Chapter Nine: Let's talk about it
It hurts, the pain, a tender ache throughout my entire body.
Despite the ache resonating from my skull, the mere thought of moving to rectify it is unbearable. The intense ringing and echoing hum completely disorientates me. The voices clamber over each other in a fit, making it impossible to tell if they were coming from inside my head or not. My only defense is squeezing my eyelids tightly shut allowing the swirling black to momentarily consume me.
In the distance is one singular voice, that won't stop. Slowly it gains momentum until the others fade behind its louder calls, "Anastasia?" And it's his voice.
It's in the firmness and commanding attitude it demands. Ultimately confirmed by the soft ripple that fills me, lessening the pain if only for a second. He repeats my name again, the word caressing my ears and the black now floats, with soft white blots.
I'm dreaming, of course. It all made sense now.
This whole terrible day has been an abysmal nightmare and would now transform into a prized dream. It felt strangely real as if he was trying to rouse me. Still, that wouldn't make sense my dreams know I'd rather stay in this floating state, no matter how painful this felt. Dream him should know this.
"Anastasia, are you okay?" He's worried again. Then same as this morning as soon as his worry hits me, my sensations return tenfold. The pain increases making me consciously aware of the slight metallic taste on my tongue, a coldness is pressing hard against my back even as the unbearable heat within me spreads. His voice offers a balm of relief then leaves me in this suffering state. I can't let this continue, knowing the consequence pain of awakening and knowing he was never here to begin with, would put anything I was feeling now- in this dream state- to shame.
I try for what I'm sure is a shake of my head, trying to dispel the illusioned voice. Once I'm sure it won't personify into an image outside my head, I wrench my eyelids open then immediately close them because Christian Trevelyan Grey is hovering above me.
It takes me half a second to realize that my mind has obviously snapped. What a mistake, letting my imagination get so out of hand.
In the next half, I decide that as long as insanity has truly set in, embracing it is the only plausible choice. To enjoy these illusions while they were pleasant and then for the second time, he's there. I blink once, twice trying desperately to take him in before he disappears. His copper hair and bright eyes don't surprise me. Nothing does, down to his supple lips, shaven face and chiseled features. It's how incredibly detailed he is that makes my breathing ragged, my imagination has outdone itself- here without question was the image of the man I love.
"Ow! Ow!" The slight lift of my head makes everything spin.
Something akin to relief graces his face, "Are you okay?" The smell of his breath, a heady intoxicating aroma forces me to look away. Claire's worried face is there, right next to him, along with what is soon revealed to be a small, group of people.
My fingers touch the cold tile of a floor- this is the SIP lobby. I'm exactly where Claire and I had been standing when we saw him, except now I'm on the floor as well as the room blurred. Christian somehow stood stock still amidst the spinning image. A stable point willing me back until my vision slowly re-aligns returning to normal.
This is real life! I was about to talk to what I thought was a dream Christian in front of a group of people I work with. "Jesus, Ana." Claire gently strokes my arm. I wonder if she knows she's personifying the exact words of embarrassment repeating in my head. "That was the hardest fall I've ever seen. Are you okay?"
"I fell?" My head throbs in response.
Jesus, Ana! As if everyone in the office didn't have enough reason to think you were crazy. As if Christian needs more reason to never look at you again. Alright, can't stay another second on this floor. Feeling relatively stable, I try getting to my feet, Claire quickly wraps an arm around my waist gently coaxing me up, "Come on, let me help you."
A jolt runs along my arms as Cristian's assists in supporting me. I accept it greedily not knowing how long the lovely feeling would last. "Are you all just going to stand around? All anger and beauty he snaps to the crowd of people. "Somebody get her some water and a chair." Some of them, wide eyed and nervous quite literally scramble at his command. Watching them move, somehow makes me nauseous.
"Easy Ana, not so fast or you'll faint." Claire's voice is soft as she looks me over. All at once I'm placed in a chair, she kneels beside me on the floor checking me over. "Uh thanks, I didn't ... realize I had... fell."
"How would you? It happened so fast." A gravity presses against the throb, distress flickers across Christian's face as I cringe away from Claire's delicate touch. Quickly, I release his arm I hadn't realised I was gripping this entire time. He moves from his position leaned over me, crossing his arms.
"That was a whopper!" One of the male's snicker. "God, are you okay?" The group all murmur instructions and opinions, causing the pounding to increase. The drink of water quells the nausea but my stomach's fluttering won't desist as he watches me empty the glass.
"Look," Christian starts commanding everyone's attention He's in control even in this disorientated state that's glaringly obvious. "You should take her to first aid, get her some ice otherwise the pain will get worse." He's talking to Claire now. "However, any head injury should always be checked at a clinic or hospital. Do you know how to perform a basic concussion test?"
"I'm okay," I answer in Claire's stead who wordlessly, gapes up at him. "No hospitals."
"Um, Stuart is the resident first aider but he's out sick today." According to Claire this is 'cute guy from Human Resources!' since neither of us can remember his name. "I thought it was ironic." His quiet voice is barely audible to me, giving rise to slight panic of what my current wellbeing may be. "Claire's trained though, right?" He gestures to her.
She starts, blinking. "Right, right I am." I can't tell what's wrong with her; if it's shock or simply enjoying the dramatics of this whole situation. "I'll check her over then we'll see if a clinic is necessary."
Christian gives her a look filled with restrain and skepticism. Soon all my weight is leaning against Claire's side as she holds me. The others, few of alot of whom I recognize, offer me shoulder squeezes and kind words before wandering off. I thank them too disorientated to figure out appropriate answers.
It's quieter, that's when they come back.
Their collective voices rise in an ugly mesh of buzzing and ringing. The scene unfolds in a chaotic mess of my psychological living room. All matter of notes and pages thrown around the room as they yell at eachother. A flounce of dizziness hits me, my whole body momentarily sagging against Claire. Despite it all, they reveal the truth of me wanting to sink to the ground to rest. Christian would embrace me as I cry or sleep He'd reassure me with gentle strokes to my hair and everything truly would be alright.
"Thank you, Mr. Grey. I'll take care of her." Claire starts steering me away from him.
"No, wait, uh, thank you." His eyes transfix me, the rest of the words fly straight out of my head.
"Go quickly, Miss Steele. Don't want you to get worst." He runs his hand through his hair looking frustrated, his clipped tone dismissing me. The more steps we take away from the lobby, the more confused I feel. Claire sits me in a chair once we reach the kitchen.
"What the hell was that?" Closing the door, she rounds on me.
"Ana do not 'hmm' me, that romantic comedy scene I just fucking witnessed between you and Christian Grey." She opens cupboards in search of the first aid kit. Carefully my fingers run over the tender spot at the back of my head. "Claire, how'd I end up on the floor? What happened?"
"That's my question to you." A quick glance over the shoulder shows her my confusion. "Alright, so you saw Mr Grey froze for a second then turned around so fast your hair smacked me in the face. I thought you were nervous and running away which is understandable. But- you, I think you tripped or something cause then all I saw was you falling backwards."
She momentarily gives up the search turning to give me her full attention. This is the first time I've heard Claire speak so slowly. Despite the her regular theatrics and exaggeration she speaks while ensuring I understand. "You just layed there for a couple of seconds- knocked straight out. I mean I knew you weren't dead, but those seconds felt like hours waiting for you to move."
"My- uh, my heels must have slipped or I tripped... backwards?" A pain shoots straight up my right ankle as if giving a response.
"The way he reacted though…" Her brown eyes regard me questionably. "I've never seen a human dive so fast to catch someone. He called you Anastasia, how does he know your name? Unless from the intern list." Digging in the first aid kit, she produces an empty ice pack, twisting the top off then moving to the freezer. "Not to mention how on top of you he was, how worried he looked. I mean, come on, what was that tension?"
"You and Mr Grey, it was so there." She pauses then quickly shakes her head focusing on taking the ice out of the plastic bag. My mind races with a number of possible responses to give her but I don't trust myself to speak in this state. "I don't know, it felt like something, maybe I'm wrong. You know what? I'm not even sure what I was looking at."
She's sits next to me gently trying to feel the wounded area, when I cringe away, she presses the full pack against the spot catching me by surprise. "There we go."
I grit my teeth as the cold spreads, offering an immediate relief. "Wow, that feels so much better." A loud, relieved sigh unbiddenly escaping. She notices me massaging at my lower paines, calf muscle. "Here, hold the pack while I get one for your ankle." Easily she guides my hand in place before moving away.
"So…" Claire probes extracting a dish cloth from a drawer. "No tension?"
I signed an NDA, they remind me, "No Claire, I interviewed him once for my university's newspaper. It was just before my graduation which he also attended as our speaker. I guess we know each other."
"Oh, you never told me that." She drops a couple of ice blocks into the cloth, then twists it around in a spiral. "Didn't think it was important plus I'm so embarrassed about that interview- I asked him if he's gay." Kneeling down I remove my shoe Claire runs the cloth under water then proceeds to tie the damp cloth around my ankle.
Her full lips form a silent 'o' as she processes the information. "Yeah, awkward- my roommate wrote the questions out. He is not by the way and did not appreciate the question."
"That is definitely something that's important." She says shock evident in her voice as she sits down next to me. "And look at that you're retaining long term memories, I think that's a good sign."
"Yeah, might not be a concussion."
She groans eyeing the clock above the fridge. "I can't believe this day isn't over yet." Her tired form practically screams out as she buries her face in her hands. "Not to mention Remi's shift ended, almost two hours ago and she's covering for me. Now I have to work her Saturdays'."
"Oh Ana," Claire waves me off. "I'm honestly just complaining to complain. Please, don't take it to heart as if you should apologise to me with all you're going through. What just happened was so scary- then there's Jack." Her face is wrinkled with concern.
I shrug. "It is, what it is."
"It's a lot in itself." We share a nod sitting silently for several minutes basking in the comfort of the only sound being the soft hum of the refrigerator. "You okay?" Her question held all the weight of the world. "I just want to make sure you're okay- that we're okay. I brought up all that stuff about Christian Grey instead of focusing on you and I think it was just me grasping at the 'normal' again."
"Diffusing the situation?"
"I guess so, yeah."
I want to tell her that it's all I was focused on as well. That instead of thinking about Jack all I can think of is Christian's possibly caring about my wellbeing. That it's okay to grasp on to these things even though it's not- I should only be thinking about taking down Jack. We were similar in this, whenever thoughts of Christian become too much I think of Operation Jackass and vice versa. It's my coping method and because what my mind did was far more toxic then what Claire does, how could I possibly fault her.
"You said it before the accident and I just want to make sure."
"We're good, I promise."
"Good," She embraces me, it's awkward with my hand on the ice pack but it's wholeheartedly welcomed. When she pulls back she's wiping tears, "Now I should get back because this place can't survive without me but we should do a quick concussion test."
"You know how to?"
She purses her lips nodding her head from side to side. "I have a Level 3, First Aid certificate from a few years back if that counts. Okay, no need for quick responses if you find yourself struggling don't strain yourself- gimme some type of ID." After some digging in my pockets, I find my employee card. "Ready?"
"Anastasia Rose Steele."
"Oh, that's such a pretty name. Date and day?"
"Wednesday, fifteenth of June." I'm relieved that these questions are easy to answer, my mind only slightly fogged before it dissipates. The buzzing and ringing are now a distant lull. We continue like this for a few more questions, then she checks my pupil dilation with her phone flashlight and feels at the wound for bruising.
"Don't groan," She starts at my hesitant expression. "You should go see a doctor or at least go home- rest up." At my loud groan she relinquishes, "Despite my professional opinion I'll let you go if you promise to go get checked out later."
I give her a pointed look. "Am I one to put myself in dangerous situation?"
Then she leaves her dry chuckle trailing all the way out the door echoing in my head for several minutes after. Left alone I lay my heads down on my now folded arms, letting the ice sit on my head in that position. Eventually people start filtering in and out of the kitchen, some asking about my well being, most wanting to know how I know Christian Grey. Claire is obviously not the only one that noticed this 'imaginary' tension. I'm barely aware of what's coming out of my mouth something akin to what I told Claire. All I know is they leave impressed with me, envious of me in addition to some outright showing their disbelief in my answer.
I'm not interested in them. The characters aren't interested in them.
Christian's here. We've established this isn't a dream and that I'm not going insane. I know he isn't here for me- he's here for SIP negotiations but... why the hell did he buy SIP? The vixen is filled with rage. My ankle doesn't protest when I finally stand from my seat, emptying the now watery ice into the sink. "This has nothing to do with me, does it?"
There's no way Christian Grey was in the market for a publishing house, then in the same few weeks I start work acquires the publishing house that I just so happen to be working in. Is he keeping tabs on me? Spying on me like a little sexy spy master. No matter, how many times I run it in my head Christian buying SIP just sounded like a direct correlation to me.
"No, no, no," I appease myself, exiting the kitchen with no set destination in mind, Jack hasn't given me any work so I have nothing to distract myself with, "That can't be it."
"What can't be what?" A voice asks casually ahead of me. I jump, the resulting landing pain from my ankle has me stumbling to stay up. "Holy shi- ow!"
"The mouth on you." Christian eyed me amusement dancing in his eyes as he holds me up. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, just hurts a bit." I mumble insecurely. There's no one around us, this hallway only contained Beau Willis, Jerry Roach and Kay Bestie's offices and they were all currently in the meeting room. The meeting that Christian is supposed to be in. He hesitantly drops his hands from my waist without thinking, I reach out and grab one enclosing it in my own. This is real, him being here felt too good to be real. "Anastasia?" Our eyes meet and fuck, how does Christian keep doing this? By merely saying my name, he's managed to reach into my being passed the characters and everything once again taking control of my heart. A long, blistering moment passes, "Sorry." I drop his hand.
"Anastasia." He repeats.
"Stop saying my name." My heart unable to handle the feelings it evokes, "People around here are already making up stories."
"It's nice to see you too." He scowls then relaxes under my gaze. "I can't believe I've been in your presence less than two hours, but I've already had a heart attack, been snubbed, completely not understand a situation and been turned on." He contemplates then adds, "Not in that order."
I try not to over analyse his words, knowing this conversation will run through my head for days to come. "Well, this is definitely a reunion for the book of awkward reunions."
"Is that real?"
He waves me off, a serious mask clouding his features. "Ana, I'm going to this meeting because I really can't reschedule it. I called Taylor he's on his way to take you to the hospital."
I sigh suddenly filled with exasperation. "Wow..."
"You haven't changed a bit have you." He raises an eyebrow at me, curiously. "Why would I change? Do you want me to change?"
Yes Anastasia, why would he change? The white voice asks. You loved him exactly how he was and he didn't want you. My subconscious suddenly chimes in, Shouldn't you be the one to change?
They merely add to my anger. "Nevermind, I'm fine. Claire performed a test and I just need some rest."
"Yes, Claire while seeming very professional does not have a doctorate, Ana." His tone, a mix of worry and judgement bothers me. "You lost consciousness, had a lapse of memory of what had just transpired- that's worrying. You most probably have a headache, it's all symptoms you should take to a doctor and get checked over for." I stare at the floor in petulant silence, annoyed at my softening resolve. "Look, you have no idea how much I had to resist from picking you up and running straight to a hospital. Please just do this to appease my mind. I feel at fault since you were obviously running away from me... again."
A lump forms in my throat, my stomach twisting in a combination of his words and pure nausea. He clears his throat when I don't say anything in response. "The meeting is scheduled to take up most of the workday anyhow, so if it turns out not to be serious your boss won't even notice your absence. I much prefer you'd go home from the hospital, I have a feeling you won't want to do that."
"I'm not sure." I shrug, keeping my eyes to the ground. "I'll go to the hospital."
"Thank you." He breathes a content sigh. "You're less stubborn than I remember." The silly jab comes so unexpectedly that I look up at him with amused surprise.
"You're just as bossy." I scoff, his responding chuckle making me smile. "And there's that sass I've missed." My throat clogs in a way it only does when I'm holding back tears. As always when I'm with Christian a million questions come to mind, but there's a singular one now that I both dread and crave. "You miss me?" It comes out without my permission, my inner goddess pushing it to the tip of my tongue until I couldn't resist.
He looks perplexed then sighs. "You wouldn't believe how much." His hand suddenly touches mine holding it in a loose grasp of his pinkie to my index.
"Christian please," A cracked, weak voice responds. "Not here, you're supposed to be in a meeting." My eyes sweep the still hallway then suddenly remembering reason, I add. "I can't believe you bought the company I'm working in."
"I didn't just buy it. We've been in negotiations for a number of weeks now."
"You're such a liar." I pull my hand back stepping closer to him. "You've most probably been in negotiations since the day I expressed interest in getting a publishing job."
"It was a premeditated buy." His cocky attitude pulls me in like honey.
"Oh, I have no doubt it was." My hands ball up in fists as we square off. "However, I think it had more to do with me than actual publishing." Irritation, frustration and that 'imaginary' tension floats between us. I haven't felt this light in weeks, I smile genuinely, still awaiting his response.
His resulting smirk only serves to make me smile wider. "Wow, I think I've met my debating match."
"It's barely a debate, I'm stating facts."
"You're sure you don't want to come work for my company? Even though I suppose you now are, I still think GEH would suit you well." Reality came crashing down onto me as I thought of the truth behind those words. I step back crossing my arms over my chest. "Please, go to your meeting."
"I'm on a phone call," He shrugs ignoring my change in mood, his hands now shoved into his tailored pockets. "At least that's what I told them." The comment makes me feel so at ease that I roll my eyes and laugh. An action that should mean so little, an insignificant characteristic in fact that I do so often it comes without thinking. I didn't even think about it and that's why it meant so much in this moment.
"Do it again." His lopsided grin surprises me.
"What no palm twitching?" Even said jokingly, the reminder of what he wanted and did to me when I rolled my eyes swept over us both. His smile thins followed by a long bout of silence. "Go now Ana, I wouldn't want the condition to get worse." I smile in response, unable to talk.
"Okay," Just as I'm rounding the corner, his hand wraps around my wrist.
"Anastasia," Christian's impossibly close when I turn to him. The clear draw in his brow makes me still, his perfectly shaped lips parting to speak. "Can I see you after this? Whether you're in bed and resting or… dinner… coffee even. I promise that this time I won't leave in a haste unless you ask me to."
"Yes, definitely." It comes with no hesitance. His expression is one of astonishment, then a gorgeous smile spreads across his face. "Okay great."
"Okay." My legs refuse to move, a fiery warmth spreading within me.
"Off you go." He releases me repeating the motion of shoving his hands into his pockets. I think it's a movement to control himself. I float past reception quickly informing Claire where I'm going on my way out. There's no shiny car to be seen anywhere and just as waiting seems the only plausible option, a dark blue Volvo steadily approaches from down the street. It stops in front of me, hazards on and I approach the black tinted windows.
Thankfully, Taylor's familiar face greets when I open the passenger side. "Hello Taylor."
"Miss Steele," He says in greeting putting the car in drive.
"Wow, she is beautiful," Sinking into the plush, white seat I run my hands over the shining, black dashboard. "Is it new?"
"Bought a few days ago. Mr Grey, was feeling in the mood for blue." Trying not to associate myself with the choice, I press my cheek against the cool of the seat breathing in the fine smell of the car.
"I heard you had quite the tumble."
I'm immediately thrown back to the night before when I practically attacked Taylor into a hug. God! I completely forgot that happened, maybe I do need to see a doctor. Taylor's stoic black suit ensemble and title makes me think of him as a silent comrade. Throughout my relationship with Christian he was polite, sometimes nice but altogether distant. Now as he says this, a realisation that during all of it- everything up until now- he could be as internally subjective as he wanted to be. He's paid to be stoic so he must have constant internal commentary especially considering his boss's lifestyle.
"Oh Taylor, I just realised you might actually think I'm crazy."
"Far from it." He says immediately.
"I wouldn't blame you if you did, I mean considering all of our interactions. I mean first I'm one of many sub-" Am I allowed to mention the BDSM thing to Taylor? His face remains emotionless as I try for a different word. "Substantial girlfriends in Christian's life. Then I'm almost always crying when you're around, I should give you back your handkerchief by the way."
"It's quite alright."
"Then there was yesterday…" Just as a rant is working its way out he clears his throat in way of interruption. "I don't judge you on your actions, Miss Steele. I'm aware that Mr Grey is a difficult person at times." A burst of dizziness hits me as he abruptly stops at a man hurriedly crossing the road despite the green light being on for cars. The seat belt stops me from bashing my head against the dashboard, but nausea is slowly building in the pit of my stomach.
"Nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks so."
"I don't think anyone would disagree with that." Taylor says. "What happened last night was completely fine, Miss Steele. As for everything else, I guarantee you're attitude and grace throughout everything with Mr Grey was and still is inspiring." And just like that it was resolved. He managed to wrap it up in a couple sentence. If only his boss could be so easily handled, we wouldn't have any problems at all.
"Taylor, am I imaging it or is that a smile I see." An airy laugh escapes me as I regard his shifty silhouette.
"I believe you are imaging it and that I should accelerate this drive so a doctor can attend to you." My stomach lurches despite his easing forward. "L-Listen, firstly, I'm not crazy." He side eyes me. "But I am feeling kind of car sick so… where exactly are we going?"
"Virginia Mason Hospital, we're just a few minutes away." We drive in silence the rest of the way. My stomachs continued lurches with every tiny, shift keeping me from saying anything. Upon entrance to the hospital, I crouch over a bin emptying my stomach. Taylor holds my hair up despite my waving him away as I hurl. In that moment I regretted every last bit of food I ate today as they regurgitated out of me. A nurse, thinking my case must be serious takes down my information while he says them gruffly.
"Medical aid?" I try shaking my head.
"We'll be paying by card."
After the dry heaves that follow, I go to the bathroom to wash up. The pallid figure in the mirror goes ignored I as I scoop up mouthfuls of water. Jason awaits me outside with a sympathetic smile and a bottle of water. The room is relatively empty but those that saw me on the bin look at me with unease and poorly disguised wariness. As if they can judge, I see you guy with a fishing hook in his finger.
"God," I groan pressing the cool bottle to my head. "Why did I eat so much today..."
"How are you feeling, Miss Steele?"
"Embarrassed and nauseous." I murmur. "Thank you for holding my hair back."
"Not a problem. If it helps Mr Grey sends his regard, he's very worried."
"It doesn't." The smile comes without my consent. "It does a little bit." Taylor's comment of Christian has him in my mind for the rest of the hospital trip that passes in a flash of torturous, beautiful recollections. As I apologise to the nurse who must carry away my puke bin, I think of every time my stomach lurched when we were gliding in the sky. While being escorted to meet Doctor Fourne, my walking down the hallway to Christian's playroom, his office, his room comes to mind. I'm holding his hand, caressing his face or simply basking in his glow. The physical exam goes stellar and the questioning is much the same as Claire's.
"Okay, Miss Steele, lucky for you it's a mild concussion." Dr Fourne says while scribbling in his notepad. "You moved around much too soon after your fall. That explains the head rush and vomiting, the car ride most probably did not help though it was necessary." I nod along with him. "What I prescribe, is rest that means resting your brain otherwise it will get worse. Avoid stress, that means no work or anything that may strain your brain. Here's a note to take off work- rest today and tomorrow."
I take the sheet of paper, a day off sounds perfect with everything that's happened today. Just lying in bed with pizza… and maybe Christian lounging next to me.
"So, no history of asthma, heart disease or fluid retention…" He's mumbling to himself and I have to bite my lip to keep from telling him he's interrupting my fantasies. Doctor Fourne prescribes me a low dosage of naproxen for my head as well as ice on my now confirmedly sprained ankle. Taylor's hanging up his phone when I return, greeting me with a shopping bag.
"Flats." I observe giving him a smile. "You think of everything." Together we go get my prescription then before I know it, we're back in the car. "Taylor, thank you for today. You've been a great help and obviously I want to pay Christian back as soon as possible."
Oh, Christian…What do I about tonight? The characters continue scanning through their notes, the white sits poised on a chair, you love him, it's that simple. I nod in agreement, that went without question. You haven't forgiven him and certainly won't forget what happened, the red vixen intervenes from her sprawled position on the floor- I agree with that as well. The only thing we can all agree on is, that he can't know about Jack.
How would I keep that away from him? Ray gave me all the information and tactics I need but how would I even go about applying-
He glances at me as if hearing my thoughts and I realise I've been staring at him. I flush quickly averting my eyes to my window.
I couldn't ask him? Could I? He's Christian personal bodyguard and head of his security team. He's perfect, they croon. Probably has just about everything I need in terms of resources to take down Jack. Then again, I couldn't use Christian like that. One thing has nothing to do with the other, my inner goddess chides. You're invested in this case with Jack but all of you belongs to Christian.
Admitting to something like that made me think I would just tear open all over again. However here I sit sweaty, with a raw throat and a headache the size of a saucer but it just feels so good to admit it. It felt like I was suppressing it until it was this giant ball of agony eating away at my stomach- slowly eating away at me. I know it's because Christian showing up today, asking to see me, means something and could possibly be something good. This little slither of hope is the light finally appearing at the end of the dark cavern, still I wouldn't drop the flickering flashlight. Not yet.
"The meeting will adjourn in an hour or two. Mr Grey insists I take you home." We're driving extra slowly, while I eat the dry crackers Taylor bought. "Well, Mr Grey isn't in charge of me. Can you take me back to work please?"
He hesitates. "I've seen many soldiers fall and not get up from a mild concussion."
"I just need to talk to my boss, even though Christian technically fulfils that title now." It feels so different to say his name now, as if it's something casual and easy when just a few hours ago the mere thought of it sent me spiralling. It takes me several minutes to regain focus because Christian's name just won't stop rolling around in my head, "Just need to let him know."
Taylor nods, "I'll let him know."
"Taylor, you're someone I think of as trustworthy," He angles his head and I turn my whole body to face him. "And as bad as I feel putting you in this position, I need to ask for your help with something that doesn't involve Christian."
He stops at the red light, glancing at me inquisitively. I wonder what he sees on my face that makes his hands tighten on the steering wheel and his expression switching from controlled emotionless to what can only be described as combat. In consequence he reminds me of Ray and immediately feel more at ease. "Mr Grey, will call in a few minutes, I've been entrusted to get you a number of things for your comfort while recuperating."
Deciding there's no time to argue against getting a bunch of things I don't need from my ex, instead I grapple for the right words to properly convey my situation. "I- I- uh, my-"
Focus… it's his voice, so crystal clear that I even whip my head around to check he's not there in the car.
"Uh, you probably know Jack Hyde is my boss." I start turning back to him. "There's no other way to say this but I'm sure he's a rapist and an actual dangerous individual. I have after some investigation gathered that he's harassed several of his past employees. I think he may have control over the Human Resources head. I have next to no proof only the words of an ex- employee who was accused of being mentally ill, a few uncomfortable situations with me and a gut feeling. What I do have is a list of ex secretary names and a what I think could be a solid plan."
Taylor mulls my words, before saying. "There's a lot you don't know on this matter."
Astonished, I press. "Tell me."
"Mr Grey has his own suspicions, he's well on his way to do a full investigation." I wasn't even surprised at this, of course, Christian as always is two steps ahead. "It'd be better if you left the company, told us what you know and let us handle it."
"No way, I'm in way too deep to back out now." Panic grips me at the thought of handing this over to someone else. "How much does he know?"
"After his decision to acquire SIP, he found out that most of your boss's assistant's don't last more than a few months. That coupled with his own gut feeling and has me looking into him."
"From the surface he's moderately clean." Before I can ask what that means he continues. "To counts of overnight arrest; one due to disturbing the peace, the other an assault charge, that was wrapped up with a fine."
"Bar fight." He explains. "He does however have a restraining order against him from one SW."
"SW?" I frown at the initials. "That's the ex-receptionist! That's Sarah Wilson, I know where she is..." He turns to me with a newfound intrigue, "How much do you know?"
"First, you need to promise that you won't tell Christian."
"He already knows something's wrong with Mr Hyde."
"He doesn't know what I know." I pause knowing my request was making him betray his boss's trust. "He can't know what I know."
The car lurches to a stop, the SIP building looming behind us. Taylor's phone rings breaking the silence, "We're out of time, Miss Steele."
"I know," With a sigh I reach for the door. "I know, I'm asking you for a lot. I'm sorry, I swear I'll tell you everything I know if you agree to help me... and that you won't tell Christian."
He nods. "I'll be back to take you home.
"If I'm not here you in two hours, you have my details." He raises an eyebrow; Chuckling at the sheer Christian look that it is. "I know you do." When I'm already out the car and entering the lobby my phone vibrates with a message.
Delete anything that could tip him off from your company computer.
I look behind me just as the Volvo speeds away. Not wasting any time, first removing anything GEH or Christian related from my inboxes then removing any and all aspects to do with other jobs. Alone, I search Jack's office again basically, tearing the place apart then putting it back together again. On this sweep I find absolutely nothing despite it being more thorough, even going as so far as to try every single key in the damn trinket bowl but none of them fit or open the drawer. It must be one of those keys that he has attached to his car keys, keys I never get to touch.
After a short debate I decide to leave the camera in its place, giving the responsibility to Claire to charge and take the camera from its hiding place. Elizabeth's office proves another futile try; the door locked. I couldn't even try to pick the lock with the buzz of the office today, people still approaching me on my fall and connection to Christian Grey. Then I settle to do some work, my head soothed and my ankle with an ice pack on it. Finance tells me the accounts will be inaccessible for a couple of days, so luckily going on a trip with Jack is thankfully out of the question. I improve edits that I had done on some manuscripts then spend some time assisting Hannah with her much heavier workload. I'm not sure how to explain what happened earlier and I'm glad she doesn't ask, only engaging me in idle chat about movie adaptions of books.
When the meeting finally adjourns, I'm there with the rest of the office watching Christian Grey and team stride, yes, I mean stride through our tiny office in their obvious superiority. The girls fawn in awe of him and I can see the envy and admiration in most everyone's eyes. I'm at the back, making no move to be in front of the crowd, as if they'd let me pass. Merely looking at him, even from this far angle was enough.
I only really look away when I notice two women from the marketing department and a man from finance approach him at the entryway. He's looking down at his phone frowning- an annoyed, beautiful frown and his expression doesn't change when they approach him. I almost feel bad watching them as he towers over them flanked with his team of Andrea and Ros Bailey. Instead of staying for the show I walk back to my desk, on which I find Jack leaning against my desk looking a new level of pissed.
"Look, who's finally here? Anastasia, I wonder where you were." It's clear his angry, Jack keeps this perfect image of cool on his face when he's angry but it's so easy to tell it's a façade. He turns without a word beckoning me to his office my head throbs in response, I think I may need another dosage of naxopren.
He doesn't dance around the issue. "You were just out there looking at Grey with all the others weren't you? When I explicitly asked you to check the accounts today."
"I thought I was going to be in the meeting with you today..."
"Are you giving me attitude?"
"What? No." I blanch. It was a statement. "I don't know what you expect me to do about the accounts." His dark, angry eyes silence me. "Do your job Ana."
"I contacted finances they said that the accounts would be frozen until further notice. it was lucky that I had everything booked for you already." His hands grip the table so hard I'm afraid the wood may crack. I'm so glad there's a table between us.
"I'm sorry," He sneers, his face an ugly mask of rage. "Do you want recognition for doing your job?"
"No sir, it's just I can't do anything about this."
"You're so useless- I bet you didn't do anything today just sat around while I had to hear Christian Grey, yapping in my ear like he knew better than me about the company I work in." His tone steadily gets more enraged. "He wasn't even paying attention to what I was saying, texting and taking calls the whole time. So fucking cocky, he had an answer for everything!"
"Jack!" This time his fist collides with the desk, his eyes are squeezed shut. Rage radiates off him in a darkness wanting to consume me, I hope this is my frazzled mind seeing this. The pain returns with a vengeance, twisting up my stomach and sending a piercing ring straight to my head.
"Call me Jack, Ana." He's smiling as he regards me, an eerie cheerfulness lacing every word. My stomach twists violently. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay honey." He says raising a passive hand at me. "Let's work together here, I'm just in a mood because of Grey."
"Yes, sir- Jack." My fear far outweighs my curiosity when it comes to Jack Hyde. That's why with shaking hands I reach into my back pocket for the doctor's note fiddling with it for a second before placing it on his desk.
"Look Jack, I tripped today in the lobby and hit my head. The doctor said it's a mild concussion and my ankle's sprained but not broken. I was told to take rest of today and tomorrow off."
"Really?" His scowls. "You know I have my trip in two days."
"The doctor prescribed it, said it might even get worse if I don't take a day or two."
"God, I feel like you plan these things. You're more work then you're worth." I want to be angry but I'm so confused, "What things Jack? I didn't trip and fall on purpose."
He throws the note back at me. "Fine, go home but I'll need you for half a day tomorrow- one o' clock that's when I'll need you more. This is really unacceptable, I hope you know." His tone dismisses me, so I quickly grab the note and hightail it out. My stomach churns with disgust and fear but this time as I clutch the toilet seat, the bile burns my throat all the way out. This coupled with my throbbing head has me wrought.
Standing on weak legs with my back pressed heavily on the wall. It's okay, Ana- they croon as I breathe deeply. Don't worry, Ana- the characters placate me. They're right, I tell myself splashing water on my face and bare arms then despite instruction down an extra prescription pill. Claire embraces me tightly with a promise to take the camera and call later.
My spirits lift when I see that same dark Volvo waiting for me just outside. Taylor exists the vehicle and I keep my steady pace but can't help my thrumming excitement that is until the door opens, only for the disappointment of a bouquet of white roses to greet me.
"Mr Grey, had to head back to the office." Taylor starts as I stare at the flowers that occupy where he should be. "It seems there's a problem with the acquisition. He asked that you call when you leave work."
"Hello again, Taylor. " I say in response climbing in with a newfound despondency. I stroke the bittersweet petals of the flowers absently, as we drive along. "Did you tell him?" There's a long drag of silence.
"Right now, there's nothing to tell." His eyes briefly flicker to mine in the rear view mirror. "I want to hear your full story then we'll see the next necessary steps."
That's as good a confirmation as any. "Thank you, Taylor."
My phone rings breaking what must be our first moment of companionable silence. I don't have to check to know it's Christian. My hands shake with nerves as I answer. "Anastasia." His voice soft but assured greets me.
My throat is unreasonably dry. "Hello Christian."
"You didn't call me…" He lets it hang there, for a second I entertain the thought of him being nervous. "Sorry, I was going to. I just got lost in these beautiful flowers and as you know Taylor is very talkative. I'm on my way home now." The responding chuckle is like a balm to my crushed soul.
"Good, I was worried that you changed your mind." He sounded so unsure of himself. I decide that if Christian did nervous, this was definitely it. "I'm sorry I'm not there. I have to deal with a fuck up over here."
Memories of when Christian left Georgia for an incident spring to mind. "Another incident? Same as last time in Georgia?" I never did find out what happened then. I guess I completely forgot about it.
"Oh no, that was different." The nervous tinge quickly fades into annoyance. "No, that incident was handled."
"I was wondering if the dinner invitation still stands?" Wow, he's really trying, even asking my permission on the matter. "Yes, of course, whenever you finish you can come over."
There's a pause then, "Anastasia, you really should stay at my place. Taylor can take you there and you can recuperate with Mrs Jones there to cook for you." The characters all look at each other, the same line of old habits dying hard being passed around. "That's very nice of you to offer but I'd rather rest in my home. Besides I won't be alone." I add that last part in a little moment of annoyance, trying to bait him.
His restrain clear in the long breath he takes in. "Alright, Miss Steele. I'll try and be there before six o'clock."
"I'll see you later."
"Okay." He responds then after several seconds hangs up. There was so much more I wanted to say, by his responses it's easy to tell that he did too. When we get to my building, Taylor opens the door for me and rounds to the trunk of the car. It's filled with bags, he begins unloading them with no information. I realise then that they're all supposed to be for me.
"What could I possibly need that warrants these bags?"
"You should see the list." After a friendly chuckle, I grab hold of the lightest bags knowing Taylor would object if I took anything heavier.
"And yet from what I've heard," He clicks the trunk close, locking the vehicle. "You're not."
"It's Jack…" Before I'm able to launch into what happened he interrupts. "It's better if you explained everything from the beginning." So, I do as we walk slowly to my door and up my stairs, I divulge the full story of Jack Hyde and Operation Jackass. I don;t spare a detail including Claire's involvement, Sarah, Wilson, Elizabeth, the camera and Ray's unknowing involvement. Taylor doesn't say a word the whole way through, up until now where I sit at the kitchen island waiting for him to say something from the couch- he's standing, running a hand against his chin as he thinks.
Ethan's nowhere to be found in the apartment but he left a sticky note on the fridge saying he went out for a jog. Having no idea when he wrote that, I send him a quick text as well as Christian letting him know I made it home.
"Miss Steele, there's no way you can use that camera footage in a court of law."
This is one response I expected, "All the other offices in SIP have cameras inside them except his, Elizabeths' and Kays' but even there's have cameras pointed at the entrances."
"Those people are aware of the cameras. If SIP were say a news gathering business like a newspaper or magazine then there would be exceptions but considering all the facts. it wouldn't work. Even if it was soundless- You wouldn't be able to use it or even mention it, you may face charges yourself."
"Despite there being many violations caught on the video?"
"Yes," He glances down at his watch. I know Christian must be expecting him back at a specific time. "That doesn't mean some things can't be used. Like the footage Claire got of you two in the bar, that could be played off as a video captured playfully on her phone."
Seeing my confusion, he continues. "For example, you tell your friend Claire you think your boss has an attraction for you and she playfully records it to prove you wrong." Taylor is diabolical… the vixen croons, I find myself appreciating every inch of his experience that could possibly help me now. "The footage of him blocking doorways, can also be used. You need to catch him on public cameras but continue the way you have been innocent and not leading him on at all. I'll need a copy of all the footage."
I nod biting my lip in contemplation. "We can still use it to make a plan." The camera was stocked with information on Jack, it had to have some benefit. "The original plan seemed so perfect; I tell Elizabeth that Jack asked me on the trip and she goes to talk to him about it in his office."
I know." He says sounding sympathetic. "It would have definitely captured talk of others, you and taking advantage of the job and who knows what other graphic details. It was a good plan, Miss Steele."
"But I'd probably end up behind bars or detained?"
"More likely it would have been scraped and the police would do an investigation. It would give Jack far too much time to cover all his bases."
I nod feeling deflated. He lets out a sigh, making me look up from the floor. "We'll think of something new." Taylor straightens up running a hand over his impeccable suit. "I really must take my leave now."
"Oh," I jump up carefully avoiding my ankle. "I'll give you the full drive when he leaves for his trip Friday, I still want the conversation with Elizabeth captured- maybe we can use information in it."
"You're sure you don't want to tell Mr Grey?"
"I'm sorry, do you feel awkward doing this?" We pause at the entryway; his expression remains stoic as he says. "I just think you'd work better together on this."
"Well," The sudden statement catching me off guard. "I'll see." With a stiff, reassuring nod Taylor leaves, I escort him to the stairs, the thought of him being alone with my thoughts daunting. Too much has happened today, I think my migraine would return tenfold if I was alone. By my door, I turn to face Chloe's apartment finding myself wanting to tell her all about Christian. Since last night, I'm sure she's kept to her vow in coming up with a list of activities we could do to re-adjust my 'emotional being' as she put it.
Once inside the apartment, I go through a few bags before finding a big chocolate bar. She deserves a present for putting up with me although this time I was not willing to part with the flowers. They were already resting in a pretty vase on the coffee table. A few extra seconds pass as I stare at them, then cross the room to wiggle a single, white rose. I bound over to Chloe's who answers after a few minutes a bright smile on her freckled face as well as dabs of white powder on it. In fact all of her is covered in powder, from her loose, flowery dress to the blue, frilly apron on top of it.
"'Veggie Me.'" I read off her apron, all manner of polite greetings forgotten. "Chloe, what are you covered in?"
"You're here!" She yells excitedly then turns her head as if talking to someone else. "She's here!" Stop being crazy, Chloe. The vixen teats, the rest of the characters and I quickly shushing her.
"Tell me you're not talking to yourself." As if I could possibly judge, my head filled with cartoons.
"No, I only do that when I take long walks." She laughs opening the door wider for me to get in.
"I wanted to greet you with 'hello'…" She closes the door behind me grabbing me by the shoulder and steering me towards the kitchen around the entryway corner. "And I would have answered with the appropriate, 'Hey Ana, come in.' but who cares for mannerisms? Life is short."
I want to respond but the sight I find surprises me into silence. Chloe's kitchen is a mess. Strewn just about everywhere is the white powder, I now realize is flour, a mess of batter on the counters and floors. Bowls and dishes cover every service and what's left of free space is sprinkled with... cookies. Cookies on trays, pilled on plates, in bowls but the most shocking thing is Ethan amidst it all. He's standing by her oven balancing a tray with blue mittens and has a mouthful of cookie. It's extra ridiculous because Chloe's apartment was already a wonderland of colours, every item she owned down to her cups is colourful, so it felt like you stepped into a parent's worst nightmare and a hectic dream all at once. I'm trying so hard not to laugh but this had to be the craziest day of my life.
My characters all stop their staring to fix me with an incredulous look- okay, maybe seeing the Red Room of Pain for the first time wins out. They all nod turning back to the hilarious scene in front of me. The laugh escapes me uncontrollably, "Oh my God! What is going on?"
Ethan completely oblivious waves at me with his free hand, mumbling some or other thing around the cookie. "Guys, what a mess." Chloe guides me to a chair and just as my laugh is teetering away, I sit on a cookie and absolutely lose it. I haven't laughed this way in a while, the two simply stare at me from across the counter in bewilderment.
"What's up with her?" He asks Chloe finally swallowing. I wish Christian was here to witness this, he would absolutely die at the sight. Just the thought has me toppling over, I clutch the chair as his surely horrified face entered my mind.
"Well, you're certainly in a good mood." Chloe says coming to dust the cookie off my chair like it was a speck of dirt. They're both smiling bemusedly at me, my continuous chuckles finally affecting them. I'm consciously trying to stop as she begins to talk.
"So, I'm pretty sure you sat on one of the vegan oatmeal but help yourself to any not squished cookies." Ethan coughs interrupting her. "Those were renamed Grandma's Toasty Oatties." Chloe actually laughs aloud now, "Yeah, you may have renamed them but I did not agree to all of these titles."
"This is how the flour war started, Ana." God, my stomach hurts. Finally, I'm wiping away tears their sudden, silly argument sobering me. "Okay, so that explains the flour." I say pointing at them. "And absolutely nothing else, how the hell did this happen?"
"My sister's school is having a bake sale." Chloe says very matter of fact.
I sheath myself into my seat. "A proper explanation on this situation but first," I place the bag with the chocolate and flower on the table, "I got you some chocolate. Technically, got you one, the details of how I got it are not important."
Chloe looks impossibly excited by this. "That's so nice of you." She takes the bag, quickly excusing herself to put it away. Ethan looks on after her, a look I know so well, then he turns to me. A caught expression flashes across his face, then he looks away composing himself, "How was work?"
"Uh uh, you first mister." I say pointing at him. "What happened to jogging?" As Ethan gears himself up to speak- a characteristic I've picked up on over the years- I survey the cookies in front of me.
"She isn't a fifty-year-old widower with fifteen cats."
Chocolate crumbs spew out as I laugh. "What?"
"I came back from my jog in the morning starving"
"Don't forget to mention, why you were starving." Chloe pipes out making a beeline for the oven on entrance.
"I got lost," He mumbles before continuing normally. "So, I get back, eat the rest of the food Chloe sent over and finish the breakfast you left me. Thank you by the way." He adds as an afterthought. I nod in acknowledgement slightly lost in how good this cookie tasted. God, is it my empty stomach or is this truly heavenly.
"After lazing in my own fat, I finally decide to come thank your dear neighbour, only to find Miss Chloe Vegmont."
Chloe throws her head back laughing. "It was hilarious, he looked at me then asked if he could see my mother to thank her for the food."
Ethan was blushing, I could barely believe it, he was actually blushing. Perhaps i'm in a cookie and naxopren haze and I'm imagining this. "She laughed for five minutes straight, then suddenly I was here and there were endless cookies and- and Ana, can you believe these don't have eggs in them?"
"They're vegan." Chloe substitutes looking flustered.
"It's delicious." Wow, Chloe had a knack for cooking, I never would have thought vegan cookies would be so deliscious. "Good job to you both."
"It's crazy, we used oil and water." He holds one up examining it. "It's nothing I've ever tried before but best cookies I've ever had. I never thought I'd say this but they're up there with your shortbread Ana." I'm genuinely shocked, Ethan doesn't compare my shortbread to anything. After trying it once, he declared it the best desert ever and usually referred to it as a category on it's own whenever he tried a new dessert.
"These rival anything I've ever baked."
"Ana," Chloe leans over. "I must say I'm disappointed you didn't introduce Kavanagh to me last night. If not for his incredibly interesting surname because he reminds me of my late pet snake, Richard."
"What?" Ethan pauses grumbling around a cookie.
"What?" Chloe mimics. I look between the two, thinking they'd get along grand. As the two continue to bicker. I can't help checking my phone, this while a welcomed rest just couldn't keep me from thinking of Christian.
How's the work situation?
Annoying, but in the midst of resolving. How are you feeling? Why aren't you sleeping? Did the pain get worse?
All better, my ankle doesn't hurt at all. Still have a bit of a headache but that's probably because I'm not sleeping. And have thoroughly disobeyed doctor's orders.
Hmm, trying to stay calm while absorbing this information. Be there in less than an hour.
Ethan, Chloe and I continue conversing as we begin to clean up their giant mess. Soon Chloe notices my wrapped ankle, both immediately go into overreaction when I tell them about the accident. I'm properly dismissed with a bowl filled with a variety of crazy named cookies. I'm glad, the two being so immersed in each other that they didn't even notice me being on my phone for ten minutes.
"Hold on, Ana." Chloe leans just outside her doorway. "What was it you wanted to tell me?"
"I didn't say I did."
"I saw the flower." She offers with sparkling eyes. "It's obvious though, you're glowing practically walking on air. Your aura is tinged with bright orange and a brilliant red and pink."
"It is." I blush for some unknown reason.
"You're all over the place and it's beautiful. Did you get back together with Flowers?"
"Flowers?" I chuckle.
"He came for you, didn't he?" She sounded so proud crossing her arms like a knowing mother. "We're going to see each other. I don't know what will happen but I'm hesitantly excited."
"This is what you look like 'hesitantly excited'." I can't help my excitement growing from her words. "I'm so happy for you. You can't let each other go now, seeing you like this, it's so clear that you two are better together." Quickly I wrap my arms around her in a fierce hug. This is everything I wanted to hear. "Thank you."
"I'm glad for you," She strokes my back. "And just in time, I was about to call in a psychic massage for you." I pull away regarding her seriously. "I don't know why that sounds so great."
"It's a real thing." She insists. "I have a friend that knows how."
"Forget Tobias," Her tone an immediate indication to something amiss. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a kitchen to clean with a very cute snake." Chloe reaches out a comforting hand to stroke my arm. "Ana, I truly hope you and Flowers work out."
"But..?" My body tenses in anticipation.
"But..." I press.
"But everything and nothing- and everything again."
"I don't want to say something you don't want to hear."
"Don't forget what happened before, it may feel like nothing now but it will always be everything. Don't forget the everything that it still can be and was, it's a thing my mom used to say, she explains it better. It's really about all the things relationships are, were and could be." I leave feeling somehow lighter and heavier at the same time. The familiar ceiling lights stare back at me as I lay on the living room couch, the surrounding inky blackness a sudden solace in the silence. It's hard not to think of today; to actually relax with everything that's happened. A thousand emotions run through me. I'm sure I've gone through every thought and emotion possible when finally the doorbell rings.
I leap up steadying my breath.
"Uh, hello?" The intercom stutters with static then, "Are you expecting someone else, Miss Steele?"
"Just checking, Mr Grey."
"Now that you know my identity, may I come up?" My finger hovers over the open button, a moment of contemplation runs through my mind. No characters intervene, only my mind running over every possibility that entails Christian coming up.
"I'm on the fourth floor, apartment thirty- two."
It's still the month of love, ya'll. This is my present of love to all of you.
Thank you for the kind reviews and constant support.