Chapter 11: The Tete-a-Tete Offensive

"Tell the Vietnamese they've got to draw in their horns or we're going to bomb them back into the Stone Age." - General Curtis LeMay

I returned to Ithaca from my spring break adventures feeling light and refreshed, ready to take on the rest of the semester. Things were looking up.

Our hockey team had won the league championship against Union, and I was still floating on the cloud of happiness the win had created for me. I'd never screamed as hard in my life as I did when Pat Kennedy scored the empty-netter that sealed the deal.

Once we'd gotten home, Clara and I had spent the rest of our spring break relaxing and pampering ourselves with spa products I'd gotten for my twentieth birthday the previous October. I may not have been a girly-girl, per se, but even I enjoyed slathering myself with aromatic soaps and lotions now and then.

To add to my positive mood, I hadn't needed to address the cuddling situation with Asher at all. By the time we'd awoken on that Saturday morning, he had rolled back over until he was nearly falling out of the bed. We'd remained on reasonably good terms with each other for the rest of our time in Albany, and once the trip had ended, we'd gone along on our merry ways.

I was beginning to warm up to the idea of possibly having at least some kind of friendship with him. If nothing else, our road trip had shown me that he could be a halfway decent guy and that I was perfectly capable of controlling myself in his presence, provided no alcohol was involved.

Whether there would ever be anything more than friendship was a question I chose to leave unanswered for the time being. I just wasn't ready to deal with it.

By the Sunday evening before classes resumed, all of my housemates had returned. Eager to share what we'd seen and done in the week we'd been apart, the five of us sat around the kitchen table chatting and snacking on the cookies Tom's girlfriend had baked for us.

"How is Julie, anyway?" I asked my tall, blonde friend.

"She's doing well," he replied. "It was nice to spend more than just a weekend with her for a change."

Charlie licked a bit of chocolate off his upper lip. "You guys do anything interesting?"

"Besides each other…" Lev interjected with an impish grin.

Tom chose to ignore that remark. "We went to the Syracuse zoo, which was pretty cool, but we mostly just spent time together on campus. What'd you guys get up to?"

Lev shrugged. "I just went home to see my folks. My Tyotya Viktoria was visiting from Moscow with her kids, which got pretty interesting when one of them decided to run around in our local mall pinching random women."

"Aw, he takes after you!" Clara teased.

"I'll have you know that I was an angel when I was eight," Lev insisted.

Tom rolled his eyes. "Sure you were."

Lev scowled at him. "Well I sure as hell didn't run around pinching scary army guys' girlfriends' asses."

"Oh, he didn't…" Clara gasped.

"Oh yes, he did. I think I apologized more times on that one day than I have in my entire life. Some of those guys looked like they could've benched me, too. Worst babysitting job EVER."

I couldn't help but laugh. Lev lived about ten minutes away from West Point, the US army academy, and from the sound of it, he'd been branded persona non grata by the entire school thanks to his mischievous cousin.

I certainly wouldn't have wanted a bunch of buff guys with access to tanks to be mad at me.

"Enough about my idiot cousin Petya," Lev went on, interrupting my thoughts. "What'd you do for break, Charlie?"

"I did some Habitat for Humanity work in Mississippi," he replied. "We were helping to rebuild a town that got hit by a flood last year."

I smiled warmly at my friend. Whatever faults he may have had, Charlie Maynard had a kind heart.

"Way to make the rest of us feel like terrible, selfish people, Charlie," Clara teased him. "You are way too good to be hanging out with a bunch of assholes like us."

"Why? What did you do over break?" he asked, a slight pink hue arising in his cheeks. Charlie was always bashful when people praised him, even through a veil of sarcasm.

"Riley and I went to Albany and watched the hockey team kick some serious ass. But the big story…" Clara's blue eyes suddenly took on a distinctive twinkle. "… is the apparently thawing relations between our resident man-eater and her former nemesis."

"Hey!" I protested, disliking my new epithet.

My best friend ignored me. "They were actually getting along for a change, and I think he might even have been flirting with her a little."

Tom raised his eyebrows. "Well that's new. What changed your mind about him?"

"Who says I've changed my mind about anything?"

He gave me a look.

I sighed. "He was just acting like a tolerable human being for once, okay?"

"You warming up to him, Riles?" Charlie inquired.

I shrugged. "I suppose I'm starting to re-evaluate my position on him."

Lev snickered.

"Oh, get your mind out of the gutter, you perv!" I scolded him.

Just then, there was a knock at the front door.

"I'll get it," I offered, getting up and heading for the foyer.

Imagine my surprise when I found the very person I'd been discussing standing impatiently on my front porch.

He did not look like a happy camper.

"Asher," I greeted him cautiously. "What're you doing here?"

"I need to speak to Clara," he flatly informed me. "Now."

Slightly taken aback by his hard tone, I went back to the kitchen to retrieve my roommate. Once she had gone to speak with our visitor, I took up a position just out of sight behind the stairs to listen. If Asher was as angry as he looked, I wanted to be on hand for damage control.

"Hey, Asher," Clara ventured nervously. "You wanted to see me?"

"So there I was, just sitting in my apartment," Asher began, bypassing the usual means of starting conversations. "When my roommate Max came back from break, looking like someone had died."

For some reason, my best friend blanched at the name "Max." She didn't speak, though, so Asher continued on with his rant.

"I was worried about him, so I asked him what was wrong. He said nothing, but no one looks that bummed out after getting back from a week in the Bahamas, so I kept pushing. And then, it came out."

"What did?" Clara asked, her voice strangely quiet.

The glare Asher gave her could have turned Lake Cayuga to ice in an instant. "Apparently he went home with a girl he really liked from that St. Patrick's Day party. She acted all sweet and coy, fucked him, and then left him there like garbage while he was asleep."

My heart sank. I suddenly knew where the conversation was going.

"I asked him what the girl's name was, and you know what he said?" Asher whispered, fury evident in every syllable.

Clara looked down at her feet, too ashamed (or petrified, I honestly wasn't sure) to answer him.

"Clara Galloway," he spat.

I could have sworn I heard my best friend let out a whimper.

In all the time I'd known Clara, I had never seen her look so upset. I knew she already felt guilty about sneaking out of Max's room in the middle of the night, and Asher throwing her indiscretions back in her face was making her feel even worse.

"Well?" he all but barked. "You have anything to say for yourself?"

"I-I… I'm sorry," Clara whispered, her voice trembling.

"Sorry's not good enough!" he bit out. "You don't seem to get what a shitty thing you did. You can't just run around fucking every guy in Ithaca and then tossing them aside without even giving them the fucking common courtesy of an explanation."

Clara wrapped her arms around her middle as though she could shield herself from the blow of his words. "It was just sex…"

Asher silenced her with a glare. "Maybe to you it was, but did you ever fucking stop to think that other people might have feelings too? Hell, do you ever fucking think at all? The whole fucking world doesn't revolve around you, Clara! What the fuck did Max do to you that made you treat him like shit?"

"He said he liked me…" she answered, so softly that I had to strain my ears to hear her.

Asher sputtered for a moment, clearly surprised by her response, before finding his rage once again. "That's it?" he bellowed. "He said he liked you, and that's it? And you fucking ditch him in the middle of the fucking night?"

"I was scared, okay?" Clara finally cried.

"So you man the fuck up and tell him you're uncomfortable, not sneak out at three in the morning like a fucking whore!"

That was it. He had crossed a line.

"You asshole!" I screamed, storming out from my hiding place and marching right up to my rather shocked enemy. "How dare you speak to Clara like that! You'd better have a fucking spectacular apology for her right fucking now or so help me, I will rip off your nuts and shove them so far down your throat that you'll be coughing up jizz for decades!"

Asher took a startled step back, apparently at a loss for words.

"Well?" I demanded. "Let's hear it!"

"Riley," he began, regaining his composure. "You don't need to get involved here. I don't want you to get caught in the middle of this."

I fixed him with a glare. "You put me in the middle of it by having the fucking balls to call my best friend a whore!"

"I didn't call her a whore," he corrected. "I said she was acting like one."

"Same fucking difference!" I shouted. "No one gets to speak to my friends like that. Ever."

His brown eyes narrowed. "Well, given that she treated one of my friends like shit, I think I'm within my rights to be a little pissed at her!"

"I fail to see how Clara's sex life is any of your fucking business," I snapped.

"I'm making it my business!" he retorted.

I sneered at him. "Why don't you let your chicken-shit friend fight his own battles?"

"Oh, like you're doing right now?" he fired back, waving a hand at Clara, who had shrunk back behind me.

"The difference is that no one's yelling in your friend's fucking face in his own fucking house!"

Asher crossed his arms over his chest. "All's fair in love and war, Quinlan."

"Yeah? Well, this is neither."

"What is it, then?"

I gave him the steeliest death glare my grey eyes could muster. "You being a fucking asshole, that's what it is!"

A sinister silence filled the room. The tension hanging in the air thickened until it nearly suffocated me.

Asher slowly stepped forward and leaned down to meet my glare head-on.

I'd never seen brown eyes look so cold.

"I should have known you'd defend her behavior after how you treated me," he growled. "You really should put a red light above your front door, 'cause with the two of you living here, it might as well be a brothel."

It was as though he'd stabbed me in the heart with an ice pick.

Mustering all the strength I possessed, I slapped him right across the face.

He staggered back, startled by the blow. The look that crossed his face just then told me loud and clear that he already regretted his words.

Too bad I wasn't in a forgiving mood.

"Riley, I'm-"

I cut off whatever lame-ass apology he was about to offer. "I don't fucking want to hear it, Ives. Get out of my house. Now."

He hesitated, opening his mouth to speak again.

"GET OUT!" I bellowed, on the verge of tears.

Sighing he complied, shutting the door gently behind him.

Rage boiled and bubbled inside of me, coursing through my veins like poison. The edges of my vision turned red, and rational thought escaped me.

Letting out a scream that shook the very foundations of the house, I slammed my fist into the wall. Bits of plaster and paint spewed out into the air from the dent I'd made. I reared back to take another blow, but a gentle hand on my shoulder stopped me.

"Riley," Tom began, his deep voice even and full of understanding. "You need to calm down before you hurt yourself. Come on."

Once he sensed that I wasn't about to lash out at him, he led me into the living room, where the rest of our household was gathered.

Clara was a wreck, sobbing into Charlie's shirt as he held her and softly stroked her long brown hair. I had never seen her cry before, and it was an unsettling sight.

A part of me wanted to cry as well, but I wouldn't let myself. I had already cried enough over boys in my lifetime. I refused to shed tears over a petty insult from the likes of Asher Ives.

"That fucking bastard," I hissed, angrily wiping away the few tears that had managed to escape. "Fuck what I said earlier about rethinking how I feel about him. He's a jackass. Period. End of discussion."

"R-Riley," Clara sniffled, her words slightly muffled by Charlie's shoulder. "M-maybe… maybe he's right."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Are you fucking kidding me?"

She sat up a little straighter. "Not about us being whores. I-I… I just mean that maybe… maybe he was right about what I did to Max. It was shitty. A-and… it makes me think… maybe I'm hurting more people and I just don't know about it."

"Clara," I ventured. "Don't let him get to you."

"But he's right!" she cried, her voice getting stronger. "I've been a total bitch to a ton of people!"

Lev raised an eyebrow. "Have you really slept with that many guys?"

She thought about it. "Okay, maybe only a few, but that's not the point!"

I shook my head angrily. "I can't believe you're actually listening to that asshole. Maybe you'll forget about the horrible things he was saying to us, but I sure as fuck won't!"

"It's fine for you to be mad for a while," Tom reasoned. "What Asher said was horrible, and your feelings are entirely justified. But eventually you're going to have to let it go. If you stay this angry at him indefinitely, you'll end up destroying yourself."

"Or the house…" Lev muttered.

I shot him a nasty glare.

He just shrugged.

Livid and in no mood for a lecture on forgiveness, I stormed off to my room and slammed the door behind me.

Asher Ives was dead to me.

Lunch on Tuesday found me in my usual spot, sitting across from Nate in Trillium and angrily pushing my noodles around with a plastic fork. The café had run out of portabella mushrooms, and the lack of quesadillas was adding to my already foul mood.

The only positive news was that Asher hadn't shown up to join us. Given how we'd left things, he was probably scared that I'd make good on my castration threat and add in some disembowelment while I was at it.

He wasn't far off the mark.

Just thinking about that Texan son of a bitch made me grasp my fork so hard that it snapped clean in half.

Grumbling to myself, I got up to grab another one.

"Still mad, huh?" Nate inquired when I returned.

I gritted my teeth. "Extremely."

He sighed. "I suppose I would be, too, if I were you."

Despite my shitty attitude, I gave my friend a small smile. When he had asked me before class why his roommate and I were fighting again, I'd told him my side of the story. He'd been remarkably sympathetic considering how close he was with Asher.

I didn't envy him. Being caught in the middle of a fight between two friends was a difficult situation, but Nate was handling it quite well.

"For what it's worth," he went on. "I know he's sorry about the things he said to you. He was angry and it all just sort of slipped out in the heat of the moment."

"That's a pitiful excuse," I replied. "He had no right to be angry in the first place. The whole thing was none of his business."

"He thought that it was. Try to see it from his perspective," Nate reasoned. "One of his friends was hurting, and Asher's a loyal guy. He felt the need to step in."

I massaged my temples, willing the headache I could feel developing to disappear. "I really don't want to hear it right now, Nate."

"It's okay," he assured me, an easy smile on his face. "We don't have to talk about it. Why don't you tell me about the hockey games you went to? Go ahead – give me the play-by-play breakdown."

I laughed for the first time in nearly two days. Nate always knew just what to say to put the people around him in a better mood.

My companion listened with rapt attention as I went through every hit, shot, and penalty of the ECAC championship. When we parted ways at the end of our lunch, I had almost forgotten why I was angry in the first place and I considered just how fortunate I was to have such wonderful friends.

My discussion section on Thursday afternoon was eerily quiet. Between my silent fury and Asher's PMS-like depression, neither of us was doing a whole lot of talking.

At first Kate seemed pleased at the opportunity to hear from some of the quieter students in the class, but few of them were particularly keen on making long arguments agreeing or disagreeing with the readings.

Carrie, who hated awkward silences, was filling in a lot of the gaps. After a while, though, she seemed to get tired of being a one-woman show.

The uncomfortable pauses and unanswered questions appeared to be bothering Kate as well. Halfway through the period, she addressed her two most vocal students directly.

"Asher, how do you think the Vietnam War fits into the context of the Cold War?"

"Proxy war," he muttered.

Kate turned to me. "Riley?"

I merely grunted.

A prolonged silence followed.

Finally, Asher spoke, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Not gonna argue with me today?"

I ignored him.

"Nothing?" he asked a bit louder. "Nothing at all?"


Something inside of him snapped. "For the love of God," he shouted. "Will you please talk to me?"

I looked up at Kate.

"May I please be excused?" I asked her. "I'm not feeling so well."

Too stunned to form proper words, the hapless TA merely nodded at me.

I gathered my things and hastily left the room with as much dignity as I had left in me. There was no way I was going to just sit there and listen to whatever mental breakdown Asher was having, even if I was the one causing it.

He had made his bed, and he would have to sleep in it.

Footsteps pounded after me as I walked down the hallway. I didn't have to turn around to know who had followed me.

"Riley!" Asher shouted. "Will you just talk to me for five fucking seconds?"

I sped up, but my pursuer caught me just as I was reaching for the door and pulled me around to face him.

"Please, Riley," he whispered, his brown eyes almost pleading with me. "Please talk to me."

My heart constricted almost painfully at the look on his face, but I held my ground. "I have nothing to say to you."

He sighed, running a hand through his dark brown hair. "I'm sorry, Riley. I really am. The things I said to you and Clara are inexcusable. You had every right to slap me."

A part of me wanted to forgive him, but my pride wouldn't allow it. It wasn't just that he had insulted my best friend – his words had hurt me in a very real way, even if I didn't want to admit it.

We all make choices, and we have to live with the consequences.

Right then, I chose to walk away from Asher.

He chose not to follow me.

A/N: Happy Asher's birthday (8/12), everyone! Also, happy belated Tully's birthday (8/8) and Kurt's birthday (8/10).

I know you're all probably furious at me right now for this turn of events. *ducks as everyone throws rotten fruit* It needed to happen, though, and hopefully next chapter you'll understand why. I apologize for the fact that this chapter is shorter than normal, but I think it's eventful and important enough to make up for that. It's also one of the fastest updates I've ever done.

I also apologize to those of you who were hoping for a "morning after" type scene. Riley and I simply weren't ready to address her intimacy issues just yet. ;-)

I don't think I've ever apologized for my characters so much in a single author's note. Don't worry, though – things always get worse before they get better. Riley won't stay mad forever.

SKoW voting is still going on! Don't forget to check it out. =) Thanks to everyone who's given me feedback so far. I love each and every one of you with a platonic passion. On that note, please review!

Much love,