My girl's in the next room
Sometimes I wish she was you
I guess we never really moved on
"Lips of an Angel" (Hinder)
His jaw was throbbing. It felt as though somebody had bludgeoned him with a brick rather than a fist.
Garrett Slan could certainly pack a punch – the sick bastard.
He could still feel the cracking of his knuckles against his face, sending up a hailstorm of nerve responses to his brain. Oh, how it had hurt. But only for a moment. Pain – and then numbness. Once the adrenaline kicked in, it somehow no longer mattered. His only concern, at that point, was to keep him away from Donna.
But now, in the aftermath, it hurt like hell.
The short-lived fight was on instant replay in his brain, the sounds of Donna's tortured screams the very things that nightmares were made of. He wasn't sure he would be able to forget her piercing cries for as long as he lived.
He had never seen her so hysterical – so…in pieces. She had always been the most put-together person he had ever known. The sight of her unraveling at the seams somehow rocked the very foundation upon which he had built everything in his life.
He knew how she was, though – strong. Selfless. In the morning she would be doing her very best to exude her usual chipper personality, regardless of how much it pained her to make the effort. And he would most certainly be the only one to notice.
He had thought about venturing into the kitchen for an ice pack, but hadn't been able to bring himself to get up. Clare's million-something thread-count sheets and down comforter were undeniably inviting for his aching body. It should have been sufficient to knock him straight out for the night. However, despite the fact that she was cuddled tightly into his side, he still felt a perpetual shiver running up and down his spine. He couldn't quite place the source of his discontent, but whatever it was had his blood running frigidly cold.
Something wasn't right. It was the very same disconcertion that had brought him to the apartment earlier this evening in the first place. It was an instinct that was beginning to burgeon in his very core.
He pulled the covers back slowly, extracting himself from the bed with care. He did not want to wake Clare. That would require all sorts of answers that he didn't want to give. He wasn't sure, in truth, that he was even up to the task of explaining his thoughts to her. They were dark and depressing, and far deeper than anything he had ever shared with her before. It simply was not the kind of relationship they had. He hadn't even told her about Scott yet…and it hadn't quite occurred to him as being strange until now.
He tiptoed into the hallway, and was met with an onslaught of nostalgia. It didn't matter how many times he came over as a guest: that hallway would always feel as though it was still his. The creaking of the floorboards…the chip in the paint on the wall from when he nicked it with his bedframe while moving in. The familiar scent of Donna's vanilla cream body wash drifting beneath his nose. It was a smell that would always remind him of the beachfront apartment.
Of the Christmas dance at West Beverly. Of the close quarters of the DJ booth. Of summers with her on the beach, mesmerized by her perfect smile glittering in the sunlight.
Of the one thing he regretted most in his life.
He could hear the water running in the bathroom. The shower was on. He knew it had to be her. She must have been having difficulty sleeping…not that he could blame her in the slightest. The horrifying events of the evening were keeping him awake, as well – he could not even begin to imagine the fear she had to be feeling.
He paused at the door with bated breath, listening carefully for what he knew he would inevitably hear. Quiet, heart wrenching sobs echoing against the tile of the shower walls. It had always pained him to hear her cry. It was as though someone had reached into his chest cavity and squeezed. Tightly.
"Don?" he asked softly. "Are you all right?"
It was a pitiful question, really. Of course she wasn't.
Her muffled tears were suddenly stifled. She was embarrassed that he had heard. "Everything's fine," she replied, unable to conceal the crack in her voice that punctuated her words.
He sighed. "Donna…"
"I'm fine," she repeated forcefully. "I'm…I'm…"
Her words were drowned out once more by the soft pattering of water droplets and the return of her stubborn sobs. He knew she was cursing herself for being unable to keep them at bay for long enough to send him away. He pressed his head helplessly against the door, the sound of her despair sending unpleasant goose bumps across his flesh.
"Donna…." he murmured. "Please talk to me."
This only resulted in another echo of grief. And his heart plummeted into his stomach in response.
Tentatively, he put his hand on the doorknob. The possible repercussions of what he was about to do seemed to be a distant threat when compared to the idea of her suffering in solitude. He pushed the door open.
He wasn't sure what he had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't the sight that lay before him. She had not bothered pulling the curtain shut. Instead, she sat in the tub, fully clothed in her flannel pajamas, her knees hugged tightly to her chest. She was sopping wet from head to toe and was crying so hard that she was on the verge of hyperventilating.
He froze at the scene, every thought in his head dying quietly on his tongue. He felt the sudden stinging of tears in the corners of his own eyes, unable to reconcile the barrage of emotions at seeing her so broken.
She raised her gaze to his, unabated fear glimmering in her doe eyes. The world stood still for a mere moment, like the slow motion of a dream.
"David…" she managed shakily, before gasping for air once more.
The sound of his name from her lips was enough to shake him from his trance. He was at her side in an instant, reaching into the shower to shut the water off. It was ice cold on his arm and made each hair follicle stand on end. She hardly seemed to notice that the hot water had dissipated.
"I – I don't know what's happening," she cried, burying her mouth shamefully behind her hand. She squinted her eyes shut, heaving muffled sobs from the depths of her chest.
"Shh, it's okay," he said quietly, reaching for the nearest towel. He wrapped it around her shivering frame, rubbing her shoulders to generate friction. "I'm here, baby…I'm here."
If she thought it was odd for him to revisit the old pet name, she did not indicate it. Instead, she buried her face in his shoulder, fighting to catch her breath.
"It's okay…it's over," he whispered into her hair, planting a short kiss where his lips rested. "It's done…"
She clutched desperately onto the front of his t-shirt, as though he was the only thing anchoring her in reality. Just like he always had been. He had been her rock for so long that it was familiar territory. It was second nature to him. As mindless and habitual as breathing. It felt somehow…right to have her in his arms, holding her tightly, shielding her against the madness and hostility of the world. He would always consider this his unspoken duty. She was his best friend. His soul mate, in some ways. And he would always be there to protect her.
That's not entirely true, a distant part of his mind argued. You weren't there to protect her when you slept with Ariel. When you broke her heart. You did that yourself. You ruined everything.
He had not fulfilled his duty properly this afternoon, either. He had been so angry with her…instead of trying to make peace, he had called her a bitch. Had questioned aloud what he ever saw in her, specifically to hurt her. Had watched her heart break upon her face and had not taken it back in time. Maybe if he had…maybe she would have gone to the After Dark tonight as planned. She would not have been home alone when Garrett broke in. Would not have had to endure the horror that she had…
But that was it, wasn't it? He had never quite deserved her to begin with. And part of him knew that he would spend the rest of his life trying to prove to her that she could count on him. In any capacity.
He wasn't quite sure how long they sat there in grievous silence before she released one last shuddering breath, signaling the end of her tears. She pulled back, rubbing her eyes sheepishly.
"I'm sorry," she murmured. It was the silliest thing she could have said in a moment such as this. He could not help but chuckle darkly.
"C'mon," he insisted. "Let's get you into something warm and dry."
She leaned her entire body weight against him as he led her down the hallway, as though she would collapse without him holding her together. She paused at her bedroom door, turning to face him with hesitation in her eyes.
"Please don't go," she mumbled, tightening the towel around her shoulders. "I…I don't think I can be alone."
He nodded sympathetically in reply. "I'm not going anywhere. I'll be waiting right here."
This simple statement somehow seemed to carry so much more gravity than he could understand at that moment. Perhaps even more than he would be able to understand until several years from now. But despite its ambivalence, he knew that he meant every word.
He leaned against her doorframe, eyes trained down the hallway to Clare's room. His old room. And he suddenly felt guilty for not feeling guilty.
Part of him knew that what they had positively paled in comparison. It would never be like the way he and Donna were. How could it possibly? He and Donna had grown up together and endured the throes of adolescence side-by-side. She had taken him lovingly under her wing when he had no one else. When Scott…
The door opened beside him suddenly, startling him. Donna emerged from the shadows in a new pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. A familiar t-shirt. His t-shirt.
"Since when do you like Baby Face?" he mused.
Temporarily perplexed, she glanced down. "Oh," she murmured sheepishly. "I'm sorry…I didn't realize I still had this."
Lie. He could tell by the way the scarlet color rose from her jaw line. He smiled quietly in reply.
"It's okay. You keep it."
She nervously tucked a piece of wet hair behind her ear, stepping aside so as to allow him entrance. Though it was the same room she had inhabited for over a year, it seemed somehow darker. More distressful. A pink stain on the carpet provided a permanent reminder of Garrett's unconscious body lying there, in a pool of his own blood.
He silently vowed to clean it for her tomorrow. He could borrow something from Jackie, certainly, that could combat the morbid stain.
Donna hesitantly pulled back the covers on her four-poster, climbing into bed with the air of a child who had had a nightmare. She looked so…young. So innocent and fragile.
"I'm…I'm sorry about earlier," she managed. "I don't know what came over me."
He, too, crawled under the blanket, lying on his side to face her. The sight would assuredly be confusing or misleading to an outsider, but he knew that it was neither to the two of them. He studied her expression for a moment in the moonlight, searching for any remnants of her earlier disdain. All that was left were nigh indiscernible traces: as usual, she was perfectly calm on the surface.
"You were scared, Donna," he insisted. "I'd be a lot more worried if you weren't crying."
She chuckled quietly, snaking her arms beneath her head. Her eyes were trained thoughtfully downcast, her mind extending somewhere far beyond her own bedroom.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked.
"You," she answered quickly, her eyes fluttering back to meet his gaze. His heart inexplicably skipped a beat at the very notion. "And how you've always known when I need you."
He offered a half-hearted smile in reply. "We were together for two and a half years," he reasoned. "The protective instincts somehow come with the territory. Even when we're not together."
"It seems like so long ago," she said distantly. "Like somehow our relationship was from another lifetime."
No. Not to him. Lying beside her was déjà vu that resonated as clearly as yesterday. He could practically smell the rose-scented candles from her high school bedroom, and taste the sweet sin of her strawberry chap stick on his lips. He was beginning to hate himself for how he had treated her back then. How much had pressured her to compromise her beliefs for his own pubescent wiles.
How what he had with Ariel had never come close to the intimacy that he shared with Donna in a single caress. And how stupid he had been for thinking it could.
"I think that's what scared me the most about tonight," she began, her eyes once again evading contact. He could hear the pain her voice and feared that she was on the verge of tears once more.
She took a deep, shuddering breath.
"That I could have lost…everything…to someone like him. In a situation like that."
There was a moment of mournful silence. Without thinking about it, he had extended his knuckles to gently brush her arm.
"All I could think about was how I wished I had done things differently with you when I had the chance. So that my first time would be something from love. Not force."
It was as if she had read his mind. How could she have known that he was thinking about precisely the same thing, and how he had almost cost her everything she had believed in? How he would have been the biggest jackass on the planet to put her in that position?
"Donna…" he started softly. He could hardly hear his own voice, and would not have been surprised if she couldn't either. "What he tried to do wouldn't be your 'first time.' It wouldn't even be fair to count that. You would still have a chance to have the 'first time' that you've always wanted."
"Maybe in my heart," she mumbled. "But not my body."
He had no response for that. As much as it pained him to leave her hanging, he could not think of a viable piece of wisdom to combat a statement such as that. Because he knew that she was right. She could try her damnedest to reconcile the nuances of nonconsensual sex, but she would never be the same.
"Well, then let's be thankful that I got here in time," he decided with finality. He couldn't bear to think of the alternative.
She smiled weakly. "My own knight in shining armor, right?"
He chuckled. "I don't know about that. I haven't exactly lived up to those standards."
She paused, parting her lips as though she had something she wanted to say. Instead she hesitated, putting careful thought into how she wanted to respond.
"Impossible standards," she said at last. "You were my first everything. My first love. My first kiss. I didn't know what a boyfriend was supposed to be. So I guess I just expected perfection." She inhaled sharply. "That wasn't fair."
"Sure it was," he insisted. "You deserve perfection, Donna. And I've spent the better part of the past nine months wondering why it was so hard for me to give it to you."
It was the truth. Every word of it. He had been ungrateful…unable to appreciate what he had until she was already gone.
"David…" she began awkwardly.
"No," he interrupted. "The only thing you did wrong was letting me hurt you as much as I did."
She shook her head, ready to protest. He surged on.
"I single-handedly trashed the best thing that ever happened to me," he whispered. "And I'll spend the rest of my life wishing I had done things differently."
Her gaze slowly came back to meet his, and there was a familiar warmth deep within her eyes. There was an unannounced reunion of the butterflies from the Christmas dance in the pit of his stomach, and he wished they had had the decency to send him an advance memo.
He could practically feel his heart beating in his ears, and was painfully aware of the anxious rise and fall of her bosom as she fought to catch her breath, as well. Carefully he reached out to graze his fingertips down the length of her cheekbone, startled by the surge of electricity they sent immediately to his brain. It was all he could do to prevent himself from kissing her. If it had been a year ago, he would have been well within his right to do so. But now…now things were different.
They had moved on. At least, they were trying to. He needed to respect that. Respect her.
"Does he treat you good?" he whispered quietly.
She appeared to be lost somewhere deep in the catacombs of memory lane, confusion bleeding across her delicate features. "Who?"
He would be lying if he said that he didn't feel the least bit triumphant at the fact that this moment had caused such a lapse in her memory of the past few months.
He smiled at this. He could not help it.
Realization dawned in her eyes. She pulled back ever-so-slightly, but enough to alert David that she had broken away from her trance, as well.
"Yeah," she murmured. "Yeah, he does."
He didn't believe her. Something was bothering her about him, and he felt instantaneously resentful. If Ray ever hurt her…if he ever broke her heart the same way that he did – the way that he had been regretting for months – he would single-handedly murder him.
But he couldn't say this to her. So instead he replied with a half-hearted, "Good."
And that was that. Their temporary fire had fizzled into a manageable spark, and he knew that it was time for him to go.
Before something fanned it once more.
He stood up, fixing the blankets around her in the true fashion of tucking her in. "All right. Where's Prince Purrsian?"
Donna giggled, seemingly caught off-guard that he knew the secret name of her favorite stuffed animal. She pointed to her dresser.
"Ah yes," he joked quietly, delivering the feline replica to her side. "Looking cattastic as usual."
She laughed louder this time, pulling Prince Purrsian tightly to her chest. He watched her for a moment. Long enough to see her joy melt into sincerity.
"Thank you, David."
He knew that she meant it on a much larger scale. He smiled gently in reply, leaning down to plant a kiss on her forehead.
"If you need me, you know where I'll be."
A sad smile grazed her lips, one that he knew he was mirroring. The idea of him being with Clare was somehow troubling to both of them when they knew how extensive their own history was. How extensive it would always be.
They would always have that fire. With Clare, it was more like trying to strike a wet match. They had tried – and were somehow still trying – but the efforts would always be futile in the end. It would never hold a candle to Donna. Not in a million years.
He quietly traipsed back into the hallway. The hallway where he had spent so much time in the past year. Memories filled with love and laughter, as well as anger and heartbreak. But everything came back to her. None of these memories included Clare. And he was somehow starting to realize how gravely disconcerting it was.
He spent some time outside Donna's door, contemplating where he would go. Even as recently as last night, he would have gone back to his old room, no questions asked. But somehow, now, it just felt…forced. Clare's bed was not where he wanted to be. He needed space. Yes, space. He was becoming painfully aware of how much room she commanded. And it was not just in slumber.
So instead he found himself sprawling out on the couch, Celia Martin's old afghan draped across his gawky frame. He watched the fire blazing in the hearth for what seemed like hours, musing quietly about its undeniable symbolism. When at last he drifted off, he dreamed of the West Beverly gym dressed with tinsel and garland, and the scent of vanilla cream body wash.