She could never get it out. She’d rather endure these excruciating checkups than tell the truth—that she only ever thought about her project when she was sitting in this room.
“That’s wonderful,” the professor said, leaning forward off her desk to pat Cath’s arm, smiling just the way Cath wanted her to. “I’m so relieved. I thought I was going to have to give you another ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ speech—and I didn’t know if I had one in me.”
Cath smiled. And thought about what a repugnant creature she was.
“So, tell me about it,” the professor said. “May I read what you have so far?”
Cath shook her head too quickly, then kept shaking her head at a more normal pace. “No, I mean, not yet. I just … not yet.”
“Fair enough.” Professor Piper looked suspicious. (Or maybe Cath was just paranoid.) “Can you tell me what you’re writing about?”
“Yeah,” Cath said. “Of course. I’m writing about…” She imagined a big wheel spinning around. Like on The Price Is Right or Wheel of Fortune. Wherever it landed, that would be it—that’s what she’d have to write. “I’m writing about…”
Professor Piper smiled. Like she knew Cath was lying, but still really wanted her to pull this off.
“My mom,” Cath said. And swallowed.
“Your mom,” the professor repeated.
“Yeah. I mean … I’m starting there.”
The professor’s face turned almost playful. “Everyone does.”
* * *
“The aerie,” Cath said, “that’s what this is.”
Levi was sitting against his headboard, and Cath was in his lap, her knees around his hips. She’d spent a lot of time in his lap lately. She liked to be on top, to feel like she could move away if she wanted to. (She almost never wanted to.) She also spent a lot of time deliberately not thinking about anything else that might be happening in his lap; his lap was abstract territory, as far as Cath was concerned. Unfixed. Unmapped. If she thought about Levi’s lap in concrete terms, she ended up crawling off the bed and curling up by herself on the love seat.
“What’s an aerie?” he asked.
“An eagle’s nest.”
“Oh.” He nodded. “Right.” He ran a hand up through his hair. Cath followed with her own hand, feeling his hair slip silkily through her fingers. He smiled at her like she was someone who’d just ordered a peppermint latte.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
He nodded and kissed her nose. “Of course.” When he smiled again, only his mouth moved.
“What’s wrong?” Cath started to move off his lap, but he caught her.
“Nothing. Nothing important, I just—” He closed his eyes, like he had a headache. “—I got a test back today. It wasn’t good, even for me.”
“Oh. Did you study for it?”
“Clearly not enough.”
Cath wasn’t sure how much Levi studied. He never cracked a book—but he went everywhere with earbuds. He was always listening to a lecture when she came down to his truck. He always pulled them out when she climbed in.
Cath thought back to the way he used to study with Reagan, flash cards spread all over the room, asking question after question.…
“It’s because of me, isn’t it?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“Indirectly,” she said. “You’re not studying with anyone else.”
“Cather. Look at me. I’ve never been this happy in my life.”
“You don’t seem happy.”
“I didn’t mean right this minute.” He smiled; it was tired, but genuine. Cath wanted to kiss his little pink mouth immobile.
“You need to study,” she said, punching his chest.
“With Reagan. With all those girls you exploit.”
“With me, if you want. I could help you study.”
He reached up to her ponytail and started tugging out the rubber band. She let her head fall back.
“You have enough homework,” he said. “And thousands of Simon Snow fans hanging on your every word.”
Cath looked up at the cracks in the plaster ceiling while he worked the hair tie free. “If it meant being here, in the aerie, with you,” she said, “instead of you being somewhere else with someone else, I would gladly make the sacrifice.”
He pulled her hair forward; it fell just past her shoulders. “I can’t decide if you love me,” he said, “or this room.”
“Both,” Cath said, then thought through his choice of words and blushed.
He smiled, like he’d tricked her. “Okay,” he said, playing with her hair. “I’ll study more.” He lifted his legs up and bounced her forward. “Take off your glasses.”
“Why? I thought you liked my glasses.”
“I love your glasses. I especially love the moment when you take them off.”
“Do you need to study tonight?”
“Nope. I just bombed a test. I got nothing to study for.” He bounced her on his legs again.
She rolled her eyes and took off her glasses.
Levi grinned. “What color are your eyes?”
She opened them as wide as she could.
“I can see them,” he said. “But I can’t decide what color they are. What does it say on your driver’s license?”
“They’re not blue.”
“They are. On the outside.”
“And brown in the middle,” he said. “And gray on the edge and green in between.”
Cath shrugged and looked down at his neck. There was a mole just below his ear, and another one at the bottom of his throat. He was paler now than when she’d first met him; he’d seemed so tan that day, like a little kid who’d been playing outside all summer.
“What are you doing this summer?” she asked.
“Working on the ranch.”
“Will I see you?”
“We’ll make it work.” He touched her cheek.
“Not like this…”
Levi looked around the room and took her face in his hands. “Not like this,” he conceded.
Cath nodded and bent to kiss the spot under his ear. “You’re sure you don’t need to study?”
“No,” she said. “It’s Friday.”
Levi had just shaved, so his jaw and neck were something extra. Soft plus minty. She ran a hand down the front of his flannel shirt until her fingers caught at the first button—and decided right then to unbutton it.
She found the next button.
When she’d finished with the third, he pulled away from her and yanked the shirt up over his head. The T-shirt came next. Cath looked down at his chest like she’d never seen anything like it before. Like she’d never been to a public swimming pool.
“You look thinner with your clothes on,” she said with surprise, tracing her fingers over his shoulders.
He laughed. “Is that a compliment?”
“It’s a … I didn’t expect you to look so strong.”
He tried to kiss her, but she leaned back—she wasn’t ready to look away. Levi wasn’t noticeably muscular. Not like Jandro. Not even like Abel. But he was firm and nicely shaped, muscles curving around his shoulders, over his arms, across his chest.
Cath wanted to go back and rewrite every scene she’d ever written about Baz or Simon’s chests. She’d written them flat and sharp and hard. Levi was all soft motion and breath, curves and warm hollows. Levi’s chest was a living thing.
“You’re beautiful,” she said.
“Don’t argue with me. You’re beautiful.”
* * *
Taking off Levi’s shirt had been such an inspired idea, Cath was thinking about losing her own. Levi was thinking about it, too. He was playing with the hem, sliding his fingers just underneath it while they kissed. Kissed. Cath loved that word. She used it sparingly in her fic, just because it felt so powerful. It felt like kissing to say it. Well done, English language.
Levi kissed with his jaw and his bottom lip. She hadn’t done this with enough people to know whether that was distinctive, but she felt like it was. He kissed her, and ran his fingers under her hem; and if she just raised her arms now, he’d probably take care of her shirt. She could count on him to pitch in. Cath couldn’t remember what she was waiting for, what she was so scared of.…
Was she waiting for marriage? At the moment, it was hard to think beyond Levi … whom she was nowhere near marrying. That fact only made her want him more. Because if she didn’t end up marrying Levi, she wouldn’t have lifetime access to his chest and his lips and whatever might be happening in his lap. What if they married other people? She should probably have sex with him now, while she still could.
Flawed logic, her brain was shouting. Miserably flawed.
How do you even know when you’re anywhere near marrying someone? she wondered. Is that question about time? Or distance?
Cath’s phone chimed.
Levi licked her mouth like he was trying to get the last bit of jam off the back of her throat.
Her phone chimed again.
It probably wasn’t important. Wren. Complaining about their dad. Or their dad complaining about Wren. Or one of them being rushed to a hospital …
Cath pulled away, catching Levi’s hands and trying to catch her breath.
“Let me check,” she said. “Wren—”
He nodded and pulled his hands away from her shirt. Cath resisted the urge to slide down his legs like he was a hobby horse. (It would feel good, but she might never recover her dignity.) Instead she climbed drunkenly off him, reaching off the bed for her phone.
He crawled after her, trying to read over her shoulder.
Wren. “hey, you should come to omaha. jandro’s here, we’re going dancing later at guaca maya. fun! come!”
“can’t,” Cath texted back. “levi time.”
She threw her phone on the floor, then tried to find her way back to Levi’s lap. But he’d already leaned back against the headboard with his knees up. Lap unavailable.
She tried to move his knees out of the way, but he wouldn’t let her. He was looking at her like he was still trying to figure out what color her eyes were.
“Is everything okay?” she asked, kneeling in front of him.
“Yeah. Everything okay on your end?” He moved his chin toward her phone.
Cath nodded. “Perfectly.”
Cath nodded again.
Then she lifted her arms up over her head.
Agatha wrung her fingers in her cape miserably. (But still prettily. Even Agatha’s tear-stained face was a thing of beauty.) Simon wanted to tell her it was all right, to forget the whole scene with Baz in the forest.… Agatha standing in the moonlight, holding both of Baz’s pale hands in her own …
“Just tell me,” Simon said, his voice shaking.
“I don’t know what to say,” she wept. “There’s you. And you’re good. And you’re right. And then there’s him.… And he’s different.”
“He’s a monster.” Simon clenched his square jaw.
Agatha just nodded. “Perhaps.”
They stepped into the elevator, and Cath pressed 9.
“I can’t believe we’ve been arguing for fifteen minutes about whether Simon Snow should reach for his sword or his wand in a lame piece of fanfiction.”
And by “I can’t believe,” Cath meant “I can’t believe how happy I am.” Wren was coming up to her room, and they were going to work on Carry On until Levi was done with work. This was the routine now. Cath liked routines. She felt flushed with serotonin.
Wren shoved her. “It’s not lame. It’s important.”
“Only to me.”
“And me. And everyone else who’s reading. And besides, you by yourself should be enough. You’ve been working on this for almost two years. This is your life’s work.”
“God, that’s pathetic.”
“I meant your life’s work so far—and it’s extremely impressive. It would be, even if you didn’t have thousands of fans. Jandro can’t believe how many readers you have. He thinks you should try to monetize it.… He doesn’t really get the whole fanfiction thing. We tried to watch The Mage’s Heir, and he fell asleep.”
Cath gasped, only partly in jest. “You never told me he was a nonbeliever.”
“I wanted you to get to know him first. What about Levi?”
The elevator doors opened, and they got off on Cath’s floor. “He loves it,” she said. “Simon Snow. Fanfiction, everything. He makes me read my stuff out loud to him.”
“Isn’t he squicked by the slash?”
“No, he’s Zen. Why? Is Jandro?”
“Is he squicked by g*y people?”
“No … Well, maybe. It’s more the idea of straight girls writing about g*y boys; he thinks it’s deviant.”
That made Cath giggle. Then Wren started giggling with her.
“He thinks I’m the deviant one,” Cath said.
“Shut up.” Wren shoved her again.
Cath stopped—there was a boy standing outside her room.
The wrong boy.
“What’s up?” Wren stopped, too. “Did you forget something?”
“Cath,” Nick said, taking a few steps forward. “Hey. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“Hey,” Cath said. “Hey, Nick.”
“Hey,” he said again.
Cath was still six feet away from her room. She didn’t want to come any closer. “What are you doing here?”