Chapter 17

It had been over a month since Jessi last spoke to Josh and a week since Jessi had finally stopped moping around and accepted that it really was over. That perfect summer was clearly destined to just be another tainted memory of his youth, tainted by himself of course because really there was no denying that he and he alone had thoroughly messed it up.

With a sigh and a huge amount of effort he pulled himself out of bed and blinked against the bright fall sun that was shining insistently through the cracks in his drawn curtains. He pulled on a sweater that was folded neatly atop his chest of drawers, stood and stretched. He looked towards the clock, almost as an afterthought and blanched momentarily when he saw that it was ten past eight, until he realised it was Saturday and he wasn't late for anything.

Except maybe breakfast, which he could now smell wafting tauntingly from downstairs. After finding a suitably comfortable pair of jeans he padded barefoot downstairs and appeared in the kitchen looking hopeful. His dad was nowhere to be seen but Carrie was sitting at the breakfast bar, a large piece of pancake balancing precariously on the end of her fork about an inch from her mouth as she read the newspaper unfolded next to her plate.

"G'morning," Jessi mumbled, disappointedly, shuffling to the fridge.

"It's in the oven staying warm," Carrie rolled her eyes, not taking her eyes off the paper. Jessi grinned from ear to ear and tried not to skip over to the oven, where waiting just for him were an enormous stack of blueberry pancakes. He grabbed them and sat down next to Carrie and triumphantly started shovelling them into his mouth. "Oh to be seventeen again," Carrie sighed, enviously.

"Eighteen," Jessi corrected through a mouthful of pancakes.

"Oh yeah, I almost forgot," Carrie laughed, clearly winding him up. "What I wouldn't give to be able to eat like that again and not gain twenty pounds," she laughed, stood and walked over to the sink where she dropped her plate. "Cole's pancakes are delicious." Jessi agreed non-verbally.

"You're pregnant," he mumbled after he'd swallowed. "Aren't you allowed to eat whatever you want?" Carrie raised an eyebrow.

"I wish," she mumbled and rubbed her stomach lovingly. "I've already gained too much, I'm starting to resemble a small house," she grinned and Jessi sighed. It was true that Carrie's stomach had popped out over the last few weeks, one night he went to bed and she was normal size then he'd seen her the next day and BAM! instant baby bump. Since then the bump had grown and grown. But other than the bump at the front Carrie didn't look like she'd put anything on anywhere, but Jessi wasn't going to get into a weight debate with his pregnant step-mother, he might have woken up in an abnormally chipper mood but he was in no way brave enough to tackle that conversation.

His birthday had been really nice, the five of them (Jessi's mother and her new boyfriend included) went out for dinner and despite the fact that only the three of them really talked, it wasn't so bad. Plus Cole let him have a beer at home which Jessi thought was the best part of the night, even if Carrie was glaring at the drink enviously the whole time.

On his way out of the kitchen, breakfast thoroughly demolished Jessi glanced at the clock, four more hours until he was going to have his tattoo. He'd been into see Mike last week as planned with his dad in tow (much to Jessi's embarrassment, he spent the whole time trying not to blush) and skirted past some rather close calls were his actual age may have been revealed to the other man without incident. They'd paid a rather hefty deposit to secure the time (four and a half hours at an estimate) and gone over some last minute questions about allergies, procedure, that kind of thing. Mike had the studio owner sit with him who explained that it wasn't routine to get so many details but as Mike was still technically training they had to cover their backs, morally at least. It was also explained that the owner, Steve, would be rectifying it if Jessi wasn't completely happy, though having seen Mike's work at his apartment Jessi wasn't worried in the least.

Jessi would be going alone as nobody was allowed in the room with him anyway and he assured his dad that he would be fine getting home afterwards. Cole had a meeting that evening after work and so wouldn't be home until late and Carrie was working late too so Jessi really would have nobody to complain about the pain to, but had firmly told both of them that he would be fine. 'People get tattoo's all the time Dad. And nobody dies,' Jessi had insisted, Cole (a doctor) had disagreed but nevertheless agreed to let his son go ahead with his plans.

Gulping down the nerves that started to surface Jessi disappeared upstairs for what would be the first of four showers before setting off to be a canvas.

Josh wasn't adjusting to life without Jessi so well; he tried his best to put on a brave face and even went some parts of the day without thinking of the other boy now. Outwardly life went pretty much back to what it had been before he'd gotten involved with Byron, parties every weekend, skating, hanging out at the mall. If looking at him, nobody would think there was anything wrong. He'd even tried moving on with a girl who'd just started at Tampa Preparatory this semester called Evie and even though they flirted openly and most of the school already thought they were an item Josh couldn't get Jessi out of his head long enough to think about being with anybody.

Currently he was sitting at the back of a movie theatre, feet firmly place on the back of the seat in front of him, picking lint of his hoodie whilst explosions a plenty went off in the foreground. He looked forward to the weekends the most, a whole two days were he wouldn't have to see Jessi or be around him. He'd managed to convince his friends not to bully Jessi anymore and though he knew they still did it when he wasn't around. Josh found it easier to just try and pretend Byron didn't exist. That way he didn't have to deal with the confusion that simultaneously wanted to kiss him, cry and punch his lights out all at the same time.

Taking a deep breath, Josh rested his head back on the wall and closed his eyes. He might not be able to get to sleep but at least he had some time to think.

Gulping back bile Jessi was sitting in the waiting room, this was the second time he'd sat here feeling like he was going to barf. He really hated the waiting; everything was so much better if you didn't have to wait. It just gave you the time to think about the pain, the possible consequences. 'Ugh, stop that,' Jessi willed himself to do, stomach lurching violently as he saw Mike's door open. Mike smiled warmly at Jessi and beckoned him in. Jessi trudged through like a man walking to his execution and dropped himself down on the sterile chair.

"Oh no, no," Mike chuckled. "This time you're on the stool" he kicked a stool out from under a bench and Jessi switched locations, not sure how he'd manage to handle this if he didn't have something to lean on. "How are you?"

"I'm okay thanks" Jessi's eyes followed Mike as he prepared everything, removing the packaging form the instruments, getting the antiseptic wipes and finally pulling a chair next to Jessi's stool.

"I'll be back in a tick, just going to get my boss, you might as well take your shirt off," Mike wiggled his eyebrows wickedly, making Jessi smile. 'I'm bricking myself and he's as excited as a school girl,' he thought idly while shrugging off his sweater and tee and folding them up on the other chair. When Mike came back in he was followed by a heavily tattooed man that he introduced as 'Pike'. "You ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Jessi forced a smile and gritted his teeth. He flinched a bit as he felt something cold on his side,

"Oh sorry, that's just the alcohol wipes, to get you nice and sterile," Mike informed him, giving his shoulder a squeeze, "You feeling okay, you look pale?"

"Just nervous," Jessi croaked and Mike shot a knowing glance at Pike who was holding a clipboard. Mike wandered off to get some more things and Pike walked over.

"Read this and sign here please," he handed a pen and the board to Jessi who tried to sign as legibly as he could but his hands were shaking, it wasn't until after he'd scrawled his name he realised he hadn't read it. Oh well.

"Sorry, it looks a little like my signature," he apologised and the man shrugged.

"It'll do. You got the rest of the cash?"

"Yep," Jessi said taken off guard, he'd completely forgotten about the money and he groped in his back pocket, pulling out an envelop which he handed to the man.

"Right, are we set?" Mike asked, straddling the chair next to Jessi. Again sitting so close Jessi could feel the heat radiating off him. Jessi didn't trust his voice so he nodded.

"You're doing it freehand?" Pike queried, eyebrow raised.

"Of course," Mike grinned. "Is there any other way?" The other guy looked a little uneasy but shrugged it off. The next thing Jessi knew he could hear a buzzing and he felt a pressure on his side, not a painful pressure more like somebody dragging a nail over his skin.

A few hours later, Jessi had decided that it was definitely painful. The outline had been done hours before but the filling in was starting to hurt so much Jessi was feeling nauseous again.

"I'm going to lock up man," Pike announced, clearly happy enough to leave his charge for a few minutes now that he had seen first hand that the other man had more talent than he had himself, Mike nodded and Pike left the room.

"How late is it?" Jessi enquired through gritted teeth.

"After eight, you okay? If you need a break just say," he offered.

"Just get it over with," Jessi urged, taking a slow breath. Mike had warned him against talking and asked him to keep his breathing even whilst he worked so that there were no jagged movements, Jessi wasn't sure if that was still necessary with the block colouring but he didn't want to take any chances of being told off by Mike.

"What are you doing later?" Mike asked. Jessi recognised a distraction technique when he saw one so he assumed he must look like he wasn't holding it together so well anymore.

"Going home," Jessi murmured, wincing as he felt a prickle of pain.

"You're going to need to eat," Mike informed him.

"I plan on it," Jessi replied, realising after that he may have said it a bit too sharply.

"Want to get something together?" Jessi didn't know how to respond at first, his first thoughts flew to Josh and how he'd react, but then the logical part of his brain reminded him that he and Josh were no longer together.

"Okay," he agreed, deciding that getting something to eat with a friend was a marginally better option than going home alone.

Eventually after what seemed like another eternity Jessi was admiring his new tattoo in the mirror, he'd expected it to look red but even though Mike had wiped it down (very lightly because it was hurting like mad) it was still covered in black ink smudges and streaks of red.

"It's amazing," Jessi smiled, a little too tired and sore to be any more enthusiastic even though he thought it looked incredible. Mike was beaming from ear to ear and Pike was looking suitably impressed bordering on very bored.

"Right, I'm out," he announced. "You lock up," and he tossed the keys to Mike who rolled his eyes.

"So, what do you fancy?" he asked as he started clearing everything away, Jessi didn't answer just kept staring at himself in the mirror, Mike came up behind him after a few minutes. "It does look good," he grinned.

"I don't know."

"You don't like it?" Mike's eyes widened.

"No," Jessi smiled. "I don't know what I want to eat," Mike looked relieved.

"Well," he smiled, looping his arms gently around Jessi's waist "whatever you want. My treat."

Josh glanced at the clock, it wasn't even eleven yet. He sighed glancing around, he was at a house party, he was also guest of honour as it was Evie that was throwing it, but considering she'd personally invited him he'd barely seen her all night. His friends had dispersed, intent on either getting laid or drunk. Josh wasn't in the mood for either. He took a swig of his punch, a drink that he was highly suspicious of and thus was only on his first cup, and closed his eyes.

"Glad you could come." Evie sat down next to him, her dark hair in ringlets falling over her shoulders.

"Wouldn't miss it," Josh attempted a grin but her close proximity was making him uncomfortable, and not in the good way that girls this hot used to make him.

"You like the punch?" she eased his cup out of his hand and took a sip, he watched her with his eyes but didn't move any other muscle, then after a beat he gave her a coy nod. She placed the cup on the table in front of them, keeping eye contact with him, then leaned in slowly and her lips met his.

Josh felt her tongue on his lips before he could really decide how he felt about the situation, his kissed back on auto-pilot trying to figure it out. His hand looped around her neck instinctively and he felt her straddle his lap.

'What are you doing?' his mind quizzed him but he really didn't know. Evie was hot, undeniably so, she seemed sweet which was a trait lacking in most of the girls he'd met and one he coveted. But even though he was kissing her back he felt very little. There was no adrenaline pumping through his veins, the world didn't faze away in a haze and there was absolutely no desire to escalate the situation further.

Feeling the couch move, Evie pulled away but remained straddling Josh.

"Look at you two," a gruff voice announced triumphantly from next to them.

"Thanks for the newsflash Matt," Josh rolled his eyes, throwing what he hoped to be an apologetic look to Evie. Josh didn't really know where he and Matt stood on the friendship scale anymore after he'd broken the other boys nose, Matt was acting like nothing had happened and Josh not wanting to make waves had followed his example.

"Seriously man," he continued enthusiastically "it's nice to see you with another girl, it's about time you got over whats-her-face…" he paused, "Kerry." Josh was taken aback, he hadn't thought about Kerry in months. Was that what everybody had convinced themselves he was doing last year? Acting weird because he was still hung up on his ex? He tried not to notice the irony in the fact that he was acting normal to try and disguise the fact that he was still hung up on his ex, just not the ex that they knew about.

"Yeah," Josh said, entirely at a loss of what to think or how to reply, he saw Evie frown and he smiled at her. "Would you excuse me for a minute, I need to take a piss," he shrugged and she nodded.

"Of course, but don't be long. I have big plans for us tonight," she instructed jumping off him, Josh gulped and nodded in what he hoped was an eager way and then he practically bolted upstairs taking each step two at a time. He was still trying to figure out how he could get out of this when he got to the bathroom. He pounded on the door and when he got no answer he tried the handle. Locked.

"Hurry up in there!" he shouted through the thick wood, he leaned against the wall next to the bathroom and ran a hand through his hair. After standing there for a few minutes Josh tried pounding on the door again but there was still no answer. "Is anybody even in there?" he asked. Nothing. He looked up and down the length of the door debating what to do next when he heard a muffled sob come from the other side. "Are you okay?" he shouted again, looking up and down the corridor to see if there was anybody else around better suited to dealing with a crying person. 'Nobody,' he thought, 'great'. He knocked again. "Listen, I can't help out here," he sighed.

"You can't help at all," the voice choked back.

"Tabby?" Josh frowned, "Is that you?"

"Shut up," she hissed.

"If you open the door I won't have to shout." A couple of people walking past eyed him and the door, he smiled and they went downstairs, no doubt thinking he was the reason she was in there. He heard a click and he opened the door, closing it again behind him.

Tabitha was curled up in a corner, head resting on her knees, tissues surrounding her on the floor. Her eyes were swollen and red, cheeks streaked with mascara she didn't look at him. He took a step forward but wasn't used to situations like this so he didn't really know how to handle it.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothing you'd understand," she started sobbing again and Josh hovered awkwardly by the door, not having a clue what to say or do.

"Thank was nice" Jessi stated, standing outside the pizza parlour they'd exited a few moments before.

"Glad you liked it," Mike smiled warmly.

"I did," Jessi reaffirmed, unsure how to proceed.

"I hope you won't mind coming back to the studio in a few days, have some pictures taken of that piece of art on your side," Mike winked. Jessi was unsure whether that was pride or arrogance coming through.

"You live far from here?" the older man asked, taking a step forward.

"Not too far," Jessi shook his head, for the first time wondering how he was going to get home. He had no money for a cab and walking all the way home at this time of night didn't sound appealing. Inwardly he cursed at himself for not planning this out better in advance. Mike took another step forward and Jessi stopped thinking, he looked up at him with wide eyes and it occurred to him for the first time that this whole situation might have construed a date. Mike licked his lips and smirked.

"I could walk you home," Jessi felt his head shaking 'no' before he registered himself doing it, he guessed it was the right answer because less than a moment later he felt Mike's lips on his. The situation blew his mind, here he was standing on a public street, kissing a super attractive older guy who was not only interested in him but perusing him. Jessi kissed back for a few moments but then pulled away, conscious that he didn't want to be seen kissing another guy by anybody from school. "What's up?" Mike asked huskily.

"Nothing it's just…" Jessi indicated to the street, a few people had glanced at them but nobody stuck around, everybody was too busy with their own lives.

"Want to go somewhere more private?" Mike raised an eyebrow, Jessi nodded. "Good," he kissed him again, reaching behind him and unlocking the door that Jessi was leaning on. Jessi almost kicked himself, how the hell had he forgotten that Mike lived above the Pizza Shop on 33rd Avenue. Mike grinned and Jessi realised that he'd planned this.

"So was this your plan all along?" Jessi asked, licking his lips, still standing in the doorway, Mike shrugged.

"Only from about halfway through," he pulled Jessi upstairs by the hand, "You can't blame me, five hours of being that close to you," he turned at the top and pulled Jessi to him, "it was driving me crazy." Jessi smirked and then for the first time he leaned in and kissed Mike, he let his hands run underneath the front of the other man's shirt, feeling the taut, smooth stomach beneath his fingers.

"Let's see how crazy I can drive you now then," Jessi purred, Mike's breathing hitched and with a growl he pulled the other boy straight into the bedroom.

Josh had carefully sat down next to Tabby, legs crossed but hadn't managed to get any details out of her. In fact he was starting to wonder if she'd forgotten he was there.

"Tab," he tried, her head shot up and looked straight at him. It shocked him how young she looked, her make-up all washed away.

"It's over Josh," she spluttered.

"What's over?" he was trying to put on his best supportive voice.

"My life," she whimpered.

"Whatever it is, it can't be that bad," Josh shrugged, "have you been drinking?" This question caused her to start sobbing again and Josh placed a hand on her back in what he hoped was a reassuring way. He'd never seen Tabitha vulnerable before, she was always the bully, always composed and always in complete control of herself and usually the people around her.

Eventually she shook her head, "Nope. I thought about that."

Thoroughly confused Josh hadn't a clue how to do this, the only time he'd seen a woman cry was the time he'd been forced to sit through Titanic with his mom and sister.

"If you don't tell me what's up Tab, I can't help."

"I told you," she spat, "you can't help me!"

"Do you want me to go and find somebody?" he was silently praying she'd say yes and release him from his sense of obligation.

"No!" She said desperately.

"Okay, okay," Josh held his hands up in mock surrender, but she didn't smile, or react in any other way. After a few minutes of no speaking Josh contemplated leaving, but due to the fact that he wasn't entirely sure she wouldn't try to swallow some pills if left alone, he decided against it.

"We can't sit in here all night, Tabitha," he said eventually standing to stretch his legs, he started to pace planning his next move.

"I can't go out there, everything hurts," she rubbed her eyes, "it just isn't fair."

"What hurts?" Josh frowned turning to face her, maybe that was it, maybe she was in psychical pain.

"It's all going to be over," she blubbered.

"Well it is senior year," he offered, "it can't last forever."

"That's not what I mean."

"Is it your grades? I can help with that, there are people who can help you."

"It's not my grades, dumbass," she hissed.

"Tabitha!" He shouted, his frustration finally bubbling over "I'm not going to stand here and take abuse from you. I'm trying to fucking help!"

"I'm pregnant!" she screamed back; Josh's jaw dropped.