"She is full of wounds, riddled with scars, but she is still standing, and she is still beautiful."
The trip back to the palace was quick, and I readily hopped off of James's motorcycle, glad to be out of the biting wind. Verona's weather changed in the blink of an eye. Where it'd been in the fifties on New Years' Eve, it was now back in the twenties. Still, his motorcycle was the fastest way in the city when there wasn't ice on the ground.
Without saying anything, I started making my way to my room. My actions from earlier this morning finally caught up to me after the chaos died down, and I couldn't stop panicking over the fact I'd kissed James. We were only four years apart- me being twenty and him twenty-four- but still, how exhilarated was I that kissing him sounded like a good idea? I could've ruined our friendship!
If you haven't already… I thought critically.
"Mia, wait up," James said, jogging until he fell into step beside me. An awkward silence fell over us, and I could sense he wanted to ask me something, but I couldn't gather the courage to get him to tell me.
We stopped outside my room, and I said, "Thank you for escorting me to and from the hospital. I appreciate everything you're doing."
"I'm happy to do it. Let me know when you're ready to go back?"
"Are you sure? I don't want to bother you. I feel like I've made you my personal chauffeur or something."
James chuckled. "You've done no such thing. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't want to."
"So… I didn't scare you off this morning, then?" I asked softly, fiddling with my necklace, and dreading the answer to come. I needed to ask, though. If it'd bothered him, we needed to get it set straight, so we weren't awkward with each other in the future.
"You mean with the kiss? No, you didn't." His lip quirked upward ever so slightly, almost teasingly. "If I had a problem with it, I would've pulled away."
I pursed my lips, trying to stop a smile from spreading across my face and giving away my deepest secret.
"Maybe we shouldn't tell Annalise?" I suggested. "Even though I kissed you, she still might punch you for letting me."
"Agreed. Wholeheartedly. She might be slightly incapacitated at the moment, but I wouldn't put it past her to come swinging at me if she found out," James remarked, grinning. "I do like my face the way it is, too."
"As do I."
"Oh? Think I'm handsome, do you?"
"How big your ego is right now."
"I'd like to say it's low, but, you see, this beautiful girl kissed me early this morning, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since," James confessed. "The problem is, her big sister is like a sister to me, and this girl is four years younger than me, and I didn't think she'd ever go for an older guy like me, especially one she saw as a best friend. After all, some people would find it weird that a twenty-four-year-old would like a twenty-year-old, but this girl is wise beyond her years and acts closer to my age than I probably do. I'm torn about what to do."
I stepped closer to James, biting my lip. "I don't know either. Wait until she's twenty-one if you can? Twenty-one seems like the magic number for some damn reason. Don't ask me, I don't make the rules."
"She and her sister are born only a few days apart. In fact, her birthday is at the end of this month, and after that, it's the St. Valentine's Day Festival. This is hardly the time to ask since her sister just woke up from a coma and survived a near-death experience, but do you think if I asked her in a few weeks, she might like to be my date for it?" James inquired, stepping towards me. We were now so close, our chests almost touched. I had to crane my neck to look up at him.
"I think she'd like that very much," I said.
"Good to know." James leaned down, and my heart thundered in my chest. Our lips barely brushed together when we sprang apart at the sound of familiar voices rounding the corner. James swore under his breath.
"- said they were- oh!" Patty exclaimed, rushing up to us. "There you are! Walt and I wanted to ask what Annalise's favorite candy is right now. We know it changes between sweetarts and skittles, and we want to get some for her before we go see her. Do you know?"
"I'll leave this to Mia to answer." James rested his hand on my back. "Come get me when you're ready to leave, okay?"
"Yeah, I'll see you soon," I replied, smiling shyly. Turning to face Patty, I answered her question, mentally counting down the time until I could see James again.
"Thank God you're alive!" Everly exclaimed, grasping my free hand. "How do you feel?"
"Like I got shot," I said, "which, ironically, I did. How are you two doing?"
"A hell of a lot better seeing you awake," Mark replied.
Everly glared at Will. "We'd be even better if we'd known someone was trying to kill us a long time ago."
"What?" I asked, frowning. Something about her words rang a bell in my head.
"Yeah. Apparently, Lorraine's dad is the one who set fire to my apartment and nearly poisoned the Queen and probably is the one who attacked you. But did my cousin tell us this when it all started? No. He kept his pie hole shut and hired bodyguards to secretly watch us!" Everly huffed, sending a stray piece of hair flying out of her face. Will didn't fight back, staring at the floor. Shame settled on his face.
"But-" Mark began- "we know now, so we can be on the lookout for him."
"Will told me about him," I said, suddenly remembering our argument with distinct clarity. "It's why I decided to grab my pepper spray. Will probably is the reason I'm even alive."
Everly narrowed her eyes but didn't respond. Will squeezed my hand gratefully and remarked, "I've declared to have no more secrets kept from my inner circle. That includes you three, James and Mia. Obviously, my mom, too."
"Yeah, we'll see how long you keep that up," Everly muttered. Her phone rang, garnering her attention. "Oh, that's Reid's babysitter. I need to take this."
Everly left the room, and after a moment's hesitation, Mark said, "I'm going to join her. I'll see if I can calm her down a bit."
Once more, Will and I were alone. Without the risk of anyone hearing, he took the opportunity to say, "Thank you for saying what you did to Ev. I didn't save your life, but I appreciate you trying to diffuse the situation."
"But it is true," I replied. "Had you not told me about Mr. O'Connell earlier that day, I would've assumed Mia didn't hear me and walked out to greet her. Instead, I had time to grab my pepper spray."
"I should've told you all sooner, though. If I hadn't, you might not be here. You should be furious at me."
"Will, I just escaped death and have been given a second chance at life. I'm not starting it with anger. You told me about Mr. O'Connell late in the game, that's true, but you still told me in time to prepare. Thank you for that."
Will kissed the back of my hand. "I know you're probably sick of hearing this, but I'm so happy you're alive. If you had died-"
"But, I didn't."
He gingerly brushed a strand of hair out of my face. "I don't know what I did to deserve having you back in my life…"
"I don't know what I did to earn a second chance at life."
"Because you're a good person, and you're worth everything to me and so many other people."
"You're both of those things too."
"Maybe. I've messed up a little too much recently- you, Everly, Mia, James. I've hurt all of you. None of you should want anything to do with me. I'm not worth the pain I've put you all through."
"I've been too quiet. There are things I could've done that would've stopped all this before it ever happened. Maybe that's why I feel I'm not worth this second chance I've been given. I don't know how to convince myself otherwise, but I know I can convince you that you're worth all the good things that come to you."
Will pondered my words for a moment before kissing the back of my hand and saying, "We'll remind each other we're worth it. Does that work?"
"You'll remind me I'm worth it when I'm down, and vice versa?"
"I think I can get on board with that."
"Good. It's a step in the right direction. For both of us." Will's phone buzzed, and he groaned. "For fuck's sake."
"What is it?" I asked.
"A meeting I can't avoid in half an hour. I need to get going. Can I get you anything before I leave?"
"No, I'm good," I said, giving him what I hoped was a reassuring smile. Will leaned down and kissed my forehead. The stupid monitor betrayed me, beeping along with the rapid beating of my heart at the contact, and I cringed inwardly. I hoped Will didn't notice.
"I'll see you later, Annalise. Call me if you need anything," he said, starting to leave the room. He stopped when I called out his name. "Yes?"
"Annie," I told him.
Will tilted his head. "What?"
"Call me Annie. I've missed it."