Chapter twenty nine

Kari was watching me. Jesus lord, this was beyond awkward.

It went against my grain, but I bit back scathing words and stiffly rose into a sitting position. "Morning," I muttered. She looked far too refreshed to have slept five hours or less. It was only eight in the morning, judging from the clock hanging on the wall at the far end of her room.

I felt vulnerable under her stare, disoriented from sleep, and the fact that she was witness to my lovely collapse late last night. Still, I was extremely aware of my position at the moment, figuratively and literally.

"Thanks for offering me your bed," I said, albeit awkwardly, no matter my attempt to keep a straight face. How was one supposed to behave in such an unusual situation? "If I can borrow your bathroom for five minutes, then I'll be out of your –"

"Your clothes are washed and in the bathroom. Breakfast is downstairs – come when you're ready."

I gaped as she whirled and walked away with the grace of a cat. Okay. Now I needed to know the reason for this change of heart.

I changed quickly into my clothes, even stared a bit when I saw a toothbrush on top of the pile still in its package. I always knew that Kari was decent – it was just out of the ordinary to have this decency extended to me. As far as I knew, we were still ignoring each other. A frown inched its way to my face. Hopefully this wasn't out of pity. I was definitely in the mood for a vicious confrontation, and I'd rather not test her hospitality.

The house was surprisingly clean. No litter, no broken furniture; clear and cleaned floors with the faint smell of lemon cleaning disinfectant.

"Did you clean by yourself?" I said by way of greeting. Kari was seated on a stool at the island table, and I lowered myself across from her cautiously.

"Friends stayed to help," she said after she swallowed a bite of her bagel. "There's bacon, eggs, and French toast. If you want a muffin, it's behind you on the counter, along with the bagels. There's plain, raisin, cinnamon, and apple caramel," she said, almost absentmindedly. "I usually have milk, but there's orange and apple juice in the fridge. If you want hot chocolate or tea, the kettle is next to the oven."

"Oh. Uh… thanks, orange juice is fine, and I'll just – okay, why are you helping me?" I couldn't sit here for a second longer and have breakfast with Kari without knowing where this was headed – that is to say, what she expected of me. I mean, for Pete's sake, whenever I tried to offer my assistance, she'd practically bite my head off! Okay, granted it wasn't exactly the same…

Kari gave me a look. "Are you always so paranoid in the morning?"

"Give me a break, this is weird even by our standards," I retorted, but relaxed slightly knowing that it just wasn't me who felt out of place. There was already a plate in front of me so I just began to load the bacon, eggs and toast, all the while giving her a piece of my mind. "I mean, the last time I tried to mend whatever rift it was between us, you more or less told me to fuck off. So forgive me for being a bit paranoid. These are good eggs, by the way."

To my surprise, Kari cracked a smile. "Thanks. Cooking's a hobby of mine." She broke a piece of her bread, but instead of eating it, she sighed. "I'll admit that I didn't handle that night on the trip well," she said, albeit stiffly. "I reacted instinctively. Like you said, it was weird considering our history." She gave me another of her tolerant yet mocking looks. "And, let's face it, you do have some sort of a hero complex."

I shrugged. It was true. "So you're taking lessons from me?"

"You'd think." She snorted, and silence washed over us for the next few minutes as we consumed breakfast.

Inwardly, I tried not to fret. Fine, it was strange, but overall I was relieved that I had reprieve from last night's drama, and if that meant finding sanctuary in Kari's house out of all places, then I wasn't going to complain.

"Tell me about Laurita," Kari said. I wasn't surprised, and at this point I needed an objective look on my situation. Still, the sound of her name made a bitter taste come to my mouth.

"I don't know much about her," I said. "Last night was the first time we've exchanged so many words." My eyes burned the plate in front of me and I cinched my jaw. "She's a coward."

"So I heard."

Surprised, I looked at her, and she shrugged at my look. "What are you going to do?"

"What can I do?" I said flatly. "It's her secret to tell. Telling Dante hasn't crossed my mind – I've got nothing to gain from doing so."

"But you're angry."

"Of course I'm angry!" I exploded. "How could she take advantage of him like that? Take advantage of his family?" Rage choked my next words. "How could he ever have fallen in love with her?" The injustice of it all silenced me. There really was nothing I could do – at least, not at the risk of my principles, which I've always stood by. But never have I been faced with such a dilemma. Only Dante could make me question my own morals, but then, I was protecting him, wasn't I? The argument can be used for both sides, but I knew telling him would only make me seem desperate. Laurita knew that too.

"Dante's not an idiot. Laurita may have started out wrong, but there must be something inherently good about her for him to care about."

A bitter smile twisted my lips. "Exactly. But it's not my problem."

Kari had the audacity to laugh. "Right, and we're friends."

"You're accepting my truce, then?" I said sardonically.

She stilled at that. "I know enough about you to say that what I did was wrong and unjustified," she said stiffly. "And that I probably . . . owe you an apology."

I gaped. She sounded like someone was torturing the words out of her, but the fact that she even managed to say them without choking . . .

"I apologize, then," she said briskly.

"Apology accepted." I managed to smother my smile at her obvious discomfort.

Nothing else was said about our relationship, but I felt the shift on Kari's part. You can't please everyone, but this was the step up from pointless clashing.

"So, what are you going to do?"

I regarded her blankly. "What?"

"What are you going to do about Laurita?"

"Didn't I already answer that?"

"I doubt you aren't going to do anything." Kari almost looked amused at the mere thought. "You're a change-the-situation kind of girl."

I frowned, but lowered my gaze to the counter in thought. Essentially, Kari was right. But this was too delicate, and I was too personally involved to even talk to him about it. I didn't know what to do, to begin with, even if I wanted to do something.

"I've known Dante all my life, did you know that?" I said idly. "He may seem perfect, but he's not. He's wilful, to the point where it crosses boundaries, and he knows how to hold a grudge." My finger traced the rim of the cup as every possible scenario of confrontation played in my mind like a bad film. "He'll be angry at her, but he'll get angry at me, too. For finding out." I gritted my teeth. "Do you see what I'm saying? If you think I have a hero complex, when it comes to me, he's ten times worse. He doesn't do it on purpose, either, it's just . . ."

Towards the end, my voice subdued considerably, until I let it trail. I'd said too much.

"Why does that bother you?" Kari sounded puzzled, but her eyes were calculating. "They're his feelings; not yours. At least, if you do make the decision to do it, it'll be for a reason you believe in. He's just reacting."

"I know, I –"

"And him getting angry – it's understandable. Your situation is way too precarious, and judging from last night, it's you two haven't really come to a conclusion about each other."

My eyes narrowed. "Well, obviously, as you said –"

"It's going to be even worse, watching Laurita parade around with Dante at her heel, as if she were perfect. As if she weren't manipulative enough to pretend she was you and have sex with Dante, when he was drunk, no less." She paused briefly. "When he was missing you to the point where he would have to drink to forget."

The lid I tried to shove over my anger, guilt, and irritation blew off as the three coalesced into such acute heartache that, at first, I couldn't even say what I wanted to. "Don't try romanticizing his fucked up reaction! He shouldn't even be –"

"Oh, and do you think you being depressed to the point of suicidal is any better?"

For a second I stared at her blankly, and then rage took over. "Excuse me? You don't know anything about me, or what happened, or about what I felt!" The words were supposed to come out angry and biting, but the tears were rising fast. Still, I ploughed on. "If you think you can sit there and judge – pretend – you know what it was like, that day when –" I felt winded, and I tried to say more, but I couldn't. It was too much. I wanted to curl up into a ball, like I used to those nights on my bed, but I lifted my chin.

Kari, however, was not looking at me. Her eyes were cast downward, and a tiny, sad smile pulled at the corner of her mouth. If it weren't for that smile, she'd look like she were about to cry herself. But maybe I was reading too much into it because when she spoke, her voice was its usual neutral tone. "Don't you think what I'm doing to you now, is what you're doing to Dante?"

Her words hit me so hard that I actually felt my knees buckle.

My mouth opened and closed. "It's not the same at – no! It's different, I –" I realized how I sounded and took a deep breath. "That's different," I said stiffly. "Dante isn't rational when it comes to me. It's like he thinks he can save me from anything." My words grew bitter. "It's like I don't exist apart from him. Like I don't have a choice but to be with him."

Kari was silent as she observed me. Maybe I wasn't as good at hiding my feelings as I thought I was, if Kari was able to pick up on it . . . The thought made me unbearably uncomfortable, so I shied away from it. But, now, I couldn't shy away from the truth, because it was out in the open.

"You're afraid," Kari said simply. As if I didn't just rip my chest open and practically handed her my heart.

A glower took over my face. "I'm not afraid of anything. I –" I stopped myself, shutting my eyes tightly. "Look. I don't need to go over this with you. I appreciate your hospitality, but I think I should get going."

"No one is forcing anyone together, you know," Kari called behind me. "You need to start giving him some credit. The only reason he wants to 'save you' is because he's in love with you. When you love someone that much, you want to take care of them. That's it. No string attached. No divine intervention. No fates taking away your choice. He's just in love with you."

I'd stilled when she started speaking, but now I forced myself to walk.

Her words ran over in my mind until they blended together and stopped making sense. Until I was finally facing the truth.

.

I took a deep breath but nerves still rattled me from inside out. I was going to knock on the door, but rhythmic sounds coming from the back made me think twice. Dante was dribbling a basketball, but thoughtfully staring straight ahead at something he could only see. It was still early, but he was already sweating straight through his sweatshirt. For a while I watched him with a smile, and I felt all my nerves disappear at the sight of his face.

"Do you still want to wring my neck?" I finally called, and watched him stiffen. Slowly, he turned, but his face gave nothing away as he straightened. I stepped out from the shadows, and I watched him take in my attire, which were the same clothes from last night. I decided to save him the trouble. "I slept over. Kari and I swapped our deepest darkest secrets, too." More or less. But I could tell he didn't know what to believe.

"I didn't know you two were that close." A touch dry, but mostly suspicious. My smile grew.

"We're not, but we've come to a mutual understanding of each other, if you must know."

He dropped the ball and crossed his arms over his chest. "Okay, what is it?"

"What's what?"

"You don't visit me voluntarily." Even with his frank voice, I sensed some sort of apprehension from him. "And knowing you . . ."

"Were you always this paranoid?"

Dante narrowed his eyes.

I waited for him to rip into me about Rick, but as the silence stretched, my expectations waned and my nerves began to come to life again.

"Gummy bears," I blurted, and watched his expression shift to a blank look. "Are they still your favourite candy?"

The blank look bled into bewilderment. "Yeah, but what –"

"And you still can't sleep past nine o'clock. Right?" I could see my hands shaking and I clasped them in front of me for some semblance of strength. "You don't believe in dreams, and you think hard work is the key to success. You're so smart, so passionate, and –" I cleared my throat. "You can get jealous, but when you trust someone, you trust them with your life."

Dante stared.

I smiled, albeit shakily, but the words I wanted to say wouldn't come out. We ended up looking at one another for a while. I felt the familiar pull towards him, but I held my ground and took a deep breath.

"What's this about?" he finally asked. "Usually I'd have a hard time reading you, but right now, I don't even know where to –"

"I'm sorry," I intercepted, and exhaled. "For . . . everything."

He got a strange, pinched look on his face. "And what is 'everything'?"

I pinned him with dry look. "Everything? We told each other what happened to us on the mountain, but I realized I never apologized. So . . . I'm sorry. For pushing you away. For acting the way I did when you came back. I'm sorry for what you had to go through."

Dante shut his eyes, and when he looked back at me, he looked angry. The expression surprised me. "And what's this – to clean the slate? To make sure everything is fine – that you've covered all bases before you forget and move on?" He made an angry jab to the air, but the look on his face belied his tone. "What is it, Cassidy?"

I peered at him, concerned and alarmed in equal measures. "Dante . . ."

"Just tell me!"

I stopped right in front of him, and he looked torn.

He looked back down at me, his face twisted in perfect agony and I reached for his hand. His hand was lifeless in my own, but only for a moment. He gripped me back and pulled me into his embrace.

"Sorry, I'm all sweaty," he said with a suspicious hitch in his voice.

I shook my head with a laugh. "Tell me what's wrong."

It took a while, but the answer came in low, reluctant tones. "I feel like I don't know you anymore."

My grip tightened. "Don't worry about it. I'm only beginning to know myself, too."

Dante pulled back slightly to look down at me. I could tell that he had a million questions, but he didn't know where to start. We were lost now, but underneath the problems and turmoil, I knew that I could count on him. Not only for help, but to be a constant, solid in my life. It was the first time I saw what we had for what it was, not what I believed it to be: some sort of block from being independent in this world. But, he was part of my peace, my soul, and a world without him would be a world without colour.

It was a strange sensation, this acceptance. Warmth unfurled in my chest just at the thought. Before, it felt like we couldn't handle what we had – that it was ready to explode in our faces. It was still very real, and if I thought back, I could still feel it: the fear of losing each other and ourselves if we gave in. So, we believed to keep the love alive, we had to let it go. And we did.

Dante's eyes searched mine. "You always look like you're one step ahead of everyone, including the world."

"Did you believe I was?"

A rueful smile pulled his lips. "No. But you almost had me convinced."

"A year is a long time," I reminded.

"It is," he agreed. "It was long enough to almost convince myself that I was a different person, too."

I felt subdued, especially in light of what I'd just learned about myself. "Change is possible. Without it, how can we grow?"

His fingertips touched my cheek lightly, but he pulled away. He looked as pensive as I felt. "Not the way I tried to change. Not the way you tried to, either, at least in the beginning. We were just running. I think that to change, you'll need to accept what has happened to move on." He paused briefly. "I think – no, I know I'm glad . . . for you. But it's . . . hard when I'm not changing with you."

I knew what he meant. "Who says you're not?"

He didn't look convinced. "I feel like the gap between us is only growing, even with facing our past. I'm jealous of Rick, of god's sake. Genuinely, honestly jealous." He sounded amused, but I heard the undertones of self-directed anger.

I was torn between laughing and shaking him. All this time, he knew what I felt? Why did we do this to ourselves? "And you don't think I feel that way about Laurita?"

He looked taken aback, though I don't understand why. "That's different. Of course I love her, but –" he stopped abruptly, a deer-caught-in-headlights expression taking over his face.

I frowned. "But?"

"I . . ." He let out a rush of air, and seemed to pick his words carefully. "The way I've always seen it was that, if there was no competition, how was there ever a choice?"

I stared at him uncomprehendingly, watched as his pale cheeks from the cold weather tinge with pink; how he seemed to stop himself from reaching the back of his neck in his nervous fashion. Instead, he readjusted his arms around me, and pulled my body closer to his, almost unconsciously.

"You're cold," I said, wriggling my arms free and rubbing my hands over his thinly covered arms.

"These past months when you told me you were happy for me, I'd always wondered if you were just saying that to convince me that you'd move on. Now I know they're true."

I smiled, amused, into his brown eyes. "Dante, you're speaking in riddles."

He frowned, and his response was to pull me closer so I was pressed up against his body. He tucked his chin at the junction of my neck and shoulder as I felt him inhale deeply. I stared over his shoulder, up at the bright blue-grey sky, and listened to the soft wind playing between the branches of the trees.

"We're living too much in the past," I finally said to the silence. Immediately, I felt him tense. "We let it rule our lives. Even before the accident, we let some stupid remark rule how we were towards each other." The regret for the wasted time filled me and sparked my anger. Still, I kept it low. "Now, all these months – gone – and where does it leave us?"

"I don't know," he said, voice low. "Where does it leave us?"

The anger burst from me, and I ripped away from him. His pallor startled me, but not enough to release the frustration I've been harbouring for a long time.

"Well," I said, giving a short laugh. "Do you know why that happened to us?"

He stared, mute, and I vaguely wondered why he looked so sick.

"Miscommunication," I declared. I'd thought about what Kari said, long and hard, and she was the final push to realizing what the foundation was of the disaster that was my life: assuming. For others, it ruined relationships. For us, it ruined our lives. But not anymore.

For a second he looked thrown. "What?"

"Don't you see? We basically reacted to each other based on our assumptions." Again, the thought fuelled my anger. "I can't believe I was so stupid." I truly wanted to smash my head, or preferably, go back in time and smack myself in the past. If only we talked to each other where it counted, this constant heartache would be a thing of imagination. "I can't believe I was so stupid!"

"Belle . . ." he said cautiously.

At the name, I stopped abruptly and looked at him. "Sorry," I said, flushing, when he gave his own strange look. "I haven't heard that in a long time and it surprised me."

He shook his head. "What, exactly, are you trying to say?" he said firmly, as if he didn't want to be deterred from the topic at hand. I looked at him like he was crazy. Wasn't it obvious? I unwrapped his arms from my waist and took a measured step back.

"I'm in love with you," I said. "When you transferred this year, all I wanted to do was run away because I didn't want to get caught up in you again. But I did, and I don't regret it, even though the whole time was, actually, completely maddening. I love you," I said again, "and I don't regret it. . . . Even though, before, I kind of did." I frowned. "But you're allowed to change your mind, right?"

Dante looked winded, and a bit stunned.

"Is that . . . Cassidy!" Aunt Claire poked her head from the back door, a similar stunned look on her face. Her hair was in a ponytail, but I could see she was still in her nightgown. I waved. "What on earth are you two . . . It's cold out there, come inside!"

I glanced at Dante's slack jaw and made the decision for him. I grabbed his hand and fully intended on dragging him into his kitchen to enjoy breakfast, when I was suddenly yanked backwards and whirled around in a matter of moments.

Through my disoriented world, I saw the familiar mulish look, but it couldn't hide the elation shining in his eyes. "I love you, too," he said, almost hoarsely. "God, you have no idea how much I'm in love you."

Even if I wanted to say something, his lips against mine completely prevented it. It was a hard kiss, desperate almost, but I gripped him just as tightly. There was a tight feeling in my chest, and as the kiss softened to an almost gentle caress, I felt the tears running down my cheeks. Soon it became too much, and I broke away, laughing and sobbing, clutching him to me like I never wanted to let go.

I looked up to see him wiping his own eyes, and the brilliance of his grin matched what I felt perfectly.

"I love you," I said, tasting the words, letting it free from the dark depths I've kept it in for a long time. "I could give you a list, but it'd be too long."

"Then spend the rest of my life telling me why."

"Did you just propose to me?"

Dante leaned down to capture my laughter with his lips.

When he pulled away, the familiar cheeky look on his face made my hot face even hotter, especially with the way I was clutching onto him for support. When he looked over my head, though, his smile faltered.

"Mom?"

I turned to see an almost horrified Aunt Claire with both hands clasped over her mouth.

.

Author's note: Hi sweethearts, I look forward to the responses to Cass/Dante's long awaited love confession. Ofc, they still have the hurdle that is Laurita to go through, but it isn't as big as you'd expect it to be. This story started off as a love-hate story, that – at least for me – slowly turned into a story about Cassidy finding herself. I wish I had the chance to get into Dante's brain, because his own train of thought is just as mixed and confused as Cassidy's. Unfortunately we only see his outside reactions ):

Questions about Nicoletta – I know her relationship with Cassidy is expected to be wrapped up into the next 1—2 chapter(s), but, like with Kari (and any other real relationships in the world), it isn't as easy as "OK, this is why I was a bitch to you – but I've changed, and I'm sorry." I could have easily done that with Kari (my original intention), but it would have been too forced and too cliché, especially when Kari's 'hate' is her own personal issue. Just because Cassidy resolved her own demons does not mean that Kari is going to do so at the same time. This also applies to Nicoletta. Nicoletta is another character I'd love to write about in depth, so maybe in the future. Feel free to say anything about this through review or PM!

So sorry about the delay, in PMs and review replies too. Same excuses – no inspiration, no motivation, no time. Thanks for reading though, despite infrequent updates! Hope everyone did well on their finals, and if they're heading into it soon, LOTS OF LUCK! I AM SENDING YOU POSITIVE VIBES! XO

GUIZ, ONE MORE CHAPTER TO GO, SDIUFHSJDNPWEM.

Ok bai