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Young Love (is Just a Game)

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Though he'd never tell a soul, Jake fairly bounds out of bed on the first day of his senior year. The long shadows his siblings had cast over his high school career have all but worn away, and this is Jake's year to finally rule the school.

He's been planning his entrance for weeks, cruising into the student lot with the windows rolled down and his elbow on the sill. His car may be a beater but it's more than most kids have, and the leather jacket he picked up midway through the summer screams cool. Just not, like, temperature-wise, because it's still pretty much summer, but sacrifices must be made.

He stands at the mirror in the bathroom and flicks his collar up, running a comb through his hair and practicing his smirk, a quick tick of his chin to acknowledge girls in the hall. Looking pretty good. He can afford to be confident.

Skipping breakfast, he fills a travel mug with coffee and then yells up the stairs, "Come on, Tinny! Get your arse down here." She skips down a second later, her backpack still dwarfing her even though she's almost twelve. As she hops from the second-last step to the floor, he reaches out and ruffles her hair. "Ready for first day of grade six?"

"Jake!" she yelps, ducking away and reaching up to fix her ponytail. "Don't be a jerk!"

"Sorry, little one," he says as he holds open the door to the garage. "Are you excited?"

"Whatever." She rolls her eyes and scoffs as she reaches for the passenger side door.

"Ey!" he says, shooing her. "You're still in the back, munchkin."

She tsks and swings around into the back seat.

As he shifts into reverse, Jake looks into the rearview mirror and says, "You know how short you are, right? Like, you can't even reach the cupboards without a stool."

"Shut up, Jake!" She crosses her arms and scowls out the window and Jake grins at himself in the mirror.

Moments later, they pull up outside of Walter's. Jake beeps the horn, then hits it three more times. Soon enough Walter bursts out the front door, awkwardly hopping on one foot as he tries to pull his other shoe on, his shirt untucked and misbuttoned.

When he slides into the passenger seat, Jake shifts into drive and says, "You're bad for my image, you know, Walter."

"You're deluded, Jake," he says back. Half-turning, he waves to Tinny and says, "Hey Tinny."

She acknowledges him with a tip of the head and continues to stare out the window. Jake and Walter exchange a knowing look, then Jake glances down at Walter's leg, bouncing like a jackhammer.

"You nervous, b'y?

"No," he says, the duh clear in his tone.

"Come on," Jake says, flicking on his turn signal and pulling smoothly into the kiss'n'ride at the elementary school. "It's senior year—Bye, munchkin!—and we finally get the chance to be on top. What's to worry about?"

"I'm not worried," Walter replies belligerently. He puts a hand on his knee to stop the bouncing, then starts tapping his fingers at the same quick pace.

Jake just sighs and keeps his focus on the road. If he were perfectly honest, he's got some nerves swimming around in his belly too, but no one's going to be able to tell—he's determined of that.

As they pull into the lot, someone steps out in front of the car and Jake curses at the top of his lungs, slamming on the brakes. They creep forward and Jake hunches over the wheel—the lot is almost full of cars and the empty spaces are filled with students walking to and fro with little concern for the cars' right of way.

By the time they're parked, Jake feels like he's been through the ringer, and he sits back in his seat, letting out a long frustrated sigh.

"Nothing to worry about, right Jake?" Walter says smugly, watching him.

"Shut up, Walter." Checking himself in the mirror, Jake scrubs his hands over his face and tries to loosen it up, dispel some of the grumpiness. Then he fixes his hair.

Homeroom assignments are pinned to the board opposite the front doors, surrounded by a mob five people deep, and the process of getting close enough to read his assignment is enough to remind Jake that, actually, he isn't king of anything. The school is full of kids just like him, except probably smarter and better at sports.

At least, he thinks, as he walks into his English class homeroom and sees Nikki in one corner and three former hookups scattered around the rest of the room, Jake still gets the girls. He ducks his head and salutes the whole room with two fingers, hoping that will cover it.

The rest of the morning passes uneventfully (even if, actually, most of the girls completely blank him—especially the ones he already knows) and Jake and Walter meet up outside the cafeteria at lunchtime.

"So?" Walter says, hitching his backpack up on his shoulders. (Jake carries one book in the crook of his elbow and one pencil jammed in his front pocket. Walter has, Jake swears, the biggest knapsack he could find in the store, and he carries every book he could possibly need at all times. It's frankly embarrassing and unnecessary.)

Jake shrugs. "Looking a lot like last year, so far. Although—" He eyes the tide of students washing past them into the cafeteria. "—the grade nines look about Tinny's age."

"Still feeling like a king?" Walter says, nudging Jake's shoulder with his own. When Jake makes a face, Walter says, "Aw. Don't be sad, Jake-y boy. It's only the first day."

"Yeah, well, once I see a girl I haven't hooked up with or known my whole life I'll have more faith. You'd never know we lived in the biggest city in Newfoundland."

"The only city in Newfoundland," Walter replies as they join the line snaking past the lunch counters, and Jake snorts.

Stopping briefly in the doorway with their trays, they survey the room, Jake with a cool (faux) apathy in his eyes, and Walter—Jake knows without looking—tense with worry.

Latching on the first empty space he sees, Jake leads a weaving path through the crowded assortment of tables. There is no organization to this chaos, just a seething roaring mass of teenage humanity. In later days they will likely go off-campus for lunch, but there's a kind of ceremony to the first day, a presentation and an introduction.

With that in mind, Jake scans the room from his seat, eyes jumping from person to person as his notice lands and passes, nothing grabbing him.

Until something does. Or, more accurately, someone. Far side of the room, closest to the wall, surrounded by girls but looking lost. Blonde hair in a ponytail, petite, and absolutely stunning.

Jake realizes he's sitting with his mouth hanging open when Walter says, "What?" and turns around, blocking Jake's sightline.

"Don't look!" he says, way too late, and Walter stares for a minute too long before turning back with a resigned look on his face.

"Well, there you go."

Jake grins. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, buddy." He pushes his food around with his fork, staring into space. "What do you think, hard to get?"

"Girl that gorgeous?" Walter says, taking a bite and saying with his mouth full, "Definitely."

"You're disgusting." Jake throws a napkin at Walter's face good-naturedly. "Oh yeah, senior year is definitely where it's at."

"Mmhmm," and they've been best friends long enough that Jake knows exactly what he's not saying. Until she chews you up and spits you back out, sure. Until she shreds your heart to bits.

Whatever. He survived Nikki, he's stronger for it, and anyway, Jake rarely gets his heart involved. Walter's concern is ridiculous. But touching, Jake supposes.

"You're a good friend, Walter," he says magnanimously, and Walter snorts.

After lunch, Jake has his one elective: Law II. It's not exactly that his dad expects him to follow in his footsteps—just look at how Christian and Kathleen turned out. But there, too, the shadow persists; Jake is Malachy's last hope, really.

Anyway, he really enjoyed Law I last year, and—major plus—the blonde from lunch is among the students, with an empty desk next to her. He grins, crossing the room quickly and dropping into the seat.

Leaning across the aisle, he sticks out his hand and says, "Hey, are you new? I'm Jake."

She turns, raising her eyebrows at his hand but shaking it firmly. "Yeah, hi. Leslie."

"Are you in grade twelve?" His dad always said you could measure a man by the strength of his handshake, and Jake likes to apply the same standard to girls. She's physically tiny but her handshake isn't shy at all and he's impressed.

"No, eleven, but I took Law I last year at my old school."

"Oh, cool. I hope you like Mr. Jennings. His Law I was my favourite class last year."

She smiles mildly and turns back to the front as the teacher calls the class to order. Jake is never the most attentive student but he spends a bit too much time watching Leslie out the corner of his eye. He tends to gravitate toward brunettes—a fact driven home today as he keeps running into girls he's crushed on or hooked up with—but Leslie might just change his mind. She is so cute.

As they gather their bags to leave, Jake leans in to Leslie again, saying, "Can I help you find your next class?"

She offers the same mild smile and says, "No, thanks. I've got it."

Jake stumbles over his own feet, trying to stop himself so he doesn't follow her out into the hall. The rejection stings, half the class glancing back at him as they exit the room and he remains, pretending to look under his desk for a dropped pencil. He really needs to work on his rep.

His next class is Weight Training, which he somehow managed to talk Walter into taking too, and Jake tells him about his encounter while they change.

"I'm going to try again—obviously. Might check out the elevens hall after final bell."

Walter rolls his eyes as he pulls his white t-shirt over his head. "You don't wanna look desperate."

Jake scoffs. "Oh, please." Pulls his shirt on, tugs it into place, then says, "Ya think?"

"Right on the edge, there."

"Hm." He sits down to tug his shoes on and tie the laces, staring into space as he thinks. "What if I forgot something in English and I'm just passing through the hall on the way?"

"Whatever, Jake. Does it even matter?"

"Pfft, no." He leads the way to the door, pulling it halfway open and then turning back. "I just—"

"Okay, Jake! Go with the English excuse."

"Okay!" he says back, swinging open the door and walking out. "Thanks."

They spend the hour getting to know the machines, Walter winding up beet red and dripping sweat. Jake sympathizes and should by rights wait for Walter and offer to drive him to Moo Moo's for ice cream, but instead he changes at lightning speed and calls over his shoulder, "I'm gonna offer her a ride, take the bus!"

"Thanks a lot," he hears faintly in reply as he's speed-walking away.

At the base of the elevens hall he slows, plunging into the sea of teens and scanning for a blonde ponytail. He trudges halfway through before spotting her, then veers over to her side of the hall and leans against the locker next to where she's digging around.

"Hey," he says, super casual.

She looks up, brows furrowed, face growing more confused when she recognizes him. "Uh, hi. Don't the seniors have their own hallway?"

"Yeah. I just left something in my English class and I was going to grab it and I spotted you here." He smiles his most charming smile, crossing one foot over the other. "I thought maybe you could use a ride, if you take the bus."

She looks so unimpressed he could just break down and cry. "Thanks for the offer… but I don't really know you, no offense. I'm fine on the bus."

Jake feels his smile stretch and turn slightly desperate even as he nods quickly. "Fair enough." He pushes off the locker and flashes his hand in a wave. "See you Thursday," he says, before plunging back into the crowd and moving away at all possible speed. He's probably missed Walter by now so he just heads back to his car to pick Tinny up from the elementary.

At the car he thumps his hands on the steering wheel, sighing loudly before driving out. When Tinny hops in the back seat, he says, "Hey munchkin," with defeat in his tone.

"What's the matter with you?" she asks curiously.

"Aw." He catches her eyes in the rearview mirror and tries on a smile. "You know, same old. Feel like an ice cream?"

She looks out the window, setting her jaw again. "Not really."

Turning toward Moo Moo's, Jake says, "You can have a taste of mine if you change your mind." He ends up getting enough for Mal and Rose too, in a sudden burst of consideration. They're sitting at the kitchen table when Jake and Tinny get home and Mal calls out.

"Get your behinds in here!"

The young'uns exchange an eye roll but tromp in, dropping the ice cream on the table and fetching their own mugs of coffee.

"Isn't this nice," Rose says, smiling up at them. "Sit down and tell us about your days."

Tinny sighs the sigh of the forever inconvenienced, slumping down into her chair and saying, "Whatever. It was school."

"Yeah," Jake adds. "School."

"Tell me one good thing."

Digging her spoon into one of the tubs of ice cream, Tinny jams it in her mouth and says around the mouthful, "Ice cream is pretty good."

Jake thinks of Leslie and how she could have been his one good thing, and then remembers how she shut him down and sighs. "Yeah," he says again, dispirited. "Ice cream."

Across the table, Mal is giving him a look, which he tries to ignore.

"I've got a guess for one of you," Mal says eventually. "Meet someone, Jake?"

He groans loudly. "I don't wanna talk about it."

Rose leans back in her chair and sips her coffee, smiling over the rim at him. "Day one and already 'I don't wanna talk about it.' Moving a bit quick, aren't you, Jake?"

He drops his head into his hands, elbows on the table. "She's not interested, okay? It happens. I just want to forget all about it."

Mal and Rose exchange a glance, eyebrows raised, so clearly enjoying his misfortune and he's tempted to just go upstairs but at the same time he kind of wants to express, at the very least, his frustration.

"Since when do you let that stop you?" Mal says, and Jake sighs.

"It was the level of disinterest, you know? It doesn't feel like she's playing hard to get. She just doesn't care."

"But you don't really know her yet," Rose says.

"Yeah. I guess."

"You must like her if you're this much of a grump over it," Mal adds.

He sighs again, dropping his hands and tracing shapes on the table top with one finger. "Whatever. She's pretty."

"Our Jake," Mal says, looking at Rose again. "Deep as a kiddie pool."

"Thanks," Jake says shortly, standing up. "I'm going upstairs." He grabs his coffee and one of the tubs of ice cream, hearing Tinny's chair scrape out behind him as he heads for the stairs.

Their voices follow them up, Mal saying, "We have such pleasant children," and Rose replying, "Raised 'em right, you did, Mal."

Jake closes his bedroom door firmly behind him, setting his coffee down on the desk before flopping back on the bed with ice cream in hand. He props the tub on his chest and spoons the rapidly melting dessert into his mouth, too depressed to sit up. His phone vibrates in his pocket and he fishes it out to see a text from Walter. Ignoring it, he decides to torture himself by pulling up the Facebook app and searching their school network for Leslie's profile.

The only result that fits has a picture of Cape Spear with no blonde hair in sight, and almost none of the fields filled out or set to public. Well, that was helpful. He taps out a reply to Walter, updating him on the Leslie situation, then drops his phone to stare at the ceiling and tip the rest of the melted ice cream into his mouth.