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Sonuachara Chapter 11

Early the next morning, the doorbell rang. The jerk was still asleep, and his mother was cooking, so Zoe sighed, zipping up her jacket, and answered it.

Standing on the doorstep were Trina's parents.

Zoe slammed the door and took off for the back door, having no desire to speak to them. Her desire not to attract attention from her foster mother meant that she couldn't move quickly, unfortunately, and when she opened it she was confronted with a slightly out-of-breath Thomas.

"Please, Zoe, let us explain," he said, trying to catch his breath. "It's not what you think it is."

"I have nothing to say to you," she said, gritting her teeth. "I am trying to maintain control of myself, but I'm not succeeding very well! Please leave!" Her voice rose slightly with each word, until she was very nearly yelling.

Thomas took a step backwards, sagging slightly, before he straightened. "No. Not until you at least know the truth. We weren't there to adopt Brenna."

He held up his hand at the mixture of relief, confusion, and then rage that swept over her face as she realized they'd gotten Brenna's hopes up for no reason. "No, that's not quite right. We weren't there to adopt just Brenna. We were going to see about adopting you, or at least taking you in as a foster home, depending on what you wanted."

He rubbed his hand over his face, sighing. "We asked the director not to tell you that we were thinking about adopting you, but I swear to you we had no idea you would think we were trying to take her away from you. If we had, we'd have told you ourselves before we ever stepped foot in there."

Zoe's foster mother came up behind her, wiping her hands on a dish towel and frowning. "What's going on here?"

Zoe covered her eyes with on hand, speechless for a moment, and shook her head as Thomas looked at her foster mother. "A bit of a miscommunication, I think, regarding one of her friends."

"Is that right?" the woman asked, looking at Zoe suspiciously.

"Maybe," Zoe said, finally, sighing. "I don't know for sure yet, and my head hurts."

Thomas gave her and engaging smile. "Let us buy you breakfast at IHOP, or Denny's, or wherever you want, and we can talk about it."

Zoe stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and looked at her foster mother. "I think I'll catch breakfast out, Mary. I'll be back later to clean up my pig-sty, don't worry. You want me to bring anything back on my way home?"

Mary looked uncertain. "No... that is... I mean, if you're sure...."

Zoe wavered between pissed off and amused as hell as she realized the woman thought Thomas was her lover. "These are Trina's parents," she said. "I mentioned her to you, remember?"

"Oh! Oh, yes, I remember now."

Zoe wasn't sure if that was any better. Mary didn't think she was sleeping with Thomas anymore, but it was clear she now thought Zoe was Trina's girlfriend. Or something. She rubbed her temples, wincing.

"I'll be back later, okay?" she said, unable to quite keep the exasperation out of her voice.

"Well... okay, then," Mary said.

Zoe slipped out the door, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. "I've lived here for nine months. I've never even mentioned sex, and never gone out in any more revealing clothes than your average nun. So why the hell does she assume I'm fucking anyone I talk to?"

Thomas laughed. "Because you're a teenage girl?"

Zoe glared at him. "Not all teenage girls are sluts, and not all assumptions are that innocently stupid. She wouldn't think that if I looked like Trina, even if I wore halter tops and miniskirts and carried a twelve-pack of condoms in my purse."

He sobered, nodding. "You're probably right, even if I hate to admit it. And I didn't mean to imply that all teenage girls are sluts. I was trying to imply that she thinks all teenage girls are sluts."

Zoe sighed. "Well, she's really good at living in her own little reality, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

"Listen... we really are sorry about yesterday," Thomas said as they turned the corner of the house. Zoe could see Angie sitting in the driver's seat in the car. "We never meant for you to think we were trying to take her away from you." He pulled the car door open for her.

"I've already talked to Trina about this," Zoe said, getting in.

Angie laughed. "We know. She was thoroughly pissed at us yesterday. I think we managed to convince her we weren't trying to hurt you, but now we need to convince you."

Zoe buckled the seat belt and leaned back, closing her eyes. "I never thought you were, or at least that that was the point of it."

"Do you understand we never meant to separate you?" Angie asked. "We were looking for a way for you to be together sooner, and have her safe sooner."

"Don't you get it?" Zoe asked. "If she lives with you, she'll never be happy with what I could give her. The cruelest thing I could do would be to take her away from that."

"Trina told us what she offered you," Thomas said, and she stiffened.

"Do you really think I'd take it?" she demanded.

"No," her said, sighing. "But if you did, you could keep Brenna in the lifestyle she'd be accustomed to."

"And at the same time show her that I'm a liar, that anyone can be bought, if the price is high enough, and that there are things more important than making it on your own," Zoe said. "No thanks."

Angie smiled at her in the rear-view mirror. "I'm glad you didn't, then. But what we're offering.... Zoe, you'd be a part of the family, living with her. We didn't say you'd have to leave. If you need more independence, you could move into the servants' quarters and use them like a private apartment."

"Why?" Zoe asked. "Why would you do this for me?"

Angie and Thomas exchanged a long look. "You don't know?" Angie finally asked.

"A real reason, not just that you feel some sense of obligation," Zoe said.

"There's a good reason," Angie said. "I.... Are you sure you don't know?"

Zoe closed her eyes for a moment. "Look, I'm too tired to play games, and I hurt," she said, slowly and clearly. "Can't you just speak plainly this once?"

Angie hesitated for a moment before shaking her head. "No. I'm afraid I can't. But I can tell you this: we're offering this freely, with no strings attached. There's no cost for it, and neither I, my husband, or our daughter will ever ask you for any form of payment whatsoever. The time may come— probably will come, in fact— when you learn something that makes you think that this was done so that you would feel obligated. You are not. You will have no obligations towards us beyond the obligations that one human being owes another and, if you choose to be a part of our family, a family member has to their family. Nothing more."

Zoe leaned her head back against the seat. "Then I can't either. I have to know why something's being offered, or I can't know if it's safe."

Angie glanced at her husband. "I... can explain it, perhaps, in general terms, but I can't give you any great detail. You have the potential to help others, more than you realize. By helping you realize that potential, we're helping ourselves. You could consider it a form of enlightened self-interest, if you wanted."

"I'm sorry," Zoe said. "That's just not good enough. I can believe you'd want to help Brenna just out of the goodness of your heart; she's special, and you're smart enough to see that and to want to preserve it. But I can't accept that sort of... of philosophical sweetness and light as adequate reason for the other. I don't buy it."

"You don't think you're special?" Angie asked, raising an eyebrow.

Zoe laughed bitterly. "Not in a way that inspires compassion."

"Then you're wrong," Thomas said. "Trina's told us a little— very little, really— about your life. She's remarkably closed-mouthed about it, but she's told us enough that we're impressed. I have a suspicion that if we knew the rest we'd be even more impressed, but that has to be your story to tell, and we won't push you."

"I don't need help like Brenna does," Zoe said.

Angie looked at her in the mirror. "You're smarter than that, and I know it, so let's drop the pretense, okay? Will you survive without help? There's no doubt in my mind that you will, not after meeting you. Will you have a fulfilling life? Quite possibly, although it's not guaranteed. Can you hit the peak of what you're capable of? Not impossible, but not very likely, either. You know and I know that you can do better if you have more resources behind you."

"Probably," Zoe said. "But I can't take those resources without knowing the motivation behind them. And since you won't tell me, the question is moot."

"Partly because you're special," Thomas said. "Partly because you're good for Trina. Partly because Brenna needs you. Isn't that enough?"

Zoe hesitated for a long moment. "Maybe. But she won't need me anymore, not if she's being taken care of."

He snorted. "That little girl will always need you. Haven't you seen the way her eyes light up when she talks about you?"

Zoe swallowed hard, looking out the window. "Yeah, well... maybe it'd be better if she forgot the things I remind her of, you know? She's little enough that she can."

"Forget things like the sister who was willing to risk her life to save her?" Angie asked, softly. "Who lifted a burning beam off of her leg with her bare hands? Do you really want her to forget that things like that exist? That there are people who'll make that kind of sacrifice for her?" Her eyes caught Zoe's in the mirror. "Most people are speaking figuratively when they say they'd walk through fire for someone. You did it."

"She shouldn't have been there to get hurt," Zoe said. "She shouldn't have had to live through everything that led up to it. If she can forget to the point where it's all a bad dream...."

"It's our experiences that make us what we are," Angie said. "If she forgets that, then she's forgetting who she is. Is it really worth it? And if you ask her, I'll bet you that she doesn't want to forget you. I know she doesn't want you to leave." She hesitated for a moment. "And... she's always going to have some impairment in her leg, barring a miracle. And that means she'll never be able to forget."

"If you could just tell me why, give me a reason that's... logical. Solid," Zoe said, hating the almost pleading tone that crept into her voice despite her efforts to control it.

Angie was silent for a few seconds, and Thomas looked at her, as if waiting for her answer. Finally, she said, "I really do think you're good for Trina. I like you. I don't particularly like most of her friends, and I actively dislike a few."

"Well, I can't argue with that," Zoe said. She didn't really understand why Trina had some of the friends she did. "But I can't see how it would help any. It might even make her want to see them more, for the contrast."

"I don't think so," Thomas said, shaking his head.

"Look," Zoe said, "Right now, I'm something new to her, so she's... giving me more attention than perhaps she normally would. But once she figures me out to her satisfaction, she'll go back to normal. Increased exposure will only hasten the process."

Angie shook her head in reply. "No, I don't think so. She's never hung around with those friends because she seemed to want to. It was more like she didn't realize that she had any other options. You show her she has more options than she knew."

Zoe snorted. "She has any options she wants, and she damned well knows it. Trust me."

"Then maybe you show her that there's a point to exercising those options," Angie said. "I'm not sure."

Zoe sighed. "What do you want me to say?" she asked. "That it seems perfectly reasonable to decide to support one of your daughter's friends just because she's not a bimbo? It doesn't."

"Is it enough to trust us for a while?" Angie asked. "I think— I'm almost certain, in fact— that you'll understand fairly soon. I can't tell you. But you can discover it for yourself."

Zoe sighed again. "I don't want to get her hopes up," she said, knowing it was weak.


"Either of them, actually, but I meant Brenna," Zoe said.

"It's going to take some time to get everything done," Angie said, thoughtfully. "We could try to push it through faster, but that might let her mother have a chance if she ever gets out. So... can you agree to try it, and we don't make any promises?"

"No promises?" Zoe asked. "And no strings? If I do find your motives, and I don't agree, I'll go; I won't feel sorry about not paying a price I didn't agree to."

"One promise, on our part: There's no price. There's a reason, but not a price," Angie said. "But if you want to go, you can go."

"There's always a price," Zoe said. "Whether it's one I'm willing to pay, I can't know until I know what the price is."

Angie pursed her lips. "I... think I can say this much," she said, slowly. "I suspect very strongly that you'll be faced with a choice at some point in the not-too-distant future. If you insist on looking at this as if there's a price, then the price would be treating that choice with all the seriousness it deserves, and making sure you've considered all aspects before you choose. The 'price', if there is one, most specifically does not involve choosing one way or the other, and neither outcome would result in the withdrawal of our offer."

Zoe sighed tiredly, closing her eyes. "I want to be with Bren," she said. "I promised her I wouldn't leave her. And I want what's best for her, even if that's something I can't give her. If I can put up with a drunken asshole for that, I can put up with your inability to speak plain English."

Angie laughed. "I'm being as clear as I can," she said. "You'll understand eventually, and you'll understand why I couldn't say more."

"Mmm," Zoe said. "Doubt it. Think you like being enigmatic. It's your gig."

Thomas smirked at his wife. "She's got a point there, love."

"Hush, you," Angie said, smacking him on the leg.

"So... what do I have to do?" Zoe asked. "And if you start the paperwork, is there anything, you know, lawyer assisted you can do to keep that woman away from Brenna? I mean it... if she's left alone in a room with Brenna, she'll kill her. No matter how sane they think she is, how sweet she looks, or what she says, it's all a lie."

"We're applying all the pressure we can," Angie said. "We've made it very clear that if that happens, we'll make sure everyone involved is charged as an accessory to murder. That's all we can do for now. Once we're a little further along, we can apply more pressure."

Zoe was quiet for a bit. Finally, she nodded sharply as she came to a decision. "Could you get me a good lawyer? One who could take the insanity angle and really make the abuse she watched and helped with work for him? I'm not sixteen yet... no chance they'd try me as an adult. But I've only got a couple of months to work with."

Angie pulled over to the side of the road and turned to face Zoe. "You're sure she needs to die?" she asked seriously, no trace of amusement in her expression.

"What did Trina tell you about... them?" Zoe asked in reply.

"She told us they were abusive, and that Brenna's father set the fire that she was injured in. I know there has to be more to it than that, just from the look on her face, but she wouldn't say anything more."

"They didn't beat her, as far as I know, and he didn't rape her. But when I got there, she was four years old and weighed maybe twenty-five pounds. They didn't feed her. They didn't talk to her. She wrapped herself up in rags she found, or t-shirts she took from their closet. She'd never had a pair of shoes, or a toy, or a hug. I don't know how she even knew her name, because they didn't ever say a word to her. It took me a bottle of conditioner and four hours to comb out her hair the first time. She didn't even whimper, either, and it had to hurt like hell... but anytime she actually got their attention, they'd lock her in the closet, and sometimes it would be days before they opened it and she could get out and scrounge some food."

Zoe smiled grimly at the looks of horror on Thomas and Angie's faces. "I guess she learned to talk from the television... it was always on. But she was scared to do it much. I was there a month before I knew she could talk. She'll still clam up and get scared if someone says something like 'you talk too much' or 'kids should be seen and not heard'. If she hadn't been naturally healthy, she couldn't have survived... though I guess they had to feed her when she was an infant, but she didn't ever remember them doing it."

"She didn't do anything, not directly, but she let it happen. She watched. And she smiled, and was happy because he was getting what he wanted. If it were just me, that'd be one thing. But Brenna was her own baby, her own little daughter, and she should have killed him before she let that happen!"

Angie groped blindly for her husband's hand. "Ceridwen's name... how horrible!"

"So yeah, she needs to die," Zoe finished with quiet ferocity. "I thought maybe you could take care of her with legal shit, but if you can't... it's too big of a risk. I promised Bren I wouldn't let that bitch near her. I meant it. It'd be nice if you'd front bail, and a nice mouthpiece, but it doesn't really make a difference, not if they're really that close to doing it, and really can do it."

"Zoe... don't worry about it," Angie said, a hint of steel in her voice. "She'll never get close to Brenna, one way or the other."

Zoe shook her head. "You don't get it. I can't not worry. I thought... hell, I thought they couldn't possibly be messed up enough to actually let her out of her freaking padded cell. She's so obviously fucking nuts, I mean. But if they might... I've got to stop her. I promised."

"She won't get close to Brenna," Angie repeated. "One way or the other, I'll make sure of that."

"You've already said you can't do it legally, and if you get locked up, that's not going to help Bren," Zoe snapped. "You've offered her a life, now you'd damned well better not do something stupid to mess that up. I can get away with it... maybe not totally free, but without too much damage, especially if they think I'm crazy." She smiled humorlessly. "And there's a nice, long psychiatric history of 'hysteria' to back that up. You can't. Don't be stupid."

"She won't do anything that will get her locked up," Thomas said, seriously. "Just... don't do anything until there's no other choice, okay?"

Zoe set her jaw stubbornly. "I'm not letting her have a chance to hurt Brenna."

Angie nodded. "But don't do anything until you have to. Wait. Give me time. There are a couple of things... they're iffy, and they probably won't hold up very long, but they'll buy a couple of weeks. That should be enough."

"All right," Zoe said. "I'll give you a chance. But I'll know if they make plans to move the bitch out of the hospital. I have friends there. And I won't wait until it's too late."

Angie looked thoughtful. "If you hear they're getting ready to do that, and I haven't warned you, please let me know."

"All right," Zoe said again. "But I don't promise not to act if it happens."

"Fair enough," Angie said, nodding. "And we will make sure you have the best lawyer possible."

"Okay," Zoe said.

"But unless things go very differently than I expect, you won't have to," Angie said.

Zoe shrugged skeptically. "It wouldn't bother me if I did."

Thomas looked at her calmly. "Have you ever killed anyone before?"

"That is none of your business," Zoe said, staring back at him levelly.

"If you had, you'd know that it does bother you, unless you're a monster." He shook his head slowly, his eyes never leaving hers. "You aren't a monster. I won't argue your right to do this if you need to, but you'll forgive me if I want to spare you."

There was an earnestness in his voice that told her this was important to him, but even more than that, the shadowed, haunted look in his eyes told her, without a shadow of a doubt, that he was speaking from experience.

"It'd bother me to kill anyone else," she said, her voice softening. "Well, anyone else who's still alive. But her death wouldn't bother me any more than his did, except that if there was any justice in the world, she'd suffer just as much as he did."

He shook his head. "It still affects you. There's still... something... that comes back to you in the middle of the night, in the dark..."

"Yes," Zoe said. "Satisfaction." Her tone was deathly serious. "Maybe I am a monster. I don't know. Don't really care. But I could watch her die and feel nothing but relief. Brenna won't ever be safe with her alive."

His voice was distant, abstract. "You kill them... you watch them die... and then you realize that somewhere, down underneath, there was once a human being, and you start wondering just how they became the monster that you had to kill...."

"No!" Zoe said, sharply. "There wasn't. There wasn't anything there but monster, and he was always a monster, and he chose to do the things he did. You don't just fucking wake up one morning and say, 'Hey, I think I'll beat little girls with coat-hangers until they bleed!' because you've had a fucking bad week at work! You start out young, torturing things that can't tell on you, and you work your way up, thinking you're 'special' and that you deserve the pleasure you get from hurting something smaller than you, or that because bad things happened to you you have a right to enjoy doing bad things in return, and it doesn't matter to you what they feel, because you like it! And people who are like that should be put down like fucking rabid dogs, but with less compassion because they deserve to suffer and die because they chose that path, they CHOSE it!"

Thomas' eyes never left hers. "Sometimes. And sometimes they start out locked in closets for days at a time, beaten with coat-hangers or plugged-in electrical cords with the ends stripped, burned and raped and abused, until there's nothing left of the person who once lived in that body, and all that's left is just a... monster. At least I hope, gods, I hope there's nothing left of the person, because if there is something left, trapped down in some forgotten corner, screaming as they watch what's happening...." He swallowed. "I've studied this. There are very few who just... start out like that. They're the most dangerous, but thank gods they're rare. Most of them start out normal, and then... die, inside, but their body keeps living, and they become monsters, no restraint, no inhibition. At least here the worst of them are caught quickly. There are other places where even the most blatant can live for years before they're tracked down...."

"They choose," Zoe hissed. "They don't have to. If they've felt it, that makes it worse. Because they know, and they still choose to do it. It's no fucking excuse. You can always choose to die before you become... that. It's always a choice, and they know what they're choosing."

"It would be nice to believe that's the case," Angie said, calmly. "Unfortunately the world we live in doesn't grant us the luxury of simple answers very often. Sometimes that's how it is, and sometimes... sometimes it's not. Sometimes there's not a choice. Sometimes there's something wrong with their brain, physically, that doesn't allow the choice. Sometimes... sometimes other things happen. We would protect you from having to face killing if we can. But if not... if it becomes necessary...." She looked Zoe in the eye. "Make it swift and painless. Not for her, because she doesn't deserve that courtesy, but for yourself. Trust us, Zoe... you'll be glad you did."

Zoe looked out the window. "You're wrong. I remember him, flopping around, parts of him turning black, but still alive, still screaming, making this horrid gurgling sound. The smell of him cooking, like a burnt pork roast... bits of black breaking off, red underneath... and all I felt was anger, because he was too far gone to tell me where Brenna was, and I couldn't find her and there wasn't time... but if she were safe, I think I would have stayed and watched him burn, just to be sure, and when I found her, and saw her, and somehow got her out, and they asked if anyone was left in there, and I told them 'No. I didn't see anyone.' Because I didn't. He wasn't a person. Just a monster. And he deserved it."

Angie looked at her compassionately. "Maybe he was always like that. Or maybe your own hatred blinded you. Maybe it was both. Maybe it was the fact that you didn't kill him. Or maybe it affected you more than you thought. Can you honestly tell me that you haven't had nightmares?"

"Yeah," Zoe said. "I dream of him coming back. I dream that I failed, that he managed to stop me from finding her. Or I dream that...." She closed her eyes, shuddering. "That it didn't matter... that he'd already killed her, and all I found was her body. Sometimes I dream that it was her tied to the chair, and me watching, too helpless to stop him from hurting her. And then I wake up, and take great comfort in the fact that I saw his lifeless body drug from that house."

Thomas cleared his throat, his voice gravelly. "When I was in the service, I was on a special forces team. Think like the SEALs, only more so. One time I was... well, never mind where I was, because it was a place I never was, doing something that never happened. We stumbled across a little girl's body. At least... most of it. Turns out they'd been turning up dead for a few years, but always from the poor part of town, so the cops didn't give a damn. We did. We took some leave, and... it took us a while, but we finally tracked the son of a bitch down. He'd... he'd kept souvenirs. From all of them. He had one when we went in, but... we were too late. I know what you mean. I take great pleasure in knowing that that son of a bitch is dead, every time I think about it, but I still mourn... the person he could have been, I guess. I can't help wondering if something could have been done when he was a kid, or maybe not done, that would have made him come out different."

"There's not." Zoe stopped and looked away, her jaw clenching. "No one did anything for me, to keep me from being that way. And they bloody well didn't refrain from doing anything, either. But I don't get off on hurting people. And I don't need to make little girls cry to feel good. And there are others, too, like me, people who've been hurt so bad you can't listen to them and not wonder why they didn't just give up and die, and they've all stood there, and thought about it, and when they thought about hurting someone else like they were hurt, they've fucking thrown up and sworn they'd rather die."

"And you wonder why we think you're special, when you have that kind of strength, to stand up and say, 'No more!' after what you've been through?" Angie asked, softly. "Did you know that most abusers were abused themselves, that it's some sort of vicious self-perpetuating cycle? You had the strength to break that chain. Not everyone does, and some simply... break."

"You think I'm not broken?" Zoe demanded. "That's fucking hilarious. In all my life, I've only been able to care about one thing, just one. Threaten to take that one thing, and all the things I said were important... pride, independence... they just go out the damned window. But I don't even care. It's all a bunch of bullshit, anyway. It's never meant anything. Just a tool, something to use to take care of her. But no matter how much anyone hurt me, I never stood there afterwards and thought it'd be good, or right, or fun to turn around and do it to someone else, and anybody who does was messed up to start with. It's not me being strong. It's them being monsters. Maybe if they had a normal life, it wouldn't have come out... but it would still be there. Waiting. Waiting for the job market to crash, their wife to leave them, something they think they don't deserve, and then the monster would come out."

Angie shook her head. "Then most people who are abused are monsters, because it's more common for them to turn around and abuse others than not. And no, I don't think you're broken. Bent, twisted, warped by all you've been through, but not broken. Still reaching for the sky, trying to reach your goals. I admire you for that."

"Maybe most people are monsters, then," Zoe said. "Just most of them don't get the right environment in which to really grow their fangs. But I know that there's always a time in which you make a choice. You don't just suddenly become a monster. And I refuse to ever feel sorry for them when they made the wrong choice."

"That's your choice, Zoe," Angie said gently. "And I can't tell you how to choose. I don't think it's quite as clear cut as you do, and I wouldn't choose to hate anyone, but that's your choice."

Zoe avoided her eyes. "I'm glad you can feel that way. It's nice that there are still some people who don't need to hate."

"I never said I don't need to hate," Angie corrected. "I said I choose not to."

"I'll stick to doing what needs done."

Angie nodded. "As I said, your choice. Just because I wouldn't make it doesn't mean you can't. I've found that not hating works better in the long run for me, but perhaps it's different for you. I didn't have to live through the things you did."

"Good." Zoe was staring out the window, eyes unfocused, but her sincerity was clear.

Angie turned back around, putting the car back in gear. "I know we offered to take you to IHOP or wherever, but since we've managed to settle things, can I make you another offer?"

Zoe shrugged. "What's that?"

"You liked my roast the other night, didn't you?"

Zoe nodded cautiously.

"I make mean pancakes. Or crepes, if you prefer those. And I know Trina would love to see you...."

Zoe hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "All right. But... I'm not going to lie to you; I'm not a social person."

"That's fine," Angie said. "You don't have to be. If you want, since I assume you don't want to go home anytime soon, you can curl up in the library with a good book."

"No," Zoe said reluctantly. "I told her I wouldn't be gone too long. I'm not going to leave her to deal with... I'm not going to skip out on her just because she's a wuss. I promised her I'd help out. Y'know, around the house."

"Okay. I just wanted to offer."

"Thanks, but... I keep my word. Even to stupid people."

Thomas nodded. "I can't argue with that," he said, and she flushed, realizing that the last bit had come out louder than she intended.

"Don't worry," he said. "I have to agree with you. But don't think about her, think about the wonderful breakfast you're going to have when we get home."

He grinned at her, and she couldn't help but smile back, just a little.