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The Man To Hold The Water

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1995

January. His 12th birthday was a disaster of epic proportions. His dad had been calling him "Pacey Pukey" all week long. Why couldn't anything ever go right in his life? He came home from school on Friday afternoon to find the house empty and a note from his mother telling him that she didn't feel like cooking or grocery shopping so they'd all decided to take a drive into Boston—his parents, Gretchen, and Doug. They were going to see a movie and would be having dinner while they were in the city, and he could just heat up some leftovers in the microwave. Great. Around five o'clock he made his way into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. There weren't any leftovers. He searched every shelf and drawer—nothing. He told himself that he'd just make a sandwich, but there wasn't any bread. After searching the cupboards for something edible or easy to prepare himself to no avail, he admitted defeat. He cursed his family and trudged back upstairs to his bedroom. 

By eight o'clock, his hunger pangs were making him restless. He threw on his coat and hat and walked out the door. It was a 20-minute walk to the Ice House. When he reached the restaurant and stepped inside, he was happy to see Mrs. Potter behind the counter. Her head was wrapped in a scarf with red flowers on it. When she had first lost all her hair because of the cancer treatment, he'd felt sorry for her. After a little while, he didn't seem to notice it anymore because Mrs. Potter was real pretty with or without hair. And when she smiled, like she was smiling at him now, he almost forgot she was sick. 

"Pacey," she beamed. "How are you doing, honey?"

"I'm okay, Mrs. Potter. How are you?"

"I'm just fine, sweetie." She eyed him. "Are you hungry?"

He nodded, but a guilty feeling welled up inside him. "I don't have any money."

She smirked. "You never have any money. When has that ever stopped you from eating in my kitchen?"

Embarrassed, he could feel his face getting red, and he shrugged. She then led him into the back and sat him at a work bench. Mike Potter then appeared from the pantry. "Hello, Pacey. You're our last customer for the night. What can I whip up for you?"

"Hi, Mr. Potter. Um... a grilled cheese?"

"You got it." 

Pacey watched as the Potters eyed each other for a long moment, a tense feeling suddenly heavy in the air, before Mrs. Potter walked back out of the kitchen. Just a few minutes later, a hot sandwich was on a plate in front of him. His mouth watered. Mr. Potter then disappeared into the pantry again. After taking a few delicious bites, he suddenly heard Joey's voice. "Ugh, why is Pacey Pukey here? This is the third time in the past two weeks." 

"Josephine, don't call him that," her mother replied sternly. "It's the people who are hurting who are in most need of our kindness. So, be kind, and especially to him. I don't think he gets much kindness at home."

"Why? What's wrong with him?"

There was a pause, and he stopped chewing, straining to hear. 

"There's nothing wrong with him, Joey. I don't think the Witters take very good care of that boy. Remember last summer, what happened during the Little League championship game? Sheriff Witter's... display?"

"Yes."

His face burned hot as memories rushed forward in his mind of his father berating him for striking out in front of all the other players and parents. It was the last time he'd ever play baseball. His dad had made it clear that he was done and wouldn't be allowed to embarrass the family with his pathetic lack of ability anymore. 

"Do you notice just how much time he spends either here or at the Leery's?"

"Yes..."

"Joey, happy children don't avoid being at home as much as Pacey Witter does. So, be nice to him." 

He heard her familiar scoff. "But he's not nice to me! He's always making fun of me and pulling my hair. The other day he told me to 'eat cement.'"

He laughed under his breath. Mrs. Potter giggled. "Honey, I'm pretty sure he does those things because he likes you an awful lot." 

"Mom, that doesn't make any sense."

"I know it doesn't, Joey. I don't quite understand it much myself, and I'm not saying that it's right or okay for him to act that way. But... boys feel things just as strongly and deeply as us girls do. And sometimes they're so overwhelmed and confused by all those feelings, they don't know what to do with them. So, they tease you and pull your hair and... eat grilled cheese sandwiches in your family's kitchen. I think he just wants your attention, honey. Why don't you go back there and talk to him? He could use a friend."

Silence. "Do you really think Pacey likes me?"

"Yes, I do. Do you like him?"

Silence.

His stomach was doing somersaults. He hurriedly finished his sandwich, wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible. He scarfed it down, and before he had even swallowed the last bite, he was walking out the back door. 

September. It was the first time that his dad had gotten just drunk and angry enough to beat the shit out of him. While running around the house in anxious anticipation of Joey Potter's 13th birthday party later that Saturday afternoon, he accidentally knocked over a can of black paint and ruined the living room carpet. His mother told him that he should've known better than to irritate his father. Gretchen was the only one who cared, but there was nothing she could do. Mrs. Potter called the house looking for him, and his mother made excuses. On Monday morning, he showed up at school with his broken arm in a sling. Dawson's eyes went wide, and with genuine concern wanted to know what had happened. He told his best friend that he fell out of a tree. Joey merely stared at him with a look of pure hatred, indignation seeping from her pores; how dare he run around climbing trees and getting hurt when her dying mother had planned a party for her that he had to miss because of his recklessness. The idea of her being angry with him twisted his stomach into knots. He wanted to tell her the truth, but he couldn't. He wanted so badly for her to look at him the way she looked at Dawson. She wouldn't.

December 12. His family was gathered in the living room, watching TV. It was just past eight o'clock at night when the phone rang. His mother answered and he could hear her speaking in hushed tones in the kitchen. She soon hung up and returned to the room. "That was Bessie Potter," she announced. "Lillian passed today." 

He immediately stared at the floor, his eyes filling with tears. Gretchen reached over and put her arm around him. He couldn't cry in front of his father and Doug, and so he stood up from the couch and made for the stairs, stifling back his sobs. "That boy needs to toughen up," was the last thing he heard his dad say before he shut his bedroom door. He threw himself on his bed. He couldn't believe Mrs. Potter was gone. She was so young and so beautiful. It wasn't fair. Then all he could think of was Joey losing her mom and the pain she must be in, and he cried himself to sleep.

The funeral was the saddest thing he'd ever experienced in his young life, up until that point. He wanted to tell Joey how sorry he was, wanted to tell her how much he cared. He wanted to sit next to her and hold her hand, or hug her. He didn't know how. Everything would just come out wrong, so he said nothing, did nothing. He quietly watched as Dawson sat down next to her and took her hand. He didn't say anything either, but Joey put her head on his shoulder and cried. A twinge of jealousy stirred in his chest, which confused him, and he left the room to go hang out with Gretchen and Bessie in the kitchen.

On Christmas Day, he pilfered one of the many bright red poinsettias his mother had scattered all over the house and brought it to the cemetery. After placing it on Mrs. Potter's grave, he waited and waited in hopes Joey might come to visit her mom. It was Christmas, after all—a day to spend with the people you love most. She never showed. 

1996

July. His dad had been screaming at him for an hour. He didn't even know what for. Existing, probably. His mom was standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes and humming a show tune as if her husband wasn't currently verbally abusing their youngest child in the living room. Gretchen was out with her friends; he had no ally. He watched as his dad opened one can of beer after another. He could sense the tension thickening. It was going to be a bad night, the kind of night that ended up with bruises or broken bones. His dad stared over at him with that familiar glazed, agitated look. He then made a split decision and ran from the room and out the front door. To his surprise, he found himself heading in the direction of the Potter's house, and not the Leery's. Dawson was his best friend and there was no one who mattered to him more, but he just didn't get it—he couldn't, and probably wouldn't, ever understand just how shitty his life was. Joey would probably understand.

He knew it was late, but he walked around the house and knocked on her bedroom window. After a few moments, he saw Joey pull back the curtain. Upon recognition, she scowled, but she opened the window, anyway. "What are you doing here, Pacey?" she demanded by way of greeting.

"My dad is drunk and if I stayed one more minute in that house, things were not gonna go well for me," he answered.

"Why didn't you just go to Dawson's?" Her tone was still full of irritation.

He hesitated. "Sometimes being around Dawson and his perfect parents and their perfect family just makes me feel worse." He had never said that out loud before, and hadn't planned on saying it just then. But now that he had said it, he knew it was true.

Her face softened for a moment and he watched as she chewed on her lip in that cute way of hers. "Yeah. I know what you mean." Her pretty brown eyes then blazed with a fiery glint as she placed her hands on her hips. "So, you figured, 'Joey's family is screwed up, so I'll just go see her?' Is that it?"

"Well, Potter, your dad is in prison and my dad should be in prison. We can sympathize in a way Dawson would never be able to wrap his head around."

Her scowl returned.

He swallowed and threw his best pleading gaze at her. "Can I just stay here for a little while? Please, Joey. I can't go back there tonight."

Her eyes softened and she nodded, standing aside to let him climb in. He spent several moments looking about the room, fascinated by Joey's personal space. He was suddenly struck with the desire to look through all her stuff and find out every little detail about her, to learn all her secrets. That is, until she threw a pillow at his head. He kicked off his shoes and lay down on the floor beside her bed. She then climbed onto her mattress and tossed him a blanket. As he covered up and laid his head on the pillow, she turned out the light and they went to sleep without another word spoken between them. 

September. He found himself heading over to the Potter's once again. Gretchen was spending a semester abroad in Spain as part of a student exchange program and things were getting worse at home. He was now the only Witter child under his parents' roof, making him the sole target of their cruel remarks and drunken rages. Standing in front of Joey's bedroom window, he sighed, hesitating for a moment as nerves filled his gut. He then raised his hand and knocked. Her face soon appeared and she immediately frowned. She was never happy to see him, no matter the context. He wondered if there would ever come a day when Joey Potter would actually smile when she saw him, but he knew her smiles were reserved for Dawson. He felt his heart sink within him.

Joey opened the window. "Your dad?"

He swallowed, nodding and averting his eyes from her penetrating gaze. She sighed, "All right," and turned back from the window. He climbed inside and took his spot on the floor by her bed as she silently handed him a pillow and blanket.

1997

The trips to Joey's became a regular routine. It also soon became apparent that this was something neither of them were telling Dawson about. He told himself he just didn't want to talk about his family problems with Dawson, but he had no idea why Joey wouldn't have told their friend that he'd been sleeping in her bedroom at least one night a week for the past year. She wasn't telling, and so he wasn't telling. And the longer they went without telling him, the more imperative it seemed for their friend to not find out. He didn't understand why she was keeping this information from Dawson, but there was a small voice in the back of his head that told him this was somehow significant. He couldn't explain it. It was almost like a hopeful feeling.

One Saturday afternoon, a couple weeks before Christmas, they had gathered in Dawson's bedroom for a Christmas movie marathon when their friend asked her a seemingly very innocent question. "So, what did you do last night?"

His eyes turned to Joey, who met his gaze with a fleeting look. He'd spent the previous night on her bedroom floor and they'd actually talked for an hour or so before she turned off the light. They'd been starting to talk during these nights for the past few months, almost like real friends. Last night had been the two-year anniversary of her mother's death, and he was pleasantly surprised that Joey had opened up and talked to him about something so personal. It was a vast improvement from the broody silence that had hung in the air on his initial late night visits, and he'd fallen to sleep with a smile on his face and a warm feeling in his chest.

"Oh, not much," Joey finally answered Dawson, an inexplicable blush creeping into her face. "Nothing exciting ever happens in my boring yet tragic life."

Dawson smirked and then turned his attention to him. "And you, Pace? Get up to anything wild and crazy last night?"

His eyes met Joey's again and she gave him a furtive look. He still had no idea why they were keeping it a secret. It wasn't like it was a big deal or anything. But maybe it was. "Oh, you know me, Dawson. It was one orgy after another. Frankly, I'm exhausted." 

"You're such a pervert," Joey grumbled.

"And you're a prude." 

She scowled. He grinned. She was even prettier when she was mad, and he loved to make her mad. He turned his attention back to the TV, thankful neither she nor Dawson could read his mind.

1998

October. Spending a precious Saturday cooped up in the library with evil incarnate, Abby Morgan, and the tension triangle that was Joey, Dawson, and Jen was enough to make him want to find the nearest cliff. As he sat at a table lost in thought, wondering how much better the day might've been had he been there alone with Joey or just not in detention at all, she walked over and sat down, setting her textbooks and notebook on the table. He looked around at the other empty chairs, his heart beating a little faster with the knowledge she had chosen the seat closest to him. They were alone at the table—the others out of sight and out of earshot. In his periphery, he could feel her lean closer to him and he instinctively closed the distance between them until their arms were touching. He felt a surge of electricity.

"I think I need to apologize to you, Pacey," she whispered hesitantly. She was so close he could smell her hair. She smelled like vanilla. He felt his groin tighten and inwardly scolded himself to get a grip. That's what got him in detention in the first place.

"Josephine Potter? Apologize to me? What for?" He feigned ignorance, and gave her a friendly smile, but still his mind settled on recent events. Ever since the Ms. Jacobs debacle, Joey's bedroom floor was no longer open to him as a place of refuge. The night after the school board hearing and the official end to his relationship with Tamara, his father really let him have it. Bruised and battered, with feelings that he'd be better off dead swirling inside his mind, he made his usual way to the Potter's house and knocked on her window. She pushed aside the curtain and gave him a look of pure disgust. After opening the window, she told him that the sight of him gave her dry heaves and then she slammed the window shut. He was no longer welcome. Somehow that hurt more than the beating.

Joey sighed. "I think what happened to you is partly my fault."

He furrowed his brows in confusion.

"Dawson breaking your nose," she explained. "See, we were arguing the other night about guys and how they always stupidly compete over girls. He used his friendship with you as an example of two guys who never have to compete. Well, I might've told him that the reason he never competes with you over girls is because he hates losing. And... I might've pointed out that your biceps are bigger than his. I'm afraid I gave him a complex, or at least made an already-existing complex become so consuming that he decided to throw a basketball at your face."

That was the last thing he'd ever expected her to say. "Seriously, Jo?" he chuckled. 

She gave him a look of embarrassment and bit her bottom lip. "It's stupid, Pacey, I know. I'm sorry. I never would've gone for the jugular if I'd known he would hurt you. I didn't mean for it to cause this kind of overreaction. At least not directed at you, anyway."

"You mean, you were hoping he'd throw a basketball at Jen Lindley's face." He smirked.

She shook her head, rolling her eyes and laughing through her nose. She was so cute he couldn't help but smile. He thought for a moment about what she'd said. "Did you really mean it?"

Her brows knitted. "What?"

He licked his lips, briefly hesitating. "What you said... If Dawson and I were ever to compete over the same girl, do you really think I'd win?" He swallowed, staring at her in anticipation as his stomach tightened.

Joey blushed furiously. "My backhanded comment was not intended to boost your ego." She continued to blush and averted her eyes from his steady gaze. Instead of properly responding to his question, she turned her attention to her History book and began taking notes. Although much to his disappointment, she refused to give him a real answer, he took comfort in the fact she didn't move away from him. She kept her arm pressed against his, sending a sensation of butterflies dancing through his chest that really shouldn't be there. A fleeting thought ran through his mind and he wondered how she would react if he was ever to voice aloud his confusing feelings about her, how they ran hot and cold and he could never figure them out. Sometimes he wanted to tell her; most of the time he knew better. Not long after, Abby Morgan reared her head as a welcome distraction.

Hours later, when they were almost free from this detention in hell, he sat listening as Joey painfully attempted to pour her heart out to an oblivious Dawson, his mood sinking with every word she said. "I can't. 'Cause if I say these things, I can't ever take them back. It'll change everything, and I can't do that. I can't."  Unfortunately, he could relate. The librarian then reappeared to dismiss them. Sighing, he stood up from his chair and walked out of the library without another word to any of them.

There was a heat wave in the northeast, bringing unusually warm weather to the cape. In true Bay Stater fashion, seniors of Capeside High School donned their shorts and flip flops and decided to throw a beach party. As soon as he finished his shift at the video store, he hurried over to the Ice House to collect Joey. He didn't want to show up alone and she could use a night out. And since he was no longer permitted to crash on her bedroom floor, a particular Joey-sized void had entered his life and he found himself wanting to spend time with her, much to his chagrin. She put up a decent protest, so he waved the Dawson carrot in front of her. Maybe one of these days she'd want to hang out with him without the promise of Dawson's presence, but he wasn't going to hold his breath. 

On the way to the party, Joey was very talkative, filling him in on her craziness at home with the new baby and the stresses of schoolwork. He didn't mind, nor did he object to the fact she kept finding reasons to touch him as they talked. Her hand would brush his arm, she'd grab his shoulder, she'd playfully shove him aside or try to adjust his shirt. A sudden rush of electricity would surge through him every time, confusing him even more. 

A few hours later, he was nursing a sore hand while standing over an intoxicated Joey who was showering Dawson with praise for "saving" her from the brute. Unbelievable. Scratch that. It was totally believable. The sun would be setting soon and they needed to find a way to get her safely home without Bessie or Bodie finding out about her drunken state. "How am I going to get her home like this?" his best friend asked. "She can barely walk."

He turned and started walking towards the parking lot. "You'll just have to make due, Dawson," he said over his shoulder. "You're her hero, remember?"

"Pacey, you gotta help me. Come on."

He sighed, closing his eyes. "All right."

Turning back around, he put one of Joey's arms around his neck while Dawson took the other, and together they walked off the beach. Later that night, as they were rowing across the creek back to the Leery's abode, he sat there in utter disbelief at the level of obliviousness his friend was apparently suffering from as he talked about his relationships with Joey and Jen. "Trust me, there's a difference between friendship and love," Dawson insisted.

"And you're so sure you know that difference?" he challenged.

"You don't know what you're talking about."

Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. All he knew was that Dawson didn't know a good thing when he had it. The next day, he called his friend to ask if he was going to head over to the Potter's and see if Joey was okay after last night. "I'm sure she'll be fine," Dawson replied. "She can take care of herself. I need to try and straighten things out with Jen. She ended things last night, but... I don't know... I don't know. I have to get her back. Why don't you go check on Joey if you're so concerned?"

"Yeah, maybe I will." He hung up the phone, seething. When would the melodrama that was Joey-Dawson-Jen come to an end and put them all out of their misery?

After swinging by the local bakery and picking up two breakfast sandwiches and some doughnuts, he arrived at the Potter house. Bessie opened the door and frowned at him. "So... how is she?"

Joey's older sister crossed her arms and scowled. He recognized the look. "Hungover."

"Look, Bessie, I... I had nothing to do with that," he laughed nervously. "I promise. I tried to get her to stop drinking, but you know our Jo..." He held up the bakery bag. "Look, I brought some essential hangover cures. Can I come in, please?"

Her face softened and she smirked. "Sure, Pacey. Come on in." 

He stepped inside and into the living room, where he found Joey sprawled on the couch. "You look like shit," he told her. 

"Yeah? I feel like it. So, thank you, Pacey. It's nice to see you, too." 

He smiled. "Glad to see you didn't die from alcohol poisoning, or shame. I brought you some much-needed grease and sugar."

Sitting up, she moved over and made room. He watched her tuck her hair behind her ears before he plopped down on the couch next to her and handed her a wrapped sandwich. "Thanks," she said, giving him a half-smile. They ate in comfortable silence for some minutes. After wiping his mouth with a napkin, he glanced over at her. He wondered if she remembered the moment at the party where she drunkenly told him he was a terrific friend. "You know, Jo, I was kind of worried about you yesterday."

She reached into the bag and pulled out a glazed doughnut. "There was nothing to worry about, Pacey."

"Oh, really? Josephine Potter getting drunk off her ass and wandering down the beach with some handsy senior who was undoubtedly going to take advantage of her. Nothing to worry about?"

She heaved a frustrated sigh and turned to give him a retort, but her gaze was suddenly drawn downwards. Her eyes widened and he followed her gaze to his bruised fingers and knuckles. "Pacey! What happened to your hand?"

He pursed his lips. "That senior I just mentioned? Well, my hand made direct contact with his jaw."

"You punched him?!"

"I had to get him away from you, Jo. You could've gotten hurt." He watched emotions flicker across her face—confusion at first, then realization and disappointment, and then something else he couldn't recognize.

She leaned back against the couch and started pulling small pieces from the doughnut and popping them into her mouth. "I don't know why you care so much," she murmured. 

Shaking his head, he rolled his eyes. A memory from last night came to mind, of Dawson telling him that Joey had kissed him in her drunken state. He didn't really know why he cared so much either. He sighed and sat back against the couch, his arm brushing against hers. "Well, I suppose someone's got to, Potter."

November. He watched Dawson leave the video store, anger sitting in his gut like lead. The phone rang, breaking his reverie.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Pacey."

"Gretchen? Why are you calling me at work?"

"Because you're not home. Mom gave me the number."

"Oh."

"What's wrong?"

"My life sucks. What else is new? So, you coming home for Thanksgiving? Please say yes."

"Yes, Pacey. I'll be there. I'm driving down on Wednesday."

"Good."

"So, did Dawson do his Friday the 13th schtick last week?"

"Yes."

"Okay, seriously, Pace. What's the matter? Is it Dad? Or Mom? Both? Doug?"

"Surprisingly, none of them have made me miserable this week. It won't last for long since the midterm grades will come out soon enough, but I'll take whatever reprieve I can get."

"So, then what's wrong? Something is obviously bothering you. I can hear it in your voice. Is it school?"

He sighed. "I kissed Joey."

"And?"

"Well, doesn't that surprise you at all, Gretchen?"

"No, not really. You've always had a thing for her—chasing her around, teasing her relentlessly. It was obvious you had a little crush on her. I don't think it was one-sided, either."

He didn't know how to respond to that.

"So, what happened?"

"Nothing. She doesn't like me. She only has eyes for Dawson."

"That's still going on? I thought she was smarter than that. Is he still dating the neighbor girl?"

"They broke up. But they went on this double date with other people... It's weird. They're hung up on each other. So, he's got both Joey and Jen obsessing over him, and he's obsessing over Jen but he won't cut Joey loose and just keeps stringing her along, keeping her close... He had the nerve to come here and tell me he doesn't want me to date her. If she was just his friend, why would he care? He doesn't want to date her, or so he claims, but he doesn't want me to. Unbelievable. I can't take the obliviousness anymore. How can he spend hours with Joey Potter, day in and day out, and not know? I spent one day with her working on a school project and I ended up kissing her."

Gretchen chuckled. "Have you considered that maybe Dawson may not actually want a romantic relationship with Joey, but he just doesn't want to lose his place as the most important person in her life? If she were to date someone else, he could lose that number one spot."

He remembered Joey telling him a few weeks ago about Dawson not competing because he doesn't want to lose, and her non-answer to his very pointed question. "Well, it doesn't really matter because she doesn't like me—she likes him. Who am I compared to golden boy Dawson Leery?"

"Hmm. I know I may be biased, but I don't understand why these girls are obsessing over Dawson when you're literally right there."

"Girls don't exactly flock to the sarcastic slacker, Gretchen."

"Don't sell yourself short, Pacey. You're charming and funny. You're smart. And you're a good, decent, sweet person. Anyone who spends enough time with you would see all of that. You'd be surprised at how attractive the sarcastic-slacker-with-a-heart-of-gold is to the feminine heart. And... that's probably why Dawson doesn't want you to sweep Joey off her feet."

"Well, I'm not going to chase after a girl who doesn't want me. Certainly not one who I'm pretty sure my best friend is harboring feelings for that he won't admit to. There are plenty of fish in the sea."

"That's the spirit. Get out there."

"Sure thing."

"Pacey... I know high school can be all-consuming and everything is this huge affair of the heart, but it won't always be like this. I know it may not seem like it right now, but everything changes and things do get better. There is life after high school. I promise you. Just get through it, and then you'll be free to live your life how you want and make yourself happy. That's what is most important—not keeping Dad happy, or Mom or Doug or... even your friends."

He sighed. "Thanks, Gretchen."

December. Sitting in the Leery's living room, he couldn't believe the bullshit coming out of Dawson's mouth. How could someone be so in denial? If he rolled his eyes any harder, they'd pop out of their sockets. "So, what you're saying is you don't want her, but you don't want anybody else to have her either?"

Dawson stared at him like a deer caught in the headlights.

"Or, you're perfectly fine with Joey going out with someone as long as that person isn't me, is that it?"

"Pacey, come on. You know that's not true."

"Yeah? Which part?"

Dawson opened his mouth to respond, but then quickly closed it. 

He stood up, shaking his head in disbelief. "Whatever, Dawson. Just be sure to let me know when you come up with a real answer." He walked out of the house and to the borrowed Witter wagon. 

Days later, he was standing backstage at the Miss Windjammer Contest, donned in his black tuxedo and awaiting the evening wear competition. He turned to see Jen and Joey joining the crowd gathered behind the stage. "Doesn't Joey look beautiful, Pacey?" asked Jen.

His eyes roamed over her gown and makeup. "It doesn't really look like you, but you look... nice."

"That's it? Nice?" She frowned. Jen glanced between them and made up some excuse to leave. What that was he didn't know; he wasn't paying attention. Joey pursed her lips. "I'm going to walk out there and all people are going to think is, 'she looks nice.' Why did I even bother?" 

"And by 'people' you mean Dawson, right?"

She averted her eyes from his and looked down, playing with her fingers. "I just... for once I wish that he'd look at me and not see little Joey Potter rowing across the creek to hang out with her buddy. That he'd look at me and think I was beautiful."

He stepped closer to her. "Jo, you've always been beautiful. You didn't need a dress and lipstick to look beautiful because you already are. And if Dawson can't see that, he's a moron. There are plenty of guys who would take one look at Joey Potter rowing across the creek towards them and think they were the luckiest sons of bitches alive."

"Yeah? Like who?"

Before he could reply, one of the pageant handlers rushed over to put everyone in their correct spot in line. Later on, when walking off the stage with blue paint across his face à la Mel Gibson in Braveheart, he came face-to-face with Joey again. She was grinning ear to ear. "That was incredible," she told him.

"You liked that, huh?"

"I did," she laughed. "If I didn't have such a high personal stake in this, and was just one of those people out there in the audience, I'd want you to win this stupid thing."

"Thanks, Jo. And since I'm clearly out of the running, I'm rooting for you. I wouldn't bet against that Potter girl, remember?"

She beamed at him, her smile radiating over him like sunshine, and he felt a confusing mixture of sadness and happiness. He nodded and turned to walk away to go wash the paint off his face.

"Pacey?"

"Yeah?" he said, turning back around.

Joey chewed on her lip for a moment. "Thank you. For everything."

He gazed at her, unspoken words hanging in the air between them. "It's about time, Potter."

A week later, he'd borrowed his dad's old beat up truck and was driving to the state prison. He'd felt like absolute shit and was avoiding going home, so naturally he found his way over to the Ice House to see Joey. After bribing a prison guard with $20 of his hard-earned video store money, she was able to see her father. Fifteen minutes later, she was walking back to the gate, wiping tears from her cheeks. Upon reaching him, neither said a word and they walked quietly together back to the truck. They drove in silence for some time before she spoke. 

"So... Mrs. Tringle informed me the other day that I've been selected for the semester abroad program. It's in Paris."

"That's great, Jo!" He glanced at her with a surprised smile. "Congratulations."

She pursed her lips and tucked her hair behind her ear. "Thanks."

"So, when are you leaving?"

"Can't wait to get rid of me, huh, Pacey?"

He laughed. "You got that right. I can't wait to see the back of ya. Josephine Potter spending six months out of the country? I'll help you pack myself."

She rolled her eyes. "Anyway, I'd leave a few days after Christmas."

"I mean, that's amazing. Really, Jo. It's a great opportunity, especially for you. You've always wanted to travel and see the world and get the hell out of Capeside."

"Yeah..."

He looked over, saw her chewing on her bottom lip, and could feel the self-doubt pouring off her. "So, what's the problem?"

She sighed. "The same problem I've had all year."

"Dawson." He inwardly groaned. "You'll only be gone a semester, Jo. He'll still be here when you get back." 

"My dad told me that Dawson loves me."

Was Joey Potter, of all people, seriously thinking of skipping out on going to France for a boy? He didn't know how to respond, at least not in a way that wouldn't piss her off and make the rest of their little road trip miserable. They still had over two hours of driving ahead of them.

She stared down at her lap, playing with her fingers. "I guess I just feel like there's so much left unresolved. And if I just left things like this and ran away, the problem might be even bigger when I got back. And who knows what a prolonged absence would do? What if my dad is right? What if Dawson does love me? Well, going away for a whole semester isn't exactly going to foster those feelings, now will it?"

"If it's true love, then a six months' absence won't extinguish them," he replied. "If he loves you in December, and it's that true-love-forever-soulmates-let's-grow-old-together-capital-L-O-V-E, then he'll still love you in June... now won't he?"

She stared out the window and didn't reply. The subject having been abruptly dropped, they drove on in silence for some time. After a while, she spoke again. "Pacey, it's freezing in here. Turn the heat on."

He shrugged. "Can't. It's broken."

"Well, where are those blankets we used before?"

"You mean when we got naked and you could barely contain yourself?"

Her face hardened into a scowl. "As if. Don't make me puke."

Laughing, he shrugged again. "I think the blankets got left at your house, actually." He grinned at her. "You could just slide over here and sit closer. It'll be warmer."

"I wouldn't want to give you any ideas," she snarked. 

"Get over yourself, Potter. You can either stay cold or get warm. The choice is yours."

She heaved a sigh and crossed her arms, saying nothing more. He kept glancing at her, watching her hug herself and shiver. Jesus Christ, she was stubborn. He leaned forward and turned on the radio, keeping the volume low; Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain" was playing on the classic rock station. It wasn't long before he thought he could hear Joey's teeth chattering. As she quietly slid across the seat and then leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder, he told himself she must've admitted defeat. Good sense finally won out over her pride. And that was Joey. She couldn't be forced or coerced into making the right choice. All he had to do was wait.