See, here's the thing.
Zoey isn't his first love.
It would probably be easier if she was.
She's talking about college and it's the most excited he's seen her in ages. He gets it - she's dazzled everyone she's come across, breezed through most of the coursework despite her increasingly frequent panic attacks to the contrary. It was only a matter of time before PCA started to feel too small for her. She already knows which courses she wants to study at each college and which clubs she wants to join, and he's seen her neat, colour-coded folder of applications.
"What about you?" she asks, knocking his knee with hers. It's the most uncertain she's sounded for the past five minutes, and he knows she's trying to slot him into her plan somewhere. "Where are you thinking? Here? Boston?"
"I think I'm just trying to pass Economics, Zo," he answers. She rolls her eyes.
"You'll be fine," she says, and steals a sip of his Blix before going back to her notes. He keeps looking at her though, still stealing glances like he did when he was fourteen.
He breaks up with her a week later.
They're in Maui and she's holding his hand and she tastes like sunlight and chlorine and the sunsets knock the breath out of him almost as much as she does. For all the jokes Logan made about him imagining himself as Mr Zoey Brooks and for all his jealousy he never actually imagined this: what it would be like to hold her, to have her smile at him like that. God knows he didn't expect anything like it when he was in England, though it's a thought he shoves away quickly.
There's a kind of haze on the days he spends with her, soft and blurred around the edges like they would be on film. He gets so caught up in it, caught up in her and the way it feels to laugh and smile and the smell of the ocean at their feet that by the end of the day he's aching. He looks at Zoey and it feels like she's already a memory, forever associated with golden days and whatever pop song is on the radio that he doesn't care about now but will probably make him cry when he's forty because what a fucking cliche and -
He cups her face with his hand and pulls her into him, crashing their lips together as he pushes her against her bedroom door. It's rougher and more desperate than he's allowed himself to be with her before, to the point where Zoey is gasping "I'm here, I'm not going anywhere," as he sucks and nips at her neck. She pulls him back up and all he thinks as he kisses her is, it will get better things are getting better things will be better it will get better.
Michael comes up for Spring Break so they can drink beer in Chase's dorm room. It's supposed to be in commiseration - Ariadne technically only dumped Chase a month ago - but already he's kind of numb to it. It was a long time coming, really.
"Sucks, man," Michael is saying. "But hey, it never hurts as much as the first time, right? You know I still can't do karaoke without crying?"
"You literally climbed onto the pool table and sang Africa by Toto for an hour last night. Shirtless," Chase says. "I didn't see any tears."
"I told you not to give me tequila," Michael mutters, and Chase's face cracks a smile.
Later, they're sitting on the floor playing video games while music thumps from somewhere in the distance, a reminder that other people are having rambunctious, drunk, horny fun. It's already starting to give him a headache.
Michael is rambling about how Logan and Quinn have broken up for the fifth time, while Chase is filling him in on Lola and her new Hollywood friends. Michael wants them all to catch up again, reminiscing about all the "hijinks" they got up to as kids in a way that makes Chase's stomach twist, his fingers pressing down harder on the controls. There's a pause, and then -
"Are you two still in touch?"
Chase shrugs, keeps his eyes on the screen.
"We chat over Zooklook sometimes. Last I heard she had a new boyfriend, I think he's a doctor or something," he says.
"He would be," Michael says. There's another pause. "Do you think it's likely they'll, uh, get married?
"Well, Zoey's life plan was to get married by 25 and have a baby at 27, so probably," Chase says, though he hates that they're at the age where they even have to consider that now.
"She planned that? Dude, I can't even plan my own breakfast," Michael jokes. "But...you're going to be ok with? Or you will be?"
"Why wouldn't I be?" he replies. Michael nods slowly, turns back to the game and starts to play just a bit too well. So Chase says: "Have you noticed how all of her boyfriends look like they're out of Hitler Youth pamphlets?"
Michael ends up laughing on the floor, and Chase ends up winning the game. It's the best day he's had in months.
If only it was just about a girl, he thinks.
The summer after he meets Zoey he can't shut up about her. His mother, endlessly patient though she is, soon goes from smiling and laughing at the stories he recites to creasing her brow together, the lines at the corners of her mouth more pronounced.
She starts to wear the expression more and more. Admittedly, he spends a lot more time alone that summer. Any friends he'd made before he'd gone to boarding school have completely drifted away by now, busy with their own high school experiences. It seems too much effort to join a sports team just to fail at it when he can get that exact same experience at school for more than three months a year and actually keep the friends made during it, so he reads and plays video games and lets his mother push him into the sun for an hour a day.
It makes the email he gets from Zoey all the more important. Really, all she does is ask how his summer went and if he's coming back to PCA, but it doesn't stop his face from lighting up anyway. His mother notices the difference instantly and asks why. When he answers, somewhat sheepish, she looks at him worriedly and sits down next to him on the bed. It feels like pity.
"Look, I'm glad you're friends with this girl and I'm glad she makes you happy."
"Mum - "
"But I'm worried she's going to break your heart," she finishes. She strokes his hair, making him frown.
"She wouldn't," he says. "And anyway, it's not like that. It's - it's just a crush."
"That doesn't mean it's not important," his mother replies.
He wonders how much she knows.
Rebecca says he can't hang out with Zoey anymore and Zoey just says,
"The most important thing to me is that you're happy."
Yeah, he thinks. That's kind of the problem.
Zoey likes to fix things. It's a fact that was evident from the first day he met her, and pretty much every day after that. He also knows it's never stronger than when someone she loves has a problem.
Of course, he was never expecting to be someone she loved.
It should make him feel good, he supposes. Except that he already has a mother who tells him to eat more vegetables and do laundry regularly and occasionally tries to get him do inane, impossible shit like forgive himself and he doesn't need it from his girlfriend either.
It doesn't help that it all seems so much easier for her. Zoey wakes up at 5am to go for a run and drinks kale smoothies like they're milkshakes and even watching her makes him feel bone-deep exhaustion. He drags himself home from work each day just to collapse onto the bed, staring into the dark when he's unable to fall asleep. He feels Zoey brush the hair off his forehead, run a hand soothingly over his shoulders and all he can do is shrug her off, her touch too hot and close, suffocating.
Eventually, she's frustrated and he's defeated. She starts to glow a little less brightly and snaps at him more and he hates himself for it, even while he shoots back sharp comments. Not long later and they're fighting, loud and mean and it's everything he said wouldn't let happen.
He breaks up with her a second time and it hurts like nothing else. It hurts because it's for the same reasons as the first time; because he knew what would happen and he did it anyway; because he was right all along.
He breaks up with her for the second time and it's so, so much worse.
He hasn't done it for a while but they're two weeks away from exams and his head is relentless, an endless beat of self-loathing and nihilism. He hates chemistry and he hates how down Michael has been since he and Lisa broke up and he hates the whispers around Zoey and Dennis Parker or whatever the fuck his name is, even though he knows he shouldn't and, by all accounts, isn't allowed to. Hell, Dustin still won't talk to him in full sentences and he thinks his ears are still ringing from the way Lola and Quinn screamed at him about "breaking her heart", which wasn't true then and certainly isn't true now.
Naturally, Zoey is the one to knock on his door five minutes later. He's not really listening to what she's saying, just starts looking for the print-out she wants to study so she can go and he can listen to music and feel sorry for himself, as per his normal Friday night.
"Chase," she says, her voice full of worry. "Your arm is bleeding."
To his credit, he does not say that's what happens when I get wounded, though he really, really wants to. Instead, he says,
"Yeah, I fell over and grazed it," even as she pushes his sleeve back to show three neat cuts. "It's fine."
For a while, she doesn't say anything, just stares at his arm, her fingers tight around his wrist. He's just started to tug it away again when she presses the already bloodied tissue he had there back in place. She pushes him onto his bed by his shoulders, muttering about how they'll need antiseptic and a bandage and should she call the nurse, does he need stitches and -
"Zo, it's not that deep," he says, trying to be gentle. "I know what to do."
He reaches into the drawer of his bedside table and pulls out a bottle of antiseptic and a band-aid ("this is my falling over kit, promise," he assures her). He also attempts to hand her the print out she originally came for, but she just bats it out of his hand and goes back to pressing the tissue against his arm.
"You don't have to do this," Chase says after a minute. In fact, it's the last thing he wants, to literally put the burden of his blood on someone else. Zoey doesn't reply, just lifts the tissue to see if the cuts have stopped bleeding and puts it back down when the blood starts to well up again.
"It's ok, I don't mind," she says softly. He doesn't respond but his jaw tightens, tongue holding back all the retorts he both does and doesn't want to say. Of course you don't, he thinks, who else do you get to mother nowadays? Isn't it nice to not be a fuck up? Is this just an obligation for you like dating me was?
He stays silent.
It's not long until his arm has stopped bleeding and Zoey wipes the rest of the blood away. She rests his arm in her lap and reaches over and grabs the bottle of antiseptic, Chase breathing deeply when she wipes it over the cuts. But in the end it just needs a band-aid, albeit on the larger side, and nothing seems amiss when she slides his shirt back down his arm, though he'll need to wash it to get a few small stains out. Still, Zoey doesn't let go, just brushes her thumb over the back of Chase's hand, still staring at his sleeve.
"I don't want to lose you, yeah?" It's barely above a whisper.
"It's not like that," Chase answers, and it's not. Hell, he does it to try and not do that.
Zoey nods and looks up at him with big eyes, and he tries to give her a smile as he pulls his arm out of her hand. Finally, she lets him hand her the bit of paper and walk her to the door, where she gives him another meaningful stare and he hopes his brain explodes and kills him instantly.
It doesn't. But he doesn't do it again, either.
"You can't fix this," Chase says.
He's leaning against the door, arms folded. The room is silent but in the half-light he can see the pools in Zoey's eyes, the sheen of wet streaks on her cheeks.
"You won't let me try," she says, her voice trembling. He smiles a mirthless smile and looks down at the ground, scuffs his heel against the carpet.
"It's a lost cause," he says simply, and walks away before she can ask him to stay.
Michael does, in fact, get the "gang" back together. Michael's words, not his.
It's not as completely awful as he imagined. Lola's life isn't quite as glamorous as the Slap makes it look and even Quinn is floundering a bit with balancing her passion with, well, reality. Even Zoey isn't living up to her immaculate plans, having broken up with her doctor boyfriend a year earlier.
"See, I told you everyone was aimless in their twenties," Michael says, despite the fact that he definitely had not said that.
But Chase also knows that he's been here before, on the precipice of believing things could and would get better. It happened just before college, when he thought leaving Zoey and James and calculus behind meant he was going to be a new person. A month later, the high from the meds had worn off and he had to keep reminding himself that jumping in front of a train would suck, actually, if not for him then for his mother. Two years later and his girlfriend is simultaneously worried about and bored by his self-destructiveness. What's the point of doing it all again, he thinks. He's just biding his time.
So he plays pool and drinks beer and gives vague answers to any and all questions about what he's been "up" to for the past few years. And it's easier than it probably should be. Certainly easier than talking with anyone else from high school he's run in to, where he spends the entire time wondering whether they hated him or wondering why he ever liked them. They're a little more subdued, but it feels like they've grown into themselves, even if it does make him sad that they're now complaining about taxes instead of cafeteria food.
By the end of the night, Zoey has drifted over towards him. With all his might, it is a struggle for him to take his eyes off of her, everyone else already seeming like they're miles away. She's looking at him in a way he's never seen before, something he can't quite put his finger on. He's surprised by how comfortable he feels being around her, how easily they both slip back into jokes.
What's the harm in talking to her for one night, he thinks, but he can feel it. She smiles at him again and it's so close to being flirtatious, so close to being desire. Oh fuck, he thinks. Oh god.
He thinks about it in England a lot.
If he's honest with himself, going to England was probably always some kind of suicide mission. An excuse, at least. Like his brain went hey, let's see what happens if you isolate yourself from all of your friends and go to a completely different country, because living on easy mode worked out so well with you pissing off your best friend and fucking her lookalike. His brain is a major bastard, apparently, but that's not new.
Naturally, Michael telling him about James doesn't help.
So he thinks about it a lot more. Covington has a lot of beautiful old buildings and he wonders if they're tall enough. He wonders just how many idiot Americans forget about the cars driving on the wrong side of the street and accidentally get hit. He wonders how many painkillers it would take, how sharp the razorblade would have to be and how deep it would need to go.
Sometimes he wonders if they'd even remember him, or if he'd just slip from their minds into a distant memory, the same way Nicole and Dana have. It would be better that way, he thinks.
He calls his mother a lot and she calls him too, constantly worried about him and also beyond pissed at Zoey. She's livid at him too, but that will be a conversation for when he's back home in Baltimore (probably a therapy session or two as well, from the sounds of it). He tries not to talk about Zoey too much, but she slips out sometimes.
"Please find someone better to love and to live for," his mother says once, after a particularly mopey conversation, then tells him to eat more vegetables and hangs up. He fantasises about bleeding out on the bathroom floor for a while after that.
But he doesn't. And as the semester draws to a close, despite himself, he begins to hope.
He doesn't actually have that many scars. Not deliberate ones, anyway. There are a few on his left arm and a couple on his hip from when he thought his mother might be getting suspicious, but most are easy enough to wave away as being a cooking accident or the result of an angry cat whenever someone asks.
Still, Zoey looks for them now that she knows to. She gives so much more to him now that they're adults, takes so much more too. It scares him, the fact that she knows the story behind so many of the scars, knows which ones were childhood accidents and which ones were teenage pratfalls. Sometimes, the memory will get a soft giggle out of her.
But she's different with the other ones, almost reverent. She strokes her thumb over the white scars at his hip, runs her hand up and down his arm before mouthing over them in the same order, making him shudder. She places a kiss at the pulse point of his wrist, moves to taste the one at his neck.
They never actually talk about it.
For a while, he thinks it's because of James. Quinn lets slip about the necklace at lunch one day and they all just ignore it until Chase gets back to his dorm room and Michael is looking at him like he needs to be in a padded room.
"Dude, do not turn this into something," he says.
"Why would I?"
"Because I know you and what your brain is like and you are absolutely going to blow this out of proportion," says Michael. "So what James gave Zoey a necklace saying 'I Love You' on it?" Even Logan winces a bit at the sound of it.
"I agree," Chase says.
"...You do?" asks Michael.
"Yeah. It's not a big deal," he replies. "Other than the fact that by all accounts they were an extremely happy couple right up until that happened. Oh, and Zoey and I got together on the same day, and the only time she's said I love you was on our video chat date and was said in what was probably the most unconvincing voice I've ever heard. So yeah, why would I ever think she's dating me exclusively out of guilt and pity?"
For a moment, he genuinely thinks Michael might strangle him, until they're both distracted by Logan shoving a pillow in his face and letting out a surprisingly high-pitched scream.
"Chase, she chose you. She loves you - " Chase snorts, "Do not fuck this up," Michael says. "You've wanted her longer than you've wanted anything."
"Not really," Chase says, and it's the truth. Michael ignores him.
"Can you just let yourself be happy for once?"
"Can you at least stop making us miserable?" groans Logan. Chase looks at both of them, jaw tight.
"No," he says, and leaves.
Contrary to popular belief he did, in fact, have a life before Zoey Brooks.
He loves his mother. He loves falling asleep on his grandmother's shoulder and smelling her perfume. He loves his dog, Chester. When he's ten he falls in love with his first guitar.
But the summer he turns thirteen he also swallows an entire sheet of painkillers. He gets scared almost immediately, lies in bed waiting for his impending death, but he also doesn't tell anyone. Nothing happens, other than that he gets a bit of a stomach ache, but the relief is far too short-lived.
Three months later, he meets Zoey and rides his bike into a flag pole and makes his arm bleed. He smiles.
Michael lets him stay with him after the break-up. On one hand, he doesn't ask too many questions, which Chase appreciates. On the other hand, he keeps giving him long, sad looks that make Chase want to put his own head through a window. Admittedly, it is not a new urge for him.
It's a rainy Saturday morning and he's going through the list in his head. Mum would be sad, but she might also be relieved. Michael would also be sad but he'd get over it. Zoey would blame herself but she could be pissed off enough to not care. Nothing matters, and everything is going to get worse. Everything has gotten worse. His toast pops up, black and smouldering.
"I hate being alive," he mutters, throwing it into the bin.
"Dude, are you ok? Because you say that a lot," Michael says.
"No I don't."
"You've said it seven times this morning."
"It's an expression," says Chase. He takes a sip of his coffee, exclaims, "Wow life is not worth living," when he realises it's stone cold. "I'm fine," he reassures Michael.
Later, he's lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Michael has gone out to see his new girlfriend, whom he is in love with and elated by, and it feels like high school when he'd be left alone while people went out and lived and he resented every inhale and exhale his body made. He can't even enjoy the sound of the rain against the window, a reminder of yet another bad thing.
He's decided he's either going to drown himself in the rain or drown out his own brain with music when he hears a knock at the door. Assuming it's Michael, he heaves himself out of bed and drags himself to the door.
"You are not Michael," he says when he opens it.
"Correct," says Zoey, and lets herself in. She pulls the hood of her raincoat down, not that it's done much good: the hair around her face is soaked through, rain droplets running down her neck. Her front has also been sprayed with rain where she didn't have the raincoat buttoned up. For her, she looks bedraggled. Irritatingly, she is still gorgeous. For a moment, there's silence. Then -
"I'm sorry," they say at the same time, then laugh. It dies down quickly though, leaving Chase and Zoey staring at each other, all the space between as he keeps leaning against the front door and she stands in the middle of the hallway.
"I'd ask what you're sorry for but I know you're going to say everything," she says after a while, and Chase makes a note to get new friends because he's sick of being read for filth all the time. That, or he's getting a lobotomy.
"Yeah, well, you don't have anything to be sorry for," he says.
"I do, because you're right. I was trying to fix you," Zoey says.
"You wouldn't be you if you didn't," he shrugs.
"It's not just that," she pushes. "I didn't get it. I didn't understand why it was so bad and seeing you depressed hurts. You went for months without smiling at me and you barely got out of bed and then you said you wanted to die and - "
"I get it -"
"You don't because you still think I don't want to be with you. I choose you, ok? I chose you, ages ago. I've spent the past month being completely miserable and I don't want to feel that way for the rest of my life, wondering if we just should have tried harder. If I should have tried harder. I love you. All of you. All of the parts you can't change," she says, and her voice cracks and he can see tears starting to form in the corner of her eyes.
He wants to tell her that he wishes they'd met earlier, that maybe then they'd have a chance (deep down, he knows it's a lie). He wants to tell her that he loves her and it's not enough and that kills him just as much as anything. Instead, he says:
"I'm going to fuck up all your plans. I can't...give you anything, promise you anything. I don't even know if I'll be alive in six months."
"Neither do I," she says. "We could both get hit by a bus tomorrow. Which is why I want to be here, with you, for as long as we can. For as long as you'll let me."
He shakes his head. Somewhere, he knows there's a parallel universe where Zoey married James or her doctor and they had very blonde, very beautiful blue-eyed children and she is happy and he is dead and buried somewhere and it's for the best.
But he also can't seem to stop himself from walking towards her and he knows he shouldn't kiss her but he does anyway. He wraps his arms around her so tightly he wonders if she can breathe, but she flings her arms around him with the exact same vigour, like it's the last time she'll ever be able to. And maybe it will be, for all they know. But he kisses her and glimpses a future he hasn't been able to see, hasn't even wanted, for years flash before his eyes. He pushes it away, still can't let himself think about it, but he lets himself want her. After all, he always has.
They're in bed, Zoey's head against Chase's chest as he runs his hand up and down her back. They're both half asleep, warm in each other's presence and the knowledge that they don't have to be anywhere. He thinks that maybe this is contentment, or at least the closest he'll ever get to it.
"You know I'd die for you," she mumbles, and he doesn't know if he was supposed to hear it.
"I know," he says, even though he doesn't believe it and it's the last thing he'd want, anyway. "I'd live for you, too."
And so he does. At least for the moment.