Lunch was a silent affair. Due to my newfound lack of confidence,
I couldn't summon the initiative to keep up even the most inane
conversation, resulting in a tense, miserable period where I
couldn't seem to get comfortable in my seat. My earlier class had
done nothing to help my present state. The entire time my mind
simply ricocheted back and forth between anger at losing my nerve
and self-pity for the quandary I found myself in.
I pushed the food around my plate, unable to eat, fidgeting and shifting in my seat until Will silently stood as a sign to leave.
On the walk back to campus, Will finally broke the silence. "Something's wrong," he finally burst out.
You have no idea, I thought bleakly.
"This morning, you were tense and pale one minute, and the next you were bouncing around like a kindergartener on speed. Then right after that--" his voice suddenly got very soft--"after that you were... crying." He turned to me, pleading. "Please, Eva. I can't help you unless you tell me what's wrong."
I looked at him, concern written all over his face, his beautiful, familiar face....But I copped out. "Nothing's wrong," I mumbled, looking at my feet. "Well, not really, anyway."
He threw me a disbelieving look. "I don't believe you," he confirmed.
"Really, it's true! I'm fine. Let's move on." I marched determinedly for the bridge that separate the two sides of campus, showing myself to be well and truly fine and dandy.
Will, of course, saw through my charade, keeping pace with me easily and appraising me shrewdly. "So, earlier in class...?" he prompted.
"I was just... preoccupied." That wasn't a lie; not really.
I stopped before I knew what I was doing, my face staring up at him in panic. After all the chances I'd had and mangled so horrifically, I couldn't imagine anything much worse than telling him how I felt right then. I could see the concern grow exponentially; could even almost hear the words before he spoke them. I held up a hand, trying to control my features. "I'm fine," I said, reassuring him before he could worry himself too much.
He regarded me with wary disbelief. After a long moment, he spoke again, returning to the earlier topic. "What were you preoccupied with?" he asked carefully.
I sighed. "I can't tell you," I said finally, as sick of the I'm Fine lies as he probably was.
He gave a sigh of his own, but didn't pursue the topic any further for the moment, instead pulling me out of the path of the sudden surge of students crossing the bridge.
"Why?" he asked, once we had reached the relative safety of the railing.
I looked around me at the students passing by, ashamed to meet his eyes. "I have to get to class," I said dully. I turned and started to walk away.
"I don't think so." His hand locked onto my arm, pulling me back.
"Excuse me?" His actions finally snapped me out of my dull lethargy; my anger flared sharper than I intended it to. I looked incredulously at his hand gripping my arm. "Since when did it become okay for you to tell me what I can and can't do?"
He didn't drop his hand. "Last time you went to class, you came back worse than when you went in. I am not going to let that happen again." One side of his mouth turned up in a lop-sided grin. "Besides, it's healthy to skip class every now and then."
I pulled my arm out of his grasp and glared, seething.
"What is it, then?" he asked again, his eyes suddenly intense once more. "Is it me? Is it something I did? Because if--"
My anger turned inward, unable to stand up against his sincerity. "No, it's not you," I said bitterly, looking away. "It's entirely my fault."
He gave me a look that spoke volumes about his frustration. "Just a few hours ago you were more excited about something than I've ever seen in my entire life. Then in the two minutes that it took me to get outside, something happened that put you in this funk. So what happened, and why are you beating yourself up about it?"
Because I'm a wimp, I thought hopelessly to myself. A spineless, gutless, crawl-away-with-my-tail-between-my-legs wimp. "I can't tell you," I mumbled miserably.
I looked up as he swore. "Why not?" he demanded fiercely.
"Because," I said in an irritable tone. I was taking enough abuse from myself; I didn't need him to add to it. "It's embarrassing."
He stared at me for a moment, blue eyes wide and mouth agape. I could see the exasperation warring with amusement in his face; a battle which amusement apparently won. He began to laugh.
My anger was returning. "What the bloody hell are you doing?" I snapped as he leaned on the railing to catch his breath.
"That-that's it?" he asked between gasps for air. It was my turn to gape at him as he gave in to more hilarity.
"Funny, is it?" I asked acerbically, folding my arms as he finally composed himself enough for coherent speech.
"Eva--" he began, a reproachful look mingling with the laughter on his face. "Eva, I embarrass myself daily, in ways and number that you could never even come close to." He chuckled some more. "I swear, whatever it is, I've probably done it before, so you have absolutely no reason to beat yourself up about this."
I glared daggers at him over my folded arms.
He sighed. "But you don't believe me."
I shook my head, stubbornly planning to follow with an icy no.
But suddenly, all I could see of Will were the bottoms of his shoes as he tipped over the railing.
Several people sitting around the edges of the fountain rushed to the railings at the same time I did, shrieking, "Will!" I stared at the white patch of bubbles where he had disappeared, searching frantically for some sign of him. The water wasn't a terrible distance away from the bridge, but what happened to make him fall like that?
His head broke the surface; he shook his hair out of his eyes before grinning cheekily up at me.
I swore, long and loud. A prank? A bloody prank? "What the fucking hell do you think you're doing?!" I yelled at him, completely provoked.
"Do you believe me now?"
Speechless, I could only gape open-mouthed at him, standing chest deep in the swirling blue waters of the front campus fountain, grinning up at me like an imp who'd gotten his hands on a weapon of mass destruction.
I couldn't help it. I laughed. All the misery and anger of the past few hours suddenly gave up the fight as I laughed until my sides hurt and tears streamed down my face; so hard, I had to sit down on the bridge before I could finally catch my breath. Sometime later I sat up, wiping tears from my cheeks. Reaching out, I grasped a hold of the metal bars of the railing, leaning my head against them to peer down at my personal water sprite. "Oh, Will," I gasped, giggling madly. "What would I ever do without you?"
"Shrivel up and die of embarrassment," he answered promptly, then beckoned to me. "Get in here," he ordered.
"What! No!" I hissed, glancing around wide-eyed for various persons that may have heard his inflammatory command.
"C'mon," he wheedled. "The water feels great!"
"Any type of liquid you can immerse yourself in feels great to you," I reminded him dryly.
He responded by sending a great splash of water to where I sat on the bridge. Most of it hit the mark, too; my seated self unable to recoil quickly enough to get out of the way.
I shrieked at his audacity, standing abruptly. "That's it. You're going to pay."
His eyes gleamed mischievously up at me as I threw a leg over the railing.
Poised on the brink of throwing myself overboard, as it were, I paused with some misgivings. I bit my lip, then flung my worries to the wind along with my body, reveling in the freedom until gravity kicked in and I plummeted into the water.
"Glorioski!" I sputtered as I resurfaced, glaring as effectively as I could under the circumstances. "The water's freezing!"
"And the day is broiling. Therefore, the water feels great," he explained, grinning down at me.
His face, alight with a little boy's excitement, caught me off guard. I suddenly forgot to breathe, consumed instead with taking in every aspect of the pure exhilaration I saw in front of me. An inconvenient lapse in memory, it turned out; for while the water was merely chest high on Will, I found, to my extreme annoyance, that it reached nearly above my nose.
I blew bubbles with what little air I had left as I sank under water once more, intending to bounce off the bottom so I could regain the surface. Before that could happen, though, Will's hands came about my waist, hoisting me above the water line. I put my arms around his neck to facilitate my use of his body as a life jacket.
"So has it worked yet?"
Due to the swirling action of the fountain, which was much stronger than what it looked like from the bridge, I found myself pressed firmly all up and down the lovely, muscled length of his body. I looked up at Will, his beautiful face glowing with delight and laughter, scant inches from my own.
"Has what worked?" I asked, breathless for more reasons than one. I was having trouble concentrating.
"Are you still embarrassed?" he repeated.
I stared, drinking in the sight of him soaking wet, barely contained laughter dancing in his eyes. Some small corner of my brain that was still functioning realized that I needed to quell the party that my body was throwing for being mashed up against his. Accordingly, I wrapped my legs around his waist and pushed off from his shoulders with my forearms to get some distance. His hands, however, lingered on my back and waist, keeping me close.
I managed to wrestle my mind into forming coherent thoughts enough to answer. "That depends."
"On?" His gaze had altered somewhat, staring down at me intently as he spoke, his voice slightly husky.
I couldn't believe the way this was progressing. If this had been a movie I was watching, I'd be throwing popcorn at the screen while laughing derisively at the sheer stupidity of it all. As it was, I had never been so riveted in my entire life.
"On whether or not you kiss me," I answered finally, surprising myself with my own frankness.
One corner of his mouth turned up as he gave me a look that sent my pulse into double time.
Our lips met, tentatively at first, but quickly gaining in confidence. I surprised myself once again, this time at the intensity of the passion I'd hidden. I threw myself into the kiss, my hands rising to tangle in his hair as I closed the distance between our bodies.
His hands came around me, holding me tightly against his chest as I opened my mouth to him.
We continued on in this fashion for some time, content in our exploration of each other, until a sharp voice snapped like a whip through our reverie.
I broke off quickly, horrified, and twisted around to where the voice was coming from. A middle-aged woman, a professor by the looks of her, stood a little ways down the bridge, gaping at us in horror. "And Miss Descartes! This is hardly suitable behavior for front campus, much less the fountain!"
"This is all my fault, Dr. Fondren," Will called out quickly, still holding tight to me.
"I've no doubt of that," the professor stated severely, apparently over her initial shock. "Now if you will both get out of there and accompany me to the dean's, please."
Will didn't release me. "Eva never would've come in here by herself," he protested. "I convinced her to--"
"Rules are rules, Mr. Carper," Dr. Fondren interrupted, pointing with stringent firmness to the sidewalk nearest us. "Out. Now."
I was all for obeying her that second, intent on keeping my skin. I looked helplessly at Will; saw the belligerent look in his eyes slowly fade as he heaved a resigned sigh. I unwrapped my legs from is waist, meaning to make my way to the sidewalk as the professor commanded.
He wasn't having any of that. "Oh, no you don't," he stated brusquely, reaching down to put an arm under my legs.
"I can swim," I protested halfheartedly, snuggling closer to him even as I spoke.
He looked down at me from the corners of his eyes. "I know," he said smugly, impish smile back in place. "But this is better."
Presently we reached the wall; I put my hands on the top as Will boosted me into a sitting position. He jumped for the edge as I swung my legs up and over to stand, dripping, in the professor's disapproving gaze. I pointedly averted my eyes, pretending to be consumed with squeezing the water from my sopping wet hair. Will emerged to stand beside me, disregarding the professor's steely-eyed glare as he took my hand, grinning down at me still. My answering grin threatened to split my face. We walked this way, blithely ignoring the gaping stares following us as we trailed behind Dr. Fondren. Nothing could ruin my perfect happiness, I thought giddily.
"Kissing in the fountain, talking back to a teacher, and skipping class, to boot." The man behind the overlarge desk regarded us shrewdly. "50 demerits each," he finally announced, delivering his verdict with all the portent of a thunderclap shaking the earth.
"But sir," Will objected, quietly sincere. Hell, I'd take pity on him. Of course, I was slightly biased. "The whole thing was entirely my own fault; I jumped in first and persuaded Eva to come in after me. She never would have gone in on her own."
Dean Harlbrook regarded Will through his tiny square spectacles. His meaty hands lay clasped on the desk before him, thumbs slowly twiddling back and forth the only sign of his awareness of the situation.
I stood quietly beside Will, currently left to drip in peace on the expensive looking burgundy rug as the dean apparently rethought his verdict. I let my eyes travel over him and found myself wondering whether his toupee cost more than his watch, noting the humor lines around his eyes that were in seeming contrast with the heavily starched whiteness of his collar. I snapped back to attention as he spoke once more.
"As you most likely know, there is no specific rule about students disporting themselves in the front campus fountain, it not being thought to be a thing most serious students would have a problem with. Hence my decision. However--" he continued with a sharp glance at Will, who had opened his mouth to protest. "However, since you seem dead set on protecting this young lady from the consequences of your combined actions, I will hereby redistribute the amount in what I trust will seem a fair deal." He lifted a brow and looked severely over his glasses at Will before turning to me. "Miss Descartes, I reduce your punishment to twenty-five demerits."
I gave him my most angelic smile, inwardly jumping for joy. Until now, I had been especially good this year at not getting caught; these would be my first demerits of the semester.
The dean's next words, however, effectively shattered the euphoric bubble that had been covering me. "The remaining twenty-five," he continued in a dispassionate voice, "I will tack on to your existing amount, Mr. Carper."
Will's face was carefully blank as he returned the dean's gaze.
"This places you dangerously near the limit," he explained, surveying our expressions. "A few more missteps and you could be gone. This amount of demerits also consequently places you well over the limit for disciplinary probation, which carries with it extracurricular and--" his eyes flickered to mine--"social restrictions." He eyed us both shrewdly as his last words sunk in.
My mouth fell open in shock. "But sir--" I began in a not-exactly-coherent rush. "I jumped in just as much as he did. Keep the demerits the same; fifty-fifty because we broke the same rule!"
The dean turned his bespectacled gaze on me, eyes flashing to my damp, bedraggled hair and back to my face. "No, I don't think I will," he said presently.
"But sir--" Will and I began at the same time, both with the same level of desperation.
"I will, however," he cut in, louder this time to drown us out, "take off fifteen demerits for your chivalry, Mr. Carper." He gave a slight nod to Will, finally reclining in his plush leather chair and crossing his legs. "This school is not only about following the letter of the law, but also the spirit. I think you'll find that puts you right below the limit for disciplinary probation." I thought I detected a twinkle in his eyes, but it was gone so fast, hidden in his stern gaze, I wasn't really sure if I'd seen it or not.
"Thank you, sir," Will said sincerely, his previous excitement written in every line of his body.
I beamed in gratitude, euphoric bubble reestablished.
The dean flashed us a quick smile. "Now stop dripping on my rug and get out of here."
"Yes sir," Will and I both said with relief, fairly running to the door before he could change his mind.
Will stopped and turned warily. "Yes sir?"
"One misstep." Dean Harlbrook held up a surprisingly long, thin finger. "And you're over the line."
The dean nodded in dismissal; we made our escape, hand in hand.
"You never told me what was bothering you," Will said sometime later.
I flushed anew, embarrassed still despite our newfound mutual understanding. "Oh. Right."
"So?" he pressed, smiling. "What was it?"
I kicked at a pebble in my path, struggling to find words that didn't reveal my tumultuous struggle in admitting to myself my obsession, or at the very least that didn't make me sound mentally unstable. "Nope," I said finally. "Too hard. Too embarrassing."
He tumbled over into the grass, crying out as if he'd been shot. "I thought we'd been through this already!" he exclaimed in a mock-pained tone when he'd ceased his gyrations, looking plaintively up at me from his prone position.
I laughed at him, thumping his shoulder with my foot. "Nerd."
His look turned expectant. "So?" he prompted.
I sighed. "It's just that--" I stopped, scuffing my foot in the grass as I delayed. "Oh hell," I snapped. If he could endure embarrassment so blithely as he just demonstrated, then dammit, so could I! "This is going to sound really childish and stupid."
He rose to his feet, dirt and grass sticking to his wet clothes and hair. "Those are my very favorite," he said, pulling me close. My mind took a moment to marvel at how quickly the lines of a relationship can blur before I wrestled it back to the task at hand, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that Will was now kissing a line from my ear down my cheekbone. "Please continue," he murmured against my skin.
"Um." I struggled to concentrate. "The basic gist is...I was trying to find a way to tell you...that I...." I copped out. "I like you. As more than a friend." Massive understatement.
He pulled back to look me in the eye. "Is that so?" he asked, grinning hugely.
I nodded, unable to speak, caught up in his excitement as I was.
"Well it's about time," he said, suddenly changing tone as he feigned annoyance. "Any more of that god-awful beating around the bush, and pfft! I'd be outta here." He dodged the fist I aimed at his head, catching it easily and laughing as he restrained me. "No, seriously," he repeated when he caught his breath. "I don't know how much more I could have taken without making a huge decision in one of two directions." I must have looked perplexed at this, for he held up a finger dramatically. "One: to increase my efforts in the hopes that you'd come to see the light, or two." He held up another finger. "Leave altogether before I-" he shrugged, looking slightly past me before returning his gaze to mine-"couldn't."
I paused, stunned, then gave a low whistle. "Looks like I saw the error of my ways just in time."
"Praise be to God Almighty," he said, bending down to kiss me once more.
"Why couldn't you just tell me?" he asked presently. "Why all the drama and self-flagellation? Metaphorically speaking, of course."
"Of course," I repeated, sending him a squinty eyed look. "I don't know," I demurred, delaying as we walked down the sidewalk. "It was...embarrassing, like I said before. I mean, I can't go from ice-princess to lover in the blink of an eye."
"Sure you could. All it takes is a 'by the way, I'm in love with you.'"
I opened my mouth, fully intending to repudiate his absurd simplification when I realized with a start that that was essentially what he had done. "Oh," I said in a small voice, feeling incredibly stupid for having put myself through all that trouble.
He smiled evilly, enjoying the process of my enlightenment.
"I am, you know," I said in a soft tone, somewhat defiantly. It suddenly seemed very important to get everything out in the open with no room for misunderstandings. "In love with you, I mean. I'm sorry it took me this long to say it, but--" I was suddenly cut off as he caught me up in a bone-jarring embrace. My inarticulate words of surprise were similarly stopped as he kissed me, long and hard, leaving me breathless and my mind blank of any apology I had been planning. "Huh," I gasped sometime later, clinging to his shirt in order to stay upright, my knees having abdicated their role by turning to water. "I guess I should fall in love with you more often."
"Definitely," he agreed, lips on my neck. "By the way, I love you too."