After eating breakfast, Callen dismissed the teens. Well, all but his son Braylen who had to hang back and help his father clean up. “I have to pick something up at the consignment shop,” Leon had told Graciela. “Would you like to come with me?”
Well, she was happy to go but she didn’t want to leave Maric stranded after he had invited her out, and Camilla and Pax were heading the same way as her so why not invite them as well? But somehow, Leon didn’t look too thrilled about it. “What do you need in here?” Pax asked, as they stood outside. “Doesn’t this place just sell other people’s junk?”
“Not all of it is junk,” Leon explained. “A lot of the stuff has character.”
“I’ve never been here,” Graciela said. “I’m sure it’s cool inside.”
“It is,” Leon said with a grin. “You’d like it, Gracie. I’m positive.”
“Let’s go in then,” Maric said. “No use waiting outside here.”
“Yeah,” Graciela agreed. “Let’s just head inside.”
Leon linked arms with Graciela and dragged her away from the group. “Come, look!” She stared in awe at the boy who had changed so much since he had left. He no longer wore his hair in a ponytail, but kept it at a nice shoulder length. He wore earrings and a bit of eyeliner, she was sure. Leon had grown up to be cute. Graciela could admit that to herself. But besides the physical appearance, she could tell that he had matured immensely. The fun loving and energetic boy was still there, but from talking to him on countless nights when she lay awake listening to the darkness rattle off her faults, she had seen someone with an immense amount of compassion and collected-ness. The old Leon was much more unbidden with his emotions, lashing out on whoever had caused the unbridled feeling. Now, she could tell he was holding certain things in, like when her father had been yelling at everyone back at home.
What was especially weird was how nervous Graciela felt being next to him. She found herself wishing Maric would insert himself in the middle of the two to ease the tension. Leon had changed so much that she wondered if he was still the boy she knew who promised to protect her with all his life. Or, had he outgrown her? Matured beyond helping a girl who couldn’t help herself?
“Plants?” Graciela asked. “You led me to a bunch of plants?”
Leon nodded. “Yeah, I’m looking for something to bring back to my dorm. But it has to be small enough to carry back but also remind me of Fortitude. I figure a plant might make me more responsible because I have to water it.”
“Oh,” Graciela said thoughtfully. “That actually makes a lot of sense. Do you know which one you want to get?”
“The lavender one.” Leon pointed to it standing on the top shelf. “Reminds me of you.”
“Leon…” She bit her lip. He was still so sweet. “Can I ask you something serious? Please don’t lie to me, alright? You haven’t seen me in months,” Gracie said. “Why do you still say things like that? Do you still care about me that much?”
Leon frowned at her admission. “Gracie, I’ll always…” His voice was cut off by someone calling out from the other side of the store.
On the other side of the store Maric stood by a rack of clothes, posing in the mirror. “Gracie! I want to show you something!”
Graciela waved at him. “One minute, okay?” She turned her attention back to Leon. “You were saying?”
Leon shook his head. “It’s alright. I can tell you later. Go see what he wants.”
“Are you sure?” Graciela asked.
“He’s the one, right?” Leon asked. “You were excited about seeing him today, and we all intruded. It’s only fair you get to hang out with him one on one.”
Graciela smiled. “Yeah but I can see him whenever I want. You won’t be here forever.”
Leon shrugged. “But I’m not going to leave before we can really talk.” He pushed her lightly towards Maric. “I want you to make a lot of friends, Gracie. Go.”
When Graciela approached Maric, he dropped to the floor by the mirror and winked at Graciela through it. “I’d be a good model, right?”
Graciela laughed looking at his reflection. Maric really was handsome. “Yeah, I think you would.”
He looked up at her. “I’m really sorry that you got in trouble this morning and that you’ve got to work nights.”
“Maybe you can ask Callen for night hours so we can see each other more. I have a feeling if I cut class again my mom is going to have my head,” Graciela said.
Maric nodded. “Yeah, that’s the plan.” Maric peered over his shoulder at Leon who stood at the counter talking to the cashier. “He’s the guy who just up and left? How do you leave Fortitude?”
Graciela shrugged. “We’re not really supposed to ask questions but it must be for an important reason. It’s just hard because I hang out with him for a day and then never see him until weeks or even months later.”
“So you should be hanging out with him and not me,” Maric said. “You should have told me he was coming back after months and we could have went to breakfast another day.”
“But I wanted to hang out with you,” Graciela said. “That didn’t change.”
Pax and Camilla had found a seat on one of the sofa sets on display. Pax stretched his arms over his head, while Camilla looked around the store. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” He asked.
“What?” Camilla asked, feigning shock. “I’d never get amusement out of two boys pining for your sister.”
“She’s going to pick Leon,” Pax said, as if it was obvious. “She still has that plastic ring he gave to her right in the top draw of her bedstand.”
“I don’t know Pax,” Camilla commented, watching Graciela chat happily to Maric. “She really likes Maric. And he seems like a cool guy. Your sister deserves someone who isn’t going to just disappear on her, and besides. Does Leon even still like Gracie? That ring was a juvenile thing. I know Maric likes her, look at him smile.”
“Is this what you do in your free time? Meddle in my sister’s love life?” Pax asked.
“Uhm…yes?” Camilla asked, as if it was obvious. “I got promoted to best friend, so it’s my job thank you very much.”
Leon approached the pair of vampires happily chatting, holding a few bags in his hands. “I’m ready to go if you are,” He said, placing a hand on Gracie’s shoulder. “Unless you want to stay with your friend.”
“We’re more than friends,” Maric clarified. “You and everyone else invaded our first date.”
Graciela’s eyes widened. “So it was a date then?”
Maric nodded. “Of course it was. I want to date you.”
“No offense,” Leon cut in. “But you’re some guy who makes her sneak out of her house and crash parties. Graciela needs someone who follows the rules.”
Maric raised a brow. “And where do your precious rules get you? You’re gone half the time. You really don’t know what she needs, only she does.”
“Boys,” Graciela said, placing her hands up in front of her. “Leon, MAric is right. I can make my own decisions but I know you don’t say anything to be controlling. You want what’s best for me. But you really don’t know Maric and you can’t be gone for months and come back telling me how to live my life.”
“You guys…” Maric forwned. “Have some stuff to talk about, I presume. I’ll catch you later, Gracie. Text me when you’re free and we can discuss having our first real date.”
“Bye Maric,” Graciela said. “Thanks for hanging out with us, even though everyone crashed our party.”
Leon had gone back home with Graciela, Pax and Camilla. While Pax checked on the twins and Camilla helped Jeff with dinner, Graciela got to sit with Leon. “You were really rude to Maric today. That isn’t like you,” Graciela said.
Leon looked pained. “I know. I’m really sorry. I…I guess I got jealous.” He ran a hand through his hair and stared at his lap, a hint of pink on his cheeks.
“Jealous of what? You’re always going to be my best friend,” Graciela concluded. “Even with all the distance I still think about you almost every day.”
“You asked me earlier if I cared about you so much, and here you are saying things like that.” Leon sighed. “You still care about me,” Leon said. “Clearly, so why wouldn’t I care about you?”
“You’re always busy,” Graciela admitted. “So I thought maybe you just realized I’m a burden. Ignoring phone calls on purpose and writing back really short replies to my texts.”
“No!” Leon shook his head furiously and reached for Graciela’s arms. “My schedule is just really…strict. There are times when I’m not allowed to use my phone at all and I have to sneak a text to you which is why my messages are short.”
“Do you remember when we last sat in this room?” Leon asked. “Before we said our goodbyes?”
Graciela nodded, with a mischievous look in her eyes. She climbed over his lap and planted her butt in the seat to his right. “We were sitting more like this. Then you said goodbye. Are you going to do that again?”
Leon laughed, scooting over to make room for her. “Yeah, but I don’t want to. I want to stay here with you.”
“You said the same thing last time,” Graciela commented, lying her head on her friend’s shoulder. For some reason, he felt like home to her.
“I also told you how special you were to me,” Leon said. “I didn’t just say ‘Bye Graciela, nice knowing you!’ It hurt me so much to say goodbye and it hurts me so much more now. I get to see you finally and then it’s ripped from me after only a few days. It feels very unfair but this is my destiny.”
Graciela frowned. “It is unfair. I wanted to hear all about your time and I wanted to tell you about my time here, but there’s so many people you have to go see in such a short time. I feel selfish taking up your time. Especially making you hang out with me and Maric.”
“You really like him?” Leon asked suddenly. “How does he make you feel?”
“I…I don’t know,” Graciela admitted. “He’s really cool. He stands up for me and he’s always believing in me. He reminds me of you a little bit, because he’s always looking out for me but he also tries to push me out of my comfort zone to help me face my fears. But, we do it together so it isn’t that scary.”
“Oh, I see…” Leon said sadly. “Alright then.”
She wasn’t used to seeing him sad on his own. Usually Leon was sad when Graciela herself was in torment. Why now? “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just…before I left I gave you a ring right?” Leon asked. “I told you not to go marrying anyone else.”
“From school,” Graciela clarified. “Maric is home schooled and also marriage isn’t dating. Why are you bringing this up now?”
“Why do you think?” Leon asked. He looked in pain, confused and curious all at the same time. He inched closer to her until finally, he crashed his lips into hers once again. This time he felt Graciela melt into his embrace as she reached up and held his head, pushing him closer to her. When they pulled away, Graciela didn’t know what to say. Instead, she just stared at Leon, hoping he’d have an explanation.
“I know that was very unfair of me,” Leon mumbled. “Especially after you agreed to go on a date with Maric. But unlike him, I won’t get to see you every day. I can’t jump in and stop you any other time.”
“Leon…” She felt tears biting at the corners of her eyes.
“I know it’s unfair that I kiss you and leave again,” Leon said. “But if I didn’t, I’d lie awake every night kicking myself for not telling you sooner. Kicking myself because you’d be out on a date with Maric, having the time of your life and not knowing how I felt.”
He shut his eyes and Graciela could see a few droplets fall from his eyes. “It’s so unfair of me, because I can’t even ask you to be my girlfriend. I know I’m not better for you than this guy. What he said was right. I’ve been gone, and I’ll be gone again. He’s…good for you. You need someone like Maric in your life.”
“But you…” Graciela reached up to stroke his cheek. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“I’ll tell you what I told you that day,” Leon concluded. “You can ignore it, and I won’t be mad. If Maric is a better fit, someone who will actually be there for you, then fine. I support it. But…” He reached into his pocket. “I got you another gift.”
Graciela looked up at him, shock and wonder on her porcelain features. “You got me a gift…?”
“To remember me by. The wedding ring was a bit outdated,” Leon replied. He held up a pretty silver ring with an amethyst on top. “A promise ring. A promise that you’ll see me again later. A promise form me to you that I will never stop thinking about you. And when boys ask you…” His voice cracked as the tears built up in his eyes. “When boys ask you out, you can show them this and tell them that you’re already promised to someone so you can’t be with them forever…” He wiped his eyes. “That your promise done is coming back one day to get you. Or…or you can throw it away and we can pretend I never gave you anything. We can just be friends as we always have.”
He stood up and looked at the floor as he wiped his eyes. “I will never give up on you, so you don’t even need to make a decision now. Or the next time you see me. Or the time after that. Just sometime before we both die, and I will always accept you with open arms. But until then, I will always support any decision you make. I…” He shuffled to the door but not before flashing Graciela a smile amongst his tear stained face. “This is not goodbye, it’s see you soon. Alright?”