"So, you're giving up smoking,' Mercedes asked, tucking the papers in her hand underneath her arm and trying to decide whether or not to stifle her laughter.

"I never picked it up, okay? I said no to drugs. But that guy was blowing my fucking mind. I have been around the block with my fair share of street paraphernalia, but whatever that was shouldn't even be available to Philippine street children… it was laced or something, and that's not even to rehash the Ricki Lake shrink shit he was spewing."

Mercedes finally broke into a smile and began shifting her weight back and forth from her heels to her toes. "Sounds like you had an exciting Tuesday night. I had choir practice."

Sebastian let out a sharp breath of air and shook his head. "I should see a priest soon… what are you doing, why are you out of class?"

They had bumped into each other in the hallway about a quarter of the way through first period, and because the hallways were practically empty, they had stopped for a quick conversation. They hadn't hung out since the weekend before Thanksgiving, and they were halfway through the first week of December. They hadn't spoken on the phone either, as Sebastian had been giving everyone the run around about tennis, but now seeing as though he really was going to be practicing more frequently, and he wasn't smoking anymore, there was no reason to keep everyone at such a significant distance. He tried to catch her up on what he could in such a short window of time; Sebastian knew how Mercedes was about attendance.

"I'm carrying Miss Montgomery's attendance sheet to the office; what about you?"

Sebastian held up a tardy slip. "Making my way to class. You want an escort?"

She shrugged. "I would love that."

They turned around and headed back towards the office: a venture downstairs. "So, you said he was like… talking about being more vulnerable and your sister and stuff? How does he know your sister?"

"It's a long story, but yes. He was hinting that if I keep pretending I don't have emotions, I'm going to become a robot."

Mercedes nodded and made a sound of acquiescence. "That doesn't sound completely wrong. I don't think he meant beeping and—" she started to move her arm mechanically, imitating a robot.

"I— I know what he meant, stop that."

"Why? Am I embarrassing you? Are you embarrassed? You should be more vulnerable, Sebastian. Show more humility."

Sebastian cut his eyes at the girl before they began down the steps. "I always forget that you're actually a real pain in my ass."

Mercedes dawned an expression of faux-hurt. "A cute and sassy one though, right?"

She was flirting.

Sebastian shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Don't flirt with me."

They got to the office, and Sebastian waited outside for the girl to return; he had just been there a short time ago.

"Where's your first period,' Mercedes asked, shocked that she didn't already know.

"Second floor,' he rubbed his face and yawned. "Eastern civ."

Mercedes raised her eyebrows and crossed her arms. She was impressed. "How have we never been in a class together?"

Sebastian shrugged. "Embarrassingly, my mother has made my schedule the last four years, so I don't have much control on where I land just that I land there."

Mercedes scrunched up her nose. "And you don't even do that part sometimes."

Sebastian gave an exaggerated sigh and shrug. They idled in front of the office awkwardly before Mercedes turned away.

"I'm going to go to class,' she began before turning back around to the boy. "Do you want to do something before the holidays? I know it'll be busy for you and all your family and stuff."

Sebastian started the long walk back, following her at a few feet. He took a sharp breath in through his mouth. "If this Olympian coach my dad hired can tell I haven't been practicing lately, I'm confident he's going to tell my dad before I even get the chance to pull out of the parking lot."

Mercedes waited before she spoke, curious as to whether Sebastian would follow through. "Is this the 'my-ass-on-a-silver-platter' excuse?"

He clicked his teeth. "As opposed to what other excuse?"

She shrugged. "I guess I missed the 'too-busy-getting-sky-high' one."

Sebastian nodded in smug acquiescence. "You're definitely more than welcome to watch me and the Olympian."

They started up the stairs. "Do you even know his name?"

"Hey… it's the twentieth century— almost the twenty-first. Women are making great strides in the workplace."

"Fine. Do you know her name?"

Sebastian chuckled. "No, I don't know his name. It's not important; I know he's likely some German douche on his way to citizenry. French, if my dad still holds the same Parisian sentiments he harbored for three fucking years after we came back from the summer abroad. I'll recognize him when I see him. Professional tennis players just have this look."

"And what's that, Sebastian?"

He chuckled, finally engaging in the elitist tennis humor that had only been afforded to him during the school's season. He began to explain but couldn't put his finger on anything of substance. "You'll see— whenever you get a chance to come to one of my games, you'll just… see."

Mercedes blushed a bit as they reached the top of the stairs. "That's… God knows how long from now… I can't get my hands on you until actual tennis season?"

He laughed again and dragged his hands down his face dramatically, starting with his eyes. "You have no idea how far this tennis season is about to bury me. You will not see my face until graduation."

"Sebastian,' Mercedes said, touching his arm. "That's not what I'm asking. Tomorrow is Thursday. And then it's Friday, and then it's the weekend. So, calm down… why don't we just catch up all we can now, so that you're basically sick of me by the time this Olympic guy comes around. You won't even have time to miss me."

He bit the inside of his cheek (and for as much as Sebastian had been doing that recently, it was bearing towards rawness). He had lumped her into his many causes of stress and had failed to return to that course of thinking in quite some time. Not that he had stopped smoking a week ago (or even twenty-four hours ago) and could then finally think clearly, but he did, suddenly, recognize the benefits of not getting high the second his eyes opened in the morning. There was enough clarity coming to him that he remembered why he had backed off both Quinn and Mercedes.

Quinn had been more of a concerted effort (with only a mediocre application of the phrase 'more of') following his conversation with Mercedes; he had denied her phone calls and blamed it on tennis. The few times she'd spoken to him in person, he had tried to exit the conversation almost immediately (the paranoia) but had lied profusely. He couldn't talk to her, he didn't want to be caught with her, but he couldn't have her thinking that they weren't on good terms. That would lead him to being on bad terms with everybody. So, actually, he had spoken to her on the phone once. She sounded like she wanted to get back together, not that they had ever been together together, but— Mercedes was waiting for a response, and he didn't have the time to mentally marathon through why he had put both Mercedes and Quinn on ice. Quinn was on ice, explicitly, but Mercedes was more or less on the back burner— but it wasn't that he considered her as a potential love interest, but that he recognized that he likely needed to treat her with the same time, respect and stress as an actual romantic effort. He decided that he would think critically about what that actually meant another time, but now, he had to decide: do I really want to make plans with Mercedes right now, he thought to himself.

"You don't feel like we could know each other better?"

Sebastian's eyes tracked Mercedes around the kitchen; she was wiping her hands off on her pants and looking for a clean spatula. "I think we know each other fine."

She shook her head and sighed in disbelief. "But like… you don't want to know me better?"

Sebastian ran a hand through his hair. At that point of the conversation, the macaroni and cheese was holding him hostage. She'd been asking a flood of open-ended questions, none that he had a proper answer to, but try as he might, he could not surface from the never ending questions of 'what if' and the more important: 'why?'

"I just told you earlier I want to keep learning about you… what do you want me to say? How do I win here?"

Mercedes shook her head. "Why is it always about winning with you?"

He sighed, ran his hands across his face. "Mercedes, who do you want to be here with right now? Because it ain't me. It's clearly not."

"Please, don't start—"

"Don't start what? You're trying to argue— you want to argue with me right now."

"I'm saying that earlier in the car you called me 'easy', and if that's your interpretation of me, then clearly we don't know each other."

He shook his head. "That's not what I meant. You know that's not what I meant."

She sighed and went back to stirring the pot and rolling her eyes. "It isn't always about intent. I'm saying how you made me feel, like I was this simple person that you could just achieve, like, you're complicated and misunderstood, and I'm just…' she turned. "Easy ole Mercedes."

"I'm sorry."

"You're not."

Sebastian began to laugh into his hands; he felt like they were an old married couple in an old television show. "What do you want from me, Mercedes? Really."

Mercedes shook her head and went back to making dinner. Only recently had she felt as though she was the one working harder to make sure they found their amends; to her, recently, it felt that Sebastian was just alright with what they had and that worried her. Marley hadn't filled her head with nonsense, she wouldn't say that, but Mercedes had definitely let the conversation with the girl take her to a fantasy world. She kept herself up all night trying to decide whether the boy potentially had a crush on her, and if he didn't, why was he at her house eating dinner and talking about his feelings (or at least listening to her talk about her own)? She didn't know what she wanted out of a potential confession— she didn't even know where it would land them, but she felt like she had to get to the bottom of it, because she couldn't think straight while not knowing how he felt about her.

Mercedes liked Sebastian so much, she now could affirm. He was handsome and funny and intelligent and athletic, and when she spoke, he laughed, and he engaged her, and he remembered everything she told him. He still remembered how much she liked him as a second grader, and he knew that she still didn't know how to swim but she was an ace at poker. She was sure if she asked him right then what her dream career was and how many jumping jacks she could do without stopping, he'd at least try to get both right.

It unnerved her that someone who had once acted with so much interest was now at her kitchen table refusing to help her get out of her own head; in fact, he was digging her deeper into her own hole.

"I'd love it if you cared more about what I want out of our friendship,' she said as steam began to waft from a boiling pot of water.

"Then, what do you want,' Sebastian asked in defeat.

"Why do I have to tell you that I want respect or mutual interest, or for you to want to build towards something with me… not just play catch up each two weeks."

Sebastian furrowed his eyebrows and thought for a few seconds. "You're being extremely unrealistic right now. I hang out with you as much as I can; I'm more open with you than anybody else I know. I do everything you ask me, and I do it when you ask me without fail nearly. You want to go to the lake; I take you to the lake. You want to talk about how you feel and who you are; I talk to you about how you feel and who you are. You tell me you aren't happy with how I respond to all of that; I close my Goddamn mouth. Here I am, Mercedes, my mouth is shut… I'm shutting up and yet,' he gave a dramatic shrug. "You're still not happy. What do I have to do? Tell me what I have to do, and I'll do it. You want me to go get the moon and bring it down to you? I'll try. I'll take all my dad's money and get myself down to NASA and say, 'Gee, Buzz! I don't know a Goddamn motherfucking thing about the Space Shuttle program, but there's this girl back home in Nowhere-fucking, Ohio who really wants the moon! You think we can do that for her?' and Buzz is going to look at me and slap his hands on his knees and say, "Golly, Sebastian! What a selfless, kind and caring person you are! I'm moved. But you're only about the eleventy-seventh noble schmuck to come down here and try to get the moon for a girl back home, and you're sure as shit not the first person to try to do something for someone who's too busy complaining to take any initiative themselves. Shit, if she wants the moon so damn bad, why are you the one down here fetching it.' And I'd stop to think… 'But Buzz, you don't know her like I do,' but then I'd remember… well, shit! If you ask her, then I don't know her either! And then we'd laugh. We'd laugh at you and this conversation. I don't know what the fuck your expectations are, but no one will ever meet them. They won't. They can't."

He was angry. She had made him irritated before, and he'd been mad around her, but she had never been the individual source of his anger ever. He knew he was angry because his hand was shaking; Sebastian grabbed his keys from off the table and stood up. He would have likely left had he not seen Mercedes's hand move to wipe her eye.

Mercedes, on the other hand, was frustrated, and if she turned around to look at him, she'd cry. She couldn't understand why things were so difficult between the two of them anytime feelings (of any context) were brought up. It was like he was a ticking time bomb: ready to explode at the first sign of emotional vulnerability. Of course, he had talked about his piece of shit dad and his piece of shit friends, but Lord have mercy on the person who suggested that he was piece of shit (or did piece of shit things)— of course, he could ride out a joke, but he couldn't handle even one flare of constructive criticism. He wasn't strong enough to take it.

Mercedes wasn't going to say that things had been easier before, but they had been easier when he was just a guy who was being a douchebag, but suddenly, he had become a guy whose kindness mattered to her for more obvious reasons.

They stood in silence for what felt like an eternity, the pasta burning and sticking to the bottom of the pot. Sebastian was beyond silent; he wouldn't even let the keys make a sound in his hand. Eventually, Mercedes dropped her head and turned ever so slightly towards him, allowing him to see her side profile.

"Is this you winning?"

Sebastian sighed and placed the car keys back on the table. He looked at his shoes.

"We're friends, Mercedes. I don't know what else I can say to you; I wouldn't give anybody else on this planet the time of day I'm giving you and this conversation right now, and you know what I think about this conversation. I'm only engaging you because it's you. You deserve a version of me that other people don't get because of everything you've done for me and everything you've said to me when I needed to hear it... I don't want to argue about this kind of stuff with you. I know that I'm going to learn more about you, and you're going to learn more about me, and we're going to likely find out that both of our initial interpretations of each other were horribly incorrect, and that'll be fine. That's what happens when two people get close to one another… if something that I've said about you is wrong, then you can take that opportunity to show me wrong. If you care so vehemently about knowing me or having me know you, then tell me what you want me to know. Ask me what you want to know— you can't constantly put the entire weight of our relationship on me, even if I had the time for that, I wouldn't want that… I'd love to know everything about you, but if it's just more of this… blowing up like this… I'd like to cut our losses."

She cut her eyes over at him. "You considered all of that me blowing up?"

"You're right,' Sebastian began before shrugging. Mercedes turned back away and began to stir the pot of cooking shells.

"I consider this, what you're doing now, shutting down,' he walked to the stove where Mercedes was standing frozen, her back to him. He placed his hand on her back, rubbing gently before positioning himself better to see her reddening eyes.

"I didn't mean to make you upset."

She shook her head and wiped her eyes. "That's exactly what you meant to do."

He nodded. "I am sorry… I feel like you back me into a corner sometimes."

She wiped her eyes. "And then you don't know when to stop."

Sebastian spoke quickly, "You don't know when to stop. You were digging for something that wasn't there. What was I supposed to say?"

"I don't know, Sebastian. You're full of all these great ideas and you're super quick on your toes everywhere else. You can't just pick up on what I'm hinting at? But no… instead you say,' she was crying. She had to stop to halt the tears and take a deep breath in. Sebastian took a step back and leaned on the counter, watching her.

"The meanest things to me ever,' she whispered bitterly.

"I would never sit in your house, under your roof and lie to you,' Sebastian said, wiping his hand across his face. "I get that what I said hurt you. I shouldn't have worded it that way. If you're upset, you're owed that, but I think we both need to leave good enough alone… sometimes."

Mercedes checked the meatloaf baking in the oven. She pulled it out and placed it on top of the stove and turned off the oven. She grabbed the mix-in cheese packet from beside the burners and poured it into the pot of shells, letting the wooden spoon scrape over the sticky remnants that wouldn't budge from the bottom of the steel pot. She said nothing, and the two stood silently, listening to her continue to prepare dinner for the two as if nothing were wrong.

Sebastian spoke first. "What's going on in that big brain of yours?"

Mercedes bit her lip but still didn't speak. She cut a slice of meatloaf and put it on a beige plate. Eventually: "I think we're spending too much time together."

Sebastian furrowed his eyebrows, and if he was alone, he would have likely hit something. He did his best to maintain his demeanor. "You just told me that you wanted us to get to know each other better. That was the fight,' he whispered.

"I do! I do,' she was exhausted. "You just don't get it. You're you, and I'm me, and we don't get each other."

Sebastian stared at Mercedes intently while she watched the stove light. She didn't make the second plate.

"Make me understand."

Mercedes wet her lips and did her best to avoid working herself up into a fit again. "It's confusing for me, Sebastian, okay?"

She finally looked at him. "I'm confused, not all of the time, but a lot of the time. I've never spent this much time with someone and not known what the purpose was."

Sebastian turned around. His back had previously been on the counter, but now he stood facing it, his hands supporting his body weight as he looked at his nails and fingers gripping the tile. "The purpose?"

"You say we're friends... I don't know what to do with that."

Sebastian looked Mercedes in the eyes for a few seconds. The alarm on the oven went off. She had forgotten to turn it off when she took the dish out.

"Just be my friend, Mercedes,' Sebastian said between the beeps as she tried to silence it.

They waited until Saturday morning to get together. Sebastian had a bit of homework to catch up on, and he knew that he'd have a few days to think about things until then. After the day that they'd gone to the lake and had dinner together (which had resulted in their most heart wrenching argument yet), they didn't speak for a few weeks. It wasn't that he was upset with her (but he couldn't speak for her or how she felt following the argument), but he was entirely undetermined on how to progress with their relationship. He wasn't sure what she could have meant when she said she wasn't sure what to do with their friendship, and he was afraid to ask.

Sebastian knew it couldn't mean that Mercedes wanted anything more from him than a friendship— she had been relatively clear about that from the moment they'd rekindled their friendship. He could still remember the embarrassment and shame he felt the moment she pushed his hand off of her thigh, and if he thought about it too long, he'd work himself up to stomach sickness. He thought that she must have meant that she felt used by him, as if she was meant to fulfill some purpose in his life, and there was no disassociating that belief from its sexual connotation. She was constantly making digs about him and his Casanova image, and she was completely unaware that their friendship was built on the foundation of him trying to disprove that image. Each time they were alone sharing a small space, he watched as she covered herself up a bit or inched away from him, and it was like a knife in the chest. No, of course he didn't want to discuss that further with her. It was something that he could never sweep under the rug despite how many times he mentioned other girls to Mercedes or bought her breakfast— he was still just a guy with a dick who had tried to fuck her.

On the other hand, perhaps she meant that she didn't feel like his friend at all. That his claim of 'friendship' as the purpose of their time spent together was a farce to her. The only solution to that would be to build towards something, which she had said in their argument, and he had no cards to play if that was her confirmed position. Was he to walk into the front doors of William McKinley High School with their arms interlocked and proclaim his platonic affection for her at the top of his lungs for all to hear?

Fuck.

So, he had pushed Mercedes away, likely farther than any time before, and by the way that they had continued to miss each other, he imagined that she was, too, avoiding him. But when she'd seen him in the hallway that day with a beaming smile, Sebastian knew she wasn't upset, and she didn't hate him like he hated himself.

"I thought you were upset with me."

His chest collapsed.

Sebastian, without lifting his head from the seat back, looked at Mercedes with a heavy countenance. "No,' he whispered and shook his head.

"Good,' Mercedes whispered back. They sat silently for a few minutes. The sun slowly began to rise over a distant hill, and Mercedes could begin to make out a hole flag in the distance.

"I rarely get to catch the sunrise,' she said, her hands buried in her pockets.

Sebastian sighed. "It's nice… being awake before everyone else. You get an advantage on the day that other people don't."

Mercedes turned up her lips. "I like my bed."

He rolled his head back over to look at her again, this time with a smirk. She smiled.

"You ready to go?"

Mercedes shrugged and looked at the frost on the windows of the car. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be,' she said. The two braved the winter morning, and Sebastian retrieved his golf bag from the backseat of the car. They walked side by side up the long driveway of the country club. No one else entered— it was quite early in the morning.

"I've never been to a country club."

Sebastian shrugged. "I hadn't expected you to,' he bit at his thumb's cuticle. He gave Mercedes a small smirk, and she laughed— she knew he was joking. "This is the one my mom's family owns a stake in… it's like two-hundred-years-old. The one we use now is like three times this size, but we have honorary membership to this one."

Mercedes shook her head. "Do you even realize how rich you are?"

He laughed. "I'm not oblivious to it."

They walked a little bit longer. "Any particular reason you brought me to this one and not the one three times this size?"

Sebastian kept walking, his hands deep into his pockets and the bag crossed over his back. He looked at the specks of earth and rock under his feet with each step he took. "Is that what you want to do today?"

Mercedes said nothing else until they entered the front door of the clubhouse. "Thank you,' she uttered as Sebastian held the door for her. The building was two stories and followed the build of a mansion; the floors looked like porcelain to Mercedes and the stairs were a winding marvel. A chandelier in the center of the building hung high and heavy, flickering bright and twinkling light around the room— it was as if everything was caught on white fire. They were the only two patrons in the building, and the woman who Mercedes imagined would look on a roster and determine whether they could go or stay simply waved them past after Sebastian gave her a knowing smile. She didn't even look at Mercedes.

They headed toward the back of the building where a glass door entered into a covered, outdoor shelter with half of a hundred golf carts. Sebastian grabbed a key off the wall and handed it to Mercedes.

"You want to go on a little joy ride?"

Sebastian let Mercedes drive to one of the more distant holes, so that he could show her most of the country club's property. It was evident that she thought the facility was just the clubhouse; she had no clue that there was an entire neighborhood encompassed on the property, including multiple pools and pool houses, a few decorative fountains, a soccer field, four tennis courts, two basketballs courts, an outside track and an entire 18-hole golf course across the property.

"You've never been to one of these? Not even for a birthday party,' he asked, bouncing a bit as they drove over the club's turf.

"Sebastian, I've never even left Ohio, be real,' she said, following where his finger pointed to: the same red hole flag they'd seen from his car. She drove near it and put the cart into park.

"Hmm,' Sebastian began. He realized he would have to explain nearly everything. "We'll have to actually golf from further down,' he redirected. "This is just the place that we're meant to be aiming at."

Mercedes rolled her eyes. "You could have told me that before I drove all the way over here."

"It's just a ways down, nothing to worry about,' he replied, stretching one of his legs out of the cart. Then he stretched his arms and finally yawned. "I didn't realize you knew how to drive so well."

"This is a golf cart,' Mercedes replied sarcastically. "I do have my driver's license."

"Just no car,' he contended with a laugh.

"You think I live in a shack under a rock."

Sebastian raised his eyebrows. "Both?"

Mercedes rolled her eyes again as the two approached the teeing ground. They got out of the golf cart, stretched and complained about how cold the weather was. Sebastian handed the girl a golf club and directed her to where she should swing from. After a bit of convincing and urging, she started and with the effort of many winds, missed.

"No wonder black people don't do this,' she uttered with her normal sass before walking back over to the golf cart for a seat. Sebastian swung next and landed relatively near the hole; he imagined he could get it in two if he were lucky.

"You're not bad at this because you're black, you're bad at this because you've never done it. Come here,' he motioned her over before placing another golf ball on the tee. "You can see where you want it to go— this is a driver, that's the club you're holding. It's going to send the ball way down the green. Just put a little power in and aim."

Mercedes did as she was told, put a little power in and aimed, and the ball remained exactly where it had been before. She frowned and retreated.

Sebastian shrugged. "Do you want to try again?"

"Not really,' Mercedes replied, the two standing and staring at the golf ball and their frozen breath in the air.

"Do you want me to show you?"

"You did, and it didn't work, so,' she mused, crossing her arms. Sebastian nodded his head over to the tee again, and Mercedes ventured over hesitantly.

"You're gonna spread your feet a bit,' he said, hitting her foot lightly with his own. He placed his own club on the ground so that he could demonstrate without hitting her. "When you swing, you're going to come up,' he motioned as if his arms were rising behind him to prepare for a big swing, and then he dropped them down for a powerful hit. "Don't watch the ball, you already know where it is, that's why you put your body in the same position each time you come to swing."

"I feel like I did all that last time, and it didn't work,' Mercedes said with a bit of defeat.

Sebastian sighed and walked over to the girl, this time wrapping his arms around her and placing his hands over hers, so that they were both holding the club. "Okay… do you see where the flag is?"

She nodded.

Sebastian gave a few faux swings before making contact with the ball, so that Mercedes could see how it felt to swing in a range to ensure she wouldn't miss. Finally, together, they swung and hit. The golf ball, unlike his own, didn't travel very far down the pitch. Standing silently for a few seconds, Sebastian gave a light sigh and dropped his head before beginning to laugh into the girl's sweet smelling hair. Mercedes turned her head up to face him a bit, his arms still wrapped around her, but a smile lingering on her face.

"I think it's just me,' she said, giggling with Sebastian.

"We got it off the tee, that's more than I could have hoped for,' he said with a smile.

They walked together down to her golf ball, and he squatted while he watched her swing again, this time making a connection with the ball immediately, sending it forward, only fifteen or twenty yards from where Sebastian's ball had landed. He returned to the golf cart and grabbed the golf bag before catching back up with Mercedes who had already begun to move on to the next play. He switched clubs and handed her a new one.

"I liked that one,' Mercedes said with a pout.

"It's a driver, it won't help you. It's for putting from far away— that's an iron. It's for the in-between… It's lighter. Try swinging it."

Mercedes gave the club a trial swing before smiling and nodding. When they arrived to her ball's resting place, she dawned a confident smile. "Let's try this out,' she began before taking a quick swing. The ball rolled onto the green, missing the hole by only two feet.

"Good job,' Sebastian said with a smile. "You're not doing too bad. You sure this is your first time around a golf course?"

"First and likely last."

He furrowed his eyebrows. "What? You're not having fun?"

Mercedes shrugged as they walked further down the course. She checked her shoulder to gauge how far the golf cart was from them. "It's fine. I just don't see myself coming back to a country club anytime soon."

Sebastian gave a sarcastic but open shrug in response. "Who knows?"

Upon approaching his own golf ball, he gave a contemplative swing and sunk his ball before turning to the girl with a smirk. "That's how it's done."

Mercedes gave Sebastian a round of applause and then a high-five.

"I think you can make it in four,' he switched out her club with a putter as they walked closer to the hole flag.

"We don't need to count all the swings I missed back there?"

Sebastian shook his head.

"I can't wait to tell my momma I golfed today… she's going to look at me like I'm crazy."

Sebastian looked over at the girl for a second before looking back at the green. Their shoulders bumped as they walked. "Do you tell her you're hanging out with me or does she think you're off with someone else?"

Mercedes shrugged. "She works a lot— not really there to ask me where I'm going and with who. I'll just tell her I was with the same girl I hung out with on Halloween."

"Hmm,' Sebastian nodded. "I never actually asked you what you told her that night."

"I said that I was friends with a new girl from New York, and that we were going to just pass out candy and have a sleepover."

Sebastian nodded again. "You did tell me you had met someone recently. You didn't say she was from New York."

"That was the lie, Sebastian. Also: I wasn't with her that night, I was with you."

"I mean, obviously, but with most people, there is often some truth buried inside their lies… didn't know if maybe this friend was from New York also."

Mercedes shook her head as they neared her final shot. "Nope. She's from Ohio, I think. Don't ask me where."

"And she goes to McKinley,' Sebastian asked, squatting again but this time to pick his ball up from the hole. He backed up a few feet to give Mercedes room to make (or miss) her shot.

Mercedes nodded. "She's a sophomore. Her name is Marley."

Bending down again to get a better look at the ground, he began: "Feel free to swing whenever you want,' then digressed. "I'd be fine with meeting her, if you ever wanted to hang out all together."

It was a concerted effort to instill her purpose as his friend— a confirmation that he wasn't embarrassed to spend time with her in the company of other people or be involved in her life and with her friends. How could she ever again claim that they weren't friends— or that she didn't believe him when he called her his friend — when he had not only spent so much time with her, but he had spent time with her own friend! And made memories together and gone places together and had those events justified by another person. Not that his offer to meet Marley had truly been rooted in so much intricate thought, in actuality, he knew from Mercedes that Marley was an implant and rather sheepish, so it wasn't an explictly ardent and visible attempt at novelty in their relationship, but it was something more than he had offered before. He wasn't sure that he was the one who needed to do peacemaking between himself and Mercedes, but he also hadn't been the one irritated enough to start their last argument, so he imagined that the ball was in his court... somehow.

Mercedes thought for a second. She took a deep breath in and tapped the ball lightly— too light, however, it only moved up a few inches.

"Give it a little more,' Sebastian instructed, looking at the ball with complete severity.

Mercedes nodded and stepped closer. "That's sweet of you,' she said. "But I'm a little unwilling to hand you your next victim to be conquered. She's nice."

Almost as if on cue, Sebastian felt a migraine suddenly shift into gear behind his eyes. He scratched his nose and looked at the ground silently for a few seconds. "Make the shot,' he said finally, deciding against getting any matter of riled up. It wasn't even eight in the morning.

Mercedes hit the ball once more, sinking it into the hole anticlimatically. She looked at Sebastian with a small smile and lighthearted shrug.

"And there you have it,' he said, standing up to scoop the golf ball from the hole. He gave the girl a pat on the back and nodded back up towards the golf cart on the top of the hill from where they came. He began to make the return up the steep incline.

"That's it?"

"No,' Sebastian shook his head, looking back over his shoulder at Mercedes. "We have to do that seventeen more times."