A/N: Wow, so it has been a while, but i'm back... i thought during my self-editing, it'd remove unnecessary content, not add to it? 😳 i'll just call this chapter 'done' for now but i'm sure there are still tons to improve & fix in this ~14k chapter. :') i re-numbered the chapters btw so they don't match FP's chapter #s.

icaruswalks: my belated gift to you! 🎁 thanks for always wanting to see more bonding moments between them. i tried? idk what i'm doing or where i'm going with this story tbh. 😂

Emoddess: i hope the music playlist will be a throwback! 😄 i won't explicitly list the songs here since i'm sharing the playlist link anyway aha.

She Who Loves Pineapples II: hii, I hope you're well! 😊 if you get a chance to read, i hope it's not too much in one sitting haha. feel free to let me know if splitting up the chapter would make it easier to read? 😅

Thanks for reading (till the end if you do)!

(07/04/21)


~28~

RAINI

Alone Together

Tripp: crap, i'm so sorry i went MIA. i hope i didn't make you worry. you are a saint. you didn't have to go that far for me with your editing. [12:04 AM]

Tripp: are you free this weekend to grab something to eat? my treat. let me know [12:05 AM]

Tripp: sweet dreams, rainy day. 😄 [12:06 AM]

I re-read Tripp's texts for the millionth time. His messages hadn't magically changed or vanished since initially reading it last night before bed. I hadn't replied to him yet because I couldn't trust my eyes after midnight and decided to wait till morning in case I imagined it. But no, his texts were still there.

"Morning, you up?" Naomi's muffled voice sounded on the other side, followed by a soft knock on my bedroom door.

"Ah, good morning." I sat up in my bed. "Come in!"

Naomi opened the door and walked in. "Everything okay? You're usually downstairs early helping with breakfast on weekends. Your mom sent me to check on you since our parents already ate and there's leftover toast and eggs for us."

I glanced at my clock on the nightstand. It was a quarter to eleven. I didn't normally sleep in and was generally up around 9:30 A.M. even on weekends.

"I couldn't sleep last night." I confessed. How on earth was I supposed to, especially after seeing Tripp's texts? "I was helping Tripp with homework that was due last night."

Naomi's brows rose. "No offence, I expect you to do homework even on a Friday night, but him?"

I frowned. "Of cour—"

My phone rang, making me drop it onto my lap. I gasped at seeing Tripp's name pop up on screen.

Naomi noticed as well, and she laughed. "Well, aren't you going to pick up? It might be urgent if he's calling so early in the morning."

"B-but I didn't reply to his texts yet!" I spluttered in horror. "He asked if I was free today and—"

"Oh, maybe he's cancelling plans then or wants an immediate answer from you? Anyway, I'm going to go eat so there'll be food for you when you're ready." Naomi left the room, closing the door behind her without giving me a moment to respond.

My phone stopped ringing, and a missed call notification flickered across the screen. Aside from Tripp's recent texts, I couldn't stop thinking about yesterday's conversation in the library regarding his mom.

What if Naomi was right, and it was urgent news? Tripp had never called me in the morning before. But he hadn't left a voicemail, so he must've called me by mistake. I released another deep breath and reached for my phone. My thumb hovered over his number.

After the incident with Tiphany and my mom discovering my relapse at school last month, she had called a few mental health centres around here, and all of them had put me on a waitlist. In the meantime, she had also contacted my former therapist back home to see if we could arrange some virtual sessions. The first one wouldn't be for another few weeks, but she had faxed a prescription renewal on my anxiety meds.

Okay, okay, just call him back. This is easy. Just tap on his number…

My thumb pressed his number, and I screwed my eyes shut as I held the phone.

Ring.

One.

Ring.

Two.

Ring.

On the third ring, I changed my mind. Replying to his texts first would be best, and I hung up at the exact same time Tripp picked up. I let out a tiny noise of distress at cutting him off mid-greeting.

The absence of his voice barely lasted when my phone rang again. My eyes widened at another chance to fix my mistake. If I missed his call again, he'd hate me for sure, and I didn't want him to hate me.

Even as my hand trembled, I tapped the green answer icon repeatedly, just narrowly missing the red, glaring reject one and brought the phone to my ear. "I didn't mean to hang up on you just now. I-I was going to reply to your texts soon!" I blurted out in one breath, my mind reeling. I inwardly cringed at not even greeting him properly. "Oh, sorry for missing your call, too. I mean g-good m-morning, Tripp!"

There was a slight pause after I finished, and then Tripp let out a low laugh. "Good morning to you too, Raini. Sorry, did you just wake up? I think I called too early." I did a quick glance at my clock on my nightstand. It wasn't early at all and nearly eleven now. I also thought he would sound sleepy, but there weren't any traces of it in his voice at all. It was fully awake, clear and bright.

I fell back onto my bed, still cradling the phone to my ear. My other hand clutched my chest, feeling the rapid rhythm of my heart beneath my fingers. I expelled a breath, willing it to stop racing so fast. "N-no, it's okay. I just got up not too long ago, so I'll eat soon. S-since you called, I thought it might be something urgent."

"Oh." Tripp cleared his throat. "Hey, go get breakfast first and we can talk after. It's my bad for calling so early. Nothing urgent. I woke up early for some reason today and it surprised my aunt to see me downstairs before noon."

"Oh." I mimicked him. "I see. Ah, it was opposite for me. I slept in."

"Well, you deserved a good night's sleep." Tripp said. "Sorry for not getting back to you straight away after you helped me out last night. I lost track of time catching up with someone while waiting to hear from you. I went through your edited copy before bed, actually. Your feedback and corrections were a lifesaver. I'm glad you didn't hold back. I needed the criticism."

I swallowed. "R-really?"

"Yeah," Tripp answered. "Right, I'm stalling. Call me back whenever you're ready. Talk to you soon."

We hung up. I buried my face into my pillow, immense relief coursing through me. Tripp wasn't mad at me! He wasn't mad that I hadn't replied to his texts yet, and he was thankful for the help I gave.

After I had sent him a version of his essay with my suggestions last night, I had regretted it and scolded myself for going too far with my corrections and comments. I assumed it was the reason he hadn't responded as quickly compared to earlier in the evening. It made me feel foolish for jumping to conclusions again. My brain had to stop imagining the worst-case scenarios until proven wrong.

I washed up in the bathroom and then went downstairs to the kitchen. Naomi sat at the table, eating her breakfast while multi-tasking on her phone. Our parents sat idly on the couch in the living room with the TV broadcasting the morning news.

I greeted Má and Sam first. They told me what Naomi had already mentioned about a plate of food left for me.

"Con feeling okay?" Má stood up from the couch, shuffled toward me and placed the back of her hand on my forehead and then cheeks.

"Yes, I just slept in. I was up doing homework."

"Hmm, isn't Roxanne coming over for school project? You should have relaxed last night."

I smiled a little. "I had something due last night. And I will, don't worry, Má. She won't be here until after one."

"Okay, con." Má smiled approvingly and made a move to head back to the couch.

I curled and uncurled my toes into the carpet. "Ah, wait. I have one more question. C-can I hang out with Tripp tomorrow?"

"Who?"

"Patrick. Do you remember him? You met him once at school." I stretched my arm upward above my head and went onto my tiptoes to indicate his height. "He's tall, has brown hair and green eyes."

"Ah, ah. Yes, now I remember." she answered belatedly. "What are you doing? What time?"

"Eating out for lunch tomorrow in the afternoon. We haven't decided where yet."

"Is it special occasion? His birthday?"

I startled. This was the first time I didn't have an answer ready for my mom. She hated hearing 'I don't know'.

How did I not even know when it was Tripp's birthday? I knew Roxy's birthday, at least. I evaded her question and opted for the truth that he just wanted to pay me back with lunch to say thank you for helping him with homework.

A crease appeared between my mom's forehead, and she frowned. "You… help him with homework? Or you do it for him?"

"I didn't do it for him." I quickly assured her. "He wanted someone to double check his work, that's all. I didn't do anything."

"Hm… okay." she conceded. "Just you two? What about Roxanne?"

"I'm planning to ask her when she comes over." I replied, holding my breath for her decision.

"Okay," she answered simply. "Má happy you have friends to go out with on weekend now."

Her laxed approval took me slightly aback. Was that all she was going to ask?

"So… I can go?" I clarified.

"Yes, yes. But tomorrow come back home before dinner." My mom dropped back onto the couch next to Sam and waved at me in dismissal to go eat. My step-dad flashed me a secret thumbs up.

I released a breath with a smile. "Okay, thank you, Má!"

For once, my mom hadn't peppered me endlessly with her usual questions about who I was hanging out with. Was it because she already exhausted all her questions in past hangouts, and I gave her the same names of Roxy, Tripp and Miguel each time? I wondered if there were only so many times my mom could ask personal questions about them. I doubt she really wanted to know what their favourite food was or their siblings' names.

I entered the kitchen, and Naomi greeted me again at the sink, washing her plate and fork.

Naomi cast me a sidelong glance with a smile. "Passed another interrogation, I see."

I laughed quietly. "Yes."

I left Naomi's side to put some slices of bread in the toaster. She turned off the sink tap and dried her hands on a dishtowel.

"Have you tried the new boba shop that opened last month in Chinatown?" Naomi asked. "You should drop by there if you need places to go!"

I smiled. "I'll ask my friends. I don't know if they ever tried bubble tea."

Naomi's jaw dropped. "They have never tried boba? Why haven't you introduced this to them sooner? I'm sure you guys have at least eaten at phở restaurants, or bánh mì shops, right?"

I blushed. "Ah, no. Not yet, but gosh, I should!"

"Yes, you should!" Naomi exclaimed.

I giggled. "Okay, thank you for your ideas. I'll bring it up to them."

Even though Roxy and I would spend all of it in my room anyway, which I had already cleaned up days beforehand, I spent time after breakfast to tidy up the living room, kitchen and dining room to meet my mom's standards. Only after she approved of the cleanliness, I called Tripp back with none of the anxiousness that had gripped me earlier since he would expect my call. He answered on the first ringtone this time. He started the conversation off, asking questions like how my morning was so far, and I somehow ended up talking to him about cleaning the house since Roxy was coming over for our chemistry project.

"Yeah, I figured today was too last minute for you and I didn't know you had plans with Roxy already." Tripp said. "If you're busy this weekend and don't wanna go out, that's totally cool too. In the meantime, I'll buy you lunch then to pay you back so don't bring anything on Mon—"

"Huh, oh. But I am free tomorrow if that works for you." I interrupted him. "I asked my mom earlier, and she was okay with it. I think Roxy is free tomorrow."

Tripp fell silent for a second. "Wait, have you already asked Roxy?"

"Oh, no. Not yet. I was planning to when she comes over. I mean, whenever we hang out on weekends, it's always the four of us so I thought that'd be the same here too."

"I was actually thinking it'd be just us for tomorrow, is that okay?"

"J-just us?" I echoed.

"Yeah." Tripp cleared his throat. "If you're not comfortable, the four of us is good too. Ask Roxy then, and I'll ask Mig if he's fr—"

"I-I'm good with just us too." I replied in a fluster, not wanting Tripp to think I was uncomfortable hanging out alone with him. It was just us in our spares, so why would hanging out on a weekend be any different?

"You sure?" he hesitated. "I don't want you to feel like—"

"N-no, I want to go out with you tomorrow." I exclaimed and then cringed at my interruption. "Sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off twice. Y-yes, I'm sure."

"No, it's fine." Tripp answered with a laugh. "Okay then. Awesome. Cool. I can pick you up tomorrow around noon. Let me know where you wanna eat."

I brought up Naomi's food suggestions to him, and he was down for the idea. The doorbell rang, and I heard my mom call for me. We said goodbye and hung up for the second time. I gawked at my phone clutched in my hand, trying to quell the flutters in my stomach.

The flutters didn't ease up after I went down to greet Roxy and we headed back upstairs to my room. Neither did they stop when we began working on our school project. I told myself to focus, get work done, and then tell Roxy the news later, but after two hours of working, she asked if I wanted to take a break. Roxy didn't seem to mind at all that we remained cooped up in my room. Upon arrival, she had complimented on how spotless our home was to my mom, and Má accepted the compliment with great pride.

We went downstairs to the kitchen, and I pulled out a bowl of assorted cut fruits I had prepared earlier. There seemed to be more than I remembered cutting, and my mom must've cut some more.

We stockpiled on some store-bought cookies, although they weren't nearly as scrumptious as Roxy's homemade cookies, and juice boxes as well, and headed back up.

I barely finished a couple of apple slices before Roxy popped some tangerine wedges into her mouth and said, "Spill. And not the orange juice in your hand, of course!"

"W-what?!" I squeaked.

"Doll," Roxy giggled. "You're like me. We wear our hearts on our sleeves."

I blushed. "I wanted to wait till when we finished our tasks for today first."

"Why would you wait and torture yourself like that?" Roxy's eyes grew round. "We have plenty of time. The project's not due till the end of the month and we'll be meeting up again next weekend. We deserve a break." She finished her tangerine and began peeling another one.

I told her about the lunch plans for tomorrow.

Roxy let out a loud, girlish shriek of delight, dropping her half-peeled tangerine. "Okay, I'll forgive Tripp this time for wanting to take you out alone for a lunch date, but next time Mig and I have to join for a double date."

"D-d-date?!" I repeated in a stupor. "Oh, no. No, no, no. Roxy, you're misunderstanding! Tripp just wants to pay me back with lunch since I helped him with his essay last night. It's not a date! Besides, don't you have to be t-together to go on dates?"

Roxy giggled while searching around for the tangerine she dropped. "Girl, what source you reading from? You can totally go on dates and not make it official in the beginning."

My body tensed while Roxy plucked the fallen tangerine from the carpet and dusted it with her fingers.

She's laughing at you for asking a stupid question! my brain whispered.

I took a breath.

No, she's not laughing at me. I reasoned to my brain—to myself. Roxy's laughing because she's happy about this news and thinks this is a good sign.

A tiny part of me had already sensed that Tripp's invitation didn't seem like a regular hangout and hearing Roxy confirm it made it all too real, especially if he didn't want Roxy and Miguel there. I knew relationships were complicated enough, but Roxy made it even more confusing. You could go on dates and not be in a relationship?

I asked her to explain the differences because I still couldn't understand how going out on dates with someone didn't automatically make them your girlfriend or boyfriend. Roxy clarified that there was some unspoken rule that a couple wasn't 'official' until both persons explicitly expressed they wanted the commitment.

I would've never imagined all the depth and maturity it'd require to be in a relationship. It made me question whether all these feelings I had toward Tripp were shallow compared to what Roxy and Miguel had. They knew each other inside and out, and I didn't even know Tripp's birthday. Roxy shut me down instantly when I shared concerns of my feelings being superficial, since there was still a lot I didn't know about Tripp. She went on a tangent about how feelings couldn't be measured quantitatively, and everyone experienced the stages of falling in love differently. And even to this day, Roxy informed me she still discovered new things about Mig.

"When did you know you and Mig liked each other?" I asked.

Roxy's face continued to glow with passion ever since our conversation about feelings and relationships started. "I'm pretty sure I liked him first and for the longest time I was afraid Mig was just going to be forever oblivious to all my signals. I think guys are just slow at realizing their feelings, but we went on casual dates together in the beginning. Honestly, I don't think we even considered labelling our relationship until much later. It's perfectly okay to not put a label either." She took a sip of apple juice.

"I see. So you'll know when it happens." I replied with a small smile and then glanced downward to the carpet. "A-anyway, my mom says I'm not allowed to have a boyfriend till I finish school and get a job, not that she has to even set a rule like that in the first place... I mean… I'm nothing sp—" I rambled, my brain shoving more negative thoughts at me and my mouth giving them a voice.

"Girl, you're everything!" Roxy said sharply.

The rest of the words died in my throat, and I stared openly and unabashedly at her.

She seemed taken aback by her outburst, and held a hand up to her mouth. "Sorry, Raini. I didn't mean to raise my voice like that. I just didn't want to hear you say something negative about yourself again. You were going to say you were nothing special, right?"

"I… sorry." I flushed crimson at hearing Roxy speak my innermost thoughts out loud. I hated this vicious cycle of negative thoughts crowding my head.

Roxy reached over and held my hand in her lap, squeezing it affectionately. "You're everything to me, girl. To all of us. I wish you could see yourself how we see you."

"Every day with you guys is such a blessing… I'm afraid all these good things that've been happening to me lately are too good to be true." I clutched her hand. "Oh, Roxy, what if everything goes wrong tomorrow?"

"Raini, you deserve a lifetime of good things." Roxy said gently. "And what if everything goes right? What about every other hangout we had where you thought things would go wrong? And when they did, you still overcame it. You're still here to tackle another day and that's really something to be proud of. You've spent time alone with Tripp at school. Tomorrow only feels different because this'll be the first time you're spending it outside of school, that's all."

"I don't know… My mom thinks you'll be joining us."

"You can say I cancelled last minute if she asks. I don't think she's as strict as you say if she even let you sleepover with guys being there too."

We released our hands and Roxy finished unpeeling and eating her second tangerine. "You're not doing anything wrong. And you're not hiding this from your mom either, so everything will be alright. Even if you can't have a boyfriend right now, your mom is letting you go out with Tripp tomorrow. You don't even have to use the word 'date'. It's like another way of saying you're going to spend time alone together with someone you like while getting to know them. You say you don't know a lot about Tripp and I disagree. You'll learn the little details about him along the way."

My brows furrowed at a possible loophole in my mom's 'No boyfriend' rule. In the end, it didn't matter because I would never exploit the loophole. I let Roxy's words sink in, wrapping her encouraging words around me like a blanket.

"T-thank you, Roxy." I nodded appreciatively, my body relaxing at her explanation.

"When did you think you felt something different about Tripp? The night we went to the Fall-Fright Fest, right?" she followed up with a grin.

I chewed on my lip. "I think so… lately every time Tripp smiles at me or laughs, I feel like my heart's going to burst. Did I tell you he gave me a playlist during that week before the festival?"

Roxy's scandalized expression told me everything. "Excuse me, how am I just finding out about this? A playlist? Gave? When? Details, please!"

"I-I haven't told him I listened to it yet since I'm still trying to figure out all the song track names from the lyrics. I liked the unexpected puzzle of not knowing the track names and working backwards to find the artist and songs."

Roxy's brows pinched. "What do you mean you're trying to find out the track names?"

I uncrossed my legs and stretched. I explained to her how I discovered the missing song titles after wanting to rip the songs off the CD to transfer them onto my phone using the family's shared computer. It was the only device which still had a hard disk drive. "He just gave me a burned CD in a case. I didn't want to bother Tripp for the list of songs at the time since he was busy preparing for the Halloween gig."

"Doll! This is wonderful!" Roxy squealed in delight and babbled in excitement. "Every playlist he makes for a friend has a specific theme. What's your theme?"

I opened my mouth to reply.

"Oh Lord, what if…?" she gasped, absolutely taken. "This setup and timing are perfect! Like right out of my favourite rom-coms where both leads figure out their feelings for each other and the next part is the love c—"

"N-no! They're just song recommendations by artists he thinks I'll like." I blushed and shook my head adamantly. "I listened to the first few, and it was nothing about what you're thinking. One song didn't even have lyrics."

Roxy paused to catch her breath, and then beamed. "Sorry, sorry. I'm getting ahead of myself. But the fact you don't have the track names seems fishy to me. Like what if the song titles are a total giveaway so he really wants you to pay attention to the lyrics, well the songs that have them, anyway? I think the best thing to do is bring the CD and ask Tripp directly tomorrow."

I gaped at her in alarm. "I can't ask him about that!"

"Sure you can! Before or after you ask him when his birthday is since you refuse to let me tell you. Just say you couldn't figure out the playlist theme and ask him about it. He'll know what you're talking about." Roxy said. Her expression turned soft, and she fell quiet for a moment, as if reflecting. "We both know how sometimes Tripp's just terrible at filtering his words. But I can vouch for him that he conveys his thoughts the best through music. He made me a playlist during one of my lowest points after being admitted to an eating disorder clinic for my bulimia about a year and a half ago." Her brows pinched and the light-hearted atmosphere shifted. I watched her, attentive, and waited to see if she'd continue.

She met my eyes and then gave me a wry smile. "Girl, I'm glad you weren't there at the time to see me. I pushed everyone away, even Miguel initially. I just couldn't bear for them to see me in such a terrible state. Back then, I'd obsessively check my weight multiple times a day. Each time I'd go out with my ex-group of girl friends, even if I came home after two in the morning, I'd force myself to throw up that night's meal… but, long story short, I finally sought help. I told my parents with Mig's encouragement even if I still refused to see him in person at the time. I remember one day during my stay at the clinic, my parents dropped off a CD from the guys. Tripp chose all the songs and the guys all recorded them playing it. The recording quality wasn't any good, but I didn't care. Hearing their voices like that made me understand they were still there for me and waiting no matter what happened."

A sniffle escaped me, moved at learning such personal things about her. I reached out and squeezed her hand supportively. She squeezed my hand back and with her other one, rubbed her eyes with the heel of her palm.

"I'm really, really thankful you're doing much better now, Roxy. A-and even if I knew you back then, I would've waited too. And even now too, I'll be here for you." My mouth wavered and I let out a half-laugh, half-cry, and she did the same. Roxy extended her arm out and pulled me into a warm hug.

Roxy was like fire. She could be stubborn, like the last flame on a birthday cake that refused to go out, yet she was also loyal, fierce, and luminous. She was a campfire on a summer night or a lit fire in fireplace during winter. She was an endless source of warmth to those around her, and I was so lucky and grateful that this warmth reached me.

~xXx~

On Sunday, the doorbell rang five past noon, and I almost dropped my water bottle in the sink while refilling it.

"Lành. I think your friend here." Má called to me.

"Yes, I'll get it!" I hastily capped my bottle and dried my hands on the dishtowel, skidding across the kitchen tiles in my socks.

"Careful!" my mom scolded as she left the living room. "Why you not wear the sandals in kitchen?"

"Because I'm wearing socks."

"Floor dirty." Má tsked. "Why rush? I get the door."

I grabbed my purse left on the stairs while carrying my water bottle. I shrugged on my coat, making sure the zipper didn't get caught on my handpicked outfit coordinated by Roxy—a dark blue-green ruffled plaid tank top worn over a white turtleneck sweater and jeans. The front door opened and I heard Tripp politely greet my mom.

"So, where you all going?" Má asked Tripp. "You picking everyone else up today?"

"S-something came up for Roxy and she can't make it. It's just with Tripp today. We're getting bánh mì." I answered before he could.

Tripp smiled in acknowledgement. He had a proper coat on for autumn, which surprised me and not his usual denim jacket and a hoodie.

"Uh, yeah—I mean yes. It was R—Lành's suggestion. I've never eaten but I'm looking forward to it." Tripp added.

"You say her name wrong." My mom frowned, and she bluntly corrected Tripp's pronunciation of my name on the spot while I tied my boot laces.

I shot up and gave my mom a look. "Má! My friends don't call me by that name at school."

"Uh…" Tripp's eyes darted to me once and then back toward my mom. "Sorry, err, can you please repeat her name slowly so I can say it correctly?"

She repeated my Viet name again for him, her intonation rising. My chest pounded fast when Tripp imitated her.

"Okay, okay." I held a hand up to stop her, my face flaming. "You don't have to keep saying my name."

"Good, that sound much better." Má nodded in approval.

A smile split across Tripp's face, and his posture relaxed. His gaze flitted over again, and he grinned sheepishly. "Great, thank you. Lành is too nice to correct me."

My mom released a small huff of laughter in agreement. "That why I don't correct first time we meet. I thought my daughter will tell you. I'm surprise you two even friends. So different! What you talk about when you at school?"

"Uh, well." Tripp smiled politely. "We don't share classes, but we do usually study together in our spare period."

Then, like the wind, my mom's expression changed, and her brows furrowed. "So, my daughter your friend because she helps you with homework?"

Out of all the scenarios I played out in my head last night of how the hangout could go wrong today, it didn't cross my mind to factor in my mom. I assumed it would just be because of me.

"!" My voice cracked. I hoped my tone would indicate what she said was rude.

She fell silent, chastened.

Tripp's eyes widened, caught off guard. He rubbed his forehead. He and Má both spoke up at the same time. She let him speak first with an apologetic smile.

He cleared his throat with a cough. "Sorry, I think there's some confusion. Yes, I'm treating Lành today for helping me with schoolwork but there are a lot of reasons why she is my friend." He buried his hands into his jean pockets. "She is very intelligent and kind-hearted, and a good listener and always knows the right kinds of things to say when I need it. Uh, she's also understanding, patient, and, uh… What I'm trying to say is it's not because she can help with schoolwork that we are friends."

Hearing that, my head snapped up. My mom mirrored my astonished expression, except milder. She recovered faster than me, clasping her hands in front of her and formally apologizing to Tripp with a bow of her head.

Tripp seemed startled by the apology and raised his hands up, gesturing that it didn't offend him at all.

I lightly touched her shoulder. She patted the back of my hand, squeezing it once, and then glancing up at Tripp.

"Thank you, Patrick. I am glad you not uncomfortable by my questions. I just want make sure she has good friends. When my daughter little, she very smart but also very nice as you say. Classmates ask her for help with their homework, but they don't act like real friends. I see you sincere and act like real friend."

Tripp exhaled, and I blinked rapidly. Was that a subtle approval from my mom?

She then faced me, patting me on the cheek in her motherly way. "Okay, I keep you. You can go now. Have fun and drive safe."

Tripp smiled openly to my mom this time, less reserved than he had been at the beginning. "Thank you, ma'am. Lành told me to have her back around five-thirty so we'll be back by then."

He turned around, opened the door, and stepped outside.

My mom pulled me briefly into a hug as Tripp waited in the driveway. "Sorry, con. Didn't mean to embarrass you. Just want you be careful."

And just like that, things seemed to turn out okay again. I sagged in relief against her at avoiding a total disaster before the hangout even begun. I buried my face into her shoulder. "He's not like that."

She kissed the top of my head once. "Okay, I see now, but still be careful. Call home if you need anything."

I hugged her back quickly, and then went out the front door, catching up with Tripp.

My mom stood in the doorframe, watching us. After settling in the car, Tripp backed out of the driveway, and my mom waved. We waved through the window, and I watched her shut the front door and disappear back inside the house.

Tripp lowered the volume of the car radio as we exited the neighbourhood.

"Ohmygosh." I groaned into my hands. "I'm so sorry about my mom, Tripp. I didn't know she was going to force you to say stuff like that. I hope she didn't offend you."

His absent-minded tapping on the steering wheel halted.

"Nah, it's fine. There wasn't anything for her to apologize for." Tripp let out a short laugh. "And what do you mean? She didn't force me to say anything. I meant everything I said. Although, not gonna lie, your mom made me nervous with those questions. Then I realized it was 'cuz she's looking out for you and making sure you're not hanging out with the wrong crowd, y'know? Tara never—" At the mention of his own mom, my mind became more alert, wondering if he had decided on whether he would visit his mom, but then Tripp caught himself and immediately changed the topic. "You're quite expressive and vocal with your mom. That was a new side of you to see."

I knew it wasn't the time to ask about his mom if he didn't want to and I let him steer the conversation. "I-I was?"

"Yeah, I hope you feel comfortable to be like that around us too, someday."

"Oh." I felt my cheeks warm.

Two beats passed.

"Did you also think…" Tripp started.

I waited for him to continue.

He trailed off, gave me a sidelong glance, and smiled with a shake of his head. "Nevermind. Did you finish your project with Rox yesterday?"

"Not yet. We're going to work on it again next weekend. It's not due till near the end of November, I think. So, we still have a few more weekends." I answered.

My purse rested in my lap with the CD packed inside, and I wondered when the best time would be to ask Tripp about the playlist. "Um, I—"

"Do you wanna listen to the radio?"

"Oh, sure! That sounds good. I'm curious which radio stations you listen to." I nodded.

"Sorry, I interrupted you. Go ahead."

"No, it's fine! Nothing important. I'll ask you later today. Um, remind me."

"Alright, now you got me. I'm gonna be wondering what you wanted to ask for the rest of the day." Tripp chuckled. "Nothing bad, I hope?"

I shook my head with a smile.

For the rest of the drive, we listened to the radio, and it surprised me to learn Tripp really listened to everything. I assumed he'd only prefer the rock music stations, but he insisted he was easy with anything save for country music.

We arrived twenty minutes later via the highway. In Chinatown, vehicles fought for limited or free parking spaces on weekends. It took another ten minutes circling around several blocks until Tripp found a free space to parallel park. Despite the increasing autumn chill in November, we stopped by a bubble tea shop first, thanks to Naomi's suggestion, and brought our drinks with us into the bánh mì shop.

We claimed a small round table in the corner of the shop. The area was secluded and luckily there weren't many customers inside the shop except for a group of chatty teenagers our age and an elderly Asian man who was napping with his arms crossed over his chest. His overall appearance and snoring reminded me a little of my grandfather from my mom's side. We could always find him fast asleep at the dining table during family gatherings.

"What do you recommend?" Tripp asked me, twisting in his chair to peer at the whiteboard menu hanging above the cashier.

"U-um, what do you like?" I fiddled in my seat to get comfortable. Roxy had reminded me to take off my coat if we were inside, but all the customers, including Tripp, kept their coats on.

It'll be weird if I suddenly take off my coat…

"Huh, it looks like they got pretty much everything. Pork, beef, chicken and even tofu? How's that taste? They all sound really good to me." Tripp rubbed his jaw. While still peering at the menu from afar, he unzipped his coat and shrugged out of it. Underneath he was in a pale blue buttoned-down denim top over a plain black t-shirt. "I'll get whatever you're getting."

"Oh, s-sure!" I nodded. "I think the regular sandwiches are good if you've never tried them before. At least what I ate growing up had sliced cold cuts, usually pork, pâté and chả lụa, which is like pork sausage wrapped in banana leaves. And then you have like your vegetables like cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon with mayo and chilli peppers if you like a bit of spiciness. But I've eaten the other kinds with chicken or beef and it's just really your preferences."

I unzipped my coat slowly and pulled my arms out of the sleeves.

"Cool, cool. I think the regular or I guess authentic one sounds good to me." Tripp nodded to himself and then turned to me. "Huh, you look different."

I ducked my head and smoothed the ruffles in my top with my hands. What was I even doing? Who smoothed ruffles out? You weren't supposed to smooth out ruffles. That was why they were ruffled. Instead, I started putting my jacket back on to cover up.

"You can keep your jacket off. I meant in a good way. Good different." Tripp gestured and gave me a lopsided smile. "I don't think I've seen you in plaid before. You look comfy in the sweater."

I froze with one arm half into my coat sleeve. "T-thank you… um, Holly gave me the plaid top for my birthday a few years ago."

"When is it? I was actually wondering how to ask you." Tripp scratched his cheek.

I told him mine was in April, and we both discovered our birthdays hadn't passed yet without the other knowing.

March 17th. I committed his birthday to memory, feeling happier that I knew more about him. I remembered Roxy's words from yesterday. You'll learn the little details about him along the way.

"Cool, I'll be right back." Tripp rummaged through his pockets, taking out his phone and wallet. He left his phone on the table and kept his wallet.

I nodded and watched him approach the cashier.

Tripp's phone rang, startling me and the rest of the customers with the loud music he set as his ringtone. He glanced over his shoulder in the middle of paying and asked me to put his phone on silent.

At some point, the elderly man had awakened from his nap and lowered his folded newspaper. And then the group of teenagers stopped talking mid-way in their conversations as well to glance in my direction at the disruption.

They all looked away once they saw me pick up Tripp's phone, except for one guy who I could feel his attention still on me, even though he continued his conversation with his friends. My palms grew sweaty all of a sudden, and I didn't want to handle Tripp's phone with my sweaty hands, so I placed his phone down and wiped my hands aggressively on my jeans.

"Con đi ra ngoài? You go outside?" the elderly man asked in Viet. He didn't remind me of my grandfather anymore. "Nó ồn ào. It's noisy."

"Con xin lỗi, Ông. S-sorry! Con sẽ im lặng bây giờ. I-I will silence it now." I stammered to him and grabbed Tripp's phone, trying to figure out how to do what I promised.

This time the man didn't return to his newspaper and waited, watching me expectantly. The group of teenagers behind him also redirected their attention to me, some with raised brows, others smirking at me like why I couldn't even simply put a phone on silent and one guy even glaring at me for stealing the attention of his friends.

He's not glaring at you. It just looks that way. I tried to convince myself.

I cast my eyes down, blinking away the sudden wetness in my eyes.

Of all times, my mom's comments echoed at the forefront of my mind: I'm surprise you two even friends... So different! ... So, my daughter your friend because she helps you with homework?

She had asked Tripp a legitimate question.

What did he even like about me? What did Roxy and Mig like about me? What if Oliver and Elliott were too nice and lied that they enjoyed meeting me? Why did I agree to go out with Tripp today? Why did I ever think this hangout would be different? Why was Tripp even my friend? Why did he want to pay me back for helping him? My classmates never did that. Why, why, why?

My breathing sounded erratic in my ears, drowning out everyone, and the memory and long-forgotten faces of those sixth-grade classmates and my teacher from elementary school resurfaced.

"Renée, do you have a few minutes? You are not in trouble." My sixth-grade teacher stopped me from packing up my notebooks and pencil case into my backpack. Everyone else had already left.

I froze, looking up at her wide-eyed from behind my desk. If she hadn't caught me off guard, I would've bolted. Instead, I nodded mutely, and she sat in a student's desk in front of me, placing my assignment next to a few other students onto my desk.

I swallowed.

"As always, I only have praise to give you in your academics."

She slid over a marked math assignment with a perfect score. It was mine. Next to my homework were a few other students who also had high marks. I saw their names scrawled at the top.

"T-thank you." I fiddled with a button on my sweater.

"Recently, I've noticed some of my struggling students are excelling as well in subjects where they've always had great difficulty in. I was curious if you have been tutoring them?"

"A-a little bit. Y-yes." I couldn't meet her eyes.

"Okay," she said gently. "I appreciate the help you are giving to your classmates, but next time, if they ask you for help, I'd like you to tell me."

"W-why?"

She smiled sympathetically. "If I may ask, has any of them ever asked to copy your homework?"

"W-what?" I squeaked, breaking out into a nervous sweat. "W-what makes you think that?"

"Or have any of them asked you to complete their homework for them?"

I opened my mouth to lie.

I could suddenly picture my classmates' faces, their glares telling me what their mouths didn't.

'This is all your fault. You said the teacher wouldn't find out.'

They were going to hate me now.

I didn't want to say no when the first girl had asked for a favour. Nobody had asked me for favours before. My classmate had been sick and missed school for two weeks and was behind on homework, so I helped her and then she told her friends who all flocked to me for aid.

"I'm sorry!" I burst into tears. "Please don't get mad at them. I just wanted to help them." I only wanted them to like me.

"… Raini?" A muffled male voice cut through my elementary school teacher's voice. "Raini... Lành."

Whose voice was that?

I heard slow, deep breathing and incoherent murmuring that I tried to follow. My chest heaved and my breaths came out in short bursts.

"Where are you right now? Tell me five things you can see." The voice again. Except it was clearer this time, soft and firm and a lot closer too. I didn't hear the measured breaths anymore.

The glaring faces of my sixth-grade classmates…. The drab beige painted walls of the classroom… The chalkboard…

"I-I can't!" I panicked.

"That's okay. What about four things you can touch? What can you feel?"

My jeans under my sweat-slicked palms. The metal chair digging into my back. The rock in my shoe and the linoleum floor beneath my feet.

"It's okay if you can't answer that one either. What can you hear? If three things are too much, can you list at least one thing for me?"

The clink of ice and sound of water pouring into a glass, blinds closing and approaching footsteps.

Why would I be hearing that in the classroom?

An unfamiliar young woman's face swam into view in my peripheral vision, holding an empty pitcher and a full glass of water. She looked like a college student and her nametag read Minh. She smiled gently as she neared, tentatively stretching her arm out toward Tripp with the glass.

She's… an employee. The shop. The customers.

The fog in my brain cleared when my eyes focused on the dark blur in front of me, bringing me back to the present.

Tripp.

He stood within reach, but not close enough to be intruding into my personal space. He accepted the glass from Minh with a thanks, setting it on the table beside him, and she withdrew respectfully.

I rested a shaky hand against the flat of my stomach to do deep breathing, inhaling and holding a breath for four seconds and then exhaling.

"Y-your voice. D-does that count?" I asked after the tenth breath and craned my neck back to look up at him.

He must have seen the recognition in my eyes, because he released a steady breath and cracked a small, relieved smile. "Hey, you. Yeah, my voice absolutely counts."

My eyes wandered off him to the rest of the shop. The group of teenagers and elderly man were nowhere in sight. A sigh escaped me at finding their absence, and my knees wobbled, drained of energy. Tripp's arms shot out as he caught me.

"S-sorry! I didn't mean to…" I pulled back instinctively, but an inexplicable exhaustion overtook my muscles and the solid familiarity of him comforted me.

"No, I got you." Tripp hooked his foot around the nearest chair, dragging it toward me.

I gracelessly dropped into the seat and Tripp handed me the glass of water after grabbing a chair. I cupped the glass with both hands and lifted it to my mouth to take a gulp, finishing the water in a matter of minutes.

"Wait…" My fingers curled tighter around the glass. "Where's your phone? W-wasn't I holding it before…?"

"I have it." Tripp dug through his pockets and held his phone up to me. "It's okay. There's nobody else here except us and the employees in the back. I asked them if they could put an 'On break' sign and turns out, Minh, the shop owner's daughter is in today, so she closed up shop early. No one else is gonna come in here. How are you feeling now? You must be exhausted."

I straightened in my seat. "W-wait, what? She did? What time is it?"

"Uh," Tripp checked his phone. "It's a bit after two-thirty now."

I blinked at him, and then fresh tears started spilling down my cheeks. I wiped them irritatingly away. One entire hour gone. I couldn't believe the panic attack had lasted that long.

I apologized profusely at ruining everything again.

"Raini, no. It's not your fault. None of it is your fault." Tripp said hoarsely. "Here."

I took the napkin from him to wipe my face.

"I know you must be tired. You had a long week, and the gig was just a few nights ago. I can take you home so you can rest." he said.

He helped me to my feet. I pulled on my coat and headed toward the washroom to clean myself up. I heard Tripp call out to the employees in the back that we were getting ready to leave. Inside the washroom, I splashed cool water onto my face, rubbing my eyes, and blowing my nose with the napkin. There was a hand dryer mounted on the wall next to the door and no paper towels, so I grabbed some toilet paper to dry my face. I wanted to hide in the washroom a little longer and yet I didn't want to waste any more of everyone's time. I egged myself to go back out there. The shop was closed and the faster we left, the faster the shop could re-open without me inconveniencing them further.

I pushed open the washroom door and joined Tripp by the cash register. He placed a generous amount of paper bills into the tip jar.

"How you feeling?" he asked.

"B-better, thank you."

I unzipped my purse and retrieved my wallet, moving closer to the counter. I left a twenty-dollar bill in the jar right as Minh shuffled out. Tripp thanked her, and she replied with a 'welcome' in an accented English and retrieved two drinks from the fridge which I recognized as our bubble tea.

I swallowed and mustered the courage to thank her a hundred times in our native tongue for allowing us to use her shop. She responded that business was always slow on Sundays and didn't mind closing early so she could go home to study for her midterms. My throat closed up at her undeserved kindness, and I thanked her again with a bow. She returned the bow, sliding over a 4x4 tray of our chilled bubble tea to Tripp, and I took the plastic bag holding our bánh mì off the counter. She waved at us in farewell, and we wished her good luck with her studies.

The knots coiled in my stomach loosened after each step toward the shop exit. I squinted at the brief sunlight blinding me when we stepped outside. Tripp pulled me back into him roughly, startling me as a cyclist sped past us on the sidewalk. They looked back at us for a second before pushing their bike off the sidewalk into the bike lane.

"Sidewalks are for pedestrians only." Tripp muttered under his breath. His voice sounded above me. "You, okay?"

"Y-yeah, t-thank you!" I stammered as his arm fell away and he dug through his pockets with his free hand, checking for the car keys.

A second later, my breath stilted as his hand wrapped around mine before I could pull away.

"Alright, let's go." he said.

I trailed after him dizzily, overwhelmed by the pocket of warmth his hand provided.

"T-Tripp…" I mustered.

He stopped mid-stride. "Walking too fast for you?"

"N-no, b-but you can let go now. You're still holding my hand." I pointed out meekly.

He peered at our linked hands like it was nothing out of the ordinary. "Well, you must still be feeling a little tired. And there's lots of cracked pavement in the sidewalk so I don't want you accidentally tripping."

"Oh." I swallowed. "Yes, of course. T-thank you…"

We rounded a corner of the street and, of course, my foot stumbled on a crack in the pavement. I yanked my hand out of Tripp's so he wouldn't drop the drinks. I regained my balance by slapping my palm firmly against the brick wall. In the process, I startled a homeless woman who cried out.

"Shit, Raini, why'd you let go? Hey, come over here." Tripp tugged on my elbow to pull me toward him.

I had ended up knocking over a cardboard sign in the stumble. The woman collected her paintbrushes hastily, packing away her art supplies in a tin container. She appeared to be in her late twenties to early thirties.

"I'm sorry!" I spluttered to the stranger, breaking out of Tripp's grasp. I crouched and handed the woman one of her signs. She mumbled a thanks. There was an empty paper cup sitting at her feet.

I rummaged through my bag for my coin pouch.

"Hey," Tripp crouched low beside me. "I'll give her some for the disturbance."

The woman eyed us warily.

Tripp dropped a few paper bills in the cup. I pointed at one of the acrylic paintings behind her and asked to buy it, surprising Tripp, and the artist herself. The exchange was swift and uneventful, and the woman's demeanour became more open toward us by the end before we departed.

I tucked the painting into my purse next to the CD. Tripp remained silent as we approached his car and got in fifteen minutes later. He didn't start the engine straightaway, as I expected he would. He didn't buckle up either and just sat in the driver's seat, staring out the windshield.

"Um, Tripp? I can take the drinks from you?" I bit my lip, unsure about his silence.

Tripp blinked. "Yeah. Hey, do you wanna eat here first? I can take you home after. It'd be good if you ate something. You must be hungry."

"Ah, yes. That sounds good to me." I nodded as Tripp took one bubble tea out of the tray and handed it to me.

I placed it in the car seat cup holder between us. He rummaged through the plastic bag that held our sandwiches and gave me one.

"Hell, Raini. You always…" Tripp furrowed his brows. "Most people avoid the homeless and you practically went and bought the woman's art like it was nothing. You weren't afraid of her?"

"Oh… it didn't even register. I used to volunteer in soup kitchens and homeless youth shelters." I turned my head to look out the window.

Surprise coloured his voice. "You did? I didn't know that." Tripp unwrapped his sandwich, crinkling the paper. "What made you decide that?"

I closed my eyes. I was a cautious spender, but I hadn't spared a second thought when buying the painting because I always wanted to support street artists if I could.

A muddled image of Chase's shaggy blond hair and pale hands covered in an assortment of colourful paint smudges fleeted across the back of my lids. I sucked in a breath and willed the image to go away.

I wanted to find Chase…

"It was one of the listed places to volunteer." I said aloud, opening my eyes, blinking away the remnants of the memory. I tucked a few strands of my hair behind my ear and then immediately untucked it, combing the strands with my fingers instead. "I worked in the kitchen, so I didn't have to talk to anyone…"

"You're always doing good for others." His thoughtful expression brightened after taking a bite of his sandwich. "Hey, this is good. I'd definitely get this again."

"T-that's good! I'm glad you like it." I smiled, grateful for the diversion.

"Yeah, you can recommend me something else to try next time we go out."

"You'd want to go out with me again?" My jaw dropped. I bit my tongue before I could say the rest. After everything that happened today?!

Tripp froze mid-way with his straw to his mouth. "Yeah?" he said, scrunching his brows. "If you don't want to, that's totally cool with me. We can have Rox and Mig with us next time." He took a long sip of his milk tea. "Mm. What are these pearls at the bottom of the drink, anyway? Back at the bubble tea shop, I just said yes when the cashier asked if we wanted them, and they looked interesting."

In between sips of milk tea, I explained how bubble tea originated from Taiwan and the difference between boba and popping boba. "S-so… that's all I remember about boba. You would've found the answer faster if you searched it up instead of listening to me get lost in the middle of explaining."

"Hey, reading about it is no fun. I rather hear the fun facts straight from you." he cleared his throat, his voice sounded a little lower and scratchier. "So yeah, it's cool to learn more about food I've been missing out on and their history. I still find it funny that bánh mì literally means 'bread' in English. It sounds way cooler in your native tongue."

I hadn't noticed earlier, but now that Tripp had cleared his throat again recently, I realized he had been doing it frequently since the start of our hangout. I opened my purse and sifted through it for my pack of honey lemon cough drops. I pulled a few out.

"Is your throat okay? I don't mean to say you sound unwell or anything because your voice sounds the usual to me and you don't look ill, either. But in case something's been irritating your throat and—" I uncurled my fingers to reveal the lozenges to him.

Tripp's brows raised, and my cheeks warmed at being so presumptuous.

"Nevermind. I shouldn't have assumed." I retracted my arm until Tripp's hand covered mine and his fingers folded over my palm, accepting the lozenges. He read the label out loud and unwrapped one and popped it into his mouth, while placing the others in an empty cup holder.

"Thanks, Raini. Don't worry about me. I promise I'm not sick. If I was, I would've cancelled." he assured, and then before it registered for either of us, he lightly took my wrist and placed the back of my hand against his forehead. "No fever, yeah?"

His skin was cool to the touch. Like my mom had checked yesterday morning for me, my hand reflexively copied her movements and the back of my fingers pressed against his right cheek. His skin was cool as well, and any heat I felt was certainly all from me. "Y-yes, no fever."

Our eyes locked, and I became hyperaware of his hand still loosely supporting my wrist and my knuckles resting on his skin. We both jerked our hands apart as if scalded and looked away.

"Cool, cool… so, you seem back to your usual self now so that's good." Tripp brought a fist to his mouth and helped himself to unwrapping another lozenge. "Did y'know studies have shown that listening to music increases the release of dopamine? That's like the feel-good hormone. I read it somewhere in an article Teagan sent me the other day."

I smiled at the music-related trivia, appreciating how much he went out of his way to make me feel at ease. "No, I didn't. And only with music you like, I assume? I don't think country music will give you that effect."

Tripp laughed. "I don't mean any offense to country singers but yeah. I think it could extend to melodic voices as well."

I nodded in understanding, my fingers curling around my drink. "Voices of singers… yes, that makes sense." Maybe laughs, too.

"Well, not just singers…" Tripp mused.

A brief lull fell between us.

The calmness and normalcy he exuded given what occurred at the shop not too long ago made me emotional again.

I broke the silence. "Thank you, Patrick."

Tripp straightened in his seat, his bent posture gone, and his attention fully on me. This time, I was ready to meet his eyes and refused to avoid it, even as the seconds ticked by in silence.

"No problem, Raini." he said a moment later, breaking eye contact first, and rubbing his cheek with his knuckles.

"Not only for the food." I swallowed. "I mean…"

Tripp lifted his head to meet my gaze again. He didn't say anything, nodding at me to continue with an encouraging smile.

"Like… for everything you do. Not just today, but those other times too. You make me feel…" I pursed my lips, annoyed at being tongue-tied. Like I'm not a freak or a burden. That everything will actually be okay. "I just wanted to say thank you, that's all." I finished lamely and to put myself out of my misery, I bit into my sandwich, chewed, and swallowed.

"Anytime. I know today didn't go as expected, and I don't want you to blame yourself. Honestly, I don't care what we do as long as you want to be here. If you want to talk about what happened though back at the shop, we can." he finally said.

I wanted to prove my anxious-wired brain wrong. I wanted to prove that I could still salvage some part of today. "I-I don't want to go home yet. I want to be here."

Tripp crumpled one of the lozenge wrappers in his hand, discarding it into the cup holder. "Yeah, of course. Uh, tell me though when you do wanna go. I don't have other stuff planned today so I'm good. And, uh, you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but it's been on my mind since after meeting your mom and it's been bugging me."

"What is it?" I worried at my lower lip.

"Well…" Tripp rubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. "When you proofread my essay yesterday, did you also have the same thought as your mom? That I li—that we're friends so you can help me with homework?"

"Of course not! I wanted to help you." My eyes widened to hear such an absurd thing. "I didn't do anything major. I just reviewed your work."

"You went above and beyond. If I get a good mark on that essay, it'll definitely be 'cuz of you…" Tripp snorted, and his tone turned solemn. "Did your classmates seriously ask you to do their homework when you were little?"

I swallowed, my voice coming out quieter than his. "It happened in sixth grade..."

I told him the memory that triggered the panic attack today. He deserved to know. We finished our sandwiches as I mentioned how Holly wasn't in my class that year. How I didn't have any friends and thought at the time it'd make my classmates like me when they asked me if they could copy my homework and eventually do it for them, too. And how my teacher and parents found out and me learning the hard way that the classmates I considered friends weren't true.

When I finished, Tripp didn't answer right away, and he mumbled a curse under his breath. He scowled to himself more than at me.

"I'm sorry you had to go through shit like that. I'm glad the teacher and your parents found out about it and put a stop to it. Why the hell would anyone want to take advantage of your kindness like that?" His grip tightened on his empty plastic bubble tea cup, crushing it.

"I-it's okay!" I reassured with a tiny smile, amazed with myself for talking so much. "I went to a different middle school after that and never saw those classmates again. I haven't thought about that in a long time but this morning when my mom brought it up… and I guess I just started remembering the past."

Tripp stared at the hood of his car and pinched the bridge of his nose. "It sounds like you haven't changed much since you were little. Me though, I'm glad I've changed. I was a nightmare for teachers, always causing trouble in class."

"I don't believe that." I pressed my lips tightly together in frustration. "Your parents…"

Tripp's laugh was devoid of humour. "That's 'cuz you see the good in everyone. And somehow you see that in me too knowing what my parents are like. And I'm glad I ain't how I was back then or you woulda never talked to me."

"I-I would've still talked to you." I insisted with a frown.

"Maybe, but you wouldn't have liked me." he remarked. "Did I ever tell you Teagan also has agoraphobia with her panic disorder? When we were kids, I didn't get what my sis was going through. Thinking back, she'd get these severe panic attacks whenever we were in places where she felt there was no way out, even when we were outside. I dunno when it started but I think anyplace public we visited with our parents during childhood, she never went back to." Tripp exhaled a breath, his shoulders rising and then falling. "So, now I don't understand how she can visit Tara in the hospital like it's nothing. I—Shit, sorry. I don't know why I'm telling you this. We were talking about you, and I made it all about me. Hell, you make it easy to tell you things I don't tell anyone else."

A pang resonated deep within my heart for him and Teagan when they were children. "If all you have are bad memories of your parents, then don't go, Tripp. Don't force yourself to visit the hospital. If there are things you don't want to leave unsaid with Tara though, you can write her a letter or…"

My heart jolted when my gaze returned to Tripp's. The corners of his lips unfurled into a knowing smile that tilted everything on its axis. I grew increasingly flustered at the intensity of it.

"You never waver with your words when you give me advice, but you get tongue-tied talking about the ordinary stuff? Thank you, Raini." he marvelled. "Uh, I think we've surpassed our quota of downer topics for the day, huh? By the way, what did you want to ask me on the way here if you still remember?"

There was so much emotion laced in his voice, and I wondered if that was how I sounded when I thanked him. I blushed and acknowledged his attempt to change topics. "Oh, yes. You know the CD you gave me over a week ago?"

"Yeah?" Tripp brightened. "Did you get a chance to listen to it? No rush though."

I busied myself with taking the CD out of my purse. "Well, I started listening to it. Um, I brought it with me. There were… some songs I didn't know the title of, and I was wondering if you could give me the list later when you have time?"

Tripp raised a brow. "What do you mean? I didn't include the song track list for you?"

I rushed on to explain what I meant about the track numbers and missing song track names and how I began searching the lyrics to determine the song names.

"Raini, you shoulda told me." Tripp frowned. "I woulda given you the list right away."

"I didn't mind, and I enjoyed trying to figure out each song." I curled my fingers into my purse strap. "And you had the Halloween gig to focus on."

"Mm…" Tripp hummed. "You say you brought it? Pop it in. Wait, not yet. I'm a moron. Let me start the car first. Crap, how have we been sitting here without the heat on? Are you cold? We keep a blanket here for our dog."

He turned on the engine and then the heat. As we waited for the warm air to gradually circulate around the car, he retrieved a folded patterned wool blanket from the backseat and handed it to me.

"It's okay. I didn't notice before but it's warmer in here now. T-thank you! What about you?" I accepted the blanket from him, draping it across my legs.

"Yup, I'm fine." He switched to the CD option on the car audio system and ejected the CD. He asked me to grab its case in the glove compartment and I found an empty case for the disk.

"Oh, um, so, Roxy said you would understand when I asked this. She said your playlists have themes. I was wondering what the theme of this one was when you made it?"

"Huh, that's a good question." Tripp pondered. "It's only been like a couple weeks since making it, so I dunno why it feels like a blur to me. I don't remember exactly what songs I put in the playlist for you. I should though."

"No, no. You were busy with the Halloween gig. I wouldn't remember either!"

"I'll let you know the theme after, though. How you wanna do this? Did you want me to go through the CD and tell you the name and artist? Or I can text you the names?"

"Ah, um. I was thinking maybe we could listen to it together, and you could tell me about it? I can write notes on my phone."

"Nice." Tripp grinned. "I omitted the answer to that trick question, and you still nailed it."

I blushed and shook my head with a smile.

"Cool, I was hoping you'd want to listen to it together. You can pop the CD into the player."

After inserting the disc, the first track began straightaway. A piano melody in the intro sounded through the speakers. Something I hadn't expected to make appearances often in rock music.

Tripp reclined his driver's seat to lay his head and back in a comfy position. "There should be a lever on your right."

I peered as instructed and toyed with the lever a couple of times, trying to recline the passenger seat.

"You see it?"

"Yeah, I think I got—"

I let out a surprised yelp as the backrest of my chair collapsed.

"Crap. You, okay?" Tripp instantly shot up, leaning over. "My aunt's car is probably as old as us."

I covered my mouth with my hand and released a breathy laugh. "Yes, I'm okay. I startled myself."

Tripp visibly relaxed and laughed as well. We lapsed into a comfortable silence to let the music fill up the space. I clasped my fingers over my chest, staring out the window, feeling my heart thump fast, ever so slightly.

The piano medley faded to the background as the drums noticeably started up in the song and the singer's voice joined in. I asked if Tripp could raise the volume and he cranked it up, drowning out the noises of the outside world and traffic. It felt like we were in another world inside Tripp's car. It was safe. When the song ended, Tripp sat up and paused it. He listed the name and artist and wondered what I thought of it.

"I liked it. The message was nice." I whispered.

We continued listening to a few more songs, each one so different from the last. Not only in sound, but the range of emotion. Some lyrics were easier to understand and decipher in the moment, while others weren't.

"Raini." he said after several songs in, holding his phone out for me to take. "I looked up the lyrics of what we've listened so far if you wanted to read them."

I carefully accepted his phone, cupping it in my palms. He turned away to look out the window with his hands propped behind his head. I started reading the lyrics of a song Tripp had already pulled up for me until an abrupt incoming text blipped across his screen.

Ol: BROO, I CALLED IT. JUST 👏 ASK 👏 HER 👏 OUT 👏 ALRDY! YOU GOT THIS. [4:05 PM]

The text from Oliver startled me and I panicked at unintentionally seeing a personal text of Tripp's which caused me to drop his phone. It fell onto my nose, and then slid down into my lap before it landed on the ground with a thud.

"Ow." I winced, lifting a hand to my face, rubbing my nose where his phone had hit. My fingers came away spotless, so at least I wasn't bleeding. I leaned over to search for Tripp's phone while still massaging the bridge of my nose.

Tripp glanced over at me. "Shit, what happened? Are you hurt?"

"N-no, I'm okay. S-sorry. I dropped your phone by accident." I wedged my hand into the crack between the seat and car seat cup holder.

"Let me see."

"O-okay. I can see your phone at the bottom. I'll move the passenger's—"

"Not the phone, Rainy Day." Tripp laughed. "You."

"H-huh? I'm fine!" My cheeks blazed at hearing his latest nickname in person. It was too much for my poor heart to handle. I squeezed my eyes shut as his hand extended out.

His thumb gently brushed the bridge of my nose. "Okay, good. No bump or bleeding. It's good to make sure, y'know?"

I only nodded and released a sigh when he fell back.

After Tripp seemed certain I wasn't injured, I moved my seat so we could retrieve his phone. He checked his phone, most likely Oliver's text, with raised brows, and I couldn't help notice the tips of his ears reddening. He was about to drop his phone into the cup holder when it rang.

I paused the music so he could take the call. He addressed me with a nod before answering his phone.

"Heya, Kelly. Sorry, I missed your call earlier. I just read your recent texts. Yeah, no worries." I could hear animated chattering coming out of his phone. He grinned. "No seriously, it's alright. I figured I was pushing it, asking for more last minute. Okay, cool. Yeah, I'll remember to bring the CD. You're awesome. Hell yeah, I'm super stoked to see you next weekend. Looking forward to it." He let out a cheerful laugh. "Alright. Talk soon."

He ended the call and faced me. "Sorry, had to take that. I forgot to text Kelly back."

My stomach curdled. It was my fault he couldn't reply to her sooner because he was too busy trying to help me during my panic attack. "N-no problem at all!"

I had no idea who Kelly was, and it wasn't any of my business who the other girls in Tripp's life were. Was she someone in his class?

"Actually, I guess this is perfect timing. I wanted to mention Kelly to you at some point." Tripp said.

I waited to see if he'd add on 'best friend' or 'bandmate' or something similar when he had first started bringing up Oliver and Elliott in conversation, but it was simply 'Kelly'.

"Oh… how long have you k-known each other?" I asked, swallowing, and my stomach flip-flopping.

"Since May or June, I think. We met at Battle of the Bands and her band won the competition over the summer."

Then it dawned on me as I pieced more information together. "Wait, is she the singer from Skellyton Fright and the…?"

Tripp seemed surprised. "And the Jack-o'-lanterns? Yeah, you heard of them?"

"Holly likes her music and enjoys discovering local bands to listen to."

"Nice, I approve of your cousin's music taste. Maybe the two of us will convert you someday. Yeah, so, Kell's band will be in a nearby city next weekend, and she invited me to fill in for her bassist. I was gonna ask if you wanted to come to that show—"

"A-another show?" I bit my lip.

I didn't want to go. It was too last minute. One week wasn't enough for me to mentally prepare meeting Kelly and a whole new group of strangers. The last thing I needed was another opportunity to embarrass him in front of more of his friends.

"Yeah, but she broke the news she can't pull any more strings since she's already getting three tickets for the guys. It sucks I can't score more for you and Rox."

In a blink, instant relief flooded me, and the dread vanished. And then shame gnawed at my insides for being happy to miss one of Tripp's shows. What kind of moral support was I to not even want to attend?

"It's okay. T-thank you for the invitation though. That's really great that you'll get to perform in another show with a huge crowd. I'm so happy you'll get more opportunities." I smiled earnestly.

Tripp nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Me too. Maybe next time she's back in town, I can introduce you to Kelly. You'd like her."

He checked his phone again, and I did the same to see a missed text from my mom reminding me to come home before six. I was certain my curfew for today was five-thirty. I warmed at the idea maybe she extended it till six to make up for her intensive questioning of Tripp during the afternoon.

"Oh, wow. It's almost five. Should we get going?" I spoke up, unsure.

"Yeah, good timing. My aunt just texted me." Tripp set his phone aside. "Y'know what? If we don't finish the playlist on the way home, we could listen to the rest in spare tomorrow?"

I told him it was a good idea.

Throughout the ride home, Tripp named the title and artist before each song even though he planned to send me the list later. Sometimes, when a song finished, if I asked, he'd explain the song meanings. At one point, after the tenth or eleventh song in the playlist, the fatigue settled in my muscles and my eyelids grew droopy. I temporarily shut my eyes to let them rest, and the last thing I recalled was the low hum of Tripp's voice.

~xXx~

I stirred to the sound of songs being cut off and skipped and rewound. Then a creak followed by silence.

I blinked blearily with a yawn and then straightened in my seat. I glanced around to see I was still in Tripp's car. We sat parked in front of my house instead of in the driveway and it was a few minutes shy after five-thirty.

I turned to my left to find Tripp slightly reclined in his seat with an arm flung across his face. He seemed unaware that I had woken up.

"Tripp…?"

My voice startled him.

"Raini. Ah, hey, you. Did you just wake up? Feeling more rested?" Tripp sat up. He leaned forward in the driver's seat and ejected the CD, inspecting it.

"S-sorry, didn't mean to startle you. Y-yes, I just woke up." I frowned to myself. "Aw, sorry. I don't remember the last song I heard in the playlist."

Tripp still kept his profile to me while he spoke, placing the CD back in its case. "Nah, that's cool. It's good you got some rest." He held the disc up. "Actually, can I take this back? I, uh, need to confirm the songs on here…"

Tripp told me once that he didn't get embarrassed easily, but I didn't know how else to describe his current behaviour. It must've been a trick of the eyes or lingering fatigue, because I thought I saw red tingeing his cheeks and the nape of his neck.

"Yes, of course. I mean you made it." I nodded slowly, curious why he wanted to double check.

His comment when he spoke with Kelly an hour ago arose in my mind. She had reminded him to bring a CD. And then there was Oliver's text encouraging Tripp to 'ask her out'. My eyes widened in revelation. The playlist had to be for Kelly. Tripp must've mixed up our CDs if he wanted to review the songs.

Now I felt so stupid. I hadn't questioned the lack of song list or writing on the CD itself because it had delighted me to receive a playlist from him.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you all this sooner! I'm glad you found out before it was too late." I gasped. "You made this to ask someone out, and you gave it to me by mistake, right?"

"Ask someone o—what?!" A faint blush suffused his cheeks. His laugh came out strangled in embarrassment at being found out. "Shit, so… you like heard the second half?"

No wonder he was embarrassed and didn't want to look at me now. I had started listening and loving a playlist meant for someone else. Songs not meant for my ears.

Roxy guessed the playlist theme correctly without even listening to the songs!

I stared at my lap, mortified, and buried my face into my hands. "Ohmygod, I'm so sorry about that, Tripp. A-anyway, thank you for the ride home. I will go now."

I gathered my things in haste to get out of his car as fast as I could unless I wanted to stay longer and combust.

"Raini, wait." Tripp called, catching my elbow, making me freeze. His hand fell away, and I hugged my belongings close to my chest, unable to bring myself to face him. "Your comment took me off guard. I shouldn't be surprised you figured it out before I did. Of course, you would. About Ol's text from earlier that I think you saw… well he didn't know I already did ask so—"

Oliver: Ask her out already.

Tripp: I already did.

He already asked Kelly out... and he's going to bring this CD for Kelly next weekend.

"Oh. I-I'm happy for you and Kelly!" It made me relieved he couldn't see my face at the moment. The extra brightness in my voice rang false in my ears and I tried my best to ignore the spike of jealousy and shame prickling in my heart at not supporting Tripp's happiness to the fullest. It made perfect sense that he'd want to be with someone who had the same interests as him and was no doubt beautiful, talented and confident.

"Raini, what are you talking about? What about Kelly? Are you referring to the gig next weekend?" Tripp touched my shoulder, coaxing me to turn around.

My cheeks flushed. "T-the CD for Kelly. And you mentioned already asking her out."

Tripp stared at me in disbelief before he wheezed out a winded laugh. "Raini, no. You got it all wrong. Kelly and I are just friends. She already has a boyfriend and I'm bringing her a CD on Ben's behalf. He wants it signed by a group she's touring with." He recovered, regaining his breath, and ran a hand through his hair, making it messy. "Y'know how sometimes your brain is slow to catch up and realize stuff while others around you notice? And then when you get like the epiphany moment, things finally make sense?"

I gawked at him, trying to grasp all his words.

My phone rang, disrupting the mood. I quickly answered it and told my mom I was about to head in. A peek at the dashboard revealed it was nearing six o'clock. We hung up, and I pocketed my phone into my purse and checked again for all my belongings.

"I have to go…" I murmured, overwhelmed and dazed.

"Ah… fuck. Sorry, I didn't realize it was past your curfew of five-thirty. This is so rushed and not how I planned to tell you. Last night, I didn't think I'd tell you at all, to be honest, but now... I'll cut to the chase then. I'll remake the CD since I wanted to do it properly with the track names, album sleeve, case, everything. I—"

"Wait, did I say Chase's name out loud when we talked about the woman and the painting earlier?" I gasped.

Tripp stopped talking and stared wide-eyed at me. "W-what?"

My body seized up at the slip of the tongue.

Oh, no, no, no. Tripp said, 'I'll cut to the chase'… not cutting to the topic of Chase.

"Ohmygod. I'm sorry! He's… it's not important." I flinched. "Please forget I—"

"Chase." Tripp repeated thickly. "Who's that? A friend of yours?"

"Yes. No. He is… was…" My mind went blank, trying to collect all my thoughts. Where would I even begin?

He was a homeless teenager.

He was a recovering drug addict.

He was a painter.

He was my first friend and someone I fell in love with.

Tripp glanced away from me then. His voice was hoarse. "Sorry, I didn't mean to pry. You don't have to explain anything to me."

"No, Tripp! It's not like that. I can explain about C—" My throat closed up robbing my voice.

"Lành!" someone called for me in the distance.

"You should go. I don't want you getting in any trouble with your mom 'cuz of me. Thanks for hanging out with me today and letting me pay you back." He faced me again and smiled. "I also should get going and not keep my aunt waiting. Make sure you sleep early tonight and rest up, alright?"

"Y-yes, okay. T-thank you for today. I don't want you getting home late either. D-drive safe and s-see you tomorrow!" I hated the tremor in my voice.

"Yeah. Thanks, I will." Tripp answered quietly. "I'll see you later."

I stepped outside the car and let the passenger door shut behind me. I fled up the driveway to see Naomi standing on the front porch.

"Your mom sent me to see if you were here. She said you were..."

The rest of Naomi's words didn't register as I listened to the tires moving over gravel and the car engine receding. I didn't need to turn around to know that Tripp had left, and he had taken half of my heart with him.