Chapter nineteen

Silence greeted her admission—fitting, he thought, for the moment—but not because he was shocked into it. A hundred words passed through his mind, but he knew that she wouldn't acknowledge any one of them. Silence was the only response, so even if he had to bite his tongue, he said nothing.

"I'm sorry," he heard her say. Her head was bent, and he saw her hand rise to her face. Her back trembled for a moment, and then she tensed. "This is embarrassing. She saved my life, but my life is crumbling around me."

She whirled around, her face dark with quiet fury.

"I always wonder what she'd say if she ever saw the state I'm in. If she would have still given her life if this was the reword. The feeling of constant—" an unpleasant smile twisted her features, "—helplessness."

He wondered if the intensity of her feelings matched what he felt for Neil or his family. He knew feelings of such depth could never be compared, and he watched these emotions pass through her face—emotions he had desired to see, but now wanted to disappear. Suddenly it felt like he was staring into his own eyes.

"Aren't you trying, though?" he heard himself say. "You try so hard to play the part that it's hurting you."

"There are consequences to our actions, Cohen," Artemis said levelly. He could almost see her put up the invisible wall to guard against her emotions. "Despair will only reward despair. Stupid decisions give way to unforgiveable costs."

Xavier stiffened and he stared at her own unforgiving face.

"I hear the experience in your voice," he murmured.

"A mistake is only stupid if it's your second time making it."

"Otherwise it's called experience," he finished. The ever-present neutrality that dominated her face was gone, replaced by cold resolve. "But how can you compare an accident to a mistake?"

Her lips twisted. "I'm not. Only the decisions that can lead me to it."

Her brother. Her parents. Keeping herself together by mere threads to deny ruin, but still feeling like a failure. He gazed down at her. She was trying though. She kept pushing through, one disaster after another. It was a lot more than he could claim, where he'd been treading through his life because he was afraid of disturbing the fragile peace.

So it meant, then, his cowardly choices would inevitably lead him to failure. Funnily enough, he knew that in the beginning, but he wasn't strong enough to brave through the alternative consequences.

She was though. Artemis had more heart and honour than anyone he knew.

"And my guess is," he said, "that you wouldn't be happier doing anything else."

Her eyes flew to his, narrowing only slightly. "I didn't know feeling helpless equated to happiness."

"Then stop it, whatever you're doing," he challenged, his voice just as even as hers. "If you feel so helpless. Why are you wasting your time against something that, presumably, makes you unhappy?"

He saw her hand twitch and the perceptible widening of her eyes. Her emotional defenses weren't as strong as she'd like, and he used the situation to his advantage.

"The fact is, you gain some sort of perverse feeling of accomplishment from this, torturing yourself by keeping your feelings bottled in. You're going through the motions of what you think you should do, what feels right, but at what cost?"

"The cost that my brother gets as much of a normal childhood."

"And his mom? Is it your job to make her comfortable?" Xavier could feel his chest tightening, could feel his face softening, but she would never take him seriously if he allowed himself to go soft right now. "It was their decision, they should bear the brunt of it. And yet, you brought her to Sherry because you wanted to help her." She seemed have frozen. "Do you know why? Because, contrary to what you believe, doing this seems to help you. The only helpless thing about you is how you think you're forsaking your sister's memory—that you're torturing yourself with this thought that what you're doing isn't making a fucking difference. But it is!"

Artemis' wide eyes were on him, and he didn't look away. Let her see just how serious he was.

"I found him!" Sadie's head popped into the kitchen's entrance from the interior of the house. "I swear Maya went this way… We were looking for you!" Sadie marched toward Xavier, and jabbed his chest. "You're a terrible host, did you know that? Entertaining only…" her eyes swiveled toward Artemis, "…one guest! Abandoning your own friends, too!"

Xavier took a step back. "Are you drunk?" Artemis made a sound that made him look at her. "Like your friends don't drink," he said, his voice a mix of amusement and resignation. The atmosphere had been shattered, and he knew there was no way to recapture it. He batted Sadie's hands gently. "Quit it, will you? And Artemis is my friend too."

"Is she? That's interesting." Sadie's arm was now looped around his shoulders as she gazed at Artemis with speculative eyes.

"Oh, there you two are." Maya stepped into the kitchen, a faint smile on her face. "Hi, Xavier. Hi, Artemis."

"I was looking for you too," Sadie said dramatically, throwing herself at the smaller girl.

"Sorry, she drank a bit at my house before we came here," came Maya's muffled voice.

"Artemis is Xavier's friend," Sadie reported.

"Must be exciting for Artemis," Maya said pleasantly. "Careful, he's not the type to share. Xavier doesn't like talking a lot about himself. So he's probably not going to make much of a difference in your life."

Artemis gazed at her stoically. "For someone so confident in herself, you sure like to try and make everyone around you miserable."

Maya said nothing, but contempt was clear in her eyes.

"Weren't you going to show me around, Xavier?" Artemis cut through his sense of dread at the thought of a fight between the two.

"Oh—yeah, this way." He turned, heading back towards the rear end of the house, more to separate Artemis and Maya. Under normal circumstances he was confident that Artemis could handle Maya, but lack of retaliation from Maya's subtle jibes were due to Artemis' disinterest in bloodshed. Today, however, was a different story.

"Now it's obvious how much she wants to tear me apart," Artemis said from behind him.

"She could never do subtlety too long." Xavier kept his eyes focused in front of him. "She's still angry at me for calling off our… arrangement."

"A grudge? Seems out of character."

"That was fairly sarcastic. Any reason why?" He was tweaking the lion's tail and he didn't have a single line of defense.

The sun welcomed him outside with warm rays as they stepped down the porch. Several people waved at him from the poolside area and he lifted his arm in greeting, a distraction Artemis used to her advantage. When he looked back at her, she was on the other side of the backyard, engaged in a conversation with Mariel.

"… some call selfish, others call protectiveness. So to you it's the latter, but you understand that others can see it as jealousy." Artemis seemed to echo, nodding intently as she spoke.

"She has all the characteristics of the spoiled, youngest child, but because she's the oldest, she's well aware of her responsibilities. She likes glamour and good-looking things, but she's down-to-earth where it counts."

Xavier groaned. "Don't tell me…"

Artemis ignored him. "Nothing I haven't heard before. What about confrontations?"

"From my experience, she tends to avoid them."

"And with mine," Xavier muttered under his breath before he realized.

"What do you two usually clash about?"

Mariel's grin was lazy as her eyes landed on him. "Her taste in guys."

Xavier glowered. "Mariel!"

"The way she treats them," she answered more seriously, but the somber effect was ruined with the roll of her eyes. "Ask Xavier all about it. Sadie would know too. I don't care to repeat it since it annoys me, but let's just say she always gets what she wants. Always."

"Ominous." Artemis tapped her chin. "What if the object of her desire wanted nothing to do with her?"

Mariel looked at him then. "Foreshadow?"

"It's more of a declaration," Artemis answered for him.

"Is it?" She straightened from her position against the tree. "Coming from him I wouldn't believe it, but from you… How can you be so sure?" Mariel said skeptically. Xavier listened to their conversation with a sense of unreality.

"Well, if you guys call yourselves his friends, it's easy to see how Xavier only gravitates to her when he's emotionally overwhelmed. I'm happy to say that he's resolved this part of his life by confronting at least part of the source of this disturbance." Artemis tilted her head, as if deep in thought. "Maya doesn't know it, but she reminds him of everything he tries to forget by being with her. Strange, isn't it, that the intimacy provided by sex can stand as the epitome of everything someone wants to forget about when they so willingly participated multiple times beforehand?"

Mariel was looking at her as if she'd never seen her, her face void of its usual humour.

Xavier was tense as his hand shot out to manacle Artemis' wrist. Before he could drag her away, however, Brody catapulted in their direction. Judging by the dazed happiness on his face, he had more than a fair share of alcohol. Xavier wanted to curse under his breath as an uncharacteristic smile crossed Artemis' face.

"Brody," she said fondly. "Aren't you one of Xavier's best friends?"

"I didn't know you were here," Brody said with a charming grin and leaned toward her. "Of course I am, doll. Anyone who knows anyone at Weston High knows how tight we are. Right, Cohen?"

Xavier gritted his teeth, but unless he upended her, she wouldn't stop. On anyone else he would call this reckless, but he knew he'd crossed a line, and every word out of her mouth was calculated. Back in the kitchen she'd been rebuilding her walls, and now she wanted him to know exactly how it felt like to have him crash through them and enter her private world.

"I heard you two were something else, even in elementary school. Since you two were so close, did you notice how terrible it was for Xavier when her sister moved out?"

Brody's eyebrows came together in confusion, but he didn't sense the electricity in the air. "Now that I think about it, yeah, he wasn't himself."

"But he pretended to be happy, right? You're clever, so I'm sure you noticed."

"I guess so. Everyone knew that he was upset, and we didn't want to make it weird or anything." He rubbed his chin, oblivious to the growing storm. "Since Maya was more comfortable around him, she spent more time with him whenever he was particularly in a bad mood… if you know what I mean. Remember that, dude? You're welcome."

"Even then, though, he did what he wanted to because he was ready. It's not like you shoved him into her arms. He went through the motions just fine, but were any of you aware of just what was going through his—"

His hand muffled her words. It didn't take long for her to grow silent, which was only another sign of his impending doom. Not that she wasn't going to feel his own wrath. He could feel his jaw ticking, but his anger was only tempered slightly knowing that this was his own doing.

"You can't compare what you're doing to what I did," Xavier said lowly, his hard eyes trained away from hers. "I already know what I did was despicable. You, on the other hand, are completely unaware—"

"I don't need another revelation from you," Artemis said, pulling away from his hand. "You missed the point entirely—"

"Did I? That I should leave you alone until you're ready to face your fears?" He barely kept himself from shouting, and his voice came out guttural. "Trust me, I've been there, and it's paralyzing, waiting for the right moment to do something you know you should've done ages ago!"

"If you think that I run from confrontations, you better think again—"

Xavier gave a short laugh. "Yeah? What do you think this whole argument is about?"

Her voice was deadly quiet. "Why don't you tell me?"

Xavier clasped her hand in his and led her away from the growing crowd. He half expected her to leave, but he'd just challenged her in front of all these people, and her competitive side sparked through.

"Where are you taking me?" she said almost wearily.

"To the basement. More privacy." He let her go down the stairs first and locked the door behind him. "Good to know, by the way."

Her voice was steady, but he still heard the reluctance. He smiled. "Know what?"

"That you're capable of emotional inflection." He allowed his smile to stretch into a grin when she looked over at him in disbelief. "And emotional expression."

She didn't take a seat, but he had no qualms relishing the reins of supposed control to her, so he collapsed on the couch.

"I don't want to fight," he said without preamble.

"We're not fighting. And you did start it."

"And I think you have such an ingrained image of yourself—false, by the way—that when someone challenges it, you get defensive."

"Like you're all rainbows and unicorns when I air out your deepest secrets."

"That was a bit rude, by the way." He gazed at her oddly. "And how did you know?"

"And that's another thing. You call them your friends? They couldn't tell a smile from a frown, let alone comprehend what you went through with Jacqueline." Her lips twisted. "Only a small fraction of your problems."

He stilled. "What do you mean?"

Artemis looked away from him, but her voice softened. "Neil Deleon. I'm sorry, I was never going to bring it up in the future, but…" she shrugged. "You should worry about your own familial rifts instead of mine."

Xavier felt stiff. "What do you know?"

Artemis' eyes swept over him. She wasn't the type of gloat, but he swore he saw a smile on her face. "It doesn't feel good to be probed, does it? I should've opened with that." She leaned against the arm of the sofa. "Between the two of us, there's too much emotional baggage to even consider."

"And?"

"You're being deliberately obtuse."

"Artemis. That actually hurts. You should watch your words, you could really hurt someone who isn't as secure in themsel—"

"Okay," she intercepted. She said nothing else but stared down at him, her face once more inscrutable. The discomfort was still present at her ability to practically gaze into his soul, but he owed her this much and he didn't deflect. "Tomorrow, come to my house," she said abruptly. "We'll finally finish the interview."

Interesting. "If you're sure," he said carefully.

"After lunch. Don't be late."

And before he could say anything, she was walking away.

.

When Xavier ascended the stairs to join his own party, it didn't take more than one minute to realize that he should have done so sooner. He stopped dead at the entrance of his living room to see his sister, Artemis, and Sven of all people surrounding Penelope who seemed to bask in all the attention she was receiving.

He was torn between hiding to eavesdrop, demand when Jacqueline had arrived, or simply continue to gape in incredulity at the most unlikely trio he'd ever encountered.

He chose to approach cautiously. "I thought you left?" he addressed Artemis, believing it was the safest choice at the moment. But then she looked at him and smiled, one that reached her eyes, and he realized he was wrong.

"I was heading out but saw Jacqueline."

Xavier tried to regroup brain cells that weren't affected by Artemis, so he distracted himself with Sven. "I thought Natalia was more important than your friends," he said with a raised eyebrow.

"Sven is taking a break from females," Artemis reported, even thought he wasn't looking at her. To further his disconcertion, Sven didn't look bothered by her interruption.

"What?"

"Except for Penelope," Sven said, ignoring Xavier's sharp look of incredulity. Sven waved his fingers in the baby's face and smiled when she grasped them with a squeal of delight. "As I was saying, you should come by my place. My parent's went crazy with my nephew's playroom, and now he has more toys than he has years to play with them. Bring Noah, too," Sven said. "God knows he could use more male companions."

Xavier felt the same cloak of unreality from earlier descend on him once again. To his astonishment, Artemis smiled.

"I'll keep that in mind," Artemis said just as Jacqueline nodded agreeably.

"I definitely will. I haven't seen you in a while, Sven. I didn't think it was possible for you to look even more handsome, but here you are." His sister grinned good-naturedly. "Natalia doesn't know what she's missing."

"I think she's fairly aware," Artemis said in that nonchalant way of hers. Xavier expected Sven to blast her with his laser deadeye glare, but he merely offered a lazy grin.

"Trying to shove me into a pigeonhole already, miss McKenzie?"

"See it how you will."

Sven looked at Artemis rather intently at that point, not that the latter gave any indication that she was aware of his intense observation. Artemis merely carried on conversation with his sister, who was surreptitiously casting him worried looks. Xavier knew that look. He tried to arrange his features into one of vague disinterest, but the smoldering mass of annoyance in his chest was demanding attention.

"I'm actually interested in what you think." Sven made it sound like he was doing her a favour by being attentive.

There was a thoughtful pause. "I think it's fascinating how you can go from charming to unbearably arrogant in a matter of seconds."

Jacqueline tried to mask her surprised snort of laughter into a violent cough.

Out of all his friends, Sven and Xavier were almost similar in their interaction with the opposite sex. Except until recently, Maya had distracted Xavier and Sven was obsessed with Natalia Lively. Their almost clinical responses were related in delivery and intonation, and to top it off, the reactions from the majority of females were so predictable that they didn't have to worry about not impressing anyone. Why would they? They were good-looking, smart, and knew when to turn up the charm.

Xavier could almost see himself in Sven as he drawled and baited Artemis. Artemis, in turn, responded neutrally, if not distantly amused. The first few times they met, Sven was too proud to even consider Artemis as an equal – at most, she was an annoying source of amusement. While Xavier was more calculated, Sven knew what to say to get under anyone's skin… that is, anyone except Natalia.

Artemis' unfazed reactions should relax him, but instead, Xavier found himself sinking into an inexplicably dark mood.

Sven smiled his killer smile. "You know, don't you Artemis, that I'm sorry for that time in the party? I didn't get around to apologizing."

"Not to worry. I recall that you were preoccupied."

Sven's smile tightened ever so slightly, but Xavier knew Artemis didn't miss that little detail. If anything, the tilt of her head would be his first sign of caution, but Sven didn't know her as well as he did.

Artemis looked at him with a faint pitying expression. "You should probably spend more time trying to be her friend than trying to get into her pants." She said the words with only traces of sympathy that it would be hard to accuse her of condescension.

Sven's smile fell and a calculating look entered his eyes. "Funny, I thought I only mentioned that I was irritated. Looks like you can read between the lines."

Artemis said nothing, merely allowing her silence to speak for itself. Xavier was never a jealous person, but the heat clawing in his chest couldn't be anything else. Her obvious disinterest should relieve him, but it was the same as throwing a green flag in Sven's face. The revelation made him sick. Sven was treating Artemis exactly how he'd treated her, and she was responding just the same.

Xavier had enough. "Sven, stop flirting with Artemis."

Sven looked up at him as if he forgot he was there. "She doesn't speak much, but when she does it sure as hell makes you stop."

"She thinks you're an idiot," Xavier practically snapped, unable to stop himself. "You should worry more about what you don't say to Natalia, and what you do say to everyone else."

Sven's eyebrows rose, but almost immediately a look of comprehension settled on his features. With a faint smirk, he got to his feet. "I'll call you sometime, Jacqueline. See you later, Artemis."

They watched him saunter to the back. Xavier almost wished he demanded to speak in private. The back of his neck felt hot, and he called himself all kinds of fool. Submitting to the inevitable, he turned slowly to face two people who were able to read him better than he'd like to admit.

"I think you're both idiots," Artemis said, covering Penelope's ears as she said the last word. Even though she was sitting on the floor gazing up at him, it felt like he was at the lowest level possible.

"I'm glad you made it," he said to Jacqueline, ignoring Artemis' pointed look. Ironically, it was easier to face his sister than deal with his own petty emotions that were intrinsically linked with the latter person.

"I'm happy to be here. Especially after that little episode."

He should've known. "We all know Sven is unbearable. Can you blame me for having enough?" Unfortunately for him, he sounded defensive, but fortunately, annoyed enough not to be called out on it.

His sister had a look of amused understanding. Despite himself, he was relieved to know that time didn't take that part of their relationship away.

"I can see why you two are friends," Artemis said. "Penchant for arrogance."

"You were baiting him," he said, and her look of disbelief reignited his annoyance that he had to make her see. "He thrives on competition. You basically invited him to seek you in the future."

"Didn't know you two were carbon copies."

Xavier didn't deign that with a response, but he couldn't smother his expression. An irrational feeling of ill-use crept over him. Did she want Sven to talk to her? Surely she could see how unbearable he was. Xavier knew exactly how it would play out. Just the thought of Sven turning up the charm when he knew nothing about Artemis and what she was going through was enough to make his head explode.

"I'm going to go," Artemis said abruptly as she stood. Her shoulders were suddenly rigid, and it was obvious she was avoiding his stare, since she usually had no qualms about meeting his gaze. And this conversation—so soon after the one they'd just had—bore confrontation all over it. It wasn't her style to step back this way.

Unfortunately, he couldn't investigate this interesting turn of events. He felt relief all over his body and he even managed a smile.

"Thanks for coming," he said, meaning every word. His hand twitched to touch her back as she passed, but he kept his limbs firmly at his sides.

Artemis said her goodbyes to his sister and his niece, and he walked her to the door. He had so much he wanted to say—so much to reassure her, to remind her—that the urge overwhelmed him and he was left gazing. Just looking at her, at the face he once found so ordinary which belied the unbending strength and compassion that fueled her very existence. Now, it was all he could see.

Artemis glanced at his face, but her eyes settled at a point over his left ear. He could feel the smile spread across his face.

"See you tomorrow," Artemis said.

This time he couldn't stop his hand from grazing hers. "I'm counting down the minutes," he said seductively.

Her twitched in his and she managed a curt nod and turned her heel. Xavier shoved his hands in his pockets and watched her get into her car. She looked up only once as she started her engine, a quick apprehensive glance that turned his smile into a grin. The expression was still on his face even as she disappeared down the street and his sister walked up to his shoulder, staring at the silent street.

"You like her," Jacqueline said with certainty, even as she looked at him with furrowed eyebrows. "But I can't tell if she likes you."

"She does," he said without missing a beat, and then laughed to himself. No wonder she thought he was egotistical. "She doesn't know it yet, but I'll be right there when she realizes it."

.

Author's note: The last time I updated was November 2013! Oh my God. I have no excuses (other than what I usually give, sigh). Thank you for those who keep messaging me about updates and your kind words about the stories and my writing. I'm really touched to know there are people like you who continue to read what I write :) I'll see you all in the next one!

PS. What is your favourite book? I need more stories to read! xo