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Seven: That was then
Dawson walked home slowly from school. There was no real hurry, he had no place to go but back into his darkened bedroom. It was his domain of gloom, his crypt of misery. Laying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, he could give in to his thoughts and contemplate the 180 degree turn his life had taken in only a week. He was facing up to the consequences of his actions, and realizing that no matter how much he wished it, things would never be the same again. He had alienated his three closest friends, and lost the one person he truly loved, apart from his parents. He had expected it from Joey and Jen, but even Pacey had been keeping his distance. Dawson almost drew comfort from his despondency, as it was a punishment he deserved.
He saw his house up ahead and noticed his parents’ cars were both gone. Dawson was glad he would have the house to himself. He was growing tired of having to pretend everything was all right in front of Mitch and Gale, and avoiding their questions about Joey. After a week they'd finally twigged that she and Dawson had had a falling out. Joey had never stayed away from the Leery's house for more than two days at a time since she was little girl. She and Dawson had always been inseparable, but things were definitely different now. Dawson couldn’t yet bring himself to let his parents know what he had done, or who he had done it with.
When he spotted Jen sitting in the small gazebo in front of her house, Dawson steered a path away from her out of instinct. He knew Jen had seen him and he looked like an idiot trying to pretend he had not noticed her, so he forced himself to stop. She was sitting alone staring at the water, just as disinterested in everything as Dawson was himself these days. He felt a twinge of pity for her, and guilt that he was partly to blame for her apparent melancholy. He thought back to how he had treated her the morning after their ill-fated coupling, and admitted she had not deserved it. They were both to blame — who was more culpable really didn’t matter anymore. Dawson swallowed his pride and walked over towards her.
"Hey," he murmured, unsure how she would react to him. He had acted like a jerk and he wouldn’t have been surprised if she laid into him about it. But instead Jen looked up at him sadly through hooded eyes.
"Can I sit down?"
"I don’t see anyone else rushing to take your place," Jen smiled wanly. She was sick and tired of all of it — Abby’s goading, Dawson’s guilt, her own self-loathing. She remembered when she arrived in Capeside and how simple things had been then. Jen missed those days, when complications that came with relationships were nothing more than angst on a movie screen.
"What are you thinking about?" Dawson asked, seeing her distracted stare.
"About us," Jen replied. She tried to ignore the panic that rose in Dawson’s eyes when she looked at him, and continued on. "About all of us, really. Do you remember when you, Joey, Pacey and I were making your sea monster movie? That was one of the best times of my life… Things made sense back then. I had a fresh start in a new town, new friends, another chance… my grandfather was still alive. They were good times."
Dawson nodded, his eyes vacant as he too immersed himself in the happy memories.
"I really miss it, you know?" Jen went on. "I miss having friends I could talk to without having to worry about ulterior motives. I miss the way Pacey used to joke around and make us laugh, and the stupid movies we used to watch. I think I even miss my prickly relationship with Joey. I don’t know, I think we could have been good friends… And I miss the way you used to look at me when you thought I wouldn’t notice. I wish we could get those days back."
"Me too," Dawson said quietly.
"But they never will be the same again, will they?"
"I don’t see how." Dawson shifted uncomfortably on the wooden bench. "Too much has happened between all of us."
"I’ll always regret that," said Jen, drawing her knees up to her chest. She rested her chin on her arms and looked at Dawson. "I think I’ll regret losing you the most."
Dawson glanced away, not liking where the conversation was heading.
"Don’t worry, I’m not going to throw myself at you again," Jen almost laughed. She couldn’t help but be amused by Dawson sometimes. "I meant I’ll miss your friendship… You’re a good person to know, Dawson Leery."
"So are you, Jen."
She shrugged off the reply, preferring to pretend he had not said it. "Anyway, I’m thinking of going home to New York. I’ve ruined things here for everyone, especially myself. I’ve lost all of my friends, except maybe Abby. And somehow she isn’t much of an inducement to stay."
"You don’t have to go, Jen," Dawson replied hastily. "If you still want us to be friends, then I’m willing to try."
Jen leveled him with an honest gaze, trying to pick the tone in his voice as pitying or sincere. He was looking at her with his familiar earnest expression, and she decided she’d rather believe he was being sincere even if he wasn’t.
"Friends. But nothing else, right?" she said.
"Jen, I’m in love with Joey. I think I always have been except I was too dim to realize it," said Dawson, almost apologetically.
"I know. I knew it that night as well. I just hoped maybe I could change your mind."
"Don’t worry, it’s not the first time it’s happened," Jen smiled sadly. "I guess I can be happy with your friendship.
"Good." Dawson grinned back her, relieved that there remained at least a tenuous connection between them. It was something he could work at restoring. "D’you think we should shake hands on it or something?"
Jen was staring off into the distance and he wondered for a moment if she had heard him. But then she murmured, "Actually, I don’t think that would be a very good idea right now."
Dawson followed her line of vision and saw Joey approaching them slowly, a slight frown on her tanned face. She seemed unsure whether or not she could come any closer, and Dawson immediately jumped up so she wouldn’t get the wrong idea about him talking with Jen.
"Joey! What are you doing here?" he spluttered, his cheeks burning crimson. He wouldn’t blame her for getting the wrong idea, considering how he had betrayed her trust.
"I was hoping we could talk, but if this is a bad time…" she trailed off, taking a few steps backwards.
"No!" Dawson cried without hesitation.
"Dawson and I were just finishing things up," Jen ventured, standing up too. "I was about to head inside anyway."
Jen walked towards her grandmother’s porch and looked back to see if Dawson would even acknowledge her leaving. But he was staring intently at Joey and oblivious to everything and everyone else. Jen knew that wouldn’t change in a hurry. She climbed the steps to the house.
"Do you want to take a walk?" she heard Joey ask.
Dawson replied in the affirmative and they headed off towards the creek. Jen stood on the porch and watched them go. Part of her wanted to stay and see what happened between them, but then another part of her knew it was none of her business. It had nothing to do with her anymore and she would only be hurting herself if she stayed and watched. Jen opened the screen door, and after taking a long last look at Dawson’s back as he walked away with Joey, she stepped inside the house.
* * *
Dawson and Joey wandered down to the water and ended up on the Leery’s dock. Joey couldn’t count the number of conversations they'd had here together, but none were as important as this one. She was tempted to tell him what she had almost done with Pacey, just to see how he would react. But Joey knew all it would achieve would be Dawson getting angry at Pacey and probably punching him out like a good film hero should. There had been enough fighting, enough blame and regret. She just wanted to be done with all of it, and this was the best way she knew how.
"I’ve been thinking about what you said yesterday, and I’ve come to a decision," Joey began after they had reached the end of the dock. "I want to forgive you, Dawson… I’ve decided to forgive you."
Dawson drew in a deep breath, from surprise more than anything else. He wasn’t able to say anything for a few seconds, having been expecting any other reaction than that.
"Joey, that’s—" he managed to utter before she cut him off.
"I’m not finished yet. I’ve decided to forgive you, but it will take some time. I think I’ll be able to eventually, once I sort out a few things about myself."
"Okay, however long you need, whatever it takes… Joey, I’m so glad—" Dawson said eagerly before she interrupted him again.
"I can never be with you again, Dawson," she said sternly. Dawson was silenced once more, his eyes clouding with misunderstanding. Joey had anticipated his hurt reaction, but she did not let it affect her. "I can’t risk getting hurt again like that, so I don’t want us to go out anymore."
Dawson contemplated her wish, and stopped himself from begging her to change her mind. He knew Joey was doing the only thing she could — the only thing he would have done himself had the situation been reversed.
"Do you think we can ever go back to being friends?" he asked eventually after a long silence, not raising his hopes.
"I hope so, Dawson, I really do," Joey replied fervently. "Your friendship has meant everything to me for as long as I can remember. I never want to lose it… I’d still like you to be in my life."
"I’d like that," Dawson whispered. Joey smiled lopsidedly at him. The familiarity of the gesture buoyed his spirits more than anything she could have said. "I’d like that a lot."
* * *
Joey left Dawson’s soon after, having made her peace with him. She felt better than she had since the whole sordid affair had begun, and Joey was relieved she could start putting it behind her. She had wallowed long enough in self pity and anger, and now that she had made an effort to forgive him, she knew she was on her way to reclaiming her life back. She wouldn’t be affected by the gossip anymore, or Abby’s baiting. Joey was finished with all of it… at least she thought she was. There was one last thing she had to do.
She took her time walking to Pacey’s house, trying to decide what she would say to him. While her feelings for Dawson had been addressed and she was satisfied with her decisions regarding him, Pacey was a whole other matter. Joey was still afraid that her unthinking actions the previous night would taint the new-found closeness she and Pacey shared. Even though they had parted as friends and he seemed to hold no grudges against her, Joey knew in her heart that she had manipulated Pacey’s feelings for her. He cared about her deeply, and even though she had tried to ignore it for months, she couldn’t pretend to be oblivious anymore.
Joey did not know what she was going to say. She did like Pacey, and cherished his friendship. But Joey knew she wasn’t ready for anything more just yet, and wondered if she was being entirely fair on Pacey by maintaining their new companionship. The last thing she wanted was for him to feel like he was just an easy replacement for Dawson. Pacey meant much more to her than that. Maybe in time she would even come to feel about him the way he wanted her to — the same way he felt about her. All Joey knew was, it couldn’t be right now. She had too much to think about, too many new decisions to make. She wanted to spend some time on her own and sort out once and for all who she was and what she wanted. It was something she had needed to do for a long time.
Joey was startled when she heard Pacey’s voice in the dusk light. She looked up quickly and saw that she had not reached his house yet, but he’d been coming towards her in the opposite direction.
"Pacey, what are you doing out here?" she said after recovering from the surprise of seeing him in the flesh when he had just been consuming her thoughts. It was almost like he'd materialized out of thin air because she had willed it. "I was just coming to see you."
"Well, I was coming to see you too," he replied, a little cagily. "I wasn’t sure if we were still okay after last night…"
Joey couldn’t help but smile — he was almost as paranoid as she was. "I think we’re okay. Don’t you?"
"I hope so." Pacey let out a sigh of relief. He had been obsessing about their brief encounter all night and feared they had ruined their friendship. He had all but spelled out his true feelings for her in plain English, and was worried he had scared her off. He knew the last thing she needed was another guy mooning over her. She already had Dawson and Jack for that. Pacey’s feelings ran much deeper and he didn’t want her to take them lightly. Now that she knew his carefully guarded secret, it was better that she know the truth.
"So, what was it you were coming to see me about?" Pacey asked.
"I talked to Dawson… properly this time."
"Oh?" Pacey knew his attempt to sound disinterested had failed dismally.
"I told him I’ve decided to forgive him. I confronted him with how I felt, just like you told me to."
Pacey nodded, wondering if he should be kicking himself for ever giving her advice if it meant she had gone back to Dawson.
"So, are you guys back together now?"
"Yes… sort, of anyway. We’re going to try and be friends again. But I told him I’ll never be able to go out with him again."
"Yeah?" Pacey tried not to sound pleased, even though a triumphant yell echoed in his head.
"Yeah. It’s for the best," Joey said, amused at his feigned apathy. "I just need some time on my own."
"I can understand that." Pacey stood with his hands in his pockets as a silence fell between them. Joey seemed in no hurry to say anything else or to go home. In fact it was like she was waiting for an excuse to stay. Pacey looked at her intently, trying to read her expression.
"Jo, can I ask you a question?"
"Sure," she answered a little too quickly.
"If you’re so keen to be alone, why did you come looking for me again?"
Joey glanced briefly down at her feet, but then held his gaze once more. "I don’t know… I guess I just like talking to you, and hanging out with you... I like being with you."
Pacey didn’t read more into the statement than was offered. He knew he would only get himself into trouble if he did.
"I can do that," he said instead. "If you need a friend, you know I’m here for you."
"I do," she smiled. "And despite what I say about being alone, I still need you around. I’d miss you too much if you weren’t."
"Friends sounds good to me," Pacey replied thoughtfully. He looked up the road at nothing in particular, then threw her a sidelong glance. "For now, anyway."
Joey tried to smother the smile that spread across her lips but it was no good. She was surprised that the idea didn’t feel so far fetched as she’d previously thought. It was definitely something she could get used to… in time. Joey realized that was one thing she had in abundance, and Pacey would be patient.
"Do you want to head over to the Icehouse for dinner?" she asked boldly.
"Don’t push your luck, Witter."
Pacey grinned and slung his arm loosely around Joey’s shoulder, leading her back towards town.
"Lay on, Macduff."
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