Things had gone sour at uni, anyone could see.

Joss had turned up once on Monday, stayed at home for the rest of the week, and turned up again on Friday afternoon. One side of his face was painted with fading bruises. He felt pummelled, but could not bear to stay at home another day. Razvan was judging him.

Merry had an assignment due last night but she’d stayed up, alone in her room, as the deadline passed by. She felt oddly relieved. The world hadn’t crashed down as midnight passed. Nope, the world just carried on. It was as if school wasn’t the most important thing. Ha ha. Who knew?

April’s hand took three days to return to normal size and her knuckles were still tender, her skin scabbed up. She put all her energy into avoiding Ollie, the first year she’d given a hand job to before she’d ruined her hand, who represented a part of her she was really starting to hate.

Ellie tried to gather them all together for afternoon tea, hopeful that food and company would cheer them all up, but somehow they’d ended up on the wrong side of the courtyard where one of the university pubs welcomed them in. Ellie didn’t think a pub was the right place to be, right now, but she was feeling tired, almost as worse for wear as they were, and Ellie wasn’t good at arguing anyway. Tarique laced his fingers through hers and gently squeezed her hand and she felt a little better.

Zoe should have gone home straight after class, but she’d run into Ellie, and hadn’t liked how worried and worn she looked. She was drawn in by the possibility that there was something broken here that she could fix.

It was, perhaps, not the healthiest reason to join a group of people at a pub.

We need Geordie, Ellie thought, but Geordie had the afternoon off and was spending it with Mona. Or even cheerful Hayley, but Hayley had been roped into babysitting twins while Daria went to the doctor.

At least I have Tarique, Ellie clung to his hand. It had been a bad week for her, as well. She felt very sad, not only for poor Teagan and the mess it had left Joss and April in but for poor, poor lovely Jinx, who had lost a baby. Ellie didn’t even know how to deal with that level of tragedy.

Everything was sour except Tarique’s hand in hers and his smile when he looked at her and his attempts to keep things light, his attempt to comfort (which was doomed to fail in all cases except Ellie’s).

April bought the table two pitchers of cider and Merry said fuck it and poured herself a glass. It was only cider but Ellie was worried because Merry never drank anything.

But hell, maybe it would help. Maybe if they all got drunk then some part of this horribly tragic week would be bearable.

Ellie’s brain was not screwed on right. She was tired and sad and wanted to believe in a magic fix like a pitcher of cider and the power of friendship.

Tarique felt left out. He’d been with Ellie for months now and usually got on fairly well with Merry but since university started again Merry wasn’t her normal self, and she snapped even more than usual and had less patience for anything and most of the time Tarique felt like she wished that the world would shrink down to just a very select group of people and he hadn’t made the cut.

April freaked him out a little, partially because she was unpredictable and partially because he was attracted to her. He wouldn’t cheat on Ellie (he wouldn’t, he told himself, although sometimes it felt like it was inevitable) but April was in the room right next to his, and April was the one whose sexual energy had kept him going when he wasn’t feeding (feeding - he hated that word, it was his mother’s word but it was ingrained in his vocabulary) off anyone directly. April was hot.

He got on okay with Joss but not enough to be told all the details around whatever really happened in Liverpool. Ellie wouldn’t tell him because it wasn’t hers to tell. It was Joss’s, and Teagan’s. Tarique couldn’t help resenting that.

And Zoe, who was new, didn’t like him. Girls hardly ever didn’t like him. Some of them were freaked out by the wheelchair thing but got over it pretty quickly when he smiled his smile at them. Zoe did not did not seem impervious to his smile – instead, she seemed confused and hostile, but that made him just want to try harder. He didn’t like hostile.

When the pitchers got low, Tarique bought another round to top them all up again. April upended a tequila shot into her pint. Zoe, Joss and Merry had a dark conversation about getting punched in the face. Ellie fidgeted and rubbed the spot on her arm where a vampire had once jabbed a needle. It was bad.

Everyone just needed some love, Tarique though. There was too much tension. Everyone needed to unwind, to find someone, like he’d found Ellie.

He did what he could.

April bought everyone a jägerbomb, which Merry even tried, but coughed it all up down her front in shock and stormed off to the bathroom to clean up. Zoe laughed with her forehead pressed against the table. She wasn’t drunk, but she did feel strange. Her hands felt like they needed to touch something, so she played with her glass, circling her fingertips round the rim.

Joss wondered how bruised he’d end up if he and April had sex. The idea made him want to laugh simply for how exponentially more fucked up it would make everything in his life.

He missed Kenzie. He missed Teagan. He missed Carly. Everything hurt.

Joss was mouthing this argument to himself and Zoe was watching his lips move and thinking there `was something about his face that should mean something to her, something about his mouth that was important. He had nice lips. Sure… one of them was still split, so not so great right now, but otherwise…

What the hell? Zoe thought. She frowned to herself. Cai had better lips anyway.

Cai had really great lips.

She felt a little warm and secretive and excited, smuggling illicit butterflies in her stomach.

Guh.

Cai had really soft lips and rough hands. She smiled to herself.

Of course when you find yourself fixated on a boy’s mouth, your first thought isn’t normally ‘there’s an incubus in the room’, even when you did lead the life Zoe led.

Her first thought was one she’d had before, the ‘damn, I wish Cai was the same year as me,’ although this time it was followed by a stream of other thoughts, and images. Like how, if he was here, she could drag him into the lift and smack the emergency stop buttons and kiss him till the fire brigade had to cut them out of it. And she remembered the dream she’d had once, how she imagined his lips would feel against the skin of her hip, her thigh. Zoe clenched her hands into fists and breathed carefully through her nose, trying not to look like she was picturing Cai with his shirt off, her hands low on his stomach. She closed her eyes for a moment, but that didn’t help at all.

Ellie asked her if she was alright and Zoe smiled brilliantly.

I’m studying late at uni she sent a text to Cai. Want to grab some food?

She wasn’t going to do anything. Not anything as extreme as abusing the safety features of a lift. But… Food was innocent, right? And getting a lift home was a good thing. And they were friends, so…

But to be honest Zoe didn’t think too hard about the details. Joss bought another pitcher of cider for the table and she helped herself to another glass (it was only her second, it was fine, she wasn’t Rachel) because it seemed like the thing to do. She bought the table some chips so she didn’t have to feel bad about unsociably texting underneath it.

Zoe lost track of the conversation till the table bumped against her as Merry hit it, standing up. “Nothing,” she said, “is certain. What seems inevitable… comes to nothing.”

What? thought Zoe, tuning back in.

Joss raised his glass high above his head like the statue of liberty. “And all that is solid melts into air.”

Merry and Joss regarded each other appraisingly. “Euripides, I think?” said Merry. “From one of Dad’s books…”

Joss nodded. “Marx,” he said. “At his goddamn best.”

They both nodded deeply, and clinked glasses.

“Jesus fuck you guys, get a room,” April muttered.

Zoe narrowed her eyes at all of them, a little confused, and went back to texting.

Cai showed up a little while later and instead of getting him to come in, she went out into the car park to meet him. She didn’t want to share. “Studying in the pub, I see,” he grinned at her, teasing, and she walked right up to him and took his bottom lip between hers, which shut him up. Part of the knot of tension that had been building in her stomach began to unwind as she slid her arms around his back and pushed him back up against his car.

Cai made a noise – a good noise – and locked his arms around her. It felt so good, she grinned against his mouth.

Things Zoe would never let herself put into words, one: kissing him made everything feel right.

Two: The rest of the world could fade away and she wouldn’t even care.

Three: The world was too focused on romantic pursuits and everything in media was geared toward partnering up which had bugged Zoe for ages but right now she was standing in a car park on a dark campus, warm arms around her and a boys mouth on hers and this was what it was about this was what everyone was trying to convey in all the movies, in all the everything. Maybe it was the cider (or the jägerbomb) but she didn’t feel so scared anymore. She did not feel like herself, she was discovering a new self, she was building herself brighter and warmer and better than before, and it felt right.

The vision came suddenly, the world twisted around Cai and dropped him smack into a vivid rendition of Danny’s prison – the thick smell of it – and Zoe walking toward Greg, her movements hard and her voice cold till the power Greg had twisted something, till it touched something vital and Cai saw Zoe’s face, for a moment, saw the look of pure and honest fear as Greg’s violation touched her.

Cai tried to get out – he tried he tried he tried –

He saw Zoe throw herself at Greg, and Greg punched her in the face.

The violence of it – on both sides – shocked Cai. The unrestrained violence of the two of them – if Cai had been in the room for real he would have bolted.

But Cai was not in the room – Cai was in the car park and he had not had a vision this bad in weeks. He panicked and clung to Zoe as Zoe panicked and tried to break away. Her bones felt like they were made of jelly, her muscles weak, fear making her stupid and flimsy. She tried to slither out of Cai’s grip but failed, and cried out in wordless distress.

She heard herself too – heard the noise slip out of her and knew that was not the sort of noise she should ever make, not Zoe, not hard and mean and cold Zoe. No, that Zoe didn’t make that kind of cry, that Zoe didn’t go limp in the face of danger. That Zoe protected herself, by any means. That Zoe did not let people hurt her, that Zoe would not.

She bought her foot down as hard as she could manage on Cai’s foot then shot her knee up between his legs and it was his turn to cry out. He released her - finally - and she stumbled back a few steps before she turned and bolted.

Her legs were still weak but she bolted between cars and scrambled around behind another and ducked and hid, panting in the dark, trembling against the back wheel of a stranger’s car, her fists clenched for whatever the world was going to throw at her next. But the world threw nothing…

The world remained quiet and still, as the cold October wind brushed through the nearly-naked trees. The world threw nothing at her; instead, something rebelled inside Zoe, too strong to fight and she started to cry, teeth gritted in silence and fingers digging deep into her sides.

Cai had sank down to the ground with the pain and was kneeling, his back against his car and face pointed at the sky, taking deep breaths and trying to settle the pain. Trying to convince himself that this wasn’t the worst – he’d been shot in the chest so this wasn’t the worst.

He whispered “fuuuuuck” at the sky and that seemed to help.

A few cars away he could hear Zoe crying helpless, angry tears at the memory of Greg and how much she hated him, how much he filled her with loathing till she became a creature so rife with it she would have killed him if she could. She hated him so much and he’d turned her on and she was sick with hate thinking about that too.

Cai crawled around the cars toward her, feeling – on top of everything else – like his head would crack open if he moved it too much. “Zoe?” he managed, and she raised her face from her knees and looked at him and knew that she’d done that. She’d inflicted that pain on him, both through the vision and the knee in the nuts and it killed her because he was the last person in the world to deserve any of it.

“See,” she struggled to speak, her voice on the edge of hysteria, high and thin and broken. “S’another reason we can’t…”

She should have remembered why they couldn’t. She should have remembered her reasons. Her reasonable, logical, safe reasons. It had been good though, not feeling scared, just for a few minutes. It had been good.

Cai pulled his sleeves over his hands and grabbed hers and she winced. “Zoe, you’re okay,” he said. “You’re going to be okay.”

She couldn’t believe that, but it was a very Cai thing to say and she knew she it was very very important that he keep his Cai-ness, so it was very, very important he keep speaking. She clutched his hands through his sleeves, her head bent over their hands, eyes squeezed shut, fighting tears.

Fighting the urge to throw up at the memory of what Greg had done.

Just fighting. “Don’t stop,” she said, through gritted teeth.

“Don’t stop what?”

“Talking.”

“You’re the toughest chica I’ve ever met,” Cai said. Half the reason he was talking was that it distracted him from every other thing. “You’re doing okay, you’ve survived everything, you’ll survive this.” She squeezed his hands harder, painfully hard.

He kept saying stuff, stupid, hopeful, calming stuff till Zoe no longer felt like she had to tear herself open to get the poison out. The poison was still there – always, it would always be there – but her body felt like her own wretched body again. She could feel his hands under his sleeves, massaging her hands till they were no longer stiff, clawed weapons. “God, you’re so beautiful,” she said, because she was still overwhelmed and overwrought. She remembered the advice she’d given Rachel a long, long time ago: “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to kiss people who are messed up?” It was very almost funny.

“Don’t you know you’re not supposed to knee beautiful people in the balls?” Cai asked her in return.

Zoe very almost smiled, but she recalled the feeling of Cai’s body straining against hers and her hands in his thick hair and how similar it felt to how Greg forced her to feel.

Instead of smiling, Zoe went back to fighting the urge to be violently ill.


For a while they sat getting their breath back and sitting in silence in the cold air till the first drops of rain started to fall, and they heaved themselves to their feet and walked back to Cai’s car.

“Where do you want to go?” Cai asked. “Home?”

Zoe shrugged, settling into the front seat but without her seat belt, as she curled in the seat, half turned toward him. “No,” she said. “Just stay here a while.”

Cai wondered how long a while might be. They couldn’t spend the night in the carpark, could they? But he didn’t want to go home, either, and he wasn’t comfortable driving yet.

Rain tumbled down against the windscreen, Zoe clutched the end of his sleeve, far from his fingers but as close as she dared. Cai felt more damned than ever, but the rain shut out the rest of the world and he thought, if he was damned, then at least he wasn’t damned alone.

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Darker London

October 2014

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