Chapter 45: I'm With You - Grouplove
I spent the morning studying for finals. The afternoon was dedicated to preparing half of my Christmas gift to Milo.
“Thank you.” Sami swiped one of the carrot shreds I had in a bowl.
“No more stealing. I’m using this food to prove a point.” I slowly chopped the fresh thyme pinned beneath my fingers.
“Yeah? To who?” She knotted her lavender hair into a bun on the top of her head as she waited for the teakettle to fill with water.
“Milo. I am a capable cook now thanks to my mom. I can’t show him if you eat my vegetables.”
“What are you making?” She shifted the kettle to the stove.
“Pan-seared chicken with lemon herb sauce, salad as a side dish, and blondies for dessert. I am a little behind, but I am determined to make this happen.”
“Do you need help?”
“You can cook?” I turned to look in her direction.
“I can, but I choose not to. If you mess up food enough times on purpose, people stop asking you to make them things. I don’t like to be relied on like that. I’m offering right now. I can make more ginger-sesame vinaigrette salad dressing.”
“I thought you bought that. How could I turn down that offer? Wash up and jump in; he’ll be here at seven.”
“How are you planning on doing all this in four hours? Prep time is a thing.” She turned on the facet and began to wash her hands.
“I meant to start earlier. I lost track of time studying. We’re going to make this work and he is going to love it.” I picked up my work pace.
We worked side-by-side, only discussing food to remain focused. It was a race against the clock. I was sweating bullets by 6:15, doubting our ability to do it all in time.
I peered inside of the oven. “The blondies aren’t done and the chicken needs to go in here to remain warm and crisp.” I shut the door and rose to my feet. “The table’s not even set and –“
“I arrange my desk like a dinner table sometimes. I had a whole romantic dinner thing planned and –“
“I can’t handle panicking. You need to knock it off. I am invested. I will see to it that this plan get pulled off without a hitch.” She put her hands on my shoulders.
I took a deep breath. “How?”
“I’ll figure it out. I work best on my feet.” She shooed me away.
“It’ll look good. I get the feeling that this is sorta a big deal.”
I gave her a hug. “I won’t leave you alone for too long.”
I ran to my room. My outfit was lying on my bed. I was conscious of time as I showered. Shaving was the only thing I did not rush through while I was in there. Upon exiting, I put on my robe and propped open the door to remove steam from the mirror. I worked curl-defining products into my hair and blow-dried it. I had grown significantly since the summer, reaching the top of my rib cage. The tips were still the color I died it that summer. I tried my best to recreate the hairstyle I wore to the museum gala I attended with Milo. Make-up, perfume, and lotion were all applied before I went into my room to get dressed.
I fastened the bead button of my dress that rested at the base of my neck. I aligned the long sleeves. I smoothed down the emerald crepe fabric, turning to the back to ensure there were no unflattering lines visible. I stepped into my black heels and buckled the ankle strap. I gave myself a final once over, making corrections where necessary. I went to the kitchen to get the food plated. The time was 6:48. Milo’s arrival was eminent.
Sami was wearing eyeglasses when I entered the kitchen, hunched over gourmet plates of what I recognized to be the food we cooked, wiping excess juices away with a rag.
“How did you --”
“I watch a lot of cooking shows. Plating is important. Don’t mention my glasses if you recount this for others.” She stepped back to appreciate her work.
“My lips are sealed.”
“take full credit for the food. It is your creation. I just helped speed the process along.”
“Are you sure? You gave up --”
“Studying drives me crazy. I got to procrastinate with a purpose. I feel accomplished.”
“Well, good. You owe me a hug though.” I held open my arms.
“I don’t want to get anything on your dress.”
“Then a delicate side one.” I turned. We stood hip to hip and my arms were around her. “You are a life saver.”
“I am telling him I am moving to Listonenia tonight. The food might be needed to smooth things over.”
“I REALLY can’t imagine him being upset about it. He wants the best for you. It sounds like that company is it.”
“I don’t want him to think I am trapping him into a relationship.”
“Then you should stop being yourself. He has been under your spell for over a year now. By the look of him, there’s no stopping in sight. All the bets are on you running from him.”
“No, I -- are you betting on us with Finn?”
“Noooo.” She was hardly convincing.
“Why?” I crossed my arms.
She held up her hands. “Hey, I think it’ll work out. You look at each other the way my parents do. Logistically teen relationships aren’t substantial enough to last. We don’t know what the hell we want for ourselves, let alone what we want in another person. That’s Finn’s thinking. He’s not actively rooting against you.”
“Positive. Neither of us wants to witness the heartbreak breakdowns. You know, because we care about you and stuff.”
Just as I opened my mouth to reply, there was a knock on the door.
I took a deep breath in hopes of calming myself. “Do I look okay?”
“Do I look like Elle?”
“Sami.” I stamped my foot.
“You look beautiful. You always do. Answer the door before he goes home.”
“Right, --” I fast walked to it.
I opened the door with a smile.
His eyes widened and he scanned my body with the same look he had on his face the night of the gala.
“You look -- um, --” He sighed, flushed and flustered.
“Thank you. You look very handsome.” I stepped forward and kissed him.
He wore a black Oxford shirt, a grey cable knit cardigan, and dark khaki pants. Wearing a designer watch, his glasses, and his hair styled like his father’s made him look sophisticated.
“Where’s your coat, Sir?” I took both of his hands and dragged him inside. A scarf was tied around his neck and gloves were on his hands, but that was not nearly enough protection from the below freezing temperature outside.
“I am managing without it.”
“You have had the flu and a cold this year. This is why.”
“Don’t worry about me. I am fine.” He kissed my forehead.
“Your ears are red.” I put my hands over them in hopes of returning them to their normal coloring.
“Stop looking at me like that.” He chuckled.
I struggled to stop frowning. “Then wear your coat.”
“It was whisked to the dry cleaners because peppermint hot chocolate with extra whipped cream was spilled on it last night. ” He used his eyes to blame me for it.
“You’re the one that tried to snatch my drink away saying, ‘you’ve had too much sugar. You’ll never go to sleep’.” I imitated his voice. “You can’t blame me for what happened as a result.”
“What time did you go to bed?” A smirk tugged on his handsome face.
“Not relevant. Did you have fun ice skating?”
“Yes, but I still prefer doing activities with water in liquid form.”
“The same is true when it comes to watching you do activities. I know you have another jacket. This is unacceptable, Sir.” I removed my hands from his ears.
“Hi, Adam and Nick.” I waved. I didn’t notice them until they walked past us to get to the living room.
“Hello. We’re here to see Morgan. We were taking a study break and she invited us to watch anime.” Adam replied.
“Hey, boys --” Morgan emerged from her room. ” I haven’t made popcorn yet, but have a seat.”
“We’ll get out of your hair.” I took Milo’s hand and led him to my bedroom.
“What is all this?” He looked at the table.
“I cooked. Sparking cider will be sipped. It is going to be a very classy affair.”
“You cooked?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Yes. Sit.” I pointed to his chair.
“Are you trying to kill me?” He eyed me skeptically as he removed his scarf and gloves.
“No, you will be enjoying a large slice of humble pie when you realize that my food is delicious. I will be right back.”
I walked to the kitchen. Morgan was inside using the microwave.
“That looks really good.”
“Sam is the reason I was able to pull it all off in time.” I carefully balanced both plates in either hand. “Do you mind getting two wine glasses out of the cabinet and the bottle of sparkling cider out of the fridge?”
“Not at all.” She complied quickly. “Guys, watch the popcorn!” She yelled into the next room.
We walked out of the kitchen together.
“You both look so nice. I take it that it is a special occasion.”
“Mhmm. I’m finally telling him where I am going next year.”
“And terrifying. Wish me luck.”
“You don’t need it. He’s going to be estatic.”
“I hope you’re right.”
She opened the door for me.
“It smells incredible.”
I sat his plate down in front of him.
“It looks it too.” He looked up from his plate.
“My mom taught me how to cook this summer.” My plate was put in front of my seat.
“Thank you for helping her.”
“It’s what I’m here for.” She put down the glasses. She was even kind enough to pour the cider for us.
“Thanks, Mom.” I gave her a hug on her way out.
“Relax.” She whispered into my ear. She waved goodbye, leaving us alone.
I sat down in my seat and placed a napkin in my lap.
“This looks chef prepared.” He picked up his fork and knife.
“Part of my gift is sharing my ability to cook with you. Enjoy.”
I started with my salad, anxious about his verdict on the chicken.
His first bite was reluctant, but the following ones were indulgent. “This is truly delicious, some of the best food I have ever tasted.”
“Yeah?” I grinned.
“I apologize for doubting you.” He put his hand on top of the one I was resting on the table.
“The salad compliments the lemon in the chicken. Alternate for the full effect.” I suggested.
He listened to my request. Our subordinate hands remained together as we ate, caressing each other.
“Have you thought about what you want to do after you retire from the stage?” He asked as we finished the last of our meals.
I used my cider to clear my throat before answering. “I want to split my time between Going On Life, teaching children to dance, and the family I’ll hopefully have by then.”
“You will have no trouble finding a spouse, especially now that you have added cooking to your CV.”
His comment made me imagine being more than his girlfriend for the first time. A feeling of warmth and euphoria rushed over me.
“Hopefully.” I made eye contact as I intertwined my fingers with his.
He leaned across the table and kissed me.
“What are you doing post-college?”
“I’ll be taking up my own causes and traveling around the world to speak of them and other issues concerning the state of the kingdom. I will get married, produce heirs, and eventually rule. I hope the last part will not happen for a long while.”
“Have you thought of what kind of causes you would be interested in?”
“Mental health care. Your comments at the gala really struck a chord with the country. They want action. I have actually scheduled to start working on it this summer.”
“I love that.” I teared up at the thought. “I have something to give you.” I stood up without thinking and went to my nightstand. I removed the envelope addressed to him.
I gave it to him and sat on behind him on my bed as he read it.
He flipped to the final page of the contract after reading the initial lines.
“You signed with LRBC?” His voice was surprisingly emotionless.
“Yes. A few months ago.” I meddled with my hands in my lap, looking down at them.
He sat down beside me and picked up my hand.
“I can’t believe - ” He let out a sharp outtake of breath. “You really want to go there?”
I nodded, lost in his eyes.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was trying to pressure you into a relationship.”
“I am your little lamb according to your phone. I follow you wherever you go, not by force, but because I want to.” A small smirk tugged at his lips. “Thanks for making something easy for me for once.”
“Don’t get used to it.” I put my hand on the side of his face and kissed him. He put his hand on my leg as we really got into it.
He stopped when I laid back on my bed.“I am going to wash dishes and give you your gift before this progresses any further.” He touched his lips to mine once more.
“It’s sweet of you to clean up.” I sat up.
“I need to earn my keep.” He kissed my cheek and stood up.
He knocked over his wine glass trying to pick up his plate. It toppled onto the floor and shattered on the linoleum. “I’ll get it.” He stopped me from trying to clean it up.
“You could cut yourself.”
“So could you. I rather get cut than watch you do it.” He crouched down with a napkin to pick up the glass shards.
I stacked the plates and utensils. “Elle has a handy vac. I can get the itty bitty pieces.”
“That’s all that’s left.” He deposited the pieces of glass on the top plate. “Set up your laptop while I’m gone, but don’t log in.”
“Weird, but okay.”
“Sorry about your glass.” He added sheepishly.
“It will always be okay.” I touched my hand to his arm.
I went to Elle’s room for her vacuum. I zipped up all of the bits and pieces and disposed of them in the trashcan. The tool was returned to Elle’s room and I stopped in the bathroom on my way back to my room. After going potty, I removed the million bobby pins and hair elastic keeping my hair in place. I shook it out and ran my fingers through it. I brushed my teeth and left to turn on my laptop. Once I had done it, I turned on music.
“Dishes are washed. I am going to freshen up and return shortly.” He excused himself to the restroom.
One of my favorite slow songs was playing when he returned. “Will you dance with me?” I held out both of my arms.
“Always.” He made his way to me.
My arms went around his neck and his were on my waist. He smiled at me as we swayed. I pecked him on the lips to get him to stop.
“You’re so beautiful.” His eyes bore into mine with intensity.
I pressed my lips to his and we kissed slowly, passion building. My fingers were moved to his hair and my chest was pressed to his.
“Your gift.” He once again halted our physical expression of love.
“You are very adamant about this.”
“I want you to be happy.”
I smiled. “I am. You don’t need to give me anything else.”
“I need you to see it before everyone else does.” He took my hand and led me to my bed.
“You don’t know what my password is. If I refuse to cooperate, which I will, you --”
“ButternutDantePeter415. No spaces, capitalized first letters.” He typed it in.
“I guess you were able to become a spy after all.” I scooted closer to Milo and looked over his shoulder as he worked.
He typed my website’s URL into the search bar. What I saw wasn’t what it was the night before. It was not the homemade blog that was barren, but functional. The new one was whimsical and fun. The header featured a hand-drawn road lined with signs lining the sides. The drawings screamed Morgan. Watercolor and dainty lines were her signatures. Scanning the page, I noticed that the follower count leapt from 12 to 100,000. There was a live feed of comments flooding in, all praising the project and offering encouraging words to people struggling.
All videos submitted needed to be approved by me before they were published onto the site. My permissions were overridden and there were seven new videos we published featuring none other than Elle, Ryan, Finn, Nick, Morgan, Adam, and Milo. I watched all of them, listening intently as they described their journeys thus far and laid out their plans for the future. I saved Milo’s for last. I was more than familiar with the story he told about his life, but his final words were unforeseen.
“—I owe several of my discoveries to you, Iz. You have motivated me to venture past the realm of normality and have allowed me to experience things I never would have without you here to take my hand. I was not much of a reader before I met you. I would not label myself as an avid one now by any stretch of the imagination, but I have developed an affinity for F. Scott Fitzgerald, which you’re more than aware of. He wrote down my thoughts about you over a half a century before we were born. --“He cleared his throat and looked down at a sheet of paper. “You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, and most beautiful person I have ever known – and even that is an understatement.’“He smiled at me through the camera.
He returned his eyes to his reference sheet. “And to the rest of you he wrote, ’I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self-respect. And it’s these things I’d believe in, even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all she should be. I love her and that is the beginning and end of everything”. He looked back up once he had finished reading.
“Izzie, you didn’t just find the light while you were surrounded by darkness. You summoned the sun and embody it to bring warmth to others. I will be forever grateful for all that we have shared. I am building a life in which I am proud. I want to make an impact on the world using my name, not solely the one I inherited. I truly believe I can do it now; and I love knowing that you always did. It’s you and me, Beautiful. Forever and always.” He signed off in Italian and the video concluded.
I futilely wiped away the tears pouring down my cheeks.“I - I can’t believe you did all this for me.” I chocked.
“I had help. Finn upgraded your site, Morgan drew the pictures, we all made videos. I had the site shared on the palace’s social media account and asked Everett to do the same. I can barely take credit for this.”
I took a deep breath and looked over at him.“You know how much this means and --” I exhaled to get a hold of myself. “I love you so much.”
He offered me a soft smile. “I do too. That is what I wanted you to know.” He moved my laptop and extended his arms to me.
I inhaled to remove my congestion and breathed a small laugh. “You’re saying such wonderful things. I’m sitting here crying like an idiot, ruining my make-up, in response.” I removed my final tear remnants as I situated myself within his wingspan.
“They are smart tears. They are allowing me to see your freckles.” He smiled at me.
I guided his face down to mine. He put his hand on the side of my face to keep me in place. We kissed tenderly and deeply. He put his hand on my hip, going beneath my dress.
Unable to help myself, I picked up my laptop the moment I gained the motivation to move.
“Have you ever received a bad response in the time you have been doing this?” Milo’s hand roamed my side as I scrolled through my many new submissions.
“Yes, a number of them and they always hurt, but I’m not stopping on their account. They are the way they are for their own reasons. I am doing this with other people that need the same support I do. We’re who cares.” I huffed the last part, answering the rhetorical question that was thrown at me by hecklers.
“Are you determined to sift for the sincere ones by yourself?”
“Are you offering to help me?”
“When I’m not exhausted.”
“I might take you up on that. But for now, you should go to bed.” I rubbed the arm he had around me.
He shook his head. “I like watching you work.”
“We have talked about staring.” I smiled.
“We have. We began created exceptions after the sailing discovery.”
“Really? This is doing it for you?” I breathed a laugh.
“It is what you love. I watch you dance too.”
“Let me know if you get bored.” I stole a quick kiss.
I worked for a long while, motivated and comfortable knowing he was content. I looked at him when I was ready to go to bed. He was fast asleep, holding onto me for support.
I moved my laptop, careful not to disturb him. I switched off my lamp and scooted further down on the bed to allow us to lie down on it. His eyes remained closed as he snuggled closer to me, making himself comfortable. I closed my eyes with a smile, happy beyond belief.