Defining Us (Book 2 of Discovering Me Series)

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Chapter 35: Seventeen - Sjowgren

{Isabella}

It was early October. Cold and flu season was afoot; it ravaged the SMA campus like the plague. Traumatized by my bout of it the previous year, I endured the pain of a flu shot. I was standing tall as virtually everyone around me dropped like flies.

“Babe, -- “

“Mmm.” Milo remained face down on his desk.

“You look dead.”

He coughed profusely in response.

I put my hand on the back of his neck. “You’re burning up.”

He stopped coughing to sneeze.

“We’re going to the health center as soon as class lets out.” I rubbed his back.

He turned his head, pressing his cheek to his wooden desktop. His nose was red from how many times he had blown it; his cheeks were flushed and his eyes were puffy and watering. He was forced to wear his glasses because of it.

“Looks like you’re staying in my room this weekend. Ryan said he’d kick you out if he found out you have the flu. You can’t hide it any longer.”

He cleared his throat, wincing because of how sore it was. “You’re going to take care of me?” His voice was almost nonexistent.

“Mhmm. I’ve been told I’m a great nurse.”

Adam and I practically had to carry Milo to the nurse’s office. His dizziness made him clumsier than usual. The lobby of the health center was filled to the brim with sick students. Milo rested his head on my shoulder and closed his eyes.

“Milo De Luca.”

I shook him awake when his name was called.

“Do you want me to try to go in there with you?”

He nodded. I put his arm across my shoulders and rose to my feet, using my legs to support us both.

“Do you need help?” Adam lunged from his seat.

“I’ve got him. Just wait here.”

I hauled him inside of Nurse Miller’s office she shut the door behind us.

“This is a one time thing. You know I only like to see the patient, but he seems too out of it to listen to my treatment instructions or answer questions.” She washed her hands.

“I don’t know how he made it through the day.” I helped him onto the examination table.

“He fights reason.” She pulled on a pair of gloves. “When did he start showing symptoms?”

“He started coughing yesterday morning. It evolved to this overnight.”

He slumped over and rested his head on the wall.

“I need to swab your nose for a rapid flu test.“ She pulled a packet out of her labcoat pocket.

She obtained her sample and inserted the swab into a small plastic square. She put it on the counter next to the sink. “That will take fifteen minutes.”

She removed the ear thermometer from the wall, snapping on a new cover. She placed it in his ear.

A musical beep immediately followed her insertion. “101.2. F” She read aloud.

She stuck her stethoscope into her ears. “It’s going to be cold, but I need to listen to your heart and lungs.”

He nodded to let her know he understood. Her hand wormed its way beneath his sweater and she looked at the ceiling as she listened. “Breathe and out for me.”

He started hacking his lungs out when he complied. He turned his head to not do it in her face.

“You’ve got a lot of congestion.”

She gave him a thorough check up. She went to his flu test after she finished. “It’s the flu alright.”

“How long will it take for him to get better?”

“Three to seven days. Milo, you can stay here in the infirmary. We have nurses here to tend to sick students 24/7.” She stripped off her gloves and washed her hands.

He cleared his throat and swallowed, visibly cringing. “I can sleep it off.” His voice crackled.

“No, you can’t. That’s how the flu evolves into pneumonia.”

“I can take care of him. You gave me a flu shot. Just tell me what to do.” I piped up.

“Please watch him carefully. You know how he gets. “ She opened a drawer.

“I sure do.” I picked up his hand.

“Here is a pamphlet of treatment instructions. He will need plenty of fluids and rest. If he gets worse after you’ve done everything on this list, bring him back. He’ll need professional help.” She gave me a pamphlet. “And this is over-the-counter cold/flu medication, cough drops, a thermometer, vapor rub, and aerosol disinfectant. Clean everything he touches.” She produced a brown paper bag.

“Thank you. I can take it from here.” I put the items into my bag. “Let’s go, Babe.” I helped him down from the table.

“Where are we taking him?” Adam assisted me in carrying him.

“My suite. Most of my roommates got flu shots. Sami didn’t, but she’s staying in Ryan’s safe zone. Did you get one?”

“No. The flu doesn’t hit like this in Listonenia. I disregarded the message to get vaccinated.” He admitted sheepishly.

“As soon as we get him to my room, you’re going home. He’s obviously not going anywhere this weekend.”

“Does he have clothes at your place?”

“None suitable for getting over the flu. Elle or Morgan can watch him while I pick up some from his room.”

“What’s going on?” Elle put down her magazine and stood up from the couch when we walked in.

“Milo’s the latest flu victim. I’m serving as his nurse for the weekend.” I kept walking to my room, not wanting to lose my momentum.

I sat him down on my bed. “It’s hot in here.” He looked around, appearing lightheaded.

I removed his glasses. I pushed his blazer off of his shoulders, grabbed the hem of his sweater and pulled it over his head. I unbuttoned his oxford shirt layered beneath, leaving him shirtless. I took off his shoes and worked him out of his pants. He rested his head on my pillow, lightly groaning because his body ached. I tucked him beneath the covers. I administered his first dose of medication.

“I’m going to send Elle in here to check on you. Do you need something before I leave?”

“Are you buying anything?”

“I was going to go to the student store to get you juice and soup.”

“I have money.” He tried to sit up. I pushed him back onto his back.

“In your wallet?”

He nodded.

I went to his pants pocket and took it out. “I’m taking $20.”

He held up two fingers.

“$40?”

He gave me a thumbs up as he coughed.

“Soup and juice are not that expensive.”

He pointed to me.

I pocketed the money and put my hand on his chest. “I’m taking care of you. Don’t steal my thunder by trying to do it back from your death bed.”

He put his hand on top of mine and caressed it with his thumb.

“I’ll be back soon.” I kissed the top of his head, fighting through the sweatiness.

I switched on my overhead fan on the way out.

“Elle, do you mind keeping an eye on him for a little bit? I have errands to run.”

“He’ll be safe and sound with me.”

“Bye.” Adam waved.

“I’ll be back soon.” I blew her a kiss.

It was a quick walk to Astaire Hall. He let me inside their suite. Ryan caught the door, armed with disinfectant and hand sanitizer and wearing a surgical mask.

“I heard Miles is infected. Lather up and get sprayed before moving forward.” He barricaded it with his body, forcing us to remain in the hallway.

“I did not expect you to get like this.” I cupped my hands.

“I hate being sick when my mom’s not present.” He squirted sanitizer into them. He repeated the process with Adam.

“Is that safe for skin?” Adam eyed the can of disinfectant he was shaking up.

“I guess we’ll be finding out. Close your eyes and mouths.”

He misted the air around us and droplets of disinfectant fell.

“Turn around.”

We did it. He repeated the process.

“Surgical masks.” He produced them from his pocket.

“Where did you get these?” I put it on begrudgingly.

“Health center.”

Adam was given a mask.

“You’re clean.” He stepped aside. “I’ve already sprayed everything down in your room.”

Sami and Finn were sitting in the living room wearing surgical masks, playing video games.

“So this is a legitimate quarantine.” I remarked.

“I get greater good vaccines only. This is a safe alternative.” Sami’s voice was muffled.

“Milo didn’t follow the protocol. He judged us like you are. Now look at him.” Ryan sipped orange juice through a straw inserted beneath his mask.

“Where’s Nick?”

“Getting more sources of Vitamin C. We’ve run low on oranges, lemons, and juice.”

“It’s been fun, but I need to get back to my patient. See ya later, guys.” I waved.

I continued my journey to Milo’s room. I went on his side and found a duffle bag. I stuffed loungewear, toiletries, and undergarments inside. I was off to the store right after that. I bought the essentials for flu care and snacks for myself. I was back to him within the hour. He wasn’t in my room when I finished putting the groceries away. The bathroom door was closed and the shower was running.

“Milo?”

“We’re in here!” Elle called out.

I walked inside. He was seated on the floor by the bathtub. The shower was running, filling the room with steam. Elle was seated on the toilet seat, messing with her phone.

“Shut the door.”

I did as she instructed.

“What’s going on?” I crouched down beside him, addressing Elle.

“He was having a coughing fit. I put him in here with the steam. It’s opening up his chest.”

He covered his mouth with his hand. I was please to hear his cough sounded emptier.

“I bought tissues, juice, oranges, soup, and everything you could possibly need.” I slicked his moist hair back.

He rested his head on my shoulder. I held him in my arms, rubbing his back and periodically kissing the top of his head.

“Art’s coming over. I’m ordering pizza. Do you want some?” Elle stood up to step out.

“Yep. Thanks for watching him.” I smiled.

“He was no trouble at all.” She pointed to him, used her hands to gesture to her body, and fanned herself.

“Out.” I pointed to the door.

She blew me a kiss and left. I held Milo on the bathroom floor until he started shaking.

“Let’s get some clothes on you.” I helped him up.

He was able to walk back into my room on his own. I gave him a towel and he dried himself off as I unpacked clothes for him to put on. He put on the sweatpants, t-shirt and socks. He lied back down.

“Are you hungry?”

He shook his head.

“You haven’t eaten today. You need to eat something to feel better. I’m going to bring you soup and juice.” I tucked him in.

“Is this a date?” I found Elle cleaning the living room.

“Sorta kinda. I really like him.” She grinned.

“I hope it goes well. Am I allowed to come in here?” I went into the kitchen.

“I want you to officially meet him. You’ve got to approve.” She bounced in after me.

“From what I’ve heard, I don’t think I’ll have anything against him.” I removed a pot and a can of soup from the cupboard.

“Do you want me to cook that?”

I turned on the stove. “I can do it. My mom’s been teaching me how.” I poured the broth and noodles.

“How is she?”

“She moved to Florida last week. She took a break from painting and packing yesterday and webchatted with me. She looked really happy, the cats too.”

“Does she have a job lined up?”

“Taking care of my grandparents is her full time job. I’m trying to talk her into starting a cooking blog, though. I really think she’s going for it.” I stirred the soup.

I sprinkled salt and pepper into my hand to have a concrete idea of how much I was putting in, recalling what my mom had taught me. I dumped it inside.

“I think she’d be great at that. The stuff she sends you is nothing short of amazing.”

“I know, right? She –“

A knock on the front door interrupted our conversation.

“He’s here.” She clasped her hands together.

She skipped to answer it. She checked her breath, fixed her hair, and pulled open the door.

“I’m glad you could make it.” She gave him a hug.

“You invited me. This is for you.” He extended a flower to her.

“A potted plant. I love it. Bouquets make me a little sad; they were beautiful plants that were plucked at their prime. This is still able to grow.”

“I remember you saying that. It’s a camellia.”

She beamed. “I hope you didn’t go out of your way to get it.”

“I didn’t. I was already at the hardware store with Jared.”

“You’re so sweet.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Come on, I want you to meet Izzie.” She led him into the kitchen by the hand, hugging her gift to her body with the other.

“Izzie, Art. Art, Izzie.” She introduced us.

“Hi, it’s very nice to finally meet you.” I shook his hand.

“And I you. She has told me many things about you.”

“Let me guess, she raved about my curly hair and freckles.”

He cracked a smile. “Don’t forget your eyes. She also mentioned that you’re kind and funny.”

His silver eyes were hypnotic. He had such luxurious hair too. He pulled his long hair off very well. I fought the urge to reach out and run my fingers through it.

“Eleanor.” I looked over at her, finally able to rip my eyes away from his.

“They’re amber, which is rare. And they’re big, which is so cute.” She gushed.

“Your hair curls too. You have green eyes, which are far prettier in my opinion. Don’t come at me with that.” I checked on Milo’s soup.

“I straighten my hair most of the time and people are constantly asking if I’m wearing contacts.”

“I’m sorry.” I recalled Arthur’s presence. ”Our relationship is closer than it should be. We do this all day every day.”

“I figured. She talks about you nonstop.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Yeah, if she’s spending a good chunk of her time with you, I know she won’t get mad at me for hanging out with my friends.”

I smiled. “I guess I can lend her out to you, but remember who she belongs to.”

“That will not be difficult to do. I appreciate your blessing.”

“Treat her right or I’ll take it back and attack you Sami-style. I don’t mess around when it comes to my Ellebell. She’s a fairy of friendship, knowledge, and beauty.”

He chuckled. “I can’t imagine hurting her. You have my word.”

“Then we’re good.” I poured the cooked soup into a bowl.

“We’re going to leave you alone, Babydoll. I’ll bring you pizza when it gets here.”

“Thanks. Have fun.”

I poured orange juice into a glass. I loaded his meal on a serving tray and returned to my room. I helped him sit upright; I remained on the edge of the bed, and fed him soup. He handled his juice by himself. He fell right back to sleep afterward, drowsy from his medication. I ate pizza, watched movies, and took a shower before getting into bed to go to sleep. Coughing in the middle of the night woke me up; I switched on my bedside lamp.

“Babe, let’s sit up.” I worked him upright; all the while, he kept coughing.

I rested the back of my hand on his forehead. “Open your mouth for me.” I picked his thermometer up from my nightstand.

“101.8 F.” I read aloud.

“I’m giving you a lukewarm bath. Hopefully that’ll drop your temperature some.” I went to where he was.

He took the medication I placed in his hand. He turned his body, putting his legs over the edge of the bed. He pointed to the box of tissues. I snatched a handful. I needed to go back for more, his nose blowing felt never-ending.

“Thorry.” He dropped his tissues in the wastebasket.

“I volunteered for this.” I pulled his shirt over his head.

I led him to the bathroom in his boxers with the intention of putting the same clothes on him. I filled the tub with lukewarm water as he went to the restroom. I helped him into the pool I created once he had washed his hands. I dabbed a clean rag in water and dragged it along his smoldering skin. I took the opportunity to wash his hair when I was finished. I was bundling him in a towel when Elle walked in.

“Sorry!” She shielded her eyes.

“No, I’m sorry. This is your bathroom too. We’ll be out in a second.” I walked him out of the bathroom and made him sit on my bed.

“Everything you need to get dressed is right here. I’m going to go clean up the bathroom.” I left him alone to sort himself out.

“I truly am sorry. His fever has gone up. I read that baths can help break it.” I mopped up the water on the floor.

“Seriously, it’s okay. I know you’re trying to get him back to normal. I just figured you wouldn’t want me sneaking more of a peak than I already have.” She started washing her face at the sink.

“Did you have fun on your sorta kinda date?”

“Yes, he is way too sweet. The plant killed me. Do you like him?” Her face lit up as she talked about him.

“Yes, I get the sense that he really cares about you.”

“If you’re not too busy tending to your patient tomorrow, we should start going over your company options. The deadline to sign your contract is around the corner.”

“Come to my room tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have him napping at that time. He’s the ultimate heavy sleeper.”

“It’s a date. I’m going to be super upfront with you during the presentation. You were warned. Don’t get mad at me.”

“What do you mean by ‘upfront’?”

“I’m going to say things you might not want to hear, like your relationship with Milo probably isn’t permanent. It’s not because of who he is, either. High school relationships in general can’t survive the real world transition. A lot changes out there.” She dried her face.

“I know.” I had been trying so hard not to think about that particular truth.

“I’m not saying there’s no chance.” She tried to cheer me up, sensing my sadness.

“You’re being realistic. I’ve had my head in the clouds when it has come to him and me lately.” I subtly wiped away the tears that had collected.

I dropped the rag and towel I used to dry out the tub in the clothes hamper. I opened the door to leave.

“Iz, --?”

I turned my head. “Yeah?” My voice shook.

“You know yourself better than anyone. You don’t always have to take my word for it.”

“I’m still trying to figure out if he’s mine to keep. “ More tears fell.

She walked over and hugged me. “That’s okay.”

“I love him so much, to the point of hating myself for it. I’m making things so much harder. It’s impossible to walk away from this scratch-free.” The dam broke.

“I know, Babydoll. I know.” She rubbed my back.

“How could I let it get this far?”

“You have a big heart. Don’t back away to play it safe.”

“But I –“ I sniffled.

“You’ll hate yourself even more if you do that. Let yourself love him while you can.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“Atta girl. Don’t let me be a Debbie downer.”

“You’re a romantic. You’re far from bitter.” I pulled away from her to dry my face.

“A little jealous, perhaps, but you’re right, I’m not bitter.”

“I better go back. I need to make sure he’s okay.” I pointed to my door with my thumb.

“Goodnight, Honey.” She offered me a smile.

“Goodnight, Dear.” I smirked at her on my way out.

Milo was struggling to get his pants on, the towel remaining on his lower half.

“Too achy?” I took over.

“And dizzy.” He put his hands on my shoulders for balance.

I towel dried his hair and rubbed vapor rub on his chest before tucking him back in. “I love you.” I kissed his forehead.

I went onto my side of the bed and fell back to sleep with ease.

He was doing better the next day. His fever was down to 100.4 F. He had more of an appetite, eating orange slices in addition to his soup, but he was still exhausted. He went to sleep after eating lunch, just as I predicted.

“What are you eating?” Elle walked into my bedroom, carrying her laptop.

“Chicken Pad Thai with Sriracha sauce.” I was comfortably seated in my folding lounge chair, my feet propped on my bed.

“Can I try a bite?” She put her computer on my desk.

“Yes!” I was caught off guard and excited she was not preoccupied with germs.

“Shh. He’s asleep.” She pressed her finger to her lips.

I spiraled noodles on my fork. “He’s dead to the world right now. Watch –“

“MILO, THE BUILDING’S ON FIRE!” I shouted.

He continued to snore lightly and hold the pillow I put in my place.

“What? Where?!” Morgan burst open my door. She had her backpack and shoes on.

“Nowhere. Just proving a point. Are you heading out?” I handed Elle the fork I prepared.

“Yes, to work. There might not be a need for science tutoring while everyone is sick, but I still need to report. Is he feeling better?” She studied Milo.

“Is is oh ot!” Elle stuck her tongue out and fanned it.

“You sound like Milo.” I took my fork back. “He’s doing a little better. He should be able to go to classes on Monday.”

“That’s good.”

“Ater!” Elle teared up, bouncing in pain.

“On the desk.” I pointed to it.

She rushed over there, grabbed a bottle, and went through half of it. She sighed in relief.

“Izzie’s food is either burning hot or coated in sugar.”

“See, Mom gets it.” I shoveled more noodles into my mouth.

“I almost died.” Elle cleared her throat. “Your mouth is an anomaly.”

I swallowed. “My taste buds are perfect.”

“I’m heading out. I’ll be home later.”

I waved goodbye and Elle blew her a kiss.

Elle connected her laptop to the television, enlarging her presentation. She made herself comfortable at my desk.

“I have excluded all New York based companies from the main presentation, but I put them in–“

“I don’t want them.” I started firmly.

“Then let’s continue. First on our list is Listonenia Royal Ballet Company. –“ She showed an aerial image of the country. “Listonenia is a fourteen hour flight away. The primary languages are English, Italian, and Greek.” Her next slide featured a pie chart depicting the number of people that spoke each language. English barely surpassed Italian.

“--The Listonenia Royal Ballet Company was founded in 1740 by King Faustino as a wedding gift to his wife Rosalina. –“ She transitioned to a portrait of them with their children.

The king and queen were seated side by side. His face was somewhat at an angle, but his eyes were undeniably on her. She balanced a baby on her lap. She allowed the toddler standing beside her to play with her fingers as she looked forward with a darling smile. The young crowned prince stood beside the king’s chair, his hand on his shoulder. His little sister sat at their father’s feet, grinning from ear to ear.

“—She adored ballet. Before the company was established, the king commissioned the best performers from Listonenia, Greece, and Italy to come to their court to perform for her. He spared no expense when it came to their quality. That tradition is upheld to this day. “

She settled on an image of the performance theatre. “—which is why it should come as no surprise that you were asked to join.”

The next slide was titled: Pros and Cons.

“First con: you will be an ocean away from your family. Visits will be far less frequent than if you remained state-side.”

“Second con: your association with the royal family will have people undermining your talent. You have it, Babydoll. You have the credentials to prove it, but some people are bound to think your bedside manner with the crowned prince is the reason you were hired.”

“Con number three: you are solely limited to traditional ballet. You are interested in contemporary variations as well, but they are by the books; no room for improv.”

“Con four: Your contract locks you in for two years. You are obligated to perform, unless dismissed or on medical leave.”

“And con number five: His Royal Highness Prince Milo. We talked about why that would be a problem last night, but I have something to add. He will be everywhere because of who he is. There is no chance of avoiding him or not hearing about his life without you.”

I nodded, but remained silent. I was barely able to stomach the conversation the first time.

“Pro number one: they are offering free room and board. You’d have a roomie, but that could be fun, you know?” She displayed a picture of one of the apartments they supplied their dancers.

“Pro number two: respectable starting salary and they promote within. Don’t have to worry about an outside hire getting a principle spot before you.” A stock photo of money appeared.

“Number three: You wouldn’t have to learn a new language right away. You’ve been to the country before and you enjoyed your stay.” She showed pictures of us while we were on vacation that summer.

“Number four: It won’t be difficult for you to figure out customs. You’ve got a head start when it comes to understanding their government and conversions.”

“And last but not least, number five: your relationship with Milo would have a fighting chance. “ There was a picture of Milo and I together. It was a picture of us cropped out of our group prom photo. He was kissing the side of my face as I smiled up at the ceiling.

I closed my eyes, needing a moment.

“Now it’s time for the discussion.”

I reentered our conversation. “Can we come back to this one? I don’t want to talk about it until I’ve heard the others.”

“That’s doable.” She forwarded slides. “Los Angeles, California”. She paused to drink water.

“Cons. The cost of living is high. Room and board not included. Your salary would be much lower than the one offered in Listonenia, and the company is mostly contemporary. You will have very few opportunities to have a show completely composed of ballet.” All of the cons were listed beside a picture of the Hollywood sign.

“You didn’t put as much into this one as the other.”

“I know. I was excited at first, but the more I read into it, the more I couldn’t see you there. I’m sorry.”

“You could’ve also added that it’s basically a start up and I’d be taking a huge risk if I signed with them.”

“I was going to mention that, but it felt obvious.”

“I don’t even need to see the pros. I’m not going to California. I’d only commit to a start-up if it grabbed my attention and I was fueled by passion. I have no emotional tie to that one and I need enough income to support myself.”

“Righty-o. Let’s head on over to Paris, France.” She pulled up the appropriate slide.

“Con number one: though you have taken courses in it for years, you do not speak nearly enough French to live in France.” The next slide contained a GIF of a person shrugging.

“That might be a huge problem.” I finished up the last of my lunch.

“You think? Con two: Another expensive city, but housing is offered.”

I replaced the pillow Milo was holding with my body. He opened his eyes a little.

“Are the goblins coming to visit?”

“Mm.” He snuggled closer and fell back to sleep.

I kissed the top of his head with a smile.

“Why is his hair so poofy?”

“I washed it with my shampoo and conditioner last night. As I waited for my Thai food to be delivered today, I misted his hair with volumizing spray and brushed it as he slept. Now he feels like a puppy.” I petted him.

“You are finding way too many ways to entertain yourself while he is sick. Con three: It takes over seven hours to fly there from New York. But it’s a pro when compared to Listonenia.”

“No.”

“No?” She gave me her full attention.

“The language thing’s really getting me. How am I going to buy food or have conversations? I’d love to dance in a place so influential to ballet, but it would have to be a special appearance sort of thing or at least something I’d have more time to prepare for. That’d be too many changes at once.”

She silently studied for a while, visibly thinking. “Ballet originated in Italy in the fifteenth century, exclusively for royal courts, no less.”

“And…?”

“Listonenia’s a neighboring country; it reached them soon after. I mention it because if an origin story is something you’re seeking, I’m sure they have one too.”

I looked down and resumed playing with his hair. “Describe Seattle.”

“Isabella.” Her tone was stern.

“I hear it’s really beautiful.”

“It is. It also rains 155 days a year and it only gets up to 75 °F in the summer.” She retorted a little too quickly.

I sighed and dropped my head.

“Isabella Mia.” She attempted to rein me in once again.

I bit the inside of my cheek.

“Do I need to break it down?”

“My only feasible options lie in New York and Listonenia. I have to decide which place is more worthy of pain.”

“New York would be harder on you.”

“But it’ll also be hard to validate Listonenia to others. Everyone will think—“

“Who cares?”

“Like you said, the way I got my job will be questioned once I’m there. When I tell people here where I’m going, they’ll think I’m going because of Milo. I want this to be about me.”

“It is. I have the evidence in my PowerPoints. If anyone has questions, direct them to me.”

I looked down at Milo’s sleeping face on my chest. “I don’t want to scare or corner him.”

“You don’t need to tell him right now, if ever. It doesn’t concern him unless you want it to.”

“It’s my choice.” I thought aloud.

“It’s yours. Take care of your business. You’ll feel better once you do.”

“You’re right.” I moved out from under Milo once again and gave him my pillow replacement.

“Let’s do this.” I went to my desk and opened the drawer.

I shuffled through my stack of contracts I kept in a folder. I turned to the correct page on the Listonenian one and grabbed a pen.

“Wait!” Elle leapt up from her chair.

“I bought something for this occasion.” She ran out of the room.

“Of course you did.”

She came back with a bottle of sparkling cider and two glass flutes. “We’re celebrating this occasion the right way.”

“We’re doing the same thing when you get your acceptance letter from Yale. “ I sat down at my desk to sign my name properly.

“I’d assume so.” She held up her phone.

She snapped pictures as I signed my full name and date on the bottom line.

“It’s not official just yet.” I turned on my scanner.

I inserted the document, scanned it into my computer, and sent it to the company via email. “Should I mail it too? It says either on the envelope.”

“It wouldn’t hurt. If you pack it up, I can drop it in the mail box on my way to dinner.”

I did as she requested, sealed the envelope and handed it to her. She inserted into her purse.

“You’re a signed professional dancer now.”

Tears hit when I realized she was right. “I did it.” I struggled to find my voice.

“You did.” She hugged me. “It was all worth it.”

My phone started buzzing like crazy. I dried my eyes and picked it up. I had texts from my mom, Audrey, Everett, Bex, and B, all congratulating me.

“Did you already send text blasts?” I started replying.

“Yes, yes, I did. We’re very proud of you.” She struggled to unscrew the top of the bottle of sparkling cider.

Once opened, a stream of foam flowed from the opening because of the pressure. She started laughing at the mess. I joined her, even happier that she was able to let it go.

“Someone was a little too excited.” She giggled, putting the bottle down on my desk.

I was still laughing when she went into our bathroom to get cleaning supplies.

“Hiya, Sis. How’s it going?” I answered my phone.

“Great. My Izzie Bee’s a professional ballerina.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

“Do you know where I’m going?” I wrapped my free arm around myself and began to pace.

“Yes. I’m relieved I don’t have to talk you out of going to Paris to live out your fantasy of being Madeline. Your French is terrible and you’re too stubborn to ask for directions to the house with vines.”

“You’re such a dream crusher, Aud! I was going to talk mom into getting me a dog named Genevieve as a graduation gift. Now there’s no point.”

Elle returned and dabbed the rug with paper towels.

She chuckled. “She’d buy it too, possibly even throw in a cat.”

“Because she gets me.”

“I know you made your decision for the right reasons. Elle sent me her powerpoints. I gave her my notes and prediction. She wanted California initially. She’d be joining you eventually. Nick and Sami are supposedly going to be there right after graduation. I had to remind her choosing California for them was just as bad as selecting Listonenia for Milo. A new company is not a safe bet right now. She did more research and agreed with me.”

“I feel like you guys have a whole relationship that I know nothing about.”

“Well, you’re not wrong. I know you’ll do well in Listonenia. I like that company best. They share your philosophy.”

“Thanks for always believing in me.”

“You say that like it was difficult. You’re the one with the belief problem, not me.”

“What about doubting that your husband finds you attractive?”

“That was a dark time. I have since been seeing the light on a regular basis.”

“Tell her about Em!” I heard Ev yell in the background.

“What’s going on with my cutiekins?”

She sighed heavily. “She said ‘dada’.”

I laughed. “I’m sorry you lost. She’ll say ‘mama’ soon enough.”

“She better. She’s way too cute when she says his name. I’m getting jealous.”

“Is her face what makes it cute?”

“No, she does this little bounce with it, like she’s really excited, and grins afterward.”

“Aw. That’s precious. Send me a video ASAP.”

“I will. I don’t want to keep you too long. I know you’ve got celebrating to do.”

“Thanks for calling.”

“It’s because I love you.”

“I love you too.”

I put my phone down. Elle had finished cleaning and was pouring our glasses of cider.

“To your future.” She held up her glass.

“My future.” I clinked mine with hers.

She was in my lounge chair and I on my bed. We drank and binge watched episodes of a comedy show we had already seen a million times. Milo coughed himself awake.

“How are you feeling?” I put my free hand on his forehead.

“Hungry.” He cleared his throat.

“That’s a good sign. Let me take your temp and I’ll warm up some soup.” I put my glass down and traded it for a thermometer.

“100°F. We’re making some progress.”

“Did you say something about goblins?” He rubbed his eye with the back of his hand.

“No, shut your pretty face.” I bounced out of bed. “Take your next dose. I poured you more juice.”

“The medication makes me tired. I feel better. I no longer need it.”

“Your fever was very high last night. You were a couple degrees away from a hospital bed. You’re doing considerably well now, all thanks to your current remedy.”

“But I feel like I’m missing everything.” He fetched a tissue.

“Milo Ferdinando Giovanni De Luca, I will call your father if you question my authority one more time.”

“Yes, please.” Elle held up her hand.

He coughed profusely. “What is he going to do?” He fetched another tissue.

I put my hands on my hips. “Prevent me from killing you. Put the pills into your mouth and drink the damn juice!”

He frowned as he did as told.

“Good boy. I will be back shortly with your lunch.”

I rejoined him in bed after placing his meal tray on his lap.

“You have been very good to me.” He stirred his soup.

“No, I haven’t.”

“You gave me, a grown man, a bath without corrosion.” He brought the first spoonful to his mouth.

“It’s customary to give the elderly sponge baths. I was playing my role in society.”

A short cough served as his laugh. “And here I was thinking I have the best girlfriend in the world.”

“You’re wrong, Babe, but it’s okay. You’re sick.” I patted the top of his head.

“I look and feel deplorable right now; I would kiss to you if that weren’t the case. You are and have been wonderful.”

“You obviously haven’t seen your hair.”

“I have.”

“I guess I’ll reward you for letting me have my fun. If you eat all your food, I’ll give you the option of holding my hand or cuddling.”

“How would we cuddle?”

“Any way that enables me to keep watching TV.”

“I will take that option. You haven’t let me hold you in a while.”

I groaned. ”But you smell like vapor rub.”

“You put it on me.”

“I’ll wash it off and give you a new shirt. Deal?”

“Deal.”

We both held up our ends of the offer. He lifted his arm; I took my rightful place at his side. I put my head on his shoulder and hand on his chest.

“I know how lucky I am to have you.” He kissed the top of my head.

“Even when I yell at you?”

“I love it when you yell at me.”

I warded off a smile. “You have succumb to Stockholm Syndrome in such a short period of time.”

“My captor is very sympathetic.”

I tilted my head up. “I want you to get better. Stop talking and go back to sleep.”

“You’re not allowed to leave me.” He made himself more comfortable.

“I am, but I won’t be doing it any time soon.” I put my head back on his shoulder.

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