Chapter 3: XVIII

When I came back to myself, my head was throbbing so terribly that tears stung my eyes. I struggled to my feet, knowing that relief resided in a bottle just a room away, but the floor gave a nauseating lurch, depositing me right back where I started. Eventually, I settled for dropping my head into my hands, taking deep, steadying breaths until the brunt of the pain subsided, leaving a simple headache in its wake.

"What in the world," I breathed incredulously, "was that?"

It had been a dream, of course; of that much, I was sure. I'd only been in a hospital twice in my life, and neither of my experiences had been even remotely like that one. The first time had simply been a perfunctory overnight stay after I'd fallen from my painting ladder and knocked my head. The second, I'd been far too incapacitated for saltwater taffy.

Despite how poignant it had been, it was clearly just something my skewed subconscious had come up with under extreme duress from far too much caffeine. He had been brought into the mix simply because he was the only person I'd come into contact with yesterday, and evidently I was a glutton for punishment.

"Okay," I whispered, climbing unsteadily to my feet. "Too much tea. Way, way too much tea."

I sighed heavily and shook my head to clear it. The clutter didn't dissipate in the slightest; all it did was made me dizzy.

Listlessly, I paced a circle around the table. I sat on it for a moment, and knocked a chair over for good measure. Finally, I found myself tearing my bedroom apart in search of my painting supplies. My fingers were itching to remove my mind from power, and as I couldn't find a canvas large enough to sate what was fast becoming a burning need, I turned to the only alternative I could think of: I splashed my kitchen walls with the brightest red and orange I could find.

I wouldn't let myself dwell on the fact that, once again, death had evaded me – and this time, it was my fault. Instead of dying, I was painting, and I continued to do so until the front door burst open.

Heart hammering away, I snuck into the living room armed with a paintbrush, which I brusquely hid behind my back once I realized who it was. I'd already tried to emasculate him once – well, twice, if you consider a teaspoon capable of any sort of damage – and failed. No need to render him impotent with paint fumes, too.

Impervious to the fact that I'd just decided not to kill him, he shut the door behind him and leaned against it, looking agitated. I studied the bolt, which was still in its place, in disbelief. "How on earth do you keep doing that?" I asked, and he stared back at me, wild eyes glinting dizzily in the sunlight illuminating the room.

"I…have no idea," he responded after a long moment of recovery. "Perhaps you should get your locks checked?"

"I don't think the problem is my locks," I murmured, eyeing his scrawny form dubiously before shaking my head. "Um…do you like saltwater taffy?"

His eyes narrowed, studying me carefully over a collection of grocery sacks. "I don't know. Why do you ask?"

I swallowed hard and looked away. "No reason."

An awkward silence followed.

Finally, he grew bored with watching me be catatonic, and hesitantly, as if I were wielding a gun instead of a dripping paintbrush, asked if he could come in. I felt my cheeks growing warm as I realized I'd been blocking him in the doorway. That bizarre dream was still nagging at me, and I knew he would think me absolutely mad if he knew about it.

Of course, that wasn't an issue at all, as I would never, under any circumstance, tell him he'd invaded my psyche. He'd get too much pleasure from that, and the thought of him gloating was about as annoying as my dreaming about him in the first place.

A quiet chuckle jarred me from my mental interlude. Evidently, I hadn't moved. To make it worse, I'd been sending a particularly hateful glare toward the wall.

I muttered an apology and stepped hastily out of his way.

He offered a tight smile, and as he started to move past me, I noticed something I'd been neglecting. His eyes, though less so than when he had nearly knocked the door in, were still half-mad. He was fidgeting nearly as violently as I was, and his wan cheeks glistened with perspiration.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked abruptly, side-stepping the fact that it was probably a hypocritical question.

He faltered for a good ten seconds before unceremoniously dropping his sacks to the floor and shrugging his shoulders. A can of coffee escaped and rolled all the way to the kitchen, and he watched vacantly until it disappeared from sight.

"I don't know," he answered hazily, his gaze still focused on the spot that the can had occupied. Something neighboring a grimace tugged at his lips. "Things were just a little…strange. Are people in this city always so unfriendly?"

"Why'd you think I was about to take a spill off my balcony?" I quipped, my lips twisting into a wry grin. "What happened?"

"Nothing really," he admitted, giving his head a bemused shake. "I mean, that was the problem. People I spoke to directly – people that should have listened to me, like the countless number I asked for directions – completely ignored me."

"That's Los Angeles for you," I affirmed with a half-smile. "Self-centered to the marrow."

"No, I don't think you understand," he protested, a myriad of different emotions crossing his face before anxiety usurped them all. "The lad at the check-out counter just let me leave with about two-hundred dollars worth of stuff. I didn't even have to pay my bus fare!"

By the end of his outburst, he was nearly frantic and I was well past exasperated. The boy had far too much virtue to survive in a place that boasted a crime rate as prolific as its smog or its ego. "Shouldn't you be counting your blessings, then?"

He shot me a look as though I'd just dropped to one knee and proposed to him.

This sent my eyes rolling, and I tried to redeem myself be saying, "I mean, you could be the death of free enterprise."

He just shook his head and moved into the kitchen, depositing his purchases on the counter. "I guess," he decided finally, eyes flitting briefly over the unfinished red-orange mosaic splattered on the wall above the sink. He looked for a moment as if he were about to comment, but then self-preservation kicked in.

I shrugged my way past him and started unloading the groceries. Save for the gentle thud of various food products making contact with the counter or, when I grew careless, the floor, the room was momentarily bathed in silence. Unfortunately, this gave me time to think again. A soft laugh escaped before I could squash it, and he looked up at me, a puzzled expression on his face.

"What?" He sounded defensive.

"Nothing. It's just…you reminded me of a nursery rhyme."

His response was a perplexed narrowing of the eyes, and I instantly felt foolish for even bringing it up.

"A nursery rhyme?"

"Yes, for children," I explained with raised eyebrows. Just how much had he forgotten, if he no longer had a childhood?

I thought that if I were him, I would hide under my bed and never come out again. I wondered how it was that he could do anything but dwell on everything he'd lost. Life was bad enough when you could remember it. What must it be like, then, to forget? Would I still be miserable without recollection of where the misery had come from?

He leaned back against the counter right next to me, watching me carefully. "And how does it go, this nursery rhyme?"

I chewed my lip and looked away, feeling terribly silly and the slightest bit jealous. He was so nonchalant now. I was a frazzled mess, so much that I'd dreamt of him last night.

I cleared my throat awkwardly. "Yesterday upon the stair…"

My voice sounded so inadequate that I stuttered clumsily before falling into complete silence. He politely nodded his encouragement, and it almost struck me as comical that he had no idea I was trying to measure up to his doppelganger. I swallowed, preparing myself for the fact that it wouldn't be nearly as poetic, and tried again.

"Yesterday upon the stair, I saw a man who wasn't there. He wasn't there again today…how I wish he'd go away."

I watched his face as I finished, hoping for some sort of reaction that would tell me he'd infiltrated my dreams on purpose just to mess with me and felt stupid for getting caught.

My heart sunk – he just looked confused, and perhaps a bit concerned.

"I…don't quite know how to take that," he admitted at length. He bit his lip, canines worrying the soft flesh, and I released a shuddering laugh.

"Forget it," I advised, turning back to the groceries. "It's just a silly nursery rhyme."

And it was nothing more than a silly dream, either, I told myself, satisfied if only for the moment. This proves it.

He remained immobile for a long moment, his closeness unnerving me until finally I moved away. Stepping around him, I brusquely began filling the empty pantries.

"There's something else," he said suddenly, his voice sounding oddly strained. "A man sat on my lap."

I hit my head on a shelf.

"What?" Clutching my forehead, I whirled around to face him.

"A man sat on my lap," he repeated, an odd expression on his face. "On the bus."

"A man…sat on your lap?" I mimicked dumbly, blurred vision from my mishap causing four mismatched eyes to roll instead of two.

"Yes, on the bus. Just wandered over and sat himself down on my lap, real casual-like. He didn't say a word to me," he explained, brows drawn together in consternation.

"Did you say anything?" I asked, staring at him in disbelief.

"Yes, a lot." He mustered up a half-smile. "He paid me absolutely no mind, until finally I grabbed the bottle of whiskey out of his pocket and tossed it in the aisle. Then he looked right surprised and staggered off."

Despite myself, I felt a giggle bubbling in my throat, finally giving into it when his puzzled eyes met mine. "What amuses you?" he demanded, a frown tugging at his lips, which just made me laugh harder.

"You got hit on by a drunkard!" I exclaimed, leaning against the counter for support. "Oh, welcome to Los Angeles!"

"I fail to see how any of this is funny," he muttered, crossing his arms over his chest, patience visibly waning. "Not only did I feel like I completely didn't exist, but I ended my day with a foul-smelling man in my lap."

"As I said," I giggled, "welcome to Los Angeles."

He watched me laugh at him for a minute, and finally shook his head, seating himself carelessly on the counter. "You should do that more often," he said.

I stilled, my smile wilting and reappearing on his lips. "Do what?"

He gestured to my eyes, still crinkled with the last vestiges of humor. "Laugh."

"I do laugh," I told a pair of raised eyebrows. "I mean…well, maybe not as often as I used to, but…"

His smile faded. "And why did you stop?"

"The world lost its sense of humor," I said, shrugging my shoulders.

He studied me at length, his eyes traveling over me so intensely that I almost felt compelled to climb into the pantry, or perhaps the dishwasher, to escape the inane feeling of nakedness his stare seemed to instill in me. Finally he broke the tension by tilting his head a smidgen to the left.

"Did it ever occur to you," he said softly, "that maybe it's you that's lost yours?"

It had occurred to me. I just didn't like to think about it.

It wasn't my fault that TV shows weren't funny anymore, nor was it any fault of mine that other people weren't as amusing as they used to be, either. My internal monologue had lost its color only because the rest of the world was so boring that it left me nothing but boring things to think about. It couldn't have been my fault that everything suddenly seemed so trivial, and that it was simply trivial to waste my time laughing at trivial things.

I turned away, unable to look at him anymore.

"How can you stand this place?" he cut in abruptly, languidly resting his upper body against a cabinet. "It's choked with buildings…and it makes you feel so small. Claustrophobic, almost…"

His eyes searched mine insistently, clearly awaiting a viable explanation for industrialization and the part he seemed to think I played in it. I searched my tired brain for something at least mildly interesting to offer. Choked with buildings was a pretty apt description, after all.

Unable to come up with anything, I resorted to honesty. "I can't stand it."

His expression was incredulous. "Then what are you doing here?" he demanded, extending his hands in a beseeching gesture. "America is…what do they call it…the 'land of the free', yes? Why don't you leave if you're miserable?"

"I tried that," I pointed out, a smirk twisting my lips. "You stopped me."

He opened his mouth, snapped it shut, and tried again. "You know that's not what I meant."

I rolled my eyes. In my head, my mother was reminding me that patience was a virtue. "What you have to understand is that this country is no more 'the land of the free' than it is 'the home of the brave'," I began after a moment, my voice startlingly calm. "Freedom is…such a relative thing."

Just like reality; just like time. Was anything really universal?

He arched an appraising brow. "Whether it is or it isn't, that still doesn't explain what you're doing here."

"No, I guess it doesn't," I conceded, drumming my fingers idly on the counter. Part of me wanted to pull the same move he had yesterday, to slip imperiously between his parted legs and be as intimidating as my tiny frame would allow. I wanted to catch him as off-guard as he'd caught me. But I knew it wouldn't work. If nothing else, he'd probably get the wrong idea and start making suggestive remarks about restraining me again.

I cleared my throat awkwardly as I realized he was still awaiting an explanation. "Um, existing," I began haltingly, pointedly ignoring the subtle narrowing of his eyes. "That's what I'm doing here. It's the same thing I'd be doing anywhere else, I'd imagine. I'm existing." I paused, considering. "For the moment, at least…all thanks to you."

He simply shook his head. "You do realize how disturbing that sounds when you put it that way, don't you?"

In spite of myself, I released a bit of laughter. "Be that as it may, it's the truth."

He closed his eyes, long lashes resting, defeated, against his cheeks.

I shook my head, an amused smile still playing at my lips. "And while we're on the subject of disturbing, how about the fact that you and your pretty eyelashes seem to attract more male attention than I do?"

He straightened at the change of subject, a haughty look flitting across his face. "It's hardly my fault you keep yourself locked in here like a leper," he declared with an arrogant quirk of the lips.

I bristled. There he was again, making assumptions that he didn't need to be making. He'd almost reached the point of being tolerable, and then he started to assume again. I'd hardly known him for a couple of hours, and I'd already found that that was the side of him I detested the most. The others were…forgivable, at best. This one was loathsome.

"Well, it's hardly my fault that the rest of the world is completely…is completely…"

My mouth had started to work soundlessly because his eyes were making me dizzy, the off-colored irises catching my attention and holding it hostage. Had he been born that way? Was it the result of some sort of injury? Or, as he'd already proven his vanity more than sufficiently, the most plausible option: had he tampered with them himself?

Certainly he knew how distracting he was…surely he was doing it on purpose… No one could possibly manage such an effortless look without putting a decent amount of effort into it, right?

It wasn't until my elbow sent a tub of butter to the floor, producing the only sound in the room, that I realized he'd muted me. Several seconds must have passed while I indulged my attention deficit disorder, which retracted a lot of authenticity from whatever point I was trying to make.

"You were making some statement about the world," he reminded helpfully. "I didn't realize you were a philosopher."

My level of aggravation underwent a dramatic jump; his smirk told me any part he'd had in it hadn't been accidental. I barely overcame the urge to launch myself at him and knock him and his stupid shiny eyes into the sink.

"Forget that," I managed between clenched teeth. I feared I was dangerously close to biting off my own tongue. As it would have been hard to argue without a tongue, I was content – well, relatively – to speak through my teeth until I'd calmed down. "What I want to know is just how you presume to know my living habits!"

To my surprise, a victorious grin brightened his face. "I didn't," he admitted, far too happy for someone who should have been admitting defeat. "…until you confirmed my hypothesis, that is."

My mouth fell open, painting a rather unattractive picture for the triumphant creature next to me. I was right – he was the most annoying gloater I'd ever encountered.

He chuckled, eyes softening as he hopped from the counter and gave me a gentle push toward the table. "Let's have a ceasefire for now, okay? Sit down. Let me make you breakfast."

Unable to formulate a response, I did as he bade me, stupidly watching him unload the remainder of the groceries.

He'd defeated me in a verbal battle. Me – the most argumentative person in the world since Frederick Douglass. It had happened because I'd gotten myself stuck in his eyes…which just sounded stupid, but it had happened nonetheless.

Vaguely, I wondered if he was anything like Medusa. Of course, I didn't feel much like stone, but still…my heart was beating fast and my hands were sort of clammy, so…could his gaze have any lasting effects?

I mulled this over for a moment until, thank whatever deity may or may not have been up there, something entirely unrelated occurred to me. "Where did you get the money you were originally going to spend on all this stuff?"

He paused what he was doing to look sheepish. "I…well, there was a wad of cash sitting on your nightstand," was the cautious explanation. He gazed at me from beneath thick lashes. I shot him a disbelieving glare and jumped to my feet.

"You stole from me?" I demanded, palm poised to strike his pale cheek.

He grasped my wrist with quick fingers before I could make contact, however, and I was left with my hand held tightly in his, pondering his unthinkable reflexes.

"Borrowed!" he corrected with a disarming smile.

Giving my hand a gentle pat, he released me. I'm sure he'd gathered by my gape that I wasn't capable of much else. With his swiftness, how could I be?

"With every intention of returning, mind you, once I remember the number to my bank account."

"Assuming you have one," I grumbled, resting my hands peevishly on my hips, and he rolled his eyes.

"Always the pessimist, aren't you?" he quipped, smirking slightly. "Won't you be shocked when you find out I'm a millionaire."

"So shocked I'll probably fall over dead." He shot me an accusatory look, and I shrugged my shoulders innocently. "Figuratively speaking, of course."

He sighed and turned away from me to begin the arduous task of arranging a boatload of awkwardly-proportioned frozen foods into my compact freezer. "Anyhow, what did you expect me to do?" he asked, leaving me a bit startled at the abrupt change of subject. "Your refrigerator was absolutely desolate. Don't you eat?"

Unable to prevent it, I let out a shaky laugh. "I'm supposed to be dead, remember?"

He turned his head slowly, dubious eyes meeting mine with only a hint of hesitation. Despite all the loaded stares he had sent in my direction thus far, I had the distinct feeling that this was the first time he'd honestly seen me for what I was: a neurotic, argumentative, obsessive-compulsive coward, among other things.

True to form, I looked away, cheeks warming to epic proportions.

"You really had all this planned out, didn't you?" he asked, and I swallowed uncomfortably. Somehow, his smooth voice stung my ears.

"Down to the minute."

I marveled at how impeccably his worn shoes complemented the dilapidated linoleum. I'd always meant to tear out the awkward mosaic and replace it with something less checkered, but then it had started raining and I'd opted for removing myself instead. Still, I almost felt bad for whoever adopted the apartment once I was finally gone.

Red, yellow, and black checks may have suited a Picasso painting just famously, but for a kitchen floor, they were simply distracting.

"You aren't going to try it again, are you?" he hesitantly ventured, tearing my focus – but not my gaze – from the floor.

I wondered fleetingly if some ruthless divine entity had dropped him here for the sole purpose of making me uncomfortable. With the way my life had been going, I wouldn't have been surprised in the slightest if that were indeed the case.

"Would you prefer a lie or the truth?" I responded at length, and he heaved a soft sigh before turning away from me.

"Neither for now, if you don't mind," he decided into the cabinet, choking slightly on the dust his breath sent swirling. He produced a large mixing bowl and a frying pan, setting them both on the counter with a clatter before retreating back to the cabinet and coming up with an eggbeater. "Just…if you could avoid doing it in front of me next time?"

I rolled my eyes and propped myself up against the table, a wry smile tugging at my lips. "Oh, don't worry. I'll make sure you're gone."

He stopped his rummaging to stare at me intently, eyes darkening as they collided with mine. "Not just out grocery shopping," he clarified.

I bit back a groan.

I knew what he was after. He wanted me to hold off until he'd regained his memory, in which indefinite amount of time he'd attempt to make me see the error of my ways and redirect my life accordingly. He wanted me to realize that I was meant to live until I was ninety-nine years old with children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and a lovable old terrier that shared my bedpan.

As angelic as his appearance was, beneath the surface he was just like every other self-serving human being: he wanted entirely too much.

"I'll make sure you're gone for good," I decided after a long moment, hoping that that would appease him, but when I looked up, his wild eyes were still profiling me.

"And if I refuse to leave?" he demanded insolently. I noticed a muscle twitching menacingly in his jaw, and I quirked a smile in response. This battle, unlike the last, was clearly mine.

"Then I'll do it in front of you."

He groaned softly and turned away, seemingly accepting defeat, at least for the moment. He focused all his attention on cracking eggs into the bowl and attacking them with the eggbeater, perhaps visualizing my face while doing so. I watched him for a minute or two before succumbing to old habits and seating myself atop the table, shutting my eyes tightly and mentally willing him away before I could picture him in a hospital gown.

My thoughts flitted momentarily to the unnerving realization that he'd clearly invested himself much too thoroughly in my survival, before redirecting to images that provoked less anxiety. I envisioned a gently winding path of yellow bricks, pyramids so tall they seemed to split the sky, a streetlamp shining serenely over a French café, and momentarily left the world behind.

After a dubious amount of time, a warm plate was placed in my lap, the seductive aroma of food sufficiently grounding me. Apparently while I was gallivanting through the nether regions of outer space, he'd been making omelets.

His striking face was looming much too close to my own, and I sucked in a gasp of air so deeply it was a wonder it hadn't pulled him into my lap. He grinned while I lapsed into an awkward coughing fit, and placed a fork in my hand.

"You should try it before it gets cold," was the helpful suggestion.

He smiled prettily, and I found myself forgetting that, just a moment earlier, I'd been pretending he didn't exist. He seated himself in the chair in front of me and watched me finally catch my breath with curious eyes. His constant surveillance was making me uncomfortable, and I distracted myself by prodding at the omelet with my fork.

"Try it," he persisted, eyeing the eating utensil in my hand with a decidedly funny look on his face. My eyes narrowed.

"Where's yours?" I asked warily, realizing that his plate was nowhere to be found. His eyes glittered in amusement and my concentration started to evaporate again. This time, luckily, I realized what was happening and mentally counted to ten to avoid a complete breakdown.

"Don't be suspicious," he admonished with a laugh, abruptly reaching out and taking the fork from my motionless hand. "I'm not too hungry. You, though, look like you need to eat."

I shot him a dubious look, wondering how someone as scrawny as him could possibly find it acceptable to patronize me about my eating habits.

He simply grinned, cut a piece of omelet, speared it, and extended the fork to me. When I made no move to accept it, he heaved a long-suffering sigh and offered, "Fine, my motivations weren't entirely selfless. I'd like to know if I'm a decent cook." He gave the fork a pointed wave.

I took it with a bit of confusion and mechanically brought it to my mouth.

It occurred to me mid-chew that perhaps he was trying to poison me, and for a moment I almost emptied the contents of my mouth onto his lap. Then I realized that if it were indeed something fatal, I honestly wouldn't have anything to complain about, as I'd be getting my desired result after all.

As it was, the food took up residence in my stomach without error, and the journey itself was, to my chagrin and his delight, quite delectable. I tried not to let my pleasure show, but he saw through me. With a self-satisfied grin, he retrieved the fork and repeated the action.

I had to struggle not to laugh. This was the closest I'd ever been to being force-fed, and it was surprisingly not entirely unpleasant.

"How's your wrist?" he asked, tone conversational.

I gave my fingers an experimental flex. "Immobile."

"Sorry. Apparently I wasn't of the medical profession." His cheeks reddened to a darker shade of pale, and I inclined my head in acceptance of his apology. He sighed and offered me another bite, which I took with only a slight pang of irritation. "How are you feeling otherwise?"

I handed the fork back to him, and he took it graciously. His smile left no doubt that he was pleased by my compliance.

"Like the world fell down while I was sleeping," I answered honestly. "What happened last night?"

"A lot of things," he responded matter-of-factly, the corners of his lips twitching lazily as he passed me the fork. "However, I'm assuming you're referring to the part where you fell asleep against my shoulder, and I – the perfect gentleman – carried you to your room, where you continued to sleep without a care."

I had a feeling my eyes were close to popping out of my head, so I shut them tightly to prevent it. "You're saying I fell asleep..." I repeated dumbly, "beside you?"

"Against my shoulder, yes." His mouth quirked and he motioned for me to continue eating. I pretended not to notice. "You must have been exhausted."

I shook my head, a jumble of confusion and shock leaving me nearly incoherent. "And you carried me back to my room?"

"Yes, and left you there sleeping quite peacefully," he answered patiently. "Do you realize that you sleep with your mouth open, but don't snore? It's quite charming."

I ignored him. Anyone else would have – and should have – left me in a heap on the table. Which ultimately incited the question: "Why did you do that?"

"Would you have preferred I stayed?" he asked, feigning surprise. I bit back a growl.

"That's not what I meant."

"Oh?" He let out a soft chuckle. "Whatever did you mean, then?"

I sat on my good hand to keep it from throttling him. "Why did you carry me to my room?" I bit out, my voice acerbic, and he nodded slowly, as if coming to some sort of tacit realization.

"This bothers you."

His voice was reproachful; it would have made me laugh, probably, had the circumstances been different. As it was, I was uncomfortable, and I was sure my sputtering broadcasted that fact more than adequately.

"You strike me as someone that would rather be left to sleep in her kitchen than be put in a situation where she might, perhaps, be left in someone else's debt." He raised an eyebrow, the faint trace of a smile lightening his face. "It's okay. I don't expect a 'thank you'."

"I asked for an explanation, not to be psychoanalyzed," I huffed, frustration nearly seeping out my pores. At the very least, it tainted my voice. If the expression on his face were any indication – a pleased set of the lips, a subtle crease in the corners of his eyes – he was enjoying every exasperated syllable.

"I apologize," he offered pleasantly, though his eyes still glittered at my expense. "That wasn't my intention. I'll try to keep my opinions to myself." He paused, eyeing the fork hanging limply in my hand. "And don't make me feed you that."

I shoved the bite indecorously into my mouth, raising my eyebrows pointedly. The omelet, adequate as it had been before, seemed to meet a barrier in my throat. His battle tactics unnerved me. He was all advance and retreat, but there was no little white flag in sight. Usually I drove people so completely nuts that they simply gave up. Not this man. He seemed to be enjoying every minute of my mulishness.

He retrieved the fork, speared another piece, and returned it to me. "May I ask you just one question though?"

I performed the required action, chewing thoughtfully. "You speak strangely," I accused instead of giving him an answer, and he cocked his head to the side.

"Do I?" he asked, off-hand. "I hadn't noticed."

"Well, you hardly have any basis for comparison," I admonished. "You sound…well, like you're telling a story when you speak. Your language is…it's uncommon in a country that thrives off of poor grammar and unnecessary abbreviations."

"I sound like you then," he deduced after a moment, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. A frown pulled at mine.

"I…yeah. A bit, I guess," I allowed, swallowing uncomfortably. He was watching me intently, as if awaiting some sort of enlightening explanation, and I shrugged my shoulders. "I…well, I used to write a little."

"A little?" He was smirking again.

"A lot, actually," I amended with a wince. "Until I realized I wasn't any good, and the only thing I'd gleaned from years of hard work was an above-average vocabulary. My sister, Lisa, used to tell me my speech sounded scripted…" I trailed off awkwardly, my smile sliding to my stomach. "And I have no idea why I just told you all that."

"It wasn't much, really," he soothed, smirk softening into a genuine smile. "Not enough to use against you. But I'd really like to ask you something, if you'll allow me."

He removed the fork from my hand and I sighed wearily, my fingers moving to knead my temples. "Go ahead, I guess. You already know more about me than I feel even remotely comfortable with. What could one more thing hurt?"

"That's what I'd like to know about, actually," he admitted, a slightly surprised look crossing his face. "Why are you so concerned about letting things like that slip? I'm hardly in any position to exploit you. I mean…you could do so much worse to me, couldn't you?"

I allowed a faint smile. He did have a point. "Why does anyone want their privacy?" I asked instead, watching him fiddle idly with the fork. "It's a defense mechanism. The less you know, the less I have to worry."

"But I wouldn't use it against you," he objected, brows furrowing. "I told you that."

"You may be the king of candidness now, but what about when your memories return?" I demanded with a twinge of exasperation. "You could be an entirely different person than who you are right now."

"You're saying this isn't my personality?" he accused, looking for all the world like I'd terribly hurt his feelings. To my surprise – though perhaps it shouldn't have been, as my conscience, now that it had returned, undoubtedly felt it had a lot of making up to do – I felt bad.

"I'm saying I don't know you," I clarified in attempt to mollify him. "I'm not one for divulging personal information to a complete stranger."

"So it's easiest for you to be this closed-mouthed, enigmatic, emotionally disturbed woman who I know absolutely nothing about, then?" He dropped the fork to rest on the plate with a clatter.

I tried not to be offended by his description. It was, I had to admit, pretty spot-on. "Basically. Everybody lives behind their own little masks to some extent, I think. It's the easy way out and whatnot." I sighed and began to pick at the remainder of the omelet with my fingers. "Nobody wants to be vulnerable. Nobody can afford to in this day and age."

A strange look crossed his face. "Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person," he said softly, his gaze sinking to the table. "Give him a mask, and he'll tell the truth."

My eyebrows shot upwards, a piece of egg meeting its flattened demise between my fingers. "You know Oscar Wilde?"

He looked up, eyes full of questions seeking mine. "Was that what that was?" He let out a relieved-sounding chuckle. "I hadn't the slightest idea what I was talking about."

"That's from The Picture of Dorian Gray," I explained, a bit unnerved by his blank expression. "A book. Oscar Wilde was a prolific writer, among other things."

"May I know more about him?" he requested politely, leaning forward in his seat. "I think I might have liked him very much." His face was dangerously close to brushing my knee, and his eyes gleamed in a way that was almost…ravenous. I thought about pushing the last few pieces of omelet in his direction, but decided against it. He probably wouldn't have taken the hint anyway, and I would've been left feeling stupid again.

"I…well, I have a couple books around here somewhere," I offered instead, my voice hesitant. His intensity and closeness were making me uncomfortable, but as usual, he held no regard for my personal space. "They might be boxed up in the closet, though." His face all but fell, and I shifted to the floor, damning my deplorable conscience to hell. "I'll look for them, if you'd like."

"I would like that very much," he agreed, nodding solemnly, and before I could give my motives the thorough questioning they clearly deserved, I was making my way to the closet.

I had a curious love/hate relationship with great works of literature. On the one hand, they fascinated me. How could someone have the ability to create fictional characters that would still be praised and agonized over centuries after their creation? That stymied me.

It also made me very jealous. I knew my writing could never compare to Oscar Wilde's, just like my painting could be nothing like Dali's and my acting could never match up to that of any modern day politician's. That gave me one hell of an inferiority complex, so I boxed up everything that might make me feel bad about myself and hid it in the closet.

It made me feel worse. Not only had my self-esteem reached an all-time low, I now had all kinds of time that I normally would have spent reading, writing, or painting, to think about it.

So, the paintings went back on the walls and the movies went back on the table beside the television. The books stayed in the closet due to their vast number and the corresponding fact that I was much too lazy to unpack them. I was also supposed to have died yesterday, and had figured that if someone wanted something to read while rifling through my apartment, they could take the time to look in the closet.

I just hadn't expected that someone to appear while I was still alive to do the searching myself.

Thankfully, the box in question was near the front of the clutter, and it was with minimal rummaging that I found what I was looking for. When I returned, he was still waiting in the kitchen, fingers drumming restlessly against the table.

"Did you find them?" he asked, rising excitedly from his chair.

I shook my head in bewilderment at his enthusiasm. I'd never seen a man so worked up about a book before. "I found The Picture of Dorian Gray. I don't know what I've done with the others," I explained, handing him the volume in question.

The pages were dog-eared and worn from use, but hopefully they remained legible. He didn't seem to mind. He dropped back into his chair without a word, eyes roving drunkenly over the description on the back cover.

I moved past him, placed my near-empty plate in the sink, and retrieved my paintbrush, anxious to get on with my work. Hopefully the book would occupy him for a couple hours and I could pretend more successfully that he wasn't there.

"May I ask you something else?"

I clenched my teeth as his soft voice broke my much-needed silence. Could he not cooperate for two minutes? "Yes," I decided after a moment of squeezing my brush. "But please make it quick. I'd like to paint some more, and I need it to be quiet."

He seemed to mull this over for a moment. "Okay. But I'd like you to be looking at me when I ask."

I turned around, confusion swelling at the unexpected expression on his face. His eyebrows had pulled together and his lips were trembling. "What is it?" I asked, a stab of concern nearly crumbling my wall of aloofness. He had, apparently, regressed back into frightened little boy mode while my back was turned, and while I could handle this personality better than Casanova, it still made me nervous.

He looked down at the book in his hands, which I was staggered to find were wracked with tremors. "I just…" He paused, considering, and finally met my gaze with disquieting eyes. "What if I'm like Dorian Gray?"

I let out a breathless laugh. That was all it was? He was so bothered over the little synopsis on the back of the book?

"Look, I don't know much of anything about you, but I'm almost positive you're nothing like Dorian Gray," I assured him after a minute.

"How can you possibly know that?" he demanded feverishly. "I could have done all sorts of terrible, horrible things before I met you! I just can't remember them. That hardly makes me innocent. I could be evil to the core!"

I couldn't think of an acceptable response to that, so I filed it away carefully for future study.

"Nothing makes one so vain as being told one is a sinner," I quoted at last, and his eyes widened in recognition.

"That was Oscar Wilde, too," he said, his voice calmer, and I nodded slowly.

"Yes. Now read your book and remember it's just that – a book. Paranoia doesn't become you."

He managed a bit of a smile, appeased if only for now. I tried not to let my relief show as I turned away from him, shut off my mind, and went back to my painting.

Author's Note: Comments? Criticisms? Questions? Predictions? Please let me know! I'm going to start doing review responses after this chapter, so if you have anything to ask/offer me, I'll get a response ready.

Next Chapter: Repartee, psychobabble, accidental revelations, and a big explosion.

Stay tuned, and as always, I appreciate your reviews so much it's almost embarrassing!