Now that I thought about it, I had intimidated Brian when I shoved him against the wall. And I’d told Jamie he couldn’t hang with me if he was scared of fighting. So I guess in that way, I was as guilty as Zeke. Well, fuck me then.
But I hadn’t hit anyone except Brian that one time. I’d wanted to throw down a few times, but I always refrained, which was a good thing. Me fighting was not good, ever. Everyone knew my brother could fight, but no one knew my rep. I’d left that back in New York and been thankful to escape it.
“Why do you think I’ve never called your bluff about fighting?” he asked quietly.
I sneered at him. “The dick part of me wants to say it’s because you’re a pansy.” His eyes went flat, and I smirked. “But the part of me that’s trying not to be that guy has no clue.” A beat. “So why not?”
“Because I know how you are. I know you’re not bluffing about fighting.”
Well, shit. “You’ve seen videos?”
“I’ve seen it in person.”
I frowned, shooting him a look. “When?”
“When we were in third grade.”
“Why do you think I love you so much?” He shook his head, stupefied. “I was getting my ass beat by two fifth graders. A sixth grader was in on it too, and then suddenly out of nowhere, you came barreling in. You kicked their asses—and you were in third grade with me. Those guys had been bullying me since first grade. You show up, and after one afternoon, they never messed with me again. You did that.”
I wanted to roll my eyes. “You’re telling me that because you were bullied, you turned into the biggest piece of shit?”
He barked out a laugh. “No. I’m telling you that I saw what you could do when you were a third grader. I sure as shit know you ain’t bluffing. Fuck, brother. Half the time I think you’re salivating over the chance someone will call your bluff, but no one will. We all know it ain’t a front.”
“You could organize a group. Get the drop on me.”
He snorted, shaking his head. “And then what? We’d have to kill you to keep you down. You’d heal and come back and fuck every one of us over. And while you were healing, I know that brother of yours would come around. His crew too.”
Maybe. “So why are you such a piece of shit with people?”
He cursed. “Can you drop the dick attitude right now? I’m here for peace and resolution. I won’t want that if you keep insulting me.”
I nodded. “Yeah, right. Sorry.”
Now that he’d mentioned it, I remembered that day. I remembered that whole year, and those guys had picked on Zeke every single day. Before school. During recess. During lunch. After school. I finally had enough, and that’s when Zeke became my best friend. He became my shadow, and I never lost him after that. The reason it started had just faded from my mind.
“I’m a hothead,” I told him. “And I’m a prick, and I’m pretty messed up about my family. None of that’s a good recipe.”
“I get that.” He nodded, moving to sit next to me on the bleachers. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. We faced the empty football field. “I may be a lot of things. And I’m not proud of what I became while you were gone, but you’re back. I remember how it feels to know no one’s gonna mess with me with you at my side. It means something to me.” His tone grew hoarse, and he looked away. “Since you came back, I’ve remembered that I wasn’t such a bad guy before. I just morphed into him when you left. It sucks, and I gotta learn how to not be this guy, but it’s hard. It’s a lot of work.”
I grunted and held up a fist.
He hit it with his own.
“You and me both.” Works in progress.
He studied me a second. “That chick helping you?”
I nodded. “I think so. I’m not a dick when I’m around her.”
“So you going to finally tell me her name?”
I smirked. “Like you don’t know. And no, I’m not officially telling you.”
“What?” His eyes flared. “Why not? I’m your best friend.”
Yeah, I supposed he was. But I couldn’t risk it.
He knew. I knew he knew, because Zeke was like that, but with me not telling him, the gates were still closed. He couldn’t go fanboy over her brother’s best friend. That’d be weird and awkward, and a scene I didn’t want to deal with.
“Not yet.” I watched him from the corner of my eye, gauging his reaction. “You gotta trust me. It’s too new.”
He settled. “I get that, but you know I know, right?”
“Don’t.” I scowled. “Don’t.”
He frowned. “Why? ’Cause of the girls?”
He knew why, but okay. Let’s go with the girls instead.
I shrugged, stretching my legs out. “Partly. And partly because I care about her and it’s new to me too. I’ve never given a shit like this about anyone, including you. It’s unsettling.”
I was tired of all this personal sharing.
“Why do I feel like we should throw down anyway?” I asked him. “Just for old times’ sake?”
Zeke’s smile was blinding. “Right. I get it. We’re still dicks. Don’t worry.”
“Speak for yourself. You’ve become a pansy.”
“Hey.” He rounded on me, his face twisted before he saw I was joking.
But was I?
He punched my shoulder. “Don’t call me that again.”
I laughed. “Pussy. Your favorite word.”
He scowled, but started to laugh. “Yeah. I love that word. Did you know there was a chick from Roussou telling people she and I were dating? We hooked up a few times, but that was it.”
I shook my head. “I was the one who you told that, and I’m not surprised.” Though, to clarify, I didn’t know she’d been telling people she was dating him, but I was the one who gave her a name since Zeke just recognized her face and would drag her off somewhere private when he saw her. He’d never taken the time to remember her name. It wasn’t an altogether uncommon scenario for him.
“I’m sure you’ve had five girlfriends this year you know nothing about.”
He cursed softly. “That’s not something I’m proud of.”
No, it shouldn’t be. And I wasn’t proud of my own indiscretions.
I sighed. “We might’ve turned into assholes for a while, but we can be better.”
If anyone had told me I’d be sitting on these bleachers, having this conversation with Zeke, I would’ve punched them in the face.
But here I was.
And we were having this talk.
And I suddenly felt like I really did have a best friend.
I swore. “No one can know we talked like this to each other.”
He shook his head vigorously. “Hell no. Either of us talks, and the other can punch him in the dick, without pants.”
Sounded perfect to me. “Deal.”
We were heading back and through the empty halls when Zeke slowed up.
“Shit.” He cast me a worried look. “You gonna handle that okay or you want a distraction?”
I thought he’d seen Aspen at first, that she’d come to school, and I got excited. Then I saw Mara loitering by my locker and my chest deflated.
I shook my head. “Nah. I got this.”
It was time, and judging by the look on her face, she knew it. Zeke headed out, but I focused on Mara. She looked as if she’d rather be anywhere else, but she was in front of my locker for a reason.
She closed her eyes, shaking her head. “Jesus.”
I chuckled. “Sorry.”
I waited. It didn’t seem like my place to start this conversation.
She leaned against my locker, folding her arms over her chest, and she looked away. “So you’re dating her?”
My response was quiet, but honest. I’d always promised honesty.
She blinked a few times, her throat moving.
“And you care for her?” Her words came out strangled.
Fuck. More honesty. “Yeah.” She had to know. She deserved that much. “She’s mine, Mara. She’s just… She’s mine.”
A tear slipped down one of her cheeks. She wiped it with the back of her hand. “Okay.” She nodded, blinking to keep more tears from falling. “Okay. I’m probably going to sleep with Zeke to get back at you. Full disclosure.”
I laughed. “Okay.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re supposed to care if I do that. Fuck you. I can see now that you don’t.” Her voice rose. “But if she did—”
A burst of anger lit in my stomach, and she saw it.
“Yeah.” She nodded. “Yeah. I see that now. You’d go apeshit if Zeke touched her.”
I sighed. “What do you want me to say? We were never exclusive. I told you that. I never promised anything.”
“I kept myself just for you. We were exclusive on my end. I did that for you.”
The bell rang, and we had a nanosecond before the hall was flooded. Piss-poor timing.
“I never asked you to do that.”
“You wouldn’t have touched me if I hadn’t. And I know you liked that I kept myself for you.”
The doors opened, and people streamed out.
Mara didn’t seem to care. She shoved me against the locker. Someone gasped, and then the whispers started, the buzzing rose in volume as word was already getting around. This shit would be all over social media in two seconds, and I saw the first camera snapping our pic. Someone else was out and out recording us.
I flipped it off. “Take it down or I’ll bust that phone to pieces.”