Chapter Nineteen— Healing Strategies

After Ely's accident, they kept him in the hospital for about a week, and his mom more or less confined him to bed for the next two. Those two weeks were the worst, because despite Mrs. Gardner—Ellen—and I reaching somewhat of a truce on the day of the accident, she was still sort of weird about me being alone in Ely's bedroom with him.

If she only knew….

Not that we did much of anything during that time; I was so afraid I'd hurt him and he was so uncomfortable with how he looked with all those bruises, even though I kept telling him, 'Ely, I still see you. Just you.' It took a while for those words to sink in. On top of that, Ellen kept popping her head in every ten minutes to check up on us, and Ely was in constant freak-out mode about how staying out of school for those two weeks would lose him enough credits that he wouldn't be able to graduate. I never told him, but I was kind of worried about that, too.

And yet, here we are.

He came back in time for our last week of high school, and learned he had enough credits to walk in graduation and stay out of summer school. The whole car accident is almost in the past. I don't think I'll ever forget, but the only lasting evidence right now is the faded pink scar running down Ely's cheek, and the impending trial against Sheila Ross that's happening next week. Ely's determined to look past it, look forward, because we're finally graduating from high school, finally leaving for good. Tonight. Right now, in fact. I can't see Ely from where I'm standing, but he's in the same single file line, only further back. Our whole class is here, in a twisting, strictly alphabetical line stretching from the parking lot all the way to our ultimate goal—a table stacked with diplomas in leather covers, set up on the makeshift stage in the middle of our school's football field.

I sort of wish I'd made an effort to get to know some of the other A's at St. James's. It's funny that I think of that now, considering it's the very last time I'm ever planning to be here. Only, if I knew someone, anyone, standing in my general vicinity, maybe this wouldn't suck so much. Let's see… I'm standing in some overgrown grass slash mosquito cesspool, surrounded by kids I barely know, wearing a floor-length silver dress and a stupid fucking hat.

Why can't this be over? Tonight is the first night Ely's mom is letting him leave the house since his accident. Shockingly enough, she's actually agreed to let him leave with me directly from school to whatever graduation party we end up at. There are about five different students throwing them, including two on the lacrosse team. We'll probably end up at one of those, but I'm so happy that we're going to be somewhere besides his parents' house that I don't really even care.

The girl behind me is standing really fucking close, I can practically feel her breathing on me. It's probably because the majority of our class is forcing her forward, but…whatever, it's still gross.

I turn around. "Hi," I say, awkwardly.

"Hey, Hunter! Can you believe we're finally graduating?! I heard you're going to Yale, that's so cool!"

"Yeah," I say. Okay, so it's even worse if I am interacting with my fellow A's. I try to think of what to say next, but I'm saved when the line suddenly starts moving. "Oh. Uh, line," is all I say.

"Oh, God, we're getting our diplomas in, like, a minute. A minute, Hunter!" She doesn't see it as good enough reason to stop talking. Jeez, I feel like I should at least know her name. She knows mine, apparently. "How is Ely, Is he doing better? I was so glad when he came back to school."

"So was I," I say, looking dully out behind us, hoping that maybe I can catch the eye of someone I recognize from this new vantage point. No dice.

It doesn't really matter though, because the line is moving steadily now. Before I know it, I'm walking across the stage. Once I get my diploma, the line continues and I'm filed into a row of chairs, still infuriatingly alphabetically ordered.

The list of names being called goes quicker than I'd thought, so much so that it's actually a blur in my mind. It isn't until whatsherface next to me starts shaking my arm that I notice my boyfriend is halfway across the stage. The student government all give speeches once everyone has a diploma, and the girl who is (was?) our class treasurer actually bursts into tears in the middle off hers.

The principal gives his finally speech, and then, finally, it's over. Hilariously, one kid about ten seats to my right throws his hat up about five seconds premature, but after the awkward pause, the air is full of them. Once we're told we can get out of our seats, I realize that I'm not the only one who resents the alphabetical seating plan, because suddenly, everyone's darting around the field and pairing up with their friends.

I immediately start looking around for Ely and Greg, not sure which one I'd rather find first. Turns out, Greg finds me before I can so much as spot either of them. He's already pulled his robe over his head, and he's rolled it into a ball and wedged it under his arm, along with his diploma. We have a quick guys-don't-hug-they-shoulder-bump moment, and while I'm still looking around for Ely, I notice he's looking around too.

As weird as it seems, I know he's looking for Marcia. They sort of have a 'thing' going on. Not the type of thing that's expected to last beyond the next few weeks, but I know they had a good time together at prom, so it's more of a 'why stop if it feels good?' kind of thing.

After a few minutes of fruitless scanning, we both find who we're looking for. Marcia and Ely are talking together a bunch of rows away from us. He's laughing almost hysterically at something she's saying, and I smile before pointing the two of them out to Greg.

We get closer to them, and Ely's still laughing at what Marcia is saying, though he's also blushing a whole lot. Mid-conversation, Marcia holds her hands out in front of her, as if she's trying to balance two cantaloupes in them. The whole pantomime would be a lot more effective if she didn't already have an almost infamous pair of them attached to her chest. My mind flashes briefly back to my first date with Ely, him laughing and half-heartedly scolding me for poking fun at Marcia's waitressing abilities.

It feels like so much longer than seven months ago.

When Ely finally sees me, his expression is a mixture of equal parts relief and happiness. He smiles widely, stretching the faded scar on his face so much that I wonder if it hurts. Then he holds up his diploma excitedly and looks about ready to start jumping around.

I know. I got one too, you adorable dork.

"What are you guys talking about?" I ask, siding up to Ely.

"Nothing!" Ely says, hurriedly.

"Porn," Marcia says, casually.

I decide to spare Ely and not ask anything else about the subject. Ely talks to Greg for a bit, and I only half-listen to their conversation. Within a few minutes, Ely's pressing back against my side and Greg and Marcia are walking away together.

"I didn't know you watched porn," I tell him, kissing his cheek to make sure he knows I'm just messing with him. He blushes. I laugh.

"I don't!" he exclaims. "Why would I need to watch that stuff, anyway? I've got you. And really, you keep me busy enough that I don't need the fantasies."

My mind flashes to places it probably shouldn't while we're standing in a very public place, in the vicinity of almost everyone we know. He's right, though.

Fantasies don't even come close.

By the time we manage to say our goodbyes and shake off our families for the night, it's almost ten o'clock and the sky's completely dark. The darkness combined with the increasingly strong winds are making it abnormally chilly outside, especially for late June.

Ely and I have long-since removed our stupid fucking robes and hats, and we're back in jeans. I pulled a sweatshirt out of the trunk for him once I noticed he was shivering a little, because neither of us is ready to get inside the car yet. Instead, we're standing outside the Beemer together, I'm leaning against it and Ely's leaning against me. He presses his back into mine with a little more pressure, and I wrap my arms tighter around him, rubbing a little to keep him warm. I rest my chin against his shoulder and ask, "Are you too cold? Wanna get inside the car now?"

"No," he answers softly. "This feels so good. Can we just stand here a little more before the party?"

I nod. "Of course. Whatever you want." My hands rubbing down his forearms slow down, stop. "Actually, we don't have to go at all, we can do something else."

"What?" Ely asks, stunned.

"We have all night. We can get stinking drunk with a group of people we won't ever see again, or we can go somewhere just the two of us. " I press my mouth closer to his ear, start swaying both of us back and forth slowly. "I promise you'll have fun."

He leans his head back, and I can practically feel his eyes close even though I can't see them. "Where would we go…the yacht?"

I shake my head. Even though my family's yacht had grown to become our sanctuary in the five months that have passed since we started having sex, I'd love to take him somewhere really different…special. "No…hotel in New York? We can be there in less than an hour."

Ely hesitates. "Hunter, you're not saying that just because you think I…can't right? I won't get hurt if we go, I promise. "

"'Course that's not why," I tell him. "Just…look at us." I run my hands down his arms until my fingers tangle with his. "Why would I want to be anywhere else?"

"But, are you sure? Only, you've missed every party they've had the last month because you've been taking care of me, and I can take care of myself. I'll be okay if we go to the party." He snuggles in closer. "Just…let's do what makes you happy."

"You make me happy," I tell him simply, rubbing his arms again and hoping I can rub of all the insecurity that still exists, no matter how many times I've said these words.

"Okay. Then yeah. I want to be with you tonight. Just you," he tells me, turning in my arms and smiling at me.

"Good," I say, kissing the raised pink skin on his cheek. That scar is one of only a few still left on his body, a constant reminder of what happened. It lost the deep, angry red color a while ago, and it's healing, but it might never be completely gone. I think it's fucking sexy, but that's just another thing I can't quite seem to convince him of.

It's okay, though. Because that's just how Ely is. I smile at him, and he lowers his head to my shoulder. I hold him tighter and mouth I love you into his soft hair. I don't know if he feels it, but he wriggles impossibly closer to me and smiles.

"I'm ready now," he says after a minute, pulling back enough so that he can look up at me.

"Okay, let's go." I kiss him once before I let him walk away.

Once we got in the car I called my dad's assistant, who had us booked into a suite at the Plaza before we even get off I-95. I think the place is sort of a cliché, and it's always full of tourists, but my dad has an account set up with them (mostly for his business lunches and meetings), and besides that, I know Ely's always wanted to go. Honestly, for all the attention we were paying to our location, we could have been almost anywhere. He still would be the only thing I'd notice.

I wake up first the next morning, peeking around Ely's head on the pillow to look at the clock. 9:32. My moving around causes Ely to shift, make some indistinguishable noises and curl closer to me. I could lie here all day and be perfectly content, but I'm starving, and I'm sure that once Ely wakes up, he will be, too. I begin to slowly untangle our bodies, trying to extricate my limbs from his without waking him up.

Once I manage to climb out of bed, I start looking around for my jeans. Maybe it's weird, but even though it's just me and Ely in the room, I can't make a phone call without any pants on. Eventually, I find them tossed on the other side of the room. I put them on and head to the hotel phone in the bathroom to call room service.

After last night, I'm ravenous, and absolutely everything on the menu looks good. I have to stop from ordering three meals just for myself, and I'm trying to remember if Ely liked his eggs scrambled or sunny side up when I feel his chest pressing against my back, and his arms around my waist. "Morning," he mumbles, kissing my shoulder.

"Scrambled eggs," I remember suddenly, telling the concierge on the phone. "With cheddar cheese mixed in." Ely nods, his forehead against my neck. "And extra coffee." Ely lets go of me and goes to turn on the shower. "We're in the Edwardian suite? Andrews. Yeah, thanks." I hang the phone back up on its hook, pull my jeans off, and step in the shower with Ely. He turns to me when is step in, hands stilling in his soapy hair. I smile at him, turn him around, and start massaging the shampoo into his hair for him.

"Mmm." He murmurs. "S'nice."

"Yeah?" I lean forward and kiss his ear, which was clearly a mistake because my mouth is full of bubbles now. I walk him backwards a little, into the spray of water so that the soap rinses out. "You like that?" My hands slowly slide out of his hair, down his sides and lower.

Ely tilts his head back, both to keep the soap out of his eyes and because I've started biting his neck. "Yes," he tells me, shaking his head a little as he pulls out from under the spray, stepping closer to me and pulling my head in, bringing my mouth to his. He kisses me once, twice. "I like that."

By the time we get out of the shower, forty-five minutes have passed and we're almost starting to get prune-y. Ely walks into the living room in search of his missing pants, and I'm still rubbing the towel over my head when he rushes back in. Still no pants, though.

"Room service came," he tells me. "The cart's here, but there's no guy. Why would he leave without a tip?"

Obviously, he came in during our shower. I grin. "I'm sure he didn't want to stick around. You get pretty loud, you know."

I'm joking, but that doesn't stop him from looking truly mortified. "Hunter! You think he heard us?"

I hesitate, because…well, yeah. "Don't worry about it. He's sworn to silence, and all. Bring the cart in here, yeah?" I spin around. "Oh, and I see your pants, they're hanging on the lamp by the sofa." Ha.

Ely recovers fully from his embarrassment half a cup of coffee into breakfast. "S'not so bad," he says finally, shrugging it off. "I really like being here with you. Just the two of us all weekend."

"Yeah," I tell him, kissing his cheek and leaving a pineapple juice mark behind. He grins and swipes his hand across it. "Really nice."

"You know…um…since we'll be going to school so close together, I don't know if maybe we should think about--"

"—living together?" I finish his sentence for him. "Ely, it's—I'm really happy with you, but don't you think it's kind of soon?"

"Oh!" Ely exclaims, dropping his croissant. "Not now, no! I already sent in my dorm housing forms and all. But next year, if we're still where we are now, it might be good."

"Might be great," I tell him, relieved. The fact that our colleges are so close to each other has always just screamed 'live together!' at me. I've always ignored it, because as great as things are going with Ely, I'm still a little scared of rushing into things with him. We're pretty fucking fantastic together, but we're not quite there yet. I'd hate if he started resenting me and we broke up just because I can't stand washing dishes.

I look back up at Ely, who is attempting to spear four strawberry halves on his fork at once, and I'm suddenly struck with the thought that I'm almost sure I'll be with him Sophomore year, and Junior year, and for a lot of years after that. My mind will always be incapable of thinking in terms of forever, but as I side up closer to Ely and take his fork, impaling just one strawberry on it and handing it back, I know we'll get to our own home eventually, and I know we'll be very, very happy.

Only, we'll have a lot of paper plates.

AN: Okay. So, this took impossibly long. I've been having a rough semester in school. I don't know if I mentioned it before, but I'm in culinary school, and I just finished breakfast class, which goes from 3AM to 11. It kind of sucked. Anyway, now it's over, and there's just three weeks of my Freshman year left. I'm going on my internship almost immediately after that, and, completely unintentionally, I've taken one in the kitchen at a country club in Greenwich, Connecticut. That is where Ely lives! Well, fictionally. I've never been there before in my life; it's just a coincidence. Weird, huh?

Anyway, this was the last official chapter of this story. There's just the epilogue left now. The jury's still out on a sequel, but if I do write one, it will be about Hunter and Ely in their first year of college. I want to write it, but I'm afraid of making these characters sound tired and repetitive. What do you think?

Thanks so much to everyone who reviewed, and thanks for your infinite patience in waiting for this chapter!