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The Liquid Courage

After pulling through another tiresome shift at The Shell Shack, I pulled out my mobile to find that I already had a parade of texts from Ambrose. No different from usual, I had no reason to believe Fletcher told him.

Although I was flattered by how protective he was of me, I wasn't stupid. This could mean bad news. It could put a stop to my and Ambrose's digging of our own, and the police force could easily claim it was for my own good. I loved Fletcher but I'm not going to lie, if it came down to losing friends or losing his job, I knew I wouldn't be in the winning category.

My instincts were right enough, Ambrose had just text to say that his parents were at work, so we could brainstorm however we like.

It didn't take me long to arrive, since Jasper was a small town and all, and while I ultimately wished Ciara would be out partying with friends or on the prowl for some torture, I didn't rule out bumping into her.

Ambrose had extended the invitation for me to just enter all week, so I bounded up the stairs and made it to his room without any sense hesitation.

Luckily, he was finishing up a game on his computer, and looked at me briefly when I came in. He spoke into his headset before closing the window immediately, although not before I heard the protests of his fellow teammates.

I sat on the bed, touching his sheets. They were a pleasant grey.

"You could still game, if you wanted to? I didn't mean to interrupt."

"Nonsense! It was just to pass the time anyway."

Oddly, my body warmed at that comment.

Disregarding it, I turned my attention to the corkboard. In the past few days, it had been filling up, with post-its and head shots, sweet expressions of our friends facing right at us. Some smiling, all of them cut from the same photograph.

I remembered that day perfectly. It must have been about six months ago. Chief Gilbert held a barbecue and everybody showed up, even my parents. It was a fun party, with a lot of highlights, and we made promises that we'd been so sure were going to come true.

I traced the outline of Jesse's face. His expression was nothing short of ecstatic, although I could pinpoint that it may have been because it was the first time we'd hung out since our break up. Every other time before then it had been awkward, or excuses not to be in the same room, we avoided each other so badly it was embarrassing. But that day... it seemed like all our problems had faded, and it was just us. Two exes who no longer just existed in the lives of their friends' because it was expected of them, but also because we'd found peace and serenity in our time apart.

We bounced back. And if we could do it, then surely what I'd done to any of my other friends to cause them to drown me... it couldn't be that bad, right?

"You're really thinking of everything here, aren't you?" I put Jesse's adorable face back, to where it connected with little points, the most obvious of our connections being our romantic past.

Ambrose was standing beside me now, dimples showing as he smiled sadly.

"I guess we have to."

I followed his gaze, to the top right corner, where a sickly-sweet portrait of Ciara beamed at us. Photographs were staged, an elegant lie, everyone knew that – but if one didn't know her in and out, your first impression of her would be the same as everyone else: how could this stunning little girl be so horrible, to anyone?

As much as we didn't get along, I was close to Ambrose. And he loved her just like any other protective older brother should.

To be so doting on someone, despite their flaws always being on show, it must be so wonderful. I mean, I loved Zoey, and my friends, but I wasn't like the man standing beside me. One of us was clearly better.

I moved closer, as I clasped my hand around his. His skin was a mixture between smooth and rough, perhaps it was from all that ink and paper. Either way, I gave him a squeeze and returned to the collection.

These people were my friends. Human beings I'd grown up with, puberty, maturity and all. Each of them had shaped me in some way, helping me in becoming the person I was today. I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that any one of them could do this to me. I wouldn't do the same... so why did it feel like I was being punished?

Why did it feel like the longer I looked at this, the more I wished I stayed dead? Evidently, that had been the plan, and my waking up from it all disturbed the original design.

If they really, really wanted me dead, then what would stop them from trying it again?

"It's just a rough concept, obviously we don't have a lot to go on," Both of our eyes flickered towards the contents that were mailed to me. "But we'll get there, we'll bring them to justice."

I exhaled. Things were so messed up, I couldn't believe this was my life now.

These faces were familiar, most of them I loved like my family; but it seemed their minds and intentions were not.

And that hurt most of all.

Letting go of his hand, I sat down on the bed, the crisp sheets calling my name. I'd never been in these like I had Lu's, or Jesse's and Fletcher's. In those, I was covered, guarded until sunrise. In here, I had no idea what could become of me.

It was frightening, but exhilarating, if that made sense.

"Have you thought any more about telling the authorities? I mean, what other protection do you have?"

Of course, he had a point. Telling the Chief would be the smart move, and Fletcher would certainly approve, so I don't know why I was hesitating still. While Mason certainly wasn't going to win awards for his compassion any time soon, he was amazing at his job and had looked after this community for a few decades.

So, what was stopping me?

Until I felt like I could completely trust him, I'd sleep on it. Besides, I didn't want to involve any more people in this than I needed to.

On a side note, telling the authorities meant that my parents would be informed eventually, as well. As if dealing with Zoey's problems weren't enough, it would be unforgiving of me to throw this on them. They'd likely go crazy, and more neurotic than usual, if that were possible.

My eyes watched as Ambrose's shadow danced in front of me, kneeling by me, until his beautiful brown eyes were gazing at mine.

"I'm not going to force you to do anything, just know that I'm always available if you need support. I'll go with you, I'll help however I can. I just want you to be safe."

His voice was like butter, creamy and full of fluff. When they touched me, he melted. I burned hot and it sizzled.

Gingerly, he took my hand and kissed it. His lips were dry and soft.

And those eyes. I believed them. Every word he said, every action he was prepared to make, they gave me a million reasons to prove he was here to stay. That no matter what I did, what happened between now and my endgame, he would never leave me in the darkness.

And while I'd witnessed promises like those before, I'd been foolish to take them to heart. With Ambrose, I didn't get that trepidation.

Why, I didn't know, but I welcomed it. It was nice to be reassured for once.

Throwing my arms around him, I settled into the hug quickly, as did he. He didn't feel bony, as predicted, but instead as if he just came with a few kinks and bends. I could number their bumps.

After a few moments of that, we decided to take a break and made way downstairs. With Ciara at her friends', and his parents still at work for a few more hours, we had the house to ourselves.

The Ford residence had always fascinated me, it was so light and open, speaking in pastel and wonderful memories. In the lounge, there was a tapestry-sized portrait of all the family, generations old and new. Every face exuded happiness, pride, and love for life, even Ciara's.

We made way to the kitchen, where Ambrose fished out his bourbon. He poured two glasses.

We sat by the island, as I stared at my drink. Alcohol was not exactly something I craved, or particularly liked very much, but I guzzled that liquid as if it were the last I'd ever get.

I looked at Ambrose, and behind the sad smile, I saw much more.

A few more glasses later, and the taste of old barrel in my mouth, suddenly we were on the subject of how we met. I'd never hid my feelings about what I thought, so why would I lie to him now?

"I'm being serious, you were adorkable! You have so much passion, it's sickening."

He laughed. "Shut up."

Past the random hiccup, I laughed somewhere. It vibrated and tingled the whole of my body, starting with my fingertips. The roof of my mouth felt itchy at the same time.

What once seemed like bright lights in the kitchen, they seemed to have darkened in the time we'd been reminiscing. To a dull tangerine, kind of like my own kitchen.

I bumped his shoulder, earning another chesty chuckle.

"What was your first thought about me?"

"I..." He stopped, somber mood taking over. If the room would quit spinning for a second, I'd be able to hold his eyes. He shot his glass, breathing through his teeth. The scent wafted until it was all over me, sweet and sickening. "I thought you looked sad."

At last, he raised his head, eyes blinking frequently behind those thick frames.

"And I wanted to know why. You smiled, and sang, and loved unconditionally – but you were unhappy. And I just, I was enamored with finding out why. And now I do."

For once, I didn't know how to respond. Making a joke of it seemed immature, changing the subject could come across as disrespectful, and I didn't want him to think of me either way. We were having fun.

But he was right. Even in my most outshining moments, I had always found error in it all. A three digit in the binary that couldn't add up. In the end, something caused reality to smack me in the face and let me know just how idiotic my brief joy was.

I licked my lips, the salt of my skin stinging.

"But I also realized how wonderful you are, so selfless and caring when it came to your friends. I was so happy to be part of your life."

Again, his hand enveloped round mine, like a tourniquet, quieting the pain, hushing his previous words. Everything outside of us had faded. We were the sole people in the universe, and that suited us fine.

We got so lost, time escaped us. So wrapped up in our own private bubble that neither of us noticed the figure storming into the room.

"Ugh, you guys are disgusting," Whipping our attention forward, we both saw Ciara standing there, arm balancing yet another cute designer bag.

Ambrose slid off his stool, maintaining a distance, as if somehow that would convince her.

"We were just sharing a drink, talking, you know."

Even I didn't believe that.

I guess she didn't either, since she arched an impeccably shaped eyebrow and then proceeded to cut into me with a full-on scowl.

"Of course, because two people who hold hands totally are 'just sharing drinks'," She melodramatically rolled her eyes, going to the fridge and taking out a strawberry protein shake. "You can lie to yourselves all you wish, but most people can use their eyes."

With that, she sashayed on out, hair flicking behind her like she was a movie star.

Ambrose and I connected eyes, however fleetingly, before I muttered up an excuse to go home. Goodbyes were somewhat pleasant, and I left. Back to the place I definitely didn't want to be this time at night.