Chapter Four: Discomfort Zone
For all the strange goings-on that had become practically the norm in Tedd's life, somehow the dinner table had never managed to be an awkward thing. Lonely, perhaps, after the departure of his mother. Formal, sure, when they had Nanase's family over on the occasional holiday. And certainly silly at Grace's birthday party, with everyone gender-swapped and at least on some level enjoying it. But never awkward.
This, however, Tedd was sure, was the definition of an awkward dinner table. Other than the scraping of forks and knives, and the occasional tobacco-laced cough from his father, there wasn't a sound. His dad wasn't particularly talkative at dinner in the first place, so that part wasn't anything odd, but the complete silence from Grace was extremely unnerving. Her eyes never left her plate, which she only picked and nibbled at, and she barely spoke two words. Not for Tedd's lack of trying either. He'd tried no less than three times to strike up a conversation with her about something, anything, and each time she would turn slightly pink, give the most minimal answer possible and then fall silent again. It was seriously strange behavior. Even his dad had to have noticed it, even if he didn't say anything about it.
"So, Grace," he attempted once more, "making any new friends at South?"
Her reaction this time varied only slightly, in that she turned a slightly deeper shade of pink before murmuring, "A couple…" and falling silent again.
Tedd didn't give up quite so easily this time. "Tell me about them. Did you meet them on your own or did the gang introduce you?"
"O-on my own…" Grace murmured again, and suddenly stood up. "May I be excused?"
"Of course, Grace," Mister Verres said before Tedd could insist otherwise. "Don't forget to wash your plate."
Grace nodded silently and gathered her plate and silverware, darting into the kitchen without a peep further.
The instant she was gone Tedd rounded on his father in a harsh whisper. "How can you just let her run off like that when there's obviously something wrong?.!"
"I had assumed you and her were in the middle of a fight of some sort," he answered matter-of-factly. "I didn't see fit to prolong the awkward moment any further."
Tedd froze up at that. "…You think she's mad at me?"
"The silent treatment IS a rather common technique used against someone who the user is angry with."
"But…why would she be mad at me? I haven't done anything! Have I?"
"Have you?" his father countered, looking curiously at him.
"I…I don't think so…" Tedd said uncertainly, "unless…"
"Unless?" his father probed.
Suddenly his fears from earlier that afternoon rose up forefront in his mind again. HAD he done something inappropriate in his sleep without knowing it that afternoon? She hadn't been the same since that afternoon, after all, the timeframe fit…maybe he DID grope her…or worse…
"…I need to talk to her…"
"Good idea," his father sagely agreed. "Go on, I'll clean up dinner."
"Thanks," Tedd replied, and hurried toward the kitchen, but Grace had already left. He strode instead toward her room, and softly knocked on the door. "Grace?"
"…Grace, can I talk to you? Please?"
"…I'm doing homework," came her quiet reply.
Tedd didn't relent. "Grace, please. It's important."
"Grace? C'mon, Grace, please don't be mad at me..."
The door suddenly opened, and Grace peeked out at him in mild surprise. "…What makes you think I'd be mad at you?"
Tedd rubbed the back of his head, pink-faced. "You just…haven't been the same since yesterday afternoon after that nap, and I…well, I was afraid that I might have done something a little…inappropriate…"
"Inappropriate? Like what?"
Tedd's cheeks resembled tomatoes now. "U-um…like…t-touching you, in…places…"
Grace blushed right back. "O-oh, no, no no no, Tedd, of course not!" she said hurriedly. "You didn't do anything like that at all!"
Tedd's relief was instant and immense. "Oh thank god…" he said after a deep breath. "I thought you were pissed at me…stupid dad making me paranoid…"
"No, no, Tedd, you didn't do ANYTHING wrong," Grace assured him again.
"Glad to hear it," Tedd said with a smile, but it faded a minute later. "But…if I didn't do anything, then…what's wrong?"
The pink in Grace's face doubled. "N-nothing, really…"
"Grace, you've been a whole different person the last twenty-four hours and it's worrying me. I can tell something's wrong, Grace, just…please, tell me."
Grace seemed to battle with something inside her head for a long time, her fingers fidgeting nervously as she thought, but Tedd waited patiently. He was getting to the bottom of this, right here and now.
"…It's just that I…" Grace began, and Tedd was surprised to see her eyes suddenly swimming with emotion and her body almost trembling, like she was on the verge of divulging some horribly bloody secret.
"Grace…? Come on, Grace, hon, whatever it is, you can tell me…" Tedd assured her with a gentle stroke of his hand over her cheek.
It was almost as though a dam broke at his touch, and before he even realized what had happened Grace's arms were tight around his torso and she was sobbing into his shoulder.
"Ohh Tedd, I'm such a bad person, I'm so sorry, I flirted with another boyyyy!!" she wailed.
For a second, Tedd was sure he's misheard her. Grace, flirting with someone…else? No…no, that was ridiculous…wasn't it…?
"Grace, honey, shh…shh, calm down…calm down and start from the beginning, okay? Slower..."
Grace composed herself after a minute, just enough to tell him the whole story about bumping into Alex the football player and making friends with him and learning all about football and how she'd been so happy to make a new friend until Ellen came along and pointed out the so-called 'Grade-A flirting' that had ultimately left her in her current fit of hysterics.
"…and I didn't even know I was doing it, I swear, but Ellen said it was, and I felt so horrible I couldn't even look you in the eye anymore, ohh Tedd, I'm so sorrryyy!.!.!" she wailed sadly, sobbing and sniffling still but otherwise falling silent, and it was all Tedd could do at the moment to slowly rub her back and soothe her with his embrace, because in his head a war was raging.
'Grace…flirting…with other guys…?' Half of him thought in horror and fear. 'No, not just any other guy, a FOOTBALL player…!'
It's not that bad, the other half of him tried to rationalize. It was an accident, she didn't mean anything by it.
'Oh god, oh god, I can't compete with that,' his weaker half fretted, 'oh god, she's gonna like him better, I just know it…'
She will not, she loves you, the second voice insisted.
'Not for long…she'll fall for the muscle hunky football player, I just know it…'
She will not fall for him! Remember what Elliot told you the first day back after the party! She loves YOU!
'Not anymore she won't,' the small, fearful voice sobbed. 'Face it, she found someone BETTER, it was inevitable, there's a whole SCHOOL full of guys way better than me, it was never going to last—
For god's sake, GET A HOLD OF YOURSELF! the second half nearly shouted at him, making Tedd hold Grace tighter. For God's sake, LOOK at the girl! She's in tears because she thinks she CHEATED on you, and all she did was TALK to a guy! She didn't even KNOW she was flirting! This isn't about YOU, you selfish prick, it's about HER needing reassurance and guidance from her BOYRFRIEND, so for the love of Christ grow a freaking backbone!
The small voice was quieted. And Tedd knew which one to listen to.
"Grace…it's okay, sweetheart…it's okay…listen to me…"
Grace looked up at him with shining eyes. "Please forgive me, Tedd, I--Mpphh!"
Tedd silenced her with a single finger to her lips. "Grace. Listen to me. You didn't do anything wrong, you understand me…?"
"But Ellen said--"
"I don't care what Ellen said. You didn't do anything wrong. Ellen can think you were flirting all she wants, but you didn't mean it. You weren't trying to flirt and you didn't WANT to flirt, and as far as I'm concerned that means you were NOT flirting."
Tedd shook his head. "Absolutely not. You were just…trying to make a new friend. And that's perfectly okay. It's good to make friends. I'm sure this…Alex guy'll make a great friend…and you shouldn't feel guilty about just talking to him."
Tedd nodded and gripped her shoulders firmly. "I love you, Grace. And I TRUST you. I know you would never do anything to intentionally hurt me. You don't have anything to be sorry for. Not a single thing."
"Not. A single. Thing."
Tedd wiped her eyes dry, smiling. "Now quit crying and kiss me, 'cause it's been a full day since the last one and I'm starting to suffer withdrawal."
He didn't need to ask twice. A tearful laugh burst out from her, followed almost immediately by a wide, relieved smile, and before he knew it he felt her lips on his again, and for the longest time he simply held that kiss, quiet and loving, catching up on the lost day, and the stronger voice in his head, if it had a mouth, was smiling its approval.
But the smaller voice…
No. It was wrong.
It HAD to be wrong…
"…And after ALL that, you guys STILL didn't do it?.!"
"Ellen, you can keep asking her that, but the answer's not gonna be any different," Nanase pointed out. "A talk like that would be overwhelming enough, there's no need to compound it with sex, too."
"But still!" Ellen insisted. "That's like the most romantic speech ever! Girl's MELT over that stuff!"
"We do not," Nanase countered.
"Oh, now you're just in denial!"
"Guys, really, it's not a big deal!" Grace chimed in suddenly, halting the impending argument with her broad smile. "I'm fine now, everything's figured out! Tedd and I are great!"
"…but you HAD to have at LEAST--"
"Ellen, really, we didn't do anything," Grace insisted. "Can you please let it go? That's what got me all weird in the first place."
Ellen seemed to want to open her mouth and keep going, but she finally decided against it and gave it up, and for that Grace was quite grateful. She'd just fixed things with Tedd the night before, and she didn't want Ellen putting bad ideas in her head and starting the whole process all over again.
"So what are we doing here, anyway?" Nanase asked into the silence, looking at their surroundings and seeing that Grace had led them into the cool metal bleachers outside of the school, overlooking the football field.
"I told Alex I'd come watch him practice after school today!" Grace said excitedly. "He said it helps to understand all the rules in foots ball if you watch it in person!"
"Wait, you're still talking to him after that whole freak-out?" Ellen asked in surprise.
"Of course!" Grace answered. "Tedd said it was great that I was making friends!"
"…points to Tedd for not getting jealous," Nanase murmured under her breath to Ellen, who got a snicker out of it.
Grace paid neither response much attention, though. Her eyes were already scanning the football field, taking in all the sights Alex had told her about, from the big block numbers on the grass to the towering goal posts behind each endzone. And huddled over on the field itself in two lines of differently-colored shirts was the Moperville South football team, currently engaged in a scrimmage.
"There he is, right there! He said he wears a shirt with a big number twenty-eight on it!" Grace squealed. "HI ALEX!"
The only sound she could hear back was a stylized grunting from the boy standing beside Alex. A second later, lots of things happened all at once and very fast. The strangely-shaped ball was suddenly fired out from somewhere within the men lined up and landed in the boy's hands, and almost instantaneously afterward the two lines crashed into each other, shoving and grunting, while the boy who caught the ball handed it to Alex. With surprising speed considering how much gear seemed to be weighing him down, he charged forward through a hole in the two lines, and had run past several of the large numbers before a pair of boys in the other shirt colors caught up to him and tackled him to the ground.
Grace heard Ellen distantly mumble something about an impressive run, but she was far too overrun with concern suddenly to pay it any attention. Was that how the game always was? It looked so…dangerous and violent. Half of her was afraid he wasn't going to get up again.
But then the two other boys let go of Alex and helped him jump right back to his feet, jovially patting each other on the back and none of them apparently any worse for the wear, and a second later the beefy balding man at the other end of the field blew his whistle and Alex came jogging toward the bleachers.
"Hey, Grace, you made it!" Alex said with a smile as he reached her and took off his helmet, and Grace again couldn't help admiring his handsome facial features, but it was okay to do that because she wasn't flirting, Tedd said so.
"Are you okay, Alex?" Grace said worriedly. "That looked like it hurt!"
"Ah, I'm fine, that's what all these pads and stuff are for," he assured her, gesturing at the large helmet and shoulder pads. He smiled at her, and then at the other two girls. "Friends of yours?"
"Oh, yeah, this is Ellen and Nanase!" Grace hurriedly introduced them. "We're great friends!"
"Cool," Alex said with a nod at the other two girls, who smiled back but didn't say anything. "So, Grace, you and your friends wanna come to a movie?"
"Sure, I love movies!" she responded eagerly and rounded on the other two girls. "You guys wanna come?"
"Sorry, parents don't let me do anything fun until homework's done…" Nanase griped.
"You go ahead," Ellen insisted, "I'm gonna help Nanase."
Alex shrugged and smiled at Grace. "Guess it's just us, then."
Grace was undaunted. "That's okay, we can talk and stuff and get to know each other!" she offered, because that was normal when you made new friends and definitely not flirting.
"Heh, sounds good," Alex said, offering his arm. "Shall we?"
"Sure!" Grace said, running forward to take his arm, which was totally okay, she told herself, because she was definitely not flirting. "Bye Nanase, bye Ellen!"
In a flash she was gone, leaving Ellen and Nanase to give each other identical odd looks.
"…Is it just me, or was she acting like a total smitten kitten?" Ellen voiced the thought first.
"If she had her tail right now it'd be wagging like a puppy's," Nanase agreed. "Something's not right here…"
"…it's probably nothing. You know how Grace is sometimes. Besides, she'd never seriously CHEAT on TEDD. Right?"
"…Yeah…" Nanase slowly agreed, "you're probably right…"
But as logical as it sounded, neither girl seemed completely satisfied with the answer. Somehow they knew it just couldn't be that simple…
Comments and critiques welcomed and appreciated, as always.