No, I'm not dead. I was just grounded for awhile, and I've been sitting on this for a bit, so... here ya go.

"So, let me get this straight." I sat on my bed holding my phone to my ear. Luke Kidman, a boy in my class who I'm pretty sure had never spoken three lines of dialogue to me, was on the other line. "You're in love with a mystery girl. And you somehow found out that I like Percy Lenning. So you're asking me to go on a date with you because you want to make said girl jealous?" I repeated incredulously.

Luke sighed. "Yeah, that sounds about right."

"But…why me? You're not really friends with Percy, are you?" I asked, racking my brain for the amount of times I had seen them together. Were they lab partners or something?

"I can blackmail you," he replied, and I could hear the grin in his voice.

"What if I don't care?" I challenged.

He gave an irritated sigh. "Just be ready for a date on Friday night. I'll pick you up at six." He hung up and I looked at the phone. Great.

Justine walked beside me as we made our way back to our neighborhood. "What are you doing tonight? A bunch of us, including Percy, are going to this concert thing. It's a showcase for a few new bands."

I groaned. The date. "I'd really love to, trust me, but I kind of have a date." I braced myself for the inevitable. Three… two… one…

Justine squealed excitedly. "Ohmigod! Ashley! You're going on a date? Who? Where? I want to know everything!"

I sighed. "It's with Luke." She gave me a confused look. "Luke Kidman," I elaborated.

"I didn't know you knew him?" she asked, still confused. "He's Percy's lab partner, right?"

"Apparently he figured out that I like Percy, so now I have to go out with him to make this other girl jealous or something."

"Sucks. Well, if you have to, I guess you might as well do it."

"Justine!"

"Well, hey! I'm just saying! Besides, you could suggest you two come to the concert and then you could ditch him."

I smirked. "What would I do without you?" I asked, poking her.

She shrugged grinning. "I am the best."

I rolled my eyes. "And so modest, too."

"You know it! Anyway, back to the concert-slash-date thing. We're gonna be there at about seven thirty."

"My date starts at six. I guess we'll grab a bite to eat and go there," I suggested. "See you later."

Justine grinned and waved. "See ya, chica!"

I checked my clock, which read 5:59 and checked the mirror one last time. If I was going to be seeing Percy, I wanted to look good, I reasoned. To me, this rationalized the skinny jeans, red pumps, and grey lace tank top I wore with my lucky necklace. My wavy, honey brown hair was tied up in low pigtails that I hoped Percy would think were as cute as I thought they were.

I heard a knock at the door and checked the clock again. 6:01. This guy was rudely on time – just another reason to hate him. "I'll get it!" I shouted downstairs to my parents. "I'm going out for a while, I'll be back before eleven," I reassured my mom, opening the door.

Luke actually looked pretty good. His dark brown hair was combed back, but it didn't do much good – it was falling in his eyes anyway. He wore an olive green button down shirt and dark blue jeans, and looked slightly nervous, as he wouldn't meet my eye. Another reason not to like him. I should keep a count. That was two already.

I closed the door behind me and folded my arms. "Alright, what's the deal?" I demanded.

He looked confused. "What deal?"

"Who's this mystery girl you want to seduce, why in the world did you ask me to help, and most importantly, how did you find out I like Percy?"

Luke smirked. "So, why I'm blackmailing you is relatively unimportant in comparison to your not-so-secret crush?"

I scowled. Reason #3: he's snarky as hell. "Shut up," I snapped. "Just tell me what we're doing tonight."

His smirk vanished to be replaced by uncertainty. "Well…"

"You hadn't thought ahead that far. Nice. Alright, how 'bout we go out to dinner then go to this band showcase this I was going to go to before you so rudely stole my time?" I asked, quirking an eyebrow.

He visibly relaxed. "That sounds great," he replied, smiling at me softly.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. "Right, well, let's get going. The band thing starts at seven thirty, so…"

He nodded, and held his arm out in the direction of his car. "Ladies first," he said mockingly. I scowled again.

To his credit, Luke did take me to Olive Garden. To his discredit, he hogged the breadsticks. "I'm the one who's blackmailing you, remember?" he chided. "When you hold something over my head, you can have the breadsticks." I gladly added that as number four of why I hated him. The list was getting longer than I had imagined, but by the end of the night, I would hopefully be with Percy, so it was bearable.

When the food arrived, he didn't do anything particularly impolite, which I was surprised about. "So, Ashley, how are you finding our date so far?"

"I hate it," I said without missing a beat, and went back to my food. I could have sworn he looked disappointed, but I didn't really care – pasta and cheese pretty much cure everything.

"You look pretty tonight," he said in a different tone, as if he was actually shy.

I blushed lightly. "Um, thanks. You… look pretty nice too," I admitted.

"Thanks."

That surprised me. "What, no smug reply?" I shot back, and immediately regretted it. He looked a bit hurt. I looked down. "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that."

"No, no. I understand. I have been kind of a jerk so far. I'm the one who should be sorry." He lifted his head and met his sorrowful green eyes with mine.

I laughed, and he looked positively baffled. "Um…."

"I'm sorry, you just looked so much like a sad puppy. It was hard not to laugh."

A smile tugged on the corner of his lips. "What, sad puppies are funny or something?" he joked.

"Well, not normally. I might just be willing to pet you, though, Mr. Sad Puppy." I reached over and patted his head.

He chuckled. "That's my name now, huh?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. Where's the nearest pet shop? I need a leash." I smiled, picturing the slightly odd image of him being a puppy, ears flopping in his face, green eyes bright against brown fur.

He gazed at me softly. "This is why I lo-" he blushed and cut himself off abruptly.

"Huh?"

"Nothing."

"You said something."

"No," he insisted.

"Don't be stupid, of course you did," I replied.

"Maybe I'll tell you later," he said evasively. I guess that was #6 – avoiding questions unnecessarily.

I rolled my eyes. "Whatever." We ate the rest of our meals in comfortable silence.

I checked the clock near the end of our meal. It was 7:10.

"You wanna get going?" Luke asked, weirdly reading my thoughts or something.

I nodded. "Sure. This was good, thanks."

He looked elated. "I'm glad you liked it."

I giggled. "You really are just like a little puppy."

"Yeah, but you're way cuter than I am." His eyes shot open immediately as if he hadn't meant to say that. "Um… I mean…

I blushed and looked away. "Thank you."

"R-right." He glanced around nervously, slapped thirty-four dollars on the table, and practically ran outside.

I chased after him. "Luke, wait up. What's wrong?"

"Um… what makes you think anything's wrong?"

Okay, so he couldn't act. My face softened. "You left an eleven dollar tip. She wasn't that great a waitress."

Luke turned completely red. "We should go to that thing you were talking about." He looked around as if expecting to see a neon sign advertising it.

I sighed. "Alright."

At the showcase, I got out of the car and looked around discreetly for Justine and Percy, or someone else I knew. Luke joined me in about a second, though, so I didn't have much time. "What's going on?" he asked, looking around as well.

"Nothing!" I answered quickly. "I'm going to get some… sodas or something." I hurried away, not seeing the wounded look on his face.

I weaved through the crowd, looking for familiar faces, when I collided with something – or rather, someone. "Hey! Watch where you're- oh, hi Ashley!"

"Justine! There you are!"

"So, how's your 'date'?" she asked, using air quotes.

"Not terrible, actually." She gave me a look. "What? He's really nice, and he took me to Olive Garden…"

"But he blackmailed you into it."

Crap. She had a point. "I don't know, he's just… sweet."

"Oh, no. No, no, no, no."

"What?"

"You're getting that look."

"What look?"

"The look you get when we talk about Percy. The Shy-Schoolgirl-With-a-Crush look."

I scoffed. "Don't be stupid. I didn't have that look."

"You practically invented that look," she replied.

"Did not!"

"Did so!"

"Did-"

"Am I interrupting something?" a familiar deep voice asked, tone laced with amusement.

"Percy! No, nothing. Justine's just being stubborn, as usual."

He smirked. "Looks like you were being kind of adamant, too."

So what? "So what?"

He chuckled, and for an odd second I compared it to Luke's. I definitely liked Luke's better. "Just saying. So, you two want to get some seats? Delia got a few up by the front, but she doesn't think she can hold them for very long."

Justine nodded enthusiastically and looked at me expectantly, but my smile faltered. She elbowed me. "Ashley!" she hissed.

"Y-yeah, sure," I agreed, sending one last look over my shoulder. The plan from the start was to ditch this guy! What was my problem? He had been a jerk, blackmailing me, being rude, sarcastic, and snarky, taking me out to eat, paying me sweet compliments… why was I ditching him again? Oh yeah, the blackmail. And Percy. Can't forget Percy.

Speaking of Percy, what was he carrying? "Um, hey, Percy, is that… beer?"

He grinned mischievously and held up a six pack. "Sure is." I shot a look over to Justine, and she looked panicked. Both of her mother and brother were both alcoholics, I knew, and being around any type of alcohol brought back difficult memories.

"I really don't think…" my voice faltered.

"What, are you afraid of a little alcohol?" he challenged. I raised my eyebrow, confused. Where had this side of Percy come from?

Clearly, he took my expression the wrong way, and he shoved a beer into my hands. "Drink, you'll feel better."

I looked down at it. "No thanks," I refused through gritted teeth. I knew that Justine was incredibly tense next to me, looking at the beer like it was a gun.

"What?" he asked, clearly amused.

"No. I don't want any."

"Don't be such a good little girl all the time. Cut loose. Enjoy yourself."

I threw it back at him and he scowled as it hit his chest. "Hey, what-"

I cut him off as I pushed through the crowd. Where was Luke? He had to be here somewhere. I escaped the throngs of people and made it out to the parking lot, where Luke was heading back to his car, and, if I wasn't mistaken, he looked completely crestfallen.

"Luke!" I called, and he stopped dead.

"Ashley?" he asked dejectedly, turning to look at me.

"Who else?"

"Look, I… go back to your friends. You invited me here because of them, right? I mean, I did blackmail you, and-"

"I need your help!" I said, cutting him off. I grabbed his hand and led him back through the crowd to the now more-of-a-jerk-than-Luke Percy and Justine.

"What do you need my help with?" he called over the first band tuning.

"Substance control," I replied, losing my grip on his hand as a cluster of thirteen-year-old boys crowded us. I felt hands on my shoulders and turned to see Luke looking ahead angrily. I followed his eyes and saw Justine, beer in her hands, and being prompted by Percy to drink a little.

"Son of a bitch," I muttered and ran over to her.

Luke followed, and decked Percy. I could have sworn I heard him say something along the lines of "Stay away from her," but I wasn't sure. Percy raised his eyebrow and felt his jaw, but staggered away without anything further.

I hugged Justine, who was now trembling, and looked at Luke in thanks. The anger was still burning in his eyes, but he softened as he looked at me. He nodded, and without so much as a "see you," turned and disappeared in the crowd.

I looked after where he had left for a while, hoping he would come back, but I definitely didn't want to leave Justine.

I checked the caller ID on my phone and pressed send on the most recent number. It rang a few times, and a tentative voice picked up. "Hello?" Luke asked.

"It's Ashley," I replied. "I just wanted to thank you. You know, for earlier."

"Oh." He sounded disappointed. "You're welcome. Um… bye, I guess."

"No, wait!" I said, and he paused.

"What?"

"Why did you leave?" I asked, fiddling with a little toy dinosaur on my bedside table.

"Why?" he repeated.

"Yeah. I mean, you punched Percy for Justine, so thank you for that, but then you just left."

He sighed and I think I heard him say, "For Justine… right." He put his mouth pack to the phone. "Well, you were with your friends. Besides… you weren't planning to stay with me, were you?"

I felt a pang. "Not at first," I admitted. "But… I don't know. I thought about it, and I kinda was going to ask you on another date."

I heard a long pause and looked at the phone. It hadn't disconnected, but... "Luke?" I asked.

"I'd love to," he choked.

"Are you okay? You sound kinda… dying."

"I'm excellent, trust me. Is it possible for you to meet me at the park tomorrow?"

"I… yeah, I think so, sure. Maybe at, like, four?"

"Make it noon."

I raised my eyebrow. "I don't get up until eleven thirty on Saturdays. I'll be there at one."

"Deal. See you!" he said, then hung up.

I sighed. Did I really just make another date with him?

For some reason, I had actually fussed about what to wear today. I ended up just going with a floral tank top and capris with ballet flats, but still. This is the guy who blackmailed me, I reminded myself. The stuck up idiot who decked Percy and took me to Olive Garden and paid me the first sincere compliments I've gotten in a while… oh, crap. I was sure I was blushing by this point, and Luke chose this exact moment to walk up to me.

"Hi, Ashley," he greeted, and I noticed that while semi-formal attire did look pretty good on him, it had nothing on a simple, slightly form-fitting tee shirt and jeans. I immediately decided that I liked his hair better this way, too, loose and slightly wavy, falling in his face adorably.

I did not just describe Luke Kidman as adorable.

Even though he was. Adorable, I mean. And deliciously so.

Crap.

"Ashley?" the object of my newfound and somewhat unfortunate affection asked, and for a minute I looked up at him blankly.

"Yeah?" I replied stupidly.

He smiled lopsidedly. "Were you... just checking me out?"

"No!"

"I think you were."

"I was sooo not!"

"Yes, you were."

"Stupid arrogant jerk," I muttered, and he laughed.

"Anyway, I did have a reason for suggesting we come here," he continued. "I figured this was the best place where we could talk and be somewhat alone." He reddened and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

Alright, he's adorable. I smiled. "Okay, what did you want to talk about?"

"Well, actually…" he seemed unable to meet my eyes, but was clearly blushing harder than he had been a second ago. "Um… Ilikeyou."

I blinked. "Wh-"

"Never mind! You know what, just forget it! Forget allll about it!" He laughed nervously and tried to get up.

I grabbed his hand. "Wait a minute. You like… me?" I asked, somewhat bewildered.

Luke stared at me, mid-stand, mortified, and slowly sat back down. "Yeah. Um, I actually really like you a lot, Ashley. You've never noticed me, I know, but I watch you a lot – that's not as creepy as it sounds – and you're just… I don't know. You're always so sweet, pretty without all your makeup, and I just really admire you for being able to say what's on your mind all the time." He looked down at his lap. "I know this is sudden, so I'm sorry, but-"

"So, the whole date was a lie?"

He looked at me, panicked. "No! I-I mean, I did like a mystery girl, you just… didn't know it was you, and…" He trailed off, looking downtrodden.

"So you came up with a semi-lie and hoped I'd go along with it," I concluded.

"Uh… yeah." He looked down guiltily.

"How did you know I liked Percy?"

"Well, as I said, I watched you. He's my lab partner, you know. I figured it out on my own. When he was talking about going to that concert, I hooked him up with the beer and… I guess screwed us completely over."

"Why would you do that, though? That's a little far to go even for someone you like."

He sighed, and closed his eyes. "I know. I know, but I was jealous of that jerk. He doesn't deserve you. Hell, I don't either. Not after the complete asshole I was."

I stayed silent for a bit, staring at him. "I think you're right."

He jerked his head up, surprised. "Wha-"

"He doesn't deserve me, not after the way he acted to Justine." I cracked a small smile. "Of course, the fact that I'm purely awesome helps, too."

"Ashley, I'm really sorry. You know that, right? I regret everything. I never should have done anything like that. I'm a total jackass." Luke propped his elbows up on his knee and rested his forehead in his palms. "I am so, so sorry."

I laid a hand on his shoulder. "I forgive you," I replied softly. "Just don't cry on me. I'm not good with that," I joked.

He looked up at my hand and smiled grimly at me. "Can we start over?" he asked quietly, a glimmer of desperation in his eye.

"I think we're off to a pretty good start as it is," I replied, letting my hand slide off him.

He sat up and moved slightly closer. "How good?"

I swallowed. "Um, pretty… pretty good." Closer.

His jade eyes bored into my blue ones like lasers. "How good is pretty good?"

"Good enough." A little closer.

"Good enough… to be your friend?" He tilted his head ever so slightly.

"I... um. Yes?" His eyes flickered to my lips and back up, regaining their burning intensity.

"Good enough to maybe...?" His warm hand enclosed my own, and I felt his breath hot on my cheek. I squeezed my eyes shut and a pair of soft lips brushed the corner of my mouth. However clichéd, a bolt of electricity shot through my face, resulting in a rather impressive blush.

He pulled away, cupping my cheek with his other hand, and I nodded weakly. "I think so."

He grinned and pulled me into a crushing hug. "Ashley?" he murmured beside my ear.

"Yeah?" I asked, stifled from the lack of oxygen.

"You should wear pigtails more often."