Chapter Thirteen: Hold It Against Me

Why was every cute date outfit Anya owned at least partially pink? She glanced over at the clock on her nightstand, and saw that it was already after six. Sighing, she threw what seemed like the hundredth rejected outfit to the floor, making a face at herself in the mirror. Pink was just not a 'date with Elijah Goldsworthy' color. Somewhere inside, she knew it shouldn't matter, that she should just wear whatever she wanted and be herself, but she couldn't help wanting to dress to impress. She was determined to look as good as possible, already smiling to herself at the look she hoped to put on Eli's face.

Dress to impress…it suddenly seemed like the most obvious idea in the world. How hadn't she thought of it before? She pushed her way through the piles of clothes on her floor and grabbed her cell phone off the bed (having been awkwardly returned to her by Marisol on Monday), quickly finding the number she wanted. "Hi, Fiona? Are you busy? Great, because I just have a small favor to ask…."

Eli was surprised at just how nervous he was when he pulled to stop in front of Anya's house. The sun was only just starting to set, but already her porch light was on, as if serving as a welcome sign. He shut off his car and took a deep breath. No sweat. This was easy. It was only Anya.

But he was still nervous, and he knew it wasn't just because of her. Even though it was just a date, and didn't necessarily have to go any further, it felt like the biggest risk he'd taken in a long time. He wasn't exactly known for dating scads of women, and his only two previous attempts had both ended disastrously. Was he really ready to take that sort of chance again? Why would he even bother, after everything he'd already gone through?

Anya was different, though, he reminded himself firmly. Regardless of whether he was going on this date with her, there was no denying they had a connection, that they spent a lot of time doing things that were more than friendly. This date was just the first time they acknowledged it as something more official. He wasn't putting himself out there anymore than he did every other time he talked to her – he was simply more aware of the risk he was taking this time. That was all. Nothing new to fear.

He rang the doorbell, stuffing his hands in the pockets of his jeans. An older woman answered the door, smiling Anya's kind smile. "You must be Eli," she said, her voice soft. "I'm Anya's mother."

He smiled back at her, extending his hand to her because he wasn't sure what else to do. She took it, and as she moved aside to let him in, he got a better look at her face in the light. She was pale and he could see the way she'd tried to conceal the bags under her eyes. She looked pinched, as if she had lost an amount of weight in a very short amount of time. The look in her eyes as she gestured for him to sit down on the couch told him she knew that he was aware of her illness. He felt guilty, wishing he'd been able to hide whatever had given it away. It couldn't have been easy for her, trying to keep a smile on as her face as people looked her over, trying to pick out her every flaw so they could determine just how sick she was.

"Anya's father is really sorry he couldn't be here to meet you, he had to work late. He asked that I put the proper fatherly fear in you before you take off with her, but I think we can skip it for tonight. Though if he asks -"

"I'll tell him I was absolutely terrified," he replied, smiling and grateful that Anya's mother was so welcoming.

Mrs. MacPherson sat down in a nearby armchair. "I apologize you have to wait – her friend Fiona took a little longer to get here than she expected."

Eli tried not to show how confused he was. Fiona Coyne had stopped by? "I hope you haven't been embarrassing me, mom." He looked up as Anya entered the room.

Words couldn't express the surge of happiness that spread across her body when she came around the corner into the living room and saw the way Eli's eyes widened. Fiona's dress was apparently exactly what she needed.

Fiona had been enthusiastic about lending her a dress, glad to see that Anya was taking some 'fashion risks'. When she arrived with the dress, Anya knew at once she probably shouldn't have told her she was going on a date with Eli because apparently, Fiona believed that the best way to make her most desirable to Eli was to make her look like a vampy vixen. The dress was black, strapless, and tight, several inches shorter at the hemline than she was used to. Anya had to admit it did make even her body look awesome, but it sent out the entirely wrong message, so she paired it with a short sleeved blazer and floral print flats, hoping to take the sex appeal down a notch. It did look much more appropriate to go with Eli than any of her pink dresses would have, though.

He was wearing jeans, she noticed as he stood up, but they were a dark wash and didn't have any holes. He was wearing a button down shirt that he'd rolled up to his elbows, and a vest. His jewelry was more understated than usual, but still distinctly him.

They looked at each other awkwardly for a few minutes, until Mrs. MacPherson stood. "I'll just leave you too be, then. You have fun, alright sweetheart?" she crossed the room and hugged Anya.

"Thank you, Mom."

As she left the room, Eli moved around the coffee table, still standing an awkward distance from her. "You look…wow," he managed, and she noticed a faint blush on his cheeks.

"You're not so bad yourself, Mr. Goldsworthy," she responded with a smile.

As he held the door open for her at the front of Little Miss Steaks, Eli was once again shocked by how good she looked. He'd always known she was beautiful, but the way she was wearing that dress just took it to a whole different level and made him see her in a way he hadn't before.

They took their seats at a table, got their drinks and placed their orders, and once the waitress left, fell into a tensely awkward silence. Eli tried not to let him mind get ahead of him. This wasn't a bad sign. In fact, maybe it was a good one. That they were both so nervous and excited, they didn't know what to say. "You really do look incredible," he found himself saying, though he wasn't sure he meant to.

She laughed. "That's like the sixth time you've told me, but thank you again. I'll be sure to tell Fiona you liked her dress."

"Ahh, so that's why she came over? Your mother mentioned it. You borrowed her clothes?"

She made a face. "None of my clothes seemed appropriate for a date with someone of your caliber."

"I think you look beautiful all the time, in your clothes as much as anyone else's."

Her eyes shifted to the table, and she twirled the straw around in her soda. "Never seemed to make such a fuss about it in before, though."

"I don't recall you trying so hard to get me to make such a fuss before, either. You go out of your way to get my attention; I'll go out of my way to make sure you know you got it."

"Fair enough. I mean…okay, I did a put a little extra effort into tonight, but I thought you deserved to know I was taking it seriously." She looked up at him, hand still on her straw, nervous.

He leaned back in his seat, taking a deep breath. It was as if he suddenly understood exactly what Adam had tried to explain to him. That he was into Anya, and she was into him, and he was about the only one who didn't see it. Now that he saw it, the weight of the silence on the emotion between them seemed almost suffocating. He felt as if he had to say something now – ignoring it any longer, in the situation they were in, her looking the way she did – it'd just be madness. But was he honestly ready for this again?

"The things you do to me, MacPherson." He ran his hand over his hair, smoothing his bangs, not making eye contact.

Her brow furrowed. "Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?"

"Could be good for me…probably just all bad for you." There was a smirk playing at his lips, but his eyes were dark.

"What do you mean?" Anya had thought she'd known where this conversation was going, thought that he was flirting and getting ready to say all the cute things people say on their first dates with someone. But now, she felt embarrassed and all too aware of every inch of skin that was exposed in her ridiculous dress.

He laughed. "You haven't heard?" The smile faded from his face. "I destroy everything I touch. It wouldn't end well for you."

She looked down, blinking hard. He was, of course, referring to his old girlfriends. "I don't think that's true," she said, trying hard not to sound as disappointed as she was beginning to feel.

"Because you want to believe the best in everyone and everything, all the time. But it doesn't change the fact that I'm responsible for everything else that's gone wrong in my relationships in the past."

Her eyes shot up to meet his, though her head stayed down. "So why bring me here? Why ask me out? Just to tell me that you can't be around me, because maybe something will go wrong, at some point? You could've told me that anywhere."

He squeezed his eyes shut, looking a little wounded. "I really like you, Anya," he replied when he opened his eyes. "I asked you out because I wanted to be around you. And not because you needed my help, or because I needed yours…I wanted to be around you because the only time I feel okay anymore is when I'm with you."

She bit her lip to keep from smiling at the compliment, because it didn't feel so nice in the context of the rest of the conversation. "So what's with the moody pessimism about the whole thing, then?"

He exhaled hard through his nose. "I'm tired of losing the things that make me okay," he admitted, looking down at his hands. "I don't know what I want to do here. Because being with you just feels natural. When you're with me, at my house or at school or anywhere, it just makes sense to me. And so I keep finding myself wanting to do something about it, take you out like this, or see if you want to make it official or something. But if I do that – it's like putting an expiration date on it. It's like starting the countdown clock to being alone again. And I'm just tired of doing that to myself, so I hesitate and I pretend that I don't feel the way I feel, or that you could never feel the way that I think you might, because if we don't get started, we can't end."

She swallowed, unsure of what to say to him, mostly because she completely understood what he was saying. The easiest way to not risk having to break up with someone was never to be in a relationship at all. Sure, they were great together now, they were there for each other in a way that no one else was, but – that didn't guarantee them anything. Every relationship started out good, or else it wouldn't have started at all. Yet they all end the same. "I don't think you have any idea how much I care about you," she told him. His looked back up at her, an intense emotion in her eyes she couldn't quite place. "Not just because you're my knight in shining armor, riding to my rescue every time I turn around. But because you're funny, and you're sweet, and you're brave, and you believe in being the person that you are without worrying who's bothered by it. You have this acceptance of yourself that's so…admirable, because you don't need anyone's approval to be who you are, yet you're so wonderful that people adore you anyway."

"You know what it is about you that really makes me so comfortable?" His hand slid forward across the table, and she completed the move, their hands joining. "You have this amazing gift of understanding people. You don't accept them for who they are, you really see what makes them tick and you understand it. Even if it's completely insane, you can follow someone's logic and make them not feel so crazy for looking at things the way they do."

She smiled. "People always have a reason for doing something, and it just makes more sense to me to find that reason instead of judge them for it because it's not what my thinking would have been.

"Which is exactly why I understand what you're saying, Eli. I understand that it doesn't make a bit of sense to you to pursue anything here because it could lead somewhere bad. We don't see it now because no one ever sees it now, but that won't stop it from coming if it will so…I get it. But at the same time, I think us ignoring how we feel isn't going to work either."

He nodded slowly. "I never even realized until tonight how hard it is to be so close to you but feel so far away." His hand gripped hers tighter. "I don't think I could just be friends with you, and I hate that, because I'm scared to be anything more."

"Then maybe we don't need to be," she said with a shrug, "but maybe we don't need to be just friends."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, who's to say that there are arbitrary guidelines for what you do with anyone you consider a friend and anyone you consider more than that? Why is it that you have to put a label on someone before you're entitled to feel a certain way about them?"

Eli smirked. "I like the sound of this…do continue."

She pulled her hand from his, her emotions coming out in gestures as she spoke. "We both have a lot going on in our lives. And we're really good at being there for each other, but I don't think either of us is ready for the stress that a relationship can put on us. But we still have feelings for each other. So why take a leap we don't need to make when can just feel what we feel?"

"No labels? How very…different of us."

"Well, you are known for doing things the nontraditional way. But seriously – no promises, no guarantees, no expectations. We've cared about each other for awhile now, and we haven't been together, and I want to say our relationship has been better than just about everyone that I know with labels attached."

Eli nodded, but then frowned. "So…nothing changes?"

Anya was quick to shake her head. "No, things change, but only enough that we get the best of both worlds. It's different because now we both know how we feel, and so there's no awkward tension now. Now, we can take off the boundaries of where acceptable behavior for a friendship ends, and just do what we want because we're not boxing ourselves into a friendship or a relationship."

"So that means I can kiss you anytime I want?"

"I'd be insulted if you didn't," she said, her grin impossibly wide. She loved this feeling, seeing the way his eyes lit up and the smile on his face as they held hands again. Deep inside, she knew that most of what they were saying was just talk. Even if they never spelled out promises to each other, wasn't each kiss going to be one? Wasn't every phone call, every hug, every moment spent in their limbo-like relationship indicative of some sort of expectation? They were protecting themselves by deluding themselves, she knew that, but for now it was for the best.

"I would so hate to insult you, particularly on our first date," he said, raising his eyebrows as he moved forward. She did too, and in an instant their lips met. It felt better, this time, as if their mutual confession of their feelings made their kiss somehow more meaningful. Eli deepened the kiss, his hand finding its way into her hair. It was one of those moments where she wished time could stop, where they could just be this, two kids on a date, kissing just because they could, without a care in the world.

But life didn't work that way, and as they kissed, Anya felt her purse start to buzz in its spot by her foot. "Sorry," she said sheepishly as she pulled away, diving under the table to pull her phone out. She glanced at the display: Dad. "I have to take this, it's my dad."

Eli leaned back, licking his lips, enjoying the coconut taste Anya's lip gloss left behind. He felt, for that moment, almost blissful. She was his, and at the same time she wasn't, and that just felt so perfect. Like he wouldn't be able to ruin it, because they had put themselves in the position to build each other up without leaving room for tearing each other down when things got messy.

"Dad?" Anya said into the phone, still smiling at Eli. Almost instantly, however, her smile faded and she looked up at Eli with wide eyes. He felt his stomach sinking before she even spoke again. "No. No, it's okay, I'm on my way now." Her eyes were filling with tears, and Eli reached out to grab her free hand, but she pulled it away, covering her mouth. "What? Yeah, I love you too, daddy. Tell her I love her. I'll be there soon."

She shut the phone with a snap and stood up, stuffing it into her purse. "Anya? What happened?" Eli asked, feeling panicked.

"This was a mistake," she said, tears spilling down her cheeks, "I shouldn't have come here." She was gone then, running from the restaurant.

Eli felt almost too stunned to move, but he forced himself up, racing after her. He would come back to settle their bill later, but in that moment, his only thought was stopping Anya. He got to her just as she reached the door. "Anya, please wait!" He put his hand on her arm and she whirled around, pulling her arm away.

"I don't have time for this!"

"Then you need to tell me what's going on, because this doesn't make sense! What happened on the phone?"

The door opened and they both moved aside to let an older couple through, and Anya glared at him until they were out of earshot. "My dad came home, and my mom…" she covered her mouth as she choked back a sob "—she was unconscious, okay? And he's in the ambulance with her right now and they're going to the hospital and I don't know what's wrong but I don't have time for this, so please, just let me go!"

"I'll take you," Eli said automatically, his mind reeling from the shock. He knew they were both thinking the same thing – if it wasn't for their date, her mother wouldn't have been alone. "We don't have to talk, you don't even have to look at me, but you'll get there faster if I take you. Let's go."

Next time, in Chapter 14: (Title is not yet determined)– Anya receives new on her mother's health, Eli meets Dr. Chris, and Eli unravels.

A/N: Firstly, I am SOOOO sorry it's taken me so long to update! But do not worry, I have not abandoned this story. Updates have slowed, obviously, but I am hoping to get you another update soon! I'm excited for the next chapter, I just need to find some time to get it written the way I want it. Thank you all for sticking with this story! Do not worry - it will continue!