Shadows and Tall Trees:

Gripping the branch of the tree a little way above her head, Jess attempted to haul herself up to sit on it, but found her shoes slipping on the trunk and her feet struggling to find purchase. Sliding to the ground with a bump, she quickly stood up and dusted herself off. Grunting, she huffed out a big breath and blew the hair away from her eyes, preparing herself to try again. Placing one hand on a lower branch for extra balance, Jess tried and failed a second time. Stamping her foot in annoyance, she grabbed the tree trunk again - but was distracted by the loud sound of bike brakes screeching to a halt behind her.

"You look like you could use a hand there, Day."


There was only one person she knew at school who insisted on calling her by her last name.

Turning around and folding her arms, Jess frowned at Nick as he stood there wearing his Cubs hat and straddling his BMX. The increasing darkness of the evening casting his shadow long and thin in front of him as the moon shone brightly.

"You think just because I'm a girl that I need assistance?"

"Uh, nooo..." he stepped off his bike and laid it on the floor "...I think you need assistance because I just watched you try to climb this tree with no success for the past five minutes."

"Eww, do you make a habit of loitering in parks to spy on your peers?" Jess crossed her arms.

"Sure." He drawled sarcastically, grinning as her eyes narrowed at him "So do you want my help or not?"

"No! I can do it by myself." Jess jutted out her chin and straightened the hem of her dress before turning back to the tree with a determined look set on her face.

"Okay, suit yourself..." Nick crossed his arms in front of him and watched as she once again scuffed her feet helplessly down the bark of the trunk, fingers turning white as she held on desperately trying to prove him wrong.

"Gahhhh!" She squealed in frustration, slipping and landing on the grass. Turning back to face him, Jess looked at her feet and mumbled towards the ground.

"Oh, I'm sorry Day - I can't quite hear you, you're gonna have to speak up." Nick laughed smugly.

"I said...I guess a leg-up would be helpful."

"Ah, I see..." he tapped his fingers on his chin "...well, I'm always happy to oblige when there's a damsel in distress but, there's just one problem."


"You didn't use the magic word." Nick bit back a smile and tried to keep his face deadpan.

"Are you serious?!"

"Hey, I offered my services for free before but you refused them. So, now, my help comes at a price."

Jess huffed in exasperation, but plastered the sweetest smile she could muster on her face.

"Please, Nicholas, would you help me climb the tree?"

"I'd be delighted!" He replied with mock excitement, stepping past her and leaning his shoulder against the trunk. He bent his legs slightly and linked his fingers together, bracing his hands on his knee "Hop on."

Jess placed a shoe into the foot-hold he had made for her, then shrieked loudly as Nick unceremoniously flung her upwards towards the lower branches.

She'd had no idea he was quite that strong, although the momentary sensation of feeling weightless in his grip was surprisingly enjoyable.

As she positioned herself to look back over the park, Jess noticed Nick effortlessly pulling himself up behind her.

"Woah, woah, woah! What do you think you're doing?" She asked, extending her arms in his direction.

"I'm joining you...duh!" he said, clambering up and draping his legs either side of a slighter lower branch.

"That wasn't part of the deal!"

"It was in the fine print." He smirked.

"Don't be a wise-ass."

"Look, it's getting dark out. I'm not leaving you up here all by yourself - who knows what kinda weirdos are out there. Someone needs to look out for you."

"I'm a big girl, Nick - I can look after myself."

"After watching you attempting to climb this tree, I respectfully disagree..." he raised a brow then cocked his head towards the hill a little way to their left "Why'd you wanna sit up here by yourself anyway? Isn't Cece down there with Mike and his cronies?"

"Yeah..." Jess sighed "...I sorta felt a little...surplus to requirements."

Nick squinted in the little light that was left and could just make out the figure of Cece locking lips with a guy a year or two older than them, his friends doing the same with other girls and swigging from cans of beer that were being shared around.

"I see. Well, sure looks like they might be a while..."

"No kidding." She said, before nodding to the ground below them where his bike rested "Nice wheels, by the way..."

"They've served me well." He laughed "But I'd be lying if i said I wasn't counting the days until our licenses come through next month. Man, I'm gonna be driving my car everywhere - just you wait."

"You've got a car?" Jess couldn't hide the surprise in her voice, and noted with regret the way Nick's chest puffed out slightly in response.

"Yeah, I do actually." He bristled "It was a gift from my Dad after he taught me how to drive."

"You already learned how to drive?"

"Uh-huh...pretty much the only thing he stuck around long enough to teach me."

There was an evident bitterness to Nick's voice that didn't escape Jess.

"Oh. Well...that's cool, though."


A mutually uncomfortable silence descended between them, and they sat on their respective branches avoiding eye contact. Much to Jess's relief, Nick broke the awkwardness first some time later.

"Hey, look - there's the Big Dipper constellation." he pointed through the leaves to the inky sky where the absence of street lighting within the park meant the stars were becoming increasingly visible as the night took over.

"Technically, the Big Dipper is a pattern of stars in the constellation of_"

"Ursa Major, I know." Nick interrupted.

"Oh so you were listening to Mrs Robertson earlier?"

"Of course. Give me some credit."

"I mean, it was just hard to tell with the concentration you were dedicating to spitballing the back of Winston's head."

"This might be news to you, Jessica, but guys can actually multi-task as well you know..." Nick leaned backwards until he was lying flat on his back on a large branch just below Jess. One leg dangled down to keep his balance as his arms crossed behind his head "...and why were you staring at me in class anyway?"

"I was not!" She protested haughtily.

"Sure sounds like you were pretty interested in what I was getting up to. Just sayin'." He shrugged with a smile.

"No,'s kind of hard not to be drawn to your stupidity. I was just...uh...waiting for you to get caught so I could enjoy seeing you get detention."

"Oh, so now you enjoy watching me?"

"Stop twisting my words! God, you are infuriating!"

"Thanks!" He grinned up at her, his Cubs hat now slightly skewed to one side of his head, allowing a flop of his dark brown hair to peek through.

Jess huffed and turned her head, looking back over in Cece's direction to check if she was done making out with Mike Simmonds yet.

"They still sucking face down there?" He grimaced.


"Does it look gross? Like he's trying to eat her face?"

"Kind of..." she tilted her head "...but they sure seem to be enjoying it!"

"Amateurs." He tutted.

"Ha! Sure, like you're such an expert."

"I don't mean to toot my own horn but I have been told on several occasions that my kissing is great."

"By who?!" Jess scoffed.

"Alison Daniels, if you must know..."

"Oh, please, she'd have told you anything you wanted to hear if it meant she got another notch on her bow! Girls like her are all the same."

"Well at least they're not hiding out in trees too scared to get kissed." He shot.

"I'm not scared - I don't want to kiss any of those idiots, they're a bunch of douchbags."

"Nuh-uh. You're scared!" He twirled a finger at her and she swatted him away.

"Am not!"

"Then prove it..." Nick slowly sat upright and twisted his cap backwards on his head, turning so he was now facing her, mischief sparking in his eyes "...why don't you just kiss me instead?"

"What?!" Jess recoiled visibly and became increasingly flustered "Wh-Why would you think I would want to do that?"

"It was just a suggestion, sheesh. You don't need to look so disgusted." He frowned.

"No. Nooo! Not happening."

"I thought maybe you'd rather do it with someone a little less...douchey."

"Yeah, but...with you? No way! That's...we can't,'s!"

His eyes narrowed at her insult.

"Whatever, you're probably really bad at it anyway..." he stuck his bottom lip out in that way that made him look like a turtle "I bet all your stupid ribbons and oversized bows get in the way."

"Hey!" She protested.

"Don't dish it out if you can't take it!"

"Oh you wanna trash talk huh? Well-uh–your lips–a-are really soft-looking–" Jess stuttered and immediately panicked as the words flew from her mouth.

"What?!" His eyes were wide with surprise


"My lips are 'really soft looking'?!"

"That's not_"

" want them to look...hard?" His brows met in confusion.

"No, I didn't just came out..." Jess mumbled, fingers tangling in her lap as she went her trademark shade of beetroot.

"You're terrible at trash talk, Day. We gotta get you some lessons." He laughed quietly, his chest now level with her knees and hands resting either side of her lap on the branch she was sitting upon.

She smiled back at him, her eyes shining in the moonlight as she chewed on the inside of her cheek. Jess saw the way he swallowed hard as they both fell quiet, and felt her own mouth go dry when he started to move almost imperceptibly closer to her - but the moment was ended abruptly as the shrill voice of a slightly tipsy Cece rang out beneath them.

"Ooh! Jess and a BOY sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-_ oh, wait..." she sounded suddenly disappointed and curled her lip "'s just Miller. In that case, nevermind."

Nick gave Cece a salute of greeting before folding his fingers down one by one, save for the middle one so he could flip her off.

"Ugh. Don't you have somewhere else to be?" She sneered.

"Don't you?" He countered "Mike's lips are probably getting cold. Shouldn't you go warm them back up?"

Flicking her long hair over her shoulder, Cece turned her face away from him to look pointedly at her friend.

"You okay up there, Jess? You want to come down with me and Mike?"

"And third-wheel during your tongue off?! How exciting!" Nick scoffed.

"I'm not talking to you, Miller."

He rolled his eyes and leaned his weight back on his hands, trying to look as though he wasn't bothered in the slightest about what Jess's answer would be, but found himself holding his breath as he watched her glance down at him with the faintest of smiles ghosting on her lips.

"I'm good here, Ceec." She nodded "I'll come find you soon."

"Okay..." Cece eyed Jess suspiciously and narrowed her gaze at Nick "...if you're sure."

"She's sure." He squinted back.

"You need me, you just holler okay? I'll be back up here in ten seconds."

"You got it." Jess gave an awkward thumbs up and laughed as Cece began to walk away backwards, using two fingers to gesture from her eyes and back in Nick's direction while menacingly mouthing the words 'I'M. WATCHING. YOU!'

He turned back towards Jess, eyebrows raised.

"She genuinely scares me." He said quietly.

"Ah, she's a softie really. Cece just has a crazy strong Mama Bear thing going on. It's always been that way with us. She likes to protect me."

"Do you need protecting from me?" He asked, coming up on his knees and holding on to her branch for balance.

"I guess that depends..." Jess whispered.

"On what?"

"On how bad your kissing is..."

She grinned as Nick smiled back at her, and felt the butterflies in her stomach fluttering relentlessly when he leaned towards her. Jess closed her eyes, almost too scared to breathe as she waited for his mouth to meet hers. When they did, she smiled inwardly at the realisation his lips were just as soft as they looked.

Her heart was pounding as one of his arms laid across her thighs, while the other curled around her waist to settle on the small of her back. His hold on her as they kissed was strong, and Jess felt like she was in one of those teenage dramas her and Cece loved to watch. Without thinking, she leaned in to him and wound her arms around his neck, throwing them both off balance and breaking their embrace as she nearly toppled forward and screamed. Nick quickly grabbed her waist with both hands, stopping Jess from falling and serving to also help him regain his own bearings.

"Woah! Are you trying to kill us both?!"

"Me?! You're the one who made me lose my balance!" She yelled.

"Oh, you liked kissing me that much, huh?"

"You're a jerk." Jess scowled.

"You liked kissing me, it's fine to say that!" Nick grinned, still able to taste her cherry lip balm on his own mouth and struggling to stop his heart from racing so hard he might pass out.

"It was okay, I guess." Jess refused to meet his gaze as she blushed profusely.

"You're kinda cute when you're not being a bossy know-it-all..." He whispered, looking up at her with his chocolate eyes dark and soft, a lop-sided grin on his face that made her stomach flip.

She couldn't quite understand why, because he really was the most annoying boy on the planet. Just this morning in English class he was making fart noises under his armpit and laughing so hard he was practically crying.

What a dream boat.

Yet here she was, sitting in a tree with her mouth still tingling from a kiss she had imagined only existed in the movies.

Nick Miller had kissed her and she liked it.

A lot.

Staring down at him, she tried to stop the way her heart was thundering in her chest as he leaned up towards her again, his hands crossed over her legs. Closing her eyes, Jess waited to feel him press his lips to hers a second time.

"Nick! There you are - c'mon man, my Mom is gonna flip if I'm not back before curfew!"

She felt the warmth of his arms quickly leave her lap, disappointment washing over her as she opened her eyes to see him hop down from the tree and land square on his feet - like a cat.

"Chill out, Winston - we've got plenty of time." Nick said as he brushed down his jeans.

"No, we really don't!" Winston sulked "And you're only saying that because you want to stay here flirting with Jess."

"Shut up, man!" Nick punched him hard on the arm and scowled, but couldn't stop his cheeks from flaming at the mention of her name.

He picked up his bike, hooking his leg over the frame and leaning to one side to scoop up his backpack, swinging it over one arm with expertise.

Jess let her legs dangle from the branch and swing freely back and forth as she gazed down from her vantage point up in the tree. Holding on to the trunk with one hand, she used the other to push her glasses up her nose and tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. She nodded towards him and bit her lip shyly.

"Goodnight, Miller..."

A smile quirked his mouth upwards as he looked back at her over his shoulder and span his hat back around on his head.

"See ya around, Day..."