It was just as well I didn't have any specific ideas for next steps to take with Samantha, because as soon as I stepped out of my front door Monday morning I knew they would have come to naught.
"Jill," I said. "What are you doing here?"
Rachel paused behind me, then continued past with a slight smile and nod to Jill before she continued on toward the bus stop. That girl was too considerate for her own good.
Jill stared after her for a second. "She really is living with him," she muttered, before turning back to me with a grin. "I have to take the bus this morning, so since it's on the way I figured I'd walk you to the stop."
"Right. Okay." I closed the door behind me and tried to lock it, but the key was really fighting me for some reason. "Lock, damn it."
"Aw, come on, Xavier," mocked Jill. She stepped up behind me, grabbed the key and my hand both, and gave a solid twist that threw the lock home. "You just have to put some muscle into it!"
I turned slightly and gave her a flat stare, which was easier than I'd expected. She was close! Our noses were practically touching.
"Whoops, sorry!" she said, skipping back. Wait, was Jill blushing? I had no idea how to deal with that. Also, you're the one who suddenly jumped up and practically gave me a hug from behind, and now it's somehow embarrassing? "Um, so, the bus?"
I realized I'd been staring at her without saying anything. "Right, let's go."
As I walked down the steps, my phone dinged. It was a text from Rachel. Bus here. Where are you?
"Shit, the bus is early today!"
The two of us broke into a jog down the block, and arrived at the intersection just in time to see the bus' tail lights turning the corner as it continued in its way.
"Damn it!" I checked my phone. See you at school! Gee, thanks for that, Rachel. "Maybe my mom can drive us? I'm not sure she's up yet, though, and ugh, waking her up is dangerous." I meant that literally. My sister Sasha still has a faint scar above her left eye where Mom nailed her with an alarm clock when Sasha woke her suddenly. Maybe if I just called to her softly from the hallway?
I glanced at Jill to see her eyes sparkling. "—What."
"The school is, what, maybe two miles from here? That's not all that far. Let's just run it."
"Seriously, Jill? Running to school first thing in the morning wearing our backpacks? I'd rather—"
"What, you chicken?"
"What are you, eight?!"
"Bwok bok bok bok!"
"No way! We're not—"
"Bwok bok bok double dog dare you! Come on! You can do it!" Jill was jogging in place and sort of drifting sideways around me, poking me wherever she found an opening.
"Argh! Fine! Let's go already! Stop poking me! And wipe that beatific smile off your face, you weirdo!"
And that's how I ended up jogging to school with Jill that fine Monday morning.
Running two miles to school wearing your backpack and normal clothes is not very conducive to talking. Honestly, it's not very conducive to thinking, either, but at least initially I managed.
So here's the thing about Jill: I think I mentioned that I didn't want to try and deal with her inclusion in the harem initially because the childhood friend is a serious contender for Main Girl status. However, that wasn't the only reason I was at a loss with her.
We'd never been very emotionally intimate, but from what I'd picked up over the years, Jill's home life is not great. Back in maybe early elementary school her dad and mom separated, and it was an acrimonious process, to say the least. Massive custody battle, lots of bad blood and family drama on both sides, with Jill and her brother caught in the middle. I knew from off-handed comments of Jill's that even years later things were incredibly fraught with her father, and Jill was still being used alternately as a go-between and emotional blackmail piece. Granted, her dad wasn't on the scene much—her mother had almost full custody—but her home life was still a massive, ticking time bomb, as far as I could tell.
Knowing that made me very leery of taking action with Jill. I'd been nervous facing down Samantha this weekend, but whatever her hang-ups with social interaction I was pretty sure they were less explosive than whatever landmines Jill was toting around.
It wasn't that I didn't want to help Jill, but I was pretty sure that unless I was willing to fully commit to her any messing around with her heart was way more liable to lead to serious injury on her part and I didn't want that, either.
All that aside, in a very real way I also had a very difficult time keeping up with her.
"Come on, Xavier. Walking already? Have you been training at all since track and field last year?"
We were over half the way to the school, but I'd needed to drop down to a walk. "No! I don't run for fun most of the time, you know."
"You'll never win with an attitude like that!"
I growled at her. "I did alright last year."
Jill hummed and hawed and wiggled her hand in a so-so gesture, then grinned and danced out of the way as I playfully tried to slug her on the arm.
That was apparently a mistake, however. As she moved sideways, her foot twisted under her and she suddenly fell over. "Crap!"
"Jill! You alright?" I reached a hand down to help pull her up. She wobbled on the way up, and only put weight on her foot with a grimace. "Did you twist your ankle?"
"Maybe a little. Damn it! There's a meet next weekend, too."
Oh god. I could easily see where this was going. When a manga heroine twists her ankle, there is exactly one correct response, and much as I hated to play into a trope… "I guess I could try to carry you on my back."
Jill looked at me like I'd grown a second head, and broke down laughing. "What, with your backpack? For a mile?"
I wanted to punch her so bad. "Shut up! So I got caught up in the moment," I grumbled. She just kept laughing. "Seriously, though, how are we going to get you to school? You should probably stay off that ankle until we can get nurse to look at it…I'll call Mom; maybe she's up by now."
As I was getting out my phone, a car pulled up next to us and rolled down its passenger side window. It was Paula. "Hey, good-looking. You and your girlfriend need a lift?"
"What are you, a creepy older pick-up artist?" I said, albeit with relief.
"Lend me your shoulder," said Jill, and used me as a crutch to hop over to the passenger seat.
"What happened to you?" asked Paula as I slid into the back seat after helping Jill.
"Twisted my ankle on a rock like an idiot after we missed our bus," said Jill.
"Hm," said Paula, and tossed her phone into the backseat. "Hey Xavier, give me your and Jill's contact info, would you? This is on my way to school, and I'd be happy to drive you if this happens again. Wouldn't want Ms. Sporty to be off her feet; I'll bet you're a hellion when you're recuperating, eh, Jill?"
Jill just shrugged and turned her attention out the window. She never did know how to handle Paula.
I could relate to that, of course.
I owed Paula one, though. Thanks to her, we made it to school on time, albeit barely, and when she waved me off and escorted Jill, I dodged a visit to the nurse's office. Just as well. Jill really did need someone to look at her ankle, and if I went along there was a 100% chance the nurse would be mysteriously missing.