A/N: The penultimate chapter! Shoutout to anyone still reading! R&R, tyty :) (also, don't own anything)
I strode into the gym, heart pounding. I scanned the room quickly, but there was no sign of Chloe.
I felt my stomach drop and throat tighten. Yeah, I was disappointed, but more importantly, I had a bad feeling. I spotted Simon and made a beeline for him. He was dancing with some girl, a friend of Chloe's, I think. They'd probably seen her, knew where she was, and could assuage this irrational anxiety.
Simon made a face when he saw me. "Dude, you didn't even change," he asked incredulously.
I ignored him. "Where's Chloe," I asked, trying to keep the impatience I felt from seeping into my tone.
"Um, she sent me a text saying she was leaving," Simon's date interjected.
Focusing on Simon, I confirmed that he had told her I was coming, but this time I couldn't hide my irritation, however misplaced it might be.
"Yeah, I did. But the dance started two hours ago. Did you expect her to be waiting at the gym doors, ready to greet you?" He gave me a hard look, and my eyes dropped to the floor.
"She sent me the text less than ten minutes ago," his date proclaimed, triumphantly returning her phone to her bag. "Uh, maybe you can still catch her," she suggested, sounding about as certain as Chloe would if she had to answer a question in my math class. She gave me a small, encouraging smile though, and I suddenly regretted having been so curt.
"Yeah, thanks," I called over my shoulder as I turned away and made my way out of the gym.
She was probably well on her way home, and I had banked on her being here, so I didn't really have a plan B. Showing up at her house seemed a little stalker-ish, plus—
Stalker-ish. The thought made me stop short, though only for a moment, before I finally indulged the panic I had been fighting to keep at bay and started jogging through the halls. There was an exit to the parking lot near our lockers, and I headed there, thinking that if Chloe was inside—and had been intercepted—the only place it'd make sense for her to have been was there. And if she wasn't, then I wouldn't waste much time.
No sign of her. Discarding any last shred of composure, I ran to the exit. It had probably been two minutes since I had left the gym and taken less than fifteen seconds to cover the distance between the hall and the metal doors, but it felt like an hour had passed, and I could feel the rapid beat of my heart in my throat. A blast of frigid hair hit me as I finally emerged outside, already scanning the parking lot.
In the far corner of the lot, he towered over her. I could practically feel the anticipation rolling off of him.
The sight of him lowering himself on top of her kick-started my brain, and I charged toward them, full speed. The very small part of my brain not overcome with rage and adrenaline reminded me to avoid doing anything that would inflict any CNS injuries. It was a fleeting thought, replaced by the more pressing realization I needed to move faster.
Not wanting to lose any of the momentum I had gained, I didn't slow as I sent my foot flying into his ribs. My heart was in my throat. I could barely think through the sound of my blood rushing through my ears. I barely registered picking Chloe up, though had the presence of mind to see that her dress had bunched in the middle, making it very short, and one the sleeves was hanging off her shoulder. I adjusted it, distracting myself with the straightforward task, procrastinating, agonized by the prospect of having to look at her. If he had done something more than throw her to the ground, if I had gotten here too late—
I quickly scanned her from neck down, steeling myself to look at her eyes. If anything had happened, she wouldn't be able to hide it. Finally, my gaze landed on hers. I could see the relief. I could see she was shaken.
"Did he do anything to you," I asked, voice taught with tightly reined in anger. It almost sounded like a growl.
"No." Her voice was steady. I physically felt a weight life off of me. I scanned the rest of her face, only then registering her scraped cheek and gravel residue. In that moment, I wanted to violate the laws of physics and go back in time. Keep this from ever happening, from ever getting this far. It felt like my own cheek had been dragged along the ground.
I wheeled toward Liam as a fresh wave of anger crashed over me, placing Chloe safely behind me. He said something. I didn't hear. I had tunnel vision.
"I told you to stay away from her."
Liam was advancing as he replied. He said something else I blocked out. He wanted to get in my face. He was predictable. He was going to hit me, and when he did, I'd be ready. He was almost as tall as me, but not quite, and not as broad. Just as strong, but it didn't matter. There was nothing on the line for Liam. That wasn't true for me. The only viable option was to overpower him.
"Listen, scumbag," I started, knowing it would rile him up. He deserved what he had coming. "I don't care if you have administration wrapped around your disgusting fingers. This is not—"
The first punch came. I welcomed it. I didn't feel it. I didn't feel any of it, was riding on the adrenaline coursing through my veins. No time had passed when I found myself on top of him, delivering a final blow to the side of his head.
Chloe was beside me suddenly, placing her foot on Liam's upper arm, digging into the ground. Good.
I remained seated atop his chest. I wanted to throw my weight around. I wanted to give him at least a bit of insight as to what it felt like to be trapped between the ground and someone who could hurt you.
"As I was saying, this is it Liam. If you so much as look at Chloe, again, I'm going to administration and we both know you don't want that. What you did to her is something the law refers to as assault, and what you intended to do to her could be argued as attempted rape." My words sunk in only after they left my mouth. I didn't know if this was true; I was counting on Liam not being smart enough to know, either. My body was vibrating, ready to pounce if he tried anything again. My voice sounded calm, I think. I didn't feel calm.
I continued, "and considering you're eighteen, you could be tried as an adult. I think it's safe to say that you could kiss all those tantalizing football scholarships goodbye if you were convicted and sent to prison." True enough, but conditional on a conviction. I knew from dad how hard those were to get in situations like these. Liam probably knew it, too, being the predator, he was, but he was also enough of a narcissist to be worried about the prospect of not being a star on his college football team. And I wanted him to be scarred. Ideally, I wanted him to be at least as scarred as I had been, if not as scarred as Chloe must have been, but this would have to do.
"So, just to make things crystal clear, stay away from Chloe – from any girl, for that matter – but especially Chloe, or you will be sorry," I finished, staring him down.
Satisfied, I got up, trying to ignore the pain I suddenly felt along the length of my right side. I turned us toward Chloe's car, hand finding the small of her back almost automatically as we headed towards it. It was unclear, between the two of us, who I was trying to comfort more with that move.
We stopped, and she planted herself in front of me, giving me a once over. "You're coming to my house," she informed me authoritatively.
Even if I could go home – which in this state, I wanted to avoid for as long as possible – there's no way I would, and I readily agreed. I don't think I'd be completely assured that Chloe was safe until I saw her into her house. And checked all the locks…
Figuring it would be rude to bleed on her seats, I quickly removed my sweater, and then my undershirt so I could use it to staunch the blood that hadn't quite stopped dripping from my nose. As I put my sweater back on, I tried to keep from wincing. Now that I wasn't preoccupied, the aches in my body tried demanding my attention. My ribs hurt, my lip felt swollen, my whole face felt like it had been hit with a rock. As I ducked in the car and settled into the seat, I had to forgo the seatbelt. The thought of having to twist back to reach for it almost made me groan, and I didn't want her to see me struggle.
The drive was quiet, leaving me with my thoughts. Even though Chloe was a mere foot away, I was still anxious. What if I hadn't gotten there in time? Why hadn't she just waited? Had Simon been wrong?
"I really don't understand how you manage to get yourself into these situations, Chloe," I said, trying, and failing, to keep the irritation I felt from seeping into my tone. I knew I was lashing out. I knew I wasn't actually annoyed with her. But I was also worried. And confused. Was it my place to be worried or rather, as worried as I was? And I was mad at myself for taking so long to show up. And—
"Derek," she said sharply, not about to take it. "You have really got to stop blaming me for these things. Contrary to your belief, I do not wave a sign over my head, advertising myself as prey. You can't possibly be mad that by some sick twist of fate, I was targeted by someone like Liam. This was not my fault."
She was annoyed, rightly so. And she was right.
"I know it's not your fault. It's just—" I broke off, exasperated, and blew out a frustrated breath. I was going to fuck this up before I even had the chance to apologize for everything, to see if there was still a chance we could be something, anything more than two people who ignored each other.
I tried again. "Did Simon tell you I was coming?"
"Yes." She wasn't giving me anything more than what I was asking for. I recognized this play. I tried to keep my foot from resuming its tapping on the floor mat.
Steeling myself for her answer, I asked why she hadn't waited for me.
"After two hours, forgive me for thinking you weren't." Her tone was sharp, which seemed to surprise her, and she looked over at me regretfully, even though I deserved the sharp tone. Maybe "not waiting for me" was a bit of a mischaracterization.
"I didn't know – I thought that maybe—"
"You showed up just in time," she interrupted quietly, graciously saving me. I was so out of my depth.
"If I had been there earlier—" If you hadn't wasted two hours, pacing in your room
"This is in no way your fault, Derek. You couldn't have prevented this. it would have happened eventually. That was always his goal, and you do not deserve any blame." She sounded very confident. It didn't seem like she'd let me argue. I tried anyway, but didn't make it further than opening my mouth. She shook her head decisively. For once, I listened.
Pulling into the driveway, Chloe pulled out her cellphone. She had a quick conversation with her aunt, and she sounded bright and cheerful, a complete turnaround from the strain and exhaustion that had punctuated the few words she spoke to me on our way here. It was as if she flipped a switch, and I had no idea how she managed. She didn't want her aunt to worry about her. She'd implied before that she didn't want me worrying about her. Why was she being a martyr? What if I wanted to be someone who worried about her? What was she going to do about it?
Evading my gaze, she quickly got out of the car and headed toward the front door. I followed her closely, ready to push her aside or behind me if anything jumped out at us. If Simon were here, he'd tell me to calm down.
As she turned to lock the door – which I had already done – she looked up at me, eyes clear. Maybe she was in shock.
"Are you alright," I finally blurted out, hating how inane the question was, and I said as much.
"Yeah. Once again thanks to you." Her voice was soft and held a distractingly disarming tenderness. I wanted to let it carry me away, but I had a point to make.
"Liam is never going to be near you again. You don't need to worry about him anymore. I promise, Chloe." She nodded, and I could tell she believed me. And I wasn't exaggerating. I would simply not allow it to happen. She continued to hold my gaze, and something shifted. Things got quieter, and my breathing slowed. There weren't a million thoughts racing through my brain at the same time, demanding attention. It felt like we were in a bubble that was keeping everything out. And even though she was already close, I felt an overwhelming need to be closer to her. She broke our eye contact first, looking away and forcing out a cough. The bubble burst.
"We need to get you cleaned up," she pointed out. Following her up the stairs and into an immaculately clean bathroom in this very quiet house, she instructed me to sit on the edge of the tub. I humoured her for a while, as she gathered paper towels and band-aids, letting myself get my bearings. Something about her house felt off. From what little I had seen, there was a clinical nature about it. It didn't feel lived in. I suddenly remembered the afternoon I found her crying in her car. It seemed highly likely that she hadn't lost just one parent that day. She was too busy amalgamating an unnecessary amount of supplies to see me looking at her. Here she was, having just been assaulted, gravel in her cheek, and she was worried about me. I rolled my eyes, mostly for myself, readying myself to clear up any misconceptions she had about who was getting looked after first.
"You're not fine," she snapped.
I glared. "I can take care of myself fo—"
She interrupted me. Again. "Yes, Derek, I am fully aware you can take care of yourself," she said, exasperated. "But please, for the love of Go—"
This conversation was over. "Will you stop interrupting me," I snapped. She looked at me, arms crossed. She didn't look happy, but she waited.
"As I was originally going to say, I'm concerned about the cuts on your cheek. Go change and I'll take a look at them," I instructed.
She protested. I was not budging, and she could see that. She stormed off in a puff, and I heard her yank open a door somewhere down the hall. I smiled to myself, enjoying the moment. She returned, deeply irritated.
"Happy," she asked, voice thick with sarcasm.
"Ecstatic. Sit on the counter."
She hefted herself up and I—I had to busy myself with wetting a paper towel.
I focused on cleaning her cheek and removing the gravel that was pitted in as carefully as I could. It was a good task, requiring a lot of attention, so I couldn't think much about what Chloe was wearing—or, rather, what she wasn't wearing.
I didn't really know what Chloe wore, generally, specifics at least. It didn't really matter; I didn't really care. She wore jeans a lot and various sweaters of different kinds. When we started math tutoring, the temperature had already started to dip a bit, so I only ever saw her in long sleeves, and she seemed to like stuff with a round neck that hit just below where her neck spread out and down into her shoulders and chest. But right now, she was wearing a tank top. It was kind of short and because she was leaning back against the wall behind her, I caught a glimpse of her lower abdomen and her belly button. An innie. Her top was also lower than anything I'd ever seen her in, and I could see the faint outline of her collarbone, which extended gracefully into her bare shoulders.
The scrapes on her cheek had been acceptably clean for at least two minutes, but I was still carefully, and unnecessarily, wiping away at it. I was in over my head. I pulled away to look at her cheek and said something about the depth of the cuts and it being better to not cover them up.
I could tell she was about to order me about, wanted to fuss over me. But I wanted to get a good look at the damage, which I hadn't really done yet. And I don't think letting Chloe touch me would be a good idea. The bathroom already seemed smaller than when we had first entered it. As I looked at my face in the mirror, resisting the urge to groan – Dad was not going to be as understanding about this as he had about my dark mood – she settled back against the mirrored wall. I could feel her eyes on me.
"How did you find me," she asked carefully.
"When I got there and couldn't find you, I went to ask Simon if he knew where you were. He was with the girl he went with—"
"Mila," she interrupted. I might try to remember that, but I waved away the detail.
I continued, "and she said that you had sent her a text saying you were leaving. I don't know, call it a bad feeling, but I was worried and went looking for you." Running, Derek. You ran. "And then… well, you know," I finished lamely.
She didn't skip a beat. "Simon said you'd been in a black mood ever since our fight. Why?"
I was clearly going to be forced to take part in the contemporary version of the Spanish inquisition.
"Like you weren't in a bad mood either," I pointed out. "And why are you always talking to Simon about me." This was irritating. What was this – third grade?
"Because you're not always talking to me."
The accusation hung in the air between us. Could I really have expected anything else? I remembered what she had said to me in the library a week and a half ago, when she called me out for dictating the boundaries of our relationship. I realized that I wasn't irritated that she had spoken to Simon; rather because she seemingly continued to ignore those boundaries. It was endearing. It was maddening. It was cruel. Didn't she know how this would end?
I sighed, throwing a lump of paper towel in the garbage. Maybe she didn't know how this would end.
"Because you drive me crazy, Chloe," I admitted softly. This one sentence probably most aptly summed up the brunt of my feelings toward her generally, and in the past few weeks, especially.
Her eyebrows rose in surprise. I couldn't help smirking. I had no idea how she'd respond to that. She'd probably get mad, point out how I also drove her crazy. And then I'd have to explain that that was precisely why things would never work, why it'd be better if we just went back to being two people who went to the same school. I tried pushing away the sudden memory of Dad's words from a mere couple of hours before. Imagine how happy she could make you. However, it was my own turn to be surprised when she instructed me to take my shirt off.
"What," I sputtered, thinking I had heard wrong. My mind raced. I tried to push away thoughts of her seducing me in this bathroom, which felt even smaller once again.
Rolling her eyes, she said, "I saw the fight, Derek, so I saw Liam hit you more than once in the ribs. And I also drove you here, so I also saw you not put on your seat belt. Am I wrong in thinking there's a connection between the two?"
"I didn't know you could pull sixties in math and still have an M.D." I hoped my comment would distract her. Were the walls of the bathroom actually closing in around us?
"Glad to know our teaching relationship goes both ways." She looked up at me, batting her lashes.
She kept staring up at me, eyes unwavering. Grumbling, I pulled my shirt over my head. She leaned forward to get a better look. It seemed unnecessary. The bruise that was forming was big enough to see from her spot against the wall. She was so close I could feel her breath, light as a feather against my ribs, as she asked, "Do you think it's broken?"
I didn't trust my voice. Thankfully she hadn't touched me. I imagined her doing that enough. If she had, my resolve would have crumbled.
She said something, but I didn't hear her. In the next moment, time seemed to slow. She slid off the counter, into, down and against me. I couldn't really think. I was pretty sure I had stopped breathing. The memory of that weird hug we had on the football field flitted into my consciousness, and it seemed like our bodies were miles apart then, compared to now. Her top felt very thin against my bare skin.
Her eyes found mine and the bubble was back. They seemed to be asking something and trying to convey something at the same time. They pulled me in, guiding me closer. I took a step toward her. If you had asked me a second before, I would have said it'd be impossible to get any closer. I was gladly proven wrong. As if they had a mind of their own, my hands planted themselves on the counter behind her, effectively encasing her within the confines of my arms. Her gaze continued to command me forward, and I gave in, abandoning all sense of self-preservation. She snaked her hands around the back my neck, pulling me in. Our height difference forced her onto the tip of her toes, causing her to arch her back and press more firmly against me. But still not close enough.
I hoisted her onto the counter. Her slightly parted lips were at a better angle this way. She kept guiding me forward, and I gladly obliged, leaning in to close what distance was left between us. Her eyes closed, but I didn't dare close mine. I knew what was coming, but I could barely believe it. Our lips brushed. I felt as her fingers twisted themselves into the hair at the nape of my neck, and—
The feeling of her small body slamming into mine pulled me out of my daze. Instinctively, my hand went around her waist, steadying her. Bubble burst. Again. Only then did I realize my phone was ringing. Taking it out of my back pocket, I glanced at the caller ID. Simon.
"What," I growled.
He didn't seem to pick up on my tone.
"Hey! I just wanted to let you know that I took the car home. It was in the parking lot when Mila and I were leaving, so I figured you must've caught up with Chloe. You'll have to tell me how things went! But anyway, she had gotten a ride from Chloe there, so I wanted to be smooth and drive her home, but if you need me to—"
I hung up, cutting him off.
My eyes slid back to Chloe, and I tried to hide the wave of disappointment that hit me. Even though I wasn't as socially fluid as Simon, I was socially conscious enough to know that the moment we just had was ruined.
"I should get going," I said, resignedly backing up and giving her some space. That was the only option. I didn't know how we could come back from that. I vaguely wondered if we could pretend it hadn't happened, but the smarter part of me knew she wouldn't let that slide.
"D-do you need a ride?" Her voice was quiet, but something about it seemed undone.
I briefly considered walking. Then I could be alone and think. But I wasn't entirely sure I wanted that either. I finally accepted.
The walk to the car was quiet. The car ride, aside from me refreshing her memory of directions to my house, was quiet. I was caught up in trying to make sense of what had just happened. Trying to figure out if I had caught her in a moment of vulnerability and manipulated that. Trying to assess whether she actually wanted this, us. Yeah, she had seemed ready to reciprocate, but did she know I didn't know how to be a boyfriend? Did she even want me to be her boyfriend? Was I getting way too ahead of myself? And if she did want to date me, unconcerned with my lack of experience in all things emotionally supportive, would she still want that if she knew we'd probably argue about the same things we did now? And then if things ended, would we never speak again? Did I want to risk that for a crush?
I stole a glance her way, and then realized that I had momentarily forgotten about the most pressing matter of all.
"Are you going to be okay tonight?"
"Fine." She barely spared a look my way. Before I could make a sarcastic remark, she continued.
"Why did it take you so long to get there? To the dance, I mean."
I was hoping that, after everything that had happened tonight, she'd forget about that. It's not like I could tell her the truth. Oh, you mean why was I two hours late? I was just pacing around my room, wallowing in indecision. And how would I even explain that indecision? I wasn't indecisive about her, or about what I wanted with her, really. I was fairly certain about that, and by fairly, I meant wholeheartedly. But my confidence about that was unsettling, and I had to question whether it was smart. I needed to at least give her a semblance of an answer though.
"There was a myriad of reasons." Ugh. That sounded so obnoxious, and I immediately knew it wasn't going to fly.
"I'm listening," she said patiently.
"You were mad – don't think I didn't catch all the glares you graced me with. I didn't know if you were willing to forgive me after everything that had happened." This wasn't untrue. It just hadn't been true for a few days.
"That's one reason. I thought there were a multitude," she reasoned. I tried to rise above the irritation I felt at being pushed. I understood why she wanted to know. Maybe she had a bit of a right to know, considering she might have been operating under the assumption that I'd be there. On time. But why couldn't she just trust me. Trying to explain what had held me back sounded dumb out loud. What if she didn't get it? Worse, and more likely, what if she did get it and thought I was wrong, because she was apparently such an expert on my life.
"I'm waiting," she prodded.
"Why do you care so much about the reason," I snapped.
"Why is me caring such a problem," she countered, voice rising ever so slightly.
"Because you're not supposed to." It came out without me thinking about it first. And it was like opening Pandora's box. "This is why I wasn't sure if I should come, why I came late. Because of what you to do me, Chloe." Words that made little sense probably would have continued tumbling out of me had she not interjected.
"What I do to you," she asked incredulously. "Can you even hear yourself, Derek? What about what you do to me? You're hot and cold, saving me from danger one day and acting like I'm a part of the scenery the next. At least I'm always there, never rebuffing you."
"Exactly. I wasn't lying before, Chloe. You drive me crazy. You're a complete contradiction. You go against every conception I had about you, you challenge everything I expect from you, from other people. You don't act the way you're supposed to act and it's maddening. You drew me in, you make me feel irrationally, and you've made me question myself." And I wanted her anyway. Was I the crazy one?
"Why even bother then? Why did you even show up if I make you feel so terribly?"
I didn't know why she was doing this to me. Suddenly, I was exhausted. Not just from tonight and having to sort through and articulate things I didn't even like articulating to myself. But also from weeks of wanting and trying to resist the wanting and thinking and re-thinking until I had badgered every thought to death. I didn't have the energy to preserve even a shred of dignity, even though I knew that in a few weeks, these admissions wouldn't mean anything when she realized it couldn't work.
"Because not going, not seeing you, felt even worse than having to face you." The words hung heavy in the space between us. She didn't say anything for a long while, and I realized we were parked in my driveway. When her eyes finally met mine, there was a lot there. But, in catching a glimpse of uncertainty, I looked away, mumbling something about seeing her later, and got out of the car. I headed toward the house slowly. I didn't want to go in, but I didn't want to turn around. But the sound of her door slamming forced me to.
"You can't leave things like this, Derek. If you're going to leave, fine. But at least tell me why you're still pushing me away."
"Because it wouldn't work out!" I was angry. How could she not yet see that? Why did she want to set the both of us up for disappointment?
"How do you know? You won't even try. And here I thought you were a fighter." Her tone was laden with accusation. I don't know where she'd get that impression from. Clearly, I was a coward. A smart coward.
"Being with me won't do you any good. You see how the people who know about the accident look at me. you know what they think. Why would you surround yourself with someone who carried that over his head? Imagine what people would think. I don't care, but you should, Chloe. You don't need me tainting you." And there it was. The truth that had stared me in the face for a while, that I resented but couldn't ignore. Chloe was too good for me.
"And Liam! I'd bet any money that Liam, as sadistic as he already is, kept at you to get to me. I never wanted anything to happen to you, Chloe, and look how things turned out." I tried giving her a hard look. All signs pointed to us being doomed before we could even start.
She looked absolutely unfazed by everything I had just said as she started to approach me. I didn't know what she had up her sleeve, and I watched her apprehensively. She came closer and closer, and then closer still, taking us back to the close quarters of her bathroom. The bubble was back. My heart was racing. Her eyes were bright and excited and sure as she looked up at me. "You drive me crazy, too."
Before I could even react, her small hand wove into a fist in the fabric of my shirt and pulled me down with surprising strength, not even pausing as she tilted her head and firmly kissed me. It took me a second to register what was happening, to realize this wasn't one of my late-night fantasies. And then when it clicked, I gave in, surrendering to her. I greedily snaked my arms around her waist, breathing her in and filling myself with her. We kissed until I couldn't think, until all I was was in that kiss. And then we kept going.