I lifted a dark blue snapback cap from the hook it was hung on and examined it. It would go well with Nolan's eyes and his usual outfits. Maybe I should just buy this one.
I was having a hard time deciding what to get for him. Although he had said that he didn't want a birthday present, the thought of him being alone on his birthdays without a single present made my heart hurt a little. I could just give it to him on another day.
I didn't have to give it to him as a birthday present.
"Are you buying that?"
At the sound of Melissa's curious voice, I looked up from the cap. "Maybe. Why?"
The four of us—Derek, Melissa, Ashley, and I—were in a clothing retail store at the mall, just browsing through the stuff they had on display. We had just finished our lunch and had nothing else to do before heading back to school.
Ashley, who was next to me, tapped me on the shoulder. "I'm going to the toilet. I'll be right back."
"Okay," I said to her.
Shrugging, Melissa squinted at the cap I was holding as if she expected it to turn into something else. "I thought you hated wearing caps?"
"I do," I said, running my hand over the cap brim. "They mess up my hair. Anyway, this isn't for me. I'm getting it for Nolan."
"Nolan?" she said, looking surprised again. "Why? Is his birthday coming up?"
Oops. I doubted he wanted anyone else to know when it was.
"I just felt like getting him something," I said, using the explanation I was going to give Nolan if he questioned the reason behind my sudden gift. "I mean, I feel like he'd like something like this."
"Uh huh," she said skeptically, "and you saw this cap and just thought of buying it for him?"
Derek, who was standing beside her, snorted and looked up at me from the two different caps he was deciding between. I could see the mischief dancing in his eyes as the corners of his lips pulled up into a large smile.
I did not like the look on his face right now.
"Very thoughtful of you, Chelsea," he said, cocking an eyebrow.
With narrowed eyes, I said, "Of course I'm thoughtful. Did you only just realize that?"
"Why don't I recall you ever buying me a cap just because, though?" he continued, as if I hadn't spoken.
Melissa promptly added, "Or me a cap? You know we love those."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I placed my hands on my hips.
Melissa snatched one of the caps Derek was holding out of his hand. "It just seems funny to me that you're randomly getting him something. It's not even his birthday present or anything like that."
"Oh, I don't know," Derek said, still with that sly smile on his face. "I was just wondering if we don't cross your mind when you're shopping like he apparently does."
My jaw dropped at his insinuation. "Excuse me? Of course I think about you guys!"
"Not enough to buy us random presents, evidently," he said, twirling around the cap that was still on his other hand with a finger.
He wasn't wrong, but we just didn't have a habit of buying gifts for no reason in our group. He was making it sound like I liked Nolan or something!
After some close examination, Melissa hung up the cap she was holding. "Derek, this cap is hideous. Buy the other one."
Derek hummed as he studied the cap Melissa had declared as unwearable. "But I like the color gradient."
"Just because you like it, doesn't mean you should wear it," she said. "Gray and green, really?"
"He's my friend," I said, not bothering to hide my consternation in my tone. "What's wrong with buying a present for him?"
Melissa wandered off to the next wall section where another batch of caps with different designs were hung.
"Nothing's wrong. I was just saying," he said. "Is there a reason you're getting all worked up?"
I spluttered. "You're the one trying to rile me up, and now you're asking me why?!"
"Oh? How exactly am I riling you up?"
"You know how—don't try to play innocent!" I crossed my arms.
"All I said was that you seem to think a lot about him," he said, shrugging. "Hey, is that why you invited him to our table last week?"
"Whatever it is that you're thinking, you're wrong," I told him. "I invited him because he doesn't really have anyone else he hangs out with."
His grin only grew wider. "I'm still surprised that he joined us, by the way. You guys must be really good friends."
"Yes, emphasis on friends," I said, rolling my eyes.
Where was Ashley when I needed her? Right, she had to go to the restroom at the worst timing ever.
"Such good friends that he actually joined us for lunch again within the same week," he said. "I'm impressed."
He wasn't the only one who was surprised that Nolan had sat at our table on Wednesday and Friday. I almost couldn't believe how he had easily agreed when I asked him to join us. On the other days he said that he was too tired and had to go to the library for a nap. Sitting with a group of people three times in a single week was already a lot for someone like Nolan, and I wasn't expecting that at all.
Still, what was this? Did Derek somehow find out about the bet Ashley and I had made about him and Melissa? Was he getting revenge on me for placing bets on his love life?
Derek had never teased me like this before. Part of it, I supposed, probably had to do with the fact that I didn't really have any other guy friends apart from him, but this was still such a shock.
"We're just friends!"
"Sure," he drawled, "and that's why you've never gotten me anything outside of my birthdays."
I was about to retort when Melissa approached us, waving a light gray cap at us by its dark gray brim.
"Derek, I like this one. I bet it looks good on you," she said.
Derek blinked. I blinked.
She beckoned for him to lower his head, and he bent down to let her fit the cap over his head.
"Yeah," she said. "Gray always looks good on you. I can't believe you don't have a gray cap yet. You should get this."
"Really?" he said, reaching up to touch the brim of the cap.
Nodding, she took a step backwards to give him a onceover. "Yup. Get it."
Taking advantage of the fact that he was temporarily disarmed by Melissa's rare compliment, I practically bolted for the payment counter. I wasn't about to hang around any longer listening to him questioning my choices.
Silently, I thanked Melissa in my heart for her timely distraction. Maybe Ashley was right. Maybe they would get together before we graduated after all.
On Monday, I handed Nolan the dark blue cap I'd gotten him once I was comfortably settled in my chair. It was several minutes before first period, and there were very few others in the classroom. I made sure to get up early this morning so that I could have a chance to give it to him without anyone gawking at us.
"Here, Nolan," I said. "I got this last weekend."
He stared down at it.
"It's for you," I said, shaking it slightly when he didn't reach out to take it.
"What's this?" Nolan said.
After much consideration, I had decided not to wrap his present. After all, if I spontaneously got someone something, I wouldn't have wrapped it. Beautiful wrappers were for special occasions and holidays.
"I know it's a cap," he said, looking unimpressed. "I own one myself."
I cracked a small grin at him. "I saw it at the mall and thought you might like it."
"Why are you suddenly giving it to me?"
"There's no 'why'," I said. "It's just something I got for you."
After a short pause, he said, "Does this have anything to do with my upcoming birthday? I told you I didn't want any presents."
He connected the dots fast. His birthday was on this coming Saturday, but there were still so many days until then.
"Did I say it was a birthday present?" I said, deciding on the spot that doubling down on it was the only thing I could do right now. "Did I wish you a happy birthday?"
His eyebrows furrowed. "No, but—"
"Then it's not a birthday present. I just wanted to give you something," I said. "Look, it's not even wrapped!"
While I was waving it in his face, he grabbed the cap with one hand and scowled at me. "I said no birthday presents."
"And I said it's a thing I'm just giving you." I rolled my eyes. "If you're that paranoid, I can take it back and give it to you before winter break. Would that make you feel better?"
He narrowed his eyes at me. We stared at each other for several seconds.
Eventually, he sighed and shook his head. "It's fine. You don't have to do that. Thank you."
I smiled at him. "You're welcome."
"It looks nice."
"Yeah, I chose it because I thought it would go well with the stuff you usually wear," I said.
"I like it," he said quietly, turning it over in his hands.
The almost searching way he was looking down at it made my heart start thumping harder than usual.
Why did something about his expression strike me as so lost?
Time passed so quickly.
Before I knew it, it was already November.
I decided that I would stop going to the forest for now, since our finals were coming up. Maybe he could afford to stay up all night on Fridays, but I couldn't—not if I didn't want to lose precious studying time on Saturdays catching up on sleep.
Tonight would be the last time we would be visiting the forest until the exams were over.
Well, it was the last night I would be sneaking out.
We had a short discussion about it, and Nolan refused to put a pause on his weekly forest walks. Knowing what I did about him now, I wasn't as worried for his life or safety as I had been before. When he said he would be continuing even without me, I didn't bother arguing with him.
His grades were still as good as ever—he obviously knew what he was doing.
We were holding hands as usual in the denser part of the forest where we had to walk through to reach the clearing. It was so dark. I could barely make out the outlines of nearby trees, let alone any potential hazards on the ground.
A cry fell out of my mouth as I stumbled over something that I hadn't noticed was in front of my foot.
As I fell forward, I yanked Nolan's hand down with me. The swooping sensation in my stomach caused my heart to stop beating for a split second.
"Hey!" Instantly, he whirled around and circled his other arm around my back, pulling me into him.
My face was promptly buried in the front of his pullover hoodie. When I inhaled, my nose was treated to the wonderful fragrance I'd come to love. As he held me securely in his steady arms, the fear I'd been feeling vanished entirely.
"You smell so good." The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could rethink them, and then it was too late to rescind them.
It was too dark for me to see his expression, but Nolan jerked back a little, and his hold on me loosened just the slightest bit. After a couple of seconds, he tightened his arms around me again.
"What are you talking about?" There was a strange unevenness in his voice that I'd never heard before.
"Nothing!" I attempted to regain my footing and reached up to grab the sides of his arms for support. "I said nothing!"
Although he helped me to stand properly, Nolan didn't respond.
"Thanks for saving me," I said, grabbing his hand once I was upright again.
Contrary to my expectations, he didn't turn around to continue walking. Instead, he stayed still and stared at me. "What happened? Why did you suddenly fall?"
"I was lagging behind you a little, and I guess I didn't realize that there was something near my feet," I said, peering down at the ground to identify the mysterious object.
I still couldn't see it.
"I told you to walk right behind me," he said.
I looked up guiltily at him. "Sorry! I wanted to look around."
"Why? I thought you couldn't see anything, anyway."
"I can't, but the atmosphere is kind of cool. I just wanted to, you know, take it all in," I said. "I mean, I won't be coming back here for a couple of months, or maybe even until next semester."
"It's only for a while. We can return before the semester ends," he said, but stepped to my side. "I'll walk beside you. If there's anything in front of you, I'll warn you first."
"Thank you," I said, feeling a large smile take over my face.
Walking side by side with Nolan in this part of the forest felt different. All the other times we held hands before was for him to literally lead me by the hand to the open clearing. They weren't quite like the leisurely stroll we were taking now, especially since I had to go a lot slower in case of tree roots or rocks.
For some reason, I found myself smiling down at my feet, even though I could barely see them.
Suddenly, he said, "There's a rock in front of you."
Tugging my hand, he pulled me to him, so that the side of my arm bumped into his.
"Oh, thanks," I said, following him as he moved to the left.
After what felt like a particularly long time, we finally stepped into the usual clearing.
It seemed more serene than usual. I didn't know if my increased appreciation was because I knew that this was my last night here, but I just loved how fresh the crisp air felt tonight in my lungs. Even the distant owl hooting seemed to create a melodious harmony with the chirping of the crickets.
I loved the way the stars mapped the exceptionally clear night sky with their twinkling beauty.
I didn't realize how much warmth Nolan was bringing me until he released my hand. Despite being wrapped up in my thick hoodie and sweatpants, I shivered when cold air replaced his presence beside me.
"It's just as well that I stop coming here for a while, anyway. It's really getting colder," I said, shoving my hands into the large pocket on the front of my hoodie.
"Why didn't you bring your gloves?" he said, glancing over at me.
I shrugged and unfolded the plastic sheet I'd kept after he gave it to me the first time. "I forgot how much colder it gets at night."
"Do you want to borrow my jacket?"
Confused, I smiled at him. "What? But then you'd be freezing, right?"
"I'll be fine," he said, settling down on the grass beside me. "You can have it if you need it."
"No," I hurried to say, when he began to take it off, "I'm okay, thanks. I am still wearing my own hoodie."
I didn't want him to freeze on account of keeping me warm.
Nolan's questioning gaze seemed to turn slightly skeptical. "Are you sure? I saw you shiver just now."
That was when he just let go of my hand. My face grew hot as I turned away from him.
"Yeah, I'm sure," I said. "It isn't winter yet. I won't turn into an icicle."
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something appear on my right. I glanced down at the spare pair of binoculars he was offering me.
"No, thanks," I said, shaking my head. "I just want to take in the quiet atmosphere tonight."
He stowed it back in his fanny pack. "Alright."
It felt so good to stretch my arms upwards under the open night sky. A contented sigh left my throat as I crossed my legs. I was going to miss all of this.
Mildly surprised when Blue appeared in a flutter of wings and landed on Nolan's lap, I beamed at him.
"Hi, Blue," Nolan said, reaching down with a finger to pet Blue on the head. "Tonight's the last time you'll be seeing Chelsea in a while."
"I'll miss relaxing in the forest, but I'll miss you even more," I told Blue. "I promise I'll come back once the exams end."
Blue flew to my upturned hand and perched on my thumb.
"Aww, did you just understand what I was saying? Smart boy!" Although I was aware that I was coming off as completely gooey, I continued cooing over him anyway.
It wasn't like Nolan was going to laugh at me.
"Of course he can't understand you." He was still peering through his binoculars at the sky.
I shot him a quick glare. "I was talking to Blue, not you! Besides, you were the one who told him this was my last time here. You're not one to talk!"
His laughter was smooth, and it struck me then how different it sounded now. Nolan's voice was just as low as before, but it had been so much rougher a few months ago.
"I'll miss you, but I still can't wait for our exams to be over," I continued, stroking his little gray-brown head. "Studying is such a pain. If I could ace everything without studying like Nolan does, you bet I'd still be back here every week."
"Hey, I study," he said.
I snorted. "You don't even pay attention in class."
"I do my homework and revise in the evenings."
"Really?" I frowned cynically.
"Did you think that I did nothing on my own?"
"Kind of. I mean, what's the point of sleeping in class if you end up studying on your own, anyway? Wouldn't it save you more time if you just paid attention?"
"I thought we already went over that. I'm nocturnal, remember?" he said, letting his binoculars hang from his neck. "It's hard to stay awake in the mornings when I'm up so late."
"That's true, but if you could sleep earlier at night, you wouldn't have to play catch-up," I said, looking over at him.
"I just can't." He shrugged. "And I'm fine physically, so don't suggest going to the doctor's again."
I rolled my eyes. "I wasn't going to. I know you're more than fine physically—you could be top of our gym class if you actually attended!"
"And yet I just don't care that much."
Nolan lay down on the grass. I watched as he ran his long, thin fingers through his fine black hair. It looked soft to the touch, and suddenly I wanted to pet his hair even more than I wanted to pet Blue.
I immediately lowered my gaze to Blue. "It's not just the exams I want to be over. I'm also looking forward to going home. You'll probably think I'm a baby for saying this, but I miss my parents."
"I don't think that makes you a baby," he said. "You know what a baby is, right? Only age can define you as a baby."
He was unfazed by my death glare.
"I'm being serious here!"
"So am I. It's normal human emotion, isn't it?" His bright green eyes stared unwaveringly at me.
"I guess," I said begrudgingly. "Do you miss home, too?"
Several silent seconds passed as I looked at him, waiting for his answer.
Finally, he said, "I don't know."
My eyebrows drew together. "You don't know?"
Closing his eyes, Nolan clasped onto his binoculars with both of his hands. "Yeah. My mother died in a car accident, so I got sent here. She never really talked to me, and it's not like my nanny is still back in my old house. I don't even know if that's home."
"I … I'm sorry," I said, completely at a loss for words.
I had no idea Nolan was dealing with so many problems in his life.
Was that why he was the way he was—and still kind of is—before I got to know him? Was that why he was so aloof and never wanted to make friends?
If that were me, I would've been so lonely and desperate for friendship. I couldn't make sense of his unsociable behavior, which ran contrary to my own reaction.
His face was still expressionless, but I just wanted to reach over and give him a hug. I wanted to comfort him, even though nothing about him indicated that he needed it. Blue flew over to the grass beside Nolan.
"It's fine," he said. "I wasn't close to her, anyway."
"But … who sent you here?" I said. "I mean, if you don't mind sharing—"
"My stepdad. I'd rather not talk about that."
I nodded my head. "Then we won't."
I wondered where his dad fit in this picture, but Nolan hadn't even once mentioned him. The sensitive nature of this topic made me uncomfortable to ask any questions that could be seen as overly prying.
"You don't need to get awkward with me," he said, slowly opening his eyes. "I feel fine. Besides, if I don't have a home, it doesn't matter where I go."
"I'm glad you came here," I said firmly. "I'm glad I got to know you."
Nolan didn't look at me. "Thanks."
"If you hadn't had a headache that day, we probably wouldn't have become friends. It's kind of weird to say this, but I'm thankful that you did." A sheepish smile spread across my face when he cocked an eyebrow.
"Yeah, you're right. Thank yourself, since you were the one who gave me that headache," he said.
"What? When did I do that?!"
He moved his binoculars back over his eyes. "Did you forget how you almost blinded me?"
The word 'blinded' rapidly brought back memories of how he accused me in the classroom, in front of everyone else. My jaw fell. I couldn't believe he still remembered that—it was literally a split second mistake.
"Are you going on about that flashlight again? I already apologized. How did that have anything to do with your headache?"
"Oh, sure, blind someone and act like it's not your fault." He heaved a massive sigh. "Besides, who turns on a flashlight in a darkroom?"
"But I didn't blind you! Also, I couldn't see anything."
"You're not supposed to have any lights on in a darkroom. For future reference, it can ruin any photos that are being developed. Just thought I'd let you know in case you catch me skipping gym in it again."
"I don't even bother really looking for you anymore. There's just no point," I informed him. "That bit of information is good to know, though."
"Smart," he said. "By the way, I'm glad I got to know you too."
His voice was so quiet for the last sentence that I almost missed it.
Warmth spread from my chest all the way to every single part of my body, touching all of my limbs. In this moment, my hands, which had been uncomfortably cold, became warm enough to take out from my hoodie pocket.
I grinned at him, although he didn't seem to notice because he was still viewing the stars through his binoculars.
AN: thank you for reading!