Chapter 16

I still couldn't see the darkness, but the bone-chilling fear leaked away, and I slumped a little into his embrace. "It's really you," I said, feeling the familiarity of his face. His warm hand came up to grasp mine. "I thought you weren't coming back." I swallowed. "Especially not after what I said to you."

He sighed, pressing his face into my hair. "You didn't expect me to leave it at that, did you?"

I stepped away from him, though I kept my hands on his arms. "I did."

"Ariadne." He lowered his face until he could look me in the eye, even though I still couldn't see him clearly in the darkness. "I'm your friend. When you need me, I will be here for you."

I smiled, but a jolt went through me when he called me his friend, bringing back unwelcome memories of the kiss. Were we just going to put that behind us now?

"But, Ariadne." He touched my face. "You were crying," he noted, rubbing his fingers together. "You can't let this go on anymore. You were… hysterical. You could barely breathe."

"I've been fine."

"No. You're not fine, Ariadne. Here." He put an arm around me and led me to the door. I felt woozy still, and I was glad that I had him to stabilize me. Otherwise, I wouldn't have made it to the door. Once we were outside, I noticed that the hallway was dark, too. Everyone had left.

"How long was I in there?" I whimpered.

"Only a couple minutes. You came at closing time," Raphael said. "Sit down." I sat, or more appropriately, crouched, against the wall and closed my eyes.

"This can't go on anymore, Ariadne. Not if you want to live life the way it's supposed to be lived."

"Raphael, I—"

"No." He cut me off. "People have been offering you concessions all your life because you're too vulnerable, too delicate. I can tell. But that tactic hasn't worked, so I'm changing it. You're going to solve your problems, Ariadne. You're going to solve them because I'm going to come with you and make sure you do."

"How do you know that I have to go anywhere?"

"There's someone, isn't there?" He observed me, and I felt the gray of his eyes cutting into my secrets. "There's somebody who made you this way. You mentioned… that you had a sister."

I breathed in and out. Arissa.

"I wondered why you said her name the way you did. So… sad."

"She made me love reading," I said. "Then she left, and books were all I had of her."

"That's not true," Raphael said, shaking his head. "She left you with her memory. And nightmares."

I bristled. "It's not her fault."

Raphael sighed. "I came back, Ariadne. I came back because I knew you needed me. I came back even though I'll suffer the consequences when I get back, and if I was given a chance to change what I've done, I'd still do it. So won't you make my decision worth it?"

For some reason, his words made me warm. I'd assumed he'd come back because he could, not that he was sacrificing anything by doing so. And I couldn't pay that back by going back to my whiney, afraid self. It wouldn't be fair to him, and it wouldn't be fair to anyone, least of all myself. Raphael was right. I couldn't live like this anymore.

"Let's go," I said.

"Where?" he asked.

"Iowa."

"Iowa? What are we going there for? You have a sudden hankering for corn?"

I shook my head, too busy worrying over my quick tongue to be offended. "I'm going to go. And…" I swallowed. "I would love it if you'd come with me."

Raphael made a move to glance at his wrist, like he was about to check his watch and tell me that no, there were other matters that needed tending. I steeled myself for the oncoming rejection. But then he caught himself and looked at me, smiling. "Lead the way."

We took the subway to JFK, and although Raphael never touched me in any way that would've been indicative of where our relationship was, he stayed near. His body always stayed protectively close to mine, his hand above mine on the pole as we swayed with the movement of the train and tried not to bump into other people taking the rush hour trip home.

At one point, I realized what I was doing. I was going back to Ackley, Iowa. For the first time in five years. My parents… I didn't even know if they were still there.

Raphael must have noticed that my breaths were coming out faster than they did normally, because he leaned close to me and whispered in my ear, "'I wandered lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o'er vales and hills,/When all at once I saw a crowd,/A host, of golden daffodils.'"

I smiled. "How did you know that would calm me down?"

"You seem like a Wordsworth person. Hard to understand and beautiful." He pulled back as the subway doors slid open, letting in a rush of cool air. "We're here. Come on."

We stumbled into the airport, and I felt that strange displacement of time like I always did when I entered an airport. It was like a portal between the past and future, and neither was certain until you stepped on a plane.

"Two tickets on the soonest flight to Waterloo Regional," I told the lady at the desk.

She eyed me, probably wondering what would possibly possess me to leave the city during holiday season for the middle of nowhere. Then she looked at Raphael, and her flattened mouth relaxed into a coy smile. "Is ten o'clock tonight fine with you?"

I felt irritation tug at me, since she wasn't even looking at me. Who exactly was the customer here?

"Yes, that'll be fine," I said, directing her reluctant gaze towards me. We handed over our IDs and she printed the ticket. But when it came time for me to take out my credit card, Raphael stepped in front of me and handed her his. Ignoring my murderous look, he took his card back and smiled at her, murmuring a "thank you."

"What are you doing?" I snapped.

"Paying for you," he said, looking befuddled.

"Who's doing whom the favor here?" I demanded.

"Nobody's doing anyone a favor," he said serenely. "But if you really want to see it that way, I've always wanted to go to Iowa, and you're doing me a favor by giving me a reason to go. So obviously I should be paying you for doing me a favor."

I gaped at him before turning on my heel and stomping away. There would be no use arguing logic with him if he was just going to use his insatiable need to see the land of corn as an excuse.

"Hey, where are you going? We're supposed to go that way."

I huffed before I turned around again and went in the direction I was supposed to go.

"You're not seriously mad at me because I paid for you, are you?"

"Those tickets were expensive, Raphael. Not petty cash."

"So?"

I pressed my fingers to my forehead and took a deep breath. "You didn't have to pay for me. I have my own money."

"I wanted to do this for you, Ariadne. This is what friends do."

There was that word again. Friends. Would it have been different if he was my boyfriend? Would I feel less like my emotions about our situation were spiraling out of control?

"Fine," I conceded. "But I'm going to buy you food the entire time we're there."

"If we're going to have a diet of corn, you're not going to be paying much."

I made a face. "Quit stereotyping."

"I can't help it. When I think Iowa, I think corn. At least we're not going to Idaho. I don't like potatoes."

I groaned, locating our terminal and moving in that direction. "We have other things besides corn." It was a bit of an exaggeration. Ackley wasn't all that big. The last time I'd been there, the prime tourist attraction had been a working soda fountain.

"Like what?"

"I guess you'll have to wait and see," I hedged. "Here, how about I buy you a magazine from one of the stores? What do you read? People? US Weekly?" I was reminded of a similar conversation we'd had in Barnes & Noble, before I'd figured out why Raphael was so interested in Businessweek. It occurred to me that he still knew next to nothing about my sister, and the imbalance between our understandings of each other surprised me again. Most people would have given up trying to know me by now. But not Raphael.

Raphael smirked at me. "How about I buy you a romance novel? We can call it a trade."

I scowled. "How about we just choose our own reading material."

"Good idea."

We went to the nearest duty-free shop, and I was a bit unsettled to see that they didn't stock classics. Instead, the latest New York Number One Bestsellers were stacked everywhere, showcasing topics from shady murders to bondage.

"Oh, yeah," Raphael said, pointing at a shiny, dark blue book cover that displayed handcuffs. "This looks your speed."

I grimaced, afraid that even touching it would taint me. "I can't find anything good."

"Hmm." He reached out and grabbed a random book off the shelves. "Read this one."

"What is this?" I flipped it over and eyed the summary. Suspense and mystery, with a little romance. "This looks like one of those sensational novels with absolutely no character development whatsoever."

A teenager who had been browsing through our aisle gave me a dirty look.

"Let's check out," Raphael said hastily. "I think you're offending everyone within a mile radius. But try the book. You might enjoy it. Besides, it's a plane flight, not your execution. You're not going to die quoting Shakespeare today."

"That's what you think," I muttered as we returned to the terminal.

When the announcement came for us to start boarding, I started breathing hard again.

"You sure you don't have asthma?" Raphael asked. I glared at him, and he laughed, putting a hand at the small of my back and gently pushing me towards where a smiling woman was checking tickets. "It'll all be fine. You'll see. Remember, there are windows."

Once we were seated inside the plane, me in the window seat, Raphael in the middle, and an immaculately dressed businessman in the aisle seat, I took out the book I'd bought, hoping it'd distract me from the stomach-dropping feeling that I always got from takeoff. I hadn't been in a plane for five years, and I still hadn't forgotten what it felt like to be trapped in one for three hours.

"I have to pee," I whispered to Raphael.

He cast me a knowing look. "No, you don't."

I frowned. "I think I know my own bladder better than you do."

The businessman seemed to edge away from the two of us, and Raphael closed his hand around mine. "Tell me about Ackley."

I shrugged. "What's there to say?"

"Well, what did you like about it?"

"Nothing. That's why I haven't been back for five years."

Raphael looked frustrated. "There has to be something interesting about it. Your childhood wasn't just a haze of horribleness, I'm sure."

"Well…" I fiddled with his fingers. "There was my sister. She made everything better."

Raphael's voice was soft. "Tell me about her then."

I looked up at him. "Are you sure you want to know?"

"I want to know everything about you." He glanced at the businessman, who seemed extremely absorbed in the provided issue of AirMagazine, then looked back at me. "But it's your choice in the end whether you want me to know."

"I grew up with her voice everywhere. She was the exact opposite of me: noisy, boisterous, and you always knew when she was in a room. But she also loved to read. We were five years apart, and even when I was only one or two years old, she'd come and summarize an entire book that she'd just read because she needed to share her excitement with someone. And that never changed. She made me love literature, and I always feared that one day she'd run out of books to tell me about, but she never did. Then… she just stopped."

I inhaled and looked out the window. We'd risen above the clouds, and all I could see were smooth white puffs, shot through with shadow and gray.

"I have brothers, but I've never counted on them that way," Raphael said, sounding thoughtful. "I always wondered what that would feel like, to have an older brother or sister who cared about you. But all I've ever been to my brothers was someone different, and all I've ever been to my parents was their last chance to make up for my brothers' failures."

I felt sad, truly sad. Sad that some people couldn't see how wonderful Raphael was, especially his own flesh and blood. Maybe his parents regretted him, but they certainly hadn't gone wrong in how they'd raised him. I realized what he was doing; letting me see parts of him so that it didn't seem like he was only stealing information from me.

"She stopped?" he urged me quietly.

"She met someone." I felt my mouth thin as I thought about him. His name wasn't important; it was what he had done. "And it was the same as losing her. She rarely came home anymore. My parents, who were used to her always around, worried. With the worry came arguing. She said it was love." I shook my head. "I think it was obsession. But people get over obsession. She never did."

"Are you going home to see her?"

"No. She's gone." The words resounded between us, and the silence only ended when a stewardess came over to ask us about drinks. Raphael chose coffee, and I asked for water, even though I probably wouldn't drink it. I didn't want to have to get up and stumble across the plane to the bathrooms.

As Raphael was taking out the tray from the back of the seat in front of him, the businessman tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, do I know you?"

Raphael stared at him for a long moment before he seemed to realize something. "Yes," he said. "Samson Gregory, isn't it? I'm Raphael Lazarus, from Lazarus Corporation."

"I know you," Samson said, reaching out to grasp Raphael's hand. "I helped your father with that merger. Remember, the one with Rennet House—"

"I do," Raphael interrupted, shaking his hand firmly. He turned his back on me, effectively shutting me out from the conversation. "Tell me, how has your latest case with—"

And he was lost for the rest of the flight. They talked mergers, acquisitions, and companies I'd probably seen on the back of a cereal box or glimpsed on a billboard. So, things I'd never thought about twice. It was like Raphael had become a different person. The hoodie he was wearing might as well have transformed into a suit and tie.

He didn't look at me once.

I glanced at my watch and sighed. Two more hours.

Opening the book he'd recommended me, I started reading, Raphael and Samson's chatter about business becoming an unpleasant drone in the background.

The first sentence didn't sound very promising.

I spent my days moonlighting as a burglar and the nights chasing women in bars.

I reserved my judgment and flipped the page.

Ten pages in, I was hooked. There'd already been a murder, and I felt guilty for being caught in the exhilarating sense of mystery. Also, the main character sounded very, very sexy.

I was almost done with the book when touchdown was announced from the loudspeaker. Anxiously, I speed-read the last twenty pages. Even when people were beginning to get up and take their luggage out of the overhead compartments, I sat with my seatbelt still on, absorbing what had happened.

"Ariadne?" Raphael was standing over me. Samson had vanished, which was probably why he had deigned to offer me his presence. "It's time to go. You okay?"

I unbuckled my seatbelt without talking to him and began to follow the stream of people outside. The book had been good, but the rejection from Raphael still stung. After we'd exited customs, I called a cab, almost whistling for one like I had to in New York and catching myself. There weren't that many people coming and going here.

That was probably when Raphael realized that I wasn't just caught up in the brilliance of the book he'd given me. "Why are you so quiet?" he pressed, and I shrugged, getting into the back of the cab.

"3974 Mill Lane," I told the driver, and then I settled back in my seat, stowing the creased book into my bag. I might have to consider rereading it in the future.

"Is it because of your parents?"

"Not everything is because of my parents," I said, before turning my face to the window. Then, feeling guilty, I turned back to him and said, "The book was really good. Better than I expected, though I wasn't expecting much. It really distracted me from the lack of company."

Raphael seemed to be thinking over what words he could give me to better satisfy me, but in the end, he just turned away to stare out the window, much like I had. I didn't want to keep feeling sorry for myself, so I distracted myself with the worry that I'd basically just hopped onto a plane with no plans, no luggage, and no prospects, all on the hope that my parents would still be in the house I'd left them in five years ago. Then again, they were my parents. I might have left at 17, but I still knew that it'd take a lot more than family issues to get them to leave what they'd called home ever since they'd fallen in love and decided to build their own house decades ago.

The civilized, metal monstrosity of the airport disappeared behind us, giving way to soft, feathery fields of corn and the white towers of windmills. It sent a strange pang of nostalgia through me. As much as I'd said that there was nothing in Ackley, my childhood had still consisted of these green meadows and the odd scarecrow.

We stopped in front of a white farmhouse with a well-kept patch of grass. I saw sunflowers peeking over the battered white fence and knew that my parents were still here. Nobody took better care of flowers than my mother did, and nobody loved sunflowers more.

Raphael managed to pay the cabdriver before I did, stuffing a bunch of bills in his hand, and I shot him a resigned look before I climbed out of the cab.

He caught me at the doorway of my parents' house, grabbing my wrist. "I'm sorry. For what I did. Though I'm not quite sure what it is..."

I took a breath and decided to be honest. He deserved as much, for following me out here. Just because he ignored me didn't mean I had any right to get so bitter over it. It seemed all I'd been doing lately was being touchy and incapable of being approached. I was going to put a stop to that. "You don't need to cater to my every need, but I just... don't like feeling alone."

He opened his mouth before closing it again. Then he seemed to be about to say something, but the door flew open, and I was left staring at a plump woman with my eyes and my hair.

"Ariadne?" my mother asked.


A/N: So obviously the world couldn't end because then nobody would know where Raphael and Ariadne ended up. Happy holidays, everyone!