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The Trick is to Keep Breathing: Part One

Spoilers: Weddings, Parties, Anything; High Fidelity and Take My Breath Away

Disclaimer: Not mine. PG rating belongs to MPAA. I also have no idea how the school system in Canada works--I'm from Texas--so bare with me.

Author's Notes: This is a Crellie, so if that's not your thing, you probably won't like this. I had all kinds of ideas on where I could go with this little idea, but eventually what you are about to read is what I decided to do.I have no idea what plans they have for next season, other than Craig is officially coming back at some point. So, I wrote this strictly with a What-If mentality, disregarding what little I've heard. I'm a pretty new fan, started watching in April, so I stayed true to the characters as well as I knew how; go easy on me. I thought I'd keep with Degrassi tradition of using song titles for episode or, in this case, story titles. I guess that about covers it. Oh, there was no beta for this one, so proceed with caution. Enjoy!

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She saw the porch light on as she made her way to the garage door, wondering if he would even be there at all. His CDs were fresh on her mind, however, so she thought it best to return them before he set out for Vancouver again. She opened the door with the intention of just setting the CDs by the drumset and leaving.

Walking in she saw him sitting on his stool, facing away from her as he strummed a rhythmic pattern on his guitar. She looked at him a moment, listening to him write another song and wondering what lyrics he would put with this one. Feeling uncomfortable for staring, she cleared her throat. He spun around and unmistakably grinned.

"Elle, hey! I guess I didn't hear you come in. What are you doing here this time of night?" He checked his watch then looked back at her. It was a little past nine, last she checked.

She walked in closer to him, her arm outstretched to hand him his CDs. "I was going through stuff, listening to music, when I realized that I was listening to one of the CDs you let me borrow. I thought, I'd get these back to you. You know, before you leave again, or before I start packing up things."

He took his guitar off and set it on its stand then grabbed the CDs. "Well, hey, if you want them a while longer--"

"No," she interrupted. "I, um, thanks, but I'm so scatter-brained I'd probably pack them away and you'd never see them again."

Ellie knew he wouldn't mind even if she did happen to take them with her. She'd be back every now and then, seeing him in the process, so eventually they'd go back to their rightful owner. The truth was she was trying to slowly wean herself from Craig. Giving him his things back, the few things she had of his, was the best place to start. She'd accepted that nothing could ever happen between them besides friendship. He had Manny and she had . . . well, she would move on. She always did.

"You working on a new song?" she asked, casting a glance at his guitar.

He shrugged, his mouth curling up on one side in an unsure half smile. "I guess. It's something that's been in my head the last couple of weeks, you know. I may have to come back to it later, we'll see."

"Well, you've got all summer, so . . ." It was at that point in the visit where she was getting distracted by dust particles in the air and car lights going by, that told her she should probably leave.

"Have a seat," Craig said, destroying any idea of an escape plan. So, unable to resist his company, she sat down on the couch. He sat down beside her, a safe distance, and placed the CDs on the makeshift coffee table. They faced each other, both with one arm resting on the back of the couch, one leg curled under the other.

Craig laughed to himself and Ellie stared at him, wondering what on earth could be so funny. "What?" she asked.

"I was just thinking about last summer. All the fun you and I had. It feels like it was more than just a year ago, you know? These last few weeks . . . I feel like I've been gone for months. I missed you. I missed everyone."

"Well, we missed you too," she said. "Now it's my turn to say goodbye to everyone."

"You're not going to Oxford, Elle. You'll be close enough to visit. If you can't make it here every weekend, I'll drag everyone I can there. Even if it's just me, I'll be there. When I'm not busy with school or the album, anyway."

She picked at a loose thread on the couch before asking, "What are your plans, Craig?"

He scratched his head. "Well, Ms. Hatzilakos says I can graduate in December. All of us can: Jimmy, Spinner, and Ashley. We just have to keep our grades up and have pretty much perfect attendance. I overheard Jimmy and Spinner talking and Spinner's doing a summer class, just in case. I'll finish recording this summer then, while the CD is being mastered, I'll be just a few months away from graduating."

"What happens from there? Are you going to university or will you be planning your world tour?"

He laughed then shrugged. "I don't know." He added another shrug for emphasis.

She pursed her lips and nodded. "Well, whatever it is, you'll do great. I can't wait to hear the record."

A few minutes of silence passed, Ellie picking at her already chipped nail polish while Craig seemed to be lost in thought.

"I actually wasn't expecting to find you here," she admitted finally.

"Really? Why?" He laughed out, like him being anywhere but home was an outlandish idea.

"I just figured you'd be out with Manny. I mean, since you were gone and all, I just thought you two would be spending more time together, before you set off again."

"Ah. She and Emma have been having a lot of girl time lately. Not sure what happened while I was gone, but either way girls have to have their girl time, you know? Of course you know, you're a girl."

She chuckled quietly, shaking her head at him. "Craig, you seem to have forgotten that I hang out with guys. Since Ash left, it's been you, Marco and Jimmy. Being one of the guys is my thing now."

He jerked his head back, confused, then tilted his head. "Your thing?"

"Yeah, you know. Shopping is Paige and Hazel's thing, the environment is Emma's, Manny's is fame and fortune. Me, I write and I hang out with the guys--my thing."

Craig gave a her playful hit to the shoulder. "You do more than that, Elle." She rolled her eyes at that.

"No really, listen. Even though I know you've heard this before, and most of it from me, I guess you need to be reminded. Look, you're dependable, you never let me down. I mean, you were there for me when Ashley and I broke up, you were there when our band needed a drummer, you're the only person who has seen me in my darkest moments and even then you never gave up on me. But what meant most was when I really needed someone to push me to my dream, you were the only one there with me all the way. And on top of that, you're smart, you're creative, you're talented, you have this dry humor that I, personally, can't get enough of and, and . . . and you're beautiful." He gulped.

She'd been paying attention to what he was saying, feeling flattered and appreciated, but her head popped back as if she'd been hypnotized and the word 'beautiful' was the magic word to snap her out of it. She opened her mouth to say something, even just 'thank you', but nothing came out. The only other person who had ever called her beautiful was Sean, and that felt like ages ago to her. With words having failed her, she mustered a smile and hoped it didn't look uncomfortable.

Craig, obviously realizing he'd rendered her speechless and not quite sure where to go from there, began trying to backpedal. "I mean, you know, you just have more going for you than I think you think you do. Does that make sense? I'm sorry, I-- "

And before she knew it, she grabbed his head and pulled him toward her, kissing him. She couldn't get a simple thank you out, so instead she kissed him? Smooth. Chastising herself while simultaneously enjoying a surprisingly deep, and mutual, kiss was definitely a first for her. Then the thought of an angry, dark-haired beauty, popped into her head and she pulled away from, jumping up from the couch as if shocked. By the look on Craig's face, he'd been shocked as well.

"Oh God. Craig. Craig, I'm sorry. That was not . . . I can't believe I just . . . I'm so stupid. I would never, ever do something like that but with you and the . . . with the words . . . and me, ME, beautiful. Way out of line, I was." She was pacing around the room, her mind telling her to make for the exit, but for some reason she was staying close to the couch.

"Okay, you're starting to talk like Yoda. Sit down. Come on, sit." He was so calm that it made her halt.

She sunk down into the couch, her back facing away from him as she buried her face in her hands.

"I am so sorry," she mumbled. She took a deep breath and got up the courage to look at him again. "That was not what I expected to happen."

"Yeah, me either." He was smiling, like the whole thing was being blown out of proportion and he found it amusing. And silence, again.

"Look, I should probably go," Ellie said in a half whisper, already getting up from the couch.

As if she hadn't said anything, Craig replied, in a bit of a daze, "I just didn't think you felt that way anymore. I guess that's what surprises me most. I just thought, with me and Manny, you know, you'd . . . moved on."

Part of her wanted to slap him, just for thinking that she'd really been that hung up on him. The other part wanted to slap herself, for not moving on because she had been that hung up on him. "It's not a big deal, Craig, really. Forget it happened, okay? I wouldn't want to--"

"It's weird." He moved closer to her, but his eyes were still staring straight ahead, as if talking to his guitar. "While I was gone, of all the people I missed, even when I was on the phone with Manny sometimes, I'd think about you most. I guess I'd never realized how much you meant to me, I don't know." Finally he looked at her, his mouth open like he had more to say but couldn't quite get it out.

"I don't know either, Craig," she bit out. He jumped back slightly, the expression on his face giving away that that wasn't the response he'd expected. "I talked to you, what, twice on the phone? while you were gone. You don't do much more than smile and wave at me at my graduation. Aside from all of us hanging out at The Dot a couple of days ago, I have hardly talked to you. God, you're telling me all of this, that I'm the only one who was there for you, that you thought about me most, that I'm beautiful and all I can think is 'If that's true then why the hell are you with Manny?' Why, not even six months ago, when I told you how I felt, when I wore that stupid dress to impress you, did you turn around and get back together with one of the few people I cannot stand in this world? It's none of my business--or maybe it is, I don't know--but why are you with her? Do you love her?"

Furrowing his eyebrows, but at the same time looking hurt, he spat out, "Of course I love Manny! She's a great person and I'm lucky to be with her and--"

"But you thought about me, Craig. You thought-about-me." She threw her hands in the air, signifying that those few words should say it all.

"Ellie, you kissed me. I am not the one who--"

"And you kissed me back. I felt it. I haven't felt something like that in a really long time. But I'm not going to do what she did. I'm not going to ruin a relationship for my own selfish reasons. I just want you to know that you need to figure something out because this is it. For me. I'm done. I feel like I have been waiting for you to see me as more than a friend for months, for you to see what you mean to me and I can't do that forever. I won't. If you love her, if you are really honest to God are in love her with her, then okay. You and I can be friends, that's it. But if I mean to you what you just said I mean to you," she stopped and stood up, facing away from, collecting her thoughts, before she continued, "then I need to know. I need to know if I am someone you could ever be with or if I'm just . . . just me."

He stared at her wide-eyed, his chest rising and falling so fast she could almost hear his heart beating.

That wasn't what she wanted to hear, however, and she'd had enough. Taking his silence as his answer, she walked toward the door. "That's all I needed to know," she threw over her shoulder. "I'll let you know if I find anything else of yours.." She turned the knob but gave him one final look. She felt the burning in her throat, the kind that meant tears were on there way, and she needed to get out fast.

"Goodnight."

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She walked for what felt like hours until she reached Marco's house. Tentatively, she knocked on his door, hoping to God he would answer and not one of his parents. The door swung open and her prayers were answered.

The beginning of a welcoming smile met her, but then he must have sensed something was wrong. How could he not? Mascara must be running down her cheeks and her nose was more than likely red.

"Elle, what's wrong?" he asked.

She closed her eyes and pursed her lips. "I need to talk. I think I just did something really stupid."

"Sure, come on in," he guided her in with his hand on her back and shut the door behind them.

Immediately they went to his room and she threw herself on his bed.

"I'm an idiot," she said simply.

He sat down beside her, smiling. "I vaguely remember hearing those words, oh, about four years ago. You know, after finding you in a Zen garden and smoothly opting to call you up, with you only ten yards away, and ask you out."

She bumped him playfully in the shoulder with her own and the ghost of a smile graced her lips. "That was pretty smooth. Are you that smooth with Dylan?"

"Nah, you're the only one who brings that spontaneity out of me," he teased. "Now tell me what's wrong. Why are you an idiot."

Ellie shook her head and threw her head back to look at the ceiling. "I did it," she told the ceiling then turned back to Marco. "I went to Craig's and I just . . . I kissed him. I kissed Craig. And then it just, God, it blew up in my face. I mean, why would I do that? I don't just go around kissing guys!"

"Because you like him, Elle."

"That's vaguely obvious," she said dryly.

"How do you mean 'it blew up', exactly?"

She looked out the window and shook her head again, her attention focusing on the waning moon. "I yelled at him. I did the worst possible thing: I offered an ultimatum."

"Whoa, how did it go from you kissing him to you yelling at him?" Marco got up and grabbed his computer chair, so they would be face to face, to avoid distractions like the moon.

"I guess, I should tell you why I kissed him. I didn't just do it, you know. He started . . . he started complimenting me. Saying I am dependable, talented, creative, funny and, on top of all of that, beautiful. Beautiful, Marco. Nobody tells me that."

He arched an eyebrow. "I tell you that all of the time."

Rolling her eyes, she shoved him gently on the chest. "That's different. I mean . . . You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do," he nodded in understanding.

"Things like that can mess with a girl's emotions, you know?" she continued. "And I don't do emotions very well, that's not exactly news. So, anyway, I kissed him, we covered that. Then I freaked out after I kissed him, yelling at myself in front of him. He told me to sit down then, get this, then he starts saying how he thinks about me a lot, even when he's talking to Manny, and I . . . I flipped out. I told him that he can't say things like that to me if he's going to choose Manny over me, pretty much anyway, and that he needs to make a choice because I've had enough."

"Wow. You go, girl."

"That's just it, Marco. I did go, I said all of that, and I have no idea what's going to happen. Through all of this, liking him, I've thought about Ash, what she would think about it. I've thought about me going to college and him doing whatever it is he's going to do. I've thought about what people might think of me if he were to magically choose me over Manny. Or what will happen to me if he doesn't." A wayward tear trickled down her cheek and she bowed her head to play with her fingers, finding them suddenly fascinating. "Part of me doesn't want to feel this way about him, because anything involving Craig is complicated, it's unavoidable. "

"You can't choose who you're going to like, Elle. It doesn't work like that. One day a switch is flicked and you just . . . They're all you can think about. Love sneaks up on you when you least expect it."

"I know. It sucks," she said bluntly, eliciting a laugh from Marco.

"But, to tackle the list you just threw at me," Marco started, grabbing her hands in his and holding them. "The Ashley-Craig boat sailed a long time ago. They're friends, and I guarantee she would rather see him with you than with Manny. And anyway, she and Jimmy have been pretty cozy lately. Second, who cares what happens when you go off to college? You'll make it work if you want it bad enough. Third, people know you, end of story. Not to mention, we're out of high school now, your personal life isn't going to be so public now. And lastly, if he doesn't decide to take that step with you, which would surprise me given all he said tonight, then you'll press on. You-- "

"--always do," they finished together.

A sad smile pulled at her lips and she tilted her head at Marco, unable to push aside that she must look like a five year old who was just told she can't have a puppy. "For once, I don't want to be the one left behind," she finally said, her voice cracking. She could say things like this to Marco, even though their relationship ending broke her heart. They'd talked about it, and he understood. It was forgiven, accepted, and had made them who they are today, but it was still part of her past.

"Come here." Marco opened his arms and she fell into his embrace. "I love you, you know."

"I know," she choked out, any tears she'd been holding back unleashing on his shoulder. "I love you, too."

"And even though our relationship ended in a less than conventional way, and that I prefer briefs to Victoria's Secret, you're still my girl. No matter what happens, remember that, okay?"

She gave him a squeeze before pulling back. "Thanks, Marco."

"Anytime. I mean that."

Standing, she prepared herself with a heavy sigh. "I guess I should get home, before my mom freaks."

She turned to the doorway and started to leave when Marco hailed her back.

"You're not an idiot. Not by a long shot." He grinned at her and waved. Nodding, more to convince herself of that, she waved back and left.

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The ever-present oak in her yard cast a shadow on the pavement. She'd walked this path so many times, but the guidance of that oak, it's strength and will, were something she always looked to. More stars could be seen surrounding the moon and as if it were a nightly ritual, she began to point out to herself the constellations she knew. So preoccupied with that game, she almost missed the figure sitting on her porch.

"Hey," a male voice said. Craig. She didn't say anything back, he kept talking. "I came over thinking you went straight here from my house. It's been about an hour and a half, but I thought this was something worth waiting for." Uncomfortable with her silence, he cleared his throat. "So . . ."

"I was at Marco's," she informed him, crossing her arms.

"Ah, that makes sense." He gave a nod, a series of them, while simultaneously avoiding eye contact.

She squinted at him, trying to read him. He wanted to say something, but she could almost see the wheels turning in his head, trying to figure out exactly how to say it. Good or bad, she wasn't sure, but she braced herself for whatever he had to say. That is, if he was ever going to say it. Wanting to sleep this night away, she decided to prompt him.

"So what is it you want to say?"

His head shot back at her, his eyes wide, eyebrows raised, and he just stood there. "Um," he said after a few passing seconds, "I just think I owe you more than what I said, or I guess, what I didn't say tonight."

"Go on."

"Can we sit or something? Just right here, on the porch."

She rolled her eyes, but conceited.

"When you told me how you felt, those few months back, it's not that I-I didn't like you, like that. In fact, the time we spent together, even though I was with Ashley and still cared about her, I became so, so comfortable with you that I started entertaining the possibilities--which I shouldn't have, I know. I think that's why I tried to snap myself out of it and remember that all there ever could be between us is, is friendship. So I tried to convince myself, as well as everyone else--even you--that we would remain that way, just friends. But even though I could have simply stayed celibate like I said I was going to do, I, um, didn't. Manny was familiar and she'd had a rough year--"

"Ah, so you dated her out of pity and to get as far away from a relationship with me as possible. You're not really selling yourself here very well, Craig," she spat out.

"No, Elle. I cared about her. She even knew that I was just trying to be there for her, which somehow lead back to us being together. It was something I wanted then, but for some reason it was this temporary fix to how I really felt and no matter what I did those feelings wouldn't go away."

Studying him a moment, in the silence, she observed and asked, "Why are you speaking about Manny in the past tense?"

A pause fell over them, heavy and almost palpable. "Because that's where I intend to put her, Elle, in the past," Craig finally said. "She called after you left, just to talk, and we made it past hello when I realized we had nothing to talk about. We used to have more between us, but I think that may have been over before I got back. We've run our course, and even though I still care about her, it's not enough."

Forbidding herself to smile, Ellie said, "All of this from just one phone call?"

"No. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, actually. I even wrote a song, during a break at the studio, because I couldn't stop thinking about it. About you."

"You wrote a song about me?" The butterflies in her stomach were hard to ignore and if she wasn't blushing it would be a miracle.

"Yeah, I did." That goofy grin she both loved and hated swept across his face.

"But you've been so stand-offish lately. Why?"

"I wasn't sure you felt the same about me anymore, Elle! A few days went by, after writing the song, and I realized that I was probably too late. So I came home, I kissed Manny and I accepted the possibility that the hug you gave me before I left was the last time I would be that close to you. But I guess I was wrong, aside from the fact that you hate me right now."

"I don't hate you," she shook her head. "You just confuse the hell out of me, that's all."

"Sorry."

"Where do we go from here?" She moved closer to him.

Craig shrugged. "I guess tomorrow I'll talk to Manny."

"Wait, you're not going to pull what you did last time are you?" she asked skeptically. "Juggle two girls at once and expect to make it out alive?" She smirked, only half kidding with the query. She knew him better than that.

"Ha-ha. You know I was quite possibly the biggest idiot for even trying that, and that I've grown up since. God, I can't believe I did that." He cradled his head in his hands, messing up his hair. "I'm going for honesty this time around, no games. I care for Manny, but I love you and--"

"Love . . . Me?" she barely got out.

Slapping himself on the forehead, Craig stood up and began to pace. "What do I have, Foot In Mouth Syndrome? I didn't mean . . .I mean, I did, I do . . . I just don't want you to feel like you have to--"

She stood up and blocked his pacing path, a hand on his chest to halt him. "I . . . do, too. I mean, I feel that way about you. It kind of just hit me, really, but I do. It's just . . . I'm not good with feelings like that, or expressing them anyway, so it might take a while for me to say it. Is that okay?"

He enveloped her hand resting on his chest with both of his and smiled sweetly down at her. "That's fine." A few moments of comfortable silence went by before Craig snuck a glance at his watch. "Yikes, it's almost one. I should let you get in."

"Yeah, um, I'll see you . . ."

"Tomorrow, night. I'll call you, we'll celebrate. I'll, uh, play you your song. It'll be fine, don't worry."

She smiled at him, grateful for his ability to sense her hesitance in all of this, her worry of the unknown. He loosened his grip around her hand and she dropped her arm to her side. She wondered if he'd kiss her, but thought maybe he shouldn't until this was all straightened out. This small part of her felt guilty, which annoyed her. Manny was, to say the least, not her favorite person in the world, but all Ellie could think was that she was the reason for Manny's destined heartache; and that didn't bode well with Ellie.

"Manny will be fine," Craig comforted, as if reading Ellie's mind. "I'm taking a guess, but a pretty confident one, that she probably saw this coming--not you and me, but the break-up." She sighed.

"Look, Elle, you better get inside, I don't want to cause a rift between you and your mom because I don't know when to stop talking."

"About that, the whole talking thing . . . You might want to work on that, it's kind of annoying." She made a mock gasp before she started laughing, a true guttural laugh. It felt good, and almost foreign.

"Is that so?" Craig feigned offense before poking Ellie in the stomach, successfully making her flinch and laugh harder. A tickling war commenced, but Ellie strongly sensed she was losing--after all, Craig wasn't all that ticklish.

"Okay, okay! Truce!" she yelled, a little too loudly, and figuring that if her mom wasn't awake before, she was awake now. "Truce," she whispered. She stuck out her hand for a handshake, but before it could register, Craig gave her a simple peck on the cheek.

"Truce," he whispered back. "Goodnight, Elle."

"'Night."

He stayed there in front of her porch until she was inside and through the window she watched him walk away, a smile on his face. The expression was contagious and she stayed by the window until even his shadow was gone, all the while her mind racing.

It was going to be different. It was going to be awkward at first, this change. But eventually they would settle comfortably where they needed to be. The trick was to keep breathing.

To Be Continued . . .