Casual touching, physical contact in general, is frowned upon in their faction. But nothing about the way that they touch one another feels casual to her. Even at fourteen, she thinks to herself that there must be something between them that transcends the ideals of their Abnegation lifestyle. There is an added weight to his hand on the delicate skin of her wrist as he bids her farewell each day when they reach his driveway on their walk home from school. A different feeling inside of her stomach and a clenching in her chest as his palm comes to rest on the small of her back in the crowded hallways they traverse each day.
She thinks that she might love him, but wonders if that could really be true. Can you honestly love someone that you don't really know? When you follow a way of life that deems it selfish to talk about your hopes and dreams, and not your place to ask others about their own?
She pays attention, though. Knows that his favorite color is the deep, fading red that the sunset brings at the end of each day. Has memorized how his features appear, washed in the hue as he leans against the pane of his bedroom window to watch as it bleeds out across the sky in the distance. Knows that he misses his mother, and doesn't trust his father. She's seen the way that he watches with a fond look in his eyes each time she leans close to study the altar made of Evelyn Eaton's belongings that he's lined up atop the mantle in their living room. As well as how he's always quick to put his body between her own and his father's whenever their paths cross.
She knows that something is wrong when he favors his left side and tells her that he tripped coming down the stairs in the morning or walks with a stiff gait after saying he ran into the dining table. Because she knows that if there's one thing Tobias is not, it's clumsy.
But she doesn't ask, because it's not her place. And he doesn't tell, because that's not their way.
His Choosing Day creeps closer, and there's a weight that slowly starts to settle over her heart. She knows that she shouldn't mention it, but there are times when she looks at him and can already see the preemptive apology in his eyes. He touches her less and less, and maybe if she hadn't spent hours alone in her room, cataloging each and every press of his skin to hers, it wouldn't bother her as much.
But she has, and it does.
She doesn't see him the morning his testing is set to take place. She misses the feel of him beside her, and is unsure of where to look if not at the way their feet hit the pavement in unison despite how much longer his legs are than hers.
Instead, she watches her brother as he walks in his usual spot, a few feet ahead, with their neighbor, Susan. Something in her mind latches on to the way that Caleb angles his body toward the girl beside him as they speak, and she starts to feel lonelier by the minute.
She watches from the end of the hallway, craning her neck around the corner of a row of beaten, grey lockers, and tries to catch a glimpse of him entering the cafeteria. It only makes her late for math. She thinks that she might have spotted the back of his head, but the uniformed haircut that every male member of her faction sports makes it difficult to be sure.
Her mind wanders throughout the period. Throughout the rest of the day. She's not quite sure what Tobias is like around the members of Abnegation his own age. Is he sitting with them, silently sharing the nervous energy that she can only imagine goes along with the wait for your name to be called? Is he turned toward the window, tracing small circles along the outer seam of his pant leg the way that she's watched him do countless times before? Times when she knows he can't help but worry. For a split second, she wonders if he might even be thinking of her.
Mostly she wonders whether or not he'll say goodbye.
When the final bell rings, Beatrice is up from her seat and out the door before anyone else. She doesn't wait until each of her classmates has filed out into the hallway, nor does she quietly hold the door for them the way that she has in the past. The way that she's been taught to. She hesitates for barely half a second at the spot across the street where she would normally wait for Caleb and the others. Scuffing the toe of her shoe against the gnarled roots of the tree that's grows alongside the sidewalk there, she makes up her mind. Her hands close tightly over the straps of her backpack, and she continues on.
He's waiting on her doorstep.
She observes him as she approaches, and it doesn't really feel much different from all of the others times that she's spent watching him. He runs his thumb across his knee, looping over the stitching there for a brief moment before starting the process all over. There is a deep knit in the space between his eyebrows, and she has to suppress an urge that she only seems to get around him, curling her fingers into her palms to keep herself from reaching out.
Even though there are still several yards between them, it's as if he can hear the sound of her fist clenching tight when his eyes immediately dart up to meet hers. He stands and moves so quickly that she's almost dizzied by the actions. His hand hovers in the air above her elbow for a second before he places it there to steady her.
"Beatrice, would you like to join me at my house for a while before dinner?"
Relief that it is her brother's night to prepare their dinner washes over her, and she nods. Her voice is smaller than usual, and she tries to keep it from shaking as she replies.
She waits until he offers her a seat before perching her body in the edge of the stiff couch cushion. He settles beside her and she stares at the few inches of empty space that keeps their thighs from touching. He asks her about her day, and she answers in a way that she hopes doesn't give any hint to just how much it has been centered around him.
Thoughts of him. Worries for him. Already missing him.
He asks more questions about her day, not giving her time to string her own thoughts together into coherent inquiries about his own. After the third or fourth query, her patience starts to wear thin, and there's a tug at the corner of his mouth that lifts just high enough for the dimple in his right cheek to appear. Her sarcasm has always been one of his favorite things about her. One of his favorite things, period.
He eyes the clock that hangs above the mantle and knows that his father will be home within the hour. His knee brushes hers as he turns to face her, and she knows that he has things that he has to do, but can't bear the thought of leaving him until she has to.
"I can help you with dinner if you'd like," she says, hoping that he won't decline her offer. In fact, she hopes so much that she doesn't care what it may say about her when she stands without his acceptance and moves to the kitchen without another word. The sound and feel of him as he follows behind allows her to breathe a bit easier.
The air in the kitchen is thick with silence, and the nagging, nervous feeling in the pit of her stomach makes its way into her throat. She's not sure that she'd been able to speak even if she knew the right words to say.
They effortlessly work beside each other. She puts a pot of water on to boil and watches from the corner of her eye as he pushes up the sleeves of his shirt. Knowing the likelihood of ever seeing it again, she commits to memory how the muscles of his forearms roll underneath his skin – how deftly his fingers work at securing the folds of fabric just above his elbow. She feels a knot starting to well up in her throat and turns away to busy herself with retrieving a knife and cutting board instead.
His hands are still damp when he hands the vegetables over to her for chopping. The feeling of his fingers as they glide across her palm, slow and slick over her cool, dry skin, leaves her breathless. She gives a small gasp, and bites her bottom lip as she lowers her face, tilting it toward the counter. The half smirk that barely twitches on his lips lets her know that she's been caught, but she can't find it inside of her to care. She also doesn't care about the flush that creeps up from her neck and covers her cheeks when he needlessly places a hand near her waist while stretching around her to grab something from the cabinet behind them.
The minutes tick by and before she knows it, it's time for her to leave. Dinner will be soon at her own home, and Marcus Eaton is due to arrive at his any minute. She wishes that she could spare Tobias this night with his father. Does the older man know that his only remaining family means to leave him? Does he think that he's been able to frighten him into staying? Will he try to do so in the evening hours before he retires to bed, leaving fresh bruises and tender, broken flesh for his son to take with him into his new life?
It's too soon that she finds herself standing with him in the darkened entry way of his home. The front door remains closed, and she's scared to place her hand on the knob. She knows that after this moment seeing him again is no longer an inevitability. There's also the fear that if she does, he'll be nothing more than a stranger to her.
Postponing the pain will not keep it from happening, however.
She takes a step closer to the exit and lifts her chin up to face him one last time. There's a tick in his jaw and it's obvious that he's struggling with whether or not to let the words that are on the tip of his tongue roll off and fill the air. She doesn't blink as she speaks.
"I'm going to miss you, aren't I?"
Years ago, at their uncle's funeral, she'd held her brother's hand as they stood behind their normally stoic, but then weeping father. It had felt profound at the time. There was a sense of unity, and comfort, and a number of other things that she'd yet to experience at her young age. But when Tobias takes a step forward and laces his fingers with hers, her palm flush with and so much smaller than his, she can't help but think that it felt nothing like this.
She vaguely registers the fact that he swallows hard as he moves to stand even closer. Her elbow bends, leaving her forearm pressed to her torso and their hands hovering in the air over her collarbone. There's a warmth that works its way up the line of her arm. It bounces around inside her ribcage and seeps into an empty spot in her chest that she didn't know existed until this moment. Briefly, she wonders if the idea of him leaving is the reason for its appearance in the first place. The heat finally settles deep in her belly, and there's a fluttering sensation that makes her skin feel suddenly too tight for her body.
His fingers tighten around hers, the pressure somehow both gentle and firm at the same time, and she forces her gaze up to meet his.
She can see it in his eyes, but the pain he feels is also present in the slight tremble of voice when he replies.
"I'll miss you, too."