Chapter twenty nine

"And then what happened?"

Curious eyes met my own and I felt the habitual warming of my cheeks whenever I had too many people staring at me. The reaction was more of a vague annoyance, than actual embarrassment like it used to be.

I smiled at the young girl who grinned in response. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Yes," she protested as she frowned at my teasing smile. "You can't just leave us hanging there!"

"That's true," Marie said from where she was sitting with her cup of tea. She made a face when I glanced at her, amused. "It's pretty… cruel."

"Cruel? Me?" I gasped dramatically. "Momma, ouch."

Marie only laughed, waving my theatrics away.

"Besides, you know how it ended."

"I don't," the blonde said sulkily, but when I looked at her, she was smirking playfully. I threw a pillow at her. "Sydney!"

"Just tell us," a young boy scowled from where he was brooding. I glanced towards the source of the voice and I grinned widely. Dark eyes met mine and I made an expectant face, patting the seat next to me. The boy groaned but stood and walked over to where I was sitting. He was a little taller than half my height, but I knew he would soon tower over me. I was still the tall one.

"Riley, you need to learn patience," I said primly and laughed when he elbowed me. Despite his protests, I pulled him to my side.

"Yeah, Riley," the blonde said.

Riley made a face. "Leave me alone, Sophie." But despite his words, his tone was gentle. Riley was a complete sweetheart.

"What happened at the soccer game?" another voice asked. My eyes met dark blue ones. "I mean, I know what happened but still. You can't just stop a story. You volunteered!"

I laughed. "Goodness, Adam, you make it seem like there was a happy ending."

His voice was sullen. "Yeah, well…"

"Oh." Sophie frowned, leaning towards me, her face falling. "But…"

"Well… we cheered. That was fun. But in the middle of the game, there was a fight." I smiled at the widening of the children's eyes. "Oliver and Corey – remember him? – well, the game was stopped and they had to be pulled off each other."

"Oliver did a nice one on him," Adam inserted. I shot him a look but he only grinned. I was giving the heavily edited version of the story.

"They fought?" someone else said, frowning in thought. She was Sophie's older sister, Jaclyn. "Was it because of you?"

"What? No!" I immediately defended, but at the blank look of their faces, I relented. "Um, well, it wasn't really because of me. Just a little, but I was… hardly… an influence."

"Liar," Adam muttered under his breath. Riley was also giving me a look. I had traitors as brothers.

"That's so sweet," Sophie sighed. "I bet you Oliver won!"

"Of course he did," Adam huffed. I slapped my forehead.

"He deserved it," Riley said. I looked down at him, but he was studiously avoiding eye contact. I smiled at that. "No one should treat anyone like that. Especially you." His voice was hard and stubborn which caused me to chuckle.

"Endorsing violence now?" Dad commented dryly from where he was standing near the kitchen.

"Of course not," I said defensively.

"So what were they fighting about?" Jaclyn asked.

"Er, well –" My brain scrambled for an explanation that was as far away from the truth, but still held somewhat of the truth… if that made sense. I settled for, "Oliver just got… really mad."

"No shit," Adam snorted. I threw a tiny glare at him but he shrugged defensively. "Sydney, he deserves to be called every nasty name in the world for even thinking of doing… that to you!"

"Doing what?" Riley and Sophie blinked innocently, as it was their first time hearing the story. I made a look of despair.

"Uh… nothing," Adam said hastily.

"He apologized," I said helplessly, to which my step-brother rolled his eyes. I also saw Dad making a face. "Wow. You are all unforgiving souls."

Riley scrutinized me. "But did he mean it?"

I smiled uneasily at my little brother. "Er… yes." But only because Oliver was beating him an inch from death… but he did look sorry. After he was beaten.

But still!

He was. I'd like to think he was, especially with the way Luis defended him. Luis was a good guy, and he wouldn't associate with someone continuously if he knew that he was a bad person. Corey made a mistake; he was sorry, and I forgave him. I moved on. He moved on.

We all did.

"What happened after?" Sophie's brother and Riley's best friend, Matthias, asked.

I felt the same uneasy feeling shoot through my system whenever I thought of the aftermath of that day. It will forever unsettle me. "Well, our school won the game. Both Oliver and Corey had to sit out, though."

"But between you two?"

I hesitated, but smiled. "That day I… realized a few things." I tapped my finger against my thigh before sighing. There wasn't any point regretting. "I really loved him, and I didn't doubt that he loved me." I smiled slightly at their faces. "Also, I knew that it wasn't going to work out. I told him as much… and he understood."

There was a cold silence before loud voices erupted.

I laughed, and my back tensed as the familiar ache of the memory settled in my chest. "But it was okay! It was fine, because… well, I was right." The smile plastered on my face was false, no matter how wide I willed my lips to stretch. "In the end, we moved on."

Oliver did. I was torn between feeling miserable and happy when I found out.

"But it made you sad," Riley's low voice tore me from my thoughts. "Why would you do that?"

"It was your parents, wasn't it!" Sophie accused, clearly upset at the end results. "Why are they so mean? Why couldn't they just –" she stopped helplessly and looked down at her hands.

I felt my smile fall when I looked at her. "Yes, it was, but – but they had their reasons. Mom was pregnant and -"

Dad snorted from where he was standing. "Are you still defending them?"

The silence was almost unbearable. There was a reason I never liked finishing this story. Hell, I never liked starting it, but it was a good story – at least, I liked to think so. But in real life, it was reality, and reality wasn't very nice.

"Is that it?" Matthias said. "You wanted to tell us a sad story?"

"It wasn't sad!" I looked around for faces of agreement, but I didn't see any. Even Marie looked solemn. "Weren't any of you paying attention to the lessons? The happy moments?" It wasn't like a tragedy. It had sweet moments!

"Kind of hard to when it ends miserably," Adam said wryly.

"Did they really love each other?" Sophie asked Adam, her voice sad but lilt with hope. I had a sinking feeling that I destroyed her belief in fairytales… oops.

I also looked at Adam, waiting for an answer. His eyes flickered to me, but rested on Sophie's crestfallen face. "…Yeah. He really does."

"Did," I corrected absentmindedly, resting my head against Riley's.

"I know what I said."

There was an odd silence, but I didn't bother looking into his words. What I wanted to do was grab food, maybe watch the kids open the rest of their presents, and head home.

The sombre air was replaced with a content and warm atmosphere when Marie suggested that we all watch a Christmas movie. It was practically tradition, and I was glad to fall back into the familiarity of the familial routine. There weren't many to begin with, and with either me or Oliver determined to avoid each other (sans holidays), it became even more important for me, so as to watch my siblings grow.

Adam passed me a cup when he saw I wanted to pour a drink. It was silent for a few moments until he decided to break the mood. "I talked to Oliver the other day."

"Oh really?" I said automatically. "How is he?"

"He's okay," he said. "He said that he might not be able to come today."

I smiled, albeit a little wryly. "Yeah, I noticed." I downed my drink to rid of any depressing feelings, but I was sad to realize that the achy feeling was still in my chest.

"He asked about you."

"I'm hoping he'd like to know how his step-sister was doing," I joked, throwing an arm around Adam. He seemed rather tense, but I brushed it off. "You told him I'm doing well, yes?"

"Yeah," he muttered sullenly. Chuckling, I kissed his forehead and turned to head to the living room. I heard The Grinch playing. "Look, I'm cutting to the chase. Oliver wants to propose to Sienna."

My movements slowed until I realized belatedly that I wasn't walking anymore. The kitchen exit seemed so far away as I was staring at it… but I turned to face Adam, anyway, despite the coldness seeping through my chest.

"Oh," I said, mildly surprised. I gritted the back of my teeth, and smiled widely. "That's great! I was… I was wondering when he…" I stopped, realizing that I had trouble speaking. Oh, God. I swallowed, the smile now clearly feeling fake on my face. "That's great."

"Yeah, you said that." Adam was pinning me with a glare. At my silence, he pressed on rather tightly, "Aren't you going to do anything about it?"

But I was too distracted with trying to keep my face straight. "Sure," I said after a second's pause. "Of course I will. I'll leave a message for them tomorrow, congratulating –"

"Sydney!" Adam said, almost desperately. "Stop it! God, you two are idiots!"

"Adam," I said, surprised at his outburst, "What's wrong?"

He was looking at me, too wisely for someone his age. There was the background noise, but I couldn't hear anything beyond the buzzing sound in my ears. Finally, my step-brother shook his head and walk past me.

"Everything," he answered. "Just everything."


The truth was it wasn't great. It was hard admitting it to myself, even harder to lie to Adam - even if I called it self-denial – but in reality, I was… Well. I was…

"Fine," I said to myself tonelessly, grabbing a carton of milk and orange juice. I stared for a while at the package of Oreos and milk next to each other and laughed to myself, even though it sounded pathetically… pitiable. Years after and I was still pining. "I'm fine," I repeated to myself a little more determinedly.

I was a grown woman. I could handle this. I merely needed more time: I would move on.

In the midst of my thoughts, my cart collided with another. I came back to life. "I'm so sorry. I wasn't looking where I was going and –"

"It's alright, Sydney Rhode." His voice was rich and laughing, and it completely made my heart stop. "I meant to do that."

How many times did I wake up hoping to hear the sound of his voice? When have I gone a day without thinking about how he was? There he was right in front of me and the elation I practically made my chest full. He looked healthy. Smiling at me, Oliver looked like a man happy with his life.

I was incredibly glad for that.

"You should watch where you're going."

I heard the smile in my voice before I felt it on my face. "I should." I repositioned my shopping cart to make room for other people to pass down the aisle. Then my lips pulled into a bright smile as I turned to face my step-brother. "Hi!"

He chuckled, hands in his jacket as he walked to stand closer to me. "Hey."

It was almost embarrassing with how I couldn't tear my eyes from his face. It had been too long. "How are you?"

"I'm fine," he said without missing a beat. Of course he was fine; he never would tell me if he was having the most horrible day of his life. He knew and I knew, but today he was telling the truth. His grey eyes were exceptionally bright. "How are you?"

"I'm fine, too," I told him. He nodded a little, his expression still easy-going and carefree. Finally I was able to look away, only to have my eyes rake the surroundings for a certain blonde haired stunner. She'd told me once how Oliver refused to shop for groceries, so I expected that she'd dragged him today.

Truthfully it was a little strange to see him without her. I've come to regard them as inseparable.

Quizzically, my eyes returned to his to find him watching me carefully. "How is Sienna? Where is she?"

His expression stayed neutral. "She's doing well. I think she's doing her Christmas shopping, the last I heard. I, uh, decided to go grocery shopping."

His fingers tapped against the cart in an almost desperate fashion, and my quizzical look intensified. Was he agitated? Apart from his telltale sign, he didn't look bothered. But since he wasn't letting on, I decided to humour him and play along. "I see Christmas shopping ranks higher than groceries."

He grinned and patted my head patronizingly. "Your observational skills are astute as ever, I see."

I merely batted his hand away and tried not to show that I missed him too much on my face. It was possible, I think, to have such an expression. I could definitely feel its effects all over my body, itching to spread over my face, but I forced myself to focus on something – anything – other than my never ending affections for him.

Grimacing at my thoughts, my mind groped for a safe topic of conversation. "I missed you at Marie's," I heard myself blurt, and immediately wished I talked about the weather instead, especially when his neutral face suddenly turned unreadable.

"Yeah – sorry about that. I… was with Sienna." I was glad when he looked away from my face because my own expression twisted into something I knew I'd never want him to see. Not since he's endured enough of it all those years ago.

I waved away his apology. "Oh, no worries! I didn't know you were to come until Adam mentioned it, anyway." I physically felt sick. I didn't even know I'd blindly thought he had a legitimate reason for staying away. There wasn't a reason to avoid me anymore because I proved to not be a threat to their relationship. But no. He decided to spend the day with Sienna. As if they haven't seen each other every day all year, and I only had to privilege to see him once in those three-hundred and sixty-five days. My thoughts drifted to Adam's words and I felt myself smile. Maybe he'd proposed then.

As strong as my elation for seeing him, the dizzy pain I felt was just as forceful at the thought.

Unbeknownst to my emotions, Oliver leaned against his cart and casually asked, "Did anything interesting happen?"

My throat worked as I forced myself to swallow. I busied my eyes by taking in the store – anything to keep them from giving into the pressure.

"No. Same thing with the kids." A wistful smile touched my lips. "It was fun, though. I –" missed you. "– picked Adam up from the house. He's giving our parents more trouble than –" we ever did.

I immediately shut up because we never spoke about it. Ever. When Oliver introduced Sienna, it was the final words to our story and it was the kind of tale no one spoke about to those directly involved when it's finished.

"Than he should," I said lamely when he looked at me with furrowed eyebrows.

Slowly he nodded. "Yeah, he told me about it. Not about what they fought about – he never does tell me." We shared a worried look for the younger boy who we held close to our hearts. The silence prevailed for a few beats as he stared into space for a while. Then he turned to me curiously. "How's Riley, by the way?"

I absolutely adored my brother and I felt my whole face brighten just at his mention. "He's great. The neighbours were there, and –"

"Let me guess," Oliver interceded with a light grin, "Sophie was there and you're convinced that they're meant for each other?"

I stared. "How did… you know?"

Oliver's eyes crinkled and his grin revealed his straight teeth. "Rhode, you're easy to read. And you haven't changed a bit."

I felt my stance relax, but almost immediately I felt the forceful wave of that feeling where you just wanted to be alone. As happy as I was to see Oliver, lately my ruminating on our past was bordering on masochistic, and seeing him only served to remind me of my recently fragile emotional state. It was Adam's news. I didn't realize how serious they were, and a small part of me – I realized – thought they wouldn't last as long as they did, that it was merely a few more days until I heard they weren't together anymore. Maybe then I could work up the courage to tell him that I was ready this time. That there wasn't anything out there to stop us now.

But no. In the midst of finding myself, he found someone else who was willing to be there. I let him go, and now it was officially time for me to lay my feelings to rest.

Oliver took a step to me, and only then did I feel the grimace on my face. "Hey, what's wrong?" His soft tone didn't belie the concern in his words, and I already felt myself start to pull away.

"It's nothing. It's possible I ate too much earlier." To my horror, I felt the pressure behind my eyes just as my throat began to constrict. Clearing my throat, I turned to my cart. "Anyway, I have to finish this and –" I stopped as my eyes landed on the cookies. Memories I tried to suppress went through my mind like a quick film.

This was beyond silly. I had all this time to control myself when he wasn't in my presence – and the one time I'm with him, easily in the middle of inane talk, I want to break down? It wasn't like I've had years to wonder the what ifs. Of course reality had to hit me hard right now. I managed a wet laugh at my luck and discreetly brushed away the tears from the corner of my eyes.

"Sydney, what the -" His hands were suddenly on my arms and he whirled me around gently. "Are you… What's wrong?" he demanded, tugging me close.

"Oh, it's nothing!" I said and waved away his hands reaching for me in embarrassment. He probably thought I was still that helpless and defenseless little girl. Well, I wasn't. "There's something in my eye." I made a show of rubbing said eye, but his frown didn't waver.

"You can't lie to me," he reminded me gently, his arms wounding around my waist. My heart ached at the natural movement and my body felt like lead. Ridiculous. I smiled slightly. It was ridiculous how I thought what I felt was merely a phase; ridiculous how I could only fall deeper with only simple movements and limited time with him.

"I know," I said to him. "But really. It's nothing for you to worry about."

He didn't loosen his grip. "Crying doesn't suit you," he told me softly. "I miss your smile." I shook my head, smiling but Oliver didn't look convinced. In fact, he smirked and I felt him tighten his grip a little. "No, not that one. That's your fake it till I make it smile."

I didn't say anything, merely looked at him silently. His eyes searched my face, as if tracing every contour and crevice, every feature, but it could've been my imagination. It was too soon that I felt his hand release me and pronounce the space between us. The distance had never been so obvious.

"I'll see you around," I said finally.


I regarded him quizzically. "Yes, Oliver?"

"I…" His jaw clenched, and he looked over my head. With a rough shake of his head, he said, "Never mind. It was nice seeing you again. And in case I don't see you… Merry Christmas."

I almost looked at him sadly but caught myself. I almost moved to hug him, but stopped myself. Instead I cleared my throat and offered the only thing I could, hoping my love didn't show too much on my face. It was possible, I knew, to have such an expression.

"Yeah," I said gently. "Merry Christmas. Tell Sienna I said hi, too."

His expression seemed to mirror mine as he smiled slightly. "Sure. Bye, Sydney."


The frigid cold air seeped through my many layers of clothing, and instead of crying in despair like I wanted to, I set my jaw and straightened my spine in determination.

"Okay," I said enthusiastically to myself and grabbed a handful of bags. I slammed my car door shut and practically sprinted to the front door of the house. I couldn't park in the driveway because it was occupied, so I settled for the curb. Now I was hoping someone was in the house to help me out.

"Sydney!" a dark-haired little girl exclaimed giddily. "Hi!"

"Hi!" I said brightly in a laughing tone. I nudged her forward, keen on keeping her away from the cold. "Bree, is Mum home?"

My little sister shook her head, and shut the door behind me. "She went to the store," she said and after holding her hand out expectantly, I handed her one of the lighter bags. "Last minute stuff, she said."

"Ah," I nodded in understanding and headed to the kitchen. "What about Jace?"

"Daddy's at work."

"Ah…" I stopped and whirled to face her. "Are you here alone?" I said frantically, glancing around for any sign of danger. What? It was possible. My sister was only eight! What was this? Oh my God. "Are you okay? Are you hungry? I can make you something - the party doesn't start in four hours. Oh, God."

Bree giggled loudly behind her hands but shook her head heartily. "I'm not hungry, Sydney."

I couldn't lose my fretful face. She could have opened the door to a stranger. I've seen the movies!

"Calm down, Syd, I'm here." I heard Adam laugh at the kitchen entrance. I whirled around and practically tackled him into a hug. He 'oof!'ed and protested loudly that I was smothering him.

"What about you? Are you hungry?" I asked, smoothing hair from his face. He scrunched his face, but in the end, he smiled and shook his head. "And what were they thinking, leaving you?" I practically sobbed. "You're practically two!"

"I'm thirteen!"

"I'm eight!" Aubree piped.

"I'm twenty five," a soft and amused voice reached my ears. I felt my back go hot and I slowly turned around. The blonde was leaning against the entrance, smiling a knowing smile. I straightened and tried not to notice Aubree giggling loudly.

My family. They loved giving me a heart attack.

"Sienna." I sagged in relief. "I nearly had a heart attack."

She laughed this time. "I saw."

My face burned. Now that the adrenaline was leaving my system, I felt the rush of fatigue hit me so hard I almost swayed on the spot.

I pulled at my scarf around my neck. "How are you?"

"Great." She flashed her teeth. "What about you? Did you just get off work?"

I smiled. "I'm fine… and yes, I just got off work." I tried not to let the exhaustion leak into my voice so I began to march towards the front door. "OK, I'll be back! I have to get the other things from my car and - agh!" I slammed into something hard and lost my footing, feeling the hard floor hit my back and… wait.

I waited until the world stopped spinning as I groaned in pain.

"I'm so sorry," I heard myself blurt out as I clutched my head. My forehead was hot. Was that even normal? I felt strong hands steady me. "Is that you, God?" I mumbled under my breath, feeling my body instantly cool at the touch.

There was silence until I heard a slow, familiar chuckle… that would effectively explain why I felt comforted at that moment. Maybe I subconsciously knew - who was I kidding? Sienna was here, so of course that meant that her boyfriend was here! …Or was it fiancé now?

The sick feeling returned.

"Thanks," I said, looking up with a smile. "Hi, Oliver."

His smile slowly died and a strange look covered his eyes. "Hi, Rhode."

There was a small silence as I let my eyes flit over his head before I sidestepped him. "OK, I'll be back!"

I tried not to run outside, but my body was practically begging for it. I had half an urge to stay inside in the warmth, but at the same time, the heat was suffocating me and I needed to cool down.

It was clear what I wanted when I made the third trip to my car. I. Was. Cold.

"You should've asked for my help," a voice accused when I shut the door behind me one final time. I leaned heavily against it and smiled weakly.

"It's okay. It was nothing," I dismissed and picked up the last few bags and headed to the living room. "Where's Bree and Adam?"

Oliver sounded close behind me. "Sienna went to watch a movie with them upstairs."

"Oh." I dropped to the floor and began to slowly take the carefully wrapped presents out of the bags and place them underneath the tree. This went on for about a minute silently until Oliver kneeled next to me and began to help me.

"A lot of presents," he remarked. I giggled under my breath.

"Some are for the neighbours. I couldn't resist giving Adam and Bree the things they wanted… our parents, of course, you and Sienna," I said brightly. "I love Christmas!"

"I know."

There was a strange undertone in his words that caused me to look up. He was looking at me with such intensity that I felt the blood rushing to my head and… I felt nauseous. Clutching my head, I shut my eyes tightly.

"What's wrong?" Oliver's alert voice reached my ears.

"Nothing," I said faintly, willing for the wave of sickness to pass. "It's just really cold."

"It's practically boiling in his house," he said incredulously. "Are you sick?" I felt his cool hand touch my forehead and he pulled back sharply, swearing. "You are. Why didn't you just stay home?"

Because I wanted to see you.

I opened my mouth to say the words instinctively, but then my mind caught up with what… I wanted to say… but couldn't. I couldn't tell him I always hoped, every time, that I would catch a glimpse of him, even for one second. If not for my romantic feelings, it should be because I valued his friendship, and naturally, I worried for my friends, especially close ones I only get the chance to see at most five times a year.

I only smiled and shook my head. I knew my face was burning now; I felt light-headed.

Oliver shook his head, his arms going around me. "You'll be the death of me," he muttered, guiding me to the couch. I chuckled weakly, allowing him to undo the scarf around my neck and help me out of my jacket. He threw the thick blanket on the couch over my shoulders and told me to stay put while he got me some medicine.

"You don't have to," I said, grabbing his sleeve before he could leave my side. "I'm not sick. It's just cold."

He looked frustrated, but amused. Almost tenderly, he brushed the hair away from my face. "Sydney, you're sick."

"But even so," I protested, my hand tightening around his wrist. "It's probably aftereffects of the – "

His voice was soft and gentle. "Please let me take care of you."

The words died at the back of my throat and I felt the pressure and stinging sensation behind my eyes. Silently, I nodded, looking down. I heard him walk to the kitchen to rummage for whatever he was looking for.

My eyes traced a pattern on the blanket, and my mind cautiously broached the subject of his relationship status with Sienna. I wondered how he asked her, or if he didn't yet, how he was planning to. Oliver was naturally a thinker, and I felt small smile tug my lips when I pictured him racking his brain for the perfect proposal. Dad was more impulsive, and from what Marie told me, it was hardly romantic, and more of a casual hey, want to get married? than anything else. I had to giggle at the reminder of the scowl on Marie's face.

"Oh, no, are you sick?" Sienna rushed towards me in concern just as I felt my eyelids start to droop. Instantly I brightened.

"Oh no, I'm not sick. I just don't feel too well at the moment," I hastily assured her.

She eyed me skeptically. "Your face is red."

"…I have a skin condition –"

"Shut up, Rhode," Oliver ordered, lips twitching, as he stalked back in the room. I made a face at him, which instantly melted into a grateful smile as he handed me the pills and water. "She's stubborn. She also thinks she could rule the world," he told his girlfriend dryly as he rolled his eyes.

Sienna giggled and I pulled an offended expression.

"I can," I told her seriously. "If I really tried."

"Maybe if you had help," Oliver said.

I smiled slightly. "Maybe."

We lapsed into silence that caused me to nod off. I could see hear a little, at the back of my head. I didn't even realize my eyes were completely shut and my body had gone slack against Oliver on the couch until I heard them speak.

"She's sleeping," Sienna noted lightly. "She looks really tired."

"Yeah." Oliver's voice was hard. "Probably pushing herself too hard. She's so damn stubborn."

Sienna laughed quietly. "She's a tough girl, she can handle it."

Oliver was almost inaudible. "Not if she doesn't have to." His voice was frustrated. "She just really worries me."

Sienna's voice was soft, understanding… and sad. "You really love her, don't you?"

"Yes." There was a strange silence. I almost pictured Oliver's half smile. "She's… amazing. I wish you knew just how much."

Sienna laughed lightly, though I detected the cheerlessness in her action. "I've got a pretty good idea… especially if she's someone you can't stop loving."

Oliver's voice was soft. "I'm sorry, Sienna."

She didn't respond. I almost wished I could remember the whole conversation before I fell deeper in oblivion. Oliver's presence next to me relaxed my heart. For once, for a little while, I let myself love him a little more than I should.


"Wake up, Rhode." A deep and tender voice roused me from my sleepy state and I opened my eyes. I noticed brilliant grey eyes first, and I felt myself relax. Maybe I was dreaming, I considered briefly, but quickly dismissed the idea. Oliver's lips pulled into a smile and I felt his hands behind my back as he helped me into a sitting position.

I felt… like crap. I winced, realizing I was in my old room and the feeling of nostalgia was hard hitting.

"Oh no," I said, voice slurred but the surprise was in my system. "What time is it?"

"A little after seven," he said, brushing my face with a wet cloth I didn't notice until now. "Don't worry; I told your mother you were resting."

"I'm fi –"

His look shut me up. "You can barely stand."

"I can stand," I contradicted, but my legs weren't cooperating. I felt my already heated face blush, and despite the scowl on his face, he chuckled. "Sorry," I said, breaking the abrupt silence that descended. "Although I really can take care of myself, I have been for a long time," I reminded him as I reached for the cloth.

Oliver's movements stopped and I glanced at him with a small frown. Oh, no. Did I say something wrong? The atmosphere abruptly shifted, and I was thrown back into the past, when we were in this very same room, feeling our already fragile relationship shifting into something deeper, more forbidden.

Was it that long ago? I wondered. Mentally, I compared myself to the girl that faced her darkest days with a false smile and reassuring yet void words. I realized since then that I was exceptionally good at lying – and that in itself was uncomfortable. Huh. Perhaps I should try my hand at poker.

"You're digressing," Oliver said amusedly. Surprised, I looked at him. "It's all over your face."

I smiled. Oliver sighed.

"Rhode, we need to talk."

I stiffened. "Okay," I said slowly and nervously. Oh, goodness. Why did he sound so serious?

"Sydney," he said, clearly trying to smother a smile. "Relax." Obviously he noticed how tense I was.

I shot him a look. "I am. Tell me what's on your mind." The laughter in his eyes slowly faded until his eyes darkened with intensity. He looked nervous yet determined, as if he was going to go through the conversation no matter the consequences.

Almost immediately, the answer jumped to the forefront of my mind. It was obvious. He was going to tell me about Sienna. Against my will, my heart began to race. It made sense, because Oliver was just that kind of guy. He considered my feelings, even until now when he was in love with another woman. He wanted to make sure it wouldn't hurt me, because God forbid did he want to hurt me at all. He was going to take this next step in his life, and he was making sure I was okay.

The realization was always painful, but at that moment the agony was too acute for me to even feel anything. It went past all stages of physical pain. I hoped I didn't feel like this forever. One day, I truly did want to be glad that he was exchanging vows with someone as genuine as Sienna. But right now I had to steel myself against it, because I was tired of running away at the signs of heartfelt emotion.

"What's wrong?" Suddenly his voice held a ribbon of steel. He'd been looking at me the entire time, probably watched the blood drain from my face, and I just told myself I wouldn't run away. Brilliant.

I also shouldn't lie.

"I met this guy," I heard myself blurt. "Senior year of college. He was on the track team, and the first time I met him was when I decided to run on track instead of around campus." Almost imperceptibly I felt Oliver stiffen. Glancing from the corner of my eye, his face looked closed off, and lines bracketed his mouth as he frowned. "He was…" I swallowed, unable to continue but knowing I had to.

"Was what?" Oliver said, voice even.

"Amazing," I told him after a pause. "Patient, funny, gorgeous." My throat closed but I cleared it loudly. "You know, I could have fallen in love with him." I remembered one particular conversation where he'd told me he loved me but… "He told me he was in love with me."

I rubbed my face with the back of my hand and chanced a glance at Oliver. His face was closed off, but I noticed his tensed shoulders.

"You never spoke about him," he said.

I nodded. "I know. I couldn't. I didn't love him."

His eyes snapped to mine, and he stared. "What are you…"

I felt my face crumble so I looked away. It wasn't a good day for me when I let the perfect gentleman I've met, who even managed to make my heart skip a beat, tell me that he couldn't handle being with someone who couldn't let someone from her past go. He'd tried to be someone there for me, but in the end, all I did was break his heart and make me feel lonelier than I've ever felt in my life.

I shut my eyes tightly. Now. Tell him now, so you can get over it. It's closure, and it was time.

"I still love you," I heard myself whisper, and swallowed hard. "He knew it, too, and it wasn't fair to either of us. It wasn't fair to him, and I felt like the lowest scum on earth for putting him through that. But I thought I could fall in love with him – and – and forget about you. At least, move past you." I tried to smile, but it came out more of a grimace. "That didn't work out too well."

I couldn't bear to look at him. What would I see? Pity? Understanding? But I steeled myself against it. His face was neutral, almost serene, but I still couldn't read it.

"I… wanted to apologize for hurting both of us back then. You were so understanding and just wonderful about it. I'm sorry I'm bringing it up now, too." Dear God, this was awkward, and painfully uncomfortable. Still, I reached over and grabbed his hand in a reassuring grip, finding a smile in me. "And I want to wish you and Sienna happiness. I'm happy for you, Oliver. I'm ready to let go."

He stared at me so long that I started to burn, but this time from embarrassment.

"You…" he shut his eyes tightly, "…are a complete idiot."

His eyes opened and they were like fire. There was anger, relief, desperation, frustration burning in his gaze and I felt myself pull back. But his hands held on fast.

"Is that all you can say? That you're happy for me?" he demanded. "After all these goddamn years of being apart… and when we are in the same room, it's complete torture knowing what we had – have – is amazing – and just there, waiting for us when we're ready?"

My mouth opened and closed in astonishment.

"But no, I knew you had to find peace with yourself. You had to realize. I began to have doubts too. I needed to make sure, just like you had to make sure. We both had to grow up a little more to handle… this between us.

And all you can say is you're sorry and that you're happy for me?"

He was practically yelling, his face stark, his eyes burning into mine, but despite that, his hands were still gentle over mine. I felt shaken, in all honesty, because what I expected was a gentle, relieved smile, maybe a small hug – not this attack.

"W-well," I stammered, and settled for the truth. "Yes?"

"Like I said," he said without missing a beat, "you're an idiot."

I was thoroughly confused, and slightly upset, that my eyebrows shot together into a glare. "I was going for the gentle closure, not an angry confrontation," I informed him stiffly. "Why exactly am I an idiot?"

His expression eased at my words, but he still groaned.

I pulled one hand free and smacked his shoulder. "I'm not psychic, Oliver," I exclaimed, now thoroughly upset. This wasn't going the way I envisioned; it was worse, and I had to leave now before I burst into tears. "Adam told me you wanted to propose to Sienna; I'm giving you my blessing," I said angrily, but the hitch in my voice ruined the effect.

Swallowing my sob, I roughly brushed my eyes and pulled away from Oliver and started off the bed. It's been an emotional rollercoaster, and at the price of standing still to face my emotional fears, I was ripped open.

Suddenly two strong arms encircled around me from behind, and I was pulled backwards to the bed. With a yelp, I landed on my side and tried to get to my knees, but Oliver merely tightened his arms around me. Heart racing, I went still, just as his own arms lessened their grip. Behind me, Oliver nuzzled the back of my head. If anything my racing heart accelerated even more. What was this?

"What're you doing?" I stammered.

"Really, Sydney Rhode, those observational skills are astute." I felt more than heard his chuckle. "You're an idiot," he said gently, "because after all these years, you still haven't realized that you never lost me at all."

Slowly, lying down, I turned my wide eyes to his. He had a fond look on his face, but it was the tenderness in his eyes that made my own water.

"Adam likes to meddle," he said quietly. "I found out that's why he gets into so much trouble with our parents. I need to talk to him about that, but the bottom line is, he wanted to get us back together. But instead of working with him, you went ahead and told me you were happy for me." His lips twisted into a sardonic smile that made me flush. "Glad to know you'd fight the world to be with me."

My flushed deepened, and I wriggled backwards so I could sit up. "I'm not going to break a relationship, Oliver," I said firmly. "I'm not going to waltz up to you, after years, to tell you, 'By the way, I never fell out of love with you, and I'm ready. You can dump Sienna now – she's wonderful by the way.'" To my anger, the tears sprung to my eyes again, mostly as a side effect of everything else. "You don't know me at all!"

Instead of getting defensive, his smile widened and he reached up to rub my head. Lips pursed, I lowered my gaze, too much feelings battling in me to speak, so I just enjoyed his ministrations, even if it irritated me that I did enjoy his touch.

"Sienna and I ended it Christmas Day," he said casually. "She knew, like your friend from college." At the mention of my ex-boyfriend, his expression clouded slightly. "That's why I couldn't make it to Marie's."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Incredulously, I met his eyes. "That's awful, I'm –"

Oliver gave a bark of laugh. "Only you could make it sound sad that I ended it with someone so I could tell you that I'm in love with you." The room seemed to close in, the silence grew loud. The laughter in his eyes faded, until he was looking at me with a somber expression that spoke volumes, which told the intensity of his words. "I'm in love you," he repeated quietly, "and I've never stopped."

"And what I want to know," he said as if he didn't make me feel slightly ill, and a tad delirious with happiness and bewilderment, "is whether or not you're ready. You're strong, Sydney, we all know that." Then he swallowed, and I realized how nervous he was. "But now I want to know if you're strong enough accept this – us."

I finally found my voice. "Why are you always asking me what I want? Whether or not I'm happy?" This irrational anger laced with ecstasy made my lightheadedness even lighter. "Are you happy, Oliver? Aren't you angry that I pushed you away? Because I was sure angry at myself – and you're talking about strong – you're amazing for putting up with me."

Wonderful, I was blubbering now, even if Oliver was smiling widely like that, I wasn't too happy with snot dripping from my nose and my eyes flowing like a waterfall.

"Stop," I cried, holding my hand in front of me when his arm began to reach for me. He frowned. "You have to answer me first," I managed to say.

A small quirk tugged his lips. "If you insist…" Eyes shining, he leaned against the wall in a mock-attempt of nonchalance, and despite the tears in my eyes, a smile began to light my face. "It's because you're skittish," he said frankly, "even after all these years. You're scared, and of course it frustrated me, especially when our parents were in the wrong. But I wanted you to come to terms with it. I didn't want to give you an ultimatum; I let you lead. In the end, I knew I'd always come back to you, as much as I didn't want to believe it sometimes."

"I'm sorry," I said helplessly.

He smiled and reached over to brush my hair from my face. "I'm not."

I caught his hand. Stared at him. Then I smiled. "Let me make you happy." As the words left my mouth, my resolve hardened. Without his reply, I nodded firmly. "I'm ready."

"You were ready to let me go just a few minutes ago," he said pointedly, but he was grinning, and I had to laugh as he pulled me to his lap and hugged me to his chest fiercely.

"Because I wanted to make you happy." I twisted to look up at him, expression now apprehensive. "I imagined myself, years from now at your wedding, standing in the sidelines…" I felt Oliver tense imperceptibly as his hold tightened ever so slightly. "I was preparing myself."

"You really would have let me go?" he said quietly. "Just like that? Even with the way you feel?"

"You would do the same for me," I challenged.

Oliver smiled. "That's where you're wrong. I would have issued my ultimatum then. And whatever you chose…" He shrugged. "I would live with it. At least I know I tried."

I smiled back, but soon the pressure behind my eyes became too much, and I was sobbing again against his chest. His arms were tight around me, as if the sheer force of his will alone could absorb what I was feeling.


It felt different this time, I mused, as I headed for the kitchen. Oliver was a few paces behind me, and I felt his solid strength. The sense of peace that came with embracing the truth settled in me, and even when both our parents swiveled, I was able to look at them in the eyes without flinching.

Oliver murmured greetings to the guests, but I only looked at my parents.

"We'd like to speak with you," I told them. Both shared looks, but nodded all the same. We decided the garage was a suitable place to have our conversation where there would be no interruptions.

Both looked drawn out and tired, and even before I opened my mouth, I knew they were aware of the significance of this conversation.

"Your eyes are red," Mom said suddenly. To her credit, there was no concern in her voice, only a soft tone that showed she understood. It was late, but it was there.

But I turned to Jace, my step-father who was raising my precious sister. He was a good man, I knew, and he cared for his family. A protective person, sometimes his words and intentions don't fall on the same line. But he loved my mother, and it was because of that love that made him react the way he did. I could sugarcoat it, but I knew he blamed me for her every upset with the daughter-mother interaction.

Recently, though, I would see his regret, and even when his actions had hurt me in ways I couldn't describe, I still tried not to fault him. I could see he regretted his actions, but still…

"It doesn't change anything, you know," I said suddenly, eyes intently on his as I watched surprise and confusion set on his face. "I understand the alarm and panic – maybe anger – you felt years ago when we were teenagers… but even then, surely you could see it wouldn't have changed anything."

His voice had a raspy quality, as if afraid that raising his tone would trigger something. "Change what?"

"Your perfect family."

They looked like they've been slapped across the face.

"You tried but… in the end, it was about Claudia and the baby. It makes sense. You two just got married, starting your lives over again. You didn't need stupid teenage infatuation ruining that." My jaw set, and I had to clear my throat a few times. "But, don't you see? It was never about me and Oliver. For you, it was about your wife and child."

Jace looked deeply ashamed. His clenched jaw told that he wanted retort defensively, but he knew that he owed this to us. We weren't those teenagers anymore. We were adults and they no longer had that power over us – in more ways than one.

"I understand," I said thoughtfully after a few beats. "But I want to know if you understand."

"We were wrong," he said after a few beats of silence. He sounded defeated. "It… didn't take long to realize. And you're right." His lips tightened in a tight line. "I'm sorry, Sydney. So very sorry. We never treated you like you deserved – like you both deserved. Not just about your relationship – but as our children." He blinked quickly and stared intently at the ceiling. "Sometimes I feel like that we failed you both a second time."

"Jace," Mom gasped.

He smiled grimly. "We did though, didn't we? We left them the first time, and then we destroyed them the second time." I knew he recalled the conversation I had with my mother in the kitchen all those years ago. "I understand now that never would it have affected the family." He really meant 'my family'. It sounded like his words were coming from a tight place. "And I'm sorry we let you think it would have."

I glanced at Oliver and he had his arms were crossed over his chest, that familiar scowl on his face.

Jace's eyes flickered to his son, but Oliver pointedly looked away.

Oliver spoke. "I want you to know that we're not doing this to get your permission. We're setting you straight. If you don't approve, I honestly don't care. But that doesn't mean you have the right to keep us from Adam or Bree." His eyes flickered to Claudia. "You and I both know she loves you. But if this affects the way you treat her again, consider us gone from your lives."

Claudia looked pale, and her lips trembled. "Are you threatening to take my daughter away?" She looked almost furious but the fear in her eyes was real and growing. Even she had her doubts.

Oliver looked severe. "Daughter or not, she's a soft touch, especially when it comes to you. And you know how I feel about your parenting."

Jace gave his son an angry look but didn't speak. I sighed. "Oliver…"

Oliver ignored me and I sighed again, but didn't interrupt. Our parents needed to hear this, despite the fact that it seemed to have slipped his mind that I was an adult, and capable of making my own decisions. But his heart was in the right place, and he was merely acting on what he knew our parents were capable of – at least, my mother.

I looked at her sadly, but for the first time, without the familiar wisp of bitterness that I've always suppressed. It was like strings that wrapped around me whenever I was around the family – seeing her smile and ask me favours whenever I came around only tightened it. I loved her, but it was a long-ago kind of love. An ideal love for a mother I always wished she was, but deep down knew she wasn't. But Oliver was right – I was the kind of person who would jump at the chance to make this mother-daughter relationship better, and he was only warning her.

I swallowed hard. It was frightening that I had to be wary around my own mother.

Mom nodded curtly at her step-son. "You don't give me enough credit. But I do understand." Her eyes flickered to mine but returned to Oliver's.

"It's a long time coming," he said in a cool tone. "I'll believe it when I see it."

Obviously he was less forgiving than I was. I sighed the third time, this time feeling the exhaustion from my illness and this confrontation take a toll on me.

"We're done," Oliver said as he took my hand in his.

I laughed under my breath as he dragged me to my old bedroom now used as a guest room. He disappeared downstairs with a firm, "Stay put or I'll tape you to your bed," and I was left to my own devices. At least for a while.

After everything that happened, I was unusually calm. No, that wasn't right. I was halfway giddy and full on content. I knew I had to talk to Sienna. I was a naïve girl who wanted to please everyone, and because I was so selfless, I didn't realize the damage I was doing to myself. It was different this time, though.

"I brought you food to eat before you take your medicine." Oliver returned with a plate filled with food and bottled water.

"Thank you."

It wasn't until I was tucked in that we spoke. He was lying on top of the blanket, faced to me on his side. I watched him watch me for long moments until my face was red from the intensity of his stare that I finally broke.

"I missed you," he said simply in reply.

"But I was with you all evening."

He smiled. "No. When you were gone. When I saw you, though, especially, because I could at least pretend you didn't exist when you're not within reach." His expression clouded. "They needed to hear it, our parents."

He wasn't as insensitive as he made himself to be and I smiled my love at him.

"They knew it was a long time coming."

Oliver returned my smile as his arm curled around my waist. I was perfectly relaxed in my sick haze and elated mood. I could deal with anything.

"I'll spend my lifetime making up for the lost years, waiting." His whisper fell across the pillow, caressing my skin. The significance of his words caused my heart to speed up but I only tilted my chin so I could stare into his eyes. The grey was clear, light unmistakable, no hint of nervousness or anxiety for my answer.

After all these years, every new experience with every new person how was it possible to feel such mind blowing conviction of my feelings for one person? But then, how could a teenager know?

My reply came as a whisper from the bottom of my soul. "And I'll spend mine making you as happy as you've always made me."

He didn't say it, but his smile spoke volumes. My thoughts echoed his.


The end.

Author's note – You guiz. This story needs a major overhaul, holy crap. But anyway, I needed to rewrite this because the old one, well, made me cringe. It didn't show at all any maturity in Sydney's thoughts. Ugh. This is only a slight improvement until I gather enough energy to rewrite anything else. Thanks for reading!