She took a deep breath. She felt like she owed it to him to keep talking. To at least reciprocate this conversation. “I want to touch you, too.”
“Yeah,” she said.
“What kind of touching?” he asked.
“Did you already give the operator your credit card number?”
Levi laughed. “Come home with me, Cath. I miss you. And I don’t want to say good night.”
The door swung open, and Reagan came back into the room wearing a T-shirt and yoga pants, a towel wrapped around her hair.
“Yeah, okay,” Cath said. “When you will get here?”
He was obviously grinning. “I’m already downstairs.”
* * *
Cath put on brown cable-knit leggings and a plaid shirtdress that she’d taken from Wren’s dorm room. Plus knit wristlet thingies that made her think of gauntlets, like she was some sort of knight in pink, crocheted armor. Levi’s teasing her about her sweater predilection had just made it more extreme.
“Going out?” Reagan asked.
“Levi just got back.”
“Should I wait up for you?” she leered.
“Yes,” Cath said. “You should. It will give you time to think about what a shameless ground-rule breaker you are.”
Cath felt silly waiting for the elevator. Girls were walking by in their pajamas, and Cath was dressed to go out.
When she stepped out into the lobby, Levi was there, leaning against a column and talking to somebody, some girl he must know from somewhere.… When he saw Cath, his smile widened and he pushed off the column with his shoulder, immediately waving good-bye to the girl.
“Hey,” he said, kissing the top of Cath’s head. “Your hair’s wet.”
“That’s what happens when you wash it.”
He pulled up her hood. She took his hand before he could reach for hers, and he rewarded her with an especially toothy grin.
When they walked out of the building, she knew in her heart, in her stomach, that she wasn’t coming back until morning.
* * *
At first Cath thought there was another party going on at Levi’s house. There was music playing, and there were people in almost every room.
But they were all just his roommates—and his roommates’ friends and girlfriends and, in one case maybe, boyfriend.
Levi introduced her to them all. “This is Cather.” “This is my girlfriend, Cather.” “Everyone? Cather.” She smiled tensely and knew that she wouldn’t remember any of their names.
Then Levi led her up a staircase that couldn’t have been original to the house—the landings were strange and cramped, and the hallways shot out at irregular intervals. Levi pointed out everyone’s rooms. He pointed out the bathrooms. Cath counted three floors, and Levi kept climbing. When the staircase got so narrow they couldn’t walk side by side anymore, he led the way.
The stairs turned one more time and ended at a single doorway. Levi stopped there and turned, awkwardly, holding on to the handrails on both sides of the hall.
“Cather.” He grinned. “I have officially gotten you up to my room.”
“Who knew it was at the end of a labyrinth?”
He opened the door behind him, then took both her hands, pulling her up and in.
The room was small, with narrow dormer windows pushing out of it on two sides. There was no overhead light, so Levi turned on a lamp next to the queen-sized bed. It really was just a room with a bed—and a shiny turquoise love seat that was at least fifty years old.
She looked up and around. “We’re at the very top of the house, aren’t we?”
“Servants’ quarters,” he said. “I was the only one willing to climb all these stairs.”
“How’d you get this couch up here?”
“Talked Tommy into helping me. It was terrible. I don’t know how anyone ever got this mattress up around all those corners. It’s been here since the beginning of time.”
Cath shifted nervously, and the floor creaked beneath her. Levi’s bed was unmade, an old-looking quilt thrown over it, the pillows in disarray. He straightened the quilt and picked a pillow up off the floor.
The room felt closer to the outdoors than to the rest of the house. Exposed. Cath could hear wind whistling in the window frames. “I’ll bet it gets cold up here—”
“And hot in the summer,” he said. “Are you thirsty? I could make tea. I should have asked while we were still downstairs.”
“I’m fine,” she said.
Where Levi was standing, his hair brushed against the ceiling. “Do you mind if I change? I helped water the horses before I left. Got kind of muddy.”
Cath tried to smile. “Sure, go ahead.”
There were drawers built into a wall. Levi knelt over one, then ducked out of the room—the doorway was at least an inch too short for him—and Cath sat down carefully on the love seat. The fabric was cool beneath her. She ran her palm along it, some kind of slick cotton with nubby swirls and flowers.
This room was worse than she thought.
Dark. Remote. Practically in the trees. Practically enchanted.
A calculus test would feel intimate in here.
She took off her coat and set it on his bed, then tugged off her soggy boots and pulled her legs up onto the love seat. If she held her breath, she could hear Bon Iver quietly blaring at least two floors below.
Levi was back before Cath was ready for him. (Which was bound to happen.) He looked like he’d washed his face, and he was wearing jeans and a baby blue flannel shirt. It was a nice color on him. It made his face tan and his hair yellow and his mouth pink. He sat down on the couch next to her—she knew he would. There was no room in this room for personal space.
He picked Cath’s hand up off the couch and held it loosely in both of his, looking down at it, then running his fingertips along the back, up and down her fingers.
She took a deep breath. “How did you end up living here?”
“I worked with Tommy at Starbucks. One of his old roommates graduated and moved out, I was living in a house with three deadbeats, and I didn’t mind the stairs.… Tommy’s dad bought this house as a real estate investment. He’s lived here since he was a sophomore.”
“What is he now?”
Cath nodded. The more that Levi touched her hand, the more that it tickled. She stretched out her fingers and took a soft breath.
“Feel nice?” he asked, looking up at her with his eyes without lifting his head. She nodded again. If he kept touching her, she wouldn’t be able to do even that; she’d have to blink once for yes, twice for no.
“So what happened this weekend?” he asked. “How is everybody?”
Cath shook her head. “Crazy. Fine. I—I think Wren and I are okay again. I think we made up.”
His lips twitched up on one side. “Yeah?”
“That’s great.” You could tell that he really thought so.
“Yeah,” Cath said. “It is. I feel—”
Levi brought one leg up between them and bumped her thigh with his knee. She practically jumped back over the arm of the couch.
He made a frustrated noise that was half laugh, half sigh, and wrinkled his nose. “Are you really that nervous?”
“I guess so,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you know why? I mean, what’s making you nervous? I meant what I said earlier about the table, and what’s on and off of it.”
“There is no table in here,” Cath said. “There’s just a bed.”
He pulled her hand into his chest. “Is that what you’re scared of?”
“I don’t know what I’m scared of.…” That was a lie. A giant one. She was scared that he’d start touching her, and then that they wouldn’t stop. She was scared that she wasn’t ready to be that person yet. The person who doesn’t stop. “I’m sorry,” she said. Levi looked down at their hands, and he looked so disappointed and confused—and it was such a piss-poor way to treat him. Dishonestly. Distantly. After he’d put himself out there for her again and again.
“This weekend…,” Cath said, and she tried to scoot closer. She knelt on the couch cushion next to him. “Thank you.”
Levi smiled again and lifted his eyes, just his eyes, up to her.
“I don’t think I can tell you how much it meant to me,” she said. “That you were there at the hospital. That you came.” He squeezed her hand. Cath pressed on: “I don’t think I can tell you how much you mean to me,” she said. “Levi.”
He lifted his whole face. His eyes were hopeful now. Wary.
“C’mere,” he said, tugging on her hand.
“I’m not sure I know how.”
He clenched his jaw. “I have an idea.”
“I can’t read you fanfiction,” she said, teasing. “I don’t have my computer.”
“Don’t you have your phone?”
She tilted her head. “Was that really your idea? Fanfiction?”
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing the palm of her hand. “It always relaxes you.”
“I thought you’d been asking me to read to you because you liked the story—”
“I do like the story. And I like the way it relaxes you. You never finished reading me the rabbit one, you know. And you’ve never read me anything from Carry On.”
Cath looked over at her coat. Her phone was in her pocket. “I feel like I’m failing you,” she said. “I was supposed to come over here and do stuff with you, not read lame fanfiction.”
Levi bit his lip and stifled a laugh. “Do stuff. Is that the street name for it? Come on, Cath, I want to know what happens. They just killed the rabbit, and Simon had finally figured out that Baz was a vampire.”
“Are you sure about this?”
Levi smiled, still looking overly cautious, and nodded.
Cath leaned off the couch and found her phone. She wasn’t used to googling her own stories, but when she typed in “Magicath” and “The Fifth Hare,” her story came right up.
While she looked for their place, Levi gently put his hands on her waist and pulled her back against him. “Okay?” he asked.
She nodded. “Have I read this part, ‘Simon didn’t know what to say. How to respond to … this. All this bloody information’?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Did we get to the part where the rabbit caught fire?”
“Okay,” Cath said. “I think I’ve got it.” She leaned back against Levi’s chest and felt his chin in her hair. This is fine, she told herself. I’ve been just here before. She propped her glasses in her hair and cleared her throat.
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 bloody lips—like they were dry, Simon thought—and nodded his head.
“Good,” Simon said, and realized that he meant it.
Then a plume of flame shot up behind Baz, throwing his face into shadow.
He whipped around and backed away from the rabbit. Its paw was well and truly on fire now, and the flames were already crawling up the beast’s chest.
“My wand…,” Baz said, looking around him on the floor. “Quick, cast an extinguishing spell, Snow.”
“I … I don’t know any,” Simon said.
Baz reached for Simon’s wand hand, and wrapped his own bloody fingers around Simon’s. “Make a wish!” he shouted, flicking the wand in a half circle.
The fire sputtered out, and the nursery fell dark.
Baz let go of Simon’s hand and started hunting around on the floor for his wand. Simon stepped closer to the gruesome corpse. “Now what?” he asked it.
As if in answer, the rabbit began to shimmer, then fade—and then it was gone, leaving nothing behind but the smell of pennies and burnt hair.
And something else …
Baz conjured one of his blue balls of light. “Ah,” he said, picking up his wand. “Filthy bugger was lying on it.”
“Look,” Simon said, pointing to another shadow on the floor. “I think it’s a key.” He stooped to pick it up—an old-fashioned key with fanged white rabbit’s teeth on its blade.
Baz stepped closer to look. He was dripping with blood; the smell of gore was overwhelming.
“Do you think this is what I was meant to find?” Simon asked.
“Well,” Baz said thoughtfully, “keys do seem more useful than giant, murderous rabbits.… How many more of these do you have to fight?”
“Five. But I can’t do it alone. This one would have murdered me if—”
“We have to clean up this mess,” Baz said, looking down at the stains on the thick-piled rug.
“We’ll have to tell the Mage when he comes back,” Simon said. “There’s too much damage here to handle ourselves.”
Baz was silent.
“Come on,” Simon said, “we can at least get ourselves cleaned up now.”
The boys’ showers were as empty as the rest of the school. They chose stalls at opposite ends.…
“What’s wrong?” Levi asked.
Cath had stopped reading.
“I feel weird reading this mushy g*y stuff out loud—your roommates are here. Is one of them gay? I don’t think I can read this with actual g*y people in the house.”
Levi giggled. “Micah? Trust me, it’s okay. He watches straight stuff in front of me all the time. He’s obsessed with Titanic.”
“Cath, it’s okay. Nobody can hear you.… Wait, is this really a shower scene? Like, a shower scene?”