Chapter twenty seven

Another day, another long morning. My complaints about my inactivity finally got through Coach. Not only was I at beck and call of the basketball team, I was assisting the phys ed teacher with maintaining the weight room and processing the paper work for the majority of the teams active in this season.

Fortunately this meant I was not in the gym with the team, and by extension, dealing with the crap of the players.

The early morning found me jogging through the empty hallways of the school. At first it was strange to see the empty hallways. It only served to remind me that in a few more months, I would no longer be walking through these long corridors. Looking back these four years made me smile though, especially when I realized how different I was – but in a good way. The way where I was proud of who I was now, like a better person of who I'd been.

Truly I was a brat with a mouth that should have gotten me punished more than I had.

Four years seemed long, but at the same time, so infinitely short. I still remember the first words Farrell said to us when we stepped onto these grounds as small, unassuming freshmen. "Before you know it, you'll be graduating. And you'll be wondering where the hell time went – uh, I mean," he stammered when several teachers shot him disapproving looks, but he ended up with a dismissive shrug.

It was then I decided I liked my principal.

The friends I made, my dear antagonists, even people like Guggenheim that made my day a little brighter – they were the kind of people I don't regret meeting. Why would you regret your past if it's shaped the person you were proud to be today?

Lina's words came back to me. I didn't believe her when she said it, although I should have given my younger sister credit. She was astute, that one, but until now I don't believe I quite understood what she knew about me. That I was strong. In a way, I was, because I was the bigger person in this story. I wasn't the leading female in my own Great Love Story. Now that I've come to terms with myself, I was merely a variable of another story of love.

You are the choices that you make and the choices you don't, and I ultimately chose myself. At first the acknowledgement about my choice seemed selfish, but I've accepted it. Overall, it was bittersweet regret – of never knowing what it would be like, of imagining the different kind of growth and person I'd be. I knew he was tough, and I was the weak one. I couldn't even admit I was in love with him so I had to say I hated him just to feel nothing. I wasn't even strong enough to love someone else. He was, though, and from that knowledge, I'd found my own strength. He was my strength.

While we were both in that trainwreck, the fact that our weakness helped him find his own strength gave me a weird sense of pleasure. I owed him a lot – more than he knew – because without him, I wouldn't be this way. While at the same time he was responsible, I became my own person.

Just as I turned the corner of the stairwell, Kari Lendrez froze at the bottom. My face was bland, looking at her, and I tried hard not to feel it, but pity still stirred inside me. No more of that burning anger I felt the night of our confrontation. Now I could only feel sorry for the girl who condemned someone who'd genuinely wanted to be her friend. Maybe our teasing and taunts cut her deep, but in all honesty I believed the cuts to be superficial.

Kari's expression was closed but she didn't look away from me.

I nodded. "You're here early."

"Council meeting," she said, tone just as polite.

I descended down the steps. "I see." That was that. There was no cold shoulder to show that I was still thinking about that night, but the same the playful taunts that I'd assumed was double sided didn't exist anymore. I let it go, and I was letting her know.

One of the double doors behind her opened and my heart instinctively jumped to my throat when I saw Dante.

"Hey, Kari," he said, and without a word, said girl retrieved a sheet of paper from her shoulder bag. Dante's grin was boyishly repentant. "Sorry I had –"

"Practice, I know." She smiled reassuringly. "It was only a handful of members missing, but this time it's my fault since I knew teams always meet in the morning. Let Rick and Seth know, alright, if I don't see them?" She was referring to the items listed on the sheet.

"Yeah, no problem." Dante noticed me then, and his eyebrows shot to his forehead. At the very least I was expecting a smile, but no luck. Oh, well. "You weren't at practice," he said, taking one step up the staircase.

I took a few more down so I was at eyelevel with him. "Coach found me other things to do." I shrugged. "Productive things," I added thoughtfully with a nod.

"Seth know? He said you told him not to pick you up."

He actually asked about me? I masked my surprise and amusement with my own raised eyebrows. "I asked Rick instead since it's more convenient." And I knew Seth was up late with other responsibilities and if he was able to get a few more minutes of sleep, then I'd let him. He was worried, affectionate, and overall smothering me that I needed time away from him. While I appreciated his thought, Rick's obliviousness was like a breath of fresh air.

Dante immediately tensed with the thinning of his lips. "Oh, I see."

Bemused I observed his face and the way his eyes flickered away from my gaze, as if he were trying not to look at me. I frowned but didn't say anything. I honestly thought this little feud between the two died with time. They were children, for Pete's sake, fighting over nothing.

I saw no point in letting them suffer this way. "You should give him a chance," I said. "He's actually a decent guy. Not at all like the prick we grew up with – I mean, okay, he's still annoying –" I scowled when I recalled his brutal remark about my appearance in the morning, "—but I think you two would get along great."

"Not going to lie though – saw you with Kingsley the other day and it took everything in me to stop myself from coming over there and punching his pretty face."

My face burned at the memory, but reality kept the feeling at bay.

"I'll take that into consideration the next time I talk to him," he said dryly, and it accomplished its goal because I smirked, but he still looked uncomfortably tense. Almost like he was trying hard not to feel something so he was waiting for the moment to pass.

I touched his shoulder gently. "Are you okay?"

"Fine," he said noncommittally. I gave him a look he understood perfectly but he only smiled tightly. "I'll see you in first, Belle."

Slightly bewildered, all I could do was nod and watch him leave from the corner of my eye. Soon the unmistakable sound of the door opening and closing on the next floor echoed in the stairwell. I remembered Kari when I felt her looking at me.

The ends of her lips were pulled into a smile. I blinked again to make sure I wasn't imagining it.

"I heard that he used to go out with that transfer student – Laurita?" For the first time, there wasn't calculated mockery on her face. Kari didn't gossip either, so I didn't quite understand where she was coming from. "Was she the girl you two mentioned in the hallway?"

I stiffened at the reminder of that nasty revelation, but saw no need to lie or snub her. Honestly, what was the harm? "Yes. They met in Spain."

"I haven't spoken to her myself," Kari said almost nonchalantly, "but I have them both in my Calculus. He's different around her. Nicer, more patient. I'm not saying that Dante isn't usually nice, but when he talks to her…" Her eyebrows furrowed. "…it's like he comes straight out of an 18th century novel."

"So princely?" I couldn't help but say dryly.

"He's very accommodating to her," she confirmed with a nod.

My shoulder imperceptibly tensed, but I forced myself to shrug. "Dante's a nice guy."

He was always looking after you. But he was never patient because you were frustrating as hell.

I was, really, so I didn't understand why Kari's news suddenly made me feel like my day wouldn't be as bright as I thought it would.

"He is," she assented, and it must've been my imagination because I saw something in her face soften. Only a moment too late did I realize what I felt was probably projecting to my expression so I nodded curtly and left the stairwell.

I knew it was bordering on masochism, but that lunch I found myself observing the couple against my will. Damn it, this seriously wasn't good for my mental health, but I had to see for myself the kind of person Dante was around her. I should have picked it up the first time I met her, but then, I was too distracted by my thoughts to notice. Now my thoughts were practically driving me to stare at her.

All I needed was a glance to understand what Kari was talking about. His face was the perfect picture of patience and attentiveness as she spoke softly. She seemed shy, almost, but I couldn't quite match that attribute with the confidence she wore like second skin.

"Laurita," I said, and practically ensnared the attention of everyone in the table. I scrunched my face and gave them a look, but I smiled warmly at her. "Can you tell us what you first thought of Dante when you met him? He can't have been as smooth as he claims to be with the pretty girls."

It was an extension of friendship. I thought Dante was a neutral topic between us, but as soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted to burst into rambunctious laughter. He was the only topic between us, but I honestly meant to be lighthearted and teasing! I wanted to tease her at the expense of another person, of course, and I wasn't trying to bring up the angst, disheartening shades of our relationship with him.

This was awful.

I had to cough to hide my laughter, especially fuelled with Amy and Seth's what-the-fuck-kind-of-drugs-are-you-taking look reserved for moments like these between the three of us.

At first she looked startled but eased into an easy moist lipped smile. "Truthfully he was a bit on the arrogant side."

"I definitely know that side of him," Rick mused, and earned a glare from the topic of conversation.

"He was very nice." She smiled. "All the girls at school were crazy over him."

"How'd you meet him?" I wondered what kind of effect he had on someone he only met. I've only ever known him, so I was always fascinated by his effect.

"Through a friend," Dante intercepted with a hard look at me, which melted into an inscrutable expression. He gazed for a moment longer as if he were trying to figure something out. I shoved a spoonful of my lunch into my mouth and returned my own look. He really was acting strange lately. Almost anxious. Panicked. It was making me a little stressed out and a bit worried to be honest.

"Love at first sight?" Rick guessed with a side glance at me. I didn't bother to hide my scowl and kicked him under the table. A moment later I smirked at his groan. "There are healthier ways to express your heartache," Rick said as he rubbed his ankles. "Say, for instance, hugging it out?" He held his arms out expectantly.

"Leave me alone," I grumbled, but turned to hide my smile. There was some sort of affection I felt for Rick. Maybe it was because he didn't know, or maybe he did know, but he didn't let it define how he treated me. His attributes I once found aggravating were charming, because it was harmless, and he was the kind of person to make you feel like you weren't holding the world on your shoulders.

"Never, dear!" He leaned over and tweaked my nose. I reached forward to thump his head – he knew how I felt about him touching me – but he anticipated my actions and instead, grabbed my fist, and practically yanked me out of my seat to fall on his lap.

I sputtered uncontrollably as the table laughed.

Agitated, I righted myself and gave him a lethal glare. "You're annoying."

He smiled. "I know," he said simply, and as if nothing happened, reached for his apple on the table. Grumbling under my breath, I scooted my chair a little farther from him. After a moment I began to get that strange sensation where someone was looking at you. Sure enough, Dante had his eyes on me, and as soon as I frowned, his own eyebrows slammed together and he was glaring at me ferociously.

"What?" I said out loud, my frown easing into a puzzled look.

"It's nothing," he said, but that cold look on his face didn't fade.

I eyed him skeptically. "If you're sure." Obviously it wasn't nothing. He had to know there was nothing with Rick so this childhood rivalry was allowed to die. For God's sake, didn't he know how much I was in love with him?

Well, no, he didn't, but that wasn't the point. He didn't have to take his frustrations out of me. If anything he should be glaring at Rick.

"There's a party at Kari's tonight," Seth said to the silence. I saw Dante give him a grateful look and I caught myself in time from glowering. Instead I merely tapped Rick's right shoulder from behind so I was able to steal his mom's delicious cookies and shove it into my mouth just as he turned to glower at me.

"Those were mine," he accused.

I licked my lips. "I know."

"I brought over a mountain to you yesterday! Did you eat it all?"

I smiled almost dreamily at the memory of last night. It almost felt like a date with Dante as he teased me over the delicious Italian food and I tried my damnest to act like I didn't wanted to burst into laughter or glower until he burned into dust. It was so difficult to treat him like I wasn't intimately familiar with him, and even by the end when it almost felt like it was falling apart from my forced distance, he was still trying and I couldn't help but hug him. A friendly hug, but a hug nevertheless.

Mrs Kingsley's yummy chocolate fudge cookies tied the night perfectly.

"Of course not. I have a few hidden from my family in my room."

Rick sighed noisily and pretended to turn away from me. All of a sudden, he smirked, and with a quick glance in my direction, reached forward and gently brushed my bottom lip with his thumb. It was so unlike his touch earlier that I only jolted backwards, and to my horror, turned red.

"Crumbs," he said with a wink.

"Don't touch me!" I felt like a broken record.

"I'm going," Amy said loudly with hints of laughter in her voice. "Cassidy, are you?"

I frowned. "I don't know, Amy… First of all, it's Kari. Secondly, I'm not a big fan of parties." Not to mention the last time I went to a party I was stuck in a room with Dante. How different we were. The thought made me smile slightly and I glanced at Dante, as if to share the memory, but his expression was closed off. It contrasted greatly with his usual interchangeable expressions of pensive or tamed amusement that I couldn't help but tense. I've seen that look, but not for a long time.

"I am," Rick said and kicked back in his chair. "You are too, Cass. Expect me at your door by seven-thirty."

"I'll be sleeping," I said in my most regretful voice. "And my family will… also be sleeping."

"Your mother loves me." Rick smiled smugly. That was true. He could be irritatingly charming when he wanted to be.

"My whole family does." I frowned. Lina practically worshipped the ground he walked on, and Alec enjoyed his company. Even my father liked talking to Rick. "Even so, that charming face of yours won't work for this kind of –"

Rick was smiling widely. "I'm glad you think I am," he said.

"Your face is charming!" I said exasperatedly. "I didn't say any –"

The bell rang and Rick chucked my chin as he jumped to his feet in a fluid motion. I gnashed my teeth and missed him by an inch as he danced away from my aim, laughing.

"Come to my door and you'll regret it," I threatened with a glare.

He winked. "I look forward to it, then."

"He's so annoying," I fumed as I whirled to Amy. "It's moments like this that –" I broke off as I followed her gaze to Dante rigidly rising to his feet. Laurita handed him his bag with the ease of familiarity, but she was speaking to him in low tones with a deeply troubled look in her eyes.

"Seth, can you show Laurita to her next class? It'll take a while to recognize the hallways," Dante said abruptly. "I have to go somewhere."

Seth had a wide smile on his face. "Sure; it's not a problem."

Surely Seth isn't interested in Laurita. I mean, she was aesthetically pleasing, but he's been crazy over Amy for years. I pinned the boy with a lethal stare, but he glanced at Amy… and winked. She giggled.

Both Dante and I shot them looks.

"What?" Dante uncharacteristically snapped, but almost immediately looked contrite. His lips turned down and he rubbed a hand over the side of his face. "Sorry, Seth, I need…" He glanced at me but quickly looked away. "I'll see you later." For the second time that day, I watched him leave in obvious haste.

"Come now, Laurita dear," Seth practically giggled and Amy slapped a hand over her own mouth. "We'll be late. See you two ladies!"

"Bye," Amy chirped, and then to me, "What?"

Eyes narrowed, my jaw tightened. "What's wrong with Dante?"

"Dante? How would I know?"

"I don't know – and why was Seth giggling?" At the reminder, Amy's face lightened but she managed to quell the reaction with a cough and a dignified, "Cassidy, we're going to be late. Do you want another reason for Farrell to hunt you down?"

I followed her out the cafeteria through the side doors. "Fine, have your secrets with your other best friend. Hey – why not make it a secret love affair, too?" and smugly I peered at the pink on her cheeks. While Seth usually threatened my life, Amy pretended that I never spoke. This almost made up for their obvious friendship exclusion.

"Laurita's going," Amy said. "To the party, I mean. Kari invited Laurita herself."

"I'm glad. Even though it's the last semester, I hope she finds her way here." I shook my head. The words were foreign on my tongue, but as I said them, I knew I meant them. I didn't begrudge her anything. We were both in an uncomfortable situation. I sighed. "Still, what the hell was she thinking, subjecting herself to this awkwardness?"

Amy paused for a moment before laughing loudly. "Wow, for a second there I was wondering who you were." I smiled at her grin and watched her face soften. She didn't need to say anything. I understood that look and not for the first time that day, I felt the burst of warmth in my chest.

While it was hard, letting go was a long time coming. I could honestly tell myself that I was happy with what I had. And with what I didn't.