Ella paused. She hadn't really considered the logistics of going out to dinner with Zach, and she suddenly realized that this was going to be a much more awkward and uncomfortable endeavor than she had planned for. But she had to do it, and she knew that. She owed it to him.
Steeling herself mentally, Ella forced herself to smile. She could only imagine that her expression was halfway between a grimace and constipation. The hesitant smile that had graced Zach's lips grew amused, and one side of his mouth quirked upwards.
"So. You did say today, right?" He said lightly, a slight laughter lacing his words. "Did you have anywhere in particular in mind?"
"Oh. Well, I don't really know. What about you? Are you hungry?" Ella asked nervously.
"Ella, I'm always hungry. Are you hungry?"
Ella paused. What would it mean if she were? If she said she was hungry, then he might suggest a formal restaurant. But if she said she wasn't, then he would think she was, once again, backing out of something. She needed something casual. Yes, casual was good.
"A little. How about pizza? Not too heavy. I had a big lunch," Ella replied, satisfied with her quick thinking. For once. To her surprise, Zach didn't protest at all. Not to her surprise, he smirked.
"Okay, sure. So Italian? I'm really hungry, so I'll need pasta. Let's do Bertucci's. They have great pizza, too." He smiled at her lightly, challenging her to argue. She couldn't.
"Sure," she replied weakly. He smiled.
After what was for Ella an extremely uncomfortable car ride, both Ella and Zach arrived at Bertucci's to find it was fairly busy. As soon as they stepped into the restaurant, Ella couldn't help but glance around nervously to see if anyone she knew was in sight. She kept looking to see if anyone was looking at them as though they were a couple, fidgeting all the while.
"Are you expecting someone else to be here?" Zach said upon noticing her anxiety. He looked amused. "Is there anything you need or something?"
"Actually, I think I'm going to go to the bathroom," Ella said quickly. "I'll find you after?"
Before waiting to hear his response, Ella sped away and ducked into the Women's Bathroom. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she willed her hands to stop shaking. She ran her fingers through her hair nervously and licked her lips. This is a casual dinner. Not a big deal. Repeating those words to herself, she plastered what she thought was a convincing smile onto her face and stepped outside again. Spotting Zach at a booth, she tried to walk towards him slowly and calmly. This was going to be awful.
After twenty minutes and the arrival of their meal, Ella and Zach had still barely spoken to each other. Zach, seemingly content with the silence, hummed quietly to the music in the background and ate his food slowly. Ella began to feel increasingly antsy with every passing song, and abruptly tried to break the silence instead of fiddling with her food.
"So did you have practice today for track?"
"Well we had a meet today, which I'm pretty sure the paper is covering…" Zach said slowly, teasing her. "Practices are more or less over for the season until nationals."
Stupid, Ella. She cursed herself silently. Of course the first words that came out of her mouth made her sound completely moronic.
"Oh. Did you win the meet?"
As soon as the words left her mouth, she wanted to hit herself again. This was track, not basketball. Win the meet?
"Well I was first in my event, so I 'won', I guess," Zach said with a hint of a smile, picking at his penne. "But I think the team overall wasn't happy with how they did."
"Ah, I see," Ella said stupidly.
"Somewhat unrelated—how's your Stanford application coming along?"
Ella groaned, remembering how much work she still had to do on her application. "Terribly. I can't think of an answer for the stupid question about intellectual vitality and the application is due in like, one week."
"Yeah, that was a shitty question. I actually ended up scrapping all my drafts and went with my gut at the very last minute. And I liked that essay the best, anyways. The other ones were pretty pathetic and sappy."
Ella turned to him, intrigued. "Really? Do you mind if I asked what you wrote about?"
To her surprise, Zach paused. The tips of his ears became slightly red, and he blinked. "Well, it was actually about an argument I had with you once."
Ella scoffed. "Oh shut up. For real, what was it?"
Zach's smile looked visibly strained now, and Ella looked at him, completely perplexed. "That's actually really what it was. One of our arguments really struck me and I ended up writing about that for the prompt. It seemed the most honest."
Ella sat back in her seat. She knew she should stop, but her curiosity was getting the best of her. As always. "Huh, that's crazy. Can I read it when all this application stuff is over?"
Zach looked at her incredulously, eyebrows raised. "You want to read my college application essay. To Stanford. About an argument we had one time."
"Well after applications are over! I think it would just be interesting to get in your head during on of our arguments. That is, if it's as honest as you're saying it is."
Zach laughed. "Sure. But only if I get to read all of your essays too."
Ella smiled. "Sure."
The rest of the dinner proceeded peacefully, and Ella found that she and Zach were actually able to enjoy a civil and friendly dinner. She was surprised when she ended up laughing at his jokes, and even more so when he asked her questions about her own stories and friends. She was even more surprised to find that she was almost disappointed when the waiter came by with the check at the end of the dinner.
"Don't worry about it. I've got it," Zach said quickly.
"Oh please, shut up," she said, reaching for the check.
"Nope," he retorted simply, snatching it up before she could take it.
"Stop being stupid. I asked you here, so if anything, I should be paying for both of us. So I'm offering the compromise, really," Ella interrupted. She tugged the check from his hands, which only tightened his grip.
"I get that you're a strong and independent woman and all that, but there's this thing called chivalry that some of us were taught. And if you acted like a proper lady, you would understand why I am doing this," he said lightly, swatting off her hand as though she was nothing more than a small fly.
"We aren't even here together. We're here as normal friends. This isn't a big deal!" Ella said in exasperation. Zach's eyes suddenly pierced her own. He slouched comfortably in his chair, but, as always, his eyes betrayed his intensity. She threw up her hands in frustration, looking over at him in irritation.
"Friends or whatever, I'm paying. The end," he said lightly, flashing an easy smile. "This can be a Thank You dinner. You did write such wonderful things about me in the paper that one time, after all."
Ella shook her head, but finally shrugged in defeat as she watched him tuck a few bills into the check. "Okay. But I'm going to remember this."
Zach looked up at her with a slight smirk. "What, for next time?"
"Oh hilarious, Perry. You're so funny," she said, ignoring the burning feeling of embarrassment spreading across her neck.
"I'll take your lack of response as tacit compliance," Zach replied. Then, quickly, before Ella had a chance to retort, he slid out of his booth and stood. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
As Zach drove Ella home, their conversation turned to Ella's friends. Much to Ella's chagrin, Cam and Alex had always been fond of Zach. So, in spite of her limited contact with him, they had been talking to him regularly after what Cam referred to as The Kiss. She was convinced that this fateful kiss was the beginning of what would be a story tale romance. Ella had snorted in laughter when Cam had suggested this prophetic love. Alex had merely raised an eyebrow—it was unclear as to whether that was in response to Cam's theory or Ella's reaction.
"Cam is always so idealistic. She puts a lot of weight into the happily ever after story," Ella said after Zach had mentioned Cam's newest love interest.
"Well why not? What's the point in getting into something if you don't see it going anywhere?" Zach said lightly, gliding effortlessly through the traffic.
Ella scoffed. "That's stupid. Ultimately most things have an expiration date. It's better to just think more immediately and practically."
"Please. That is such bullshit. You don't believe that."
"Well, you did think I was dating Mathias before. And everyone knows about Alex and Mathias. So it's not like it isn't possible," Ella said smartly, feeling that she had outwitted him at last.
"Mathias? With you? Oh come on, Elle. Did you think I really believed that?"
Ella started. She turned her head quickly to look at Zach, "What's that supposed to mean?"
Zach rolled his eyes. "Seriously? That would never happen…"
"I mean I imagine you haven't had a whole lot of casual hook-ups. Not that that's bad, you just probably haven't."
"I could do whatever I wanted to," Ella replied tersely. "Just because I'm not whoring myself out every other day doesn't mean I couldn't if I wanted to."
Zach pulled into her driveway slowly, still laughing at Ella's obvious irritation. "That's the point, isn't it? You don't want to."
Ella didn't respond, still glaring out her window.
Zach sighed. "Don't be mad, Elle. I didn't mean anything bad by it. Just that he's not exactly… your type. Hooking up isn't your type. You're a bit more traditional than that. You want the storybook. Picket fence. The works."
Ella pursed her lips and crossed her arms, unresponsive. She knew he was right. But that didn't mean that she had to admit that he was right. "Well, whatever. All irrelevant."
Zach shook his head. "Stubborn as always." Turning off the ignition, he unbuckled his seatbelt and opened his door to step out of the car. Ella looked at him in confusion, not having moved out of the car yet herself.
"What, you're going to walk me to my door?"
"What kind of man would I be if I let you get mugged in the ten feet between this car door and your front porch? Come on, get moving. I haven't got all night. " Zach shut his door quickly, leaning against his side of the car.
Well, so much for his chivalry, Ella thought to herself as she got out of the car. Though that did remind her…
"Thanks for the dinner, though. You obviously really didn't have to do that. Completely unnecessary and uncool. But thanks anyways," Ella blurted out. The words spilled out of her mouth before she had the chance to think about them. Which, with Zach, was generally better for her. This time was no exception. As they reached her porch, he smiled widely. Perhaps the most genuine smile he had given her the whole night. "You're welcome. It was fun. Thanks for asking me to bury the hatchet."
Ella smiled lightly. Turning her body towards the door, she fiddled with the doorknob with her right hand for a moment. "Yeah. Took us long enough."
Zach's left hand suddenly covered her hand on the doorknob, and moved it gently back to her side. He stepped closer to her quietly, simply nodding in agreement, eyes ablaze. She had seen those eyes before. She knew what those eyes meant. He lifted his other hand and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, stroking her cheek.
"Yeah," he said quietly, lips a hairs breadth away from her own. "Glad we can be normal friends now."
Ella blinked. What? Normal friends? Suddenly, the cold night air enveloped her and she realized that Zach had stepped away swiftly, a smirk resting slightly on his lips. She opened her mouth, but quickly realized that she had nothing to say. She looked at him again, blinking in confusion.
Still smirking slightly, he raised a hand in salute. "Have a good night, Elle. I'll see you."
He turned quickly, and was soon lost in the shadows of the dark night. Ella furrowed her brow, trying to discern what had just happened. She heard vague noises of Zach's car starting, then slowly pulling out of the driveway, then trailing further away down the street. Frozen, she lifted a hand to her cheek where she could have sworn his hand has been just seconds ago.
A/N: Sorry about the delay! Crazy semester. I'll try to be more consistent now that it's summer. Hopefully this lives up to expectations/doesn't disappoint too much ;) As always, please review!