Chapter twenty-one

It wasn't like Artemis expected anything from escaping to Xavier's house after subjecting herself to Emily's presence. Even though her back was stiff, and her jaw was clenched so tight she thought it would break, she managed to bear the presence of her brother's mother. Maybe Sherry knew that, too. Maybe Sherry could see something in Artemis' future that Artemis couldn't see right now. It wouldn't be surprising. If Artemis was able to see past the dark cloud of bitter ill-will, maybe she could see why it was a good idea to force herself through a situation that made her want to retch and crawl out of her own skin.

Artemis stared blindly at her trembling hand, slowly reaching for the door. Sherry never locked her front door no matter how many times Artemis would tell her to, and she let herself in. Immediately to the right of the door was the entrance of the kitchen, one of the bigger rooms on the ground floor. Sherry often spent her time here and Artemis wasn't surprised to see her at the table with a cup of tea.

Sherry had the look of concern but was not surprised at Artemis' unannounced presence. Sherry was like that; she was always one step ahead of everyone and was seldom taken aback. "Artemis?"

Artemis shut the door behind her, hands clenched at her side. It felt like her life was a series of confrontations. In between the confrontations she was floating in dread, waiting for the next emotional showdown, wondering if this was the one that would tear her apart.

Artemis didn't expect anything from escaping to Xavier's house, but she found pieces of herself she never knew she had.

"Hi Sherry. Is… Emily still here?"

Sherry gave a measured stare but nodded and told her Emily was in the basement with Noah. Sherry didn't say anything else, but the look of understanding and support eased the rock in Artemis' chest.

When Artemis found her, Emily was sitting on blanket spread on the floor with Noah on his back and gazing wide eyed at his mother. When she got closer, she head Emily's voice and only then did Artemis see the book on her lap. It was a touching scene. The love was clear in her voice, it was obvious in her relaxed shoulders, the softness in her eyes.

Was this the part of Emily her father saw?

The thought skidded in her mind, unchecked, and Artemis gritted her teeth hard enough that the ache shot to her temple. To think about her parents right now, in the context of betrayal, only felt like knives. To get through this, Artemis only needed to think about the next moment. Just one moment at a time, and maybe then she would stop feeling like she was drowning.

"Sorry to interrupt," she said, "I hoped to borrow a bit of your time."

"Oh, Artemis." Emily stood up, book pressed against her chest. Her hair was free around her shoulders making her look younger than her mid thirties. "It's no problem. Please, come join us. Look Noah, it's Artemis – say hello, sweetness."

Artemis already had a smile on her face as she approached her brother to cuddle him for a minute. His skin felt soft and warm, his weight against her chest a comfort she needed more than she'd like to admit.

When Artemis straightened with Noah in her arms, Emily was still standing in front of her with a strange expression on her face – uncertain, with almost with a hint of relief.

Noah stayed in her lap as she settled into the nearby couch. Artemis fought the urge to distract herself with him and instead gazed at the woman who looked a lot more fragile than Artemis wanted to admit. Sadness still lurked in the older woman's eyes, but her face didn't look as haggard and she didn't look as tense.

A chill went through her when she recognized the same stare on Emily's face as her father's and she stamped down the wave of nausea that accompanied the thought of the two of them being perfect for each other in the midst of their grief.

Artemis lowered Noah back to the ground when he began to squirm and she watched as he crawled towards a pile of books. "I'm surprised a director of Reid & Company actually listened to a teenager and stayed in a complete stranger's house." When Artemis glanced at Emily, the shock on her face slowly melted into one of speculation and Artemis shrugged. "I saw your name in my dad's office and did a bit of research."

"I'm no longer a director," Emily said. "And you were right. Being here is what I needed."

The sincerity in Emily's voice didn't sway Artemis. "Did you leave Noah with me to quit your job?"

An almost stoic expression appeared on Emily's face. Grief had prevented her from finishing the conversation the last time she asked Emily the reason for sleeping with her father. But now, she had all the time in the world.

"It's not important," Emily said.

Artemis' lips tightened. "It was important enough to conceive Noah."

Emily flinched only slightly. The teenager could practically hear Emily weighing the pros and cons of sharing this story she never intended to tell to the daughter of the married man she slept with. No one could envision of coming to this crossroads in life. And yet, here they were.

Emily made one last effort. "Knowing this won't change anything."

"I'll be the judge of that."

Emily studied her for a long moment, and to Artemis' surprise, broke out into a genuine smile. "I know you don't care to hear this, but you remind me of one of my best friends."

She was right; Artemis didn't want to hear that. Painting Emily as a human gave rise to other emotions she didn't want to take into account.

"It wasn't my intention," Emily began slowly, "but in the end, that's what happened. I really left because I wanted some time to do something I've put off for a long time." Emily stopped abruptly, reluctance, and then resignation, settled on her face. "To understand why I did what I did, you need to know about Adam."

And then Emily painted a picture of the life she had led, subjected to work place toxicity and high stakes pressure, highlighted by the fact that her family played significant roles in the business. It was impossibly high standards to meet, these expectations placed on her since she learned how to walk. Adam, Emily said, was a man with no ranking, no family name or money; instead, he was made of charm, razor wit, and a tenacity that got him noticed by the senior management team, especially her father, whose opinion held more weight than what was considered safe.

Adam was bright-eyed, broad-minded, and had the ability to see past the mask people hid behind to survive a brutal world. He was in love with her.

"I told him he wouldn't amount to anything," Emily said bitterly. "Everything my father had said to me was coming out of my mouth. I let my fear of my parents run my life, and in the end, it pushed Adam away." Contempt twisted her face. "But it doesn't matter. He'll thank me later, for doing what I did. If my father found out about Adam, it would ruin him. I would only drag his name."

As Emily spoke, Artemis wondered what forces in the universe were at play that connected her to these souls, of those whose pain she could relate all too well. Unwillingly, Artemis felt a chip in the wall she kept up to keep Emily out, as a stranger, someone she couldn't relate to.

"In the end, it was easier for me to leave it that way. This way he won't go looking for me, and my father will stay out of his and my business."

Grief, Artemis realized in that moment, had many faces.

Artemis made it home that night in a thoughtful mood, with only slight reluctance to realize that she didn't entirely hate the time she spent with at Sherry's house. It was too much energy to feed fire into the black hole in her life. Artemis had wanted some answers, and she had them. Now the question was what to do with it?

A shadow passed over her as she thought of her mother. She didn't want to think too closely about what her acceptance would mean to the parent who was forced to stay strong, as her world collapsed around her. Deeper thoughts seemed to skirt around feelings of betrayal, and then Artemis would have to think how much this would hurt her mother.

Her chest began to tighten and she forced herself to take a deep breath. No use thinking about it now, when she felt spent. It was an emotional rollercoaster of a day, and she deserved a well rested sleep.

But when Artemis got into her room, she found herself sitting at the edge of her bed in the dark until the morning sun began to peak into her window.


Xavier didn't see Artemis for two days, despite her talk about confrontation. It was a strange feeling, him seeking and being so aware of her absence. Her brief text with the words "Let's reschedule" both made him smirk, but also made him feel the unfamiliar twinge of concern. And two days later, the feeling did not abate.

It was only when he walked into chemistry class on Tuesday did he felt himself take a clean breath when he saw her sitting at her usual pod. Instead of adhering to the tacit agreement of staying away, Xavier walked straight to her.

With no preamble, he said, "Let's go out for lunch today."

Artemis froze in the midst of rummaging in the contents of her bag and her eyes snapped to him in surprise. "Xavier…" and then when his words registered, "Lunch?"

"Yes," he said firmly. "And I'm paying." When she opened her mouth, his eyes narrowed. "You owe me. It's on me." He held her gaze challengingly, uncaring for the whispers that erupted from the students in the class who happened to be in the room on time.

As if recognizing the attention on them, Artemis simply gave a short nod. It wasn't necessarily blackmail, but it came close to it, he thought as he strolled with a satisfied smile to his seat. Not that he cared. He realized with Artemis that the best way to gain the upper hand was to make sure she never had solid footing.

Maya said nothing, despite the tight look on her face. He recognized the expression, but for the first time, felt no need to reassure her, to pacify the simmering ire beneath her skin. When she caught his eye, she only rolled her eyes and focused her attention to the front.

The morning dragged on longer than Xavier would admit, and he found himself tapping his desk impatiently as he watched the last minutes tick towards the lunch bell.

"Stare any harder and you might just be able to burn the wall," Mariel observed. Xavier paid her no mind but his silence didn't seem to deter her – in fact, it only served to deepen her interest. "I noticed you've been restless all morning. And I heard you're going out with Artemis this afternoon?" Mariel's voice was sly.

Xavier tilted his chin to glance at her from the corner of his eyes. "Who told you?"

"Who else?"

Xavier raised his eyebrows but said nothing. It was easy to ignore Mariel's gleeful expression, since he was pretty much used to her mischievous demeanor. It wasn't a surprise that Maya told the other girls. Joanne's approach would be more cutting but she also understood his perspective. Mariel always maintained the neutral stance, and out of all his friends, she was the most levelheaded and down-to-earth.

"I like her," Mariel declared.

Xavier's lip twitched. "Funny, she said the same thing about you."

"It's hard not to like her," Mariel continued. "It's weird how we can be in the same classes for almost four years, but suddenly, it's like she's someone else." Mariel propped her chin on her hand as she gazed at him. "Stranger even, that you think you know someone but you could be wrong too."

"What do you mean?" he asked carefully.

"The fact that Artemis called us out shouldn't impress me this much, but it does. But I'm mostly… sorry." Mariel paused, and looked the most serious that Xavier has ever seen her. "We all saw what happened when Jacqueline left. We saw but we didn't – I should've said something. But Artemis probably only watched you one time and saw how affected you were."

He felt… he didn't know how to feel. He wanted to laugh, because wasn't this what Artemis wanted to happen? Her little act in his backyard was so casual it was meant to fly over everyone's heads – but she also knew Mariel would be the one person to catch her underlying message.

"She basically did," Xavier admitted with a small smile. Months ago a confrontation like this would make him tense, but today, it made him smile. "I'm still trying to figure it out."

Mariel raised an eyebrow. "You mean figure her out? Sorry to say, I don't think you'll be able to do that and keep on top of this game you think you're playing."

"Who said I'm playing?"

Mariel shrugged casually. "Some people might think you're not too serious. Now I'm not saying I know what you feel," she added, "but based on your reputation it can look like Artemis is just someone you're flirting with. And I'm not saying you should be worried, but I also want to point out that you might not be the only one who's noticed how interesting Artemis is."

Xavier looked at her in amusement. "Are you referring to yourself?"

Mariel smirked. "I mean, if I said no, I would be lying. But I'm mostly talking about Sven."

Xavier felt himself straighten as soon as the words left Mariel's mouth. Xavier knew he was staring, but he was also trying to understand why his mind was suddenly whirring, his body was tensing, why his eyes were narrowing.

To her credit, Mariel tried to keep her smile within reasonable bounds. "I'm guessing you don't know they hung out yesterday?"

The bell suddenly rang and the clattering of students filled the classroom and hallways of the school.

Mariel stood and grabbed her bag from the back of her chair with a bright smile. "Well, have fun! I also want to remind you that Artemis isn't Maya, so…"

Xavier felt disgruntled as he stood. Minutes ago all he felt was the high of anticipation, but now he felt the same dark cloud from Saturday descend over him. "Who told you?" he asked before she could skip away.

Mariel smiled innocently over her shoulder. "Three guesses, but you'll only need one."

Xavier gritted his teeth. Of course Maya would figure a way to get under his skin without even speaking to him. Xavier wanted his wits about him when he spoke to Artemis, but there was only so much time he had with her and he wasn't about to waste it. He walked down the familiar hallway, nodding distractedly at those who waved as he passed, his eyes all the while scanning his surroundings.

Minutes later, his eyes landed on a familiar figure reaching into her locker. Despite the turmoil rippling in his chest, muscles he didn't know were tense began to relax at the sight of Artemis.

He stopped at her side, a smile already tugging at his lips. "Hi."

He watched her pause, and slowly turned to face him, face carefully neutral. "Hello."

"I know, I was out of line this morning," he said, holding his hands up before she ripped into him. "But I was backed in a corner, and what else was I supposed to do?"

Artemis' look was dry. "You mean, what else could you have done instead of blackmailing me in front of our classmates?"

Xavier nodded, staring straight into her eyes. "I'm asking," he said when she said nothing but returned his gaze. "What else could I have done for your time?"

Artemis seemed to realize she was staring and glanced away, shoving the textbooks in her bag into her locker. "Maybe asking me instead would help," Artemis said as she slammed her locker shut. "Let's go."

Even though it was his idea, Artemis took lead and he trailed closely behind her. His hand twitched but he resisted the urge to place his hand on her back. The rush of adrenaline in his system was familiar, but the context was wildly out of his comfort zone. Xavier was hard pressed to recall the last time he felt his way around someone – this magnetic pull that was so far from the sexually charged energy he was used to that the novelty of the situation almost left him in amazement. How was it possible to feel this way about someone?

Artemis' voice pulled him from his musings. "My car or yours?"

"Mine," he said quickly and took lead towards the parking lot.

Artemis walked to the other side and settled into the passenger seat with familiarity. "Just so you know, if I see that we're heading to Riveria I have no qualms about jumping out of the car."

"I have no problem stopping and chasing after you," he said without missing a beat.

"At that point it would probably be considered kidnapping," she pointed out.

"Very true," he agreed, "but since I'm blackmailing you to be with me right now, what's another criminal offense on the list?"

Xavier smiled when he heard Artemis laugh under her breath. Instead of responding, she turned to face the window. The silence between them was comfortable with music lulling in the background, but he could practically feel her withdraw into herself. All the words he wanted to say to her on Saturday wanted to erupt, but he knew it wasn't the time or place.

By the time he was rolling into the parking lot, he felt Artemis' eyes on him.

"So I wasn't sure if you liked Italian, Mexican, or French cuisine," he said as he parked the car. "So today we're having Italian, and tomorrow it'll be Mexican."

"And the day after that, French food?"

Xavier grinned. "Exactly that."

Xavier could tell Artemis wanted to say something the moment they walked into the restaurant, but all he did was cast her a pointed look. To be fair, it was a lot more fancy than what high school students go to during lunch, but Xavier had a point to make, and he was going to make sure she understood.

Once the waiter took their order, Xavier leaned back. Artemis, of course, had no qualms about meeting his gaze calmly, even allowing the silence to stretch between them. Earlier he had thought about navigating this conversation carefully, going as far as to brainstorm safe topics – ones where Artemis wouldn't recede back into her mind, and ones where Xavier didn't feel like he was tumbling back into the emotional maze of his life. Except this was all before Mariel's delightful tidbit of information. Now that they were seated, Xavier was forced to feel the pit in his chest. It was another novelty, this twinge of uncertainty, of hesitancy, to ask about canceled plans. Normally he wouldn't think twice about it – people had their own lives, and he was self absorbed enough to be content to focus on his own.

"You must feel extremely guilty," Artemis said before he could gather himself. She leaned forward, chin on fist. "Picnics, lunches, barbeque invites…" The corner of her lips curled into a smirk. "Or is this all because you feel sorry for me?"

Xavier frowned. "What do you mean?"

Artemis looked thoughtful, but he knew it was an act. By now, Xavier could sense the sudden charge in the air with the way her eyes locked onto his, almost as if keeping him in place. She tilted her head, her hair cascading to the side like a waterfall. "Poor girl in a rich school, who just discovered her dad has another child out of wedlock, her history with a dead sister who saved her life." The words were piercing, measured. "Maybe you feel both. I don't blame you, of course," she said casually.

Xavier stilled. It felt like he was just punched in the gut. "Are you serious?"

She sipped her glass of water. "Why wouldn't I be?"

His eyes narrowed, scrutinizing her expression, her demeanor. The onslaught of emotions was no surprise. He wanted to yell; he wanted to hit something; he wanted to pull her tightly against his chest – but most of all, he wanted to make her understand.

In an effort to keep himself together, his words came out low. "That's not how I see you." Her eyes flickered, and his scowl deepened. "Listen to me right now. I know we didn't end our conversation properly on Saturday. I have a lot I want to say, to let you know –" he stopped, voice tight. He shoved his hand into his hair in frustration. "I just didn't want to get into it today because I don't think it would be the right time."

They were the right words because he could see it caught her off guard when she stiffened. "We don't have to talk about Saturday." Which was ironic because she had brought it up. But he understood the price she paid baring her soul – this vulnerability that felt like a heavy cloak. Artemis wanted to make sure he knew where he stood.

Xavier felt his face soften against his will. She wouldn't appreciate it, hell, if it were possible she would turn back the clock so that the conversation in his kitchen never happened. But the moment was burned into his mind with Technicolour clarity. "Artemis." Her name came out almost wistful and he hoped she didn't notice. "I'm here with you because I want to be. Not because of guilt from Riveria – although I do think you should have punched me in face that night," he added ruefully. A flicker of a smile passed her lips; and he held her gaze, long enough for his words to sink in, long enough for her to catch a glimpse of how he felt. "I'm here, with you, because I want to be."

"You already said that."

A small grin pulled his lips when he noticed her pink cheeks. "I can keep repeating it until you believe it."

"I'm good," she said swiftly, and her shoulders relaxed almost imperceptibly.

Xavier felt his own shoulders relax as the tense mood dissipated. "And after everything we've been through," he playfully admonished as the waiter returned with their food. Artemis shook her head in amusement. No words were spoken for a few minutes as they satisfied the worst of their hunger.

Predictably, Artemis asked about their homework and he responded amiably. School was a safe topic, barring the animals they called their classmates. Already he heard whispers about Maya and their relationship… or lack thereof. After this morning's interaction in chemistry he wouldn't be a surprise if the next thing he heard was that he left Maya for Artemis. While it wasn't true, he was also hard-pressed to admit that Artemis didn't have anything to do with his decision.

"So what did you do?" Artemis asked, and at his confused look, she clarified, "To Maya. It's obvious you made her mad."

Xavier raised his eyebrows. "How do you know she's mad at me?"

"Chemistry class. She looked like she wanted to claw my face off," Artemis said with little concern.

Xavier grimaced only slightly as he imagined the familiar look of anger on Maya's face. He was often in receipt of her arctic stares, and he didn't have to stretch his imagination to envision Maya's expression of open hatred.

"You two seemed fine on Saturday," Artemis continued curiously.

"Well that's one way to look at it," Xavier muttered as he recalled Maya's passive aggressive manner. Of course she maintained a level of cordiality for the sake of their friends, but he knew her like the back of his hand and even her jokes were underlined with frost. Or maybe he was paranoid because he knew just how badly he hurt her. The guilt often struck him when he least expected. "She's still mad I... called off the arrangement," he said carefully.

"I see," Artemis murmured.

At the moment, the waiter returned to remove the dishes and Xavier made sure to seize the bill before Artemis could get her hands on it. He smirked at her obvious displeasure as he handed his credit card.

"You owe me," he reminded.

"It doesn't mean I have to be happy about it," Artemis muttered. Her evil glare lasted all of two seconds before she sighed and gratefully said, "Thank you. Really."

"No thanks needed," he said, and found himself looking away quickly at her unexpected smile. It was a smile that crinkled the corners of her eyes and brightened her face, making Xavier feel like he missed the last step going down the stairs.

The waiter caught his eyes and smirked knowingly, only causing Xavier's flush to deepen. He hoped like hell Artemis wasn't looking at him, but knowing her shrewdness, he wouldn't be surprised. Xavier let out a breath as the waiter left without a word.

Now that they were on the topic, however, Xavier couldn't help but say with pointed nonchalance, "I heard you were with Sven this weekend," even as they began their shuffle of leaving the restaurant. "You ended up bringing Noah to his house?"

Artemis paused mid-rise, surprised, before the curtain of serenity descended on her features. "No, it wasn't like that."

He followed behind her as they left the restaurant.

"Well?" he said when the silence stretched. "So you saw him?"

Artemis glanced at him from over his car. "I ran into him on Sunday when I was… running an errand." Her eyes clouded but she looked away before he could pin point the emotion. "He offered to buy me ice cream."

He told himself to drop the topic, even as his shoulders began to tense, but he couldn't help but press further. "You must have a gift. Sven doesn't usually pay attention to anyone other than himself."

"Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black," Artemis said amusedly.

The humour in her voice only made his jaw tighten. He knew he shouldn't feel this way. He knew Artemis well enough to know that Sven would barely be a blip on her radar, if Sven decided to direct his focus on her. He'd give Sven three weeks tops until his interest waned.

Xavier's words came out flatter than he intended. "I told you he thrives on competition." He bit back the other words he wanted to say. Sven was obnoxious. Insensitive. Selfish. Xavier was often front row seat, watching his friend go through girls like candy. All these inane, ridiculous, shallow thoughts flew through his mind, in an attempt to pacify the growing tension in his chest.

And because he only had Maya, this made him different?

It didn't.

Xavier gritted his teeth at the thought.

"I wasn't in the best moods when I ran into him," she admitted thoughtfully. "But he wasn't rude either. I think he saw how upset I was and that's why he bought me ice cream."

Why were you upset? Why didn't you tell me?

He swallowed the words that wanted to escape.

He knew he was stony faced but this expression was preferable to what he was really feeling – something he didn't exactly want to examine with Artemis and her sharp eyes.

Served him right, Xavier thought as they neared the school grounds. He wanted to know, and now he did. What did he think she would say? How did he think he would react? He felt like a petulant child who was forced to share his toy and he was revolted with himself.

He saw her glancing at him several times, but he couldn't bring himself to meet her gaze.

"Xavier –" Artemis reached for his arm and he automatically turned to her. For once, her face was open, a worried pinch between her eyes showcasing her regret. "I'm sorry for canceling on short notice."

"I'm not mad about that, Artemis," he said in slight surprise. She seemed taken aback by his response but nodded slowly and they exited his car.

The warning bell resounded throughout the school grounds, but they made no move to race back to class.

Xavier had the curious urge to both bolt and yet, he didn't want his time with her to end. "Thank you," he said, and this time he didn't stop himself from reaching over and tucking her hair behind her ear. His fingers glided lightly against her cheek before he forced himself to pull away. "It meant a lot to me that you came today." He gave a half smile. "You really could have said no."

Artemis smiled albeit cautiously. "That's an option?"

"It is," he said seriously. He turned to walk back to class, but felt her fingertips brush against his palm before she clasped his hand in hers. It was the first time she voluntarily touched him and he stilled as the warmth of her skin seeped into his.

"I just want to say… thank you. For Saturday." The unevenness in her voice made him turn around to face her completely. Artemis had stepped into the role of a sister without hesitation; taken in her brother's mother despite her own feelings; faced Maya's contempt unflinchingly – all with a straight face. But now, he saw her fear, fatigue, sadness, and immense gratitude – and understood all the words she didn't want to say out loud.

He didn't think twice, couldn't have stopped himself if he tried. His grip tightened around her hand and he pulled her body firmly against his.

"I would say sorry but I'm not," Xavier said into her hair and smiled when he heard Artemis' quiet laughter. "I've wanted to do this since Saturday."

Even as the bell echoed throughout the school grounds, his hold didn't falter. Time stood still, and in that moment, with Artemis clasped in his arms, he understood what it meant to fall in love.


Author's Note (22/02/22):

Hi everyone, it has been way too long – my last update was February 12, 2015! I can't even comprehend this. I'm trying really hard to get back into my creative headspace and flex this neglected part of my brain lol. It's been a process. I hope you all have been well – I'm extremely grateful for the reviews and PMs I still get, even after all these years. Please feel free to share your thoughts on this chapter, I am open to feedback