hetsmut sly single alvarez

Dungeons and Dragons

by sly

Augustus Hill:
Books. Leafing through the pages of a book, you can take your mind to places where you've never gone before! Words on a page… Funny, isn't it? In one afternoon, you can go from New York to Siberia. Hell, you can go to space, if that's what turns your crank. You can go anywhere. The imagination knows no boundaries… And books help to expand and broaden your imagination.

They say that knowledge is power. Think of the power you gain every time you read a book. By learning to read, you learn to open your mind to endless possibilities. You can learn theories that you never would have thought of on your own… You can learn about History. You can learn about the future. It might just be letters on a page, but shit—if it weren't for those letters, put together to form words, put together to form sentences, we wouldn't know half of the shit that we know today. So books can't be all that bad.

Now the average Joe might not want to read about Einstein's theory of relativity, or any other shit that requires a lot of thinking. Nah. Most of us want somethin' simple and stimulating. We want conflict. Yeah, that's what makes up a really good story line—a really good plot. Conflict. You really want to get the reader's pulse racing, give 'em conflict. Man against man. Man against nature… Man against himself.

* * *

She felt lightheaded. Her sweaty palms reminded her of her nervousness—as if she needed any reminders! Her heart pounded so loudly in her head that she thought her hearing would be permanently affected. She went over it again and again in her head. She imagined what she would say, what she would do. She imagined it all going out the window the minute she saw his face. Deep in her heart, she knew it would.

She stared at the glass window before her. It seemed so cold, so relentless. Her chair squeaked as she shifted her weight uncomfortably. He would be there at any moment. The glass stared back as she waited.

Memories of a time that seemed like forever ago washed over her mind. She imagined seeing his face and felt a flutter rush through her stomach, blooming up from within like milk bubbles. She remembered the feel of his hand on her shoulder. So many times he had put it there—a seemingly meaningless gesture, but one that had stayed with her for years. She remembered shedding tears on his shoulders as he had stood immobile, like a pillar, unwilling to leave, and yet unable to make the pain go away.

She remembered thinking that he would end up in this place. And here he was. She shook her head in wonder. It had been over a year since he had been incarcerated. There were reasons why she hadn't come sooner. Still, it was no excuse. She wondered how she would meet his gaze. Would he be angry? Would he even be willing to talk? Then she reprimanded herself. Of course he would be willing to talk with her. They had been through a lot together, and besides, what better things would he have to do? Still, there was also the possibility that the year in prison had changed him. She wondered what she would find when she looked into his eyes.

A shadow appeared in the glass before her, and her heart skipped a beat. She held her breath and clenched her right fist, trying hard to banish the feeling of nausea that had suddenly befallen her. She had to do this. After all this time, she had to see him. She had come a long way. She missed him.

She looked up to see the face that had plagued her nightly and waking dreams for the past five years. The sight of him took the very breath from her lungs. Although she knew it to be him, the sight of her beloved Miguel, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and black prison pants, his face scarred from cheekbone almost to the corner of his mouth, left her feeling stupefied. It was the moment of truth.

* * *

Miguel was perplexed. He saw a figure seated before him, behind the pane of glass, and scratched his head in confusion. Was he supposed to know this girl? She looked like a little flower. Her hair was cropped short, close to her head, and her skin was pale, appearing to him like porcelain. Her ears were almost pointed, giving her an exotic, almost elf-like appearance. Her cheeks were slightly hollowed, and she looked tired.

Her eyes turned up to him expectantly. It was the eyes that caught his attention. Multi-colored eyes that burned with intensity gazed into his, searching his soul. He knew that penetrating gaze. He remembered those green eyes that changed hue in different lights. He remembered those arched eyebrows, that bright smile. He shook his head in wonder. Could it really be her?

"Caitlin?" he asked in a whisper, stepping carefully to the glass and pressing his palms to its cold surface.

She nodded fervently and imitated his gesture, pressing her own palms to the glass, imagining that her hands were touching his. He noticed her eyes welling up with tears. He reached out with a hand and picked up the phone, never once taking his eyes from hers.

She nodded her understanding and picked up the matching phone on the other side of the glass. Neither seemed to know what to say.

"I wouldn'a known it was you…" he said, utterly amazed. "Your hair's gone."

She blushed and fussed subconsciously with her reddish hair.

"Yeah, I hate it though," she replied, her cheeks burning beat red.

"Nah, nah… It looks great. You look great."

She closed her eyes, almost in ecstasy, at the sound of his voice. How she had missed that sound.

"Shit!" he remarked, seemingly unable to find the words to describe his surprise at seeing her. A broad grin spread across her small features at the sound of his swearing—the way that he somehow gave that word two syllables. It was part of his charm—part of what endeared him to her.

"How have you been?" she asked. The question seemed so meaningless in the grand scale of things, but she really did want to know. Somehow it seemed not to convey the true concern that she felt. She wished she would let him know how she really felt.

"Ah, you know how it is," he replied evasively, smiling. Those dimples! She hadn't forgotten the dimples. They seemed to add to the vast spectrum of his charm, of his beauty.

"You've been all right?" she asked.

He shrugged.

"I'm alive, ain't I?"

"Well I'm assuming that I'm not speaking with a living dead," she teased.

"You never know in Oz, man," he replied.

Her expression softened.

"I'm sorry about the baby," she whispered.

He immediately averted his eyes. He couldn't show his pain. If she was here to see him now, it was likely that she had a problem. If it killed him, he would not show his pain.

"Thanks," was all he could manage to say.

"I would have come to see you sooner," she explained. "But I… oh hell. I was afraid, to be honest."

"It's a'ight."

"No, it's not. You have always been there for me. I should have been there for you when you needed me."

"It's fine. Really." Like she knew he would, he had turned himself off. It was as if the window to his soul had closed. His emotions were locked inside, and he wouldn't let them out until he couldn't bear them any longer. She knew it because she was the same way.

His dark eyes seemed to soften as he peered at her. His brow drew together with concern. He shook his head, noticing the hollowness of her cheeks. She had gotten so thin.

That was where it had all begun. He remembered that day all too well:

Ashley was a knockout. She was tall and thin, with long blond hair and curves that would make any man's head turn. He had known all along that she was only seeing him to piss her parents off. She was rich, and he was not. The fact that he was Latino didn't sit well with them. They thought of him as a threat, and had asked her not to see him. But then, Ashley was of the rebellious type, and had dismissed their suggestions with a wave of her hand. He was handsome, rebellious, and adventurous, and she seemed attracted by the fact that he had a vicious and at times uncontrollable temper.

Her parents weren't home when she had invited him over to her house to 'watch a movie'. The girl was practically a nymphomaniac, so he doubted very highly that they would be watching any movies. Ashley was such a great girl.

Unfortunately for them, when they got there, they found that Ashley's little sister, Caitlin, was still in the house. He had met her a couple of times before. She was cute, like a little flower. She was of a small frame, pretty tiny, with pretty features and intense, greenish colored eyes. Her hair was naturally brown, but she dyed it red, saying that the color suited her skin tone. If she hadn't told him that it wasn't natural, he would have believed her to be a born redhead. She was of a fiery personality, after all.

"Shit!" Ashley had exclaimed, while the two were still downstairs in the kitchen. "I'm out of condoms. Fuck!"

He slid his hands around her waist and pulled her close.

"Ah, we don't really need it."

The arch look that she shot back at him said that they did.

"I'll be back in twenty," she instructed. "Caitlin's upstairs, if you want some company while I'm gone."

"You goin' by yourself?" he asked. "Why don't I come with you?"

She laughed.

"I can take care of myself," she said. "Besides, I want to pick up some surprises for you." Having said that, she gave him a wink and ushered herself out the door, leaving poor Miguel alone in her large and immaculate house.

"Shit!" he muttered.

He stood in the kitchen for a long moment, feeling very uncomfortable being in the house without Ashley with him. If her parents came home, things could become even more uncomfortable. He wished that she would hurry back, and soon.

Then he had moved into the living room. The couch was off-white leather, and stretched expansively in an 'L' shape, and other chairs and a love seat of matching upholstery furnished the room. The coffee table itself appeared to be worth a pretty penny. Miguel entertained the thought of swiping it. He could buy himself some nice shit with that coffee table. In the end, he decided against it. Stealing from the family didn't usually sit well with the girlfriend. Besides, Caitlin was still upstairs.

He listened to the sound of a large grandfather clock as it ticked and tocked the minutes that passed. Fifteen minutes went by, and he finally heaved a sigh in exasperation and decided to head upstairs and see what Caitlin was doing.

The stairs didn't so much as creak as he ascended. Not like his house. The stairs were so creaky at home that you had to be careful not to put your foot through them. This house was classy. No creaking steps or cracks in the walls.

He reached the landing at the top of the stairs and peered down the hall.

"Caitlin," he gently called. "Hey, your sister wanted me to come on up and…"

He paused.

His face scrunched in confusion, and he strained with his ears to figure out what the strange sound was. It sounded as though someone was retching in a room not far away. The bathroom.

Light shone from inside. The door wasn't closed. He placed his hand on the knob and quietly pushed it open. The sight that met him there froze him in his tracks.

There she was, fifteen years old, beautiful, with her long hair tumbling over her shoulders to curl into natural ringlets at the tips, and her head bowed over the toilet. Her hand was partially in her mouth as she forced her finger down her throat, causing herself to gag.

"Shit!" she heard him exclaim, in that two-syllable way that made even his swearing charming.

She quickly snatched her hand away and stared back at him, horrified. Until the day she died, she would never forget the look of confusion and shock on his face.

"You okay?" he asked, perplexed. "You wanna drink or somethin'? Maybe some aspirin or somethin'?"

She shook her head.

"No, I'm fine." That was all she could manage to say. Her ears burned red with shame, but luckily, her hair covered them.

"Well you ain't fine," he argued. "You're throwin' up, so you can't be fine. Let me get you somethin'… At least some water to get that taste outa your mouth."

She nodded meekly as he rushed to the sink, fumbling with the faucets. His clumsy hands accidentally knocked this and that thing over as he hurried to get her a glass of water. She could tell that he was worried, although he did his best to hide it.

"There you go," he said in a proud whisper, licking his lips as he handed the glass of frosty water to her. "That should help."

"Thanks," she replied, taking a small sip. She felt the need to explain. She didn't want him jumping to any conclusions. "I had some chicken tonight that I don't think was cooked enough," she lied. "I could feel it unsettling my stomach, so I just decided to throw it up."

"Ah," he said, nodding his understanding. "I guess you wouldn't wanna get food poisoning or nothin'."

Double negatives usually irked her, but for some reason she loved it when he used them. She felt somehow humbled in his presence. If only he weren't so much older than her. If only he wasn't her older sister's boyfriend. If only he knew that she was alive.

"I had food poisoning a few years ago," she went on. "I didn't want to be sick with it again."

He stepped up to her and took her tiny hand in his. There were bruises along her knuckles.

"Looks like you almost get food poisoning often," he remarked with an arched eyebrow.

She did not respond. He noticed her chest rising and falling as her breathing quickened.

"Caitlin," he called authoritatively. "Look at me."

She purposely averted her eyes and found a keenly interesting splotch of tile on the floor that kept her attention riveted there. This was her personal business. Not his. He had no right to intrude upon it. She could feel his dark eyes on her.

"Miguel, go away," she said detachedly. "Just leave me alone."

"I'm not leavin' 'til you tell me what's goin' on," he replied stubbornly.

"There is nothing going on," she said in a strained voice. "Thank you for the water. Now leave."

He shook his head.

"Nah," he said. "I'm not goin'. We can play this game all night, if you want. Ashley will be home soon, and then she can argue with you too, if you want."

Caitlin turned to him, her eyes pleading. He could see the pain in them, and he immediately regretted being so nosey with her. Still, he knew that he shouldn't back down. If she was deliberately causing herself harm, he couldn't sit around and allow her to do it. Besides, what she was doing was just stupid. There was no reason for her to do it in the first place.

"Please?" she pleaded. "I will be fine. I'm not doing anything wrong. I just felt a little sick. That's all."

He heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Caitlin's eyes were stricken. She gripped his arm in near panic.

"Please!" she begged. "Please, Miguel. Just don't say anything."

His eyes remained locked with hers for a long moment.

"We'll talk about this later," he warned her, sighing in resignation. "I won't say nothin' tonight. But I wanna talk to you, a'ight? If I don't talk to you, I'll talk to your sister, you got it?"

She nodded fervently.

"Just don't tell anybody!" she begged. "I'll talk to you if you want, just please… PLEASE don't talk to my family about this. They just wouldn't understand."

He nodded.

"I'm goin' back downstairs, okay?"

She nodded.

"I'll see you later, kid."

She blinked past the tears and continued to nod. It was all that she could do as he uncomfortably ambled out the door.

It had seemed like so long ago. He could still remember the terror-stricken look in her eyes. They had talked, as she had promised. They had spent many a sunny afternoon together, hanging out. She had become a little sister to him in many ways. Of course, no one else knew of their secret little friendship. Not even Ashley. After the break-up, Miguel had continued to visit Caitlin. They had learned that they were alike in many ways.

At first he had found her illness to be childish and incomprehensible. But, after getting to know her and her fears, he soon learned that he was much the same way. He was a masochist too, although of a different type. She used direct ways to hurt herself, from a deep-seeded self-loathing that stemmed from childhood. Miguel, on the other hand, was travelling a different road to self-destruct. He had seen his share of abuse, and had used his pain as an excuse to destroy himself.

Now, here he was, in prison. Both he and Caitlin were destroying themselves, only in the end, she would come off looking like the victim, and he the culprit.

Seeing her now, grown up and still looking like a little flower, he felt a deep pang of regret. He found himself wishing that he had done things differently. When didn't he wish he had done things differently? He kept thinking that there might have been something that he could have done to end her self-hatred, to lead her towards recovery. He didn't know much about eating disorders, or anorexia, as he heard it called, but he did know that he wanted so badly to take it away from her. She was such a little angel. She had a heart of gold, she truly did.

Of all the people in the world that he wanted to protect, she would be the one. Her eyes spoke of complete adoration for him. He wished that he deserved it.

"You've gotten thin," he remarked. "You been eating?"

She forced a smile.

"Of course," she said. "Otherwise, you'd kick my butt."

"Dat's right," he agreed with a laugh. "An' don't you forget it."

"I don't really have to worry about that for another year yet," she teased. "Until you're paroled, I can do whatever I want." She stuck her tongue out at him.

"So how you doin'?" he asked. "You doin' okay?"

"I already told you that I was," she said, although she knew that he could see right through her smile. He could see the pain in her eyes, in much the same way as she could see the pain in his. They were so alike that they seemed able to read each other's feelings and thoughts like a book. She idly wondered if he had ever read between the lines of her thoughts… if he had ever seen the love that she bore him. She doubted it. Men could be hopelessly daft when it came to matters of the heart. Especially Miguel.

* * *

Augustus Hill:
Story lines are great. You got the rising action, you got your conflicts, and then you got your crisis. Without conflict, your book ain't worth readin'! You want the stuff that's gonna grab you by the insides and wrench it, makin' your guts all knotted until the problem is finally resolved.

Man against nature is simple. "Twister," "Jurassic Park," anything where the hero, or heroin, gots to do battle with the great outdoors. We don't see a lotta man against nature in Oz… 'Less you count death, 'cos death is part of nature, and death is inevitable.

Man against man. That's an easy one too. O'Reilly vs. Dino Ortellani. O'Reilly vs. Johnny Post. O'Reilly vs. Jefferson Keane. O'Reilly vs. Nino Schibetta… noticin' a pattern here? Some characters seem pretty one-sided. All their conflicts are man against man, or man against nature. They battling physical enemies almost on a daily basis. But what about those characters whose enemies ain't so clear? Miguel Alvarez… man against himself.

* * *

"Z'it true you offed Scott Ross?" he asked conversationally, his shoulders swaying with his confident strut.

She kept her eyes straight ahead and tucked a lock of blond hair behind her ear. He noticed the steely glint in her eye, and decided not to pursue the matter further. His cheeks dimpled with his smile. She wasn't that hard to piss off.

"Keep walking Alvarez," she ordered peremptorily.

The two walked almost side by side, down the corridor that leads to Father Ray Mukada's office. He could tell by Diane Wittlesey's rigid frame that he had stepped on a nerve. It didn't matter though. He already knew she had done it. Not that he cared. He had just asked her the question to see for himself whether or not it was true. Now he knew. Wittlesey killed Scott Ross. She was no better than he was, only she was free to push him around while he was stuck cleaning bed pans in the prison hospital ward. That irked him.

Then he turned his attention to the task at hand. There were more important things to deal with than a CO's fuck-ups. He had to see the Father, and pronto. If anyone could help, it was Ray. Miguel hoped that the padre would be able to help.

Diane stopped when she reached the door and opened it with her left hand. Miguel smiled winsomely at her and gave her a wink, to reinforce what he knew. Her eyes revealed nothing. Shrugging, he stepped inside.

Ray was seated at his desk, puffing away at a cigarette. The little priest, with his hair now close to his scalp, looked more like an old chum than a priest. Still, Miguel knew him to be a good man. Hell, Ray was one of the best.

"Miguel, please, sit down," the kindly young priest instructed, tucking the cigarette behind his ear.

"Sure," Miguel replied, laying a hand on his stomach and shuffling to the chair before Mukada's desk. He ran his tongue along the inside of his cheek before he finally lowered his body into the chair.

"What is it?" Ray asked.

"I got a favor to ask, padre."

The priest's eyes came up, eyeing the young Latino suspiciously.

"What kind of favor?" he asked.

"I need for you convince McManus and Sister Pete to give me a conjugal. I gotta have a conjugal."

Ray laughed ruefully.

"Miguel, you're not married. And besides, your girlfriend is in prison. There's no way Pete would allow it."

"It ain't Maritza that I want the conjugal with," Miguel replied.

The priest shook his head.

"I'm sorry, but no. I can't do it."

Miguel's hands gripped the arms of the chair, and he leaned forward, his dark eyes locking on the dark eyes of the Asian priest before him.

"You're always sayin' that I gotta better myself, right?"

Ray nodded.

"Well I'm tryin' to do that. See, I got this girl who—"

"Having sex with someone who isn't even your girlfriend hardly counts has bettering yourself, Miguel."

"You're not listenin'," Miguel argued. "She ain't my girl. I just wanna help her, is all. She's like my little sister."

"Then why would you need a conjugal?"

Miguel's eyes fixed on the floor. He stared at the thick wooden leg of Mukada's desk, seeming to lose himself in its texture.

"Cos she needs a hug, padre. She needs me. I don't want to fuck her or nothin', I just wanna… I just wanna be there for her, you know? You know, like, let her cry on my shoulder and give her a hug and shit like that. She's got no one."

"What about her family?"

Miguel shook his head.

"She got a secret," he explained sadly. "She ain't told no one but me. An' she needs me. I ain't seen her in years, since she and her family moved to California… She came a long fuckin' way to see me. I'd just like some time alone with her, you know? Just some time to talk to her and, I don't know… try to convince her to take care of herself or somethin'."

A small smile crept onto the young priest's face. He had watched this man change from egotistical, self-absorbed brute to caring father and confused little boy. He had great hopes for the leader of the Latino gang. Perhaps Miguel's soul was not so lost after all.

* * *

"What!" McManus exclaimed, accidentally dropping a book on the floor. It landed with a resounding thud. Silence hung thick in the air for a long moment.

"I want you and Sister Pete to arrange for Alvarez to have a conjugal visit with a friend," Ray said. He had expected the Deputy Warden's reaction to be as such. Still, he wished that he could have just arranged the conjugal himself. It would make things so much easier.

"You gotta be kidding me," McManus said with a laugh. "Alvarez's girlfriend is in prison… Sister Pete would never arrange for an unmarried man to have a conjugal with a woman that wasn't even his girlfriend. I can't believe that you would want her to."

"It's not what you think," Ray explained. "Alvarez has a friend—an ex- girlfriend's younger sister—who came all the way from California. I guess the girl has a shit-load of personal problems. She looks up to Miguel as an older brother."

"Then they don't need a conjugal," McManus pointed out. "Siblings don't fuck."

"They're not going to fuck," Ray argued. "They're just going to talk."

"If she's got problems, she should go to a shrink, not to Oz."

"Miguel would like nothing more than for her to seek professional help. In fact, he wants some time alone with her so that he can convince her to see someone. He's afraid that she'll kill herself."

McManus seemed to be mulling it over. He paused in thought and peered out the window of his office.

"And you believe this story?"

Ray nodded.

"Miguel and I have been through a lot together," he explained. "I've watched him change. I believe that he truly wants to help this girl. And if he is willing to help, I think that we should let him."

McManus shook his head.

"This isn't the Miguel Alvarez Party Palace, you know!" he argued. "What's to stop the next guy from inviting his hooker friend for a conjugal 'cos he's afraid that her drug habits are going to be the end of her?"

"We'll make Miguel promise not to tell anyone about the arrangement," Ray supplied.

"Gossip travels faster in Oz than it does at a stitching bee. If I do it for one, I'm going to have to do it for the others. I'm sorry, but I can't allow special privileges."

"Do it for me then!" Ray pleaded. "Miguel needs this as much as the girl does."

"What makes you so sure? Why do you care so much? Isn't Miguel the one who left you to be beaten by the thugs during the riot?"

Mukada nodded silently, shuddering at the memory. It had been a terrifying experience, during the heat of the riot, in the mouth of the madness, with all those hands grappling him and punching him. But he had forgiven Miguel. And he was bound to dedicate himself to Miguel, even more so now. It was a mission that he had embarked himself upon, and he'd be damned if he'd let the boy down.

"I believe that everyone has the chance to do good," he replied in a soft voice.

"Even Miguel Alvarez?"

"Especially Miguel Alvarez! Don't you see? This prison is full of people who don't give a shit about anybody but themselves! Miguel was one of them. He didn't give a fuck if his own child died.

"When he comes to me, asking for my help, I listen. Tim, he wants to help someone. Without being prompted, without being intimidated, he wants to help someone. Out of the goodness of his heart, of his own volition, he wants to ease someone else's suffering. That is the kind of behavior that I want to encourage. I would have thought that you would feel the same way."

McManus hung his head and heaved a sigh of resignation. He had just unwittingly slipped his head into a noose.

* * *

It was a moment of immeasurable excitement, unimaginable release. The wind through her hair and the sun on her face, the sound of the engine revving as the ground sped past… It was as though the catharsis had been reached. She lifted her arms to the sky and let out a howl of triumph.

She tried not to think about where he had gotten the car. She tried not to think about where they were going. She looked straight ahead, and never bothered to turn and see the distance behind her growing. For a few days, she would find her freedom. It would end, but for the time being, it was freedom. Fleeting freedom.

Miguel felt much the same way. The city could be stifling, smothering, and overwhelming. He had his own demons to flee, only his had faces and names. For a few days, he would not have to worry about impressing anyone. There was no one that needed impressing. Caitlin adored him, and he adored her, like a little sister. He had promised her a good time. He had promised to take her away for a weekend of unadulterated fun. And that was what he intended to give her.

The car had been an easy swipe. But Miguel was no fool. He had taken precautions. In the rich swank neighborhood that Caitlin Northrop's family lived, he had seen many a beauteous vehicle worth swiping. At first he had made a game of it, going for walks with Caitlin and spitting in the windows of any and every car whose window had been left open. It was a test of security. He quickly learned which owners took care with the security of their cars, and which were too confident in their surroundings to be cautious. He had swiped a Benz.

After removing the license plate, he had taken the newly stolen car to a 'friend', who then provided him with another car, one far less conspicuous and extravagant. It was a convertible, jet black with leather interior. He had insured his 'friend' that it was merely a loan, and that he'd have it back in a few days. The guy had owed him a favor, and had reluctantly complied. There were buyers who wanted the car, but Miguel was a worthy ally, and had agreed to it.

And so, here he was, with a newly registered car that would never be linked to him if he were somehow stopped by the police for inspection. Caitlin had her suspicions about the car. She knew that Miguel couldn't afford the car. And neither could any of his friends, for that matter.

But it was just for the weekend.

They had both constructed bullshit stories as to their whereabouts for the few days that they would be away. She was going to visit her sister, Ashley, at the university (luckily her sister had been willing to cover for her without asking for any details, but merely stating that Caitlin would owe her). Miguel was off to close a 'deal' that no one was supposed to know about. He'd make up the details when he got back, knowing full well that none of his friends believed him. It didn't matter. As long as they didn't know the truth—that he was going off with a fifteen year-old girl to share in some innocent, quality time. He'd never be able to show his face again if his amigos learned the truth. He'd be branded a pussy.

But they didn't know. And her parents didn't know. Nobody knew but Miguel and Caitlin, and they weren't planning on telling anyone.

"So how's about you put on some tunes, huh baby?" he said through the rushing of the wind and the purring of the motor.

Her face broke into a wide grin and she fished through the tapes in the glove compartment. He had warned her to be prepared for a long car ride, and she had obliged him. She had grabbed just about every tape that she owned and shoved them all in the glove compartment. She had also brought along several sleeping bags, in case the warm weather suddenly turned frigid, and a grand assortment of sweaters, T-shirts, cardigans, tank tops… enough clothes for every type of weather imaginable.

His dimples melted onto his face upon seeing her glowing smile. It seemed to take a lot for her smile, and even more to keep her smiling. The ear to ear smile that she wore now seemed to have firmly planted itself in place on her face. He hoped it would stay that way—at least for the rest of their trip, anyway.

She carefully slid the tape into the machine and pressed play. A steady drumbeat introduced the song, and a repetitive guitar riff quickly brought the tune. A strange voice sang through the speakers, "Crack that whip!"

Miguel's face contorted into a mask of confusion and incredulity. Dimples creased deeper into his cheeks, and he threw his head back ruefully.

"Shit," he said in that two-syllable way that made her smile. "—the hell are we listenin' to?"

"Devo," she replied cheerfully, nodding her head with the beat. "You know. 'Are we not men? We are Devo.'"

He nodded.

"Yeah, yeah, I remember this shit. Fuck, Caitlin. What the hell are you doin' listening to this stuff. Weren't you like a baby when this stuff was big?"

She shook her head.

"I was probably about five years old," she said, feigning indignance. "I loved them then, and I still love them now." She stuck her tongue out childishly.

"Do it again," he dared her, peeking in her direction, while still keeping his eyes on the road.

"Do what?"

"Stick your tongue out again," he explained, taking his right hand from the wheel and holding it in the air.


"You'll see when you do it," he teased.

She folded her arms.

"No way, you're going to grab my tongue or something."

He laughed.

"Nah, I didn't say that," he joked.

"You didn't have to," she replied. "Your hand hovering in the air, ready to snatch my tongue when I stuck it out, spoke for you."

"Clever girl. Just make sure I don't see it comin' out again, 'cos I'll grab it."

When his hand was back on the wheel, she turned to him and stuck her tongue out again.

"Ha, ha!" she jibed. "Missed me."

"Next time your tongue is mine," he promised with a laugh.

With nothing but open road before them, they headed into the sunshine. Where they went didn't matter—only that they were going.

It seemed like forever ago. He was no longer free to cruise the open road with his innocent little friend sitting in a stolen car beside him. Three glass walls caged him, making all open roads seem worlds away. If all went well, he would be free to explore that road again after his parole in a year. Still, he couldn't help remembering how things once were—how he could have had the world in his hand—how he had let a sweet girl down. But he would set it right. As secretively as he had before, he would set things right.

What Miguel didn't know was that Caitlin was now thinking of the same sunny summer weekend. Only her recollection was shrouded in a mist of a rosy hue.

* * *

"'He raised his upturned hands to the sky, focussing his power in the center of his palms. The heat of his rage surged through his veins with not need. He called it forth, allowing it to bleed from his skin. The dark night was suddenly shattered by a brilliant light that erupted from his hand. He opened his eyes in wonder, noticing with a strange sense of detachment the large ball of flame that danced in the air above his hand. He had just worked magic.'"

Miguel scrunched his face at Caitlin's reading, and she gave his arm a swat, motioning for him to be patient. He rolled his eyes as she continued. The book in her hands was quite large, and she had been intent on reading him some of her favorite passages. He had been reluctant, but her winsome smile wore on his resistance, and her pleading greenish eyes caused him to crack.

He couldn't understand her preoccupation with fantasy novels. They weren't real, after all. Wizards and magic swords are all well and good, but they simply don't exist in the real world. Why would she waste her time with such childish fantasies? He would rather read a porno magazine any day.

"'His chest heaving with the magic flowing through him, he raised the blade to his lips. 'I pledge, with my heart, with my soul,' he whispered, lowering the blade to his palm and making a ghastly incision in the flesh, 'and with my blood that I will not rest until I have laid waste to the Omen Guard Order.' Blood dripped from his—'"

"How's he think he's gonna destroy a whole army?" Miguel interrupted. "He got nothin' but a sword."

"A magic sword," Caitlin reminded him. "Besides, he has also got magic." He shook his head.

"That still don't mean he got a chance against those Omen Guard people. If I's him, I'd just head straight to the whatever-you-call-it-Tower an' kill their leader. That fuck-head deserves to die."

"Yeah, he's a real shit head," Caitlin agreed.

His eyes turned to her, his face a perfect mask of shock and amusement. It was dark, but she could see the whites of his eyes almost glowing in the firelight. The sight of him was an image that she wished to preserve in her memory forever; him sitting there, in his tight white T-shirt—the one that she loved to see him in for the way it hugged his chest in all the right places; the fire crackling and sparks flying as a gentle breeze cooled the heat from her neck; the clear sky overhead revealing a sea of stars in the velvet canvas above… the sights and sounds of a perfect night, after a perfect day.

"Did I just hear you swear?" he asked incredulously.

She shrugged.

"Uh huh."

"Since when do you swear?"

She gave him a hard look.

"Since when do you swear?" she taunted.

He shook his head in wonder.

"I ain't never heard you swear before," he said in awe. "Sounds fuckin' weird, man."

"Too bad," she replied. "I curse like a sailor. You just haven't seen me pissed off before."

He laughed and leaned back on his elbows. Her eyes took in the sight of the curve of his back as he silently pondered what she presumed to be his own personal crisis.

"Hey, I gotta ask you somethin'," he said in his natural mumble.

"Sure thing."

"How come you don't see that you're beautiful? I mean… look at you. You're pretty, you're smart, you're… you're funny. You know… you got all that good stuff that guys your age is lookin' for, you know?"

It wasn't guys her age that she was looking for. It was him, but she couldn't very well say that.

"Can we not talk about this?" she averted.

"Nah, I wanna talk about this," he insisted. "I mean, you look so sad all the time, and I can't understand why."

"We've been through this," she reminded him. "It's not all about being pretty and wanting boys. It's deeper. You of all people should know about insecurity."

That comment had stopped him dead in his tracks. He licked the corners of his mouth and thought of a way to reintroduce the subject without landing his foot in the snare.

"Yeah, but I'm shit, and you're not."

"Oh shut up," she ordered, scrunching her face in disgust. "Spare me the drivel, for I have heard it all before!"

"You got everything goin' for you," he continued. "And you ain't fat! You're gonna go out into that world, and you're gonna make it fall in love with you, you know? And I know you wanna argue with me on this, but I think you should just listen to what I gotta say."

She folded her arms across her chest and huffed.

"Fine," she said stubbornly. "I'm listening."

"You have had a shitty deal growin' up. Your family tried to protect you with their money and their gifts an' all that other stuff that's supposed to make us happy, but they couldn't protect you all the time… somethin' bad happened, I don't know what, that made you afraid to be alive.

"So now you starve yourself 'cos you think that you're a failure, and that no matter what you do, you're gonna fail at everything you try… and getting' skinnier is a way for you to see that you're doin' something to punish yourself, right?"

She was dumbfounded. He had pretty much hit it right on the nail, but there was still more to it.

"I know this, 'cos I had some shitty stuff too," he explained, his voice softer. "We all get shitty deals when we're kids, 'cos we don't know what to expect. I understand the fear of failure, Caitlin… you know, I know what it's like to feel that you ain't gonna go nowhere but down."

"Is that why you're hell bent on ruining any chance you have of a future?" she asked, not meaning at all to sound testy.

He took a deep breath.

"We're not talkin' about me."

"Oh yes we are. We're talking about both of us. You just brought yourself into the comparison, now let me compare!"

He held his hands up in surrender.

"A'ight! What's your take, then? Psycho-analyze me."

"Alright," she replied primly, straightening herself. "You grew up in the hood. Your family never had a lot of money, and all around you saw crime. You watched women and children being beaten by the father figures in their lives—you were probably beaten by your own father, or father figure…" she paused to look him in the eye.

He looked like a deer caught in the headlights, his eyes, like beacons to his soul, screaming, 'If you say it, it makes it true!'

"You were treated like shit by the rest of society—like the world has a big garbage can and decided to drop you and your homeboys in it. You felt cheated and out of control. And so, as a way to retaliate, you lash out at the system that failed you, knowing that you will eventually do yourself in and become what they always said you would."

A smile spread across his face, bringing back those beloved dimples. He shook his head, as if trying to muster the strength to deny her hypothesis. But he couldn't. She was right, about most of it anyway.

"You ain't such a naïve kid," he noted. "But you don't know everything."

"I know enough," she whispered. "I know you, and I know that's enough."

"You don't know nothin' 'bout my family," he disagreed, still shaking his head. "You don't know what kind of stuff runs through my family."

"Your father abused you?"

"I only met my father a couple of times," he said, trying his best not to bring the cocky façade to the fore once again. He did that with his friends when he felt that they were bringing up his personal business, but he knew he couldn't do that with Caitlin. She had poured her heart out to him on more than one occasion… the least he could do was to be real with her.

"He abandoned your mother?"

Miguel shook his head.

"He's in Oz, baby. And he ain't comin' back for a long time."

She stifled a laugh of confusion.

"Oz? What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Prison. My father is an inmate at Oswald State Penitentiary. I only seen him a couple of times, on visits an' shit."

She held her hand to her mouth, feeling sincerely sorry for her friend. It made things seem so clear now. She understood his temper, his insecurity, all the more. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I had no idea."

"Yeah? Well don't be. It ain't your fault my father was raised and grew up to be like his father. The whole Alvarez line's just waitin' to get their kids signed up into prison. Runs in the blood or somethin'."

"Your grandfather is in prison?"

He nodded.

"Yikes!" she murmured. Although 'yikes!' was an understatement. The plot thickens, she thought to herself.

"So you know, I got a reason to believe that I ain't goin' no place. But you? Shit. You so gorgeous, some movie producer's gonna look you up and say, 'Damn! She so fine, she gonna be the next Miss-Fuckin' America.'"

She laughed as though it was the funniest thing she had ever heard.

"That's a good one," she said. "Seriously though, it's not your fault that your father and grandfather are in prison, Miguel."

"I know," he replied with a shrug.

"You can't help that you're going to end up just like them, behind bars."

He turned to her with a curious frown and sat up all the way.

"Ain't you s'posed to lie and say, 'Oh Miguel… you bein' stupid again. You got a future,' an' shit like that?"

She shrugged.

"Well, it's inevitable. You can't help that your whole family is retarded."

His eyes widened and he let out a sharp breath.

"What did you just say?" he asked, stunned.

It wasn't until he noticed her wicked little grin that he realized she was only teasing.

"You're a Mongoloid, Miguel. There's just no getting around it."

He let out a playful growl and lunged for her, gently knocking her onto her blankets and pinning her. She toppled over like a dry leaf, but was laughing so hard she seemed not to notice him towering over her.

"Oh, that's it, baby. You gonna pay for that one."

"I know that your movement will be hindered," she bantered, "on account of you having that chromosomal imbalance. It's natural for you to be sluggish."

"A slug?" he asked her, grinning broadly. The way that he smiled made her insides feel like warm, puppy mush. She held her breath, and tried to keep the googly- eyed expression from taking over.

"A slug?" he repeated, licking his lips in contemplation and raising his eyebrows as his smile broadened. "Well slugs are all wet and slippery, an' they like to slug all over skinny little girls!"

She squealed when he pushed her shirt up enough to reveal her taught stomach.

"Miguel!" she squeaked through her laughter. "Don't you dare!"

"Slugs can't hear, Caitlin," he replied stubbornly, closing his eyes and pretending not to hear her. "Slugs just slobber. That's all they do, baby."

The feel of his tongue on her stomach was not altogether undesirable. In fact, it was heavenly, although it tickled like a bitch! Her body went into involuntary spasms as he made good on his promise and slobbered all over her stomach.

Until the day she died, she would never forget that wonderful weekend spent with Miguel. Other than the tickling and play fighting, he hadn't laid so much as a hand on her. He never once tried to kiss her or make any moves on her. He was a perfect gentleman. He had also cooked meals for her, saying that if she didn't eat, neither would he. The idea of Miguel going hungry had been incentive enough for her to eat, and she had begrudgingly complied.

It seemed like so long ago…

* * *

Augustus Hill:
I don't think I need to tell you what story is the most played-out story in history. You already guessed it. That's right—the love story! Men and women have their own take on the love story, but it goes without sayin' that you gonna have one in any regular Joe Schmoe book. It ain't complete without it.

See, the man and woman struggle against various conflicts throughout the story, and at the end, you holdin' your breath to see if they gonna get together. An' it don't matter how they get together. If they were already together, you wanna wait and see them stay together. If they weren't together, you have several options.

First off, they could really hate each other. An' you see 'em arguin' all the time, and you know they gonna end up together. You know they gonna have a love/hate relationship just like every other REAL couple in this world. It's like the balance of the universe. With love comes hate. Can't have one without the other.

Another possibility is that they secretly love each other, and you spend the whole book waitin' to see who's gonna make the first move. A subtle gesture here—and the idiot in the story always misses the clues!… A longing gaze… A hurried kiss… you watchin' 'em love each other in little ways until the very end.

But it don't matter how they get to the end, it's only the end that matters. Will the duo go their separate ways? Will one of them die? Will the story be left for continuation in the next book? All those things are important. You been waitin' a long time for this. You wanna know wha's gonna happen.

But what you really wanna know is, are they gonna do it? At the end of the book, or somewhere in between, are they gonna get down and dirty and fuck?

* * *

The door slammed shut behind her, locking her inside. She tried to think of it as a nightly get-away, like the weekend with Miguel, five years ago. But she knew that it wasn't. She wasn't in Kansas, she was in Oz. The Fantasy novel had taken a strange turn, and had landed her in a conjugal 'suite'. She idly wondered how he had managed to swing this. He must have some pretty influential friends, she thought to herself.

Quickly making appraisal, she found the room to be pretty standard. There was a double bed against the wall, in the middle of the room, and a desk in the far corner, with a chair before it. A metallic-looking toilet sat in the corner next to the bed—an odd place for an odd toilet.

She took a deep breath to steady herself. This was not the end of the world. In fact, it was a blessing. She had come all the way from California to see him. What were the chances that the Deputy Warden would actually allow her to spend a full 24 hours with him? Slim to none, she thought. And yet, here she was.

They had lost so much time already; she had to look on the bright side of things. Their friendship, during that summer five years ago, had budded into something beautiful, only to be nipped at the top of the stem by the news that she and her family were moving to California. It had been deliberate. She knew that. She knew that her parents suspected her involvement with a 'degenerate', as they called him. Her language had changed during the summer, and when she began swearing in Spanish, they took that as a warning sign and packed their things.

After that, Caitlin and Miguel had completely lost touch. The years had passed and she had grown up. Learning of Miguel's brutal beating of the old man had only added a fresh sting to the old wounds. She hadn't wanted it to be that way. She had wanted to return to New York when she was old enough to live on her own, and rekindle the friendship. His arrest, however, had put a damper on her plans.

Then she had reprimanded herself. A friend was a friend, whether the law separated them or not.

"Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage."

Though he had been incarcerated for his crimes, she refused to allow that conviction to seal him off from her. She would set things right. She had to.

She sat on the bed and awaited Miguel's entrance, occupying her thoughts with a soft-cover book that she had brought with her.

The sound of keys fussing with the lock quickly drew her from her book. She tossed it on the floor and ran her fingers through her short hair, making sure it wasn't sticking up. The door creaked open with a painful moan and brought the dark-eyed Latino into her vision. This time, there was no glass between them.

He saw her and immediately broke into an ear to ear grin. She noticed herself doing the same.

"Miguel!" she exclaimed in a whisper, rushing to embrace him. His arms spread for her, waiting to take her into him.

"Caitlin, baby!" he said with pride. "I want you to meet somebody."

She pulled away from his arms and peered at a man standing in the doorway. He was short, Asian, and handsome. The white collar at his neck revealed him to be a priest.

"This is Father Mukada," Miguel introduced, beaming. "Padre, this is Caitlin."

Ray's eyes looked into hers, and he smiled. A million things could be learned from that smile alone, but the strongest feeling that she could see was simple and happy faith. It was obvious that this visit had been at the hands of Father Ray Mukada, and he was genuinely pleased to have been of aid to the two of them.

"Thank you father," she replied, smiling warmly.

His smile was the best response anyone could have given her.

"You are always welcome, Caitlin," he said, and she knew with every fiber of her being that he meant it.

He gave Miguel a reassuring pat on the arm and humbly walked away. Another man stood beyond the door, although this one did not have the heavenly demeanor of Father Ray Mukada. Still, he seemed genuinely pleased to see the two in their arrangements.

"McManus," Miguel said. "Thanks, man."

The one named McManus shook his head.

"Just remember, we're on your side," he said, giving Miguel a meaningful look. Miguel nodded and the two shared a knowing look before the guard finally pushed the door closed, locking the two youngsters inside.

Caitlin wiped her sweaty palms on her pants. Her gesture caused him to take appraisal of her clothing.

"What the hell are you wearing?" he asked with a laugh, noticing the large flare at the bell of her pants. "If you hadn't cut your hair, I'd swear that you was a hippie, man."

"No hippies here," she assured him. "I just like the pants."

He nodded.

"Yeah, well you look great in them." He let out a heavy breath and held her gaze for a long moment, taking in the sight of her. The dimples leapt up to his cheeks again as his smile returned. "Come 'ere," he said, reaching out and pulling her to him. He held her tightly, squeezing her and patting her head.

"I missed you so much," she whispered, squeezing him in turn.

He could feel her ribs. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to banish reality from his thoughts. Not now. He would talk to her about that in due time, but for now, he wanted to enjoy the hug. He wanted her to enjoy the hug. Christ he had missed her!

The first few awkward moments seemed to linger like hours. Both felt afraid to say the wrong thing, and at the same time desperate not to waste what precious time they had together. It seemed as though there was so much to say, and not enough time to say it.

"I brought a book!" she suddenly exclaimed, glad to find a diversion. "I thought that we could read a bit together, for old time's sake."

Instead of the usual pained look, he smiled.

She had to remind herself to take a breath.

"I think that would be just great," he replied, also glad for the small diversion.

In a matter of moments, they had crawled up onto the bed, seated themselves comfortably, with their backs leaning against pillows on the wall, and were ready to begin. She began at a relatively slow part in the book, making sure to fill him in on the details of what had happened prior to the section that she had selected for their reading.

Miguel was actually impressed by the situation involved. The main character, Khail, was journeying to a large city, intent on assassinating the evil leader, Lodor. Caitlin had a flair for reading, and managed to get the cat-walking Latino entranced within ten minutes of reading. After a half-hour, he was deeply involved.

"'His lip curled into a sneer as he swept an arm out over the crowd,'" she read. "'The people assembled in the streets below boomed a cheer. 'I propose,' said he, 'to wage war upon the forces that have for so long oppressed the people of our world! Free men have the right to rise above such oppression. In fact, it is their duty! Magic is a dying religion, and has no place in the modern world!'

"The crowd roared in enthusiasm. 'He who bears the sword must die!' Another cheer to reinforce the first. 'Together, we shall bring this vile beast to justice!'"

Miguel shook his head in frustration.

"Didn't you say he was watchin' from an alley?" he asked, perplexed.

She nodded.

"Then why the hell doesn't he kill that mother fucker?"

"Because the story would be over if he killed the bastard. He has to stay alive long enough to make his death more worthwhile at the end."

He continued shaking his head.

"Nah. I want him dead now. That guy with the sword oughta chop him in half, man!"

"Khail," she supplied.

"Whatever," he said dismissively. "All's I'm sayin' is that Khail's been doin' a lot of watchin' and not a lotta killin'."

"That's 'cos he's a good guy."

Miguel laughed ruefully.

"See, that's his problem, baby. He needs cajones. He needs to be bad, 'cos good guys always end up dead. Least in Oz they do."

"Well this story takes place in another world where there is no such thing as icky Oz," she said, pouting.

He turned to her flowery face. She was so cute.

"Icky Oz?" he asked. "Z'at what they call it on the street?"

She arched an eyebrow and smirked.

"As a matter of fact, yes."

He laughed.

"Caitlin, I swear… you look older, but you ain't changed a bit."

"Ditto." Then she thought better of it. "Except for the scar. How'd you get that?"

He let out a noisy breath.

"Ah, you know… we didn't have nobody named Scar-Face here, so I decided to initiate myself and take the slice of the pie before someone else did."

The double negative again. It still didn't bother her to hear him say it either.

He looked good. Time had done nothing to diminish his sex appeal. In fact, he seemed to have become more attractive—if that was possible—over the five years that they had been apart. He had been lean before, but now he was cut. He looked like a perfectly sculpted Adonis. Why couldn't she be Helen of Troy, or some other mythical damsel?

During the next several hours, they talked a lot. At first they went through the usual drivel that starts a conversation, and led into the serious stuff. It was hard for both of them… Caitlin hearing about Miguel's trials at losing the baby and facing his own failures… Miguel hearing about Caitlin's constant struggle with her self-image and self- hatred.

It wasn't all seriousness, though. They loved each other too much to wallow in self-pity. They wanted to remember this visit as a special and wonderful event—not a depressing 24-hour stretch of pain and suffering. They played cards, made up spoof songs, told horror stories (although Miguel had the upper hand with real-life stories from life in Oz). They also played tag, or a very pathetic version of tag. It consisted of, 'Slap! You're it!' 'Slap! No, you're it!' and so on and so forth. It got a good laugh out of them.

They relived old days of glory—relishing in the memories of saliva on expensive car upholstery and midnight dips in an unknown and unnamed lake out in the middle of nowhere.

The world suddenly seemed to spin all out of control and zoom into focus all at once when, quite by accident, they ended up nose to nose. She could feel his breath on her face—almost taste it, even. His large chocolate eyes gazed into hers, and she knew that, for the first time, he was seeing her as a woman. She wasn't a kid anymore.

His tongue darted from the corner of his mouth to wet his lips—an act that she wanted so badly to believe was an invitation.

"You uh… wanna to go sleep?" he asked detachedly, noticing her intense green eyes—and they were vibrantly green at that moment—burning into his.

"No," she whispered, never once removing him from her gaze.

He nodded.

"I see," was all he could say. He wanted to say more, but no words seemed to present themselves. He didn't know what to do with his hands.

"Miguel," she whispered, still locked with his gaze. "Let me kiss you?"

He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. His eyes searched hers, asking her without asking, 'are you sure?'

She replied by placing her lips to his. It was an act so subtle and tender, and yet it seemed to stimulate every nerve in her body. All of her senses heightened with the slight physical contact of her lips against his. She closed her eyes in satisfaction and parted her lips ever so slightly, allowing his tongue to make a gentle and welcome invasion of her mouth.

He smelled so good. He tasted good. Everything about him seemed to fit—like it was made to be in contact with her body. She could tell by his heightened breathing that he felt the same way too.

He raised a slightly trembling hand to her face, running his thumb along her jaw. Her skin was so soft, so pure. Every inch of him was screaming to take action, and yet he seemed paralyzed and overwhelmed. Exploring her, discovering her—every inch of her flesh with the subtle touch of his hand—filled him with burning desire.

Her hand found its way to his chest. She ran her hand along his muscles, feeling him the way she had imagined feeling him all those years. It felt so right. At her touch, he seemed to swell, and an almost undistinguishable grunt escape his throat. She caressed him with tenderness and curiosity.

"I trust you," she whispered, planting a breathy kiss on his neck, just below his ear. He shuddered with pleasure.

At that moment, nothing else in the world mattered. They were together. It was as if time had stopped to allow them this special night. For those precious 24 hours, they belonged to each other. There were no rules, no consequences. There was no need to worry or doubt or question. Neither had ever experienced anything so pure and innocent in their lives.

Miguel knew that Caitlin's whispered words were more than a simple statement. He had learned long ago to read between the lines when she spoke to him that way. He cared for her so much—he would do almost anything to please her. He wanted her to be his. He wanted to scoop her up and hide her away from the rest of the world. Nothing else in the world seemed to hold any bearing. For that night, they weren't Miguel and Caitlin—they were two souls.

He swallowed hard. At age 20, Caitlin was still saving herself for when she was ready—for someone that she trusted to give her body and soul to. With a few whispered words, she had said it without saying it. She wanted to give it to him.

* * *

She tucked the blankets under her armpits to cover her cleavage as she reached out to take the hot cup of tea into her hand.

"How did you manage to get this in here?" she asked, her eyes wide.

He gave her a wink.

"I know people in high places."

She watched him where he stood, with his back turned to her. She had learned the night before that he did not wear any underwear.

"Damn!" she exclaimed with satisfaction. "Your naked ass is a fine thing to wake up to in the morning."

He threw his head back with a laugh and pulled his black pants up, fidgeting with the zipper.

"Yours ain't so bad either," he complimented. He turned to her with a smile and sauntered over to the bed once again. She stared at his chest, marvelling at the way his skin spread over his taught muscles. He noticed her looking and grinned mischievously.

"Are you lookin' at my tits?" he teased.

She nodded.

"You bet," she replied, smiling girlishly.

He hadn't seen her this happy in his entire time knowing her. She was positively glowing. Last night had been magical. He truly believed it. Of all the times he had sat and listened to her readings from her favorite fantasy novels, he had always believed magic to be an impossibility. Now he knew that it really did exist, and they had shared the discovery together.

"Caitlin," he whispered, kissing her on the tip of her nose. "You're beautiful."

At his words, she seemed to gush. She knew what he meant. He wasn't trying to quell her fears about being fat or ugly. He had just told her, in his own way, that he loved her—everything about her. He had seen her through the thick, and through the thin, and he was still at her side. He had seen her stand tall and proud, and he had seen her lie crumpled and broken. He had seen her blossom from girl to woman—in fact, he had helped her here and there along the way.

He loved her. Simply put, he loved her. There were a million different ways and reasons to love a woman, and he knew that he loved her for all of them. Whether or not they ended up together in a relationship did not matter to him. He loved her. He could think of her, and instantly the dimples were upon him, his lips stretching back to brandish his teeth. She brought a smile to his face.

She had been there for him. She had helped him see things about himself that he had never allowed himself to see. To him, she was eternal. She could marry, and he would still feel as close to her as he did at this very moment. He knew that he could spend a million years in prison, and still feel the bonds of their love and friendship as tightly as he did right now. As long as she was alive, he knew that he could be okay. She was his hope for the future.

With that thought in mind…

"Caitlin?" he asked.

She was busy pulling a black and gray striped three-quarter length shirt over her head. The pants that she wore this time were also bell bottoms, although with a much smaller flair, and of a lighter shade of blue.

"Uh huh?"

"Get better would ya?"

She gave him a wink.

"Right back at ya, babe."

His smile returned. Things were going to turn out just fine—and like he had promised himself, they had set things right.

* * *


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