Disclaimer: Once And Again doesn't belong to me. No profit made.
Summary: Coda to ep 309 – Tough Love. Eli didn't break his promise, only Grace doesn't know that. Eli/Grace.
Author's Notes: As ridiculous as it can sound, this took me years to write. I knew what I wanted, where I wanted to go, but for some reason I took my sweet time to write it.
Can You Handle The Truth?
The house had grown silent more than half an hour ago. The party had lasted until late in the night, but eventually everyone had left. Eli had gone into the garage after his encounter with Mr Dimitri and hadn't moved from his spot on his bed since he got there. He kept reliving the scene that had taken place in the kitchen a few hours ago. The look Grace had sent him… there was so much deception in her eyes. He couldn't believe how fast the situation had worsened between them. Just last night they had shared a heart-to-heart talk with each other, actually it was the first time they had been so open to each other, and now… now he wouldn't be surprised if she didn't want to talk to him ever again. He had let another person down; at least that's what she must think. What was true was that he had been scared to face his responsibilities. Again. He was starting to realize that running away at every little problem was only leading to trouble. Stupid snowball effect. He was hurting the people he cared about, hurting himself in the process.
This had to stop. One way or another. Maybe trying to make things right with Grace again was a good place to start. The thought invaded his mind, blocking everything else, and he finally got up and left his room. He soundlessly made his way through the kitchen and started to walk up the stairs. The entire house was plunged in darkness and when he stopped on the last step, he instantly spotted the ray of light at the bottom of Grace's door. He could still turn around and retreat into his room. And he probably would have if her light hadn't been on. But it looked like everything was encouraging him to go on and fix things with her. In front of her door, he hesitated a few seconds and finally knocked lightly twice, crossing the point of no return. He didn't hear any sound on the other side so was taken by surprise when Grace opened the door. She froze upon seeing him. They looked at each other in complete silence until Eli cleared his throat.
"Can… can I come in?" he hesitantly asked, keeping his voice down so he wouldn't wake the others.
"Look, Eli, I… really don't want to talk to you right now."
"Grace," he pressed gently.
She studied him for a moment, wondering what he could possibly want to say. He had already apologized in the kitchen. If articulating a casual "I'm sorry" without even meaning it could be considered as an apology. She thought she had made it clear that she didn't want to have anything to do with him anytime soon. Apparently not. "Do you have any idea what time is it?" she whispered.
"It won't take long."
Anger instantly rushed through her body. Couldn't he take a hint? At this moment she was very tempted to say that out loud and to give him a piece of her mind. But she knew she would yell at him if she was to open her mouth. And the last thing she wanted was to wake the entire house and answer the questions her mother and sister would have, hell maybe even the ones from Rick and Jessie. The closed space of her room would be more private for the discussion he wanted them to have. And the sooner she was granting his request, the sooner they'd be done and he'd be out of her sight. That was the only thing she wanted right now.
It felt like an eternity to Eli until Grace stepped back. He entered her room, and she closed the door behind him. Instead of waiting for him to speak, she walked past him and kept herself busy with everything she could find. She wasn't about to make things easy for him by sitting on her bed and silently listening to him.
Eli watched her uncomfortably, following her moves with his eyes, noticing she was bare foot; it was probably why he hadn't heard her approaching a couple of minutes ago. She wasn't looking at him; she clearly didn't want him here. Suddenly his resolution didn't seem like such a good idea anymore. He wasn't even sure she would listen to what he had to say.
"You have three minutes," she said coldly, breaking his thoughts. "I'm really sleepy and I just want-"
"You were amazing," Eli whispered, cutting her in mid-sentence.
She stopped at his words and turned around. If he wanted her attention, he definitely had it now. But her intense, yet unreadable, stare made him lose some of his composure.
"I mean, the play was nice enough. But you were amazing."
Grace frowned; she didn't understand. She opened her mouth but no words came out.
"I was there," he answered her unspoken question. "Tonight. I saw the play. I saw you."
"How?" Grace asked, finding her voice again. "I mean, why-"
"I didn't want you to think I had let you down," he resumed, not really answering her.
She shook her head slowly. "I had saved you a seat… you never showed up…" The seat next to her mom was empty, he couldn't have been there.
"I had promised you. I just… I just made sure my mom wouldn't notice me."
"You were there," she repeated for herself.
Her knees started to weaken as the meaning of his words sunk in. She then feverishly made her way to her bed and slowly sat down on the edge.
"I managed to sneak in just before it started. I was at the end of the room. There were a few free seats left. I guess your teacher didn't notice me, he didn't mention it when I came back home earlier."
She wasn't really listening to him. Only one thing was occupying her mind right now. She had bared her soul on stage, in front of all these people, without realizing it at the time. The pain she had felt upon seeing that Eli wasn't there had overwhelmed her. Her own emotions had taken over; she hadn't been in control like the two previous nights. She had been crying real tears this time, sharing her pain. All the time thinking he wasn't there to witness how weak he could make her feel.
"Your interpretation was very intense." She still hadn't come up with a reply. And he realized he would prefer her yelling at him than this complete silence. "I mean, you almost had me crying there," he added with a small smile, in a poor attempt to lighten the mood.
She let out a muffled sound, and he thought she was suppressing a laugh. He darted a look in her direction and narrowed his eyes slightly. Her head was down, her hair hiding her face from him.
Hearing her name, she turned her head towards him, and he realized she was on the verge of crying. He instantly went to kneel in front of her. "Hey." He searched her eyes. "I had no idea compliments would have that effect on you," he said, half-joking.
She still was avoiding direct eye contact, but he saw the corners of her mouth turn slightly upwards.
"It's ironic, isn't it?" Grace stated.
"What is?" He tucked her hair behind her ear, and the gesture caught her attention, making her stare in his eyes.
At this instant she knew why she hadn't looked at him when he had entered her room. She had been persuading herself that it was to pay him back in kind. But the real reason was a lot more embarrassing. She wouldn't be able to help herself if she was to look at him; she would forgive him everything. It had been safer earlier in the kitchen. They hadn't been alone and she had been able to focus her attention on something else. But right now she was trapped. Trapped by his closeness and the intensity of his stare. And she knew she would cave. She would forgive him everything, she would tell him everything…
She felt a few tears fall down her cheeks that he instantly brushed away with his thumbs. She closed her eyes at the contact. And she couldn't stop herself. "I would never have been that good if you had been there… I mean…" Her eyes found his again. "If I had known you were there."
He gave her a slightly confused look. And then he remembered her lines.
But why did he swear he would come this morning and comes not? There is no truth in him.
His heart missed a bit as it finally dawned on him. It was him she had been talking about.
"Oh Grace, I'm so sorry."
He would never have thought that his mere presence could matter to her so much. That she would react so strongly if she thought he wasn't there. She was still crying, and the sight was breaking his heart. Because she was crying because of him. Just like she had been during the play.
"Come here." He reached for her and put his arms around her, stroking her back lightly.
The hug was hesitant at first, but when Eli felt her lean into him, he tightened his embrace. Several minutes passed until Grace came back to her senses. She slowly disentangled herself from Eli's arms. "Forget it, it's not important."
Eli instantly countered. "It is important, Grace. Because right now, you're making me feel important. And I…" Pausing, he dropped his head and sighed. He briefly closed his eyes before looking up at her again. "I'm not used to it. Never been." He paused.
Grace watched him closely. She remembered when Jennifer had told her, almost two years ago, that his I-don't-care-about-anything attitude was just an act. She had been surprised at first, realising that she didn't know him at all. She had the biggest crush on him back then but she started to look at him differently from this moment on, and it only made her love him more.
He smiled. Somehow that didn't surprise him. "You're like the only person who does know."
They had exchanged the exact same words several months ago. Her mother and his father were getting married that day. They were in Grace's room like tonight, almost at the exact same place, looking at each other the same way, and they would have kissed if Jessie hadn't interrupted them.
The thought seemed to strike them both at the same time as they drew back from each other, rather awkwardly. Eli got up, making sure he was keeping a safe distance between them, safe for stepsiblings.
Grace cleared her throat, trying hard to focus on the conversation at hand. "What… what do you mean?"
"You're like the only person who actually gives a damn about me."
Silence fell into the room at his words. He was serious, she realized as she searched his eyes.
"You're wrong." She stood up on impulse, stepping closer to him. "Your parents, they care about you."
"It's not the same thing. They care about me because I'm their son. Parents – o – vision, you know? Same goes for Jessie; I'm her big brother. No, I'm talking about someone who has no reason to care about me for she knows how much of a loser I am."
"Stop it, Eli. You're not a loser. You're just… lost." She paused as he shifted imperceptibly. He diverted his eyes from hers and went to sit on her bed.
"I wouldn't be able to pull this off better than you," she resumed, taking a seat on her bed as well.
"Yeah, right," Eli shot, unconvinced. "You know how many people I've disappointed like that?" He paused, looking pointedly at her. He lowered his voice even more than it already was. "No later than tonight."
Grace couldn't deny what she had felt during the play. But things were different now. "You came to explain," she stated, matter-of-factly. That's when she realised she didn't even know why he had acted that way in the first place. "Why didn't you show yourself anyway?"
His face suddenly fell and he looked down.
Grace noticed the change of mood and narrowed her eyes. "What is it?"
The easy solution would be to avoid her question; he knew she wouldn't push it. And he honestly thought of doing it. But what would have been the point of coming here in the first place? He took a deep breath and let out "I got fired."
"What?" Grace asked, stunned.
"Two days ago. And my mom doesn't know. Hell, no one knows."
It still didn't make sense. "I don't understand. Why would it matter if she saw you or not? It was night anyway."
Another sigh. "It's complicated." He lied down, getting comfortable. "She came at my work the day I got fired and when she asked me why I wasn't there, I lied to her. Told her I was working nights now so she wouldn't suspect anything."
Silence settled into the room as Grace digested his words. It all made sense now.
"So, go ahead. Tell me I'm not disappointing you right now. That my parents won't be disappointed when they'll find out."
"You have to tell them," Grace reasoned. "The sooner, the better. You don't want them to find out by themselves."
"I wish they wouldn't find out, period." The thought made him snort. "My mom is going to have a field day with this after all the reservations she had about this job. Can you believe I managed to screw that up? I mean, a recording studio. I couldn't have hoped for a better scenario…"
Eli had been rambling, more or less talking to himself. He was starting to relax and was not on the defensive like usual when talking about work. And then Grace's single comment had him focus intently on her.
"This wasn't a job in a recording studio." Grace was remembering what they had talked about several days ago. "You were working for someone who had no trouble ordering you around for anything but something music related."
The anger in her tone made him smile. He found it sweet that she could sound so worked up about a problem that technically was only concerning him.
"Why did he fire you anyway?"
Eli let a few seconds pass before answering. "He didn't think I was committed enough, I guess."
Grace nodded, faking seriousness. "Like… you forgot the milk last time you brought him coffee?"
Eli laughed out loud at that, before remembering what time it was. He instantly quieted down and noticed that Grace had stilled also. They looked at each other and didn't move an inch for at least a couple of minutes. But the silence outside went undisturbed, much to their relief.
Eli eventually resumed the conversation, amusement still in his voice. "Yeah, I can see your point. I'm not sure it's gonna help my case, though."
"Whatever your parents say, you have time. Why not start working small jobs to make money until you figure out what you want?"
"Yeah, that's probably the best option." He pondered her suggestion some more. "Seriously, good advice." He was serious, and he wanted her to feel that. "What about you? Any plans for the not-so-distant future? Because that's an idea for you right there."
"I don't think so."
He went on regardless. "Grace Manning, course and careers adviser."
She smiled at his teasing tone, playfully bumping her hand against his. "Only for you."
Silence returned in full force as Eli looked at their hands; her fingers were hovering uncertainly above his. The awkwardness was back. But he was decided to make things easier for the both of them.
He sat back up, drawing his hand back. "I should go. Can't risk falling asleep here. Because sneaking out of your room unnoticed would probably be a lot more difficult than sneaking out of mine."
Grace nodded, looking anywhere but at him. "Right."
He got up and went to cross the room. "That would be yet another thing to add to my never-ending list of things to reproach me. Jessie is already suspicious enough."
"What do you mean? Suspicious of what?"
He slowed down but knew he would choose the easy solution this time. "Nothing. Forget it," he dismissed, avoiding her question even as his sister's words resurfaced.
Just stop acting like you can't handle the truth or something, because I so can!
Jessie could handle the truth, good for her. But he couldn't. At least not yet.
Grace didn't push it, just like he knew she wouldn't, and watched him reach the door of her bedroom. "Thank you… for coming."
She knew she didn't need to say more as he looked at her.
Eli opened the door without breaking eye contact. "Thank you. For caring."
She smiled. "I do…"
He smiled in return and disappeared in the hallway, closing her door behind him.
"I care about you so much."
Her last whispered words were lost in the silence that was now surrounding her.