Jess shrugged, momentarily caught up in the game, and then grunted when she lost the round. “I’m relatively cool headed, I guess. I would have been mad had she not acted as if Ash can’t be with who she wants just because Courtney liked her, though. I’ve never subscribed to the idea of letting someone dictate what I do.” She half smiled. “Too damn stubborn.”
James’ eyes flicked up to meet her gaze briefly, before they both paid attention to the game going on in front of them. “Not a bad thing. Do you know how many people compromise themselves or change for someone else? It’s depressing. I’d never do it, either, but it seems we’re the odd ones out on this occasion – go in, go in! Yes, you beaut!”
Jessica scowled and James’ infectious laughter only made it deepen. “Ah, the grumpy face again. Never change, sweetheart.”
“Stop being so good at this!” Jessica cried, flustered as the gap between their scores grew.
James cackled. “What can I say, I’m just talented at everything.”
Studying began in earnest when the exams loomed so close it was a shock. Watching the date slowly rise to match that of her first exam was terrifying. Jessica knew, without a doubt, that she wasn’t nearly as prepared as she should be – but it was only first year! All she had to do was get 40%, after all.
Well, maybe she should aim a little higher. Time for a study party, perhaps.
(Or, more accurately, a chilled out evening full of chocolate and tea and interesting people. And the occasional glance over the textbooks for luck).
“Aja, we match!”
“So we do,” she laughed, glancing at their shoes and tights, bright and cheerful as always. “Great minds, and all that. Clearly we both know how to look cute.”
“It’s a gift,” Jessica said breezily. Aja giggled.
“I’ve got a friend to help us out. I don’t know if you’ve met him before – Aiden!” She beckoned someone over, and Jessica turned to look at James’ flatmate.
“Hello again,” Jessica smiled.
Aja looked between them, a sudden defensiveness to her.
Aja whooped. “You better, because I’m not failing!”
“Well,” Aiden chided, “If you put as much effort into studying as you do partying, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
She fluttered her eyelashes at him and placed her hand over her heart. “But I have no other excuse to spend time with you!”
Aiden shook his head and walked into her dorm, surprisingly at home. “You don’t need a reason, Aj,” he promised her fondly. Jessica smiled to herself and followed them in. Tonight was going to be more playing cupid than it was studying, she could tell.
It was time for a party.
Maybe it was a bit too early to party. After all, it was still light, and it was December. The party started at two o clock, the day after the last exam, and Jessica sincerely hoped it would continue until the early hours of the morning. It wasn’t like they didn’t have enough booze.
James was late to arrive, but didn’t seem surprised that Jessica was performing some horrifying gymnastic act at the dare of her friend Aja. He snorted. “Please be careful with her, I would hate for something to happen to my booty call.”
Somehow, Jessica managed to flip him off in between gulps of beer, which he was truly impressed by.
Aja recoiled. “What? No!”
Jess stuck out her tongue, well aware she was being silly and too drunk to care. “C’mon, Aj! I did your dare, you have to do mine! You two are crazy for each other. Just do it!”
“No, and keep your voice down!” she hissed, surreptitiously glancing around for any sign of Aiden. “I’m not gonna.”
“What?” she burped. “Pussy.”
Aja scowled, but didn’t budge. “Come back when you have a better dare,” she said, sauntering off in the direction of the beer pong table.
Unfortunately, the beer pong table was already occupied, by a very drunk Sam and an almost-as-drunk Jeremy.
“C’mon Jer!” Sam slurred, giggling all the while, “Betcha can’t get it in!”
Jeremy pulled a face in an attempt to see straight. “I always get it in,” he snickered, and then promptly bounced the ball off Sam’s chest instead. Sam burst out into fits of laughter, holding his sides and doubling over as if he couldn’t stand.
“Drunk yet?” he asked with a laugh.
“Smashed,” she said. She took a minute to get her bearings. “I’ve been dared to slow dance with you, but I’m afraid for the sake of your feet.”
James laughed. “Yeah, those heels are killer. I don’t know how you haven’t broken a bone yet, with how clumsy you are.”
She approached him, swaying only a little (she could pretend that it was in time to the music, but in reality no sway could ever be in time to the Nicki Simaj song that was on). “I’ve broken bones,” she protested. “But never when wearing heels, and never drunk.”
Somehow she reached James. “May I have this dance?”
“You’re not so light on your feet there, sweetheart.”
“Shit, did I step on you? Sooo sorry…”
“S’alright, my feet may yet survive to see another day…”
“Well, I’d say this dare is completed. What’s your dare for me?”
“Hmmm. Well, I don’t know. Go outside and see if you can get over the fence to the student houses. One of them has a trampoline.”
“A trampoline! Sweet!”
”Wait a minute! I wasn’t being ser – aaand she’s gone.”
“What if someone sees us?”
“They won’t, calm down. No one is gonna come outside in the freezing cold at this time of night.”
“B-but why are we out here!”
“Because I wanted to spend five minutes in private with you, dumbass.”
Jessica squeaked in surprise at seeing Sam and Jeremy cuddled up to one another in the dark – she hadn’t noticed them until she was right next to them, and she blinked at them. They took a second longer to react, jumping apart guiltily. Sam looked stricken.
“I-I’m sorry!” Jessica gasped. “I didn’t realise – I mean, not that – I should just -”
Sam didn’t meet her eyes. “Jeremy, can you go inside please?”
Jeremy pressed his lips together. “But -”
He glared at Jessica and shuffled back indoors. “Fine,” he muttered.
“Sam, I -” she began.
Even in her drunkenness, Jessica knew the importance of wording this right. She pulled all of her concentration together. “I’m sorry, Sam. I won’t tell anyone, of course – but you know that we wouldn’t even blink an eye?”
Sam scowled. On his usually happy face, it looked wrong. “It’s not about who knows. The whole damn world could know and I wouldn’t care. It’s just -” He became flustered and upset. “I just want to be normal!”
Jessica reeled back at the sudden explosion. “Sam – there’s no such thing as normal.”
“Yeah,” he scoffed, shoving past her. She stumbled back and caught herself on the tree. “Tell that to the footballers and my parents.”
Jessica stared after him, bewildered. Was this what Ash meant by Sam needing protection? Jess had seen the sudden flash of vulnerability and horror when she had stumbled upon them, and it had even her protective instincts surging up. Ashley had to have known – and now Jess needed to find out what Courtney said even more.
Her dare forgotten, Jessica stumbled back inside. She was going home early tomorrow, but Courtney couldn’t avoid her forever.
Before the taxi had even cut its engine, Jessica had thrown herself out of the car and into her mother’s arms. She took in a deep breath. She could smell wet grass and faint manure, her mother’s perfume and the simultaneous threat and promise of snow.
She was home for Christmas and New Year, and she was so happy to be back in her sleepy old farm community.
“I’m expecting Courtney to pop around at some point,” Jessica warned her mother, who only laughed.
“I would be surprised if she didn’t. That girl practically lives here.”
Jessica grinned and finally turned around to pay the patient taxi man. She looked up and found Courtney’s window in the house a minute down the road, and wondered if Court was watching her too.
“I knew you’d turn up eventually,” Jessica said with a smirk. Courtney sighed and stayed hovering by the door.
“You took Ash’s side,” she accused.
“Oh, come off it. Don’t be so immature. I did not take her side, and you know it. I told her how she reacted was harsh, and I would have told you that if you had spoken more than two words to me since the argument a week ago!”
Courtney folded her arms over her chest. “I felt shitty about it, alright? I was so mad and stupid and probably still tipsy from the night before -”
“You didn’t come out to the party!” Jessica protested.
“Yeah, I was playing a drinking game with the LGBT guys. Anyway, I just… didn’t want to face up to it.”
“We were having breakfast and Sam wandered in, only wearing boxer shorts. And Ash wolf whistled and said something about it, I don’t remember what – and I just… got mad. I asked her why she’d do that when she knew how I felt about her – and then she got mad. One thing led to another and I… I said that she deserved way better than Sam.” Courtney cleared her throat. “I may have also said he was an immature waste-of-space jock. More or less to his face.”
“Jesus Christ, Court,” Jessica said, appalled. “Ash really must mean something to you if you’ve been that mean.”
Courtney winced. “I know, I know. I’ve got to apologise, I just can’t bear to face them.”
Jessica sighed. She thought back to what she remembered of the argument and of her discussion with Ashley afterwards. Was Sam really that insecure that he needed Ash to jump to his defence, or was that just her? Jess wondered what she’d do if Kelsey had been insulted like that. Probably the same, she reckoned. Did Sam’s insecurities stem from his sexuality?