A/N: A short story. Happy New Year's. . . I know it's a couple days late – sorry!
She drummed her fingers on the glossy, black marble counter and gazed moodily into the plastic cup of beer in her hand, swirling around the contents idly. Sighing, she frowned at the guy sitting next to her at the bar, who was smoking. Where was Adrienne?
"Linden!" Speak of the devil. A young woman dressed in a black halter top and short skirt was making her way over. "Isn't this fun, Lindy?" Adrienne asked, plopping herself down in a barstool, grinning lazily at her.
Linden offered her friend a half-hearted smile. "Yea, it is," she replied sullenly. "A New Year's party at Gina's is always fun. For most people, that is." Actually, the bar was great. Gina had some really good beers here.
"Aw," Adrienne said, visibly wilting. "Come on, Linden. Everyone else is downstairs at the dance floor. It's a blast. I know you aren't the greatest of party animals, but guess what?" She leaned in, and whispered conspiratorially. "There's a really hot guy I want you to see. He has a friend too. Come with me, Linden?" Adrienne pleaded. "We'll go say hi. I've been dying to introduce myself to him all night. And you can talk to his mate! He looks like he's having about as much fun as you are anyway, and he's cute too! I'm sure you can figure out something to talk about."
Linden reluctantly allowed herself to be pulled up. "Only if it makes you very, very happy, Adrienne. Otherwise you will really owe me," she warned.
"Don't worry," Adrienne laughed. "Trust me, you're gonna love this."
"And you better keep your oath, too," Linden said in her best I'm Watching Over You and It's For Your Own Good tone of voice.
"Stop being such a worry wart," her best friend smiled. "I always keep my vows."
"You've already been drinking," Linden pointed out. "Don't get drunk tonight, please, for both of us. I don't want to have to pick you up from some stranger's house again tomorrow morning."
Adrienne rolled her eyes. "Oh please, Linden. I didn't even get drunk at Julianna's Christmas party last week. I'm having a breakthrough. Now stop stalling, let's go already!"
Linden grudgingly allowed herself to be pulled up.
Ryan punched Joe in the arm. "Look," he said, nodding in the direction of two girls who had just entered the dark dance floor. "That's the one," Ryan said.
"Who?" Joe asked, not bothering to even look.
"That girl. In the black halter and skirt," Ryan said excitedly. "The hot one."
"Which hot one?" Joe asked lazily. "You've been raving about a load of hot girls all night." He sighed glumly. Why had he agreed to come in the first place, even though he knew parties were not his forte of fun? Oh, right – because he had dragged Ryan to that tennis match last month – and now Ryan said this was payback. The two friends were leaning against the wall on the far side of the huge dance room. Joe let his eyes wander around the dimly lit dance floor, trying unenthusiastically to spot Ryan's supposed "hot one" among the sea of dancing bodies. Suddenly, something caught his eye. Actually, more exactly, it was a someone. He pushed himself off the wall to see more clearly.
He had finally spotted the girl Ryan had been talking about, but that wasn't what had piqued his interest – it was the girl next to her. Somehow, it didn't look like she quite belonged here. Her friend was chattering to her, but she clearly wasn't listening. Her dark eyes were roaming around the dance floor, offering an absent nod or reply once in a while. She was wearing a skirt like her friend, though it wasn't nearly as short, and a spaghetti strap top. Her black hair was straight and long, and her face had minimal make up. Next to her friend in the black halter, who was all glitter and sparkle, she looked very plain, yet somehow her oriental features still gave off an air of grace and simple beauty.
Joe frowned. Why did she seem slightly familiar?
He suddenly realized that Ryan was talking to him. "Joe. Joe!"
Joe's head snapped to attention. "What?" he hissed, slightly annoyed that Ryan had interrupted his analysis of the mysterious girl.
A sly smile crossed Ryan's face. "Perfect! You're already checking her friend out. Excellent. You can take her, and leave the other one to me. Do I look alright?" he inquired.
"You look fine. I wasn't checking out her friend, and I'm not 'taking' anybody," Joe said, unable to prevent an irritable tone from edging into his voice. "Don't get yourself into trouble tonight. Your habits have a bad way of getting girls into your bed. I'm tired of walking in on you and your latest one night stand."
"Right," Ryan said absently. He was craning his neck over the sea of dancers to have better visibility. "They're coming. Look casual."
"Speak for yourself, Ryan," Joe said, who had resumed his spot slouched against the wall with his hands deep in his pockets. Yet he couldn't seem to keep his eyes from following the dark haired girl, even as she and her friend drew closer.
Adrienne uttered a small, stifled scream. "There he is! Oh my God," she gushed, clamping Linden's arm in a death grip.
"Well, he's quite cute," Linden said, trying to seem at least a little interested, but inwardly rolling her eyes. He wasn't that worthy of acknowledgement. He was tall – Linden noted that Adrienne tended to go for tall men. Fair complexion, a shock of blonde hair and dark eyes which she assumed would be blue in the daytime. Okay, so maybe he was pretty hot. She shifted her arm slightly, wincing in pain. "Adrienne, get off. You're going to cut off my circulation. His friend is. . . oh, his friend is hot," Linden said truthfully. She had just noticed him – he really was good looking. There was something rather familiar about his brown hair, light eyes and perpetual casual air, but before she could say anything to Adrienne, they had arrived smack in front of them.
"Hey," Adrienne addressed the guy she had been one-sidedly discussing with Linden.
"Hi," he replied, grinning.
Adrienne gave Linden a subtle wink and went into pilot mode, flirting like there was no tomorrow.
'Damn,' Linden thought. She was so used to Adrienne helping her get acquainted with people. Linden just wasn't the type to approach people spontaneously and introduce herself.
She sighed, shaking her head and smiling slightly. It wasn't Adrienne's fault. Linden offered the other guy a grin that said, 'What the hell? Why not.'
Joe did a double take. "Oh my god… Linden?" he said, edging closer.
Her pretty face was clearly bewildered. "Do I know you?" she said, confused.
"Joe," he replied. "Joe Langen, do you remember me?"
Realization seemed to set it. "Langen. Joe Langen. I remember," she smiled at him. "Your dad coached. Oh, my god, I haven't seen you in forever. What are you doing here?" Linden was so surprised. Of all the people she thought she would never see again, Joe was probably near the top of the list. What were the odds of meeting him again… at a party?
He shrugged, giving her a rueful smile, and gesturing towards Ryan. "I got dragged here as payback."
"Same," Linden replied, watching Adrienne and Ryan walk off to the middle of the dance floor.
Joe ran a hand through his hair. No wonder Linden had seemed so familiar. His dad had used to coach her high school varsity tennis team, and she had been the captain. Joe, being the coach's son, had been assistant coach, and had been pretty well acquainted with Linden, though he didn't know much about her. He was two years older than her. "God," he said. "I haven't seen you for. . . five years. I can't believe you're here. I never thought I would meet you again."
"Yea," she agreed. "How's life been treating you lately?"
"Alright, I guess," Joe laughed. "Can't complain, right?"
She nodded, her lips curving up at the corners. "How's the coach doing?"
"My dad?" Joe asked. "Yea, he's fine. He's coaching the girls' side at Monaco High now. Varsity. They're doing all right, actually."
"Monaco," Linden said with distaste, leaning against the wall next to him. "I'll never forget they're playing tactics. They played absolutely dirty as I remember it. Cost us the championship in junior year. I don't know who taught them the rules of tennis, but it seems whoever it was told them to argue until the lines person gave in."
Joe laughed. "Yea, well, my dad's cleaning them up a bit. The coach from before was terrible," he agreed. He noticed the beer in her hands.
"Where can I get some of that?" he asked. He had been searching all night for a drink, but every time, Ryan had dragged him away to see something or other.
"Oh, I got it upstairs at Gina's bar. Come on, I'll get you some," Linden said, leading him away from the dance floor.
They emerged upstairs, where it was quieter. The deep bass pulse of music could still be heard below, and the vibrations felt underneath their feet. Linden got him a cup of beer, and she resumed her earlier spot on a barstool, Joe following suit. Some small talk followed, including the subject of Ryan and Adrienne. They had laughed together, wondering what the chances were that the two would hook up tonight, notorious for sleeping with strangers, regardless of vows or not on Adrienne's behalf.
Finally, Joe ventured to ask, "So, you still playing much tennis?"
"Yes, of course, how could I give it up?" Linden said. Pausing, she glanced at him. She realized that even after knowing Joe for two years back in her high school years, she knew practically nothing about him or his personal life. "This is off topic, but I'm just wondering… Where'd you go to college?" she asked curiously.
"Chico State," he replied promptly.
"Chico State," Linden said, searching inside her head. "Isn't that… out in the – "
" – middle of nowhere, yea," Joe finished for her. "Everyone says so. I got a degree in Sports Management. I'm doing some coaching for tennis teams around some of the local high schools in the Bay Area now."
Linden nodded, looking down at her beer and running her thumbnail around the edge of the cup.
Joe took a draught of his beer, watching Linden out of the corner of his eye. Ever since they had started talking, he had barely been able to tear his gaze away from her. He didn't really remember her having this innocent sort of allure in high school. But then again, maybe it was because the only thing he had ever seen her wear before were tennis shorts, a t-shirt and a visor with her hair up in a pony tail.
Joe cleared his throat softly. He really needed to stop all this analyzing. "So what have you been up to lately?" he asked casually, his light brown eyes still gazing at her.
"Well, I just graduated last spring. I'm…" She trailed off, laughing. "You would never believe this, but I'm a teacher now. Assistant teacher at the moment, actually."
"Is going to New Year's parties and getting trashed part of the job description?" he teased her.
"Yea, I'm not sure partying is a good model for young athletes either," she shot back, grinning.
They sat for a while, talking and chatting, catching up with each other. About a half an hour later, there was lull in the conversation, when Joe looked down at his empty cup. "I feel like having something non-alcoholic now," he said. He knew he shouldn't drink too much beer, especially not tonight in the presence of Linden. Who knew what kind of crazy things he might do around her if he became drunk? He knew from experience that he was a very talkative drunk. Half of Joe's secrets that Ryan knew had been revealed when he had had a little too much alcohol.
"I think I saw some punch downstairs at the dance floor," Linden said, as they stood up.
"Great," Joe said, ladling punch into his cup. Linden took some as well. They were lounging by the refreshment table when Ryan showed up.
"Hey Joe, how's it going?" he asked, waggling his eyebrows at Linden discreetly.
"Well, where's Adrienne?" Joe asked. "I don't see her anywhere."
"In the bathroom," Ryan said smugly. "By the way, she is a great kisser," he said to Linden, nudging her and winking. He spotted the cups of punch in their hands. "Ah," he said knowingly. "Going for the hard stuff, eh?"
"What?" Joe and Linden asked in unison, peering into their cups suspiciously.
"It's spiked, man," Ryan said. "I think someone put some tequila in it."
Joe, who had been taking a mouthful, choked and spat the punch out onto the ground. "What?!" he shouted. "Ryan, you know I can't take tequila!"
Ryan's smirk dissolved, to be replaced by a horrified expression. "Oh my God, I totally forgot," he said, looking truly concerned. His tone had changed within seconds to complete seriousness. "You better get yourself home quick. I'm so sorry." He looked worriedly at his friend.
"Jesus, I drank the whole cup," Joe said weakly.
"What's wrong?" Linden demanded. What was going on? It was just a little tequila.
"He can't drink tequila," Ryan said to her in a low voice.
"I get really sick, pass out, then have a major hangover the next day," Joe gasped, still coughing from choking on the drink. "It's one of the ingredients or something. I can drink anything else, really – just not tequila."
"Want me to take you home?" Ryan said.
Joe shook his head. "I'll make it back," he said. "Have fun tonight. It's not fair to ask you to leave just for me. I'll give you a call."
"You sure?" Ryan looked doubtful. Obviously he had seen Joe's reaction to tequila before.
"Ryan, I'll watch him," Linden said. "It's okay. I'll call you later on, alright?"
Ryan gave his cell phone number to her, still watching Joe anxiously. "Take it easy man," he said, clapping him on the shoulder gently.
"Happy new year's Ryan," Joe said as Ryan left. Linden echoed Joe's parting phrase, then turned to him.
"Let's get out of here," he muttered. The noise and heat of too many bodies was already making his stomach churn uncomfortably.
They went outside to the front porch and sat down on Gina's swing, Joe breathing deeply and holding his head in his hands.
"You gonna be okay?" Linden asked.
"I will be after I throw it up," he murmured. "My head's starting to swim already."
They sat in silence for a while in the cool evening. A chilly breeze was blowing in from the direction of the sea, and clouds were coming in with it, threatening to spill their burden on the Bay Area that night. Then suddenly, Joe stood up and made directly for the bushes. After he had gotten all the alcohol out of his stomach, he came staggering back and slumped onto the swing.
"Oh God, I feel horrible," he said, his voice low and rough.
Linden was becoming very concerned for him. "Come on, I'll take you home," she said. "Let's go, Joe." She helped him up and supported him to the car.
"Where do you live?" Linden asked, inserting her keys into the ignition.
"San Francisco. Richmond District," Joe mumbled, only half-conscious.
About half way to San Francisco on the highway, he lost all consciousness, and Linden was left looking at him hopelessly. The Richmond District was huge, he could live anywhere. Something clicked in her head – Ryan! He would know where Joe lived.
She rummaged around one handedly in her purse for her cell phone while keeping her eyes on the road. 'Drinking and driving, Linden, not the best idea,' she thought when she accidentally swerved a little. 'And you're scolding Adrienne for getting drunk and having sex while you, here, are creating a potential road hazard!' she scoffed at herself. What a stupid idea. And to think, Linden was supposed to be her best friend's designated driver! She called the number Ryan had left with her, but he didn't pick up. She called at least three times before deciding that Ryan was probably dancing right now and couldn't hear the ring of his cell over the loud music.
Linden glanced over at Joe. She finally decided to take him to her own apartment, in one of the suburbs right outside of the city. Where else could she go at this point?
Somehow she managed to half-carry, half-support him out of the car, into the lobby, up the stairs, and down the hall to her apartment door – which wasn't an easy task, considering that she was wearing heels and he weighed quite a bit for her slightly tipsy body. She finally set him down in front of the door, and fumbled for her keys.
"You're gonna be okay, Joe," she whispered to him, not quite sure if she was reassuring him or herself. She got the door open and was immediately greeted by her beagle-terrier mix dog. Mimsy looked happy to see her, and was swishing her little tail from side to side.
"Hey girl," Linden said softly, stopping for a moment to scratch her behind the ears. "Mimsy, this is Joe, he's really sick right now. . . You remember Joe, don't you girl?" Linden used to take Mimsy to tennis practices every now and then.
Linden silently thanked the gods that no police car had stopped her on the road. She kicked off her shoes in the doorway and got Joe into her bedroom and onto her bed – she had no other couches or suitable sleeping surfaces in her small, sparsely furnished apartment. Besides, she figured he would be more comfortable on the bed than on the floor. She took off his shoes and jacket, and un-tucked and unbuttoned his casual dress shirt, but leaving it on. Tapping Joe's chest lightly, she admired the muscles he had gained over many years of working out and playing tennis. Linden also took off his belt, so that he might be more comfortable, and put him under the covers.
Done with doing everything she could for him, Linden sighed and smoothed back some of the hair off his face, tracing the curve of his jaw with her finger. 'When had he grown to be so handsome?' she wondered. Mimsy had curled up at Joe's feet, and Linden smiled at her affectionately.
"You know good fellows when you see them, don't you Mimsy?" Linden asked her dog.
She went to take a shower, and came out in flannel pajama bottoms and a camisole. Joe was still out cold when she came out of the bathroom. 'Well, nowhere to sleep anyway, so I might as well watch over him,' she reflected. She got a cup of coffee and a book, and sat at her desk, which was crammed into her bedroom and littered with papers, books, pens, and other odds and ends.
'I gotta clean this place up sometime,' Linden thought to herself, shaking her head. She took a sip of the scalding hot coffee, and opened the book to her bookmark.
Several hours later, Joe drifted back into the waking world, with his head throbbing painfully. His vision was swimming in and out of focus, and his first conscious thought was that he didn't know where he was or how he had gotten there. Then he saw Linden – and everything fell back in place. The party, Ryan and Adrienne, the beer, the spiked punch, the tequila – Linden. Joe reasoned that he must have passed out half way to his house, and, not knowing exactly where he lived, she had brought him back to her own apartment. She was sitting at her desk, which was facing away from the bed. Her back was to him, and he could see that she was sitting cross-legged on the seat of her desk chair, reading a book. Her shiny Asian hair was tied up in a ponytail, and she was in her pajamas. She had mercifully turned off all the lights except for a lamp on the desk.
"Linden?" he said. His voice came out hoarse and raspy. Joe cleared his throat.
Linden jumped slightly, realizing that Joe was awake. She came over to the bedside quickly, and kneeled down next to him.
"Joe, are you alright?" she asked, concern evident in her dark, almond shaped eyes.
"Yea," he lied, trying to sit up.
"No!" she cried softly, pushing him back gently. "Don't get up, go back to sleep. You'd get a head rush anyway. How is it?" she asked, lightly touching his forehead.
Joe grimaced. "Honestly? I feel like a cement roller smashed my head to bits."
Linden looked at him sympathetically. "I'll get you some Tylonol. Wait just a sec." She padded out of the room in her bare feet.
Joe looked around the small room with interest. There was a window, and through the mini-blinds he could see that it was raining gently. Then he noticed a warm weight on his feet.
"Mimsy!" The dog perked up her ears. She crawled over to him, and nuzzled his hand, whining softly.
"It's okay, I'll be alright," Joe said softly to her. "How have you been, eh?" He patted her fondly. When Linden had brought Mimsy to practices, she had sat on the sidelines with Joe, and they had become quite familiar with each other.
Presently Linden came back, and she gave him two pills and a glass of water.
"Take these," she said, which he did readily.
"Thanks Linden," Joe said. "I really appreciate it."
"Anytime Joe," she replied with a soft smile.
"What time is it?" he groaned. A fresh wave of pain had washed over his head.
"Two-thirty. I think we got back at around nine. Happy new year's," Linden whispered.
"Yea, happy new year's," he murmured. "Are you tired? I see you brought out some coffee."
She laughed. "No," she replied untruthfully. "I'm all ri-i-" Yawn. "-right."
"Liar," Joe grinned. "Come on." He patted what little space left of the bed there was. "It's not that cramped."
Linden looked at him incredulously.
"Ok, ok," Joe said resignedly. "But really, if you don't mind, I don't mind. I don't bite, you know." He silently willed her to accept his oh-so-gracious invitation.
Linden was about to reply when she yawned again. "Ok," she relented. "I don't mind. Let me go brush my teeth first."
She came back a few minutes later and crawled into bed next to Joe. It ended up not being really all that cramped, like he said, because he pulled her closer, and she was able to share the single pillow with him.
"Night Joe," she said, closing her eyes.
"Good night, Linden," Joe whispered, watching her for a moment before going back to sleep himself.
Joe woke up hours later to find that he was very comfortable indeed, with Linden sleeping peacefully in his arms, and their legs tangled together under the sheets. He watched her for a while. His head was still aching, but he noticed that watching Linden made him forget everything else. What was her last name again? Oh yea – Chen – or Cheng. Or was it Chan? Something along the lines of that common Asian last name anyway. He thought idly that her delicate Asiatic features made her so pretty and graceful. He unconsciously reached out to tuck a strand of her long, black hair behind her ear.
Presently, she stirred in her sleep, and woke up. Linden looked at him blearily through half-closed eyes.
"Alright there, Joe?" she mumbled.
"Fine," he said, smiling down at her. "Mind if I go use your bathroom to freshen up?"
She had closed her eyes again and gestured him out the door. "Go ahead," she said, her voice muffled by the pillow. "Use whatever you need, I don't care." She had drifted back off to sleep.
Joe smiled at her sleeping form, and rolled out of bed slowly. He kept in mind what she had said earlier about the blood rushing to his head quickly. He knew all too well how painful that was. Then again, being around Linden was a rush in itself, he reflected. Joe stumbled out the door, and found that Mimsy was awake and had followed him out. He kneeled down to pat her, and she licked his fingers and perked her ears up, trotting away. He followed her through a short hall – Mimsy had led him to the bathroom.
"Thanks, girl," Joe muttered, and closed the door. The bathroom was small, just like everything else in the apartment. There was a sink, mirror, toilet, and shower stall, all squeezed into a square room not much bigger than a walk in closet. He found some toothpaste and a toothbrush, which he assumed was Linden's. He couldn't find any other toothbrush, so he used hers.
"Sorry Linden," he said under his breath. "I'll buy you a new one, I promise." Joe freshened himself up, then went back to the bedroom, and lay back down next to Linden.
"Mmm, done?" she said.
"Yea… I used your toothbrush; sorry," he said softly.
"It's ok, I don't mind," she said. "Be right back." She left for the bathroom and was back shortly. She crawled back sleepily next to Joe.
"Still tired?" he chuckled as she yawned.
"Yea," Linden replied.
Joe pulled her back into his arms, shifting so they were back in their original positions when they had just woken up – with their legs tangled together.
Linden seemed to just notice exactly how close they were, and found that her heart rate had increased slightly. She looked up at Joe, and found that he was watching her. He grinned down at her, and pulled her even closer. And Joe did what he had been wanting to do ever since Linden had woken up – he buried his face in the crook of her neck, breathing in her fresh scent. "Thanks for everything, Linden," he murmured, his lips soft on her bare skin, and sending a shiver racing down her spine. He kissed her gently on the neck and moved his mouth up to her ear, his lips barely grazing her skin. "You're the best," he whispered.
"Thanks Joe," Linden said, slightly breathlessly. She leaned up to place a kiss on his cheek, but he had moved his head and caught her lips with his.
Joe breathed in sharply. He hadn't anticipated the shudder that ran through his body at the contact of her lips on his, and drew back slightly to see her reaction.
"Joe," she breathed. Her hands had come up to rest behind his neck. Linden leaned in and reconnected their lips – not that he was complaining.
Joe couldn't believe that such a simple kiss could send his mind reeling like it was. He nearly forgot everything else around him – including breathing. They drew apart, gasping for air. Linden ran her hands over his bare chest lightly. Her hands continued to explore his lean torso and back even after Joe had re-captured her lips, leaving a trail of fire on his skin in their wake. He gripped her waist tighter, knowing she would soon make him lose control, but not wanting her to stop either. Her hands stopped at the small of his back, and massaged in small circles.
"Linden," he moaned into her mouth. His tongue teased the corner of her mouth, and she opened her lips to him willingly, allowing him to take the kiss deeper. It was scary, yet exhilarating, just how much control she had over him. Little did Joe know that he had just as much power over her.
They separated much later, and Linden rested her head against his chest happily, listening to Joe's racing heart calm down.
"Do you have a hangover?" she asked after a bit.
Joe considered for a moment, then said, "Yea, but I think you helped to kill it a little."
"A little?" she said.
"Yea," Joe said hopefully, "Maybe you should kiss me again, then it'll go away completely – " He didn't get to finish his sentence. Linden's lips were already on his.
For the first time in his life, Joe was glad that he had such a strong allergic reaction to tequila.
A/N: Yay, all done! Review and make me happy. . . please? :o)