Angels in the Dust (Book 1)

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17: Alli

"No!" Danni's strident voice cut through my thoughts, making me realize that I had been drifting. Again. More than once I'd considered how nice it would have been to forget responsibility and take Eve up on her offer. At least she wouldn't expect me to be attentive. And really, Danni's was the last place I needed to be tonight. "Blue, purple, then pink."

I watched from the couch as Danni pulled the offending block out of Jadin's hand and put the proper one in the wall they were building out of Mega Blocks.

"Yeah, Jadin," I teased, smiling at his dumfounded expression. I'd long ago learned that building with Danni was akin to an exercise in taking orders from her. It was my fault for letting her get away with it, and the least I could have done was warn Jadin. But he had seemed eager enough to play and I was glad for the extra pair of hands tonight.

Jadin looked at me from his place on the floor. "Sweetest thing, huh?" His tone was bitter, but it was all put on. He was smiling even as he turned back to try and meet Danni's demands. It had been a long shot, bringing him here, but it seemed like I'd actually managed to hit on something that made him genuinely happy.

Any other day that would have been an accomplishment. I would have smiled at his smile and noted that he looked even more attractive when he was relaxed and not fighting tooth and nail to keep himself completely contained. Now all I could hear was Chris's voice in my head, talking about projects. The worst part was that I knew he wasn't entirely wrong. Even Jadin had accused me of trying to make him feel better to the point where my efforts sounded insincere. Only when Jadin had said it, he'd meant it kindly, almost as a compliment. Chris's only intention had been to slap me in the face.

He had tried to call, of course, the instant I'd hung up and several times since. He hadn't tried to find me at school though, which I'd taken both as a blessing and as a sign that he wasn't very concerned about what I was firmly declaring a break up. Either that, or he was angry too; I imagined his circular thoughts, all destined to turn me into the villain. I knew he wouldn't think it was his fault. I wasn't even sure he understood exactly what he'd done, how laced that name was with poisoned barbs. I could still feel the sting, lodged under my ribs, rubbing me raw. It wasn't an unfamiliar sensation. Katie. I'm sorry, Katie. It was a name I fought to bury--never forget, just hide--deep down to maintain my own sense of forward motion. And considering how tentative my grip on sanity had been lately, this was a very bad time to have that name dragged to the surface. I could only deal with one crisis at a time. I couldn't forgive the fact that all of this had originated from someone who'd said he cared about me.

"Are you okay?"

I looked down to find Jadin watching me and felt my cheeks heat. "I'm fine," I answered automatically. His gaze shifted into disbelief before I could even try to add any other excuses. We'd been hanging out together too much; he knew me too well already. But then, I'd thought that about him from the very first. "Mostly," I qualified, and he nodded as if that was exactly what he'd expected.

"Don't be sad, okay? You have to be happy tonight."

"Why?" I asked, intrigued by the shift in his tone. It felt like he was tearing some of my own pep-talks out of my mouth.

The moment didn't last. When he answered, he had that sarcastic twinkle that contradicted his previously serious manner. "Wasn't that the point of this outing? To prove that life is happy? In the right company, of course."

I grinned, though I knew more clearly than I wanted to that 'happy' couldn't always be made to fit perfectly. I found it ironic that Jadin, so barbed in his own right, was the only one who'd made me feel even slightly better in the last twenty-four hours. Maybe that was because Jadin hadn't learned how to unburden his sadness either. "That's to prove it to you. I already know that," I said lightly. Any more lapses in concentration and I'd find myself spilling everything to his observant questions.

"So prove it," he said, and tossed a block in my lap.

"Fine," I agreed and moved from the couch. Jadin watched me the whole time and I thought, not for the first time, of how very aware I was of his eyes on me. I might have scolded myself for noticing, except that it didn't matter anymore. I was free and suddenly I saw the seed of possibility in that. If I could turn the break up into a positive, maybe I could forget about the rest. So I sat down on the floor next to Jadin, close enough that our knees almost touched. How's that for selfish? I had the insane urge to ask.

Instead, I looked across Jadin to Danni, "What are you building, Danni?" As the actual babysitter, it was something I should have asked a long time ago. In my distraction, I'd been more than willing to sacrifice Jadin as Danni's submissive playmate. Not that Danni had cared much for me once she'd seen that I'd brought a new friend for her to explore.

"We're building a castle," she answered, looking up only for a brief moment to acknowledge my existence. She had her green eyes scrunched in impressive concentration.

"You're doing a great job," I acknowledged. It wasn't an empty compliment. Now that I was paying attention, I could see the distinct outline of turrets and walls.

"Of course we are," Jadin agreed. "This girl is a master architect."

This won him a smile from Danni that lasted twice as long as any I'd gotten that night. "Well," I scoffed, crossing my arms in mock offense, "I see where my place is."

Jadin laughed. "You are actually jealous," he accused.

"Only a little," I admitted, holding out my thumb and forefinger to estimate an amount. "I'm not used to people stealing my spotlight."

"No one could do that."

I looked away to enjoy my smile. Not because I was embarrassed, but because I wanted to hold on to that compliment before it became tainted by one of his uninterpretable expressions. It was nice to be complimented, even though I wasn't sure I deserved it. The reminder that the barb under my ribs wasn't my entire life made its grip lessen ever so slightly.

I pulled a few of the blocks toward me and started to build upwards.

Jadin surprised me by keeping the conversation moving. "How long have you been babysitting?" he asked.

"Danni?" I did the calculations in my head. "Three years."

"Ah," he said like it had been bothering him all night. "No wonder her parents trust you."

I nodded, agreeing. It was true that they gave me much more leeway than I'd ever expected. When I'd come to the door, Jadin in tow, I'd simply handed him my English book as a prop and they'd welcomed him easily. I'd earned it.

"Do you babysit other kids?"

I held up my fingers, counting off my multiple jobs, "Anna, Bobby, and the twins. Sometimes others if I get a reference."

He didn't bother to hide his surprise. "That's a lot of work."

I shrugged. "It's no different than having a part time job."

"I suppose not. But you'd have to really like kids."

A grimace twisted my face unpleasantly. "I didn't use to."

"No? Too smelly?" he teased. He was actually teasing.

But I couldn't tease about this. "Too much responsibility," I said bluntly. His next question was obvious, so I grabbed more blocks and looked at the castle and made a point of showing that I didn't want to hear it. If I didn't like it, why did I do it? I thought again of what a bad night this was to be here, in this house, with this little girl. "But they grow on you," I offered, an explanation I felt compelled to give. "And I really do love Danni."

Then I put my blinders on and focused only on the act of building.

It wasn't a long venture; soon the number of blocks in the set had dwindled until Danni was stealing from my tower. When they had run out entirely, Danni adjusted the half-completed top layer to suit her pattern, and then spread her arms wide.

"Ta dah!" she exclaimed.

"It's your best work yet," I assured her. It was only a simple square structure, but I could feel her pride and it made me undeniably happy.

"Fit for a princess," Jadin added quietly. He hadn't spoken in a while and seemed to have reverted to his usual somber self in the meantime.

"Exactly. Come on, Princess. One picture, then it's time to get ready for bed." It was a sneaky move; Danni's eagerness to take a picture of her creation trumped her reluctance for bed-time and spared me the usual complaints.

Danni came to stand behind me, wrapping her arms around my neck. I pulled my phone out, aimed it at the bricks, and she reached forward to expertly press the shutter button. "Ta dah," I mimicked. I trapped Danni's hands in mine for a moment, then patted them in dismissal. "All right, Kiddo. Go put your jammies on. I'll be up in a minute."

Amazingly, she did as she was told, slowly, but dutifully, and with only the slightest of whines. I listed for her progress up the stairs, then turned to Jadin. "I'm bringing you with me from now on. She never goes so quietly. She likes you."

"Me?"

"Why not?"

He shrugged me off, unwilling to attempt an answer. He opted for a question instead. "What's with the phone?"

"We do it every time we play with the blocks, that way her parents can see what she made. Otherwise, she won't let me put them away." I reached for the blocks as I explained, beginning to dismantle them.

Jadin started to help, removing the bricks as systematically as Danni had put them up. "All of the joy and none of the responsibility," he remarked.

"Isn't childhood grand? Usually I'd have her help, but tonight I have you," I looked at him, inviting a shared moment of amusement.

He grinned, but it was weak, far from the just-for-me gesture I'd been hoping for. I realized that, apart from being quiet for the last few minutes, he'd been relatively quiet all day. I'd thought that was only because I'd been disconnected, but now I could see the signs of his old, distant self returning. I didn't like it. Without giving myself permission, I'd come to count on his witty remarks to help me feel like myself. And in a shining moment, right there on Danni's living room floor, I knew for a fact that regardless of last night, my split with Chris was inevitable. I'd had fun with Chris, and I'd cared about him, but I could be me around Jadin. Even when I was struggling, like tonight, he still watched me with that penetrating stare. He didn't require me at my best and somehow that helped me to be my best. My best, and not the version of myself I'd learned to put on to avoid disappointing other people. How could I ever go back to something shallow after that?

I nudged Jadin's knee with mine, acknowledging our closeness. "You're not allowed to be sad, remember?"

"I'm not sad," he contradicted firmly.

"Then…?" I prompted.

"Then what?"

"Come on, Jadin, I can tell when something's going on in that head." It was the one fair trade I was certain of--I could tell when something above the ordinary was bothering him just as well as he could read my moods.

"I'm just thinking."

"Anything you want to talk about?"

He was quiet for so long that I thought he'd decided to ignore me. Then he said, softly, "Maybe later. If you still want to listen."

I felt my heart leap. Progress at last. "Of course I will." It was exactly what I wanted: to turn the constant questions about me into an actual two-sided relationship. Where it would go from there I didn't know, but it was certainly a start.

"Do you promise?" he asked immediately, as if my words had sparked an idea. "Promise to listen to me later, no matter what?"

"Alli?" Danni's rapid footsteps accompanied her voice as she came back down the stairs. She burst back into the room, a flurry of soft purple nightgown. She stood in front of me, brandishing a brush. "Will you braid my hair?"

"Sure, Sweetie." I opened my arms and she dropped down into my lap.

Tenderly, I took her brown hair in my hands and ran my fingers through its softness. I started to pull the brush gently through it, falling easily into the relaxing task.

Jadin reached out, stopping my hand mid-stroke.

"You have to promise," he insisted, squeezing my fingers around the handle nearly to the point of pain.

I used my thumb to stroke his knuckles until his grip loosened. "I promise, Jadin. You listened to me, I'll listen to you. That's the way it works."

"What are you talking about?" Danni twisted her head around, intuitively picking up on the shift of attention away from her.

I opened my mouth, ready to give a playful taunt about "big people talk," but Jadin beat me to it: "We're talking about friends," he said. He'd let go of my hand and switched off his intensity as easily as closing a door. "Do you have a best friend?"

Danni looked at him, turning her head in a way that made my task impossible. "Yeah," from her profile, I could see her eyes sparkle. "Megan. We play together every recess."

"Megan's a nice girl," I agreed. I'd seen her sometimes when she was visiting. 'Best friend' didn't really cover it. The girls were as close as sisters.

Gently, I turned Danni's head so I could finish. I brushed through her hair longer than was strictly necessary and then braided it until it formed a smooth rope that almost reached the small of her back.

"All right," I said, hugging her from behind until she giggled at the playful bonds. "Upstairs, time for bed." I stood, dragging her up with me. "Say goodnight."

"Goodnight," Jadin answered for her.

"Goodnight," she replied. Then to my shock, she walked over to Jadin and wrapped her arms firmly around his neck. I watched his eyes go wide and then he brought a tentative arm off of the floor and wound it around her back. "Come back soon, okay?" Danni commanded.

"Okay," Jadin agreed, helpless to deny her wish.

She pecked him innocently on the cheek, waved one last time, and then headed back to the stairs.

I found myself shaking my head in bemusement. "I'll be right back," I told Jadin, whose face was the perfect representation of awe. "I've got to go tuck the little flirt into bed."

He chuckled, a healthy sound that told me I'd been completely right to bring him here. Turned out, I'd needed it too. It was going to take another few days to successfully bury Katie's name in a place that couldn't harm me, but now I was sure I could do it, just like I'd done it before, and would surely do it again.

"I'll be here."

I started for the stairs, which Danni was climbing as slowly as she thought she could get away with. I hadn't gotten far when I felt delicate fingers on mine, not grasping exactly, just reaching for a touch. I wanted to comment--two touches within five minutes of each other--but I didn't dare. His touch was too soft, gentle and exploring, and I didn't want him to pull away.

"Take your time," he told me.

I nodded and kept walking, an irrepressible smile on my face. Chris and I had never shied from the physical, but I couldn't remember the last time any touch had made me feel so special.

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