I. All That's Best of Dark and Bright

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Violet casts me one quick curious look, then splashes off towards Kaye and Alice.

I walk away from the rest of the group. Suze follows me, but in the water, revealing a glimpse of pale leg with every step.

"Come here," I say, when we reach the rocks and scrubby pine trees at the edge of the beach. The night is warm, but I'm shivering. 

She shakes her head. Her fairy curls flutter around her shoulders, little glimmers of light in the darkness.

"Suze."

"I can't," she says quietly.

I look away, wishing she'd at least give me a chance before she rejects me again.

"It's too late for us," she says. "Don't you get it? I made you wait for too long—I ruined it."

"It's not too late." I hug my arms tighter to my chest, then say what I've been desperate to say all year: "I can find something to do in New York." None of the New York music conservatories accepted me, but I'll busk or wait tables, I'll do anything, if it means we get to stay in the same place instead of moving to opposite sides of the country.

"You'd what?" Suze says. "You'd give up college in California for me?"

I would give up everything for her. "Is that so hard to believe?"

She presses her hands to her face, just for a second. Her slim shoulders tremble, and when she drops her hands back to her sides, her big, light eyes shine with tears that do not fall. "The thing is—I'm can't—I'm not going to New York anymore."

I step towards her, reaching for her, then stop myself. Saltwater fills my shoes. "What do you mean, you're not going?"

"I'm going to revoke my acceptance."

At first, I can't figure out what to say, how to feel. I only wanted to leave because she's leaving. If she's not going to Pratt, we can stay here together. Then I shake my head. "You can't do that."

"I can do whatever I want," she snaps.

This time, I capture her slim wrists in my hands. Her eyes spark with indignation, but she still takes one slow, sloshing step towards me. We're standing in the shallows together, the cool water a contrast to the heat between our bodies. "You're too good a painter," I say to her. "You have to go."

"Because I'm 'a genius'?" she says bitterly. "People have no idea—it's such an awful thing to tell someone. Do you know how much time I spend worrying about screwing up? Every new painting, I wonder if this is the one where everyone realizes I have no fucking clue what I'm doing. That I'm just a fraud."

"You're not a fraud."

"Of course you think that."

"Why shouldn't I think that? It's the truth." Somehow her hands have ended up on my chest, resting against my t-shirt, though I'm still holding her wrists. She has never looked more beautiful to me than she does now, despite the sadness in her eyes and her trembling lower lip. She's never trusted me enough before to tell me something like this. My heart feels as full as the ocean.

"You know all the times I've asked you out," I say.

She gives an awkward laugh, her eyes downcast. "So many times."

"Those are the only times in my life I've ever been afraid." I stroke the insides of her wrists with my thumbs. My heartbeat pounds in my ears. "I've played tons of concerts. Have done all kinds of stupid stuff. Bungee-jumping, and whatever. But every time I ask you out, it's like... all I can think about is what a big, dumb idiot I am."

She laughs again, but this time for real. "I'm scarier than bungee jumping?"

I smile. "You're terrifying." I let go of her wrists so I can touch her waist, draw her slightly closer to me. She is all slenderness and grace. I am always amazed by how small she actually is, compared to me. "It's like... when you want something so much," I say, "you feel so exposed, you know? And the thought that it won't happen is just..."

A pulse ticks in her throat, the center of a constellation of tiny freckles. Her eyes are still bright with tears. "I can't let you give up going to California for me, Owen. Whether I go to Pratt or not, you have to—"

She stops herself, and I wonder if this is it—the final rejection. I have to be strong.

Suddenly, she grips the fabric of my t-shirt. "I don't know how to be apart from you," she whispers. "That's the thing. I'm such a mess. You're leaving, I'm supposed to leave, but I'm afraid, and I just want to have you around, you know? I just..."

My breath catches in my chest. "Does that mean...?"

"Ask me again," she says. "The way you did the first time."

"Go out with me," I say at once, drawing on the memory of that awkward, gangly sixteen-year-old boy with shaggy blond hair.

Her eyes flutter closed. "Long distance?" she says. "Is that what we have to do? You'll meet someone else in college, and we'll—"

"I'll defer a year," I say. "Just like you did. You can defer another year, too. Or I'll move to New York. Whatever you want. Anything you want."

She stands up on her tiptoes, leaning into me, her breath hot against my neck. My arms tighten around her, holding her to me. I want to touch her everywhere, kiss her everywhere, but I keep thinking it's too good to be true—she is going to change her mind, she's going to laugh it off again like she did back then, she'll leave.

I press my face into her hair. "Say it, Suze. Say yes."

"I'm already saying it," she murmurs into my throat, her soft, full lips brushing against my skin.

"I need to hear the words. Please."

"Yes," she murmurs. "Yes."

Then I am kissing her, cradling her face in my hands and kissing her hard enough to bruise her pretty lips. It's exactly what I've longed for all these years, but better, because it's real, and in real life, she kisses back, grips my shirt, whispers, yes, Owen, yes, and my heart is as full as the universe. 



********

Thank you so much for checking out Owen's scenes! What do you guys think about Suze here? Is she what you expected? 

If you click through to Part II, which takes place three years later (seven years before Set Me Free starts), you'll get to see what happens when Owen makes a very big, very un-fixable mistake. It's probably not what you think....

Thanks again for reading! <3

~London





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