So I've learned to swim against the current
To live my life and now I'm free
There's no one else I'd rather be
Against The Current ~ Mree
Anna was miserable.
Three weeks had passed since that night at Warren's house, and ever since then she'd been avoiding him like the plague. It was easier now that their study sessions were finished and they had no classes together, but she still saw him in the halls – in which case she'd practically dive into the nearest classroom or bathroom or whatever room was closest, dragging whoever accompanied her along for the ride – and outside after school. He had even tried calling and texting her at first, but she had refused to read his messages or listen to his voicemails. She couldn't face him, couldn't listen to his voice and hear what she'd done to him.
She knew that this was all her fault and that Warren had done nothing wrong. She knew she should go and see him, go and apologize, but every time she considered it her stomach cramped up in fear and she decided against it. She still didn't quite understand what had happened that night. She wanted to kiss him and she'd been happy at first, wrapped up in his arms, but then terror struck and it felt like the walls were closing in on her.
Too much of her time had been spent dissecting that night, over analyzing every little thing until she had a migraine. And she still had no idea what had happened.
Or perhaps she did. But she wasn't ready to admit it.
In an attempt to keep her mind off such troubling thoughts, Anna made sure she was never without something to do. She cleaned her room, – more like cleaned the whole house. Her parents were thrilled at that – went shopping with Ava, studied, watched movies, read books and spent hours on the internet; but more than anything else, she baked.
Anna had always found baking an enjoyable, therapeutic experience and this time was no different. Her arm ached from mixing batter, but her mind soon began to clear and she was able to relax for the first time in weeks. She baked all sorts of things: banana bread, cookies, muffins, cupcakes, brownies and cakes, stopping only when there was no room left for any of her creations in the fridge or cupboards. Her solution was to invite TJ and Ava over practically every afternoon so they could gorge themselves on the variety of baked goods.
It wasn't long, however, before Ava was complaining that Anna was trying to fatten her up so she couldn't fit into her dress for the dance. In reality, it was because Ava could eat her entire weight in food and still be hungry, but she let her think what she wanted.
That was something else Anna had to dwell on: the end of year semi-formal. While prom was only for the seniors, Sky High always held a smaller, more casual event for all students to attend toward the end of the year. It was a way for everyone to let their hair down and have fun after so many months of testing and learning and that grating school mentality. Ava was crazy excited about it, which was nothing out of the ordinary, but that excitement soon began to rub off onto Anna the more she spoke about it. Anna always enjoyed dressing up and dancing, even though she didn't have much talent in the latter department.
But then her excitement would vanish the moment she realized she didn't have a date and the one person she really wanted to go with was the very person she was currently avoiding.
Despite all her current problems, TJ still came over to see her every few days – whether to see how she was doing or eat cupcakes and banana bread, she wasn't sure – and today was no different. The moment Anna got home from school she'd made a beeline for the kitchen and pulled out everything necessary to make a new batch of brownies to satisfy her craving for chocolate. By the time TJ arrived she was covered in flour and chocolate smudges, but she looked happy, and that was what mattered to him.
"Hey, An-oooooh, you made more banana bread! Right on." He pulled one of the kitchen stools over to the counter and sat down, resting his elbows on the only bit of counter that didn't have flour or butter smeared all over it. "What's up?" he asked, pulling the freshly baked banana bread over to where he sat.
"Help yourself," Anna teased, watching as he tore a piece away and shoved it into his mouth. That boy had a real thing for banana bread. "What brings you here?"
"I haf sumfing to ask moo," he said around his mouthful of food, spraying crumbs onto the countertop.
"Excuse you, piglet," Anna scolded, brushing the crumbs away. "You're messing up my work space."
TJ swallowed before speaking this time. "It was already messy."
"But it's a nice mess. Now, what did you say?"
"I said I have something to ask you," he repeated. "Well, I'm not so much asking you as telling you, because you have no choice here."
Anna scoffed as she scooped the last of the brownie batter into a tray and took it over to the oven. "I'll be the judge of that," she said, closing the oven door and nodding to herself. Countdown to deliciousness: activate. "Lay it on me then, wise guy."
TJ grinned and got off the stool, walking around the counter to take Anna's flour covered hand. "Anna Clarke," he began, smiling down at her. "You're coming to the dance with me."
Anna stared at him in silence for a moment, her mouth slightly agape. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me."
"I did, but who said I was going to the dance at all?"
"Please. We both know you're excited about it and I refuse to let you go alone, so here's what you're going to do: this weekend you and Ava are going dress shopping and you're going to smile and laugh and have fun, and then, on the night of the dance, I'm going to come and pick you up and we're going to enjoy ourselves and not be moping around baking brownies. Alright?" TJ's expression was deadly serious, despite the crumbs that clung to the corners of his mouth and Anna felt her eyes sting with tears at how much he cared for her.
"I don't know, TJ…" she began, but he cut her off.
"You do know," he told her. "Yes, you messed up, but that doesn't mean you have to keep feeling sorry for yourself. You can't just wait around doing nothing and expect things to get better. You need to pick yourself up and start living again. You're about to graduate high school for goodness sake. Be happy!"
His words were harsh, but Anna knew they were true. He and Ava had let her be sad, but now they were pulling her out of the rut she'd fallen into; and she needed to let them. "Okay," she said after a long moment of silence. TJ looked at her with hopeful eyes, squeezing her hand when she started to smile. "Okay. Let's do it."
"No. The color is wrong."
"What's with the high neckline? We're not going to church."
"Ooh, that's pretty. Turn for me? Oh wait, no. No, I don't like it."
"I don't remember telling you to try that one on."
"Oh ew. No. Take it off."
"No frills. Ever."
Anna groaned as she trudged back to her dressing room, her feet aching from the constant back and forth so that Ava could decide whether or not she liked her outfit. So far, she didn't like anything – and she'd picked them all out. "We've been at this for two hours. Can I have a break?"
"Not yet," Ava replied and Anna saw her high heels peek under the dressing room door a second before she flung yet another dress over the top. "Try this one on and then maybe I'll let you rest."
"God, you're such a slave driver." She eyed the sea green dress Ava had given her, not realizing that it was completely backless until she'd put it on. "Are you kidding me, Ava? No way!"
"Oh, come on! It's pretty!"
"Ugh. You're no fun."
Anna laughed quietly as she took the dress off and changed back into her regular clothes, adding the – admittedly, very pretty – dress to the 'no' pile, which was growing bigger by the minute. As promised, she'd let Ava drag her out of the house bright and early Saturday morning to go dress shopping. Ava already had her outfit picked out, but if there was one thing she loved more than shopping for herself, it was shopping for Anna – probably because Anna rarely let her do it. She'd been grumpy at first, especially from being woken up so early, but after a few cups of coffee she'd cheered up and started to have fun. It felt strange being out and about again after so long cooped up at home. It just reminded her that even though she was struggling, the world was still spinning and life continued on all around her.
Ava had spoken to her about the Warren situation on the drive into town, listening to Anna's fears and frustrations and giving her opinion when desired, and sometimes even when it wasn't. She agreed wholeheartedly that going to the dance with TJ was the best thing for her right now; everything with Warren would work itself out in the end, but that didn't mean she had to deny herself any chance of happiness until then.
After slipping her shoes back on Anna left her cubicle and rejoined Ava out on the shop floor. The smaller girl was currently examining a rack of cocktail dresses, her lips pinched in frustration. "What's up, shorty?"
"There's nothing good here," she replied dejectedly. "Well, nothing you'd be willing to wear, anyway. Perhaps we should try the dress shop down the street?"
"That sounds like a great idea, but may I please have a rest first? My feet are killing me and I'm starving."
Ava heaved a big, dramatic sigh and turned to her friend. "Fine, but if you're getting something to eat then I want a donut… or a muffin… or a burger. It's your call, really." She smiled warmly and the two made their way back out onto the street, agreeing to meet at the next store in ten minutes. Ava was going straight there to get a head start while Anna went to the local bakery and bought something to eat; a quick glance at her phone told her it was almost 12:30. Well no wonder she was hungry.
There was a chill in the air today and Anna huddled further into her coat as she hurried down the street, her nose already starting to go numb. The bell above the bakery door jingled welcomingly as it opened, but the sound of someone calling her name made her pause. With one foot in the door, Anna leaned back out into the street to investigate, spotting none other than Jamie jogging down the street to meet her.
"Jamie," she said in surprise, stepping out of the way as a mother and her little baby slipped out the door. "Hey. How are you?"
"I'm good," she replied brightly, her cheeks flushed pink from the wind. "What are you doing in town?"
"Dress shopping with Ava. I'm on snack duty," she said, gesturing to the still half-open door.
Jamie laughed. "I always opt to get food instead of being stuck clothes shopping. As much as I enjoy it, it gets boring real quick." Her bright blue eyes glowed in the light of the winter sun and Anna was struck once again by how pretty she was. "So, do you have time for coffee with a girlfriend?"
Anna smiled. "I always have time for coffee."
The warmth from the bakery sank straight through Anna's clothes as she and Jamie bought their food and went to sit by the front window. Anna slipped the paper bag with Ava's food in it into her satchel as she sat down, her coat draped over the back of the chair. The smell of coffee assailed her nostrils and she sighed happily, taking a sip of the toasty beverage.
"So, how have you been?" Jamie asked, slim fingers curled around her mug. Anna could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew what was going on, but she didn't want to ask directly and cause discomfort.
"I've certainly been better," Anna replied, leaning back in her seat. "But I'm managing."
Jamie nodded and took a sip of her drink. "I heard you got your credits," she said. "Congratulations."
"Thanks." As promised, Anna had received her extra credits for tutoring Warren, adding to her already impressive grades. She wasn't one to boast, but she was proud of herself – she'd worked herself to the bone to get those grades. "It took off a lot of stress."
"Tell me about it," Jamie agreed. "I'm surprised I haven't had a nervous breakdown already, what with college responses coming in and end of year exams as well as our impending graduation. Are seniors always this panicked?"
"Probably," Anna said with a smile. "Where did you apply for college?"
"It feels like I've sent an application to at least every state in the country," Jamie laughed. "I even applied to the University of Toronto, if you can believe it. Insane, right?" She shook her head, sending her hair slipping over her shoulders. "Although I'm hoping to be accepted somewhere in New York; it's where I've always wanted to go to college and there are schools there that Zane's interested in."
"Ah. So he's going where you go?"
"Yeah. How cliché are we?" She looked a little sheepish, her still pink cheeks highlighting the expression. "I know Will is going to follow Layla wherever she goes, so maybe we Strongholds are a bunch of romantics, I don't know. What about you?"
"I applied here and there, but I've got my sights set on Virginia," Anna replied.
"Virginia?" Jamie looked a little surprised by this. "I wouldn't have guessed that."
"I've got a lot of family history out there," she explained. "I've been going there for as long as I can remember and over the years I just fell in love with the whole atmosphere, and it will be easy for my parents to visit me because our family has a heap of land out that way."
"That's really sweet." Jamie smiled around the rim of her mug. "I'll keep my fingers crossed for you."
Anna smiled back and as the conversation dwindled, her thoughts turned to the person they were trying not to talk about. "So… h-how's… um…"
"How's Warren?" Jamie supplied in a gentle voice. Anna nodded. "He's okay; almost finished with all of his exams. He's doing really well. I suppose he has you to thank for that."
Anna's chest squeezed. "He would have done just fine with or without my help, but –"
"But that's not what you were asking," Jamie finished for her. She sighed, her gaze dropping to her coffee. "I won't sugar coat it for you, Anna – you really hurt him." Anna flinched and Jamie's expression softened. "I'm sorry if that stung."
"It's okay," Anna said through a tight throat. "I deserved it."
"No. No, I don't think you did." Jamie looked up again and there was some strange emotion in her eyes that made Anna both nervous and brought her peace. "He and I talked about it a lot those first few days. He was worried that he'd done something wrong, overstepped a boundary or offended you in some way."
"Oh, no." Anna shook her head vehemently. "He didn't, he absolutely didn't. This is all on me."
Jamie nodded slowly. "I didn't think so." Her head tilted to one side and she offered Anna an encouraging smile. "Why don't you tell me what happened? I'd like to know your side of the story."
And so Anna told her everything, from the day she met him to that fateful night three weeks ago. Jamie listened intently, nodding at certain details and not judging once. Anna was grateful for that, for her patient face and the understanding silence she sat in until Anna was done, feeling emotionally exhausted from reliving all those events. She took a deep swig of her coffee to soothe her dry throat.
"I think I understand now," Jamie said when Anna stopped talking. "You were scared, plain and simple. There was no anger or discomfort that made you act like that; it was fear." Anna didn't speak, but something told her she didn't need to. Jamie was working it out on her own. "You know it's okay to be scared sometimes, Anna," she said gently. "I was scared at first, too, when I got together with Zane. I was scared of moving on from the only relationship I knew and while it's not quite the same, I think it's similar to what you're feeling. That crippling fear of the unknown, of taking a leap and there being no one to catch you." She reached out and took Anna's hand; the touch was incredibly comforting. "It's okay, Anna. It really is." She smiled and Anna's expression cracked, her insecurities shining through. "I know you don't understand what you're feeling, but that's okay. Don't force it. Just because we're almost done with school doesn't mean you have to rush to find all the answers. When you're ready, everything will become clear, and then you'll understand."
"But what about Warren?" Anna asked, her mind spinning from the advice Jamie was giving her. How she managed to hit the nail on the head like that was beyond her.
"Don't worry about him," Jamie soothed. "He's a big boy. He'll wait for you, Anna. Trust me."
"I am," Jamie said, letting go of Anna's hand to check her phone. "Now, I think I've kept you long enough. It's time you got back to Ava before she sends out a search party." She laughed to herself and the sound relaxed Anna's tight shoulders. "Come on, I'll walk you out." Jamie left a twenty on the table for the waitress and followed Anna out into the street. The wind had settled, but the air was still cold and Anna shivered as she shrugged back into her coat. "Remember, I'm just a phone call away," she said, pulling Anna into a tight hug. "Everything will be alright. I promise."
Anna returned the hug, hoping Jamie could feel how grateful she was. "Thank you, Jamie. Really."
Jamie leaned back and smiled again. "Don't mention it. Now you go and enjoy the rest of your day, and I'll see you at school."
The two girls parted ways, Anna walking up the street to the dress shop where Ava waited for her. She couldn't describe it, but she felt infinitely better after talking with Jamie. When she walked into the store and found Ava sitting beside a mounting pile of new dresses for her to try on, it was with a wide, genuine smile on her face.
Jamie's words remained with Anna long after she returned from shopping with Ava. She tried not to read too much into the other girl's advice, despite its constant presence in the back of her mind. Ava had complained when Anna returned to her almost twenty minutes later than agreed, shutting up only when Anna told her about her coffee and conversation with Jamie. She didn't let her dwell on it, however, shoving her into the nearest cubicle and practically burying her under a mountain of dresses.
Thankfully there had been one dress in particular that the two of them had agreed on and Anna stared at it now with an air of satisfaction as she relaxed on her bed, the dress hanging from her open closet door. The only other thing she'd needed was a pair of shoes, which had been easy to find. Anything else was already supplied at home.
TJ had been very happy to hear that the shop had been successful. "You know," he'd said as they'd spoken on the phone that afternoon. "You sound better. Happier."
His observation had surprised her at first, but she soon realized that he was right. She did feel better; she felt like she was slowly crawling out of the darkness and back into the light, and that made her happy. Maybe Jamie was right, maybe they were all right.
Maybe everything would be okay in the end.
She remembered what TJ had said to her the other day in the kitchen, that she couldn't wait around doing nothing and expect things to get better. This was her problem, which meant she was the only one who could fix it; and the first thing to do was figure out why she was acting like this in the first place.
Anna leaned back against the headboard, her legs bent and toes tapping a lazy rhythm into the mattress. The night was calm and quiet, with nothing but the sound of leaves rustling in the light winter breeze. It was such a contrast to the weather that night at Warren's; it had been storming that night, the lightning cutting through her soul like a knife. Her mother, Rue, had been the supportive energy she'd needed that night, giving her fresh, warm clothes and a cup of tea – as well as a shot of whisky, so long as she didn't tell her father.
She recalled the way she'd felt as she stumbled in through the door, eyes blurred with rainwater and tears as she shivered from the cold. She had seen the goose bumps on her arms, felt the way her teeth had chattered, and yet she was numb to it all, only thawing out when her mother wrapped her arms around her and tried to soothe her crying.
They'd stayed up almost all night, Rue listening as Anna blubbered and made little to no sense until she fell asleep in her arms. She remembered now, something that her mother had said to her as she'd drifted off to sleep on the couch. It'll be okay, sweetie, she'd said. Falling in love is always scary at first.
Anna had thought she was mad to suggest such a thing, but now she gave the thought a bit more consideration. And the more she thought about it, the more she realized how often it had been brought up in conversation; even Jamie had told her that it was okay to be scared. Had she meant what her mother had? That falling in love was scary, but she'd be okay?
She sat up straight as her mind slowly began to connect the dots. When she'd first met Warren, she had hated his guts. He was rude, arrogant, self-centered and just all around pigheaded - but now she knew he was kind, caring and sweet. That he was just a lost soul trying to find his way in the world. She knew who he was and what he wanted from life. She knew that he was smart and that if he tried, he could do anything.
And she didn't want to lose him.
Her heart began to race and she pressed a hand to her chest, her breaths coming short and fast. She had been scared to get too close to him for fear of destroying what they had, but what if taking a chance made it better? What if they could make it work? It felt like she was standing at the edge of the ocean, too scared to step into the cold water. But when was anyone ever ready for that sensation; for the cold to steal the air from your lungs and lock up your muscles? Still, people stepped in every day, all because they knew there would be someone there to keep them afloat, to hold them steady.
Her chest constricted at the possibility that Warren would be waiting for her in the water. She knew that her heart had grown and that he had found a place there, but she'd been too scared to admit it. She didn't want to start something that wouldn't last, but who's to say they couldn't make it work? Who's to say that they didn't deserve the chance to try? She wanted to share that with him. She wanted to see him smile at her, to hear his voice at night, to kiss him like she had. To tell him how much she loved him.
Because she did.
She loved him.
"Oh my god," she breathed, eyes wide. She didn't know when it had happened, or how, and she didn't care. He was a part of her life now and she was going to do everything she could to keep him there. This was what everyone had been talking about. This was what she needed to find out for herself; she had been blind to what everyone else could see. But it didn't matter, because she saw it now. "I love him," she whispered, a slow smile pulling at her lips. "I love him."
Before she knew it she was on her feet and running down the stairs, nimble fingers grabbing the car keys from their hook in the foyer. Her mother heard the noise and came out from the lounge room to investigate, raising her perfectly shaped eyebrows when she saw her daughter struggling to put her coat and boots on. "Anna, what's going on?"
Anna looked up at her with wide, refreshed eyes. "I get it, mom. I finally get it."
Rue walked over to her and tenderly pulled the young girl's dirty blonde hair out from under the neckline of her coat. "I see. So, what are you planning to do now?"
Anna shrugged, her cheeks flushed. Rue couldn't remember the last time she'd seen her daughter so blissfully happy and energetic. She had known from the beginning that Anna was in love with this Warren boy, but she simply needed the time and space to figure it out for herself. And from the looks of things, she'd finally done so. "I don't know, I just need to go somewhere, tell someone. Warren usually works late during the week, so maybe I can catch him before his shift ends."
"And if you don't?"
Anna looked up at that and Rue could see the fresh epiphany all over her face. "I have no idea and for once I don't care. Even if I don't see him, it doesn't matter because I understand now. Do you know what I mean?"
Rue nodded, not wanting to speak for fear of crying. She couldn't help it. "Go," she whispered, cupping Anna's cheeks in her hands. "Do what you need to do and remember that I'm proud of you."
Anna smiled and wrapped her arms around her mother's small frame. "Thanks, mom," she said and then she was out the door and running to her car. Even in the darkness she shone with the light of new love and Rue watched her with the endless devotion only a parent could give.
"Where's she off to?" said a low, masculine voice. Rue leaned back into the solid weight of her husband, Dallas, as he came up behind her. "It's late."
Rue chuckled quietly, taking his hand between her own. "She's following her heart."
Thankfully the Paper Lantern was still open by the time Anna arrived, adrenaline still rushing through her veins. It was a miracle she hadn't been pulled over by the police as she tore through the quiet city streets, desperate to get to the small Chinese restaurant. She'd been here several times – before and after she met Warren – and recognized several of the staff cars as she pulled into the parking lot. They were having a quiet night by the looks of it. That was both good and bad; good because she wouldn't have to wait too long to talk to Warren and bad because everyone else inside would most likely be able to hear her. Oh well, what was a declaration of love without a few eavesdroppers?
Despite the confidence in her feelings, Anna still felt a flash of fear as she walked up to the front door of the restaurant. Warren had no idea about what had happened in the last hour; hell, he hadn't seen her in almost a month. Perhaps she could have given him some prior warning, texted him to let him know she was coming, but in the midst of everything such a thing had slipped her mind.
"Oh well," she said, hand half raised to push the door open. "I'm here now. Nothing left to do but take the plunge."
The bell jingled invitingly as the door opened and Anna breathed in the smell of lemon chicken and rice to calm her nerves. The deep red tones and traditional Chinese lanterns were oddly calming in this familiar space and Anna walked confidently up to the nearest waitress who was slowly clearing away one of the empty tables. "Excuse me," she began politely. "Is Warren here?"
The girl looked up at the new voice, the dishes in the tray she carried clanking together as she straightened up. "I'm sorry, but you just missed him. His shift ended about ten minutes ago."
For a moment Anna's heart sank, but she quickly picked herself up and carried on. "Oh. That's okay, then. I'm sorry to have bothered you."
The waitress saw the fleeting sadness on Anna's face and quickly spoke again. "You can leave a message for him if you want? I'll make sure he gets it the next time he's here."
Somehow, the idea of leaving Warren a note saying I love you on it seemed a bit childish. Anna smiled and shook her head. "No, that's fine. I'll see him another time."
"Do you want me to let him know you were here?"
"No thank you." Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise. Barging into Warren's place of work and spilling her feelings out to him may not have been the wisest choice. Now she could be a bit more delicate about it, wait until her head was clear and she was ready to see him. No. This was good. She could work with this. "I'll head home now. You enjoy the rest of your night."
"Wait," said the girl before Anna could leave. "Here."
Anna caught the small object before it could fall to the floor, uncurling her fingers when she had it firmly in her grip. It was a fortune cookie.
The waitress smiled. "Good luck."
Anna beamed back at her.
"This school certainly knows how to throw a party."
"I guess you could say they put the fun in function."
"That was a terrible pun."
"You're a terrible pun."
TJ laughed at the sour expression on Anna's face as they walked through the double doors and into the school gym, which had been completely decked out for the end of year semi-formal. Twinkle lights hung from every available surface and music came at the dancers from every corner of the room. It wasn't as lavish as homecoming or prom, but it was still pretty damn good. Anna could see several of the teaching staff around the gymnasium, keeping a watchful, yet relaxed eye on the partygoers; Mr. Boy was at the drink table, handing out cups of punch to thirsty students.
As promised, TJ had shown up at Anna's house earlier in the evening, dressed in dark jeans and a simple white shirt, ready to escort her to the dance. Seeing as neither of them could fly they'd had to wait for the bus to come and pick them up, but that hadn't bothered them in the slightest. Besides, flying would only mess up Anna's hair.
It had been a week since Anna's epiphany and TJ and Ava were well aware of their best friend's feelings for the soccer captain. TJ was overjoyed, of course, claiming to have known it from the beginning, shutting up only when Ava slugged him in the arm for trying to take all the credit. They agreed with her decision to wait for the right time to talk to Warren, although Ava found her mad dash to the Paper Lantern absolutely adorable.
If all went well, Anna would see him tonight. Then again, she had no idea if he'd actually decided to show up tonight or if he already had a date; the latter thought made her feel sick, but if that was the case… well… she'd come up with something.
"Anna! You made it!" Ava jogged over to where she and TJ stood, taking Anna's hands the moment she was in reach. "I was wondering when you'd get here. You look fantastic, by the way."
"Thanks," Anna said over the music. She wore a one shouldered, light blue mini dress, silver sandals and matching silver drop earrings. Her hair was down, with its usual two side braids pulled together at the back of her head – it was only a semi-formal dance, after all. Best to keep it simple. She opened her mouth to compliment Ava on her wardrobe, but paused when she realized what it was the other girl had on. "Why are you wearing a go-go dress?"
Ava looked down at the plum colored dress she wore with an expression of the utmost satisfaction. Unlike Anna, the accessories she'd chosen were all gold and her hair was pulled up in a high ponytail. "I was feeling nostalgic for the 60s."
"You were born in the 90s."
"I really don't see your point."
TJ grinned, reaching out to tug on the hem of Ava's dress. "I like it. Very retro."
Anna had to admit that it suited her. "I just appreciate the lack of white thigh high boots."
Ava giggled, turning one of her legs to show off the gold flats she wore. "Oh, believe me, I was thinking about it." She put her hands on her hips and turned her attention to TJ. "So, hotshot, am I going to get to dance with you tonight?"
TJ made a show of putting his hand over the one Anna had tucked into the crook of his elbow. "We've barely been here five minutes and you're already trying to steal me away from my woman?" he teased. "I thought you already had a date."
"I do, but it doesn't mean I have to dance with him all night." Ava's date was, ironically enough, one of Warren's teammates. "Come on, dreads, don't leave me hanging."
"Like I could ever say no to you," he replied. "But I'll have you know that if another beautiful woman asks me for a dance, I'm ditching you. Capiche?"
"Such a gentleman," Ava sighed. "Fine. I accept your terms."
"Wonderful. Now, would either of you like a drink?" After a quick nod from Anna, TJ left them to talk while he made his way over to the drinks table. Anna saw someone clap him on the shoulder and knew it would be a little while before he found them again.
"So, what's the plan?" Ava asked, linking their arms together as they walked further into the gym, giving the dancers a wide berth. "I'm okay with anything so long as it's not overly cheesy."
Anna shrugged. "There's no plan," she replied. "I'm just going to wing it."
Ava looked at her curiously. "Where is my uptight best friend tonight? You're never this relaxed about things."
"I guess I've changed," she said, and there was nothing but happiness in her voice. Ava smiled and squeezed her arm. She had seen the transformation in Anna over the last few months and was glad that she now saw it, too.
"My baby is all grown up," she teased, sniffing dramatically and waving her free hand under her eyes, pretending to dry away her tears. Anna rolled her eyes and tugged playfully on her arm, looking out over the crowd of students as Ava laughed beside her. There was no sign of Warren yet, but that was okay. While she was here to see him, she was also here to enjoy herself; whether or not she got the chance to speak to him wouldn't decide the outcome of her night, she wouldn't let it. She had promised herself that she'd have fun, no matter what.
"Hey, look," Ava said, lifting her hand to point at a finely dressed couple by one of the tables. "There's Jamie. Let's go say hi."
Jamie looked up as the girls approached, her signature bright smile lighting up her face. She looked absolutely stunning in her black and nude lace maxi dress, black pumps and matching pearl necklace and bangles. Her usual thick, wavy hair had been flat ironed straight and when she moved her head, Anna saw a flash of pastel pink feather earrings. "Hi girls," she greeted cheerfully. "You look gorgeous."
"Thank you, darling," Ava said smoothly, while Anna blushed at the compliment. "I absolutely adore your dress."
Jamie gave a soft, shy laugh as she ran her hands over the lace skirt of her dress. "Thanks." She turned to look at Zane as he came up beside her, looking as elegant as his girlfriend. They were dressed just as casually as everyone else, yet they seemed to stand out like flames in a dark room. "I'm glad you could make it, Anna," she said, meeting her grey gaze. They stared at each other in silence for a few seconds, Jamie looking like she was searching for something in Anna's eyes. Whatever it was, she must have found it for a moment later her expression smoothed out and she smiled knowingly. "You seem different somehow."
Anna caught on then and smiled back at her. "I feel different," she confirmed. "Perhaps it's because I'm not scared anymore."
Jamie's eyes glowed. "That must be it."
Zane glanced at his date from the corner of his eye before looking to Anna, the ring in his lip catching the light as he smiled. Anna heard Ava make a faint "ooooh" sound. "It's nice to see you again, Anna," he said, his voice low and gentle; like liquid gold. "I hope you'll save me a dance tonight."
"Of course," she replied, trying not to laugh as Ava continued to make appreciative noises beside her.
Jamie noticed this and bit down on her bottom lip to hide her grin. "Well, it can stay saved for a while," she said, stepping forward. "Because I'm dancing with her first. Come on girls."
"And who am I supposed to dance with?" Zane called after them.
"I'm sure Will is around here somewhere," Jamie shot back, barely sparing him a glance as she all but dragged the two girls into the throng of dancers.
It felt wonderful to let go of everything that had been troubling her for so long and just jump around like an idiot with her friends. TJ showed up mid-song and stole Ava away for her dance while Jamie stayed with Anna, twirling her around until she felt dizzy. They stayed out on the dance floor for what felt like hours, laughing and jumping and singing every single song the DJ played at the top of their lungs; Will and TJ even started a conga line at one point.
When Anna's feet started to hurt they retreated to one of the tables with Jamie and the others, swapping stories and hopping from one conversation topic to another. TJ looked overjoyed to see all his friends together in one place, watching as everyone spoke over the top of each other and laughed so hard they went red in the face. It wasn't hard to tell that new, long lasting friendships were being forged tonight.
"- and then the table snapped clean in half!" Jamie finished through her giggles, slapping her brother on the back.
"With all the phones dad breaks, you think they'd have a spare dining table lying around somewhere," Will chuckled, flicking a bottle top across the table. He and his sister were regaling everyone with the story of how they'd broken the dining room table during an arm wrestling match. "I'll never forget the look on mom's face. I'm pretty sure I wet my pants a little."
Ava snorted. "So, who got the blame?"
"Will, of course," Jamie said. "I may be strong, but he got the full dose of super strength from dad. That and no one can stay mad at me for long. I mean, come on, look at this face." To further demonstrate her words, she stuck out her lower lip and batted her eyelashes.
"Pff, that's not cute," Will argued. "You look like you're having a seizure."
"Whatever. That face has gotten me out of trouble for years, meanwhile you keep blaming the dog, and we don't even have a dog!"
"I still can't believe it worked."
"It was one time."
"Which is one more than I was expecting."
Anna turned her attention to the lively crowd as Jamie and Will began to tease each other again, her stormy eyes searching face after face. They'd been here almost two hours and there was still no sign of Warren. Despite how much fun she was having, his absence left a hollow sensation in her chest; perhaps he'd decided not to come, not wanting to risk running into her. She began to question her morals as she sat at the table, chin resting on the palm of her hand. Maybe she should have called him or left a text to explain the situation, but it all seemed too childish and cowardly. She wanted to do this face-to-face, however letting Warren know she wanted to see him probably would have been a wise move.
Here's hoping luck is on my side tonight, she thought to herself.
"Are you okay, Anna?" Jamie asked, looking at her with concerned eyes. Will had diverted his attention to Layla, leaving his sister to do as she pleased. "You look troubled."
Anna managed a weak smile. "I'm okay, just keeping an eye out. You haven't seen him at all yet, have you?"
Jamie looked around the room, a slight twist to the set of her mouth. "I'm afraid not," she said. "But the night is still young. Don't let it bother you too much, honey."
Zane watched the exchange in silence, reaching over to take Jamie's hand as she leaned back in her seat. She looked down at his hand with a smile and linked their fingers together. "Actually, if it's not too much trouble," he began quietly, turning to Anna. "I'd like to claim that dance you owe me, Miss Clarke."
Anna felt the sharp point of Ava's shoe against her ankle, a silent way of saying: 'I'll dance with him if you won't, but I can't guarantee you'll get him back' and let out a soft laugh. "I'd love to, if Jamie doesn't mind me stealing you away."
"I don't mind at all," Jamie said. "I might even have a dance with TJ."
"You won't be able to stop at one," TJ shot back with a wink.
"Speaking of, I should probably go find my date and make him dance with me," Ava said, rising from her chair. "I'll be right back."
Zane watched her go before getting up and circling the table to stand before Anna. "May I have this dance?" he asked politely, holding his hand out for her to take.
Anna delighted in his old fashioned ways and happily gave him her hand. "You may," she said, following him out onto the dance floor just as the song changed to a slower, more romantic tune. She shot Zane a suspicious glance. "You didn't plan this, did you?"
Zane chuckled. "Maybe I did, maybe I didn't."
"It was a total fluke, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was."
Anna laughed. "Still, I'm impressed." She let him guide her hand onto his shoulder, wrapping his long fingers around her other hand before he began to lead her in a slow circle. He was an excellent dancer, soothing her when she stumbled or missed a step and soon they were dancing smoothly across the floor. Anna felt like she was in some black and white romance movie, dancing the night away with a handsome prince – even if he wasn't quite the one she was hoping for.
Zane noticed this and gently squeezed her hand. "What's the matter?" he asked in a low voice, so as not to disturb the other couples.
Anna sighed despite herself, glancing up to meet his quicksilver eyes. "I don't know. I promised myself I wouldn't let it get to me if he didn't come, but I feel like I got my hopes up for nothing."
"You don't think he'd want to see you?"
"After the way I treated him? Not at all. But there was a small part of me who hoped for a different outcome, but I guess I'm not surprised. I'm not worth it."
Zane's expression softened at her dejected tone. "How can you say something like that?"
"I'm not like other girls," she said sadly. "I'm not pretty or outgoing or brave. I'm not like Jamie. I'm just… me."
"And what's wrong with just being you?" he asked, smiling down at her. She wasn't sure what to say to that. "I haven't known you very long, but I can tell you that I think you're rather remarkable. Sure, you may not be as outgoing as other girls, but who says you have to be? And comparing yourself to Jamie is just silly; you're two completely different people. But as someone who knows you both, I can say with the utmost surety that you're just as incredible as each other – in your own ways." He spun her around then, sending her hair swirling around her face. "There is no one else you need to be in this world but yourself, because there's no one else like you."
His honest words made her eyes sting and she blinked rapidly to keep the tears at bay. The last thing she needed was smudged mascara. "Thank you, Zane."
"You're welcome," he said. "Just for the record, I think you're very brave; and you'd be hard pressed to find someone who didn't think you were gorgeous."
She laughed then, the sound morphing into a small hiccup. "You really are very charming, aren't you?"
He smiled. "I don't have to try very hard."
"I can see that."
He chuckled again, lifting Anna's spirits. She could see TJ and Jamie dancing not too far from them, as well as Ava and her date; Will, Layla and the rest of their friends had also joined them for a few slow dances. "You keep looking for him," Zane observed, recapturing Anna's attention.
She blushed. "I can't help it."
"It's okay, although I don't think you need to look much further."
She blinked at him, not quite understanding. "I don't?"
"No, you don't." He spun her around again, but this time he let go of her hand mid-turn and stepped away. Before she could ask him what he was doing, or stop her spinning, another hand took his place, gently grasping her fingers. Anna recognized the warm, callused skin before she saw his face, but the sight of it sent her heart pounding nevertheless.
Warren looked down at her with cautious eyes, dark hair framing his face. "Hey," he said, and the sound of his voice sent a rush of love through Anna's body. Oh, how she'd missed that sound.
"Hi," she breathed. They stood still for a moment before Warren began leading her in a circle, just as Zane had. "I didn't think you were going to show."
"Neither did I," he said, his jaw tight.
"I'm glad you did."
His eyes widened a little, the only visible reaction to her words. "You are?"
"Of course. Everyone was hoping you'd make it."
Obviously that wasn't what he'd been hoping to hear, but it was the best she could do right now. His sudden appearance had thrown her off her game and she felt panic tightening her throat. This was her chance. Her chance to fix everything she'd broken and see whether or not it would hold together afterwards. If they would hold together.
"So, how have you been?" she asked carefully, trying not to step on his toes.
He scoffed. "Like you care?"
She flinched away from him, the sting of his words like knife through her stomach. But it was okay. She deserved that. Hell, she expected that. It would have been worse if he'd been overly sweet and kind to her. She wanted the truth, even if it hurt. "I do care," she said firmly. "Look, trying to have a serious conversation and dance at the same time isn't going to do us any good. Can we… go for a walk?"
He looked over her shoulder for a moment. "We can't leave the gym without adult supervision."
"Right," she sighed. Crap, now what? "Well, how about getting away from the crowds at least?"
"Sure." He let go of her hand and followed her away from the dancing couples, past the tables and over to the wall of windows at the far end of the room. He leaned against a concrete pillar as Anna stared out into the night, the moon shining onto her already pale skin.
"I want you to know how sorry I am, Warren," she began in a quiet voice. "For everything." He didn't say a word and Anna took that as permission to continue on. "I know that doesn't take back what I've done to you, but I had to let you know. I was stupid and naïve and blind to what was right there in front of me."
"And what was that?" he asked her. Even though his tone was sharp, there was no mistaking the tremble in it, the uncertainty; the hope.
"You," she said. "It was always you. I just never realized." She pressed the palm of her hand against the cold glass, letting it sink into her skin. "When I met you it was like I'd found a piece of my soul that had been missing for years, but I didn't understand that until I'd gotten to know you, until I'd lost you. You made everything perfect and then my fear destroyed it all."
"You were scared?"
"I was terrified. I didn't know what I wanted from you, or what I could give you. It wasn't until I ran out that I truly started to realize what I had with you; what I could have had with you."
"What did you want?"
She sniffed, her eyes filling with tears. Screw the mascara. She'd cry if she wanted to. "I wanted a life with you, or however long you were willing to give me. But I convinced myself it was just a crush and that it wouldn't last even if we tried." Why was this so hard to explain? It didn't feel like she was making any sense, much less getting her point across. "Even now I'm tip toeing around the truth because I'm too scared you won't want it, won't want me. Not after what I've done."
"Anna, look at me." She lifted her gaze his face, slightly blurred through the river of tears that swam in her eyes, waiting to fall. "Oh, baby, don't cry." The endearment he used made a sob rip from her throat and his hard expression cracked, the fissures showing the hurt beneath.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry for everything that I've done. I never meant to hurt you, but I needed time to figure everything out. I didn't understand then, but now I do. I understand everything. Even if you don't want me now, even if you hate me, I had to tell you. You had to know."
Warren stepped closer, his fingers reaching for a strand of her hair. "Know what?"
"How much I love you," she said. Finally. It felt wonderful to say those words to him, to finally know how she felt. "I love you, Warren. I love you so much. It just took me a little while to see it."
For a moment Warren was silent, staring at her with wide eyes. "You love me?" he asked softly.
Anna nodded, tears trickling down her face. "I love you, and I'm yours… if you'll have me."
Warren let out a long breath and cupped her face in his hands. "You have no idea how long I've been waiting to hear that."
"I'm sorry it took me so long," she whispered, wrapping her fingers around his wrists.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "We got there in the end. God, Anna, you have to know – surely you must already know – that I love you. I've loved you from the moment you pushed me out of my chair in the library."
Anna laughed through her tears. "You made me so angry. I still think you deserved it."
"I did," he replied, a smile pulling at his lips. "I absolutely did."
"And even after that, after everything, you still love me?" she asked.
"If anything, it's made me love you more. Jamie told me about that day in town, when you met for coffee. She told me how scared you were, how much you wanted to make things right. I knew then that there was still hope for us."
"But that doesn't change the way things are now," she said. "I'm going away to college and you'll be doing whatever it is you want to do. Are you sure you want to start something now, when we're just going to be torn apart in a few months time?"
Warren pursed his lips in thought. "Where are you going to college?"
"Virginia," she told him. She had received her first set of college responses earlier in the week, including an acceptance letter to Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia; exactly where she wanted to go. "I start in the fall."
"Hmm. That's convenient, seeing as I'm going to Tennessee," he said, his smile growing.
Anna blinked, her mouth hanging open. "You're… what?"
"I'm going to study in Tennessee on a full soccer scholarship."
"You got it?"
He nodded, his thumbs stroking her cheeks. "I got it. And if I'm not mistaken, Tennessee and Virginia aren't that far from each other. Maybe a few hours' drive. Surely we can handle that?"
She was smiling now, even though her tears kept falling. Luck really was on her side tonight. "If it's what you want."
"Anna," he laughed softly. "I'd follow you anywhere." And then he kissed her.
While their previous kiss had been heavy and passionate, this one was light and sweet and full of love. Both parties were finally in the same place - each other's hearts. Anna wound her arms around Warren's neck as he practically lifted her off her feet, one hand on her hip while the other buried itself in her hair. Lips parted and tongues met and they struggled to keep kissing through their smiles. Anna's chest felt like it was going to crack open, unable to hold all of her joy inside. It seemed everything was going to be okay after all.
Before they could get too lost in each other, the sound of a high pitched wolf-whistle echoed out from the other side of the room and they broke the kiss to investigate. There, at the table Anna had occupied earlier, sat Jamie, Zane, Will, Layla, Ava, TJ, Zach, Magenta and Ethan, and they were all cheering and banging on the tabletop in celebration. Jamie looked overjoyed, perched on Zane's lap with her arm around his neck. Zane met Anna's gaze and gave her a smile that clearly said 'I told you so' before he pressed a kiss to Jamie's temple. Anna smiled so hard it felt like her cheeks were about to split.
Warren chuckled and looked down at her. "They're insane, but I wouldn't be without them. Shall we?" he asked, holding out his hand.
Anna took it and raised it to her lips, gently kissing his knuckles. "We shall."
And as they walked across the gym to their friends, it was with joined hands and full hearts; because they knew that no matter what happened after this, they'd always have each other.
All's well that ends well :)
And that marks the end of this little adventure. Thank you to Anna for being so patient with me and giving me the time I needed to do this story justice. I hope you enjoyed it. And a quick thank you to Libby for keeping me sane - as always - when this story threatened to drive me mad. As most things do ;)
In case some of you were wondering "Hey, what about Warren? He seems okay with everything now. What gives?" This story was always going to follow Anna and her realization that falling in love, while scary, can be truly wonderful. Jamie said that Warren was hurt at first and even though I didn't show it, he would have talked it out with Jamie and Will and his mother. I think he understood when Jamie filled him in on her coffee with Anna and would have forgiven her not long after, if he hadn't already. He knew she needed time to come to terms with everything and he loved her enough that he was willing to wait.
Oh, if it interests you, all the outfits described in this story are over on Polyvore. There's a link on my profile. If you go to my 'likes' page, you should see a collection called Birthday Fic, which has all of Anna's different outfits in it, and Jamie's dance outfit is in my sets. You'll figure it out :)
Thank you for reading.
Until next time.