I wake up the next day feeling like I’ve fallen out of a plane without a parachute. That’s been how I’ve felt for the past week or so, though, so I’m kind of getting used to it. It’s actually JD who wakes me up by throwing open the guest bedroom door and proclaiming that we’re going to take a trip. He wants to go to the cover apartment I was assigned we can move all of my things out. While there isn’t exactly much to move out of that apartment, There aren’t many things there to begin with but I’ve already been issued an official notice from D.C that I need to vacate the property within the next three days. I might as well get it over with sooner rather than later.
“You’re gonna have to give me a few,” I tell him after groaning my way through sitting up and placing my bare feet on the floor.
“You still super fucked up?” he asks, looking me up and down. “You went on the op with us yesterday, though.”
“Was a personal matter,” I reply before dragging myself to my feet. I sway once I’m actually upright and he places a stabilizing hand on my shoulder to save me from crumbling to the ground.
“A personal matter?” he parrots back.
“Complicated. You already know everything I want you to.”
“I barely know anything,” he says with a slight pout.
“Exactly.” I flash him a dry grin as I regain my own balance enough to stand up straight without help.
We take his Camaro all the way over to the apartment and park across the street. It’s a reasonably nice neighborhood so thankfully we can take our time. I fumble for the keys to the place with uncoordinated fingers for a second before I’m finally able to get them into the lock.
The apartment is just as I left it. Everything is all packed up in boxes that are still in the hall closet. I move directly to the closet and drag them all out I disappear into the bedroom to make sure I’m not forgetting anything important.
JD is standing by the kitchen when I get back out into the main area of the apartment. It takes me a second to realize why he’s gone so uncharacteristically silent, but the sight of bloody, dry old gauze and bandages makes it clear.
“These are from your arms, right?” he says quietly. “I thought that was from the Rivera guys.”
His words actually cause a dry bark to come out of my mouth.
“It actually technically was,” I reply with a sarcastic smile.
“You know, not telling anybody about anything isn’t very good for you.”
I sigh loudly as I sit down on the couch. JD is the closest thing I have to a best friend on the team. Max is cool and all and he knows the most about me, but he’s more of a mentor than anything else. JD is like my League version of Atlas.
“That guy that we have in custody at the tower, Rowan. His father and some of the other members caught us sneaking around. We were hooking up or whatever. They grabbed me off the street and, long story short, his dad forced him to burn me. Bad.”
JD’s face contorts into a twist of anger and concern. Being the baby of the team tends to make people worry about me all the time. JD doesn’t do that often so the situation must sound even crazier from the outside than it does from the inside.
“That’s really fucked up, Lake,” he says seriously. “I’m kind of surprised that you’re advocating in his favor still.”
“He’s a good guy, really. This whole thing just got so complicated so fast,” I insist, but I don’t meet his eyes as I speak.
In reality, I’m still struggling with not being able to think, let alone look, at Rowan without being reminded of what he did. It always takes me a moment to force myself to be rational and remember that he really had no choice. I could have easily removed myself from that situation if I really wanted to. Doing that would have exposed me for exactly what I’m sure Alexander was afraid that I was: a mole. I have a lot of things to have nightmares about. The scars on my chest. Getting shot. My mom’s brother, Ashton. Rowan burning the flesh from my arms is just another incident that has unfortunately joined the line up.
“If you say so, kid,” is all JD says.
JD helps me move everything I had on the common floor up to my actual suite once we get back to the tower. I can finally say that I officially live in the tower full time which is kind of great. I’ve always preferred having a place to call home, no matter how dysfunctional it may be.
I spend most of my time sleeping during the next few days. My body takes the time to catch up with healing the myriad of injuries it’s sustained so recently. The sleep, however, does not go uninterrupted. Nightmares that haven’t visited me in years have once again become a plague accompanied by new ones. Getting shot it actually quite traumatic. That “instant recovery” every person who’s ever been shot in a movie or TV show totally pisses me off now. If I ever get around to finishing the writing of a book and it contains a gunshot wound, I’m going to make sure to show just how hellish the aftermath truly is.
I remain mostly secluded like I did before going on the mission to save Bella. Sometimes I’ll hear the pitter patter of tiny feet and remember that Bella’s running around the place now. I know that means that Rowan must be around, as well, which may or may not be a contributing factor to my continued isolation. I still have yet to talk to him. Any time I’ve meandered out into the kitchen or living room of the common floor and seen Rowan, I’ve turned and practically ran from the room. Call me a coward but I just got shot and seriously burned so I’m pretty sure I deserve a break.
My doctor from the hospital has given me the okay to start a modified form of physical therapy tomorrow. My enhanced healing means that I can’t go to just any physical therapist so my doctor has recommended I switch out my weekly training with Max for some lighter activity.
I meet Max on the training mat as we usually do. He tosses me a warm smile when he enters the room after getting off of the elevator.
“I figured we could start with some basic stretching since you’re still walk around looking like a kicked puppy,” he says in a playfully light tone.
We sit across from him on the mat as he guides me through some leg and back stretches. I feel looser than I have in a while once we’re done and he decides that we’ll wrap up this week’s session with some leisurely knife sharpening.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time in your suite, kiddo,” he says as we slide our respective blades through the sharpening blocks. “I figured you’d have jumped to get to speak to that kid of yours the moment you could with the way you were throwing yourself on the line for him.”
I don’t say anything for a few moments and listen instead to the scrape and grind of the blades. What exactly can I say to that? How can I explain this without completely giving Rowan and I away?
“Just because I helped him doesn’t mean he’s ‘mine’,” I snark. “He deserved the break we gave him. Wish someone looked twice at me like I did for him when I was a kid.”
“You probably wouldn’t be where you are right now if someone was around,” he replied, his eyebrows raising slightly. He turns to gaze across at me.
“Yeah, maybe. I’d surely be less horribly disfigured if they had.”
Max may not completely know what I mean by that but the words surely shut him up.
I was bound to run into Rowan eventually. I was the one who practically begged for him to be allowed to stay in the tower as it so it’s not really fair for me to be annoyed.
It’s around six when I wander down to the common floor to see if Flint is interested in ordering Chinese food for dinner. I instead find Rowan and Bella making cookies in the kitchen.
I turn around like I have for the past week or so with full intent to sneak away like I’ve been doing since he got here. Something tells me that Rowan has hardly ever been really fooled by my escape act, but he still has yet to call me out on it. A tiny voice stops me this time, though, and Bella just isn’t the kind of two year old someone can say no to very easily.
“Lake!” she practically shrieks as she bounces up and down where she’s sitting on the kitchen counter. She manages to pack more happiness into that one little word than I’ve probably ever felt in my entire life. Bella Rivera is like a little ball of sunshine, and it’s this that keeps me from turning and running like every fiber of my being wants to do.
Instead, I turn. I tug the happiest expression onto my face than I can physically manage and I can tell that just that has already sapped most of my unofficial daily allotment of energy. My days are getting longer and easier as time goes on, but things are still kind of hard for me right now. It’s just the ways things are for now.
“Bella!” I exclaim back. She giggles loudly and claps her hands onto her cheeks, grinning widely. Jeez. I’ve only seen the girl once before. How has she managed to take such a liking to me so fast?
“We’re making cookies,” she proclaims. “You gotta help us!”
“I gotta, do I?” I say as a playful tone settles easily over my voice. I chance a glance up into Rowan’s face, avoiding his eyes and instead focusing in one his forehead. That’s a trick my old public speaking professor taught me when I took his class freshman year. I never thought I’d have to use it as often as I’ve had to in the past few weeks.
“You really don’t have to,” Rowan reasons, shaking his head and poking Bella jokingly on the nose.
“Nah, it’s okay,” I find myself saying without really thinking. “It’ll be fun.”
I move my gaze to the disaster of a kitchen before me. They’ve already got all the flour, sugar, and salt together. I help Bella crack a couple eggs into the stainless steel mixing bowl and only have to pick out a few stray pieces of shell from the batter afterwards. Rowan pours in the vegetable oil, and I don’t realize what’s next in the recipe until he’s already uncapping the bottle for it. Vanilla extract. The smell hits my nose before I can stop it, sweeter than it has any right to be.
My stomach flips. I can practically feel all of the color rush from my face. Right. There’s vanilla extract in practically ever baked good on the planet. How could I possibly forget that?
“Excuse me.” I just barely manage to force the words out before I’m moving past the pair of siblings doused in dusty flour hand prints to get to the bathroom down the hall.
I shut the door and my knees smash into the tiled floor with bruising force just in time for the contents of my stomach to explode into the porcelain bowl before me. My entire frame shakes with some dry heaving following the initial spew, but it seems to die down a bit enough for me to collapse back against the side of the cabinet under the sink.
There’s a knock on the bathroom door and my fogged brain is unsure of who it could be for a second. It opens before I have to wonder for very long. Rowan. Of course. He shuts the door behind him before turning back to me and sitting down with his back against the side of the bathtub across for me.
“Are you okay?” he says after a few moments that I spend avoiding his gaze.
“Peachy,” I quip back automatically. “Sorry.”
“It’s cool,” is all he says in return. He must be trying to let me take my time.
“The vanilla, it makes me gag,” I say as if that explains everything. He doesn’t say anything but his face doesn’t explode in confusion. He just blinks at me and nods to let me know I heard him. “My mom...when I said something wrong or she didn’t like, she would make me drink it. Like. Spoonfuls. It smells nice, yeah, but it tastes disgusting.”
Even someone as well trained as Rowan can’t hide his horror at the explanation.
“That’s awful,” he says.
We’re quiet again. He looks like he wants to say something really bad. I wait. For what, I’m not sure.
“Listen, Lake…” he begins, and, oh, there it is. The beginning of the “sorry’s.” There are many sorry’s to be exchanged on both sides and I still don’t have the brain power to deal with that yet.
I pull myself to my feet quickly. Maybe a little too quickly if I’m being honest, but I want to stop this conversation before it truly has a chance to start. I’m not ready. Not yet.
“Tell Bella I wasn’t feeling well,” I force out. “I’ll see you around.”
I open the bathroom door an disappearing down the hall towards the elevator without waiting for his response. I take it all the way back up to my suite and decide that that was enough social interaction for the day. Screw dinner. I’ve lost my appetite, anyway.