Baz turned then, pulling his shoulders back and lifting his chin in the air. His face, his whole front—his school tie and his white shirt—were slick with blood. It dripped from his nose and his chin, and was already puddling under the hand that held the sword. So much blood. As wet as if he’d just stepped out of the bath.
Baz tossed the sword, and it fell at Simon’s feet. Then he rubbed his sleeve across his mouth and eyes. It just moved the blood around, not away.
Simon didn’t know what to say. How to respond to … this. All this bloody information.
He picked up the sword and wiped it clean on his cloak. “You all right?”
Baz licked his lips—like they were dry, Simon thought—and nodded his head.
“Good,” Simon said. And realized that he meant it.
Cath stopped reading. Levi’s eyes were open. He was watching her. His mouth was closed, but not tight—and he looked almost excited.
“Is that the end?” he asked.
She held on to the laptop. “Is this why you like me?”
“Because I read to you?”
“Do I like you because you know how to read?”
“You know what I mean.”
His smile widened, so she could just see his teeth. It was strange to look at him like this. Up close. Like she was allowed to.
“Partly,” he said.
Cath looked anxiously over his shoulder. “Is Reagan going to mind, you think?”
“I don’t think so. We haven’t been together since high school.”
“How long did you date?”
“Were you in love?”
He pushed back his hair, abashed but not ashamed. “Desperately.”
“Oh.” Cath shifted away.
Levi tilted his head to catch her eyes. “It was a small town, there were eleven people in our high school class—there was nobody else in a two-hundred-mile radius that either of us would have even considered dating.”
“We came here. We realized that we weren’t the only two datable people on the planet.”
“She said she cheated on you.”
Levi’s eyes fell, but he didn’t completely stop smiling. “Also that.”
“How old are you?”
Cath nodded. “You seem older.”
“It’s the hair,” he said, still smiling.
“I love your hair,” she blurted out.
He raised an eyebrow. Just the one.
Cath shook her head, embarrassed, closing her eyes, closing the laptop.
Levi let his head fall slowly toward her so that his bangs hung forward and brushed her ear. She pulled her head away, knowing she was blushing.
“I like your hair, too,” he said. “I think, anyway.… It’s always roped up and tied down.”
“This is crazy,” Cath said, scooting away.
“This. You and me. This conversation.”
“Well, I don’t even know how it happened.”
“I don’t think anything’s happened quite yet.…”
“We don’t have anything in common,” she said. She felt like she was brimming with objections, and they were just now starting to spill out. “You don’t even know me. You’re old and you smoke—and you have a job. You have experience.”
“I don’t really smoke unless someone else is smoking.…”
“But it doesn’t matter. Nothing you just said matters, Cath. And most of it isn’t even true. We have lots of stuff in common. We talk all the time—we used to. And it just made me want to talk to you more. That’s a really good sign.”
“What do we have in common?”
“We like each other,” he said. “What more is there? Also, compared to the rest of the world, we have everything in common. If aliens came down to earth, they probably wouldn’t even be able to tell us apart.”
This was too much like what she’d said to Nick.…
“You do like me…,” Levi said, “right?”
“I wouldn’t have kissed you if I didn’t like you,” Cath said.
“You might have—”
“No,” she said firmly. “I wouldn’t have. And I wouldn’t have stayed up all night reading to you.…”
Levi smiled so that she could see his canine teeth. And then his bicuspids. It was wrong. He shouldn’t be smiling.
“Why did you tell me it was just a kiss?” she asked, waiting for her voice to break. “I don’t even care about that other girl. I mean, I do, but not as much. Why was your first instinct to tell me that what happened between you and me didn’t matter? And why should I believe you now when you say that it did? Why should I believe anything you say?”
Levi got it now. That he shouldn’t be smiling. He looked down at his lap and turned, settling his back against the wall. “I guess I panicked.…”
Cath waited. Levi pushed his hand into the front of his hair and made a fist. (Maybe that’s why he was losing it prematurely. Constant handling.)
“I panicked,” he said again. “I thought that if you knew how much kissing you meant to me … it would seem even worse that I kissed another girl.”
Cath let that sink in. “That’s terrible reasoning,” she said.
“I wasn’t reasoning.” He turned back to her, a little too quickly. “I was panicking. Honestly? I’d forgotten all about that girl.”
“Because you kiss so many girls at parties?”
“No. I mean … Ahhgh.” He looked away. “Sometimes, but no. I only kissed that girl because you weren’t there. Because you didn’t return my texts. Because I was back to thinking you didn’t like me. I was confused, and a little drunk, and here was this girl who obviously did like me.… She probably left five minutes after you did. And five minutes after that, I was staring at my phone, trying to come up with an excuse to call you.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me all that at the hospital?”
“Because I felt like such an a**hole. And I’m not used to being the a**hole—I’m usually Dudley Do-Right, you know?”
“I’m usually the good guy. That was the whole plan for winning you over—”
“There was a plan?”
“There was…” He thunked the back of his head against the wall, and his hands fell to his lap. “It was more of a hope. That you’d see that I was a decent guy.”
“I saw that.”
“Right. And then you saw me kissing somebody else.”
Cath wanted him to stop talking, she’d heard enough. “The thing is, Levi…” Saying his name out loud finished the destruction inside of her. Something, maybe Cath’s spleen, gave up the ghost. She leaned forward and pulled on the sleeve of his sweater, squeezing a few inches into her fist.
“I know you’re a decent guy,” she said. “And I want to forgive you; it’s not like you cheated on me—I mean, it’s only kind of like that. But even if I do forgive you…” She pulled on his new sweater, stretching it. “I don’t think I’m any good at this. Boy–girl. Person–person. I don’t trust anybody. Not anybody. And the more that I care about someone, the more sure I am they’re going to get tired of me and take off.”
Levi’s face clouded over. Not grimly, she thought—thoughtfully. In thoughtful clouds.
“That’s crazy,” he said.
“I know,” Cath agreed, feeling almost relieved. “Exactly. I’m crazy.”
He reached his fingers back and hooked them inside the cuff of her sweater. “But you still want to give me a chance, right? Not just me, this? Us?”
“Yeah,” Cath said, like she was giving in.
“Good.” He tugged on her sleeve and smiled down at their not-quite-touching hands. “It’s okay if you’re crazy,” he said softly.
“You don’t even know—”
“I don’t have to know,” he said. “I’m rooting for you.”
* * *
He was going to text her the next day. They were going to go out when he got off work.
On a date.
Levi didn’t call it a date, but that’s what it would have to be, right? He liked her, and they were going out. He was coming to get her.
She wished she could call Wren. I have a date. And not with an end table. Not with someone who has anything in common with furniture. He kissed me. And I think he might do it again if I let him.
She didn’t call Wren. She studied. Then stayed up as late as she could writing Baz and Simon—“‘The Insidious Humdrum,’ Baz groused. ‘If I ever become a supervillain, help me come up with a name that doesn’t sound like an ice cream sundae.’”—and wishing that Reagan would come home.
Cath was mostly asleep when the door opened.
Reagan shuffled around in the dark. She was good at coming and going without turning on any lights. She almost never woke Cath up.
“Hey,” Cath rasped.
“Go back to sleep,” Reagan whispered.
“Hey. Tonight … Levi came over. I think we might have a date. Is that okay?”
The shuffling stopped. “Yeah,” Reagan said, practically in her normal voice. “Is it okay with you?”
“I think so,” Cath said.
“Okay.” Reagan’s closet door opened, and she kicked her boots off with two heavy thumps. A drawer opened and closed, and then she was climbing into bed. “So f**king weird…,” she murmured.
“I know,” Cath said, staring up into the darkness. “I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing. Good for you. Good for Levi. Better for you, I think.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that Levi is a great guy. And that he always falls for girls who are a complete pain in the ass.”
Cath rolled over and pulled her comforter up tight. “Better for me,” she agreed.
“You’re finally going on a date with Agatha?” Penelope’s voice was soft, despite the surprise in her face. Neither of them wanted Sir Bleakly to hear—he was prone to giving ridiculous detentions; they could end up dusting the catacombs for hours or proofreading confiscated love notes.
“After dinner,” Simon whispered back. “We’re going to look for the sixth hare in the Veiled Forest.”
“Does Agatha know it’s a date? Because that just sounds like ‘Another Tuesday Night with Simon.’”
“I think so.” Simon tried not to turn and frown at Penelope, even though he wanted to. “She said she’d wear her new dress.…”
“Another Tuesday Night with Agatha,” Penelope said.
“You don’t think she likes me?”
“Oh, Simon, I never said that. She’d have to be an idiot not to like you.”
“So I guess what I’m saying,” Penelope said, going back to her homework, “is we’ll just have to see.”
Reagan was sitting at Cath’s desk when Cath woke up.
“Are you awake?”
“Have you been watching me sleep?”
“Yes, Bella. Are you awake?”
“Well, wake up. We need to set some ground rules.”
Cath sat up, rubbing the gunk out of her eyes. “What is wrong with you? If I woke you up like this, you’d murder me.”
“That’s because I’ve got all the hand in our relationship. Wake up, we need to talk about Levi.”
“Okay…” Cath couldn’t help but smile a little, just hearing his name. Levi. She had a date with Levi.
“So you guys made up?”
“Did you sleep with him?”
“Holy crap, Reagan. No.”
“Good,” Reagan said. She was sitting on Cath’s chair with one leg tucked under the other, wearing an intramural-football T-shirt and black yoga pants. “I don’t want to know when you sleep with him. That’s the first ground rule.”
“I’m not gonna sleep with him.”
“See, that’s exactly the kind of thing I don’t want to know—wait, what do you mean, you’re not gonna sleep with him?”
Cath pressed both palms into her eyes. “I mean, not in the immediate future. We just talked.”
“Yeah, but you’ve been hanging out with him all year—”
“Things you pressure me to do: one, underage drinking; two, prescription drug abuse; three, premarital sex.”
“Oh my god, Cath, ‘premarital sex’? Are you kidding me?”
“Where are you going with this?”
“Levi was my boyfriend.”
“All through high school.”
“I know, I know.” Cath was hiding her eyes again. “Don’t paint me a picture.”
“I lost my virginity with him.”
“Achhhh. Stop. Seriously.”
“This is exactly what the ground rules are for,” Reagan said. “Levi is one of my best friends, and I’m your only friend, and I don’t want this to get weird.”
“Too late,” Cath said. “And you’re not my only friend.”
“I know—” Reagan rolled her eyes and waved a hand in the air. “—you’ve got the whole Internet.”
“What are the ground rules?”
Reagan held up a finger. Her nails were long and pink.
“One. Nobody talks to me about sex.”
“Two, no lovey-dovey stuff in front of me.”