Flash Fiction: Amy & Cole

(Amy & Cole’s story originally appeared as a serial flash fiction on CharlieGsOutfitRatings Instagram from 2/8/21 to 2/12/21 under “Book Vibes.” It has been modified for this blog post.)

Amy had one week left before she needed to defend her dissertation. Her entire grad school career was coming in fast, a blur of coaching sessions, PowerPoint slides, and highlighters.  Instead of working on it, she was in a hospital bed stuffed full of drugs that made time slip around her. Her arm throbbed and she glanced down at the mess of tube and bandages where she had been put back together.

Two weeks ago, her boyfriend had convinced her to go skiing to “blow off steam.” 

Except it had made everything worse. She’d been exhausted from lack of sleep, and instead of being the “stress release” she needed, she fell and broke the hell out of her arm. The kind of break that needed surgery. 

After waiting for the swelling to go down, they finally operated to reset the bone. Now, she was lying here in the hospital and said boyfriend was nowhere to be found.

She startled when a blur of gray rushed into her room. 

“Sorry! Sorry,” Cole, her study partner and favorite classmate, said, all but collapsing into a chair. “I called and they said you were awake.”

She smiled, even though it took more energy that she intended. “Yeah.”

He looked her over. “You look like hell, Amy.”

She nodded once. “Feel like it, too.”

He brushed her hair out of her face and her eyes flew to his. She wasn’t used to small gestures of affection. Her boyfriend was more of the all or nothing sort.

“Where’s your laptop?” He asked.

She narrowed her eyes. “I’m only staying a night or two.” He didn’t respond, just stared at her. She rolled her eyes. “Behind the chair.”

He smiled then reached down and pulled it out. “You rest. I’m going to start proofing your slides.”

“Cole, you don’t—“

“Why are you arguing with me? Shut up and get better. I’m doing this.”

She wanted to fight him, but the weight of the day won. She fell into a deep sleep as he started clicking away.

***

Cole was deep in creating a new slide to better distribute Amy’s text when a nurse walked in. 

“Sir, it’s well past visiting hours.”

Cole blinked up at the nurse. It took him a moment to orient himself. He set the laptop down on the chair and looked over at Amy. 

The nurse read her vitals and checked her bandages. “Are you family? Only can make exception for family.”

Cole stilled, running the ramifications of what he was about to say through its tired mind. He needed to stay, to help Amy and to make sure she was alright. Her cell was off and lord knew her boyfriend, Nick, wouldn’t update him. 

Nick was a lot of things—handsome, funny, charming, athletic—but he wasn’t a caretaker, and he most definitely wasn’t a friend. 

But Nick hadn’t been here in the four hours Cole had sat in the waiting room, and the two he’d sat by her bed. So if he wasn’t going to be the one supporting her, Cole was stepping in. Platonically of course.

“I’m Amy’s fiancé,” he lied. “Not legally family yet, but surely you can make an exception.”

The nurse nodded. “If you’re going to stay the night, there’s a pillow and blanket in the closet.” The nurse gestured to the storage cabinet behind him. 

Cole hadn’t really thought that far ahead. He just knew he needed to be here for Amy. “How is she?”

The nurse made notes on a tablet. “Everything looks good. Gave her some more meds to help her sleep. Hit the button if she needs anything.” He turned and walked out.

Cole glanced at Amy, whose face was slack with sleep, except for the crease between her eyebrows. That crease always deepened when she was in pain. He gently pressed his thumb against the fold until she relaxed, a small puff of air escaping her mouth as she shifted, but stayed sleeping.

Just for a moment, he imagined what it would be like to really be her fiancé. To have permission to crawl into her tiny bed and hold her while she slept. To lay his head against hers. To kiss her lips.

He shook his head. “Enough, Cole,” he admonished. He picked back up the laptop and went back to work. If he couldn’t be her IRL fiancé, he was going to be her best friend. And that’d be enough.

It had to be. 

***

Amy stirred awake when they brought breakfast in the morning. Her laptop was stowed away and a folded up note sat on her table. 

“Amy,

Didn’t want to wake you. Be back after class.”

She smiled. Nick must’ve been by while she was sleeping.

The nurse bustled in and took a look at her bandages and vitals. “Ran into your fiancé this morning. Did he stay here all night?”

She blinked. Fiancé? 

The nurse, seeing her confusion, smiled. “Only family can spend the night.”

Ah. Nick would’ve said fiancé so he was allowed to stay. She rolled the word around in her thoughts. Fiancé. Yesterday it would’ve rubbed her the wrong way, but today—knowing he spent the night by her side—it made her feel warm. 

When the nurse helped her get up so she could use the bathroom and walk around, she folded the note and tucked it into her laptop case. Her boyfriend had never been the sentimental type, but maybe the surgery woke him up.

When she resettled in bed, she thought about the laptop and wondered if Cole had done any edits. She wanted to open it up and check out her slides, but fatigued washed over her. Maybe after a short nap. 

***

Cole smiled when he saw a text from Amy. Today had been his full class day, and as a teacher assistant, he couldn’t get away to go back to visit. He rubbed his neck, which was still sore after sleeping on the world’s most uncomfortable couch.

Amy: They’re cutting me loose!

Cole: That’s great! You got a ride? 

Cole knew Nick would probably come and get her, but he still hoped she’d ask him.

Amy: My fiancé is coming to get me!

Cole dropped his phone. What was going on? Fiancé? Was it just some weird coincidence? Did Nick propose while she was in the hospital? Did she…did she assume Nick was the one who spent the night and the nurse said something? He needed to correct her. But god, how would he explain that?

Cole: Fiancé? 

Amy: I know, right? Nick is such a sweetheart sometimes 

He put his head down in his desk and rapped it against the wood a few times. God, he should’ve gone to school somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A knock sounded at his door. He looked up to see a student with a confused look on their face. Cole straightened and smoothed his shirt. “Yes, sorry. Car trouble, come on in.” He reached for his phone and turned it off. Heartbreak was for after school. 

***

Amy smiled when Nick walked in, despite the fact that he looked bothered. He probably just had a tough day at work. “Hey babe,” she said, lifting her chin up to silently request a kiss.

He gave her a perfunctory one then looked around. “I hate hospitals. You ready to go?”

“Almost. Just waiting for my discharge paperwork.” 

His brow furrowed and he crossed his arms, pacing between the bed and the window. 

Amy rolled her eyes. “Just sit. It’ll probably be a few minutes.”

“Maybe I should just go wait in the car.”

She leveled him with a look. “The chair won’t kill you.”

He eyed the chair next to her bed dubiously, as if it might jump out and take him down. 

“How on earth did you spend the night when you’re this dramatic?”

“What are you—“

Her favorite nurse walked in, interrupting. “Ms. Hillfax, here are your discharge papers.” He eyed Nick, but didn’t comment.

“Jerry, you remember my fiancé, Nick? Nick, Jerry has been sneaking me the cherry jello and good gossip.” She looked up at her boyfriend, who had a strange expression on his face. She looked to Jerry, who had a similar expression.

“Fiancé?” Nick and Jerry asked at the same time. 

“But what happened to the other guy?” Jerry asked.

“What other guy?” Amy asked.

“Brown hair, black glasses, nose stuck on a computer?” 

Amy glanced at the laptop sitting next to her on the bed. “Cole? He’s just my study partner.”

Jerry lifted both of his eyebrows and mumbled something that sounded an awful lot like “could’ve fooled me,” before going over the rest of the discharge instructions. 

As per hospital protocol, Amy rode out in a wheelchair as Nick pulled the car around. Thankful for the alone time, Amy tilted her head back to look at Jerry. “Nick wasn’t the one who spent the night?”

Jerry shook his head.

Something inside Amy broke. Some last thread that had been keeping her heart attached to this relationship. “Has Nick been here at all while I’ve been sleeping?”

Jerry shrugged but his eyes were soft. “Not while I was working.”

Amy nodded. “Thanks for taking such good care of me.” 

After she got in Nick’s car and waved goodbye to Jerry, she closed her eyes, trying to calm her thoughts and ignore the throbbing of her arm. She just wanted to be home and in her pajamas. 

“I don’t want to get married,” Nick said. “At least not anytime soon.” 

She waved away his words with her good hand. “It was just a cover for the hospital. They only wanted family visiting. I just want to go home and crawl under my blankets, okay? Forget about it.”

“You want to go straight home? I thought we could go to my place for a bit. I haven’t spent time with you for weeks.”

She sighed, giving up on sleep and turning to face him. “Nick, I broke my arm two weeks ago and just had surgery. I have a dissertation in five days. I need a quiet night.”

“Fine.” 

Except it wasn’t fine. She didn’t want to fight tonight, except she also didn’t want to fight for this anymore. She turned on her cell, trying to ignore the tension between them. 

Cole was the one who spent the night. Cole was the one called himself her fiancé. She had so many questions. Why? Why cross that line?

She opened up her Instagram and started scrolling, wincing as they hit a pothole that jostled her arm. She stopped on a picture series that her roommate had posted. 

The caption said “Grad school photo project #8.” She flipped through the pictures, smiling at the portraits of their friends in serious poses. Then she froze at the last photo.

Cole in his favorite navy blue sweater and trademark jeans. But his hair wasn’t pushed hurriedly behind his ears and his glasses were off. He was leaning back on stone stairs, looking upside-down at the camera. Looking like he was about to lose himself in someone. Warmth crawled up her chest and neck, stinging her cheeks.

They hit another pothole and she dropped the phone. “Dammit Nick, can you be more careful? My arm’s killing me.”

“Are you just going to bitch the whole drive?”

She ran her hand done her face. She was done. “Nick, this isn’t working anymore.” 

***

Cole knew he should’ve called first, but he chickened out. Hopefully the take out in his hands would make up for it. He raised his fist to knock on Amy’s door then paused. What if Nick was here? What would he say about the food? Why did he care what Nick thought?

He held his breath and knocked. Amy’s roommate, Eliza, opened the door and gave him a huge smile. “Hey Cole!” She opened the door wider. “Amy’s sleeping but she asked me to wake her in about ten minutes.”

He stepped in and accepted a quick hug from her. “I didn’t call.”

She shrugged. “You don’t need to.”

He put the food in the kitchen then sat next to Eliza on the large couch that dominated the small living room/makeshift office area.

She was working on another photo series. “Your sweater picture was a big hit. You up for another photoshoot?”

The tips of his ears warmed. “If you want.”

She clapped. “You free tomorrow? I’m doing a 60s themed outdoor photoshoot.”

He checked his phone calendar. “If Amy doesn’t need me, then sure.”

Eliza laughed. “Does she know?”

He frowned. “Know what?”

“That you’re in love with her?”

He scoffed. “No…I just…we’re just…”

She shook her head and stood. “I’m going to go wake her up.” And disappeared down the hallway then reappeared to throw something at him. “You’re wearing these tomorrow.”

He picked up the tiny blue and white shorts and his entire face flamed.

***

Amy should’ve been resting. She should’ve been staring at her glowing laptop screen. She should’ve been practicing saying her presentation out loud. There were a dozen other “should’ve”statements but was she doing any of those things?

No. No she was not.

She was sitting on a folding chair next to a lake watching Eliza coax Cole into a series of poses that made him look…not like Cole. She should’ve—there was that word again—stayed home. But being in the apartment alone, thinking about how if she just stood up to Nick a few weeks ago she wouldn’t be in so much pain, was driving her crazy.

“Now, lift up that log,” Eliza directed him. “I aiming for a lumberjack meets nerd look.”

“I’m not a lumberjack!” Cole argued, but he squatted to pick up a large piece of driftwood.

“Your thighs tell a different story! Ya do squats, Cole? Please tell me it’s squats.”

Amy choked on air. “Eliza!” she admonished.

Her roommate spared her a quick glance over her shoulder. “Tell me I’m wrong!”

Their argument was cut off by the sound of ripping fabric. “Uh, Eliza?” Cole dropped the log and covered the front of his shorts with his hands. Well, what was left of his shorts.

Eliza swore, secured her camera around the her neck, then pulled out a sewing kit from her bag. “Always be prepared.”

She knelt in front of Cole, directing him on where to put his hand so she didn’t poke him.

Eliza was so close to Cole and it was doing something to Amy’s stomach. She was a little nauseated and a lot overheated. She sucked in a deep breathe then release it slowly.

He was just her study partner. She was just attracted to him as a rebound. She just broke up with Nick. She needed space. She needed to study. She needed to ask him what went down at the hospital.

But as with all her other mental lists, it didn’t matter. She looked over at him a fourth time. Maybe a fifth. God his muscles were basically carved from marble.

The sixth time he was looking back.

“Hey Cole, did you know Amy dumped Nick’s ass?” Eliza said, not even trying for subtle.

Cole’s gaze sharpened on Amy’s. “No. No I did not. I’m sorry to hear—ow!” He jumped back, the needle and thread going with him. “I have a body part there.”

Eliza shrugged. “I told you where to keep your hand. You’re the one who moved it.”

When Eliza finished she stood back and admired her handiwork.

“Awesome. Now take off your shirt!” she directed. “It’ll pad my A+.”

“At least take me to dinner if you’re asking for nudes!” he shot back.

“Deal!”

Amy’s heart clogged her throat. Did they just make a date in front of her? Cole and Eliza dating? But…

But what? Amy had no claim on Cole. She didn’t even like him like that. Did she?

He took off his shirt.

Heat rolled up her neck, then up her face, stinging her eyes. Good god. Why was this man always wearing baggy clothes? It should be a criminal offense.

She stood and picked up her chair with her good hand. “I should go study! Have fun.”

They were too busy to reply. It shouldn’t have bothered her.

***

Cole watched Amy walk away, his eyes lingering on her red cheeks. Was she flustered? Over him??

Eliza sighed audibly and snapped at him. “Stop drooling and look at me. We’re almost done.”

He snapped his gaze back to her. “When did they break up?”

She sighed again and adjusted his stance before snapping a few more photos. “On the way home from the hospital. Apparently he flipped out over the word ‘fiancé’ being thrown around.” She looked up at him over the camera. “Not that you’d know anything about that.”

He shook his head but couldn’t keep the edge of his mouth from turning up.

Eliza held out her hand. “That. Freeze.”

He froze. She snapped pics.

“I’m still gonna buy you a thank you dinner tonight,” she said. “But it’ll be carry out and we’ll eat it at the apartment.”

He frowned. “I don’t trust your face. She winked. “Now I really don’t trust your face.”

She paused to flip through a few photos. “Because I live for match making and when I have to suddenly run off for some friend-mergency, you will be left alone with Amy. A single, flustered Amy.” She glanced down at the shorts.

His eyes went wide. “The shorts. That was on purpose?!”

She shrugged. “I’m handy with a seam ripper.”

He threw his head back and laughed. She snapped one last picture and cheered. “That’s the one. Go get pretty. See you at six.”

He helped her gather her things and carried them to the apartment two blocks away, then climbed into his car. His phone was heavy in his hand, as if daring him to text Amy. He remembered the pink stain on her cheeks and his stomach tightened.

She was single. Nick was gone.

Was there a chance?

Cole: It was good to see you today

He deleted it. That wasn’t flirty enough.

Cole: Note to self: don’t ever go commando underneath anything Eliza gives me.

He stared at the text. Did he dare?

***

Ever since Cole texted her, Amy couldn’t stop her imagination from running wild at the word “commando.” Had he…had he been…under those…

She got up from her desk and splashed cold water on her face and the back of her neck, being careful not to get anything on her cast.

She leaned on the edge of the sink and took a deep breath. This was getting ridiculous.

What had happened to her? What had changed? Was it the break up? Was it the broken arm?

She glanced to the laptop that sat on her tiny desk. No. It was the slides.

The slides Cole must have painstakingly redesigned while she was in the hospital. While she was sleeping.

She wasn’t a graphic designer. She was good at a lot of things—especially when it came to psychology—but not at Power Point. She knew that her giant text blocks and randomized template choice were wrong, but she hadn’t figured out how to fix it yet.

Cole had. She hadn’t had the wherewithal to look at it until this afternoon, and honestly she thought it was the wrong file when she first opened it.

Except, it wasn’t. It was her presentation, completely reformatted to be sleek and professional and easy to read.

Nick didn’t even come visit her in the hospital, but Cole had stayed all night by her side at the hospital, redone her slides, and even corrected a few of her spelling mistakes.

Her eyes stung. Had anyone besides her parents or Eliza ever done something so selfless for her? Most people only got one best friend, but she had two.

Two who were about to go on a date together. The thought was a swift punch to her gut. She walked to her bed and sat on the edge, head lowered. She wanted her two friends she loved the most to be happy, but…but…

Her phone buzzed.

Cole: Do we like this shirt? It’s new

She open the photo and just stared at him smiling at her, a flannel shirt, half-buttoned over a white tee and his favorite pair of worn jeans.

Her head swam. That smile made a kaleidoscope of butterflies go crazy in her stomach. Was this just her missing Nick? Or was this something more?

And why was he sending her flirty texts when he was going out with her roommate tonight? Was it flirty?

Would Cole even know that it was flirty? He had always been her attractive but “too wrapped up in school to have game” friend. Maybe she had forced him into the “friends only” category because that’s what she needed him to be. Her and Nick had been together when she met him a year ago.

The buzzer for the front door went off. Amy sat straight and leaned her head toward her door, holding her breath so she didn’t miss anything. The door opened. Cole’s voice.

She closed her eyes as her heart beat a little harder in her chest and admitted the truth: Whatever had happened between seeing Cole at the hospital and this moment had firmly pushed Cole out of the “friends only” zone. And now, it was too late.

***

Amy turned her music up louder, but it didn’t matter. She could still hear Eliza laugh through the headphones. She was trying to drown her sorrows in an old Hannah Leigh album, which would’ve been easier if her roomie hadn’t decided to have a date in their apartment. She restarted Heavy Heart and went back to working on her presentation. And by working, she really meant staring at the photo Eliza had uploaded to her Instagram stories.

Cole lying in the sand. Shirtless, laughing, upside down. God how did this man look so good upside?!

Had she taken a picture of the story so she could keep the photo? Yes. Had she zoomed in to stare at the tan line along the waistband of the shorts? Also yes.

She navigated to his profile and scrolled past the recent posts to the ones from when she was too heart-eyed over Nick to remember. She had always imagined Cole sitting inside and reading books on engineering during his free time, but she was proven wrong once again. She didn’t know her friend at all.

From playing catch with this nephew, to beach volleyball, to pictures of breathtaking sunrises from nearby hiking trails, these photos told the story of a guy who loved being outdoors, shirt optional. Book recommendations were littered in-between as well as pictures with his sister and Mom.

She rolled to her back and stared at the ceiling. She needed to get out of here, away from Eliza’s giggles and the low tones of Cole’s conversation. She’d just go on a walk and grab her own takeout, then hopefully they’d be literally anywhere else.

So held her breath and walked out, making as much noise as possible so they’d know she was coming, just in case.

It was a futile effort though, because Eliza was absolutely in Cole’s lap.

Eliza looked over her shoulder with an innocent “Oh, hey!” She tucked her hair behind her ear and her cheeks turned pink. “You hungry?” she asked. “We have leftovers!”

Amy took a step back as the words delivered a physical blow. Her stomach twisted and all thoughts of food turned to acid. “Sorry. I’m just…going out.”

Amy grabbed her keys, shoved her feet into her slip on shoes, and started walking. Her eyes stung but she shook her head, refusing to cry. She let out a distressed laugh. She was crying over her two friends finding love. That was stupid selfish.

God, she really had let Nick get away with murder for too long, months after she knew she should’ve walked away. This was her payback. Losing the right guy who was right in front of her all along.

“Amy, wait!”

She stilled, her heart in her throat.

***

Cole stared after Amy for a beat too long before jumping from the couch. He pointed at Eliza. “Too far.” He shoved his feet into his shoes.

She sighed and nodded. “I see that now. I’m sorry.”

“Call me if she comes back here before I find her.”

“Go get our girl!” Eliza shouted after him as he bolted out the door and took the stairs two at a time.

The pain he’d seen on Amy’s face was burned into his memory. He never wanted to see her hurt like that again.

He hit the sidewalk and looked in both directions, trying to catch a glimpse of her, but his feet took him on the direction of her favorite ice cream shop before his mind had made a decision. Knowing what she liked was instinctual. She was stressed and upset, which meant a scoop of mint chocolate chip and one of double chocolate chip with rainbow sprinkles.

He caught sight of her two doors away from the ice cream place then froze. She was hugging someone. A guy. Nick.

He pressed his fist to his chest as if to keep it from shattering, then ducked down a small alley between two buildings. He leaned against the sun-warmed brick, his mind racing. Were they back together? What was Nick doing here? Did he miss his chance because he was complacent in letting Eliza make Amy jealous?

This was all a terrible plan. All of it. He just need to tell her how he felt and hope that it didn’t blow up in his face. As he trudged back to the apartment, he made a plan.

***

Amy no longer needed to wonder if her eye-opening attraction to Cole was simply because she missed Nick. That was a definite no-brainer the moment Nick stopped her just a few steps short of her favorite ice cream place. She didn’t even know that’s where she was headed until she caught the smell of their freshly made cones dipped in chocolate.

Then her ex called her name. When he stepped in to hug her without asking for permission, jostling her arm in the process, the realization that she was only ever in love with the idea of this man and not the man himself solidified.

“I miss you,” he’d admitted. “And I know I never said the three words you wanted to hear, but you have to know that I do…love you.”

She rolled her eyes. His confession of love was a weapon wielded to knock down her guard. Even if he was truly in love with her, his confession didn’t make her heart soar. Not the way Cole’s smile did. She was done with things that didn’t make her happy just because they were comfortable.

She took a step back, then again. “Nick, I appreciate you telling me, but it’s too late. This isn’t right and I’m done. I’m sorry.”

She turned away but he grabbed her arm—no, her cast. She spun around and brought her knee up between his legs, causing him as much pain as he caused her. “Touch me again and I’ll press charges. Delete my number.”

She left him crouched on the sidewalk and went to order ice cream.

***

Her bravado had worn off by the time she got home. She was definitely going to need to take some pain reliever for her arm and she still had hours of practicing for her defense. She held her breath as walked in, but the living room was empty. She swallowed hard as she hurried quickly past her roommate’s door, trying not to listen too hard to whatever sounds the loud music was covering.

When she opened her bedroom door, she sucked in a sharp breath. Cole wasn’t in her roommate’s room. He was sitting at her desk, laptop open, looking over her notes.

Her face grew hot, her eyes stinging. She wanted to cry and hug him and curl up and sleep for a hundred years. This day had been too much, too long, too many emotions.

He looked up at her and smiled. “This is incredible, Amy. You’re ready.”

She burst into tears.

He jumped up and walked over to her. “What can I do? Can I hug you?”

She nodded and buried her face in his hoodie. It was so soft and it smelled like him. Sunshine and sand. She fisted the hoodie with her good hand, as if doing so would mean he’d never let go.

They had hugged before, but not like this. Not with his chin on top of her head, not with his arms so tightly around her, as if sheltering her. Not as if it were only the two of them in the entire world.

He rubbed her back in big circles and she settled into a few hiccups. “It’s okay,” he murmured.

“I’m sorry,” she breathed.

“Nothing to be sorry for.”

She sniffed then sucked in a deep breath. “Can you stay for a little longer? I promise to pull it together. It was just a long day.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

She loosened her hold on his sweatshirt. “I thought you were on a date.”

He shook his head. “That was an Eliza scheme that went too far. She’s not the one I’m in love with.”

All the air disappeared from her lungs. She fisted the hoodie again. He kissed the top of her head and ran one hand down her hair.

Her entire world centered on this moment, the feeling of his lips against her head, the soothing touch of his hand.

“And Nick?” he asked. “I saw…”

“I kneed him in the nuts.”

There was a beat of silence and then Cole threw his head back and laughed. “Good.” He stepped back but left her hands on her shoulders. “Here’s the plan. I’m going to make you an omelette because I bet you haven’t eaten anything except ice cream, grab you some ibuprofen, then we’re going to run your presentation until you’re comfortable enough to do it in your sleep. Okay?”

She nodded. “Okay.”

His fingertips ran over her cheekbone. The butterflies in her stomach invaded her entire body. “And then after you’ve defended the hell out of your dissertation and they say Congratulations Doctor and you have a chance to breathe again, we are going to talk about our…interesting little relationship.” He leaned in and kissed her nose. “But first, dinner.”

***

Cole brushed Amy’s hair away from her face and squeezed her shoulders. “You got this. And I’ll be waiting right here for you when you’re done.” He used his thumb to pull her bottom lip from between her teeth. He had plans for that lip later, and none of them involved her chewing it off from nerves.

She shook out her hands and sucked in a deep breath. “I’m freaking out. I wish you could be in there with me.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. “I have an idea.” He Facetimed her.

She made a face but pulled her phone out of her pocket and accepted the call. “I can’t leave you on Facetime the entire time.”

He shrugged. “Sure you can. I’ll mute my side, you put it upside down on the table. No one will know.”

“Cole…”

“Amy?” Her advisor called. “We’re ready for you.” 

She shoved the phone in her pocket, threw her shoulders back, and lifted her chin. “Here I go.”

“You got this.”

As soon as the door clicked behind her, Cole collapsed into one of the arm chairs in the lobby of the building, connecting his bluetooth headphones and settling in. Someone grabbed him by the shoulder and he looked up to find Eliza.

“Ah! NO! I missed her going in?! Stupid class.”

Cole handed her one of his ear pieces. “I’m Facetimed in.”

Eliza pulled another chair up against his and accepted the ear bud. “Genius.”

They watched the screen, even though it was face down on a table, and listened as Amy expertly answered questions about her research and navigated the conversation back to her best talking points.

When they finally said “Congratulations Doctor” Eliza and Cole stood and cheered so loud, they could hear themselves through the headphones.

When Amy came around the corner, she took off in a dead run toward them, slamming into Eliza and jumping up and down. Eliza released her and then Amy dove into Cole’s arms.

“I’m so proud of you,” he whispered in her ear.

“I couldn’t have done it without you,” she whispered back.

They heard Eliza snapping pictures, but didn’t release each other. When she was done, Eliza took Amy’s computer out of her hand and slipped Cole’s earbud into his pocket. “I’m going back to get the apartment ready for the fam. You two take the long way home.”

After Eliza left, Cole released Amy and slid his hand into hers. She gripped it tight and he his entire mind quieted. She was his safe place, his home. “Ice cream?”

She smiled up at him. “Yeah.”

As they walked to the shop, they talked about the day, the parts of her defense he couldn’t see, her celebration dinner tonight. They talked about everything but the one thing they needed to discuss. . They talked about her celebration dinner tonight (yes, of course he’d be there), and what his weekend plans were (grading papers.) Neither of them let go of the other’s hand.

They ate at a small table in the corner, stealing bites of the other’s dessert. Then the distractions were over and Cole turned more somber. He knew Amy cared for him. He guess she was attracted to him. But if she wasn’t all in like he was, it wasn’t going to work.

As if sensing the time had come, she stood. “Walk on the beach?”

He smiled and nodded. “Sounds perfect.”

They didn’t hold hands as they navigated the few blocks to the lake, but they walked side by side. It was early afternoon on a weekday and the sun resting behind blankets of clouds, which meant the beach was nearly empty. Cole took off his shoes and socks, then rolled up the bottoms of his jeans. He stepped into the water and breathed deeply. Water grounded him. Made him feel like he was part of the universe when he touched it.

Amy kicked off her shoes and stood next to him. “Are we going to talk about what’s bothering you out loud? Or just stand here silent?”

Cole laughed and shook his head. It was now or never. “Amy…I love you. Not love you like a best friend or study partner or sibling. I’m crazy, madly, unfathomably in love with you. You’re the person I want to kiss Goodnight ro and text good morning to and you feel like home to me. And it’s making me crazy.” His chest was full of cotton and scrubbed his shaking hand through his hair.

She didn’t respond. He swallowed hard. “I know today was a big day and you don’t have to say anything or mae any decisions. “I just…needed you to know.”

He stepped out of the water then bent down to pick up his shoes. He should’ve waited until tonight. Tomorrow. Next week. After she had some sleep and wasn’t running on adrenaline and caffeine.

“Cole!” she called, still in the water.

It took everything inside of him to look up at her.

“I’m all in,” she promised. Then she ran to him, leaped into his arms, not caring that she was in a dress. He dropped his shoes and his firework heart soared into the sky.

Their mouths collided and his entire body electrified. Her kiss was every song she ever sang in his car, every smile she ever gave him, every laugh that hung in the air between them. He shifted her closer. She tasted like chocolate and mint, and he knew without a doubt that this was going to be his last first kiss.

When they finally broke apart, gasping for air, she leaned her forward against his. “I think I’ve loved you for a very long time. It just took me awhile to figure it out.”

“You were worth the wait.” Then he lowered his mouth to hers again.

The end.

 

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