ARMS OPEN: CH 1

Jess tapped her pen against the desk absent-mindedly, the stack of papers she was grading pushed to one side as she struggled to concentrate, eyes staring in to the distance at nothing in particular through the window on her right. The clock was ticking loudly above her head, almost taunting her with the fact that she was still there marking tests way after hours, but she didn't really mind. Jess liked the peace and quiet of the school once the day had ended, and it meant she didn't have to go back to the loft just yet, because Lord knows the atmosphere there was still a bit strange. Her mind was drifting aimlessly as she looked at the clouds floating past in the fading light outside, and she ended up thinking about the same thing she had done for days: Nick.

To be more specific: Nick and the change he had caused in her life since the night he almost kissed her. The night that a game of True American took a turn that could have gone a very different way, but somehow didn't...

...

...

'God, Miller! Just kiss me already!'

'No! Not like this...'

She'd thought they were nothing more than just good friends, so was caught off guard a little by his words. Something in his voice had given him away at that moment. He'd tried to backtrack when she pressed him on what he meant, but Jess could tell. Nick being Nick had freaked out and run away from her before she could try and get him to explain.

It was only meant to be a stupid dare. One kiss behind the iron curtain, then go back to life as normal. But that moment - that tiny flash in his eyes which belied his protestations of 'I didn't mean...nothing, it's just...we can't, like that...' - it didn't escape her. There was always something between them that she couldn't quite put her finger on. So Jess wasn't totally surprised when they ended up stood alone in the hallway between their rooms later that night. Sam was sleeping, and it had once again been Nick she instinctively called for when she thought danger was nearby as she heard those creepy scratching noises return. Relieved to find it was just their neighbour's dog, but a little bummed out at having to return his beloved trench coat, he had walked her back to her room. The ever reliable Miller. But she never expected anything less - Nick was her go-to guy. Her safety blanket. He made everything OK.

'Goodnight, Nick'

'Goodnight'

She had turned to leave, but felt his grasp on her arm turn her around, only to let go again immediately after, as if touching her had given him an electric shock. His face was so close to hers that she could see his pupils were dilated enough to turn his eyes almost black. There was something burning deep within them that seemed to straddle lust and fear. They stared at one another, frozen like statues, both equally shocked at his action of stopping her from going. Jess tried to swallow but her mouth had gone dry. Nick looked like he was holding his breath, desperate to reach for her but unable to make a move. His eyes darted to her lips and she was so sure he was going to kiss her. So sure.

At the sound of her door opening, she shot back away from him, head snapping round towards the noise. The appearance of Dr Sam from the darkness of her room made her eyes widen in panic, although she tried her best to hide it by plastering a smile across her face.

"Hey! Sam!"

"Hey, Jess..." he croaked in a sleepy voice, yawning loudly and stretching a long arm out towards her "...are you coming back to bed?"

"Uh, yeah...yes...I'll be riiiiight there!" Jess sang before she turned around to face Nick again, finding an empty hall where he had slipped away to his own room out of view while her back was turned. She stared at his closed door for a moment, blinking slowly, but choosing to decide she must have misread his intentions.

...

Sam rolled over to face Jess as the morning sunlight streamed in through her window and lit the room. She groaned a little and covered her eyes from the brightness. Moving her hand away and laughing, he smiled at her with a dopey look on his face, then reached across to fist bump her just like every morning they woke up together. Jess forced a little chuckle from her throat and obliged him, even though she felt a small part of her die inside every single time he did it. He grabbed his phone from the bedside table and flopped back down next to her.

"Sweet. Ten e-mails!"

He went for a high five and Jess had to suppress a grimace as she allowed him to slap her palm, full of enthusiasm.

"Oh, cool - my buddy has sent me pics of this gnarly surgery he did the other day, wanna see?"

"Eww, no! Sam, its first thing in the morning!"

She was mildly irritated by the way he insisted on talking like some kind of teenage surfer-dude, but assumed it was just tiredness making her grouchy - her sleep had been fitful last night, to say the least. Laying her head back on the pillow, Jess sighed to herself as he shrugged and giggled like a school boy while scrolling through the images. She liked Sam, she really did - but despite him being a straight up doctor of medicine with a serious job saving kids, sometimes their differences in maturity in other aspects of life were glaringly obvious. Doubts about their relationship had been starting to creep their way in to her mind slowly over the past couple of weeks but she had always swatted them away like some kind of annoying fly. Those feelings had resurfaced this morning in full force, and a small part of her wondered how much of that had to do with Nick and the events of last night. With the evening replaying on a loop in her mind no matter how hard she tried to shut it out, Jess left Sam to his phone, slid out of the covers and padded quickly down the hall to escape into the shower, hoping the cool jets of water beating down upon her scalp might help to blast the unwelcome thoughts away for a while.

...

Waking with a start, Nick squinted against the harsh glare of the lamp next to his bed and realised he'd forgotten to turn it off last night. His mind was elsewhere, and it had been really late by the time he'd finally managed to stop thinking about Jess long enough for sleep to pull him under into it's sweet embrace. Covering his face with both hands, he rolled over and buried his head into a pillow, groaning loudly in frustration. He wasn't sure what he was more annoyed at himself for - not kissing Jess during the game, or almost kissing her in the hallway. Pushing himself up on his forearms, Nick flung his legs over the side of the bed and stretched his arms above his head, feeling a satisfying crack in his spine. He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck and sighed. How drunk had he been last night? Could he use that as a good enough excuse? No...no, he was pretty damn sober after Jess had called him to help when she heard those noises at the door. Which makes what he nearly did even worse.

'What were you thinking? She has a boyfriend! A tall, handsome, successful, boyfriend...'

Nick pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, cursing himself in resignation. There was no one to blame here but himself. He had been so overcome with his own selfish desire to touch her, his want to kiss her, his need to hold her tight against him, that for a split second he completely forgot himself. He couldn't get the sight of her in that moment out of his mind. The look in her eyes journeyed from confusion to worry to...acceptance? Intrigue? Stupid Sam and his impeccable timing had ruined any chance Nick had of actually finding out - so, for the second time that night, he ran away from her. He'd slumped against the inside of his closed bedroom door for quite a while afterwards, trying to decide if what he'd almost done was brave or stupid. Who was he kidding, Nick Miller couldn't get away with big, spontaneous moments like that. Story of his life.

What he did know was that, right now, he couldn't stand to be in the loft. He was getting tense just at the thought of bumping in to Jess again. What if she had questions? No, it was too much. He had to get out. Go for a walk and get some air, clear his head. Throwing on a clean shirt, Nick slipped his feet into the nearest pair of shoes he could find and rushed out of his bedroom, only to be greeted with Sam opening Jess's bedroom door at the exact same moment.

There's that perfect timing coming in to play again.

"Hey, Nick, what's up?"

He nodded at the Doctor and stuffed his hands awkwardly in his pockets. He didn't want his desperation to leave to be too obvious.

"Hey, Sam...good sleep?" He cringed at his inability to say anything else. God, he needed to get out - now.

"Yeah, yeah. Jess's mattress is super comfy. And, hey, it's hard not to sleep well with a beauty like her curled up next to me, you know?"

Nick forced a strangled laugh out and raised his brow. Of course he didn't know, and he was getting the impression that he never would.

"Oh, look. You gotta see these shots of the surgery my buddy just did, it's so rad" Sam shoved his phone screen towards Nick's face and laughed as he recoiled in horror.

"Yeah, that's...uh, that's totally gross"

"Great, huh!"

"Sure. I, uh, don't mean to be rude...but, I gotta get going. I have to meet a friend, so..."

"Cool. Think Jess and I are headed off soon anyway...some Indian Marriage thing she needs to go to. Are you and the guys going?"

Nick screwed up his face at the suggestion. He knew full well that Schmidt was attending with Winston, but Cece and Jess weren't allowed to find that out. They'd tried to convince him to go too last night, but his answer had remained a solid 'Pass!'

"God no, are you kidding? Having my career and life choices used by members of the opposite sex as reasons NOT to date me? No thanks..."

"I hear you, bro - not exactly my first choice for a date. Alright, well...I guess I'll see ya around. See how this thing pans out I guess. What's the worst that could happen, right?"

"Right..." Nick gave a nod and hurried towards the door, closing it behind him just as Jess exited from the shower.

...

Nick's day had mostly been spent at the park. No one could calm down a panicking Nick Miller and help him put things in perspective like his buddy Tran. He turned up for his evening shift at the bar later feeling positively chilled out. No tension, no residual anger, no regret. Clear conscience. It felt good.

He returned to the loft after closing up and entered quietly, hoping he would be the only one awake. Seeing the light coming from the direction of the kitchen, he immediately knew that was not the case. Nick was planning on slipping away to his room discreetly, not wanting to bother anyone and equally not wanting to sour the inner peace he was currently rocking. He stood out of view for a moment and heard the angry banging of plates and cupboards. Someone was home and clearly not in a good mood - all the more reason to tiptoe away unnoticed.

But then he heard something else. The distinctive clinking of a wine glass on the counter top.

Jess.

It was Jess. In the kitchen.

It took Nick a good twenty seconds and several deep breaths to work up the courage to turn the corner and step out of the darkness towards her, but he had decided to seize upon the zen mood he was in and wanted to check she was ok. The thought of going to bed and leaving her out there in a bad mood with no one to talk to just didn't sit right with him. He might have been a shitty friend last night, but maybe this was his chance to redeem himself and do some good.

He stood a few feet away from her, having not yet been noticed. Her hair was half scraped back, half hanging loose and she had that flushed tint to her cheeks that she got whenever she was upset but trying to hide it. There was an almost empty bottle of wine to her right and most of a loaf of bread to her left. He smiled and allowed himself a second to watch her before clearing his throat gently so as not to startle her too much. She looked up over her glasses but didn't say a word, merely gave a small nod and smile in return.

"What are ya doin' with all that bread, Day?"

"We're out of waffles..."

"Are you eating toast whilst drinking wine?!"

She nodded her head with her mouth full and slipped her glasses further up her nose defiantly.

"Oh my god, Jess. That is truly disgusting!"

Chewing and swallowing with purpose, she placed a hand on her hip while the other waved wildly towards the spot where he stood, mouth aghast.

"Sure, right! Coming from the guy who drinks beer with his breakfast cereal. Whatever, man. I'm sad, and angry, and hungry...I'm...I'm Sangry." She pouted, and Nick had to try hard not to laugh at her as she continued "...it's not a good mix, I'm really not having a great time right now, so I don't wanna hear another peep out of your mouth, you hear me?"

Nick frowned and leaned back against the dining room table with his arms folded. Against his better judgment, he asked "OK, what's going on?"

"What do you mean?" Jess replied with a glum expression, trying not to spray crumbs everywhere.

"You never get like this unless something is really bothering you - so, let's have it..."

Resting her hands on the counter, she reached for her glass and downed the last few mouthfuls of wine within, before silently grabbing the bottle and re-filling it to the brim. Nick raised an eyebrow - this wasn't going to be good. Seeming to consider whether to answer his question honestly, she exhaled loudly and grunted. Looking him in the eyes, Jess spoke in a very matter-of-fact tone "I broke up with Sam..."

Nick's heart beat faster against his ribcage at her admission and he stood quickly from his resting spot, clearing his throat before he spoke "You...uh, you what?"

"I broke up with Sam, OK!" She said, louder and visibly irritated "...and, really - if you think about it...all of this is your fault, Miller, so I'd rather you just kept your judgement about my 'eating-toast-while-drinking-wine' to yourself."

"Wait, hold up a second." Nick stepped closer to the kitchen island, hands raised in protest "How is you breaking up with Sam MY fault?"

Her voice came back at him, stuttering and high-pitched "Because...because, if you hadn't been so...so..."

"So what?"

"So damn...weird last night, I never would have gone to that stupid Indian Marriage Convention with him and had our incompatibility shoved in my face!"

"Weird? I wasn't being weird, what are you talking about?"

"Don't play dumb with me, Nick, ok." She narrowed her eyes and pointed the butter knife in his direction "Last night. In the hall. I went to walk away and you stopped me..."

"Oh, that?" He scoffed, trying to sound nonchalant "c'mon Jess, that was so much of a non-event I can't believe you're actually bringing it up!"

"Why did you grab me?" She asked suddenly, with her head cocked to one side and her eyes narrowed in that accusatory way he didn't like because it made him nervous. He could feel the calmness seeping from his pores and being replaced by crippling anxiety with every short breath he was taking.

"Why did I...? Grab you...? I...I barely even remember doing it!" Nick lied, the beads of sweat starting to gather at the small of his back. She knew, she must do. Why else would she be asking him to explain his actions "It was just...instinctual, I guess...to check you were ok...uh, after your scare, y'know, with the scratching noises..." He trailed off, knowing she must be able to see right through him and swallowed hard.

"Why were you "instinctually" grabbing me?"

He ran one hand down his face and felt his breathing quicken. He was starting to panic.

"I don't know, Jessica! I do a lot of things instinctually, they don't always have reasoning behind them! Sometimes, when I'm walking across the street with Schmidt, I'll instinctively put my hand on his back and guide him across the road - why do I do it? Who knows?! It doesn't mean anything!"

Nick's arms were flying about as he tried to convince her. He was talking fast and knew he was starting to ramble. Thankfully, Jess cut him off abruptly.

"OK, if you say so - but it wasn't just the grabbing I'm talking about, Nick..."

He screwed his face up at her words and she took that as her cue to continue

"...there was also something in your face."

He rolled his eyes heavenwards and threw his arms in the air, scoffing loudly.

"Oh, for the love of God, woman - do not start with that again! Stop analysing my damn face!"

"But..."

Nick was desperate for her to stop probing, his fight or flight response was about to kick in and everyone knew his only move was to split when things got awkward - but even he was aware running away from Jess three times in 24hrs would look highly suspicious. He had to try something different.

"Enough, Jess!" He snapped, shocking her into silence "Look, I'm sorry you and Sam broke up but stop trying to make this about me. I know I'm usually to blame for a lot of stuff around here, but you can't pin this one on me. It's not my fault you have terrible taste in men!"

He regretted the words the instant they flew from his mouth. Seeing her visibly wince at them was like a sucker punch to his gut and he wished desperately that he could take them back. Her mouth snapped closed and she gave a small nod of her head, eyes dropping from his and down to the counter. Letting the butter knife fall with a loud clang on to the crockery, and shoving her plate to one side with force, Jess picked up her glass of wine and went to walk away from the kitchen, and him. Her eyes were glistening with the tears she was forcing back by sheer determination and she pushed his arm away as he reached towards her, pleading with a soft voice "Jess, wait, I'm sorry - I didn't mean_"

"No, Nick. You know what? You're right. I DO have terrible taste in men..."

Her voice was small and full of sadness as she turned quickly away from him and rushed towards the hall. The door of her bedroom closed with a soft click and Nick cursed himself for being such an ass. 'Well done, Miller. Sterling example of how to act like a dick...'

He closed his eyes and let his head fall back towards the ceiling with a grunt. Exhaling heavily, he walked to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge. He took several large gulps in a row, then looked at the counter behind him. Placing his bottle down, Nick tidied up the mess Jess had made, until there was no trace she had been there, or of what had just happened. If Schmidt woke up to a crumb strewn kitchen surface in the morning there would be hell to pay for the culprit, and sparing Jess that tongue lashing was the very least he could do at the moment. Returning the cleaned plate and knife to their rightful homes, he trudged back towards his room and paused momentarily outside her door 'You really fucked up this time...' he heard the voice in his head taunt. Chewing on his bottom lip, Nick took another mouthful from his beer and walked into his bedroom without looking back.

...