Annie and I sit in my bed for a long time before she feels ready to talk. She starts to explain what she was doing after I left for the team meeting and how Mandy stomped into their dorm in a fury. Mandy yelled at Annie, blaming her for problems she did not cause. It's when Annie talks about something Mandy said about me that she starts to cry again.

"She said she has been simply waiting for the opportunity to see if you would consider going out with her," Annie explains, taking the bandanna I offer her. "She said you would be an easy target, that you would not even know what hit you until after she was done with you and already moving on to the next poor soul. She insulted me . . . Mandy did not say it directly at me, but she was shouting things into the air. 'What he sees in you, I don't know!' I got up and walked away right after that."

Annie hides her face in the bandanna and sobs softly. I squeeze her closer and kiss her curls.

"You know that you are beautiful, right?" I ask softly, bringing her head to my chest.

"Yes," she whispers, nodding her head.

"And you know that you have more personality than she ever will, right?"

I wait for Annie to nod again before going on.

"Mandy is full of crap," I say, lifting her face so I can see her eyes. "If she thinks she is going to get away with saying those things to you, she could never be more wrong. I think Mandy has self-esteem issues; she likes to make herself feel good by making others fall on their faces. I think she is jealous because you are put together and have a spunky personality, and you have become good friends with the only available guy on the soccer team, aside of Charlie . . . and they have been breaking up every other weekend. You don't need to listen to her crap, Annie."

Annie's green eyes peer up at me, glassy and red from tears. I take the bandanna and dab beneath her eyes gently.

"Now," I go on, taking her hands in mine. "No more tears, please. I do not think a lovely girl like you deserves tears, unless meant to express joy, which is not right now."

I see Annie's throat bob as she swallows, and nods. I cup her cheeks and pull her close so I can kiss her forehead. When I pull back, I can see the light returning to her eyes.

"Thank you, Eric," she whispers with a small smile.

"You're welcome," I whisper back with a single nod. "Now, onto a happier and brighter topic: I want you to sit with me on the bus later."

Annie looks at me for a moment, tilting her head to the side as if she is thinking.

"Okay," she says, nodding.

"Really?" I say, raising an eyebrow, a hint of teasing in my voice. "You'll sit with me on the bus, even though people will make assumptions?"

"Yes," she replies, smiling. "Because it is not about what people think. It is about what you and I think. We know what is going on, they don't, and that is what matters most."

I nod, smiling softly. "Exactly . . . So, what would you like to do? We have a couple hours to kill and my crazy brother is bringing Chinese soon."

Annie grins, "We have not played any virtual soccer in forever."

I chuckle, "Alright, let's get a game going. You can use my laptop if you want."

I get off the bed, slowly letting go of my hold on Annie's hands. She grabs my hand, not letting it go, making me look at her.

"What?" I ask, chuckling softly.

"I have a few things I need to rethink," Annie replies softly, licking her lips. "I was thinking about it before the Mandy incident and . . . I just need a little bit of time to think them over. What I don't want is to . . . I can't go telling you to live as if tomorrow will never come and I am not letting the full effect of life take wind either."

I hesitate, letting my gaze fall on her wet lips for a millisecond.

"What else did Jason do to make you feel the way you do?" I ask, rejoining Annie on the bed, still holding her hand. "Why do you think you will get heartbreak?"

"Because Jason made me feel worthless," she replies simply. "We got together in high school, but we were close friends before that. He was the new kid and no one really made him feel welcome. I was just starting chemo when he asked me to be his girlfriend. We were already doing everything together and . . . I did like him, a lot. It was when I was getting sick all the time really started to mess with him and he only stuck around out of guilt. His true colors slowly began to show and he . . . I got sick, like the other night, and he happened to be the only one there. No one was answering his calls and he was freaking out. I tried telling him what I needed, what he could do, and he just yelled at me. He said that he never signed up to be my nurse . . . I was throwing up blood that time. He walked out the door and left me there by myself. I never saw him after that."

I stare at Annie in disbelief. So that's it.

"I'm not like him," I say slowly, reaching for her other hand.

"I know you're not," Annie whispers, shaking her head. "When I said about not wanting to start anything, I meant it because . . . I don't want to run out of time. I do not want either of us to get hurt. We would be all in and when my clock stops ticking, you would be the one with the heartbreak. You would fall into the gutter all over again, when you are finally climbing out."

I look down at our hands, laced together like puzzle pieces; perfectly shaped to fit together.

"I wouldn't be falling into another gutter," I say, look up into Annie's eyes. "Even if I did, it would not be as bad as last time, because I would know you felt something in return. It would be worth it."

A smile tugs at Annie's lips, but it does not reach her eyes. I sigh and release her hands just as the door opens and Jacks' enters with a bag of food.

"Everything okay in here?" he asks, setting the bag on the desk and starts to take out the foam containers.

"Never better," Annie replies, pushing up from the bed. "I hope you brought enough for three, because I'm starving."

Jacks chuckles and hands her a container. He looks at me with a questioning expression. I smile and stand to take the container he holds out to me. Annie and I sit next to each other on the bed again, while we eat; Jacks' takes the chair at the desk. We laugh and talk about random subjects. Now and then, Annie glances my way with a small smile. I smile back and continue eating.    

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