Shrk. The metal door slid open and closed behind her with little more than a gust of air. At one point, theirs had been the only apartment in the sector whose door didn’t make some kind of metallic grinding or screeching. Quickly after she had repaired it, purely out of annoyance, others had come with requests and even offers of payment to do the same to theirs.
She was tall for a girl, falling just a few inches short of six feet. Like most of her features, she had inherited this from her father. Her defined collarbones and long neck she'd gotten from her late mother, as well as her stark red hair which despite its length, she often wore pulled back in some fashion or other. She had the freckles to match, but they were hidden beneath the tan skin that was also her fathers. Many had said, when they took in her strong jawline, high cheek bones and almond eyes, that she was what her father would have looked like if he had been born a girl. The only oddity was that her eyes, rather than being blue like her mothers or brown like her fathers, were a pale green.
“Honey? Is that you?” His voice came from the other room, the only other room the tiny residence had to offer, which doubled as bedroom and office.
“Yeah.” She said with a sigh, falling into the ugly pink couch that was only a few paces away from the front door. The old springs groaned beneath her weight, its age showing through the stains and discoloration that remained, despite the countless efforts made to restore it. It, along with every other piece of furniture in the Vault, had clearly been through several generations of families.
Her father, tall and broad-shouldered with wisps of grey appearing in the roots of his beard, entered as she bent over to undo the laces of her boots. “You’re late. I was starting to get worried!” He said with a chuckle, and she switched over to the other boot, making an effort to hide her face. “Though I suppose it’s hard to get lost down he--” Both of her boots off, she has no choice but to straighten up, the florescent light that filled the room perfectly illuminating her blackened eye and scraped cheek, and bringing her father to a horrible silence.
“Oh, my dear.” His words were heavy with a pitiful disappointment. Dreading the lecture to come, she pushed herself up and moved into the other room. She had no purpose or intent other than avoiding his gaze, one always so full of total adoration, it made her sick to see them shine with worry and concern.
It looked worse than it was, really. Despite being a pip-boy programmer, she had a fit build to match her height. The first few lost fights against Butch DeLoria were enough to motivate her to fill some of her excess spare time with a light workout routine. Just enough to keep herself able to take a punch, and to give one back. Butch hadn't walked away unscathed, after all.
“It was that DeLoria boy again, wasn’t it?” He stayed outside the room, and she used the opportunity to change out of her work jumper into something more casual...like another blue and yellow jumper, only one that didn’t have ‘PROGRAMMER’ in large yellow letters over the even larger ‘101’ printed on the back.
“Is it ever anyone else?” She said lightly, using an attempt at humor to gauge the level of trouble she was in.
A long sigh was her answer; a lot. “You’ve got to stop giving in to him!” It never ceased to amaze her how severe he could sound without raising his voice by a single decibel.
“This kind of behavior is unacceptable, especially from you.”
“Butch is...a troubled boy, but I raised you to know better, to be better than to sink to that level of--”
“I know.” She drawled. She could only listen to the same lesson so many times, and there were only so many times he could tell it before he would eventually realize that it was a lost cause.
She closed the top-most drawer of her dresser, only identifiable from her fathers in that it was on her side of the room. Two beds, two dressers, one desk in between. Only the bare necessities for a two-person ‘family’. If you could call it that. Changed and only slightly refreshed, she joined him back in the front room. With his brow still furrowed with paternal concern, she avoided eye contact to idly browse the half-stocked bookshelf.
He raised a hand to brush the small scratch on her cheek, but she pulled away. “You’re going to be eighteen in a handful of months. This kind of behavior isn’t appropriate for children, much less an adult.” She picked up a random book and flipped through the pages, just waiting for it to be over. He sighed again, but it was softer.
“You’ve just got to ignore him.” He said, her eyebrows twitching with annoyance. “Whatever he does or says to you, he’s just trying to get a reaction. And by giving him one, you enable him to--” She slammed the book closed, her temper broken.
“It wasn’t me!” She said sharply, then sighed and put the book back on the shelf. “He was going after Amata." Her father remained silent, perhaps with surprise. “All four of them were surrounding her, snickering and making....suggestions.” She glanced at him, hoping she wouldn’t have to clarify her meaning. “And they wouldn’t back off. What was I supposed to do, just leave her there?” She finally turned to face him, fueled by her sense of vigilante justice.
“Of course not.” He finally said, calm as ever. It seemed to wash over her like a gentle wave, calming her as well. “But violence is never the answer. You could have gotten a security guard, or--”
She rolled her eyes. “Who knows what they’d have done to her in the time it took me to find one who’s sober!”
“OR,” he continued, not bothering to even try and deny the truth of what she’d said. “Go directly to the Overseer. She’s his daughter, after all, I’m sure he’d--”
She scoffed and rolled her eyes again. “Please, he’s so concerned with his own reputation that he’d only scold HER for...being in the wrong place or something. He’s never done anything about Butch, OR that stupid 'gang' of his. No one does! There’s only ONE way to make him listen.” She said with finality, holding up her fist.
Her father, her ever patient, ever kind, ever loving father, gently wrapped his hand around her fist, lowering and spreading it to take her hand in both of his.
“Butch has grown up without a father, and with a mother who’s more concerned with her liquor than if he has clothes that fit properly. The security guards look down on him, his teacher dismisses him, and any other adult around doesn’t pay enough attention to care one way or another. His friends mimic his behavior, and so he acts in the ways he thinks he must to be accepted by the only people who have ever paid any actual attention to him. Perhaps, my dear, what he needs is for someone to listen to him.”
She was frozen, struck dumb with surprise and shame. Surprise that someone like Butch could possibly be the victim, and shame that she had not realized this herself. She lowered her gaze in defeat, and releasing her hand to gently hold her cheeks, he kissed her atop her head. “It’s late. We ought to get to bed before the security guards take us in for breaking curfew.” He said, finally offering a chuckle to let her know the trouble was over. She returned a light, half-hearted smirk, and made ready for bed.
As she lay in bed, she tried to think of ways she could approach Butch, not as a challenger or enemy, but..well, certainly not a friend, either. Not yet. But perhaps as a neutral party. Just to talk to him, really talk and try to understand him the way her father seemed to without even trying. It was difficult to even maintain the desire, however, given the constant presence of his companions.
She knew not all of them were so bad. Freddie Gomez, for instance, had a good heart but dim wit, and was only with the Tunnel Snakes out of desire of inclusion. He enjoyed the companionship and approval, though his discomfort at what he had to do to gain it was clear to more than just her fathers eyes. Even Butch himself was, at worst, moderately annoying. He jeered and chided, but always seemed to know where the line was, and when not to cross it. Wally Mack was the one that Blake had always been the most wary of. Despite Butch’s loud mouth and cock-sure attitude, Blake got the feeling that he was only the leader because Wally passively allowed it to be so.
And then there was Paul Hannon.
If ever there had been anyone to fit the phrase “tall, dark and handsome”, it would be him. His african blood had sculpted a square jaw and full lips, with a curved nose and slanted forehead that gave him an ancient sort of regality; as though his genes had been cherry-picked from the peaks of evolution, passed down from the very beginning of mankind. But his handsome features were not what initially drew her to him.
It was hard to say when it really started. It could have been during her first month as a pip-boy programmer, when he had come for Stanley’s assistance but found she was the only one on duty. It could have been during her tenth birthday party, when he had apologized on behalf of his group and almost dared to pay her half a compliment. It could have been a few years later, during her thirteenth birthday where there was no party, but he’d stopped by the apartment- unbeknownst to the rest of the Tunnel Snakes--to give her a gift anyway.
Somewhere amidst countless encounters of similar kinds, something grew. It was difficult to call it an affection--perhaps a warm neutrality, or passive acceptance. Whatever good he might’ve done was always out performed by the deeds of his louder, more abrasive companions. They maintained a mutually respected distance from each other, like magnets of the same charge, always an unseen force pushing them apart whenever they came to be too close.
But only a small charge was needed to change push to pull.
She sat behind Mr. Brotch’s desk, the man himself having excused himself for some reason she hadn’t bothered to listen to. Blake found it surreal to be on the other side of the desk for once--To look over the empty classroom, imagining each student in their place, the ones she knew and ones she made up. Minds ready for molding. She was so lost in the reverie that she didn’t notice Paul enter the classroom. Or perhaps she did, and had assumed he was Mr.Brotch. They were both taller than her, and dark in complexion. It wasn’t until his voice, which was clearly not her teachers, snapped her back to attention.
“Blake? What are you doing?”
“What? Oh, Paul? What do you want?”
He looked her over, curiously and maybe even a little suspiciously. She looked almost elegant, sitting straight up like a pre-war lady, but there was a strength in her shoulders. A woman raised by a man, but a woman still. A strange combination, one unique to her. It made her seem equally likely to either stroke his hair or knock his lights out. He fought to ignore how much he liked that about her.
“I’m fixing Mr.Brotch’s computer.” She finally answered.
“Oh.” He continued to study her. And she was smart. Wicked smart. He tried to ignore that, too. “What’s wrong with it?”
That was a complicated answer. “It...keeps giving an error.”
“Oh.” Silence. “Where is he?”
“Uh. Getting a drink, I think.”
“When will he be back?”
“I..a few minutes, maybe?” They stared at each other, like two wild animals uncertain of the others motives. Finally, she noticed a bunch of papers in his hand, the front of which having what appeared to be a large red “C”. Before she could confirm, he flipped them over so she could only see the backs.
“I’ll just come back later.” He said, hurrying to exit the classroom. It was bad enough she had to see him so frequently with his group of goons. He didn't want her thinking he was cruel and stupid.
“Wait!” She called out before she even knew why. He paused and turned expectantly. “Err, I...” She fumbled. Why did she call him back? She had work to do. “Is that last weeks exam?” He clutched the papers more tightly, which only confirmed her suspicion. She stood up slightly, putting a hand out. “I got an A. That is, I’m not trying to--I mean, I can...take a look?”
And it was in that moment, a moment like a coin on its end, a boat with no oar at a fork in the current, that she realized she wanted him to stay. For any reason she could come up with, any excuse she could make, she simply wanted him to be there, and continue exploring the depths of who he was. Whatever happened next would define their relationship and the way they interacted for the rest of their lives, and they both knew it. It seemed an hour long as she waited for him to decide, and it seemed even longer to him as he struggled to do so.
Finally, after an eon, he closed the distance and handed the paper over. Not a monumental gesture, not one that would be written about or ever put in old, pre-war vids, but one that held the same importance to her.
She looked it over, nodding and humming to herself as she inwardly highlighted his mistakes.One of the things she liked about Paul--she realized it was a growing list-- was his intelligence. Despite his consistently good grades, few others seemed to appreciate it, if even be aware of it at all. Given his reputation and the people he was with, the idea that he was simply cheating was an easy enough answer.
The Generalized Occupational Aptitude Test had proven them all wrong, however, when he was placed on the Engineer career track. And again, all the sniggering and snide remarks had come to a halt when he flourished in the field.
With him standing on the other side of the desk, stiff and awkward, she really did feel like a teacher. “Ah..mm, okay. I see what the problem is.” she pointed to the paper, preparing to turn it round so he could see properly from where he was. Her thoughts momentarily vanished when he moved to stand beside her instead.
The last time her mind had gone blank like this, she had accidentally shocked herself when her screwdriver had brushed a live wire inside a pip-boy. She was so...aware of him. How soft his skin looked, how warm he felt beside her, how he smelled. "Ah," she faltered, fighting to get her bearings. “W-well, your hypothesis is actually correct, and most of the process as well. But right here-- ”
She was disrupted again when he kneeled down beside her, to get a better view of the paper of course. It certainly wasn't to move his hand slightly closer to hers. It absolutely wasn't to get a better look at her face, which was feminine without being delicate. It was definitely not to be closer to her, to hear her voice ever clearer, or catch a sparing whiff of her crimson locks.
And she had only adjusted her position to better show him the paper. Not to get closer. “You introduce a couple other variables that are unaccounted for later on. Without taking those into consideration, the rest of the process is skewed which..” she flipped to the next page. “Yep, gave you a different result.” She looked at him with a soft smile, which faded quickly upon seeing his furrowed brow.
“Damn. I didn’t even see that.” He took the papers back, turning to the first page and looking over his first mistakes. “I should’ve caught that. I’m no good at this stuff, that G.O.A.T should’ve put me in Maintenance.”
“Don’t say that.” She said a little angrily, turning towards him and wondering briefly if they’d always been sitting so close. “You’ve been kicking ass at your job since day one. If you weren’t smart enough to do it, we’d all be choking to death on...” she waved her hand in the air, searching for an example. “Reactor fumes, or something.” She looked at him with a smile, but he was unconvinced, staring hard into that glaring red C.
“You’re not stupid, Paul.” He finally looked at her, his brow creased in worry. “You’re not. You only think you are cause you hang out with three numbskulls who barely make a whole brain when they’re all together!” The corner of his mouth twitched. He knew she was right. “I know how smart you are.” She averted her eyes briefly, and in that fleeting second he hated not looking into them. “Maybe no one else does, or they just refuse to see it cause of your reputation, but--” Their eyes met again. “I know.”
This time, she didn’t look away. And he wasn’t looking away, either. She thought for a moment that the world was spinning, but, no, it was only the space closing between them, just before her eyes closed and their lips met.
Elation? Bliss? Euphoria? None of these words seemed to fit the lightness in her chest, the calm quiet of her mind, or the almost sickening butterflies in her stomach. His lips were softer than she expected. Had his hand always been on hers? When had she put hers on his knee? Were those...voices?
They broke apart--he must have heard them, too. Mr.Brotch, saying a passing greeting to some unknown. In a flash, Paul had his papers and was already halfway across the classroom when the teacher entered.
“Oh! Paul, what a...surprising...surprise. Something I can--?” He didn’t get the question out of his mouth before Paul had rounded the corner and disappeared. The older man looked at Blake with confusion, but she had no explanation to offer other than a stunned silence.
“Ooookay.” He coughed. “Well! How’s the computer coming along?” She looked at him at last, her mouth still slightly agape.
“I, uh...” She attempted to swallow the lump in her throat. “I’ll...need to work on it again tomorrow. Sorry, I’m--I just--” she stammered, verbally tripping over herself as she sloppily gathered up her notes and rushed out of the room.
She kept her gaze forward and down, staring at the few feet of floor in front of her and walked with a furious pace back to her apartment. A journey on any other day that would only be a few minutes. But with how rapidly her heart was pounding, how fast her head was spinning, how hard her stomach was turning, it felt more like an hour until she finally crossed the metal threshold. Relieved that her father was out--most likely still at the clinic--she hid herself in the darkness of the bedroom, and further plunged herself into solitude by curling up beneath the thin, regulation covers of her bed.
The next day had passed as slowly as a storm cloud on the horizon. She dreaded leaving the safety of her private space, daring to face him when she herself had no idea what she was feeling. She was not expecting, therefore, the horrible dredge of disappointment when he hadn’t even spared her a glance the whole day. She had expected an attempt to forget, or to pretend, that nothing had happened whatsoever--to go on their daily routine of snide remarks and sidelong glances as they always had done before. But to be treated as though she’d ceased to exist, in fact to be treated in no particular way at all? This, as well as the twisting knot that swelled in her chest because of it, she did not expect either.
The next day was no more merciful. At least twice, daring to look his way either out of desperation or forgetfulness, she could have sworn she caught the last second of his averting gaze. And each time, she dismissed it as wishful thinking. The following day, he'd apologized briefly when they'd bumped into one another going in and out of the classroom. There was a split, lingering second where they actually looked at one another, each one faltering as they tried to find simple words. None came, the second passed, and he moved to continue past her.
She wanted to turn with him, to grab him by the arm and spin him round to face her again, to shout at him or shake him until he gave her something, anything to settle her mind or heart, but...wait. She had grabbed him, by the crook of the elbow. And he had spun around, and now he was looking down at her, his ebony eyes surprised, expectant, and perhaps even a little afraid.
She flushed, pressing her lips together. Having acted on impulse, there wasn’t a trace of a thought put into what would happen next, much less what she could possibly say. "I...just...wh-..." he looked away, hearing voices approach, but she held firm onto his sleeve. "Paul, please! This isn't fair, you won't even look at me anymore! What--" He cut her off, putting his hand on hers with a desperate look in his eyes, the voices--which they both now recognized as the rest of the Tunnel Snakes--drew louder.
"Blake..." he muttered pleadingly. "We'll talk. I promise. Later." He said, glancing over his shoulder like a hunted animal. She stared determinedly into his petrified face and, sighing, she released him. He scampered further away from his supposed comrades, leaving Blake to hover in the doorway, somehow rooted to the spot with a flurry of embarrassment and frustration.
Butch’s bouncing, chugging laughter rounded the corner with the rest of him, Freddie and Wally in tow, and came to a sudden halt upon seeing Blake in their path.
“Well well well, look who’t is, boys!” he drawled, forcing the old greaser accent he’d perfected through late nights with pre-war vids. “Little Red.” He chided, his less-than-affectionate nickname for her, a reference to the childrens tale of the girl and the wolf.
“Fuck off, Butch.” She said shortly. On a good day, she’d outmatch his wit like a cougar with a mouse, starting off with simple, short remarks and working her way up to full fledged insults, some of which would go right over his head. On a poorer day, this might only go on for a minute or so before one of them through the first punch, but today--today, Blake had no patience for either circumstance.
“Woah-ho!” He flared up, straightening his back as though it were a cue for their tango to begin. “I’m not sure I’m likin’ that attitude, Little Red.” She rolled her eyes, pushing up from the wall and doing her best to walk away rather than goad him on. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to--” the moment she felt the pressure of his hand on her arm, she knocked it away before she’d completed her turn back to him.
“NOT today.” Her voice was heavy with finality, and her eyes held a sharpness to them that Butch had seen only rarely, but enough times to understand.
He rolled his shoulders, repositioning his jacket and said “I ain’t got time f’this anyway.” Behind him, Wally’s expression grew more irritated, but he said nothing. “We was lookin’ for Paul, not some skeevin’ sewer rat.” He said snidely, Freddie chuckling behind him but Wally maintaining his unimpressed air. Blake felt her hand curl into a fist, and fought to remember what her father had said.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and said in a forced calm, “He just went through, that way, probably looking for you--” she caught the insult in her throat and swallowed it. “Guys.” A little bewildered and almost disappointed, Butch gestured for his boys to follow as he headed the indicated direction. Freddie followed his cue, but Wally hesitated, staring Blake down in silence.
Her lungs tightened in anticipation. Anyone in the Vault would be all too quick to identify Butch as the leader of the Tunnel Snakes--even Blake herself had only ever dealt with him directly. But Wally...there was a disturbing air around him. He was like a boogeyman, always in the peripheral, just out of your vision but enough of a presence to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The real wolf, hiding in the woods and watching his prey--one you knew was there, but chose to ignore for the sake of your own sanity.
They stared at one another for only a moment, but it felt like hours. Her mind and heart were racing, trying to read any movement he made, predict any possible outcomes. When he finally moved, she had worked herself into such a state she nearly leapt at him. It took a split second for her to realize that he wasn’t moving towards her, but around her. For some unfathomable reason, he’d dismissed the fight and chose to keep up with Butch and Freddie instead. She kept her eyes on him as he passed, not daring to give him the slightest opportunity. Once he was shoulder-to-shoulder with her, he flashed her a glare so full of loathing and contempt that she almost attacked again, feeling an overwhelming need to defend herself from the wild predator she recognized him to be. Steeling herself, she only allowed herself to move once he had turned the same corner as his companions, and was out of sight.
She found any excuse to be anywhere but home. She loitered in the cafeteria, wandered aimlessly through the halls, and even bothered to watch the Vault Little League practice in the atrium. Impatient, angry and irritated, she eventually found her way to her father’s clinic.
Up front, Jonas, her father’s assistant and her closest friend, looked busy with some paperwork. She meant not to disturb him, but upon seeing her approach, he flashed a bright smile and lowered his clipboard. “Hey, sport! Been a while since we’ve had a visit from you.” He said endearingly, hugging her in greeting.
“Yeah, sorry. Been, y’know, busy..” she lamely excused, but he only chuckled.
“Hey, I hear ya. No rest for the wicked, right?” He winked at her, and she smiled. She had known Jonas long enough to consider him something of an uncle rather than a family friend. Not having much of a family to begin with, the distinction held no importance to her. “Here to see the old man?” He asked, turning to lead her through to the office.
She only shrugged in response. “Just, killing time, really. Came to see what you guys were up to.” She made to follow Jonas, but before they could make it to the door, her father stepped through, half-hidden behind a clipboard of his own.
“Jonas, I’m looking over these results you got from our last--”
“James!” Jonas cut him off, a little too quickly. Were Blake in a calmer state of mind, it might have made her curious. “Excellent timing, look who’s here!” He stepped aside to bring Blake into full view.
“Oh!” her father finally broke his view from his data, leaning back into the office to toss the clipboard onto his desk and close the door. That, she did notice. “Hello, sweetie. Something I can help you with?”
He outstretched his arm, shepherding them back into the main clinic area which offered more space for them to spread out. “No, just came to, y’know,” she shrugged. “Kill time.” He smiled at her, and Jonas spoke up next.
“Oh! That reminds me! I think I found just the thing to fix up your bb gun.”
Finally, Blake lit up. “Really?”
Hidden amongst stained, worn out mattresses, broken bed frames and malfunctioning or otherwise broken equipment was the BB gun Jonas and her father had presented to her on her tenth birthday, and they all had kept a secret from the Overseer since.
"Turns out," Jonas began, "The trigger mechanism was just fine. It wasn't catching because the spring was worn out, and wasn't giving it the push we needed."
"So, what, we just need a new spring?" Blake asked, happy there was something new to focus her energies on.
"Exactly. And lucky for you, I've already got one." He indicated a dented silver tray on the table which, rather than the surgical equipment it would have held in its better days, was a single, tiny spring.
"Lucky that Butch 'misplaced' his switchblade, anyway." James said with a chuckle, and wordlessly returned to his office while she and Jonas dismantled the gun.
"There." Jonas said with a finality, holding the reassembled BB rifle. "That ought to do it!" He handed it to Blake, who felt no immediate difference. She lifted the rifle, peering down the sights at a blank wall. "Woah!" Jonas said, holding a hand out to cease her. "Best not do that here. Lot'a things could go wrong, most of all the Overseer finding out." He glanced to James' closed office door, a fleeting motion that did not escape Blake's notice.
Slinging the strap across her shoulder, she headed for the door. "Tell Dad I'm gonna go shoot. I'll head back to the apartment once I'm done." It was a great assumption that he would make it home before she would, but she thought it best to leave the message anyway, for whatever it might be worth.
Down in the Reactor levels, Blake made her way to her pseudo shooting range. Chipped paint targets were attached to swiveling poles at varying distances, set up by her father years ago and improved upon as was needed. As it always offered her some relief from her daily anxieties--whether they be social, familial, scholarly, or even borne of 'Vault Depressive Syndrome'-- she found herself here rather frequently.
Taking aim, Blake let the first pellet fly, smacking the first target with a spark on the second outermost ring. She clicked her tongue with annoyance, aimed more carefully, and this time hit the ring just beyond the center. With a huff of personal satisfaction, she set her sights on the second target, a few meters behind and to the right of the first.
It only took a few warm up shots before each pull of the trigger resulted in a spark of metal-on-metal right in the bullseye. It was an easy thing for her to do these days. Given the frequency of her visits to her shooting range, it was surprising at all that she would get anything but bullseyes. An occasional radroach would offer her the thrill of a moving target, but it was the best that could be done under the circumstances.
Each pull of the trigger--or perhaps it was the sharp clatter of the pellets hitting their mark--felt like the undoing of one of a series of knots in her mind. As each one pulled free, she felt more and more relaxed, more calmed, more in control.
Eventually, she turned to a table set up along side the room and set her rifle down, looking over the ever dwindling amount of bb pellets she had and debated whether or not she still felt the need to burn through a few more.
A voice came from behind, starling her so badly that she knocked the table, some of the bb’s bouncing out of their container and rattling onto the floor. A panic immediately overcame her. Whoever was here, if it was someone that would report back to the Overseer what they had seen...but no. Before she’d even finished the thought, she knew the voice.
Turning slowly around, she saw that it was indeed Paul Hannon Jr. that waited in the doorway, who had called her name so softly and sweetly that she hadn’t immediately recognized who the voice had belonged to.
“P-Paul.” She stammered in honest surprise, and a thinly veiled attempt to buy herself time. She hadn’t expected anyone to join her down here, much less the young man who’d made his best efforts to avoid her as of late. She was grateful, therefore, when he did not advance into the room but stayed in his spot in the doorway.
“H..how did you...” She stepped to the side, hoping to block the rifle from view. He smiled gently, but it was gone in an instant.
“Your dad told me.” She furrowed her brow, feeling completely betrayed by her own blood. Her ONLY blood. “I figured...I mean, I thought...I said we’d talk, so..uh...” He rubbed the back of his neck, averting his eyes.
“So what the hell, then?” She said suddenly, anger bursting from her voice like a spark. He looked surprised, and then indignant.
“What the hell, what?” He asked snappily.
She squared her shoulders in annoyance. “What the hell else? You’re just gonna--” she faltered, blushing at the memory of the kiss, but pushed through back to her anger. “And then just...completely ignore me? Like I don’t even exist?”
He turned away again, a slight red coming into his own cheeks. “I wasn’t ignoring you..” he defended poorly.
“Oh, no?” She took a step forward without realizing it. “What do YOU call it, then, when you won’t look at me, or speak to me, or even acknowledge my presence? What do you call that, Paul?” She shouted at him, and he was still. He could not look her way, or muster even another syllable. She sighed, rubbing her eyes. “Look, if....if that was just...a random mistake and...didn’t mean anything, then--”
“It didn’t--” He interrupted, surprising the both of them. “It...wasn’t meaningless.” He said, his eyes softening with a sorrow she hadn’t expected. “Was it?” He asked her with a crackle of fear.
“...No.” She responded, bringing her hands together to squeeze and fiddle with her own fingers. It was then she noticed Paul’s arm, crossed over his chest and clutching the other as if in pain.
“So...what does that make us, then?” She asked more gently.
“I..don’t know.” He responded.
“Why did you ignore me?”
“I...guess I’m just...kind of...nervous, I guess.”
She scoffed. “Like I’m not? First you just walk out right after it happened, then you don’t even look at me for the next two days, I mean..what am I supposed to make of that? Jesus, Paul, I’m still a girl for fucks sake.” He smiled again, glancing at her like she’d made a joke.
She deflated slightly, embarrassed and increasingly annoyed that he didn’t seem to be taking her seriously. “So where does that leave us, then? Are we, like...dating?”
His smile faded and he looked away again. “I...don’t...”
Her stomach dropped so suddenly she thought she might be sick. Cutting him off before he could say anymore, “So we’ll just go back to the way things were.” The venom in her voice was unmistakable.
“No, I don’t want that, either.”
“So what?” She shouted again, growing ever more confused and annoyed by the second. “So you just want me to wait around for whenever you’re feeling randy? So you can have some stand-by fuck buddy to--”
“No!” this time, he was the one to step forward, stunning her into silence. “It’s not like that. I...I do like you, Blake...”
The words pulsed in her mind, filling her up with something like helium, making her feel light and dizzy. So much so that she almost missed the point of what he was saying. “But what?” She asked, still a little sharply. “I...like you, too..” she offered, embarrassed to death, but hoping it might ease his discomfort.
She was almost successful. He smiled at her and began to move forward, and she thought for a moment everything was resolved and they would move on from there. Yet he paused, and withdrew once more.
“But it’s...it’s too complicated.”
“How is it complicated?” She was almost laughing with the absurdity of the situation.
He sighed. “The Tunnel Snakes...” She felt another drop in her gut. Was that really it? Was he really going to set her aside for...
“...Those airheads?! They don’t have anything to do with this!”
“They’re my friends, Blake.” He said a little coldly.
“You’re wasted on them.” She snapped back. The only ‘friends’ she really had down here were Amata and Jonas, and even Amata had her own circle of friends outside of Blake. Suzie, Christine, even Monica...all of which seemed to be predisposed against Blake for some unknown reason. Adding yet another rejection onto the ever growing pile was too much for her to bear just now.
His shoulders fell. “I already get enough shit for being as nice to you as I am. If they knew...the Tunnel Snakes don’t--”
“Fuck the Tunnel Snakes! This isn’t any of their fucking business, it’s not about them or what they want.” She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “I’m asking what YOU want, Paul.”
There was very little space between them now. Seeming to realize this, he stepped away from her. “I...I don’t know. I need more time to..” he shook his head and turned away, heading back to the stairs that lead to the main level. She stood there for a moment, frozen with indignation and anger, but only for a moment.
One furious heartbeat later, she stormed after him, grabbing him by the arm again just before he hit the stairs, spinning him around and slamming his back into the wall with such force, he immediately raised his arms in defense. He barely got a grip on her wrists, clenching his leather jacket, before she pressed her lips into his.
Despite his complete and utter shock, his lips parted for hers almost instantly, having thirsted for her like a flower for sunshine. Their hands released one another in the same moment, choosing instead to wrap their arms around the other, pulling themselves ever closer and diving ever deeper into one another.
This time, with no voices or limitations and hidden away in the depths of the vault, they had the freedom to enjoy one another without interruption. Hands wandered, heartbeats increased, fingers gripped and became more desperate. They broke apart for only a moment, coming up for air and checking, just to be sure, that this was actually real before they dove back into each other. Somewhere along the way, Blake ended up with her back against the wall, both of his hands cupping her face like a goblet he drank from greedily.
After an immeasurable length of time, they pulled apart again, their thirsts satisfied for the moment. They smiled at one another, and Paul couldn't fight an embarrassed chuckle. He then rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, sighing. "You sure don't give up easy."
"Implying that I ever give up at all?"
He chuckled again, and she pressed her forehead against his. "They can't know." He said seriously, causing her to pull away and look into his eyes. "Butch, and them." She rolled her eyes and made to argue, but he held up a pleading hand and she allowed him to continue. "BOTH of us would get hell for it. It's not worth what they'd do. We can meet up down here, or by your dads clinic, anywhere we don't frequent."
Her eyes bore into him, considering this proposal before finally relenting. "Fine." She attempted to sound stern or displeased, but was too elated at the thought of their forbidden rendezvous and was betrayed by a smile. Thinking perhaps that with the deal struck their business was concluded, Paul moved to head back up the stairs when she caught his sleeve again.
"Not yet." She said sheepishly, and he looked a little uncertain. "Where's the rush?" She asked, and when he could not answer, he kissed her in surrender.