AN: Full explanation of timeline is included below if you're really lost.
He was awoken by a soft beeping sound in the night, the darkness of his bedroom suddenly permeated by the brilliance of his cell phone screen. Only when the phone began to dance across his night stand did Eli roll over with a groan, his flailing arm just missing its target and whacking against the lamp instead.
Cursing loudly, the dishevelled boy sat up, rubbing his tender hand. Jolted fully awake by the pain, he reached for the still-buzzing phone and flipped to the message, ignoring the sender details flashing from his mini-screen.
Are you awake?
He hit the reply button, not bothering to proofread his response before his throbbing thumb punched 'send'.
I am now.
He stared at the screen for a few minutes, awaiting a response, before crumbling back against the bed sheets. Well that was weird. He willed sleep to overtake him, but Eli instead lay staring at the ceiling for a good ten minutes, trying to shake the weird feeling in the back of his head. Only as his eyes began to slide closed did the thought finally push its way to the surface, thrusting Eli into wakefulness once more.
His feet hit the floor, tripping over the lingering piles of junk cluttering his bedroom as he dashed toward the exit, wrenching the door open and flying down the stairs in a flurry of pounding feet that made Cece poke her head out of his parents' bedroom in concern.
Her inquiries fell on death ears as Eli reached the ground floor with a 'thud'. Scrambling, he pulled on the first pair of shoes his hands found, and he had one arm through the sleeve of his leather jacket when he was interrupted by a soft knock on the door.
Eli's heart was in his throat, and he had to swallow hard several times before felt able to breathe again. Slowly, like the hero in a horror movie about to reveal the monster for the first time, he extended a hand to the doorknob. Still slower he turned it, and let the heavy wooden door fall open towards him.
It took him a few moments to recognize the figure in front of him as Clare. Her normally cinnamon curls were weighed down with rain, so matted clumps hung around her face like dark ribbons. Her cheeks and nose were flushed with the cold, and her whole torso seemed to shake with great, heaving pants, as if she had run a mile on her last breath. She was wearing a pastel-coloured pyjama set, but the pant legs were flecked with mud and there was a thick smear of the dark substance coating her left side.
Their eyes met. His were prodding, concerned, still a little clouded with sleep, hers wide, scared, white clearly visible all around her cerulean irises. He stepped forward, cautiously, and wrapped his long fingers gently around her upper arms. For a moment nothing happened, but then her eyes fluttered back to their normal size and she leaned into him as he pulled her over the threshold. Neither of them noticed Eli's parents hovering the background – Bullfrog poking a head out from the basement, Cece wringing her hands from their bedroom doorway – as he half carried Clare's shivering form up the stairs, gripping a mud-drenched elbow to push her flush against his naked ribs.
The cold rainwater against his side made him shiver, but not half as badly as Clare was trembling; the sound of her chattering teeth so loud Eli swore every bone in her body was knocking together.
The adrenaline was rapidly leaving Clare's system as he led her up the stairs, and she gripped Eli's hand still tighter, her fingernails digging little crescent marks into his calloused palm. It was all she had been able to do to get to him, pedalling as though the demons that haunted her could somehow be outrun. Eli, she had thought, pumping her legs harder, squinting to see through the sheets of rain coming down all around her, everything would be alright if only she could reach Eli. Even when she had taken a spill into that mud puddle, her tires losing traction on the wet pavement, sliding out from under her to spin uselessly horizontal. The soft ground had been so tempting, but she had willed herself up. Be strong, Clare. You can give in to it all when you get to Eli's, but you have to be strong first.
Now, his arms around her gave her comfort, and a strange sort of strength, but just enough to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Step, step, step, step. Up the stairs...down the hall...and into the bathroom.
Eli's arms left her tentatively, but Clare didn't sway, or keel right over like he half-expected her to. He shut the door and started running the hot water, welcoming the steam that soon began to heat the little space. Still facing the shower curtain, Eli took a deep, soothing breath, holding it in for a count of five before exhaling again. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. He was trying not to think of what could bring Clare to his doorstep at this hour, focusing instead on her more immediate needs. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Hot shower, patience, warm clothes, maybe a cup of tea. In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. When his knees stopped shaking, Eli shoved himself off the tiled wall to face Clare.
She was still standing exactly where he'd left her, perfectly still, her eyes half closed and locked directly in front of her. He approached her slowly, like she was a deer in the headlights that would bolt at any moment. When she didn't, he let his forehead drop to rest against hers and brought his hands up to play with the top button of her shirt.
Eli undressed her slowly, waiting for a whimper of protest, a complaint of some kind. He'd taken her clothes off often enough in the throes of passion that doing it now wasn't particularly exciting, even if it was the first time he'd seen her completely naked in the light. Light that revealed creamy porcelain skin, every bit as soft as he remembered and untarnished by bruises.
Once her shirt and bra had been disposed of, he hooked his thumbs into the elastic of her underwear and braced himself, averting his eyes as he slid them down to her ankles. Wordlessly Clare stepped out of her clothing and into the running shower. Eli risked a glance at her underwear before breathing a sigh of relief.
No blood. If the worst had really happened, there would be blood. Despite the penetrations of his fingers on several memorable occasions, Clare was still a virgin, and virgins bled, especially when activities were forced upon them. Eli drooped against the porcelain of the tub, thinking hard.
Clare's clothing was dirty and soaked, but entirely whole. If he'd tried to take her clothes off, she would've fought him. There'd be rips, missing buttons, likely defensive injuries. She'd worn a bra and the least revealing set of pjs she owned to bed, and things had somehow escalated to the point where she'd felt the need to flee to her boyfriend's house in the middle of the night. But whatever had happened, Clare hadn't had to fight him.
It was a bittersweet relief. It made Eli's blood boil to see Clare so scared, especially in her own home, but he figured whatever scarring the incident had upon her, they could deal with it. Clare didn't seem to be afraid of him, at any rate, and he could be patient, careful about every touch he laid upon her and sure that she didn't feel coerced or afraid. They could get through this.
Carefully, Eli bundled Clare's soaked outfit in the corner before placing his own clothing in a pile about a foot off. He parted the curtain as minimally as possible and slipped inside.
Clare was standing under the stream, her shivering less violent, skin red and puffy from the heat. She gave a little half smile when she saw Eli had joined her, reaching forward to wrap her arms around his waist and press her face against his chest.
It was the first time their bodies had ever pressed together completely, but Eli didn't feel like a lover as he returned Clare's clinging hug, kissing the top of her wet head. If it weren't for their nakedness he would call it the embrace of a lost child, safe at last in their arms of a parent who would chase the boogeyman away.
Which is why, when he grew hard against her, he made no move to capture her lips. Clare had come to him because she was scared, and he would make her feel safe. Nevertheless, he couldn't keep Clare from noticing his presence against her abdomen. She pulled back from him a little, staring at him as though for the first time (which, Eli thought with blessed relief, it most certainly was not). She shifted her weight, making to move to her knees, but Eli captured her arms again.
"No, Clare," he murmured, pulling her up with more force than he had used at his doorway, "Not tonight... Not like this."
Slowly, she looked up at him, her eyes questioning, but Eli remained adamant.
"You don't have to service me because you want to stay at my house. You're safe here."
Her eyes closed and her arms around him tightened, but Eli knew whatever argument she was now engaged in was internal, and kept one arm around her as he reached for the shampoo.
She continued to hold him as he massaged shampoo into her scalp, letting go only to tilt back obediently under the stream of hot water while Eli grabbed the soap. Methodically, he began at her neck and scrubbed down, skipping over her more intimate areas in the event that she did not desire to be touched. Again she rinsed herself, though Eli waited until her shivering ceased completely before shutting off the water.
He helped her step over the tub, and she held tight to the fluffy towel he wrapped around her shoulders before covering himself.
"Wait here. I'll go get you some clothes."
Clare nodded, and not for the first time Eli felt grateful that her default setting when distressed or afraid was obedience. He usually felt grateful for her enduring calm, admired her wilfulness with a loving smirk and a quiet 'That's my girl'. But when Clare lost her head – in those rare instances where anything proved to be too much for her – she well and truly lost it, and it was often easiest to talk her through the storm with a steady voice. This, Eli told himself, was merely a particularly distressing storm.
In his room Eli found that Cece had already laid out clothing for the both of them, along with a hairbrush and deodorant for Clare. Eli dressed quickly and collected the other pile before padding quietly back the bathroom.
Clare had dried herself and put her underwear back on in his absence, but her eyes remained distant as he slid the cotton boxers up her legs. She was aware enough to slide her arms through Cece's Offspring t-shirt when Eli slipped it over her head, but she didn't respond as Eli sat her down on the toilet lid and began brushing out her curls.
"He didn't force me... I know you're thinking the worst...showing up like this...but it wasn't that."
Her voice was so quiet but still managed to make him jump and Eli had to force himself to stay focused on her hair and keeping his breathing even.
In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
"I know," he murmured back, working persistently at a knot at the nape of her neck, "but just because you're not bruised or bleeding doesn't mean everything's okay."
She fell silent once more, and Eli began to pat her hair dry with the towel, working in sections like he had watched his mother do as a child.
When her hair was finished he took her hand and pulled her up, guiding her to his room. He tucked the blanket in, framing her little body and flicked off the lights before sliding in beside her. She was curled in the foetal position, facing away from him, and Eli mimicked the pose on his side, watching but not touching.
They lay in the darkness like that for a while. He didn't want to rush her, but she had been right in assuming that he was imagining the worst. He opened his mouth, but before he could ask the fatal question Clare cut him off.
"I told her," she whispered, her voice carrying oddly in the darkness back to him. "I told her everything, like you said, and she didn't believe me. She said I was being spiteful, not wanting her to be happy, and that I was twisting all the wonderful things he's done for us."
She rushed the last part, her voice breaking on a sob, and Eli felt his blood run cold. Never in his life had he hated a woman as much as he now loathed Helen Edwards.
"I told her everything! How I was scared, how I didn't want to hurt her, and she just threw it back in my face! I didn't know what to do...and then h-he c-came b-back a-again t-tonight, and...and...and I just..."
"Clare... Clare, please, look at me."
She hesitated a moment, but when Eli reached his hand out to touch her shoulder she moved to face him, burying her face in the pillow and avoiding his eyes.
"Can I hold you?"
No sooner had he asked than she was in his arms, her tears soaking his chest and her back shaking beneath his hands. She cried for some time, choking and sobbing and sniffling, and Eli kept his arms around her, stroking her hair and making gentle hushing sounds, like she had always done for him.
Gradually, her sobs turned into sniffles, and the sniffles into silence, but Eli could tell from her breathing that she wasn't yet asleep.
"He came and sat on the bed this time, which he's never done before, and he told me I was pretty and patted my leg. And then he left again. I'm so scared, Eli."
"It's okay. You're safe here. I promise the only person checking on us will be Cece, and I'll be right here with you all night."
He could feel her relax a little in his arms, and Eli let go long enough to wipe a few lingering tears away. He leaned forward slowly to place his lips softly against her forehead, and then her temple, trailing down the side of her face slowly, feeling her shiver delightfully at his feather-light touches.
Neither of them pushed the soft embrace, thought Eli could feel Clare's fingers dancing along his skin to raise goosebumps of her own, brushing up his bicep to rest on the smooth expanse of his shoulder, her other hand twisting gently in his hair.
Satisfied that Clare was happy, that she would drift off to dream of him, and him only, Eli leaned back against the pillow, opening his arms to let her curl up against his chest.
"Thank you," she murmured, her wet head tickling him as she nuzzled in.
"What kind of boyfriend would I be if I didn't take care of my girl?" Eli responded, tracing meaningless patterns into Clare's arm.
"You wouldn't be mine, that's for sure."
Author's Note: This idea came to me circa Umbrella, when Clare was dealing with all that divorce stuff and Eli always seemed to be the one looking after her, originally as a Season 11 plotline that saw Helen Edward's new boyfriend exhibiting an unhealthy interest in Clare. When I finally starting writing it post-Halo, however, it became more about the dynamic between Eli and Clare, and I couldn't bear to write the anticipated chapters of build-up to this moment.
With the promos for the rest of the Season projecting the worst, though, I hold it as my beacon of hope for the future. I've sure that this season will end with a break up, and likely Eli will either be sent away or cut off from Clare while he gets treatment after his breakdown. When September hits, we'll likely see a lot of an all-better Eli working quietly to earn Clare's trust back, while Clare does some growing up. Just because I anticipate those episodes doesn't mean I'll hate them any less, but the beauty of FF is that I get to skip ahead to the good stuff.
I have a few little snippets floating around for a follow-up chapter, but I can't promise anything until I know how the season ends to properly incorporate it.
As always, reviews, discussion points, musings and recommendations are appreciated via that beautiful button below.