Chapter 3: Out of Commission

I woke up with the sun shining in through my window into my eyes. Groaning, I rolled over and pulled the pillow over my head. "No... it's too early..." I glanced at the clock and sighed. It was only 5:47. "Fine! I'm up! I'm awake!" Kicking off the blankets, I stood up and stumbled sleepily over towards my closet. Pulling out a pair of faded jeans, I yawned, closing the closet and shuffling over to the dresser. I grabbed out a white tank top. "Time for a shower..." I said, rubbing my eyes. I opened the bathroom door and turned on the water. The mirror over the sink began to fog up as I yanked my sleep shirt over my head. I stepped into the stream of hot water and tried to clear my mind.

"I'm so tired..." I moaned, washing my face. Reaching down, I grabbed my shampoo bottle and squirted some in my hand, scrubbing my hair. I breathed in deeply, letting the steam unfog my brain. "What am I going to do today?" I wondered out loud. "I need to clear the field before I can plant anything, but I need to plant things in orfer to make any money. Plus, I need to go grocery shopping..." I turned off the water and stepped out of the shower and dried off. After I got dressed I grabbed my toothbrush and brushed my teeth. I pulled my hair into a messy ponytail and headed back into the living room. I opened the fridge and sighed. It was completely empty, save for a loaf of bread. "Well, I suppose it's better than nothing..." I broke a chunk off and bit into it. Grimacing, I swallowed it. It was beyond stale. I threw the rest of it into the garbage can and opened the tool chest. I pulled out a rucksack and looked inside it. There was a watering can and a hoe inside. Lying on its side in the chest was an ax. I picked it up and set it in the rucksack and headed outside into the sun.

Squinting in the bright light, I yawned again. Heading over to the field I pulled out the ax and laid it down. There were branches everywhere; it looked like a tree had exploded. I sighed and reached down and gathered some of the smaller ones into my arms. I headed over to the woodbin and dropped them in with a thump. Wiping the sweat off my face, I headed back to the field. "This is gonna take forever..." I muttered, gathering another handful of branches.

"Need help?" I yelped and dropped the handful of twigs. Whirling around, I found myself face to face with Zack. He had a huge grin on his face as he knelt down and began gathering up the bigger logs.

"Don't you have to work?" I asked, grinning back at him and picking up my twigs.

He shook his head, his brown eyes warm. "Nope. I don't start my rounds until about four anyway. I figured you'd need the help, at least until you get into the swing of things here. Was I right?"

I blew my bangs out of my eyes. "You have no idea how right you really were." He laughed and we walked over to the woodbin. He tossed his logs in like they were pillows. I gently set mine in and leaned in to straighten the pile. "I... can't... reach... Ack!" I flipped into the bin, landing painfully on the log pile.

"Are you okay?" Zack asked, looking down at me, concern lighting up in his eyes.

"Fantastic. Can you get me out of here...?" I raised my hand and he grasped it and pulled me out. Wincing, I stretchd my back, feeling a muscle tug. "Ow..."

"Are you sure you're alright? I can take you to Trent and have him check, you know, that you didn't break anything."

"No, it's fine. I'm good."

"Really? I'd feel better if you went to see Trent..." he trailed off, looking around wildly.

"Alright, how about this; You help me here, and then about two I'll head up to the grocery store and check in with Trent on my way home. That way I can still get my work done and my groceries bought, okay?"

"If you're sure, but I'm coming with you to see Trent. I want to make sure you're okay," he said firmly. "Plus, I have the feeling that left on your own you wouldn't go."

I grinned. "How'd you know?"

"Lucky guess," he said, rolling his eyes. I laughed and we got back to work. I started to gather some more branches until Zack grabbed my arm. I looked up at him, my heart skipping a beat. "I don't want you to overstrain your back. Leave the sticks to me." I opened my mouth to protest and he clamped his hand over it. "How about you pull these weeds? If you make a pile of them then we can make a compost pile. Alright?" I nodded mutely, waiting for him to release both my arm and my mouth. Grinning, he let go of me and I swatted at his arm.

"Don't ever try to silence me. I don't like it." He just laughed as I stuck my tongue out at him. I started tugging at the weeds while he made trips from the field to the woodbin. We worked like that in a comfortable silence for about a half hour. "So, Zack. What brought you to Mineral Town?"

"Oh. Well, my best friend did. His name is Rod. He's Lillia's husband. We worked together, and he helped me out of trouble. I owe him a lot."

"He wasn't at the Poultry Farm when I went there yesterday... does he work there with them?" I asked, losing my balance as I pulled out a pricker weed. I winced as my butt hit the ground, senting a wave of pain up my back. Glancing quickly up at Zack, I sighed in relief that he hadn't noticed.

"Lillia's not very healthy. She's very prone to things as simple as colds. Rod left about eight years ago to find a plant that's supposed to help cure her. He hasn't contacted us since." Zack got quiet and stared out over the river.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"It's not your fault. You didn't make him abandon his family after a myth instead of spending his time with them." Standing up abruptly, he walked to the woodbin and threw the logs in. I tossed the weed into the rather large pile and stood up, grimacing at a muscle spasm.

"Zack..." I walked over to him and rested my hand on his arm. "It's... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring up something so painful for you. Lillia didn't stike me as sick. She seems really nice, and I don't think she wants you tearing yourself up over what Rod's done. He made his own decisions. Don't blame yourself."

He raised his head and looked at me. I felt my legs go all jelly-like and grabbed on to the woodbin to keep from collapsing. "You don't look like someone who has all the answers," he said, his voice husky. "You're full of surprises, aren't you?"

"You could say that..." I said, feeling slightly dizzy. Just as my legs collapsed he grabbed my shoulders and leaned towards me. "Zack..." Realizing where we were, and what he was about to do, he let go and I fell. "You know... it seems like everytime I'm around you I end up on the ground. Have you noticed this?" I asked, looking up at him. He was bright red and breathing heavily. "Zack?" Jerking back, he bent down and picked me up. "Hey! What are you doing?!"

"This is the third time you've fallen. You're going to see Trent." He started towards the road, me in his arms.

"By my count it's only been two," I said, rolling my eyes.

"I saw you fall when you were pulling those weeds." I opened my mouth to argue but he continued. "I also saw how when you hit the ground, you winced and checked to see if I had noticed. Well, I did."

"Drat. Well, I can walk. I'm capable of that at least." I pointed out, not willing to admit that being in his arms felt good and I really wasn't sure my legs would have actually been able to hold me after this much contact with Zack's extremely muscular chest.

"With your track record you'd end up flat on your ass again." I made a face and he laughed as we passed the Winery. Duke was standing in the field picking grapes. He looked up and saw us. I waved, smiling weakly. Looking confused, he turned back to his fruit.

"What will the townspeople think, you carrying a strange girl around town? What's to stop me from yelling and calling you a kidnapper? Did you think about that, hot stuff?" I asked, looking around, feigning boredom, while in actuallity every inch of me felt like it was on fire.

"Well, you are strange, but not in the way you were implying. If you were actually struggling people might believe you, but you look a bit too content to be a kidnapping victim. And, no, I hadn't thought about that, sweet thing."

My heart skipped and I sighed. Damn. He's right. I am too content right here. Maybe Trent can give me something to get Zack off my mind. "Wait... I still need to do my shopping!"

"It can wait."

"What?! No it can't! I don't have any food! This morning I had a bite of stale bread! That's it! I need food!" I said, squirming.

"I'll take you to Doug's afterward. Relax." Grinning, Zack tightened his hold on me.

"That's not the point..." I muttered, giving up. His grin widened and I contemplated hitting him. "You suck. I wanna go home."

"Too bad. We're here," he said, shifting me so I was hanging over his back like a sack of flour so he could open the door.

"Put me down! I do NOT enjoy being man-handled!" I heard girlish giggling and i groaned. "Elli! Help me!"

"Um... Zack?" I heard Elli ask, trying (and failing) to keep her laughter quiet.

"Yes?" I could hear the laughter in his voice.

"Why do you have Courtney hanging over your shoulder like a sack of flour?" Completely losing it, she starts snorting.

"Well... you see, it all started..." Zack was interrupted by Trent.

"What the hell?! Elli, what's going on?! Zack, why do you have a girl slung over your shoulder like a bag of potatoes?!" Trent yelled.

"Get me down! I'm getting dizzy!" I shrieked, beating Zack's back with my fists. It did no good.

"Courtney? What's going on?!" Trent sounded shocked and confused.

"You see, that's what happened." After a twenty minute account of what had happened, with me still hanging down Zack's back, Elli decided I could be trusted to stand on my own. Of course, because my luck absolutely sucks, the second Zack set me down I fell, he picked me up again and cradled me against his chest. I kept sending Elli Save me! Help me! Do something! vibes but she wasn't picking up.

"Well, I could give her an examination, I suppose... Courtney, what do you think?"

I shot up and opened my mouth when Clap! Zack immediately covered it so I couldn't speak. "She thinks it's a fantastic idea and thinks you should do it right now so I can take her to Doug's for a bite to eat."

"Mmm! Mnmn!" I squirmed, trying to get free but to no avail. Failing escape, I crossed my arms angrily across my chest and leaned back, pouting.

"See? She agrees." Trent just shook his head and motioned for Zack to follow him. Once we were in the examination room Trent closed and locked the door and Zack removed his hand from my mouth.

Lips tingling, I immediately began to express my unhappiness. "What are you doing?! I'm fine! I'm totally okay! I have work I need to get done, which I can't do if I'm here!" I whisper-yelled at him, trying to ignore Trent's eavesdropping.

"Oh, hush yourself! You got more down today with my help then you would've gotten on your own. I'll be there tomorrow to help too, so calm down!" he whisper-yelled right back. I glared at him and he glared at me, the air crackling with electricity.

"Are the lovers done quarreling?" Trent asked, grinning evilly. I sent him an extreme hate glare as Zack jolted back, almost dropping me. I shreiked and threw my arms around Zack's neck to keep from falling. Our faces inches apart, the intensity deepened as he dipped his head towards mine. Without thinking, I tilted my head up. "As good as the policy 'kiss and make-up' is, we have no PDA tolerance here." We both pulled away. My cheeks burning, I stared intently into Zack's chest, refusing to meet his eyes. "Now, I'm sure you'll both be disappointed by this, but... Zack, you need to put her down." Reluctantly Zack lowered me to the ground, holding on to my arms to make sure I wasn't going to fall again.

Once I was steady on my feet I whispered "Thanks..." in Zack's ear and he smiled at me and let go of my arms. I turned and faced Trent. "Well, Doctor? What says you?"

He winced at my horrible grammar and I grinned, feeling victorious. "From what Zack described, it sounds like you pulled a muscle in your lower back. I'm going to need you to lift up your shirt." I heard Zack growl from behind me and I raised an eyebrow.

"Excuse me?" I asked, hearing an echo. Glancing behind me, I did a double take. Zack had a scary, thunderous expression on his face and looked ready to throttle the 'Good Doctor'. "How will that help you?"

"Relax, Zack. If it will make you two feel more... comfortable... then he can do the examination. I'll even turn around." Trent did just that. I looked at Zack, confused. "Okay, Courtney, you need to lift up your shirt."

"Um... how far up is up?" I asked, feeling a little bit more uncomfortable then I had a second ago.

"Up to your rib cage."

"Okay..." I pulled up the tank top until it was just below my ribs. "There. I'm done. Can I leave now?"

"No. Zack, you need to feel along her lower back and see if any muscle is sore or tender. Can you handle this or shall I do it?"

"I got it..." Next thing I knew I felt Zack's hands gently push against my back. Each touch jolted all the way up my spine and I gasped. Instantly Zack pulled away. "Are you alright? Did I hurt you?" I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak. "You have a huge bruise here..." he said, running his finger lightly over the spot. I bit my tongue. He continued to run his fingers up and down my back and I tried my best not to make a sound. He pressed a little harder and found the spot. I gasped as my legs buckled. He caught me and pulled me against him. "Are you okay?"

"I think you found the pulled muscle..." I said quietly, wiping my eyes. Trent turned back around and walked over. Zack's big hands pulled my shirt back down while I stood there, trying not to cry.

"Well, I can prescribe a painkiller for you, but you'll have to take a week off of farm work."

"Are you kidding?! I can't take a week off! I just started! I'll be behind for ever! This isn't fair!" I yelled, reaching back for Zack's hand. He squeezed my hand softly.

"If you do any work, it would have to be low impact work. That means, no wood chopping, no heavy lifting and tilling."

"What can I do then?!" I asked, near tears.

"What about weeding?" Zack asked quietly.

"Hmm... that would be okay only if she didn't overstrain herself. Frequent breaks would be required."

"I can make sure she does." Zack confidently. I closed my eyes and leaned up against him. "Do you want me to stop up here later for the prescription? I can stop by after my rounds."

"That sounds good. Hey, Courtney? I need you to step out for a minute. Can you go keep Elli company? It'll just be a minute." I opened my eyes and looked at Zack. He nodded and I headed to the door on wobbly feet. Pulling the door shut behind me, I heard Zack and Trent both start talking at once.

"Courtney? What's wrong?" Elli walked over to me and grabbed my hand. "Come sit down and tell me what's happening."

"I pulled a muscle in my back. I can't work for at least a week. I just got here and I'm already behind and in major pain! Plus, Zack's driving me nuts!"

"Oh yeah? How?" Elli asked, sitting on a sofa in the waiting room. I sat in the chair next to her and winced when my back hit the seat.

"I don't know! He's aggravating, but he's so sweet! Plus, he... well... you see... Argh!" I tugged on my ponytail. "Whenever he looks at me, or touches me I just... I spazz. I completely freak. The heart just goes off and my stomach drops and I feel sick, like nauseous, but in a good way, almost. When he was holding me... he carried me all the way from my farm here! I just... I don't know! He... I think he almost kissed me. Twice! I met him two days ago and I just... I want him to! I want him to hold me and... I don't know! Ack!"

Elli smiled knowingly. "I think you're in love."

I immediately started protesting. "But I just met him! It... no... it's the air! I'm so used to foggy city air that clean country air is throwing my brain off! That's it!"

She just laughed. "Make excuses all you like. It's true. Even if it's not love yet, it has the potential to be something great." She leaned in closer towards me. "Zack's a great guy, but ever since Rod left he's been a shadow of himself. You might be able to heal him." Her doe eyes shining, she smiled brightly. "I really think you can change this city forever. I think this is why you came back. Even with everything you've gone through, you've retained your innocence. Mineral Town is just what you need, and I think you're what Mineral Town needs. Duke came in today. He told Trent that he... that he was an alcoholic and needed professional help. Courtney, you remember how he was an alcoholic even when we were little. You'd been here one day and already he's trying to change! This, this will be your legacy! You'll do it, and you know it. You can't stand suffering, and that's what a lot of us our doing. Deep down, under the smiles and cheer, we're hurting. You'll bring out the hurt, and make it go away."

My eyes filled with tears. "You give me way too much credit, Elle. I can't. I wasn't able to help my mom, or Papa. How can I help an entire town?"

Her brown eyes showed hurt. "What your mother did is none of your fault. You've done everything you could. Maybe, one day, she'll come back and realize what she's given up. Until then, don't let her take away from who you are." The door swung open and Trent and Zack both walked out.

"Courtney? Are you ready to head home?" I nodded and stood, a little shaky. "Trent? I'm taking her to Doug's first, to get something to eat. Alright?" Trent nodded, looking concerned. "I'll swing by around six for her pills." Zack walked over and put his arm around me. "Bye, Elli. It was good seeing you again."

"Take care, Zack. Now you have more to be around for, so be careful. Bye, Courtney. I'll stop by tomorrow if I can." I nodded and waved, wincing as my back twinged. Zack noticed and his eyes clouded.

"Trent, thank you. See you later, Elle." Zack and I walked out the door and started towards the Inn. Neither of us said a word until we hit the town square.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"I'm sorry," Zack said. We looked at each other and started to laugh. "Why are you sorry?" he asked, looking down at me.

"Well, we just met, and already I've caused you huge problems. I'm really not this much of a klutz! I don't get it! I've fallen more in the past two days then I have in the past two years!" I sighed and looked up at him. I only came up to the middle of his arm. "How tall are you?!" I asked, straining my neck to look him in the eye. I'm five six, which is pretty tall for a girl, and Zack's like three feet taller than me!

"I'm six seven. Well, six seven and three quarters."

"How are you so tall?! You make me feel all tiny!" I said, thinking to myself, Ha! I can wear any type of heels I want with this guy!

"I'm sorry..." He sighed and started to pull his arm away from me. I reached over and put it back across my shoulders.

"Relax! I'm just kidding. Anyhow, why did you say you were sorry before? You didn't do anything!"

"Well... I feel like it's my fault you got hurt. Trent sure reamed me out once you left, anyway."

"ABOUT WHAT?!" I yelled, pulling away from Zack. Eyes blazing, I threw my hands into the air. "You didn't do anything. You didn't pick me up and throw me into the wood pile. You didn't shove me to the ground! Every 'injury' I've sustained in the past day and a half is a hundred and ten percent my own fault! What could he possible have to yell at you about?!"

"Calm down, will ya? For someone so tiny you sure have a mouth on you!" He sighed. "He thinks I'm taking advantage of you."

"WHAT?!?!" Practically spitting, I tugged on my ponytail. "HOW IN HELL ARE YOU TAKING ADVANTAGE OF ME?!?! You had chances, I guess, but you didn't DO ANYTHING! Nothing! You were nothing less than 'honorable'!"

"I guess he thinks it's because I'm so much older than you. You're only eighteen," he said, looking at his hands.

"What does that have to do with the price of eggs in Europe?!" I asked, tugging on my ponytail again, this time pulling out some hair.

"Because... wait. Did you just ask what that had to do with price of eggs in Europe?" he asked, looking at me incredulously.

"Yes I did. Don't change the subject." I crossed my arms to prevent anymore damage to my scalp.

"I'm twenty-nine!" he said, rubbing his temples.

"..." Breathe in, breathe out...

"Do you see why this is bad? You're practically a child compared to me!"

"..." Breathe in, breathe out. Don't scream... don't scream...

"Say something, dammit!" You know what? To hell with it. Actions speak louder than words. Closing the distance I had put between us, I grabbed Zack and pulled his face down to mine. Brushing my lips lightly against his, I pushed myself up on to my toes and deepened the kiss. He reached down and held my head steady, sending shock waves down my spine. I wrapped my arms around his neck, ignoring the flare of pain. My blood was pounding in my ears and I ran my fingers through his short hair. Zack bit down lightly on my bottom lip, sending tremors of pleasure through me. I moaned, pushing his mouth open with my tongue. He cupped my face with his other hand and stroked my face with his thumb.

Pulling away slightly, I stared up into his gorgeously hazy chocolate eyes, feeling slightly dizzy. "I'm not a child. Do you think a child would do that?" I asked, feeling breathless. He stroked my cheek lightly, his eyes searching mine.

"You barely know me," he said softly, resting his head against mine.

"You know me less..." I said, laying my hand on top of his. "Why not get to know each other? I have a week I can't work. We can spend time together."

"I was going to come to your place anyway..." he admitted, grinning shamelessly. "I was going to help take of the work you can't do anymore."

"Trent said I can still weed!" I said, protesting.

"With frequent breaks! That's like, let's see... a weed then a ten minute break!"

"What am I going to do if I have to take a ten minute break over other second?!" I asked, exasperated. He grinned, eyes going dusky. "Oh," I said, feeling my body temperature shoot up at least ten degrees. "Maybe that won't be so bad after all... it won't get work done, though..."

"Let's go get something to eat. I'm hungry. Afterwards, I'll walk you home and go pick up your groceries. You'll need your rest." I raised an eyebrow. "That's not what I meant! I... I wasn't implying...!"

Laughing, I shook my head. "I know. Calm down. I'm hungry too. Let's go." We started walking towards the Inn in comfortable silence. I reached over and grabbed his hand in mine. Grinning impishly, I nestled into the crook of his arm. He laughed and tightened his hold on my hand. He pushed open the door to the Inn and ushered me inside. I sighed, and stepped away from him into the cozy dining room.

"Hello! Welcome to the Inn!" Ann chirped, wiping down a table by the register. She glanced up to see who came in. "Hey Courtney! You here for..." she trailed off, eyes wide as Zack came up behind me and draped his arm around my waist.

I grinned sheepishly. "Hello, Ann... we're here for lunch. Got any ideas?"

Shaking her head in disbelief, she smirked. "I don't think I have any idea... hold on, I'll go fetch Dad." She headed towards the kitchen and I groaned.

"No, Ann, that's alright! You don't need to get Doug!" I said, covering my eyes with my hands.

"Don't worry! It's my pleasure!" she called out behind her, cackling evilly.

"On no, oh no, oh no!" I moaned, collapsing into a chair. I rubbed my temples, feeling a headache coming on.
"Should I be worried?" Zack asked, looking towards the kitchen. I nodded. "Why's she getting Doug? It's her job to see what we want to order!"

"She's getting Doug because she plans on tattling on us." I rolled my eyes. "Since, you know, I can't take care of myself..." He grinned rakishly, and I sighed. "Well, I can take care of myself."

"But if you can take care of yourself then maybe I should go home, you know, and let you handle your business..." I swatted his arm playfully. "Or not." He sat down in the chair next to me and set his hand on my knee as Ann came skipping out of the kitchen, Doug hot on her heels.

"... and he was all over her! It was, oh my god, soooo cute!" I groaned and rested my head on Zack's shoulder.

"Let me know when they leave." I whispered, feeling slightly claustrophobic.

"Um... Doug looks kinda scary... you might want to say something before he tears out my heart..." Zack murmured in my ear, his breath tickling my cheek. I looked up and, sure enough, Doug was practically spitting flames.

"Hey, Doug." I stood up and gave him a hug. I could practically feel him shooting daggers at Zack with his eyes. I shot a glare at Ann and she just smiled innocently. "Do you mind if we order lunch today? I haven't been able to head to the store yet, and I'm starving!"

"I just bet you are..." Ann said, looking from me to Zack, and then back at me. I sent her hate vibes, causing her to giggle uncontrollably.

"Hey, Ann? How about you take their orders and then take Courtney upstairs? I'll holler when the food's ready, and you can let her choose the surprise we talked about last night."

Ann nodded and looked at us expectantly. "Well... um..."I faltered, turning red.

Zack cut in. "I'll have a roast beef sandwich and a cup of coffee. Courtney?"

"Uh... same. Minus the coffee. It stunts your growth. I'll have water, if you don't mind." Doug nodded and stalked back into the kitchen, reaching the door and turning back around. Hands on his hips, he glared at Zack.

"..." he sighed. "I'll be back..." He stood up and followed Doug into the kitchen, the door slamming shut and rattling the dishes.

I immediately turned to Ann. "What did you tell your father?!"

"What's betweem you and Zack?!" she asked, giggling again. "Come on." She grabbed my arm and dragged me upstairs.

"Ow! Be careful!" Yanking back, I told her what Trent had said about my back.

"I'm sorry! I didn't know! Are you okay?" I nodded and she opened the door to a guest room. The box in the corner was making mewing noises. "Here! Look!" I knelt down next to the box.

"Awwww... kittens!" The mama tabby looked up at me sleepily, then went back to her babies. "Ann, they're adorable!"

"I know, right? We need them to go to good homes, and Dad thinks you'd like one. You're still a cat person, right?" I nodded, stroking the mama cat's ginger fur. "Then we want you to have one! They're big enough to leave Jack, so you can take one with you after you eat!"

"Jack?" I asked, crossing my eyes.

"Yeah... I didn't know she was a girl..." She chuckled sheepishly. "So? Which one do you want?" There were five kittens; two tabbies, like Jake, and three black and white kittens. I picked up one of the black and white ones. She opened her eyes and swatted at my nose. There was a strip of orange fur on her chest.

"Definitely this one. Hey, sweetie!" I kissed the top of her head and she mewed at me, climbing up my shirt. "Hey!" She sprawled herself across my back. I looked up at Ann. "A little help?"

She laughed and pulled her off. Setting her back in the box, she turned back to me. "Sooo..." I just stared at her blankley. She sighed and rolled her eyes. "You. Zack. What's up?!"

I grinned slyly. "I don't kiss and tell, sorry."

She sat up. "You guys kissed! Awesome!"

"Wait!" I protested. "I didn't say that!"

"You didn't have to. You walked in here with a 'I just had the best kiss in the world, don't expect me to speak yet' look on your face."

"Really?" I asked, trying not to laugh.

"Yeah, and he had the 'this is my girl, don't touch' look too!" She squealed happily. "This is so amazing! You already have a boyfriend and you've been here a day and a half! It's fantastic!"

"Whoa, girl. Hold up. He's not my boyfriend."
"Alright... Whatever you say, Courtney. Let's head back downstairs before Dad guts Zack. He's never been okay with the idea of 'boyfriends'."

I leapt to my feet, squeaking in pain as my back pulled. "You don't think he'd actually hurt him, do you? That would be just my luck. I finally get a boyfriend and my psycho friend's psycho father guts him."

"I thought he wasn't your boyfriend!" Ann said, voice dripping with satisfaction.

"Shut up!" I shrieked, stomping down the stairs. Once we reached the landing, Ann started giggling uncontrollably. "What?!" I turned to her.

"There's no blood seeping under the door..." she said, clutching her sides. "I think he's fine." I walked away from her, huffing as I reached the kitchen door. Hearing voices, I leaned down next to the doorknob, listening.

"...don't know WHAT you're thinking, Zack! You're a smart young man!" Doug was slamming around pans.

"I'm thinking that she's a gorgeous girl with brains and a sense of humor. She's amazing."

"She's eighteen!" Doug shrieked. I heard something glass break.

"I know that! I already told her I'm too old for her, but she didn't listen! She's as stubborn as a God damn mule when she wants to be!" He lowered his voice and I strained to listen. "Besides, Ann's mother was a couple years younger than you, if I recall correctly."

"That's different! I love that girl, Zack. I don't want to see her get hurt again. She doesn't need it."

"What do you mean?" Zack asked, sounding worried. Doug just sighed.

"I'm not the one who'll tell you. Courtney will when she's good and ready. Open the door." Scrambling to get back, I tripped and found myself sprawled across the wooden floor. I heard the door open behind me. I looked up to see Zack grinning above me.

"Would it kill you to remain on your feet?" he asked, reaching down and grabbing my hand. Pulling me up, he turned back to Doug. "I swear, everytime I turn around, she's fallen, or tripped, or in some other way injured herself." Turning back to me, he gave me a heart-stopping smile. "Do I need to wrap you in bubble wrap?" I smiled sheepishly and shook my head. Doug sighed, carrying two plates over to a table by the counter.

"Your lunch is ready. Come and get it. And you..." He gave Zack the evil eye. "Keep your hands to yourself. What you do when you're alone is one thing, but I do NOT want to see it. Especially if you want to keep your head on your shoulders."

Touched, I sat down. "Doug, are you giving me permission to have sex?"

"NO!!!!!!" His face as red as his hair, he started sputtering. Ann laughed before grabbing his sleeve and pulling him back in the kitchen.

"Was it necessary to ask that?" Zack asked, sitting next from me.

"Well, no, but that's what it sounded like what he was getting at." I grinned evilly. "Besides, he missed my horribly awkward teenage years of dating. Might as well make it up to him." Zack just shook his head, laughing as I dug into my sandwich. We ate in comfortable silence until someone came down the stairs. I looked up and saw Cliff. I waved and he smiled back, coming over to our table. "Cliff? Care to join us? Zack'll share some of his sandwich." Zack raised an eyebrow, chewing.

"No thanks. I'm... um... looking for Ann. Have you... seen her?" he asked, face turning pink.

Zack opened his mouth and I clapped my hand over it. "That depends. What do you need?" I asked, feeling the moment for revenge was close.

"Oh... um... well... never mind."

"Would you feel more comfortable telling Zack? I won't listen, I promise." Zack just looked at me. "See? Not listening." I covered my ear with my remaining hand and Cliff laughed.

"Well, you're her friend, right?" I nodded. "I... want to... well... ask her on a... on a..."

"... date?" I said, trying to be helpful. He turned bright red and nodded. "Ah. Okay, how can I help?"

"How do I ask her?" Looking desperate, he ran a hand through his hair.

"Well, what do you want to ask her to do?" I asked, pulling my hand away from Zack's mouth. He rolled his eyes and took another bite of his sandwich. "There's not much here, you know?"

He plopped down in a chair across from me. "Up in the mountains I found a field a few weeks ago. It's beautiful, and there's a creek that runs through it. I want to take her up there, but I don't know if she'd like it. I mean, I... I really don't know that much about her."

"Well, if I know Ann as well as I think I do, then I think she'll love it."

"She'll love what, exactly?" Cliff and I both jumped, looking up at Ann standing behind Zack.

"Perfect timing! Cliff, go go go!" I took the last bite of my sandwich. "We'll go pay for this. Good luck!" I leapt up from the table, dragging Zack.

"Careful with your back!" he yelp, tripping over a chair. I peeked behind me and saw Ann sit down in the seat Zack had just vacated. Jerking to a halt at the register, I turned to watch. Cliff's face was bright red and Ann was turning kind of pink. She nodded to something he said, and he beamed, causing her to smile back.

"Ha! I'm a genius!" I turned back to the counter as Doug walked out of the kitchen. "Hi, Doug. How much will that come to?"

He sighed. "Fifteen dollars and nintey five cents." I dug into my pocket and pulled out a twenty. I handed it to him.

"Keep the change! I'll see you later, alright?" Waving to Cliff and Ann, Zack and I walked out the door. "Holy Goddess! What time is it?" The sun was going down and the church bell was going off.

Zack flinched. "It's five. I didn't get to my rounds today."

"Why didn't you tell me?! I would've eaten faster and sent you on your way!"

He shook his head. "It's no big deal. Let's hurry at get your groceries. At this rate they might close before we get there." We ran

"What... when... you're grocery shopping together?! You just met!" I laughed.

"Karen, chill. Zack and I..." I turned to him. "You explain."

"What? Why me?"

"Because I don't know what to say!"

Zack sighed and turned back to Karen, whose face looked dangerously purple. "I think we're dating."

"Is that what we're calling it?" I grabbed a candy bar off a display behind me and kept looking. Karen followed us, gaping like a fish.

"When did this happen?" she asked, looking stupified.

"Earlier today. He decided to try to take advantage of me, and I decided I liked it."

"WHAT?!?!?" Karen's shriek echoed through the store and I started to laugh.

"That's not how it happened. Courtney, shut up for a minute, would ya?" I stuck out my tongue and wandered off as Zack explained to her what really happened. I came back about five minutes later with a handful of soup cans and handed them to Zack.

"That's sooooo sweet! How cute!" Karen was almost jumping, she was so giddy. "You're really cute together, too! Oh, we need to have a girl meet tonight!"

I shook my head. "Meet all you want, I can't make it. I've had a long day, my back hurts, and I'm tired. I'll let you tell everyone, if you want. Well, Ann already knows, but she can explain that better than I can." I looked at my basket. "Well, I've got everything I need. Karen, how about you stop by tomorrow? I can't work, and this lug can't be trusted to keep his hands off me." Karen's eyes got really big until I laughed. "I'm kidding. He's such a prude."

"I'm right here!" he cried out in mock outrage.

"I know, dear. Let's go."

We said goodbye to Karen and paid Jeff. His only reaction to Zack and I dating? 'Don't do anything I wouldn't do. On second thought, keep your hands to yourself or you lose them."

On the way out Zack turned to me. "Why do they assume I'm the one being all touchy-feelly?"

"Because I'm an innocent looking blonde and you're a big bad scary muscle man?" He grumbled under his breath. "It's a stereotype, but it works for me. No one thinks I would do anything wrong. You on the other hand..."

He sighed. "If I'm gonna be blamed for being all over you, I might as well actually do the crime."

I grinned. "Now, if only I believed you meant that..."

Raising an eyebrow, he grinned rakishly back. "Want me to prove it?"

I shook my head. "Not in public. Are you going to drop me off at my house and leave, or are you gonna keep me company for a while? We could watch a movie, or something."

"What time is it? A little after seven..." He nodded. "I can stay for a bit. Just make sure I actually get my rounds done tomorrow, okay? Even if you have to chase me away with an axe." I grinned.

"You know, that sounds like it would be fun, chasing you off my property with an axe. I can see it now..."

Rolling his eyes, he warned, "Don't get to excited there. I can outrun you." I stuck out my tongue as we reached the farm. He fumbled with the door, his hands full of groceries.

"Here, let me get it." All he had let me carry was the bag of bread. I pushed the door open and ushered him in. Flipping on the light, I walked over to the fridge. I started to put the groceries away and told him to choose a movie from the pile on top of the tv.

"Hmm... Over the Hedge... National Treasure... Just Like Heaven..." He looked up at me. "None of these have anything in common."

"I have very particular taste." I sniffed, grabbing two sodas out of the fridge. I plopped down in the yellow bean bag chair and handed Zack a pop.

"Well, let's watch Over the Hedge. I don't think I've seen it yet."

"It's the best movie in the WORLD. I swear. You'll love it." He laughed and popped it in before sitting in the beanbag next to me. As the movie started, he placed his arm and my shoulders and we sat like that, watching an ADD squirrel and a sneaky raccoon until we both dozed off, exhausted and happy.