Chapter 16

"No, no. What the hell are you doing, Justin?" I sobbed at the magazine, throwing it down and bursting into more tears. I knocked my head against the counter, then yelped in pain. My eyes watered even more, and I let out a distressed wail, weeping loudly.

Kyle opened the kitchen door, then almost immediately backed out when he saw me in my crying hysterics. After a moment, he summoned enough bravery to look back in and ask, "Um, Leigh? Are you okay?"

"Do I look okay?" I shouted at him. He jumped back, nearly fleeing again, then peered back at me. "Justin Bieber is wasting his life away! He's—what the hell happened to that beautiful, good-natured Christian boy that I used to know? How could he?"

The waterworks sprouted up again, and I let out a distressed wail.

Obviously trying to muffle a laugh, Kyle coughed into his fist and cleared his throat, mouth twisted into a grimace as he attempted to fight down a smile. He adopted a mournful look and nodded sadly, clasping his hands together. "It's a true tragedy, Leigh. I regret your loss."

"My loss?" I shrieked, stomping on the magazine in rage. "My loss? Think about the world's loss! He used to be so nice and sweet and—and—and then he cheated on his girlfriend and went completely wild, and now he's acting so weird, and—"

"Why do I get the feeling that this isn't about Justin Bieber anymore?" muttered Kyle, leaning against the doorframe and putting a hand to his head.

"Huh?" I shouted loudly, glaring at Kyle in confusion. "What do you mean, I'm not talking about Justin anymore? Of course I am! Who else do we know that was all nice and lovely in the start, then began running wild and cheating on his girlfriend, huh? Who else—" I faltered, suddenly seeing the similarities to a certain blond Adonis. "Oh."

Grinning sardonically, Kyle rolled his eyes. "Yes, oh. Sucks that JB's acting weird now, though. Bet it's just a phase; if you come back in a year, he oughta be right as rain. And don't take it out on the magazine, those cost money. Calm down, Leigh." Kyle bent down to pick up the magazine, and I wiped my eyes.

"I'm sorry," I sighed, using my thumbs to get off the excess eyeliner and mascara. "PMS, but you probably don't want to hear about any of that. I mean, I still love the guy, but he's just been acting plain douchey recently. Can you believe it?"

"Who, Justin Bieber or Josh?" asked Kyle, looking critically at the no longer glossy magazine cover. He dusted it off to get back some of the shine, then set it on the counter. "Someone should introduce them. They could become buddies; the two certainly wouldn't have a hard time finding common ground."

"Don't say that," I protested, stung. "Josh Vaughn is much more of a douchebag than Justin is. Justin Bieber will be beautiful forever, even if I'm having a PMS fit at him. But really," I could feel myself tearing up again, "it's just so sad! I feel like he's wasting everything away, and all his videos have so many dislikes, but his music is still good and I'm just sad!"

"Whoa there, soldier," said Kyle, looking at me warily. "Don't start crying on me again. I'm not good with crying girls."

"Is anyone?" I asked, sniffing and patting my nose gingerly. My finger came away foundation-free, much to my relief. Kylie really was an angel for doing my makeup during school today. "By the way, your sister is awesome. She worked her magic and managed to hide that ugly nose bruise."

Kyle's eyes widened with wonder, and he held up a finger. "Oh, so that's what was off," he said, blinking in surprise. "I knew you looked different, but I couldn't quite place it. Now I know; the bruise is gone. Thank god that the nagging feeling has gone away, at least."

Smiling, I tapped my under-eye area with my ring finger. "Yeah, you're welcome. When Justin Bieber is back to normal, I'll pretend that I never had this tantrum. In fact, I think I'll just start now. You won't tell anyone, will you?" My expression was suspicious as I regarded Kyle.

Expression one of mock-hurt, Kyle gasped and put a hand to his heart. "Tell?" he asked, sounding scandalized. "Milady, my love for you stretches across three galaxies. I would never tell anyone of thy mishaps, my darling. Not even of the Justin Bieber tantrum, never!"

I let out a snicker. "Hell yeah. I'd date you if we weren't so similar, you know. You and I, we think the same." I lightly pushed him on the chest, and he grinned widely. "Opposites attract, and we—"

"Are way too hot to be opposites, I know," Kyle finished for me, a wry smile crossing his lips. "Doesn't mean that I don't enjoy making out with you, though."

Smirking, I replied, "The same goes for you, fellow friend with benefits." Saluting, I pointed to the bathroom with my other hand and said, "I think I'd better clean up a little. Don't want to look like I've been punched in the eye, too."

Kyle nodded and grinned. "By all means, go ahead," he said, lounging against the counter and flipping through my magazine. I saluted him again, then fled to the bathroom. My face looked like a mess, although the purple bruise around my nose stayed hidden behind makeup. Thank god for Kylie.

Taking out my eye makeup remover wipes, I shut one eye and took off the runny eyeliner and mascara. I then proceeded to do the other eye.

It was then that Kyle came trotting into the room, holding up the magazine and babbling about something. "Hey, Leigh, did you know that Justin Bieber—oh, whoa." He blinked. "Wow. Dude, Leigh, you look really different without makeup."

Jeez. I was starting to wonder if Kyle had a thought filter. And his sister, too—they both had a knack for pointing out the extremely obvious.

"It's because I'm a blonde," I sighed mournfully, wiping a black spot away from my eye. "My eyelashes look practically nonexistent, which is why I can't ever go out without mascara on. And my hair isn't even as light as some blondes, you know."

"Oh." He looked stumped for a moment, then shrugged and walked out of the bathroom. Seconds later, my cell phone rang.

I picked up. "Hello?"

"Uh, hi." Jessamine's nervous voice came through the speaker and I sighed, leaning against the wall as I cradled the wireless phone in my hands. "You're not at the dance committee meeting. And I don't blame you, Leigh," she added as I began to protest. "I actually called to ask you—Um, well, I was wondering if you'd go off the committee? Nothing personal, but . . ."

"I get it," I said. "You don't need more drama, what with the dance in two days." Plus, you're practically with Josh now, albeit secrety. "It's all good. I was never really one for dances." True. "You're the one who asked me to participate, remember?" (Cough, made me participate.)

Jessamine sighed, sounding relieved. "Oh, yeah. Um, thanks, Leigh. I appreciate it. We should go and hang out sometime when . . . you know."

"When I'm not waging war with Josh Vaughn?" I asked dryly, smiling humorlessly at the wall. "Yeah, passes the phrase 'when pigs fly' by a mile. Good luck with the dance. Make sure to put One Direction on the soundtrack, no matter what April says, alright?"

Sounding an odd mix of melancholy and cheer, Jessamine agreed. I hung up on her, then traveled back to the bathroom, going right back to wiping smudged eyeliner from my face.

Two days passed in sluggishly slow procession, but the night of the dance finally came. Kylie invited me and Kayla over to her and Kyle's home to get ready. It started awkward, but the three of us finally slipped into an easygoing conversation, and I found myself remembering why I'd liked Kayla. She was funny and relatable, but so was Kylie. Hell, so was Kyle. So why were we best friends before?

Weird, but I wasn't so sure anymore. Lots of things had changed.

"We look hot," Kylie said in a singsong voice, twirling around in her sequined blue sundress. I grinned in response, and Kayla whistled her agreement. Sure, I was pushing the dress code a little (or a lot), but I had to use my miniskirt for something. Faux black leather wasn't exactly casual school wear.

Kayla patted her curled brown hair, then looked up. "Oh, Leigh. Your date's here."

"Well yes, I do live here," said Kyle, sounding amused as he stepped into the room. He winked at his sister, who smirked and applied another layer of lipgloss. "Beautiful as ever, ladies. Any idea when you'll be done?"

"Indefinite," I replied with a grin, adjusting the collar of my shirt. "There's just so much to do. You boys have it easy; you just slap on a button-up and jeans, then say you're done." I reached for a tube of red lipstick and put on a coat of it. Kyle winced, as if all the work we were doing was physically hurting him.

Clearing his throat, Kyle motioned to the door. "I'll just, uh, go. The dance is in twenty minutes, so you might wanna hurry up or something. How much longer—" He caught himself before I could answer with another "indefinite."

The three of us smiled beatifically at him as he walked out of Kylie's room. The moment he shut the door behind him, we all shrieked in simultaneous horror.

"Twenty minutes!"

"But I'm done done blending my eyeshadow!"

"I need to find clear, nonpigmented lipgloss. Does anyone have clear, nonpigmented lipgloss?"


"—my eyeshadow! And I was planning on glitter, too. . . . Kylie, Leigh, help me! Kylie, d'you have a Mac 217 brush?"

"Kayla, here's your glitter—"

"Leigh, are you got going to talk all day or use my lipgloss? And Kayla, why don't you have your own 217?"

"I do, but it's dirty—"

The door creaked open again and we fell silent, re-turning on the beatific smiles. Kyle stared at us with an odd expression on his face, then shuddered a little. "Um, you guys okay? It kind of sounds like a nuclear explosion happened here from downstairs. D'you need—"

"Get out, Kyle," said Kylie, still beaming stiffly at him. He opened his mouth to object but thought better of it, hurrying out the door for the second time. Kayla grabbed one of Kylie's 217 blending brushes, and I smoothed lipgloss onto my red-painted lips.

"He's right," Kylie said, powdering her nose. Kayla and I looked up. She clarified, "Boys don't do any work, the lucky asses."

"Actually, I think I said that," I said, poking at one of my eyebrows to make it more arched, "but yes, they don't do anything. On the bright side, there's a lot that girls can do if they're god-ugly. Boys need plastic surgery to look better."

"Point," Kylie conceded. I smiled, then hesitated.

"Hey, um . . ." I twisted a lock of hair around my finger and stared down at the tabletop. "How are you guys doing with the lowlife thing? Are you okay?"

Snorting, Kayla smacked her lips and put gloss over her pink lipstick. "Define 'okay.' I mean, we're all in a group, so we can still talk to each other and all, but it's not exactly the A-list life. Why, are you doing bad?"

"Eh, I'm okay. It's better than I figured, like you said, but I kinda feel bad for all those lowlife kids now." I clasped a gold-chained necklace with chunky red stones around my neck, glancing behind me. "Don't get me wrong, they're still nerds, but it must've sucked when we were the ones picking on them."

Both Kylie and Kayla exchanged thoughtful looks. Kayla shrugged. "I never thought of it that way," she said. "Doesn't mean we've gotta be nice to them, but I guess that we can not but them. Even if geeks are bad for my beauty sleep. After all, they'll end up richer than any of us."

"I second that," I said, grinning.

"And I third that," said Kylie, bringing our conversation to a close. "Are you guys done with everything? We should get going; our dates will be waiting."

Kayla and her boyfriend, Damien, say in the front of his pickup truck while Harry, Kylie, Kyle, and I stayed in the back. I'd never say in the trunk of a pickup before, an it was strangely exhilarating. The night air whipped my ponytail around—and Kylie's perfect, hairsprayed blond curls—but I didn't really mind.

Lights flashed around me, giving the setting a harsh yellow glow. I smiled. This was more fun than the actual dance would be, I'd bet.

Harry and I waved enthusiastically at the car behind us, while the twins laughed at our antics. I grinned, and Harry squinted at the people in said car. He gave a yelp of surprise, then laughed. "Hey, look, it's Devon! With a girl."

I gasped. So did Kylie. In a flash, all four of us were sitting dangerously close to the edge of Damien's truck, trying to get a better look at Devon's mystery date. He flipped us off in the driver's seat, and we all fell back, taken into a fit of giggles.

"Devon's got a date!" I yelled, loud enough for him to hear through his open window. Devon made a face, then hollered right back, "She's my cousin!"

Both Kylie and I frowned in disappointment, and I stuck my tongue out. Harry and Kyle just snickered when they found out that Devon had been desperate enough to take his cousin as a date. Playboy extraordinaire, no longer a ladies' man.

When we got to Irvington, I let my hair out of its ponytail and wound the hairtie around my wrist. The six of us waved to Devon and his cousin, then headed for the gym.

The gym doors were open and wreathed in balloons. Crepe-paper streamers decorated the walls, and more balloons floated around the ceiling. My lip curled. And now I remembered why I didn't like going to dances. Waste of time, waste of money, waste of decorations.

"Oi, guys, over here!"

My attention was diverted as two boys waved at us, and my face split into a grin. Lucas and Hayden stood by the punch, both looking very smug, which led me to believe that they'd spiked it. I snickered. So maybe this wouldn't be such a waste, after all.

"I'm looking forward to seeing the teachers drunk," said Lucas. He nodded to the teachers chaperoning the dance. "Of course, they might notice that the punch tastes like straight whiskey with a little bit of red food coloring, but hey, I bet they're closet alcoholics anyway." Lucas waggled his eyebrows.

"This is straight whiskey?" Harry asked, looking at the bloodred liquid. He sniffed the so-called punch, then laughed. "Okay. I don't know why I asked."

Hayden smirked. "Yeah, well, we did add some handfuls of sugar. Punch is supposed to be sweet, you know." His eyes narrowed as he looked over my shoulder. "Whoa, hold up. Is that Devon? With a girl?"

"His cousin," we all said in unison. Damien, who had his arm slung around Kayla's shoulders, smirked. His eyes latched onto the cousin that Devon had brought, and his smirk turned into a full-blown grin.

"Look closer at her," he said. "She's, like, fourteen. If I didn't know they were related, I'd say that Devon was a pedophile."

Damien pointed, and we all turned to see a short, round-faced girl with youthful features and a lacking of certain adult features. I snorted. Definitely nothing that Devon would date. He went for gorgeous, model-type girls with long and shiny hair. Not . . . that.

Honestly, she looked twelve. Damien had been generous in his estimate, and I told him so. He rolled his eyes, but chortled nonetheless.

"Nice catch, Dev," I said as he approached us, flashing a Cheshire Cat grin. "I didn't realize that you were into jailbait these days."

Devon gave me an elbow in the ribs and ladled himself a cup of punch. Hayden and Lucas exchanged excited looks. "Be nice, Leigh," he said as he brought the cup to his lips and took a sip. He almost immediately spit it back into the cup, and the two culprits' shoulders shook with suppressed mirth.

Coughing and choking, Devon complained, "What the hell was that? Scotch meets the freaking sugar plum fairy?"

"Close," said Lucas, looking satisfied enough to have canary feathers on his lips. "We took the liberty of finding the oldest whiskey we could, and added sugar. I expect it'll start tasting good once you drink a lot of it."

"Right." Devon snorted. "You're just trying to get me drink. What was that phrase? 'If it doesn't taste good, you're not doing it right'? Although I don't think anything about this is right," he said, looking ruefully at the cup of pseudo-punch in his hand.

I smiled, my eyes drifting across the haggle of people and balloons. There was Travis, arm propped against the wall as he grinned down at a girl. My stomach flipped in discomfort, so I moved on. Peyton McCouth, Josh's best friend and Irvington's football receiver, was chatting with the cheerleader Candi. And Josh.

Was he looking my way? His eyes were shadowed, so I couldn't see where they were trained, but his head was angled in my direction. In case he was, I flashed a jaunty, red-lipped smile and winked, tossing my hair as I rejoined my group's conversation.

Five minutes later, the screech of a microphone's feedback made everyone wince. Jessamine's amplified voice boomed through the gym.

"Sorry, sorry. It's seven o'clock, which means that the dance is starting. Okay, um, one thing before the music starts. Sorry. Um, some of you might know that there's a lot of stuff going on right now with, uh, several certain people. So I'd like to make a request."

I looked at Kyle, alarmed. He just shrugged.

"Uh, I'd like for you guys to call off the war tonight . . . if that's okay? Truce for two hours. I don't want any yelling or—or fighting. Keep it down for one night. Okay, uh, that's it. Bye." More mic feedback, then the beginning riff to Taylor Swift's "22." April must've gotten to the soundtrack after all.

"Let's dance," Kylie said, grinning enthusiastically and clapping her hands together. She dragged a groaning Harry onto the gym floor, and I shrugged at Kyle.

"My sister's crazy," he sighed mournfully, taking my hand and joining the couple. "But I love her anyway. I've never danced at a school dance before. In fact, I've just about never danced."

"Ditto," I said. "Just wait for college. Then we won't have to worry; dancing will just be grinding."

Kyle burst into laughter. "Oh, Leigh. What the hell would I do without you?"

"You'd die, of course," I said, grinning as blue and red lights flashed across the gym, turning his fine blond hair green and purple in spots. "Truce tonight, huh? No punching or screaming. Dunno how we're going to manage that."

"You just want to try the punch," said Kyle, throwing a glance behind his shoulder at the punch bowl. I peered over his shoulder and laughed, delighted. Half of the students were choking. The other half were chugging down as much as they could. Jessamine would be happy.

To clean up all the vomit on the floor when everyone was done, I mean.

An hour passed. The dance wasn't terrible—it was like an extremely low-rated club without a bar—but I was just about ready to take off. Hayden and Lucas's whiskey punch was long gone (I'd had a cup; it tasted horrible), and I had nothing else to intoxicate myself with. And being at a high school dance required intoxication.

The Script's "For the First Time" came on, and I groaned. That was a slow dance song, and I hated—no, despised—slow dancing. I turned to Kyle. "Hey, do you want to get out of—"

"Mind if I cut in?"

My brain just about exploded. Oh, for the love of god, not now. Not during the slow dance section.

Kyle's eyes narrowed at the speaker. "What are you doing here, Josh?"

Josh shrugged, giving me a half-hearted smile as he addressed Kyle. "It's a truce, isn't it? I figured that this was my chance to dance with the prettiest girl in the room. And maybe, uh, talk a little?" He glanced nervously at me.

I raised my eyebrows, then shrugged at Kyle. "You can go, if you want," I said to him. "I'll be fine."

"You sure?" said Kyle. He saw my face and smiled. "Right. Of course. See you in a few, then." Kyle turned and strode through the sea of slow-dancing teenagers, and I looked back to Josh.

"Talk," I said. "You have six minutes of my full attention."

A sigh whooshed out of Josh's lungs, and he glanced up at the ceiling. "Uh, okay," he said, looking down at me. We were the only ones standing immobile amongst the swaying couples. "You know how, when something happens, you do something stupid and get way too deep in it?"

Ha. If only he knew. But all I said was, "Yeah."

"Okay, good. Um . . ." Josh ran a hand through his hair. "I screwed up at, uh, a lot of things. We were friends, and everything was good, but then . . ." He trailed off, dropping his arms to his side. "And then, uh, you got with Kyle. And I was—I was, um, jealous."

Oh. Oh, no. He was not going there. Josh goddamn Vaughn did not like me.

"I changed my mind," I said abruptly, turning away. "I don't want to talk to you. I don't want to hear it."

"What? No, hold up, Leigh, just—just let me finish." Josh grabbed my arm, staring at me with anxious eyes. "I'm not—I'm not asking you to reciprocate my feelings or anything, but I need you to hear me out. I wouldn't want you to go off to college and—hate me, I guess. I—look, it's—"

I sighed. Great. "I don't hate you," I said, pursing my lips. "I don't like you—in either terms of 'like,' but I don't exactly hate you. Look, we're a month from graduating, okay? Even if I did like you, which I don't, I wouldn't be with you because—let's face it. Long distance is where relationships go to die."

"We don't have to be long-distance," said Josh, eyes wide and earnest. "We can pick colleges together, or—"

"Right." I snorted. "Didn't you get early acceptance into Stanford or something? With a football scholarship? And this is all purely hypothetical. I don't like you. I don't. It's just not . . . I don't like you."

The words sounded weak, even to my own ears, and I shut my eyes again. "Josh, you're . . . not a bad person. I don't hate you. I would like for you to be happy, but not with me. I'm sorry."

Ouch, that didn't sound nice. I'd wanted to sound nice. God, I was just giving people virtual slaps left and right, wasn't I? Travis, the whole right side of the A-list group, and now Josh. Plus, I hadn't exactly been a star friend to Jude, either. Maybe Josh wasn't a bad person, but I was.

When I opened my eyes, I saw Josh looking up, blinking hard. Ah, hell. Had I made him cry? Oh, crap. He was crying. I had made a boy cry. How the hell did a girl comfort a crying dude without giving him the wrong message?

Moisture prickled behind my own eyes, and I swore softly. No, no, I wasn't going to cry. I didn't deserve to cry because I was a terrible, terrible person. But it was too late.

"I guess we both kinda screwed up," I said, voice cracking. I couldn't hear myself over the music, but from Josh's expression, I could tell that he'd understood me.

I took a careful step forward and hugged him, warily putting my face against his shirt. He smelled nice, but in a strange way: There was a mixture of scents that I'd never thought would mix. A hint of laundry detergent, Gatorade, aftershave, and (weirdly enough) corn.

Josh rested his hands on my back, dropping his chin to the top of my head. He sighed and said, "So which college are you planning to go to?"

Inhaling another breath of Josh's scent, I said, "You aren't going to want to hear it. It's far away."

"Tell me anyway."

For a moment, I was tempted to ignore him; to leave it be and just stay there as long as I could. But that wasn't fair, so I looked up and replied. "I applied for MIT and all the Ivy Leagues, although my backup is NYU. I also applied for a public university in Louisiana, just in case."

"Oh," said Josh. His jaw clenched as he looked down. "Okay. I see."

I let my head fall back to Josh's shirt, taking one last whiff of his curiously attractive smell. Then I stepped back and smiled a melancholy smile. "Your six minutes are up, Vaughn," I said. "Back to as we were."

I flicked a strand of blond hair out of Josh's blue eyes, then started walking away. I found my friends near the now-empty punch bowl, laughing at a joke that someone had cracked, but they stopped when they saw me.

"Leigh," said Kyle, rising up from his seat on the table. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, wiping away the remnants of a tear that had made its way to the corner of my mouth. A trace of red lipstick came away with it, and I studied it thoughtfully. "Can we got out of here? I don't think I'm up for any more dancing."

"Sure," said Kyle, looking at our designated driver. Damien nodded, and Kyle turned back to me. "Anyone I need to beat up for you?"

Forcing a laugh, I shook my head. "No, it's cool. This one's all on me."

AN: Not edited. Sorry for the wait.