A/N: Adult content warning, in case the one on the side of the page isn’t enough. :) Both for language and sexual situations.
Need to try and catch up on my inbox now. I have about 50 updates to read from the end of May onwards. *_*
By the next day, everything seems brighter.
My brother is going to Sunset Valley, where he might hit the big time and achieve everything he’s ever dreamt of. I have a date – well, ‘outing’ – with Charity, who’s probably the most beautiful girl I’ve ever lain eyes on (don’t tell her I said that, she’d probably laugh at me) and maybe – just maybe – we’ll end the night as something more than friends.
On top of it all, I have a job. An actual, guaranteed job. Sure, it may not be anything I’ve wished for, or even thought of, but still… my stomach gets a little fluttery when I think about it. I can’t really tell if I’m excited or nervous, or some strange place in between.
“So,” I say, smoothing my hands nervously over the front of my shirt. “Definitely this one?”
Jed nods. “Definitely. It doesn’t look as though you’re trying too hard.”
I make a face at myself in the mirror. The sun is beginning to disappear behind the Riverview hills and, in the half-light, I don’t look too bad.
“I don’t know how I’m going to make it to this evening,” I admit. “I feel like I’m going to be sick.”
Jed pats me on the back.
“You said yourself this isn’t really a date.”
“But it might turn into one!”
“Look, Ri… she’s only Charity. You’ve known her since we were kids, and the evening suddenly becoming a date won’t make her turn into some terrifying hormonal monster.”
I glare at him.
“I’d be more inclined to believe you if you’d actually been on a date.”
Jed goes a rather startling shade of red.
“I’ll have you know I plan to ask Elisabeth out on Monday.” Absently, he messes up his hair with one hand, then smooths it back down again. “I mean, if I get her alone and there’s not a huge crowd watching.”
Feeling suddenly bad for snapping at him, I give him a weak smile. Jed is only trying to help.
“I know, I’m sorry. I’m just feeling a bit on edge.”
Jed rests a hand on my shoulder; its warm weight is comforting and I let out a breath I hadn’t even been aware I’d been holding.
“Look,” he said, meeting my gaze in the mirror. “You can do this. If it all starts to turn into a huge disaster, text me, and I’ll call you pretending to be your mum – some family emergency, all right? Then you can excuse yourself without totally ruining things.”
That small safety net – that way of salvaging things if the evening spirals out of my control – gives me the confidence to smile properly.
“Okay. Let’s do this.”
Singalot Castle is crowded, despite Charity’s assurances to the contrary. I guess opening night must have gone better than expected.
No one takes any notice of me as I slip in the front door, and I glance around for Charity’s familiar form amongst the mass of dancing, grinding bodies. My chest tightens at the sight of the crowd, but I remind myself to breathe and push my way through.
I find Charity at a table in an out-of-the-way corner. She waves when she sees me, a grin splitting her face.
“You made it!”
I manage to grin back and slip into the seat beside her. “Of course I did.”
We order drinks, and spend the first half an hour or so just talking, commiserating about the lack of Jed and generally catching up. After all, a lot has happened on my end since we had seen each other last, and Charity has got her dream job at the used book shop in town. Jed will be so jealous when he finds out.
It feels like a normal evening out, minus Jed. But, of course, it’s not a normal evening out, and my body doesn’t let me forget it. Even as I try to keep light conversation going, my palms are sweating. My heart thumps against my ribcage. My stomach flips over every time she smiles at me.
I hope she can’t tell how nervous I am by looking at me.
It takes a little while, but eventually we forget all about Jed not being there (sorry, Jed) and just start to relax in each other’s company. It’s about this time that I realise that Charity is just as nervous as I am.
“Want to go on the machines?” she asks, during a lull in our conversation. “There’s a couple free.”
I glance over at the karaoke machines on the other side of the bar. There is a crowd milling around, listening, but only one is actually in use. My heartbeat suddenly seems a lot louder in my ears.
“In front of all these people?”
Charity grins. “Of course. Did you expect your audience to turn their backs on you or something?”
I frown as I feel my cheeks heat. “No, I just…” I shut my mouth and glance over at the karaoke machines again. “Okay, let’s do it.”
We get some tokens from the bar. Charity tries to pay for hers, but I (rather smoothly, I feel) step in with a ten pound note before she can open her purse. She grins at me and, it might just be my imagination, but I swear I see a soft blush stain her cheeks.
“What song do you want to do?” she asks, leaning one arm on the bar and looking up at me.
I smile. “I know the perfect song.”
As the first beats of Bruno Mars’s ‘Just The Way You Are‘ resonate through the room, I see Charity’s eyes light up.
For some, such a song may seem cheesy, or cliché…
… but for us, on that night, it was perfect.
Because, as she stands there, singing beside me, the lyrics are truth. Charity is amazing, just the way she is.
After the song finishes, we head back to our table.
Something has imperceptibly shifted in the time we sang together, and we suddenly seem much more relaxed in each other’s company. As we talk, Charity touches my hand – brief, gentle touches, so fleeting that I’m not even sure they’re real. Warmth settles in the pit of my stomach and every word is accompanied by a smile.
We are so engrossed in each other that we do not notice the two boys until they are right beside us.
Charity sees them first, and smiles.
“Need something?” she says, sweetly. “Did you enjoy our song?”
I glance up, and then look back at the table, knuckles whitening where my fingers grip the edge. Strangers always make me feel nervous.
One of the boys grins, flashing teeth.
“Would’ve enjoyed it more if we didn’t have to look at that ugly face over there.”
My stomach tightens.
Just ignore them, says some strange combination of my mother’s and Jed’s voice in my head. Ignore them.
Charity, on the other hand, doesn’t take any advice from an imaginary Jed.
“If you feel like that, you can fuck right off. That’s my date you’re talking about.”
The other boy laughs.
“You’re dating that?” He laughs again. “No wonder all the good girls are taken – they’re all dating freaks.”
Charity rockets to her feet before I even have the chance to blink. In the next moment, the boy is reeling backwards from a well-placed punch to the face.
“Or maybe they’re just not dating jerks like you.”
“Fuck, mate, she just punched me!” Bright red blood splashes down over his mouth and chin to stain his t-shirt.
“Then hit her back!”
“She’s a girl!” The boy raises a hand to his face. “Shit, I think my nose is broken.”
Charity raises her fists as the other boy takes a step forward, her eyes like steel.
“If you don’t back off, I’ll hit you too. Seriously.”
It happens so fast it is over before I realise it. The boy Charity didn’t punch lunges forward and shoves her down onto the table.
“You shut your mouth, bitch.”
I don’t really know what happened next.
One moment, I’m sitting in my chair, watching this unfold, the next wrestling with the boy who had dared to put his hands on Charity. It is like a red mist has descended over my eyes, rage boiling up through every vein in my body.
“Keep your hands off her!”
Sadly, two against one never goes well. After the sudden surge of adrenaline and the element of surprise has faded, the boy’s friend comes to the rescue. Instead of fighting back, I curl up in a ball and try to protect my internal organs as best I can.
Never let it be said that I’m stupidly reckless. I know when I’m beaten.
It takes two bouncers and the bartender to drag the boys off me.
By this point, Charity is beside herself. She’s been held back by a couple of girls we know from school, who obviously only have her best interests at heart. I don’t think Charity sees it that way, however, as she continues to shout abuse at the two boys as they are dragged off by the bouncers.
I remain on the floor, my face pressed against the floorboards. Everything aches, and the deep thrum of the music resonates uncomfortably through my chest.
The bartender crouches down beside me, his expression grim.
“I’m going to have to ask you and your friend to leave,” he says. “We don’t need anyone causing trouble.”
I get to my feet, wiping blood off a swollen lip.
After the disaster at the karaoke club, part of me (the aching, cold, miserable part) just wants to call it a night and go home. The other part of me, fuelled by a mixture of adrenaline and bravado, wants to shout and run and jump and stay out all night.
Charity and I settle on a sedate walk down by the river. We walk without speaking, looking up at the stars and allowing the sounds of the night wash over us. The cool night air soothes my aching face, and the near-silence is welcome after the wildness of the club. She keeps close to my side, biting her lip every time she opens her mouth to talk.
When we stop to look out over the water, Charity’s hand slips into mine, squeezing my fingers.
“Thank you,” she says.
For a moment, I can’t concentrate on anything other than the fact she’s holding my hand. Eventually, I manage to ask, “What for?”
“For leaping to my rescue.”
“Well…” I feel my face glowing red, and have to look away from her. “You leapt to my rescue first, and all I managed to do was get beaten up.”
Charity grins, though her hand tightens on mine and I can tell she is still quite shaken up from the night’s events.
“Yes,” she says. “But you managed to be quite chivalrous in doing so.”
“Like a knight, you mean?”
Charity laughs. “Maybe a squire. Knights are meant to win.”
I blink at her, unsure whether or not to be offended. Then, I catch her eyes with mine and suddenly everything seems hilarious – much more so than it probably should. Our spontaneous, out of control laughter shatters the stillness. A startled fox darts out from the underbrush and away into the darkness.
What does it matter that I have a bloody nose and a split lip? What does it matter if we got kicked out of Singalot Castle? We’re with each other, we’re both okay, and the boys who had annoyed us are probably worse off.
Charity grips my hand whilst we laugh and then suddenly, inexplicably, we’re kissing. Breathless, heat-filled kisses that make my head spin with stars. For a moment, the night falls away and there is nothing but the feel of her body against mine, the taste of her breath on my lips.
And then we’re on the ground, with no idea how we ended up there. Something about this night has flipped a switch in us, kicked our relationship up a notch.
The long grass tickles my neck as Charity kisses me again, and my elbow sinks into the soft dirt. Dew seeps through my clothes to my skin but it hardly matters. Every sense is overwhelmed with Charity. The feel of her hair against the skin of my cheek. The softness of her body pressed against mine. The rustle of her dress as she moves even closer.
I decide I rather like kissing her.
Her fingers close over my wrist and she gently guides my hand to rest against her breast. At this unexpected development, I freeze, feeling suddenly clumsy and unsure in my own body. Charity’s lips recede from mine.
“It’s okay,” she whispers. “It’s just me.”
“Boob,” I say stupidly, and she lets out a snort of laughter.
“Okay, you’re definitely not thinking with your brain anymore.”
After a moment, she kisses me again, and something has changed. There is a desperate, reckless edge to her kisses now, and I can feel myself becoming swept under. She tightens her hand on mine, and I cautiously stroke my fingers over the fabric of her dress, feeling the alien swell of her breast. The curve of her bra.
Oh, my God.
I jerk my hand back as though I’ve been burned, and Charity pulls back to look into my eyes.
“What’s the matter?” she says, her voice as soft as a caress.
I cringe. “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Charity smiles, and my breath catches in my throat as two cold hands slide up my chest under my t-shirt.
“Neither do I.”
“This is really awkward.”
“Elery, shut up and kiss me.”
I kiss her again, and this time she lets me lead. We kiss until I feel like I’m drowning in her, until every nerve in my body is singing and my trousers feel stupidly tight.
And then I’m above her, with my hands on her warm thighs under her dress.
“I still don’t know what I’m doing,” I admit, but this time I don’t want to stop.
Charity just smiles again and pulls me down.
When I told Jed what had happened between Charity and I that night, he was frantic. Didn’t he think we were rushing into things a little? Why hadn’t we at least used protection? He wasn’t ready to become Uncle Jed just yet.
I hadn’t even thought about it.
Thankfully, Jed was soon distracted by something else. About a week after Charity and I had our date, Jed worked up the courage to ask out Elisabeth Grey. Where we had been three, we became four.
On the outside, I am happy. Happy for Jed, happy that I have a beautiful girlfriend, but on the inside a gloom has descended.
I can’t get the words of those boys out of my head.
No wonder all the good girls are taken – they’re all dating freaks.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe she’s just dating me out of pity.
Maybe she deserves better.
About two weeks after my first date with Charity, a letter arrives that renders all of my dark thoughts obsolete.
“Elery!” Mum calls up the stairs. “Post!”
I am engrossed deeply in a homework assignment at this particular moment, so it takes me a few moments to register what she said. Then, I straighten in my chair, eyes wide.
I never get post.
I abandon my homework and trudge downstairs.
“What is it?” I ask, as Mum turns back to the washing up. “A bank statement?”
Mum shrugs. “It has the Doo Peas address on the back.”
Despite my determination to be happy about my future at Doo Peas, my blood runs cold. The letter, lying innocently in the middle of the table, suddenly seems dangerous.
I approach it gingerly, as though it is a bomb rigged to explode. Of course, nothing happens.
With trembling hands, I pick up the letter and tear it open. I have read it two times before the true meaning of the words begins to sink in.
“I have a place at an elite business school in Starlight Shores,” I tell Mum. My voice shakes. “According to this letter… I start next week.”
Mum turns, bubbles dripping from her washing up gloves onto the floor.
“Say that again?”
“I’m starting boarding school next week in Starlight Shores.”
Mum frowns, her eyebrows knitting together as the implication of my words hit her.
“How dare they do something like that without asking us!” When I don’t say anything, she fumes, “I have half a mind to call them up and tell them where to stick their boarding school.”
I cross the room and wrap my arms around her, resting my head on the safety of her shoulder.
“Mum, I don’t think I’ve got a choice, here.” I try to smile up at her and manage a grimace. “Besides, isn’t going to the Starlight Shores an amazing opportunity?”
Mum looks pained, evidently torn between staying strong for me and wanting to protect me.
“This isn’t what we wanted for you, Elery. We wanted you to forge your own path, not be dictated by this… this company.” She spits the word as though it is a rather nasty swear word.
I try to smile again, and this time I do a much better job.
“Don’t worry, Mum. No matter what happens, I will. I promise.”
Despite reassuring Mum that I was happy to comply with Doo Peas wishes and leave Riverview behind, really, I was terrified. I had never set foot outside Riverview in my life, except to visit Nanny and Grandad Moss in Meadow Glen.
On the other hand, it gives me a chance to release Charity so she can find someone who deserves her, who people won’t assume that she’s dating out of pity.
On the other other hand, I don’t want to lose her.
But I’ve got to give her that chance.
I arrange to meet Charity down by the river, in the same spot where we had spent the night together. In retrospect, this is a mistake. As I stand there waiting for her, I want nothing more than to stay with her forever.
But I’m moving so far away that it wouldn’t be fair not to give her a chance to date other guys.
If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen.
I turn at the sound of Charity’s voice, trying to ignore the fact that my heart is doing somersaults in my chest.
“Oh, hey.” I try to smile but fail.
Charity is instantly on her guard, her eyes wary.
I run my fingers through my hair, wishing that I’d thought more about what to say.
“I have to leave. To go to boarding school.”
Charity’s eyebrows raise in shock. “Why the hell are your parents sending you to boarding school?”
“It’s not like that,” I explain. “It’s Doo Peas.”
“For fuck’s sake, Elery, are you just going to let them push you around forever?”
I have been asking myself the same question.
“No, I just… I can make something of myself, Charity. I know I can.”
Charity forces a smile. “Well, we can just see each other on holidays, then, can’t we?”
My stomach slowly rolls over, but I say nothing. I don’t know what to say. Charity must read the answer in my eyes, as she suddenly takes a step back, hurt flickering across her face.
“You’re… breaking up with me?”
I make myself nod, even though every part of my body is screaming no, no, no.
“I think it’s for the best.”
“But why? Why can’t we make this work, Elery?”
I swallow slightly. “Those guys were right. You deserve someone much better than me.”
I expect her to cry, to protest or for her to run off. What I don’t expect is the fist that connects with the side of my face with an almighty crack. I sprawl on the ground in the dirt before I even realise what is happening. Warm blood drips from my nose.
“You fucking idiot!”
She kicks me in the groin for good measure, and the whole world turns white.
“What did you think this was? A pity fuck?!” Her voice has risen by an octave and by several decibels, but I hardly notice as I curl into a tight ball of pain. “Jesus Christ, Elery. Jesus fucking Christ.”
Her foot collides with my knee and I grunt, before she whirls on her heels and stalks away.
She stops several steps away, her shoulders heaving with held back sobs. Then she turns back and snarls, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe you don’t deserve me!”
Her voice cracks on the last word and I close my eyes. I hear her footsteps retreating, torn between running and stumbling, and I feel like crying myself.
I am an idiot, but at least she’s free now. Free to pursue a life with someone else, someone who isn’t scarred. Someone who wasn’t signed over to a strange company before he was even born.
Someone who isn’t me.