"Timeis a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away." – Marcus Aurelius
When we finally stop running, we're in an empty parking lot outside a pet store. The sun is in the middle of rising; I guess it's close to seven in the morning. My knees feel wobbly and threaten to buckle at any moment; I lean against the single blue car in the lot for support, dropping my bag to the ground. I didn't have time to properly slide it onto my shoulders before we ran away. Vaughn is breathing heavy; we were sprinting for a long time.
Not because they were following us, but because I think we both wanted to put as much distance between ourselves and the group as quickly as possible. He drops his bag beside mine, takes a deep breath and steadies himself. He looks at me, concern and worry openly displayed on his face, and part of me is surprised he lets me see it.
"Are you okay?" he says quietly, and then shakes his head, turning away from me and staring off in the direction we came from.
His hands are clenched at his sides, and I say gently, "I'm alright, Vaughn. I'm more worried about you."
There's still blood on his face, on his left cheek, and I wonder if Max was wearing some kind of weird ring.
"No, of course you're not okay," he mutters to himself, as if I haven't spoken.
"I just said I was," I say, annoyed he won't turn so I can examine him.
"You're not okay," he says again, "How could you possibly be okay after . . ."
He turns, and I wince at the pain in his eyes. Pain for me. He takes my hands in his, handling them like they are made of fragile glass. "Did he hurt you?"
"No, Vaughn," I answer. I don't want to lie, but I feel like I should calm him down.
"Your cheek is really red." He lays his palm against it.
"And yours is bloody. I think blood beats bruised."
He leans his forehead against mine, shutting his eyes and exhaling sharply. "You don't know how awful it was, Chelsea . . . waking up to that."
"Actually, I can. I did wake up to it." I shiver involuntarily, unable to shake the memory of Sid's unwanted hands on my body, and knowing what he would have done had he not been stopped made me bite the inside of my cheek hard.
I feel like his touch has left physical stains on me that I can't get off, because every time I blink, I feel it there again.
"We should have taken our chances in the cold. I should never have let this happen to you . . ."
"Please. Don't take responsibility for a choice that was equally ours. It isn't your job to look after me, Vaughn. I've done alright in the past almost seventeen years, in view of the circumstances." I wait until his eyes open again, and add softly, "Besides, we said in the beginning we would put ourselves first."
"I know. I'd still like to have that attitude. But I don't think either of us can fully embrace that policy anymore."
I swallow against a hard lump that has lodged itself in my throat. "I know."
I want things to work out for him. I want him to be happy. More than I want myself to be? I've never been able to be that selfless, have I? The walls that have been so cautiously placed between us are cracking and crumbling; I can feel them break. I'm this close to saying to hell with whatever pain it might bring me in the future and declare my love for him right then and there.
"Let me look at your face," I say sternly.
He nods and steps back. The cut doesn't look as bad as it had at first glance. "I saw store a ways back. I think it was a twenty four hour one; let's go get some peroxide so it doesn't get infected."
"It's not that bad," Vaughn replies, as I suspected he would, "let's just go find the bus station. The sooner we leave, the better."
"No. I want to get the peroxide."
"Chelsea, I'm fine."
"Do you think I feel different about your health than you do mine?" I question, aggravated, "When you try to give me more than my share of the food, when you keep me warm at night, those are considerate things you do for me. I want to help you, too."
I stare at him desperately, wanting him to understand. "I couldn't just start thinking about only myself again, Vaughn. You're too deep in my head to forget."
He sighs, and half smiles, but there's still a tightness to his gaze, anxiety that never truly fades. "Okay, Chelsea, but I'm going along with this for you. It's not necessary. I'm fine."
"So you've said," I grumble, picking up my bag – and dropping it again.
"What's wrong?" Vaughn asks.
"This isn't my backpack; I . . . I must have grabbed the wrong one by mistake."
It's definitely not mine; this one is even more tattered than mine, and has a different logo on the front. One of the straps is slightly torn and there's a wrapper stuffed into a side pocket.
Vaughn sighs. "Goodbye, seventy bucks."
"And my clothes. My hairbrush, my toothbrush." I want to kick myself for doing this, but there's not much I can do to change it now.
I glance up at him, expecting him to be angry – after all, the last time we'd lost money he'd had a fit and stomped off on his own for a while, too angry to stick around. But he just looks mildly irritated.
"Well, let's at least see if there's anything we can use in it," he says, a note of acceptance in his voice.
I guess I can't say I'm surprised; we're both so used to stuff like this happening we don't have the energy to be upset about it anymore. Or maybe we've just learned to take stuff as it comes at us the best we can, since getting angry and pissy is just timed wasted we could have used elsewhere. Mumbling curses under my breath, I yank the zipper open and rummage through the bag.
There's a few clothes I know I'd never wear if my life depends on it; they belonged to Sid, and his weird garbage and tuna fish scent is all over them, triggering my gag reflex. There's also some empty plastic bottles, a comic book, half a candy bar, the plate of cookies from earlier and – surprise, surprise – forty dollars.
"Well," I say, holding up the two crumpled bills, "it's much better than nothing. Everything else pretty much sucks."
I dump the contents into a garbage can by the store's entrance, minus the money, which I put in my pocket. At least the backpack is light.
"We'll buy you a toothbrush, too. The hygiene I can still maintain out here is one of the few things that has kept me sane," Vaughn says.
I snort, but agree. "You aren't angry I grabbed the wrong bag?"
"No. I mean, it sucks, but it's not like either of us was thinking clearly. Besides, I don't have the energy."
I laugh as we start walking down the sidewalk. "Me neither, but we better get some, because there's still a lot of walking to be done." We groan in unison.
Vaughn wipes at his cheek with his sleeve the best he can; no point in drawing attention to us unnecessarily. We move quickly though the store, and I smile at the cashier as we pay legally for our purchases – it feels good to not steal. Altogether we got the peroxide, a toothbrush, some deodorant and a brush.
We then swipe a sweatshirt and some black sweatpants from the clearance rack outside a clothing store, and my good citizen feelings instantly vanish. On the bus, we miraculously manage to find two seats and doze a little in our seats, catching up on some much needed sleep. I, however, still feel exhausted when it's time to exit the bus into yet another city.
I comfort myself with the knowledge that this is the second to last one; one more bus ride, and then we can finally get to the docks and board the boat that will take us to the islands we have worked so hard to get to. The ride has taken most of the day; it's about four in the afternoon when we arrive.
We splurge again on a meal at a fast food restaurant, and by this time our money had dwindled from ninety dollars to seventy one. On our way back to the bus station, we pass a tiny motel called Sunny Horizons that advertises rooms for rent, forty bucks a night, in red blocky letters. I stop and study the sign for a moment, weighing the pros and cons of such a decision in my head.
It would be amazing to sleep in an actual bed for just one night, in the privacy of our own space, rather than borrowing someone else's. We'd also both get another shower, and maybe even a TV show if the room had one. Just relaxing for the evening was like a dream straight from heaven. But forty dollars, plus tax . . .
"We really shouldn't," I hear Vaughn say.
He's stopped a few faces away, and is now staring at the sign like me. "You're right. We shouldn't. But let's do it anyway."
I know it's stupid to be this impulsive, but the temptation is simply too great to resist. I head towards the motel's office without turning to see if Vaughn is following. I know he is without looking. I try to ignore the physical pain in my hand at having to let go of the bills when it's time to pay for the room at the counter.
The clerk – a short, balding middle aged man holding an apple – takes one look at the both of us, rolls his eyes, and mutters something that sounds suspiciously like "hormonal teenagers" under his breath as he hands me the key. Vaughn shoots him a dirty look before we exit the office, and the clerk looks appropriately scolded.
"Why is everyone a presumptuous asshole?" Vaughn grumbles as we climb the stairs to the second floor. "This is exactly why I don't like people."
"Like you wouldn't think the same thing," I say. True, the clerk's comment annoyed me, but I allow it to roll off my back easily enough.
"Yeah, but I can keep my opinions to myself."
"As you have so well demonstrated many times," I sigh, stopping in front of a white, plain door marked with the number 42 in faded gold letters.
I unlock it and we step inside. I drop my bag – I refuse to think of it as Sid's; that bastard may as well owe it to me for his actions – and flop onto the bed, burying my face in the pillow. It smells like detergent.
"God, it's so awesome to see a bed I can sleep in again." I roll onto my back and smile wider than I have in ages.
There's a small TV on a nightstand and a bathroom with a shower that is just begging to be used. This isn't a nice motel by any means; those little complimentary soaps and shampoos in the shower will be the kind that leave a weird residue on my skin and a weird feeling in my hair, but I'm not really in any place to be picky.
Vaughn nods and comes to sit on the other side. "I know."
"Let's watch a show tonight," I say, sitting up and speaking excitedly. "I saw a Chinese restaurant across the street when we walked over here. I'll go pick up some noodles and we can just be lazy and mindless."
A small smile turns up his lips. "Don't you think we've spent enough money recklessly tonight?"
"Probably. But . . ."
"Okay," he agrees.
"Okay?" I echo. "You're not going to put up more of a fight?"
"I want to. But it's hard to tell you no when you're this enthusiastic. I don't see you happy very often."
"Likewise, Mr. Expressionless." I make a face at him and get to my feet. "I'll be right back."
"'K. I'm gonna shower while you're gone."
"Leave me some soap."
I slip out the door and head to the restaurant. I don't know what Vaughn likes, so I just get some chow mien and a little tin of orange chicken. And, because I haven't had one in who knows how long, I also snag a Diet Coke. A few years back, I'd been seriously addicted to them. It would probably resurface if I started drinking the stuff again.
Feeling rather lighthearted, I smile at the guy who hands me my bag and walk back to the hotel. Humming an old tune I heard from one of my old foster fathers, I turn the key and step into the room. My cheeks heat up when I'm greeted by the sight of Vaughn standing at the foot of the bed, pulling some clothes out of his bag.
The bathroom door's open, and he's got a towel wrapped around his waist. He's on the lanky side, but the muscles in his stomach and chest are clearly defined, and I want to touch them to see if they are as hard as they look.
There's a smattering of bruises on his ribs, presumably from the tussle in the ally earlier, and other random scars in different shapes and patterns. One in particular is beneath a purple bruise on the left side of his rib cage, long and red. Not an angry red, like it just happened, but a dark, faded color. It's a sizeable line, and I wonder how he came by it.
But despite all these little imperfections along his torso, I still can't stop myself from studying it like it's the cure to cancer. And, making myself blush harder, the desire to see the towel drop to the floor so I can admire all of him takes root in my brain.
"Oh, sorry," I mumble, tearing my eyes off him and letting my gaze drop to the floor, positive that, in that moment, he can read my thoughts. They must be written across my forehead; I was all but gawking, and I curse my idiocy.
When I glance back up, Vaughn shrugs. "It's okay. I'll be out in a minute."
There's amusement in his voice; clearly, he's getting a kick out of my embarrassment. I exhale sharply and drop the bag on the table by the television. Well, at least he didn't make the situation any more awkward than it already was. I grab the remote and flip it on to a rerun of The Price Is Right. I've never really been a huge fan of game shows, but there's nothing else on. Vaughn exits the bathroom in sweatpants I've never seen before (black, of course) and a t-shirt.
He sits down beside me and immediately digs into the carton of noodles with one of the black plastic forks. Rolling my eyes at how quickly he's snarfing it, I stand and start towards the bathroom.
"Take clothes with you," he says as my hand touches the doorknob.
"This is my only set. Left my bag in the all, remember?"
"Oh. Right. Well, you should have to strut out here in a towel. It's only fair."
I blink at him, kind of surprised by his comment. I don't think he's ever made any real flirtatious remarks towards me. He's told me he cares about me, in so many words, and I guess he said he thought I was pretty once, but I still remember how he winced at how stick-thin I am. Not that I can really blame him. But I've never been sure if he was really attracted to physically, even with our previous kisses.
With the way he's casually letting his eyes rake down my body right now, however, I think I can officially lay those worries to rest. I know he's kidding, though, so I say, "It's not my fault you chose that moment to be mostly naked" and shut the door behind me.
The shower is wonderful. It's hard to find a happy medium between hot and cold, the pressure kind of sucks, and there's a little crack in the wall, but it's great, all the same. Even that weird soap residue feels like a gift, and when I step out, I feel clean and shiny. Back in the bedroom,
Vaughn has changed the channel to animal planet; there's some documentary about elephants on. He's left me half the chow mien and about a quarter of the orange chicken, which I eat in silence as his eyes remain glued to the screen. The show's kind of interesting after a while; elephants, I learn, don't actually like peanuts, their skin is one inch thick, and they live up to be up to seventy years old.
When I'm done eating and the show's over, it's getting to be pretty late in the evening, so I leave the empty containers on the table and slide under the covers on the right side of the bed. Vaughn turns the TV off and gets in on the left side.
"Not going to stay up for a while?" I ask, yawning.
"No. Tonight's been a nice and much needed break, but we've still got to be rested for tomorrow."
"So practical," I say, chuckling quietly.
"If we weren't both practical people, we'd be dead in a gutter somewhere by now," he says seriously, and I find myself enamored with his eyes for the thousandth time. They are so, so beautiful. I know I've already said that, but I feel the need to repeat it, no matter how annoying I am.
"I don't know if I could have done this without you," I admit to him quietly.
He turns off the lamp by the bedside table, and I don't wait for an invitation to snuggle up beside him. His body fits against mine perfectly.
"Yes, you could have," he replies, "You're smart."
I'm always unsure what to say when he compliments me; it means so much, because I know he never says anything he doesn't mean.
"Mm." He hugs me tight for a second. "Goodnight."
I want to say the same and go to sleep, but I hesitate. This is the first time we have slept together like this, in an actual bed – not a shed, or an ally or a sleeping bag on a hard floor. It feels more intimate than usual, and I think about how I felt before, when we were talking outside the bookstore. How I was considering declaring my feelings regardless of the consequences. I'm having similar urges now.
He's so close, so real, so there.
The only constant presence in my life since we started traveling, and probably the most reliable. I believe him when he says he won't leave me, and I love that I trust him. I don't know when I started to, but I do. And Sid's revolting touch is still lingering on my skin, and I want something to remove that, replace it. Before my senses return or I lose my nerve, my lips press against his neck, and I hear him inhale sharply.
He stiffens, and I let my mouth move up to his jaw, trying to gauge if this reaction is out of sheer surprise or lack of desire. But then his hand is in my hair, and his mouth on mine, kissing me with surprising passion, and I relax, relieved he hasn't pushed me away and demanded an explanation for my impulsiveness.
He rolls us so he's over me, his hips pushing between my legs, and I moan his name quietly when his mouth breaks away from mine for air. The heat and friction between our bodies is rendering me past coherent thought; I only know I want it to continue. My hands slide up his shirt, and he groans quietly as my hands trace his stomach; the line from the red slash is raised slightly, and I run my thumb down it, again wishing I knew where it came from.
The last time we were kissing like this Gemma barged into the room and interrupted us; but she's not here this time. It's just me and him, alone in our own personal bubble, away from a world that has not been kind to either of us. But when I start to pull on the drawstrings of his sweatpants, he pulls back and grabs my wrist.
"Chelsea," he says, his voice breathy and rough, "stop."
Frowning in disappointment, I do, and he rolls off me, taking a minute to collect himself.
"What are we doing?" he asks.
"Kissing," I say.
He rolls his eyes. "I know that. But you . . . I mean . . ."
"Vaughn, I . . . I just thought . . . I know what we said before, but I just . . . I don't know. I don't know what I was thinking." Blushing and cursing my earlier self who thought practically jumping him was a good idea, I look at the wall. He waits until I meet his eyes before speaking.
"You want to sleep together?" he asks, and I blink at him.
He is, again, very serious about this question. I didn't expect him to be so blunt about; but then, I've never known him to beat around the bush about anything.
"I . . . uh," I stammer, "I . . . I wouldn't mind, no."
I want you, is what I want to say, and not just physically. But since I'm a coward, I don't. Vaughn's eyebrows raise a little; I don't think he expected me to say yes.
"Does this mean we're completely discarding the whole 'don't get involved' thing?"
"I hate that stupid rule," I mutter.
He snorts. "Yeah, me too."
I hesitantly reach for his hand. "So . . .?"
"We'll figure something out at the islands," Vaughn says, "Whether either of us gets the job or not."
I blink at him.
"O-okay. I . . . I want to stay with you," I say quietly.
"You will. I promise." He wraps his arms around me abruptly and hugs me.
A little stunned by this conversation, I lay my head on his shoulder. So it was that easy all this time? Just admit our mutual feelings for each other are strong enough for us to agree to deal with whatever the future might hold together? I feel a little ripped off by all the angst I've been going through the in the past few days. I lift my head and return my mouth to his, hoping to begin where we left off. He kisses me back for a minute, but I can feel the restraint in his body.
"What's wrong?" I whisper.
He sighs and pushes me back for the second time. "I don't think we should do this now."
"Why?" I ask.
"Chelsea, I . . . I care about you. You know that. But you should have something better than this. You're a girl. Don't you want your first time to be magical and perfect? With someone who has declared undying love for you?" He's smirking a little by this last part.
I laugh halfheartedly; the sound comes out a little bitter. "In a perfect world, Vaughn, yes, that would be awesome. But my circumstances have never been the best, and I don't need undying love right now."
I loved him, but he didn't need to know that right now.
"You shouldn't have to settle," he insists.
"I'm not settling. Besides, you're a guy. Aren't you supposed to jump at the possibility of sex instantly and without a second thought?"
"Yeah, I'm probably a major idiot."
I smile and look down at my hands, unsure of what to say at this point.
"Chelsea, I want to. God, I want to. But, um . . . what if you got pregnant?"
I fidget with the hem of my shirt. "Well . . . um . . . I don't know. Most valid point of the evening."
"I couldn't deal with that right now. Neither could you. Hell, I don't even know if I want kids ever."
"Me neither," I sigh, "and I guess you're right."
"But . . ." Vaughn's eyes are suddenly mischievous. "There are things we could do . . . that wouldn't carry that risk."
My heart is suddenly in my throat. "We could," I agree.
He leans toward me, giving me ample time to pull back or change my mind if I wish. But I don't. I receive his kiss more than willingly, and experience his touch and his pleasure in such an intimate way later in the evening that my soul weeps at the closeness of the moment.
In the morning, we wake up wrapped in each other, and I imagine I would love to wake up this way for the rest of my life.
"Morning," he says quietly, pressing a kiss to my forehead and stroking my cheek with his thumb.
I sigh happily and say, "Hi."
I expected this to be kind of awkward, but surprisingly, it really isn't. Proof of how much I love him.
"We'll get to the docks today," I tell him excitedly, "if we take the bus to the next city."
"I know," he says, "we'd better get moving."
Despite his words, we linger around the hotel room for most of the morning – check out is at noon, and the bus schedule we picked up earlier says the one we want to catch leaves at one. Vaughn kisses me periodically throughout the morning, and each time it's a shock to my system.
But it feels so good, I wonder why we haven't been doing it all along. He's in a much better mood than usual, too; I even catch him whistling at some point. We both decide to shower again before we leave – the better to stay clean for as long as possible. For the heck of it, I make the bed while I wait for him to get done; I went first.
However, fixing sheets while I'm picturing water running down his body proves to be a very difficult thing to do; sometimes I just stop for minutes on end to stare off into space like a moron. I feel high on life, excited, happy. So damn happy. The future has never looked this bright, and I feel like finding a meadow in a forest somewhere so I can dance and sing amongst the flowers.
I can't remember ever feeling this way in my life. It's incredible. But, of course. This can't possibly last. I'm just thinking about how something bad must be lurking around the corner when I hear a knock on the door. Wondering who it could possibly be, I crank it open and peer out, hoping it's not an armed motel robber or something.
But I'm greeted with the sight of a petite, pale woman with ash blond hair and big blue eyes. Her hair is twisted up in a messy bob, with loose strands hanging around her face, and she's got some lip gloss on, but otherwise is makeup free.
She's wearing jeans, gloves and heavy coat. But none of this seems as important to me as the red rims around her eyes, as if she's been crying recently. She sniffs, and wipes at her nose.
"Are you Chelsea?" she asks.
I blink at this odd woman, and consider lying, but she looks so small and frail that the truth tumbles out of me before I can stop it.
And it is then that I somehow know, without her even speaking, that the easiness of last night and the joy flitting through me was too good to be true. A tear slips down the woman's cheek.
"I'm Vaughn's mother."
A/N: As usual, I fail at regular updates. R&R, please. :)