“Okay. But that doesn't leave me a whole lot to say.”

I smiled up at him, forgetting every thought when the morning sun beamed down across his hair, highlighting the golden tones, making every strand obvious. I just wanted to run my fingers through it. “I like your hair,” I said, instantly snapping to the realisation that I just said it out loud.

“Thank you.” He grinned mischievously, sweeping his hand through it. “I uh…I grew it myself.”

I laughed. “Sorry—forgot to put my brain-to-mouth filter on this morning.”

“That’s okay.” He winked at me. “I like you that way.”

He dropped his hand into his pocket, and my eyes strayed from his hair to his jaw then down to the top button of his shirt, sitting slightly open, showing golden skin underneath.

“Stop biting your nails, sweetheart.” He gently pushed my fingers away from my mouth.

“Oh.” I stuffed both hands tightly into my pockets. “Didn’t realise I was.”

After a soft smile, he started walking. “I know. You do that a lot.”

“I know.” I grinned sheepishly, then pointed to his guitar case. “What kind of guitar is it?”

“Oh, uh—” He looked down at the case. “It’s a Maton. Twelve string.”

“Actually? I did. For the first time in months.” I smiled, but dropped it instantly, realising my response could be bait for more questions. Please don’t bite.

“Uh. Well. I um. Yeah, of course I do. I just meant that…” Wow, I’d really put my foot in that one. “I stayed up late talking with a friend last night.”

“But you said you slept.”

“I did. After.” I looked at my feet, wishing he’d just drop it.

“Who were you taking to last night?”

“Not really. I mean, he was a few years ahead of me in primary school, then I went to an all girls’ high school, so, you know, we played at school as kids, but not once we grew up.”

“What did you do then?”

I laughed. “Then? He practically lived at my house—or me at his.”

David nodded, his eyes straying slowly forward. “And you miss him—that’s why you stayed up talking?”

“I—” I closed my fist around my thumb, resisting the urge to munch it. “I don’t really know.”

“You don’t know if you miss him?” he confirmed.

I felt his eyes on me, felt him searching inside me, sending my shoulders around my ears.

“How many years ahead?” he asked out of nowhere.

“This guy.” He smiled. “You said he was a few years ahead in school. How much older is he than you?”

“A little over three,” I said, growing taller without the tension shrinking me.

“Yup. Twenty one in May next year.”

David nodded. “And what about you? When’s your birthday?”

“What, you can’t guess that by studying some random feature of mine?” I said sarcastically. “Like my piano hands?”

“I could find out for myself—if I wanted to. But I’d rather ask you.”

“Well, when you put it that way…March seventeen.”

“Hey! What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just funny how much that fits you.”

“Says he who’s known me for a day.”

“Hey, you two.” Emily waved before we reached the top of the stairs.

“Hi, Emily.” I waved back, noticing that, aside from her blue top, we’d pretty much dressed the same.

“Good morning, Emily.” David nodded in his cool, charismatic way.

“Ready to start another day?” she said.

“Em. David.” Ryan called, running out from the school.

“It’s Nathan, guys,” he said, coming to stand beside us.

“Oh, right. Sorry, Ara, you wouldn’t know about this,” Ryan said, “but, he’s our star quarterback—he got sick last week. Hasn’t been able to get out of bed.”

“Well, at first they said it was a really bad flu or something, but my mom just spoke to his mom in the pharmacy.” Ryan looked at David. “He’s had to go to the hospital, man. They couldn’t keep him at home any longer.”

“What? No!” Emily covered her mouth. “Will he be okay?”

“They’re not sure. He’s on machines and stuff to keep him alive, but, you know Mrs Rossi? She was crying ‘cause she doesn’t have insurance—said she can’t get Nathe the care he needs.”

Emily covered her mouth. “What are they gonna do?”

“Are you all good friends with Nathan?” I asked.

“Everyone is—he’s just one of those guys, y’know?” Ryan added.

“Well, why don’t we do a fundraiser?” I shrugged. “We could put on a concert and charge people to come—give the money to Nathan’s mom.”

As if a light bulb had been switched on, they all looked up at me with a shimmering glint in their eyes. “Oh my God, Ara.” Emily grabbed my forearm and started bouncing on her toes. “That’s such a good idea.”

“We should get moving on this right away,” Emily said. “I’ll talk to Mrs Hawkins about it…er, if you don’t mind, Ara.”

“Oh, yeah, Em, this is better your project than mine.”

“Great.” She beamed, rocking back on her heels. “Well, I’ll get things moving, and maybe have everyone meet in the auditorium at lunch if they want in?”

“Okay.” She went to walk away, then stopped. “Way to go, newbie.”

“Yeah. You rock,” Ryan said before skipping off, looping his arm over Alana’s shoulder when she came out from the school.

And David and I were finally alone again. Or maybe just I was. He seemed distracted again, wearing a kind of smile I thought belonged only to me—the tight-lipped one that covered a set of gritting teeth. “David?”

He bent down to pick up his guitar case, his arched brows prompting my question as he stood up again.

With a soft smile, the edgy concern lifted from his face and he nodded. “Yeah, sure. I’m fine.”

While Miss Chester prattled on up the front of class, I drew pictures of eyes all over my notepad; sad eyes, smiling eyes, secretive eyes, but all of them David’s eyes—not that they really looked anything like his. I doubted even a camera could capture the true beauty of his face. Even my memory did it no justice.

I tapped my pencil on the page, trying to see through the solid classroom door, hoping David was waiting for me out there. The clock on the wall sat at three minutes to lunch, but the corridors were already bustling with students, and I was in the only class whose teacher didn’t give early marks.

Then, almost as if it obeyed my command, the bell wailed loudly and the class broke into noisy shuffles, fleeing the room. I tucked my books under my arm and pushed my chair in, looking up to the sound of my name. “Yes, Miss Chester?”

“Um, sure.” I glanced quickly at the corridor—to freedom—to David, leaning on the locker with his hands in his pockets, looking down at his shoes. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No, just wondering how you’re doing?” she said softly, busying her eyes on some papers.

“Just so you know—” She looked up at me, her pale lips forming a smile. “I’m a good friend of your dad’s. If you need to talk—at any time—I’m always available. Okay?”

“Okay, and, Ara?” she said as I turned away.

“Try to pay more attention in my class.”

“Yep,” I said, feeling stupid after. Yep? What was I thinking? Yep?

“Everything all right?” David stood from his lean.

“Yeah. Fine. Why?” I let him take my books.

“Sheee…just wanted to see how I was going.”

“Uh, homework?” I cringed at the tone of my lie.

David smiled warmly, keeping his eyes on the path ahead. “So…you’re not paying attention in class?”

“Um, no. Not really.” I looked down at my feet, half noticing the walls go from white to burgundy.

“I…I guess…I’m tired?” And there that questioning tone came again.

“You can talk to me, Ara.” David gently grabbed my arm, stopping me by the auditorium door. “You don't have to make up some lie.”

“I heard what she said.” He waited, looking right into me as if I’d just spill the beans. “She wasn’t just asking how you were coping with a new school, was she?”

“Hey, you two.” Emily popped up out of nowhere. “Ready to start our first official meeting for the benefit concert?”

“Yup.” I stepped away quickly to stand beside Em. “Ready.”

“Great. Did you get lunch, yet? Cafeteria lines are out the door today.” She nodded toward her tray of food. “Mr Grant said we can eat lunch in the auditorium if we’re rehearsing.”

“Yeah, I know, hey. So, I’ll go reserve a table near the stage. See you in a minute?”

“Why don’t you go ahead, Ara,” David said, passing my books and his bag. “I’ll brave the cafeteria lines.”

My fingers tightened around his backpack, finally touching something that belonged to him. “Sure, thanks, David.”

He tried to smile, but his clearly agitated gaze kept drifting toward Emily. “Anytime.”

As he turned away, I squatted down and reached into my bag. “David. Money.”

“Ara.” He held his palm against my outstretched hand, glaring down at me.

“Come on.” Emily grabbed my arm and dragged me gently away. “One thing you’ll learn pretty fast is not to refuse David when he wants to spend money on you.”

I turned my head slowly to look at her. “How do you know that?”

“David and I have been friends for a while.” She watched him walk around the corner. “We used to be closer, but…”

With a heavy sigh, I grabbed our bags and books and headed into the auditorium behind Emily. “I can’t let him buy me lunch all the time—when’s it going to stop?”

She giggled, walking ahead of me. “It’s not.”

Sinking into my quilt, I drifted, floating in that blissful moment between sleep and wake, where dreams mingle with reality, slowly and magically merging until everything in the now disappears. Here, in this halfway world, I could be with David in any form imaginable; friend, girlfriend, lover.

I drew a deeper breath and settled into the fantasy, angling my face to the warmth of the summer sun as it kissed my skin, lighting everything around me with a yellow glow.

“Hey there, beautiful.” David landed beside me in the grass.

“Hey.” I smiled, pulling petals off a daisy, whispering, “He loves me; he loves me not.”

“Don’t do that.” He cupped my hand, crushing the flower slightly.

“Don’t say he loves me not.”

I looked across at him and, seeing his playful smile, returned one. “Why can’t I say it?”

“Because it’s not true.” He ditched the flower and rolled me onto my back, landing beside me, with the grass closing in around us.

“Then what is true?” I asked, twirling my hair around my finger.