7. Apologies and Excuses

My hands are sticky and clammy, and I can feel sweat collecting at the dip in my back. My heart rattles noisily in my chest, and I wonder how it's possible for one simple person to make me feel this nervous.

But he's not just 'one simple person' is he? Damien is one of the most complicated people I know.

I look down and wipe my hands on my school skirt, forcing my legs to move, and then ordering them to walk – one reluctant foot in front of the other – in a straight line towards the science labs. I know he will be there.

Come on, Amber, be brave for once. Teresa is waiting at the gates. Just one quick conversation and you can leave!

I have a feeling that this 'conversation' is going to be anything but 'quick' ('painful' would already be a more accurate term).

It's Friday, last day of the week, and school is over for the weekend – meaning the old buildings have practically been deserted by both the exhausted staff and weary students.

Meaning, also, that there's nobody around to witness the crazy, hugely-humiliating, absolute-nonsense thing I'm about to do (which will probably do nothing but make everything a whole lot worse).

All too soon, I reach the first lab door.

Barely daring to even draw breath, I push my face about an inch into the doorway and peer cautiously into the room…

It's empty.

I let out a gush of air through my shaky lips and almost collapse against the wall.

What are you feeling so relieved for, you wimp? You still have to go and check the next one (my shoulders slump)…and the next one (I groan despairingly)…until you find him.

And that's what I painstakingly do until –

"Damn!" I shoot back from the doorway and press my back against the wall, making sure nothing is visible past the frame. Maybe it's the coolness of the wall, or the impending doom I'm about to face (most likely), but all of a sudden there isn't a joule of heat left in my body. I shiver.

There he is. He is there. Is he there? I spare another glance –

– And jerk back. Yes. Yes he most certainly is there. The classroom is empty apart from him, and he's busy (if doing anything at a snail's pace whilst dragging your feet and slumping around could be referred to as 'busy') stacking the chairs which are scattered haphazardly around the room like terribly confused sheep – and Damien is the lazy, irritable sheepdog rounding them up. On the whiteboard, in angry capitals letters, is written (in Mr Sterling's familiar slanted handwriting):

BUCKET AND MOP IN THE CORNER. STACK CHAIRS FIRST. I'm in the office – come and find me when you're done.

I can't help it. I feel sorry for him. I'm really the one who should be doing this…

Although. The aggression with which he's stacking those chairs and hauling them violently around makes me wonder if it's not the chairs themselves I should feel sympathy for. He's flinging them together with such force that I hope they don't simply split in two and get him stuck in detention for another two weeks.

I look around once again and decide I am quite unable to announce my presence just yet.

So I watch him for a while.

I have never 'watched' a boy before – but I've seen lots of the girls in my year do it (especially when Damien and his cronies are around), and have wondered many times as to why.

I watch.

And watch.

I must admit…there is something compelling about the way his untamed hair falls over those unreadable eyes…and how his dark eyebrows tilt angrily downwards…and how his forearms flex under his tanned skin. And he has those shadowy cheekbones, which so many girls find so attractive…and of course that strong jaw, his smooth lips –

"Amber!" I scold myself under my breath, forcibly pulling myself away from the dreaded doorway. I put my hand against my heart and speculate as to why it's beating so incredibly quickly. I frown deeply. What on Earth am I doing?

"Ugh! This is getting me nowhere," I mutter, resting the back of my head dejectedly on the wall. "Why can't I be more confident? Like him?"

I stare absent-mindedly up at the ceiling, hoping to find an answer – if there even is one – to my problem within the cracks and chips of the white paint.

"How long were you planning on watching me, you little fainting nerd?"

My mouth opens to scream –

He presses his hand over it. His smooth, warm palm stifles the sound about to shoot from my lungs, and it crawls back into my throat and dies there, leaving me breathless and choking.

Turning quickly away from him, I cover my face with both hands to quieten my coughing fit, and to hide my blazing red cheeks.

How did he know? How did he know? How –

"I didn't know you came with a stalker-mode, Angel."

He presses closely against me. I gasp and cringe, unable to escape his voice, his scent, his dominating presence. His forearm rests against the wall above my head, and his head is bowed so that his lips are unbearably close to my face.

Why is it happening like this? How does he always manage to do this? I thought I was going to be in control of this…!

"So? You gonna tell me why you were spying on me?" He leans closer with a deadly, terrifying smile that freezes the blood in my veins, "Or do I need to force it out of you?" He stares at me until I pull my hands from my face and have to look straight at him.

"Ah! I…I-I.."

I have forgotten how to speak.

"Either you tell me yourself…" he whispers, and then places his lips so that they're half an inch from my bare neck. "Or I make you tell me…"

That's it. I can't take it. I don't know what the hell I was thinking, coming here, to this idiot.

I slide sideways against the wall, freeing myself from his overpowering closeness, causing him to jerk forward slightly and press up against the wall instead. Without looking back, I begin hurrying down the corridor.

You absolute nutcase, a voice in my head whispers patronisingly, why are you even here?

I didn't even get to talk to him.

"Wait!"

I don't even register the words, which bounce off the walls of the corridor; I just keep on desperately speed-walking to the nearest exit.

"Amber, wait."

And then my arms are trapped, and he's in front of me, and I'm being dragged sideways, and I'm pinned against the wall again; like a cockroach, ready to be dissected, poked at, cut up into lots of little pieces until there's nothing left.

I stare fixedly at the ground, at his cheap, scruffy white trainers, his words running through my head.

Hey.

Wait a second.

He said my name.

He said my name.

He didn't call me 'Angel'.

I look up, "Why…?"

He's staring at me, and he's smiling.

"You are seriously the strangest nerd I've ever met," he murmurs softly, to himself, and I don't think he knows he's saying it out loud. He grins softly, like it's a compliment and he's proud of himself.

I open my mouth to say something but –

I don't know what.

I just keep staring at him, at that surprisingly gentle smile, into his hazel eyes, until I feel myself drifting away, into their deep, green-brown-gold depths. There's something calm in there, something assured and quietly confident and peaceful…

And then, abruptly, suddenly, rudely, I'm thrown out, and his face hardens, and his lips thin, and his jaw tightens and he looks like he normally does.

"Just tell me now why the hell you're here, Angel, or I swear I'll tell everyone the truth."

My blood freezes, and I swear the temperature in the building drops a few degrees. How is he able to switch emotions so easily? Maybe he has one of those dual-personality th –

"I said now, Angel –"

"Oh just stop it, you arrogant arsehole!"

Both of us fall silent, deadly silent. I'm shocked; who said that?

And then I realise.

I said it. Me.

Damien's expression is just as shocked as mine must be. Then there's a twitch of anger, his lips pull into a snarl, and I can see his annoyance in the way his shoulders straighten and his muscles bunch up under his school shirt.

"What did you just say?"

I look quickly left and right, but there's nobody else in the corridor; nobody to save me from his rage, or witness my untimely death. Again with the pigheaded behaviour, I scold myself.

Well, better get this over and done with. If I'm going to die, I might as well make it quick.

"I said stop it." A shiver runs down my spine. The hard tone in my voice sounds so…so…confident, authoritative. This confidence sweeps through me in an instant, revitalising my whole being, causing me to square my shoulders, stand taller than I ever remember doing in front of someone. Before I realise what I'm doing, every single thought that's bothered me about Damien since we were first paired up rushes to my lips and bursts from my mouth.

"I've had enough of your…your moods and your tantrums and your stupid bad-boy acting."

"What –" he attempts to interrupt in an enraged growl, but I plough on without even registering his fury.

"Why can't you just be yourselffor once? Why can't you be normal? I know you can be! Tell me what on Earth goes on in your complicated head, I mean…what exactly is your problem? Why do you have to make people feel small?!"

"You little –"

"I just don't understand you," I rant on, "– one minute you seem like a human being, the next you're some messed-up bully. I want to do something nice, like apologise – or, or something, but then you act all horrible so I can't! And then I do something stupid, because of you,and you make it seem like it's your fault! What am I supposed to do then!? You don't even realise how guilty it makes me feel! Yet you make it completely impossible for me to say sorry! I mean…what the hell?!"

I finish with a gasp, sucking air into my empty lungs.

Wow.

I have never, in my life, let my feelings take control of me like this before. But it feels good; I don't feel so conflicted anymore, or upset, now that I've ranted it all out of my system.

The quiet hits me in an instant. All I can hear is my breathing – surprisingly ragged and uneven; like I've just run a race.

My vision is slightly blurred, and shaky from how my heart beats rack my body. So I breathe deeply and wait till it clears, and I can finally make out Damien's expression. I feel myself cringing in anticipation, preparing myself for the ferocity I'm about to see.

It's completely blank.

That familiar, impenetrable mask I'm getting so used to.

Somehow, this is even scarier than the anger – because it's so unpredictable.

He doesn't look like he's going to do anything other than stare at me, so I stare back for a little while, trying in vain to make out what emotions there are whirling around behind his eyes. I think there may be some outrage in there, a lot of fury, and…is that…? Surprise? Shock?

I look away. I've never had so many staring-contests with any other person before. It's like Damien is just asking to fight, to start an argument, simply with his eyes.

"Look," I say quietly. I don't dare to glance up, not for a second, keeping my eyes firmly on the floor this time. "I only came here to say…" My voice catches in my throat because it feels so strange to be saying this to him. He'll probably just punch you before the words are out of your mouth, sneers my own voice in my head. I push away my feelings of reluctance and foreboding and force the words out before I get the chance to collapse.

"I just wanted to say thank you. From what I heard, and I know Teresa isn't the most reliable of sources, but…from what I heard, you…helped me. And – and I know what happened that day was…it was my fault and I know you took the blame. Don't try and say you didn't because I know you did…and, well…I've never had to rely on someone quite like this before and…I…" My voice peters out and the usual silence falls between us again. I just hope he understood that, through all the blabbering and stuttering and petering-out, I was actually trying to apologise.

"Ok, bye," I mutter, slipping past him.

A hand grabs my arm before I can.

I stare down at it, so large his fingers touch even with my cardigan around my arm. I allow my eyes to glide back to his face.

I narrow my eyes. Is it me or is he blushing slightly?

I give an internal snort. Impossible; Damien doesn't get embarrassed.

His face does look faintly different though, as if the ice mask has thawed just a little. As I'm once again staring up at his face, he takes me off guard by whirling me around to face him with a quick twist of his wrist, forcing me to stumble against his chest to get my balance back. In that split second where I'm leaning against him, before I can straighten, he takes the opportunity to trap me there with his other arm.

So I can't escape as he places his lips at the top of my ear, almost touching, and whispers,

"Apology accepted."

And despite the laughing coyness in his voice and the joking way he holds me, all the guilt rushes from my being in a contented sigh, and my stomach un-scrunches and I can breathe because I know that he knows that I'm sorry.

However it also means that now there's now nothing stopping me from reflexively flipping-out at him (as usual).

"That doesn't mean you have to act all superior!" I snap. I struggle to free myself form his grip but he holds on easily, as if I had the strength of an insignificant insect.

He gives a devilish chuckle, probably at my weakness, and I blush deeply despite my annoyance. It's like my whole life is just a big joke to him, something for him to make fun of and tease the hell out of.

"Let me go, you –"

"Listen," he demands, interrupting me, at the same time grabbing both of my wrists and pushing them high up against the wall. I feel even more like a cockroach about to be dissected now, or maybe a frog, with my arms spread-eagled out above my head. I can feel the extreme strength in just his hands, and I now know for sure that he could easily knock a grown man's teeth clean out.

"I've let you call me an arrogant arsehole, a stupid bad-boy – whatever the hell that is – and a messed-up bully," he murmurs, whilst I grimace at the names I shouted at his face that he has so accurately remembered, "and I have very graciously not punched your face in." He gives an evil smile, showing off his perfectly sharp white canines, and pushes his face into my face so that our foreheads are touching in a surprisingly affectionate gesture.

"I might not be so…forgiving next time, Angel."

I don't say anything, I don't think I'm able to say anything, so I just muster the most aloof face I can and refuse to look him in the eye – which is terribly difficult since his eyes are all I can see. In the end I just jam my eyelids shut and try hard to ignore the warm sensation where his skin touches mine.

We stand like this for perhaps only a second, incredibly close, breathing the same air…it feels like hours. Then slowly, I feel the pressure on my wrists loosen, allowing my limp arms to slide down the wall and to my sides. I open my eyes, only to see that Damien's are closed. I wish I could make out his expression but his face is so near (our foreheads are still touching) that everything, other than his long, dark eyelashes, is a blur.

Huh. That's not fair. Look how long his eyelashes are.

Then I can hear his voice, soft like I've never heard it before, ever so close…

"You know, Amber, I –"

"Damien!"

I almost jump out of my skin at the angry, shouting voice echoing down the corridor. My heart leaps into my throat, and I hold back a shout. I realise how the position we're in might look to an outsider, and jerk my head back – only to bang it against the wall. I groan. The back of my head throbs whilst my forehead tingles coldly without Damien's skin against it.

Now I'll never get to hear what he was going to say in that soft, honest voice.

Damien, on the other hand, merely sighs, like he was expecting this all along. His shoulders slump, and he bows his head for a second, his thick hair tickling my face. Wow, it is soft, whispers a voice in my head, not bristly at all, but fine and soft…

"Just what are you doing out here?"

Oh no, it's Mr Sterling. I turn my head away, almost hiding behind Damien's shoulder. If Mr Sterling sees me here he'll get so suspicious and definitely think we're somehow partners in crime…

"What are you doing out here!? You are meant to be cleaning up that lab – wait, is that…Amber?"

Damn.

"Amber what –"

Damien interrupts, his voice tired with the usual excuse, "Sir, it was –"

"It was me!"

After my sudden, spur-of-the-moment shout, I whisper quickly, and so quietly that only Damien can hear, "You are not taking my blame again."

Great, like it's something to fight over, sighs that irritating voice in my head.

He raises his head, and I get only a glance of his shocked expression before I turn towards Mr Sterling. He's walking quickly towards us, his movements stiff and annoyed, his expression impatient and suspicious. This is the second time I have ever interrupted anyone – and I've done it to the scariest boy in our year, in less than a two minute interval.

Is it me, or is Damien's presence somehow giving me confidence?

Mr Sterling reaches us and, standing straight and clasping my hands nervously, I begin to lie.

"Sir, it was me that called Damien out of the lab, I made him, it…it wasn't him."

"Was it now?" queries our young Biology teacher with equal parts weariness and skepticism in his voice.

"Yes, I called him out because I – we needed to discuss whether – when we could re-do the experiment."

"Shouldn't you have come to me for that first, Amber?"

My mouth opens and I struggle to think of another excuse on the spot – something I've have to do so much more since Damien somehow bombarded his way destructively into my life.

Damien sighs from next to me, and I can just make out his dark expression from the corner of my eye as he opens his mouth to cover up my hesitation,

"She was –"

"I'm sorry, sir," I cut-in, wow, Damien must be getting really annoyed with me interrupting him all the time, "but I…I had to make sure that Damien and I were free at the same times so that…there would be no problems…when I came to you."

Mr Sterling stares hard at me for a long time, one of his eyebrows raised higher than the other, his lips pressed together. I hold his gaze for as long as I can, until I'm too afraid to look any longer, in case he sees through the excuses and lies and realises I just made all of that up. My eyes drift down to his shoes; pointy and brown and tightly laced-up.

Finally, he speaks.

"Well, if that's all you're here for – you can both meet me in the labs, with your plan, after school tomorrow."

"Tomorrow!" I exclaim. "But tomorrow I can't – ow!" Damien's elbow jabs into my ribs – remarkably so fast that it goes unnoticed by Mr Sterling – warning me not to make any more problems. Somehow, he's managed to catch me in exactly the same spot where I had those bruises before, and I shudder as I remember that day…

"That's just fine, sir," drawls Damien, making it sound like he feels the complete opposite. "We'll be there," he murmurs, glancing sideways and giving me a meaningful, 'keep-your-big-mouth-shut' look. I huff and turn away, flicking my hair so that it hits him in the face (again).

"Well, despite all of this, Damien still has a lab to finish cleaning, so if you'll please excuse us, Amber…"

I nod quickly and stare at the floor.

As Damien walks past me, he gives me a shove, allowing him to growl, so low I can barely catch the words,

"I don't need your help, nerd, so stop trying."

And then he's gone, swaggering angrily after the teacher, who marches him straight back to the lab door.

Just before he walks through the doorway, he stops and turns and gives me a look; like…like a hunter who has just missed out on his prey.

My heart pounds.

I spin around, biting my lip and pressing a hand to my racing heart. I begin to walk hurriedly back the way I came, to where Teresa is probably fretting, bored and annoyed, by the gates.

"An idiot," I whisper to myself, like I'm trying to convince myself of this fact, like it's an excuse for…for something else, a feeling, inside of me.

"He's an idiot."


Hi guys!

Thank you so so so so sooooooooooo much to everyone that's read and reviewed my story so far (I'm very pleasantly surprised at the interest shown in such a small amount of chapters) - it's really given me the will-power to actually go ahead and try to finish this one. :D

I'm really, really sorry for how long it took to update with this chapter (expect a few more) - I've had LOADS of school stuff (and there're exams coming up Dx) plus I keep finding these little things that I'm not happy with and want to change in my writing (there are still a few, but I reckoned I couldn't wait any longer to put it up).

Any suggestions/corrections/constructive criticism would be greatly appreciated, but please hang-on for the following chapters because they ARE COMING! I PROMISE.

Thanks again, Yabu x