Unable to look away, I stared at him, absorbing every detail of his face. With that barrier gone, it was almost as if I could see who he was underneath, someone kind and lonely and scared, who wanted nothing more than to be loved. “Can I try something?” I said. “If you don’t like it, I’ll stop.”
He nodded, and I took a deep breath, trying to keep my stomach from doing somersaults. Gathering what courage I could find, I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his chastely. I’d only ever kissed a few boys in my life, and it felt unfamiliar, but not awkward. Nice, I thought. It felt nice.
He seemed surprised, but he didn’t resist. It was a painful few seconds, but finally he relaxed and kissed me back, his hand cupping my neck. The heat of his skin against mine was almost unbearably hot.
I don’t know how long it was before I forced myself to pull away. While I caught my breath, I watched Henry warily, afraid he would bolt. He sat still, his expression blank, and finally I couldn’t stay silent any longer.
“That—” I hesitated and offered him a smile. “I liked that. A lot.”
After what felt like ages, he returned my smile with a small one of his own. “As did I.”
Nervously I reached out to thread my fingers with his, looking down at our hands instead of directly at him. Mine was so small that it looked lost in his. “Henry? Don’t take this the wrong way—”
I could feel him tense, and I immediately felt guilty, though I made an effort to mask it with a teasing look.
“Let me finish,” I said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but since it’s Christmas and all…would you stay with me tonight?”
His eyes widened a fraction of an inch, and I quickly shook my head, my cheeks flushing with embarrassment. “Not like that. You’ve got to earn that, and it costs more than just a picture, y’know.” My weak attempt at a joke managed to break the tension enough to get him to crack an apologetic smile. “But could you just…stay for tonight?”
Several seconds passed, and I mentally kicked myself for asking like I had—like I was some hormonal teenager who only wanted that. But I didn’t want that at all. I wanted his company. He made me happy, and tonight of all nights, I didn’t want to be alone. Most of all, I didn’t want him to be either.
“Yes,” he said. “I will stay.”
We spent the rest of the evening talking and watching the lights on the tree. When it was time to go to sleep, I curled up next to him and unashamedly used his chest as a pillow, but that was it.
I didn’t kiss him again, too content to risk screwing things up. He didn’t deserve to be pushed like that, and while taking the next step opened a whole new set of doors, for now I wanted to appreciate his company. We both deserved to enjoy Christmas, rather than fumble through a lot of awkward moments.
My mother and I walked through Central Park, the haze of the city in the summer bearing down on us. She looked pleased as I recounted what had happened between Henry and me, and she hugged me to her when I told her that I’d kissed him.
“That’s my girl,” she said, sounding happier than she had in ages.
We spent our last Christmas together eating ice cream and wandering through the gardens in the hot summer sun, and she pointed out the kinds of flowers that grew wild. She never took her arm from my shoulders, and when I felt myself begin to wake up, I wished her Merry Christmas for the last time.
My contentment didn’t last for long, however. The first thing I heard when I awoke was pounding on my door. Confused, I sat up, my hair sticking out every which way, and I ran my fingers through it as Henry stood and walked toward the door.
In that moment, I hated him. He looked impeccable, not a hair out of place, and he moved as gracefully as ever. Meanwhile, I’d be paying for sleeping on the floor for the rest of the day.
“Yes?” he said, opening the door. To my surprise, Ella dashed in, closely followed by Calliope. Ella was crying, her face beet-red, and Calliope looked crushed with her slumped shoulders and her face drawn.
“I want her gone!” cried Ella furiously, looking back and forth between Henry and me.
“Is that a request,” said Henry, moving back toward the nest of pillows and blankets on the floor, “or a demand?”
“She hurt him!” said Ella, now focusing on Henry. “She hurt him, and he tried to find her, and now—”
“Wait, who?” I said as I struggled to my feet. “What’s going on?”
Ella dissolved into tears. Now standing next to me, Henry looked expectantly at Calliope. She stared at the floor, not meeting his gaze.
“Ava,” she said. “She spent the night with Xander, and this morning Theo found them. They fought, and—”
Henry tensed, and my blood ran cold. “And?” he said.
“Xander’s passed into the beyond.”
Ava sat huddled in the corner of her chamber without so much as a scratch, but on the bed, bloody remains were all that was left of Xander’s body. A putrid stench filled the room, and I clasped my hand over my nose, but it didn’t seem to bother Henry as he examined the corpse.
Ella and Calliope didn’t come with us, opting instead to stay in a separate wing of the manor with Theo. He was injured, but it wasn’t fatal, from what Calliope had described. Seeing him could wait.
Apparently for the people living in Eden Manor, passing into the beyond was the same as death in the outside world. It was as much an ending for them as it was for the living, never getting to see their loved ones again until they passed into the beyond as well. Xander was gone, lost to the Underworld, and the only person who could find him now was Henry. I struggled with the knowledge that this wasn’t the real end of things, that I could lose Ava all over again, along with everyone I’d befriended since September, and this time they wouldn’t reappear. This death was the final step for the people at Eden Manor; this time there would be no in-between for Xander. Despite the painful void Xander’s loss left in the manor, I took a small amount of comfort from knowing that this place was still part of the world I understood. A knife to the back meant blood, and too much blood meant death.