After Mr. Raven’s class, inside the campus café…
Tina and her party sat at a large booth, each doing their own thing. They were all starved after having missed their regular lunch for meetings, the Protecteds for a special info session, and the Guardians for the first of their weekly evaluations by G/Ps scientists.
Dee’s fidgeting drew Tina’s attention. The cobalt-eyed Guardian was perched beside the Lovers, discussing a hazy strategy to get through the obstacle course on her next attempt.
“So, Ma Chérie,” Monáe said, tearing Tina from her ear hustling, “we’re on Friday. You ready?” The brunette smiled halfheartedly, watched the younger girl chuck some of the breakfast bagel she’d been picking at Denzel’s way. He caught it with his mouth.
“Don’t stress,” Hailey piped in. “You’ll do fine.”
Tina chuckled through her skepticism.
“You actually pay attention in class.” Hailey paused fixing her lip stain to reference the open books Tina had cocooned herself with. “And with B by your side, you’re sure to make it to the end.” Brandon chuffed. “Anyway, Mo, we gotta go if you want to get any practice in tonight.”
“What are y’all doing?” Tina asked, facing the twilight beyond the window.
“Someone promised Denzel help with stabilizing his telekinesis. She thinks she can troubleshoot him with her aura reading.”
“A compelling theory.” Roscoe rubbed his chin.
As her group filed out the booth, the Franklin girl packed her things and brought up the rear, some books she wanted to focus on as soon as she got home at her hip.
Before the glass doors, the girl fumbled with the texts when she heard her phone chime. Realizing she couldn’t fish the thing from her back pocket, she looked for a friend to discover they’d all left.
Suddenly, Tina felt something solid collide with her.
“Oops, my bad,” a man apologized in an ethereal voice. “I wasn’t watching where I was going, sorry.”
“No, no. It was my fault.” Tina felt her face flush. Retrieving her scattered belongings, she felt like everyone’s eyes were on her.
Dummy, w hy’d you’d stand in front of the door?
The guy stooped down, picked up a red notebook that’d tumbled his way. Standing, he apologized again, “I’m really sorry.”
“No hard feelings.” Tina straightened and reached for her book when the man suddenly seized her right hand.
“Excuse you!” The teen reclaimed her limb.
The man recoiled and apologized.
“Just give me my-” Tina looked up, into piercing azure eyes, sapphire morning glories that immediately simmered her temper.
The bronzed stranger continued his profuse apologizes, finally finishing with, “…I was just surprised.”
Tina cocked a brow, watched the man blush a warm peach.
“It’s just, your ring”—the man smiled forlornly—“It’s beautifully crafted, unique.”
Tina examined her hand. Though the years had worn the engraved heart and staggered lines on either side, the jewelry still sparkled with love. It remained a memento of someone kind, a best friend, a first crush.
“Thanks,” Tina said, truly touched. “It was a gift, customized.” Offering her hand again, she expected the guy to finally return her notebook.
“A gift? Customized?”
Tina squirmed uncomfortably as the man squinted, examined her.
Alright, definitely a creep…
Scrutinizing the silver piece’s one-of-a-kind arches closer, the man gaped like a fish, asked, “Tina?” The girl startled. “Tina Franklin?”
It was only when Roscoe spun to tease Tina on her unusual silence that anyone noticed she was missing. At Monáe’s suggestion, the group sans Brandon, who’d said something along the lines of Tina got herself lost, circled back to the café.
Returning to the building, the friends watched Tina’s interaction with the odd stranger.
Able to hear parts of their quiet conversation, due to the propped open door, Ashley and Roscoe whispered to each other while Monáe kept reminding Hailey of her bearing and need to swallow her drool.
Dee clapped the dust off her hands after yanking her half-asleep Protected opposite the eatery, to a brick wall he could lean on. “Goddamn food comas!”
Tina stepped back. “How do you know me?”
“I’m wounded.” The mysterious guy cocked his head to the side, brought attention to his twisted mane, a dark brown ponytail with golden-brown ends. “You really forgot about me.”
Tina’s confusion showed. She couldn’t put her finger on anything, not the man’s face, his voice, his mannerisms, nothing.
“Jamie.” The man chuckled. “I’m Jamie Aiden.”
“Wait…” The cogs in Tina’s brain turned, and her eyes got huge. “Jasper?” she asked. “Jazzy Jazz from down the street?”
Jamie winked his ocean-hued pools. “I no longer go by my middle name, but yeah.”
Stepping closer to her childhood friend, Tina’s eyes watered. Jamie opened his arms to her, and she hugged him tightly.
“It’s been so long! How have you been?”
Snuggling into firm pecs, and inhaling a scent composed of sandalwood and fire on a winter morning, Tina couldn’t help but compare the strong-jawed, mouth-watering male before her to the scrawny, sickly boy that would often stand up for her when she was bullied.
The years appeared to be good to Jamie. He’d filled out nicely, grown a few feet, grown a goatee, and ridded himself of his signature shark teeth and braces.
“I’ve been well.” Jamie smiled. He gazed at Tina’s ring, at his compromised heartbeat. “It’s held up nicely.” Tina grinned. “How about you?”
The question made the woman remember the devastation she felt as a pre-teen, when she’d learned Jamie’s parents, a sweet interracial couple that’d practically helped raise her, were selling their house. She remembered overhearing her parents say the Aidens were moving to be closer to the private research facility where Jamie received his medical care.
Crossing his arms and tapping a foot, Brandon looked through the café’s glass with ochre eyes. He swallowed a sudden inhumane growl.
Ashley smirked, asked, though she already knew the answer, “Protective instincts kick in?”
“I’m glad to know some things never change,” Jamie said. Tina looked quizzical. “Like usual, you were quick to anger, but instantly changed your tune once flattered.”
“Hey,”—Tina rested her hands on Jamie’s forearms—“I already feel bad enough for not recognizing you right away.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jamie said, his silken voice and a wink that was anything but innocent turning Tina’s insides to mush.
“Ahem!” Some throats cleared in the background.
Ah, they came back for me, Tina thought. Turning to the sidewall, she saw amusement twinkle in some eyes whilst confusion made its home in others.
Brandon approached his Protected, shot his hand out before pausing and pulling back. Though a crease worried his forehead, the Guardian remained conscious of his voice that wanted to warble. “Woman, we’re all waiting-”
“Tina”—Hailey used her wide hips to chuck Brandon to the side—“Aren’t you gonna introduce us to your… friend?” She looked Jamie over with predatory eyes as if debating which yummy piece of his lean musculature she should lick first. “Your very good-looking friend.”
As Hailey ran the tip of her tongue across her lips, Tina silently staked her claim with her eyes.
Peeling away from Jamie, the teen cleared her throat. “Sorry. Where are my manners? Everyone, this is Jas- Jamie. We’re childhood friends…”
Jamie put an arm around Tina’s shoulders and gave his pleasantries. “This campus is colossal, so it’s nice to know Tina’s met some cool people.”
From his place wrapped around Ashley’s middle, Roscoe fought a grin, and teased, “She is a handful, but somehow, we manage.”
Tina rolled her eyes. “And, the Most Annoying Award goes to…”
A gust of cool night air chilled the building occupants. With another smile, Jamie brought Tina’s attention to his plump, pink lips in a way that should be criminal.
“Hey, it’s getting late, but let’s exchange numbers. I’d love to catch up more.”
After the old friends took each other’s info, Jamie finally returned Tina’s red notebook. Pinching one of her chubby cheeks, her past heart reminded her of old times. “Chipmunk.”
“Vous rougissez,” Monáe mocked her friend when Jamie left to join what looked like a study group of fellow upperclassmen.
“I am not blushing.” Tina brightened, and at Monáe’s shocked expression let her in on a secret. “Your slick talk is repetitive. I’ve grasped enough to translate your sass.”
“Intelligente”—the baby-faced woman grinned—“But you’re still red-cheeked.”
In the parking lot, Tina found Hailey at her ear.
“You better snatch Jamie up quick.”
“Seriously, I have a sweet tooth and he looks… delectable”—Hailey winked, clearly fantasizing—“But, it’s clear y’all vibe, and I think y’all would be cute together. Shoot your shot.”
Tina and Brandon’s abode – later that night
After another cupboard slammed loud enough for the door to her room to shake, Tina took a break from her texting marathon with Jamie to check on the kitchen.
“Alright, Grumpy Pants, what’s gotten into you?” she asked, entirely too merry. “Dear God, what ran over you three times?” She took a seat at the counter.
Brandon was leaning against a pillar, drinking a ginger ale. He looked sick, which was weird since Tina hadn’t so much as seen him sneeze since living together.
The man guzzled more of his carbonated drink, and after a long stretch of silence, the kind Tina loathes, she questioned him a second time.
“I don’t like that kid’s name,” he mumbled at an almost inaudible volume.
Tina balked and crossed her arms. “Now that’s just rude”—she followed her pacing Guardian around the kitchen with her eyes—“Jamie’s not a kid, in fact, you two are the same age, so if he’s a kid, so are you. And why don’t you like his name? What’s wrong with it?”
Choking down some more of the fizzy liquid that burned his sensitive tongue, Brandon deadpanned, the golden flecks embedded in his eyes conveying an uncertainty of sorts. “It’s too close to mine.”
One of Tina’s brows raised. “Jamie and Brandon are not at all similar.”
Brandon sighed, obscured his eyes that flickered scarlet as something carnal registered in his voice, deepened it. “My middle name and that kid’s first name. I’m James, he’s Jamie. I just… don’t like it.”
Overdramatic much, Tina thought. Then it hit her, Brandon was answering her questions without snapping. What’s gotten into him?
Before she could press her luck, Tina heard her phone chime in her room. Hopeful that it was another text from Jamie, she sighed girlishly.
“Well, James,”—she giggled until her Guardian sent daggers her way—“I’m going to bed, so you and your issues can have the whole house to yourself.”
“Hmph,” Brandon grunted.
As Tina skipped down the hall, back to her virtual prince charming, the aggravated man took another sip of his drink. As his lips set into a tight line, his earlier desire to punch something returned.