Author's Note: Of all the stories to update now, of course my muse chose the one on hold. And yes, this story is still on hold. Or I guess now it would move to the "Will Be Updated When the Spirit Moves" list. My primary focus, however, will continue to be Forever '95, so if anyone chooses to wait until updates become regular again to continue reading this story, I won't blame you in the slightest.
I apologize for the wait, past and future. My muse is a strange, strange creature.
- - - - -
"Hey, Becca. It's Paul."
Becca covered the phone's mouthpiece and let out her breath in a whoosh. She told herself once again she needed a caller ID box for her room, especially when she wanted to avoid speaking to a certain red-headed roommate. The remaining knot in her stomach served as a reminder. Not talking to Matt now changed nothing; they still had to talk at some point. Was later really better?
"Becca? You there?"
Becca jerked her hand away. "Yeah, sorry."
"No, it's fine." Not really, but he didn't have to know that. "I'm just taking a breather before I get ready for work. How about you?"
A chuckle. "Pretty much the same. Any way I could talk you into guiding me to a good Chinese buffet?"
Her stomach growled at the thought. "Hey, if you're buying, I'm guiding."
Then Matt's lips popped into her head; she immediately pushed the image into the background. It wasn't like she was cheating on Matt if she had lunch with Paul. She wasn't Matt's girlfriend, but she wanted to get there with Paul. And lunch was a date, especially for two people who both worked during the conventional dinner-rendezvous hours.
Repeating that mantra the entire time, she talked about nothing in particular for a few more minutes. The moment she hung up, however, she slumped against her headboard. Should she really go out with Paul, even for lunch, after what happened with Matt the night before? When she assured Paul of the platonic nature of her relationship with her best friend, she'd been honest. But now, well, she didn't know what to think. Even if was due to Matt's drunken whatever, it still happened. And he'd been drunk around her before. He'd never shown much romantic inclination toward her. So why now?
To add the final patch of carpet on Graceland's ceilings, she'd pushed Matt away not because kissing him felt wrong, but because it felt right at the wrong time. It was too late for the missing link to make a connection. After high school Matt had diverted; she'd rerouted; the singular creation split into two separate entities which could still coexist in the present but functioned independently of one another.
Why was she freaking out? Becca took a deep breath, clearing her head at the same time. Panicking would accomplish little besides making her all sweaty before her lunch date with Paul. She could hear her mother's mortified reaction already. Her mom never pressured her only daughter to be girly, but there were rules. Shave even if no one's going to see it; no human being looks good enough to pull off polka dots; people will forget if your clothes didn't match yesterday, but one instance of unchecked body odor can haunt you forever.
With that in mind, Becca carried her handheld fan into the bathroom so she could stay cool while brushing her teeth.
- - - - -
Paul frowned as he twirled lo mien noodles onto his fork. He needed no psychology degree to see Becca was distracted. Her eyes remained low, and her unreserved smile - the one he'd grown fond of already - had yet to make an appearance. She'd filled her plate halfway, and she had only taken two bites. The conversation lulled despite his best efforts to draw her out.
What the hell? Was she having second thoughts now, only an hour into their first official date? He had gone home the day before optimistic. So much so, in fact, he called her even though he usually waited until at least midweek for follow-up contact. Maybe he came on too strong at first after all, and now that she'd had time to think about it, Becca changed her mind.
Paul allowed himself an internal groan. Sure, it had been awhile, but when had going out on a date with someone you hit it off with gotten so complicated?
Time to try talking again. "So..."
Becca's eyes jerked away from the tabletop and landed back on Paul's face. Her mouth immediately melted into an apologetic half smile. "I'm sorry. I guess I'm kinda out of it today."
At least she was attempting to let him off the hook, sort of. "Feel free to get it off your chest." Paul spread his hands wide, looking helpless. "I've exhausted all my conversation-starters."
Becca winced. "I know, I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," he said, waving her words away. "I just want to know if it's me or something out of my control."
"It's not you, Paul, seriously." She sighed, targeting her breath so it blew the stray bangs away from her nose. "I'm really glad you called. I needed to get out, even if I'm just sitting here, bogging you down."
She offered a tempered version of her usual smile, and Paul considered it for a moment. So something was really bothering her. As her date, then, he needed to distract her, right?
Right. He nodded and stood. When she raised her eyebrows, he reached out for her hand and said, "Come on," revealing nothing else by word or expression. She hesitated a second, then took his hand and followed him out. Her brow furrowed once again as he headed toward the sidewalk instead of his car. She matched his leisurely pace, and he noticed her shoulders relax after half a block. Two more blocks downtown and a quick left later, recognition lit Becca's features.
"The trolley, right?" she said. Once he confirmed it, she giggled. "Would you believe I've never ridden the thing?"
"You're kidding." He was hardly surprised.
She shook her head, her nose crinkled. "Too couple-y."
Paul grinned; he remembered well the novelty aspect of trolleys for tourists in San Francisco. Interesting to hear a native Memphian echo the same sentiment about a smaller scale version in her own city. He could hardly argue with the couple-y part though. In that spirit, he released her hand so he could put his arm across her shoulders, drawing her closer. He extended the other like a train conductor.
Paul felt relieved when Becca's lips receded into a contest winner's smile, leaving the detached attitude on the cobblestone platform as they boarded the car. She held onto a pole first, then traded that handhold for Paul's arm. By the time they passed the Peabody complex, she hugged his stomach, her head wedged in the crook of his neck. Paul gave her shoulder a squeeze.
"You're right. This is pretty couple-y." He grinned. "I should've brought you here sooner."
Becca chuckled, nuzzling like a kitten. "This is perfect timing. It's been forever since I did anything like this."
"I don't believe that."
"It's true." She sighed, her arms tightening. "The closest thing I've had to a date recently was when my parents and Matt took me out to do my best Patsy Cline for karaoke night. Don't ask," she said, laughing as Paul's eyebrows jumped.
He smiled to hide his growing curiosity. He tried to picture Becca in a country singer's outfit. The best images he could come up with were Dolly Pardon and Daisy Duke. He opted to picture her in the short tee and cutoffs. "Wish I'd seen it."
"Don't worry," she said. "We do it at least once a year. You can catch it next time."
"Then I'll definitely be there."
He hadn't intended to include "definitely" in his response, nor had he meant to sound quite so definite either. The moment the words left his mouth, Becca stiffened. He knew the implication had caught her off guard too. Of course it had; they hardly knew each other.
I should've laughed so she'd know...
Know what? That he didn't really mean it? That it had been a joke?
She peered up at him from under his arm, and her eyes, wide and looking darker than usual from being shaded by the trolley's roof, mirrored the very same questions which ran through his head. And Paul knew then why he had sounded serious, even though he'd only consciously realized it.
He leaned against the rail, pulling her flush against him and brushed a stand of hair from her cheek. With a shrug and a guilty smile, he amended his statement, but only a little.
"I want to be there," he admitted.
He wondered for only a moment whether or not he'd been a little too honest for their first real date. Then she cupped his face. Her chin tilted up, her eyelids slid down, and when she kissed him it was as if he'd looked into an honest-to-God crystal ball.
Catastrophic circumstances notwithstanding, then yes, he would definitely be there.