put quite a bit of distance between them in the short time it had taken him to react to her abrupt departure, but he still had sight of her as she headed down the sidewalk, out of the city center.
He set out after her, but resisted the urge to run, sensing her need for space. He could understand it, even if it wasn’t the reaction he’d been looking for. Obviously his confession and plea for a response had shaken her, but he couldn’t just leave it at that.
It was hard not to rush to her side, however; his heart throbbed as he watched her, as she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, rubbing her hands over her shoulders in a vain attempt to conjure warmth, or maybe even comfort. Her pace was unsteady but determined as she walked at a hastened clip, edging closer and closer their old neighborhood.
He finally caught up with her just before Bradford Court, as she stood at the corner of the cross street, waiting for the signal to change. He draped her coat over her shoulders and gave her a supportive squeeze, and was surprised when, instead of shrugging him off again, she turned to him instead. She still appeared to be numb with shock, but she managed to collect herself when she realized that it was him standing there beside her.
“I… I don’t know what to say,” she murmured, her eyes searching his for a long moment.
“Just don’t say it’s over,” he replied, folding her into his arms. She accepted his embrace, and he pulled her close, brushing his hand through her hair. He was heartened when she responded, the feel of her arms sliding around him sending a surge of blood to his groin, and he dared to step into her, bringing her body flush against his own.
He felt, more than heard, her sharp intake of breath as she discovered just what she did to him, in intimate proximity, but he wasn’t going to apologize for making her feel what she obviously could not see. He was not going to apologize for any of it: his feelings, his response to her nearness, his confession, his utter lack of shame about any of it. Maybe it wasn’t quite love – yet – but in his estimation, it had to be awful damn close.
He wanted her. He needed her, every part of her – mind, body, spirit, and soul alike – and dammit, he needed her to understand what he was asking of her.
“Please,” he breathed, dropping kisses into her hair, against her temple, on the crest of her cheek. “Please,” he whispered again, his mouth finding hers in a warm, delicious kiss, full of longing and desire and the promise of so much more.
“Please, Janine,” he pleaded, his lips soft on hers, “don’t leave it like this.”