“What do you mean?”
“It means, sometimes your sister will say something, and it will sort of shock me to hear her saying it with your voice.”
Cath looked up to his eyes, unsure. They were big and earnest. “Like what?”
“I can’t think of anything specific,” he said. “It’s like … she smiles more than you. But she’s harder somehow. Closed up.”
“I’m the one who never leaves my room.”
“I’m not explaining this right.… I like Wren,” he said, “what I know of her. But she’s more … forceful than you.”
“Partly. Maybe. More like—she takes what she wants from a situation.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“No, I know,” Levi said. “But it’s not you. You don’t push through every moment. You pay attention. You take everything in. I like that about you—I like that better.”
Cath closed her eyes and felt tears catch on her cheeks.
“I like your glasses,” he said. “I like your Simon Snow T-shirts. I like that you don’t smile at everyone, because then, when you smile at me.… Cather.” He kissed her mouth. “Look at me.”
“I choose you over everyone.”
Cath took a painful breath and reached up with one hand to touch his chin. “I love you,” she said. “Levi.”
Levi’s face broke open just before he kissed her.
He pulled away again a few seconds later.…
“Say it again.”
* * *
She had to make him another omelette.
“Do you know what the most disappointing thing is about being a magician?”
Penelope shook her head and rolled her eyes, a combination she’d gotten terribly good at over the years. “Don’t be silly, Simon. There’s nothing disappointing about magic.”
“There is,” he argued, only partly just to tease her. “I always figured we’d learn a way to fly by now.”
“Oh, pish,” Penelope said. “Anyone can fly. Anyone with a friend.”
She held her ringed hand out to him and grinned—“Up, up and away!”
Simon felt the steps drift away from him and laughed his way through a slow somersault. When he was upright again, he leveled his wand at Penelope.
“Look at them,” Reagan said, shaking her head fondly. “They’re all grown up.”
Cath turned to the cereal bar and watched two very hungover freshmen fumble with the scoops.
“I can still remember the night they came home with their first My Little Pony tattoos,” Reagan said.
“And the morning that we noticed those tattoos were infected,” Cath added, drinking her tomato juice. That’s something Cath would miss about the dorms. Four different kinds of juice on tap, including tomato—where else could you get tomato juice? Reagan hated watching her drink it. “It’s like you’re drinking blood,” Reagan would say, “if blood had the consistency of gravy.”
Reagan was still gazing at the hungover girls. “I wonder how many familiar faces we’ll see next year. Every year it’s a new batch, and most of them don’t come back to the dorms for a second tour.”
“Next year,” Cath said, “I won’t make the mistake of getting so attached.”
Reagan snorted. “We need to turn in our housing forms if we want the same room next year.”
Cath set down her juice glass. “Wait … Are you saying you want to live with me again?”
“Eff yeah, you’re never even home. It’s like I’ve finally got a room to myself.”
Cath smiled. Then took another long pull of tomato juice. “Well … I’ll think about it. Do you have any more hot ex-boyfriends?”
* * *
Wren was right.
She’d been on Cath to post a chapter of Carry On, Simon every single night. “Otherwise you’re never going to beat The Eighth Dance.”
They were going to go to the midnight release party at the Bookworm, back in Omaha. Levi wanted to go, too.
“Are we gonna dress up in costumes?” he’d asked the other night, up in his room.
“We haven’t done costumes since junior high.” Cath was sitting on the love seat with her laptop. She could write with him in the room now; she was so focused on Carry On, she could have written in a room full of circus animals.
“Damn,” he said, “I wanted to do costumes.”
“Who do you want to go as?”
“The Mage. Or maybe one of the vampires—Count Vidalia. Or Baz. Would that make you wild with desire?”
“I’m already wild with desire.”
“She said from across the room.”
“Sorry,” Cath said, rubbing her eyes. Levi had been needling her all night. Teasing her. Trying to get her to come out of her head and play. “I just need to finish this chapter if I want Wren to read it before she falls asleep.”
Cath was so close to the end of Carry On that every chapter felt important. If she wrote something stupid now, she wouldn’t be able to fix it or rein it in later. There was no room left for filler; every chapter meant the resolution of a plot line or a character’s last big scene. She wanted all of them to get the ending they deserved. Not just Baz and Simon and Agatha and Penelope, but all the other characters, too—Declan the reluctant vampire hunter, Eb the goatherd, Professor Benedict, Coach Mac.…
Cath was trying not to pay attention to her hit counts—that just added more pressure—but she knew they were off the chart. In the tens of thousands. She was getting so many comments that Wren had taken to handling them for her, using Cath’s profile to thank people and answer basic questions.
Cath was keeping up in her classes, but just barely. All her other assignments felt like the hoops she had to jump through to get to Simon and Baz.
One thing about writing this much … her brain never really shifted out of the World of Mages. When she sat down to write, she didn’t have to wade back into the story slowly, waiting to get used to the temperature. She was just there, all the time. All day. Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision.
Her laptop snapped shut, and Cath pulled back her fingers just in time. She hadn’t even noticed Levi moving over to the love seat. He took her computer and gingerly set it on the floor. “Commercial break.”
“Books don’t have commercials.”
“I’m not much of a book person,” he said, pulling her into his lap. “Intermission, then?”
Cath climbed onto him reluctantly, still thinking about the last thing she’d typed, not sure she wanted to leave it behind. “Books don’t have intermissions either.”
“What do they have?”
His hands were on her hips. “You’ll get there,” he said, nosing at the collar of her T-shirt. His hair tickled her chin, and it broke the spell in Cath’s head. Or cast a new one.
“Okay,” she sighed, kissing his head and rocking into his stomach. “Okay. Intermission.”
* * *
“You’ve got to give Penelope her own chapter,” Wren said. They were walking back to the dorms, sloshing through puddles. Wren had yellow rubber boots, and she kept jumping into puddles, soaking Cath’s legs and ankles.
“Where would I put it?” Cath puffed. The snow was melting, but she could still see her breath. “I should have written it two weeks ago. Now it’ll seem forced.… This is why real authors wait until they’ve got a whole book before they show anybody; I’d kill to go back to the beginning and rewrite.”
“You’re a real author,” Wren said, splashing. “You’re like Dickens. He wrote in installments, too.”
“I’m going to destroy those boots.”
“Jealous.” Wren stepped in another puddle.
“I’m not jealous. They’re gross. I bet they make your feet sweat.”
“Who cares, nobody can tell.”
“I’ll be able to tell when you get back to my room and take them off. They’re disgusting.”
“Hey,” Wren said, “I sort of want to talk to you about that.”
“Your room. Rooms. Roommates … I was thinking that next year we could room together. We could live in Pound, if you want; I don’t care.”
Cath stopped and turned to her sister. Wren kept walking for a second before she noticed and stopped, too.
“You want to be roommates?” Cath asked.
Wren was nervous. She shrugged. “Yeah. If you want to. If you’re not still mad about … everything.”
“I’m not mad,” Cath said. She remembered the day last summer when Wren told her she didn’t want to live together. Cath had never felt so betrayed. Almost never. “I’m not mad,” she said again, this time really meaning it.
Wren’s lips quirked up, and she stamped a puddle between them. “Good.”
“But I can’t,” Cath said.
Wren’s face fell. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I already told Reagan I’d live with her again.”
“But Reagan hates you.”
“What? No, she doesn’t. Why would you say that?”
“She’s so mean to you.”
“That’s just her way. I think I’m her best girl friend, actually.”
“Oh,” Wren said. She looked small and wet. Cath wasn’t sure what to say.…
“You’re my best friend,” Cath said awkwardly. “You know. Built-in. For life.”
Wren nodded. “Yeah … No, it’s okay. I should have thought of that, of you guys living together again.” She started walking and Cath followed.
“What about Courtney?”
“She’s moving into the Delta Gamma house.”
“Oh,” Cath said. “I forgot she was a pledge.”
“But that’s not why I asked you,” Wren said, like it was important to say so.
“You should move to Pound. You could live on our floor—I’m serious.”
Wren smiled and squared her shoulders, already recovering herself. “Yeah,” she said. “Okay. Why not? It’s closer to campus.”
Cath leapt into the next big puddle, soaking Wren up to her thighs. Wren jumped and screamed, and it was totally worth it. Cath’s feet were already soaked.
“Morgan’s grace, Simon—slow down.” Penelope held an arm out in front of his chest and glanced around the weirdly lit courtyard. “There’s more than one way through a flaming gate.”
Cath had been writing for four hours, and when she heard someone knocking at her door, it felt like she was standing at the bottom of a lake, looking up at the sun.
It was Levi.
“Hey,” she said, putting on her glasses. “Why didn’t you text? I would have come down.”
“I did,” he said, kissing her forehead. She took her phone out of her pocket. She’d missed two texts and a call. Her ringer was turned off.
“Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “Let me just pack up.”
Levi fell onto her bed and watched. Seeing him there, leaning against the wall, brought back so many memories and so much tenderness, she climbed onto the bed and started kissing his face all over.
He grinned and draped his long arms around her. “Do you have much writing to do?”
“Yeah,” she said, rubbing her chin into his. “‘Miles to go before I sleep.’”
“Have you shown anything to your professor yet?”
Cath had just started to bite his chin and she pulled away, looking at the teeth marks. “What do you mean?”
“Have you been turning stuff in piece by piece, or are you waiting until the whole story is done?”
“I’m … I’ve been working on Carry On.”
“No, I know,” he said, smiling and smoothing his hand over her hair. “But I was wondering about your Fiction-Writing project. I want you to read it to me when you’re done.”
Cath sat back on the bed. Levi’s hands didn’t leave her head and her hip. “I’m … I’m not doing that,” she said.
“You don’t want to read it to me? Is it too personal or something?”
“No. I’m not. I’m just … I’m not going to do it.”
Levi’s smile faded. He still didn’t understand.
“I’m not writing it,” she said. “It was a mistake to say that I would.”
His hands tightened on her. “No, it wasn’t. What do you mean? You haven’t started?”
Cath sat back farther, stepping off the bed and going to pack her laptop. “I was wrong when I told my professor I could do it—I can’t. I don’t have an idea, and it’s just too much. I’m not sure I’m even going to finish Carry On.”
“Of course you’ll finish.”
She looked up at him sharply. “I’ve only got nine days left.”
Levi still seemed confused. And maybe a little hurt. “You’ve got twelve days left until the end of the semester. And about fourteen before I go back to Arnold, but as far as I can tell, you’ve got the rest of your life to finish Carry On.”
Cath felt her face go hard. “You don’t understand,” she said. “At all.”
“So explain it to me.”
“Simon Snow and the Eighth Dance comes out in nine days.”
Levi shrugged. “So?”
“So I’ve been working two years toward this.”
“Toward finishing Carry On?”
“Yes. And I have to finish before the series ends.”