“Have you heard yourself? You’re all American.” He put on a mock American accent, but it sounded more Canadian.

“Hey, don’t knock the accent.” I rolled onto my back and looked up at the ceiling. “Took me weeks to get it right.”

“Well, it sounds very authentic,” he said warmly.

He chatted away then, zipping and unzipping pockets in his suitcase, laying things in the drawers across from the bed then closing them gently, while I watched in a sort of dream-like state. He still didn’t seem real. I half wondered when I was going to wake up.

When the suitcase scuffed along the floor, I looked at Mike as he kicked it under the bed and laid a clean shirt on the blanket. “Hey, wanna see what I’ve been doing lately?”

“What?” I pushed up on my elbows.

He yanked his shirt from the back of the neck and pulled it over his head, and my mouth dropped. “You like?”

“Looks like you’ve been working hard to get into the Tactical Group.” I smiled at him one last time before a shiver ran down my spine, forcing me to look at the roof again. “There’s no way not to appreciate that kind of workmanship.”

“Well, they expect a certain level of fitness,” he said, ruffling about at the foot of the bed, “it’s my duty to exceed that.”

“Well, you certainly didn’t look like that the last time you took your shirt off, so...duty fulfilled,” I scoffed, and everything went dark with the strong scent of Mike. “Ew. Wash this thing. It stinks,” I joked, peeling his shirt off my face then tossing it back at him.

He caught it, held it to his nose, then shrugged and threw it behind him. “Come on—move over.”

“Fine.” The giant jumped onto the queen-sized bed and sunk his elbows heavily into the softness beside me, making me roll slightly into him.

I shoved my palm against his arm and rolled onto my back. “God, you take up so much space.”

He chuckled and tucked his elbows under his ribs to hold his head off the bed. “If you don’t like it, you could just get off my bed.”

I smiled as he shoved me gently. “Like I said; make me.”

“If anyone could make you do anything, Ara-Rose, my life would’ve been much easier.”

“Ouch.” He laughed, cupping it. “That actually hurt.”

“Yeah, right.” He pretended to flick mine, pressing the tip of my nose when I shied away. “Pain.”

He drew a long breath through his nose, his gaze tracing circles over my features.

I smiled back up at him, seeing the fine lines I’d memorised and the little pupil-sized scar on the bridge of his nose that he got when I threw a rock at him for being a jerk one day. I felt at home in the comfortable silence—the kind we were used to.

“Know what?” he said in that husky whisper.

When his face came closer to mine, I almost held my breath, thinking he was going to at least kiss my head, but he rolled onto his back with a rather large huff and linked his fingers behind his head. “I’m tired.”

“Especially changing over at LAX. I was stuck at Customs for an hour.”

“An hour?” I blew my fringe off my face. “They must’ve been moving fast that day.”

Mike laughed softly and grabbed a pillow from the top of the bed, stuffing it under his head. And as his breathing slowed and the noise in the house died down after Dad and Sam went off to school and Vicki started the car up then drove down the street, I looked out at the clouds through the top of the window, just happy to be by Mike’s side again. Mostly, I could only see the eaves of the roof jutting out above the glass, but beyond that, the summer sky went on forever—leading to the place, the world David was living in today. Even though I knew he was a fast runner, part of me wondered how he was going to get all the way back here from New York every night and still be back there in the morning to start work. Then I wondered what he actually did while ‘operating the Set’.

As the shadows and the yellow glow of the sun moved across the floor and to the wall, I rolled onto my side and watched Mike’s chest rise and fall with his quiet breath, while the vein on his neck pulsed lightly on each heartbeat. It was something so small—seeing someone’s body live, function—but until I’d spent so long with a vampire who didn’t need a heart, I’d never really appreciated the miracle in our design. I wanted to reach inside his chest and feel the blood pulse through his heart, feel it full and fat and living, feel the life in his veins—the life David took from others. And, looking at my best friend sleeping so peacefully, so trusting, a small occurrence crept up; how could I ever take that. How could I reach into a person’s life and take them from the world—destroy their family? Destroy their future, their hopes and dreams. What if it were Mike? Or my dad?

It was all very easy to brush it off and think, “Well, I don’t know this person,” but at the end of the day, how would I feel if a vampire killed someone I loved?

“Oh, hi, I thought you were asleep.” I tried to smile—it was a pathetic effort.

“Clearly.” He sat up and shuffled to the edge of the bed. “What was on your mind?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” I stated.

He sighed and dragged me, by the hand, to sit beside him. As the weight of his heavy arm fell around my shoulder, I nestled my brow under his jaw. The deep, almost candy-musk scent of his cologne made a flash of his bedroom, back home, pop into my mind.

“It’s the cologne you bought me for my birthday.”

“Really?” I sat up and looked at him, incredulity littering my grin. “I thought you said it reeked like an unopened coffin.”

“Hm. I did say that, didn’t I?” His gaze became thoughtful.

“Yes. Among other things.” I looked down at my hands.

“True. So, in that case, I reserve the right to be an annoying cow, since you were.”

“Fine. But only ‘til you turn eighteen.”

“Ha!” Mike poked my belly; “The ogre! I see some things haven’t changed at all.”

His eyes narrowed, boring into mine. “What’d you mean by that, Ar?”

“Um—” I internally slapped myself on the head with a novelty-sized baseball bat.

Mike stopped for a second, halfway between getting up and sitting back down, then shook his head and pulled me off the bed. “Come on, let’s just feed the beast.”

“Okay. Then, later, I’ll take you across to the school so you can meet my friends.” I bounced on my toes a little.

“Yup. I’ve made this whole new life for myself, Mike. I'm, like, totally normal now.”

“You’ll never be normal, Ara. You’ve always been—special.” That comment should’ve been followed with the usual head-tilt-eye-wink-combo, but instead, his gaze delved into mine. Golden brown eyes, like maple syrup, creasing in the corners a little with his smile.

“I hope you don’t mean that in a derogatory sense,” I said.

He rolled his eyes, groaning. “Come on, I need food—it’s past lunch time already.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice.” I ran down the stairs ahead of him.

And everything was just the same as before—before all the tragedy and the awkward I-don’t-love-you-the-way-you-love-me stuff. I threw pieces of fruit at Mike while he prepared food and we talked about old times, movies, music, home, and it was easy—for a moment.

Mike, with the sleeves of his dark-blue shirt rolled up, stood chopping onions and coriander at the counter, looking so tall and so grown up that I tried not to look at him—tried not to feel…anything.

But the strange sensation in my body, flooding me with pulsing hot blood every time he smiled, made me long to be in his arms.

Then, that confusing pendulum of indecision kept changing things. I’d go back to square one and think, no, Ara, what are you saying—you don’t want him to love you, because that means Fate has decided you should let David wander the earth, miserable, for eternity.

I felt kind of like Sherlock Holmes, examining clues, pacing around in my own head; to live or to love? That is the question.

But, if I had to spend the rest of my human life with anyone other than David, the only person I’d want would be Mike. So, I guess the question would be: to live and love for all my life, or to kill and love eternally?

I was beginning to wonder why I got out of bed this year.

When the plates no longer contained food and the last of the enthusiastic catch-up wore down to more planned questions, Mike shook his head and smiled. “Know what I found the other day?”

“Remember that picture we took at the golf course?”

“The day you tried to teach me how to play?” I started laughing, already replaying the tragic ending to that day in my mind—tragic for the window of a golf cart, that is.

“Yeah.” Mike laughed. “You were so much smaller then, and you still had that gap.” He pointed to his front teeth.

I ran my tongue over my gums. “I thought you said you didn’t look at any pictures of me over the last few months?”

Mike looked down at his hands, smiling under reddening cheeks. “Well, maybe a few.”

I shook my head. “Then how did you forget what I looked like?”

“I guess I didn’t, really. You’ve just...You know, you’ve grown up so much while we were apart.”

“Of course I have. Did you think I’d stay a little girl forever?” Although, that was a likely possibility.

“I just never expected time would change you so much while I wasn’t around to see it. You’re—” he considered carefully, “—well, you’re a woman now.”

“A woman? Mike, I’m seventeen. No older than when I left.” I laughed.

He shook his head. “It’s not your age, it’s something…else. I don't know, maybe it’s just that you’ve been through a lot. Guess it’s bound to leave its mark.”

He reached across the table for my hand; I reluctantly placed it in his. “I’m here now, baby girl. I didn’t know how much I was missing you until I saw you. Now it feels almost like my heart might tear out if I have to leave you again.”

“I’m sure you’ll change your mind after two weeks with me. Then you can go back and get on with your life,” I said, then laughed in an attempt to bring nonchalance back into the room—since it suddenly got very intense.

He nodded as he said, “I’m beginning to rethink that.”

“I miss you, Ara—you belong in my life, you always have. I… look…I have to tell you something.” His shoulders lifted a little. “Please don’t get mad, okay?”

He looked down at our hands for a second, then back at me with those caramel eyes, warmed with a smile but infused with anxiety. “The truth is, I came here to say goodbye. One final goodbye before I let you go for good. You seemed to be getting on with your life, but, now I’m here, I can’t do it.” He shrugged and one corner of his lip turned up. “So, I’m going with plan B.”

“What’s plan B? Hire a time-machine for the week and change the past?”

“Ar—” He gave that deep groan and intense stare he always gave when I was being silly. “Baby, I… on the plane over here, I was sitting next to two old ladies, and I was so stuck in this cage of uncertainty I actually talked their ears off.”

“I don't know what the best way to say this is, and I don't know when’s the right time—so I'm just gonna come out with it.”

He shook his head, already decided. “Baby, I love you.”

My heart imploded; I pulled myself together quickly, opting for Ignorance Road. “I know you do, Mike, and I know you’ll always be my bestie.”

“Yeah, but… that’s not what I meant and you know it.”

I sat frozen, my lips shaped to the word Ah! And then it all folded inward, tears streaming down my face as it crumpled like I’d eaten a lemon.

“You know, you’re not supposed to cry when a guy says he loves you,” Mike said.

I sobbed into my hand. “Tell me you don't mean it.”

His upturned palm appeared under my cave of asylum; I ignored it, looking away. “I do mean it, baby. I… I want you to come home with me when I go.”