After the most phenomenal night I’d ever had in my life, I had the absolutely worst few days anyone could have. I was already frustrated when I woke up in the morning because I couldn’t sleep properly because I couldn’t stop thinking about a certain dark haired hotshot because he wasn’t by my side because life. When I broke up with Reid, I genuinely thought that he was “it” for me. I wouldn’t have it in me to ever be able to feel the same way about anyone ever again. But just one night with Emmett made me feel more than ten dates with Reid. It was exciting, like a head rush in a rollercoaster. But the ride ended way too soon.
I couldn’t begin to imagine how losing everybody in his life could have scarred him, and that is on top of being in the army where fifty percent of the soldiers are suffering from undiagnosed PTSD. He wasn’t damaged beyond repair; no one is. But I couldn’t explain that to him if he didn’t give me a chance.
Then there was the matter of my kids who were so attached to Stuart. I couldn’t tell them that the teacher they were in love with had died. It was tough for me to grapple with the fact. How could I make a bunch of children, who couldn’t take a shower by themselves, understand what death is? They kept asking when he would come back. Those tiny boxes of wonder even boycotted the class when I introduced the new teacher, Ginger, accusing her of trying to replace Stuart.
Ginger was a petite redhead with a heart shaped face and warm blue eyes. She was so enthusiastic in everything she did, which is why I gave her the job. Her smile literally lit up the whole room and everyone automatically gravitated towards her when she walked in. She just had that sort of vibe. But the kids hated her on first sight. They didn’t want anybody but Stuart.
“You can’t replace him!” they shouted at me, telling me I was a cruel man for taking their Stuart away from them. These were the kids who had surprised me on my birthday by decorating the whole orphanage overnight. They now wouldn’t even talk to me.
Somehow, I managed to gather them in a room after the whole staff running around them for four hours straight and left them with Ginger. They were all stubbornly staring at the wall but the fact that they were sitting there was a start. Even the three ADHD kids were devoted to the cause, sitting as still as I ever saw them.
I went to my clinic and made myself a much needed cup of coffee. My head was starting to ache. I just couldn’t see those babies unhappy. They were my life. They were everything I lived and worked all day for.
I leaned back on my chair, my head resting on the cushioned surface, and closed my eyes. I could feel a migraine about to come. Out of all days, it chose today to greet me today.
I heard a knock at my door and thought it must be another caretaker with another complain about another rebel but I didn’t even have the energy to lift my head. I called out, “Come in,” and hoped whoever it was would choose to just leave at hearing my gruff voice. Not the first time. For some reason, I intimidated most of my staff.
I heard the door open and shut with a soft thud, followed by footsteps that grew hesitant the closer they came to my desk.
“If there isn’t any physical damage, let them be,” I said tiredly, massaging my temple with two fingers.
“Umm, hi,” came a voice that had echoed through my dreams every night way too many times.
My hand dropped to my side as I opened one eye to confirm that I wasn’t, in fact, going crazy. Fortunately, I wasn’t. There Emmett was, dressed up in another pair of torn jeans and a leather jacket, the same amount of bad boy vibes as ever.
“Are you okay?” was his first question.
I opened the other eye too when I realized I was merely staring at him like a pirate and wrenched myself off from the chair. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. How come you’re here?” I couldn’t help but smile at seeing him, a small part of me still hopeful that he’d come for me. But this wasn’t a fairytale and I wasn’t some cliché princess. I tended to forget that sometimes.
“I need a favor,” he said, effectively shooing away my smile.
“Have a seat.” I gestured to the chair in front of him. The amount of time he took to sat down, I schooled my expression into a professional one, bringing out the poker face. “What happened?”
“Apparently my boss believes I lost a few bolts and nuts. He won’t let me work until I give him proof of my sanity,” he said, pursing his lips slightly. God, the guy didn’t know what he did to me with the smallest actions.
“So, what, you want me to find out if he’s right?” I asked, an eyebrow raised. I knew exactly what he wanted and he sure as fuck wasn’t getting it. I was many things but I wasn’t a fraud.
“No. I want you to sign me an application declaring me mentally healthy,” he said, the battle to not say something sarcastic evident on his face. “Please,” he added with an angelic smile.
“No,” I said simply, taking a sip of my coffee in a dismissing manner.
He moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. “Please, Ajax. You’re the only one who will.”
“It will cost me my license,” I told him, “So no, I will not. And I don’t lie, especially when it is to send people off to suicide.”
“Back up there, Dreamy. Who talked about suicide? I just wanna get back to my job and you’re preventing a dedicated soldier from taking his post,” he said with as much conviction as a ten year old going to school in the morning. Basically, none.
“Dying for the country. Noble way of suicide.” I snorted. “You and I both know you’re only desperate to go back so you don’t have to use a gun on your head on your own.”
“You’ve got me all figured, haven’t you?” he said, his voice hard, jaw locked.
“Am I wrong?” I shot back.
“I just wanna get back to work,” he bit out, evading my question. It didn’t escape my notice that there wasn’t a clear cut no in his answer. Moreover, if I wasn’t right, he would have given me a royal sarcastic answer with his arrogant half smile.
“If that’s really the case, then why don’t you go ask some other psychiatrist or psychologist for it,” I suggested in an exaggerated time, giving him a pointed look.
“I want to be back asap and going through the whole procedure would take time,” he said lamely. From his expression, I could tell that even he knew how lame he sounded.
“I’m pretty sure you would have to go for a physical exam as well. That would take equal amount of time. Unless you have boy toys ready to sign a fake application for you there too,” I said, making him flinch. I was tired, irritated, pissed, worried and now bitter too. I almost didn’t feel guilty about that sting.
He licked his lips again, a sign of nervousness. “I’m saying ‘please’. Does that mean something to you?”
“Tell you what, here’s a deal. Give me two weeks, an hour every evening. If I’m convinced of your “sanity”, then I’ll sign an application,” I told him. I was damn sure he wasn’t fine and I knew he knew it too. Nobody else would declare him emotionally healthy because, simply put, he wasn’t, no matter how badass he tried to act.
“Wow, hard bargain. You’re like a horrible parent,” he said.
I winced against my own accord. As if I hadn’t heard that enough throughout the day, that too from my own babies. I didn’t need him reinforcing the fact.
An alarmed look passed across his face, alerting me to the hurt evident in my own expression. But before he could say anything, the door opened, revealing a little raven-haired angel standing innocently in the doorway.
“Why would you say that? Why does everyone keep saying that?” said Maia in bewilderment, glaring at Emmett for calling me a horrible parent. It doesn’t matter how pissed they might be, they were ultimately extremely protective about me.
“I’m a little busy right now, sweetheart. Can I talk to you later?” I asked her gently.
She hung her head, shuffling her feet uncertainly, her long black hair falling on her face. She was the quietest of them all. She didn’t scream or throw tantrums, she didn’t make anyone chase her down. Her schizophrenia was the inhibited kind. She would sit motionless, passive for hours on end, just staring at the walls. If things went bad, she wouldn’t tell anybody. Keeping it inside her was her way of life. And she was seven.
“Give me a second,” I excused myself from Emmett and went to kneel down in front of her. Lifting her chin up so that I could see her face, I asked her, “What’s wrong, Maia?”
“Why does everyone keep calling you bad? It’s not your fault that Stuart went away,” she said softly. From the corner of my eye, I saw Emmett stiffen in his seat. I doubt he realized his reactions. He probably had no clue how much they spoke against his brave statements that he was “perfectly fine”.
“They don’t know that, do they? When they understand, they won’t call me bad,” I said, running my fingers through her hair. “Not everyone’s as smart as you,” I added with a small smile.
“I’m not smart. Stuart told me that one day he’ll go and he won’t come back and I should trust you more than anyone.” She always maintained eye contact when she talked and her wide onyx eyes seemed to stare right into your soul. “And you were there for all of us even before Stuart came. So I know you’re not bad.”
I was speechless. I always knew that Maia was the most observant person, even among the mentally stable children, but her level of mental cognition was way beyond what was expected of someone her age. On top of that, she was the closest to Stuart. The trust she was extending to me meant more than she could imagine.
She took out a lollipop from her pocket, put it in my hand and closed my fingers over it. “Stuart said that these are happy candies. When the demons are troubling me too much, this would make them go away. Right now, I think you need it more.”
“Thank you, sweetheart.” I kissed the top of her head, a tear slipping down my cheek. Everyone was familiar with the Jolly Ranchers that Stuart always carried with him like a religion. “C’mon, let’s get back to Ginger. She must be worried.”
I held out my arms for her to climb into and lifted her off the floor as she wrapped her frail arms around my neck, her chin settling on my shoulder as I carried her back to the class everyone else was holed up in. School time was supposed to be over hours ago for them but this was their punishment. Call me cruel but these little spawns of devils needed detention. Plus, Ginger was with them so I didn’t think it was really a punishment per se.
Ginger gave a big smile when she saw me coming with Maia wrapped up around me. “Feel better, honey?” she asked her which meant that she had taken permission and come to see me, not ran off from the class like I assumed.
Maia nodded and got off from my hold, promising me that she would be a good girl and would listen to Ginger like she used to listen to Stuart. Right when I was about to leave, she held my collar in her tiny fist and asked in a voice low enough for only me to hear, “Stuart is dead, isn’t he?”
My eyes snapped up to hers in alarm. “Who told you that?”
“Everybody keeps talking about him in past tense,” she said, a sad smile on her face. “I’m seven, not stupid.”
It surprised me yet again that there were people in the world who grew up without seeing anything and there were people in the world who grew up because they’d seen too much.
Before I could say anything to her, she ran off to Ginger, climbing up in her lap, much to the the surprise of every other kid in the classroom at seeing a traitor in their midst.
I left them to their antics, not even bothering to give a reaction to the daggers they were shooting across the room straight at me. Hopefully, Ginger would be able to tend to them because right then, I did not have it in me to discuss Stuart when I was about to get a migraine and my potential heartbreaker was sitting in my clinic so that I could hand him the approval to go die. Life’s good though, thanks for asking.
I rubbed a palm over my face to wipe off signs of exhaustion as I made my way up the stairs back to Emmett. I think I did a pretty good job, except for the red hue in my eyes that no one can do anything about.
He was still frozen in the exact same position as he was when I left him, his spine straight, his back to the desk, staring at the floor with intense concentration like he could burn a hole in the wooden surface with his eyes. The only slight little change was his hand which was now in the pocket of his jacket, the muscles in his forearm clenched tight like he was holding something in his fist.
His head snapped up with a start when he saw me and quickly stood up. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry.” He started to shuffle out, his arm brushing against mine as he crossed me, but right when he was about to leave, he stopped and told me, “And I didn’t mean the horrible parent thing. You know I just say stuff for the heck of it.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Before he could leave for good, I clutched the sleeve of his jacket and dragged him back, and he wasn’t the only who was surprised. It was like I did not have control over my actions.
With the same intensity as that one night with him, I grabbed his face in my hands and smashed my lips against his, kissing him for all I was worth, like a starving man who hadn’t eaten since eight days and he was the last morsel of food. Like I was dying and he was the only drop of elixir that heaven rained down upon me. Like he was what all my dreams were made of and I couldn’t get enough.
His hands clutched my biceps, his toned body pressed up against mine. His dark eyes were open wide in shock but as I pushed my tongue in his mouth, they started to flutter shut, his eyelashes sweeping past mine. He held on to me tighter, his hands gliding from my back to settle on my hips.
When we pulled back for air, I whispered, “Wait,” and went round my desk to open the laptop and type him the approval letter he needed but as soon as the light hit my eyes, it caused a deep throbbing pain right in the center of my eyebrows. The already nauseating headache got ten times worse at the bright light of the screen.
Nevertheless, I turned down the brightness and started to type it out, squeezing my eyes shut and every now and again to drive out the black spots dancing in front of my eyes. Fucking migraine was coming in full force right at the crucial moments.
“Ajax, stop,” said Emmett gently, placing his hand over mine to halt it from moving across the keyboard.
“No, it’s okay,” I said and shook him off.
He physically wrenched my hands back and slammed the laptop shut after five futile minutes of convincing me. The gesture reminded me of my younger sister who did exactly the same every damn time.
“I thought you needed it urgently,” I said, unfairly glaring at him. I hated it when people bossed me around, even though it made me a hypocrite, no matter how wrong I was at the moment. I’d been like that since I was little. If I wanted a toy cow on top of my Lego house, well, that’s how it’s gonna be. Nobody messes with my mooing rooftop.
“I need you to be okay a little more urgently,” he said, pushing my hair back from my forehead, his gaze darting all over my face, noting the signs of my lack of well being. “C’mon, let’s get you home.”
I raised my eyes up to meet his and search his face for another witty joke or sarcasm but there was none. His soft expression looked genuinely concerned but somehow, it didn’t suit him. He looked way cuter with his arrogant smile than he did with the creases on his forehead.
“Let me call up my secretary and tell her to cancel all appointments for today,” I said.
“I’ll tell him or her or whatever.” He reached the phone before me, slapping me away with an irritated glare. “What’s the number?”
“Speed dial 2,” I told him.
One corner of his lips curled in a sly smile. “Who’s 1?” he asked while he dialed.
“Mama,” I told him, rolling my eyes. Like he was expecting me to name a sex shop or something.
His lips formed an ‘O’ at my confession but before he could give a smartass reply along the lines of “mama’s boy”, which I’ve heard way too many times throughout my life, Elaine (my secretary) picked up the phone and he calmly told her that I wasn’t well so I was going home. I heard her say something like, “And who exactly are you?” to which he replied, “The first item on his to-do list. Now if you’ll excuse me,” and kept the phone.
I couldn’t help laughing at his sassy mouth but had to stop myself when it caused sharp pointed arrows to pierce my skull. It felt like my head was a pressure cooker and was about to explode any minute. I usually didn’t get fevers from migraines but something told me it wasn’t going to be one of the usual times. I had had a lot coffee throughout the day to cover up the stress which meant I was dehydrated. My temperature was bound to spike up.
He held out his hand for me to hold like I was on old man who needed support but as soon as I stood up on my own two feet, the world did a flip right in front of my eyes. If Emmett hadn’t put his arm around me at the right time, I would have fallen. Thank the Lord for his quick reflexes.
“And you wanted to type a letter in this condition,” he chided me. “I’ll carry you home, you stupid tall drink of water.”
“Hell no, you can’t lift me- Woah!” I was stopped in the middle of my sentence when he hooked an arm under my knees and easily lifted me up like I was a Raggedy Ann Doll, not a full grown man.
“You’re light as a feather,” he said. “I don’t work out four hours a day for nothing.”
I groaned and rested my head on his shoulder. He felt so warm and comfortable and, at the risk of sounding like a creep, he smelt amazing. The last time somebody had lifted me up like that was when I was six by my mother who would always have to tuck me into bed when I fell asleep in any random part of house, as was my habit. This was the same except I wanted to rip his clothes apart and do him right there, right then. Fuck dizziness.
He ran up the stairs to my apartment and gently lowered me on the bed, adjusting cushions this way and that to make me comfortable. I would have stopped him but I was loving being fussed over, especially by him.
He helped me out of my jacket, closed the curtains so the light wouldn’t hurt my eyes and closed all the doors and windows so no sound would interfere either.
“Slow down, soldier,” I said, imperceptibly clearing my throat so my voice won’t croak like a frog’s.
He rolled his eyes at me and completely ignored my words. “You take acetaminophens or anti-inflammatory drugs?”
“Neither would work. I’ve already taken two ibuprofens today,” I said, impressed by his correct pronunciation of the medical names of drugs. There were people in my MBBS batch who couldn’t pronounce it right even after graduation. “How do you know so much about migraines?”
He shrugged. “My mother was a nurse and Stuart used to get them when he was little. Gave me enough training in the field.”
As it happened every time when someone mentioned Stuart, I wasn’t able to reply. I didn’t know what to say. I’m sorry? I wish it hadn’t happened? I miss him too? Every sentence was an empty shell where his memories echoed painfully.
“Can I make you hot chocolate?” he asked hesitantly, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t know how medically correct it is but dad always made it whenever Stuart got a migraine and he’d always grin like a toothy idiot after having it.”
“Sure, I’d love that,” I said softly.
A flicker of a smile passed his face before he left the room, my gaze still trailing him until he was out of sight. He closed the door as quietly as possible, even though the soft thud still ended up making me wince in pain.
I could hear him tinkering around outside, the surface of the spoon banging against the cup as he mixed the ingredients. For some reason, the sounds didn’t bother me that much. The pain in my skull still made me want to pound a hammer on it but somehow, it wasn’t as bad as other times. Maybe it was the perceived comfort of another human presence. Or maybe it was the fact that Emmett was actively trying to do something to make me feel better. Reid just used to leave me alone in a dark room. That’s not to say he didn’t care. He did, but he never knew how important it was to show it.
I squeezed my eyes shut and massaged my temples in a vain effort to appease the horrifying pain. I could feel my skin heating up like a furnace, making it suffocating to breathe properly. I was pretty sure my eyes were red as the devil by this point of time. If any of the kids saw me, they would have nightmares for a couple of days.
Surprisingly, I didn’t hear Emmett come in. I was alerted of his presence only when he lifted the upper part of my body and snuggled me in his lap, readjusting the cushions around me. He opened the first three buttons of my shirt and I instantly sucked in a breath of air as the suffocation eased up. I was still on top of him but he had me positioned in a half sitting stance so I could drink the hot chocolate he’d made.
After an hour or two, when the checkpoint for the pain arrived, I was able to speak. “Thank you.”
He pressed his cold palm against my cheek, cool lips on my burning skin where he trailed them. Wordlessly, he put the rim of the cup to my lips and helped me drink, sip by sip. I wasn’t dysfunctional but if he wanted to treat me like a baby, I wasn’t going to say no. The feel of his hard chest against my back was more comforting than the soft pillows.
I had never heard of any medical relevance of hot chocolate either but it did make it better, if only for a little while.
“You don’t have to stay here. I’ll be alright,” I told him, peering up at him through my eyelashes.
“I’m not leaving you until you drive me out, waving a broom at my head, and considering you’re in no position to be waving any brooms, you’re stuck with me,” he said, a ghost of his half smile stretching across his impossibly handsome face which was covered with worry lines, my name in each crease.
“You actually think I mind having my own personal sexy nurse?” I grinned, earning a grin from him too.
“Why, Doctor Dreamy, I think that’s the first compliment you’ve given me,” he said, his fingers playing with the curls at the nape of my neck.
“That’s not true. I called your butt irresistible.” I raised my eyebrows, reminding him of the activities we had participated in. If I wasn’t wrong, I think I saw a blush color his cheeks at the memory.
“You consented to it. It’s not counted as a compliment if you don’t say it first,” he said.
“Wow, am I really such an ass? I don’t give compliments?” I said in bewilderment. I’d never thought of it before. Could that be why Reid started to get frustrated of me? Honestly, I’d never been that sort of romantic who would write poems or recite sonnets. My idea of romance included candlelight dinner on the rooftop with a Cabernet Sauvignon and chocolate fondue.
“The approval in your eyes is compliment enough,” he murmured.
For a second, our eyes met and the electricity I’d come to associate with his presence cackled between us, a delicious friction that pulled us closer even as we resisted it. I was hyper aware of how our bodies were pressed together, the blanket wrapped around both of us as I rested in his lap, his legs stretched on either side of me.
The ring of his cellphone jerked us back, effectively pouring cold water over any fire that may have kindled between us. I had to bite my lip to hold back a groan, both at its dousing quality and its shrill sound that brought back the headache in full force.
He mouthed an apology to me as he picked it up, not bothering to change the immensely cozy position we were in, even though eighty percent of the king sized bed was lying empty.
“Any news, Jackson?” he asked, his tone automatically becoming rough and gruffy as he transformed into his professional self. He listened for a few seconds, nodding in intervals, making consenting noises. “I think so, yes. I’ll let you know by tomorrow. Just the physical is left.”
My eyes, that I had actually closed, snapped open. I could hear vague mumbles from the other side but I didn’t need that to know what was going on.
“What the hell are you talking about?” he said. His breaths had inadvertently hitched, his whiskey colored eyes blazing with rage.
I raised my eyebrows in a silent question. My finger subconsciously started tracing little comforting circles on his hand. He sighed and rubbed his thumb under his lower lip in frustration.
“I’ll give you the letter by tonight,” I whispered in a volume low enough for only him to be audible to.
He shook his head and mouthed, “It’s okay.” To Jackson, he said, “Well, that’s not my problem. No, you listen to me. Those stupid fuckers at the top who can’t walk without a stick can’t make a decision about my life. If I wanna come back, I’m coming back. And don’t you dare tell me that there’s anyone more qualified for the job.”
I squeezed his hand, not knowing what else to do. He raised our joint hands to his mouth and pressed his lips to them, leaning his forehead against my wrist.
“Yes, he’s here.” His eyes flicked to me. “No, I can’t. Not right now. I’ll connect you to him tomorrow.”
“I’m perfectly capable of talking, Emmett,” I said strictly.
He cupped a hand over the speaker and whispered, “You don’t have to do it now.”
“Yes, I do,” I said emphatically, completely alert now and sitting up.
He gazed at me carefully for a few seconds before nodding and telling the Jackson dude that he’s handing the phone over to me, putting it in speakerphone so he could listen in.
I hadn’t expected Jackson to cut straight to the chase. “You know you can have your license canceled, don’t you? What you’re doing is basically fraud.” He sounded cold and unconcerned but his words had a definite purpose.
“I’m aware,” I replied. My brain hammered me to rethink, cursing me for crawling inside a bucket full of shit deliberately.
“Don’t assume that this matter won’t be investigated thoroughly. Do you have any idea how dangerous a game Private Delcour is playing? The American government is highly interested,” he said.
I licked my lips. “Yes, I know.” My brain was still blinking red lights violently, cursing in eight languages at me to stop being such a dumbfuck. It’s a good thing I don’t listen to my brain much.
“And you want him to butt head on into the pile of shit?” he asked in bewilderment. “You really don’t have a clue, do you?”
I glanced up at Emmett helplessly, my expression asking what the hell he was talking about. Emmett, for his part, looked ready to smash a few windows.
“He doesn’t know,” Emmett said softly, looking everywhere but at me.
Jackson laughed bitterly, a disbelieving laugh that made him sound like an evil witch from a horror movie. “Tell him, Delcour. Let’s see if he still gives you the thumbs up to fricky fracky with the death deity.”
“So I was right. You do wanna commit suicide.” I raised an eyebrow at him which he dutifully ignored.
“Committing suicide would be fine. What he’s planning to do to himself is fifty times worse,” was Jackson’s reply.
Emmett interrupted our scintillating conversation. “That would be enough, sir, thank you.”
“Indeed,” he replied. “Until the doctor signing your application is not completely aware of every last detail of your plan, I will not accept it.”
“I’m completely fine. Can we get over that bridge now?” he said.
“You lost your whole team and within two months you lost your whole family too. Your medical reports show drugs in your system and even though you can write it off officially as in-field compulsions, nobody, for a second, is going to believe it. So I’m sorry if we’re having a hard time believing that you’re okay.”
He rubbed a palm over his face, reigning in his anger. “If you know you’re sending me on an impossible mission, why do you even care whether I’m mentally sound?” he growled.
“I’m sorry, Private. There’s nothing I can do about it. Even I have to report higher up. I could take your word for it but the authorities won’t and at the level you work, you know we can’t afford slacking off in any area. It could be a danger to the whole nation,” Jackson replied calmly.
“No, it won’t. You want to believe it would but it sure as fuck won’t. It’s only because I’m not fine that I’m still agreeing to it. Why trample your little chances?” he said.
“That’s my final word.” The call ended with Emmett almost throwing the phone to the other side of the room but at the last minute he remembered that my headache hadn’t completely vanished and stopped himself.
“The doctor wants to know the details. Wanna start talking?” I said with a tight smile.
“No. I mean, later?” he asked hopefully in a small voice.
“So that you can make up a story or run away?” I said, probably a little more rudely than I should have.
“No. Because you still have a migraine and I’m really tired and for once, I’d like to pretend I have a normal life, just taking care of a guy I like,” he said.
I bit my lip, stupidly concentrating on the wrong thing. “You like me?”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, I wasn’t very clear before. I like the Greek God on the other side of the bed,” he grinned. A slight twinkle started to return to his eyes, making me shiver inwardly.
I cheekily shifted closer to him till we were sitting side by side, our arms touching, eyes locked on each other’s. Even though the shadow of a painful past was dominant in his whiskey colored eyes, they still managed to brighten up the room with a mischievous glint. And I don’t know if there’s anything beautiful than seeing an ember of light trying to spark through suffocating murk, a lone candle struggling to stay alight between a storm.
“I do believe you owe me a date,” I said.