"There is no physical way that a human being can fit that many ping pong balls in their mouth."
The bell overhead jingles as Charlotte pushes open the door into Junk 'n Stuff, pausing to shake her head at Henry before the two of them enter the cluttered shop. Henry gives her a look, like, are you kidding? and steps in front of her to put his hands on her shoulders.
"Char, this is Jasper we're talking about," he says seriously, and she has to bite back a laugh at the way he sounds like the fate of the world rests on her believing this simple thing. "I've seen him do it. And it's mind blowing."
She rolls her eyes and shrugs his hands off her shoulders. "Uh-huh. I'll believe it when I see it. Now c'mon, let's get downstairs." She moves past him towards the elevators and he gives a dramatic sort of huff before following.
"I'm being serious!"
"I'm sure you are, Henry."
"Look, after work we'll go to Jasper's and prove it."
He's still trying to convince her when the elevator floor drops out from underneath them and he has to raise his voice to be heard over the rush of wind in their ears. And Charlotte's still trying not to laugh, because of course Henry would be the one to be completely flippant about normal things and yet get so worked up over something like the number of ping pong balls Jasper can fit in his mouth (which, by the way, cannot be thirteen. That's just impossible).
She's about to go into the mathematics of it, the volume of a ping pong ball versus the volume of the average person's mouth, but then there's an odd clunk and the elevator stops. And the doors don't open.
Henry tilts his head. "What's going on?" he asks, reaching over to press the button that manually opens the doors. They still don't budge. He tries the up button next, but once again, nothing happens.
"I guess it's...stuck?" Charlotte knocks her fist against the metal. "Ray? Can you hear us? Ray!"
"Charlotte?" Ray's voice comes through, muffled and sounding frantic, and she chuckles a little despite herself at the picture of his head swiveling around to look for her. "Charlotte, where are you?"
"Henry and I are in the elevator," she calls. "The doors won't open, can you get Schwoz?"
"I can't, he's out getting his colonoscopy. He's supposed to be back soon, I'll tell him to take the tubes. Just, ah, sit tight, you two." And then, he adds in a sly voice, "and no funny business."
"Ray!" Charlotte slams her fist into the doors and rolls her eyes. "Alright, I guess we're stuck in here for a while," she says as she turns to face Henry. Almost immediately, she notices something's off; his eyes are wide as he darts his hand through his blonde hair and grimaces at her.
"Stuck? In here?"
"Yeah," she says slowly. "But probably not for long. Are you okay?"
He blinks at her. "What? Pfft, yeah, I'm fine. It's all good. Just gonna...chill here. In this...very small elevator. Deep underground." He's rambling now, and she knows something's wrong. He sounds more like he's trying to convince himself than anything else, and she frowns a little in concern.
"Don't worry, Char," he says hastily. "I'm totally fine."
And he is. For about the first eight minutes.
It doesn't take long for him to start pacing. He goes in circles a few times, his eyes alternating between training firmly on the floor and darting around nervously.
"Henry?" she inquires softly, but he doesn't say anything.
Then, he's pushing the buttons, slow at first, and then more frantically. "C'mon, c'mon," he mutters under his breath, and Charlotte swallows as she notices his hands start to shake. He runs his fingers through his hair again and rubs at his eyes, then pries at the crack between the doors like he can push them apart by the sheer force of his will. "C'mon, why won't this stupid thing open?"
"Henry," Charlotte bites her lip as his hands curl into fists and start banging on the door and the pace of his breath quickens. She reaches out to put her hands on his shoulders. "Henry, Henry! Look at me."
He turns slowly, his whole body shaking. He's looking at her, but his eyes are glassy and unfocused. "I can't--Char, I have to get out of here," he says desperately, his breath coming in and out in short, unsteady gasps. She watches the sharp curve of his adam's apple rise and fall in his throat as he swallows tightly. "I feel like--like--" he screws his eyes shut. "Y'know when...Invisible Brad trapped me and Ray in that--that box? I feel like--I feel like I'm-I'm back there. Being...buried."
Charlotte feels her stomach twist as it dawns on her, because Henry has never been claustrophobic before, but it was so stupid of her to think he'd come out of that whole mess completely unscathed.
He pushes his back against the wall and sinks down, clawing at the floor. She kneels beside him and cups his cheek without even thinking about it, hating that her fingers come back wet because god, Henry's blinking back tears. "Hey, hey, look at me, okay?" she says, and his gaze lifts to meet her eyes unsteadily. "I'm right here. Everything's gonna be fine."
The elevator shudders and she yelps involuntarily and Henry gives a pained sort of gasp, the kind of sound that makes her wish she could personally fire one of Ray's thermonuclear blasters in Brad's face. His breathing gets faster, more panicked, and then he's full-on hyperventilating.
"Henry...Henry, you have to breathe," she says as her heartbeat picks up. "C'mon, Henry, please, just-just in and out, in and out."
He nods, but his eyes are still wide and frantic, the shortness of his breath still makes it sound like he's drowning on dry land, and he's grasping at her hands as though he's falling and needs something to hold on to. He's having a panic attack, and for once in her life, Charlotte Page-Bolton has no idea what to do.
She tries to rack her brain for the all first aid knowledge she's gained from summer camp and online classes. She doesn't have anything hot or cold to shock him out of it, and they're far past the stage of talking him down. A thought comes to her suddenly, and Charlotte's never been one for luck but she crosses her fingers and really hopes this will work.
"Hen?" she says, trying to keep her voice calm despite the fear that's slowly rising in her chest. "I-I need you to hold your breath for me. Just for fifteen seconds, okay?"
He tries. He really does; she can see him struggling to stop the rise and fall of his chest before he breaks off in a sputtering wheeze, shaking his head. "I can't--I c--"
"Okay, okay, okay," she squeezes his hands. Think, Charlotte, just--
And then, maybe she's not thinking. Because if she was, maybe she'd consider every possible way this could go wrong, like she's done a million times before, maybe she'd think about how this could ruin everything, but the only thing running through her mind is that her best friend is not going to stop breathing in this elevator and then she's kissing him. She's kissing Henry Hart.
She forgets to count to fifteen.
And she's not sure how long it's been, so Charlotte just stays there, her lips pressed against Henry's and her hand cupping his cheek until his grip on her hand loosens a little and some of the tension leaves his shoulders. And then she pulls away and scrambles backwards, her heart doing marathons in her chest as he looks at her with a mixture of shock and confusion.
Which, honestly, is how she feels. She tries to grapple with the fact that she just kissed her best friend. Her best friend who she's known forever, who she's grown up with, who she's now stuck in an elevator with even though all she really wants to do is run far, far away.
There's a beat of silence in which they both stare at each other before he swallows. "H-How did you do that?" he asks slowly, his voice soft and a little breathless.
"I, um," she tugs at the tight coils of her hair. "I just--well, last year at camp they told us that you can stop someone from having a panic attack by getting them to hold their breath," she begins shakily, "and you couldn't really do that on your own, so, I just, y'know...when I kissed you, you held your breath. Um. Sorry," she adds hastily.
A cute little furrow forms in his brow, and Charlotte is really trying not to stare, but the fact that there's only about three feet of space in this elevator makes that very difficult. "Why are you sorry?" Henry asks, tilting his head. "You just saved me. I-I mean, yeah, that's not exactly how I pictured kissing you for the first time but--" he breaks off, suddenly going red to the tips of his ears. "I didn't mean--that's not--I don't--"
Charlotte lifts an eyebrow. "So you've pictured kissing me?"
"Wh--You're the one that actually did it!" he sputters.
"Yeah, to stop you from having a panic attack!"
"So you didn't like it?" Henry's looking at her with soft, inquisitive brown eyes, and as well as Charlotte knows him, his expression is difficult to read. There's really no easy way to answer this.
She sighs softly.
Then, she scoots closer to him, so that their shoulders are brushing, and draws her knees up to her chest. "I liked it," she says quietly, not meeting his eyes. "Maybe a little more than I should've."
A pause. "Char?"
Henry reaches for her hand and laces their fingers together, and when she looks up at him, he smiles. "So did I."
The flood of warmth in her chest is interrupted by another jolt from the elevator, and she feels Henry shudder against her. So she does the only logical thing she can think of. She kisses him again.
And there's still a million things that could go wrong. This could still change everything, but Charlotte can't bring herself to care, because she's kissing Henry Hart, she's kissing her best friend and-maybe-something-more. And this time, she smiles against his lips.
There's a ding that neither of them seem to hear and the doors slide open.
Then, Schwoz's voice sends them flying apart as he yells, "I knew it!"