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Ant lasted till midday before he rang Toni, which was his next tactical error after thinking the copier room was a good place to talk to Bree privately.  Toni growled one word, “Lunch,” and hung up on him.  He texted an apology, he was getting practice at saying sorry at least, then stuck to his desk like he was the hook and it was the fuzz of velcro.  He couldn’t peel himself away.  He had no desire to even need an occasion to avoid eye contact with Bree.  And he certainly didn’t want to see her limping and imagine how bruised and sore she must be.  He didn’t know what to think let alone say to her. 

Did she like girls or did she like him? 

When she’d whimpered in his ear on Friday night he’d been sure she liked him, then when she’d called it off, he’d blamed himself for moving too fast, going too hard.  He’d planned to apologise for that, ask for a second chance, and promise to go slow, but it’d all seemed so logical, her, “I can’t, it’s wrong,” when he thought she preferred girls.  And man, that burned.  Worse than the sun.

He’d finally turned up a girl who was big enough to make him think differently, strong enough to make him want to support her, smart enough to make him feel humbled, and brave enough to put him to shame.  And he’d thought it was real.  Not real like permanent bliss or even a certain future.  Not even real like Dan and Alex, or Mitch and Belinda or Fluke and Carlie, but real in a way his momentary fantasy about Toni never had been. 

That madness had been about being the good son and brother, a stupid notion about making the ghost of his father happy.  His madness for Bree was selfishly about himself, about being a better person.  He thought he might be able to be a better version of his arrogant, egotistical self if only he could hang around her for a while.

It might’ve worked, even without the bonus of kisses that made him want to forget every woman he’d ever touched his lips to and changed the sheets for.  A mate like Bree would be an asset, no matter what her preference was.  Alex and Scott were still as tight as they’d been before Dan came along, why couldn’t he and Bree be mates, even if they did have other partners to fool around with.  But he’d somehow fucked that up too.  This was worse than when they’d first disliked and avoided each other because now all that angst was out in the open and full of rot and worms.

Ant sat at his desk and rarely lifted his eyes from his screen, hiding behind a spreadsheet and screeds of pretend busy while he waited for Toni to call so he could beg her to help him out.  Once the word ‘beg’ wouldn’t have been in his vocab because there was no way he’d put himself in a position where begging was the ‘get out of jail’ card, but lately embarrassing himself had taken on a whole new meaning, and when you’d sunk this low, you grabbed any handhold you could reach.

When he was finally game enough to lift his eyes, the office had emptied and Bree was gone.  That should’ve made him feel better.  His neck was grateful, he rolled it, hearing it crack from being so fixed for so long, but the rest of him felt hollow.  He checked his phone for the umpteenth time, but Toni hadn’t come back to him—though sensibly he figured it was dinner time and she’d be busy in the kitchen again.

He packed up, bailed the Alfa out of the car park and headed to the gym where he hit things for too long and lifted things that were too heavy, until the burn in muscles and tendons matched the one his head and on his skin, and he dragged his limbs like he dragged his heart.

It was ten when Toni called.  He met her at the restaurant where she worked and they talked while the staff packed up around them and readied for the next day’s lunch service.  All he’d said on the phone was he needed advice.  She settled him with a macchiato while she drank red wine and ate a belated meal.

“So, what, cough it up, Ant.  What do you need?”

“There’s a girl on your derby team.”  He cut the sentence abruptly because he sounded like a fucking fifteen year old.  He dropped his head to look at the sauce stain on the linen table cloth rather than Toni’s smirk.

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