Chapter Ninety-Nine

After We Fell


chapter ninety-nine

 

TESSA

 

I come back to reality, slowly, unwillingly, but happy Hardin’s lying next to me.

    “Hey.” He smiles, kissing me on my lips.

    I laugh—it’s a lazy sound, not wanting to move. My body is slightly sore, but in the best way.

    “I wish you weren’t leaving tomorrow,” I whisper while running my fingertips over one of the branches on his tattoo. The tree is dark, haunting and intricate. I wonder: If Hardin were getting this tattoo now, would he get the dead tree again? Or would there be just a few leaves on the branches, now that he’s happier, more lively?

    “Me, too,” he answers simply.

    I can’t mask the desperation behind my plea when I say “Then don’t.”

    Hardin’s fingers spread across my back, and he presses my naked body closer to his. “I don’t want to, but I know you’re only saying that because I just made you come repeatedly.”

    A horrified scoff falls from my lips. “That’s not true!” Hardin’s body shakes gently with an amused chuckle. “It really isn’t the only reason . . . Maybe we could be with each other on the weekends for a little while and see where it goes from there?”

    “You expect me to drive here every weekend?”

    “Not every one. I’ll come there, too.” I tilt my head to look into his eyes. “It’s working for us so far.”

    “Tessa . . .” He sighs, “I already told you how I felt about the long-distance shit.” My eyes flicker to the ceiling fan slowly spinning around and around in the dimness of the room. Rachel is pouring marinara sauce into Monica’s handbag on the television screen.

    “Yes, yet here you are,” I challenge him.

    He sighs and tugs gently at the ends of my hair, forcing me to look at him once more. “Touché.”

    “Well, I think there’s some sort of compromise that can be reached here, don’t you?”

    “What’s your offer?” he asks softly, briefly closing his eyes to take a deep breath.

    “I don’t know exactly . . . give me a moment,” I say.

    What exactly am I offering him? It’s in the best interest of both of our sanities to stay somewhat distant from each other for now. As much as my heart forgets all the terrible things that Hardin and I have been through in the past, my brain won’t allow me to give up all of my remaining dignity.

    I am in Seattle, following my dream, alone, with no apartment because of Hardin’s possessive nature and the unwillingness of both of us to compromise over even the most trivial details.

    “I don’t know, really,” I finally say when I can’t come up with a solid suggestion.

    “Well, do you want me around still? Just for the weekends, at least?” he asks. His fingers twist and twirl my hair.

    “Yes.”

    “Every weekend?”

    “Mostly.” I smile.

    “Do you want to talk on the phone each day like we did this week?”

    “Yes.” I loved the simple way Hardin and I spoke on the phone, neither of us even noticing the minutes and hours as they ticked by.

    “So everything will be the same as it was this week, then. I don’t know about that,” he says.

    “Why not?” It’s seemed to work for him so far, so why would he object to continuing the same way?

    “Because, Tessa, you’re here in Seattle without me, and we aren’t actually together, you could see someone else or meet someone—”

    “Hardin.” I lift myself onto my elbow to look down at him. His eyes bore into mine, and a lock of my unruly blond hair falls onto his face. Without breaking eye contact or even so much as a blink, his fingers move to tuck the fallen hair back behind my ear. “I’m not planning on seeing or meeting anyone else. All I want out of this is some independence and for both of us to be able to communicate.”

    “Why is it so important to you to be independent all of a sudden?” he asks. His thumb and forefinger glide across the shell of my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. If he’s trying to distract me, he’s succeeding.

    Despite his gentle touch and burning jade eyes, I continue in my quest to make him understand where I’m coming from. “It’s not a sudden thing. I’ve mentioned this to you before. I also hadn’t noticed just how dependent on you I was until recently, and I don’t like it. I don’t like being that way.”

    “I do,” he says quietly.

    “I know you do, but I don’t,” I say, refusing to allow the confidence in my voice to falter. A part of me pats myself on the back, then rolls her eyes at me because she isn’t buying it.

    “Well, how do I play into this independent shit?”

    “Just keep doing what you’re doing now. I have to be able to make decisions without thinking about having your permission or what you would think about them.”

    “You definitely don’t think about having my permission now, or you wouldn’t do half the shit you do.”

    I don’t want to have a fight. “Hardin,” I warn him. “This is important to me. I need to be able to think for myself. We should be partners . . . equals, neither of us should hold more . . . power than the other.” I struggle to find the words, sifting through my mind for a better way to explain what I want . . . what I need. I have to do this. This is part of who I am, or who I want to be. I’m working hard to find myself, to find out who I am on my own, with or without Hardin.

    “Equals? Power? You obviously have more power here. I mean, come on.”

    “It’s not only for me . . . it’s been good for you, too. You know it has.”

    “I guess so, but what does that say about us that we can only get along if we’re in different cities?” he asks . . . putting into words the question that’s been nagging at me since he arrived.

    “Well, we’ll figure that out later.”

    “Sure.” He stubbornly rolls his eyes but softens the reaction by kissing my forehead.

    “Remember what you said about there being a difference between loving someone and not being able to live without them?” I ask.

    “I don’t ever want to hear that statement again, really.”

    I swipe his damp hair off of his forehead. “You’re the one who said it,” I remind him. My fingertips graze along the outline of his nose, down to his swollen lips. “I’ve been thinking about it so much since then,” I admit.

    Hardin groans in annoyance. “Why?”

    “Because you said it for a reason, didn’t you?”

    “Out of anger, that’s all. I didn’t have a clue what it even meant. I was just being a dick.”

    “Well, either way, I keep thinking about it.” I gently tap on the tip of his nose.

    “Well, I wish you wouldn’t, because there’s no difference between the two.” His words fall slowly between us, his tone thoughtful.

    “How so?”

    He gives me a small smile. “I can’t live without you and I love you: they go hand in hand. If I could live without you, I wouldn’t be as in love with you as I am, and I clearly cannot be far from you.”

    “I’ll say.” I bite back the giggle that’s threatening to emerge.

    He notices my lightness. “I know you aren’t talking about me . . . You nearly busted your ass running to tackle me when I arrived.” Even in the darkness of the room, I can see his bright, widening smile, and my breath catches as I take in the raw beauty of him. When he behaves this way, unguarded and natural, there’s nothing better in my world.

    “I knew you were going to torture me for that!” I swat at his bare chest, and his hand flies up to catch my wrist between his long fingers.

    “Are you trying to get rough with me again? Look what happened last time.” He lifts his head off the mattress, and the heat begins to spread down my body, resting between my already sore thighs.

    “Can you stay one more day?” I dodge his remark about being rough. I need to know if I’m going to have more time with him tomorrow so we can spend the remainder of the morning hours . . . well . . . getting rough. “Please,” I add, snuggling my head into the crook of his neck.

    “Fine,” he says. I can feel his jaw move as he smiles against my forehead. “But only if you blindfold me again.”

    In one quick motion, he wraps his arms around my back and flips my body under his, and seconds later we’re lost in each other . . . again and again . . .