“I did.” I wiped my nose. “I thought—I mean, I didn't know what he did to me after I—when it all went black. I didn't know if maybe he’d done…worse, or—”

“Oh, baby. I really wish you’d said something.”

Mike laughed softly, but the smile in his eyes faded away to something darker.

He pinched his lips, rocking his jaw. “You don’t know what I went through—looking for you. And when I found you—” He let a breath out through his nose, battling with words inside his mouth. “I expected, given what I was sure he’d done to you, I was surprised when I found you still wearing your underwear.”

“But your legs—” He looked haunted, lost in disgust. “You were just so…so covered in blood. I thought the deranged prick had actually dressed you again after he…” Mike couldn't say it.

I touched his arm, wishing I could have been there to comfort him through that.

“I cried when they told me,” he said, cupping his hand over mine. “When the doctors said you were untouched, I just cried. Baby, it was so dark in that field. Without a torch, I might not’ve seen you at all. And when I found you, I noticed only one small flicker of pale skin, and I ran, faster than I’ve ever run before.”

In my mind, I could see it all as it happened.

“All we’d come across so far was—” he paused and lowered his voice, “—was your bra. And I can’t tell you what went through my mind when I found it.”

“Oh God, baby, the things I imagined he was doing to you while I wasn’t there to protect you. I felt so helpless. I couldn’t walk properly; every step I took was like my legs were carrying the weight of a train. But I kept going, just to find you—to hold you and make you safe again.

“If you could only feel what I felt when I saw you there. I wasn’t ashamed or disgusted, like you seem to think, princess. I was overjoyed. And I promise you, no one saw your body—except for Emily; she was right beside me the whole time.” When he looked back unexpectedly, I nearly jumped out of my skin; Mike’s eyes became soft and round. “I covered you with my jacket,” he continued, “and checked every square inch of your body to make sure I wouldn't break you more if I moved you, and I know you didn’t want me to see you like that, but I never looked at anything in that way. I was just so happy to find you still breathing. All I saw was the girl I’m in love with—and the only memory I’ve taken with me from that night is the way you looked up suddenly, so scared, and then smiled when you saw me.” He squeezed my hand. “You closed your eyes then, and I thought that was last time I’d ever see the blue again.”

Mike gathered me into his chest, tighter than ever before, and I felt nauseated for feeling gratitude toward Jason for not doing as he’d threatened. But the sick feeling welled up into a circle of anger within me. My fists clenched behind Mike’s back. I closed my eyes tight. One day, I didn’t know when, or how, but one day, I would make Jason pay for what he did to me.

Mike leaned out from our embrace and looked at my lips, then my eyes, stroking my hair off my brow. “Is this why you won’t see Emily—because she was there with me?”

Mike took a really long breath, letting it out slowly. “You know, she’s been hysterical over this. She needs to see you—she blames herself, Ara, for not chasing after you when she saw you walk away with that man.”

“Yes. She cries every time I see her, and there’s nothing I can do to console her. Will you please just see her? She loves you, just the same as we all do.”

“But—she saw, Mike. I can’t help how I feel.”

“Oh, baby. Please don’t be like that. Emily’s your friend, and she’s a girl. I’m sure she’s seen it all before.”

“I know. But I’m just trying to get you to understand how little any of that means when, in the greater scheme of things, we thought we’d find you dead—or much, much worse.”

I wedged the tongue of stubbornness into my cheek and shook my head.

“Ara. Emily’s not to blame. You can’t hide from this, and you won’t make yourself feel better by punishing her.”

Mike let out a quick huff of relief. “Really?”

“Shutting up.” He kissed my lips, scrunching my cheeks between his hands. “I’m gonna go call her. Okay?”

I nodded and fell back against my pillows as he backed away and closed the door. It only felt like ten minutes passed before Sam popped his head around the corner and said, “Emily’s here.”

I put my book down and pressed my hands into the mattress until I was sitting up properly. “Send her in.”

“You sure, sis?” Sam asked, slightly closing himself in the room with me. “Because, I know Mike kinda pushed you into this.”

He nodded, then signalled into the corridor.

Emily, with her hands clasped in front of her, walked very slowly into my room and smiled.

“Hi.” As soon as the words left her lips, she spun around to close my door, then just stood there with her head against it.

“I. I have rules. Things I’m not allowed to say, but—”

I waited, allowing her to pull herself together.

“I—I just don’t know what to say. I’m so...so sorry.” She turned to face me then, and tears rained over her crossed arms, falling past her elbows to the carpet. “It’s my fault. I should have—”

“Em. Don’t. Okay?” I held a hand up. “Just don’t. Say. Anything about it.”

After a moment, she sighed. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

“We’ll just talk about the weather then.” She smiled a weak smile, then sat beside me on the bed.

And we did talk about the weather—the past, the present, the future. The coming spring, the wild winter, and I know a few times Emily wondered if I was talking in code, referring to David as the rain, the sadness, or talking about the attack when I spoke of the storms. And who knows, maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. But it was nice to just talk for no other reason than to exchange words in the company of someone you’d come to love.

By the time Dad told Emily to ‘let me rest’, I had formed a real smile at least twice and had managed to forget about the attack for a while.

“Em?” I said as she went to close my door behind her.

She pressed her lips into a tight line, nodding rapidly, then closed the door before I heard her burst into tears on the other side.

Rising from my first dreamless slumber since I woke from my nightmare, I drew a deep breath and watched the sun rise higher in the sky until it shone through my crystals, making a pale rainbow dance on the wall above my dresser.

I looked away; colour didn’t belong in my life anymore. I wondered if it ever would again.

I did find one moment of joy in all the gloom, though, as I extended my limbs into a stretch and, for the first time, they didn’t hurt quite so much. I felt the cold as if it were only cold, not sharp pins, and could actually find appreciation in the beautiful winter that set in deep while I was in a coma. It had been a shock to my nerves when I felt the sting of the frost on that first day they brought me home. But I actually liked it now—more than I once liked the autumn.

“Hey? Good morning. I didn’t know you were awake,” Mike chimed, leaning on my doorframe.

“I’ve been awake for the last three weeks, Mike.”

“You know what I mean.” He gave a simple smile. He looked rested today; his hair was still wet from a shower and the smell of his fresh, powder-scented cologne filled my room.

“Yeah, I know. I was joking around with you.” I sat up in my bed.

“Joking?” He nodded, pursing his lips in consideration. “That’s a good sign.”

“So is general conversation.” I waited, expecting him to chuckle. “You know, ‘cause dead people don't talk.”

“Oh. Ha!” He laughed once. “Sorry, I'm not used to the lame joke game anymore.”

I shrunk a little. I wasn’t playing the lame joke game. I was actually attempting to be funny.

“Something wrong, kid?” Mike dropped his folded arms and moved to sit beside me.

“Nah, I've just been doing some thinking.”

I didn't mean to, but I stiffened all over. “Maybe.”

“Ara—” He paused, seemingly assessing his words. “I love you. And…I’m your best friend. I always will be. But I’m not stupid and I’m not blind. I know…things…and I know that he—”

“He’s not what you think he is, Mike.” I cleared my throat, sorting out a response in my head. “You might think you’ve pieced it all together, but you're wrong.”

His eyes narrowed. “I know you’re upset that he left you, but I don't think I'm wrong about him; I really do think he loves you and he's just trying to do the right thing by you.”

Cold shock washed through me. “That’s what you think?”

He frowned. “What did you think I thought?”

That he was a vampire. “Oh, um—I thought you might’ve thought he was a jerk, you know, for leaving again.”

Mike shook his head. “No, baby. Not at all. I mean, I…in the hospital, I saw the way he loved you. It was…undeniable. And I don't know what happened between you two, maybe you’ll never tell me, but you need to know that, although that part of your life is over now, I’m still here. And you still have a chance to be happy.”

“I’m not sure I’m capable of that anymore, Mike.”

He nodded. “What if I could promise you you are? What if I could guarantee that you will one day find a reason to smile? Would you believe me—at least start wanting to be happy again?”

“I—” I frowned to myself. “I do want to be happy.”

He went to shake his head, but stopped and exhaled. “Only you know the truth of that, Ar.”

He was right. I didn't want to be happy, because being happy meant moving on from David, and moving on meant that I didn't love him.

“But I’m not giving up on you,” Mike said. “Not ever. I don’t care what you say to me or do to make me mad or hurt, I love you, and I’m not giving up on you.”

My eyes watered. “What if I asked you to go?”

He didn’t even answer. We both already knew the answer. But I wondered if he’d stay if he knew the real reason I was attacked—that I had let a vampire into my life, then followed one to my own detriment. And I wondered how he would feel to know that the core of my sadness was not because I was attacked, but because of David, because he was gone and because time, death, and tears hadn’t changed what I meant to him and wouldn’t, couldn’t make him stay.

But Mike had stayed, even though everything he worked for back in Australia had fallen apart, and he would always stay, no matter what; if I was human, if I was weak and frail, even if I asked him to go. And that was more than I could say for David.

“You’re a good man, Mike.” My head rocked from side to side. “I’m glad I’m marrying you.”

His frown softened and a broad smile spread across his face, like the light touching the earth at sunrise. “Then...you still wanna get married?”

“Of course I do, dummy.” I slapped his arm. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I just thought, with the whole near-death experience and all, you know, people change from those things, Ara. I didn’t know if you’d want the same things anymore.”

“And you stayed? Even though you weren’t sure?” Admiration crinkled across my nose.

His eyes narrowed. “Ara. I’m in this for life. Whether you marry me or not, I will always be here to love you, protect you, and be your friend. That will never change. Never.”

And it really only sunk in right then, that I had missed this; all along, I’d been looking across the road to the boy I thought I loved, when I should’ve been looking right beside me. This was my saviour—this was my knight in shining armour. He always had and always would come to my rescue. “Good,” I said. “Because I don’t want you to go anywhere.”

He leaned down and his warm, velvet smile melted onto my lips as his breath brushed hot against my skin. It was the first kiss. My first kiss in my new life. I’d been given the chance to start over—cleansed of all the mistakes of the past.

The hourglass had rocked and the balance tipped in reverse, but everything was back in place and, today, I began a new journey with the man I was supposed to be with. True love would be ours now and happiness would be in every breath I took beside this man. We would go on—live, as living was intended, and I would love him for forever—for our forever—because they’d always been the same.