After the Storm

Chapter 16

Invincible

Hey all you kids out there in Degrassi Land, the time has come for me to say goodbye. As your faithful DJ (shout out to Bullfrog – hollah!), these past few months I have devotedly spun my carefully selected tunes creating, what I like to consider, a pretty kickass soundtrack for Eli and Clare's dramatic and complicated romance. However, it is now time for me to play my last song and quietly ride off into the sunset.

For this final chapter, I wanted to pick a song that was hopeful but that also acknowledged the very realistic difficulties that Clare and Eli will face together – because, gentle readers, there will always be struggles as long as those two are a couple. I think "Invincible" by Muse is the perfect fit. If you haven't listened to the song, please, please listen to it. It is incredible – not to mention, Matt Bellamy's guitar solo is truly mind-blowing.

Thanks so much for sticking with me during this fiction. I appreciate all of the alerts, favorites, music recommendations, reviews, and sweet messages telling me how much my little story has meant to you. You've helped me to get through what seemed like a freaking endless hiatus. Jolly Ranchers and free hugs all around!

Hopefully, the rest of Season 11 will not disappoint (although I am still trying to purge my brain of the horrifying image of Eli dancing like some deranged aerobics instructor tweaked out on meth to the poppy, saccharine beats of "I've Got the Music in Me." Seriously? Eli? The Goth kid? Doctor Doom? The guy who called dances banal and made fun of Clare for liking mainstream music? Damn, and people accuse Clare of acting out of character!). ; )

I do not own Degrassi or any of its characters. I also do not own The Brady Bunch, Peter Pan, John Lennon, The Beatles, or Guns N' Roses. Seriously, folks, check out all the music I mention. It's gold, I tell you – solid gold.

Also, if you can, please leave me a review. I've gotten to know a few of you wonderful readers through your reviews and messages and would love to know who else is reading. I see by my traffic stat thingy (which is now working – hallelujah!) that there are quite a few international readers. Thanks so much for taking the time to follow this story. I'd love to hear what you think. In fact, I'd love to hear what all of my readers think, especially if you have been reading this story since its inception and have yet to say hello. I promise, I don't bite – so leave me a short message or review. It is the final chapter, after all (sniff, sniff). : )

Finally, let me leave with you these words of wisdom penned by Mumford and Sons from their beautiful song, After the Storm:

And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears

And love will not break your heart but dismiss your fears

Get over your hill and see what you find there

With grace in your heart and flowers in your hair

...

Until next time, my fellow Degrassians; this is Jacksvoiceofreason signing off.


Clare ran her hand over the thick, clear tape, smoothing away the air bubbles and officially sealing the battered, cardboard box. Taking up the black Sharpie, its tip blunt and fuzzy from Eli's impromptu manicures, she wrote 'Winter Clothes' in her loopy, sprawling script – pausing to draw a small black heart and scribble a messy 'I love you' under the label. Maybe, in the icy darkness of winter when Eli unpacked this box, he would find her small message and think of her.

He was leaving tomorrow.

Somehow summer had faded away before they had even had a chance to truly acknowledge it. Of course, that was not to say that they hadn't enjoyed it. It had been filled with hot, lazy days of slow living – each week marked by a trip to the lake, their pale, winter skins pinking in the sunshine; or a summer barbeque tasting of sweet lemonade and smelling of Coppertone; or a concert in the park, the music swirling around them as they stretched out on a blanket looking up at the stars; or a movie marathon in Adam's cool basement, their fingers and mouths greasy from the buttery popcorn they shared. No, they had definitely enjoyed it. In fact, they had used the summer as a backdrop to their fragile, newborn relationship. It had been a summer of shy smiles and knowing glances – of sweet, slow kisses and desperate embraces. It had been a summer of whispered endearments and soft reassurances – a summer of forgiveness - a summer of trust.

And now it was over.

Clare closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, trying not to dwell on the fact that, this time tomorrow, Eli would be on his way to his new life, and she would be alone. She almost couldn't wrap her mind around it – around the thought that he would no longer be sleeping in this room – in this bed. He would no longer be calling her to come and meet him for an impromptu dinner at The Dot – no longer be there to rub her shoulders and listen to her vent about the freakish amount of work it took to produce an issue of the newspaper – no longer be there to share a whispered conversation on those long, still nights when she just couldn't sleep. Day to day life was going to be so strange without him – so starkly empty.

"Daydreaming about me, Edwards?" Eli teased walking into his bedroom with another load of empty boxes. He smiled his standard smirk, but Clare could tell by the too-open gaze of his eyes that it was a front. He was scared out of his skull – nervous about leaving – almost sick with anxiety. His bravado was just for her benefit. He was trying to be strong for her.

She grinned up at him softly. "Well, I have to perfect those daydreams, you know," she teased, wagging her eyebrows at him cheekily and playing along. "Come tomorrow, they will have to stand in for the real thing."

Eli smiled a genuine smile. Dropping the boxes unceremoniously, he strode towards her, pulling her up to a standing position and wrapping his arms around her waist. "Yes, but today you do have the real thing," he breathed into her ear, nuzzling his face in her hair. "You might as well take advantage of it."

"Why Mr. Goldsworthy," Clare teased putting on an exaggerated southern accent. "Take advantage of little, ole' you? Why, whatever would your mother think?"

"That it was about damn time," Eli joked, pulling her close and kissing her heatedly.

Clare kissed him back, parting her lips and getting lost in the soft, pressing, heat of his mouth. God she was going to miss this – was going to miss him. How was she ever going to get through weeks and weeks without being able to touch him?

"Ahem," a voice cried from the doorway. "Dude, your mom said you might need help packing up your room, but it looks to me that you've got the situation um … under control." Adam shook his head, rolling his eyes. He was used to it now – used to being the friend of a couple again – used to the inappropriate looks that they gave each other behind his back and the way they stayed in constant, close proximity, orbiting around each other, oblivious to all outside forces. To their credit, they did try to keep things toned down when he was around – or, at least, Clare tried. Despite his best effort, Eli was like a kid in a candy shop. After almost a year of not being able to touch Clare, he couldn't seem to keep his hands to himself. But Adam understood; he was a guy after all. And he really couldn't begrudge Eli, especially on a day like today.

Clare reluctantly pulled back from Eli, her cheeks red. "Sorry, Adam," she apologized. "I had no idea you were here."

Eli smiled at Adam but didn't drop his hands from Clare's hips. Instead, he pulled her over to stand in front of him, leaning his chin on her head. "I thought you had to go visit your grandma today, man," he said to Adam, absentmindedly palming Clare's hipbones - his fingers dipping into the front pockets of her jeans.

"Yeah, well, she wasn't feeling too good today, so she canceled," Adam explained. He smiled a sheepish smile, suddenly wondering if he were intruding - if he should have let them have the day to themselves. "I decided to come and lend a hand instead."

Clare smiled at Adam, putting her hands over Eli's to still them. She was very aware of how uncomfortable it must be for Adam to watch them so wrapped up in each other. "That's awesome, Adam. We could definitely use the help. And, when everything is all packed up, we are going to get pizza and celebrate Eli's last night here; so it's a very good thing that you came over. It just wouldn't be the same without you." Her voice was strong and clear, but Adam could tell how hard she was working to keep it bright. It must be so difficult for the two of them. They had only just found each other again and now they had to break apart.

"Sounds good," Adam said, giving Clare an encouraging smile. He rubbed the back of his neck and looked around the messy room - at the empty boxes and piles of clothes and books - at the rolled up posters waiting on the bed and the bright, bare spaces on Eli's walls where the posters had once resided. He sighed, thinking about all the time he had spent in this room playing video games and reading comics, talking about girls and bullies and fears of the future. What the hell was he going to do when Eli was gone? Eli was the first guy, besides Drew, who had accepted Adam without judging him. He was the first guy to ever give Adam a chance, no questions asked. He was Adam's first, true friend – his first, true friend as Adam. Closing his eyes, Adam swallowed the lump in his throat. Shit, he was going to miss the little fucker!

Bringing himself back into the moment, Adam looked at his two best friends – noticing the quiet desperation behind their smiles. Inhaling determinedly, he shook his head and plastered a cheery grin onto his face. "Where should I start?"


When everything was boxed up and loaded into the van that Bullfrog had borrowed from the station, the three friends sprawled out on the front steps of Eli's house.

The weather had turned. The cloying heat of the late August afternoon had thickened as the storm clouds rolled in. The dark skies pressed down, and the atmosphere became strangely suffocating. There was an anxiety about the sky, reflecting the emotions of the three friends. It was as if the day were holding its breath - waiting in nervous anticipation for something.

"It's just not going to be the same without you, man," Adam said finally, breaking the loaded silence with his characteristic honesty. "I mean I'm sure you'll be loving the college life and everything, but things at Degrassi will just be kind of sad."

"Hey now," Eli tried to comfort, his voice overly cheerful to compensate for the tense and anxious atmosphere. "With you and Dave running the airwaves and Clare at the helm of the student paper, I bet this year is going to go down as one of the most epic years in Degrassi history."

Adam smiled at Eli's valiant effort and nodded his head. "True," he conceded. "I hadn't really considered that." He grinned, trying to shake off the heavy mood. "On second thought, we won't miss you at all, Goldsworthy." He reached out and pushed Eli's head fondly.

Eli pushed back, knocking Adam sideways on the steps.

"Yes, we will," Clare said softly, her gaze bright and glassy. She shook her head fondly at the boys.

"So when do you leave tomorrow?" Adam asked, righting himself and sweeping the sweaty bangs out of his eyes.

"Like 6:00," Eli replied grimacing. "It's a fairly long drive, and I have to be there for res check-in." He blew out a nervous breath and bit his lip.

"Well, I love you like a brother, man. But I draw the line at getting up before 6:00 in the summer," Adam said with a crooked smile.

"No worries," Eli joked. "You can just kiss me goodbye tonight."

"In your dreams, Goldsworthy," Adam smirked sarcastically, reaching out to again shove Eli's head.

"Whoa," Clare broke-in teasingly. "Now I'm starting to feel like the third wheel here. Do you two need a moment alone or something?" She pushed herself up and started to rise from the steps.

Before she could get far, Eli tackled her, pulling her back against him roughly, and Adam knocked against her shoulder fondly.

"Shut up, Edwards," Adam muttered smiling. "As totally dreamy as Goth Boy is; he's not really my type."


By the time Cece pulled up with the pizza and ice cream, the sky had begun to crack around the edges and a few intrepid rain drops had begun to fall. A storm was definitely brewing.

Yet, despite the looming sadness, the little group managed to keep dinner light and celebratory. Occasionally, Bullfrog would reach over and tousle Eli's hair fondly or CeCe would look at her son and blink back a few tears. However, on the whole, the atmosphere was one of happiness and excitement.

After the pizza was consumed, they took their ice cream sundaes into the living room for a special "bon voyage" presentation from Bullfrog.

Bullfrog had been teasing the event all day, hinting that he had something special in store for everyone come sun down. Eli and CeCe, used to Bullfrog's hyperbolic promises, smiled indulgently at Bullfrog's boasts, their expectations realistic. However, Adam and Clare settled themselves on the couch and excitedly turned their faces towards Bullfrog in anticipation.

Bullfrog walked towards the TV, turned to his captive audience, and cleared his throat officially.

"Ahem. As I'm sure you all know, tomorrow is a monumental day for the Goldsworthy clan," Bullfrog started, grinning when Eli groaned and slumped down in his seat. "Tomorrow we're getting rid of the kid, and, after eighteen years of torture, CeCe and I will finally have the house to ourselves again."

Adam and Clare laughed, and CeCe shook her head fondly at her husband.

"No, seriously," Bullfrog continued. "I'm not good with words and emotional speeches and all that shit like CeCe is; but, that doesn't mean I'm not … really proud." He paused and nodded at Eli, his eyes shining. "So I figured I'd stick to what I am good at." He grinned a crooked grin and gestured to the TV `a la Vanna White. "Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I present to you the first, official Bullfrog Goldsworthy Production."

He pressed the power button on the remote, and the first few chords of a stripped down version of John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" started. Soon Bullfrog's raspy voice joined the chords, singing along to the haunting guitar melody. CeCe's face popped up on screen, her short hair bleached platinum blond, her face full and smiling. She gave a small wave, and the camera panned down to her pregnant belly. From the couch, Clare and CeCe squealed delightedly.

Eli rolled his eyes and shook his head but couldn't stop a small smile from unfolding.

The scene shifted to a shot of a young Bullfrog in mint green scrubs and a mask holding a tiny infant who was wrapped up in tubes and wires. Although his face was hidden behind the sterile cloth, it was obvious from Bullfrog's eyes that he was beaming with pride as he held his newborn son.

The next shot was bringing Eli home, balloons and streamers decorating the front room of some small, cramped apartment. A hand-made "Welcome Home Elijah" banner hung across the mantle, as friends and family mingled together and dotingly admired the tiny, new arrival.

The music increased and swelled, and the images kept shifting – Eli, as a toddler, taking his first, tentative steps; Eli pushing his hands into his first birthday cake and then gleefully rubbing the chocolate mess in his hair; Eli, at four, playing a tiny guitar with a top hat on his head in a hilarious homage to Slash from Guns N' Roses; Eli dressed up as Peter Pan for a school play, tearfully complaining to Bullfrog who seemed to be reassuring him about the tights he was wearing; Eli and CeCe dancing with wild abandon, their limbs akimbo; Eli and Bullfrog working on the Mustang together, their faces smeared with grease.

The last chords of "Beautiful Boy" faded softly and then seamlessly blended into Bullfrog's acoustic version of "In My Life" by The Beatles. Eli appeared on screen in all of his middle school glory – shaggy hair in his eyes, skater clothes, too cool for school attitude, and signature smirk plastered across his face.

Adam guffawed, and Eli shot him a death glare.

The scene shifted, and Eli appeared in a dress shirt and tie, a pretty, dark haired girl in a black dress by his side.

"Oh, Julia," CeCe breathed, her eyes becoming instantly shiny. "Sweet, sweet girl."

Clare felt Eli tense next to her. She reached over and put her hand on his knee to steady him, and he grasped on to her tightly, bringing her hand up to his chest and holding it there.

On screen, Eli carefully tried to pin a corsage to Julia's dress, before giving up and handing it to his mom. The two kids smiled shyly at each other, smirking at the ridiculousness of the situation, as CeCe worked diligently to attach the corsage to Julia's dress.

The scene melded into a shot of Eli's middle school graduation and then what could only be his first day of high school - CeCe clandestinely taking video from across the street as Eli rode his skateboard up to the front steps of the school. There was a shot of Eli holding up his newly earned drivers license and then another of a shiny, black hearse pulling up the driveway.

Clare felt her pulse increase at the sight of Morty but took a deep breath and tried not to let it show.

Eli looked at her out of the corner of his eye and brushed his fingers over the top of her hand soothingly. She turned her body slightly, giving him a soft smile of assurance.

The music quietly eased into an intricate guitar solo, and images of Adam, Clare, and Eli appeared on screen. In one scene, they were working on a project which rapidly deteriorated into a wrestling match between the boys - Clare looking at the camera and shrugging her shoulders in defeat. In another scene that must have been secretly recorded, Eli and Clare kissed on the steps in front of the house, blissfully unaware of any audience.

Adam groaned and rolled his eyes, but CeCe shushed him, a happy smile on her face.

There was a shot of Eli, Fiona, and Imogen rehearsing for the play and another of Eli and Clare studying at the dining room table, laughing over some inside joke.

The music swelled, and Eli appeared on screen holding his college acceptance letter - CeCe excitedly jumping up and down in the background. There was a shot of Eli's college acceptance party with everyone outfitted in silly party hats - Adam gleefully stuffing his face, smiling at the camera between bites; his mouth smeared with red sauce.

The last shot was of Eli, decked out in his cap and gown, skateboarding down his driveway with a goofy grin on his face. The camera panned to CeCe who watched her boy with shining eyes. She looked at her son and then back at the camera and gave a small wave. The last strains of the song sounded, Bullfrog's raspy voice earnestly intoning, "In my life - I love you more," and the screen faded to black.*

The audience sat silently for a few moments watching the black screen before CeCe gave a strangled cry, jumped up, and propelled herself into Bullfrog's arms, her shoulders shaking with heartfelt sobs.

Smiling, Clare reached up and helplessly wiped at the tears that streamed down her face. Even Adam sniffed a few times and blinked back a few tears, rolling his eyes at his own sappiness.

Stunned, Eli looked at his parents. God, how was he going to do this without them? They had always been there for him - always been there to pick him up and dust him off when he fell – and, God, he had fallen so much. How was he ever going to do this by himself? Shakily, he stood and walked toward them.

"Dad?" he said, his voice hoarse and questioning. No longer was he the eighteen year old man going off to college in the morning. Instead he was the anxious, bright-eyed boy in Peter Pan tights, terrified that everyone was going to laugh at him.

Without hesitating, Bullfrog reached over and pulled Eli into a tight embrace, grabbing on to the back of Eli's head and crushing the boy to him. Father and son stood silently, grasping on to each other for dear life, saying all that they had to say without words.

CeCe smiled a watery smile and stepped back, letting the two have their moment. Tearfully, she turned to Adam and Clare and gave a small half wave.


Later, when it was time for Adam and Clare to go, Eli excused himself and Clare with the pretense of wanting to give Clare her goodbye present. Leaving Adam chatting with his parents, Eli quietly pulled Clare into his room, softly closing the door behind her.

He drew her towards him, desperately grabbing on to her, trying to stop his hands from shaking.

Feeling his palpable anxiety, Clare reached up and caressed his face, gently pulling his mouth towards her, hoping to kiss away any fears and doubts.

For a second, Eli allowed himself to get lost in her kiss, shutting off his brain and letting his body respond on instinct - backing her up until the back of her knees hit his mattress and then pulling her down to his bed. He kissed her passionately, trying to poor all of his love and longing into the simple, physical act; and she responded in kind.

Finally, gasping for air, he pulled back to bury his face in her neck. "Can you just call your mom and tell her you are staying the night at Hannah's?" he asked, his muffled tone pleading and rough. "Please."

Clare smiled down at him, running her hand softly over his hair. "As tempting as that sounds, my mother wasn't born yesterday. She knows that you are leaving tomorrow, and I think she would get just a tad bit suspicious if I suddenly remembered a sleepover I had to attend."

"I don't care," Eli said sulkily, trying to hide his desperation with a forced petulance. "I don't want you to go. I want you to stay with me tonight."

Clare colored. "If I tried anything sneaky tonight, there would be no way I could ever talk her into letting me come with Adam to visit you next month," Clare explained patiently. "Besides," she said, her voice shaky and unsure, "we haven't been back together all that long, and I don't want to rush things this time. I don't think I'm quite ready to stay at Hotel Eli yet," she looked around the room, a brave smile on her face, "even though it is four stars."

Eli smirked and raised his eyebrows at her. "I wasn't even thinking of that, Clare," he assured her. "I just want to be close to you tonight – to hold you as long as I can."

Clare blushed and bit her lip, dipping her face down to kiss him sweetly, her teeth lightly grazing his bottom lip and causing him to temporarily lose the ability to breathe. They kissed for a few more minutes, before Clare pulled back and looked him in the eyes.

"Adam's probably waiting," she said, her voice regretful. "We've been up here for a while."

Eli groaned and pulled her close, tightening his grasp and effectively cutting off her air supply. Finally noticing her red face, he released her and sat up.

"Well, I was going to give you this tomorrow, but since I used it as an excuse to lure you into my dark and foreboding lair, I better give it to you now." He reached down into the drawer of his bedside table and handed her a present sloppily wrapped in brown paper. "Don't open it now," he said, biting his lip. "Wait until I'm gone." The tears sprang to his eyes before he could stop them, and he blinked them back furiously.

Clare smiled a soft half-smile and took the wrapped present from him. "Thank you," she breathed, pulling him towards her and kissing his cheek, letting her lips linger just a little longer than necessary - her tongue catching a stray tear as it slipped down his face. "I have something for you at my house. I'll bring it tomorrow morning."

"Clare, I …" Eli tried hoarsely.

Suddenly, a sharp knock sounded on the door. "Dude, Clare," Adam called. "I'm starting to get gray hair out here. If you want a ride home, the Torres Express is leaving now."

"Sorry," Clare cried, flustered. "I'm coming." She stood and started walking towards the door. But, before she could get there, Eli caught her wrist and pulled her into one, last, searing kiss.

"Don't go, Edwards," he whispered in her ear. "Please."

"I have to," she said sadly, leaning up to smooth the worry lines around his mouth. "But I'll be here bright and early tomorrow morning."

He closed his eyes and swallowed before giving her a weak smile. Leaning forward, he reached around her body and opened the door.

Red-faced and teary-eyed, the two of them walked down the stairs together.


Later that night, Clare paced in her room. Try as she might, she just couldn't settle. Scenes from the day kept flashing across her mind. She kept picturing Eli's desperate face as he asked her to stay the night – kept hearing the strained anxiety in his voice as he begged her not to go.

Damn it, Clare! She drew a shaky hand through her hair. It was going to be OK. He was going to be OK. He was going to the college of his dreams into a program that was, for all intents and purposes, designed for him. And he was so much better. His body seemed to have finally adjusted to his medication. Not only that, his doctor had given him the number of a good, local psychiatrist whose office wasn't far from St. James College so that Eli could continue the strides he was making in therapy. He was doing well - really, really well.

And, as lost as she felt tonight, Clare was going to be OK too. She was strong. She was independent. She was excited about her senior year. And she and Eli were in a good place. They were solid. They would survive this. It wasn't like she would never see him again. Maybe she could talk her mother into letting her visit Eli in college next month. And there was always Thanksgiving break and Christmas break. They were going to be fine. There was absolutely nothing to worry about - nothing whatsoever. But then, why was she so worried?

"Come on, Clare," she mentally reprimanded herself, "be rational."

She paused her agitated pacing and inhaled shakily, letting her glance settle on the paper wrapped gift sitting on her desk. Eli wanted her to wait and open it after he was gone. But he would be gone in less than eight hours. Surely, he wouldn't mind her opening it just a little early. Besides, she was starting to doubt her own gift to him. She had to be sure he hadn't gotten her something so awesome that it would make her little gift seem stupid and childish.

Cautiously, she approached her desk. With shaking hands she grabbed the gift, sliding her fingernail under the taped seam of the wrapping and slipping it down. The paper fell away to reveal a hardback book of love poems. She turned to the Table of Contents and skimmed down the authors: W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Pablo Neruda, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Butler Yeats – the list went on and on.

She smiled, tearing up, and flipped through the book - reading the words of love and longing enshrined forever in ink and paper.

In the last section of the book, her fingertips noticed a thickening of one of the pages. Curiously she turned to the anomalous page, her breath catching in her throat when she recognized the spidery scrawl. She bit her lip and read Eli's poem.

Clare

At the mention of her name, I open – I fill

This shallow, sunken shell is infused with her

Growing, rounding, coming to life -

The wizened corners and parched, sterile landscape saturating – overflowing with her

...

At the sound of her voice, the music starts

Every nerve ending thrumming, strumming, vibrating in electric harmony

The woodwind section of my ragged breathing

The pounding, syncopated rhythm of my heart

My muscles and tendons stretched taught, as her voice plays over them like a concert violinist

A virtuoso of sinew and bone, of breath and pulse

...

At the sight of her smile, the colors explode

The gray haze of my world recedes, sinking and swirling away like dirty water circling a drain

Bright oranges, vivid purples, brilliant blues, and vibrant yellows assault my eyes,

Wash away the cloudy fog, the protective film

Forcing me to face the unforgiving light – stripped, vulnerable, clean

...

At the feel of her touch, I awake

Rubbing the dusty, dry sleep out of my eyes,

Stretching tired limbs – sore and atrophied from numbing inertia

Yawning, my voice hoarse and rusty, unused and forgotten

I turn to face the day

Alive

She closed her eyes, overwhelmed. Hot, salty tears slipped down her face, and she drew in gasping breaths. Suddenly, as if compelled by some strange force, she turned and started pulling clothes out of her drawers, blindly stuffing them inside her book bag. In a daze, she grabbed her toothbrush and comb, dumping her entire make-up drawer into her bag in a jumble of lip gloss, concealer, and blush. Going to the closet, she grabbed her own neatly wrapped present, cramming it unceremoniously in among the cluttered array of clothes and make-up. She pulled a sweat shirt on over her pajamas and stuffed a pair of Converse on her feet.

Cautiously, she opened her bedroom door, and being careful to avoid the squeaky floorboard outside of Jake's room, slowly crept down the stairs.

At the bottom of the staircase, she let out a relieved breath. Grabbing a piece of paper and a pen from a kitchen drawer, she composed a note to her mother, telling her that she had left early for Eli's house and would return sometime in the morning. Her mother knew that Clare had to leave incredibly early in the morning since Eli had to be on the road by 6:00 am; Clare simply made it a point not to mention just how early in the morning she was leaving. Hopefully, her mom wouldn't wander downstairs in the night and find the note, and Clare's subterfuge would go unnoticed.

Walking to the hall closet, Clare grabbed her purse and quietly opened the door, pulling it shut behind her and locking it from the outside. She inhaled deeply and prepared herself for the long, dark walk to Eli's house.

Just as she was descending the front steps, headlights approached and came to a stop right in front of her. Damn it! It was Jake back from another one of his late night dates. The passenger window of the truck slipped down.

"Going somewhere, Clare?" Jake asked curiously, his eyebrows raised.

Sighing, Clare turned and addressed him. Things had been improving between the two of them lately. Now that she had moved past the hurt of Jake's rejection and on to Eli, the little things like Jake's smile or his voice didn't even faze her anymore. In fact, she was actually starting to think of Jake as more of a family member than as an ex-boyfriend – although she thought of him more as a dorky, older cousin than a brother. She had even covered for him last month when Glen and her mother had caught him inviting a girl over to the house in their absence. Clare had pretended that the girl had been there on her invitation, saving Jake from a few weeks of grounding and surprising the heck out of him.

"It's Eli's last night," Clare explained tiredly, anxious to start her journey. "I can't sleep."

Jake smiled an understanding smile. "So you thought you'd risk the wrath of Helen, not to mention the dark streets of Toronto, so that you could surprise your boyfriend?"

"Something like that," Clare admitted sheepishly.

Jake leaned over and opened the passenger door. "Get in, Clare," he instructed firmly. "I'll take you over, and I'll cover for you tomorrow."

"Seriously?" Clare questioned in disbelief, hesitating before sliding into to truck and closing the door behind her. She looked at him skeptically. "Somehow, I can't help but feel that this reeks of entrapment."

Jake laughed good naturedly. "No, seriously, Clare. I owe you one." He put the truck into drive and pulled out onto the street.

"It's still a little bizarre," Clare mused. "My ex-boyfriend is driving me over to my current boyfriend's house so that I can spend the night with him."

"Yeah, but then isn't our whole family like the definition of bizarre? We're kind of like a screwed-up version of The Brady Bunch, only with more attractive family members and no Alice," Jake teasingly replied.

"Good point, Martin," Clare said with a soft smile. "Although, I think you are forgetting about Peter. I always found him pretty darn attractive, although definitely not the sharpest tool in the Brady shed."

Jake smiled at her, and they fell into silence.

A few minute later, Jake took a deep breath. "Look, Clare. This is entirely none of my business, and I know I should just keep my big mouth shut, but I… um… I just hope you are… um … ready and everything…" his voice trailed off uncertainly.

Clare colored and shifted uneasily in her seat. "Yeah, well. It isn't really any of your business," she said, watching as Jake's face fell. "But, just so you know, I'm not planning on 'sleeping with' Eli tonight. I'm just planning on being with him – spending the last few hours with him before he has to go."

Jake exhaled in relief and turned his attention back to the road.

"Yeah," Clare continued. "Unfortunately, he failed the magazine quiz."

Jake looked over at her in shock, his mouth agape and his eyes wide.

"Just kidding," she laughed, suddenly realizing that she could now joke with Jake about their romantic past. Things had definitely changed for the better.

Jake grinned at her, his eyes growing soft. "I hope … " he started, breaking off. "I hope he realizes how lucky he is to have you."

Clare looked at him suspiciously. "What's the punch line, Martin?" she questioned, cocking her head inquiringly.

"No punch line," Jake said softly. "I'm being sincere."

Clare looked at him questioningly, before turning her gaze back to the hazy darkness of the city streets.

A few minutes later, Jake pulled up in front of Eli's house.

"Why don't you text him and make sure he's awake and able to let you in?" Jake suggested. He looked up at the dark skies. "I don't want to leave you out here alone. I think the rain is going to start soon."

Dutifully, Clare pulled out her phone and fired off a text. Within seconds, she saw the light in Eli's room blink on. Her phone buzzed.

Eli: One minute.

Clare turned to Jake. "He's coming," she said, grabbing her bag. "I left a note for Mom on the kitchen table telling her I left early in the morning for Eli's house. I'm praying she won't find it tonight."

"I'll grab it when I get home," Jake said, his voice conspiratorial. "I'll set my alarm for 5:00 and put it out for you. If your mom asks, I'll say that I saw you out. I'll just tell her I got up early to go lift with Drew or something."

"Why are you doing all this?" Clare asked puzzled, looking at Jake searchingly. "Why are you being so nice?"

"Clare, I do care about you," Jake said softly. "I never stopped caring about you. I know you don't like to hear it, but it's the truth."

Clare glanced out the window and noticed Eli standing on his front steps anxiously looking towards Jake's truck. She turned back to Jake.

"Thanks, Jake," she said sincerely. "I really appreciate it." She looked at him awkwardly. "I … uh, better be going." She opened the passenger door, flooding the cab of the truck with light.

"See you," Jake said, raising his hand and giving an awkward salute in Eli's direction.

"Bye," Clare said. "Thanks again."

"No problem, Clare." Jake smiled.

Clare closed the door to the truck and turned towards Eli, her face breaking into a grin as she approached him.

"What the hell, Edwards?" Eli questioned in disbelief as soon as Clare was close enough to hear. He looked over to where the tail lights of Jake's truck were rapidly disappearing into the darkness. "Was that Jake? Did he just drop you off so you could spend the night with me?"

"Yep," Clare said smiling.

"Well, fuck me," Eli breathed out dazedly, shaking his head in shocked amazement.

Clare smiled wickedly. "Sorry, Eli, that's not on the agenda for tonight. However, if you play your cards right, you just might be able to wake up next to me." She raised her eyebrows at him suggestively.

Eli blushed and grinned at Clare's uncharacteristic forwardness. "Why, Clare Edwards, you little devil."

He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her into the house.


Eli quietly ushered Clare into his room and closed the door. He turned to her, his expression suddenly wary.

"So, what are you doing here, Clare?" he asked hesitatingly, his eyes bright and flashing. "Why the sudden change of heart? Earlier, you seemed pretty set on not risking your mother's ire to stay with me. What changed?" He ran a hand through his hair nervously causing it to stick up in all directions. He looked tense, wound-up - so incredibly anxious.

Clare walked towards him and placed a calming hand on his arm. "I couldn't sleep," she admitted softly. "I kept thinking of you and wanting to be with you. And I finally realized that it was stupid not to be with you when you were just a few blocks away. And so, I … well, I snuck out."

Eli smiled at her, pulling her close; his anxiety fading at her touch. "You're so sneaky, Edwards. Maybe you should teach …"

"You're never going to let me live that down, are you?" Clare interjected.

Eli raised his eyebrows. "Never!" He pulled her to him and kissed her sweetly, breaking away to tangle his fingers in her hair. "I'm glad you came," he breathed into her neck. "I couldn't sleep either."

Clare grinned at him and shivered.

"Cold?" Eli questioned, running his hands up and down her arms softly.

She nodded, and he nudged her towards the bed, pulling the covers back for her.

Once they were firmly ensconced under his blankets, he put out the bedside light and turned to wrap his arms around her from behind. They lay in silence; their bodies curled tightly together; their shallow breaths slowly synchronizing in the darkness.

"I have a confession to make," Clare said quietly, breaking the stillness of the moment.

"Hmmm?" Eli mumbled, shifting closer and fitting his chin into the juncture of her neck and shoulder.

"I opened your gift," she whispered sheepishly. She felt Eli's grin on her neck.

"Why am I not surprised?" Eli said sarcastically.

"I.." Clare tried. She cleared her throat quietly. "Eli, your poem is the most beautiful thing I have ever read in my whole life," she said, her voice choking with tears. "Thank you."

"I meant every word," El breathed, kissing her shoulder lightly and closing his eyes. He nuzzled his face into her neck, breathing her in – inhaling her into him until he could almost feel her pulsing through his bloodstream.

They lay in the soft silence, arms wrapped around each other, breathing in tandem, enjoying the last, few, peaceful moments together.

Assuming that Eli had drifted off, Clare was fighting sleep herself when she felt him suddenly tense behind her. He tightened his hold on her anxiously, burrowing his face into her shoulder almost roughly. She could faintly feel a cold wetness on the skin of her neck.

"I'm not sure if I can do this, Clare," he whispered, his voice shaky.

She loosened his hands and rolled over, turning her body into him, bringing her face up to his. "What do you mean?" she whispered, reaching up to run her hand from his ear down his neck to his shoulder.

"This," Eli tried to explain. "College. Leaving. Going out on my own." He swallowed noisily. "What if I hate it?" he asked, his voice hoarse and desperate. "What if I spiral into depression? What if I have a panic attack or a manic episode? God, Clare. I don't know anyone there. What if I lose control?"

She slipped her hand down from his shoulder and let it come to rest on his chest, feeling the rapid pounding of his heart rate. "We're all just a phone call away, Eli," she reminded him. "If you get depressed or anxious or manic, we call your doctor and go from there. You're not alone in this." She smoothed her hand back up to his face, caressing his cheek and brushing away the few tears that had escaped from his eyes. "Besides, you haven't had an anxiety attack in a long, long time, and you've been working with your therapist on coping mechanisms." She kissed the corner of his mouth softly. "And you will make friends, Eli. By this time tomorrow, I bet you will know a lot of people." She kissed the other corner of his mouth. "And if you hate it, you don't have to stay. It's college, not a prison sentence."

"But people will think I'm such a failure if I don't stick it out," Eli argued, his voice high and rough.

"Since when have you cared about what other people think?" Clare teased, reaching up to brush his hair back from his forehead. She brought her face back to his, her voice softly serious. "Look, Eli. If it's not a good fit for you - if you try it and determine that you're just not ready for college, there is absolutely no shame in coming home. No one is going to think any differently of you – especially me. But, I think we are putting the cart before the horse here. You're not even there yet. I think that there is a very good chance that you are going to love it."

Eli exhaled shakily. "Clare Edwards – always the voice of reason," he said, his voice thick with emotion. He grasped her hip and pulled her body flush with his. "What am I going to do without you?" His voice broke earnestly.

She kissed him then – trying to quell his worry and anxiety; her mouth forceful and demanding, attempting to push away his fears with the warmth of her lips and tongue.

Overcome, he grabbed her tightly; his fingers grasping, desperate to pull her as close as possible - to breach any space between them. God, he wanted her – and not just in the carnal sense of the word. He just wanted to be close to her – he just fucking needed to be close to her - he just fucking needed her.

Before he could even process it, he felt an uncontrolled flush of emotion surging over his body - the rolling tides of his desperation and desire breaking over him, flooding his senses and clouding his thoughts. Distantly, as if through a fog, he felt himself clutching on to her, boring into her, frantically attempting to meld their bodies together – hoping that if he could somehow fuse himself with her, he could take a part of her with him when he left.

In response to his tight hold and breathless, fumbling advances, Clare felt her own body softening – yielding - molding itself around him. She breathed in and allowed herself to be shaped and shifted by him - her body loose and malleable in reaction to his taut desperation. She let go and let him wash over her – let herself be caught up in him – caught up in the pull and release of his urgency.

And then there was only her. In her warm, elastic embrace, the rest of the world fell away – all the fear and doubt and anxiety flowing out of him in rivers. His mouth softened. His ragged breathing steadied. His heart slipped down from where it had been lodged in his throat and, once more, took its rightful position in his chest. Little by little, his shaking hands loosened their death grip on her. Slowly and cautiously they traveled up her torso, ghosting over the planes of her stomach, skimming over the delicate bones of her ribcage, before finally coming to rest on the smooth buttons of her pajama top. He pulled back from her kiss, resting his forehead on hers.

"Clare?" he questioned hoarsely, his voice entreating and raw. And the whole world was contained in that one word.

Smiling softly, Clare closed her eyes and nodded, her hot breath mingling with his.

And it was good. And it was right. And she did not break her vow, but boundaries were crossed and new territory conquered. And afterwards, in the heated flush of the afterglow, she held his shaking body to her chest and whispered assurances in his ear – telling him that he was going to love college – that he was going to excel and thrive and succeed – and that they would talk every day and see each other every vacation - that he would be so busy living the college life that he wouldn't even have time to miss her.

And he pulled her closer still, brushing the column of her neck with his mouth, and pretended to believe her. And they both finally drifted off to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, tangled up in each other in a jigsaw of limbs.


….

Morning came early with the blaring alarm and the sound of thunder.

Sometime during the night, the storm had bubbled into fruition; the cool rain falling from the sky in sheets of water, washing away the tired, stale, summer air.

Oblivious to the tempest raging outside, Eli and Clare went through the morning in a silent, numbing daze, both refusing to acknowledge that these were their last few minutes together, at least, for the immediate future.

Bullfrog had woken up extra early to run out for donuts and coffee. However, no one could even pretend to have an appetite; and the plate of donuts sat untouched on the kitchen counter – a fitting monument to the closing chapter of Eli's childhood, garishly captured in chocolate frosting and rainbow sprinkles.

CeCe's eyes were tired and red rimmed, but she plastered on a wide smile, trying to embrace the excitement of the day instead of the sadness. Every now and again, in passing, she would reach over to Eli and tell him how proud she was of him or fondly pat him on the head. And he would smile a nervous smile in her direction and avoid eye contact.

Anxious about the road conditions now that the storm was here, Bullfrog hurried them along, pushing up their departure time by fifteen minutes.

He and CeCe were in the van now, patiently waiting for Eli to say his goodbyes to Clare.

The two not quite lovers stood in the foyer of his house, the door open to the heavy, gray curtain of rain. Eli looked at Clare, breathing hard. "Well, Edwards," he said, his voice choked. "I guess this is it."

Clare smiled at him, her eyes misty. "Yep," she breathed. "My boyfriend, the college scholar." She reached up to lightly touch his cheek. "I can barely believe you are really going. What am I going to do without all of your sarcasm and inappropriate humor?" she tried to joke; but her brave smile trembled, and she blinked back tears.

He closed his eyes and pulled her towards him, roughly kissing her – all sloppy tongues and clashing lips and teeth.

She kissed him back, trying to keep up with his frantic pace, before firmly grabbing his face and carefully slowing down the kiss.

Obediently, he followed her lead and slowed down his own body's responses, taking a moment to feel the softness of her mouth – to memorize the taste of her. Squeezing his eyes shut tightly against the hot film of tears threatening to spill, he told himself to remember this, to relish this, since this would have to get him through weeks and weeks without her.

Bullfrog honked from the driveway, and reluctantly Eli pulled away, resting his forehead against Clare's and locking eyes with her. "I love you, Clare," he said, his voice thick. "I love you so much - maybe more than I should."

Clare smiled through her tears. "I know, Eli," she said. "I love you too." She sniffed and pulled back, shaking her head to try and gain control of her emotions. She stooped down and rummaged through her bag, bringing out a prettily wrapped present. "Here," she said, handing the package to Eli. "It can't compare to the gift you gave me, but it will have to do." She put her hand over Eli's. "Wait and open it in the car," she said shakily.

She paused and looked at him searchingly for a few moments; then, suddenly, she reached up and forcefully pulled his face towards her, staring directly into his eyes.

"I am so incredibly proud of you," she said her voice hard and vehement and her eyes alight with some strange fire. "So very, very proud. You've gone through so much, Eli – stuff that a kid your age should never have to go through - and just look at you! Look at what you've done!" She narrowed her eyes, her gaze fierce and intense. "You are the strongest person I know, Eli," she said, her voice passionate. "Your mom is completely right – you are destined for great things." She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. "So go - go and do great things." She kissed him aggressively and, before he could even respond, pushed him towards the doorway.

Eli looked at her in desperation. "Clare I …"

But the horn honked again.

"Go," Clare said with a smile. "Call me tonight after you are all checked in."

"I love you," he said weakly, the tears finally falling down his face. "I don't know what else to say."

"I love you too," she said, giving him a soft smile. "I'll talk to you soon."

He gave her one, last, frantic glance so full of longing it almost broke her heart. Then he turned and, without looking back, walked out into the storm.

Clare stepped out into the rain, closing and locking the door behind her, and returned the spare key to its place behind CeCe's planter. Pulling the hood of CeCe's borrowed rain slicker over her head, she descended the steps and down the front walk, waving as the van pulled out into the street.

Bullfrog honked the horn in a noisy, farewell salute, and Clare watched until the red tail lights of the van disappeared into the city streets. She breathed in and out, regaining her composure. It was going to be fine. Everything was as it should be. Everything was right.

Sighing determinedly, she turned and started the wet walk towards the bus stop.


….

Eli sat in the back seat of the van, staring out of the window at the dripping, gray buildings of downtown Toronto, as Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" played softly from the van's sound system.

"Thanksgiving break will be here before you know it," Bullfrog tried to comfort from the front seat. "And you'll be so busy in college that you won't even have time to be homesick."

But Eli only shook his head in response. He knew that, if he tried to speak, he would lose it.

Bullfrog seemed to understand this and turned his attention back to the road. And CeCe pivoted in her seat to give Eli an encouraging smile before turning back to face front, softly singing along to the music.

Through glassy eyes, Eli watched as the city buildings morphed and shifted; the summer dust and grime slipping down their fronts in a film of dirty water.

Soon, Bullfrog pulled onto the highway leaving Toronto; and Eli got lost in his thoughts. Breathing in resolutely, he allowed himself to think back over the last, few, tumultuous years of his life, letting his mind linger on each memory –- Julia and the headiness of first love; Julia's death and the staggering numbness of loss; the overwhelming guilt that came with losing her; the choking despair and darkness of his days of hoarding; the unexpected brightness of Clare; the happy camaraderie of his friendship with Adam; the safety and warmth of Clare's love; the unrelenting chaos of his mental illness; the accident and the dark days following when he had been so incredibly and so hopelessly lost; finding Clare again; loving Clare again; leaving Clare again. He sighed exhaustedly. His life was like something out of classic literature - one of those sprawling, epic, Russian love stories, only without the tragically bleak ending – or, at least, he hoped so.

He looked down at the present in his lap and smiled. It was beautifully wrapped, each corner symmetrical, the wrapping paper patterns matching up perfectly – so incredibly Clare. Grinning, he ripped open the paper and found a beautiful, handmade book, carefully compiled and organized. It was a guide to help ease him into his new life at college. He flipped through the pages.

There was a section on St. James College and the surrounding area – lists of places to visit and things to do. Clare had included restaurant reviews and directions to the town's bookstores, coffee shops, and theaters. She had a pasted a map of the town on to one of the pages and had circled all of the libraries, museums, and parks. She had even researched local bands and listed upcoming shows she thought he might like.

There was also a section on academics. Clare had carefully recorded his class schedule and included a map of campus showing the quickest routes between each class. She had highlighted the reading list for each class, starring the books she knew he had already read and owned. She had even included a suggested study schedule to help keep him on track; its margins decorated with gold stars and tiny drawings of Jolly Ranchers.

There was a section on what to do if he got homesick. The pages of this section were filled with pictures of CeCe and Bullfrog, Adam, Fiona, Imogen, and Clare. She had written down funny anecdotes and inside jokes and had included a list of movies and songs that would remind him of home. There was even a CD, carefully tucked away in an envelope that had been pasted on to one of the pages. Pulling the CD out, Eli smiled when he read the title, "Home Sweet Home," and the cheeky disclaimer scribbled under it: "Don't worry – Bullfrog helped me. I promise your ears won't bleed if you listen to this." And at the back of the homesick section, Clare had included a calendar with each break and holiday outlined in red - a vivid, visual reminder that he would see her again soon.

Suddenly, Bullfrog ran over a bump in the road, jarring Eli from his careful perusal of Clare's gift. Startled, he looked out the window and noticed that the storm clouds had started to break. Soft shards of sunlight were inexorably pushing their way out of the dark sky, illuminating the wet ground, causing it to glow and shine almost preternaturally.

It was over. The rain was over. They had weathered the storm. They had faced it, and, somehow, they had come out of it stronger.

He flipped to the last page of the book. It was a picture of the two of them on his graduation day. He was still dressed in the bright blue gown, but his mortar board was placed rakishly on Clare's head, the tassel hanging in her face. She was laughing, her eyes shining with mirth. His arms were wrapped around her from behind, and the grin on his face was almost heartbreaking in its sincerity. Underneath the picture Clare had written a message in her loopy scrawl: "When things get tough, think of me and know that, wherever I am, whatever I am doing, I am loving you." He smiled.

Despite all the crap that they had been through; despite all the break-downs and the tears and the fights and the craziness; despite the fact that "happily ever after" was never really going to be a viable option for the two of them, Clare Edwards loved him. She freaking loved him.

Life was good.


*"In My Life" written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney