A/N: Wahoo! I got this in before the end of the year. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get the next one in before the year is up too. I hope so because this chapter and the next could honestly be viewed as one huge chapter as they follow similar themes and goals. This chapter, however, resolves the surface level issues while the next tackles far deeper ones. As such, and to maintain reasonable chapter lengths, they have been split—separate songs selected to fit their unique natures.
The song for this chapter then is the lyrically simple, yet ethereally beautiful Good For Me by Above & Beyond. It’s a little overly simple lyrics-wise, but the meaning of it fit too well not to use it, even if it is a bit repetitive 😛 Plus it’s super pretty—when I listen to it I feel as if I could float away on soft, infinite clouds.
Also, this chapter rewinds a little and presents the last scene in Gabriel’s chapter from Joanne’s point of view and then proceeds to move the story forward.
Thank you all very much for your patience—I sincerely hope that you’ll find this was well worth the wait.
To be with you is easy
He was holding me in his arms.
I’d been horribly, inexcusably late to the one opportunity I’d had in ages to not be alone anymore, and I should have been rebuked for it, but he was holding me in his arms. I supposed it should have frightened me, being embraced out of nowhere, and it certainly was surprising, but there was nothing in his touch that indicated to me that I should be afraid. The way that he held me—one hand grasping my shoulder and the other holding my head gently against his chest—made me feel as though I was somehow important to him, as if I was somehow…precious to him. It was an unfathomable realization and I felt that surely I was mistaken, but his touch was so incredibly tender that I could not deduce any other conclusion.
I know you’re good for me
I let out a soft breath, hot tears welling up in my eyes. It was difficult to believe such an idea, but he was, undeniably, holding me tightly in his arms. They consumed me completely. I closed my eyes, allowing myself to melt into his warm embrace. My debilitating distress about having been stupidly late dissolved, leaving me with nothing but a sweeping sense of relief. Gabriel always tended to have that effect on me though, didn’t he? Even when trapped behind the walls of my own self-confinement and emotional suppression, his presence alone had been strong enough to crack the barrier and soothe me.
Only, despite the dissolution of my previously choking worries, I couldn’t help but feel that something was oddly off—not with me though, but with Gabriel. His breaths were coming out shakily, his grip just a little too tight, and he hadn’t said a single word even though I’d just given a monologue of poor excuses for my unreasonable tardiness. On that note, why was he hugging me at all? He’d never initiated anything like this before.
I frowned slightly. Dozens of delicate snowflakes fell soundlessly around us. A touch of cold broke into my warm cocoon.
“What happened?” I asked. My voice was hushed—reticent to break the silence, afraid to know the answer. He didn’t respond though, instead taking in yet another unsteady breath. Yes, something was definitely wrong. He was running his hand through my hair. He was trembling.
“You’re shaking,” I whispered now, feeling well and truly worried. I wrapped my arms around his waist, tiptoed to hold him closer, but then froze when he let out a sharp breath of air. Oh my god, was he hurt? Was he sick? Had something completely awful happened?
“It’s cold,” he mumbled, and then slowly pulled away. I blinked in confusion, arms falling limply to my sides. He was…cold? What? That had to be nonsense…what happened!?
“What’s wrong?” I pressed fervently, and then was startled to find that we’d both spoken at the same time. I looked at him in surprise and then laughed a bit in spite of myself even though none of this was making any sense and even though I was quite sure something awful must have happened.
This feeling inside me
My worries were lost to me again as Gabriel stepped forward, one hand reaching up and gently grazing my cheek. A flash of heat shot down my spine. I let my eyes fall shut again, a mad desire to be kissed abruptly taking hold of me. Oh, Jo, quit it! He asked you here as a friend!
I opened my eyes, trying to snap myself out of my daze, but my situation was only worsened by this action as I now found myself staring straight into his eyes. They were such a soft brown, streaked through with the deepest shades of gold and russet, like lovely autumn leaves. If I tiptoed just slightly, my lips would touch his. His lips looked so soft too; soft and full and—
“You first,” he said suddenly, taking a step back.
I blinked stupidly. Me first, what? Oh right, the damned question!
“No, you. You were the one to fall into my arms this time,” I realized with a jolt.
His answer came in the form of an almost unintelligible mumble. “I thought something had happened to you.”
I stared, my mouth dropping open some and any lingering remnants of my daydream cast away as quickly as dust blown off a table. My god, I was so stupid! I’d been so awfully late that I’d scared him! “I’m sorry,” I whispered, feeling like crying all over again. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”
“It’s fine,” he hastened to assure me, perhaps noting the break in my voice. “I’m fine. I’m just—glad that you’re safe. Glad that you’re here.”
I bit my thumb through my glove, feeling somewhat anxious that I couldn’t actually bite my nail through this accursed fabric. Oh jeez he’d been worried about me and he was glad that I was here. I really was, somehow and completely inexplicably, precious to Gabriel.
“You really do care about me, don’t you?” I asked weakly. I had to confirm, unable to quite accept such an incredible notion. After all, what had I ever done to deserve such a wonderful gift? And from a person who seemed so good too—a person so much better than my shattered, self-eviscerating soul.
He sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets and kicking some snow. His feet must have been cold just wearing those old, worn Converses.
“Yes,” he answered, sounding impatient. “Only, I hope that the next time you think this, it’ll finally be without all this disbelief.”
Oh, it sends me sky high
I stared at Gabriel again, completely mystified. Seriously, what in God’s name had I done to deserve that? Oh, he was far too good for me—far and away too good for me, and yet….I bit my lip. Would it be wrong of me to accept such benevolence, when I was not such a good person myself?
Come on, Jo, if he thought that, do you really think he would care about you in the first place?
I stifled a gasp at the thought, feeling my eyes begin to sting anew. My dad’s words returned to me, having been previously smothered by the darkness within my mind: You are worthy…you are good enough.
“It’s your turn to answer.” Gabriel’s words were quiet, but they still had the effect of jostling me out of my head. “Why were you crying?”
I blinked, momentarily confused. Gods, I needed to stop getting so off-track! Why had I been crying? “I….” I started, and then averted my gaze, biting my lip.
I’d been crying because I’d just figured out that I was truly important to you, and not only was that realization enough to melt my heart, but it also had the ill-effect of making me doubt that I even deserved it. Oh, but I couldn’t say that. Jeez!
“I was crying because—because I care about you too and…and so it hurt me to…to see you like that,” I stammered in a somewhat panicked manner, and then blushed hotly at my own stupidity. It was a lie, but it was also not a lie. The explanation I’d given for crying was not true, but the words themselves were undoubtedly so. I cared for Gabriel more than I could even begin to fathom.
To be with you is easy, oh baby….
“Oh,” he said quietly. Subdued, as usual. Sweet…soft…comforting. It would be so easy to fall into his arms again and never let go. Even though everything is so messed up right now, you make me feel as though it’s not.
A young boy ran by screaming. I turned my attention to him in alarm. An older girl, his sister most likely, given their matching ginger hair, grabbed him and started tickling him. The sight made my heart ache with nostalgia, but I knew, at least, that it would be relieved soon enough. After Gabriel’s biting remark about how much my family cared about me despite my substandard treatment of them, I’d arranged to spend the holidays with them. I could still hear my mother’s gleeful shout over the phone. I so looked forward to seeing her.
Gabriel let out a sudden sigh. I glanced over at him, only to find that his brows were pulled together in displeasure, his full lips turned down in a frown. “How the hell did we end up in the snow again anyway?” he grumbled.
I know you’re good for me
I let out a laugh, unable to help it, and then blushed in embarrassment when Gabriel looked at me in surprise, autumn eyes questioning. Shoot. It hadn’t seemed like it, but what if he’d been legitimately angry?
“Sorry,” I mumbled, nervously brushing a lock of hair out of my face. “A-Apparently hanging out with me carries the constant risk of hypothermia.”
Gabriel laughed, and I decided at once that it was the warmest, most wonderful sound in the world, like drinking hot cocoa on a cold winter’s eve, or lying out on the beach with the sun’s rays kissing your skin.
“I guess it’s a good thing I’m willing to take that risk then,” he responded softly. I blushed hard, watching on in astonishment as he smiled beautifully. It made me want to tackle him into the snow and kiss him until both our lips were numb—a desire that made me blush even harder. Calm down, Joanne, don’t mess this up.
“So does that mean you’ve warmed up to the snow?” I asked, trying to distract myself.
Gabriel snorted. “Fuck no.”
“Awww,” I lamented jokingly, “but it’s so fun!” I leaned back my head then, sticking out my tongue to catch some of the falling snowflakes, and then smiled when I heard Gabriel laugh once again.
“Jesus,” he said after he’d calmed, shaking his head a bit in disbelief. “Well, as much as I’m willing to enter a state of hypothermia in order to be with you, I think we’d both be happier if—what are you doing?”
Know you’re good for me
I grinned, patting a small pile of snow I’d scooped up from the ground. “I made you a hat,” I declared, and then placed his new ‘garment’ on his head. Unfortunately, it didn’t hold together, crumbling at once and sending snowflakes cascading all down his hair, although a little mound of it did stay in place—like a little baby hat. I giggled.
Gabriel grimaced. “I feel warmer already,” he announced with mock happiness, and then gave his head a shake so that the snowflakes were sent shooting in my direction. I squealed, holding my hands up to block the assault, and then let out a startled gasp when Gabriel bent to grab some snow of his own.
“No, don’t!” I shouted through an outburst of laughter, and then took off running in the direction of the restaurant. Gabriel leapt up with surprising agility and gave chase, quickly overtaking me and grabbing me around the waist. “No!” I screamed again, and then lost myself to a side-aching cascade of laughter when Gabriel tossed me bodily into a snowdrift.
“Made you—a—a snow suit!” he managed to gasp through his own shouts of laughter, practically doubled over with mirth.
“You!” I shouted. I scrambled to loosen myself from the thick snow and then tackled his legs, laughing when he gave a startled yelp and lost his balance. He tumbled into the snow, falling hard.
Gabriel groaned, stretching out his long legs, closing his eyes, and lying on his back in defeat. The sight immediately launched me into a renewed fit of giggles. I crawled over to his head, looking down at him and grinning mischievously.
“Now we have a matching set,” I declared triumphantly.
“I could have done without,” Gabriel mumbled, and I let out another soft laugh, brushing some snow out of his dark, dampened hair.
This feeling inside me
He opened his beautiful eyes—incandescent autumn evenings under a gleaming harvest moon. His lips were mere inches from mine. The realization sent me aflame, desperate longing coursing through my veins like hot, liquid—
I stopped, halted by the word, the pained way in which it had been said, and the feeling of Gabriel’s hand on my head, preventing me from closing those last, lingering centimeters between our lips.
Don’t…? Oh god….
The barely audible word was a sudden, violent reminder to me that Gabriel had asked me here as a friend.
I pulled away hastily, falling back and feeling completely awful as I hugged my legs. Mortification suffused every inch of my crimson, burning skin. Oh Joanne, you fucked everything up again and it hasn’t even been a day!
“Friends,” I whispered, my throat tightening painfully. “I forgot. I’m sorry.”
Gabriel scrambled to sit up, perhaps to run away, but instead he knelt before me, a look of deepest remorse etched on his face. Great, I thought, he regretted ever asking me here! Fresh tears leaked from my eyes and I hurried to stand up, but Gabriel grabbed my hand, keeping me in place.
“Wait,” he said, his voice sounding hushed and desperate. “Please wait.”
I paused, pressing my lips together. The pain had spread into my chest. A sob tore from my throat, unbidden.
Gabriel let out a sharp intake of breath. “Joanne, please! You don’t have anything to be sorry for, it’s all me, it’s—god, Joanne, look at me.” I sat heavily back down in the snow, taking in a shaking breath and wiping my eyes in frustration. “Please look at me,” he repeated softly, and I reluctantly lifted my gaze to his, helpless to disobey such sweetly spoken words. God, Gabriel, I like you so much. I like you so much and I’m really so sorry! The tears returned, burning more hotly than ever.
He let out a small breath and then took one of my hands in both of his. “I did say friends, Joanne, but I—well, I only said that because I wanted to take things slow.”
I stared at him for a long moment, my heart giving a bit of a hopeful leap in my chest, but the dark, fanged-creatures that resided within my head quickly quashed the feeling, leaving me feeling strangled. I took my hand back, hugging my knees. “You’re just saying that because you don’t want to hurt me.”
Oh, it sends me sky high
“What?! No,” Gabriel stated vehemently. He cupped my cheek in one of his hands, his eyes locked on mine. The gold in his eyes flashed, looking at once especially striking. My breath hitched in my throat.
“I’m not just saying that, Jo. I’m—I’m fucking crazy about you, okay? I just…need to take this slow.” He took his hand back, bowing his head as if in embarrassment. My heart was racing so fast that I was beginning to feel light-headed. He was crazy about me?
You’re good for me, my baby
“Will you do that for me?” he asked quietly, glancing at me through the sweep of hair that fell into his eyes. “I mean—you don’t have to, obviously. I know that’s a really stupid thing to ask as an adult for god’s sake, but—”
“I can do slow,” I interrupted, wide-eyed. “Slow is good.”
It would be better anyway—I was still such a mess. Was that, in fact, why he wanted to take things slow in the first place? The thought made me uneasy, but I didn’t allow myself to dwell on it—just take it for what it is, Jo…he’s crazy about you.
I glanced at Gabriel, who had by now lifted his head and was staring at me incredulously. “R—really?” he asked with a lift of an eyebrow. He seemed so thoroughly surprised that I suddenly understood why he got angry when I didn’t believe his words. Yes, really!
“Yes, really,” I affirmed, echoing my thoughts. I felt my face grow warm as a look of sincere gratitude graced Gabriel’s handsome face.
He stood up then, brushing some of the snow off his clothes before holding his hands out to help me up. I took them without hesitation, laughing lightly when he pulled me to my feet with ease.
“Well then,” he said, still looking a bit dazed that I’d actually agreed. “I don’t know about you, but I could go for finally getting out of the cold and eating.”
“I could definitely go for that,” I agreed with a grin.
And, well, even though I liked the cold….
The warmth had never been quite such a relief.
* * * *
So good for me, my love
Slow, as it turns out, was good for me, but it was also horribly confusing as I could never quite be certain what Gabriel would be okay with. It made me feel as if I was constantly pushing him too far. If I stepped too close, he took a half-step back; if I looked at him too long, he averted his gaze; and if I invited him over, he’d invite me out instead. Then, of course, there was always the confusing mess of touching. Holding hands seemed to be fine, and he was always reaching out to touch my hair or my face, but doing the same to him often made him tense up, leading me to feel hesitant about ever initiating contact.
Accepting contact though, I knew I could always do, but I supposed it wasn’t so difficult when Gabriel’s touches were never overly adventurous and always whisper soft, despite the fact that his fingers were rough—calloused from I wasn’t sure what. The mixture of sensations never failed to charge me, sending heat coursing through my system and often resulting in an ache that would settle right below my navel and leave me begging that he would touch me more, even though I already came to realize that he wouldn’t.
I still didn’t know why though and since the opportunity hadn’t yet come up for me to ask him, I instead distracted myself by trying to conjure up reasons of my own. This was difficult at first, as I kept chalking it up to be all my fault, but I simply kept reminding myself that we wouldn’t be together at all if Gabriel had some pressing problem with me and eventually, I began to consider other reasons.
I ended up with two hypotheses.
The first, which had been pretty popular in my mind, was that Gabriel was shy. This, however, turned out to be horribly wrong. Gabriel was not shy. Quiet, yes, but never shy. On the contrary, his every action seemed purposeful, executed with a quiet determination and confidence that was evident in every fiber of his being. Sure, he had his uncertain moments; a nervous stammer or an uneasy laugh, but that was less about shyness and everything to do with simply being human. It made me jealous at times, to be honest, because Gabriel did always appear sure of himself and here I barely even knew who I was.
My second hypothesis was that Gabriel had been grievously hurt in some past relationship. It seemed perfectly logical to me that maybe he’d been in a long-term commitment with someone and they’d smashed his heart to pieces by breaking up with him or cheating on him. I couldn’t imagine why in the hell anyone would do that to him, but then again, people did lots of things that didn’t make sense and I was included in those unfortunate masses.
Unable yet to confirm or deny my second hypothesis though, my mind wandered to other Gabriel-related thoughts, foremost of which was simply trying to learn more about him.
This task began one day after Gabriel had seen me leaving Nikolay all freshly “Jade-ified.” I’d been feeling wholly suppressed and rather hopeless about life in general, to be honest, but I’d hitched on a smile for him anyway, greeting him happily and asking him how his day had been going.
You’re good for me, my baby
Gabriel hadn’t answered my question though. Instead, he’d tugged on my wig playfully, given me an incredibly warm smile, and reminded me in a soft voice: “You know you’re still you underneath all this, right? No matter what they do, they can’t take that away from you.”
Of course, this immediately caused my eyes to well up with tears, but mostly I’d just been struck by the sudden realization that Gabriel, somehow, knew me really well. Sure, there were plenty of things that I hadn’t yet told him, so he didn’t know me entirely, but he definitely seemed to have a strong sense of my overall self and that led me to notice that I didn’t have such a strong sense of him. So that’s when the task started: the try-to-learn-everything-I-possibly-could-about- Gabriel-just-through-observation task.
A Sampling of Findings:
Gabriel was an avid coffee drinker. He drank it black, but with a small dash of cream, not because he thought it added to the flavor, but because it cooled the drink enough to prevent him from scalding his tongue.
When Gabriel was frustrated about something, he ran a hand roughly through his hair, ruffling the rich, chestnut locks until they stood out at adorable, awkward angles on the top of his head. His bangs, however, always lay smoothly—easily falling back into his eyes even after he’d messed them all up. I doubted the man was aware of any of this.
Gabriel quirked one eyebrow up when he was taken aback by something, used as few words as possible when conversing with anyone, did not bother with in-genuine pleasantries, seemed to experience disquieting moments of sullenness that I could never quite deduce the reasons for, but also occasionally engaged in moments of exuberant playfulness, usually of a physical nature as he’d “beat up” his best friend, Ryan, or yes, grab someone up and toss them into the snow!
So good for me
It was when I’d begun wondering if any of these random findings had even been useful in my quest to better understand Gabriel that something happened—something that would unexpectedly answer my plaguing question.
The two of us had been raiding a rack of pastries that’d been left in the lounge when I’d noticed that Gabriel had gotten a bit of powdered sugar on the corner of his mouth, so without even thinking about it I’d reached up to wipe it off, my thumb grazing his lips in the process. This, of course, led a flash of heat to shoot up my spine, but it’d led Gabriel to tense up, so I’d quickly taken my hand away, my face scarlet as I mumbled a hasty apology. Instead of the usual brushing off of the apology though, he’d hesitated, the briefest look of worry crossing his features.
Once, it would have confused the living daylights out of me, because I wouldn’t have had a clue as to why such an exchange would lead Gabriel to feel worried when he was usually always so self-assured, but in that moment, for the first time, I just…knew.
“You’re worried that we’re going too slow, aren’t you?” I’d asked, trying to catch his gaze. He’d said nothing, and somehow that led me to realizing even more. “You’re also worried that because of this, I’ll give up on you.”
Gabriel met my eyes then, a touch of surprise gleaming within their autumnal depths, and I knew that I’d been right.
“Don’t be,” I’d said. “I’d wait forever for you.”
He’d laughed a little, joking about how he hoped I wouldn’t have to wait that long, and then we’d had a playful shoving match over the last cream-filled donut, Gabriel winning the battle by shouting that Melanie was behind me. I’d scowled at his foul-play, but he’d ended up splitting the donut between us anyway, a cheeky grin fixed upon his endlessly lovely face.
I remembered smiling happily, not because he’d split the donut really, but because yes, I was finally beginning to gain an understanding of Gabriel, and I adored him all the more for it.
* * * *
The holidays were around the bend and everywhere bells jingled, carols were sung, and the smells of peppermint and pine wafted through the air. Spirits were significantly lifted—even around Valencia Records. Jenna could be seen pumping iron to the tune of ‘Carol of the Bells’, Nikolay was running around trying to get everyone to wear Santa hats (Gabriel was currently on a mission to never be in the same vicinity as him), Mr. Valencia hired a decorator to fill the halls with wreaths and Christmas banners, and even Melanie cracked a genuine smile…once.
To feel for you is easy
The Winter Festival also rolled into town and people rushed to visit it, looking like a multicolored array of cotton balls as they zipped up their parkas and trekked through the snow. With a
lot bit of begging coaxing, Gabriel and I became part of these masses, sampling the hot cocoa, watching the snowboarders pull tricks on the half-pipe, and dodging stray snowballs from children’s frenzied fights.
“Hey—Gabriel!” I cried out once we’d finished our hot cocoas.
I jumped in front of him, arms flung out to my sides, and sang out crisply: “Do you want to build a snowman?!”
“Oh god, no,” he muttered, face-palming, and I burst out into laughter before cutting in loudly with: “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE A SNOWMAN!!”
Gabriel finally laughed, taking his hand away from his face and smiling a little. “God, you’re ridiculous. Do you actually want to build a snowman?”
I clasped my hands in front of me, jutting out my lower lip and making a whimpering sound like a puppy. He laughed again, this time more freely.
“Yes, okay, Jo—let’s build a snowman,” he acceded.
And so we did ^.^
The sun was low in the sky, casting a deep orange glow on the snow before Gabriel and I left the festival. I’d actually gotten there on foot, but when I told Gabriel this and how I’d be walking back, he paled significantly and insisted that he drive me home. It was a little ridiculous, considering I only lived about a mile away, but he’d really seemed unsettled by the idea of me walking, so I agreed anyway, thankful, at least, for the few extra minutes with him.
It was with incredibly high spirits that I stepped through my front door that evening, singing to myself about building snowmen and dancing around the room still in my heavy coat and gloves.
I took out my phone, debating whether it was too soon to text Gabriel or not, when it suddenly vibrated, the screen lighting up in a soft, blue hue.
My heart leapt, thinking that it was him, but instead the word ‘DAD’ flashed into appearance, bringing me news that would bring me to my family two weeks earlier than I’d originally expected.
My grandfather had passed away.
* * * *
It was a simple service—almost peaceful, in a way, but it was also the worst possible way to be reunited with my family once again.
Every comforting hug and smile exchanged was tainted; coated in a thick layer of sorrow that made everything feel infinitely more difficult.
Even worse than the deep-set sorrow however, because that had been expected, was how awkward every interaction felt. It was as if I were an outsider intruding on one of the most personal and painful experiences that a family could go through. They all knew my grandfather so much better than I did, and though I missed and loved him too, the recognition of this difference made me feel even more like a stranger.
As such, I often stood to the side, hugging myself and trying to breathe through the heaviness that seemed to have descended upon my chest. It took everything in me not to crumble, especially when Gemma abruptly burst into sobs, breaking down about halfway through the funeral and having to be taken aside by Augustus. He took our sister into his arms, mumbling something into her ear, and she just cried, looking as if her world would never be the same again.
I couldn’t help but feel that, as the eldest, I should have been the one comforting her, but instead I’d been frozen by my uncertainty and the feeling that I did not belong. I hugged myself tighter, trying desperately not to break down into sobs of my own for I felt that they’d be for all the wrong reasons.
I know you’re good for me
“It’s going to take some time, Jo,” said an achingly familiar voice from beside me. I slowly lowered my hands and turned toward my father. His already lined face was further creased with the weight of his loss and I could tell by the way the way he held himself that he was having difficulties remaining fully present. It made me want to kick myself, for he was obviously in so much more need of comfort than my pathetic, moping self.
Dad clasped his hands rigidly before him, his head bowed as he looked down at the ground. He took in a deep breath and then let it out slowly. “Just give them time,” he repeated.
I nodded a bit, taking a steadying breath of my own. Tobias and Gemma were talking quietly now while Augustus had moved on to trying to console Thomas, who at five years was old enough to feel extremely sad, but not quite old enough to understand exactly why. Mom was helping him to explain. I stared at them for a while, lamenting the fact that not only was I actually a virtual stranger to my youngest brother, but that I had also not been there to see Augustus transform into the self-assured person he seemed to be today.
“Will you do me a favor, Jo?” Dad suddenly asked.
I glanced over at him, immediately deciding that I would do whatever he asked of me—anything to bring him comfort. “What is it?”
“Please say hello to your mother, at least,” he whispered, further pain crossing his features. “I can’t bear to see her cry again over you. She misses you so much.”
My face crumbled. Guilt poured into my bloodstream, causing my stomach to plummet and a cold sweat to break out on my skin. I had no idea what I’d expected him to ask, but I knew I never would have guessed that.
I know you’re good for me
I glanced over at Mom, watching as she comforted Thomas, and a stream of memories began to flow through my mind.
Candice helping me fix my hair to get ready for school. Candice helping me save my dad when I’d found myself alone and pounding on a bathroom door, panicked because he wasn’t responding and sobbing because I’d thought he was dead.
The memories came faster.
Mom comforting me in the hospital. Mom assuring me that Dad loved me even when he shouted at me. Mom continuously reminding me that he was ‘sick’ and that he ‘needed our love’ to get better. Mom begging me not to hate him when he walked out on my 14th birthday to go have a drink after having been sober for so long. Mom crying for weeks afterward and yet still remaining—not because she wasn’t furious with my father, and not because she was heavily pregnant because she wouldn’t have let that stop her, but because she’d simply refused to leave me alone.
I ran to her.
She’d finished talking to Thomas and had just glanced over at me, and I ran to her, throwing my arms around her and pulling her into a back-breaking hug. She let out a startled gasp.
“I’m sorry!” I cried, sobbing into her tightly-woven braids. “I’ve been so awful to you—so completely awful!”
“Dang—what the heck did your dad say to you?” she asked jokingly, but I held her all the more firmly, until she finally dropped her tough-walls and wrapped her slender arms around me in an unyielding embrace. She still smelled faintly like cinnamon sticks, which she always used to stir cocoa and tea. So many mugs made—so many whispered conversations. ‘Just bear with me, Jo. I promise: together, we’ll get him better.’
“I love you,” I told her.
“I love you too, kid.”
Rest in peace, Jiang Winters.
* * * *
When I came home that night I ambled straight up to bed, not even bothering to change out of my clothes. Emotionally exhausted, I fell asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I had a dream that my siblings were all buying a house together, but they wouldn’t let me join in on their plan because I was only their half-sister and not their true sister. I protested that that didn’t matter, but they all sneered at me, insisting that I was simply ‘not one of them.’ As they broke into laughter heavy clouds swept them away, and then Brandon was telling me “Shhhhh” and I was trying so hard to say no, but my brain wouldn’t work, my limbs wouldn’t respond, and then everything hurt.
I woke up sick to my stomach and ran immediately to the bathroom, retching nothing but bile and acid into the toilet because I hadn’t eaten since the morning previously. There, I collapsed to the floor in a ball and, still exhausted, fell straight back to sleep.
* * * *
This feeling inside me
“Hey…are you alright?”
I finished yawning and rubbed my eyes. They were burning from exhaustion and the painfully bright lights of flashing cameras. “Just tired,” I mumbled, suppressing another yawn. “Didn’t get much sleep.” I glanced up at Gabriel and then blinked hard, unused to the sight of him wearing anything other than a hoodie or a sweater. God it was criminal for anyone to look that good.
Gabriel paused, his lips pressed together and his heavy eyebrows furrowed with concern. “Because of your nightmares or because of your grandfather?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled, faintly annoyed. “I guess a bit of both…but mostly nightmares.” I reached up to scratch my head. The wig I was wearing was horribly itchy and my patience was running thin after having to go through such a ridiculous photo shoot so soon after my grandfather’s funeral (“It has to be now! You can take off and mourn the rest of the day!”). Melanie was such a stupid bitch. I should have told her to ‘fuck off’—it’s what Gabriel would have done. Next time I would tell her to back off.
I pulled a little at my skirt. The fact that I was wearing this tight, PVC skirt, five-inch pencil heels, and a plastic brassiere with goddamn smiley faces on it was doing nothing to alleviate my annoyance. Although, I had to admit, seeing Gabriel’s eyes sweep over the outfit more than once did at least prevent me from ripping someone’s head off.
“Maybe you—” Gabriel started, but I was back to scratching my head again and finally just shouted, out of pure bottled-up frustration: GAH! I’M GOING TO TEAR THIS THING OFF MY HEAD!”
I proceeded to try, but Gabriel let out an angry hiss and moved my hands away.
“Quit it!” he snapped. “You’re gonna rip your fuckin’ hair out. God, at least let me help you,” he suggested. I let my arms fall to my sides, pouting as Gabriel started removing hairpins from the accursed wig. If I hadn’t been so angry and tired, I might have laughed at the sight, especially because it was clear he had no idea what he was doing—he just didn’t want to see me scalp myself.
“Ouch!” I winced as he accidently pulled some of the strands underneath my wig.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, withdrawing his hand for a moment. “I feel like this thing’s more metal than hair. Was your photo shoot in a fuckin’ wind tunnel?”
Oh, it sends me sky high
“No,” I said, but then couldn’t help but laugh a little at the image it evoked. My bad mood was beginning to dissolve. Oh thank god for you, Gabriel.
I reached up to help him, blushing a little when our hands occasionally brushed against one another’s, but Gabriel didn’t seem to notice. Together, we disentangled the wig from my head. I threw it onto the ground and then kicked it away because the thing looked creepy as hell lying on the floor. Gabriel laughed and then reached up to ruffle my hair so that it wasn’t quite so plastered to my scalp. I giggled.
He sighed then, folding his arms across his chest and leaning back against the wall. “You know…you can’t just hope they’ll magically disappear. The nightmares, I mean. You have to talk about them—face them; otherwise they’ll never go away.”
I frowned, folding my arms across my chest as well. It was times like this that I regretted having let slip that I suffered from them at all. “And what makes you such an expert on nightmares?” I asked sourly.
Gabriel cocked an eyebrow at me. “Because,” he said with an air of impatience, “I used to get them too.”
His pronouncement changed the atmosphere between us instantly, making me forget my ridiculous attire and the fact that my hair was probably knotted up as tightly as a bird’s nest. It was one of those rare moments in which Gabriel admitted something personal about himself, and it was a perfect opportunity for me to start doing the same, as so far, we’d kept our relationship fairly casual and light-hearted—neither wishing to push the other.
I chickened out at the last minute though and instead of asking him about his nightmares (like what could have caused them) or telling him about my own and getting the assistance I so desperately needed, I shattered the moment entirely by making a really stupid comment.
“Guess I know why you’re such a big coffee drinker then, eh?”
Oh, Joanne, you are such a massive idiot.
Gabriel’s eyebrow lifted once again. My face burned. “Yeah…guess so,” he said shortly, and then turned to go, looking genuinely annoyed with me. It took me aback so thoroughly that for a moment, I just stood there like the grand idiot I was, but then my heart clenched, a panicked feeling suddenly rising from my belly.
You’re good for me, my baby
I ran after him. “No, wait!” I cried, and then stumbled forward, tripping on my murderous heels. Gabriel caught me before I fell over, looking somehow both startled and irritated.
“Careful! Christ,” he muttered. His hands were firmly on my arms, aiming to steady me.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “That was a stupid comment. I’m so sorry. I just—panicked.”
“Why?” Gabriel asked incredulously.
“I don’t know!” I despaired, and then, upon hearing a soft, exasperated sigh, quickly continued with: “I mean—I do know. Kind of. I just—oh, Gabriel I’m so bad at confiding in people. I really am.”
“Why?” he asked again, and I let out a breath of impatience.
“Because…I don’t know, I don’t want to—to burden them or anything, so I just push everyone away instead! I—I don’t want to push you away though,” I admitted, my eyes abruptly stinging. “I really, really don’t and I’m so sorry. These nightmares though—I can’t…I don’t….” I trailed off, my throat too tight to speak.
Gabriel gave me an uncertain look, but then he let out a sigh. “I understand,” he said quietly. “It’s fine. My aim isn’t to rush you anyway; it’s to just get you to start dealing with this. I know that’s—incredibly difficult, but you have to at least, you know, try. You owe that to yourself,” he finished uncomfortably. It was as if the words were not quite his own, but it was clearly apparent that he’d meant them regardless.
A ray of warmth found its way into my heart, making me feel quite confused as to why I was crying in the first place. I looked down at my shoes, feeling ashamed. Why was I so…unstable? And why in the hell did Gabriel bother putting up with it? He was always so good to me. I sniffled.
So good for me, my love
“I—I really like you, you know,” I said in a small voice.
The confession shifted the mood again, causing Gabriel to look at me again with an unreadable expression. I flushed, my entire body suddenly feeling warm.
He cleared his throat. “I….I really like you too,” he affirmed softly. We stared at each other for a moment and then Gabriel took a step forward, his hands coming to rest gingerly upon my waist. My pulse quickened. I didn’t dare move.
“You know,” Gabriel remarked slowly, “I’m not…really sure what to make of this outfit. It’s both one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen you in, and one of the sexiest.”
I looked up at in him surprise and then laughed lightly, vaguely wondering how much longer I’d be able to hold myself back from jumping him. My head was swimming. “Maybe they’ll let me keep it,” I said somewhat breathlessly.
“Maybe,” he said absently. His thumb traced a small circle on the bare skin just above the waistline of my skirt. It was the faintest of touches, but it had the effect of making my entire body heat up. My eyes fell shut. Please….
You’re good for me, my baby
Gabriel leaned in, his hand reaching up to cradle the side of my face and his lips grazing my cheek before moving tentatively to my neck. The stubble on his face brushed against my skin, causing me to burn even hotter. A soft gasp escaped my lips, unbidden.
His breath hitched at the sound and he took a step back. I cursed mentally, but my irritation vanished when I saw the look on his face. He looked downright frustrated, not with me this time, I realized, but with himself.
So good for me, oh love….
“Hey,” I said gently, startled by the sight. “It’s—it’s okay. Slow, right?” I asked uneasily.
He took another step away me, shutting his eyes tightly and rubbing his temples. The action alarmed me further, but as I was about to say something else he sighed heavily, letting his hands drop and forcing a bit of a smile. The usual glow in his eyes though was disquietingly absent. “Slow,” he confirmed, and then turned to leave again.
This time, however, I did not go after him.
Although it pained me to do so, it was clear that for whatever reason, Gabriel needed to be alone.
* * * *
Giving Gabriel space though proved to be a mistake, as rather than the decision leading to improvement, it seemed to be the only excuse he needed to slowly slip away. It was a subtle distancing, but I felt it all the same—his smiles did not last as long, his sullenness expanded, and although I was usually an exception to Gabriel’s tendency to use as few words as possible when conversing with another, now I felt myself being treated like the masses. It was as if he was becoming increasing disheartened, but I had no idea why and, with Gabriel like this, could think of no means of finding out.
Once, I might have broken down and cried endlessly about this, resigned to having lost someone who was so deeply enmeshed in my heart that I’d never be the same, but now, having been under Gabriel’s continuous care and encouragements the last few weeks, I felt myself both empowered and determined to change the circumstances.
I went after him. I brought him coffee made precisely the way he liked it, I said ‘hey’ to him and softly brushed his hair out of his eyes, I smiled at him frequently, made silly faces to him from across the room, and slowly, so slowly, I felt Gabriel come nearer again.
You’re good for me, my baby
It was after a concert in which I’d totally gone off script at the end and instead of performing ‘Sinfully Sweet’ amidst a backdrop of towering chocolate milkshakes and massive plastic cherries, I announced instead that I’d be performing a very different song and that it was dedicated to a very important person in my life who hated the cold. Then, of course, I launched promptly into my own rendition of Let it Snow, which I knew Gabriel would find both irritating and amusing.
As it was that season, my audience really loved it too, and soon the whole venue was singing along. Although I still eagerly awaited the day that I could say goodbye to silly, sugary sensation, Jade, that night, it didn’t feel quite so horrible being her.
Even afterward, when Melanie hissed at me like a leaky hose for being an ungrateful little brat or something like that, I’d just started mumbling the lyrics to You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch under my breath, and by the end of her tirade I was belting out the lyrics to her with arms spread wide. It was extremely childish of course, but I could not have cared less in that moment, especially when she stormed off apoplectic with rage.
So good for me, my love
That’s when I’d heard Gabriel’s laugh come from behind me—his true laugh too, the one that reminded me of hot cocoa and the sun and everything else good and warm in the world. I came over to him, a little shyly as I didn’t want to scare him off, but to my immense pleasure he didn’t back away, even when I stopped only inches away.
Instead, he gently cupped my face in his hands, smiling as he looked down at me with gleaming russet eyes. “You make me so incredibly happy,” he murmured softly, and then pressed his lips to my forehead in a truly tender kiss.
It wasn’t a kiss on the lips yet, I know, but I could honestly say that I’d never felt quite so cherished before, and that realization, more than made up for it.
* * * *
You’re good for me, my baby
After that moment, we began to truly open up to one another, peeking out from walls I realized we both resided behind. The process, however, was not the graceful opening of a previously locked door, but rather the difficult destruction of mental barriers that’d been painstakingly erected over a vast number of years.
The destruction effort was lopsided at first—completely unbalanced because although I’d broken away most of my wall (save for the largest, densest of pieces), Gabriel’s had barely been chipped, and so it came as rather a shock to me when the first few pieces collapsed….
Gabriel picked up one of the coffee mugs I’d brought, bringing it to his lips and blowing on it softly before taking a careful sip. I took a tentative sip as well, glancing at the credits that scrolled up on the television.
We’d just gotten through watching Iron Man together, a choice that had been difficult to make as it turned out Gabriel’s taste for movies was rather limited (no romances, horror, murder mysteries, or even many types of drama, depending on their content), so we’d settled on action and Iron Man fit the bill.
So good for me, oh love
Not that I’d minded—especially as I got to watch Gabriel light up as he talked about cool it would be to own many of the gadgets Tony Stark did, and how he thought if he tried he might be able to make a rocket launcher, as he wasn’t so bad with tinkering. The pronouncement had led to a debate on why one would need a rocket launcher (“To chase off raccoons!”; “No! Don’t hurt the raccoons!”); and it was eventually decided that they were probably not so practical.
I put down my mug, picked up the remote, and turned the DVD player off, watching as the news report began to play on the screen, but not really paying it all too much attention. I was far too content just sitting here with Gabriel—far too content that’d he finally agreed to come over in the first place.
He set down his mug as well and looked at the TV for a moment before he glanced over at me. “May I ask you something?” His voice held a strange tonality that made me frown slightly, but I nodded regardless. “Why’re so nervous about being with your family for the holidays?”
My frown deepened. I’d mentioned that only briefly in passing, but evidently the confession had been weighing on his mind.
“It’s been awkward with them,” I answered hesitantly.
“Well…because I was away from them for so long.”
I paused, pursing my lips.
“Sorry,” he hastened to say, and then looked away. “I guess it’s just…if I could see them, I would, you know? Well, my parents anyway—I never had any siblings.”
“Why can’t you see them?”
“Because they’re dead,” he answered simply.
My face fell. “Oh,” I mumbled. I suddenly felt like the worst person on earth. “I’m sorry.”
Gabriel shrugged a bit, his eyes on the television now. The weather report was broadcasting, yet another forecast regarding chilly days and endless snow shining brightly on the screen. When Gabriel spoke again, it was with the air of someone trying to sound casual: “It was a long time ago. I was only three—car accident. Never really knew them.” He paused, and then his face kind of changed, looking somewhat nervous. He glanced at me. “This—this might sound weird, but sometimes if I think for a very long time, I feel like I can just make out some memories of them, but I’m never sure if….” He trailed off and rubbed his neck uneasily, but I understood already what he was saying.
All because you’re good for me, my baby
“You’re not sure if they’re actually real or not,” I supplied helpfully, “but they always….”
“Feel real,” Gabriel finished for me. The awestruck look had returned to his autumn eyes. They were now fixed on mine.
I flushed, tucking a lock of hair behind my ear. “My um…my mom committed suicide when I was two,” I explained, another piece chipping off my wall. “I never really knew her either.” The look on Gabriel’s face was empathetic, but there was also a note of question behind it. I felt I already knew what he was thinking though, so I quickly added: “The mom I talk about—she’s technically my stepmom. She’s pretty much always been there though, so it feels weird calling her that.”
“Oh.” Gabriel glanced over at me with a strange expression before continuing. “I know what you mean. I was raised by my grandparents—on my mom’s side, but they were all I ever knew so I just called them ‘mama’ and ‘papa’ anyway.”
I smiled. “So do you visit them?”
“I do. They live in Bridgeport. Well, my grandmother does. My grandfather passed away two years ago.” For the first time since our conversation had begun, a flash of sorrow crossed Gabriel’s face. He looked away.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, wringing my hands in my lap and hating the fact that I was beginning to sound like a broken record.
Gabriel shook his head slightly. “Don’t be. He lived a very long life—87 years,” he said, but the manner in which he said it made it clear this fact was of little comfort to him.
So good for me, my love
“Even so….” I began cautiously, “he was your dad.”
His eyes flicked toward me briefly before he nodded once. “Yes, he was,” he confirmed softly, and then brought his gaze to the television once more. The traffic report had just begun. Two cars had collided by the Community Library. There were no injuries, but it was causing massive delays Downtown.
“It’s so fucked up,” Gabriel whispered after a moment. He propped his elbows on his thighs, clasping his hands together and then resting his chin on them.
I crossed my legs and looked over at him questioningly. It seemed a rather harsh assessment of a simple fender-bender. “Well, at least no one was hurt,” I said bracingly, but then felt further confusion when Gabriel furrowed his brows.
“What?” he asked.
I blinked. “The…the collision….” I reminded him haltingly, now feeling a little worried. “On the TV?”
“Oh,” he said blankly. “Yeah.” Gabriel leaned back, long legs stretched before him and his arms folding firmly across his chest. He was looking at the television, I realized, but he wasn’t really paying it much attention.
“Wait, what were you talking about then?” I asked, feeling not only worried, but also completely confused.
“My parents,” he said grimly, a twitch working in his jaw.
“They’d always been told they couldn’t have children,” he informed me absently. His eyes were now focused on a point straight past the TV. “They’d tried everything, but after the stress of it all nearly destroyed their marriage, they finally just accepted that it would never happen for them. They considered adoption, but they were so far in their respective careers at that point that the idea eventually fell through. Then, obviously unexpectedly, I came along. A miracle, they called it. Their miracle. Then, fast forward three years and BAM, drunk driver slams into the side of their car on their home to me with such force that they die on impact—brains smashed against the insides of their skulls.” He took a breath, staring down at his shoes, and then added: “Some fucking miracle.”
I sat frozen, hugging myself and grasping for words. “Oh, Gabriel—” I started, but he cut in, flatly: “That’s just life though, isn’t it? ’That’s what happens time after time. Life is completely fucked up in that way.”
My heart gave a painful lurch, for he spoke the words not as if they were his opinion, but as if they were fact. It gave me the uneasy feeling that there was probably something else that he was not telling me; something that had caused him to solidify this bitter verdict.
I took in an uneasy breath. “I know,” I began, the words difficult to utter around the dense lump in my throat, “but it doesn’t always stay like that.”
Gabriel sighed, pulling in his legs and running both of his hands roughly through his hair. I wanted to comfort him so badly, but I knew neither what to do, nor what to say. He looked up at me, and I felt myself freeze as his russet eyes met mine. They were uncharacteristically lightless, but within them also lurked a certain flash of desperation as he asked: “Do you really believe that?”
You’re good for me, my baby
So good for me
I sat up straight at once. “Yes,” I answered determinedly, my fierce certainty surprising even myself. “I mean—I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always feel like it, but I know that it can,” I continued fervently, fresh tears forming in my eyes. “I know because I—because I look at my dad, who—who struggled with raising me as a teen, my mom’s suicide, and—and really awful anxiety and alcoholism because of it, and yet overcame it all and is now this like, world famous writer with a wife and five children who love him more than anything, and now too well, he’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever known.”
“So yes, I do believe it doesn’t always stay that way. I believe that it can change. I have to believe it,” I concluded insistently.
I reached up to wipe my tears from my eyes, but they only returned with a sting when I caught sight of the despair that still marred Gabriel’s face. I hugged myself again.
“You don’t believe it, do you,” I tried to ask, but it came out more as a statement than a question for I felt I knew the answer.
Gabriel kept his gaze averted, staring down at his knees and further confirming my suspicions. He cleared his throat twice, calloused fingers intertwined loosely and a faint crease appearing between his brows.
“I want to,” he said with a sigh, and then, having nothing more to say, fell utterly silent.
Then I’ll help you believe, I thought desperately to myself, and then leaned my head against his shoulder, wondering how on earth I would achieve such a feat.
* * * *
If that had remained the largest of my concerns, then maybe I would have figured out how to succeed.
If that had remained the largest of my concerns, then maybe my own belief wouldn’t have wavered.
If that had remained the largest of my concerns, then maybe the world wouldn’t have been smashed to dust by two simple words uttered so sickly sweet.