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January 23rd, 2013

FDR High School, Freedom City

Late Afternoon


FDR High was an unassuming building made mostly of brown brick, sitting in the middle of one of Freedom City's largest suburbs. It was bigger than most of the colonial and ranch houses around it, and the entire thing was enclosed by a chainlink fence. Jessica Parker had already walked around the entire thing twice, trying to figure out where students would come out (in just about ten minutes, now) and had found at least three, all spilling out in different directions. Which would make finding Baxter Bowles a challenge, to say the least.


Jessica stopped underneath a bare tree and sighed, looking at her feet and snuggling a bit deeper into her fuzzy peacoat. The Day of Wrath had been a trying time for all of Freedom's heroes: she had engaged Victoria Atom in a rooftop duel to defend an apartment full of T-Babies, and even after subduing the heroine the body had burst into flames while Ironclad was flying her to Blackstone. Now the tangled wreckage was sitting at the bottom of the South River. Nothing could have prepared her for the news that the Bee-Keeper III, also known to her as Baxter Bowles and maybe-kinda-sort-of her boyfriend, had snapped and tried to incinerate a biker gang and a bunch of bystanders. It had hit her like a punch in the gut to think that someone she knew could be a cold-blooded killer.


Now the truth was out and she and the rest of the world knew that the Bee-Keeper that had done such horrid things had been an imposter. But if what Jessica had heard was true, then it was possible that she had never known the real Baxter. Which made the possibility of talking to the real thing more than a little frightening to her. She had liked the Baxter Bowles she had talked to, but who knew if that had any relation to the real thing or if it had all been a lie? Nevertheless, she knew that if she didn't at least try she would always wonder, so here she was. Waiting for a guy who maybe didn't even know that she existed.

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Things hadn't been going well back home for poor Baxter since his return from the far-reaches of space, a victim of the Curator's macabre machinations. Even since he'd gotten back to Freedom City, a shadow of doubt had lodged itself in his mind as he attempted to resume some semblance of normalcy, all the while dealing with the fallout of all that had transpired in his absence. His life was in shambles -- for more than a month, another Baxter had taken over his life. Another Baxter had weaseled its way into the highest echelons of trust and virtue within the heroic community, an unassuming duplicate whom right up until his explosion had played his part rather well. Just the thought that the robotic doppelganger had been so close to those he loved had only made things harder, knowing that any moment it could have done something insurmountably terrible. He was fortunate enough that whatever programming the Curator had instilled in his replacement wasn't as malicious as it could have been, but in its own way it had still destroyed the Bee-Keeper -- regardless of what the populace at large believed, the truth was still vividly clear that the Bee-Keeper had killed at least a dozen people in cold blood and injured at least two other heroes before being subdued by Fleur de Joie and Velocity.


And it was all Baxter's fault.


As the bell rang and the kids beat their hasty retreat en masse from FDR High, the curmudgeonly intergalactic survivor was right there with them, at least physically speaking. While other teenagers might have been positively jovial to be free from their scholastic duties for the rest of the day, Baxter wasn't looking at all happy; a trait he'd endured ever since he'd gotten back to Earth. He was surly and worn down, looking not unlike a mess. That same pep-in-his-step had disappeared, that energetic go-get-em' attitude having followed suit soon after. No, Baxter was not at all pleased with what he'd come back to, and even with the Bee-Keeper III's name having been exonerated, he couldn't even bring himself to look at the armor. It was almost strange having a backpack so light, devoid of the metal battlesuit clogging up its insides. But it was probably for the best. The suit was dangerous; far too dangerous to let fall into the wrong hands again. If he'd been more cautious, if he'd been more aware of his surroundings before he'd been ambushed, maybe it could have all been avoided... but he hadn't been. While not directly responsible, Baxter knew in his heart he'd been stupid enough to get caught by the Curator in the first place, all that technology having been turned from an erstwhile and honest endeavor to do good completely undermined for more nefarious purposes.


All Baxter wanted to do right now was get home and forget this whole thing had ever happened, try and deal with the guilt and move on. Trudging along, the downtrodden teenager meandered along sullenly along the sidewalk near the front entrance, passing by the leafless tree overlooking the parking lot from the main building as he went without so much as a wave or a cheerful smile towards the lone girl poised beneath its barren branches, eyes downcast and looking downright ragged.

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Jessica started when the bell rang and people began spilling out. It was kind of stunning to see so many people her age suddenly appear; she was more used to college and its more sedate, more personalized pace, but here everyone moved together, like a herd or a flock. And there, in the middle, was Baxter. Her heart sped up slightly when she saw him, and she felt a pain in her stomach when he passed by without even glancing at her. But that was why she was here, right?

She stepped away from the tree and into Baxter's path. "Bax!" She paused and took a step back from him. "I mean, Baxter Bowles. I'm Jessica. Jessica Parker. Um. Could we talk for a minute?"

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Ceasing his meandering at the insistence of an unknown voice, Baxter looked up slowly from his downcast gaze to face the mysterious girl whom had called out to him. Looking her up and down for a moment, he didn't even recognize her -- so how did she know who he was? It wasn't exactly an every day thing that some cute girl just stopped in front of him to chat it up, and of all the times that could have happened, it had to be right when he really wasn't feeling it. But there was something about her... something about this Jessica Parker that caused him to heave a defeatism-worthy sigh as he tried to perk himself up, adjusting the awkwardly light backpack straddling his shoulder as he endeavored to feint some sense of normalcy. Whatever it was she wanted, it had to have been important -- why else would she just stop him like that? He just had to play it cool; a perfectly normal guy with a perfectly normal life.


"Sure, I guess?" answered the dark-skinned young man, even darker bags hanging under his eyes and his voice marred with some sense of trepidation. "What's up?"

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Jessica bit her lip. How in the world to explain to Baxter that she was kinda-sorta-not-but-was dating a robot meant to look like him? And that even though the robot went crazy and killed people, she still really enjoyed it when it was trying to be Baxter Bowles, and she wanted to try dating the real thing? At the very least, it probably wasn't a good idea to discuss his murderous duplicate in front of the entire student body. "Do... do you remember when the Bee-Keeper wasn't around for a month or so? Well I've got to talk to you about some of the things he did when he was gone."

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Just like that, everything got awkward. Baxter could feel the uncomfortable sensation rising in his gut, a mild panic ticking away in his head at the mere mention of his robotic duplicate and the deeds it had done a month prior. Did she know? Did his doppelganger do something to her? Hurt someone she cared about? He wasn't sure; then again, Baxter was hardly ever sure of anything. In this case though it didn't take a detective to see the evidence in front of his face: Jessica knew something, and she knew -- or at least suspected -- Baxter was involved in some way directly.


He just had to keep calm. The last thing he needed to do was spill the beans in front of everyone at school. That would be terrible -- real terrible!


"Okay, sure," he mumbled, looking around as the prisoners of the Freedom City educational system continued to make their great escape, all but ignorant to the two speaking so frankly. "You... uh... you wanna talk somewhere more private, or what?"

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"Right. Um, I've got my car just around the other side." She started leading Baxter back towards the opposite side of the school building, where she had parked her vehicle. "So, you know that the fake Bee-Keeper didn't just do hero stuff, right? I mean, he wasn't always in the armor and flying around. He did other sorts of stuff." She swallowed and continued. "We kind of met. Outside the armor and everything. And we kind of got to dating," she said finally, the words all in a rush. "Hey, there's my car!" Jessica sped up suddenly, pulling away from Baxter as a crimson blush spread up from her collar line.

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Having followed along solemnly around the building and out to the young lady's car, Baxter's heart skipped a beat when Jessica finally dropped the bomb. He'd known his double had been up to some shenanigans, impersonating him and living his life outside of his heroic identity as the Bee-Keeper, but this? This was something else entirely. It was positively mind-boggling. Not only had his robotic doppelganger taken control of his life, it had taken to dating some cute girl who didn't even know it was a robot! It had revealed its -- his -- secret identity to her, confided in this Jessica Parker person, and started a relationship with her. What was he supposed to say to that? Had she told anyone else? How could Baxter possibly make amends for the utter betrayal that imposter had performed? So many questions flooded his mind; things had definitely taken a turn for the awkward.


"We were... I mean, you and the other Bee-Keeper were dating?" he repeated again as he trailed behind the blushing scientist, trying to take in the entirety of the situation. "That's... uh... wow. I don't... I don't even know what to say to that."


Baxter bit his lip for a moment, rubbing the nape of his neck sheepishly as he struggled to deal with this sudden explosion of information. The answers weren't exactly jumping out at him; this was foreign territory for the young man.


"Look, I... uh... I'm not very good at this sort of thing, but I'm sorry. Sorry if I... I mean, it hurt you, or tried to hurt you," Baxter sputtered out clumsily, lips furling inwards as he tried to find the right words but coming up empty.

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"Hurt?" Jessica turned back to look at Baxter. "He didn't hurt me! I mean, I was worried when I... when I heard what had happened. I thought I knew you, and then he started doing all those horrible things..." She sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "It was hard. I wasn't sure what was happening, but when I learned that it wasn't really you I was relieved... And kind of scared." Jessica dug her key ring out of a pocket and clicked it; up ahead a metallic green convertible chirped in response and she led Baxter towards it. "I really liked you... Him... Whoever, whatever. We had fun together." She felt her heart starting to hammer in her chest. "And, well. I know you're not him -- and I'm glad that you're not, believe me -- but I'd kind of like to see if we could have fun."

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This was so strange. Baxter wanted to just blurt out a resounding no to the woman's offer, the look itself evoked in his body language as she popped the question and escorted him to the spiffy little convertible  It was a bad idea; after all the stuff he'd been through, all the things he'd seen abroad on that terrifying Ringworld that the Curator had controlled and had to deal with on his return home, the last thing he wanted to do was string along this pretty young lady whom his cybernetic predecessor had endeavored to woo. It was a delicate time for the dark-skinned teenager, especially with all the fallout of the Day of Wrath still settling in. Frankly, he wasn't even sure he wanted to continue playing hero anymore after seeing what could go wrong firsthand, having had time to reflect on what was important to him back when he, Blue Jay, Steve, Jill, Wander and Dorothy were all floating in that giant tin can on the way to its diabolical lair. It certainly couldn't have been any easier for Jessica, who had to endure the roller-coaster ride of a murderous faux boyfriend only to find out they'd never actually met. She'd trusted him, and he'd inadvertently broken that trust between them.


Maybe in some weird way this was a good thing. It was time to move on from that negative experience and try to start fresh, a chance to shake off this perpetual gloominess that had hung itself over his head like a dark cloud ever since he'd found out he'd been abducted by the Curator. No opportunity could be more golden. Besides, this might be just the thing to help clear the air between him (or at least his android double) and Jessica. It could be good for him -- for the both of them.


"You know what?" Baxter replied softly after a moment, perking up somewhat as he gave the faintest of smiles in return. "I could use a little fun. What were you thinking?"

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Jessica felt the knot in her gut loosen as Baxter didn't go screaming off into the hills, or push her away and say that he never wanted to see her again or similar. She was surprised that he wanted to go someplace with her right away, though, and bought time by getting into her car and settling in, mentally reviewing what was close by. "Well," she said finally, "we could always go to Millennium Mall." She looked over at Baxter and shrugged. "Or we could go to the Hunter Museum. That should be open by now."

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"No way! No museums," Baxter insisted, raising his hands in protest as he clamored into the stylish green car and stuck his book bag beside his feet. "Every time I go to one of those things something goes wrong. Last thing I wanna do is have to deal with a bunch of ninja mummies or animatronic dinosaurs gone nuts."


Turning to face Jessica as he settled into the expensive looking car, Baxter tried his best to smile politely, endeavoring to shake off his dispassionately glum demeanor.


"The mall's good. We can window shop or something, maybe get some food. Or, hey, we could catch a movie! You, uh... you like movies, right?"

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Jessica laughed. "Animatronic dinosaurs. That's a new one on me!" As the engine roared to life she worked the shift smoothly, applying just the right pressure to the gas pedal; it didn't quite peel out of the parking lot, but there was the definite sense that the vehicle wanted to. Jessica enjoyed the power in the machine, too, or maybe it was just the fact that Baxter hadn't rejected her out of hand, that this whole thing hadn't crashed and burned. "And... yeah. I like movies. I like to watch movies."


She slid in and out of traffic easily, using every opportunity presented in the couple of blocks she had to utilize the car's power and handling. All too soon though they were pulling into a parking spot in Millennium Mall's parking garage. Jessica climbed out of the vehicle and tossed the peacoat inside, over her chair. Underneath the coat she was wearing a navy blue skirt that came to her knees and a grass-green blouse that was open at the collar. She wondered if Baxter would bring his bookbag along.

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The ride up to the mall had been pleasant, to say nothing of the ferocity regarding Jessica's driving. Regardless, their arrival at Millennium Mall was a welcome relief from the lollygagging lifestyle at home Baxter had taken up since his return from the void of space; made doubly nice by the chance to actually get out and not sulk in his room. It was... well, it was nice. Nice to just be hanging out with someone who at least knew his deepest, darkest secret. To be away from all the other drama. It certainly helped to have a cute girl with a nice car who liked movies, too! For some strange girl who'd just walked over to him and suggested they have some fun, she was pretty cool. But Baxter couldn't help but wonder just what his duplicate had done to get her attention... and, again, whether or not he ought to be mingling with his defacto doppelganger's former squeeze.


"So I was thinking we could just chill out for a bit and check out some of the stores," Baxter began as he clambered out of the expensive looking vehicle, leaving his stained and tattered backpack right there in the seat where he'd deposited it as he shut the door soundly, but without slamming it. "Then we can head over to the food court and get our grub on..."


Baxter smiled, but even his smile felt off as he rubbed the back of his neck again sheepishly, his smile fading ever so slightly.


"This... uh... this must be super-weird for you -- trust me, I'm feeling it, too. Y'know what? Don't listen to me. I'm here with you; so what do you wanna do, Jess? What kinds of stuff did the other-me and you used to do before it... uh... went bananas?"

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Jessica held Baxter's hand as they walked towards the entrance of the mall. "Mostly just hung out. Visited museums. Watched movies. Talked about things. I kept wondering if he'd ever ask me home to meet your folks or whatever, but he never did." She ran a hand through her hair, laughing briefly at the idea. "That's probably for the best, huh? Um. How are you managing, at home?" She felt uneasy asking, but she had to know. "My friend's girlfriend got taken with everyone else, and I know they've been spending a lot of time together. Though they spend a lot of time together anyway, so I'm not sure if that's a side-effect of anything."

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Baxter laughed forcibly, making a somewhat comical face that just oozed with terribleness at the mention of his home life. "Not great. Now's definitely not a good time to meet my folks. I'm lucky they didn't tether me to my bed or something after I spilled the beans when I got back, or put bars in my room to lock me up for the rest of my life! I mean, man, you should have seen my mom's face when I told her I'd been running around in a tin suit fighting bad guys. Jeez."


Giving a heave, Baxter had to struggle to stifle another laugh. "And my dad... oh, man, every day..."


Letting go of Jessica's hand for a moment, the dark-skinned teenager put on his most serious face, scratching at invisible stubble and feigning the use of some unseen pipe clutched between his teeth. "So, how was school, Bax? Cut any classes to put yourself in life-threatening situations? Maybe fight some ninjas or giant gorillas with death rays?" he mimed, doing his best impression of an older man with a deeper voice before swiveling back to face Jessica proper as he began his one-man show. "'No way, dad. But I did get a D on my history test!" Shifting again and resuming his fatherly tone, Baxter added in a somewhat nonchalant tone "Oh, that's good. As long as you're not lying to your mother and I, and you totally got rid of that stupid battlesuit. No son of mine should be running around fighting crime -- leave that to the professionals!"


He may have been exaggerating a little bit, but if he was, Baxter didn't seem all that phased by doing so as he ran a hand along the back of his neck, smiling all the while.


"Yeah... definitely not so good, but I guess it could've been a lot worse. But, hey, at least they didn't think I... you know, all that stuff with the robo-me. Probably wouldn't make things any better if I told em' what it was like where I actually was either when that android-thing was impersonating me, so, y'know, keep that under your hat, Jess."

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Jessica giggled at Baxter's impression, but she wasn't entirely sure it was good news. It seemed like all Baxter's parents cared about was whether or not he was fighting crime, not whether or not he wanted to fight crime or whether he was any good at it. Granted, Jessica's situation was rather unique, both using her grandfather's legacy and being responsible for her own suit, but she didn't want to see Baxter entirely abandon crime-fighting just because of this one incident. "I can keep a secret," she said, bumping Baxter's hip with her own. "So let me in on another one. Where are you stashing the suit that your parents aren't catching you?"

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"Well... uh..." Baxter stammered, trying not to laugh out jovially as Jessica gave him a light bump whilst they walked along towards the entryway of Millennium Mall. He didn't want to lie if he had to, but this was a touchy subject. The suit had been a big part of his life for the last year -- a part, he felt, he'd wished he'd taken more seriously before his abduction. Only in hindsight when the worst had come to pass did he realize just how dangerous that bee-themed suit of armor really was.


"It's mothballed right where I found it the first time," he answered earnestly. Why was he even telling Jessica all this? He'd just met her, and this was crazy. Yet it was strangely gratifying to get these weird secrets he'd started fostering as a superhero (if he could even still be considered such a thing), even if it was with some woman he'd only just been introduced to. "So now it's just sitting in that funky crate, locked up in a storage unit. It's... it's probably for the best, y'know?"

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Jessica bit her lip. She didn't want to start an arguement with Baxter, since technically they had only met a few minutes ago, but she also didn't feel like she could leave it lay. "Should ypou be doing that, Bax?" she asked him. "I know that the Curator's double did some terrible things in the Bee-Keeper's name, but..." She felt tension knotting in her gut again, and part of her was screaming that this was a terrible idea, but she couldn't back out of the conversation noe. "So did Barry Bowles, kind of. I know he didn't kill anyone," And certainly didn't incinerate them with robo-bees, she did not add, "but you knew it would always be an up-hill struggle to get people to accept the Bee-Keeper as a hero. This is a pretty big set-back, but the people in the know already know that you weren't really responsible for what happened. In a few days the League will put out a statement andveveryone will know the truth."

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Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Baxter just stood quietly as Jessica said her piece, ceasing his casual stroll towards the mall. He wasn't quite sure why she was so up-in-arms over his decision to hang up the ol' battlesuit, but he could understand her concern. It was sort of a big deal for a superhero to retire, and Baxter hadn't exactly been around for a decade or more like the old Mystery Men or the positively legendary figures who retired just before the Moore Act. Things were... tricky, to say the least. Jessica's heart was in the right place, though. But she needed to know why. Jessica deserved that much for having put up with his double, all the trouble it had caused her, and now him.


"I... uh... I got a letter from my uncle day before yesterday," Baxter began, looking away as he dragged out the words by force. "Said he was proud. Yeah, the guy who fought the Freedom League was glad I'd done something good with the armor I found. Said I made a good Bee-Keeper, and be proud someone even took the time to replace me. I didn't even know what to think about that, y'know?" he said, laughing a little at the tail end of his sentence as the idea of Barry Bowles praising someone struck a comical chord, even if it was clumsy praise.


"I used to think that, man, Uncle Barry was bananas. Like, really bananas. I sort of had to deal with the fallout for a while after he got locked up -- we all did -- and I just got kinda bitter over it. When I found the suit it was, like, a chance to kill two birds with one stone: I could live the dream and be a superhero, just like I always wanted, running around and doing my part to help the city! Along the way, I could clear the family name without anyone knowing it was me," explained the dark-skinned teenager, his somber tone returning as he downcast his eyes towards the pavement. "Thought'd be easy like in the comics. Turns out I was wrong. Bombed most of my classes to fight crime, and most of the time I just got in the way of other heroes. It was rocky, but I was trying my best. For a while I thought I was on top of the world, too, once I started to get the hang of it... then the whole Wrath thing happened."


Baxter suddenly became very serious, brow furling and his hands once more finding their way into his pockets as he looked up at Jessica.


"When I was there on the ringworld, I saw some stuff... stuff I wasn't ready for. Stuff I don't think I could have ever been ready for. But everyone else was so... so in-control, even when things looked bad. But when you're out there on your own trapped in some strange place so far from home and out of your element, you start to think about stuff. Things kinda... fall into perspective," prattled the surprisingly calm but sad young man, furling his lips inwards for a moment as he paused. "When I got back, I knew things weren't ever going to be the same. It's not about... it's not about what people think of the Bee-Keeper. No matter what, there'll always be that reminder that, yeah, just because the Bee-Keeper III's a good guy doesn't mean he's not capable of, y'know, doing that sorta stuff again. It's not about going out and fixing all that, or trying to get some good PR or whatever. It's not even about giving up fighting crime -- it wasn't exactly my first choice, 'specially after I'd poured so much time into getting it down."


Taking a deep breath, Baxter heaved it out as a sigh that screamed defeatism before returning his distant gaze to the pretty young girl who'd taken such a gamble on him.


"I... saw the stuff the Bee-Keeper robot did on the news. Heard it from one of the folks who rescued me before that. I knew what I was coming home to. The thing is Jessica, I am responsible for what happened. It was my fault I got captured. My fault that the Curator got his hands on me, the Bee-Keeper Armor, and everything it could do. My fault he puppetered this whole thing, getting in good with folks -- getting close to you -- to keep up the status quo that everything was cool," Baxter emphasized, miming the atrocities he was supposedly guilty of with great dispassion. "And it's my fault those people are dead now. They aren't coming back, Jessica. They aren't coming back because I was too stupid and got caught in some kinda trap by the Curator. I can't risk... I can't risk that happenin' again. I can't risk someone else just grabbing me off the street in-costume, or taking the Bee-Keeper suit. It's... it's just too dangerous, and I don't think I should hang on to something like that; especially since I barely understand everything it can do."


Baxter paused again to catch his breath, his long-winded tirade having left a sour taste in his own mouth. It probably wasn't what Jessica wanted to hear, but he stood by his choice to tell her. She deserved to know.


"That's why. It was my dream to be just like the Freedom League in the comics... but now? Now I don't think I'm cut out for that, after I've really seen what it's like -- the kinds of choices I'd need to make, and the consequences I'd have to deal with. I'm just... I'm just not meant to be super. So as soon as I can get around to it, I think I need to call up Fleur and just have her take the suit and let her and the League do whatever they think is best with it."

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Jessica clenched her teeth and started walking just a little bit faster, moving her arms more rapidly and gesturing more sharply. And she didn't take Baxter's arm again.


"Okay then. Sure. Just let the armor sit in a bin somewhere, or have the League's scientists tear it apart." She took a deep breath. "So what are you going to do, then, if you're not going to try and, you know, save the world anymore?"

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"I... uh... haven't thought that far ahead yet," conceded Baxter, not sure what to do about the obvious emotion Jessica was emitting as she picked up the pace, distancing herself somewhat as her former paramour struggled to keep up. This outing wasn't exactly the reprieve he'd hoped for, but Baxter was always one to just roll with the punches... even if it felt like he was the one getting socked.


"Right now I've just a lot on my plate. There're things I want to take care of -- things to try get my life back together. After that, I don't know. College, maybe, or art school if I can pull my grades out of the trash. I'm just... I'm sort of winging it for now, y'know? One day at a time."

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Jessica slowed down as they reached the entrance to the mall, letting Baxter come abreast of her as his words sank in. She was trying to continue their relationship like nothing had happened, but something big had happened, something so big it meant she had never actually had a relationship with this boy at all. "College sounds like a good idea. A four-year diploma is always useful," said the girl who had had her bachelor's at eighteen. "I didn't know you were looking at art school though. Um. I guess I kind of don't know a lot about you. And you probably don't know anything about me." She paused and they walked along in silence for a few yards. "Is there anything you'd really like to know?"

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