Chapter 9: Protection
1. the action of keeping something or someone safe and far from harm; security — frequently used for ones you care about.
*Chloe’s Point of View*
The wooded area that surrounded us blinded me from searching for any sort of house or building, not that there were any within a few miles anyway. I grabbed my phone, hoping to call absolutely anyone for help, but it didn’t take long to realize that the woods had a rather negative effect on any service I’d once had. Asher looked up from his own phone.
“You don’t have service either?” I shook my head, and he sighed. “Fan-fucking-tastic.” Shrugging, he said, “People will continue to leave the party all night. I’m sure someone will have jumper cables on them, okay?”
I nodded, my eyes darting towards the woods again. My worries quickly shifted from getting home to whatever was potentially lurking out in the darkness of the forest. I swallowed, letting my anxious fingers rub against one another roughly.
I shifted to Asher, who swiftly glanced up from my hands trembling in my lap, and asked, “What do you think is out there?”
He produced an evil grin, whispering, “Monsters.”
My lips turned up into a smile as I shook my head. “I’m not afraid of monsters.”
He shrugged. “What about bears?”
“Why? Did you see one?“ I snapped my neck outside my window, searching with disturbance as Asher laughed.
“Would you relax?”
I frowned. “Remind me to relax when you’re being mauled by a black bear.”
He let himself smile, shaking his head at my melodramatic worries as he looked away from me and back out the front windshield.
We let silence refill the air, but I was the first to break the tranquility with, “So?”
Looking back my way with lowered brows, he repeated, “So?”
Eager to continue the conversation that had been cut off, I returned to my original question. “So, why did you kiss me?”
His scowl was quick, as was his eye roll towards the returning inquiry. “I already told you. And why does it matter so much to you?”
I scoffed at his complete lack of regard. “Why doesn’t it matter at all to you?”
Without skipping a beat, he replied, “Because kissing is just kissing. People do it all the time-”
“No!” I cut him off, folding my arms across my chest. ”You do it all the time. Friends don’t kiss friends.”
“Good thing we’re not friends then. We’re roommates,” he gritted out, beyond irritated.
I let out a laugh, more hurt than amused, digging my fingers into my biceps as I turned to stare through the windshield. My forming tears deterred my anger for him and his stupid, manwhore-ish ways. I suddenly wished I was home, and not his home. My home, with my mom, and my bed, and my solitude. Instead, I was trapped in a car, and perhaps even surrounded by bears.
Asher let his head bounce against the headrest before releasing a guilt-ridden sigh.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. I refaced him as he shut his eyes, murmuring, “I don’t know why I do that.”
My brows knitted together with confusion. “Do what?”
Ignoring my question, he uncovered his eyes, connecting them with mine. “You are my friend and I kissed you because I wanted to.”
I nodded slowly, more confused than I already was as Asher chuckled, adding, “Although, if we’re being technical, you did kiss me.”
I rolled my eyes towards the roof of the car, muttering, “Shut up.”
He nudged my arm kindly as he mocked my question. “So, why did you kiss me?”
I smirked, mocking his answer. “Because I wanted to.”
He gave me a smile that made me melt and I looked away from him, yawning. The night’s events were catching up to me quickly, each unpleasant memory a new reminder of how tired I was. I shut my eyes, leaning against my car door.
Asher’s voice was heavy as he sighed. “Do you want to lie down?”
“Erm, I-” I stuttered, glancing at his lap. Truthfully, I did want to lie down. I wanted to genuinely sleep off the last few hours. Regardless, I hesitated, unsure as to whether or not I’d allow myself to do so on Asher’s lap. My body was moderately giving out as I debated. He could sense my skepticism and scoffed.
“You’re so damn stubborn, you know that? Come here.” Smirking, he added, “Promise, I won’t kiss you.”
Eyes rolling, I snapped my seat belt off and nodded, yawning once again as he motioned me closer to him. At another time, I would have put up more of a fight, but I could feel myself fading before I’d even laid my head on his lap.
I glanced up at my pillow’s face, a pillow who was awkwardly trying to find a place to set his hands, sneering down at my joyful expression. Eventually, he set them both on the wheel of the car to avoid placing them on top of me. After giggling at that settlement, I felt sleep beckon to me again, and I finally gave in.
*Asher’s Point of View*
I avoided looking at Chloe for a long time after she fell asleep. I didn’t want her to suddenly wake up and see me watching her. That would be hard to explain. Pretty creepy too. But after I had counted all the trees that I could see and traced every line on my steering wheel twice, I could feel the unsubtle tug on my eyes, pulling themselves where they wanted to rest.
She faced away from me, leaving a full view of her slumber-filled face. Her chin was resting on her right hand, the hand that was cushioned onto my leg. Her hair was scattered all over my jeans and her face shone brightly from the moonlight.
She looked comatose, but also beautiful and if I hadn’t been grinning subtly at her appearance, I would have cringed over the fact I’d once again yanked the word beautiful from my personal dictionary. I supposed I was using a thesaurus lately.
I admired Dol’s peaceful face, wanting to tuck the loose hair across her cheek behind her ear. Mentally, I told my fingers to chill the fuck out.
I thought back on our conversation, allowing frustration to take over my momentarily content mood. I wished I hadn’t answered any of her questions about the kiss. In fact, I wished she had kept her curiosity to herself.
I had wanted to kiss her, but she certainly didn’t need to know that. Regrettably, after being an asshole to her, I felt obligated to let her at least know part of the truth. The full truth was that I hadn’t just wanted to kiss her right then, but ached to. Apparently, a kiss was just a kiss unless it was with her.
As I regretted the decision to let her in on that secret, a faint sound filled the silent car. Chloe, without waking, mumbled, “Asher...”
I startled. She was thinking about me during whatever dream she was having. That thought instantly projected a smile onto my face. I wondered what she was dreaming about that involved me, grinning like an idiot that I was on her mind at all, because she was constantly on mine. That thought somehow was able to ruin my mood. She was constantly on mine. That was going to cause me ceaseless problems.
After my train of whirlwind emotions pulled into another station, I landed on irritated when I remembered seeing Hayden at the party. Being around him at all was pushing my boundaries, but seeing him flirt with Dol was next-level anger. And I was absolutely sure Chloe knew her conversation with him had pissed me off some, and she still continued to converse with him while I was directly next to her, my arm around her waist. She drove me fucking nuts, and so did he.
I could hear his disgustingly apologetic voice somewhere down the hall, and that was when I’d disconnected lips with Ms. Way-Too-Eager and turned, watching Hayden smile at a girl. A girl I recognized. I knew her voice, not to mention her ass, anywhere. I’d never run down a hallway so fast in my life.
And when she ripped my arm from around her waist when I’d touched her, I knew then what she had seen, and I felt an unimaginable amount of guilt for what I’d done. Even though both legally and morally I was pretty in the clear tonight, I felt the weight of my decisions crunch against my shoulders every time Chloe’s sharp eyes met mine.
I hated having to admit it, even internally, but the girl was spinning me in emotional circles, tangling me in a messy web. The way she looked at me dominated my every thought. The way it felt to be under her gaze, it made my heart cease beating.
She didn’t watch me with possessive nor judgmental eyes. She didn’t see me because of the behavior that I broadcasted in the efforts to be seen. She just saw me, looked at me differently than anyone ever had, and liked what she saw enough to stick around me, which meant I needed to continue to be the version of me that she wanted in her life. Because I needed her in mine.
My lungs burned when she spoke, my head spun when she smiled. I didn’t get high, but I felt on air around her. Fate and premonitions had never been a part of my vocabulary, but lately, I couldn’t help but feel the bumper of my car had come too close to her to call it an accident. She was meant to be a permanent fixture in my life.
I’d felt her in my arms long before I’d ever touched her; sensed her lips on mine before I’d even kissed her. And when our lips touched, I swear I could taste my future.
*Chloe Point of View*
Slipping away from my dreamland with each rueful shake, I clenched my eyes mutually, opening them to a steering wheel ahead of me.
Where am I? I thought.
I slowly sat up, yawned, and looked over at a familiar, asshole-ish smirk.
“You look pretty fucking funny when you sleep.” The subtle upward kink of Asher’s mouth told me he was suppressing a laugh. I shook my head, sinking back against the seat. It took a few moments to realize not only were we outside of a diner but that the clock read far too early in the morning to not be in a bed, coddled in blankets, even for an early bird like me.
“How did we get here?” I yawned a second time.
Asher grinned. “My car started up again, thankfully. I’m starving, I thought you might be too.”
I nodded, agreeing with him. As if my agreeance wasn’t enough, my stomach growled, revealing to the car that I truly was hungry. Asher laughed heatedly at me as I focused on making sure my cheeks didn’t reveal my unsubtle humiliation.
“I guess my stomach agrees.” I smiled awkwardly.
Asher led us into a booth inside the diner next to the window and I grinned at the bright sky. The morning light had begun to flutter through from the previously risen sun, illuminating the once-dark streets. He handed me a menu, simultaneously taking a playful jab at me.
“I think the fruit is on page twelve, in case you were going to order an individual apple,” he teased, regarding the breakfast I had every morning.
I stuck my tongue out at him. “You’re so funny I forgot to laugh. What do you have against apples?”
He held his hands up in a defensive manner. “Not a thing. They’re good, alongside say... pancakes, or waffles. I don’t understand how you can eat close to nothing for breakfast. You must have a small stomach.”
I smirked at his impromptu bash, eyeing the menu. “I’ll have you know I can eat this whole menu if I wanted to.”
Asher let out a chuckle, opening his own. “Oh, really? Let’s test that theory out. How about you get a plate of pancakes, a plate of bacon and eggs... and a plate of hash-brows. If you can eat all of it, I’ll pay for the whole meal.”
My lips spread into a smile at his version of a challenge. “Sounds like a piece of cake to me.”
“Well, in that case, speaking of dessert, let’s also throw in a chocolate milkshake.” He chuckled.
“My pleasure.” I stuck my hand out, pleased when he shook it composedly. The smiling waiter, who looked exhausted having to be there at almost four-thirty in the morning, happily asked for each of our orders.
I nodded, slightly embarrassed to be ordering a series of different items. I tried not to reveal my awkwardness to Asher, who would probably do something ten times more humiliating than ordering to show me how unnecessary being embarrassed was.
“Yes, can I please have a plate of pancakes, a plate of bacon and eggs, a plate of hash-browns, and a chocolate milkshake? Please.” I swallowed hard as he jotted down my order, hoping he didn’t think I was on a ten-thousand-calorie-a-day diet.
“Yeah, can I get an apple?” Asher smirked, receiving my best and hopefully scripted glare. Shooting me a wink, he smiled back at the man taking his order. “And eggs benedict? Thanks.”
Doing nothing to cover up my satisfied sigh, I observed the waiter. With a nod in our direction, he left the tableside.
“You’re such an asshole,” I glowered.
“Takes years of practice to be this way.” He paused, but only for a nanosecond. “Can I teach you to fight?”
My eyes widened at the unexpected shift in our conversation. “Huh?”
Asher glanced down at the table, his voice dropping a notch as his tone thickened.
“I can’t stop thinking about last night.” His request was only met by silence, an invitation he took to continue talking. “You need to be able to defend yourself better, Dol. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened if I wasn’t there.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I think I could have taken him down singlehandedly,” I joked, producing a small smile from Asher. His point made sense to me and I found myself nodding, regardless of the icky feeling I got at the idea of throwing any punches. Much more serious than before, I smiled. “Fine, if you want we can go to the gym. Later. When my head doesn’t feel like a bomb went off.”
As my new self-defense teacher and I talked about the basics of any techniques and moves, the waiter dropped off my buffet, and Asher didn’t even try to stifle his laugh when he placed three huge plates and a milkshake in front of me.
Getting through much more of the breakfast than Asher thought I could, the buzzing sound that came from my pocket plucked my attention from my large meal. I was mid-cut through my second pancake, coming to the conclusion that the buzzing meant I had service, and a question beckoned me.
“Does your mom know we’re here?” I asked. At the sight of Asher’s head shake, my mouth dropped open. “You didn’t tell her?!”
Forgetting about the almost cut pancake, I set down my silverware, whipping out my phone to see my dangerously threatening twenty-one missed calls. One from Andy, four from Amy, seven from Jamie, and nine from Mom.
Nine from Mom.
My heart surely stopped. I rapidly dialed my mother’s number, my fingers not moving fast enough to keep up with my anxious breathing.
She answered after the first ring. “Chloe Angelina Carlin, where have you been?! Amy has called me a hundred times and-”
I pried the phone away from my ear as I scowled over at Asher. I mouthed, call your mom, but he shook his head, pulling out his dead phone and setting it on the table.
“Hi, Mommy. I’m sorry...” I squeaked. Asher laughed at my baby-voiced apology as he shoveled bacon into his mouth.
“Where have you been?!”
Slowly and carefully, trying not the re-blow my mother’s gasket, I explained the situation. She was angry, as expected, allowing me to hang up only to call and relive the night with Amy, who was much more understanding than my own mother and asked me to remind Asher that he was still grounded. I dialed the final number, cringing as I already knew how the phone call would play out.
“Chloe Angelina Carlin! Where the fuck have you been?! I’ve been worried sick!” my best friend screeched through the phone.
“Jamie, I’m fine.” I switched the phone to speaker mode, setting it on the table and continuing my feast, my attention singling out an egg on the edge of my plate. “Did Andy get you home alright?”
“Yeah, he’s downstairs having breakfast with my mom, crazily enough.” I heard Jamie chuckle. “She won’t eat with my dad but is eager to eat with the guy who held my hair as I threw up.”
I let out a soft laugh at Jamie’s amused tone. “Ew. He watched you throw up? Are you sure he’s still attracted to you?” I chuckled as she groaned.
“Fingers crossed. He’s actually the sweetest. He slept on the floor beside my bed and nursed me back to health.”
Her disclosure, along with the starstruck pep in her tone, tugged the edges of, not only my lips but Asher’s as well. “I know he’s sweet. I walked in on him feeding you bread in the kitchen while you assaulted his hair.”
Jamie’s smile could be heard from millions of miles away. “God, he’s great. I almost didn’t expect it from him. I knew he was cute, but he seemed like an asshole. He isn’t though. I’ve never met anyone like him.” She sighed, dramatically, as always. “I’m starting to wish I took him up on his Drink Or Dare offer. I want to jump his bones so badly right now.”
I laughed at her sudden desire to do unthinkable things in a room with Andy, and she continued, questioning my whereabouts. “So where the hell have you been?”
I shoveled more food into my mouth, working my way through a sentence that wouldn’t strike my dramatic best friend. “Asher’s car broke down. We were stranded with no service and now we’re having breakfast.”
I was sure I'd said nothing that would steer Jamie's mind in an inappropriate direction, but she laughed suddenly, the sound making me fear her next few words, and rightfully so.
“Oh my God, did you guys fuck?” she teased.
My back stiffened and I scowled at my phone. “Jamie, stop talking.”
I glanced up at Asher, who was staring at my phone with a humored grin, overly amused.
“Because if you got laid last night while I was vomiting all over Andy, I’m going to lose my mind,” she exclaimed.
I cinched the knife tight in my hand, debating whether or not I should shove it into my own eye while I had the chance. “Jame, you’re on speaker ph-”
“I didn’t take you for the type of person who enjoys car sex, but I mean after that kiss you guys shared, I can’t say I’m shocked-”
I dropped my silverware rather loudly and grasped the phone to take it off the speaker, slamming it to my ear as I watched Asher lean back against his seat in a fit of laughter. Nothing bothered him, including my best friend’s unpurified brain.
“Punch it,” Asher encouraged, holding a punching bag from behind in the middle of our local gym.
Hesitantly, I nodded, taking a swing, hardly moving the hanging bag of sand in his possession. A ripple of nausea sped through me after my fist connected with the hard leather. I probably shouldn’t have been working out after eating such a large meal and winning Asher and my breakfast bet.
He seemed a bit disoriented in the diner as he pulled out his wallet, peering down at my empty plates like they had swallowed the food whole. He also seemed shocked when I’d asked the waiter to box up whatever part of Asher’s breakfast he hadn’t finished so I could take it home. I was raised not to waste any food.
Chuckling, Asher stepped out from behind the bag of sand, reaching and pulling my hand into his. The muscles in the limb went taut and I, hating the way my body responded to his slightest touch, watched him as he continued mounting my need for him all with one hand.
“You never punch like this. Are you trying to break your hand, Dolphin?” He unclasped my fingers and placed my thumb across my knuckles. “You punch like this. Now get into basic boxers stance.”
Done with his thorough explanation of punching, he waited patiently for me to enter the unknown stance he was referring to.
“I’m sorry, do I look like Muhammad Ali?” I muttered with a forced breath, throwing my arms out to the side. He sighed and, with the shake of his head, grabbed both my wrists.
“Elbows down, hands up. Dominant hand in the back. So for you, your left hand stays here.” He placed the left in front of my face. “The right, here.” He brought the right next to my cheek. “Now, put your front toe and back heel on the centerline, with your knees slightly bent. Chin up, eyes looking over your fists.”
He paused and watched me standing there in the stance. It was the correct stance, but I was agitated and stick-like, looking anything but relaxed.
Laughing, he nudged me slightly in the shoulder. “And don’t forget to loosen up and breathe. No tension.”
Nodding his approval when he watched my body go limp with an exhale, the dimple on his cheek made its appearance.
I glanced down at myself, then back at him, dropping my hands to my sides. “How do you know all this stuff?”
He quickly grabbed my wrists again, reassembling them in front of my face. Though my hands were in the correct position, he held onto me gently as he answered, “If you don’t want to get your ass kicked, you have to learn how to fight.” He stepped away from me. “Now let’s try the punch again. It’s all about accelerating your hand towards the target as you exhale. Try to utilize your entire body weight without stumbling off balance.”
I nodded, hoping I actually remembered whatever he had just said, and swung my fist forward. My knuckles cracked against the punching bag, snapping it slightly back with the force of my blow, causing Asher to take a step back.
He grinned. “You’re a fast learner. I like that.”
He spent the next two hours teaching me many more stances and techniques. By the time we were in the car on the way home, I was exhausted, sore, bruised, and able to do the bare minimum needed to protect myself in an emergency.
Stepping out of Asher’s car, I could feel the sweat guzzling my entire body, the trail of salt dripping from my temple to my chin almost distracting me from the strange guy at the front door, knocking on the entrance of the empty house.
I eyed Asher suspiciously as he did the same to me, the question of Who is that? drifting between our silent eyes. But after a moment of curiosity on my part, I realized the strange guy looked quite familiar. In fact, he looked a lot like my brother.
A smile cloaked me as I ran to him, throwing my arms around his neck. “Tate!”
My brother eagerly returned my hug, lifting me a foot off the ground in the process. When my feet were planted firmly on the terrain, Asher joined my side, dubious to the stranger on his front porch. The hesitant expression that mirrored both the boy’s faces was enough to shake my chest with a light-hearted chuckle.
“Ash, this is my brother, Tate. Tate, Asher.” They gave each other the Masculine-Guy-Nod, unable to say hello like two adults.
I knitted my eyebrows towards my older brother. “What are you doing back?”
He shrugged, looking around to take in the large size of the unfamiliar house. “I guess I missed you.”
Knowing my brother well enough, I raised an eyebrow. “Tate, what happened?”
“Dorms are closed for a few days for plumbing. I thought I’d drive down here and stay at home for the weekend,” he stated with a sigh. “I can’t afford a hotel room for two days.”
My eyes rolled so far back I thought I heard them hit the back of my head. “Why always the deception stutter step before you tell me the truth?”
He explained, “It extends our quality bonding time," as he continued to glance around the property.
The light chuckle that wrinkled Asher’s adorable nose snagged my brother’s attention. It was quite apparent from the chary glare Asher was receiving that Tate was evaluating him and, considering previous occasions, everything he saw was probably negative.
He always did that, like I was a desperate child who needed him to protect me. He liked to act like I didn’t know how to do anything on my own and he had to shield me from everything. He’d made a habit of defending me often as a child and spent a good chuck on his teen years looking after me, caring for me after my family’s accident.
I hadn’t been in need of his supervision or security in years and yet, despite living in LA, he always made the effort to treat me like I was still the kid who was being bullied or the young teenager who couldn’t get out of bed. I’d always appreciate the way he took care of me, but I certainly didn’t need him scaring Asher away with his glower.
I scowled at his analyzing look. “Would you stop that?”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to,” he feigned with mock innocence.
“You can stop staring and judging. He and I are not dating. He lives here.” I felt humiliated having to explain that right in front of Asher, who was silently watching my brother and me converse.
Tate threw his hands up in defense. “How am I supposed to know that? To me, he’s just the asshole who’s not good enough for my sister.”
Though my internal voice screamed something about my lingering irritation towards my brother’s protective behavior, I couldn’t help but crack a smile at the miserable state Asher was in, shifting nervously from foot to foot. The high-strung version of Asher that had never revealed itself in my presence reminded me a lot of myself, on edge.
“So, Chlo-Chlo-Puffs, you want to let me in the house?” Tate smiled.
Asher, back to his usual self in a speedy minute, was quick to notice my brother’s nickname for me. “Yes, Chlo-Chlo-Puffs.” He smirked, raising an eyebrow at me.
The brief tease did not go unnoticed by Tate, and I was sure it had kicked Asher a few brownie points. The two boys seemed more like soulmates finally meeting as they continued their torment towards me, entering the house. Tate collapsed onto the couch as if the house were his own and I took a seat beside him, watching Asher flop into a chair nearby. The smile on his face replaced with a frown, Tate turned to me.
“Chloe, I actually wanted to talk to you about something. I already talked to Mom about it, and she thought it would be really nice. I was thinking that maybe when February rolls around, we can go visit Dad and-”
I cut my brother’s sentence off with a punch to the arm, my finger pressing against my lips to stop the words from tumbling from his mouth.
“Ow!” Tate exclaimed, throwing a dirty look my way. With a glance towards a confused roommate, I stood, grabbing my brother by the ear and dragging him as far away from Asher as the large living room would allow.
“What the fuck was that?” Tate growled quietly while concurrently rubbing his overly sensitive ear.
Body stiff and face even stiffer, I shook my head at my brother, angry he’d had the nerve to bring something so personal up in front of Asher. “Don’t talk about that in front of him, you fucking idiot!”
My brother startled, momentarily surprised by my crass language. That second of shock deteriorated and he tilted his head to the side. “You haven’t told him about..?”
Minuscule head shake in motion, I sighed. “It’s not something I bring into everyday conversations, Tate.” I threw on a fake smile and mocked a more open version of myself. “Oh yes, I would love a cup of coffee, and have I mentioned the car accident that almost killed me?”
I looked away, exhaling a shaky breath as I tried to ignore both Asher in the room and the boulder-sized lump pressing my airway, both making the conversation with Tate that much harder.
Tate let out a long sigh, his breath less shaky than mine. “Chlo, I know it’s hard on you. But-”
“Can we just stop talking about it? I don’t really plan on letting him in on the secret,” I snapped, thirty-seven seconds away from a breakdown in front of my brother and the guy I lived with.
“I’m trying to have a serious conversation!” he exclaimed.
“And I’m trying to un-subtly avoid it, estúpido.”
Tate smirked at my response, gaining quick composure of himself.
“You don’t have to tell him, but I would like to visit in February. We haven’t been in ages. It would be nice to go on the anniversary... estúpida,” he mocked.
Feeling myself on the verge of snapping a second time, I tried my best to fix the sutured scars that were slowly tearing their way free, tender stitch by tender stitch.
“The word anniversary should only be used for weddings or historical events. Not tragic car accidents,” I bit out.
“Will you stop arguing and tell me you’ll come?” Tate finally snapped at me. I nodded slowly at what was less of a question and more of a demand, wanting only to shut him up for the time being.
I brushed myself off and walked back to the leather couch, the stitches in my chest tighteningly more secure now that the conversation was over.
He threw himself onto the couch next to me, mumbling, "Now stop being a jerk."
I narrowed my eyes at his childish behavior, feeling no shame in participating myself. “You’re a bigger jerk.”
He frowned. "You're the biggest jerk."
“Oh, nice comeback,” I mocked sarcastically.
Scoffing at this unrequested game of Who’s-A-Bigger-Baby, he sought out to win, replying with a similar tone. “Oh, your mom!”
My eyes went wide as I gave him an incredulous look. “It’s your mom too, idiot.”
Finding great amusement in the ailing quarrel of a fight, Asher held both his sides, letting out sputtering laughs.
“That was the most pathetic argument I’ve ever witnessed.” He looked at me with a smile. "Now I understand why you don't know how to fight."
My brother and I, more similar than I cared to admit, simultaneously stuck our tongues out in the direction of the chuckling teenager. Jerk.