Loose Ends Ch. 11byTangledinYou©
She stared at him, melting under the steadiness of his gaze and the familiar sound of teasing dominance in his voice. Her body was lighting up like Christmas from the inside out, and she was grateful for the layers covering her body that would also cover the goosebumps rising, her nipples hardening. Her mouth felt dry.
"No," she answered honestly. "I already know what you mean. We never did deny that we got along really well in that department."
He nodded. She nodded. They turned away from the magnetic pull of each others eyes.
"And now we'll just have to find another way to cope," he said, "Like real friends do."
"Yeah. We were friends first anyway. Shouldn't be too hard."
"Shouldn't be," Gabe replied, and though he hadn't meant them to, the words came out with the almost cryptic flavor of tempting fate.
They sat in silence for a moment, watching the leaves drift back in forth in the breeze, like they were swaying to a song that only they could hear. Light from the sun was caressing their limbs, lighting up the ground under their feet. Soon that same light was going to seem garish, the leaves would be dead, and if things went according to plan, when that time came around they would be comfortably in the realm of friendship. All the lust and magic of the past would take a backseat, transform, and mold itself into the understanding of unconditional friendship instead.
Now the only catch was getting from here to there without going crazy in the process.
"Why don't you just wait until he gets there and then let him do it?
That was a good question. Why wouldn't she let Travis put away this box? Or just unpack it and put the contents in their proper place?
She wasn't willing to answer it though. What the box contained, what it meant, and why she felt compelled to shove it into some corner herself without having to talk about it with Travis was something that she was embarrassed and ashamed to admit to.
"He's already done so much around here, I just want to help," she finally offered as she dragged the box towards the closet, which wasn't a lie.
Travis was pretty much the go to man when it came to integrating all her shit into his apartment because she just got too flighty sometimes. She would say, "Sure, babe, I'll put those away today," while he was at work, and then forget all about them because of an idea that floated into her head.
"Plus I can't write at the moment," she continued. "I'm working on this scene but I'm stuck and I need to do something else for a while.
"What are you working on now anyway?"
That was a question that caught her off guard. She wasn't used to talking about her writing these days, at least not in specific terms. Travis would ask her how it was going, but it was usually a round about question with a round about answer to go with it. How many pages, how productive she felt, stuff like that. Part of her still felt like a bit of a loafer talking about writing while he was out working a nine to five all day. A real job, as her mind still labeled it.
She explained that it was kind of a coming of age tale about friends that fall in love.
"Well you're brilliant, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
She chuckled at that. "I'm so not brilliant. And anyway, how would you know, you've only read that short story and that was hardly Pulitzer Prize material."
"Jackie gave me her copy of your book the other day when I went to see Ian. Started reading it yesterday," he said.
Her heart thudded and then stopped dead in her chest.
Somehow in the grand equation of life, she never actually thought that one day he would sit down and read her book. Part of her mind was so used to the people around her seeing it as almost a hobby. A hobby she got paid for. Never mind that sometimes when she sat there staring at her computer, her greatest fear was that her first book was a fluke, a hailstorm of creativity that Gabriel inspired. And after Jackie's assertion that Gabe was obviously on her mind when she wrote it, she was deathly afraid that's what he would come up with too.
"You don't have to read it, you know. It's really kinda silly. Like a chick book."
He laughed at that. "You scared I'm not going to like it or something? You saw my library. I read all kinds of shit, and so far I can honestly say, I love it. It's not just a chick book, not the way you write it."
"Truly. I want my own copy, though. Signed and everything."
Nervousness warred with warmth and she closed her eyes to savor this moment. Gabriel didn't lie to her about things like this, not even to spare her feelings. He'd said back in the day that he was proud of her when he read her story. And he said he was proud of her for getting published now. But for him to read what she wrote in published form and like it...that seemed special somehow. And scary. How long would it be before he read it and pierced the haphazard code that revealed who he was in the book. And how would he like the ending?
"Thank you," she said finally. "That means a lot to me, Gabe."
"No problem, sweetheart. It's the truth." She thought she would melt when he called her one of his favorite pet name. Sweetheart. It always amazed her how much she responded to it. It wasn't laced with affectionate, naughty imagery like "little girl" or "dirty girl". "Sweetheart" should have been such a sugary and quaint term of endearment, even old fashioned. But on his lips, with that raspy voice and with all the memories of how he'd whispered it in her ear and against her skin, how could it be anything but sweet and sexy. "And if you need help I can read it for you, what you're working on now. You know, like I used to."
"Aren't you busy making music these days?"
"Never too busy for you," he said. "We are friends after all."
God please stop. Stop making me want you again...
Ha, that's funny. Did you ever stop wanting him?
"You can always come out and get something to eat with us tonight when we wrap up today's session," he said, "us" being the band. "Maybe bring what you're working on then?"
"Okay. But I need to eat something that doesn't make me need to reassess my wardrobe, so nothing greasy," she said with a chuckle. "Got Turkey Day coming up and that's already dangerous enough."
She shuffled the phone to the other ear as she lifted the box and tried to stuff it on to the top shelf. In the process the phone clattered to the floor. And for a second she could hear Gabriel's voice on the other end, yelling to see if she was okay and what had happened. She shoved the box onto the shelf quickly, dropped down to pick up the phone, then hopped back onto the stool.
"Sorry, sorry, dropped the phone," she said, turning her face up towards the shelf.
Just as the shelf collapsed and several heavy things shot off of it and tumbled to the floor. Including the edge of one of several boxes she'd tried to stuff up there. It caught her in the side of her head, knocking off the stool and to the floor with a nasty thud. She wondered if that cracking sound was her head or something else that had connected with the floor. Instantly her eyes teared and she felt lightheaded. Woozy. Like she was going to pass out. Her vision was blurred and when she reached up to feel her head, her fingers came back coated in blood.
"O-oh my God," she whispered, not quite believing how much was coating her fingertips. She could feel it running back into her hair, the faint sting buried under the wooziness. She was trying to think, trying make sense in a linear fashion. What should she do now? It seemed as if seeing how much blood was pouring out of the corner of her head had halted her intelligent thought processes.
The last thing she remembered before being knocked into relative unconsciousness was the sound of Gabriel's voice. Then she remembered that he was on the phone with her when it happened and if she knew him he was freaking out. She looked to her right, thanking her lucky starts that she didn't have to turn her head the other way to find her phone. Rolling gingerly onto her stomach she crawled toward it and picked it up with a shaky blood covered hand.
"Nicole!!" she winced as she brought the phone to her ear. He screamed her name at least two more times before she managed to cut in.
"I'm here. I-I'm okay. I..." her heart was pounding so fast and her head was swimming. "I fell..."
Even to her own dazed ears she didn't sound okay. She sounded small, and tired. Shaken.
"Are you okay, where did you fall? Is anything broken?" She couldn't be sure but it sounded like wind was swishing in the phone, he sounded like he was running.
"I don't think so." She wiggled her limbs. Her wrist hurt. She remembered falling heavily on it when she reached out behind her to break her fall. "My wrist feels sore. Maybe...maybe...a sprain..."
Then she saw the steady drip, drip, drip of blood from her forehead onto the floor.
"Are you hurt anywhere else? Nicole talk to me, okay? Keep talking to me, I'm gonna be right over."
"I'm bleeding. There's a...gash on my forehead and when I fell...my head hit. I heard a crack." She cringed as she remembered that sound. She lay her head down on her arm. It felt so heavy.
"I'm okay, I just need...to rest for a minute..."
'Nicole! Nicole, don't rest okay, don't fall asleep. I got Q to call an ambulance and they should be on their way soon. You sound like you have a concussion or something. Fuck! I'm on my way, I'm on my way! Keep talking to me, sweetheart. Talk to me!"
She laughed a little and then winced as her head seemed to play all the notes of pain. "What do you want me to talk about?" She felt sleepier by the second. She tried to sit up, and her head swam again. She needed to get to the bathroom to clean herself up. She needed to keep talking. But she was so tired. She just needed a moment.
"Talk to me sweetheart..."
She tried, but the words wouldn't come. Against her will, her body grew heavy and then limp. Inky blackness crept into the corners of her eyes, coating her sight.
Then Gabriel's voice faded away.
He'd never run so fast in his life to catch a cab. His legs, his lungs, everything felt stretched to its limit as he rushed to get to her. He rammed into people on the street, dodged dog walkers and little kids and braved traffic lights.
Nothing else mattered, not after he called her name and she didn't answer back.
When he finally made it to her apartment, rushing up the stairs three at a time, he was beyond terrified. He reached her door, knocked in vain, twisted the locked handle. He screamed her name, startling her neighbors as some of them came out to see what was the matter. That's when he went crazy, shoving his shoulder against it and then finally, kicking the door over and over again. It swung open, slamming into his shoulder before he pushed it open and took a moment to orient herself to her new apartment. To the right, down the hall, all the way to the end, into the doorway.
His only goal in life for the last fifteen minutes had been to get to her. But he couldn't deny how freaked out he was when he found her lying on the floor with a small puddle of her blood forming near her arm. That image wiped away the fleeting relief he felt at reaching his destination.
He tried to wake her, even though he was afraid to move her around. It could have been a minute or an eternity, but soon after his initial attempts to revive her, he was being shuffled out of the way so that the paramedics could come in and take over.
It really could have been a lot worse, Gabriel told himself, but he was still shaken. If he hadn't been on the phone with her, who knew how long she could have been laying like that until her boyfriend got home. Who knew what could've happened...
Several hours, an MRI, a couple of other tests, a wrapped wrist, and a few stitches later Nicole was prepping to leave the hospital, embarrassed to no end by the near fatal turn her clumsiness had taken, and by the gathering of friends and family.
"I'm okay, I swear. It's just a slight concussion," she said for the thousandth time when Jackie had joined the throng of visitors while she waited to get released from the hospital. "Nothing a couple of stitches and some severe embarrassment can't cure."
Everyone laughed at that. Everyone except maybe Jackie, Travis, and Gabriel.
Perhaps he was overreacting. She was okay, and that was the most important thing. She'd had enough presence of mind to crawl to the phone. She probably would have called for help if he hadn't been there. It wasn't like she was some fragile little thing, not really. Still, it more than unnerved him and now he was loath to leave her side, even though the doctors said she was just fine.
He thankfully got to ride to the hospital with her, made sure her paperwork was filled out and everyone was called. Even Travis.
Even that piece of shit. Because that's officially what he was to him now.
Barely a sideways glance and a thank you before Travis was pushing himself in front of Gabriel and trying to 'take care' of Nicole. It shouldn't have bothered him. It was what he was supposed to do as her boyfriend. But Gabriel knew better than that. He knew that fucker didn't like him from the word go, and that he could have saved Nicole from drowning, from an earthquake and it wouldn't matter. It wouldn't make a difference because Travis didn't want him around his girl.
God, that stung, like a lone hornet running loose inside his chest, hitting the same spot over and over again where he couldn't reach in to fish it out. He couldn't stop the ache because it was too deep inside, to much a part of him to release.
And then there was Travis' reaction to him. It made him wonder if Travis knew just how often he and Nicole were hanging out now, or if that in and of itself was the problem. Maybe just the fact that he was on the phone with her when the accident happened was too close for comfort for Travis.
Didn't matter. He wasn't leaving her side. Not yet anyway. No matter how many looks Travis gave him. He did his best to ignore him until finally, while taking a break to go get coffee, he was confronted for the first time with his own version of brutal reality.
"I want to thank you for helping Nicole," Travis said. He hadn't quite cornered Gabriel, since he'd seen a shadow that could only be him approaching. He still felt on the defensive when he brought himself up to his full height and stared into Travis' focused blue gaze while he leaned against the coffee machine.
"No problem. I was just doing what anyone would have done," Gabriel said, taking a sip of his coffee.
There was silence between them, but the look in Travis' eyes belied the appearance of that being the end of the conversation.
"Actually, that's not really true is it? You've kind of gone above and beyond when it comes to Nicole tonight. And it's really appreciated. But I think she's going to be fine now and you can go home. Get some rest or something."
Gabriel paused in sipping his drink.
So that's where this was going to go. Strange how he never thought this would be him. The guy on the outside, the third wheel. It may not seem like it, everything may point to the contrary, but in his heart his place was beside Nicole. He could no more pack up and leave than her sister could, or Trish, or anyone else that gave a damn about her and came to visit her while she got patched up and prepared to be sent home. But none of them were a threat in Travis' eyes. None of them had a history so deep that you could catch glimpses of it in every touch and glance, every smile. None of them were mourning the loss of a certain place in her life, even as they tried to get used to a new one.
"I will..." Gabriel said finally, "when she's released and the rest of the people that came to visit her leave too."
"Are you trying not to understand me, or what?"
Gabriel felt his jaw clench, he felt his fingers flex around the cup, threatening to squeeze molten liquid all over his hand.
"I know exactly what you're saying. Doesn't change anything. I'm not leaving until I make sure Nic is okay--"
"That's my job and I got it covered. I'm her boyfriend now, in case you hadn't picked up on that."
As if he could fucking forget.
"So thanks for making sure she got here safe, but I'm gonna take over now."
He turned, thinking that the conversation was now over. But he didn't know Gabriel very well. His long stride cut Travis off and made him tense as he came to stand before him.
"If I were anybody else, we wouldn't be doing this dance. You would have thanked me. You would have been content to know that someone that cares about her was around when she needed him. Maybe you should focus on that instead of being a jealous dick. Nic's not to partial to that kind of guy. Thought you might appreciate that tip since you're acting like the type that doesn't want to hold onto his girlfriend."
"Do I look like I need your advice? I have her, not you."
That made Gabriel pause and inhale. He tilted his head back, as if he'd taken that comment on the chin. And in so many ways he had. He could still remember that day in the movie theater, when he told Nicole he had no reason to be jealous of Travis. Because he had her.
Fucking ironic. Like fate was dancing around teasing him.
What now, motherfucka?! It seemed to say.
Yeah. What now?
"Isn't that the point," he said quietly then. Going for sincerity when what he really wanted to go for was Travis head. "You have her now. She chose you. So maybe you should get over yourself and remember that she wants to be friends with me. And only friends. I'm not twisting her arm. And I'm not coming between you two. Nothing is going on."
Travis seemed to give that some real thought. He stared straight into Gabriel's eyes, assessing, weighing, measuring. Deconstructing him and his intentions with Nicole. It was almost as if Travis wanted to believe him, like the struggle was for this otherwise rational and chill guy to understand that Gabriel had a place in Nicole's life, even if it wasn't as her one and only. But then he blinked, a wall came down. One that spoke to his inability to be rational about this. Perhaps for good reason with the way Gabriel seemed to be all twisted up inside over his ex girlfriend.
"I don't think in the hypothetical man, not when it comes to this," Travis said finally. "You aren't anybody else to her. You're the guy that broke her heart, the one that I had to help her get over. And even though she can somehow manage to look past that and trust you, I'm not so forgiving. So just do yourself a favor and back off. Bow out gracefully."
He felt fury and panic mingle together. Nicole wanted him around, but what would happen if Travis said he didn't approve?
Could he lose her a second time, this time for real? Could he even bare the thought of not having her in his life anymore?
He knew the answer to that question. He knew he couldn't. He couldn't give her up. It was selfish, and maybe it was wrong. But it was truth painted plain as the lines etched on his palms. As sure as his name was Gabriel Roberts, he was unable to let go of being near Nicole, even if was just as a part of the supporting cast in her life. That hurt so badly to admit to himself. He wanted so much more than this battle for scraps. He almost wanted to cry he was so angry, he felt so weak. Yet, he knew he wasn't weak. Maybe a little broken, maybe a little scared. But there was still fight in him, and Travis saw it when Gabriel took a step forward, lowered his voice, and spoke plain to the other man.
"Listen, I'm only going to say this once. And I'm going to say it nicely because I want you to understand that I don't have any hard feelings. Yes, I used to date Nicole. And yes, I loved her very much. I still do, the way you love someone that you used to be really close to in every way," he said, and the emphasis of the word 'every' wasn't lost on Travis. "But there is nothing going on between us other than friendship. If I wanted more than that, trust me I could put in a lot more effort than just taking her to the hospital, or giving her the occasional hug. I could be a complete dick, pull out all the stops and see if I could take her from you. With everything I know about her, it wouldn't be as hard as you'd think..."