Loose Ends Ch. 11byTangledinYou©
Has someone taken your faith?
It's real, the pain you feel
The life, the love
You'd die to heal
The hope that starts
The broken hearts
You trust, you must confess
Is someone getting the best
The best, the best, the best of you?
Foofighters "Best of You"
"Say 'Groupies'!" Jonny called out while he aimed the camera and got ready to take one of a thousand pictures that night.
Gabriel, Nuke, Q, Riley Dansik from Take Cover, Trish, and Nicole, all huddled into together and yelled, "Groupies!" as the camera flashed.
Jonny looked at his digital handwork with a grin and said, "Nice" before turning it around and holding it out in front of him. Everyone leaned forward to see, muttering the requisite "Aww's" and cheap shots that most group photos inspire.
Gabriel's eyes immediately focused in on the still frame image of Nicole, who was still under his arm. He turned his eyes to hers and smiled down at her. She smiled up at him, blushed, then tucked her hair behind her ear. His heart stopped in his chest, and then beat harder than his body should have let it when she did that. The urge to lean down and kiss the shyness away from her beautiful face was almost overwhelming.
But then her eyes looked in the opposite direction. Her smile broadened. And just like that, the spell was broken, the moment they shared dissolving into the world of fantasy as he watched Travis wrap his arms around her again.
The picture, just like the feel of her next to him, was an illusion too sweet to last. It was too much to ask that she stay a little longer. That she pretend a little longer.
Even at his thirtieth birthday celebration, a cordial distance was essential.
Gabe turned to another random acquaintance giving him birthday wishes, and laughed when Jonny hopped on his back. "Happy birthday, old man!!"
He smiled and laughed, but caught Nicole looking in his direction. She used to call him that, one of her teasing nicknames for him. She laughed at the antics of the two guys. But something wavered in him. Something about the happy scene was wrong, askew. He tried to pinpoint it. Maybe it was the comment about being an old man for real now.
He was getting older. But it wasn't just him. Everyone, everything was moving forward in time. He was older, and so was Nicole. This time two years ago, he thought she'd always be in his life. He hadn't thought ahead to how and in what capacity. He only saw her beside him. His best friend. The girl he realized he loved too late and too soon. But he hadn't been a very good friend to her. Time and distance had tightened their hold around them, until he was standing across the room looking at her growing older, being happy, without him. He'd missed her last birthday. He'd missed a year of her life. And that was what made him feel the sting of this day when the age itself was of little consequence.
Truthfully, it wasn't the fact that he was thirty that was making him feel so reflective and lost, even in the midst of all these people partying hard in celebration for him. Turning thirty wasn't a big deal. It should have meant more, but he didn't feel any different today than he had yesterday, or the day before. Sure, he could claim the experience that comes with being a man that had lived through his twenties. He'd seen a lot, done a lot. He'd made mistakes and taken chances, and he'd accomplished more than a lot of thirty year olds had career wise. He'd lived and was still living a full life, filled with people he cared about, work he cared about. All the shit in life that was supposed to be important to a man that wanted to carve out his own path in the world was his.
Yet, in most ways, in the ways that seemed to matter to the outside world, he didn't seem his age at all.
Hell, he didn't physically look thirty, he was still sharing an apartment with Nuke and Q, and he was still single and kid-less. So, to his parents at least, he wasn't acting his age either.
Still, that funny passage of time had caught him off guard. Fall had done its usual slow dance, until suddenly the air was cool, and the leaves were dying their flamboyantly colorful death. And one day was all it took for him to look up see that things had changed after all. Jackie and Ian, and their son. His sister Olivia and her family. Even Chase and Trish were more serious now. The characters in the portrait of his life had shifted positions. The setting was different. The colors were changing. It was all so fucking sneaky.
He needed to get away. He needed air. Because he was pissing himself off.
He unraveled himself from the fray of smiles and jokes about Viagra and Depends. He really did have a sense of humor about it all. If he could get Nicole out of his fucking head he could even show it.
He stumbled out into the balcony of the favorite bar and grill hosting his party. The crisp, cool night nipped at his face in spurts. The night was still surprisingly comfortable. Irony of ironies. A perfect night, a perfect party, a perfect life...and his mind had wrapped around the one thing in it that wasn't.
This wasn't a fucking movie. This wasn't a slow motion sequence. This was just life, just him having a birthday party that his ex just so happened to attend with her new boyfriend, because she was supposed to still be his friend. People went through this shit every day, and as much as he'd like to believe this was a special circumstance, the truth was he was just...clinging to residual feelings. Nothing deep and thought provoking in there. He was just missing the way things used to be, when he didn't have to think past the moment and the promise the next one with her would be even better. Times like this he had to remind himself how scared he had been about being close to her. Times like this he had to remember what he said to her when they realized that it wasn't going to work.
We tried, sweetheart...we said we'd try...
That night they'd talked for hours. He'd explained everything, told her whatever she wanted to hear, whatever he had been scared to tell her. All of it was the truth. But there was one truth that sealed their fate.
When she asked where he saw them down the road, he couldn't answer. He didn't know. He didn't want to lie. He could have said all the right things, he could have told her he'd marry her and stay by her side forever. But the thought of not living up to those promises haunted him, as surely as the whole mess with Meredith did.
He loved her. He'd told her so over and over while she cried and asked herself why it wasn't enough. As if she were blaming herself for wanting more of him.
And when she was done sobbing, breaking his heart by showing her how much he'd broken hers, she whispered the tragic words he sometimes heard when quiet moments and the past snuck up on him.
S-stay with me. Tonight. Just stay with me, please...
He'd kissed her, crying against her lips while she whimpered against him. Pleaded with him.
D-don't let go. P-please. Please, Gabriel...
They didn't sleep that night. He didn't want to let her go. He didn't want to miss a single moment of their last night together. And in the morning, when they should have been asleep from exhaustion, she sat up with bloodshot eyes, and stared off into space. Her tears were shed. Her voice was hollow. As always, she spoke the truth, even when it was hard to say and harder to hear. She was always the brave one in that respect.
"I feel like we failed," she whispered solemnly. "It was supposed to be so simple. We love each other. That makes sense. This should make sense..."
And when she'd looked at him and saw the mirror of her own anguished resolve, all he could say was,
"We didn't fail. We tried, sweetheart. We said we'd try. Most people aren't even brave enough to do that right?"
We said we'd try...
Then they'd promised to be friends and salvage what little was left of the dream they'd shared now that they were both awake.
But his trip down memory lane thankfully didn't last long. He heard voices, footsteps approaching, reminding him that this was a party and not an introspective retreat.
"Dude, what the fuck are you doing out here?! You got like sixty candles to blowout," Q roared, a little beyond tipsy. Nuke was by his side, that ever observant gaze fixated on him. He gave him a broad smile, a pat on the back and said, "C'mon. Everybody's waiting on you." Even those five words belied an understanding of how hard part of this night had been. But that's why he could smile in spite of that left over heartache.
It was what got him by, what kept him from feeling like he'd made the biggest mistake of his life that night. His boys, a good party here and there. A good-looking girl, though these days, that worked less and less. Life was a whirlwind, people surrounded him, and work was always on the brain and flourishing.
He had everything he wanted, except one thing, one person. But when you already had everything you could want, perhaps that was the price you had to pay.
They a sang warbling and boisterous rendition of 'Happy Birthday' and then yelled, "Make a wish!"
Jackie and Ian, Trish and the guys, their manager, and friends from the label. Nicole, even if her boyfriend was by her side. They were all here. He'd block Travis's steady gaze out, because here in this room, was everyone he loved next to his family, celebrating his life. Here was proof that he hadn't lost everything just because he lost the girl.
Yet, even with all that, he couldn't resist. He couldn't help but make a small request on this one occasion.
He knelt down, looking up with a grin at all his friends and thought for just a second about his wish. Across from him stood, Nic, her eyes beaming, her full lips spread into a soft smile. He held her eyes as he bent down to blow out the candles.
And he wished for her. For Nicole Langley.
For a second chance.
He wished for the love he couldn't release, even though he'd tried to bow out in the most graceful way he could. Even though he'd tried to let them both move on with life, he held her eyes and let her see.
Then he lowered them and blew the candles out in one breath. Everyone cheered, cameras snapped, a handful of cake, courtesy of Jonny, was slapped on his face. He couldn't help but smile and laugh, and try to enjoy what he had. He was thirty now, a grown man. Wishes were for children.
And even if they weren't, they didn't come true. There was proof of that when he turned to seek out Nicole's smiling face.She was still with him. Still by Travis' side instead of his.
He was still left with only a wish.
"It's cause you're scared. Isn't it?"
Those words had been resounding in Nicole's head for over a week now, and it was driving her crazy. Or, crazier than usual. They made her antsy. They made her wake up in the middle of the night because of explicit dreams so sweet they should be called nightmares instead. They made her stare at her phone, tap her nails against her teeth, and then attack them again because the last thing she wanted to do was cave in.
It was all Jackie's fault. That damn harpy of an older sister. Bad enough she had to be so abrasive she could make a Brillo pad feel like a loofah. But no, she just had to be right too, didn't she?
It was while she was out to lunch and discussing the details of her book release party, that things came to a head. They were working on the guest list. Gabriel and the band came up.
"Why not have them play, if they're up to it. Just a couple of songs or something?"
Nicole shook her head and winced. "I'm not down with that. I mean, just thinking about it feels like I'm trying to be a publicity whore or something."
"Nikki, you're a twenty something first time author who just happens to be the ex girlfriend of a guy who is part of a band growing in world wide popularity. You need to sell books, which means publicity whorish-ness is perfectly acceptable. Obligatory, even. Carpe the whorish-ness, honey."
Nicole snorted at that, staring at Jackie in her stylish yet sensible black suit as she planned out the details of her party like it was a court case she was preparing for. With Jackie's look and her sentiments about using Nicole's connections, she was easily channeling Michael Douglas and his infamous yuppie speech on greed. The sensible chignon, and the curves that her son left her with after the baby weight was quickly dispatched, made her look every bit the cover girl for Forbes magazine, or the business sections in Essence where they highlight sistas-who-done-good. Of course this was the perfect person to help her with her party, and the way she was tackling the planning was her way own way of showing how proud she was of her sister. Nicole didn't want to put a dark cloud over that, or seem ungrateful when she brought up ideas. She just didn't want to be a shameless self promoter, either.
"Fine," Jackie said, shrugging in concession. It was obvious from the look of distaste on Nicole's face that she still wasn't liking the idea. "Then just invite them. Them showing up is enough I guess. We'll make sure the DJ plays a couple of their songs..."
Nicole distantly heard Jackie pause in her musings. She sighed, having an absentminded mini battle with the straw of her ice tea while she thought about the implications of circling Gabriel at yet another party. The straw stabbed her in the cheek, before she finally paid attention enough to make sure it got in her mouth and sipped.
"What's the matter with you?"
Nicole's big, dark eyes shot up to Jackie's scrutinizing gaze. She titled her head and wrinkled her brow to convey her puzzlement while still sipping her drink.
"You not want Gabriel to be there? Is that what this is all about?"
Nicole coughed, then sputtered a bit before saying, "What? No! All I said was it didn't feel right having them perform. But..." Nicole sighed and shook her head. "But then I get to thinking about them being there, and it's just supposed to be this small get together. They might be busy or have other things they want to do, 'cause it's not like it's gonna be this crazy rockin' party--"
"Hey, I'm planning it, so yeah, it will be."
Nicole laughed, and pushed her hair back from her face. "And, to be honest, I'm just not too keen on using my ex boyfriend to sell books. It's so very 'What would Paris Hilton do?' Ick."
"Why not? What's so wrong with 'using' him in person? You used him as inspiration for your story, so what's the difference?"
Nicole was stunned silent by that comment. She blinked once. Twice. She heard the sound of Jackie talking, but not the words.
That stung a bit. Wasn't like she hid the fact that she was heartbroken and in a zone when she wrote the book. But to be so blatantly called out for channeling Gabriel into her story was a little close to home.
"No, he wasn't. I mean, he encouraged me to write. He gave me that little extra push I needed, but as far as the story or the characters--"
"Nikki? For real? You gonna pretend like I didn't read it? That guy... that, um..." she was opening and closing her hands, her eyes searching the skyline for something that was on the tip of her tongue. "Fuck, what is his name. Devin? Yeah, that Devin dude is a dead ringer for Gabe. Just with blond hair. But the eyes are the same. And he's the quintessential uncatchable catch."
"The quintessential what?"
"It's what I used to call Gabriel in college," Jackie said taking a bite of her sandwich and sprinkling the crumbs off the tips of her fingers. "You know, nice, good looking, talented. Great on paper and in real life. And yet, he never seems able to settle down no matter how great the girl. Uncatchable catch. The hero in your book the girl falls for? That is Gabriel."
Nicole felt a flush of heat cover her skin. She felt exposed, but a part of her should have known that Jackie would see what others might not have. She'd done her best to cloak Gabriel's influence on her story, but it hadn't worked as well as she thought.
"Is that what you think?" she asked, still not ready to concede defeat.
"That's what I know. And the fact that she ends up with the other guy, the "nice" guy that isn't right for her. That's you tempting fate, my dear. Trying to rewrite the laws of nature, when you know Devin and Cara should have ended up together."
Nicole shook her head, leaned back in her chair and smirked. "Ah, I see. I get it now."
It was Jackie's turn to borrow Nicole's quizzical look.
"You ever gonna let this go, Jackie? Travis is a nice guy but he's so much more than that. And Gabe is, and always will be, my ex boyfriend. I get it. He's your friend, and you liked us together," Nicole said, lowering her eyes, and fiddling with a wrinkle in the table cloth. "And I know you like everyone to think you're a hard ass, but this secret soft spot for the neat little bow, for a perfect happy ending...it's not realistic. At least not for Gabriel and me."
There was silence between them for a long moment. Jackie's eyes observing Nicole's, Nicole's eyes staring right back. Then Jackie smiled. A sweet, soft, empathetic turn of her full lips that made Nicole flinch away from her steely gaze.
"It's 'cause you're scared. Isn't it?"
"What...are you talking about?"
"You. And Gabriel. Of course," Jackie said, smacking her lips and giving Nicole the sly look she was accustomed to seeing. "You're scared that the more time you spend around him, the more you're going to realize how stupid it was that you two broke up, the more you're going to feel less and less attached to Travis —"
"Stop it. Now."
Again, silence. But Jackie was never one to back down from a challenge. And she'd already isolated the chink in Nicole's armor.
"That must be why you've been such a shitty friend to him."
Nicole was in the infuriating position of watching herself get baited into a chess match, even though a part of her was able to completely disassociate to the point where she could see every move that was about to happen. She knew exactly how this was going to pan out.
Yet here she was, blood boiling over, lips turning into a grimace. Getting all riled up for nothing.
"I have not been a shitty friend to him! I was just at his birthday party, how many ex girlfriends of his did you see there? How many of my ex boyfriends are coming to my book release party? You have a lot of fucking nerve telling me I haven't been good to someone, when if it were anyone else in the world, I wouldn't even be talking to him right now!"
"Yeah, you're right. My bad. Never should have pointed out that you barely talk to one another anymore unless it's through me. That's really friendly of you. Never should have brought to your attention that you wrote an entire novel about him, or that he's the only ex boyfriend you still keep in contact with because you can't let him go...which incidentally is why you find it so hard to be around him as friends in the first place. Or that when you're in the same room you can't keep your eyes off each other. My bad, Nikki."
Nicole raised her hand to signal the waiter.
"And I guess I also shouldn't bring up the fact that when he was dating you, I finally abandoned the whole idea that he was the uncatchable catch. I still have. Because I've known Gabriel for a long time. Because unlike you, I have been a real friend to him for years, and I know for a fact that he's still in love with you."
Nicole's eyes swiveled to her older sisters. Her body froze. She swallowed.
"So, you see, I understand why you've been a shitty friend to him, and why he's been the same to you. I understand because you're much more than friends. I understand because I know you love him too.