ARMS OPEN: CH 2
Nick had been staring at the same spot on the wood of the bar for the past five minutes, turning the glass in his hands over and over whilst rubbing it with a cloth. It had been dry long ago, but still he wiped the material around the rim of the glass as his mind meandered off to somewhere far from where he currently stood. The dim lights matched his mood and he was grateful for the background melody of the chat, clinking glasses, and music that filled the room. Anything to drown out his own painful thoughts. He'd taken all the extra shifts he could get at the bar since the Tinfinity party, purely on the basis that it gave him somewhere to be other than the loft. He knew the current situation was of his own making. He knew that by letting his fears get the better of him, he had enabled Jess to slip right through his fingers, out of reach, and into the arms of someone else. That thought stuck in his throat like a foreign object and was too bitter to swallow. So he did the only thing he knew how to do well - he escaped. Whenever and however he could. Into the shower, his room, the roof, the park, the bar, the bottom of a bottle of whiskey - anywhere that meant he could limit the time spent seeing and hearing how happy Jess currently was in the arms of someone that wasn't him...
"This month marks Nick and my ten year anniversary of living together. Our "tin" anniversary."
"Did you know that the chemical symbol for tin is SN? Schmidt and Nick!"
"That's it, our theme is TinFinity."
Schmidt had gathered them all together in the living area to make his big announcement before he excitedly scurried off, laptop under arm, to start planning for the 'party of the year - actually, scratch that! Party of the century, bitches!'. He explicitly told the others he was not to be bothered unless Cece had finally come to her senses and turned up to declare her love for him, or Calvin Klein had announced a sale on their corduroy dress trousers. Winston was almost as eager to leave the apartment, but that had more to do with the text he had just received from Daisy than it did with anything pertaining to the party. Since the night of the 'YUM' pants debacle, he now constantly carried a condom inside his sock for emergency situations. 'I'm like a damn Boy Scout! Always prepared!'
Jess walked slowly around the couch after their departure, quietly lowering herself down in the seat next to Nick. Far enough away that they weren't touching, but close enough that it was obvious she was no longer mad enough about the other week to continue ignoring him. After that night in the kitchen, he deliberately kept his distance - mindful that his words had been regrettably sharp and hurtful. Their paths hadn't crossed much for the first week. She had been staying later at the school she was subbing at, returning to the loft only after he had already left for his shifts at the bar. Whilst avoiding each other had worked for them both at first, it wasn't a long term solution, nor did they want it to be. They'd settled in to a strange half-way house mode whereby they would exchange pleasantries on passing, but all conversation was kept to small talk, acutely aware - and steering clear - of the elephant in the room. 'So, how 'bout that weather today, huh?' or 'Phew! Traffic was a nightmare this afternoon' was about as friendly as they had been for the past fortnight. And it was weird.
Now, she had sat next to him willingly and even thrown half of her blanket towards him as she pulled it down from the back of the couch and across her legs. Nick stilled mid-swig of his beer and tentatively accepted the tartan material with his right hand, laying it loosely on his knees even though he had zero need for it.
"Thanks..." He mumbled.
Nick was half expecting her to slap his hand away when she realised he had hold of it but instead, Jess picked up her mug of tea from the coffee table, cupped it in both hands and held it close to her mouth as she settled back against the cushions.
"You're welcome." she replied after a slight pause, gulping a mouthful of warm tea and swallowing it slowly, allowing the comforting heat to spread down her body.
She was 'pulling a Nick' and acting like everything was normal - as if nothing had happened. Frankly, he found it slightly unnerving, but at least this way she was speaking to him again and he didn't feel the need to hide in his room anymore. As a return 'olive branch' gesture, Nick placed the remote down on the couch between them and left it there, returning his hand to his beer and taking a long sip whilst giving Jess a sidelong glance, grinning into his bottle as he saw the fingers of her left hand slowly creep their way from under the blanket to wrap themselves around the control and settle it back into her lap. They sat in silence for the next five minutes as Jess flicked aimlessly through trash TV channels before finally settling on an episode of 'Say Yes to the Dress'. The bride was a doctor called Samantha and her fiancé was a tall, handsome teacher named Jesse. Nick spluttered a little on his drink as he tried not to laugh.
"Shut up..." She demanded.
"Shutting up, starting...now." He smirked, aware of the small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth no matter how hard she tried to suppress it. The irony was not lost on her, of course.
Nick allowed himself to sink back into the couch and enjoy sitting her company again. No need for deep conversation or apologies - just a familiar, comfortable silence. Perhaps he hadn't messed things up quite as much as he thought.
"You also got tablecloths? I feel so fancy!"
Nick glanced around admirably - he had to hand it to Schmidt, this really did look great. The guy sure had a knack for event planning. Every little detail had been attended to, and despite his reservations at a party being thrown to celebrate the fact they had lived together for a decade, he actually felt pretty touched that his friend cared so much about it.
"Only the best night for my best knight!" Schmidt declared theatrically, frowning at the turtle face Nick pulled in response. He moved closer, laying an arm lovingly around Nick's shoulders and squeezed tightly "Nicholas, this is a momentous occasion in both our lives. We owe it all the pomp and ceremony that it deserves...that we deserve. For we truly have created a glorious partnership worthy of celebration. Two souls, merged in friendship for ten whole years!"
"Okay, this is getting a little intense, man." Nick slid sideways out of his grip and smoothed down his shirt. "Can you maybe just tone it down a little tonight, Schmidt. I don't want people thinking we're together or something. They talk enough as it is..."
"Oh, please. You are not my type. I've told you before - even Winston is more appealing to me than you, Nick."
"Winston?! I'm more of a catch than Winston - he doesn't even have any game! You'd be lucky to have a guy like me!"
At the sound of someone clearing their throat loudly, both men span around to see Jess stood with eyebrows raised. "Are you guys arguing over who Schmidt would date again?"
With a sigh, she stepped forward and shook her head "We've been through this, Nick: Schmidt would choose Winston because of his sensitive nature and caring side. He could be confident that Winston would look after him should he become old and infirm."
"Thank you, Jessica. See, Nick - I need a guy in touch with his feelings, and we all know you're still incapable of talking about your emotions. You're a little stunted in that area, but it's not your fault. We still have some real work to do there..."
"Mmmhmm" Jess agreed, nodding her head and staring at him pointedly.
"Hey, I can talk about my feelings when I need to, okay?" He retorted "Why has this suddenly turned into a 'pick on Nick Miller' session? Can we change the subject, please?"
"Actually, I did come here for a specific purpose" Jess admitted, looking at Schmidt "I just wanted to give you the heads up that my guests will be arriving in a half hour - so if you can make sure they're on the list that'd be super cool. Okay, thanks, bye!"
"Hey! Hold it right there Jessica Day! What do you mean 'your' guests?!" Schmidt's hands were on his hips and Jess could see Nick grimacing behind him.
"The three teachers I invited from work..."
"Teachers? From your...? Uh...Jess?"
He coughed and ran a hand across his brow, suddenly damp with perspiration. Schmidt fixed her with a wild eyed stare. Uh-oh.
"What were you thinking?! If I'd wanted frumpy, middle-aged guests resembling Mrs Doubtfire at my party, I would have just invited my Great-Aunt Edna!" He turned dramatically to his left and held aloft the silver edged display board "Oh hello, dear seating plan that took me 37 painstaking hours to prepare - may as well just throw you out, seeing as Jessica Damn Day has gone rogue!"
"Oh, come on Schmidt. It's not that big of a deal, it's only four more people!"
"It's four, now?" He tugged at the collar of his shirt and paced up and down a few times.
"Well, Helen asked if she could bring her brother along as he's new in town - it seemed rude to say no..."
"Oh, that's funny...because to me it's rude inviting more guests to a party without asking for permission from the hosts!"
"But Nick said it wasn't a problem!"
Schmidt turned immediately to regard his friend, his face clearly displaying the fact he was waiting for a good explanation. And fast.
"Woah - Hang on!" Nick waggled his finger and took a step backwards "I said it wasn't a problem for me - I didn't know she wasn't gonna run it past you too! I am not to blame for this, nuh-uh, no way José!"
Jess rolled her eyes at Nick and turned her attention back to Schmidt. Placing a hand either side of his arms she pleaded to his better nature "Please? I'm sorry to spring it on you at the last minute..." Jess threw a scowl towards Nick "...but I really want to make some friends at this school. If the subbing goes well, it could be a permanent position. This is a chance for me to make some connections! Please? We can scoot some tables around to fit them in, I'm sure. And then...I'll owe you one!"
Schmidt looked up with a pout "Can you make sure Cece comes tonight too?"
"I'm sure I could fix that. So, do we have a deal?"
"Fine..." He sulked, before declaring he needed to be left alone with his seating plan and a Sharpie for 20 minutes.
Jess turned around to look at Nick and laughed when he shook his head at her.
"Well, thanks for throwing me under the bus there, Day! He's gonna hold that against me for weeks."
"I thought you would have told him - you're joint host for crying out loud, Miller!"
Nick scoffed "Joint host? Let's be real, the only thing I was entrusted with was the damn porta potty. Although I do believe I aced that because you, my friend, are now looking at a small business owner!"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I bought it, the porta potty...I can rent it out for other parties, corporate functions, bar mitzvahs et cetera...use it to bring in funds for my next venture! You wanna see?"
He looked so proud, Jess couldn't bring herself to say no. Smiling warmly, she simply nodded and felt her grin spread wider as his face lit up like a little boy on Christmas morning. Nick stepped forward until he was right up close to her face. Jess's breath caught a little in her lungs as he placed his arms on her shoulders and quickly span her around, bringing her backwards so his chest was suddenly pressed up behind her. His hands rested over her eyes and she let out a nervous laugh.
"Nick! What are you doing? You're going to make me fall over, I can't see!"
Dipping his head to her ear, Jess felt goosebumps ripple down her neck as his warm breath landed on her skin.
"I want the reveal to be a surprise..." He whispered.
There was a brief pause and he shifted against her ever so slightly, closing the small gap between their bodies so her back was flush against his ribcage "...do you trust me, Jessica?"
He was sure she must have been able to feel his heart pounding hard in his chest in those few seconds it took for her answer to come back.
"Yes, Nick. I trust you..."
"Alright, well then let's go..."
Jess had just stepped away from the porta potties and left Nick trying to persuade the guests to use his monstrosity. Taking a seat at the bar just across from him and waiting for her pink wine, her gaze drifted over to Nick repeatedly and she chuckled as he accosted potential toilet users as they passed by. She found herself watching him for a while and smiling. He was the most frustrating person she knew, but Jess was honestly so glad they had gotten past that awkward night. She'd missed him, and their chats on the couch when the other guys had gone to bed. Her mind kept going back to the shivery feeling that washed over her when his breath had landed on her neck. What was that?
A tap on the shoulder broke her concentration.
"Helen! Welcome - I'm so glad you made it, where are the others?"
"Oh, they were just behind me, I think they were trying to find the restrooms - here they are now!"
Helen pointed behind Jess and she turned on her heel with a smile fixed on her face to greet Sally and Louise...but, oh my...she was not prepared for the sight of a six-foot tall Adonis with hair as yellow as the sun standing just a few steps behind them. The way Helen had spoken about her brother, Jess assumed he was the nerdy, bookish type. As they approached, she noted how well he was dressed and that he clearly worked out, what with the way his biceps strained at the material of his freshly pressed shirt.
"You know the ladies, obviously, and this is my brother Logan."
Now that he was stood in front of her, she could do nothing to stop her jaw from falling slightly open. His eyes were green and totally mesmerising. Jess stared at the big, manly hand that was stretched out towards her and giggled like a little girl as she gently shook it, nearly fainting when he cupped his other hand over the top of hers.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Ms Day. I've heard a lot about you!"
"You look like a cat..." Jess's eyes went wide with horror as she realised she had spoken those words out loud and not just thought them in her head "...oh my god! I mean your eyes...not that you have eyes like a cat but they're so green they reminded me of a cat...you know?"
Scrunching her face up and blushing profusely, she realised she was still stood shaking his hand. Pulling her arm back and allowing his to drop to his sides, Jess cleared her throat "I'm sorry, let me start over. Hi Logan, it's nice to meet you..."
He smiled broadly at her, revealing a set of perfectly straight, white teeth. Nodding his head, she bit her bottom lip and felt the heat of embarrassment emanate from her body. Way to play it cool, Day.
"Okay, ladies...Logan...allow me to show you round!" She extended an arm in front of her and the three ladies walked ahead towards the seating area and the dance floor. Logan hung back slightly to walk next to Jess. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach at the unexpected sensation of his hand right next to the small of her back. Not touching, but hovering just slightly away from her body.
"After you, Ms Day." He beamed, eyes not leaving her face.
Standing next to his porta potty, Nick had a perfect view of the bar where Jess had taken a seat. He could see her legs swinging back and forth on the stool as she waited for her drink. He was barely able to take his eyes away from her hands and the way they tapped a little musical beat out on the counter. Nick was pretty sure Jess didn't realise she did that so much, nor the strange affect it had on his insides. It was something so innocuous, but it always made his heart swell to watch her doing it.
His attention was drawn away by the possible 'customers' approaching to his right. A couple of older ladies and some guy who was clearly way too into himself. Must be someone Schmidt knew. They looked like they would have a mutual interest in hair chutney.
"Hey, guys!" Nick waved and tried to look as welcoming as possible "Anyone happening to need the bathroom, look no further - I offer you the premium experience of the 'Miller Portable Restroom'"
'Too-into-himself Guy' turned to look at Nick in clear distain. Waving the ladies a step ahead of him, he lowered his voice "You're kidding, right? You want people to take a whizz in that piece of garbage? Take my advice, buddy - get a new day job! Actually, I work in recruitment. I can give you my card_"
"I'm good, thanks." Nick replied curtly, turning his back and directing his sales patter towards a group of younger guys that looked more forthcoming. One of the five men finally took pity on him and braved the 'Miller Portable Restroom', much to Nick's delight.
Eager to share news of his first official customer, he looked back towards the bar for Jess. His heart sank in his chest and he stopped still as he saw her being introduced to the idiot he had just been speaking to. They must be the guests she was talking about earlier. The people she would no doubt be spending the majority of her night with. The blonde guy was reaching for Jess's hand and her reaction was like a sledgehammer to his gut. She had turned into a giggling, flustered mess. Jess didn't act that way unless she was clearly attracted to someone. Nick was a little surprised, he didn't think over-styled douche bags were her type. As she went to escort them around, he saw this guy purposefully wait for Jess. Saw him reach his arm to her back, saw the way Jess blushed...and Nick felt like he couldn't breathe.
It was just like the time he fell off a wall when he was 12 and had the wind knocked right out of his body.