“What the hell are you doing, Rae?”
I turned to look at Isobel Devereaux, my once-best-friend who turned cold and distant toward me ever since the Prestons Saga. I had no idea why, but I could only guess it was because of me being with Jezebel and everything. Still, I was surprised to see her here, in the toilet, looking at me with cold, hard green eyes, her caramel-colored, wavy hair pulled into a tight bun, gleaming like ever, while her curvy figure and sun kissed skin made her look as exotic as ever. She crossed her arms now, her tone was stern, and I had a feeling something bad was going to come
“What do you mean?” I asked, feeling myself wince a little. It was a harsh morning without her coming here to be cold and mean to me; Chase had ignored me all morning when I tried to reach him and explain everything and apologize, and the students looked at me with odd looks, watching my every step. Had it not been for Jez, I would’ve returned home.
Funny how I thought about the Preston mansion like home already.
“I thought you were smarter than that,” Isobel said, disbelief written all over her cute face. “I thought you would be better than this. But apparently, you’re just as much a bitch as Taryn Torres.”
That stung and also quiet pissed me off. “What the hell, Isobel?” I asked, now I was the one disbelieving.
“You kissed another guy in front of Chase, Rae!” She chastised in a harsh tone. “Then you ran away with that out-of-the-blue sexiest-guy-alive and left Chase all alone! You humiliated him, no to mention broke his heart! He really did care about you, if not already started to fall for you, and you just left him like he was an inconvenience of the moment! It’s what someone like Taryn Torres would’ve done, Rae. And to think I used to be your best friend!”
Okay, now I got a better idea of why she was so pissed. But still, it enraged me that she dared coming here and blaming me without even knowing the details. “As you said, Isobel,” I said coldly, “you aren’t my best friend anymore. I was willing to be yours, but apparently our thoughts were different. Out of the blue, you avoided me at all costs, like I was some diseased girl. So fuck you, and stay the hell out of my business.” My voice rose through the end.
“Chase is my boyfriend’s best friend, Rae Marie O’Reilly!” She yelled all of a sudden. “He’s my business! Do you know how hard you’ve hurt him? Do you know that he wouldn’t talk to anyone – not even Marcus – because he’s so hurt?! You have any idea what he’s going through right now?!”
Actually I had a good idea of what he was feeling right now. After all, I felt those things when Gunner had pushed me away time after time again. The only difference now was the I pushed Chase away, and not the other way around. “Again, it’s none of your business what’s going on between Chase and me,” I told her in a restrained voice. “And FYI, I tried to talk to him this morning, but he wouldn’t talk to me. So don’t fucking blame me before you know everything – and believe me, you know nothing, Isobel.”
She looked at me with the same disbelief, only now there was fury there, and her eyes shimmered with unhidden tears. “Who are you?” She asked in a broken voice. “Who are you, Rae? You are not the same girl who’s been my friend so long. You’re a selfish bitch who thinks about nothing but herself and – apparently – her new family. Do you even care what I feel right now? Do you really care about Chase? Do you even care about Echo, who’s been missing for almost three months now without a word? Who do you care about besides yourself, Rae?”
For once in a long time, words hurt me. I couldn’t help a wince, and I my chest ached. Because now she was right. She was more right than she would know.
All I cared was about me. Would Gunner hurt me again? Would Jez be my friend? Would Danger stay my friend? Was Gran worrying about me? All of those were my own selfish thoughts throughout the months. I didn’t, even for a second, considered Echo Moore, and what did she do right now. Sure, I believed Gunner when he told me she was one of the bad guys, but still. She’d been my friend, just like Isobel had been. Even if I didn’t really know her, she’s helped me so many times, just like I helped her. Her crush on Chase was real, if nothing else was, and I tried my best to make her live with it.
Then came Chase, and I was again selfish. I’d been flirting with him just to have some rebound guy. One who could make me forget about Gunner when nothing was alright. I didn’t think it was possible he would fall for me, but in some miraculous way he did, and I hurt him the second I had a chance with Gunner.
Then there was Isobel, whom, even when not friends, I needed to care about. Because it wasn’t like we’d fought; we’d just drifted apart. She was still someone I should’ve thought about, should’ve cared about, and instead I found myself other friends – Jez and Danger – and moved on from her. Left her, practically.
It’d all been my fault. I’d been selfish and self-centered. Nothing made me care so much as myself.
“I have no idea who you are anymore, Rae,” Isobel’s voice cut through my thoughts, “but whoever you are, you’re not something I would ever want to be associated with. So, to take your words, fuck you.” After she spat the curse, she stormed out of the toilet, leaving me there alone and aching.
She was right. She was so right. And I’d been so wrong.
My throat locked and tears appeared in my eyes, blurring everything. I knew that Jez was probably worried about me, wanting to know what was taking me so long, but right now I needed to be alone, school be damned.
Everything’d been so good until now. Gunner and I spent the rest of the holiday together, kissing and talking and having fun. But now, now that Isobel shoved the reality in which I lived so hard in my face, I couldn’t take anything anymore. It all seemed too much, too overwhelming. Gunner’s passion. Taryn’s hatred. Chase’s hurt. Isobel’s disbelief. Jez’s and Danger’s friendship.
I needed out. So I’d done something I vowed to never do, but right now I had no choice.
I ran away.
Entering one of the toilets’ wasn’t hard. Climbing on top of the toilet itself wasn’t difficult either. Opening the window was a bit tough but I managed. Getting out was the real problem, but I’d still succeeded, even if I landed straight on my butt right on the muddy ground.
It was raining outside, but I couldn’t care less. I got on my feet, emptied my mind of thoughts until I felt hollow, and ran. The quad was abandoned – everyone was inside, hiding from the pulsing rain – and I was thankful for Mama Nature for this. I ran to the entrance gate and got out without so much as thinking. Then I ran through the parking lot until I was at the main road, which was almost as deserted. I ran, my legs splashing in the puddles, my whole body getting wet, but I didn’t care.
The life I’d been living those past days before returning to school today were like a dream. A dream of someone who deserved this good life. But I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve Gunner, I didn’t deserve Jez or Danger or Chase or Isobel or anyone else. I didn’t even realize how much I’d changed since meeting the Prestons, but I did. And I hated who I’d become.
A selfish bitch, just like Isobel said. Everything I’d been thinking about was Gunner and how I wanted him to be mine. How shallow was that? No wonder it took Gunner so long to decide if he wanted someone such as me, and that made me wonder, what the hell did he do with me now?
Tears of shame fell on my face, mingling with the raindrops. I didn’t pay attention to that. I just ran and ran until I found myself at a place I hadn’t been to for months.
The promenade. Where everything really started. Before the murder. Before Taryn’s party. Before everything got so complicated. Where I’d just walked my dog and saw the hottest man on earth doing some exercises.
I was sticky with rain and sweat and tears and I wiped it all with furious hands. Then I threw myself on the parquet floor of the promenade and I just sat there, my knees curled to my chest, my hands hugging them closely and my face buried there.
What was I doing? What the hell I turned into? Was I some kind of monstrous girl who once she got the guy she wanted she forgot about everyone else?
I was never like that. Always I’d been the one who worried about everyone, the selfless one. But now... Now I was selfish and spoiled. I fought those months for one aim solely: Gunner. I didn’t fight to find out anything about Echo, to try and reconcile with Isobel, to do something useful for those who were once important in my life, before I’d witnessed a murder.
But no. I didn’t do anything. I was stuck in my own butt, caring nothing about the others. Isobel had any right to be mad at me, had any right to hate me. I was a failure as a friend. I was just a failure as a human being.
The rain turned into soft droplets that made me shiver a little. What was I doing here, anyway? Running away never solves anything. It just delays them. I should’ve gotten everything over with. I should’ve just done something else.
Instead, I was sitting here like the pathetic person I was, feeling more lost than I’d ever felt. Even with Gunner in my life, nothing was fixed, nothing was suddenly alright, so many questions remained unanswered.
And I was doing nothing in order to understand everything. Lame, ha?
I had no idea how long I was sitting there, at the promenade. The rain stopped eventually, but the day was still cold and gray and cloudy. My chest felt hollow and my thoughts dissipated and were filled with void.
It was probably a few hours that I sat there. After all the day became even darker now. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, even. I didn’t feel a thing. I was trying to erase everything, to be as indifferent as Gunner always was. I should get a grip of myself, get my life under control.
I should return to the way I used to be. I had to return to the way I used to be. I didn’t want to end as the selfish bastard I already was.
I was in no way ready to hear nor see him. I needed more time to stay away from everything. “Go away.” I said, my voice just as hollow as I felt.
I heard his footsteps on the parquet and knew he was standing right behind me. I could feel his heat waves hitting my back softly, but I didn’t turn around or did anything. I kept my cold, frozen position, trying to send him an obvious message.
But for my irritation, he didn’t listen. Instead, he slung his legs to either side of me and sat right behind me. Before I could object he wrapped his muscular, strong arms around my and pressed my back to his chest, landing a jacket on my shoulders. He embraced me tightly, not even caring I was tensed and hard.
“Go away,” I said again, tears again filling my eyes.
His lips brushed my ear. “No,” a hot negative word told in my ear with low, rough voice.
My voice became desperate. “Please,” I whispered, begging.
His response was to embrace me even tighter and putting his head on my shoulder. I sniffled and swallowed a sob. “Gunner, I beg you,” I said in a shaky voice. “Please.”
He didn’t move, didn’t change his position, only shushed me softly. I leaned my head back on his shoulder, and watched the gray sky, watched as Gunner just held me, making me warm again. Tears fell on my cheeks, my whole body shaking, and I was just there, staring, as quiet tears streamed down, blurring my vision.
“I’m here,” Gunner murmured, pressing a soft kiss to my neck. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
The soft words, the warm kisses... They all made my traitorous body to calm, to relax, to know it’s safe in Gunner’s arms. I whimpered, and closed my eyes, letting every single tear out without saying a thing. Gunner kept on murmuring words in my ear, making me feel like he was my shield, my guy, my man, my love. I couldn’t help but fall in love with him more and more throughout the whole thing.
When I finally stopped crying, my breaths coming out easier, he tightened me even more to his body. “Are you ok?” he asked, voice low and deep and rumbling.
I couldn’t trust myself to say a thing, and I didn’t know the answer to that question. So I said and did nothing.
He sighed and raised his head. I turned mine to look at him. His eyes were staring straight into mine, shockingly more blue than green in the almost lightless day. He opened his mouth and I thought he was going to demand why I ran away, what was wrong with me and all that, but instead he said in a soft voice, “When Henry adopted us, each of us, he gave us the option to change our name. To have a new identity, sort-of. He told us we could pick any name we would like, and it would be ours, though he told us never to forget our real names, because those are where we came from, and we shall not forget our past, no matter what.”
I just stared at him, letting him talk.
He smiled a soft, brief smile. “My name, before my mother’s murder and before Henry’s and Yasmin’s adoption, was Andrew. When the Prestons took me in, they gave me a tour at one of their establishments, that actually work to make weapons. I remember how I saw an old gunner, one that was used at some war. I remember how I saw that weapon, wonder filling me, and when I was asked if I wanted to pick a name, I picked Gunner. A strong weapon, strong killing machine that can shield from the enemy. I never wanted to be vulnerable again, to not be able to help someone important to me when he or she are in danger. So Gunner it is.”
His smile, his genuine voice, his frankness... It made things stir inside me again, and I found myself asking in a rasp voice, “What about Danger?”
Gunner’s soft smile still stayed on his face, but turned into quiet relieved, seeing as I was concentrating on his story. “Danger’s name, before he was adopted, was Everett. When he was young, his father beat him and his mother, and he killed him when he was fifteen. His mother, though, wasn’t grateful for him and committed suicide instead of trying to live on. Danger’s grandfather worked for Henry, and so Henry knew Danger and took him under his wing about a year after they took me in. Danger picked his name because he wanted people to be afraid of his wrath and added to his intimidating looks, he established just that.”
I didn’t know all that. I found myself all of a sudden really curious, all my worries and self-loath buried for the moment in my mind. “Jez?” I asked in the unused voice I had now, “Ryder?”
“Ryder joined the family about three years after I joined. His name was Kenneth, and after both his parents died at the Nine-Eleven incident, Yasmin and Henry, who were both really close to Ryder’s parents, took him in. They thought it was the last time they would adopt anyone, but that change when they met Jez. Jez is the only one among us that didn’t change her name – maybe because she was older when she was adopted. Jez’s life wasn’t easy, either. Abusing parents and siblings, and if Henry didn’t find her the day her brother almost shot her to death, she would’ve been dead. But Henry saved her, and took her under his wings, like the rest of us.”
All those stories, the pain the four step-siblings went through, the agony... I wanted to cry again, but held myself this time. I was weak enough as it is. I didn’t want to make myself weaker.
“Look, Rae,” he said, smile disappearing and eyes turning serious. “I don’t know what made you act like you did today. I don’t know why you ran away, why you cried. I won’t try and make you talk about it if you don’t want to. I know you didn’t run away because of some stupid reason. You’re not that kind of person. But I truly want you to know that I’m here, that I’m your friend as much as I’m your lover. I want you to confide in me, to trust me, like I trust you now. And I’m not a person who trust easily.”
I found myself looking at him – really looking. Not checking him out and thinking how godly-looking he was and blah, blah, blah. I was now really looking at the depth in his eyes, beyond the permanent inscrutableness, beyond the indifference and everything else. I looked into those eyes of the sea, and saw, for the first time, his feelings for me loud and clear. Saw the trust he said he had in me. Saw everything.
And I felt like I was breaking again.
He probably saw that in my eyes, because he cupped my face and kissed my forehead. And that was all the conviction I needed.
Undone, I told him everything that went on between Isobel and me, about everything that I’d done, my selfishness, every part of what I felt in the last few hours. He held me tightly, listened as I told him everything, his gaze intense, eyes never wavering from me, and when I finished, he didn’t try to tell me it was all false, that I wasn’t selfish, that I wasn’t a bitch, because he knew I wouldn’t believe him now. So he just embraced me tightly, kissed my forehead, my nose, my cheek, my mouth. He gave me the comfort only now I realized I so wanted, and held me closed to him, even as the sun started to set, casting shadows everywhere, and at the same time, brightening my life again.