AJ looked up at him, mouth filled with burger. “Mmf.”
Daniel took a moment to answer, momentarily distracted by the busy cafeteria. It was a fishbowl of a cafeteria, to be honest. The sounds would rebound off the walls, creating a jumbled mess of laughs, shouts, and voices. It was a comforting sound – the sound of rambunctious teenagers being rambunctious teenagers. There was an undertone of mischief to it all. And Daniel loved it.
AJ sat across from him. It’d been three days since Daniel had first annoyed the heck out of him, then proceeded to swear up and down that they’d become BFFs. Since then, not much had happened. Daniel had made a few more attempts for AJ’s friendship. AJ had responded mildly. The black haired boy had sent him a few strange looks, muttered a couple of curses, and completely ignored him some of the time, but at least now the sophomore was paying attention to him.
So Daniel grinned at his almost-kind-of-future friend. “So,” he said, nodding down the table, to where Becca was chatting animatedly to Michael. “When’s it gonna happen, then?” He was of course referring to the day when AJ would finally have the guts to ask the girl out. Daniel, as well as the rest of the school, was getting impatient.
AJ choked on his food. He grabbed his water bottle and gulped down three-quarters of it before turning to Daniel and wiping his mouth.
“Becca and Michael?!”
It was Daniel’s turn to choke, and he just barely managed to stop himself from spewing his mouthful of soda all over AJ. He opened his mouth, fully intending to inform the guy how stupid that was, but he stopped himself.
It wasn’t his fault, really. It was just too easy.
“Well, obviously,” he said, shooting a furtive glance at the “couple.” He realized what he was doing – tricking poor AJ into thinking Becca and Michael liked each other – was wrong and slightly evil, but Daniel just couldn’t resist. “Look at them, man. Totally and completely smitten.”
The black-haired boy shifted uncomfortably in his seat and Daniel had to bite back a smirk. “I know…probably next to nothing about that blond bimbo’s love life, but isn’t he involved with Hannah or something?”
Daniel snickered. “Not anymore, it looks like.” Oh, this was evil. But it was just too fun.
The poor kid’s expression flashed with panic, but as soon as it’d appeared, it was gone. “Well…she’s better off with him than James. I hate that creep,” he muttered under his breath, trailing off as he took another angry bite of his cheeseburger.
Daniel’s thoughts strayed to the infamous surfer/swimmer/heartbreaker known as James Schofield. He had to agree with AJ. James was indeed a creep.
“Was talking to Mikey the other day,” Daniel lied, nodding over to said quarterback/pretty boy/heart-throb/Daniel’s best friend. “Said he wanted to ask Becca out.” He waited with baited breath for AJ’s response. He was officially the worst almost-friend ever, and he was enjoying every moment of it.
If that did anything to scare AJ, the only visible sign he gave was a tightened fist. His knuckles turned paper-white.
“Did he say he liked her?” he asked.
Daniel laughed. “Well, asking her out if he didn’t like her would be a bit pointless, wouldn’t it?”
AJ gave him a serious look. The most serious he’d ever seen on the guy’s face. “But did he say it? I like the guy – trust him, too – but I don’t want to see her hurt again.”
He paused for a moment, feeling a little offended on behalf of his best friend. But he waved the curly-haired boy off, gesturing for him to listen to their conversation, which was working in his favor.
Michael was grinning at Becca. “So you’re coming?”
She nodded back at him eagerly. “Oh, I’d love to!”
Michael and Becca were talking about the football game the next night – the football game Michael would be the star of. Daniel prayed AJ didn’t know that.
So he let out a laugh, clapping AJ on the shoulder. “I ship it. Do you ship it, AJ? I ship it. Look at that. Adorable. True love right there.”
Terrible. He was terrible.
But this was hilarious.
“Right,” AJ said, standing up and abandoning his tray of food. He grabbed his bag and slung it over his shoulder, making like he was going to step out. “I gotta go. See you later.”
Snorting, Daniel reached up and pulled him back down, grinning at him. “Relax, bud,” he said, almost gently. “Mikey’s not in love with your girlfriend. Just listen – they were talking about the game tomorrow night. Pay attention, AJ.”
AJ’s dark blue eyes widened. He stared at Daniel helplessly, his expression a mixture of disbelief and confusion. “What -? Then why…?”
“I was trying to ask when YOU will happen,” Daniel replied, nodding eagerly at him. “Then you got excited about Mikey and Becca, and I was like what the heck. So! Back to the original question – when’re YOU going to happen?” he asked, gesturing to AJ and then to Becca, who was still deep in conversation with Michael. Presumably still about the football game
This time, AJ turned a deep shade of purple. Daniel caught him muttering a stream of profanities under his breath.
“Yikes,” Daniel said, giving him a mock scowl. “Jesus, AJ. Don’t talk about Becca like that. It was just a question.”
That made him pale, and without another word he’d taken off, walking much too quickly away from the table. It seemed clear to Daniel that he was intending to disappear into the crowd, though AJ should’ve known better.
So five minutes later, Daniel was leaning up against the locker beside AJ’s, waiting for the sophomore to show up. Grinning at him as he approached, Daniel said in explanation, “Come on, bud. I still haven’t gotten my answer.”
“What do you wanna hear, Daniel?” AJ twirled the combo on his lock furiously, his face still red. 19, 29, 39. Excellent. An easy combo to remember. “That we’ve been friends since we were seven? That there hasn’t been a day that’s gone by where I haven’t seen her, heard her voice? That I realized when I was fourteen that there couldn’t be a day like that or I’d go crazy?”
Daniel was getting excited now. This was adorable. “As sweet as all that is, my dear friend,” he said, “what I want you to say is that you’ll ask our dear little Becky out. Come on. What’re you afraid of? Both of you are completely head over heels for each other.”
AJ gave him a look as he slammed his books into his locker. “What fantasy world do you live in?”
His excitement was slowly draining away. This was the way of the world: a guy liked a girl. Said guy asked the girl out. Girl says yes or no. As a junior, Daniel knew this, but it was apparent that sophomores such as AJ didn’t. Sophomores such as AJ were still stuck in middle school.
“This one, buddy,” Daniel told him, wiggling his eyebrows at AJ. Throwing an arm around him, he said, “The one where Prince Charming asks Cinderella to the ball, gets married, have my godchildren, and live happily ever after.” As light as his tone was, he really was genuine. He loved making people laugh – making people happier than they’d been five seconds prior. He loved seeing people happy, and he knew that if AJ finally got the guts to ask this girl out, he’d be over the moon. Then maybe Daniel will have completed his goal, and made BFFs with him. Either way, it was a win-win situation.
The other boy was silent for a moment, and then he shut his locker closed with a small click. He glanced at Daniel out of the corner of his eyes.
“Why are you…doing this?” he asked finally. There was no malice in the question. AJ sounded like he genuinely wanted to know. “I mean, you only just started talking to me three days ago. Why do you care?”
Daniel blinked at him, and thought about it for a moment. AJ was right, after all. Daniel barely knew this kid. Sometimes, he still had to think to remember his last name. He’d blink confusedly at the name Ashley; the name Jackson meant next to nothing to him. But he did genuinely care. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was because of his tendency to try and fix people’s frowns, make the sky less cloudier. He wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t sure that it mattered either.
So Daniel settled for a shrug. “Dunno. I’m just a loving and caring friend,” he said, grinning stupidly and raising his eyebrows at AJ. He opened his arms, inviting him into a hug. He didn’t expect AJ to accept, but still – he wanted to see the look on his face. AJ had the funniest expressions sometimes.
He didn’t fail to disappoint. His trademark glower reappeared on his features, and he slung his backpack over his shoulder as he turned to go. “Forget everything I just said, okay?” he said, backing up. “I mean it, Daniel. If Becca finds out how – how I feel about her…I don’t know what I’ll do.”
He saw a blonde head and a flash of big brown eyes. Coming towards them.
Daniel looked back at AJ with wide eyes, shaking his head slightly and trying to will AJ to shut up. He didn’t get the memo.
“Yes,” the sophomore insisted, backing up even further towards Becca. She stood there, staring at AJ, her lips slightly parted. “Nothing. You can’t tell her anything about – what did I say? Going crazy without her? Doesn’t matter. I go crazy if I’m with her, too. So just keep your trap shut, okay?”
Daniel let out a breath and rubbed his temple, feeling a headache coming on. But really, what was the worst that could happen? AJ wasn’t bad looking, and neither was Becca. They’d been friends since as long as anyone could remember, and Daniel could swear up and down on his father’s grave that they both were totally and completely in love with each other.
This swearing, however, did not stop the headache.
“Alright, AJ,” he said, meeting Becca’s eyes behind him and giving her a soulful look. Don’t screw up. “Before you yell and point fingers, I tried to warn you.” Then he gestured behind AJ, and waited for the volcano to erupt.
AJ turned around. Becca looked up at him silently. Daniel swatted at a stray fly. The two of them were completely still as the bell rang and crowds began pouring out of classrooms and hallways. Becca and AJ seemed oblivious to it all.
After a moment, Daniel cleared his throat and glanced down at his watch. “Alright, lovebirds, let’s speed it up. I gotta get to class.”
Becca looked over at Daniel and smiled. “You go ahead. We’ll see you tomorrow.” Turning, she retreated down the hall, a silent invitation for AJ to follow her. He trailed after her like a lost puppy, and Daniel couldn’t help but let out a laugh.
“GOOD LUCK!” Daniel called after them. “AJ, DON’T SCREW UP. YOU EITHER, BECCA!”
And later that night, around nine-thirty, Daniel’s phone buzzed with the first text he’d ever gotten from the sophomore: