Author's note and review response at the bottom.

Chapter twenty-three: All is fair everywhere.

Esther felt oddly calm, leaning into Thomas in this almost magical place. It seemed like the serenity of the clearing flowed into her. She actually felt relieved.

It was a feeling so unlike the two times she tried to talk with a therapist. Those two sessions had left her anxious and simply depressed. The woman in all her professionalism hadn't been able to hide the pity and it had suffocated Esther. The woman had pressed her to talk because through talk she could start to heal. Or so the woman had told her.

Esther had only wanted to forget. What was the use of talking about it? She had seen her father being murdered and she had done nothing to stop it. No amount of conversation could ever change the facts.

David had tried to convince her that it wasn't her fault in the hospital that night. Everything had happened so fast and Esther had been hurt herself. Even if she could have gotten to a phone, help would've been too late. And any ideas she might hold as to stopping the guy herself were utterly ridiculous.

In fact, David had stated, it was a good thing that she froze up like she did. Who knows what might have happened otherwise. Esther had doubted his words.

It was her mother's utter relief and thankfulness to find her daughter alive which had put things into some perspective. She could have died as well but she had lived.

She didn't tell her mother that she was partly responsible for her father's death, though.

Beside David nobody knew about her cowardice.

In all her accounts and statements she had kept to the bare basics, only disclosing as much as was needed to get the guy convicted. People said it was the trauma which caused her memory laps. Esther had only silently laughed at that. She wasn't bothered by any memory lapses. Except for the fact that she honestly couldn't remember getting stabbed. She only remembered the way her body and mind had completely frozen. Not even her father's cries to get out, to run, hadn't done anything.

But it been enough, the guy got convicted without a hitch. Esther somehow thought it funny how she didn't want the guy dead. She just wanted him gone so she could forget about him.

And he went and she forgot. This was the longest amount of time she spent thinking on it in a very long time.

"They tried, or are still trying actually, to change the law," Esther said, unsure why she saying it. Thomas made an inquisitive sound.

"To make it illegal for people with certain psychological diseases to refuse medication. Even now, the case is still high profile. That's the main reason why we left, you know, because of all the attention." Esther explained more to herself than to Thomas.

The media had been everywhere. Everybody picked up on it. A leading scholar and advisor to the government being murdered would already have warranted some attention. But with a mental patient as the murderer and a young daughter witnessing it all it just became The Story.

"Mamma and David protected me as much as they could. The court hearings were held behind closed doors, nobody in the family gave interviews. But we actually had people tailing us. Staking out the house."

"That must have sucked." Thomas said softly resting his chin on her shoulder.

"That would be an understatement. When I got back to school, like two months after everything had happened, there was actually somebody from the news standing there, wanting to ask me questions. David just decked the guy, didn't wait for him to say or do anything," Esther said with a wry smile.

"Which only resulted in getting David more attention and a bad rep with the press. But on the bright side, the notoriety must have helped him with his book sales." Esther said with sarcastic amusement. Thomas let out a dry laugh and cleared his throat a little.

Esther would never have imagined she'd be able to discuss everything and actually feel largely peaceful. It must have something to do with the place, or the guy.

"Well, I've found another silver lining. If it wasn't for the annoying media, you wouldn't have left and thus I wouldn't have met you. I think I should write them a thank you note."

Thomas said, obviously trying for a lighter note but Esther could hear the underlying unease, as if he was afraid he had been out of bounds. But Esther didn't think so. She thought it was sweet. In a slightly macabre way.

Esther turned her head slightly and kissed Thomas lightly on the corner of his mouth.

Thomas took the kiss as the invitation it was meant to be and shifted slightly to gain better access.

The kiss started out slow, as if he wanted to reassure her and put her at ease but Esther deepened the kiss. Pretty much everything had been said and now it was time to forget again.

And what better way to do that than by kissing her boyfriend.

Without breaking their kiss Thomas changed their positions, so that he was lying down and Esther was resting on top of him.

The kiss grew in intensity and Thomas hands' wandered down and slipped underneath her jacket. Esther hands were busy musing up Thomas hair.

The shrill sounds of a ring tone cut through the silence. Thomas and Esther almost jumped apart, looking at each other as if they just got caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

"Since fucking when do I have a signal here!" Thomas cried out to the sky as he struggled himself into a seating position while trying to retrieve his phone.

"I'm not supposed to get a signal here." he hissed at his mobile, glaring at the offensive object.

Esther couldn't help but be amused by Thomas annoyance even though she did share his sentiments.

"Hey Ry," Thomas answered, unable to keep the annoyance out of his voice.

"Yeah, everything is fine" Thomas gave Esther an exasperated look as he talked.

Esther let her eyes wander over the waterfalls as she listened in on the conversation.

"Hmm? No we had breakfast already. We're up in the hills now."

"Around ten."

"Of course we've gotten enough sleep you dickhead." Mild annoyance was turning more severe.

"Very funny, Ry. Oh, you're being serious, well that sucks."

"No, actually I was being quite serious." Thomas voice grew harder.

Esther looked at Thomas. His face matched his tone. He was all business.

"Yeah, I don't really care about that." Thomas gave Esther a look as he let out a silent sigh.

"It's not open for discussion, Ry. Either you're in or you're out, simple as that."

"Good and thank you. I agree, but let me ask Amsterdam, okay." Thomas asked before moving the phone away from his ear and covering the mouth piece with his other hand.

"The rest is up and about and they want to meet us in Gritters. Do you want to go?" Thomas asked with a note of concern filling his business like tone.

Esther really didn't need to think about it. She knew what was going to be discussed and she knew that it would force her mind to start forgetting again. So she nodded.

"Sure. Let's meet up." Thomas seemed relieved.

He moved the phone back to his ear.

"Ry, yeah, we'll be there. In, let's say, forty-five or so."

"Sure, see you later." Thomas let out a sigh as he disconnected the line.

Esther gave him a questioning look, even if it was pretty clear what had been discussed.

"Seems Ry thinks I was a bit too drunk yesterday." Thomas shrugged getting up and jumping from the boulder.

"Well, you might have been a tad tipsy." Esther said grinning as she followed suit.

Thomas shot her a glare which Esther only found amusing.

"Hey, we all were. But there's nothing like some good Dutch courage."

Thomas blinked at Esther before laughing and Esther felt suddenly shy and pleased at the same time. It wasn't often somebody actually laughed at her poor jokes, yet Thomas seemed to, often.

"You do know what Dutch courage means don't you?" Thomas said, taking her hand and leading them back into the forest.

"Of course." Esther said with fake vexation and she left it at that.

Esther doubted that it had been the booze talking the night before but even if it had, Thomas wasn't retracting his words now, which meant the game was still on.

They drove back into town in relative silence, which was fine by Thomas.

Esther made the occasional remark about the scenery to which Thomas answered with noncommittal sounds. He was currently too wrapped up in his own thoughts.

Esther had confided in him and now he wondered briefly why he had pushed the matter in the first place.

He still couldn't quite comprehend what she must have gone through. He could only imagine it had to be so much worse than watching a parent die in a hospital, of natural causes. And that had been bad enough.

But now the girl beside him looked right as rain, only her reddened eyes reminding him of her earlier breakdown.

Well, good thing he already knew his girl tended to do the opposite of what he expected from her. Otherwise he might have been taken aback by the sudden switch she seemed to have pulled.

The anger he felt towards the guy who had hurt Esther so deeply was easily channeled towards his brother. The only person he actually knew who wanted to hurt his Amsterdam.

And he felt some anger towards Riley for doubting him just now. But he couldn't really be upset with him. After all, he hadn't been there last night, or rather morning and his skepticism wasn't entirely unfounded.

Going after Cowen was not going to be pretty or easy. But it simply had to be done.

"Awww, look-e-look. The lovebirdies have arrived." Adrian's voice rang through Gritter's the moment Thomas opened the door.

Thomas gave him an unimpressed look. He was only holding Esther's hand, while Adrian had Alyssa firmly planted on his lap and from the looks she was feeding him a muffin. Really now, who were the 'lovebirdies' in this picture.

"Oh shut up." Alyssa said with a giggle as she stuffed another piece of muffin into Adrian's mouth. Apparently some people were still under the influence of alcohol.

Esther gave Thomas a bemused look as she took a seat on the couch opposite of the settee Adrian and Alyssa were occupying.

As Thomas sat down beside Esther Riley came up with a tray of drinks.

"Hey, I saw you guys come in, so I got you these." Riley said as he handed Thomas and Esther a plain cappuccino.

"And for the sickening sweet couple of the day." Riley said with mock annoyance.

"They've been at this ever since they came out of Alyssa's room this morning. You'd think that they'd be over that by now. Come to think of it," Riley said, looking at Thomas contemplatively. "You'd think that by now they'd be over, period."

A wrapped up napkin hit Riley square on his forehead and Adrian was not looking happy. Alyssa only poked out her tongue.

"Just call her already. Christ, you'd think the boy knows how to use a phone by now." Adrian retorted, also directing his words at Thomas instead of Riley.

Hangover induced childish behavior; silence was definitely golden right now.

He glanced over at Esther and noticed she was following everything with clear amusement.

"How did things go with Ophelia then?" she asked Riley. Riley only shrugged but he couldn't hide a shy smile as he took a sip from his coffee and seemed to lose himself in thought. Riley really had to like this girl.

The reprieve from what was to come was only momentarily, though, and it was Alyssa who broached the subject.

"So," she drawled as she untangled herself from her boyfriend and took a seat next to Riley, "exactly how, when and why did you decide that the, and I quote, 'complete and utter destruction' of your brother was a good idea?" she gave him a stern look.

Thomas looked at her intently trying to decide how to discuss the matter. To humor or not to humor. The decision was forced on him by Riley's question.

"Why don't you start by telling us the reason for your bruises?" Riley said commandingly. Thomas could only look at Riley. Why exactly had he agreed to meet with them?

"Look Thomas, we know Cowen tends get you all riled for a fight. Hell, we've seen our fair share. We know you two hate each other with a passion but why all of sudden do you want to take him on?" Adrian continued for Riley and by the way his flickered over to Esther it was evident he had very clear idea as to the why.

"It's not like you ever cared for being in Cowen's position." Alyssa finished.

Talking about a set-up. All the childish behavior had vanished and Thomas felt he had been dragged before the Spanish Inquisition. Esther squeezed his leg reassuringly but he didn't look at her. He kept his gaze on his friends.

For the first time he realized that his friends had suspected all along what had been going on but that they had let him be. And he couldn't help but feel grateful for that.

"Thomas, I'll, we'll," Riley started gesturing between the free of them. "have your back, no matter what, you know that. But some staring match with your brother really isn't enough of a reason to flat out go to war against him."

Thomas heaved a deep breath. They were actually make him say it.

"Guys, you know just as well as I do that I already declared war yesterday, even without the whole staring thing. You also know why I'm doing it."

He looked at Esther who gave him a surprised look which swiftly turned to guilty.

"Oh no.." she started but Thomas quickly cut her off with a quick peck on her lips and a comforting smile before returning his attention to his friends.

"You know Cowen has it in for her. Last Thursday he confronted her again, right here. Which was bad enough but like I said in school, it worked in my favor," he said with a stupid grin, giving Esther's hand a small squeeze. "But then that thing with Lesly happened during lunch and that just did it."

His friends nodded but it was clear they wanted him to continue.

"What? You think she came up with that all by herself?" Thomas said somewhat vexed. "You think I could just let that slide? Yes, Cowen has always been in control and we've all played nice by his rules but no fucking more! Not when he is going after one of mine." Thomas noticed he had raised his voice and softened his tone immediately. They all quickly glanced around but there was no one there to have overheard them.

For a minute they all just looked at each other. Thomas knew they understood.

His friends had always been his friends, yes, but they had always acknowledged and respected Cowen's authority. That was why Alyssa had had no problems getting on cheerleading squad, why Adrian played in the school's basketball team, and why Riley was head of the debate club. It had simply been the way things worked, ever since they had started school, kindergarten even.

The only one to have defied Cowen from an early age on was Joshua and it had made him a social pariah. A role he seemed to relish in, though. Thomas was somewhat envious of him and he never did understand why Joshua genuinely seemed to like him. After all, he was just a coward who had initially gone along with Joshua's excommunication.

But now there was Esther too who had defied his brother and this time he wasn't about to let a couple, or a lot of bruises deter him. Then again, he had never been absolutely love-struck by Joshua.

"Okay," Riley finally broke the silence, "Like I said we're with you. But you never did tell us the real reason of your fight with Cowen."

"You already know why, Ry," Thomas said calmly but he was sure to send Riley a warning look. He was not going to tell Esther that she had been the reason. He could only imagine how well that would go over, especially in light off her recent revelations.

Thankfully Riley took the hint and only finished off his coffee. Adrian followed suit and Alyssa started to nibble on her muffin. Esther had withdrawn her hand and was playing with the zipper of her jacket. Her face was obscured by her hair so Thomas couldn't see her expression which didn't put him at ease.

"Amsterdam?" he asked softly, nudging her with his elbow. Esther raised her head slowly, not quite meeting his eyes.

"I'm the reason, aren't I?" she asked just as softly, her eyes resting on the bruises around his eye. Thomas only nodded, a knot forming in his stomach. Stupid Riley and his stupid persistence.

Esther opened her mouth to say something but meeting his eyes she apparently thought the better of it. Instead she leant forward and gave him a gentle kiss on the both bruises on his face. She withdrew with a watery smile and a look that stunned Thomas. It had been combination of sadness, and things he could only qualify as gratitude and admiration.

As Esther returned her attention to her zipper, Thomas threw his arm around her and drew her close. And Esther responded by resting her head in the crook of his arm.

"So," Thomas started, feeling infinitely better and actually looking somewhat forward to his confrontation with his brother. "Alys, any change Lesly can be thrown of the squad?"

Alyssa seemed taken off guard by the almost cheery tone of voice but she quickly recovered.

"Nope, nothing I can do without Elise's help and I doubt she'll go against Cowen." she said, shaking her head.

"Damn, that's a pity." Thomas had expected as much but it would have been nice. He had no doubt that Lesly would be allowed back at Cowen's table staring tomorrow and he wanted to put off any direct and especially public confrontations to a later date.

"Yup," Adrian agreed, apparently having read his mind. "Maybe we should let Lesly be for now and focus more on our strengths and weaknesses."

"You're actually paying attention in those marketing classes?" Riley asked with a chuckle.

"Up yours," Adrian retorted lightly before focusing on the matter at hand again. Thomas smiled. Yes, these were his friends.

"Anyway, as I was saying, we need to assert our strengths and weaknesses, and we need to come up with a strategy. What?" Adrian said, looking somewhat disgruntled by the amused expressions facing him. "If we're going to this, we should do it right."

"And right you are." Riley chuckled again and Alyssa pinched her boyfriend's cheeks, making cooing noises. All of this only served to upset Adrian even further and Thomas decided to take pity on him. Even if the lighter mood was more comfortable.

"You are right, though," Thomas said. Before he could continue, however, the door opened and in came an assortment of members of their school's football team. They were lead by Jason and his current flavor of the month.

Jason gave Thomas a curt nod and Alyssa a small smile, and then proceeded to a table too nearby for Thomas' comfort. Matthew might once have been his friend too but Jason had always been Cowen's lackey.

Appearing entirely nonchalant Thomas leant back into couch, stretching one arm and resting it lightly around Esther's shoulders.

"So, when did that movie start again?" he said looking at the others as he took a drink from his coffee.

It was Riley who was the quickest on the uptake.

"Oh, it doesn't start until three but we'll need to swing by my house first." Riley looked Thomas dead in the eye, as if it would help getting his message across.

"We'll do that then. But first, please tell about us all those hours you spent hidden away with the young and impressionable Ophelia." Thomas asked in his best affected accent only to hit with a piece of banana chip muffin.

Author's note:

Yes, the story and I are still here and aren't going away either. I only hope I haven't lost my readers completely.

This is a rather short chapter but I wanted to post something to let you know I'm still here.

Two notes to this chapter: One, I'm actually not too pleased with the conversation about the media frenzy. It feels forced and convoluted but I kept it in because it is relevant to the story. Two, for those of you who are interested, this story is of course completely fictional. This means that there has not been any such murder like the one described and there is no debate about voluntarily refusing medication. But there have been other incidents and I feel that both the political and media reaction would be along these lines.

Review response:

I know I can now reply reviews directly but I feel more comfortable doing it like this.

pudding2009: Hi, welcome to the story! All I can tell you is that it's going to get rough between the two brothers but it is going to take a while before things will be settled. I hope you keep reading and reviewing.

: And now it is my turn to apologize. But yes life does have that nasty tendency to just rear its ugly head once and a while. Although I haven't found quite so much to do as you have. Does sound like a grueling semester but the courses sound good, so that should make it worth the trouble. But thank you so much for your wonderfully kind words; they sure do lift the spirits (and the ego). Yes, Esther is dealing with some very heavy issues and probably not in the most healthy of ways. As for the length of this story, I can't rightly say because it's already longer than I had first anticipated. I think another ten to fifteen chapters will be in order but it depends on whether I let all of the plot bunnies out to play. But I do hope you'll keep reading the story regardless.

Valtho: I thank you my dear. I have no idea whether you're ever going to continue reading this story but I do hope to hear from you again. Probably when you should be selling passes and plan the teacher's schedules. Well, catch you later.

Sincerely he said: Yes, quite.

Pinkfluffyoranges: Thank you so much for your wonderful review and I'm sorry you had wait so long but I do hope you'll keep reading.

.baby: Thanks for another review. I can see your point and I hope I manage to tone it down a bit. Anyway, hope to hear from you again.

darkness-is-shiny: Yes, life will become very un-peachy for Thomas, Esther and pretty much every one else in the rather near future.

lunacy and literacy: Well, I do aim to please : ).

Twinkle Star Bell: The ever fairy? Yes, I do think you are. Esther seems still quite sane although her coping mechanisms might leave something to be desired. I do want you warn you, though, if you thought the last part was slightly depressing be ready for more depression because the story is going to get a little dark in places (Cowen really isn't a nice person).