“No!” I shot up out of my seat, hugging myself. “Don't say that. Don't say that.”

“Are you serious?” He stood up, reaching.

I pointed a stern finger toward him. “Take it back.”

“Baby, I can't take it back.” He touched his chest. “It’s how I feel.”

“No, no, uh-uh.” I waved my hands around, blinded by tears. “Nope. Nup. You don't. That’s not right.”

“Ara?” He walked toward me, primed to steady the crazy beast.

“Don't come near me.” I shoved him really hard and took a few steps back since he didn't even shift an inch.

“Okay. I can see you’re a little upset, so, I'm gonna just—” He motioned to the table. “I'm just gonna sit. Okay?”

As soon as Mike sunk into the seat, he breathed out profanity and dropped his head against his hand.

“Please tell me you don't mean it?” I could feel myself rocking back and forth. “Please tell me you just feel bad for me because my mum died.”

“That’s what you think this is?” He stood up again. “A pity party?”

He went to reach for me but stopped and swiped a hand across his nose. “Is that what you want it to be?”

I folded over a little, feeling myself die, breath by breath. “Please just take it back, Mike. Please? I know you mean it but…please?”

“Because you don't know what you’ve done.”

He took a quick stride toward me and wrapped me in his arms. “Baby.”

I sobbed a snotty mess of heartache into his shirt, making it wet, and he just held me around my shoulders, almost delicately, as if he didn't have the right to touch me.

“I'm so sorry, baby. I know it’s a—”

“No.” I shook my head. “Just stop talking. Don't make this any worse.”

“It’s okay, baby. It’s really okay.” He half laughed.

“No, it’s not. Nothing is—and it’s never going to be okay again.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked in a gentle tone.

“Mum’s dead, Mike, okay? And you can't make it better by telling me you love me. It doesn't work like that.”

He laughed. “Even if it could change the past, that isn’t something I’d lie about, baby. Come on, you know me better than that.”

“No.” I wiped the tears from my face with the back of my hand. “You’re lying.” You have to be lying.

No! I took short, quick breaths. The breakdown that had been looming all this time flitted to the surface. I held my hands over my ears, shaking my head.

“Will you just listen?” he said.

“No—please, Mike, please don’t do this.” I felt Fate taking a step closer to me every time he opened his mouth, swathing me in the cloth of mortality, binding me to this dice I rolled.

“Amara, calm down.” He pulled my hands away from my ears. “Please listen. You never—that night—you never let me explain it to you. We were trying to make the transition from childhood friends to something so much more—something I was afraid you weren’t ready for. God!” His arms tightened around my body, almost completely consuming my shape in a snug cloud of safety. “I have never been able to forgive myself for that.”

“Forgive yourself? Mike! It was me—”

He pressed his thumb over my lip to shush me. “No, it was my fault. I wanted you. I wanted you so damn bad, but I couldn’t do those things with you while you were drunk. It would’ve been irresponsible of me.” He rolled my face upward until our eyes met, keeping his thumb to my lips. “I wanted you to love me, but not like that—not intoxicated, not when we hadn’t talked about it. When I told you no, you got so upset, I just didn’t know what to do—I let the ball drop.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” It came out as a whisper, perhaps less. “Why not then?”

“I chased after you, Ara. I searched the streets for an hour. I called your house, no one answered. Then—”

We both knew the ending to that story.

He wiped the tears from my face and kissed my brow.

I could feel my hands shaking again as sensation came back into my limbs. “Why didn’t you tell me before I left Perth then?”

“I tried. You wouldn’t see me, remember?”

“Then why not on the phone—after I left?”

“Why? So you could feel worse, or so I could feel worse? I couldn’t come to you, Ara. It’s been killing me, I—” He dropped his head into his palm and closed his eyes. “I can’t sleep anymore. I play it over in my mind all the time—the things we should’ve done that night.”

“Things you said no to.”

He clutched the base of my jaw gently in his hand. “I know. But I just didn’t want you to have regrets in the morning. I knew I wouldn’t.”

I wanted to look away from his penetrating stare, the way his eyes seemed to read mine. But he held my chin and forced me to keep looking at him.

“I’d been watching you for months,” he continued, “just waiting for you to realise how I felt about you, and then, that night, you took me by surprise. I didn’t know how to tell you what I really felt, and I was so afraid if I did, and you were just confused because you’d been drinking, that it’d ruin our friendship forever. It was just one stupid misunderstanding and I lost you—for good.” Mike smoothed my tear-soaked hair from my temples and along my chin. “Ara, I don’t know why you’re so upset, baby. It’s not the end of the world.”

“But it is!” I pushed his arms off me. “It is for me. You don’t get it. You don’t know what this means.”

“I do, baby. I get it. Your mum and Harry died becau—”

“No! It’s not that. You’re not even close. God, you don’t know anything about my life.” I turned away, seeing him take a step toward me as I fled the room, but he stayed where I left him.

The weakness in my mind forced itself outside my head, travelling down my legs, making it hard to climb the stairs. I just had to make it to my room before I fell.

I burst through my door, half folded over, and slammed it shut with my foot before collapsing into a pair of strong, cool arms. “My love. It’s okay. Just calm down.”

Salty pools distorted the face of my vampire, spilling past my lashes as I blinked away my disbelief. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at work.”

“I felt…” He touched his chest. “I felt something shift.”

“I think it was you.” He wrapped me up safely in his arms. “What is it, my love? What happened?”

“He loves me, David,” I blubbered. “What do I do now? He loves me.”

“I know,” his voice was liquid with worry. “It’s okay. Everything will be okay.”

I shook my head, sniffling. “Fate. Fate de-de—” I couldn’t get it out. “Decided.”

“What are you talking about, Ara?”

I tried to speak, but even my thoughts wouldn’t form the truth for him to see—the truth that I let my future fall in the hands of Chance and now I had my answer. Now, I knew what I had to do.

He looked at me for a long moment, obviously trying to find a thought among the mess of confusion in my mind. “Just cry, sweetheart—for as long as the tears will fall.” He kissed the crown of my head, then swept me up in his arms and carried me to the bed. “I’ll be here. I’ll hold you until you fall asleep.”

I settled against his chest, and even though he had no heartbeat to show his emotions, I could feel the pain my every thought inflicted on him; feel his body stiffen every time I saw Mike’s face in my mind; feel the thorn through his soul with every beat of my heart that wasn’t for him. But he stayed with me, loved me a while longer as my heart tore itself apart and shattered in two; one piece for David and one for Mike—who really owned that part of me all along. And as the sky turned dark, in his arms I drifted toward a deep, exhausted sleep.

Restless images flashed in downward scrolls like an old film before my eyes—the movie jagged, cut, stuck together—an incomprehensible storyline. The colour was gone, leaving only greyed hues through an unfocused lens.

Faceless strangers stared as I passed each row of seats, and I held my bouquet closer to my heart, protecting what was within. They could see the red rose, sitting in contrast to the white flowers surrounding it—the only colour in this grey little world. I could feel their curiosity, heard their whispers, but no one would understand, so I held my head high and walked on, each step taking a lifetime, as if I was being slowed by a force unseen.

I could see the man at the end, where the light touched the lip of the steps; standing tall, proud, confident. He was waiting there—for me—hands behind his back, eyes watching, face shadowed by the darkness of this never ending walk.

The light around him faded more for each step I took, so too did the dull, lifeless toll of church bells, ringing somewhere out there in the world beyond my future.

As I finally reached his side, my red blossom wilted, tar seeping up its veins, soaking away the colour around the shrinking petals until, finally, they fell like black snow toward my ruby slippers. David and I held our breath, watching them leave their life behind, decaying into ash around our feet.

“See, you don’t need it anymore,” he said.

He nodded toward the ash. “Life.”

I looked up into his proud eyes and held my breath. It was time. It had to be now or never. “You’re wrong, David,” I said, placing the remains of the pale bouquet in his hand. “That’s not what it means.”

“What does it mean, then?”

I slowly drew a breath, hesitating on the preface of his destruction. “That I don’t need you anymore.”

His eyes brimmed with liquid, making the green appear as colour among the greys.

“I have to go,” I said in a whisper.

I reached behind me and took the firm, strong hand that grabbed mine. “To live.”

He seemed to own no comprehension at first, but as my mind woke a little with the feel of his cool arms coming away from my body where I hadn’t felt them before, I saw his eyes switch from realisation to deep sadness. He nodded, taking slow steps backward; his elbows, his arms, his waist, tapering into the darkness until, finally, the shadows consumed him.

“I’m sorry, David,” I said, waiting, knowing what would come next. A lifetime seemed to pass before the ground quivered beneath my feet, the ashes around my ruby slippers rising into the air, floating like dust particles in a smoky cloud. And inch-by-inch, the ground crumbled toward me, narrowing in my little world. I felt for Mike’s hand, turning to look back at the emptiness of my own faults. But he was gone. The only thing out there was Fate; I could hear Her laughing, could feel Her eyes on me, watching on as the ground came away completely, empty air wrapping my form, dragging me down in an eternal fall toward the darkness of mortality.

“David.” My whispered cry became an echo as the timespan of forever spread out around me. “I’m sorry.”

Gasping, I jolted awake, grabbing the edges of my blanket.

I looked behind me, under me, beside me—he was gone.

No. Oh, God, he saw it—the whole thing. I covered my mouth with both hands and closed my eyes tight as I remembered the dream. “What have I done?”

The clock in the hall ticked loudly, each second timing the beat of my heart and bringing the rise of realisation a little closer to the surface; Fate decided.

But that didn’t mean I agreed.

Exhaustion made me flop back down on my pillow, and as my hand fell beside my face, something cool and smooth touched my fingertips, filling my senses with the floral perfume of roses.

“Morning, sleeping beauty.” Mike leaned against the doorframe with a tray in his hands.

Sound suddenly came rushing back to my ears. “Morning? How long was I out for?”

“All night.” He shrugged and walked into my room. “You cried for a long time at first, then you went quiet. I came to check on you, but you were asleep.” He set the tray down on the bed beside my legs, bringing the smell of toast in behind him. “Still your favourite flower?” He nodded toward the rose.

“You left this?” I picked it up, being careful of the thorns on the stem.

“Well, thank you.” I sniffed its sweet, soft scent, fading as the autumn destroyed everything that was once beautiful in the summer. “You have no idea what this means to me.”

“Are you okay?” Mike sat beside me, moving the tray onto my lap.

“Not really. I just can’t believe it, Mike. All this time, I thought I was wrong. I thought I misread everything between us.” I put the rose down. “I need to know—is this how you really feel, or is it guilt?”

Mike grinned and looked down, rubbing the back of his neck. “Will it matter? You love David.”