( 0 2. DELGADO )

Pounding head, throbbing feet, burning throat—yes, Taliana was definitely not doing well. When her mother popped her head in as she left for work, the girl had claimed the common cold. When she felt the bile rushing up her throat, she'd run past the woman and prayed to the porcelain god for the new few minutes. Afterwards she felt raw, blinking away the tears that dotted the corners of her eyes and taking deep breaths. She really didn't know how bulimics did that almost every day. With one rush of stomach acid up her throat, it was like her esophagus had been stripped of any protection it offered.

"You really shouldn't drink. I don't understand how you're so tall and can't hold even a glass of wine," her mother said from the door. The woman had been watching her daughter for the past few minutes, a frown etched into her face with the deepest claws. Once upon a time this woman had been a nicer, happier woman, but then her husband divorced her and she actually had to go to work. The child support given to her went some ways—enough so the jaded woman could retain her exorbitant lifestyle.

Taliana muttered something incoherent, picking up a toothbrush and shoving it in her mouth so she didn't have reason to answer. Her mother sighed, disappearing from her sight. It took Taliana three tries with two different types of toothpaste to rid the taste of last night off of her tongue, but at least she felt clean when she was done.

After a shower and some primping, Taliana attempted to recall the events of last night. Lots of music. Lots of men. She remembered one far too old for her seventeen year old self. Then that kiss... she nearly vomited again. It had been disgusting, lacking anything but that carnal lust young men tend to unleash when they've captured an attractive female. There was little to no guilt concerning the fact that she had, well, cheated on her boyfriend. Only in the technical sense did she. He'd kissed her and she pushed him away.

Whatever. Kayden was sleeping with her best friend.

As the minty taste of the toothpaste wore off, Taliana found herself craving... well anything to fill the empty pit in her stomach. If the leather jacket hadn't been resting on the counter when she entered the kitchen, she probably wouldn't have remembered the other half of the night.

A skinny boy in skinny jeans and a leather jacket had taken her home. She'd been weeping like an infant when he stepped up, sliding it over her arms when she tried to reenter the party to retrieve the cardigan she'd brought. That particular summer night had been oddly chilly, that jacket the only proof that someone had shown her kindness in the midst of drunken fools.

It took her a few minutes to completely remember who he was. He had black hair, brown eyes, wore all black... the only person in Ross Hill who wore all black was the residential goth kid, Ben Delgado. Grabbing a random fruit, she grunted as she fell into a seat.

The creepy kid just had to be the one, didn't he?

Except, he really wasn't so creepy. Sure, he did play some heavy metal music, or whatever those gothic kids liked, but he was amicable. Did he help her to bed? The fact that she'd woken up tucked in probably answered that. Who knew?

Now the pieces were together. What to do with the jacket?

She sighed, beginning the hunt for the phone book.


Do it.

Okay, now.

Now.

She really didn't want to do this. How much did this leather jacket mean to the kid, anyway? It was a little worn, but obviously taken care of. When she checked the pockets, she'd found a lighter but no cigarettes, a number written in green sharpie, and a crumpled up sheet of lyrics about a pretty girl. She was sitting in her car with the air conditioning off, baking in the New Jersey heat. Most of her friends were probably out tanning or still asleep at two o'clock in the afternoon, but Taliana was here.

In front of the goth kid's house.

She sighed, picking up the garment, folding it neatly and pushing it to her chest. She cradled it like the last bottle of water in a thirst driven world, making sure she didn't drop it or rip or tear anything. Last thing she needed was Delgado to get his strange friends to jump her or something. They probably hid razors under their tongues... or were those gangsters?

She had to remember that Ben Delgado, the resident goth kid of Ross Hill, had been the one to pick her up. A few of her friends probably had been at that party, too shitfaced to say hello or offer a ride. He couldn't be all that bad... right?

She got out of her silver Smart car, closing the door with an audible slam. Calmly she walked up to the door of the wide, two story house and pressed the doorbell firmly. She could hear it ring on the inside, and hoped to God that Ben Delgado would answer the door, and not a relative.

Ben Delgado did answer the door, looking very unlike she usually saw him. His dark hair fell over his forehead as usual, side-swept, but was tousled. He was wearing red basketball shorts rather than black Tripp pants, a white wife-beater rather than some random, obscure band tee. Taliana caught herself staring when he cleared his throat and perked an eyebrow.

Thrusting the jacket towards him, she started the speech she rehearsed in the car. "Thank you so much for last night. You let me borrow this and I figured I should give it back. I usually don't get drunk like that, you know. But. Yeah. Thank you." Well, so much for that well rehearsed speech. The minute she said 'thank you', her mind went blank. Seeing him in normal clothes, in a somewhat normal atmosphere had led her to realize that Ben Delgado was actually quite... attractive. He was paler than her healthy tan, his skin slightly olive. She figured he must not get out much, or when he did, he slapped on the sunblock. Oh, she was staring again.

"Oh, it's okay." Well, that was a surprise. His voice wasn't all hissy and dark. He didn't glare up at her, talking through his lashes. He was... normal? "You saw all the creeps at that party." He shrugged, like he picked up random girls and brought them home all the time.

"Yeah," Taliana muttered. She stood there awkwardly, about to make her leave when a round woman with a heart-shaped face appeared at the door.

"Benny, who's there—" She'd begun to say, until she spotted Taliana. She smiled brightly at her. "Hello! Who's this?" She asked, looking towards the boy beside her. He was taller than her by at least a foot, only because she was exceptionally short. The woman had to be five feet even. Taliana felt too tall standing by her, but then again, she was too tall standing next to most girls. She was five nine, which always made it hard for her to find guys. Even now, she could look Ben in the eye. He had about two inches on her.

"She was just dropping something off," Ben muttered, shooting Talian an apologetic glance. He held up the jacket to the woman, who Taliana had begun to suspect was a mother or an aunt. "I'm sure she's really busy—"

"Do you want to come in? I just finished making lunch." The woman cut him off, only sparing a glance to the leather jacket with obvious distaste.

"Oh, well I have—" The excuse Taliana was about to make obviously didn't come to her lips quick enough.

"Don't worry about being polite dear. Come in!" With the way the woman insisted, Taliana had two choices. One, she could quickly run and hope she had no classes with Delgado, or two, go inside and have what was bound to be an awkward lunch. She was about to chose option one when the woman basically yanked her into the house. Taliana could hear Ben mumbling, sounding annoyed. She wondered if it was her presence or his relative—she didn't know him well enough to tell.

Ben trailed the two into the kitchen, walking close enough to Taliana to say quietly, "I'm so sorry about my mom, she likes to be everyone's best friend." He put a bit of distance between them afterward.

The house was full of life. Surrounding a flat screen were boys playing some Call of Duty game, a few older ones watching and yelling at whoever messed up, then demanding their controller. In the dining room Taliana was dragged past, a man took out a cigar and lit it, earning a good whap on the head by an elderly woman.

In the kitchen—with it's granite counters and shiny white tiled floor—Ben's mother began to run around the room. Taliana stood there awkwardly, trying to decide whether or not she should just dip out of the house now. Would the others notice the tall blonde running out? Glancing at Ben with a silent question in her eyes, he motioned for her to sit at the island. Her phone buzzed with a text in her pocket, but she ignored it, knowing it would be from Kayden. She was pointedly ignoring him, in the hopes that he would get paranoid and figure out that she knew. Either that or break down her door, wondering why the hell she wasn't talking to him. Drumming her fingers on the island, she almost jumped back at the speed a plate of rice and beans were put in front of her.

They're some sort of Spanish, Taliana finally realized. It was why Ben looked faded, not just pale. His mother was a healthy brown color, probably from gardening or some other things actual caring mothers did. There had been a plethora of flowers outside of the big yellow house, so it was entirely possible.

"Eat! You're so skinny," Ben's mother urged, looking at Taliana expectantly. She slowly took a bite, hoping to hell that it would be delicious rather than gross and slimy. She avoided eating a piece of cilantro, just because the green looked foreign amount the reds and whites of her lunch. When the taste hit her tongue, she smiled.

"This is really good," she said, nodding as she took another bite. Ben's mother beamed, then barked something at a boy that ran through the kitchen. She chased after him, leaving Ben and Taliana alone. There was silence for a moment, before he spoke.

"My mom expects you to stay for dinner now," he sighed, grabbing the bowl in front of her. The thin boy basically inhaled the rice and beans. Taliana wanted to protest—she'd been enjoying that! She wouldn't argue, though. She just wanted to be gone. Her phone buzzed in her pocket again, but she ignored it. "Who is that?"

Taliana shrugged. "Probably my boyfriend." She almost elaborated, but felt like Ben Delgado didn't need to know that much about her. Her blue eyes roamed the room, which was pretty deserted by now.

"Fighting?" He asked, picking up an apple, tossing it up and down in his hand.

"No. Just ignoring." Taliana twirled a strand of hair around her finger. Maybe she should talk to him again. She could cite a family emergency and discretely leave... But talking to him just to get out of a few painful hours was not ideal. He'd probably try to kiss her and she was not in the mood for that.

"Oh. Okay." Ben didn't seem to understand what she was saying, but only an insider would understand her attitude. Tapping her nails on the counter again, she opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted.

"Tia Rosa! I got the bread!" The familiar voice had Taliana's head turning towards the door.

"Why is Malachai here?" She asked Ben.

"He's my cousin," the dark haired boy said. Malachai entered then, holding a bag of bread in one hand and a cellphone in the other.

"Tali?" He blinked, pocketing the phone. Malachai pushed his dark hair up from his forehead and dropped the bread on the floor. "What are you doing here?" He looked between Ben and Taliana, a wrinkle forming on his forehead.

"It's a long story, but your aunt ended coaxing me in here for lunch," Taliana said quickly, hoping he wouldn't get the wrong idea. Seeing them in the same room, Taliana noticed the similarities. Malachai was darker, and had more muscle, but they were both slim, with the same soft eyes and full lips. She still would have considered Malachai more attractive, but both were good looking in their own right. Malachai was on Taliana's cheer squad, claiming to have joined to get in with hot chicks.

"Oh," Malachai blinked, then shrugged. His phone vibrated on the counter and he retrieved it, looking up at Taliana after reading. "Kayden wants to know if I've heard from you."

Taliana shook her head, hopping off of the chair by the island. Ben was watching the two with mild interest, but every time Taliana glanced at him, she could feel his discomfort. "You don't know where I am," she told him, putting her hands on her hips. She was wearing gray sweat pants, and desperately wished they had pockets at the moment. "He's cheating on me."

"Why would somebody cheat on you?" Ben's voice rang through, causing Malachai and Taliana to turn towards him. She could have sworn she saw a blush creep up his neck before he excused himself and walked into what Taliana assumed was the living room.

Taliana turned back to Malachai. "He's right," Malachai said. "Why would someone cheat on you?"

"I don't put out?" She suggested, running her fingers through her wild curls. "I caught him kissing Arianna."

Malachai's expression turned stony, only altering slightly when he sighed. "She's a damn talentless whore. And Kayden's an asshole."

"Malachai!" The sharp voice of his Tia Rosa rang through the kitchen. "What kind of language is that?" She asked, her frown deep and her glare ready to slice through his soul.

Hanging his head, Malachai took on the bashful look of a scolded child. "I'm sorry Tia Rosa," he mumbled. "It's just this guy that Taliana—"

"Let's not," Taliana quickly cut in, giving Malachai a look. She did not want him airing her dirty laundry. Mrs. Delgado looked a bit concerned, but she didn't voice it.

"You know Malachai too?" She asked, tilting her head. Taliana was slowly becoming more interesting to the older woman, who now wore a sly smile on her lips.

"Yeah. We cheerlead together," Taliana said, sounding much more comfortable this time around. She'd known Malachai since freshman year and now it was the summer of her junior year. In two months she'd be walking back into the halls of Ross Hill High School as a senior, but for now she was in relax mode.

"Oh! I remember seeing you at Mally's games now," Mrs. Delgado said, clapping her hands together silently. "You were always in the front."

"I'm captain," Taliana said proudly, standing up a bit straighter at the comment. When she first started out cheering, she was among the thin girls, but because of her height she couldn't do what she'd assumed was the exciting stuff. She couldn't be a flyer. Little girls like Arianna could do things like that. Taliana had more spirit and better leadership abilities. When it came time to vote for captain, she had beamed with overwhelming pride as her teammates elected her. Obviously those who claimed cheerleading wasn't a sport got a long, passionate lecture on the fact that it most definitely was.

"Oooh," Mrs. Delgado cooed, walking over to the fridge. She began to take out meats and vegetables. "I really think you should stay for dinner, Taliana. You're a friend of my son and my nephew. I feel like I should know you better."

"Uh..."

"She'll stay," Malachai answered for Taliana. He grabbed Taliana's hand. "I'm going too take her outside. Show her the backyard and the gazebo."

Mrs. Delgado nodded, thoroughly occupied with her cooking.

Malachai began to drag Taliana out. He met her eyes for the briefest moment. "We need to talk, Taliana."

Her alarms went off, but not as loud ringing bells, just the hum of alertness. Those four words were never nominal, especially coming from someone like Malachai, who talked sarcasm and joked more than he was serious. If Taliana had one real friend, it was him.

Malachai led her out to the backyard, which was larger than she had anticipated. The deck was small, but directly beside it was a lush garden full of peppers, strawberries and what looked like herbs. Malachai didn't spare it a second glance, walking to the white gazebo near the end of the backyard. He stepped inside and Taliana followed, dusting off the spot she sat down on.

"So what's up?"

"They've been going behind your back for a month."

Taliana sat up straight, leaning towards Malachai. "How do you know?"

Malachai looked away. "The other night—Kayden got drunk around a few of the guys and he started bragging about it. I haven't seen you in a while and I wanted to tell you in person..."

Taliana shook her head, a signal for him to stop. A whole month her 'best friend' had deceived her. She wanted to feel hurt, she wanted to feel sadness... but all she was was angry. She knew this was coming, whether it be every inappropriate touch on the arm or every lingering look she caught, it was bound to happen. She wanted to push the two foxes off of a cliff for thinking they were so sneaky, that they were so smart. It figured Kayden's bushy tail would give him away.

Did she even love him anymore?

"Are you going to break up with him?"

"Nope." Taliana folded her hands on her knees, leaning over enough so her hair brushed her thighs. She'd probably get a trim or give away to Locks of Love eventually, because it was getting way too long. "That's what Arianna wants. If I break up with him, she gets him. You see? If I play into her hand, everything works out for her. She's probably trying to turn my friends against me as well."

Malachai tapped a single finger against his chin. "I can see that," he said. Malachai leaned back against the wall of the gazebo, stretching himself out to find comfort. From Taliana's eyes he looked like a lazy little sloth, content to stay in that position for the rest of the day. His eyes moved around the cool, dark gazebo before they landed back on Taliana. "So how do you know Ben?"

Taliana had moved so that her back was against the entrance of the gazebo, her legs stretched out on the bench she sat on. "I got drunk last night and he drove me home."

Malachai's eyebrows nearly flew off of his head. "You got drunk?" He asked, enunciating each word. "Who the hell convinced you to do that? I've been trying since freshman year!"

Taliana shook here head. "Doesn't matter," she mumbled, still not very proud of the hazy memories from that night. "I guess he let me borrow his jacket, so he brought it back."

"Oh."

"What?" Taliana had noticed Malachai suddenly looked less severely interested.

"I thought it would be something interesting, but then again it's not like skinny and pale is your type."

Taliana chuckled quietly. "I guess that is the best way to describe him." She wouldn't say what she'd really describe Ben out loud, now knowing that Malachai was his cousin. Plus, she did think a bit more highly of the guy.

She doubted they would ever talk again, though. Maybe wave, or an 'excuse me', but she could never see herself being friends with a boy most students at Ross Hill High called a freak. They were on opposite sides of the popularity spectrum, and had no blood relation to excuse the interaction. Thinking about it now, Malachai had never sent a negative word towards the dark table near the corner, and Taliana had spotted Mal doing his man nod thing towards Ben. She'd never questioned.

The sky had turned a little dark when Taliana and Malachai were called in. In that time span her phone had vibrated at least five times, and when she checked all messages had indeed been from Kayden. The last one, citing 'OPEN YOUR DOOR' was especially funny, seeing as she wasn't even home. As she walked inside with Malachai, she turned her BlackBerry off and smiled at Ben's mother.

Seating arrangements were decided fluidly. Ben's father had come home in the time that Malachai and Taliana were outside, him just as round and jolly as his wife. They were like the olive skinned Mr. and Mrs. Clause, taking up residence in New Jersey. In the end, Taliana was put in between Ben and Malachai.

She'd never experienced this sort of eating—this much food on one table. Chairs were crammed around the mahogany table, to fit the various relatives around. Taliana stayed quiet as the loud family talked, jesting and jeering—it was all in good fun. She couldn't stop herself from smiling every time someone made fun of Malachai's cheerleading, just because the idea of a guy doing so was interesting. Every time her plate was cleaned off, Mrs. Delgado seemed to notice. It was like she had an empty plate spidey sense. She'd demand that Taliana have some of the rice or some of the pork... and she'd have to finish.

Ben sat quietly beside her, actually smiling every now and then. He'd asked her a few questions, normal stuff like 'how are you doing' or 'can you pass the salt?' they weren't going to be besties any time soon, that was for sure. Maybe she'd come back with Malachai for dinner some time, if only to feel the family spirit.

"Benjamin, walk Taliana to her car. I swear those Robinson's down the street are up to something..." Mrs. Delgado said when Taliana announced her leave. Her cheeks inflamed, and she tried to brush it off, say that it was okay, but Mrs. Delgado was as stubborn as an error message on a PC.

Ben waved his mom off and gestured for Taliana to follow. Once they were out the door, he began talking. "My mom has a point, they are creeps. The girl next door tries to peep into my window," he said.

"Oh," Taliana laughed dully, pulling out her keys. She glanced up at Ben and gave him a half-hearted, awkward smile. "Thanks for everything. I guess I'll... see you around." She did't meet his eyes, turning to unlock the car.

"Yeah, see you around."

She drove away, knowing that she wouldn't have to worry about him until the first day of school.


Author's Note: For some reason I got really into this. I think the chapters of this story will be generally on the longish side, probably because I'm not restricted by just one character's point of view. I'm trying to make this third person limited, though, so it's only told through Taliana's eyes. Tell me what you like, what you hate, etc. Thanks for reading!