Loose Ends Ch. 11byTangledinYou©
"You're right. I do love him. Like a friend." Jackie scoffed, but Nicole continued on. "We still care about each other. But that doesn't mean we belong together. It doesn't mean it's as cut and dry and simple as you want to make it out to be."
"Nothing is, sweetie. Nothing's simple, especially not being in love. But trying to pretend you don't still love someone? That's even harder."
Nicole turned her eyes away from her sister, as the waiter brought their check. She pulled out her credit card while Jackie said. "You can cut your hair. You can write ten more books. You can date rebound boy, marry him if you like. It doesn't change the fact that you're running scared. You both are."
Nicole pulled her thoughts away from that frighteningly visceral conversation. She'd ended it with paying her end of the check and promising to call when her sister had refrained from plucking her last nerve. Yet, in her mind, the effects of Jackie's words still lingered, the conversation still dragged on. Several days later, it was haunted by the fear that what Jackie said was right. Several days later she was still staring at her phone, nibbling at her poor abused thumbnail, and willing herself to prove Jackie wrong.
She was not afraid to be friends with Gabriel. He was just never around before.
He is now...
And he was always busy.
That's what voicemail is for...
He could be off with some other girl right now, making her sister completely wrong about both of them being able to move on.
What does that matter? Since when does a friend have to be single to get a phone call?
"Fuck. You should just do it. Just call him. No big deal, you're just friends, so it's no big deal."
What about Travis?
What about him? That was a good question. And it sprung her into action. She had deleted Gabe's number from speed dial long ago. But she still had it memorized. Her thumb darted over the keys on her phone, as she absentmindedly shuffled through the standard litany of things to say to a person that was a friend without baggage attached. That's what she was going to have to do to get over this hump in her life that had everyone, including her sister, thinking she was running scared from the past. Travis was in no danger from Gabriel. And neither was she. She was going to prove that once and for all by facing the truth head on. And the truth was she was over him.
And she was going to prove it. Starting with one friendly phone call.
Gabriel leaned against the wall, trying to pay attention to Gwen, the real estate agent as she went on and on about the apartment he was looking at, but his focus was drawn elsewhere. Over her head and dramatic mannerisms to the excited look on Nicole's face as she took in the view through the large open windows of the living room in this loft like space. She was smiling taking in the buzz of the city below while Jackie roamed around in the kitchen, nodding in approval at the modern yet inviting décor.
It was decidedly strange, searching for a new apartment with an ex girlfriend. Stranger still was the fact that she'd offered to come along with Jackie. Something had happened after his birthday party, some nudge from the cosmos that Nicole must have felt, because a few weeks afterward she'd called him out of the blue to ask how he was doing. Next thing he knew she was tagging along while he narrowed down his apartment hunt and the possibility of them hanging out like they used to had opened up.
Thanksgiving was approaching. This time last year he was tucked under the covers with her, trying to sneak in some loving before his roommates got home, like two teenagers. Two partners in crime. Now he was taking a grown up step, and even if she wasn't with him in the relationship sense, she still managed to fit into yet another important memory. It was -- as most everything with Nicole had become -- bittersweet.
He shook himself out of his thoughts and turned his attention back to the woman in front of him. He nodded and smiled and made a joke or two. He had been getting better, slowly tearing himself away from the pattern of looking at Nicole and seeing vivid memories of the past. But then she'd called, said they should hang out. She made him laugh and made him nervous, and then somewhat sad when he realize there was no pretense, but just a genuine, upfront offer of real friendship. The kind he'd been avoiding. Just like that all of the confusion started percolating again. He needed to fake it out, work around it, until he could be just like her and forget. He would just have to make a concerted effort to live in the here and now, and see things as they truly were. Hard as that sounded on paper, he knew he could do it. He could make it work if it meant she would still be in his life.
"What do you think, Nic?' he heard himself ask, taking one of Gwen's few pauses for breath in the midst of her animated pitch. It was his opportunity to see what she thought, which was the whole point of her tagging along.
She turned to him, slightly startled by the echo of his voice in the large space. Then she smiled, and looked around. Up at the high ceilings, around at the walls, and at Jackie leaning against the kitchen counter. Light from the world outside those glossy windows was bursting in to the uninterrupted space, bouncing off the hardwood floors and clinging to her hair. It brought out the brown highlights in the deceptively dark tresses and the red and gold tones in milk chocolate skin. That cute nose wrinkled, and she winced, but the gleam in her pretty eyes belied her joking nature.
"I dunno, man. I just don't know if it screams rock star. Hot bachelor on the rise, you know?" She tapped a finger on her lip while Jackie chuckled. To the real estate agent she said, "Have any celebrities lived here before? I mean, does it have a famous people vibe?"
"Actually, yes! For a while there, Jesse McCartney lived here. Oh he absolutely loved this space," she started to ramble on about all the famous people that had graced these hallowed walls, to which Gabriel cringed and gave Nic a subtle, droll look. Nic just suppressed a chuckle, and then turned back to taking in the space with a smile.
She liked it. Despite the jokes she seemed really enamored of what could be his new home.
And something about the way she looked, the way she seemed to love this space made him love it even more. He was pretty flexible in terms of what he wanted; here was plenty of room for his shit with a relatively quick commute to the studio and all the hotspots in town he frequented. Cool by him. But her...something about her and the way she looked standing in the center of it all made it click for him, made him excited about it, even though it had more bedrooms than he needed, was bigger than a laid back single dude needed it to be.
"Jackie?" Gabriel said, crossing his ankles and shooting his friend a nod of his head to get her attention. She was having a silent suppressed giggle fest with Nicole over Gwen's cheerful intensity. "Your thoughts on the matter?"
She nodded her approval, though she did make the stipulation that, "We should look over the contract thoroughly though. Places like this always seem to come with a catch." To Gwen, she said, "No offense."
"None taken!" Gwen chirped.
He pushed off of the wall, gave Jackie and then Nicole a smile before he turned to Gwen and said, "Okay. So what's next if I want it?"
Nicole couldn't believe he was actually moving into his own apartment, a space that was as big as an actual house with all the benefits of being in the city to boot. Part of her was so jealous until she remembered that she had a new place now too, one she was sharing with a great guy that could end up being more. And if she wanted a space as big as a house, well...
Travis talked all the time about one day having a home of his own. A place to call his own instead of just one he was borrowing. And then, tentatively he would paint her into his picture of the future, usually after she was tired and comfortable from a night of physical exertion in their new bed. Maybe it would be just outside the city limits so she could have the best of both worlds. Maybe a room just for her to write in, and a three car garage for him and his bikes.
Maybe. Maybe a lot more things were swirling around in his head. It was startling sometimes. She still had yet to say she loved him, and yet he could imagine her...well, as what exactly? His live-in-girlfriend? His wife? The mother of his children?
She still hadn't even met his family yet. She still was stuck in first gear when it came to the future and her place beside Travis. But as usual, he was ever patient, ever thoughtful and aware of mending heart. She looked over at Gabriel, trying not to let her eyes peruse his body the way they always seemed do out of habit. She could feel hers sister's eyes on her, watching the acceptance of her dare to be a better friend to Gabriel wash over her.
It was for Travis that she was doing this. Not Jackie, not herself. It was time she started seeing Gabriel as what he was: a great guy in his own right. A friend, instead of a horrible mistake, or an addiction she was recovering from. Once she could do that, she could move on gracefully to accepting her future without him.
Gabriel started negations on the apartment so that he wouldn't have to compete with other people looking at the space, though he and Jackie were going to look over the agreement together. When that was all over and they were walking out he said, "So, what do you guys want to do for lunch?"
Jackie shook her head, and said "I gotta head back into the office and finish up this brief. We'll take a rain check, though, okay?"
"Okay, sounds good," he said. Then Gabriel cleared his throat subtly and turned to Nic, who was busying herself searching for her keys in her purse.
"What about you, Nic? You gotta take off too?"
Nicole immediately looked up at him, and then to her own horror towards Jackie. Watching Jackie watch her grapple with the decision to be alone with Gabriel for the first time in a long time was enough to snap her out of her daze and the fear that accompanied it.
"Sure," she said quickly, turning to him and giving him a bright smile. "Where to?"
"I'm kinda in the mood for Chinese or something. Oh, hey, what about Korean? You remember that place you and Trish took me to?"
She smiled, wistfully recalling them laughing and smiling over a grill cooking sweet flavored beef while Trish and Gabe tried to show her how to wield chopsticks without looking like a four year old. "Yeah, I remember. That sounds great. Really great, we can go there. And I think I even remember how to use chopsticks."
"Korean it is then," Gabriel said, a soft smile of his own crossing his face and reaching his brown eyes, as if he were reliving the memory with her.
There was a silence that managed to be both awkward and warm. Jackie viewing the scene of them actually committing to this whole "friends" thing was somewhat strange, but just knowing that it was really going to happen was nice. Maybe it didn't have to be awkward in the true sense of the word. Maybe they could just go and hang out and talk and this wouldn't be as hard as either of them had thought.
They piled out into the cold day. Gray skies were teasing them now, promising rain even as the sun continued to shine overhead. They both looked up at them silently weighing whether or not venturing out for this little impromptu date was a good idea. But when their eyes met and the shared the same smile, they figured why not?
Why not give it a shot? And whether they were thinking about chancing a rainstorm, or this new phase in their relationship, was anyone's guess.
"So...can I ask you a question?"
It was a strange and unseasonably warm day. Gabriel was taking a break from moving things into his new place as well as a break from working in the studio, and Nicole was taking a break from working on her next book. They were taking a walk, trying to get some fresh air in the park while munching on sweet pretzels.
"Yeah, sure." Nicole said with a nod. He watched her peel off a piece of her pretzel, pop it in her mouth, and then suck the sweetness off her fingertips.
Focus...dude, focus. She's looking at you now.
It was hard to remember what he was going to say when her lips encircled her thumb and her pink tongued darted out to taste the sugar on her lips.
"What...um...what made you decide that you want to start hanging out with me?" he asked.
Nicole's eyes, which were focused on finding the next perfect sugar and cinnamon piece, shot up to his and then immediately looked away. So this was how they were gonna play it? She thought they were just going to leisurely skate the thin ice over the truth. She liked that idea better. It was easier, would make this whole ordeal so much easier.
But then she should have seen this coming. This was the man she was always honest with. Couldn't expect to start changing the formula this late in the game.
"Why'd you think I wanted to hang out?"
"Don't answer a question with a question," he joked, pinching her cheek. "It's rude."
She smiled and pulled her face away, blushing horribly at the teasing gesture he used to do when he was trying to cheer her up or embarrass her. "Fine. Honesty is the best policy and all that jazz."
Gabriel nodded in agreement and went back to taking a bite out of his own pretzel.
"You hadn't been around in a while. And the last time we saw each other, it was really brief. You were just passing through. It was easy for us to tote the whole 'friends' label and not commit to it. But then I was talking to Jackie the other day, and she said I should stop being a shitty friend--"
"Ah, hell, don't listen to her! You're just fine and I don't want you to feel like you've been forced in to being around me, even if you don't want to."
"No, I love being around you."
That silence again. She never did get a handle on that whole censoring herself thing. The look in his eyes when said those words made her wonder what exactly she'd meant by them. They made her wonder why her heart beat faster as his eyes focused intently on hers.
"I mean, s-she didn't make me...I'm not hanging with you out of guilt. But she was right. She really was. I mean..." she swallowed, bracing herself for the way her next words would effect them. "I mean back in the day, even when we were just hooking up, we always kept in touch. A phone call here, an email there. And since we broke up and agreed to be friends, I can count on one hand the number of times I've called or written. That's not cool on my part. That's not me being a good friend."
Gabriel sighed, his eyes trailing cracks in the path they were on. It was like she was a mirror image of his own guilt. Everything she was saying applied to him, and even just mentioning the old days when they used to fuck like crazy made his body start to tingle with heat, only to be doused with the memories of their painful parting of ways.
"So," she continued, the fine tremor in her voice giving away her nervousness, "here you are, actually in town for a while, and I was about to go down the same road of trying to call you my friend without even knowing what's going on with you, or without telling you what's going on with me. I was using Jackie like a living message board or something. And you're going to be in my sisters wedding. So, I guess when she said that, it made me think..."
"Made you think what?" he asked when the silence at the end of her sentence dragged on.
Nicole nibbled on her lip, and as they came upon a bench in the path she took that opportunity to sit and gather her thoughts.
"It made me think that if I really am over you, then I shouldn't be afraid of being near you or hanging out like we used to. The only difference between then and now is--"
"Sex," he whispered, giving her a blatant, understanding gaze. "Lots and lots of sex."
Nicole giggled nervously, shaking her head as if he were being a silly boy in health class. She just hoped the clenching of her thighs was a subtle, barely noticeable thing, just like the hitch in her breathing.
"Yeah, Captain Obvious. That would be the difference."
Gabriel chuckled and tore off a piece of his pretzel. He tossed it up into the air and caught it easily, chewing and thinking in silence for a moment. Just the simple act of him catching his food like that took her back to her sister's old apartment. Her in bed with him while they tossed Cracker Jacks in the air, him catching them on his tongue. His smile, the way he stretched out and showed off those twin tribal tattoos on his sides. The heat he'd inspired when he looked at her, held her, kissed and touched her. The way he'd whispered in her ear.
Uh-uh, little girl.
If you want something from me you're going to have to say it loud and clear...
"Well, what do you think?" she said trying desperately to interrupt her thoughts and the slickness between her clenched thighs.
"Of what exactly?" he asked, tilting his head to the side. "You asking me what I think of us then, versus us now and whether that's really such a big deal? Or are you asking me if being friendly makes sense because we're over each other?"
She blinked several times, not sure what to say. Which answer did she really want. And which answer did she think he wanted to give. Did she seem like she was over him? Or could he smell the heat coming off of her as even the smallest of gestures catapulted her back to the past.
"I guess I'm asking if you're on the same page with me. I mean, we should be able to hang out right? Because we've both moved on?"
Gabriel licked his lips and turned to watch a couple of joggers pass by, thinking distantly that maybe he should take up such an activity. Might help him work off some physical frustration.
"Yeah, we should be able to. And it's not all your fault. I wasn't exactly blowing up your phone, especially after you started dating Travis," he said with a sigh. "I'm sure the awkwardness of knowing you were with someone else had something to do with it."
"Are we seriously having this conversation?" Nicole blurted out suddenly. She looked like she was in a daze.
Gabriel gave her a half grin, his chocolate brown eyes twinkling. He spread an arm out on the bench behind her shoulders and leaned back. "When have we ever taken the blessed opportunity to skip over an uncomfortable conversation, Nic? In fact we're actually due for one, right?"
Nicole laughed and shook her head, "An awkward conversation about us hasn't come up in some time. You're right about that."
"Though this might be a little more awkward than usual. Used to be that after one of those talks we'd..."
Gabriel snickered when Nicole raised an eyebrow and folded her arms. "We'd what, Gabe?"
This was a slippery slope he was on. The look in her eyes was teasing and every bit understanding of their former ability to get over awkwardness by fucking each other into a coma. He watched her swallow while he licked his lips, trying decide whether he was going to take her little challenge and say what was on his mind. It was dirty, just like the image in his head of her on her back, legs spread wide while he breached the gate between her thighs over and over again. He shifted in his seat, realizing how easy it would be to move even closer to her. Maybe she would resist at first when he touched her face and leaned in. Maybe she'd tell him to stop. But her eyes, and the slight hitch in her breath that he could read like he'd gotten his PhD in her responses, told him he wouldn't have to get past too many of her defenses.
"You really want me to say it, Nic?" he asked suddenly, his voice sounding the way it hadn't in quite some time. A deep, husky rasp that promised things he couldn't deliver now. Not without a lot of regret and resentment later on.