He lay on his back, his fingers latched behind his head, an old blanket beneath him. The Batman T-shirt was actually a bit small for him, a leftover from before his recent growth spurt. The muscles in his arms and his broad shoulders pulled at the fabric. The T-shirt had pulled up a bit, so she could see a hint of his belly above his jeans, and Gemma quickly looked away and pretended she hadn’t noticed.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Uh, no. Of course not.” Alex quickly scooted over, making room for her on the blanket.
The blanket wasn’t very big, so when Gemma sat down, she was right next to him. As she lay back, her head bumped his elbow. To avoid that, Alex moved his arm so it was in between them. Now his arm was pressed against hers, and she tried not to think about how warm his skin felt.
“So … what exactly are you looking at?” Gemma asked.
“I’ve shown you the constellations before,” Alex said, and he had, many times. But most of those times had been when she was younger and she hadn’t hung on his words like she did now.
“I was just wondering if there was anything in particular you were watching.”
“No. Not really. I just love the stars.”
“Is that what you’re going to college for?”
“Stars?” Alex asked. “Kind of, I guess. I mean, it’s not like I’ll be an astronaut or anything.”
“Why not?” She tilted her head so she could look over at him.
“I don’t know.” He shifted on the blanket, and his hand brushed against Gemma’s. “Going into outer space is an awesome dream, yeah, but I’d rather stay on the ground and make a difference. I want to study and track the weather and the atmosphere. It could save lives if people knew about storms sooner.”
“You’d rather be down here watching the sky instead of up in it because you can help people?” Gemma asked.
She stared at him, surprised by how much he’d grown up. Not just in the strong line of his jaw, or the trail of dark hair she’d seen on his belly. But something had changed inside him. At some point he’d stopped being the boy who obsessed over video games and had become somebody concerned with the world around him.
“Yeah.” He shrugged and turned to face her. They lay on the blanket staring at each other for a minute, and then Alex smirked. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I’m not looking at you like anything,” Gemma said, but she quickly looked away, afraid that he might see something in her expression.
“You think it’s weird, right?” Alex asked, still watching her. “You think I’m a geek for wanting to watch weather patterns.”
“No, that’s not what I’m thinking at all.” She smiled out of embarrassment over what she was really thinking. “I mean, you are a geek. But that’s not what I was thinking.”
“I am a geek,” Alex agreed, and Gemma laughed. Then, apparently without thinking, he said, “You’re really pretty.”
The instant he said it, he turned away from her rigidly.
“I’m sorry. I can’t believe I just said that. I don’t know why I said that,” Alex said in one rushed breath. “I’m sorry.”
Gemma lay there for a minute, staring up at the stars while Alex squirmed in embarrassment next to her. She didn’t say anything at first, because she wasn’t sure what to say or what to make of his random admission.
“Did you … you just called me pretty,” Gemma said finally, her tone questioning.
“Yeah, I didn’t…” Alex sat up, as if trying to put some distance between them. “I don’t know why I said that. It just slipped out.”
“It just slipped out?” Gemma said teasingly and sat up next to him.
He leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees, and kept his back to her. “Yeah.” He sighed. “You laughed, and I just thought you looked really pretty, and for some reason, it just … I just said it. It was like I forgot how to control my mouth or something.”
“Wait.” She smiled, the kind of smile she couldn’t contain. “You think I’m pretty?”
“Well, yeah.” He sighed again and rubbed his arm. “Of course I do. I mean, you are very pretty. You know that.” He looked up at the sky and cursed under his breath. “I don’t know why I just told you that.”
“It’s okay.” Gemma moved closer to him, sitting next to him but slightly behind him, so her shoulder pressed up against his. “I think you’re pretty, too.”
“You think I’m pretty?” Alex smiled and turned to look at her, so his face was right in front of hers.
“Yep,” she assured him with a grin.
“I’m a guy. Guys aren’t pretty.”
“You are.” Her smile softened, giving way to a slightly nervous and hopeful look.
Alex’s dark eyes searched her face, and he paled. He looked downright terrified, and even though the moment felt perfect, Gemma was starting to think he wouldn’t take it.
Then he leaned in and his lips pressed softly against hers. The kiss was small and sweet, almost innocent, but it felt like fireworks inside her.
“Sorry,” Alex said when he stopped kissing her and looked away.
“Why are you apologizing?” Gemma asked.
“I don’t know.” He laughed. He shook his head and looked back at her, smiling at him. “I’m not sorry.”
Alex leaned in to kiss her again, but before he could, Brian yelled from the house behind them.
That was all it took to ruin the moment. Alex jumped away from Gemma like he’d been shocked.
Gemma got up more slowly than he had, offering him an apologetic smile. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, no, it’s okay.” Alex rubbed the back of his head and refused to even look in the direction of Gemma or her father.
“I’ll see you later?” Gemma asked.
“Yeah, yeah, of course.” He nodded quickly.
Gemma hurried back over to her house, where her father stood at the back door, holding it open. When she went inside, Brian stood outside for a minute longer, watching Alex as he awkwardly tried to fold the blanket.
“Dad!” Gemma shouted at him.
Brian waited a beat before coming in. He closed the back door behind him and locked it, then flipped off the outside light. When he came into the kitchen, Gemma was pacing and chewing her fingernails.