Part 2: Reconnaissance

By Camisha & Estee

 

| Authors’ Note | Part 1: Behind Enemy Lines | Reconnaissance Special Features |





Diversionary Tactics

 

Hamilton couldn’t stop himself from glancing over at his roommate every thirty seconds or so. Several times, he caught himself staring. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to notice. She. He still couldn’t believe it. Jake was a girl.

 

He looked over at her again. She had stopped typing on her computer and was fingering her lip. A girl he had punched in the face, he reminded himself in disgust. It was a miracle she was still speaking to him. But she was. He noted that the bag of ice she had set down next to the keyboard had become a bag of water.

 

“Hey, do you want me to go get you some more ice?”

 

“Nah, don’t bother. I was getting tired of holding it up to my face anyway. Besides, it’s feeling much better now.”

 

He figured she was lying and it still hurt like hell—his knuckles did. He kept his eyes on her as she went back to typing. He was staring again. He needed to get out of the room for a few minutes.

 

“Okay, then I think I’m gonna grab a shower.”

 

“’Kay,” she answered absently.

 

He grabbed some soap and a towel and left the room. A million questions raced through his head as he made his way to the bathroom. Why was she doing this? Who here knew about her secret? Scout had to know and probably Bella, but did Will?

 

When he got to the bathroom door, he looked down at his hands and realized he’d left his pajama pants and T-shirt back in the room. And there was no way he was putting the dirty, damp, chemical-splattered, blood-stained clothes he was currently wearing back on after his shower.

 

“Shit,” he muttered as he turned back.

 

Before he took the first step, however, something occurred to him. Jake probably had been checking him out that other time . . . and he wanted to know if she would do it again. He was positive Jake was a girl, but he needed to know where she was coming from. Was she even into guys?  Maybe it was all some Boys Don’t Cry gender identity crisis. Maybe Scout’s really a girl too and they’re secret lovers, he mused as he walked in the bathroom and pulled off his shirt.

 

He glanced in the mirror, wondering if he was even her type. For some reason, he sort of hoped so. He grinned as he stepped into the shower. He’d find out soon enough.

 

Meanwhile, back in their room, Jake hurried to change out of her damp clothes and into her pajamas. She sat back down at her computer, but she couldn’t concentrate on her assignment. She looked over at the completely melted bag of ice, laughing at how Hamilton spilt it all over both of them. If things had been different, it would have been something out of a cheesy romantic comedy.

 

But they weren’t different, she reminded herself. She couldn’t let her guard down now just because she liked the feeling of his hand resting against her face, couldn’t let a silly little crush make her forget the entirely different feeling earlier that day when his knuckles had connected with her jaw. He was still to be considered dangerous.

 

But she just couldn’t seem to think of him that way. His apology had been so sincere. Was she becoming a cliché? One of those girls that allows her boyfriend to beat up on her because she’s convinced he’s not really such a bad guy on the inside? But she was not Hamilton’s girlfriend. He didn’t even know she was a girl, didn’t even realize he’d punched a girl.

 

And he wasn’t going to know. Even if she accepted his apologies, the real threat Hamilton posed wasn’t physical. If she told him the truth, he could go straight to his mom. She would get kicked out. She would lose everything. She could not risk it.

 

Before the decision had solidified in her mind, he walked in, chasing all other thoughts from her head. Her jaw almost dropped. It was only the second time he’d returned from the shower like this, with only a towel hanging low around his hips, his skin still flushed and glistening with water droplets. Clearly, she was not yet immune to the sight. He didn’t seem to notice the way she was staring as he opened his closet and tossed his dirty clothes inside, so she didn’t bother stopping her eyes from following the path of one particular droplet that slipped from a strand of hair and slid slowly along the nape of his neck, slithering its way down the smooth bronzed muscles of his back to the edge of the towel. Jacqueline was mesmerized.

 

Hamilton pulled out a pair of boxers from the top drawer of his dresser. He hesitated a moment. He could feel the heat of her eyes on his back and it was making him blush, though he pretended to be oblivious. How far did he plan to take this? He pulled the boxers on under the towel before unwrapping it from his hips. He knew his hair was still wet, practically dripping, but he tossed the towel into the closet with the rest of his laundry.

 

Dying to see her reaction, he finally glanced over at her. She quickly snapped out of her trance and looked back at her computer screen, her face turning bright red.

 

“So, we’re cool, right?” Hamilton asked, forcing her to look up at him again.

 

She nodded, though with all the layers she was wearing to bed and her flushed cheeks, “cool” wasn’t exactly the adjective she would have chosen. She was so focused on pretending not to have been looking, that she didn’t catch the small but satisfied smile on Hamilton’s lips.

 

Not only did Jake find him attractive, Hamilton had discovered, but messing with her head was the most fun he’d had in a long, long time. He went to bed without putting a shirt on. 

 

 

Psychological Warfare

 

The following afternoon after class, Hamilton settled on his bed to start reading the Shakespeare sonnets Finn had assigned. He tried to focus, but he couldn’t help glancing up at Jake every couple of minutes. He studied her movements, looking for a crack in her disguise. He had to admit she was good. And she seemed to have completely regained her composure around him. What could he do to throw her off again?

 

She had been tidying up, but now she sat down at her desk with her psychology book. He waited until he could tell she was concentrating before he spoke.

 

“Hey, Jacqueline,” he asked casually, “could you toss me that red notebook sitting on my desk?”

 

She started to reach for the notebook, but then turned abruptly to look at him.

 

“Wait a minute. What did you just say?”

 

He slowly lowered his book and looked at her, his face betraying nothing.

 

“That red notebook. Could you toss it to me?”

 

“Yeah, okay.” Jake eyed him suspiciously as she picked up the notebook and pitched it over to him. “But what did you just call me?”

 

“Call you? Jake, I guess. What else would I call you?” Hamilton was the very picture of innocent confusion.

 

“I don’t know,” Jake conceded, shaking her head. She decided she must have been losing her mind. She could have sworn he called her Jacqueline.

 

Hamilton put the book back in front of his face to conceal his grin.

 

Unnerved, Jacqueline decided any further attempts to study with Hamilton in the room would be futile. In fact, maybe it was time for a study break. She stood up abruptly and headed for the door.

 

“Where are you going?” Hamilton asked smoothly as he too stood up.

 

“The common room.”

 

“To study? I’ll go.” He held up the book of sonnets. “I have to get this reading done.”

 

“Study break, actually,” she said, hoping he would take the hint.

 

“That’ll work too.” He smiled and tossed the book down, not about to let her escape.

 

He caught the look of death, but ignored it. “GameCube, right?”

 

“Not my system of choice, but yes,” she said through clenched teeth.

 

“Oh . . . so . . . you’re into Playstation then?”

 

She appreciated his extra effort. She was glad he had come around and was acting like a normal friend. She was only annoyed by her own inability to keep it together when he was around. Last night had been one thing, but not being able to study just because he was in the same room, fully dressed, was absolutely absurd. Imaging that he’d called her Jacqueline was utterly unacceptable. She had to get her head together.

 

“Not into Playstation either?” he asked when she didn’t answer.

 

“No, I’m totally into Playstation,” she admitted, “but what can you do? Come on, the GameCube awaits.”

 

She stepped through the doorway, nodding for him to follow. He smiled, grateful for anything resembling an invitation, and hurried to catch up with her.

 

“Actually,” Hamilton said as they headed down the stairs, “we could always go hang out at my house instead.”

 

“Why?” she asked. Had she imagined the suggestive tone?

 

“Picture this,” he said, moving in front of her as they reached the bottom of the stairs. He spread his arms wide. “Sixty-four inches of digital color.”

 

“You’ve got a big TV?” she simplified.

 

And a Playstation. Plus the new X-Men game.”

 

She narrowed her eyes. He certainly knew how to appeal to her obsessions. She relented.

 

“Yeah, okay. Let’s do it.”

 

When they reached his house, Hamilton led her into the den. He gestured toward the bigscreen television and Playstation, proud to show off his equipment.

 

“All the games are over there,” he said indicating one of many cabinets at the bottom of a full bookshelf.

 

“How’d you get your dad to transform his library into your rec room?” Jake asked noting all the books.

 

“I can be extremely persuasive.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll bet . . . .” Jake muttered absently as she went over to check out his games. Like his taste in CDs, Jake definitely approved. She pulled out the X-Men game.

 

“This first,” she said tossing him the case.

 

“It’s already in. Come on.”

 

He turned things on as Jake took a seat on one end of the leather couch facing the television. Hamilton handed her the first player controller.

 

“You’re in charge,” he said, taking a seat on the other end of the couch.

 

A few hours later, she had actually proved him right, at least as far as video games went. After kicking his ass at X-Men, she had moved on to humiliate him in The Matrix.

 

“Maybe we should play a game that isn’t based on a movie,” Hamilton whined.

 

“Actually, X-Men is based on the comic,” Jake corrected.

 

He looked over at her, annoyed. Who did this girl think she was? Girl. He almost laughed out loud. He had been so focused on trying to beat her at the video games that he’d completely forgotten about the mind games he’d brought her there to play. But ulterior motives aside—and despite his poor showing—he’d been having a great time.

 

“Okay, we’d better get back. I really have to get that reading done,” Hamilton said as he stood up to leave.

 

“No hard feelings?” Jake asked, hoping he hadn’t taken the pounding personally. At least he didn’t know the ass-kicking had been delivered by a girl.

 

He smiled genuinely. “Of course not.”

 

Satisfied, she held out the controller. Belatedly remembering his mission, he made sure to let his hand brush hers as he took it from her. He pretended not to see how it made her face flush, and turned away before she could see his own red cheeks.

 

 

Torture

 

Twenty-four hours later, Hamilton was sitting in the room frustrated once again by the return of Jake’s composure. His return from the shower the previous evening hadn’t fazed her nearly as much as the night before. This morning, he’d waited until the last possible moment to put his shirt on before class, and she hadn’t even noticed. And now she was typing on her laptop and didn’t even seem to realize he was there. He didn’t dare call her Jacqueline again just yet, but he had to think of something.

 

“Hey, Jake?”

 

“Yeah?” She glanced over at him.

 

“Does it seem hot in here to you?” he asked, quickly pulling off his shirt while he knew she was still watching.

 

Well, it does now, Jake answered silently, not nearly as oblivious to Hamilton as he feared.

 

“Not particularly,” she said out loud, turning back to her computer.

 

“Do you mind if I open a window?” he asked.

 

“No.” Jake didn’t bother looking up again.

 

Hamilton opted to open the window right above her desk, leaning his bare torso between her and the laptop to do so.

 

For Christ’s sake, Jake thought, how much of this am I supposed to stand? Through sheer will power, she managed to keep her cool.

 

“What’re you doing?” Hamilton asked as he pulled back to stand over her shoulder.

 

“Selling your music collection on Ebay,” she said. “Stop hovering.”

 

“Seriously, are you busy?”

 

“I guess not. Why?”

 

Hamilton was still searching for that answer. He just knew he wanted to do something that would force her to pay attention to him.

 

“I . . . uh . . . wanted to know if you could . . . help me,” he stalled.

 

“Help you what?”

 

“Uh . . . work out.”

 

“Work out? Dude, I don’t think I’m exactly strong enough to spot you at the gym.”

 

“No, not at the gym. Here.”

 

Jake looked around at the relatively small room.


“Here? What are you going to do here?”

 

Hamilton racked his brain. “You know, um . . . sit-ups.”

 

“Sit-ups?” Jake repeated, confused. “And you want me to do what? Hold your feet?”

 

“Yes, exactly,” Hamilton seized on the idea, “hold my feet.”

 

Jake stared at him. Something was weird. Did guys even do that? Hold each other’s feet while doing sit-ups? She searched Hamilton’s face, but it was totally innocent. She supposed maybe they did.

 

“Please?” he asked and she could no longer resist.

 

“Sure, whatever.”

 

Hamilton lay back on the floor with his knees bent and placed his hands behind his head. Jake positioned herself standing above him with her feet covering the tops of his. She glanced briefly at the expanse of bare chest below her before deciding that was a bad idea. She quickly chose a spot on the wall in front of her and trained her eyes straight ahead. You can definitely get through this, she told herself. It’s like walking a tightrope—just don’t look down.

 

Hamilton began the sit-ups, but was well aware of her strategy and busy devising a counter-attack.

 

“Hey, Jake?”

 

She looked down automatically and immediately regretted it. Breath in, breath out.

 

“Yeah?” she said finally.

 

“Could you count for me?”

 

On what grounds could she refuse? She began watching and counting as his abdomen contracted, effortlessly hurtling his sculpted chest up, then easing it down. Up and down. Up and down.

 

“One . .  . Two . . . Three . . .”

 

She began to feel like she was working up more of a sweat than he was.

 

“Four . . . Five . . . Six . . .”

 

His smooth and rhythmic motions were lulling her into a sort of trance. She couldn’t control the direction of her thoughts.

 

“Seven . . . Eight . . . Nine . . .”

 

In her mind, she was running her hands over his warm skin, through the beads of sweat. Or maybe she was using her mouth, tracing the ridges of his muscles with her tongue—

 

“I think it would be better if you used your hands,” Hamilton said.

 

Her eyes snapped from his chest to his face. Had he somehow been reading her thoughts?

 

“Excuse me?” she asked.

 

“Could you use your hands?” he repeated, acting as if it were a natural request even though he just wanted her to come closer. “I’m kinda slipping here.”

 

She looked down at him in utter confusion for a moment before she really got it.

 

“You can get a better grip if you use your—“

 

“Hands. I got it,” she said, relieved that he obviously didn’t know what she had just been thinking. She knelt down on the floor in front of his feet and put one hand on each of them.

 

“Perfect,” Hamilton said, though her hands exerted less pressure than her feet, of course, and he would have actually been slipping more at that point if he had ever been slipping in the first place. He resumed the sit-ups.

 

She’d forgotten to start counting again and he decided to take the opportunity to ask her some questions, hoping the closer proximity had thrown her off balance. At the top of the next sit-up, he paused, noting that she was concentrating hard on watching his feet as she held them.

 

“So, why Rawely?” he asked. “I mean, if you’d been through six schools in three years, what made you decide to stay here?”

 

She looked up at him and considered the question, relieved to have something to concentrate on other than not concentrating on Hamilton’s abs.

 

“It’s like I said before. For me, Rawley is the right school, the right people, and the right version of myself . . . .” She would have said more, but she was distracted again as he did another sit-up.

 

“What was the former version of Jake like?” he asked as he studied her, trying to imagine the picture for himself.

 

She smiled. “Different.”

 

He found her smile enchanting at this close range.

 

“Longer hair? Less flannel?” he asked boldly.

 

She laughed. “Something like that.”

 

He slowly did another sit-up and tried to sound casual. “Were you dating anyone?”

 

“Occasionally,” she said.

 

“Yeah, me too. A lot of first dates,” he admitted. “I always took it to mean that I didn’t have the personality to back up . . . uh . . .”

 

“ The good looks?” she suggested.

 

He shrugged then went down again, but didn’t pull himself back up this time. He let his head rest against his hands and looked up at her. Good looks. She had said it. He couldn’t help smiling up at her.

 

“What?” she asked, suddenly feeling self-conscious, but unable to resist smiling back.

 

“Nothing, I was just wondering about . . . your type.”

 

She narrowed her eyes. What exactly was he insinuating?

 

He read her look. He had let the ambiguity slip out of his tone.

 

“You know, when it comes to the opposite sex. Do you have a type?” he amended.

 

She hesitated, releasing his feet and folding her arms in front of her as she sat back on her heels. Did she have a type? Scout’s words popped into her head: You’re obviously into pretty boys. She wondered how Hamilton would react to that answer.

 

“Me personally,” Hamilton offered, “I’m into brunettes.”

 

“Yeah . . . ditto,” Jake said slowly, unable to take her eyes from his, though she did lower her hands back to his feet.

 

Hamilton stared back for a few seconds, but then averted his eyes and did a few quick sit-ups in an attempt to chase away the butterflies that had suddenly appeared in his stomach. 

 

He appreciated the way she didn’t exactly lie to him. She could have made up anything. She could have said she was into big-breasted blondes in mini-skirts. Still, he wanted more. He wanted her to trust him with the whole truth. He wanted her to trust him.

 

For her part, Jake hated to give him half-truths, but at least she managed to avoid outright lies. She always answered his questions as honestly, if not as completely, as possible. And, at the moment, she was definitely into brunettes. She tried not to look down at him or the sweat beads that were forming on his chest and forehead.

 

 

Confidentiality

 

Her escape into the girls’ weekend with Bella could not have come soon enough.

 

“He’s driving me crazy,” Jake called from inside Bella’s bedroom.

 

Bella waited in the hall as Jake changed. A few minutes later, a transformed Jacqueline opened the door for inspection. She had selected from Bella’s closet a gray spaghetti-strap tank top and a miniskirt in a blue and gray tie-dye pattern. Her hair, still damp from a recent shower, hung down around her face.

 

“Fabulous,” Bella declared as she entered her room.

 

Bella laughed as she noticed Jake eyeing the make-up sitting on her vanity.

 

“Help yourself,” she offered. “And when you finish with your face, there’s a new bottle of Barely Pink there with your name on it.”

 

“You’re the best,” Jake vowed as she sat down in front of the mirror and selected her favorite item: eyeliner.

 

“So,” Bella asked as she took a seat on the bed, “good crazy or bad crazy?”

 

“Uh . . .” Jake was unable to hide a smile.

 

“Uh huh, that’s what I thought.” Bella grinned. “You’re totally into him, right?”

 

“Have I ever told you that these weekends are absolutely therapeutic?” Jake finished applying a heavy dose of black above and below her eyes and moved on to lipstick.

 

“You tell me every time.” Bella rolled her eyes. “Don’t try to dodge the question.”

 

The question. Jake didn’t say anything as she looked down at the tube of lipstick, then up at her face in the mirror. Bella watched as she ran her fingertips gently over her bottom lip.

 

“That looks a lot better,” Bella said encouragingly.

 

“It would be totally twisted to have a crush on a boy that punched you in the face, wouldn’t it?” Jake quipped, trying to make a joke of what Bella could see was a serious question.

 

“Well, normally, as your closest girl friend, I would strictly forbid such a thing, but considering the circumstances . . . it’s probably safe to give him another chance.”

 

“Not that I’m admitting that I actually have a crush on him,” Jake clarified.

 

“Oh, no, of course not.”

 

“And even if I do, it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just physical. I mean, objectively speaking, he’s hot. And he walks around our room half-naked all the time. What girl in my position wouldn’t be a little distracted? It’s only natural. I mean, it’s biological. It’s all about biology.”

 

“Or chemistry,” Bella laughed under her breath. She knew Jake must be really unnerved to be babbling like this. She wondered just whom her friend was trying to convince with that whole speech anyway.

 

She studied the image of Jacqueline in the mirror as she went back to applying the lipstick.  How could everyone be so easily fooled into believing she was a guy? Sure, Jake was definitely good at putting up a front of any kind, but this was ridiculous. And, how could Hamilton live with her and have no idea? He hadn’t seemed that oblivious when she met him. He’d actually read her better than she thought he would. Yet, like every other Rawley guy, he was convinced that this beautiful girl named Jacqueline was actually a boy named Jake.

 

“Guys are idiots,” she said aloud.

 

“Agreed,” Jake said as she plopped down on Bella’s bed.

 

“Speaking of, they had that detention today right?”

 

“Yeah. Ms. Bond did not take their flagrant disregard for lab safety lightly.”

 

Bella laughed. She hoped Scout and Hamilton were getting along now. Scout had told her that he made amends. She hoped it would last.

 

 

Intelligence Gathering

 

In the chemistry lab, where Will, Scout and Hamilton were serving detention, the latter was hoping the same thing. Hamilton both valued the new friendship on its own merit and considered it a vital resource for his new mission. He thought about conducting a subtle interrogation while the three of them washed and dried all the lab equipment, but he wasn’t sure if Will knew or not. If Will did know, Hamilton suspected Will would be quicker to catch on to what Hamilton was after. If Will didn’t know, then Scout would probably be more guarded around him.

 

He continued to deliberate as they watched the lab safety video for the third time (he’d tuned it out halfway through the first showing) and decided to get Scout alone before pumping him for information. 

 

When Mrs. Bond finally released them, he found his opportunity. Will jumped up and was halfway to the door before Scout and Hamilton were even out of their chairs.

 

“I have to go,” he said, “I was supposed to start my shift at seven. What time is it?”

 

“Seven forty-five,” Hamilton said. “You better hustle.”

 

“See you guys later,” Will called as he raced off down the hall.

 

Hamilton and Scout continued at a slower pace.

 

“So, got any big plans for the evening?” Scout asked.

 

“Not particularly. What about you? Going to see Bella? Isn’t Jake over there?”

 

“Yeah, but I’m not allowed. It’s kind of a g—“ Scout stopped. Why was he being so careless?

 

Hamilton waited patiently,conjuring up a look of confusion.

 

“God thing,” Scout finally came up with. “You know, Bible study. I’m not really into stuff like that.”

 

Hamilton had to laugh. Scout was horrible at keeping secrets and worse at lying.

 

“Okay, not really,” Scout admitted, realizing that Hamilton didn’t buy the story. “They’re just hanging out.”

 

“All evening?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Without you?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And that doesn’t, like, bother you?”

 

“What?” Scout asked.

 

“Bella and Jake being so close,” Hamilton said innocently.

 

“Oh. Well, not really.” Scout tried to be more cautious. “I mean, we’re all close. Jake actually helped get Bella and me together. They’re just friends.”

 

“So you trust Jake?”

 

“Of course. We’re friends.”

 

Hamilton felt a twinge of something like jealousy. He and Jake were supposed to be friends, too. And there was no way that Scout had opened up to Jake the way Hamilton had. Yet Scout was someone she allowed to know her: the real her.

 

“And Jake trusts you,” Hamilton said. It wasn’t a question.

 

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t he?”

 

“No reason . . . .” Hamilton searched for the right words. “It’s just . . . Jake’s kinda hard to read, you know?”

 

“Yeah, you could say that . . . .”

 

“And I can’t tell if he’s cool with me now or what. I mean, I apologized for hitting him and he hasn’t brought it up again . . . but I was just wondering if he’d said anything more about it . . .?”

 

“He really hasn’t,” Scout lied.

 

In reality, they’d had several talks on the whole issue. Jake insisted Hamilton was sorry and that she had nothing further to worry about. Scout agreed that Hamilton regretted his actions, but wasn’t big on the idea of him staying in Jake’s room. He still felt the whole situation was dangerous on more than one level.

 

“I just can’t help thinking he’s still keeping his distance from me . . . .” Hamilton admitted, thinking how weird it was to go around referring to this girl with masculine pronouns all the time. It was a wonder Scout didn’t make more obvious mistakes more often.

 

Scout considered Hamilton’s statement. In his opinion, Jake wasn’t keeping nearly as much distance from Hamilton as she should. Still, he had to admit, Jake’s instincts on the kind of guy Hamilton was seemed dead-on. Scout was impressed that Hamilton was still concerned about Jake’s feelings.

 

“You know, I’m sure Jake’s not holding a grudge,” Scout said at last. “He’s just a really private person, that’s all.”

 

“Yeah, I’ve noticed. You’ve known him since last summer, right?”

 

“Yeah, we were on the crew team together.”

 

“Jake rowed crew?” Hamilton tried to picture her rowing with a group of brawny guys.

 

“Coxswain,” Scout explained, reading the other boy’s frown.

 

“Oh, okay.” Hamilton nodded. “Anyway, how long did it take for him to, you know . . . open up to you?”

 

The conversation seemed a little odd and Scout wondered where it was headed, but couldn’t quite see any harm in answering honestly.

 

“Around Parents’ Weekend last summer, I guess. Jake’s mom decided to show at the last minute and he needed someone to help him . . . deal with her.”

 

Hamilton stifled a smile as he tried to imagine how they would have handled that situation. He felt somewhat relieved to think that Jake had revealed her secret to Scout under duress. He wondered if there was any way that he could orchestrate another visit by the Broadway actress.

 

“So that’s when you guys got so . . . close?”

 

“Yeah. I had a lot going on with my own father . . . and my sister. You could say the weekend was a bonding experience.”

 

“You have a sister?”

 

“Fortunately, no.”

 

There was obviously a story there and Hamilton was intrigued, especially by the implication that Scout’s relationship with his father might be less than perfect. But he was too excited by how much he was learning about Jake to abandon his original line of questioning.

 

“You know,” Hamilton began casually, “when I first saw you two together, I thought maybe you and Jake were . . . you know . . . .”

 

“You’re so off, Fleming.” Scout chuckled “You have no idea.”

 

Hamilton smiled. Actually, things were coming clearer all the time. There were just a couple points he needed to be sure of.

 

“Right. I mean, you’re obvious completely in love with Bella . . . .”

 

“Completely.”

 

“And Jake? Jake is also . . .” Hamilton chose his words carefully, “into members of the opposite sex?”

 

Definitely,” Scout affirmed with a trace of irony that was not lost on Hamilton.

 

“Definitely, huh? Anyone in particular that I should know about?”

 

Scout found something in Hamilton’s tone a little too suggestive.

 

“No. Why?”

 

Hamilton noticed Scout’s questioning look. He flashed a sheepish grin.

 

“Oh, uh, I was just thinking of setting him up with someone, that’s all.”

 

Scout snorted. “Setting up Jake? Bad idea. Trust me.”

 

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

 

“Listen, if you don’t have plans, we could hang out,” Scout said casually as they reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to their rooms.

 

Hamilton chuckled. “Jake told you about the Playstation, huh?”

 

“Maybe.” Scout grinned.

 

“Actually, there’s this thing I need to do, but I’ll stop by here after and we can head over to my house if you want. Unless you have something else—“

 

“Nope, I’ll be around.”

 

“Excellent.”

 

To seal the deal Hamilton offered his hand to Scout who gave him a modified handshake ending with a snap and a point. With that, he was off to his house. He had been there several days ago developing pictures in the downstairs bathroom, which he’d completely converted for use as a dark room. That’s where his camera and all its accessories were.

 

He made it in and out without parental intervention and even snagged his mother’s car keys, taking the time to write a short note saying he borrowed the car. He hurried out the door and headed for his destination: town.

 

 

Stakeout

 

“Okay,” Bella announced, jumping up off the edge of the bed, “I think it’s time.”

 

“Time for what?” Jake asked, wary.

 

“Time for the requisite pajama dancing.”

 

Jake groaned. “Do we have to?”

 

Yes, we have to. It’s a slumber party. And by slumber party law, we are required to dance around in our pajamas while lip-synching. No exceptions.”

 

“What if I’m not in the mood?”

 

“Then I am obligated, as hostess, to find the music that will put you in the mood.” Bella walked over to the stereo and started looking through her collection. “Let’s see here . . . . Oh, I know what you’ll like. How about . . . .”

 

Bella turned toward Jake with her hands clasped together in front of her chest in a pleading gesture. 

 

“. . . Hit Me, Baby . . . One More Time.”

 

“Fuck you,” Jake said through her laughter. “That is not funny.”

 

Bella just smiled.

 

“Besides, you so do not own that CD.”

 

Bella’s smile faded and she said nothing.

 

“Oh my god, you so do.”

 

“What? It’s Grace’s.”

 

“Yeah right.”

 

“Alright, forget that. I’ll find something else . . . . Okay, here we go. The Cardigans. Lovefool.”

 

“Shut up. You are, like, the worst girlfriend ever.”

 

“All right, all right. Getting awfully defensive, aren’t we?” Bella continued her search.

 

She flipped through several more cases, searching for the perfect music.

 

“Okay,” she announced at last, “this is it.”

 

She slipped a CD in and pressed play. She kept her back turned to Jake as she waited for the music to start.

 

Jake’s ears began to pick up the strains of a church organ. The organ music swelled to a crescendo and was abruptly replaced by the strumming of a guitar. Her back still to Jake, Bella swung her hips in time, then spun around with a jump and began singing along into an air-microphone.

 

“Well I guess it would be nice . . . if I could touch your body. I know not everybody has got a body like you. . . . . Mmmm . . . .”

 

Bella thrust the air-microphone towards Jake, who smiled and jumped up from the bed to take the next line.

 

“But I gotta think twice . . . before I give my heart away. And I know all the games you play . . . because I play them too . . . .”

 

Two girls dancing around in their pajamas, lip-synching George Michael’s “Faith” into air-microphones—those were the sight and sound that greeted Hamilton when he finally got himself into the tree and focused his zoom lens into Bella’s window.

 

He was glad that he didn’t have any film left; he wouldn’t have been able to resist snapping a picture, and he felt enough like a stalker already. Still, he figured spying was justified in this case, since he had no other way of finding out what Jacqueline actually looked like. But then, how to explain his desperate need to know what she looked like in the first place?

 

He smiled as he watched Jacqeuline jump onto the bed to continue the routine. Her hair free from its typical heavy dose of gel, fell loosely about her face, framing her features. He zoomed in as far as he could, focusing on those features. They were the same, but somehow different. A lock of hair had fallen over one eye and he longed to be able to reach out and brush it away. Would the strands be as soft against his fingertips as they looked?

 

Hamilton was unnerved by his own thoughts. He tried to focus. How was it that the same set of features managed to look so different on her now? Was it the carefree smile that lit her eyes and brought a soft glow to her face? Or was it make-up that created the radiance and made her eyes seem so big and her lashes so long? He couldn’t figure it out, but he knew she looked beautiful.

 

He let the camera stray downward slightly, the lens sliding slowly along the gentle curves of her body, which even rather loose pajamas didn’t quite manage to hide. His thoughts wandered in a less pure direction as he took in the proof that Jake was one hundred percent female.

 

Things took an unexpected turn as Jake, still dancing on the bed, began unbuttoning her pajama top before his far-too-interested eyes. Bella was laughing, but Hamilton swallowed, grasping for the will power to turn away. She reached the last button and let the top slip off her shoulders. The short, tight, gray tank top she was wearing underneath revealed far more of his roommate than Hamilton had ever seen, including a rounded chest that rose and fell with her heavy breathing and a flat midriff. He shifted slightly and tried to swallow again. His throat had gone dry.

 

He continued to stare as the song ended, and the two girls collapsed onto the bed laughing. Jacqueline was fanning herself, trying to cool down. He knew exactly how she felt. Curious as he had been to see Jake in female form, he’d never expected to be this . . . turned on.

 

“See?” Bella was saying on the other side of the window. “Fun.”

 

“Yes,” Jake conceded, breathless.

 

“If only Hamilton could see you now.”  

 

 

Defection

 

When Jake returned to the dorms on Sunday night, she was secretly hoping to find a half-naked Hamilton trotting around their room. She would have settled for a fully dressed Hamilton, but there was no sign of either. She tried to sit down and do some homework, but felt restless. She went looking for him.

 

She tried Scout and Will’s room, got no answer, and headed for the common room. She found Will, alone with his open chemistry book.

 

“Hey, man. What’s up? Seen Scout or Hamilton around?”

 

“I think they eloped,” Will joked.

 

Jake smiled. “I take it they’re getting along now?”

 

“While I was slaving away at the diner on Saturday night, they were bonding over Playstation. Scout didn’t get back until like 3 a.m.”

 

“I knew they could be friends.”

 

“Apparently. Scout’s over there right now having a home-cooked meal with Hamilton and his parents, while I’m left to digest . . .” Will glanced down at his book, “chemistry. Life of the scholarship kid, I guess.”

 

Jake felt as left out as Will was pretending to be. Even after Kate’s invitation, Hamilton hadn’t asked Jake to his house for dinner.

 

“Well, hey, you wanna grab something in the cafeteria?” Jake asked, trying not to sound like it was the consolation prize.

 

“Sorry, no time.” Will smiled wryly. “I already took my 10-minute dinner break.”

 

“Hey, no problem. Catch ya later, man.”

 

Abandoned even by Will, Jake decided to skip dinner and head back to her room. She flipped on the stereo and moped in what she knew was a disgusting and pathetic fashion. She stopped flipping through Gambit and tried to look busy on her laptop when she heard Scout and Hamilton approaching the room.

 

“Seriously? You really think Hillary over Chloë?” she heard Scout asking.

 

“Definitely.”

 

“But Cameron kills Julia, right?”

 

“I guess, but Cameron is a little . . . .” Hamilton searched for the right word as he and Scout appeared in the open doorway.

 

“Blonde?” Jake asked as the two boys entered the room.

 

Hamilton blushed, embarrassed to be caught in the middle of this game. He noticed Scout flash her an apologetic look, but she merely rolled her eyes and went back to whatever it was she was doing on her laptop. Hopefully, not actually selling my CDs, Hamilton thought.

 

Scout narrowed his eyes and observed Jake for a moment. She was definitely pouting. Certainly, after all the lectures he’d gotten about making nice with Hamilton, she couldn’t be jealous that they’d been spending some time together. Maybe it was the game.

 

“What about you, Jake?” he asked.

 

She looked up at him with equal parts annoyance and confusion.

 

“Hilary or Chloë?” he clarified.

 

She cast him a glare. He knew she barely tolerated this game when he played it with Will. Why was he involving her? And what could she say with Hamilton standing right there?

 

Hamilton looked back and forth between them and wondered why Scout was deliberately pushing her buttons.

 

“Neither, I guess,” Jake finally answered. She went back to her laptop.

 

“Come on, if you don’t play, how can Hamilton set you up with someone? He needs to know your ‘type,’” Scout mocked, glancing at Hamilton at the same time Jake did.

 

“Set me up?” Jake asked Hamilton.

 

“With a girl,” Scout clarified.

 

Hamilton had been careful to say no such thing and he did not appreciate Scout telling Jake about the comment in the first place, but he wasn’t about to jump into the middle of something he clearly didn’t understand.

 

“So, Jake, which is it: Hilary or Chloë?” Scout pressed.

 

“Why are you being a dick?” Jake asked him.

 

Scout knew he was pushing her too far, but he wasn’t willing to let it go.

 

“You don’t like that one? How about: Cameron or Julia?” Her eyes were burning holes through his skin, but he held his ground. “Drew or Sandra?”

 

Jake was backed into a corner. Playing along would be like lying and it killed her to think of adding to the lies she was telling Hamilton. She hated the stupid game anyway, and Scout knew that, but he was giving her no choice.

 

Hamilton stepped in. “Scout, if he doesn’t want to—“

 

“No, no. He really should play. Because, Jake, how can Hamilton set you up if he doesn’t know your type?”

 

“Actually, we already had that conversation so why don’t you just lay off,” Hamilton suggested, feeling defensive of both Jake and himself.

 

“Oh, so you already know Jake’s type?” Scout asked with a slight glance toward her.

 

“Yeah,” he said looking nowhere but at Jake.

 

“You’re sure about that?” 

 

That was it. Jake jumped out of her chair and strode toward Scout.

 

“I need to talk to you, like, now,” she insisted as she pushed him out the door.

 

Hamilton watched the door shut behind them. He didn’t understand any of what had just happened. Weren’t they all friends now? Why was Scout suddenly tormenting Jake? He hoped Jake would handle it. He definitely didn’t want to end up in the middle.

 

“What the hell was that?” Jake demanded out in the hall.

 

“Calm down,” Scout whispered as two boys walked by.

 

“Fuck you!” Jake whispered back. “You had no right to—I didn’t tell you so you could use it against me like that. I mean, God, Scout, what were you thinking?”

 

“I was thinking, Jacqueline, that maybe it’s time to tell him.”

 

Jake shook her head. Had she heard him correctly?

 

“Absolutely not. Don’t be stupid.” 

 

“Oh, I’m the one being stupid?”

 

“The answer is no, Scout. But if you had something to say on the subject, you should have just talked to me, instead of pulling that stunt back there.”

 

“I thought it might help point out to you how much you hate lying to him.”

 

Scout. I hate lying to everyone. You know that. But how do you think I’ve managed to stay here so long? It’s not because I told everyone I didn’t want to lie to.”

 

“But he’s your roommate.”


“Yeah. He’s also the dean’s son.”

 

“That doesn’t automatically mean you can’t trust him.”

 

“Well, it doesn’t automatically mean I can.”

 

“I don’t see why not. I mean, Jake, he obviously likes you.”

 

“He’s learned to put up with me.”

 

“Oh please, you’ve transformed him. He’s a totally different person than when he got here, and he knows it. He practically worships the ground you walk on.”

 

“Whatever, Scout.”

 

“Seriously, I just spent practically the whole weekend with him and he couldn’t stop asking about you.” Scout paused as something occurred to him. “It’s almost like . . . nevermind.”

 

“It’s almost like what?”

 

Scout hesitated. “It’s almost like he likes you.”

 

“You said that already.”

 

“No, I mean, like he’s developing a thing for you—for Jake.”

 

“A thing? That’s crazy. Hamilton and I have talked about girls.”

 

“Yeah, well, Hamilton and I have talked about you. A lot. Besides,” Scout teased, “you are a girl, remember?”

 

I know that and you know that, but he doesn’t.” 

 

“Which is why you should tell him. It can be very disconcerting to be attracted to someone you . . .”

 

“Someone you what?” Jake asked when it was obvious he didn’t intend to finish.

 

“Someone you . . . think is a guy,” Scout admitted softly, looking down. “I’m speaking from past experience, of course.”

 

Jake didn’t know what to say. She could feel herself blushing. “Scout . . . .”

 

“So I think you should tell him,” he said firmly. “At least then he can sort out whatever he might be feeling.”

 

“Is that what you did?”

 

“It was a long time ago,” was all he planned to say about it.

 

It didn’t matter anymore anyway. Shortly after he learned Jake’s secret last summer, he had discovered the truth about his relationship, or lack thereof, to Bella. And whatever he might have felt for Jake never held a candle to what he’d always felt for Bella.

 

“Look, I’m probably totally off base. But still, I think you should tell him,” Scout reiterated, trying to get the conversation back on track.

 

“I can’t tell him, Scout. For a million reasons. If you’re wrong, and he goes to his parents, I’ll lose everything—you, Kate, Rawley, him. Everything.”

 

“And, if I’m right?”

 

“Then he’ll probably hate me for confusing him.”

 

“Maybe he’ll be relieved.” 

 

“That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.” Jake titled her head and looked at him. “Besides, haven’t you been warning me all along that he’s a threat? That I can’t be too careful? That I shouldn’t trust him? Since when did you change sides?”

 

“Since I realized that you’ve been right about him all along. Trust your instincts, Jake.”

 

She had no answer to that. She just shook her head and looked down at her feet. He knew it was the end of the conversation. He felt bad for pushing her.

 

“By the way,” he added, “I haven’t changed sides. I’ll always be on yours.”

 

He turned and started down the hall toward his room.

 

“Hey, Scout,” she called after him.

 

He paused and looked back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

 

“A long time ago—me, too.”

 

 

Restricted Access

 

When she returned to her room, Jake found Hamilton flipping through her Gambit comic book.

 

“Help yourself,” she said.

 

“Thanks.” He knew by now that she wasn’t as annoyed as she sounded.

 

“This story is great,” he added.

 

“It’s weird,” she countered, hoping he’d disagree.

 

“Definitely.” He saw her face fall. “But I like weird.”

 

Jake smirked. “Ditto.”

 

She sighed as she sat on her bed.

 

“Was everything okay with Scout?” Hamilton asked, taking in her downcast expression before returning his eyes to the comic book.

 

“Yeah. He knows I’m not into objectifying women like that. But we got things straightened out.”

 

“Plus, his taste in women is questionable. I mean, who the hell picks Chloë over Hilary?”

 

Jake had to remind herself that just because he was into Hilary Swank didn’t mean he was into the whole Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena cross-dressing thing. Of course, she wanted him to know the truth, but she wasn’t quite ready to throw caution to the wind. She sighed again as she wandered to the open window for some air. She needed to clear her head.

 

Still on his bed, Hamilton feigned interest in the comic book, preoccupied with planning the perfect maneuver to crack through Jake’s façade. But maybe tonight wasn’t the right time to step up his assault. Whatever had happened between her and Scout had clearly thrown her off, and it didn’t seem fair to attack when she was vulnerable. In fact, at the moment, he found himself more interested in restoring her composure than rattling it.

 

“Hey, Jake?”

 

She looked over at him.

 

“What d’ya say we get out of here?” he asked.

 

She tilted her head. “What did you have in mind?”

 

Hamilton shrugged. It was Sunday. After ten o’clock.

 

“I’m just in the mood to get out and get some fresh air. I guess we could go down to the lake,” he said, even though it sounded kind of lame. “My mom probably wouldn’t let me borrow her car this late.”

 

“You know, air would be good.” She hopped up. “Come on, there’s something I want to show you.”

 

His curiosity piqued, he watched her pull a backpack from the back of her closet. She seemed to rethink this bag and shoved it back into the depths before pulling out another one. She put it on.

 

“Okay, let’s go.”

 

Hamilton followed her out of the building, across the quad and onto the trail toward the lake before asking, “Where are we going?”

 

“I’m about to show you something, but you can’t tell anyone, okay?”

 

He laughed. “Excuse me?”

 

She stopped walking and turned to face him. “Seriously, I really want to share this with you, but it’s really important that everyone doesn’t find out.”

 

He grinned. “I’m like a Swiss vault. I can keep a secret.”

 

“Can you?” she asked, looking him over.

 

He swallowed, feeling suddenly nervous, but nodded. “Yeah. Definitely.”

 

“Good.”

 

She turned back around and left the path, heading into the woods. Hamilton followed, stopping with her at a copse of low hanging trees.

 

“Wait here,” she said before parting a pair of branches and disappearing into the thicket.

 

Hamilton waited, anxious, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Was the secret the secret? It had to be. How many secrets could one girl masquerading as a boy possibly have? She would reemerge as Jacqueline and explain everything.

 

Should he pretend he’d had no idea? How would one normally react to such a revelation? Would the whole thing be as funny to him if he hadn’t had the satisfaction of figuring it out on his own? In reality, he might have been a little angry, but there was no need to fake that. He’d just stick with simple surprise.

 

“Jake,” he rehearsed quietly, “I had no idea you were into cross-dressing.”

 

He glanced over to the trees, but the branches totally obscured whatever she was doing. He tried to picture what she would change into. Maybe a mini-dress and those Prada heels. He’d be sure to mention how hot she looked. His own Hilary Swank.

 

Behind the trees, Jake finished getting her riding gear on and looked her motorcycle over, debating the wisdom of this decision. If Hamilton told his parents about the bike, it would definitely be confiscated. In fact, if anyone found out . . . well, she preferred not to ponder the problem potential. Then again, she could survive losing the bike as long as she didn’t lose Rawley, so maybe this would make a good test. If he was the vault he claimed to be, maybe she could trust him with . . . more.

 

She took a deep breath, kicked up the kickstand, lowered her head and pushed the bike out through the gap in the branches. When she emerged, she looked up to gauge Hamilton’s reaction. He seemed confused at first, but then his eyes widened.

 

“This is yours?”

 

“Yep.” She smiled proudly and gave the machine a loving pat. “How would you like to get some air at speeds of up to, oh, fifty miles per hour?”

 

Hamilton’s jaw dropped. Gone was any disappointment at seeing her walk out in a leather jacket and gloves rather than the mini-dress and Prada heels he had imagined.

 

“You mean, ride it?”

 

Jake smirked and copped a macho tone. “The bike is like a beautiful woman, Hamilton. Just looking at her isn’t half as much fun as . . . well, you know.”

 

He couldn’t believe she’d just said that. This girl had more ba . . . well, guts than any guy he knew. He kept his cool and returned her suggestive tone.


“Well, what I want to do and what I actually get to do depends on . . . the woman.”

 

“Well,” Jake tossed over her shoulder as she pushed the bike up onto the trail, “as long as you’ll still respect her in the morning . . . .”

 

He studied her for a moment before following. Tonight clinched it: she was officially the most badass girl—hell, the most badass person—he had ever met.

 

As they raced along at speeds Hamilton estimated to be much faster then fifty miles per hour, he gave up trying to hold on to anything but Jake. As he moved his hands to her sides, he wondered what would happen if he asked her to let him try driving for a little while.

 

He doubted she was the kind of girl that would give over control easily. Especially to a guy. She probably hated to have doors opened or chairs pulled out for her—stuff most of the girls he’d ever taken out had insisted upon. He tried to imagine the two of them out on a date. Who would be in charge? She would probably fight him over the check.

 

But at least they’d have a decent conversation. A real conversation—she would never pretend to be weak or stupid. She was strong and smart and that was why they were friends. That was why he would be able to spend hours, days, weeks with her without getting bored. Could he say the same thing about any of the girls he’d dated? Had he ever even been friends with a girl before? 

 

No. Jake Pratt was his first. He smiled at the thought and was caught off guard as they took a turn. His grip tightened. How would she react if he slid his hands just a little higher . . . ?

 

At the front of the bike, Jake focused on the road and tried to ignore everything else. Maybe if she slowed down he’d back off a little. Then again, the faster they got to their destination, the sooner she’d be able to put a decent amount of space between them.

 

Another couple of minutes later, Jake slowed down and pulled off the road. They dismounted and pulled off their helmets. He glanced around as Jake removed her gloves.

 

“Okay, it’s just through there.” She gestured into the darkness.

 

“You know, you’ve got a lot of secret spots.”

 

“It’s not a ‘secret spot;’ it’s a historical landmark.” She pointed out a nearby sign.

 

Hamilton strained his eyes, but there wasn’t enough light. Jake pulled a flashlight from her bag and shined it on the sign so he could read it.

 

“So, this is, like, a church?”

 

“The ruins of one, yeah. Come on.”

 

He followed her down a short, small path that led to a large open area littered with the crumbling brick remains of what had once been a church. A single wall was left standing, and moonbeams crept through the large, arched windows, tracing shadowy images on the ruins of a floor where pews and a congregation once sat. He could picture how the sunlight would stream through these same windows in the daytime, painting a more vibrant picture.

 

“Wow,” he said.

 

Actually, he thought, it was kind of like…her. When she was Jacqueline, her beauty and femininity were clear. As Jake, those were subtler but no less present—traces you could pick out only if you looked closely. He watched as the object of his musings took a seat on the ruins of a staircase.

 

Being in a church and all, he considered making a comment to her about “faith,” but she didn’t need anyone else pushing her buttons tonight.

 

“Do you come here a lot?” he asked instead.

 

“No.”

 

At his unsatisfied look, she tried to elaborate. “I usually only come here when I really need to . . . .”

 

“Reflect?” Hamilton suggested.

 

“Yeah. Or, you know, when I just need to . . . .”

 

“Escape?”

 

“Yeah. It’s just a really good place to go to be . . . .”

 

“Alone.”

 

“Exactly.” Jake said. Then she realized he might take that the wrong way. “I mean, not that it’s not also a great place to be with someone, too…”

 

“Don’t worry. I get it. I’m guessing you came here a lot when I first moved in.”

 

Jake smiled sheepishly. “Yeah, pretty much.”

 

“You’re right. This is just a landmark. Totally nothing like a ‘secret spot,’” he teased.

 

“Nothing at all,” she insisted, though her smile admitted that he was onto her.

 

“Anyway, it’s really beautiful.”

 

“You should see it during the day.”

 

“I’m not sure it could be any more beautiful than it looks right now,” he said looking only at her.

 

“Well, maybe not more beautiful, just different beautiful,” she conceded.

 

Exactly. He smiled and took a seat on the stairs, keeping a comfortable distance.

 

“Oh, hey, no one knows about this place—that I come here—so . . . don’t tell anyone, okay?”

 

Hamilton was surprised. “No one?”

 

“Well . . . you.”

 

“Not even Scout or Bella?”

 

“Nope.”

 

She couldn’t say why she hadn’t ever brought any of her other friends—or why she brought Hamilton tonight.  Maybe just to add another dimension to her test.

 

“Don’t worry, the secret of your not-a-secret-spot is safe with me,” Hamilton assured her. He slid off the stairs onto the soft grass, stretching out on his back.

 

He was the only one. He wondered why she trusted him with this place, with the motorcycle, but not with one secret he was really dying to hear from her. What the hell was she so afraid of?

 

“Nice view, huh?” Jake asked.

 

Hamilton hadn’t noticed that his new horizontal position put him face to face with a blanket of stars.

 

“Oh, yeah . . . .” He didn’t have to fake his awe. “Wow.”

 

“Out here there’s virtually no light pollution.”

 

“Light pollution?”

 

“It’s like in L.A., they have all that smog so you can’t really see the sky, can’t see past the pollution. Light can act in the same way. If you want to really see the stars, you have to go where it’s dark.”

 

“I’m actually not too keen on . . . being in the dark.”

 

The double meaning didn’t register on Jake’s radar.

 

“Don’t worry, Munchie, I brought a flashlight.”

 

“Hey now . . . . Don’t make me deck you again,” he joked.

 

She offered an uncomfortable laugh.

 

“I—” he groped for the proper apology, “I wouldn’t.”

 

“Yeah, I know.”

 

After a beat, Hamilton tried to lighten the mood. “So . . . stars . . . .”

 

She laughed genuinely this time. “I was never really into star-gazing before I started getting graded on it.”

 

“Oh right, you’re in astronomy. How is that?”

 

“It puts things in perspective.”

 

He turned his head in her direction and lifted his eyebrows. “Explain?”

 

“Well, for example, the closest star to our sun is called Alpha Centauri. It lives in the Andromeda galaxy. Now, your natural question might be . . . ?”

 

“Who the hell came up with those names?”

 

She laughed. “No—“

 

“How close is it?” he corrected.

 

“Exactly. And the answer is two point nine million light years.”

 

“Wow.”

 

“For frame of reference, our sun is only 8 light minutes from earth.”

 

“So, even the closest star is really, really far away.”

 

“Except that our visible universe is thirteen point four billion light years across.”

 

“Okay, I get it,” he said, sitting up. “Say you’re the Milky Way and I’m . . . what’s it called?”

 

“Andromeda.”

 

“Yeah, I’m that. So, if someone was the size of some microscopic particle, they’d think we’re really, really far apart, but actually . . . I’m pretty close to you . . . closer than you think . . . if you don’t have the right . . . perspective.”

 

God, he was adorable.

 

“That’s a good analogy.”

 

“My mom always says I have a way of relating everything to . . . me.”

 

“Well, this time it was only your body,” she said without really thinking it through.

 

He stifled a laugh. Did she consistently have to make it so easy for him?

 

“Why don’t you get down here and share some of your expertise?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Tell me some more cool stuff about the stars.” 

 

“Oh . . . sure.”

 

She sunk down next to him on the grass and tried to explain the forces that draw bodies together.

 

 

Decoding

 

Hamilton was still thinking about Jake’s astronomy lesson the following day in chemistry class. No other friend had ever made him feel so full of knowledge and yet thirsty for it at the same time. No other friend made him think and wonder the way she did. No other friend could inspire him to actually pay attention to what Mrs. Bond was saying:

 

“It’s really hard to get an idea of how small these particles are. Does anyone have an analogy that could help us conceptualize it?”

 

Hamilton raised his hand. Mrs. Bond nodded.

 

“I guess it’s like, if you were the size of the particle you’d think that Will and I were really far apart. Like, as far as the distance between our galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy or something. Of course, that’s just a big distance that’s hard to conceptualize instead of a small one . . . .”

 

Mrs. Bond smiled, “No, I think that’s a good way of thinking about it. We can probably picture ‘big’ a lot better than ‘small,’ though I’d have to check you on those degrees of magnitude.”

 

When class ended, Scout, Will and Hamilton stopped to chat in the hall.

 

“Andromeda galaxy?” Scout asked.

 

“That’s where Alpha Centauri is.”

 

“Alpha what?” Will asked.

 

“Centauri. It’s the closest star to our sun.”

 

 “I guess Jake has you sucked into that astronomy class, huh?” Scout teased.

 

“It’s really cool, actually. Like, last night, you could see Venus really well.”

 

“Cool,” Will said, his tone not backing up the word as he glanced at Scout who just shook his head.

 

Hamilton simply smiled. He could take some good-natured mocking.

 

“Anyway, gotta run. See you guys later.”

 

Will shook his head in disbelief, watching Hamilton jog off down the hall.

 

“How does a guy go from a total jerk-off to . . . Hamilton Fleming: all-around nice guy?” he wondered aloud.

 

“Yeah, pretty weird, isn’t it?” Scout agreed. But he knew that the person responsible for the change was the same person Hamilton was in such a hurry to see: Jake.

 

When he entered the art room, Hamilton found Jake staring into her geometry book, her lunch untouched. He moved behind her and looked over her shoulder.

 

“Proofs, huh? How’s that going?”

 

“Don’t even ask.” Jake closed the book and picked up her sandwich. “How were your classes this morning?”

 

“Awesome, thanks to you.”

 

“Oh yeah?” Jake raised her eyebrows.

 

At her invitation, Hamilton launched into an animated description of his contribution to the particle discussion. His enthusiasm was contagious and the foul mood caused by her geometry class evaporated.

 

Standing unnoticed in the doorway, Kate Fleming beamed at Jake and her son as she watched them interact. After about thirty seconds, she made her presence known.

 

“Hi, boys.”

 

“Hey, Mom.”

 

“Hi, Kate.”

 

“Don’t let me interrupt. I just wanted to ask if you’re still planning to come home for dinner tonight, Hamilton.”

 

“Sure thing,” Hamilton answered. He turned back to Jake and was ready to resume their conversation when something occurred to him. He turned back to his mother. “Hey, Mom, do you think Jake could come to?”

 

“Of course he can.” Kate’s smile widened. “We’d love to have you over, Jake.”

 

Both Kate and Hamilton looked to Jake expectantly.

 

Jake was surprised by the invitation. It was one she’d been hoping for. She smiled, but then frowned down at her geometry book.

 

“I should probably study . . . .” she hedged, but the affection on Kate’s face and Hamilton’s puppy-dog eyes melted her already feeble resistance. “But I can study after dinner, I guess. I mean, I have to eat anyway, right?”

 

“Wonderful,” Kate concluded. “I’ll see you both tonight at seven.”

 

She picked up a folder off her desk and hurried from the room.

 

“This’ll be so cool,” Hamilton began. “After dinner we can play X-Men again. Or maybe I could show you my photography portfolio. Or the darkroom. Like, have you ever developed a picture?”

 

Jake thought of her geometry quiz on Wednesday.

 

“Hamilton . . . .”

 

“I mean, if you’re even interested in that kind of stuff . . . .”

 

She could see right through his attempt to pretend it didn’t matter if she wanted to see his portfolio or not. His eyes told her how much his photography meant to him. She was touched that he wanted to share this passion with her.

 

“No, photography’s totally cool. I’d love to see your stuff.”

 

She was rewarded with his trademark infectious grin. She grinned back. Screw the geometry.

 

Dinner in the Fleming household was pretty much what Jake expected. The dean sat solemnly, pausing in his methodical consumption of the meal only to deliver the occasional criticism. It was Kate who kept the conversation flowing pleasantly, inviting the boys to talk about themselves, listening intently, and posing interested questions that only sometimes bordered on prying.

 

“Oh, Hamilton, maybe Jake would like to go with us this weekend on our annual trip to Boston.”

 

Jake looked to Hamilton for clarification.

 

“Think . . . big mall and bags of new school clothes,” Hamilton said. “Wanna go?”

 

Jake’s heart leapt at the suggestion. Her mother had never gone with her to buy new school clothes. Monica Pratt’s involvement began and ended with handing her daughter a credit card and setting her up with a “personal shopper.” Shopping with Kate would be totally different. Jake only wished she could go as Jacqueline. Still, a shopping trip with Hamilton and Kate would be a nice way to end the week. 

 

“I’d love to go with you guys.”

 

“We’ll have so much fun,” Kate promised.

 

“Hey, Mom,” he began as if rejection was foreseeable, “maybe I could go by myself.”

 

“All the way to Boston? I don’t know if . . .”

 

She glanced at the dean.

 

“He can’t be trusted with the car,” the dean proclaimed.

 

“What? Yes, I can. I’m a good driver. Mom sends me on errands all the time. Back me up here, Mom.”

 

She nodded when her husband looked at her.

 

“You trust him?” the dean asked.

 

“Of course.”

 

“Then you can take responsibility when he wrecks the car.”

 

“I’m more worried about who will take responsibility for his wardrobe choice,” Kate countered lightly, ignoring her husband’s attitude.

 

“Mom . . .”

 

Jake watched Kate smile at her son. The exchange probably reflected a thousand memories for the two of them. Going to the mall, picking out clothes together, letting him try them on, steering him clear of the potential fashion disasters. She was definitely jealous. But of Hamilton . . . or Kate?

 

“Hamilton, I’m serious, what would have happened if I hadn’t been there to stop you from buying those silly acid-washed jeans?” she teased.

 

“Mom, please, I was six.” Hamilton hung his head in mock embarrassment.

 

Kate traded a smile with Jake.

 

“Anyway, Jake could probably help me out.” Hamilton saw Jake trying not to laugh and decided to turn some teasing on her. “I mean, other than excessive layering and an unnatural avoidance of anything short-sleeved, he’s got decent taste.”

 

Jake shrugged off the jibe, having no way to defend her current fashion paradigm.

 

“Oh, so by ‘by myself’ you really meant ‘mom-free?’” Kate observed.

 

“You’re good at this game, Mom.”

 

“Maybe you should have a little more respect for your mother,” interjected the dean.

 

“Oh, Steve, please. He’s fine. Hamilton, I think it would be all right if you and Jake went to Boston this weekend. If Jake is willing to take over the role of fashion consultant, that is.”

 

All eyes turned to Jake. Though she was disappointed that it no longer involved Kate, the trip sounded like fun. She nodded.

 

“I think I can handle that.”

 

When their plates were cleared, Hamilton wasted no time excusing them from the table and ushering Jake down the hall to show her the darkroom.

 

“Sorry about my dad,” he said as he shut the door.

 

Jake noticed that he wouldn’t meet her eyes. He acted as if his father’s behavior was his fault.

 

“Rule number one: don’t apologize for someone else’s shortcomings.”

 

“Really?” He looked up with a grateful smile. “Number one?”

 

“Well, it’s at least in the top twenty. Anyway, he should trust you more.”

 

Hamilton frowned. She was one to talk about trust issues. He shrugged.

 

“A lot of people don’t trust me the way I want them to.”

 

Though she figured he couldn’t possibly have meant anything by the statement, she found herself guilty of his charge. Maybe he deserved more faith than she was giving. But, even if he didn’t run and tell his dad, there was always his mom. Kate trusted Hamilton, and Jake doubted that was something he would be willing to risk by keeping such a major secret from her. She couldn’t help be jealous of their relationship.

 

“At least you have your mom,” she pointed out.

 

“My mom’s an awesome lady,” he agreed.

 

He squeezed past her in the narrow space and her heart pounded as she pressed herself back against the wall. There it was again. Peppermints and dryer sheets. A Boston shopping trip with a boy who smelled like peppermints and dryer sheets and appreciated his mother. There were certainly worse ways to spend a Saturday. 

 

As he adjusted some equipment and gathered the required chemicals, Jake surveyed the darkroom. It looked like it had been a closet in its former life, or maybe a bathroom.

 

“When did you set this up?” she asked.

 

He moved past her again to hit the overhead light, then once more to return to the work area. She couldn’t resist an extra deep breath to take in the scent. She’d been surrounded by boys for over a year, but couldn’t recall any of them ever smelling quite as good as Hamilton.

 

“Spring break before last,” he answered. “I was taking so many pictures by that point that I got tired of walking over to the school to develop them. My mom, being the awesome lady that she is, helped me get everything I needed. Including the downstairs bathroom, which my dad wasn’t too thrilled about.”

 

Jake had figured Kate for a great mom and she’d seen Hamilton’s irrational displays of jealousy, but she hadn’t quite expected him to realize how lucky he was. Nor had she ever imagined what an appealing quality that realization could be.

 

“Your mom is really great,” she confirmed.

 

Hamilton nodded as he poured his chemicals into three empty trays. Funny how her statement no longer made him jealous. Jake wasn’t his rival anymore. In fact, she felt more like . . . a partner. He liked that Jake liked his mother. Even more surprising, he liked that his mother liked Jake.

 

He smiled to himself as he replaced the chemical containers on the shelf then looked over at her.  He dropped the smile.

 

“What?” She shifted self-consciously under his gaze. He seemed so serious.

 

“Developer, stop bath, fixer,” he told her, pointing to each of the three trays in front of him.

 

“Should I be taking notes?”

 

“No quizzes,” he assured her.

 

“If you mention the ‘Q’ word again, I’m going to have to leave,” she warned. “I should so be studying right now.”

 

“You can’t leave now. I swear, it’ll only take five more minutes.”

 

She was unnerved by the intensity behind his words. Had she actually intended to leave, she would be reconsidering. It was flattering how much he seemed to need her there, but a little overwhelming. Jacqueline wasn’t exactly used to being needed.

 

Hamilton pulled the photo paper from the piece of equipment that he told her was an “enlarger” then put it into the developer.

 

“What is this a picture of?” she asked.

 

“Can’t tell you. It’s a surprise.”

 

“I hate surprises.”

 

He looked at her as if that were that were the most awful thing he’d ever heard.

 

“Hey, what can I say? I’m a control freak.” She laughed softly. “But maybe this surprise will be different.”

 

He liked the sound of her laugh. He wanted to surprise her more often, wanted her to be comfortable enough with him to want to be surprised more often, wanted her to be happy.

 

“How much longer?” she asked.

 

“You know, you should spend more time with her.”

“What? Who?”

 

“Ninety seconds,” he said, glancing at a small clock that sat on a shelf above the work area. “My mom.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because she likes you and you like her,” he said. “It’s an experiment. I don’t even know how it’s going to turn out, but I got the idea last night off your mini-astronomy lesson.”

 

“I thought she was your mom.”

 

“Well, yeah, I had her first. But there’s probably enough of her to go around. I mean, moms that good shouldn’t go to waste.” Hamilton used a pair of tongs to push the picture around in the tray. “You have to agitate it a little to get it to develop.”

 

“A metaphor for life,” Jacqueline observed. “Must be cool to do something artistic.”

 

“Must be cool to be able to hack into NASA.”

 

He grinned and turned back to the clock. After the ninety seconds were up, he used tongs to switch the photo from the developer to the stop bath. He pushed it around, timing fifteen seconds. Finally he moved it over to the fixer.

 

“You know, you can have half of my mom, too,” Jacqueline offered. “Sometimes she’s good for random concert tickets and stuff. I mean, she knows people.”

 

“Cool. Can I hack into her e-mail and buy myself a motorcycle?”

 

“Sure, but you have to show me that picture first.”

 

“Only two more minutes,” he promised.

 

“You said ninety seconds.” She tried to look over into the tray, but it was dark and he stepped in the way.

 

“I lied,” he said. “No peaking.”

 

She went to put her hand on his shoulder to try to look over him, but then thought better of it. She rolled her eyes and leaned back against the wall instead, folding her arms over her chest as she waited. It was the first time since she’d stepped into the darkroom that she remembered she was supposed to be playing a boy.

 

Funny how he made her forget, made her feel like herself. She decided it was a friendship thing. She felt it with Scout and Bella too . . . didn’t she?

 

“Okay,” he said, “now I just need to rinse it.”

 

“You’ve got thirty seconds to fork over the photo, Fleming, or else . . . .”

 

“Or else what, Pratt?”

 

Jake watched him take the photo from the fixer to the sink. He ran water over it, ridding it of all chemicals.


“Or else . . . you don’t want to know. Don’t underestimate me, Fleming.”

 

“Believe me,” he said as he hung the photo up on the line under the shelf, securing it with a clothespin, “I don’t.”

 

She stared at the image, but couldn’t really make out what it was.

 

He scooted past her once more, this time intentionally closer than before. Why waste the opportunity?

 

Pressed back against the wall, she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. The smells of developer, stop bath and fixer mingled now with the peppermints and dryer sheets. Must be the chemicals making her lightheaded.

 

He flipped on the light and nodded toward the picture. She walked over, inspecting it. Streaks of white swirled against a black background. It was unique and beautiful.

 

“Cool,” Jake said. “What is it?”

 

“Come on, Galileo . . . it’s the sky.”

 

Jake looked again. It made sense . . . sort of.

 

“See, you point the camera up and leave the shutter open all night. It’s like taking a bunch of shots, but all at once. Each one of these streaks is one—“

 

“Star. I get it. When did you do this?”

 

“Last night.”

 

“You went back out after we got back?”

 

He shrugged and smiled shyly. “Inspiration.”

 

“That’s so . . . wow. That’s amazing.”

 

He smiled wider, pleased with her reaction.

 

“It’s all you. I mean, it’s all yours. The picture. When it dries, it’s all yours.”

 

 

Infiltration

 

When Hamilton arrived in the art room for lunch the next day, he was full of photography ideas that he wanted to bounce off Jake. Before she could mention how she was planning to spend lunch period studying geometry, he had launched into the discussion. After a few minutes, she closed her geometry book and gave him the full attention he was demanding. Though she felt guilty about the studying she wasn’t doing, she enjoyed hearing his ideas and helping him generate new ones.

 

The warning bell rang to announce the end of lunch.

 

“We should do something tonight,” he suggested. “Maybe hang out at my house?” 

 

“I really need to study.”

 

He nodded, but was disappointed.

 

“What about a study break?” he suggested.

 

She knew she had to get this proof stuff down before the quiz tomorrow, but the invitation was hard to resist. She looked up at him and it got even harder.

 

“A study break could be good . . . .” 

 

At ten p.m. the “study break” was underway. Except there hadn’t been much studying before the “break” because Hamilton wouldn’t shut up long enough for her to concentrate.

 

When she got back to the dorms, he was dying to tell her about Finn’s poetry class and how he’d come up another astronomy analogy relevant to the day’s discussion. At dinner, he told her all about growing up at Rawley, overwhelming Jake with his newfound openness. At nine, he started asking about her childhood and by nine-thirty, she’d covered up enough near slips to prompt the suggestion of taking a break, hoping the change of scenery would distract him.

 

As they settled in to play X-Men, Hamilton wanted to know how she got into computer hacking, who sold her the motorcycle, and how her mother could possibly not notice the missing money?

 

“She wouldn’t be the one to notice; her accountant would. I just verify spending through her email account. Hacking into her email is easy. The password is Jacq—pot.”

 

“Jackpot?” he repeated, laughing inside at her near slipup.

 

“Yeah. Anyway, it’s not like I spend a lot or anything.”

 

“Yeah, as long as you’re frugal with the money you steal from your mother . . . .” 

 

“Yeah, yeah.”

 

“So, you’ve been hacking since you were, what’d you say? Twelve?”

 

“Eleven.”

 

He looked her over. “I can’t even imagine you at eleven.”     

 

When the gaming and interrogation finally came to an end, it was well after midnight. They returned to their room and buckled down to do the most crucial of their homework assignments. By the time Jake got out of the shower, it was nearly three a.m. She climbed into bed with her geometry book, knowing she wasn’t at all prepared for her quiz the following morning, but fell asleep five minutes later with her bedside lamp on and the open book resting against her corset-flattened chest.

 

The following afternoon after their last class, a worried Scout led Jake to an isolated stone bench on the edge of the quad for a private conversation.

 

“So, you wanna tell me what’s going on?” he asked. “You look like hell.”

 

“Gee, thanks,” Jake said. “That’s just what I needed to hear today.”

 

“Seriously, what’s wrong? It’s not Hamilton again is it? I thought he was all reformed now.”

 

“He is. That’s the problem. He kept me up half the night. I barely got any sleep.”

 

Scout smirked. “Oh really?”

 

Jake hit him on the arm.

 

“God, Scout. Not like that. We were just talking. The point is that I think I failed my geometry quiz today, and it’s kinda his fault. I mean, he’s been taking up so much of my time lately.”

 

Jake went on to describe the last couple of days, leaving out the part about the bike and the church.

 

“I mean not that I don’t like talking to him and hanging out with him and stuff,” she hastened to add. “Because I totally do. I mean, he has some really cool ideas, and he’s artistic and so passionate about things . . . .”

 

Scout chuckled, and Jake trailed off as she realized how she must sound.

 

“Sounds like it’s getting serious,” Scout observed.

 

What’s getting serious?”

 

“I’m just saying, he took you home to meet the parents.”

 

“I already know the parents, and can I point out that you were invited to dinner long before I was?”

 

Scout laughed. “Yeah, but he didn’t show me the darkroom.”

 

“It’s not like that. Seriously. We’re friends. That’s all. How could it even possibly be anything else?”

 

Scout knew she had a point. If Jake was this reluctant to face her true feelings, Hamilton had to be in total denial. Or maybe there really was nothing more than friendship between them. Scout was prepared to consider that possibility . . . until Hamilton walked up.

 

“Hey, Ham,” Scout said.

 

He offered Scout a cursory nod, but he was focused on Jake.

 

“Hey, how come you weren’t at lunch?” he asked

 

“I went back to the room.”

 

“I waited for you.”

 

“Sorry. I just . . . wasn’t in the mood to . . . eat.”

 

“You didn’t eat?” He looked genuinely concerned. “It’s not good to skip meals.”

 

“I’m sure I’ll survive,” she told him dryly.

 

“Your blood sugar is probably really low. You should eat now. I could get you some cafeteria food. I have access. Mindy and I go way back.”

 

“Mindy? As in the lunch lady? You’re on a first name basis with the lunch lady?” Scout asked. He laughed and turned to Jake. “You’ve gotta love a guy with connections, Jake.”

 

“Scout,” she warned. She turned to Hamilton. “It’s fine. I think I’ll just wait for dinner.”

 

“Or we could go to Friendly’s and grab something,” Hamilton suggested.

 

“I think I’d better stick around here. I’ve got work to do.”

 

“Or I could go get something for you and bring it back. Maybe a cheeseburger? A milkshake?”

 

“Hamilton! Listen to me. I’m fine.”

 

“But . . . .”

 

She ignored him and turned to Scout.

 

“So, this is the big weekend, right?” she asked.

 

“Yep. Bella and I are spending the entire weekend at my parent’s house in Greenwich,” he explained to Hamilton.

 

“Cool. Jake and I are going to Boston.”

 

“Cool,” Scout said looking at Jake with raised eyebrows.

 

“So is Bella nervous or what?” she asked, trying to redirect the conversation.

 

 “Well, according to her, she’s fine.”

 

“What about you?”

 

“Oh yeah, I’m totally fine, too . . . except for the fact that I’m petrified. I mean, they’ve met so many times, but . . . the whole weekend? What if Bella hates them or they say something that offends her or . . . God, I don’t know.”

 

“I totally know what you mean,” Hamilton said. “Like, last night Jake came over for dinner and my dad was being such a jerk. But Jake told me that you should never apologize for someone else’s shortcomings, right?”

 

Scout tilted his head and gave Jake an amused look. She gave Hamilton a small nod then turned back to Scout.

 

“How are you getting there?” she asked. “Are you parents picking you up?”

 

“They’re sending a driver for us, which I know is only going to make Bella more uncomfortable. It’d be so much easier if I had my own car.”

 

“Hey, that reminds me,” Hamilton said. “Jake, do you think we should take my mom’s car or your bike on Saturday?”

 

Scout tossed another look at Jake. Regardless of motivation, the way Hamilton was vying for her attention was almost laughable. Jake wanted to cover her face, which was starting to turn pink. This was getting embarrassing.

 

“It really doesn’t matter,” Jake answered impatiently. She kept her attention on Scout. “You know, I’d totally loan you the bike, but I know your parents would flip if you two showed up on a motorcycle.”

 

“You’re right. I appreciate the offer . . . but don’t think I don’t realize you never would have made it if you thought I could accept.”

 

Jake grinned sheepishly, knowing he was right. Scout smiled back at her and turned to Hamilton.

 

“It’s been a year, and Jake has never once let me drive that bike,” Scout informed him. “He has trust issues.”

 

“Scout . . . .” Jake warned, disliking the direction of the conversation.

 

“I’ve noticed,” Hamilton said. “Not to mention the control issues.”

 

“Don’t get me started,” Scout concurred.

 

“Hello?” Jake waved to get their attention. “I’m still right here. You know what? On second thought, go ahead and psychoanalyze me. I’ve got stuff to do.”

 

Jake got up, ready to leave.

 

“Are you coming back?” Hamilton asked.

 

“Actually, all this talk about my bike puts me in the mood for a ride.”

 

Hamilton opened his mouth to ask to tag along.

 

“Alone,” she added. She turned and walked away in the direction of the dorms.

 

“Maybe I should go after . . . him,” Hamilton said. “He seemed pretty mad.”

 

Scout put a hand on Hamilton’s shoulder to keep him from following.

 

“Just let him go. He’ll realize pretty soon that we were just giving him a hard time and he’ll get over it.”

 

“I guess . . .” Hamilton sounded unconvinced.

 

“You know,” Scout said, “I’m kinda surprised Jake told you about the bike at all.”

 

“Why wouldn’t he?”

 

Scout noticed how defensive he sounded. “No reason. He just didn’t mention telling you.”

 

“Well, I am his roommate. Jake should tell me things.” 

 

 “You’re right,” Scout agreed, thinking of the same ‘things.’ “Being roommates is all about sharing stuff like that. Like, I probably know more about Will than anyone.”

 

“Yeah, and you probably know more about Jake than anyone, too.” Hamilton frowned, jealous to think that while Jake was his best friend, he wasn’t Jake’s.

 

Scout picked up on the jealousy. He knew from the way Jake talked about Hamilton that it was completely unfounded, but wasn’t in the mood to reassure the other boy at the moment. He had another point to make.

 

“Maybe so. But my point is, even though Will and I are really close, it’s like, we also need some space sometimes. Like, Will will probably enjoy having me out of the room this weekend, you know?”

 

“Well, I’m really going to enjoy hanging out at the mall with Jake this weekend,” Hamilton said. “I like having Jake around.”

 

Scout shook his head. The boy obviously had it bad and he was totally missing the point.

 

“I know you do, Ham. I’m just saying . . . .” But Scout couldn’t think of anything he thought Hamilton would be able to hear. “Nevermind. I’m headed into town. I’ll catch you later.”

 

“Later.”

 

Hamilton was left on his own to wonder what Scout had been trying to say. Maybe Scout was just jealous that Jake had a new friend that she trusted enough to take out on her bike. Clearly, that was a big step with her, Hamilton concluded. He decided he was pleased with his progress so far and would just keep trying harder.

 

 

Going Under Cover

 

Since Jake hadn’t returned from her ride by dinnertime, Hamilton went to the dining hall alone. Worried Jake might skip another meal, he went back into the kitchen to find Mindy. He asked her to fix a to-go bag for his “sick” roommate and convinced her to add in some extra treats that weren’t part of the normal package.

 

He returned to the room, set the food on her desk, and waited in vain. He studied a little, but couldn’t concentrate because he was starting to worry. A motorcycle was cool, but dangerous. Anything could have happened. Eventually, he went down to the common room to distract himself.

 

It was ten o’clock by the time he went back upstairs, and still no sign of his roommate. Maybe she went to Bella’s, he thought. He decided not to do anything drastic until morning. He got ready for bed, wearing pajama pants without a shirt, as had become his habit. He turned on the bedside lamp, lay down and started to read Jake’s Gambit comic again. Though he’d intended to wait up awhile longer, he hadn’t had much sleep the night before and couldn’t help dozing off.

 

He dreamed that he and Jake were Gambit and Jake in the comic and that when Jake became Jacqueline, he fell in love with her.

 

When Jake crept into the room around 11:30, she found Hamilton asleep in bed with the light on. The covers were down around his waist and the open comic book partially obscured his otherwise naked chest. He somehow managed to look both completely innocent and totally hot. She felt a sudden urge to crawl into bed with him.

 

She squelched the urge and walked over to her closet to put away her riding things. Looking back at Hamilton to be sure he was sound asleep, she stripped down to her boxers and the tank top covering her corset and then slipped into her usual sleeping attire of long-sleeved tee-shirt and sweatpants.

 

She moved over to her desk and noticed the brown paper bag sitting there. She peeked inside, saw that it was food and realized she was starving. She pulled out a sandwich and took a big bite, glancing over at Hamilton. She swallowed and offered him a grateful smile that he could not see. She turned her desk chair around, sat down and studied her sleeping roommate as she consumed the entire content of the bag.

 

Giving in to an almost maternal impulse, Jacqueline stood up and moved to the side of his bed. She carefully lifted the comic off his chest and placed it on the nightstand. Ignoring the not-so-maternal impulses aroused by the sight of his bare chest, she quickly pulled the covers up to his neck. She flipped off the lamp and stood looking down at him as her eyes adjusted to the dark. He looked so sweet.

 

Without thinking it through, she bent down to plant a kiss on Hamilton’s forehead. At the touch of her lips, Hamilton stirred, sending Jacqueline into a panic. As she jerked her body upright, she slipped on the T-shirt Hamilton had discarded next to his bed and pitched forward. She caught herself with a hand on either side of his head, holding her breath as she peered down at his face.

 

To her relief, his eyes were still shut and his breathing steady. Heart pounding in her chest, she slowly began to ease the weight off her far hand. She was about to withdraw it, but froze when Hamilton suddenly moaned.

 

“God, you’re so beautiful like this,” he murmured.

 

With one foot on the floor and the other dangling just above it, she studied his face. His eyelids fluttered rapidly. He must be dreaming. About whom? she wondered. But she abandoned that question in favor of more pressing concerns when Hamilton reached up, slid his hands along her sides and drew her down. Her chest rested against his and her arms were bent double as if she were down for a push-up.

 

In Hamilton’s dream, he, Gambit, lay back on the obstetrician’s examining table, and Jacqueline was leaning over him. She hesitated, worried that it bothered him that she was really Jake. He smiled to show her he didn’t care and beckoned her with his eyes, but still she hesitated. Finally, he reached out and gathered her to him.

 

Lying across Hamilton’s chest, Jake considered the absurdity of this situation. Her masquerade at Rawley often lead to tight spots and awkward moments, but this topped the charts.  

 

She needed to get out of the bed without waking Hamilton. As he slid one of his arms all the way around her waist, she decided the best way out was in. Rather than try to muscle her way out of his ever-tightening grip, she would climb all the way onto the bed and on top of him. Then she would roll over into the arm, theoretically enabling her to slide smoothly off the bed on the opposite side as he slept on, unaware.

 

She started by moving her far leg in between his and swinging her other leg up onto the bed. Her arms were tired so she eased her weight off them and onto his chest, leaving her face buried in his neck and her hips pressed against his. She tried to take a deep, calming breath, but found herself immersed in peppermints and dryer sheets. She needed out—and fast.

 

She eased her weight over until she was sliding off the other side of his body. She rolled slowly onto her back with his arm beneath her. She was almost there . . . .

 

In Hamilton’s dream, Jacqueline was rolling away from him. She wanted him to be on top. He could be into that. It didn’t matter who was where—as long as he got to kiss her. He was had to kiss her.

 

Before Jake could slide off the bed, Hamilton rolled on top of her, pinning her beneath him. She was more trapped than ever.

 

In his dream, Hamilton covered Jacqueline’s body with his own. He inhaled. She smelled like cucumber and Ivory soap, an oddly enticing combination. He was dying to kiss her.

 

The full body contact made it a little difficult for Jake to focus. She turned her head left and right, searching for an escape, trying not to look at Hamilton’s face, which was so close that she could feel his breath.

 

His hand was on her arm and tracing its way up over her shoulder. She napped her head back to look at him just as his hand made its way over her neck to cup her chin. His face was closing in. He was going to kiss her . . . .

 

He was going to kiss her. Her face was so soft and she smelled so good and he needed  to kiss her. He couldn’t wait any longer. He lowered his head—

 

But before his lips could make contact he found himself tumbling off the bed.

 

Jake had panicked. Seeing Hamilton’s face drifting toward hers, wanting to stay where she was, knowing she couldn’t have him wake up kissing her, knowing he didn’t think he was kissing her anyway, wondering who he did think he was kissing, wishing it was her. All these thoughts raced through her head and she panicked, pushing her body up, pushing him off her.

 

She heard him hit the floor and figured he had woken up. She couldn’t be caught in his bed. She slipped off the other side and lay perfectly still.

 

“Shit,” Hamilton muttered as he woke up on the floor, his shoulder throbbing from the impact. What had happened? He’d been dreaming. The details were already slipping from his mind, but he knew it had been a hot dream. And Jake/Jacqueline had played a major role. Disconcerting.

 

His eyes flew to Jake’s bed, expecting to see her laughing at him, but he was relieved to find it empty. Thank god she wasn’t back yet. How embarrassing to try to avoid explaining how he’d gotten so involved in his dream about her that he’d fallen out of bed.

 

He picked himself up off the floor, rubbed his shoulder and climbed back into bed. He felt a sudden rush of disappointment that his dream had been interrupted. His sexy dream about Jacqueline. About Jake. He flushed as images of her from the dream flashed in his head. Very disconcerting.

 

It took him almost half an hour to fall asleep.

 

Jake spent that half hour on the floor next to Hamilton’s bed, lying perfectly still, listening to the pattern of his breathing, afraid he’d be able to hear the pounding of her heart, wondering what the hell she was doing and why becoming a cross-dresser had ever seemed like a good idea in the first place.

 

Eventually, Hamilton’s breathing grew deep and steady, and she deemed it safe to crawl around his bed and into her own, but at least another half an hour passed before she drifted into an uneasy slumber.

 

 

Collateral Damage

 

The next morning, both Jake and Hamilton slept through their alarms. Jake finally woke up and rolled over to look at her clock. Fifteen minutes to get to geometry. She leapt out of bed and was about to start getting dressed when she realized Hamilton was still in bed.

 

As she looked at him, lying there with his eyes closed, images of last night’s tumble popped into her head. She blushed.

 

“Hey, Hamilton,” she called. “Are you awake?”

 

To save time, she began gathering her things for class.

 

“Barely,” Hamilton mumbled without opening his eyes. “What time is it?”

 

“First period starts in, like, fifteen minutes. You should hurry and grab a shower.”

 

She glanced at the clock. You should get the hell out of the room, she thought.

 

“Uh . . . .” Hamilton thought out loud as he sat up slowly and reached down to pick up his dirty T-shirt off the floor. “Nah. No time.”

 

He pulled on the T-shirt and stripped off his pajama pants. He found a pair of shorts halfway under the bed, slipped them on over his boxers and then sat down on his bed to put his shoes on.

 

Having finished gathering her books, Jake went about selecting the day’s clothing as if nothing were wrong, but on the inside she was panicking. Maybe if she changed quickly enough while he was still groggy, he wouldn’t notice anything strange. But, she needed to readjust the corset and she had too much to take off . . . . It wouldn’t be a quick process at all. The hall bathroom was out of the question; she couldn’t even safely pee in the mornings. There was no way she could dress in there. She was stuck.

 

She turned just in time to see Hamilton yawn and lean back against his pillow, lifting his feet back onto the bed, shoes and all.

 

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

 

“I’m so tired,” he said through another yawn.

 

“Well, so am I, but you don’t see me getting back in bed. Class starts in like seven minutes and you have to get all the way to Calhoun Hall. You should go . . . like now.”

 

He closed his eyes.

 

“I’m cutting sociology,” he said.

 

“But I can’t miss geometry.”

 

“So go,” he said, turning on his side and snuggling up with his pillow.

 

She was frustrated, but she couldn’t argue with him. How could she force him to leave the room without seeming like a total freak? She’d just have to wait until classes started and sneak into the bathroom to change.

 

“So nice of you to join us, Mr. Pratt,” Mr. Walker said as Jake tried to slip unnoticed into the classroom. “And fifteen minutes late. Interesting choice. Given your recent quiz grade, I’m surprised you would allow yourself to miss even one second of this class.”

 

He handed her her graded quiz and she made her way to her seat in the back, trying to shrug off the embarrassment. She cursed Hamilton for making her late. She looked at the grade on the top of the paper and then buried her head in her arms. She cursed Hamilton again for distracting her this week.

 

Except she knew it was really her own fault. She had to get this situation under control, damn it.

 

Hamilton looked for Jake in the art room at lunch, but for the second day in a row, she was a no-show.

 

“Where were you at lunch?” he asked immediately when she walked into their room after classes.

 

“I flunked yet another geometry quiz yesterday. I was getting some extra help.”

 

“That sucks. I know what’ll make you feel better, though: Playstation at my house.”

 

“I don’t have time to go to your house. I’ve got to meet with my geometry teacher again in like ten minutes.”

 

“Really? It’s that bad?”

 

“Yeah, actually.”

 

“Well, I took it last year at my old school, so you could have just asked me.”

 

“Well,” she mimicked, “any of the times this week when you saw me staring blankly into my book, you could have just mentioned that.”

 

Clearly, she wasn’t in the best mood. He didn’t really think it was fair for her to take it out on him, but he tried to be understanding.

 

“Yeah, I guess I could have said something sooner,” he granted.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Yeah? He definitely didn’t deserve that. But he remembered the patience she’d shown when they first met and decided he owed her. He watched as she rearranged books and notebooks on her desk, acting like she was getting ready to meet her teacher, but obviously also trying to avoid talking to him further. Maybe the geometry thing really had been a big deal. She had mentioned an important quiz she had to study for earlier in the week. He hadn’t realized she’d actually taken it yesterday.

 

“Jake?”

 

“What?” she snapped.

 

“If you need any more help later, I’m here.”

 

“Thanks.” She went back to gathering her stuff.

 

Ironically, his “being there” was her biggest irritation at the moment. Every time she was in the room, he was in the room. When she left, he followed. He wouldn’t even leave long enough for her to get dressed anymore. Had he always been this . . .clingy? 

 

She imagined this was how it felt to have a little brother—someone who always wanted to show her stuff or tell her stuff or ask her stuff. It was exhausting. It was just as well that she had an excuse to leave. She grabbed her backpack.

 

“Gotta go,” she said as she hurried out.

 

Two hours later, Hamilton’s voice was calling out to her before she’d even stepped back into the room.

 

“Jake, you’re finally back. You’ve gotta check this out.”

 

When she made it through the doorway, she found him at her desk, using her computer. If it were her laptop, he’d be dead. She tried to remain calm.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“I hooked up the Playstation to your computer.”

 

She followed a trail of cables that ran from behind her computer to her bed where Hamilton’s game system sat next to a stack of games.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“It was pretty simple. See, I got this video card that would support a video in and—“

 

“Wait. Back up like five hundred feet. You’re telling me you installed a new video card . . . on my computer?”

 

He glanced over and met with a stormy glare.

 

“Sorry,” he backpedaled. “I guess I should have asked first.”

 

“Um, yeah, you should have. I mean, I can’t believe you didn’t.”

 

“Well, it was supposed to be a surprise. I mean, I thought you’d be psyched . . . .”

 

He should have known better, but he’d only done it because he realized she’d been having a rough week. He’d thought maybe having the Playstation in the room would help her chill out a little once the weekend came around.

 

“I told you. I hate surprises.”

 

“I know. I just . . . I thought . . . I’ll make it up to you. This weekend, when we go to Boston . . . .”

 

“You know what? We’re not going to Boston. I’m not going to Boston. I can’t do it.”

 

“Wait. What? Why?”

 

“Because I need some space. It’s like . . . you’re always here, always wanting to talk, always wanting to hang out.”

 

“But I thought you liked . . . .”

 

“It’s too much. I mean, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days and I flunked my goddamn quiz and I’m probably going to fail geometry . . . and . . . and . . . and I can’t even get dressed in the morning, for Christ’s sake, because you never leave unless I leave . . . because then you have to come with me.”

 

“I didn’t mean . . . .”

 

“I can’t even talk to Scout without you showing up and trying to get me to pay attention to you instead. And then the minute I get away for, like, an hour, I come back and you’re sitting at my desk, fucking up my computer, and I . . . I just can’t take it anymore.”

 

Jake paused to catch her breath, not believing what she’d just said, but not prepared to take it back either. She looked at Hamilton, but quickly turned away from the stunned betrayal she saw in his eyes. For a moment she just stood there, not knowing what to do, but then the old instincts kicked in, telling her to run away.

 

“I’m going to dinner,” she mumbled as she fled the scene.

 

Hamilton stared after her for a long moment, frozen in place, his muscles suspended by an ugly tension. Then, all at once, his entire body slackened in defeat, the tension replaced by a sensation of numbness.

 

No, sensation wasn’t the right word. What Hamilton experienced was the total absence of feeling.

 

 

Damage Assessment

 

When Jake returned from dinner, she found Hamilton sitting on the edge of his bed staring into space. She had no way of knowing that he’d been sitting in that same position for the last hour since she left, but she knew he must be angry. She already regretted her rash words, but didn’t know how to take them back since many of the feelings behind them had been genuine. She was at a loss.

 

“Hey,” she said simply as she walked over and took a seat at her desk.


No response.

 

“If you’re thinking of heading to the dining hall later, I suggest you reconsider,” she continued. “They do so many things so well, but tuna casserole just isn’t one of them.”

 

No response.

 

Jake turned and watched as Hamilton walked silently to his desk, picked up his book of sonnets, and returned to his bed. She decided to give him some time.

 

She worked on her geometry for an hour in virtual silence. The only sounds that came from behind her were the regular turning of pages and the occasional rustling of bed covering as Hamilton shifted positions. At first the absence of chatter from Hamilton’s quarter allowed her some much needed focus, but the quiet got eerie and she soon became restless.

 

She switched to her astronomy homework, hoping it would be easier to concentrate on something she actually understood and found interesting. The chapter they were assigned to read was on the creation of the universe.

 

“Hey, check this out,” she said without thinking. “Did you know that the universe used to have, like, eleven dimensions?”

 

No response. He didn’t so much as look up in her direction.

 

She was disappointed. Normally, that statement would have prompted a barrage of questions and an intriguing discussion in which Hamilton would find unexpected but insightful ways to connect the concepts to his own life. Of course, then that discussion would become another discussion and another and another until they were both yawning uncontrollably and she would look down at her watch and realize that it was the middle of the night and that she hadn’t accomplished anywhere near what she was supposed to and was screwed for the following day.

 

So maybe it was good that that period was over. Maybe a little distance would be better for her. She looked back down at her book and continued reading. She came across more facts and concepts that she wanted to share with Hamilton, but kept them to herself.

 

Eventually, she moved on to her psychology homework. It wasn’t exactly compelling, so her mind wandered and her eyes drifted to the Playstation still attached to her computer. Sure, Hamilton never should have hooked it up without asking in the first place, but she was strongly tempted to play it now that it was there.

 

But she couldn’t exactly admit that to Hamilton. And if she asked him to play with her, he’d ignore her anyway. And she seemed to recall that she used to enjoy playing alone, but now the prospect of trying to top her own high score seemed kind of hollow without the added fun of kicking Hamilton’s ass.

 

So she gave up on psychology in favor of a little hacking. There had to be some way to get rid of that tuna casserole. She accomplished her goal and made some other changes to the dining hall menu, then moved on to a site she’d been trying to crack for weeks.

 

Still, the silence was eerie. Hamilton should have been by her side at that moment, invading her personal space and asking her repeatedly what she was doing and why. She glanced over her shoulder, half expecting to find him hovering, trying to sneak a peek.

 

But no, he was still on his bed, now curled up on his side facing away from her. It looked as if he’d fallen asleep with his clothes on. She remembered trying to tuck him in the night before. She felt a little . . . tense just thinking about it. It occurred to her that the night before might have had something to do with how on edge she’d been around Hamilton that day. And that wasn’t exactly his fault.

 

She sighed, changed quickly and quietly into her sleepwear and went to bed, hoping things would be better in the morning.

 

When Jake woke up in the morning, Hamilton’s bed was empty. Assuming he was in the shower, she jumped out of bed and got dressed. Once she was “decent,” she put Blue by Third Eye Blind on the stereo and waited for Hamilton to return. She hoped that the music would soften him up, hoped he might start speaking to her again.

 

But by the time the ninth track, “Camouflage,” came on, Hamilton still hadn’t come back. Jake looked around and realized that his backpack and books were gone. Obviously, he wasn’t ready to start talking to her again. She sighed heavily and went to the mirror to give herself one last Jake-check. As she stood there, she started listening to the words of the song, about finding the people of your own and taking off your camouflage…

 

Why does a willow weep when all I see’s a tree grow?

All in camouflage everyone I know

We walk along like a sequel, you’re a cameo

You’ve got your joy

So find the people of your own

I’ll take in anyone who’s taking off their camouflage

 

She walked over to the stereo and shut if off. That was a direction she did not need to take her thoughts at the moment. With one last glance in the mirror, she grabbed her books and headed off to class.

 

It didn’t surprise Jake that Hamilton didn’t come to the art room for lunch. She thought about going to find Scout and Bella in town, but didn’t want to interrupt their couple time. And what if Hamilton suddenly changed his mind and did come by but she wasn’t there? Besides, she had to admit, hanging out with Scout and Bella wasn’t likely to improve her mood because it wasn’t Scout and Bella she was lonely for.

 

It didn’t help that when Jake opened her astronomy notebook to finish up some homework, she discovered the picture Hamilton had given her tucked between the pages. She stared at the swirl of stars for a long time as she finished her lunch.

 

What did surprise Jake was that by eight o’clock that evening, Hamilton still hadn’t been back to the room. There was no denying it by that point, she was miserable without him. Apparently, she was way more into clingy than she’d realized. Or, the other possibility . . . she was way more into Hamilton than she’d realized.

 

And that thought was sufficiently terrifying to send Jake racing for the comfort of her bike and her spot.

 

 

Escalation

 

As she sped along the back roads at dusk, Jake started planning what she would say to Hamilton when he came out of hiding. An apology was definitely in order. Though her feelings had been justified, she could have just talked to him instead of flipping out.

 

She needed to make it clear that, despite everything she’d said, she liked having him around. If there was one thing the last twelve hours had taught her, that was it. Of course, it would be easier to share this discovery with him if she could actually find him . . . .

 

As if in answer to her prayers, when Jake pulled up to the path to the church ruins, the first thing she saw was Kate Fleming’s car. She hurried through the woods and found him amidst the remains, lying in the grass, staring up at the sky.

 

“Hamilton?”

 

Startled, he scrambled to his feet.

 

“What are you doing here?”

 

She smiled. He’d spoken to her.

 

“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

 

“Right. Your spot,” he said.

 

“That isn’t what I meant. I’ve been hoping—”

 

Hamilton wouldn’t let her finish.

 

“It’s your space and I’m invading it. Isn’t that what you meant? Because I think you made yourself pretty clear last night.”

 

“I shouldn’t have said what I said last night…” she began.

 

“You shouldn’t have said it, but you still meant it. Is that what you’re trying to say?”

 

“Not exactly. If you’d just let me explain…”

 

“You know what? Don’t bother. Because I don’t even want to be in ‘your space’ right now.” He walked past her and headed for the trail back to the road.

 

“God, Hamilton, will you just wait?”

 

He spun back around. “No, I'm not going to wait. Because I don’t want to hear anything that you have to say. You pushed me into this stupid friendship and I bought into it. If it wasn’t for you, my life would be a lot simpler.”

 

“And a lot lonelier.”

 

“See, that’s exactly what I mean. Stop talking like you know what’s best for me. You made me believe that stuff like friends and fitting in actually meant something. I made an effort because you wanted me to. And then you get mad at me for trying too hard? Well, screw that and screw you because I am done trying.”

 

“Look, why don’t we just go back to the room and—“

 

The room? Don’t you mean your room?”

 

Our room,” she insisted.

 

“Not for long. I’ll have my stuff out by Sunday.”

 

“You don’t have to do that . . . .”

 

“I know,” he said in a bitingly sweet tone, “but I want to.”

 

Jake took a deep breath. Maybe he still needed a little time.

 

“You’re obviously really upset. Maybe we should talk about this later.”

 

“Whatever. I’m going home. To my house.”

 

He stormed all the way back to his car without looking over his shoulder. He had some fantasy that she would chase after him and confess everything in an effort to win back his friendship. He sat in the car a minute longer than necessary, waiting. But she didn’t come and he drove off, completely disenchanted.

 

Back in the clearing, Jake dropped down to the grass and stretched out to look at the stars. No point pursuing him when he was like this. She’d have to try again in the morning. Oh well, she thought, at least we made it beyond the silent treatment.

 

 

Détente

 

To Hamilton’s relief, his parents were asleep by the time he got home. He wasn’t in the mood to try to explain why he wasn’t sleeping in the dorms. He was equally relieved in the morning to find they’d already gotten up and out of the house by the time he forced himself out of bed and into the shower. They probably didn’t even realize he’d spent the night.

 

Hamilton resolved to go to Boston as planned. Though he’d never shopped for clothes on his own before and knew he’d be lost without his mom’s company and advice, he wasn’t about to tell her that Jake hated him and refused to go. He was going alone and, damn it, he was going enjoy himself. And Jake, with her entourage of issues, could just go to hell. He left the house, slamming the door behind him.

 

Minutes later, Jake was standing in front on the same door, also full of resolve. This time Hamilton was going to stay put and they were going to talk. She rang the doorbell, knocked on the door, waited. No answer.

 

Instead of going back to her room, she decided to try the art room. No Hamilton, but Kate was there and looked quite surprised to see Jake standing in the doorway.

 

“Jake? What are you doing here, dear? I thought you and Hamilton would have left by now.”

 

“Oh, well, actually—“

 

“You haven’t. Obviously,” she smiled and fished something out of her purse. “I’m glad, actually. I forgot to give him this shopping list.”

 

Jake reluctantly took the list from Kate’s outstretched hand.

 

“You know,” Kate continued, “I’ve been meaning to tell you how glad I am that you and Hamilton have become friends.”

 

Jake offered a weak smile.

 

“I can’t believe he didn’t want me to go today. This is something we’ve shared for a really long time.”

 

Jake opened her mouth, but closed it again. What could she say?

 

“Not that I’m disappointed exactly,” Kate clarified. “It just reminds me that he’s growing up.”

 

“We all do,” Jake offered.

 

“I know. It just seems to happen so fast. Every time I see him, he’s different. He always seems to be experiencing something new, discovering some new emotion.”

 

“He’s really lucky to have someone that pays so much attention,” Jake said, looking down at the list in her hands as she started folding in into smaller and smaller boxes.

 

“If only he wanted my attention. But he has you and Scout and Will. He likes you all so much.”

 

Jake shifted guiltily and glanced toward the door. She really couldn’t stand to hear much more.

 

“You especially,” Kate continued. “He talks about you all the time. In fact, you seem to be all Munchie talks about anymore.”

 

Jake had been looking down in embarrassment, but something in Kate’s tone made her look up. For a second, she could have sworn Kate was actually frowning, but before Jake could be sure, she was smiling again.

 

“Anyway, I’m keeping you,” Kate said noticing Jake’s fidgeting. “I wouldn’t want Hamilton to leave without you. Not that he would . . . .”

 

“Yeah, I better go,” Jake said glancing down again at the list, which was now a tiny cube. “I’ll see you, Kate.”

 

Hamilton had only pulled into New Rawley and he already wanted to turn around and go back to campus. If he had to spend the day alone, he’d rather spend it in a boat on the lake. Of course, if he didn’t do something more distracting than that, he was bound to spend the whole day thinking about Jake. And that was not what he wanted. But in reality, that was what he was already doing—thinking about Jake—and going to the mall wasn’t going to change that.

 

As much as he wanted to blame her for everything, he was desperate to know what he had done wrong. For a few days, he’d thought she was really opening up to him, had expected her to tell him her secret . . . . But she hadn’t told him, and now this.

 

Even when they were having fun together, and he felt they were really connecting, there was always something missing. He thought back to the girl he’d watched through Bella’s window. The one dancing on the bed, singing into an air microphone and doing a strip tease. An unguarded, laughing, happy girl. A girl at ease with a trusted friend who knew everything there was to know about her.

 

He had done everything possible over the last week to make himself that kind of friend—to make her trust him—only to be told he was trying too hard. Only to be accused of not letting her sleep, of making her fail her geometry quiz, of not letting her get dressed in the morning. How ridiculous. What did he have to do with whether or not she got dressed in the . . . ?

 

And then it dawned on him—what should have been obvious—she couldn’t change in the morning with him in the room. That’s why she was always in bed when he went to shower and always fully dressed when he got back. It was her carefully engineered system, and he had fucked up the routine.

 

Suddenly Hamilton saw clearly that Jake’s secret life at Rawley wasn’t as simple as the things she said or the clothes she wore. He saw that it was composed of dozens of these little procedutes and clever tricks—and that his arrival in her single room had probably doubled that number.

 

“Oh, man,” he said aloud.

 

He’d been pushing her buttons that morning without even realizing—let alone intending—it. It was one thing to make her feel out of control. It was another to actually take her out of control. No wonder she now resented his very presence.

 

“I’m such a jerk,” he muttered as he pulled up to the station to get some gas. He was thankful Bella was away with Scout for the weekend. He didn’t need to run into another girl who thought he was a loser.

 

He stepped out of the car and turned in the direction of the office. As he was expecting Charlie Banks, Hamilton was surprised when another teenage girl walked out.

 

“Hi, what can I . . . .” The dark-haired girl paused when she got a look at him, running a hand through her hair and smiling slyly. “What can I do for you?”

 

“Um . . . gas.”

 

“You’re new. You from Rawley?”

 

He nodded and managed an awkward smile.

 

“You’re hot,” she observed as she walked over to the gas pump in her short sundress and high-heeled sandals. “I’ve got it from here.”

 

“Oh, I can do that.”

 

She turned and ran her tongue over her lips. “This is a full service station.”

 

He didn’t argue. Instead he took a seat on the bench in front of the station and looked around him, his glance falling regularly on the girl, who leaned provocatively against his mother’s car as she filled the gas tank, boldly checking him out and casting flirtatious smiles in his direction whenever she caught his eye. It seemed like the process was taking forever and he finally focused his gaze on his shoes and went back to thinking about Jake.

 

“Thirteen fifty for the gas.”

 

The girl’s voice startled Hamilton, but he recovered, stood up, and pulled fifteen dollars from his wallet. She stepped close and made maximum contact as she took the money from his hand.

 

“Let me just get you your change . . . .”

 

“Thanks okay,” Hamilton said. He put his wallet in his back pocket and glanced at his car, hoping the girl would take the hint and get out of his path.

 

But she stayed right where she was and smiled at him as she slowly folded the bills into fourths and then reached up to slip the money into the bodice of her sundress. His eyes unwittingly followed the movement and landed on her cleavage. He blushed and looked at his shoes again.

 

“Can I get you anything else? I could show you around town.”

 

He was saved from answering by the sound of a motorcycle pulling into the station. Both Hamilton and the girl looked up as Jake dismounted, removed her helmet and sunglasses, and walked toward them.

 

“Hey, Jake,” the girl said.

 

“Grace,” Jake answered.

 

“Bella’s not here this weekend,” Grace announced. “She’s with her boyfriend.”

 

“I know.”

 

Grace ran her fingers through her hair, tilted her head and smiled at Jake.

 

“So you came for me? Finally going to give me that ride I’ve been asking for?”

 

Jake shook her head.

 

“Actually,” Jake said, looking over to meet Hamilton’s eyes, “I came for him.”

 

Grace looked between the two of them and smirked.

 

“It figures,” she said with a sigh. “Well, let me know if either of you change your minds.”

 

She touched Hamilton’s arm and gave Jake a little wave before heading back inside. A silence followed her departure as Jake and Hamilton sized each other up.

 

“So, you met Grace,” Jake said finally.

 

“Not exactly. What are you doing here?”

 

To Jake’s relief, his tone was more curious than hostile.

 

“It’s like I told Grace. I was looking for you.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Actually, I was wondering if maybe I could get a ride to Boston?”

 

“Why do you want to go to Boston?”

 

“Well, I’ve got this friend—who also happens to be my roommate—and he’s going on his first shopping trip without his mother, so I’m a little concerned about what might happen if I’m not there to offer a little guidance. I mean, he’s a really great guy, but there’s only so much orange that I’m going to be able to deal with this coming year. Basically, it’s a potential fashion emergency.”

 

“Emergency?” Hamilton repeated, almost smiling.

 

“Potentially,” Jake said with a straight face.

 

“So how come you didn’t just go to Boston with your roommate in the first place?”

 

“Well, see, that’s the other reason I need to find him today. I’m sorta not sure he’s even speaking to me right now and it’s sorta my fault.”

 

“It’s your fault? Not his?”

 

Sorta. I said some things to him that I shouldn’t have.”

 

“But did you mean them?” Hamilton asked.

 

“Not the way I said them. The thing is, I thought I needed a little space, but instead of just saying that, I blew up at him and made him think that I didn’t want him around at all.”

 

“So you really just don’t want him around as much?”

 

“Well, see, that’s what I sorta thought . . . until we had the fight and I got to see what it was actually like not to have him around.”

 

“What was it like?” Hamilton asked, holding his breath.

 

Jake sighed and looked him straight in the eye.

 

“It totally sucked.” She tried for a grin. “I really missed kicking his ass at Playstation, for one thing . . . .”

 

“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be wiping the floor with him again soon.”

 

“You don’t think he’s still mad at me?”

 

“He probably just feels bad for . . . crowding you.”

 

“He shouldn’t. It’s as much me as him. More. I’m sorta used to the loner thing and I’m not used to having friends this . . .” Jake paused.

 

“Clingy?” Hamilton suggested.

 

“Close,” she corrected. “But it’s not that I don’t want the whole roommate bonding thing. It’s just that it’s more complicated than he can possibly understand. More complicated than I can explain to him right now. And I need a little time.”

 

“Maybe he gets that better than you think. Maybe he’s prepared to be patient.”

 

“You think?”

 

“I know,” Hamilton answered. “So… friends?”

 

“Yeah…friends.”

 

Jake extended her hand and Hamilton shook it, slowly, amazed at the softness of her skin. He blinked and told himself to snap out of it.

 

“So…Boston?”

 

She grinned. “Yeah…Boston.”

 

The End?


| Part 1: Behind Enemy Lines | Reconnaissance Special Features | Feedback | Part 3: Surrender |