Greg sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes flying open wide and his heart pounding erratically. What was that noise?
He listened closely, but heard nothing. All was quiet and dark, as befitted the middle of the night. And yet –
He could have sworn he'd heard something. Something had woken him up, at the very least.
Kicking off his covers, he climbed out of bed and padded barefoot across the room to the door. Pulling it open (slowly, so as not to wake up anyone else), he looked out into the hall.
Both of his sisters' doors were open, the rooms dark. Of course – Anna was staying the night at a friend's house and Georgie wouldn't be home from college for another week. Neither of them was here to make noise, and no light showed through the crack under his mother's door.
He must have imagined it, he decided, shutting his own door quietly behind him and crossing back across the room to his bed. He had just slipped back under the covers when –
It was coming from outside the window. Standing up again, Greg tiptoed cautiously over to the window and peered out. He couldn't see anything, but now his ears picked up on a quiet hissing noise. What in the world was outside?
He opened the window, stuck his head out, looked around –
"Psst! Down here!"
He looked down –
And nearly fell out of the window in shock. His mind could not process this.
"Stella?" he managed to choke out.
She shot him a cheeky grin, holding up the third pebble she'd been about to fling at his window, and he felt his cheeks grow warm. Suddenly he was very aware of the fact that he was in nothing but his boxers and that his hair was probably sticking out all over the place; self-consciously, he tried to smooth it down as she continued to grin up at him. "Hi."
"What are you doing here?" On the list of people he could not picture doing something like this, Stella made number one.
"Um. Yeah. Well." It was dark, but was it possible that she was blushing? "Funny story. You know how I have this strange need to prove people wrong all the time?"
He nodded, but she didn't seem to be waiting for an answer. "Well, Leah and Cici were teasing me for my lack of daredevil-ness, and they said I'd never dare to do this even if my life depended on it, and I couldn't exactly let them have the last word, so, um, yeah. Here I am."
"Hang on." He rubbed sleep out of his eyes, his half-awake brain struggling to keep up. "Why were Leah and Cici talking about you sneaking over to my house in the first place?"
She was definitely blushing now. "Um. No reason." She tugged on the ends of her blonde hair; it stood out in the darkness.
He still couldn't believe that she was actually standing outside his window at – his eyes flicked over to the clock – one in the morning. Ignoring the fact that his heart was now tap-dancing in his chest, he looked back down at her. "How did you get here?"
"Bike." She pointed towards the edge of his property, where he could indeed make out the figure of her bicycle leaning against a tree.
"Through the woods?"
"I ride my bike through the woods all the time," she reminded him, sounding affronted.
"Right." He had forgotten that – the sight of her tended to make him forget things. "Well," he ran his fingers through his hair again, "um, let me just put on some – some clothes, and then—"
She was blushing again. "Don't worry about it," she protested. "I mean, if you don't want to, that is – I mean, I disturbed you, I know, and if you'd rather go back to sleep—"
"Stella." He picked up his discarded jeans from yesterday from the floor, and started to pull them on. "You surprised me, that's all; you didn't disturb me. Of course I want you to come in. It's been a year since we were able to see each other at all."
"Oh." She giggled nervously. "Um. Okay. I'll just go – I'll go lock up my bike, then, and you can – can get dressed."
He felt his face starting to burn. "Right. Yeah." As she ran off towards her bike, he rifled quickly through his drawers in search of a clean shirt.
By the time he had found one and pulled it over his head, she was back under the window. "Are you sure?" she whispered. "I mean, your mom likes me since we've known each other forever, but if she catches me here—"
"You were the one who came," he reminded her.
"I know." She ducked her head sheepishly. "But now I'm starting to question my sanity – and I don't want to risk your mom finding me here. I mean, they wouldn't let us be at each other's houses past ten with full parental supervision, and now—"
His heart sank a little. "Well," he began.
"I know!" She interrupted him before he could get any more out. "Could you – come out instead? That way, even if we do get caught, I could just hide, and then – would that be okay?"
"Sure." Fishing his favorite sneakers out from under his bed, he jammed his feet into them. "Be right out."
He closed the window, opened the door, and peeked into the hall. His mom's room was still dark.
Carefully, quietly, he tiptoed down the hall, wincing every time his foot made contact with the floor. He grabbed his key from the hook on the wall, eased the door open, and, as soon as it had closed behind him, he let out a sigh of relief.
And then she was there, face flushed, eyes bright. When she hugged him in greeting, he could have sworn he could hear her heart beating – from excitement, or from the risk, or was it from something else –?
No. No use having false hope.
"Hey," she said breathlessly, pulling away. "This is officially the craziest thing I've ever done."
"Crazier than leaving your friends and family behind for a year to travel to a foreign country?"
She nodded. "Crazier."
She was wearing a long coat, one that reached to her knees, and it was buttoned all the way up. He wondered why – it was summer, and the night was warm.
When he asked her about it, her cheeks reddened again. "Um. The clothes were part of the dare – that was Cici's idea – and I decided to use my superior intellect to cheat it. I'm wearing what they wanted me to wear, I just – covered it up a little."
"Why?" he asked – suspicious and interested at the same time. He wouldn't put anything past Cici. "What are you wearing?"
She shook her head vehemently. "I'm not showing you."
"You know what?" She shrugged. "Fine. But you may regret it." And she moved her hands to the buttons on the coat.
When the coat had fallen open and she'd pulled it off, his jaw practically hit the ground.
She was wearing the shortest shorts he'd ever seen her in, as well as a tiny tank top that was obviously meant for someone much smaller than she was – it only covered half of her midriff. It was . . . they were the most revealing clothes he'd ever seen her wear.
As his eyes raked over her, taking her in, she scowled at him and folded her arms over her stomach. "Told you," she said crossly, sliding her arms back into the coat and redoing the buttons quickly. "My friends are sadists."
"N-no." He had finally regained the power of speech. "They're . . . you look . . ."
"Awful, I know." She shuddered. "It's all way too tight – remind me never to borrow clothes from Cici again . . ."
"No, you look . . ." His mouth was dry. He swallowed and started again, without finishing the first sentence. "Why did Leah and Cici dare you to sneak over to my house at night in . . . in . . ." He waved his arm to indicate her clothes. "Why would you be talking about that in the first place?"
"Are you sure you want to know?"
"Yes." Why wouldn't he?
Her hand closed around his wrist, and her eyes met his. She had drawn a bit closer to him now. "You mean you haven't guessed by now?" she asked quietly.
The places where her fingers were touching him tingled. "N-no," he managed to stammer.
She drew even closer. Her pupils were dilated, huge; the black seeming to swallow up the blue. He was seconds away from falling into their depths.
"Now?" she asked. Her face was centimeters away from his.
Oh, was the last conscious thought he had before she closed the gap between their lips and everything else ceased to exist.