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We Are Complicated

Chapter Text

Polar opposites are never healthy to combine.

Take this temperature issue, for one; it’s somewhere near the high 90s outside during this early-September heat wave, and yet this office is somewhere below 40 degrees. Freezing my ass off in a thin, gauzy T-shirt and baggy shorts, I can’t help but to wonder whether or not my goose bumps can double as sandpaper. But just as I start rubbing arm on the back of my chair to see if the wood will scrape away, the door opens and the principal strides in. Caught off guard, I freeze in place, but he isn’t even looking in my direction; the papers in his hands obviously deserve more attention than a teenage delinquent pretending to sandpaper a graffiti-ridden chair. He doesn’t even say hi.

Jerk.

I straighten up and smile sweetly as he plants himself behind his desk, calling out a cheerful “Good morning, Dr. Delmar,” that echoes hollowly in the unnecessarily spacious office. He barely glances up before answering curtly.

“It’s half past one in the afternoon. You can hardly say that greeting still applies.”

I shiver dramatically, but I don’t have to pretend much in this frigid room. “Talk about a cold shoulder,” I mutter, but he ignores me and continues reading his papers.

There’s nothing new to this treatment; Delmar and I go way back, and the positions we are in right now more or less represents our entire relationship. I don’t exactly have the reputation of a saint, and seeing how he was the vice principal at my elementary school before being promoted to the principal here, I’ve been at the receiving end of the infamous Delmar lectures since I was a stupid kid. Now that I’ve upgraded to a stupid teenager, it’s fair to say that my attitude has not improved proportionally to my knowledge in dealing with him.

I wait another patient thirty seconds before letting out a dramatic groan. “Listen, are we doing this detention thing or are you just gonna keep writing in your notebook?”

“I’m busier than you think, Avril,” he tells me testily. “Believe it or not, there are more important things than you going on in this school.”

It’s not unusual for an uptight man like Delmar to be in a bad mood when he’s running one of the most prestigious public high schools in the county. As a near-dropout and a part-time truant, I can’t help but to admire his dedication to such enormous pressure and responsibility. But there’s something about the harried aura about him today that states that he is not even going to bother putting up a diplomatic façade when dealing with me. I sniff to diffuse the tension and mouth a silent “wow,” before braving an idiotic suggestion. “Well, I mean, I don’t want to be any trouble. Should I just go and we forget this ever happened?”

He finally looks up and sighs. “Why are you here?”

“Gee whiz, old man. You’re supposed to be answering that for me.” I sit back and put my feet up on his desk. “All I did was come into this fine building to get my share of the wonderful education the beautiful establishment has in store for me. I wouldn’t want to miss out on any second of it, would I?”

“You skipped the first four periods of the day.”

“Well I got here eventually, didn’t I?”

He raises an eyebrow over his glasses. “There’re two periods left, and one of them, according to your schedule, is a free period.”

“You know me so well,” I say, putting a hand over my heart.

“Beg to differ,” he counters smoothly. “I’m wondering why you bothered coming in at all.”

I pretend to gasp. “Is the principal saying I shouldn’t have come to class?” He gives me a hard look and blinks slowly, so I go on. “Hey, if you insist, I’ll be out of your hair in a jiffy,” I say, grabbing my bag and jumping from my seat.

“Sit,” he says stiffly, rubbing his receding hairline. He waits until I’m slumped back in the chair before continuing. “You know, it’s actually surprising how long you lasted. What’s it been? Two? Three weeks since you’ve been here?”

I shrug because I neither know nor care.

“And of all charges to be brought in for.”

“You make it sound like I was arrested.”

“After seeing you for much more drastic accounts, its refreshing to see such a low-key offense as ‘tardiness’ on your detention card,” he steamrolls on over my indignant comment.

“Amazing, innit? Through all of my delinquency, I manage to keep a good four-month streak of coming to school on time,” I say, mocking pride.

“Because you ran out of absent exonerations,” Delmar clarifies.

“Yup,” I say, stretching out the Y and popping the P.

As a county policy, the high school allows only three unexplained absences out of the entire semester, with the exception of emergency situations or family deaths. I used up mine within the first month just for the hell of skipping classes, and I managed to evade detention up to now by actually attending classes and arriving on time; tardies can eventually add up to absences.

“So why today?” he asks.

I sink down in my seat and blow out a slow breath through my teeth. “You see, it’s a long story,” I start in an obviously fake cheerful voice.

“Save it,” he says, holding up a hand. “Honestly. The semester ends in five weeks and you couldn’t just make it until then?”

“Listen, Doc. When you take into consideration all the terrible, terrible things I’ve done up until now, getting caught for a few missed classes is really no big deal.” I smile sweetly and lean over to pluck a piece of candy from the little tray on his desk. “This is just a speeding ticket for a delinquent like me.”

“Glad to know that you acknowledge that you are a delinquent,” he mutters, watching me with disapproval as I once again grab my bag and stand to leave. “A week’s worth of lunch detention. Room 109,” he calls after me.

“Yeah, yeah,” I say, rolling my eyes. I close the door on him before he can say anything else. The secretary hands me a detention slip with barely a glance, and I snatch it up in the same manner. I march out of the office with hardly a trudge in my step.

Immediately I’m knocked sideways off my feet and into the wall when someone rams into me full-force. “Yo!” I shout indignantly shoving the attacker roughly away.

“’Yo’ yourself!” an angry voice retorts. “Of all days to skip class, you skip the one where they assign project partners for chemistry!”

I adjust the strap of my bag and trade a brief glare with the girl in front of me.

Standing a whopping height of five foot and change and weighing a hundred pounds soaking wet, no one would expect someone as small as Paige Kirby to be much of a threat, but for someone her size, she can really pack a punch. It’s actually pretty intimidating how much ferocity that little body can pack. But most of the time, she’s calm, collected, and keeps to herself; she mainly resorts to harsh sarcasm and demeaning insults and only uses violence as self-defense. Despite the fact that she hangs out with an idiot rebel like me, she’s reasonably smart and capable of handling her life with one hand tied behind her back.

“Chemistry project?” I repeat dumbly. “Partner?”

“The big final project for chem? Remember? Assigning partners today?” She raps on my forehead with a knuckle. “Is any of this ringing a bell in there?”

“Shit,” I mutter, running a hand through my hair. “I forgot that was today. I’m guessing we weren’t…?”

“No. Selick paired up the absent kids first. And I got stuck with Bitchy Liz again like damn I have some crap luck with that girl,” she groans.

“And your partner isn’t a stroll through the park either.”

I dread the answer. “Who?”

“That Taylor chick. You know, the one who’s in like every single club and sport imaginable?”

“You mean that goody-two-shoes honor student that dresses like a librarian? Oh god, I heard she’s insanely smart but a pain in the ass to deal with. She doesn’t like rule-breakers.” She gives you a pointed look before adding, “like you.”

I make a loud, wordless sound of dissatisfaction and throw my fists around aimlessly. Of all days I come in late, I had to miss the one chemistry class that actually mattered. Feeling sorry for both myself and Paige, I mutter a quick apology about not being there for her.

“You better be sorry. Man, where were you? I thought you weren’t going to skip anymore since you were out of absent exonerations.” She peers into my face with faint concern. “And you’re acting…unusually meek. You okay?”

“Yeah,” I brush off. “I was out all night. I totally slept in and missed half the damn day. Seriously though, Paige.” I clasp my hands in front of my chest and bow my head slightly, holding back a smile to show her that I’m not completely selling myself. “I’m really, really sorry. I’ll make it up to you someday. Somehow.”

“You’re damn right you will. Oh, and I have a message. From Taylor,” she adds, not even bothering to hide a disapproving frown. She elaborates in a snobbish voice when I motion for her to go on. “’Meet me at the library after school. In the study room by the fire exit.’ Oh, and I think she said something about a textbook or a notebook. But I kind of tuned her out after that.”

“Great.” I sigh. “A project due in a month and she already wants to meet.”

“Yo, I have to go. I’m supposed to be in the bathroom.” She gives me a light punch on the shoulder and rushes down the hallway. “Good luck with Miss A-Plus-Plus-Overachiever. Call me afterwards.”

“Yeah. See you.”

I watch her speed back towards her class, feeling a lot more disappointment than I would ever admit. I’m not so much as bummed about having Taylor McPerfect as my partner than about not having Paige. I know how she works and she knows how I work; although we might not be hard workers individually, we make a great team when collaborating together. It’s hard to find a partner who can tolerate and manage me
as well as Paige does, and I can guarantee that someone as uptight as Taylor could never accomplish something like that.

Filled with an overall hatred for this day, I shrug off the wall and make my way to my next class, feet dragging the entire way.

Chapter Text

The school library is unusually packed for a lazy Monday afternoon, and I barely manage to snag the last study room near the back corner of the room. The air conditioning is on full blast everywhere in the building to fight off the heat wave, and my bare arms erupt in goose bumps. I settle down at the lone table, knowing that my involuntary project partner is not the punctual type. I huff out a breath of impatience and take out a notebook to start my homework; there is nowhere else on earth I’d rather not be right now than here in this library, meeting up with someone I barely even know but already resent.

Avril Lavigne. Bottom percentile for both freshmen and sophomore year. Straight C student with minimal participation in school activities. The bane of the faculty and the shame to the school’s reputation. Usually surrounded by a small group of fellow delinquent friends. But despite her less-than-impressive record, a majority of the student body speaks her name with an ironic sense of respect; her reputation as the typical “bad girl” had attracted the attention of upperclassmen back when she was still a freshman, mainly within the male demographic.

And then there’s me. Perfect, flawless, honor student Taylor Swift. Top of the class for both freshman and sophomore year. Varsity softball player and record-setting track star. All the teacher’s favorites and the shining face of the student body. Referred to constantly as the poster child for the picture-perfect high school student. But with that comes pressures to succeed, overbearing responsibilities, and more friends than I can keep track of. Sure, I have a gigantic head start in terms of a future outside of the fast food business, but watching people like Avril live life as she wants to with no regrets makes me secretly jealous; from my perspective, truants like her lead much simpler lives.

There are a lot of things I wouldn't admit out loud.

That jealousy is a secret that will never pass through my lips.

It’s not that I hate my life; that would be a terribly selfish thing to say. My report cards in elementary and middle school were decked with A’s, and the same goes to my transcript so far in my high school career. My name is synonymous with success, I already have colleges scouting me for sports, and I have a few of the best universities in the region on my safety list. Like I said: there’re enormous pressures to succeed. Any time not spent with friends or at after school practice is spent studying, and my schedule is so packed I barely have time for myself. It’s my third year of high school and I have yet to attend any of the semester dances. I have yet to attend a sports event where I am not a player on the field or a performer in the marching band. I have yet to attend a single party.

But I have an image to keep up. Everyone I know — friends, family, classmates — sees me as the diligent role model, and that is a title I am proud of having and maintaining. I already have a reputation in this school because of my relationship tendencies, but I can brush those aside with academic excellence. As long as I can serve as an example to the students in this school, I would feel like I could leave a part of myself behind when I graduate.

Not too eager to put up the same image for someone like Avril but anxious to get this unfortunate partnership over with, I tap my pen impatiently against the blank notebook page. No sooner than I start do I hear a set up trudging footsteps approaching the study room; the reluctant drag of her sneakers on the floor is more than enough of a giveaway of her identity, and I try not to heave out a sigh.

Even before she opens her mouth I know she’s going to throw a snide comment about my outfit, so I mentally prepare myself to turn the other cheek and be the bigger man.

“Nice dress, princess. You headed to a wedding?”

It takes some effort, but I manage to paste a serene smile on my face before turning slowly to face her. “College interview,” I say shortly but not rudely. “Also known as the reason why I wasn’t in class. You too?”

She scoffs. “Yeah, right. I didn’t even know colleges take interviews.”

I try my best to hide my surprise at her nonchalance towards her entire future. Maybe I should’ve expected this kind of attitude from her, but hearing her actually not give a single damn about her education in person is a bit more unsettling than hearing rumors about her misbehavior. Nonetheless, I wasn’t about to be frazzled by this girl, no matter how much of an idiot she may be; besides, it’s only one project. I’m used to pulling the weight for group assignments, and Avril isn’t the first slacker I’d had to deal with.

I take a deep breath and dive right into it. “Well, I thought we’d get started a little early. At least pick a topic so we can start on research as soon as possible. Sound good?”

Her nose turns up at the mention of research. Dropping her near-empty bag to the floor and throwing herself into a chair before propping her feet up on the table right next to my notebook, she crosses her arms and says crossly, “But the project’s due in a month.”

“There’s no crime in getting a head start,” I reply, all businesslike.

For some absurd reason, she raises a hand as if she’s sitting in class. I play along with utter reluctance, forcing patience into my voice as I call on her. “Yes?”

“Yeah. Hi. Total slacker here. I really was not planning on starting any time this week. Or the next.” She pauses before adding another, “Or the next.”

“So let’s switch it up a bit and take a break from procrastination.” I straighten my back and flip to a new page in my notebook before meeting her less-than-happy expression with a cool, professional one. “Any topics in mind?”

Her eyes narrow a bit but I refuse to back down. Seeing her rep — both social and criminal — from middle school until now, I have no doubt that she could beat me up with both hands tied behind her back, but we’re in a public setting; the worst she would dare to do is walk out and refuse to contribute any work, and that’s nothing I can’t handle.

She surprises me by raising her hand again, but this time she doesn’t wait for me to call on her. “Okay, well you should know that all I know about chemistry is stoichiometry.”

I fumble with my words at her uncharacteristic cooperation but manage to keep a composed expression. “That’s going to be a little difficult to work with, seeing how this is a presentation and not a test.” I throw open all the file cabinets of my brain, searching for any kind of project we can do with a mathematical topic like stoichiometry.

“Mmhm,” she nods as if she knows something I don’t. “Well. I can’t be of much help in any other topic. So unless you want to do the project alone, I suggest you think of a way around that speed bump.”

This is a hell of a lot more participation than I expected, and it takes me a second to adjust my outlook towards this project. I take a brief moment to weigh the pros and cons; yes, it would be helpful to have a cooperative partner on such a big project, but then again, it might be easier to work alone on a much simpler topic. If we stick to a rigid topic like stoichiometry, it might prove to be too difficult for us.

Yet it was Avril’s cooperation that had me leaning back towards working with her. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I can’t resist wondering what it would be like to work collaboratively with such an infamous slacker like her.

“Fine,” I finally say. “I’ll think of a presentation we can do based on stoichiometry, and it’ll be extremely helpful if you can brainstorm also. We’ll meet again on Friday and see what we can agree on.”

“Whoa wait up. Friday?” she asks, suddenly alert. “That’s the day of Winter Fling.”

“So?” I ask, fully aware that the dance is at night, not right after school. “We can finish up before 5. That’s plenty of time before the doors open.”

She sniffs. “Yeah, if all you’re doing is dressing up. Me and my friends are getting together hours before it starts. And we have to be dressed and ready by then so…well, would you look at that. Leaves no time for project talk.”

I raise an eyebrow. “You guys are pregaming for the dance?”

“Wow. Such a fun word from such a not-fun person,” she says snidely. “I’m surprised you even know what pregaming is.”

“I’m a killjoy, not an idiot.”

“Wow. A confession from the killjoy herself. Well then,” she says with an infuriating smirk. “I’m guessing there’s got to be a wild side under that pristine honor student mask.”

“Excuse me?” I ask icily.

“Do you ever let loose? Ever?” She leans forward and rests her arms on the table. “Do you act like you have a stick up your ass around your friends too?”

“That’s none of your business, seeing how you and I will never have that kind of relationship,” I counter before I can stop myself.

“Whoa, whoa. Make way for the Sass Queen. That one burned a bit.” With her hands in the air in a mock gesture of surrender, her expression of fake surprise makes my blood start to boil unpleasantly. “I was just saying. You gotta drop that perfect-student act once in a while and be yourself.”

“’Act’?” I repeat. I feel my polite smile slipping off my face and dropping to the floor, but I could care less if I don’t have it on for someone like Avril. “What ‘act’ are you talking about?”

“Oh, stop kidding yourself, princess. You see how you’re talking to me right now?” Her mouth tugs up in a half-smile. “Is this how you deal with irritating project partners? Or are you usually that polite priss I was talking to not three minutes ago?”

I don’t have a quick enough response, and that hesitation more or less confirms her accusations. She sits back with a satisfied grin stretching across her face, and something about that smugness makes me want to reach over the table and rip the unnecessary confidence off her face. But instead I sit there fuming silently, collecting all my anger and piling it under one pissed-off frown.

“Then again,” she starts, tipping her chair back and wiggling her eyebrows, “you do have quite a reputation, don’t you? With the guys, I mean.”

Something large and unpleasant slithers down to my stomach and sends it into painful somersaults. I had expected her to attack me about this right away, and this late in the conversation, it was more of a curveball than anything.

“That’s none of your business,” I say in a voice that doesn’t quite manage to stay steady.

“Hell yeah it’s not, but that don’t mean the school don’t gossip,” she replies, putting on a southern accent for some unknown reason. “Man, I thought I had a rap sheet when it came to my contribution to the male population, but you.” She wags a patronizing finger in my direction and wrinkles her nose. “Quite the maneater, aren’t you?”

“Shut your mouth!” I snarl, shooting up from my seat. Somewhere in the back of my mind I hear my conscience begging me to control my temper, but I could give less of a shit about that right now. “You don’t know anything about me!”

“No, obviously not,” she snarls back, also jumping to her feet. “Only by reputation. Which is all you know about me. So how about you start caring less about what we’re rumored to be and focus on getting this project over with so we never have to deal with each other again?”

“Excuse me? You’re the one who wants to fool around instead of meeting up to pick a topic and you think you have the right to tell me to focus?”

She raises an eyebrow. “I never said I prioritize fun. I’m saying that we don’t necessarily need to meet up on that day.”

“Spoken like a true slacker,” I sniff.

“Hey,” she says indignantly, throwing herself back down in her chair. “Don’t talk to me like I’m an idiot.”

“That’s rich, coming from someone who has a GPA that can be counted on two fingers. Oh. Sorry,” I say sarcastically, “Two and a half.”

She scoffs. “Well, well. Look at Ms. Pretentious here. Been off your high horse lately?” She stands again suddenly, cutting off whatever I was about to say. “You think GPAs really determine the intelligence of a person? Huh? Can you hotwire a car? Do you know the difference between a blunt and a joint? How to tell if your drink is spiked?”

I open my mouth to speak but she cuts me off by shoving a hand in my face.

“Yeah, you probably think those are just delinquent skills,” she says, guessing my words exactly, “But they’re also things you’ll wish you knew when you’re in these sticky situations.”

“Or maybe I’ll be smart enough to avoid said sticky situations because I know better.”

“Fat chance.”

We glare at each other for a tense moment before Avril snatches up her bag and shrugs a shoulder. “Friday. Right after school.” She tosses a folded piece of paper at me, and I fumble it pathetically before crushing it in a panic. “Better make it quick.”

I almost rip the paper while unfolding it, hoping to god that it isn’t some childish drawing or a profanity. Instead I find one word scribbled in the center of the sheet, written in capital letters and underlined as if it doesn’t draw enough attention as the sole mark on the paper.

“’Oxidization’?” I read out loud. I look up at her for an explanation, but she’s long gone. With a rattling groan I crumple up the paper and chuck it at the garbage. “That’s your big idea?” I ask the empty room, praying that no one hears me mumbling to myself. “A whole presentation on oxidization. Great. Shouldn’t be hard to plan at all.”

I throw myself back down in my chair and heave out a sigh.

Friday is now just another day to dread.

Chapter Text

“Wow.” 

“Yeah.” 

“I’m actually impressed.”

I look up from my locker to give Paige a questioning look. “Impressed?” 

“Well, I mean. I didn’t think you guys would last three minutes without killing each other,” she says with a dry laugh. “And now you’re telling me you lasted the entire meeting without any physical harm? Yes. I’m impressed.” 

I twitch my nose in a noncommittal way and shove my notebooks in my bag. Truth is, I can’t help but to secretly agree with her. Both of us had lost our tempers during that short meeting, and I had seen a side of Taylor that I really hadn’t expected; if anyone else had talked to me like she had, I probably would have punched her lights out. 

“It was weird,” I admit. “She totally pushed my buttons and I didn’t want to pulverize her. It was actually kind of fun.”

“Fun?” Paige repeats with disbelief. “You know, when you said you didn’t want to talk about what happened during that study session and then proceeded to avoid the topic for the next three days, I assumed ‘fun’ was the last thing you experienced.” 

I shrug, but realizing how nonverbal I’m being and getting an uncomfortable sense that Paige is reading into that fact, I force out a laugh. “What can I say? There’s something about pissing her off that makes me feel happy, you know?” 

Which isn’t far from the truth. That goody-two-shoes attitude and that regal, elegant aura that floats around her head deserve a good slap in the face, and I was glad to deliver that blow. Seeing her fling around her academic excellence like a weapon to attack those even a step below her, Taylor had labeled herself as a typical pretentious smartass in my books. With decent wealth, a wide circle of friends, and good looks, she is the manifestation of every high schooler’s dreams. 

And then there’s me. Poor, uncivilized, juvenile delinquent Avril Lavigne. Terrible grades, terrible attendance, and a rep sheet that would scare away any sane college admissions officer. A crappy family life and only a handful of people I can call my friends. But hey, I also have good looks, so it all works out. 

It’s no big secret that I’m not a big fan of institutions; rules and regulations have never been a big part of my morals and values. My philosophy revolves around doing whatever the hell makes you happy, and for me, that’s skipping out on the prison that calls itself “school” and indulging myself on the rule-less world of teenagehood. The only downside to those kinds of actions would be the lame labels I get slapped with: a punk, a rebel, a troublemaker, a delinquent, and — my personal favorite — a bad influence. But I honestly could not give less of a shit about what people called me. Two more years in this hellhole of a school, one more year until the liberating age of eighteen, and I’ll be out of here before anyone knows I’m gone. The only person I planned on keeping in touch was with Paige.

And I know that the best ticket out of here is a good education, but my laziness combined with my outright hatred towards the school system had crushed that potential under a studded combat boot. The next best exit path was talent, but my lukewarm interest and skill in music is not enough to land me any kind of career that would launch me out from this rut. When this year started I had vowed to try harder in education long enough to make a decent reputation out of myself; that mentality had lasted for about two weeks before I sank back into the “fuck it” routine of skipping classes and deliberately avoiding any form of school work. The only thing that boosts my motivation is Delmar’s occasional demeaning lectures that make me want to prove his pretentious ass wrong. 

Posers like Taylor are the least of my problems; I’ve been dealing with and putting down stuck-up pricks like her since my age was in the single digits. But there’s something other than twisted satisfaction about yesterday’s meeting that’d been bugging me, and when I realized last night that the feeling was pride, my stomach had started bubbling uncomfortably. 

“D’you think it’s wrong?” I ask suddenly. “Like. Feeling proud for making someone act totally out of character? Prompting someone who’s supposed to be really compassionate and tolerant into being a complete asshole?” 

Paige slams her locker closed and leans a shoulder against it, watching me pack. “Well. It’s not wrong, strictly speaking. In my opinion, you’re actually bringing her into her true character, but that’s just my take. What’s with you, anyway?” she asks with a concerned smile, “You usually have no morals about this stuff. I mean a second ago you were bragging about how you enjoyed pissing her off.” 

“Yeah, but . . .” 

She cocks an eyebrow. “But?” 

I suck in a breath through my teeth and kick my locker closed. “I don’t know, man. There’s something about this that makes me feel . . . icky.” 

“’Icky’?” she repeats with a laugh. “Such a grade-school word from such a cuss-stained mouth.” 

“I mean, you’re right; stuff like this never bothered me before,” I say, ignoring her comment. “But with Taylor it’s like I . . . like I broke something that was begging to be broken but feeling regret afterwards. Like. Like! That time your uncle let us smash up that old junk car but then we were talking about how we could’ve fixed it up instead, remember? Yeah. See, Taylor’s stupid façade is that car and I’m regretting breaking it even though it was the most fun I’ve—” 

“Oh, god,” Paige cuts in. “You’re babbling. You’re babbling and using ‘like’ excessively and speaking in metaphors that make no sense.” She hooks a finger on the edge of my bag to peek inside. “And you’re actually taking notebooks home. God, what the hell did that girl do to you?” 

I yank my bag out of her reach. “Point is, I’m going to be late to our meeting and she’s going to blow a gasket again. And it’s weird because I’m looking forward to it.” I pause and give Paige a puzzled look. “Is it weird that I’m looking forward to it?” 

“No, but the fact that you’re asking is pretty damn weird.” She laughs and crosses her arms. “Dude. Avril. My god. You sound like you’re joining her parade of failed suitors. Soon you’ll be swooning for her like all those other poor saps.” 

“Gross,” I say with a laugh, shoving at her. “God, it’s hard to believe someone like that had so many relationships. How did they deal with the plastic smiles and better-than-thou attitude and decided that they want to date that?” 

Paige shrugs. “Maybe she’s a charmer at first.” 

“Poser.”

“She’s just one of those girls.” 

“One of those girls,” I agree. “Which sucks because if she embraced her inner bitch a little more, we probably could’ve been bros.” 

“Maybe,” she says with absolutely no conviction. “Just keep in mind that she’s nothing but trouble for you.” 

I smile thinly. “Well, not grade-wise. If nothing else I’ll at least get a good grade on this project either way.” With a sigh I drag my feet away from my locker and into the hallway. “I have to get going. Meet you at Manny’s at five?” 

“We’ll be waiting.” She gives me a tight smile as I clap a hand on her shoulder. 

Nowhere on my list of ideal Friday afternoon activities is there anything about working on a group project with the fakest bitch in town but I mentally kick myself towards the library, chanting a mantra about good grades and more optimistic futures.

But despite my lukewarm efforts, I have so much built-up frustration when I enter the library that I can’t even try to wipe the scowl off my face. Taylor is sitting diligently at a table, infuriatingly calm and collected as if nothing bothers her. That only spikes my hatred towards my unwarranted pride even more. I take my miraculously half-filled bag, raise it high above my head, and drop it down on the table right in front of Taylor’s nose.

She jumps violently and utters a near-silent gasp that brings me sick satisfaction. 

“What the hell is your problem?” she asks stiffly. “And don't,” she raises a hand when I try to speak, “give me any crap about having to meet up on a Friday afternoon when you could be partying with your friends before the fling.” 

I narrow my eyes and wrinkle my nose at her. But I can't hold back the smile for long. 

“What're you smirking at?” she says sharply, making a disgusted expression to compete with mine. I shrug and throw myself down in a chair across from her. 

“I was planning to piss you off again until you transformed into your sassmaster alter-ego, but looks like my presence is enough of a trigger.” I drop my expression. “I'm so honored.” 

“Don't flatter yourself,” Taylor says, giving an infuriatingly fake laugh. “I realized that it's a worthless effort putting up a polite front for someone like you.” 

“Aha!” I scream. The library falls silent and all eyes lock onto me. She stares calmly at me, probably watching with some satisfaction as my face turns red with embarrassment. I wait until everyone turns away before continuing in a forced whisper. “I knew you were consciously putting up that stupid 'I'm a perfect angel' charade.” 

“You're twisting my words, and that's beside the point. Did you come here to talk about my social standing or to get this project over with?” She smiles innocently up at me. “Don't you have a drinking fest you'd rather be at right now?” 

“Why, you little-” 

“Is there a problem here?” 

Mrs. Mathers cuts in rudely, her flat nose and uptight hairdo butting into our business like a preteen gossiper. I mimic Taylor and paste an innocent smile on my face. “No, Mrs. Mathers,” I say sweetly, batting my eyelashes at her. “No problems at all.” 

“Well then pipe down. This is a library.”             

She stalks away and I roll my eyes at her retreating back.             

“Oh yeah. Real mature,” Taylor comments.             

I cough out a laugh. “Because you're the pinnacle of maturity, right?”             

“And what's that supposed to mean?” she fires back.             

“Off topic, remember?” I patronize, tapping her notebook. “You got something you wanna share?”             

She gives me a murderous look before clearing her expression and sliding her notebook towards me. “Well, thanks to your less-than-helpful topic choice, I had to dig up a ton of project ideas for something like oxidization.”             

For someone who immerses herself in academics, she says the last word as if it's a pustule sexual disease. I glance over her notebook and scan my eyes over all of her notes. Almost every inch of the paper is covered in her neat, minuscule writing, and after gingerly turning the page as if the paper is infected with avian flu, I see that she has at least three more pages of notes.             

“You had trouble?” I ask, raising an eyebrow. “This is trouble?”             

“If it was an easier topic, it would be done by now,” she says smoothly.             

I bite back a comeback and reach into my own bag. “Well,” I start, “I guess you top me by a mile.” I flip open my notebook and toss it down in front of her. “But contrary to your belief, I'm not a complete slacker. Whether you like it or not.”             

Now it's her turn to raise an eyebrow. Both of them, in fact. Her skeptic look fades into one of unhidden amazement and disbelief. She flips through my notebook — actually reading the notes unlike me — before leaning back in her seat and giving me a puzzled look. 

“Wow,” she says simply.             

“'Wow'? That's all I get?”             

She drags her notebook over and places it side-by-side with mine. “Look at this information. They're pretty much identical.”          

“So?” I sniff. “Like you said, it's a hard topic. I don't think there're that many sources that dive into such a fun and everyday subject like chemistry.”             

“But that's the thing,” she insists. “I used pretty discreet sources that isn't wikipedia. And you wrote here,” she says, pointing to a messy scrawl in the margins of my notes, “that you used the same websites I did.”             

She looks up and meets my blank look. “So you're saying that you're surprised I could work a search engine. And that I wouldn't just click on the first link that popped up, which, inevitably in this day and age, would be a wikipedia page.” I give her a humorless smile. “What, you got no faith in a stupid punk kid like me? That hurts.” 

“A stupid punk kid with feelings that can be hurt?” she counters sharply. “Well now, that sure is a breaking of stereotypes.” 

We glare at each other over the table, neither of us wanting to be the one to look away first. Thankfully Taylor breaks the eye contact, tossing me my notebook and scoffing unpleasantly. 

I find my mouth spewing words before I can hold them back. “What’s your problem with me?” I snap, failing to control my anger. “What the hell makes you act all high and mighty around me, huh? Is it because I’m a loser and a slacker? Because I’m dirt under your shoes?” 

“Same problem you have with me, I’ll bet,” she fires back. “Oh, don’t look so surprised; I’m treating you exactly the way you’re treating me.” 

“Oh, and what way is that, dare I ask?” I sniff pretentiously. 

“The way everyone expects me to treat you.” She puts on a sly grin when I give her a confused look. Crossing her arms, she explains, “I’m supposed to treat you like dirt because from my standpoint, that’s what you are. Seemingly unintelligent, rude, uncivilized, and primal.”

I hold my tongue, noting how she said ‘seemingly’ before all the insults.

“And you see me as the posh upper class, getting whatever she wants through cunningness and wealth. You are supposed to treat me like the overbearing authority you fight and rebel against. In short, we’re supposed to hate each other.”

“You say it like we don’t,” I laugh.

“Do we?” she asks simply. Her expression remains cool, almost indifferent, but I can’t help but to notice the hint of doubt swimming in her eyes. I have no idea what it means, but my stomach flips uncomfortably. She blinks before I can read into it, and as fast as it came, it’s gone. 

“I know what you’re going to say,” she says, even though I had nothing on my mind. “You think I’m just one of those girls, don’t you? The ones who act all innocent and smart and polite and perfectly angelic when she’s actually a cold-blooded, emotionless whore who gets what she wants no matter what.”

That’s literally the farthest thing from what I was going to say, but I let her continue. 

“And you think that now that I’ve dropped that stuck-up mask for you, you have a right to feel like you completed some ultimate feat when actually, you just managed to land on a side of me so bad I can’t even pretend to care about you.” She smiles. “So congratulations, Avril Lavigne. I officially despise the person you think you have to be around me, and hope that I never have to see your face after this project.” 

I lean back in my seat, not nearly as overwhelmed by her words than the smile on her face. It’s just a little smile, a mere upwards twitch of her lips, and it’s not a new sight for her polite demeanor. But thinking about it now, I know that I haven’t seen such an honest smile on her face yet; in the beginning was her fake, plastic smiles that was more insulting than charming, and then it was all ugly smirks and humorless laughs. This smile is full of life, and even though there’s a hint of teasing behind it, it’s the most genuine show of emotion she’s shown yet.

And for a moment I’m stunned.

But not wanting to be defeated, I sit up and purse my lips. “Wow, you sure are fiery today,” I comment. “Not even bothering to try and act nice.”

“Only following your lead,” she says smoothly.

I flip my notebook closed and toss it into my bag. “So. . .we done here? Great. I’m gonna go now.”

“Hey, wait—!”

“What, we both have sufficient notes, right? So we’re good for today.”

“We still didn’t decide what the hell we’re presenting.”

“And I bet we’ll figure that out later, won’t we?” I stand before she could say anything else and throw my bag over my shoulder. “See you tonight, princess,” I say, winking.

I leave her stuttering angrily behind me.

The hallway outside the library is deserted when I step out, and I dash straight for the exit as soon as the door clicks shut behind me. A blast of cold air hits me as soon as I barrel my way outside, and I welcome the sharp slap back to reality.

What the hell is wrong with me?

I honestly don’t know what just happened. I have no idea why I’m feeling so panicked. I can’t explain why I’m taking deep breaths of frigid air to calm my nerves. Why am I feeling so emotional right now? What the hell did I just feel while talking to someone like Taylor?

Was it. . .attraction?

I shake my head furiously and laugh to myself. “Hell no,” I say out loud, shoving my hands in my pockets and heading to the parking lot. “Not in a million years.”

Chapter Text

I’m only ten minutes late to the dance but it’s already in full swing as if I had missed an hour instead. As a general rule for teenagers to ignore punctuality, I had expected more latecomers, but it seems like I’m the last one here. I stand at the entrance of the gymnasium, embarrassingly overwhelmed by the scale of a high school dance.

I’ve been to most, if not all of my middle school dances; I was the president of the student council and attendance was mandatory for all board members. But the small-scale speakers, cheap snacks, and the mediocre DJ of those dances were nothing compared to our high school’s Winter Fling. Maybe it’s because we’re a fancy-shmancy public school with generous alumni donors and an astounding surplus of financial budget, or maybe it’s because the normal high school quota for loud music and cheap snacks are all covered by prom.

But seeing how this is my first high school dance, I’m taken aback but just how legit it is. There’s a real, professional DJ and authentic sound equipment set up on the back wall, right under the logo of our school mascot. There are tables set up here and there, covered with plastic tablecloths and centered with small, electric candles. In the far corner is a giant table lined with bowls of various chips and dips, already messy with crumbs and spills but still more dignified than the sad bowl of stale pretzels of middle school dances. A large banner bearing the words “WINTER FLING” hangs right across from the entrance, its flashing colors and capitalization making it impossible to ignore. 

This is exactly what I had imagined prom to be like, and if the dress code for prom was button downs and khakis for guys and semi-formal dresses for girls, this fling would probably suffice nicely; the whole gym is packed with excited high schoolers. Dancing. Socializing. Eating. Drinking. Laughing. Talking. 

Having fun. 

Unsure of where exactly I should go first, I hover by the doorway, feeling self-conscious and a little bit lost. But before I can even take a step in whatever direction my feet decide to lead me, someone knocks into me and I wobble drunkenly in my heels before somewhat gracefully regaining my balance. 

“Hey, I didn’t know you were coming!” A voice shouts over the blaring music. 

I give my attacker a harsh look before I realize who it is. 

“Abigail,” I say with slight surprise. 

“You didn’t tell us you were gonna be here!” she exclaims breathlessly. “What! I don’t understand. Why. . .how? What made you come out of your study cave?” 

I search frantically for an excuse and end up letting out a wild laugh. 

“I just. . .you know. Thought I should see what the fuss is all about,” I lie. “I haven’t been to a dance yet so I thought maybe I should get familiar with the scene.” Even as I say it, I hear the stupidity in my excuse. Familiar with the scene? Who the hell says that?

“Better late than never!” Abigail says with a shrug, buying my lie. “Come on!” She pulls me to the snack table and to a gigantic bowl of juice. A punch bowl. I had believed that those things were myths encouraged by Hollywood portrayals of shady prom nights.

“Thanks,” I say, accepting a cup from her. 

“Listen, I’m on student council duty and I have to go pass this message around to the chaperones, but I'll be right back!” Abigail says. She gestures towards the dancing mass. “Go have fun! I'll find you in there!” She runs off before I can call her back.

The last impression I want to give off is one of a lost child, but I have less than zero desire to jump into the fray of the massive crowd. I've never been much of a public dancer, and it seems awkward to start without a friend by my side. As conspicuous as I feel, I decide to wait for Abigail to return before being reluctantly dragged in front of the DJ.

“Excuse us,” comes a drawl. “You done with the punch?”

I recognize the voice and I whirl, almost spilling my drink everywhere. There's a group of at least five intimidating teenagers behind me, dressed in formal wear reeking of punk skater. They all look completely unaffected and unamused by the blaring music, half of them standing with their arms crossed as if everything about this fling offends them. My eyes clap onto the girl standing at the head of the group. Wearing a strapless dress of dark gray equipped with a bright silver chain belt, Avril Lavigne stands with one hand resting on her hip, a smirk on her lip-glossed mouth. But her smooth expression falls to the floor as soon as she recognizes me. 

“What the hell?” she exclaims. “Taylor?” 

My heart flips painfully in my chest at the memory of our conversation earlier today in the library. What did I say to her again? I despise you? I never want to see your face after this project? At the time I thought nothing of my words, but seeing her standing in front of me now with none of the hostility she had this afternoon, I can’t help but to feel guilty for shutting her down so hard. 

She gapes and looks me up and down, and I discreetly mimic her actions. The dress, although not made of any kind of semi-formal material, looks amazing on her, and the uncharacteristic heels gives several inches to her short stature. Her makeup is limited to lip gloss and eyeliner, but the difference they make on her complexion is enough for a double take. 

“Wow. Damn,” she says, blinking rapidly. “I didn't know you were coming tonight.” 

I glance at her friends before opening my mouth. “You're the one who said 'see you tonight,' weren't you?” 

She looks surprisingly abashed. “Uh. Well I didn't expect you to take that seriously. Wow, look at you,” she says, suddenly regaining her usual smirk. “The study hound, out of her cave. Get a load of this, guys. The librarian has outfits other than cardigans and granny skirts.” 

Her friends snicker and give me judging glances, and I try not to show any form of embarrassment. Sticking out my chin, I counter, “Well, I wasn't aware that you have shoes other than ripped Converses and your brother’s Jordans.” 

A collective “ohhh!” rises up from her friends, and I can't help but to smile victoriously. Avril turns sharply to face them. “Fuck off!” she spits, and they burst into laughter. It takes a moment for me to realize that she's joking. 

I step to the side and wave my arm regally to the punch bowl. The crew shuffles past me and gathers around the bowl, wondering in excited whispers whether the drink is spiked or not, and in the case it isn't, if they should do the honors. Avril lingers behind, which is unsettling in its own way.

“Good thing you came, though,” she says finally, and it's not the snide remark I had expected. “This Winter Fling's supposed to kick ass, according to the student counsel. And it's true. This DJ isn't a piece of shit like they used to have last year. Good jams.” 

I narrow my eyes at her. “Are you trying to make small talk with me?” I ask incredulously. 

She gives me a sly smile, eyes glittering. “Wouldn't that be something, huh?” 

That's when I notice what she's been toying with. I look around the area and find that everyone within a fifty-foot radius is staring at us. The delinquent and the honor student. Talking it out like normal human beings. No boundaries, no fights, no bloodshed. I look at our interactions from an outsider's point of view and can't help but to relate with all the gaping bystanders.

“What the hell,” I mutter, and she hears me even over the blasting music.

“Boosts your image, doesn’t it? The perfect Taylor Swift, connecting with even the lowest scum this school has to offer.”

“That’s not—” 

“Hey, Avril!” one of her friends calls. “Come on, get over here! Help us decide what to put in this vulnerable beverage!” 

She hesitates before responding. “Nah!” she shouts back. “You guys go ahead. I’m gonna go dance.” 

I make a disgusted sound when she tries to take my hand. “Come on, princess. You know you want to.” 

“I know what I want and it’s not this,” I say, slapping her hand away. “And I’m waiting for a friend. I’d rather go with her.” 

“Oh, please. You’ve had enough of your friends, and you know it. Come on!” She catches my wrist in an iron grip and yanks me off my feet. No matter how much I resist, I can’t get a solid grip on the floor with my heels. We’re in the midst of the dance floor before I know it, and by the time Avril lets go of me, dancing high schoolers surround me on all sides. “Yo!” she says when I stand there awkwardly. “Dance! Let loose! No one here gives a shit if you’re the Queen of England! Move it!” She shoves me and twirls away, jamming to the beat. 

The last thing I want to do is to go along with someone like Avril and publicly humiliate myself, but standing around doing nothing is a hell of a lot more humiliating than actually dancing. So I collect my dignity, heave out a deep sigh of resignation, and start swinging my body to the music. Avril lets out a hoot of victory and jumps over to me with a gigantic smile, and something in my heart sends out an electric shock to the rest of my body. It takes a moment before I realize she’s lip-synching to the song. 

And it’s a duet.

Rising up to the challenge, I shoot her a matching smile and pick up the lyrics where hers trail off. The volume is probably loud enough to drown out our voices, but we keep completely silent as we dramatically mouth the lyrics and make dramatic gestures to fit the words. We’re nearing the bridge of the song when realization hits me like a lightning bolt. 

I’m having fun. 

With Avril Lavigne

We have a crowd of onlookers now, and the two of us are dancing in unison as the song dives into the guitar solo. I look at Avril and see the face I’m supposed to hate, see the kind of girl I’m supposed to despise and look down on. But instead of feeling resentment, all I feel is the exhilarating high of living in the moment and doing something outrageous. The song comes back into the final chorus and we snap back into lip-synching mode, shaking our heads and rolling our hips to match the beat and words. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had this much fun or smiled so much without forcing myself, and when the song winds down to an end, I barely hear the round of applause through the excited buzz in my ear. 

Both of us are panting hard, still frozen in our pose from the last note of the song. We stare at each other across the circle that the crowd had opened up for us, impressed that the other had actually stuck through until the end of the song. We melt out of our positions when the DJ starts up the next song, and this time I don’t need any urging before I start dancing. 

“Last thing I expected,” Avril pants as we stumble off the dance floor and towards the snack table after what seems like two-dozen songs. “You. Dancing. Quite the moves for someone with a stick up their ass.”

I sniff and snatch the empty cup from her hand. “Okay, first of all, you’re the one who forced me to. And second, I do not have a stick up my ass,” I fire back. “You of all people should know.”             

We pause and trade a silent glance. Neither of us misses the unexpected intimacy in that sentence.             

“Lookee here.” We jump at the sudden voice. “Little Avril, all dolled up.”             

I recognize this voice too, and I whirl to face our uninvited guest; my eyes follow the nostalgic upwards flick to meet his stony gaze. Standing six feet and change but weighing less than 140, Stephan Marist gives off the appearance of a badly proportioned marionette doll with his long, swinging arms, slightly small head, and noticeable slouch. Despite being tall and skinny, he has the long and lean muscles of a long-distance athlete, and he's not exactly afraid to show it. As the typical bully in elementary school and the typical jock in high school, he has the reputation of being a general asshole.             

And he also has the reputation of being one of my numerous ex-boyfriends.            

His eyes clap onto me before going wide with shock. “What the hell? Taylor?”            

“Hello to you too, Stephan,” I greet politely.             

“The hell do you want, Marist?” Unlike my tone, Avril's is brusque.             

For a moment we all look at one another with intense confusion, struggling to put together our connections.           

“Wait, you know—?”            

“Her? How did—?”             

“You two meet?”             

Avril holds up her hands and commands attention. “I hate her guts,” she tells Stephan, pointing to me, “and we used to get into serious shit together,” she says to me, pointing to Stephan. “Now you go.”             

“She's my chem partner,” I tell Stephan. “And. . .he's. . .my ex,” I stutter.             

Her jaw drops. “He's your fucking boyfriend?”            

“Ex,” Stephan and I say in unison. We trade a brief look and I feel my stomach roil unpleasantly. I turn quickly to Avril. “What kind of serious shit did you two get into?”            

“Doesn't matter,” he says, elbowing me out of the way and looming over Avril. “You still owe me the money, bitch. And I'll take an extra $50 for interest.”             

“That's not how interest works, dipshit,” she retorts, pushing him away lightly. “And I already paid you back last month. Don't you remember anything?”             

“Bullshit. You told me you'd have it by the fling, and now here we are. So pay up.”             

“Whoa, back up, homie. I don't want to breathe your air. And I'll get it to you tomorrow, kay?”             

“We aren't going through this again, you hear me?” Stephan sighs, and I hear his voice rising in anger. The same anger that had scared me so much that I had been afraid to end our relationship. “You better pay up now, Avril. Or me and my boys, well, we're not afraid to cause a scene. Even here.” As if they had been waiting for a cue, a trio of jocks materializes behind him, cracking their knuckles menacingly.             

“Okay, hold up,” I cut in, throwing caution to the winds and speaking up in a diplomatic voice. “Let's not do this here, all right? You guys deal with your money issues outside or something so no one else gets—”             

“Shut up,” Stephan cuts in, stepping into my space and shoving his face down to mine. “And get the fuck out of my way, Taylor. This is none of your business.”             

“Hey, shove off, you dick.” Avril pulls me backwards and puts herself squarely in between me and Stephan. “I told you I'll give you that money tomorrow, now piss off.”            

“You wish, punk.” He starts advancing towards us, but he pauses. An ugly leer stretches across his thin face. “Unless. . .I'll offer up another form of payment.” He jabs a finger in my direction. “I’ll forget about the money if I get her for the night. Come on, Taylor, help your chem partner out. You don't want us to beat her up, right?”             

He barely finishes the question before his last word turns into a scream of pain. Moving in a blur, Avril crouches down, plants her feet, and swings her fist straight into Stephan's gut. He doesn't even have time to bend over from the pain before she swings her other fist sideways, smacking right into his cheek with the fleshy sound of impact. She whirls around in a tight circle as he stumbles from her blow, lifts one leg, and snaps it out in a deadly kick that hits right below his ribcage.             

Everyone in the vicinity stops whatever they're doing and gapes, open-mouthed, from Stephan, crumpled on the floor, to Avril, standing defiantly with her fists still raised. Her eyes snap to Stephan's back-up crew, who all flinch at the sudden attention. “You pussies couldn't beat me up if you tried,” she spits. When none of them react, she makes an ugly face and takes a threatening step towards them. “Beat it.”             

They scamper away.             

I don't expect her to turn to me, and I can barely stop myself from joining Stephan’s crew and bolting for the door. But she doesn't punch me in the face or kick me in the stomach. “Are you okay?”            

I blink rapidly at the unexpected tone of concern. “Y-yeah,” I say, turning red from the stutter. She barely registers my response before striding over to where Stephan lay. Without any ceremony, she grabs his belt, rolls him onto his back, and crouches over his motionless body. She jerks him up by the collar of his shirt and slaps him back to consciousness.            

“Listen, you dickwad. Your ex is not property up for trade, got it? We're not in the eighteenth century or in some third-world country. She's a human being, and you will fucking treat her that way, understand?” He nods desperately, almost whimpering in pain. She reaches into her bag, takes out her wallet, and dumps a handful of cash on his chest. “There. Now hop off and get the fuck out of my sight.”             

She sidles back to me as Stephan limps out of the gym, casually brushing aside her hair like she didn't just single-handedly toss out one of the biggest bullies in the school. “Sorry about that,” she mumbles. “I didn’t mean to get you involved. That was. . .just. I’m so sorry.”

Her agitation adds to my anxieties, and I smack her arm to get her attention. “Okay, I get it. It’s fine. Just stop freaking out, because you’re making me freak out.”

She stops her rambling apologies and gives me a tired smile. “Sorry. I just. Wow, I’m really sorry that happened. Totally not cool.” 

“Which part?” I ask, “Stephan confronting you about suspicious money dealings or you kicking the living shit out of him?”

“Both,” she admits. “More the first one, but also for the second one.”

I shrug. “No complaints about the second one, actually.”

“Bad breakup?” 

“The worst.” 

She lets out a short laugh. “Glad I could do the honors, then.” The happiness slides from her expression as she looks around the gym. Several of the chaperones are looking in her direction and whispering urgently, and one of them holds another back from striding over. Avril follows my look of concern and groans. “Ugh. I can’t stand this fling anymore. Come on, let’s ditch this joint.” 

I frown, not missing the assumed partnership part of her plan. “What about your friends?” I ask, nervous about being their replacement. 

“Nah, they’re fine. Probably drunk off that punch. What about yours?” 

There’s a beseeching accusation in her look, and I fumble with my words. I should stay. I should stay and find Abigail and the rest of my friends and hang out with them for a while. I can’t just show up to my first Fling and not dance with all of my friends. I should forget Avril and stay with my friends. I’ll have tons of fun with them, too. 

Right? 

My internal turmoil must’ve shown up on my face, because Avril rolls her eyes. “It’s cool,” she says, her tone clipped and disapproving. “You stick around. But I’m peacing out.” She turns on a heel—an impressive feat for someone who never wears any kind of inclined sole—and starts marching towards the door, parting the dancing crowd as she goes. 

The argument inside my mind dissolves into wordless screaming before I snap into a decision. “Wait!” I call, chasing foolishly after her. I catch up right outside the door, and she looks honestly surprised to see me following her. “Let me. . .walk you to your car, at least.” 

“But we walked here.” 

“Then I’ll drive you home. As a gesture of gratitude,” I race to add with wild improvisation. And totally not because I want to spend more time with someone like you

She gives me a confused and slightly amused look; I expect her expression to melt into one of suspicion or disgust before turning me down with one of her dismissive scoffs. 

But what appears on her face is the farthest thing from a look of disgust. 

A. . .a smile? Not sarcastic. Not teasing. A genuine smile, stretching wide across her mouth and making her eyes twinkle. My heart jumps so violently that I almost reel back from the force. 

“Sure,” she says, and I blink out of my daze, embarrassed that I was so moved by something as insignificant as a smile. Just a few hours ago we were spitting fire at each other over a stupid chemistry project. How we would’ve laughed if someone told us we would be dancing and laughing and hanging out together during the fling. If someone told us we would be defending each other against a creep and accompanying each other home. If someone told me I would be craving her company more than the company of my friends. 

Her gaze fixes over my shoulder and her smile fades. 

“Chaperones?” I ask.

“Chaperones,” she confirms. She nods her head towards the door. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

 

*            *            * 

“Oh, my god.” 

“I know.” 

“What the hell?” 

“I know.” 

“But. . .why?” 

“Do you want a ride or not?” I ask with exasperation, holding the door open for her. Her eyes drink in the sight of the vehicle before she reluctantly climbs up through the door.

“Why, oh, why do you have a pick-up truck?” she asks, half-laughing, half-whining. “And it looks so manly.”

“You’re more than welcome to walk,” I snap, turning the key angrily in the ignition. The truck starts up with a hefty roar. I turn up the radio as Avril lets out another laugh. 

“God, it even sounds manly. How did a princess like you get stuck with such a hick car?” 

I slam my foot on the accelerator and shoot out of the parking lot. “Where do you live?” I ask, fiddling with the radio. She gives me brief directions but doesn’t point out how I ignored her question. I fiddle with the radio, avoiding forced conversations and awkward silences. But we barely make it two blocks before Avril turns down the volume. 

“So why did you come out tonight?” she asks. 

“Why wouldn’t I?” 

“Well this is your first fling, isn’t it? What made you come to this one?” 

I narrow my eyes. “What makes you think this is my first fling?” 

“Gossip. Speculation.” She gives a snort. “But it was pretty obvious just looking at you. Hanging around the punch bowl by yourself, waiting up for one friend, hesitating before dancing, like come on.” 

“I didn’t realize I was such a disappointment,” I say icily. “My bad.” 

“But hey. You had fun, right?” 

I frown at her words. Fun? Entering the gym alone, clinging desperately to a busy friend, standing foolishly by the punch bowl, having the whole school witness my association with a delinquent, having an old ex pick a fight with said delinquent, watching as she kicked his ass, and ditching the dance before I saw any of my friends is not my definition of a “fun” night. And yet, here I am, unable to deny the excitement still bubbling in my stomach. 

I did. I had fun tonight, and it was with the last person I would’ve ever expected. 

“I guess,” I shrug. “It certainly was memorable,” I add, going for a neutral comment. 

“Oh, come on. You totally just had the best Friday night of your boring-ass life. It’s a left at this light, by the way.” 

“You don’t know what kind of Friday nights I’ve had,” I shoot back, making the turn sharper than I intended to. “Contrary to your belief, I have fun with my friends too.” 

“Yeah, but how many of those times were as genuine as this one?” She fiddles with the radio even though the music is barely audible. “It’s a right at the next street, and then a left right afterwards.” 

I follow her directions wordlessly, marking her question as a rhetorical one. The brakes squeal embarrassingly as I pull the truck to a stop in front of her house. The windows are dark and there’s no car in the driveway, but I make no comment as Avril unbuckles her seatbelt. She hops out of the car but pauses before closing the door. 

“Okay, seriously. If you could describe tonight in one word,” she says, quirking an eyebrow. “What would it be?” 

My mind jumps to a word, but I bite my tongue and hold it in. I pretend to think about it, tapping a finger against my chin. “Full of surprises,” I conclude. 

“That’s not one word.” 

“Then hyphenate them.” 

She rolls her eyes and snatches her bag from the seat. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Oh! I almost forgot.” She peeks around the half-closed door and winks. “You looked hot tonight, princess.” 

I splutter wordlessly as she slams the door, and she’s way out of earshot before I can even think to return her compliment. My heart does painful somersaults as heat rushes to my face, and I lean back in my seat, watching her marching up her empty driveway and unlocking her door. Only when she looks back to close her door do I step on the gas and drive away, the unspoken word still tingling in my mouth. 

Describe tonight in one word.

She would’ve laughed at me. Told me I was over-exaggerating. Maybe she would’ve even been offended. So I had held it in and gave her a bullshit replacement. This night wasn’t just full of surprises; if I had to sum it all up in one word, I would’ve said something along the lines of. . .

. . .enchanting.

Chapter Text

No. No no no no no. Don’t think about it. Get it out of your head. Come on, Avril, you’re better than this. Get…no. Get that image out of here. No no, no no no no. STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.

I slam my locker closed with enough force to attract the attention of the entire hallway. Hiding burning embarrassment, I turn and start walking away, acting like nothing happened, eyes fixed on the tiles beneath my toes. 

You’re just being an idiot. Don’t overthink it. Stop it, come on. You’re better than that. No, stop thinking about it. Stop it, STOP IT. 

“Watch it!” 

My head rams into something incredibly solid and I reel back from the impact. The guy I ran into makes an ugly face and shoves past me. “Look where you’re going, will you?” he says harshly over his shoulder. 

I don’t have the heart to bite back. 

“Hey!” 

I jump at the angry voice. Paige is marching towards me down the hallway with a murderous look, shoving people left and right to clear her path. By the time she reaches me, the crowd had split to form a pathway for her. 

“You! Yeah, you!” I want to back out of her way like everyone else, but instead I instinctively stand my ground and jut out my chin defiantly. “Don't look at me like that, Avril Lavigne,” she snaps, verbally smacking off my stubborn scowl and melting it to the ground. “You ditch me for lunch, skip out on my weekend plans, ignore our calls, texts, and voicemails for three weeks, and avoid all of us in the hallways. What the hell, man? What's wrong with you?” 

The brutal whip of her voice doesn't hide the anxious tone in the last question. Her fierce expression is one I've seen countless times, filled with both protective fury and intense worry. It's a frightening amount of concern aimed towards me, and I immediately close up and put up my guard. “Nothing,” I mutter, trying for a reassuring smirk. “I've just been...busy with the project, that's all.” 

“The project.” Paige sidesteps and stops me from swerving around her. “The one with Taylor. Right?” She doesn't wait for me to respond. “I'm not an idiot, Avril. I talked to her to ask her what's up with you, and you know what she said? That you guys haven't been meeting up at all. That you do your half of the work, but you collaborate over e-mail and texts. That you have two more days until your presentation and she hasn't exchanged more than two words with you in the last week. Any of this hitting the mark?”

“I...maybe? But look—”

“You really think I don't know what's going on? You don't think I noticed when you dropped into your anti-social mode? You think I haven't seen the way you look at her during class?” She jabs a finger at my nose and backs me up into the lockers. “What happened at the Fling? Jamie said you ditched the gang and left with Taylor before the dance was over, and that you, what, beat Marist to the ground? What the hell is up?”

“I just...I don't...” I growl with frustration. “I don't know, okay? Are you happy? I don't fucking KNOW what's wrong with me and I feel like absolute shit.” 

Paige's expression remains hard, but her tone softens. “Then what're you gonna do about it, huh? What do you want?” 

“What I want,” I snarl, pushing past her, “no, what I need is a night out.” 

*            *            * 

I throw open my closet and scan the racks for the sluttiest outfit I can put together.

“You sure about this?” Paige calls from my bed. “The project’s due in two days. If Taylor finds out, she’s gonna—”

I whirl around and jab a finger at her before growling, “I heard you the first time. And god, stop saying her name.” 

She raises her hands in surrender and drops the subject, but the worry radiates out of her like a magnetic field, pushing at my back with constant pressure. 

It pisses me off more than anything.

Her concern is understandable, of course. Taylor had texted and called about meeting up tonight to work on that dumb project, even going as far as to corner Paige after chemistry to relay the message but I had ignored every single message. Ever since the Fling, I can’t look at her in the eye without feeling an overwhelming sense of panic accompanying the fluttering in my stomach. Even seeing and hearing her name sent uncomfortable chills down my back.             

I yank out a white tank top and hold it against me as I look in the mirror; it’s cheap and reeks of punk skater, but it shows the most skin, so I rip off my shirt and throw it on. I keep my black cargo pants on because of the unbelievably frigid weather outside, but if I had it my way I would have cut up my old jeans into the shortest shorts I could manage. 

“You’re an idiot, you know that?”

With her arms crossed and a harsh frown pasted on her face, Paige looks more or less like a disapproving mother. 

“What makes you say that?” I challenge. She raises her hands again to back off but I press forward. “No. Go ahead. Explain how I’m an idiot.” 

She gives me a look and gestures to my outfit. “This. Really? You’re resorting to this and you’re seriously asking me to explain why you’re an idiot?” I open my mouth to speak but she cuts me off and jumps to her feet. “Look, I get it. You like her, but you’re supposed to hate her. She possibly likes you back but she should hate you right back. And all that’s going to hell and you’re one fucked up mess because, well, let’s face it,” she lets out a dry laugh, “who would’ve thought you of all people would fall for a girl? And a snotty princess at that. And yeah, I understand your panic. But can you please tell me that you’re not stupid enough to hook up with some random guy just to confirm your sexuality or something?” 

I stop myself from swallowing and somehow manage to keep eye contact. From that hesitant silence, Paige gathers all she needs to know and smiles bitterly. Her expression makes me rise up. 

“Hey, you’re the one who always tells me to do what I think is right. And right now, this is what I need. This is how I’m supposed to be, all right?” 

“What, a wannabe badass with a jaded reputation and the sex life of a cheap hooker?” Paige scoffs. “Right, because that’s so much better.” 

One giant step and a fistful of fabric later, I pull Paige up by the collar of her shirt, growing infuriated that her cold, calm expression doesn’t waver. 

“You shut your mouth,” I snarl, “and don’t talk to me like that.” 

“Sorry,” she says without a drop of honesty, “I didn’t mean to scare you with the truth.” She grabs my wrist and twists sharply, making me release my hold with a slight gasp of pain. I rub my wrist and look up in time to see Paige on her way out. “If that’s your motive, don’t expect me to come along with you,” she says in an icy voice. I say nothing in return, knowing that I’ve crossed the line in too many ways for her to give up on me. But she lingers at the doorway, her back completely still, before letting out a sigh and dropping her shoulders. 

“But if you…need a ride, you better call me. Whatever time it is, you call me, all right?” 

I nod even though her back is turned, but she takes my silence as confirmation and leaves without another word. I let out a sigh of my own, exhaling a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Tasting bitterness in my mouth, I shrug off a chill and turn to the mirror to touch up some eyeliner. 

Paige is my solid rock when it comes to clubbing and partying, someone who had fun sitting by the side of the dance floor and chatting up other wallflowers. Whenever I got too wild or was about to make a terrible drunken mistake, she always stepped in and led me home. Tonight is the one night I really needed her help, but I can’t blame her for walking out. I feel unbearable guilt for making her feel like the bad friend in this situation. 

Absolutely nothing she said was wrong. 

And that’s why her calm logic infuriates me like none other.

I knew I shouldn’t have gone to the Fling. I knew I shouldn’t have ignored that feeling I had after the last study meeting, and I sure as hell knew that I shouldn’t have latched onto Taylor when I saw her at the Fling. But I did go, I did ignore the feeling, and I did latch onto her. 

As if I didn’t know what would happen afterwards. 

“Fuck,” I whisper, grabbing a fistful of my hair and gnashing my teeth together. Before I can change my mind, I grab my coat, a handful of cash, and my phone and head to the bus stop. 

*            *            *

The door opens to a zoo. The music is set to full blast, the people are jumping and dancing and falling over, and the floor is sticky with unidentified substances. 

It’s honestly the last place I want to be, but I flash my fake ID and slide a tip to the bumper to check my coat. No one acknowledges my entrance. No one waves me over with a smile. And that’s just what I expect; this is a club I’ve never been to, one that I’ve never even heard of. I had just wandered to the seediest part of the city and followed the sound of crappy club music. This is an all time low, even for someone with my reputation.

I push and shove my way through the mass, fighting to get to the bar; there’s no way I can do any of this sober and clear-minded. With no ceremony and as much desperation as a deprived alcoholic, I order and down three shots of hard liquor. There’s a stunning lack of happiness and companionship usually associated with this feeling of knocking back cheap alcohol; the strangers surrounding me are nothing short of intimidating after all those nights drinking with friends and familiar faces. I envy the celebratory cheers and friendly arms thrown around shoulders, and I look longingly towards the door. 

Shaking my head, I scan the sweaty crowd for my target for the night. 

And I find that I don’t have to look very hard; whether it was my general appearance or because I had just raced to the bar to drown myself in alcohol all alone, I had the attention of many surrounding faces. At this rate I don’t have to look for my target: I am the target. I wait for the first guy to make his move standing in a way that emphasizes my curves and displays only half of my incredibly forced smile.

“Hey.” The first guy sidles up to me, yelling over the booming bass of the music. “How you doin’ babe?”

I open my mouth to flirt back. I even ready myself to touch his shoulder in a fake absent-minded gesture to get him comfortable. I prepare all the techniques I know to get this guy into a quiet corner. I’ve done this routine a billion times with much less attractive dudes. 

But the words stick to my throat and refuse to budge. I stand there stupidly with my mouth hanging open, suddenly feeling all three shots of alcohol beginning to cloud my mind. I push myself away from the countertop, trying not to sway from the movement, and hold up an uncertain hand towards the guy. 

“I…you know what. I can’t.” I back away from him and into the dancing crowd. “Sorry,” I manage to choke out before he’s blocked out by the mass. Pushing my way back through the crowd, I spot a dingy bathroom across the room and charge into it before locking myself in. The music abruptly muffles down to a dull drone of the bass drum, and I breathe out a deep sigh as I lean back against the door. 

“What the hell,” I growl to myself, covering my face with my hands. 

What am I doing? 

I haven’t done anything this stupid since freshman year, after which I had told myself that enough is fucking enough. Sophomore and junior year so far have been relatively easy on my reputation, and I honestly wanted to keep it that way; not for image’s sake, but for my own, moral sake. 

The dirty sink and repulsive toilet start to rock back and forth while the walls begin to spin. I think about sticking my fingers down my throat to get rid of the alcohol in my system, but that would be even more pathetic. I shrug away from the door, take a deep breath, and open the door to re-enter the chaos. 

As soon as I’m out of the doorway, a guy squeezes past me in a hurry, making me glad I won’t be using it after him. The crowd jostles me every which way, dancing to the same, repetitive music like a mindless mob. 

The crowd gets thinner as I move off the dance floor, and the number of busy couples increase tenfold; I push my through them too, but these people are harder to move past because of their stationary acts. 

I see him eyeing me long before I approach his vicinity. Dark shirt. Dark hair. Sly smile. A pretty girl pressed between him and the wall. Any other night he would’ve caught my interest, but all I can think about is how oblivious his date is to his interest for me. He breaks away from her as I draw up near him, but before he can even try to hit on me, I grab the front of his shirt and shove him away roughly, making sure he crashes into a bunch of strangers to humiliate him. I want to drop a line, something like, “That’s what you get, you two-timing slimeball,” but something large and unpleasant builds up in my throat and I bite the words down. I walk away without a word. 

That’s when I catch sight of his girl’s face. Sharp eyes. Slender figure. Curly blonde hair. For one heart-stopping second, a name almost bursts from my mouth, the one name I had come here tonight to forget. 

But it’s not her. I realize I’m gaping and look away sharply, trying furiously to calm my racing heart. My eyes land on her make-out partner, the one I had shoved away. He’s laughing with the people he’d slammed into, all of whom were probably even drunker than him. He catches my eye and winks before licking his lips. I can’t hear what he says over the music, but I manage to catch the word “feisty,” which I would’ve taken as some sort of sick compliment any other night. 

I look back at the girl.

Then I look back at the guy. 

“Screw it all,” I spit. I stride up to the guy — who smirks knowingly — and grab at his shirt again, but this time I pull him roughly towards me. We’re close enough to touch noses; I hope he’s repulsed by my vodka breath as much as I am with his beer breath. “You wanna go somewhere quiet?” I mutter in what I hope is a sultry voice, forcing reluctance and desperation out of my voice. I give a pointed look in the girl’s direction, making sure my eyes don’t linger on her expression. 

He leans in towards my ear and I try not to grimace. 

“My apartment’s across the street,” he whispers. 

I should be shivering with anticipation; two years ago I would have been struggling to conceal the joy of having such an attractive guy take me to his place. But as he throws his arm around my shoulders to lead me out, I feel nothing but a shit-ton of regret and self-loathing. 

The heat wave from less than a month ago seems like a joke in this wintery weather; the bitter coldness of the wind slaps me in the face like an unforgiving hand, and I pull my coat tighter around me. The arm on my shoulder does nothing to provide warmth, and it feels more like a manifestation of the dead weight of guilt that slowly pulls me to the ground. 

Is this worth it? Would I really be able to face her tomorrow by doing something so stupid? 

More than once I think about stopping and throwing his arm off. I can definitely beat him in a fight; he’s a lot worse off than I am, leaning heavily on me to stop himself from staggering all over the place. My hand hovers over my pocket, just itching to pull out my cell phone to call Paige. 

But I don’t. 

Instead I follow him into his apartment. Into his room. Into his bed.

Because I had somehow convinced myself that I needed a jaded reputation as a wannabe badass, and the way to get it is by having the sex life of a cheap hooker. All to forget about one girl. And that’s fine. I might like her, but he’s here and she’s not. I'm with him tonight, not her.

I’ve never felt more alone.

Chapter Text

“…r…lor! …aylor! Hey, are you listening? Taylor!” 

“Hm?” I snap my head up from my notebook, eyes focusing on a concerned face and a waving hand. “Oh, gosh. I’m sorry,” I laugh, scrubbing at my eyes.

“Are you okay? You’ve been zoning out a lot lately. Have you been getting enough—?” 

I hold up a hand and cut off Abigail’s next words. “Yeah. I’m just…” I look down at the notebook I was half-consciously scribbling on to see a heart encasing a couple of initials. “…I-I just have a lot on my mind,” I say quickly, subtly closing the notebook as my face heats up.

“Ugh, I know what you mean,” she continues, thankfully missing the mortifying doodle. “It’s like the teachers collaborate and assign everything on the same day or something. I’ve got two quizzes and a test tomorrow, and I can’t even study for them because I have to finish Pearson’s paper by Friday.”

I groan and drop my head into my hands. “I forgot about that paper.”

I don’t have time for this chemistry project bullshit

“Really? It’s not like you to forget such a big assignment,” Abigail asks, a puzzled smile on her face.

“There’s just…a lot going on in my life, you know?”

And in my mind…and my heart… 

“Oh, right! You still have that chemistry presentation, don’t you?” 

Something cold and slimy slithers into my stomach. “Y-yeah. It’s due tomorrow.” 

And then I never have to talk to her ever again…or I’ll never get to? Or I’ll never have an excuse to? Do I even want an excuse to? 

“Ugh, how’s working with that Avril girl? You must be stressing from the amount of work she’s dumped on you.”

For some reason I find myself coming to her defense. “Actually, she’s been doing her half of the work reasonably well. Except…well, except for the last few days. And okay, maybe she cancelled on me last night, but we’re not doing that bad.” 

That’s not really the problem with this project, is it? 

“Wait, she skipped out on you last night? I heard that she was in the city, hooking up with some random guy in a bar!” she says. 

I perk up my head. “What? Where’d you hear that?” 

Hooking up? Random guy? She…ditched m — no — the project for a night out in the city? 

“A lot of people, actually.” She brings a thoughtful finger to her chin. “Mike and a couple of guys were talking about it before Italian. Apparently Daniel McAdams saw her taking the bus to the city, and Jenna saw her stumbling out of some seedy club with an older guy around her shoulders.” 

“Sounds like an over-exaggerated rumor to me,” I sniff. 

Please let it be a rumor, please let it be some kind of mistake

“I don’t know, Tay. With her reputation, I wouldn’t put it past her. I mean, stuff about her had been kind of low-key this past year, but remember our freshman year?” She straightens and shakes her head slowly. “Man, was she a wild child. Throwing herself at every guy who winked at her. Hanging out with those…” she trails off with a wrinkle of her nose. 

I stay quiet, nervous to come to her defense and still unsure of whether to believe those rumors. 

She wouldn’t have done it to spite me, would she? Maybe I offended her at the dance—that’s the only explanation for why she’s been ignoring me the past few weeks—but would she go this far to sabotage this dumb project?  

“Listen, I have to go to Lit. I’ll see you in band?” 

I nod blankly as Abigail pats my hand and leaves the table.

Why? Why would she start slacking so close to the deadline? I don’t care that she went out to the city, I care that it was on a school night two days from our presentation. I don’t care…right? That’s why I’m worried…right? I don’t care that she hooked up with some random guy…  

Right? 

“Stupid, dumb, idiotic, skater, loser, punk, freak, delinquent.” I shoot up from my seat and storm out of the cafeteria. “This is my free period,” I say firmly to myself. “And I’m not wasting it worrying over…ffffsshhhthat idiot! No. I’m going to start and finish that pointless paper for Pearson so I don’t even have to think about it…tonight.” 

My angry march towards the library slows to a trudging walk and I breathe out a sigh.

Tonight.  

The project is due tomorrow. The presentation portion is the farthest thing from complete, and there’s no way we can plan it without meeting face to face. I take out my cell phone and scroll down the contact list. 

I stare at her name. 

That stupid, dumb attitude of hers. 

That stupid, dumb way she tests my patience. 

That stupid, dumb smile. 

That stupid, dumb way she calls me “princess” in a sarcastic tone. 

And that stupid, dumb, wink. 

“Ughhhhhaaaahhh!” 

I let out a wordless scream as I violently jab the ‘call’ button and slap the phone to my ear. She picks up on the third ring.

“Hello?” 

“We’re meeting up tonight,” I say immediately. 

“Wow, not even a greeting?” she asks, a smile in her voice. I pause, my mouth hanging open, because it’s been a while since I’ve heard that infuriating tone. 

“I…no. No. No, we’re meeting up tonight. No excuses. What time works for you?” 

“Uh, listen, Taylor. I’m kind of in the middle of class.” 

I pause again, realizing suddenly that not everyone has a free period right now. “I-I know that,” I lie, struggling to remain businesslike, “but this is urgent.” 

“It better be, because Mrs. Hennelly is staring me down right now and let me tell you, she does not look happy.” There’s a smattering of laughter from her end, and I groan at the mental image of her taking the call right under the teacher’s nose in the middle of class. “How about 9, my house?” she suggests.

“Wha—9? We have a lot to do, why so late?”

“I’ve got other obligations.” 

“More important than this stupid project?” I snap, dropping my voice to a whisper as I burst into the library. “What could you possibly be doing until 9 that takes priority?” 

“Hey. My plans, my business.” 

“It’s my business if it’s affecting my grade,” I hiss.

“Relax, princess. We’ll get it done. 9 o’ clock. My house. See you then.” 

She hangs up, no doubt to face an explosion from her teacher for disturbing her class. I shouldn’t feel guilty. No, not at all; she’s the one to blame for driving me to the point of desperation. Yeah, that’s it. It’s her fault. Totally not mine. Not guilty at all. 

How hard to I need to convince myself until I finally believe it to be true? 

I throw myself down in front of a school computer and sag in the chair for a bit before perking up and opening up a new word document. “All right,” I sigh, cracking my knuckles. “Time to own this essay.” 

*            *            * 

I don’t know what I’d expected when I pulled into the driveway of the Lavigne household in the middle of a thunderstorm. A welcoming hug? An inviting smile? A friendly hello? A half-baked excuse for meeting at this late hour? 

I receive none of these when I knock and enter after a cry of “it’s open!” from inside, and it’s a miracle she spares me a nod of acknowledgement. “There’s left over mac and cheese on the stove if you want any,” she informs me, refusing to meet my eyes. 

“Right,” I say shortly. “Thanks.”

The next four hours fly by in complete silence. We decide on a powerpoint presentation, and in a shared document, we pile in our respective information on our own slides, editing to fit the format of the assignment. The clock ticks loudly from above the dining room table, and I find myself glancing at it every so often, always surprised at how fast it seems to be turning. I also find myself glancing at Avril periodically, but she keeps her eyes fixed on her laptop or her notebook, fingers never parting from the keyboard. 

I’ve been in some pretty sticky situations, but never have I ever experienced the phrase ‘tension you can cut with a knife’ so vividly. We sit in complete silence, not ten feet apart, going about our business with apparent indifference, but the unseen emotions broiling between us makes the air thick with that almost tangible tension.

Is this really the same girl I danced all night with? The same girl who knocked my ex-boyfriend unconscious for me? The same girl who I couldn’t get out of my mind for the past—

No.  

This is Avril Lavigne, exactly the kind of girl who I shouldn’t be associating myself with. There’s no reason why I should see our relationship as anything more than partners on a mandatory academic project. What am I worrying myself over? But one look at her firmly set frown and my heart twists in a way that I can’t make excuses for. I sneak another glance in her direction while pretending to scribble down notes. Her eyes are fixed on the textbook, not taking in a single letter of print. 

Except for the sparse dialogue exchanged about specific image placements and bathroom whereabouts, the next hour flies by in the same manner as the last four: in a tense silence.

The clock is steadily passing 2 and making its way towards 2:30 a.m. The project is gradually coming together, but there are still chunks that require a collaborative effort. I’m almost done with my section, and I dread the moment when one of us has to speak up and start collaborating. 

Surprisingly, it’s her that breaks the silence.            

“All right, how much of the lab portion do we have left?” she asks casually. I look up slowly and reluctantly, meeting her steady, unflinching gaze with a stubborn look of my own. We stare at each other for an uncomfortably long time before I flip over my notebook. 

“We finished up the experimental parts. Did you type up a conclusion?” 

“Yeah.” She clicks a few things on her laptop and pushes it towards me. 

I take over her laptop and start scrolling through the lab write-up, comparing it to my notes and making slight changes on our index cards to match up the information. I focus all of my attention on the work, relieved that we don’t have to converse to collaborate but unable to ignore the gaping chasm between us. My eyes automatically flick towards her face, focusing on her concentrated look with the crease between her eyebrows and the pencil tapping against her lips. I yank my gaze away before she catches me looking. 

“How is it?” she asks after some ten minutes later. 

I take my time to answer, fixing typos and formatting errors. “Not bad,” I say, keeping any hint of praise out of my voice. “It reeks of last-minute scrambling, but it’ll do.” 

“Gee, thanks,” she says, rolling her eyes. 

My anger flares immediately. “Whose fault do you think it is? If you hadn’t ignored me for three weeks and gone out last night, we wouldn’t be pulling a pointless all-nighter right now.” 

She looks like she wants to argue — she even opens her mouth angrily — but visibly holds it back and sits back in the couch. “Right,” she mutters. 

I make a few more edits before I muster up the courage. “So,” I start casually, trying to look and sound nonchalant, “I heard you were out in the city last night.” 

“Yeah?” she replies shortly. I wait for her to say more, but she doesn’t.

“Yeah.” I rake my brain furiously for the right words to say. “There’s a rumor going around that you hooked up with a stranger.” 

“What of it?” 

I pause. Yeah. What of it? How is this any of my business? I barely know her; I’m not even her friend. I have no right sharing my biased opinions. 

“I just think that it was a stupid cry for attention,” I say before I can stop my mouth. I bite my lip as soon as the words are out, and it’s all I can do to stop myself from closing my eyes and looking away. 

“Well I don’t really give a fuck what you think,” she snaps. “Or anyone else, for that matter.” 

“That’s a good one,” I mutter, highlighting and bolding the title words of each section. 

“Excuse me?” she says, her tone threatening murder. 

I swallow down my fear and shrug a shoulder. “I mean, it’s obviously bullshit that you don’t care what anyone thinks. Because I know there’s some part of you, however deep down it is, that actually cares about the rumors everyone’s spreading about you.”

She scoffs. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard all night.” 

“No, it’s not,” I claim, mouth setting my mouth at a firm angle. “It’s not a crime to feel hurt.” 

“Look,” she sighs, “I’m not some disease that you have a responsibility to cure. I don’t want you hanging around me thinking that you have some divine power to ‘fix’ me. Just because you see yourself in me, doesn’t mean that you’re gonna achieve some kind of catharsis by taming me.” 

“I am nothing like you!” I snarl, swiping the air violently. 

“You can deny it all you want, princess,” she says easily, unfazed. “But the fact remains that we’re both vastly misunderstood.”

“At least I’m not idiotic enough to bail on our last few meetings! And here I was, hoping we could finish this ridiculous project and get it over with so we never have to see each other again!” 

Her lips tighten because she obviously can’t argue that point. “Fine. Sorry about that.” 

But instead of acting as a pacifier, the apology just fuels my fire. 

“‘Sorry’?” I repeat. “You’re not even going to try and defend yourself?” She opens her mouth but I steamroll right over her, unleashing all the pent-up frustration from the last four hours. “No, don’t even try, because I know what you’re gonna say. Yeah, really. You’re gonna give me some lame excuse about how I should mind my own fucking business and leave you to do whatever the hell you want with your body — always trying to act tough and invincible when really you’re a broken mess who can’t handle her problems in any perceivable mature way. You know what? I don’t really give a shit what you’re so messed up over, just the fact that you have destructive ways of dealing with it and it’s directly affecting how I do in school, as well as how you’re seen next to me.” 

Her apologetic expression fades and defensive anger takes its place. “Is that all you have to say?” she asks snidely. 

“Hell no, I still—” 

“Well, too fucking bad,” she cuts in. “Because I’m not the only one who’s got some messed up shit, am I? You’re Little Miss Perfect, aren’t you? And someone like you who’s dealt with dozens of project partners taking advantage of your overly kind and overly developed brain to win a free A+ couldn’t possibly have left all this work ‘til the last minute, whether I contributed or not.” I shove a finger in her face. “I’m not the only one who has problems right now, and just because you don’t go on a late-night adventure and have rumors spread about you, doesn’t mean that there isn’t something broken inside you too.” 

“Excuse me?” I say, jumping to my feet. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” 

She rises from the couch, tossing her laptop aside. “It means exactly what is sounds like, princess. I don’t know what kind of personal shit is going on in your crazy, over-packed mind, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s affecting you in the worst way. So before you get some delusional idea that you’re rehabilitating me or something, check yourself first, will you?”            

“Well obviously I don’t have that kind of influence over you, seeing how the impending deadline didn’t stop you from going out on your late-night escapade. You could learn a thing or two by quitting your lunatic delinquent antics and actually associating with sane people!” 

“And hanging around you will just turn me into a law-abiding citizen with a clean conscience and good intentions, right?” she says sarcastically. 

“And that’s a bad thing?” I ask, outraged. “Is it that much of a controversy for us to like each other? What is so bad about us being friends?” 

“Because that’s not what I want!” she explodes, yanking at her hair. “That’s not…I don’t…being friends…isn’t the problem.” She lowers her head and brings her voice down to a mutter, barely audible over the sound of the blood roaring in my ears. “That’s…not the kind of ‘like’ I’m beating myself up over.” 

Fueled by confused anger, I start a “Wh—?” before freezing in my tracks. 

Wait…what? 

Before I can stop it, a curse slips from my mouth. “Shit. I-I mean. That’s not…it’s not that I don’t—” 

“Just save it,” she says quietly. Suddenly she looks tired and bitter. “Make fun of me all you want. I don’t give a shit. Hell, maybe it’ll slap some sense into me.” 

As if I’m in any kind of position to make fun of her. But no, no that’s not…what did she say? Did she just…did she just admit to something I could barely accept about myself? 

But something stops me from confessing my own stupid feeling, and instead I find myself shaking my head. “Is that why you’ve been avoiding me? Is that why you…went out last night?”

“Don’t treat me like a child,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I don’t need excuses for the things I do.” 

“Clearly,” I sniff. 

She narrows her eyes. “’Clearly’ what? Oh, I’m sorry, do you have a problem with the way I run my own life?”

“You constantly accuse me of ‘wearing a mask’ and pretending to be someone I’m not,” I say, pointing furiously at her. “But look at you, Avril. That iron-hard shield doesn’t hide the fact that you’re breaking inside because you don’t know how to deal with emotions.” 

“Don’t!” she roars, striding over our scattered notes and advancing towards me so fast that I instinctively backpedal into the foyer. “Don’t patronize me. Believe it or not, Taylor, there are some problems you don’t have the ability to solve. You are not my solution.” 

“Then what is?” I fire back. “Who else pushes your buttons and fights back and keeps your over-inflated ego in check? Who else can make your life less of a disaster?” 

“My life is screwed up as it is!” she yells, “I don’t need someone like you screwing it up even more!” 

Her words hit me like a slap to the face; they don’t necessarily hurt, but the fact that she uttered them out loud was physical proof of how strongly she feels. She stares at me blankly, fighting for words—maybe an apology—and watching somewhat helplessly as the tears well up in my eyes. Before she can say anything else, before she can even open her mouth, I turn on my heel, throw open the door, and race outside. 

*            *            * 

Running out dramatically would’ve been a much better idea if it weren’t pouring outside. That, along with the forty-degree chill and the fact I left without my jacket and car keys, makes me feel like a complete and utter idiot. But unable to hold back my tears and unable to sacrifice my dignity by going back inside after I had slammed the door shut behind me, I leap off the porch and set off down the street in a dead sprint. 

God, what the hell is wrong with me? 

What the hell am I doing

I’ve walked out on plenty of guys before, executing dramatic exits to make them to feel guilty for getting on my bad side or betraying my trust. I’d always felt a sick kind of satisfaction after slamming the door behind me; it was a sound of come-chase-me, an unavoidable invitation to a game of show-me-you-can-do-better. Arguments are nothing new in my book, yet I’ve never been in one that had shaken me up as much as this one had. 

There’s nothing satisfying about slamming Avril’s door. It’s the sound of painful finality, an end to something that hadn’t even started, to something that could’ve been. Never have I felt this level of guilt and regret for someone I barely considered a friend. We could’ve been friends. We could’ve got along. We could’ve helped each other. She’d already changed me in so many ways. 

I never had the chance to return the favor. I had ruined any chance of that. 

And I ruined any chance of telling her how I feel about her… 

I’m a good three blocks away when I hear footsteps behind me, catching up fast. Suddenly terrified of being seen in this shameful state, I pick up my pace, splashing clumsily through puddles and soaking my shoes down to my socks. 

“Hey!” she shouts, barely out of breath. “Taylor! Taylor! Are you serious right now? Are you really running away from your problems?” 

I refuse to answer and let her hear the tremor in my voice, pumping my arms harder to put more distance in between us. 

Hell no, hell no, I can’t…no she can’t see me like this. I can’t let her…no…stop, just stop. I can’t…she can’t…I just…no… 

I feel her hand grab my arm and I shoot into full panic mode. 

“Just—no! Leave me alone!” 

The raw pain in my voice surprises the both of us. She lets go immediately, and I stumble backwards into a puddle. I stand there, soaked through my skin, too busy wiping fruitlessly at the tears that have already mixed in with the rainwater to be of any embarrassment. 

“Okay, fine,” she says, swiping away her bedraggled hair from her face. She reaches inside her jacket and pulls out my coat, dry and warm for the brief second. With the cautious stance of someone approaching a wounded animal, she edges towards me and hands me the coat. “Your phone and keys are in the pocket. Just let me say what I have to say and you never have to see me again.” 

After a second of hesitation, I take the coat and drape it over my soaked sweater. I remain silent, not wanting another unexpected voice crack to reveal how fragile a state I’m in. 

“I’m sorry, all right?” she starts, probably trying to sound indifferent. The heavy guilt in her eyes tells a whole other story. “Look, what I said was out of line, but it wasn’t a lie. Believe me, I fucking hate myself because I’m disgusting and pitiful and you’re probably grossed out by…well, everything about me. I can’t…I just can’t have you around me because I keep beating myself up over you and making myself feel like absolute crap for feeling the way I do.” Her voice hitches a bit, and through her firmly set chin and fierce scowl, I can’t help but see the shattered confidence and crippling pain behind her words; it’s a look I’ve seen countless times in the mirror. I look away before I can decide whether the droplets racing down her cheeks are from the rain or from her tears. “And believe it or not,” she continues, “I’m done being that pathetic and desperate girl who drops her pants for anyone with a penis and self-entitlement just to dispel her insecurities for a night.” 

That’s what you’re worried about? You think I pity you?” I ask with disbelief. 

She narrows her eyes. “Yeah? You’re not even gonna question why the hell someone like me is attracted to someone like you? You really don’t think the idea of me wanting you to be more than a project partner — hell, more than a friend — is even a little repulsive?” 

“Maybe that’s what I want!” I scream, actually stomping my foot and splashing the puddle all over my jeans, already saturated with rainwater. “Maybe I was really, really torn up over the fact that you hooked up with a total stranger over spending time with me, the project be damned. Maybe I’ve been wasting hours and hours of my day just thinking about you and talking with you and laughing with you and dancing with you and just being with you. Maybe I’ve wanted to tell you this for a long time but I was too much of an idiotic coward to even consider admitting something like that. Maybe I was too stuck-up and egotistical to accept that I fell for you!”

Her eyes widen and I immediately bite down hard on my tongue. 

And to think I considered myself a master of planning my words and watching what I say.

But the last thing I want to do is make it obvious that I didn’t mean to say that, so I give a wild laugh and shake my head.

“Yeah. There. I said it, okay? Are you happy now, you dumb little piece of—mph?!” 

No warning, no explanation. She more or less smashes into me full-force, cutting off my words by sealing her lips over mine. Whatever sentence I was trying to finish vanishes from my mind almost instantly. Panicking, I grab her shoulders and move to pry her off, but she grabs my head almost desperately, and I freeze up for a moment, totally unprepared for what she's doing. My field of view is filled with her face, her eyes closed and cheeks tinted, and my stomach does somersaults that pound painfully against my heart. 

But I’ve lost all will to lie at this point; this as been a dream in the darkest corners of my mind, and it's with full compliance that I return the kiss, barely holding back a smile as I do. Her lips feel soft and warm on mine, and I know right then that it's a sensation I will never get enough of. I'm sure she's thinking the same thing, because she pulls me in closer and lets out a soft moan does nothing to quell the fire burning behind my cheeks.  

She finally pulls away after what seems like a million years, and I desperately try to hide the fact that I'm having difficulty breathing correctly. I can’t believe that I had actually kissed her back, and that fact makes me realize just how much I’ve been craving to do that. 

“Holy shit,” we breathe at the same time. 

And we both burst out laughing. 

Our foreheads touch as we let out exhilarated breaths of laughter, and for the first time in forever, everything feels perfect. 

“I’m sorry,” she says, sounding much more sincere this time. “Really. Just…for everything. For being an idiot, for being an asshole for weeks after the dance, for…for almost giving up on you.” 

“It’s fine. I’m used to it,” I say, smiling humorlessly. “Having people give up on me, I mean.” 

She raises an eyebrow. “Well. I don't think that’s going to be an issue at all.” Her fingers slide down and intertwine with mine. “For some reason, I can’t…god, I feel so different with you. And I don't know if that’s a good thing or not yet.” 

“The feeling’s mutual,” I agree. 

We share another quiet laugh and oh god this just feels so right and I can’t stop smiling and I probably can’t even explain why

“This might ruin the mood,” she says, pulling away and smirking, “but we kind of have a huge project to finish. It’s due in about six hours.”  

Right. The project. “What, you think just because we…” I hesitate on the word, “…kissed, we’re gonna finish this project without a hitch?” 

“Oh, hell no.” She takes my hand and we start walking back towards her house. “I expect at least ten arguments before we’re done. Any less and you might convince me that something’s changed between us, princess.”