The sobs slowed and I scratched the salt away from my cheek as I looked up at him. “You really can’t tell my face is horrifically scarred?” His opinion mattered to me more than almost anyone else’s—even more than David’s.

“No.” He held both my arms and leaned back a little. “You can’t tell at all. You are perfect, just like you were before. You still have flawless, tight, smooth skin. Okay? So, stop feeling so bad about yourself, baby.” He bent his knees so his eyes came in line with mine. “You are beautiful.”

I nodded and ran my fingers over the scars. It was hard to even feel the slight bumps anymore; they used to feel like little pins rising up from under my skin. “I hate looking at myself, you know. I don’t look like me anymore.”

“You look the same to me. Maybe a little older—wiser, even.”

“I really miss Mum and Harry, too.” I looked at the water, trying to stop the memory of their faces; “I keep thinking I’m just gonna go home and they’ll be there, you know, like always.”

“Is that why you don’t want to move back with me?”

“I never said that, Mike. Okay? Look, you just came in and, out of the blue, on the first day you get here, tell me you love me—no mind for the fact that I have a boyfriend—”

“Boyfriend?” Mike said. “Ara, you knew him for a day before you decided you were in love with him.”

“I did not. It took me ages to decide that.”

“Are you kidding me?” I jerked forward, pointing to his chest. “You’re the one who told me I was being silly for not following my heart.”

“What was I supposed to say? Forget him, he doesn’t like you, he’s just pretending? I’m your friend. I care about you. I wanted you to be happy.” He dropped one hand to his side. “I just never thought you’d actually believe you were in love with him.”

“Believe I’m in love with him? What would you know about it? You don’t even know your own heart.” I shrugged out of his grasp. “You think you love me…but you don’t.”

“Ara—” Mike reached out, warning me of the staring people around us with a look in his eye.

“No. I don’t care if they look. Let them look. I’m not going to stand here while you tell me what’s in my heart.”

“Stop trying to touch me.” I jerked away from him. “I do love David, Mike. I do. You have no idea how much—and you never will,” I added coldly and folded my arms as I turned away.

“Oh, never, huh?” He followed, raising his voice as much as I had. “So this freaky, overly-possessive thing you have with David—is that true love, is it—is that how it works?” he asked in a conceited tone. “So, when you love someone more than anyone in the world has ever loved anyone else before, you let them hurt you and leave bruises on you?”

“And don’t think I didn’t see that cut on your wrist, Ara.”

My steps came to an abrupt halt; I unfolded my arms and looked down at my left wrist.

“Yes. I saw it!” His voice became huskier. “I know you didn’t do that. I know you better than that.”

“David did it. Didn’t he?” He came up out of nowhere, spinning me around sharply and held my wrist up. “Is this what love is, Ara? Is it? Because I love you more than this. I would never hurt you like this.”

“You’re hurting me now.” I twisted my wrist in his grip and yanked it out through his fingers. “Just leave me alone, okay? I’ve had enough.”

Forget it. I didn’t need to stand there and have him tell me I knew nothing about love; I’d felt its spiny sting—I knew exactly what it was. Mike was just worried because he thought David hurt me. But of course he did; love is pain. And maybe it was wrong of David and I to do what we did, but it felt right in the moment, so I didn’t care what Mike thought. Not that he’d know it was blood sharing, anyway. In fact, I actually couldn’t even imagine what he thought David had done to me.

“I said leave me alone, Mike.”

“No,” he said from a few feet away. “I’m not letting you walk off by yourself. You’re a young girl in a bikini, for God’s sake. Anything could happen.”

“Why, because I’m walking on such a deserted strip of sand?” I faced him, gesturing to all the beach-goers.

“You don’t have to be alone to have something bad happen.”

“I know,” I said conceitedly, because it was the bad things that made you end up alone.

“Look, you can walk off and throw your little tantrum, but I’m going to follow you wherever you go.”

Across the carpet of sunburned backs and multi-coloured towels, the salty, plastic smell of sunscreen wafted between us, and even in the brightness of the day, the compassion in his eyes shone out like a beacon among the darkest sea. The last of my dummy-spit released with a huff, and I dropped my hands to my sides.

Damn him and his kind eyes.

All I wanted then was to fall back into his arms—back to where we stood before—before I yelled at him and told him he knows nothing. “Mike, I—”

“Uh-uh.” He shook his head and launched forward into a half run, sweeping me into him. “You don't need to say a word, baby. Okay?”

The hot sun beat down, making sweat trickle down my temples, but I closed my eyes and held my breath in the intense squeeze of his arms—a hold so tight I knew he never wanted to let go, knew he loved me. Not like he loved the ocean or the sunset, but like the way I loved David. True, honest, and intense love.

“I’m sorry, Ara. I know you love David, and I know he loves you. I shouldn’ta said those things. It’s just—” He brushed my hair from my face, then lifted my locket for a second. “I love you, too. I really do. I love the way your eyes turn deep blue when you’re sad; the way you bite your lip when you play piano; I love your smile and the way you view the world, Ara. I absolutely love everything about you.” He paused and his eyes darted over my face. “I just wish you could understand that—wish you’d forgive me for making the biggest mistake I ever made—and love me back.”

I folded my face against his chest again; the sand had dried in the heat, soothing the itch along my jaw, and the sound of his heart through the thick of his skin had an oddly comforting hum to it. I could tell from the way he took shallower breaths that he was waiting for me to say something. But I couldn’t grace him with a response, because I had nothing good to say to him. He could never understand the love I had with David, or the way we interacted with each other, and he probably thought I was sadistic for allowing David to hurt me, but he’d never understand the true intensity of the passion behind it, either.

Slowly, and more surely than ever before, I was starting to consider going with David.

No one even looked up as I stepped into the auditorium and dumped my bag by a chair. “Hi, guys,” I said, unwinding my scarf from my neck.

“Hi,” Emily said as I sat beside her in the front row.

“Where’ve you been, girl?” Ryan landed in the next seat and gave me a skinny-armed hug.

“Just hanging out at home.” I sat back in the chair. “Good turnout for a rehearsal.”

Emily nodded, her eyes on a notepad. “Most of them are just here to watch—or distract those who are trying to practice.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “We have to be out by ten, but no one’s taking things seriously.”

“Oh.” I slid down in the seat and put my feet on the crate in front of me. “Well, do you mind if I take the stage now—I gotta get back early tonight?”

“Yeah, sure,” Emily said to her page. “Everything okay?”

“Mm-hm.” Except, I didn’t really want to be around this place any longer than absolutely necessary.

Emily looked up from her book; I shrugged, reaching for my locket.

“Oh, I thought he said he’d make it for dress rehearsals.” Ryan looked a little confused.

“He did—” I tipped the crate with my foot, trying to look disinterested, “—but I guess the plan changed.” Or the heart.

“Sweet.” Ryan nodded. “Well, I’ll fill in on guitar for David, if you like?”

“Okay. Let’s just get this over with then.” I gave a reassuring smile to Emily’s frown as I stomped up the stairs, then stopped dead. “Hey, where’d the piano come from?”

“Oh, it’s on loan from Musicology,” Emily called out.

“What’s Musicology?” I sat down on the stool in front of the baby grand, flipping out imaginary jacket tails first.

“Music store,” Ryan said, walking past me to grab his guitar.

“Wait ‘til you hear her.” Ryan sat on a stool near Alana, who turned the pages on her music stand. “We’re calling her Betty.”

“The song…” Alana said, rolling her eyes in Ryan’s direction. “Black Betty.”

“Hm.” I looked down at my fingers as they positioned themselves on the home-plates. “Okay, we’ll start with Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Ryan nodded and found the page in his sheet music, then repositioned the capo on the neck of his guitar. “Hip, bubbly, Ucayali-style or…”

They played, all of them, including the version of me who took over when the real one could no longer bear to feel. In those moments, sometimes I felt like I was watching from outside myself, while another version of me lived inside my own mind—recreating this land of misery to a world where I could smile. I tried so hard to imagine David sitting in place of Ryan, smiling over at me. But no matter how hard I tried, the image wouldn't alter, and wishing with all my heart wouldn't change things either. It would be a waste of time.

Ryan gave a nod of approval, and I smiled back because, in truth, our song did sound amazing. The three instruments harmonised so well with each other, even though my fingers were a little stiff and the flow of emotion through them was rigid, if not absent.

When I opened my mouth to sing the words, my voice cracked and we all burst out laughing. All the sea-salt I swallowed the other day made my throat dry and hoarse; I sounded like a broken gramophone. But I was glad Mike took me to the beach, because despite our argument, the rest of that day went really well; just two old friends hanging out, eating salty fish and chips, talking about nothing, as the sun went down.

While my mind wandered into the other days we’d spent together, the performance moved to the next song on our list; an instrumental piece from one of Nathan’s favourite gangster movies.

“Yeah?” He looked over the music stand, and Alana lowered her violin.

“On that last bar, can you give me a B flat, instead?”

“Uh—yeah, okay,” he said slowly and frowned, but did it anyway, and then his face lit up when I came in with the piano.

“Okay. Cool, so, just remember; B flat on the second verse, okay?” I said, flexing my fingers. “Em? You got the time?”

“Uh, yep,” she said from the base of the stage. “Eight-thirty.”

I closed the cover on the keys. “I’m gonna call it quits, guys. I need to get home.” Mike would be back by now.

“Okay, cool.” Ryan placed his guitar on the stand and turned to Alana.

“Hey, Ara?” Emily’s light footsteps made a dull thud as she came up the stairs and stood beside me. “Um, I hope you don't mind, but…being that your act has the most heart, I thought I might place you last in the set—you know, kind of thought if people leave on a sad note—”

“Yeah, all cool.” I held my hand up. Em obviously didn't realise that closing a show was actually a great honour.

“And, um, that sounded amazing, by the way.” She ran her fingertip over the glossy top of the piano, her reflection appearing upside-down.

“Thanks. Looks like I still have enough soul left in me to play music.” I smiled, trying to sound light.

“He’ll be back.” She shrugged, then smiled and walked off to bark orders at the next act.

It really was such a shame David never fell for Emily. She would’ve been a perfect match for him; she wasn’t complicated or moody, like me, and she would’ve given him eternity.

A jaded smile grasped my lips while I watched her, falling into Spencer’s embrace, tilting her face up so he could kiss the tip of her nose; they were so in love, like normal teenagers—so innocent and so easy. They’d never know the complexities of my life, and could never even imagine them.