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The heat coming off the fireplace was welcoming. We rarely had a need for ours at home since we lived in the desert. We simply used it for aesthetics during the Christmas season because Dad liked it and only for a little while at a time. Winter in Oasis Springs was cold but it’s never that cold. This was my first time truly needing the heat so I got closer to it.

And…maybe I felt a little distance from Eli was necessary. I was mesmerized by the way the flames reflected off his blue eyes, and he smelled so good!

Yeah, distance was necessary.

“Do you need a blanket, or…?”

“No, I’m good.” The sight of him alone brought warmth to my cheeks. “It’s not so cold anymore now that I’m dry.”

“Are you sure?”

“I should be asking you that. You’re the one who’s practically naked.”

“I never get cold. Besides, this fireplace is the one thing in this house that works properly so I’ll be fine.”

“If you say so.”

“Sorry you got stranded.” He said.

“It could have been worse.” I chuckled. “I could still be down by the dock waiting for that ferry. Thank Watcher I saw you when I did.”

“Why are you here in Brindleton Bay in the first place?”

“I had a meeting with someone I wanted to recruit for my hospital.”

He sat up straighter and cocked his eyebrow in interest. “Your hospital? You’re a doctor?”

“Oh, no, no. I run a non-profit. We’re raising funds to build an animal hospital and shelter in town.”

“Wow, that’s pretty cool. I always thought you’d do something like that. You’ve always had a big heart, and a soft spot for animals. Who’s the doctor?”

“Her name’s Christine Caldwell. Do you know her?”

He took a big gulp of his hot cocoa and then shook his head. “Never heard of her.”

“Really? She’s only the best vet this town has!”

“I don’t have any pets so I wouldn’t know.” He shrugged.

“Anyway, she turned us down but you know me. I never take no for an answer.”

“Oh, I know!” He chuckled. “Trust me, I never cut class before I met you.”

“You liked cutting class to make out with me in the school library.”

“You also made me throw away all my leather belts because they were ‘unethical’.”

I glared at him, annoyed by his use of air quotes and the implication that I forced him to do anything. “I didn’t make you throw away your belts!”

“Of course you did. You went on and on about it for days, then you bought me like five hemp belts. It was obvious what you were doing.”

“You didn’t have to get rid of them if you didn’t want to.”

“Are you kidding?” He smirked. “A teenage boy choosing between potentially going to third base with a hot girl and keeping a leather belt? No contest!”

“Come to think of it…I did let you go to third base with me the next night…”

“Totally worth it!”

He such a goof! We had a good laugh at that. I forgot how much fun we had with each other over the silliest things.

“No, but seriously, if it wasn’t for you I’d never try new things.” He looked down at the mug in his hands. “Now chocolate almond milk is my favourite thing, even better in hot chocolate. You were right…as always.”

I remember when we went grocery shopping after we ran off to San Myshuno. We had limited money so we had to spend it wisely as we couldn’t afford a lot of things. There was a choice between regular whole milk and almond milk which cost way more. He made sure I got the almond milk even though he hated it at the time. He was always so sweet like that to give up anything for me, including the literal shirt off his back.

Suddenly, there was a clap of thunder so loud it made everything vibrate. I dropped down onto the sofa next to him. “It’s getting really bad out there, huh?”

“Are you scared?”

Yes. “No!”

He saw right through that lie. “It’s just a little thunder and lightning.”

“Yeah, but, it’s so loud! That’s not normal. We never have anything like this back home.”

“Uh, yeah you do. You probably don’t hear it like that because you live in such a big ass mansion.”

Maybe that was true. My house was a pretty large two-story home so outside noises wouldn’t sound as loud as it would here in this one. Thank goodness Eli was with me. It was a comfort not being alone during a storm like this. I might have been anxious the whole time if I had stayed at a hotel room by myself. “Are you sure it’s okay for me to stay here tonight?”

“Of course it’s okay.”

“Well…” I hesitated to ask what I really wanted to ask until I eventually realised I had to get the answer. “What I mean to ask is, are you seeing anyone who wouldn’t think it’s okay for me to spend the night? Like a girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

Those five words were like music to my ears. “Really? No one you’re seeing, even casually?”

“Nope.” He shook his head. “I don’t have time to date.”

“Oh yeah, I wanted to ask, where do you work? What do you do?”

“I work for a shipping company, in procurement. I just finished work when we ran into each other.”

“Do you like your job?” I always thought he’d go into software engineering since he liked coding or photography because it was one of his favourite hobbies. Then again, his options were probably limited.

“It’s a little stressful but I know it’ll pay off. Right now I’m working this huge project and…I can’t afford to fail. I’ve got a lot to prove.” For a few seconds he said nothing as his fingers idly tapped on the sides of the mug. Then he looked at me, “My mother contacted me while I was in juvie.”

“What? Really?” I was surprised by that news. “How did she find you?”

“She saw it on the news…what I did. I think she only reached out because of a guilty conscience. For leaving me with a monster.” He said wryly. “At least she tried. She asked me to stay with her when I got out and I figured I should give her a chance so…”

“So that’s why you moved here.” I finished for him. His mother abandoned him when he was a baby, right after his parents’ divorce. He always used to say he could never forgive her for that. I was glad to know they were at least trying to make amends. “Does she live close by?”

“She’s dead.” He said. “She died about a month after I was released.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.”

He shrugged like it didn’t matter, but I could easily see the pain in his eyes that he was trying so hard not to show. “This house was hers. She left it to me. All the stuff in the boxes and crates are hers. I’m donating them to charity. I thought it was time to move on, make this place my own now.”

I nodded in agreement. “I always wondered why you didn’t come back to Oasis Springs.”

“There’s nothing left for me there.”

I watched him gulp down the rest of his drink in disbelief.

Nothing left for me there – his exact words. I don’t know why I felt so hurt when he was just being honest. I was the dumb one for thinking there was still something there…whatever it was.

“I guess so. Not like you had anyone there who cared about you. No one who would want to know if you were alright, or even alive.”

“I…didn’t mean it like that…” He stammered, the realisation of what he said just occurring to him..

“No, it’s okay. I get it.” I rolled my eyes and looked away. “I’m a nobody to you.”

“That’s…that’s not true, Olive.”

“That’s why it was so easy for you to push me away, huh?!”

 He sighed heavily. “You know why I did what I did…and it’s the same reason now.”

“Yeah, yeah. Doing what’s best for me, right? It’s a little insulting that you still think you have to do that!”

“I…I had no other choice, Liv.”

“There’s always a choice Eli, and this was yours. Least you can do is own it!”

“Look, I didn’t want things to get messy. Imposing on your life after I got out wouldn’t have been fair to you.”

“You wouldn’t have been imposing. I wanted to help, I wanted to be there for you…”

“I needed to be on my own.”

“So you couldn’t tell me that? You couldn’t respond to my letter at least? You just ignored me instead. You have any idea how much that hurt?!”

“Getting in contact with you would have opened a door that I wanted to keep shut.”

“Why?”

“Because I would have stayed, Olive!” He yelled. Then he took a deep breath, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “You’re not ‘nobody’. You’re the only person…the only one in this world who still gives a shit about me. Because of you, I would have stayed in Oasis Springs, and because of that I would have been miserable.”

“I don’t understand…”

“Here, no one knows what I did. They know nothing about me, or the fact that I was in juvie for killing my father. Back home, everyone does. It’s no way for me to live.”

I never thought about it like that but he was right. It would have been difficult for him to start over if he came back to Oasis Springs. It was selfish of me for only thinking of how I was affected, not considering the challenges he’d have to face.

“Well the door’s open.” I mumbled. “So what happens now?”

“I don’t know.”

I didn’t know either. What did I expect to happen now that he and I were reunited? He lived here in Brindleton Bay, and my life was in Oasis Springs.

There was silence again. Aside from the storm outside and the crackling sound of scorched wood from the fireplace, it was dead silent. We sat quietly on the couch – I was looking at the fire burn, he was staring at me. I could feel his eyes boring holes into the side of my head. “Say it. Whatever it is, just say it.”

“I was wondering…” he began. “…do you have someone who wouldn’t want you to spent the night with me?”

“No.”

“No?”

I shook my head. “There’s no one.”

“I find that hard to believe.” He said, looking right into my eyes as he did. “I mean you’re so…incredible. Those guys back home must be stupid.”

“Maybe I need to leave Oasis Springs more often and see what else is out there?” I scooted closer and he did the same. I thought he would lean in and kiss me. It seemed like that’s what he was going to do.

Then he turned his head and yawned.

“I’m sorry but…hhhhaw…” He started stretching as he let out another yawn. “It’s getting late and I have work in the morning…”

His display was a little over the top but I took the hint. We were getting too close and he didn’t want that. Guess I had my answer. “I’m a little tired too. It’s been a long day and it is kinda late.” It was barely 8 o’clock.

“You can take my bed and I’ll sleep here on the couch.”

“Oh, I don’t want to put you out. I can sleep here. ”

“Nonsense!” He waved his hand dismissively. “I’ll take the couch, you take the bed.”

When we made it up the stairs to the second floor, I understood why he wanted me to take the bed. “You dick!”

“What?”

“Now I get it.” I eyed him. “Your bedroom is a dark, creepy attic. No wonder you wanted the couch!”

He laughed. “The couch is lumpy. The bed is way better, trust me. I’m getting the shitty end of the deal here.”

“Sure…” I sat on the bed and he was right, it was firmer and more comfortable than the couch.

“No, seriously, the bed is better. I’m not trying to dupe you.”

“It’s so dark though…” The fireplace provided a lot of light in the living room but up here was so dark I could barely see Eli if not for the brief flashes of lightning outside which illuminated the room for only a second. Not to mention the loud sounds of the rain beating down on the roof directly above us. I’ve never been afraid of the dark but I was a little nervous staying up here by myself.

“Do you want me to stay with you?” He asked. “Um…I can keep you company until you fall asleep or something?”

I nodded, grateful that he offered. He sat next to me on the bed as I idly rubbed my feet together.

“Are you cold?” He asked when he noticed what I was doing. “I’ll get you a blanket. Maybe I find some clean socks for you to wear.”

“No, I’m great. It’s actually warm up here.” Which was a nice surprise. Since it was so dark and creepy looking I expected it to be cold too.

“Told you the fireplace is the only thing that works properly.” He said with a light chuckle. “So, uh, if you need anything…”

“Actually…um…I have a confession. I’m not really tired. I know you are, but I never go to bed this early.”

“Oh, yeah, force of habit I guess. Lights out was at nine. So what do you wanna do?”

I could think of many different ways I’d like to pass the time with him but all of them were completely inappropriate. “Talk? Maybe we can catch up on the seven years we missed?”

“I’d like that.” He smiled. “How about you start by telling me about your foundation? What made you decide to do that?”

So I started by telling him all about how I started my non-profit.

And then he asked about my family. I told him how Poppy and Everett were getting married in a few days and how my parents retired from their careers and now spend their days travelling when they’re not lounging around the house. I even told him about Nori and Clara getting together.

The deeper the conversation went, the more comfortable we got on the bed – and with each other. He started telling me about his time in juvie, the full story. He didn’t make any friends like he told me he did. In fact, he spent most of the time alone when he didn’t have classes and mandated therapy sessions.

“That must have been very isolating.”

“I got used to the routine after a while.”

“I wish you let me be there for you, Eli.” Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t have been so alone all those years.

“In the beginning…I felt like I didn’t deserve anything good because of what I’d done…” he sighed, his voice cracking with emotion. “And you were the best. I didn’t deserve to have you support me and care for me the way you would. I thought l deserved that punishment.”

“A self-imposed punishment that ended up hurting me too.”

“I know.” He sighed. “But look at everything you’re doing now. You’re so accomplished and independent. As much as it hurt the both of us, I think it worked out for the best. Don’t you agree?”

Sometimes I think about what it would have been like if Eli didn’t get locked up. We could have gone to college together, and maybe we’d be getting married just like Poppy and Everett. I wouldn’t have dated all those douche-bags, including Darnell. But as much as I hate to admit it, dating Darnell and guys like him was how I got into activism which led me into politics, and now I’ve found my calling with the foundation. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re both better off because of the time apart.”

I leaned in closer until I realised I was almost on top of him. The moment there was skin to skin contact I felt my pores raise and a slight shiver down my spine. “I still can’t believe how different you look now.”

His fingers twirled the ends of my shoulder-length hair. “I had no idea your hair was so wavy.”

“I used to flat iron the shit out of it, that’s why!” I laughed.

“Why? It’s so beautiful just like this.”

“The purple and green streaks looked better straight, I guess.”

“When I used to think about you at night, that’s how you’d look to me. But I think I prefer your natural look.”

Wait…what? “When you used to think about me at night? How did you think about me, pray tell?”

His eyes widened and his hair twirling came to a halt once he realised what he said. “Uh…nothing…I mean, you know, just thinking…”

“Were you fantasizing about me, Munch?” He totally was! The embarrassed look on his face was enough proof. “Was I the subject of your dirty dreams?”

In one swift move he sat up on the bed, pushing me onto my back. The sudden movement forced a short squeal out of me. He started caressing my legs, stopping short at my knee even though I badly wished he would go higher. “You got me through many, many nights.”

“I did?”

“Yes.” His voice was so deep I almost didn’t recognise it.

“Hmm…so…what did I do in those fantasies?”

He shook his head. “I’m not falling into that trap!”

“What trap?” Was I coming on too strong? Was it too obvious that I was completely turned on knowing he fantasized about me while he was locked up? That I wanted him to show me instead of telling me about them?

“I don’t want to freak you out. It gets really crazy up there.” He said, jerking a thumb towards his head.

“I promise I won’t judge.”

He was about to say something when a loud cracking noise made me jump. It was thunder and it was so scary the way the room lit up because of the lightning that followed. I would have ran off the bed if he wasn’t holding me down.

“Hey, hey, calm down.” He crooned in a comforting tone.

“That was so fucking loud!” I cried. “It sounded like it hit a tree outside or something!”

“Probably.” He shrugged.

“Why are you so damn calm?!”

He sat up and pulled me against his chest, wrapping his strong arms around me. His skin was so warm, so was his breath against my neck. “It’s just a little storm.”

“When did you become braver than me?” I pouted. “You used to run from spiders, and sleep with the light on.”

“Ouch, what a low blow!”

“It’s true.” I nestled more comfortably into his arms and breathed in. “I’m so glad I ran into you today.”

“Me too.”

I could hear his heart racing against his chest. I wondered if he would agree with everything I was feeling. “I really missed you, Eli.”

“I missed you too.” He clenched his jaw and closed his eyes like he was breathing me in. His lips were full and inviting. I wondered if they still felt and tasted the same. Just as I moved in, his hand gently clasped the back of my neck, holding me in place. “Let’s…let’s go to sleep. We’ll talk some more in the morning.”

He rejected me. I can’t say it didn’t hurt but I understood. We only just met each other after a 7-year separation. There was still so much about each other that we didn’t know. I can’t blame him for being cautious. I was the one rushing things for no reason. “…in the morning, then.”

He still held me close allowing me to fall asleep in his arms which was way better than a kiss, or even sex. I felt closer to him than I ever felt before – than I ever felt to anyone. Regardless of what happened in the morning, at least I’d have that.

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