Handle With Care

[Cyden universe] Will didn't know what to expect from his family's new foster child, but it certainly wasn't a standoffish, recluse of a girl. Even though she wants nothing of the sort, Will still hopes to befriend her, which proves to be quite the challenge. For once, it's a challenge that Will's girlfriend Natalie isn't helping him face, and Will is left to figure things out as best he can.

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2. Chapter Two: Liar

 

    “I’m just gonna go ahead and veto that one. Natalie?” Hayden asked. 

    Natalie surveyed the orange and purple checked button down that Will was holding up with a hopeful look on his face. “Sorry, Will,” she said. 

    “Aw, come on,” Will pouted, and Natalie almost changed her mind. It was kind of adorable.

    “Hey, if it’s too bad, she won’t want to be seen in public with you,” Hayden said, shooting  a grin at Will as he gingerly took the shirt from Will’s hands, “and then what’s the point?”

    Natalie let her hand brush Will’s comfortingly, giving him a smile as Hayden put the shirt back on the rack. “Hey, where’d Alex and Cyrus get off to?”

    “I don’t know,” Hayden said, craning to look over the clothes racks of the brightly lit department store. 

    Will did the same, saying, “There they are.”

    Hayden looked over in surprise. “When did you get to be as tall as me?”

    Shrugging, Will replied, “I dunno. Goes to show how much you pay attention.”

    Natalie, shorter than the other two, just looked at them. “Should we go… help?”

    “Probably,” Hayden said. “There’s every chance that Cyrus is dying over there. Maybe you should go with Alex, Natalie. Or would that be offensive?”

    “Why would that be offensive?” Will asked.

    Hayden shrugged. “I don’t really know the etiquette here.” He looked down at his phone. “And there’s the distress text. Natalie? Please?”

    Natalie glanced at Will, who looked apologetic. “I’ll be quick,” Will promised.

    “Fine,” she sighed. “I should get to know her anyway. I’ll send Cyrus back here,” she promised. 

    “Thanks,” Hayden said. “I owe you one.”

    Natalie fixed him with a look. “I hope you know I’m keeping a tally.” Flashing a grin, she turned away, making her way over to the Junior’s section. It wasn’t that Natalie didn’t want to associate with Alex, it was just that she didn’t want to do it alone. It was a perfectly legitimate feeling; Alex wasn’t exactly the warm and fuzzy type. Intimidating barely began to describe Alex, and though Natalie wasn’t easily daunted, that didn’t mean she went looking for awkward situations. 

    Spotting Alex standing with her arms crossed near a rack of leather jackets, Natalie headed that way. Cyrus came into view behind her, his hands in his pockets and looking completely out of place. His eyes scanned the store, as if looking for an escape route. When his gaze landed on Natalie, she could almost see the relief in his eyes.

    “Hey,” Natalie said, approaching. “How’s the shopping going?” 

    Alex glared at her, which she’d been doing constantly since being introduced, and Cyrus just shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t really have any standards for comparison here,” Cyrus admitted. “Is this how girls usually shop?”

    Natalie rolled her eyes. “Get back to safe waters, Cyrus. Will and Hayden need your opinion on a, frankly, horrible shirt.”

    “So you want me to say no?” Cyrus asked, smiling a bit. 

    “Absolutely.”

    “I can do that,” Cyrus said. He looked to Alex, then back. “Good luck. Shopping, and stuff.”

    Natalie waved as he disappeared with quick steps. Taking a breath, she stepped over to Alex, saying. “Find anything you like?”

    Alex looked up at her, blue eyes startling in contrast to her dark hair and makeup. “No.”

    “Okay, well… what are you looking for?” Natalie asked.

    “Nothing.”

    Natalie closed her eyes for a brief moment, trying to keep her calm. “Right. Well, come on. Let’s look at the t-shirts.”

    Alex trudged behind Natalie over to the rack of graphic tees, but she didn’t sort through the hangers like Natalie began to. “What about this?” she asked, drawing out a dark gray shirt with a random line design on it. “This is cute.”

    “Then get it.”
    Natalie sighed. “We’re shopping for you, Alex.”

    Alex didn’t reply, and Natalie felt her patience drain away. “Come on, you look like you’d rather die than be here.”

    “Who’s to say that isn’t the truth?” Alex replied in her signature quick way of speaking. 

    Natalie quirked a hint of a smile at that. “Do you really need nothing for school? I can help you look…”

    For a second, she thought Alex was going to refuse, but then she hesitantly spoke. “I could use a pair of jeans.”

    Smiling widely now, Natalie jerked her head in the direction of the pants. “Come on.”

    Ten minutes later, Natalie was sitting in the chairs outside of the fitting room. “Any of them good?” she called. 

    Alex emerged a minute later, a pair of dark black jeans over her arm and two others in her hand. “One of them.”

    Natalie grinned. “Great! Anything else you want to look for?” she asked, taking the two rejects and putting them on the rack to be returned. Alex shook her head. “Let’s go meet up with the guys, then, and see what’s next on our list.”

    They found the boys in the shoe area, but, naturally, they weren’t getting any shoe shopping done. 

    “Why would you call it a sneaker?” Hayden asked, his brow furrowed. “That makes it sound like you plan on doing something sketchy in them.”

    Will snorted. “Heh, maybe that’s why you’d by sneakers from Sketcher’s.”

    “Okay, well why would you call it a tennis shoe?” Cyrus shot back. “That makes it sound like you plan on playing tennis in them.”

    “Well, better that people assume that than that I’m a criminal,” Hayden said, then glanced to the side and spotted Natalie. “Natalie! Sneakers or tennis shoes?”

    “Tennis shoes,” she replied after a beat.

    Hayden grinned. “She always agrees with me. This is why I like her.”

    Natalie rolled her eyes, then caught Cyrus sending her a grateful smile, probably for rescuing him. She smiled back, then looked to Will. “So, we done here? I have to be home by three, remember.”

    Will nodded. “Yeah, I think we’re done. Is there anything else you need, Alex?”

    Alex shook her head silently. 

    “We did find a great pair of jeans, though,” Natalie said brightly. “I think they’re even on sale.”

    “Well done,” Hayden said. “Let’s go pay, then. I feel like we’ve been in this store for an eternity; I wonder if it’ll be dark out when we leave.”

    “I sure hope not,” Natalie said. If it was dark, that would mean either it was after three, or the apocalypse had started; both of which were roughly equivalent in her mind. 

    After they paid, they headed out to buy actual school supplies, which resulted in an entire cart full of notebooks and binders and pencils and pretty much everything else they could think of. By the time they hauled the last plastic bag up into the bed of Cyrus’s truck, they were all justifiably tired. 

    “Man, I think we earned ourselves some milkshakes,” Hayden said, flipping the seat to allow the three younger teens to squeeze into the back of the cab. “Protests?”

    There were none, so Hayden instructed Cyrus to head to a nearby diner. Natalie looked at the time after they ordered and saw it was two o’clock. She forced herself to relax a little. An hour was plenty of time to drink a milkshake; they were okay. 

    “So, you guys are sophomores this year, huh?” Hayden asked conversationally, his eyes bright and happy. 

    “Yep,” Will replied. “And when we turn sixteen we can get our learner’s permits.”    

    Snapping his fingers, Hayden said, “Right! It’s your sweet sixteens this year.” He leaned conspiratorially across the table towards Will. “Just wait ‘til you see what we have planned for you. You’re gonna love it.”

    Will glanced from Hayden to Cyrus and back. “I don’t believe you. That would mean you’d have to plan more than two weeks in advance, and that’s ridiculous for you.”

    Hayden shrugged. “Well, when it’s a surprise this big, we needed time to order all the different colors of glitter and the-“ he cut himself off with a mock horrified look. “I’ve said too much.”

    Natalie smiled, and Will just rolled his eyes. There was no reaction from Alex; she was simply staring at Hayden like he was a maniacal, but harmless, alien. 

    “When’s your birthday, Alex?” Hayden asked, looking to the silent girl. She didn’t answer. Hayden backed off, saying, “It’s okay; I understand why you don’t want to answer. After all, Will’s going to wish I didn’t know when his was after he wades through the sea of inflatable penguins I ordered.”

    “I like penguins,” Will said.

    “Do you like penguins that have a life-like penguin noise voice box installed that goes off whenever you bump into them?” Hayden asked.

    Will scowled at him. “I’m gonna go with no.”

    “That’s too bad.”

    Natalie grinned. She loved watching Will and Hayden converse. It was like the epitome of a brotherly bond, and since they’d spent the majority of many years apart, it was like every joking conversation was making up for lost time. Also, the easy banter between Hayden and Will was highly entertaining to watch. 

    “Did you get your schedule, Alex?” Natalie asked when there was a lull in the conversation. Alex just looked at her through a veil of bangs, and Natalie felt a spike of annoyance. They were just trying to make conversation; the least she could do was answer rather than stare at them like they were threatening her. 

    “Yeah,” Will answered for her. “She’s in a couple of my classes, a couple of yours.”

    Natalie nodded. She and Will were only in a few classes together, which was sad. Will was in all of the smart, honors classes, while Natalie was stuck in the average ones where she had next to no friends. It sucked, but - as her step-mother often reminded her - she had no one to blame but herself. “Well between the two of us, we’ll make sure you don’t get lost,” Natalie told Alex. 

    A “thank you” would’ve been nice, but all Natalie got was a stare. She suppressed a sigh. The milkshakes came to break the awkwardness, and Natalie couldn’t help but glance at her watch every few minutes. As soon as they finished their drinks, she said, “I don’t want to rush you guys, but I kinda have to get home.”

    Cyrus nodded understandingly. “Sure.”

    After paying, they piled back into the pick up truck and Natalie gave Cyrus directions to her house. 

    “Turn here?” Cyrus asked, coming to an empty intersection. 

    “You can just let me out here,” Natalie said quickly. “My house is right around the corner.”

    “Then I’ll just drive you to it so you don’t have to walk,” Cyrus reasoned. 

    Natalie protested, “No, really, it’s alright. I’ll walk.” With a shrug, Hayden got out of the passenger side, flipping the seat to allow Natalie room to follow. She turned to Will, who sat in the middle, pecking him quickly on the cheek and saying, “Text me?”

    “Of course. Bye,” Will said.

    Natalie hopped out of the car and waved as they drove away. She looked at her watch one more time, then started walking. Natalie arrived at her house at a minute until three, pushing open the door and calling, “I’m home.”

    Natalie’s step mother appeared in the doorway to the living room, narrowing her eyes immediately. She already looked enough like an evil school teacher with the ever present pencil skirt and button down, but the expression behind her spectacles didn’t do her any favors. “How was bible study?” she asked, more scrutinizing than genuinely curious. 

    “It was good,” Natalie said vaguely. 

    “Which friend’s church is it again?” her step-mother asked. 

    Natalie knew that she hadn’t forgotten - her step-mother didn’t forget anything - but she was instead testing Natalie to make sure her story matched up with what she’d told her step-mother earlier. “Bianca’s.”

    “Hm,” she said, pursing her lips. “They seem to meet an awful lot.”

    It is Sunday, Natalie wanted to point out. “They have a very active youth group.” Natalie’s heart was racing. If her parents, her step-mother in particular, found out that she was dating Will, she’d probably never be let out of the house again, apart from for school and church. Therefore, she’d been lying to her parents, saying that Bianca’s church group asked her to join and planned activities every few days. Natalie had purposely kept the details vague, saying she didn’t know the name of the church since they met at a nearby school instead. If her step-mother tried to fact-check her, she’d certainly be found out. 

    “What scripture did you study today?”

    “The story of the woman with the twelve year hemorrhage,” Natalie said, picking the first thing that came to mind.

    Natalie’s step-mom nodded in approval. “Have a five hundred word reflection on it for me by dinner.”

    Nodding obediently, Natalie headed for the stairs, eager to escape to her room before her step-mother had any other ridiculous ideas. It took everything Natalie had not to slam her door in anger, but she couldn’t stop the furious tears pricking at her eyes. Natalie felt her phone buzz in her back pocket, and she pulled it out. 

 

    Will Harmon 3:04 PM: I miss you already

 

    Those few words made Natalie smile, some of the weight easing off her chest. All this lying and sneaking around, she was doing for Will, and if anyone was worth it, he was. She set her phone to the side, opening her laptop and forcing herself not to reply to him yet. As soon as she did this stupid report, she could talk to Will. He was her reward. 

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