Happiness can only exist in acceptance

-George Orwell

After the movie was over, as I had suspected, it was decided that Derek would be driving me home, which made sense since we were neighbors. We said our goodbyes to Darius and Mallory outside the parking lot and started on our way home.

I was pretty content with the way things had turned out. The movie had been funny and I laughed more than I had in the past couple of weeks. It had been...fun. I never would have thought that hanging out with again Derek would be fun. Maybe that was why it was dangerous and maybe that was why I had been so keen on keeping him away. I had enjoyed hanging out with him. I had enjoyed laughing with him and even sharing my favorite candy with him, even if he had paid for it. It reminded of all the fun times we used to have. All the fun times in my life had always been with him. Him and Valerie and my brother and Darius. Our childhood, god, our childhood had been the best. We were always together. We had been inseparable...

A couple of minutes down the road, Derek turned on the radio in his car and music flowed out of the speakers, lyrics reaching my ears and snapping me out of my thoughts.

It was a song that I quickly recognized.

...should you care, what they think of you

When you're all alone, by yourself

Do you like you? Do you like you?

You don't have to try so hard

You don't have to, give it all away

You just have to get up get up get up get up

You don't have to change a single thing...

"Your favorite song," Derek suddenly said like it was the most natural thing in the world and after he said that I realized that I had forgotten why it was my favorite song in the first place.

When I hadn't said anything, he threw a glance at me.

"Ash?"

"I miss how...simple everything used to be," I suddenly blurted out.

Derek didn't comment but I knew he was listening. He was always listening.

"I miss how innocent and carefree we were when we were kids. All the fun we used to have, even if we weren't even doing anything..."

There was a pause as the memories replayed themselves in my head. Riding our bikes to the parks...sunny summer days spending all day at the beach and eating ice-cream...barbecues in the backyard with our families...the laughter...the freedom of being young...the happiness...

Where did it all go?

"I don't know," I quietly whispered.

"What?" Derek asked.

I had answered my own question and it wasn't the answer I wanted. "I just...I had fun being out with you. I mean, we got along, we laughed and it was...it was nice, OK?"

"OK." Derek said as if he understood what exactly I meant. As if he knew.

I sighed, looking out the windows at the passing scenery as the music continued to play in the background.

What changed?

I did know. It was what Derek had been trying to point to me all along. I closed off. I had run away. Derek and I broke up, Valerie moved and I...turned everything off.

I alienated myself. I convinced myself that I didn't care, that I was better off...

What was wrong with me?

"Don't do this to yourself, Ash,"

I turned toward Derek suddenly noting the angry look on his face.

"Don't be hard on yourself," he stated steely, his teeth were clenched. "Just...focus on now,"

Now?

"You have great friends that care about you,"

Several faces popped into my head after he said that. Mallory...Darius...Melissa...Jaime...Marco...even the new ones I had made...Jada and Alana. People I was trying to get to know.

"Are we...," I trailed off, not sure if I wanted to ask. If I should even ask.

He looked at me again for a second, his eyes daring me to finish my question so I did.

"Are we friends?" I asked. "I mean, really friends?"

"Do you want us to be?" He asked me.

"Yes." I didn't hesitate.

"Then we're friends." He stated.

I didn't know why but for some reason his answer made me really...happy. Even though I was happy about that fact, I was still on a mission and it was time put my plan into action. I needed answers.

I indulged in my happiness in the meanwhile and waited until he pulled over in his driveway to finally bridge that topic. I made no motion of getting out of the car and he hadn't turned off the engine yet, allowing the heat to keep us warm.

If anything, it felt like he knew what exactly I was doing, what I was trying to get to. He gave me a questioning look after a moment, patiently waiting.

I took a deep breath. "Derek...you asked me before if there was room for you...in my heart," I brought up, keeping my eyes on his.

He just nodded, his eyes flashing as they stayed on mine, memories of that day passing through his mind.

"Well...I know I didn't give you an answer then but..." I took a deep breath and finally told him what I've been too scared to say for a while. "You matter to me, OK? So anytime you want to talk...or if there's something bothering you, I just want you to know that...I'm here,"

Like you've always been there for me, even when I wasn't conscious of it, so let me be there for you too.

There was a pregnant pause as my words lingered in the air, echoing in my own ears. He mattered to me, more than I probably realized, but I was starting to see it. Now he knew it too.

"So...if I need to talk to someone at two in the morning, you wouldn't mind?" He asked, a sudden smile on his face.

"As long as there's a reasonable explanation, then yeah." I answered with a small smile of my own.

"And if I needed...to make a sudden trip somewhere at the last minute, would you be down?"

"Again, reasonable explanation."

"What if...there is no reason? What if it was just a spur of the moment kind of thing?." He raised his eyebrow.

I frowned, wondering where this was going. "What exactly are you thinking, Derek?"

He saw the apprehensive look on my face and let out a laugh. "Oh, nothing. I just-,"

The words faded from his lips as headlights shone onto us and a car pulled over behind us. Derek frowned, looking behind us and I did the same. We silently watched as the lights turned off and a figure stepped out of the vehicle.

Without a word, Derek turned off the engine and stepped out of the car so I followed suit.

I watched as the figure that emerged from the car behind us started walking toward him, and I saw how his eyes widened as he finally saw who the person was.

"Mom?"

Mrs. Johnson smiled, her eyes flickering toward me for a brief second before staring back at Derek, a twinkle in her eyes. "Hi, baby."

Derek just kept staring as if he couldn't believe that she was standing there. Without a word, I watched as they embraced, my heart swelling at the sight, as Mrs. Johnson whispered something along the lines of "I've missed you".

After a couple of seconds they separated and she looked over at me. I waved at her, muttering a soft hello. She grinned. "Well, don't just stand there Ashley, come over here and give me a hug."

I smiled and walked around, doing as she said.

"Well, look at you," she said after we separated, holding me at arms length. "Gosh, you've blossomed so beautifully. Has my son finally come to his senses? Are you two back-,"

"Mom?" Derek abruptly interrupted with a sheepish look on his face. He lightly shook his head and Mrs. Johnson gave me him a reprimanding look.

"I see. Wait too long and she'll get snatched up right under your nose."

"Mom, please,"

"Oh, I'm just messing with you," Mrs. Johnson laughed, looking at me again. "Whatever you're doing, keep at it." She winked at me.

Huh?

I gave Derek a questioning look but he just shrugged as if he had no idea what she was talking about either.

"Anyways, I've had a long trip and Derek and I need to talk." She said, giving me an apologetic look.

Thankfully, I took the hint. "Oh, of course, I understand. Um, I'll just see you later."

"Please, say hello to your parents for me." She hugged me again. "Let them know I'll come by tomorrow."

"I will,"

She smiled at me once before starting to walk toward their front door. "Come, Derek. We have a lot to talk about."

"One second, Mom," Derek looked back over at me and smiled, his eyes shining. "Ash."

It wasn't just the way he said my name. It was also the smile. That smile which lighted up his whole face. The one that reached his eyes, and made those beautiful brown orbs of his sparkle. And for the first time, the reaction I had to it was...unexpected. I didn't find it annoying and I didn't roll my eyes to show it.

Instead, my pulse started to race, and my stomach seemed to tense up in knots. This happened once before...the night right after the dinner at my house, when he stayed with me through the storm. But this time the feeling was more... way more intense.

"I had fun tonight too." He whispered with a boyish glint in his eyes. "And thanks for finally saying it. I'll see you tomorrow?"

I could only nod and watch as he walked back toward his mother, sparing me one more smile before they both entered their house.

I shuddered, finally crossing the street and making my way inside my own house.

I never had a reaction to Derek Johnson like that before. And even after I made it to my room and sat down on my bed, I could still see that smile of his in my head and the knots in my stomach wouldn't let up. If anything, they just multiplied. It was like I was nervous...anxious, and...excited...all at once.

What had Derek Johnson just done to me?

"What's with you and Derek?" Mallory finally asked me the next day as we walked down the hall after lunch together. I knew that question was coming up. She kept giving me a questioning look all throughout lunch and I had pretended that I didn't notice it and it was only a matter of time before she took brought it up out in the open.

"What?" I said, feigning cluelessness. "Nothing."

"Really? Because back there he wouldn't stop looking at you and you kept sneaking glances at him too. Did something happen?" she asked. "Actually let me rephrase that; what happened?"

His smile suddenly popped into my head and the butterflies returned. They started ever since I saw him that morning and now every time he smiled, which seemed to be every time my eyes landed on him...my heart would start to race. What the hell was going on with me all of a sudden? I had fun with Derek Johnson for one night and suddenly I'm all...giddy.

"No..."I answered Mallory, although I was really trying to convince myself. "I mean...nothing happened."

That was a massive lie. Something had happened. I just wasn't sure what.

Mallory just raised her eyebrow. "Right. Anyways, what are you going to do about Marco?"

"Huh?"

Mallory let out a sigh, muttering something under breath, my ears catching the words love live and clueless mixed somewhere in there.

I only gave her a weird look, as she continued her mumbling and after telling me to never mind, we separated to head to our respective classes.

It wasn't that I didn't know what Mallory was talking about. It was just that I was...confused? I mean, Marco was such a nice guy and I really did want to know him better but suddenly...a part of me wasn't so sure.

A part of me was holding back and I just didn't want to admit why because I just...I just couldn't.

Not after everything that had happened...everything that we had been through. It was impossible and I just would not accept it. He and I...we were just... friends. And I was happy with that. All those...strange feelings and knots were just...lapses...like delayed emotions...right? Yeah, that was all. Because there was no way Derek Johnson and I...there was no way that I had...ugh...why was I so confused?!

The shrill ringing of the bell snapped me out of my thoughts, indicating the end of the school. I had gone through the rest of the day with my mind in a jumbled mess, unable to make sense of what was going on anymore. And it didn't help that my first day of work was that evening. I just needed to clear my mind for a little bit. I could do that. My tangled web of thoughts could wait. I had to get home and prepare myself for work.

I was off of work by 9:00PM. My first day pretty much consisted of filling up paper works and a short orientation of the store and being introduced to some of the staff. My full official first day would be on Monday so I had the weekend off, which I was glad about. Maybe I could use that time to sort out my thoughts and put everything into perspective, whatever that was.

By the time my brother picked me up it was after 9:15PM and we made home ten minutes later.

It was as we were waking inside through the garage that Wayne's question boggled me.

"Sis, what's going on with you and Derek?" Unlike Mallory, his question popped out of nowhere and I stopped in my tracks, looking at him. We were just talking about my first day of work in the car then all of a sudden that came up.

"What?" I said, since apparently every time someone asked me about Derek, I became inarticulate.

"You two...you've been acting weird around each other lately. I mean, he told me you guys made up or whatever but...I get a feeling there's more going on," Wayne stared pointedly at me.

I frowned, getting a feeling that he knew more than he let on. "What makes you think something is going on?"

He kept his eyes on me for a while, giving me that same knowing look Mallory and Melissa seemed to have mastered as well. What was up with that? "Just...I might not know what made you two break up the first time but...I saw how it affected you. And I stayed out of it because you asked me too but...if it were to happen again-"

"Wayne, stop." I interrupted him, my eye widening at the obvious insinuation. "It won't happen. Trust me."

He looked doubtful.

I felt...doubtful.

He nodded and walked ahead, entering the house.

I stayed behind, as it hit me again all at once.

Derek never told him. Wayne didn't know what his best friend had done. No one really knew, especially not our parents. The first time anyone had ever found out was when I announced it to Melissa, Jaime and Mallory at the dinner.

But Wayne...my brother could never know. Because if he ever found out that his best friend had cheated on me...I was afraid of what he might do.

I mentally shook my head, pushing that scenario in the back of my mind. I had nothing to worry about. I would never reveal that to Wayne in fear of risking their friendship and I doubted anyone else would bring it up to him either.

Convinced of that, I closed the garage and stepped inside the house, making my way through the foyer and across the living room when a familiar voice suddenly stopped me.

"About time, Ashley,"

I froze, as my eyes landed on the familiar lithe figure, blinking a couple of times in case what I was seeing was a mirage. "Valerie?" I questioned hesitantly.

After the mirage didn't fade, I realized that it was really her. She was sitting on the couch with her legs crossed staring right at me with an amused grin.

I screamed.