Author's Note: It was while writing this chapter that I really decided I needed to revise some character things on every character who wasn't Corrina or Trevor. Luckily I hadn't introduced any of them by this point! Also, I am resisting my fangirl-y urge to refer to Trevor as my "precious angel sweetie" because of all the horrible terrible things I put him through later... (I forever have more feelings about my side characters than my central protagonist/narrator. It's unavoidable). OKAY MINI-RANT OVER ENJOY THIS WE ARE ALMOST TO AN IMPORTANT THING



The children are talking at school.

They're always talking, of course, but in this case I'm the subject of their talk. Trevor and me, our names thrown from mouth to mouth as casually as badminton birdies, because somehow people know that I didn't sleep in my own house last night. And, as I might have guessed, they've come to the wrong conclusion.

Trevor is used to being talked about. He grins and bears it and raises his middle finger to the boys who crow at him. Half of them seem to be congratulating him, the other half chastising him for his defiance of Father's decree banning premarital sex.

I am not so strong, nor so accustomed to the jeering and leering of our classmates. Even those I'd counted as friends previously, like Bernice and Isla, are staring at me with wide eyes. I receive no congratulations, only stark silence and gaping faces, hushed whispers and shoulders that tense as I pass. Trevor is the only person I can talk to, and that only makes it worse, prompting more whispers and a few nervous giggles from Isla.

I lay my head down on the desk and wait for Teacher to inevitably find out, and for Trevor and me to be sent to see Principal to have "the talk." I'll probably get off with a warning, a light rap on the knuckles, since I've never done anything all that bad. Trevor won't be so lucky, though, since he's offended the administration many a time.

He shouldn't have made me stay.

We spend the next three hours listening to Teacher wax philosophical about sex, and all its meaning in life and in love. I don't listen to most of it; I'm too preoccupied with the impending lecture from either Teacher or Principal. Even when Trevor tosses a note back at my head, I scarcely lift my head, only unfold it glumly on the surface of the desk.

we're not doomed

What a lovely sentiment.

The notice comes at the beginning of lunch period, but only for me, not for Trevor. I stalk past the confused stares, drop a note on Trevor's desk as I pass, and make my way down the hall and into Principal's office.

Principal has always and will always remind me of an eagle. She has a prominent, beak-like nose and beady, bird-like black eyes. Everything about her is gaunt and bony, from her cheekbones to her pointed shoulders to the pale white ankles that stick out between the hem of her too-short pants and her too-shiny black shoes. When I was little, I thought that if you received poor marks in school, she would swoop down out of the sky and snatch you up and squawk at you until your arithmetic improved. That wasn't so far from the truth, actually, and it worked well enough as a scare tactic that we all studied dutifully until we were old enough to know that Principal, like all other human beings, couldn't fly.

She's regarding me now, with those ice-cold black eyes, her fingertips pressed together in a steeple formation and her prickly elbows pressed hard into the desk. At her side, in a plastic chair like the ones the students use in classrooms, is Alex Smith. Principal says nothing, only drops her eyes to the empty hard-backed wooden chair in front of her desk. I drop into it and gaze meekly back at her, trying my best to pretend that Alex Smith isn't there.

He is the first one to speak, however, so any hope I might have held that he was simply finishing an earlier conversation with Principal is obliterated. "Corrina," he says slowly, "I've been hearing some rather nasty things about what happened after you left your house yesterday."

So have I. "I assure you, Mr. Smith," I start apologetically, "none of those things are true."

Now Principal speaks: "So you did not, then, spend the night at Trevor's house?"

"I did," I admit. "I fell asleep, so he let me stay."

Principal's black eyes narrow, and her pencilled-on eyebrows furrow together, but she says nothing. Alex Smith's lips curve into the ghastly smile he wore yesterday. "And just where did you fall asleep, Corrina?" he asks.

"Trevor's bed," I say sheepishly. Principal sucks her lips in toward her teeth, pursing them so thin it looks as if she scarcely has lips at all, only that beaky nose and a slip of a line underneath.

"And what did you do on that bed?" she asks pointedly, just as Alex Smith asks, "And where did Trevor sleep?"

"I... I slept," I say. "Trevor slept on the floor."

"How chivalrous," Alex Smith smirks.

"Indeed," says Principal coldly.

There is silence for a brief moment, but then I breach it with one timid, childish question: "Am I in trouble?"

Alex Smith laughs openly. "Have you done anything to land yourself in trouble?"

"I don't think so," I answer, frightened at how high-pitched my voice has become. I'm frightened, I realize. If I were in trouble with the school, I would have been out of here by now, back out at lunch with Trevor. But I'm still here, and the atmosphere in this room is very tight, almost as if there's less air here than there is outside. "Why am I here?"

"I needed to speak to you," Alex Smith says flatly. "I told you I'd be checking up on you, remember?"

"I assumed you'd meant in a couple of weeks, or maybe even months," I reply. "Will this be a daily occurrence?"

"Only if you refuse to accept my terms."

I can feel the fear showing on my face, as my eyes flicker rapidly over him and my eyebrows tilt outwards. My face is beyond my control. Alex Smith, on the other hand, is completely composed, and even relaxed, unlike Principal, who is perched tensely behind her desk. Alex has one leg slung over the other and is leaning casually back in his chair. "What terms?" I squeak.

"I want to take away your pain," he says amiably. "Won't you let me do that?"

"I... I'd like to keep my pain, if it's all the same to you," I stutter.

"It's not a request, Corrina," Principal snaps sharply. "Though Mr. Smith did phrase it that way."

"A few more days," I plead, looking for some sympathy in Alex Smith's frigid blue eyes, knowing for certain that I'll find none in Principal's black ones. "I want to remember for a few more days."

"Trevor told you," Alex Smith surmises.

I nod once, curtly, and then blurt out, "I figured it out on my own, too. Adam didn't have any idea who Grams was when I asked about her, and I'm sure Mother is the same."

Alex Smith studies me, his eyes roaming over my face, down my neck to the rest of my body, all the way to the floor, where one of my feet is tapping incessantly against the other. "A few more days," he allows. "I will give you that. But know that anything regarding your grandmother, any conversations you might have with anyone in the next few days, or have had in the past few days, will be gone as well."

It's a threat, that much is clear, but I dare not ask what else might disappear. "I understand," I say.

"You may go," Principal barks, waving one spindly hand toward the door. I stand stiffly and walk out as quickly as I can without seeming overeager to leave. Trevor finds me, not a moment later, and though his eyes are filled with questions, he asks nothing, simply sits next to me in silence.

We stay like that for all of lunch, and then we go in and we learn more and we go home. He doesn't ask to come over; he knows I can't be seen with him right now. People think too much of us already, and though Trevor doesn't care, he knows I care. I don't want to be that girl. I never wanted to be that girl.

I scarcely speak to anyone for the rest of the day. I brush off Adam when he asks for help with math, I ignore my mother, I fight my way through dinner and I go upstairs and I sleep. The next day, I do the same. Wake up, slog downstairs, breakfast, no Grams, school, listen to Bernice yammer on about Troy, ignore Bernice ask about Trevor, pretend to ignore Trevor, listen to Trevor as he speaks out against Teacher, watch as Trevor marches dutifully out of the classroom to Principal's office, eat lunch, Trevor's gone, Bernice wants to talk after school, decline. Go home with the full intention of collapsing on the couch and not moving for the rest of the day.

But no. Alex Smith is sitting at my kitchen table yet again, and this time he's not alone. For a moment my heart skips, and I think that Grams has somehow come back from the dead, but then I notice that this woman's hair is half a shade darker a red, with fewer streaks of grey, and as she lifts her head toward me I see that her eyes are green, not grey like Grams's. Her lips part slightly, as if she's surprised to see me, but I can tell by Alex Smith's too-patient expression that I am just who they've been expecting.

"It's only been one day," I protest quietly. Alex Smith simply bows his white-blonde head and beckons for me to come and sit. I walk to the table mechanically and slowly lower myself into the chair, staring at the woman across from me. "You are not my grandmother," I tell her, somewhat stupidly.

"Corrina," Alex Smith says, "this is your great-aunt, Ms. Leah Hanover."

I close my eyes. Two names. Grams got trapped Inside, but her sister managed to stay out. I grasp at the second name desperately - Hanover. Would that be my name, if I had been born on the outside? "Ms. Hanover," I greet her in as friendly a tone as I can muster. She smiles at me faintly, but I can tell that it's forced. "May I ask why you're here?" I try to play the gracious host, but my voice is failing me. I know she's here about Grams, I just don't know why she's here for me.

Leah Hanover opens her mouth to speak, but Alex Smith cuts her off. "Ms. Hanover is here to speak to you about your grandmother."

"Are you... are you going to stay here the whole time?" I ask him. He sizes me up, and for a moment I think he's going to nod his assent, but then he stands.

"I'll leave you two ladies alone," he says, "but Corrina, don't think I've gone far. I'm going to be right outside." He says it as if he's assuring me some safety, but I hear it more as a threat: don't try anything. I'll be here to get you if you do.

I don't know what he expects from me. I'm not about to harm an old woman, especially not an old woman with whom I share blood and some genetic material. "Ms. Hanover," I say again, feeling the name, that blessed second name, roll off my tongue. "Are you married?"

It's a stupid question, and I know it's only the result of a childish desire to be an Outsider, to have two names, but she simply smiles, an actual smile this time. "No," she tells me. "There have been... there were men. But I'm not married." I must have been holding my breath, because I feel my shoulders relax downwards. "We're not here to talk about me, though, are we?" She leans over the table toward me, her green eyes flat and serious. "We're here to talk about my sister." I swallow and nod once. "Oh, Sheila," she sighs heavily. "I could have told you she'd end up here. I could have told you she'd end up this way."

I squirm in my seat. I don't want to hear this. Leah Hanover fixes me with a steely green glare, and the smile that had momentarily lit her face disappears. "You're almost the spitting image of your fool grandfather," she says icily. "You hardly look like my sister's grandchild at all." It's true, and I know it. Both Adam and I received more of our grandfather and mother's East Asian looks than we did Grams's Irish. "But you have the same eyes."

That isn't true, though. Grams's eyes are grey, and mine are black as night. I tell her so. "I don't," I say tensely.

"Not the color," she says, her voice cold. "But you're looking at me the same way she used to. Such hatred."

"I don't hate you," I try. "How could I? We've only just met."

"But I'm insulting you," Leah smirks, and brushes her deep red-and-grey hair behind her shoulder. "I'm insulting the grandmother you loved."

"Your sister."

"Not by choice," she remarks wryly, and I can remember Grams once saying something along the same lines. I've only ever seen one picture of Grams with her sister, from when they were in high school. Leah is younger than Grams by about three years, and the picture was from Grams's senior prom. They'd looked very similar then, though Grams was clearly older. Leah had had that look on her face that I often see on Isla when she looks at Bernice. I want to be you. I want to be standing there.

There were a couple pictures of the two together from before that time, but I've never seen them. And I know there were no pictures taken after that, after Grams left for school. All of the pictures are gone now, along with the rest of Grams's belongings.

"She was a firecracker, Sheila," Leah says, unbidden. "Always running off and doing things she wasn't supposed to." Her pale red eyebrows knit together in frustration as some memory overtakes her. "She thought she could get away with everything - she did get away with everything. Sheila was immortal."

No, I want to say. No, because she's dead. She was mortal, very mortal.

"She thought she could do no wrong. Mother thought so, too. She wanted me to do well in school, like Sheila had, to score high on tests, like Sheila. She wanted me to go to senior prom with the varsity basketball team's point guard. Mother wanted me to be Sheila, so I did my best. I got good grades, but didn't get into Berkeley like Sheila did. I did well on tests, but my SAT scores were lower than Sheila's. I took the baseball captain to prom, but he wasn't the same as the lean, strong, intelligent guy that my sister had gone with," Leah recounts bitterly. "I was better than Sheila in one aspect, though. I had morals. I didn't run off to hippie college to date some Japanese sex-crazed liberal protester. I stayed close to home, and I was sensible.

"All this started right at the end of my senior year. Sheila was a junior in college, still dating what's-his-face that she'd met in her Political Science class freshman year. And then All-Father came forth, and what's-his-face didn't like what he had to say, hippie protester that he was," Leah continues, her green eyes fixed on mine, cold and hard and unyielding.

"All-Father called on God to strike him and those like him down. And strike God did. Sheila was bereft, of course, without the love of her life or whatever sap story she had to tell me. But she didn't cry, Sheila, oh, no, she wouldn't cry. She was too 'strong a woman' for that. She had to go out and pick up his torch and continue his fight," she shakes her head. "She was always so bull-headed, so stubborn. She just couldn't admit when she was wrong. She should have just seen that All-Father had the right of it. He was a true prophet, you know, and his son after him, but Sheila, she didn't believe in any god. She said..." she trails off, closes her eyes, and then shakes her head as if to clear it, to shuffle her thoughts back in order. "She should have listened to All-Father when he told her, and all of her little pals, that God would punish them for their sins. And he did, oh, he did, and they were all struck down by disease. All-Father understood that as a sign, so he created-"

"Created the Inside. I know that part," I interrupt. I can't listen to any more of this. "He placed all of the transgressors, all those afflicted with a sinfully transmitted disease into communities separate from the rest of society, to separate the black-hearted from the righteous." Leah nods curtly.

"So here we sit, amid the black-hearted," Leah says, rubbing her temples with two withering fingers. "You understand why I told you all this?" When I say nothing, she continues: "Your grandmother was not a good woman. If she had been, she would not have ended up here. And here you sit before me, living proof of her sins." I feel my eyes narrow angrily.

Some part of me, the part most influenced by Trevor, wants to snap at her that I'm not a symbol of my grandmother's mistakes, but instead I squeak out a meager, "I am Insider," just as I'm supposed to.

"You are the spawn of my sister's bastard," Leah spits, and stands to go, curling her spotted hands around a tiny lime-green purse that must previously have been in her lip. Her nails are spotless, painted a red far brighter than her hair. As I'm watching her wrinkled, papery hands, one of them shoots out toward me and grabs at my wrist, turning it over to bare the pink bar tattooed under my skin. "You are the poster child of Insider."

Some part of me, perhaps some imprinted remnant of Grams, feels the urge to lash out across the kitchen table and slap her or even bite her. But again, my rational side wins out. "It was nice meeting you, Ms. Hanover," I grit out through teeth I didn't know were clenched.

My great-aunt does not return the courtesy, and instead simply nods once, curtly, and walks out brisk and straight-backed. I'm fully expecting Alex Smith to reappear and ask me what I've learned, and wouldn't I like the pain to go away, he could take away the pain. But he doesn't and when I poke my head out the front door, both he and Leah Hanover are nowhere to be seen.

I trot up the stairs and into my own room, pointedly ignoring the blank white space that once belonged to my grandmother. Everything feels empty for some reason, as if there is no life left in the house at all. It feels like I'm suffocating on air as brittle as Leah Hanover's fingers, but at the same time it seems that there's too much air around me, too much empty space.

A sudden, rare need for human companionship takes hold of me. I hesitate on the edge of the bed, conscious of Adam's presence in the room next door, but then I flop backwards onto the bed.

I don't need my little brother right now. Adam remembers nothing, as a result of whatever Alex Smith - or some other man like him - did to him the night they took Grams. I need someone who understands. I need Trevor.

I skitter down the stairs to where the phone hangs dejectedly from the wall, a fresh layer of dust on it since the last time my mother used it, to call in a complaint of my late grandmother. I blow on it once, and then dial in Trevor's number.

He picks up almost immediately, but his tone is acidic and angry. "What," he snaps. I don't understand why he's mad at me, if that's what he is. Maybe he's just in one of his "moods," as Bernice so eloquently put it.

"Can you come here?" I mumble timidly, acutely aware of how quiet my voice has become.

"Why." Like the first "what," it isn't a question so much as an accusation.

"I... I need..." I can't believe myself, stumbling over my words. "I need someone."

"Call Bernice," he advises gruffly, and I hear air whoosh past the phone as he means to hang it up.

"No!" I protest emphatically. The moving air sound ceases.

"No?" he echoes, his voice a pale hiss into the receiver.

"No, I... it has to be you."

He laughs once, short and dark. "Why, looking to make all those rumors that upset you so much a reality?"

"Don't be disgusting," I spit, appalled.

"So why?" he growls. "Why should I go to you?"

I notice that his words are running together slightly, in a way they never have before. Trevor's speech is always clear and precise, but now it's watery and indistinct. "Are you drunk?" I ask in disbelief.

"Ding ding, we have a winner," he slurs. "Your prize is a big fat fuck you."

"Trevor," I say imploringly, "why do you do this to yourself?"

"Maybe it's escaped your notice, princess, since you're all wrapped up in your own miserable little life, but I'm not exactly fucking happy."

"Language," I try feebly, and then I ask, "Is Alice home?"

A pause. "Don't you dare come here. I swear, if you come here, I'll..." he trails off, and I hear him mutter something away from the phone.

"What? You'll what?"

"You know if you come here again, you know... you know what they'll say," he says hastily. "And clearly you're not equipped to deal with that once, so I wouldn't recommend inciting even more conversation amongst our lovely classmates if I were you."

"Stop," I tell him, and I hear him draw in a slow, measured breath. "Alice isn't there, then. She wouldn't let you-"

"Alice has the late shift," he says tersely, "but that doesn't mean you can just waltz over here and-"

I hang up the phone and I waltz anyway, leaving a brief note on the kitchen counter to explain my absence.

Like I did the first day Grams disappeared, I let myself into Trevor's house, but this time I head directly upstairs and into Trevor's room. He's sprawled across the floor, with his head lolling back against the bed, a mostly empty bottle of whatever-it-is in one hand and the phone on the floor near the other. He's angry the second he sees me. "I told you not to-"

"Stop it," I say again.

He glares up at me petulantly and downs the remainder of the liquor. I snatch the empty bottle away from him, for all the good that'll do the both of us.

"Why are you here?" he whines.

I gesture exasperatedly at him and fold my arms, tucking the empty bottle under one elbow. "Why are you here?"

"I live here. Don't fucking mock me," he mutters, and starts struggling to stand up. I don't go to help him. He's no victim; he did this to himself. "Corrina," he says, "help me up. Come on."

"Help yourself up," I say, and step back six inches when he reaches for my leg to use it as a support.

"Fine then, be a bitch," he snarls.


"Fuck off. If you're not going to help me, then why are you here?" He finally succeeds at grabbing the bedframe, and pulls himself up so that he stands, shaking and off-balance, facing me in drunken fury. "Why are you here?" he repeats, raising his voice.

"I'm making sure you don't die," I inform him solemnly, watching him as he sways uncertainly on his feet. "Where did you even get this?" I glance dubiously at the bottle under my arm, but the label has rubbed off.

Trevor grins lopsidedly, a mischievous sheen to his misted, inebriated eyes. "You think books are the only things I steal?"

I don't want to know what else he's got in that bag of his, besides the banned books and the alcohol. Drugs? Knives? The ultimate contraband for its promotion of gratuitous sin: pornography?

He must be reading my mind, because he barks out another grim, clipped laugh. "It's just the books and the alcohol, Corrina," he says. "Old world pleasures."

"Pleasure is a..." I start to recite one of Teacher's old Protocol mantras, but Trevor cuts me off.

"Spare me the sermon," he snaps. "I'm not about to die, so you can just go."

"I'm not going to let you choke on your own vomit," I tell him sternly. Grams told me a couple stories about her time at Berkeley - mostly about the classes, once, when she was rather tipsy herself, about the protests, and, on the same occasion, about the parties. "You have to know when enough is enough," she'd said. "Otherwise you end up passed out in a puddle of your own puke. One time I had to do the Heimlich on my roommate when she choked on it." I didn't, and still don't, have any idea what the Heimlich is, so there's no way I can perform it on Trevor, so I echo my grandmother's words: "Enough is enough."

He glares at me, his eyes hot, black, and shiny, like gleaming coals under the shadows of his thick black eyebrows. "You took my bottle," he reminds me childishly.

"It was empty," I inform him.

"I know that." His expression is surly. After fumbling for a moment longer, he manages to cross his arms like I have, in what looks almost like an effort to use his arms to steady his swaying body.

"For all I know, there's another bottle in that bag of yours," I say, and take a step towards it where it lies at the foot of his bed.

"No!" Trevor protests and lunges sideways to intercept me, almost toppling over at the suddenness of his own movement. Instinctively, I reach out and grab him by the arm as he blurts out, "I only grabbed the one, just the one!"

His eyes are so wide, his words laid out so quickly and frantically, that I have to believe he is sincere. Trevor is a poor liar sober; I can only imagine that skill, or lack thereof, getting worse when he's drunk.

"Why are you here?" he asks again.

"I told you-"

"I'm fine!" he practically roars, fierce once again. "Can you... just go! You shouldn't be here, you can't be here!" He shakes me off and staggers back a few steps.

"Why not?" I shoot back.

"You just can't," he says stubbornly, sullenly, and again tries to fold his arms. Now that mine hang loosely at my sides, however, he has nothing on which to base the position and fails, his shoulders sloping dejectedly downward.

"Trevor," I try gently, reaching toward him, but he slaps my hand away.

"Get out," he commands, pointing shakily at the door. "For fuck's sake, Corrina, please."

"No," I say, and stand my ground. He lowers his arm and gazes at me balefully.

"Please," he croaks desperately. "Please, just go."

"Why are you so desperate for me to be gone?" I reach for him again, and he tries to strike me down once more, but he misses and my hand finds his shoulder. I steer him gently back toward the bed and push him lightly down to sit, just as he did for me two days earlier.

I almost smile at the situational irony: I called Trevor because I thought I needed him, yet here he is and he needs me. He may not want me here, but he needs me here. I sit down next to him, and he looks at me, his face a mixture of anger and sadness. "You fog my head up," he confesses quietly.

"Oh, I fog your head up," I laugh sadly, and brandish the empty bottle before his face.

"That's not the same," he says sheepishly. "You..." His eyes flicker down to my lips and then back up to my eyes, and I scoot half an inch further away from him, uncomfortable. "You mess me up," he finishes lamely.

"You should sleep this off," I say stupidly, even though he's clearly not tired. "That's what you're supposed to do, right?"

"And you're all about what you're supposed to do, aren't you?" he says bitterly. "Always following the rules, like a good little sheep."

It's the alcohol talking, I'm sure, but still his words cut deep. I'm not like him, and he knows that, yet still he resents it. "I am Insider," I whisper hollowly, doing my level best to hold his gaze, to keep those wild black eyes tame.

They roll toward the ceiling, exasperated, and he turns suddenly and angrily away from me. "You see?" he mocks me sourly. "You confuse things. You confuse yourself, you confuse me."
He's frightening me, and I tell him so.

"Of course," Trevor laughs grimly. "That's why you're such a good girl, isn't it? You're afraid."


"You're afraid to do anything, because what if you get caught? What happens if you get caught, Corrina?" he demands. "What happens?"

"They take you away and they kill you, and they make it as if you never existed!" I cry, as I feel hot tears beginning to bud at the inner corners of my eyes. "They delete you off the face of the Earth!"

"You know that, and you're still afraid?"

I wonder what he means. Disappearing, being gone forever and ever, not only in body but also in memory, is the single most terrifying thing I can think of. "Of course I'm afraid," I sputter. "I don't want to disappear, I want to live!" When he simply looks at me, with that expression on his face that he usually gets when he's trying to decipher a choice quote in a book, I weakly ask him, "Doesn't it frighten you, too? Tell me that doesn't scare you."

He takes me in, and then, so low it's almost inaudible, he says, "You disappearing frightens me a lot."

"I meant-"

He ignores me. "I'd remember, though. I always remember. And you... you remember, too." I dip my head slightly in the tiniest of nods. "Why didn't we forget?" he asks then.

I'd asked him that, and he'd answered me with a question. I give him the same treatment. "How could we?" I murmur.

We're silent for a moment, and then, for the fifth time tonight, Trevor asks, "Why are you here?"

I can't help but lower my eyes to the floor as I admit, "I needed you."

He snorts and throws his arms outwards, baring himself to me and the whole world around us. "Well," he crows, "here I am. You got me."

Not all of you, I want to snap. This doesn't count, this half of you that's lost in whatever you're drinking. But then I realize that maybe this was exactly what I needed: to see a person consumed by memory, by loss, a glimpse into what could have been my future. "Yeah," I respond. "I got you."

His arms lower, and again I avert my gaze from his face as his dark eyes turn to sad black pools. Some people's eyes look empty when they're sad, but not Trevor's, never Trevor's. His are as full as ever, brimming with emotion, but not with tears as mine just were. Even inebriated, Trevor won't break that much; pieces of him might chip off, but I can easily stick those back on. He is easily made whole again.

Still, I don't want to have to fix him. "Trevor," I say as gently as I can, finally raising my eyes to meet his once more. One of his hands lifts to my face and folds gently against my cheek so that his thumb trails lightly, barely touching, over my cheekbone. "Promise me you won't ever do this again," I breathe.

He stares back at me, his thumb frozen against my skin, and then one corner of his lip curls upward. "You'll have to pay me," he teases, though his eyes are still sad, almost defeated, though I don't know what it is that he's lost.

"With what?" I ask.

His eyes flash, momentarily mischievous, and in that instant he almost seems like himself. "A kiss."

"You're drunk," I snort.

"And I will be again, unless..."

I punch him lightly on the shoulder, but he teeters over sideways and then topples so that he's curled on his side on the bed, his legs hanging loosely over the side. He seems genuinely surprised by the change of his position, even more so when I reach over and push him onto his back.

He gazes up at me, wild wonder in his eyes as I lean over him and press my lips softly to his forehead through the thick black waves of his hair. "A kiss," I whisper, "for a promise." He takes my face again, and I'm certain he's going to redirect my lips elsewhere, but then he strokes my hair back behind my ear.

"I promise," he breathes, and then he lets his hand trail down my face to drape lazily across his chest, and just like that he falls asleep.