The ride back from New York is painfully silent. Not uncomfortable, just hurtful; the kind of silence that comes from there being nothing left to say.
After she drops Frankie off at her house to deal with whatever is happening with MJ, Jo isn’t quite sure where to go. She doesn’t want to go home. The last thing Jo wants to deal with right now is her mother. Before she can even think about it, she’s backing out of the Healys’ driveway and turning onto Sterling Street, driving to a house she’s been to only once before but somehow remembers the way.
When Bella opens her front door to find a twitchy, shaking Jo, to say she is confused would be an understatement.
“Can I come in?”
Bella raises an eyebrow, but steps aside. “Uh, sure.”
Jo strides past her, down the hall, and into the living room. Bella trails behind with her arms folded, watching as Jo collapses onto her couch. The beanie-clad girl lets her head fall into her hands, a sob bubbling up from her throat.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m peachy. I’m grand.”
Bella lowers herself onto the couch next to Jo. Tentatively, she lays a hand on her back. “Where’s your partner in crime?”
The younger girl looks up and chuckles. “I wouldn’t really call her my partner anymore.”
“But you two are so close—“
“Yeah, well, she and I seemed to have different ideas about what ‘close’ meant,” Jo snaps.
At her harsh tone, Bella recoils, pulling her hand away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to piss you off.”
Jo softens. “Hey, no. It’s my bad. I shouldn’t take this out on you. I don’t even know why I’m here,” she groans. “It’s not like we’re exactly best friends.”
When there’s no response, she takes a moment to study the girl next to her. Bella’s gaze is trained on the floor, her chocolate brown eyes rimmed by tired circles that had been darkening each day. Her hair is pulled haphazardly into a messy ponytail, with a few strands she missed falling behind her ears. Lithe fingers fidget nervously with the hem of her sweatshirt. It’s worn and stretched, as if it’s suffered many a day of Bella’s anxious pulling.
“How are you holding up?”
“I’m peachy. I’m grand,” Bella mimics, but her tone is hollow.
“Sure, and I’m into Nick Healy. Come on, say something believable.”
“Almost every hour of the day, there’s some new tweet or Instagram post about how I’m just looking for attention, or about how Andrew and I had a one-night stand and I’m out to get him because I regret it or some shit. So yeah, sue me if I’m not really feeling my best.” Bella’s voice tapers off at the end, and her eyes begin to water.
A bit of the rage from just hours before begins to burn in Jo’s stomach, mixed with a sense of helplessness. She doesn’t know what to do with a crying girl who is, at best, an acquaintance. Before she can think of a response, Bella throws her head back and lets out a dry laugh.
“God, of course I’m crying. I’m sorry. I feel like I’m always crying in front of you.” She swipes at her cheek. “So much for staying strong in the face of adversity, huh? I’m like the poster child for being a train wreck.”
Jo furrows her brow. “Fuck that.”
“Fuck ‘staying strong’ or whatever. That’s just some bullshit someone made up because they were scared of their own emotions. Something awful happened to you. Awful things are still happening to you. Cry about it if you fucking want to.”
Bella gives Jo a long look, as if asking for permission. When Jo does not waver, Bella breaks down, letting the hot tears fall freely. She pulls her legs up to her body and wraps her arms around them, barely registering as Jo slides over to her and rubs a hand on her knee. Her body trembles as she lets a week of pent-up emotions come pouring out.
Jo has never seen somebody so vulnerable. For the second time that night, her heart breaks.
Ten minutes later, they sit in an awkward silence. Bella opens her mouth to speak, but Jo cuts her off.
“I swear to Christ, Bella Fox, if you’re about to apologize, you had better shove it.”
“I’m not, I just…how long do you think it’ll take to stop hurting?”
Jo puts an arm around Bella’s shoulders and sighs. “I’ll let you know if I ever find out. In the meantime, we can just be miserable together.”
A crooked smile finds its way on to Bella’s mouth. “Thank you, for all of that.”
“My pleasure. I live to please.”
Sniffling, Bella suddenly remembers that it’s one in the morning and she still has no idea why Jo is in her living room.
“So, uh, what exactly happened tonight with you and Frankie?”
Jo stiffens and grimaces. “It was nothing. Just stupid ol’ me, kidding myself thinking anyone would take me seriously. She found something better and made her choice.”
There’s a beat of silence. Jo’s arm is still around Bella’s shoulders.
“For what it’s worth, I take you seriously.”
Jo snorts, expecting the other girl to laugh, but Bella’s face shows no signs of joking. “You barely even know me.”
“I know you came to check on a complete stranger when you saw that something terrible happened,” Bella starts, “and I know you helped that stranger realize that it wasn’t her fault. And you’re also kind of a badass. So, there’s that.”
She holds eye contact with Jo, who feels a lump forming in her throat, and leans in to peck her softly on the lips.
Stunned, Jo pulls away and looks at Bella questioningly. “Is this a joke? I didn’t know you were—“
“Well, it’s not like it would’ve come up.”
“You know, that’s a fair point.”
Neither girl moves, content to remain in their position, each feeling safe in close proximity to the other. A moment passes before Bella speaks again.
“Should you maybe go check on Frankie?”
“Maybe. Or we could just…watch a movie or something. If you don’t mind the company.”
Bella smiles, a real, genuine smile. “Yeah. Sure. Why not?”
“Cool. It’s Christmastime. We should watch Die Hard.”