Eli had always been an intricate, trick-of-the-light kind of person to know, and Clare knew that better than anyone else. He always sat in the back pews in church with his friends, snickering and goofing off when the pastor was preaching. He stood up and silently mouthed the words when it was time to sing songs of worship, but showed no interest in listening attentively to the weekly sermons. In school he was always surrounded by groups of rambunctious high school boys, loitering in the hallways after hours until the hall monitors shooed them away. He was infamous, and he had a reputation for being snarky, for wearing Gothic clothing and for holding an air of dark, brooding mystery. His nails were painted black, and he wasn't the type of hold onto a relationship. He's never dated, and he was really good at keeping things to himself.

Even as a more innocent, much less matured boy, he was rougher and darker and he could hold his own better than anyone else. When Clare was eight and Eli was nine, they vaguely met in Sunday school. There were no formal introductions; everyone just somehow manage to learn each other's name throughout the course of the year. Even at such a tender young age, it was evident to everyone that Eli was beyond his classmates- snacks and bible story games didn't have the same effect on him. He was always quicker in figuring things out, and he always knew when someone was lying. And for some reason, this maturity attracted most of the giggling girls in his year, much to his annoyance.

"You're so silly, Eli!" little Imogen Moreno would squeal, twirling her pigtails and giggling with her other friends.

"Why are you doing that, Eli? You're so silly!"Marisol Lewis would echo giddily, playfully tapping his shoulder.

And pretty soon, almost every little girl in his class would be huddled around him, all laughing and touching him and acting like he was the funniest thing in his world. Poor Eli though, for despite his maturity, couldn't figure out why using black marker to colour in his nails was so ridiculous. The gaggle of girls would just continue to slap them with their hands, and the attention was suffocating.

"Stop it!" he said harshly, wincing and shrinking away from their reach. "Stop hitting me!"

But the girls would just continue to laugh and hit him. Diluted little minds can't understand anything, he would think resentfully, shooting death glares to each one of them. All the scorn directed at them was just a futile attempt to scare them off, and of course, his efforts would be used to no avail. The teacher was conveniently out of the room, too, heading to the kitchen to fetch crackers and juice.

Then, from the corner of his eye, he saw a movement. Against the wall there were always dozens of stacked red chairs, ranging from the hundreds in number if counted individually. There were little openings underneath them, where someone small and agile could probably crawl in and hide out. The thought had never once crossed his mind, but when he saw someone hunched inside, the idea was instantly appealing. No one had even noticed her sitting there with her notebook and pencil, just crouched down and scribbling away in darkness.

"Are you trying to be a girl, Eli?" Imogen asked in her high-pitched voice, yanking the marker away from him.

"Hey, that's mine!" he yelled.

"Only girls paint their nails, Eli, why are you doing that?" Jenna Middleton teased, earning herself a screechy-giggle from Marisol.

Narrowing his eyes in exasperation, he resorted to the only thing he could quickly grasp at times of desperation.

"Hey look, Ms. Paisley is back!" he announced, pointing wildly at the opposite direction. The little girls gasped and scattered in excitement for the arriving snacks- or so they thought. Smirking in triumphant, Eli hurriedly got down to his knees and crawled in the dark tunnel.

"She's not here yet, Eli!" Jenna spun around in confusion, squinting her blue eyes at the door.

"Where did he go?" Imogen gasped.

But Eli was already so far in, he had almost reached the end. The voices were beginning to fade, the deeper he crawled, and it was nothing but wonderful serenity inside. The only thing touching him was the prickling cool air. Letting out a sigh of relief, he wandered only a bit further before deciding to sit. There was a nice big slot waiting for him at his right, and he was waiting to claim it when-"

"Ow!"

He turned around so fast he cricked his neck, letting out an "Ow" himself. He remembered he was not alone, and while it was better than being out in the open, he was a bit upset to see that it was another young girl accompanying him.

"What did I do?" he asked in outrage, seeing that he was so far away from her.

"You knocked into a chair on the way here," she murmured, though not in an accusatory tone. Cringing at the chair that had fallen on top of her, she gingerly moved out of her comfy spot, careful not to knock over anything else.

"Oh no, not another girl," he groaned, seeing her a bit clearer now that she was closer. Her hair and eyes and scent definitely confirmed that she was indeed a girl.

"Why? What do you have against girls?" she asked, slightly offended by his comment.

"Your kind had been abusing me for the past ten minutes," Eli stated in disdain, folding his arms across his chest. He settled into a spot right across from her, refusing to budge even if it meant having to see her face.

"Oh, well as long as you have a good reason for hating me," the girl nodded.

"Was that a sarcastic comment?" Eli asked, taken aback.

"No, I really believe you're being absolutely fair when you lump me together with the rest of the female population," she said, arching her brows at him.

He pursed his lips to the side, having not expected such a quick –tongue from a girl of his age. Subconsciously he was intrigued by this, but just leaned forward to better peruse her. It was very hard to make out her features in the dark, but he could easily see that she was very fair and soft-looking. Her hair is short, and her hands are small.

"You're Clare," he said, suddenly remembering. "You're the one with small hands and pale skin."

"I suppose that is me," she says, examining her hands. She smiles a little, in a way that reassured him that she wasn't offended by the way he remembered her.

"Well, Clare, I hope you don't mind me hiding out here for a bit," he said briskly, wriggling his bum deeper in. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, he cut her off. "I'm going to, whether you like it or not anyway."

"I don't mind," she said with a shrug, returning to her notebook.

And she really didn't. Clare continued to hum and scribble on the lines of her paper, flipping the pages every now and again. She honestly didn't seem bothered by presence, which irritated for some reason. Going from being the centre of attention to being absolutely ignored was rather harsh, and adjusting made him feel irked. He noticed, however, that she had an untidy scrawl like himself. She wasn't too fussed about hearting her I's and looping her l's- it was straight to the point, without any frills. It was kind of refreshing.

Clare found Eli easy to ignore, because unlike most people she knew, he was capable of staying quiet. He didn't fidget, nor was his breathing annoyingly loud and uneven. She was at peace with him.

"Boys and girls, where are Clare and Eli? We can't say grace without them!" Ms. Paisley exclaimed. It was obvious to the two that she was distressed about their disappearance, as it was so poorly concealed by her fake this-is-how-I-talk-to-children voice. All adults had that irritating high voice they used when spoke to kids, and Eli found it condescending. Clare secretly did as well, but knew that if she tried talking like that to her parents, she would get in serious trouble.

With Eli, it was another story.

"We should get out now," Clare said with a sigh, getting ready to crawl out of their safe haven. Just as she slipped out of reach, Eli instinctively seized her ankle, preventing her from escaping.

"Why?" he challenged, smirking mischievously. "We can stay here as long as we like. It'll teach them a lesson."

"You want to get even?" Clare asked, knitting her brows in concern. "People will get worried, Eli."

"I'd tell you to leave, if you're so scared about it," he shrugged. "But that's give away this hiding spot, and I'm not having any of that."

"My parents will be waiting to pick me up soon," Clare told him.

"It'll be okay. The sermon will probably run late today, anyway- Pastor Tim's speaking today, remember? Come on Clare, stay with me."

She bit her lip and looked down, fiddling with the hem of her skirt. It wasn't her intention to worry someone in this way, and she didn't want to cause any trouble. But the boy Eli was asking her, and he was holding onto her ankle with such a firm grip…it'd be cruel to say no, especially after seeing how the girls had treated him. She had watched from a tiny crack between chairs, and it certainly didn't look very fun. She had learned in Sunday school that putting others before herself was a good thing, and that being selfish was a sin. The small girl continued to gnaw on her lower lip in deliberation, unsure of what to do.

But Eli was running impatient, and decided to take matters upon himself.

"Just stay, okay?" And without waiting for her to respond, he griped higher up her leg with his other hand and towed her back to him. Clare let out a yelp, fingernails clawing at the carpet. Eli just kept towing her in his direction, pulling her leg like it was a rope and dragging her across the floor.

"Eli!" she whispered-cried.

Once they reached the end of the maze, he finally stopped pulling. A grin started to make its way up his face…until he realized something.

At this point, her skirt had completely ridden up, and was bunched around her waist. He was still holding her creamy white legs, and a furious blush began to pool at his cheeks. He released her immediately, and then quickly pulled her skirt back down to cover her bottom.

"What are we going to do here while they look for us?" Clare asked nervously, oblivious to Eli's thoughts. She pulled herself up to a sitting position and crossed her legs, Eli still sprawled with a beet-red face. He did the only thing he could think of doing properly, and folded her legs to mirror her. They sat face-to-face to one another, wringing their wrists and ignoring the distant calls of their names.

"You can tell me what you were writing in that book of yours," he supplied, pointing at the pad she was sitting on.

Clare shook her head, pressing her lips together. "It's private."

Now curiosity was really fired up inside of him, and he experienced a desperate urge to grab the notebook out from under her.

"Aw, come on. What's it about?"

She glanced uncomfortably at him, lighting rolling her pencil to him. "Private things."

"Like what? Your secrets?" he pressed, gently rolling her pencil back.

"It's a diary," she explained uneasily. "It's about things I don't like talking about with people."

"I can pretend I'm not a people," he volunteered eagerly. "Uhh…a person I mean."

"No," she said plainly, looking strained.

Eli frowned, disappointed at her reluctance to share. He couldn't blame her, though, considering he wasn't too keen on sharing his own secrets either, but still. It was right there. Right under her bum was something potentially amusing, and that was all he wanted. Entertainment. Because a little entertainment never hurt anyone, right?

Acting strictly out of impulse, he reached out and grabbed his notebook from under her.

What he didn't realize was that the pencil was still in his hand.

Pointing towards her bare legs.

And he had struggled quite a bit to retrieve it out from under her.

"Ow!" Clare cried for the second time of the day. But this time was different, because this time she was drawing blood. There was a nasty scratch across her skin, for the pencil's lead was still sharp in despite all the writing she had done with it. Eli paled at the sight of her once unscathed flesh oozing out bright scarlet blood, trickling down to stain the blue carpet. It looked like it hurt a lot.

Eyes brimming with tears of pain, Clare casted him a look of hurt before scurrying away. He remained seated, still clutching the notebook he had stolen from her, and shocked with what he had just done.

"Clare, dear, what happened to you?" Ms. Paisley gasped.

He scrambled into a doggy position, and crawled his way out faster than he had crawled his way in. When the bright fluorescents greeted him, causing him to squint, he was also greeted with extreme guilt. Right before him was the little girl who had had wounded, the only little girl who had been so kind to him. All his Sunday school classmates began to crowd around for a better view of the scene, mouths widening in surprise. No one could understand how she could have been so brutally injured.

Clare just whimpered and grasped her leg, crystal-like tears streaming down her face. Eli's heart took a pang, knowing that it was all his fault. With regretful eyes, he watched Clare nod as Ms. Paisley left to get the first aid kit. It didn't even occur to him that Jenna had noticed him coming out of the chair maze after Clare, or that she was whispering something to Marisol.

"Eli, did you do that to Clare?" Marisol accuses in aghast, pointing at him with her pointer finger. Everyone around her gasped and stared at him- some shrinking back in fear, others sending him angry looks.

"Look! He even has a pointy pencil in his hand!" someone said loudly.

"Clare's probably faking it," Imogen said even louder, folding her arms across her chest and glaring at the poor girl. "A pencil can't even do that. She just wants attention."

Suddenly, all the guilt melted out of him. It was so quick and abrupt, and the anger seeping through his veins seemed to have come out of nowhere….but it didn't. His hands balled into sudden fists at his sides, and his eyes narrowed into tiny little slits.

"It doesn`t even look that bad," she continued, bolding striding over to Clare and poking her scratch. Poor Clare let out a shriek, and more tears trailed down her cheek.

"S-stop it," she sniffled, wiping her eyes.

"You stop faking it then," Imogen glowered, reaching out to poke her again.

"DON'T TOUCH HER!"

Again, the crowd gasped, as Eli came running over to Clare's rescue. He was practically seething at Imogen's insensitivity, and couldn't take standing around any longer. Shielding her with his body, he glared at her with utter distaste, gently touching Clare's arm to make sure she was there and safe. "Nobody touches Clare! Everyone got that?"

His voice was so lethal, everyone quickly nodded without hesitation, including a frightened Imogen.

And that was how they really started talking.

-x—

The leaves turned to brilliant golds and brown, and the snow came and left. Spring was at their feet again, and they were another year older. Clare was now nine, and Eli had just turned ten. Everyone at church knew the two were inseparable, how one was never without the other. It was just how it was. There was no Eli without Clare, and Clare was never far from Eli.

"I wish I could move to your school," Eli said sombrely, pumping his legs until his swing took him higher and higher.

The park near the church was their special meeting place. Days when Clare's parents had prayer meetings after service, she was allowed to play with Eli. All the other kids would either be eating lunch in the kitchen or on their way home, so the playground was often vacant. On those lucky days, they headed straight for the swings- not the slide, because Eli hates getting shocked, and definitely not the monkey bars, because Clare was afraid of heights. There were two swings- the left one was for Clare, and the right one for Eli. Always.

"What's wrong with your school?" Clare asked, using a running start to pick up some height. Upon jumping on, her flouncy dress flew up in her face, causing Eli to laugh and look away. "Don't you have friends there?"

"I don't like the kids at my school," he said bitterly. "They don't get me."

Getting Eli was exactly an easy feat either. He didn't like candy or sweets, and he only listened to certain types of music. He'd cringe when all the boys sang the Pokémon theme song and pretended to be their favourite Pokémon, and he hated colouring with passion. He didn't like sports either- balls and all that crap had zero meaning to him. There was a thick silver band he always word on his thumb- it was too big for him, and constantly had to shove it in place, but he never took it off. Only Clare understood without questions.

"My friend Alli has a boyfriend," Clare mused. "She said it was weird that I didn't have one too."

"I'm never going to get a girlfriend," Eli said stonily, jumping off his swing at the peak. He landed solidly on his feet, never stumbling or losing balance. "I'm never going to fall in love."

"How do you know that for sure?" she inquire curiously, as he trotted on over to give her a push. "It's something you can control or anything."

"No one's going to love me, Clare," he said quietly, grunting as he pushed her again and again.

"That's not true," she countered. "Your momma and dad love you."

Clare was faced the other way. She couldn't see his face darken, just like the sky did when the clouds moved along.

"They don't. They just send me to church to get rid of me," he said grimly. "They're not like your parents."

Clare, despite being only nine, felt her heart ache for him. She felt bad for taking advantage of the unconditional love her parent gave her, when Eli had none. And come to think of it, she hadn't ever seen his parents in the sanctuary, or downstairs to pick him up. He always said that they'd be waiting in the car…was it so difficult to just walk in and collect their son?

"I love you, Eli," she said softly. "Maybe your parents won't, but I do."

Eli stopped pushing her. He didn't answer, and Clare worried that she might have made him sadder. She stuck out her feet and let them drag across the sand, slowing down her momentum, and hopping off when it got low enough for her.

He didn't really look sad…but he didn't look happy either. He looked thoughtful, like he was chewing over what she said. He bit his lip down hard, eyes too distant and far away to read.

"Are you okay?" Clare asked worriedly, walking towards him. She got down on her knees and peered up at his face, moving aside his hair with her fingers. The face of a neglected boy stared back at her, stricken with sadness.

He shook his head, his unkempt hair shaking along with him. Desperate to cheer him, up, Clare glanced around. A little red bag sitting on the bench caught her eye, and she immediately ran over to fetch it. Puffing and panting, she unbuckled the buckle and jammed her arm in, searching for something in particular. When she felt something plastic-y between her fingers, she grinned brightly and pulled it out. She ran back over to Eli without hesitation, the baggie at her clutches.

"Look, Eli, my mom packed this for me this morning. Do you want some?"

Eli lit up at the sight of his favourite snack- grapes, but not the red kind. He hated the red ones, but loved the green ones. Eagerly he reached in and picked one out, popping it into his mouth.

"Mhmm," he hummed, holding up his damp fingers in the air. His thumb and index finger were in a clipping position, ready to pick up for grapes. "You know these are my favourite!"

"I know you, you know," she giggled, opening her mouth wide open. Eli plopped one in with a happy grin on his face.

"I think that if I were to marry someone one day, it would be you," he said pragmatically, suddenly. "It would have to be you, because all the other girls are annoying." He popped in another few in his mouth. "I also have to marry you because I have to protect you. It's my job, you know."

"Protect me from what?" Clare wrinkled her eyebrows together.

"Everything and anything," he said. "The world's not a safe place, Clare. I can protect you."

"Okay," she agreed. "You can protect me."

-x—

"Eli!" Clare called from across his front lawn, standing eagerly on her tippy-toes.

A broad smile grew on Eli's lips upon seeing her, and as quickly as he could, he yanked the blinds shut, jammed his feet into his shoes, and raced out the door.

Only just as he was about to say his hello, a wobbly kid on a skateboard came whooshing by the sidewalk, knocking Clare off her feet in the process. And instead of stopping to see if she was alright, he continued on as if nothing happened.

"Ouch," she whimpered, examining the cuts on her palm. As she had tumbled backwards, her hands instinctively caught her fall.

Eli watched the entire scene play out in front of him with wide eyes- the very eyes that narrowed into angry little slits as they glared at the kid roll on.

"Hey you!" he yelled, stomping on over to him. The kid turned around, and casted a condescending look upon him.

"What?" he sneered, coming to a stop.

Perhaps scrawny little Eli didn't seem intimidating as he advanced, and most of that was because he was quite short for his age. He was the skinniest in his class and the kid on the skateboard must have had a couple years on him. But that didn't stop him from seizing the older kid's wrist with surprisingly strength, causing him to let out a yelp of pain.

"What the hell?" he cursed loudly, staggering to follow where Eli was dragging him. Said Eli was practically fuming, and the more the kid struggled, the deeper Eli's nails dug in. He dragged him without pausing to take a break, dragged him with gritted teeth and flared nostrils.

"Apologize!" Eli growled, roughly throwing him on the ground next to a frightened Clare.

The younger girl shrank back in fear; but if anyone was afraid, it was the kid.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" he hollered, gasping at the red marks Eli had left on him. They were an angry red, nearly drawing blood.

"It's okay," Clare said meekly, wondering if she should feel sorry for him.

The kid scrambled back up to his feet as fast as he could after he apologized, and scurried back to his skateboard without once looking back. Eli shot him one last contemptuous look, before tending to Clare.

"Are you hands okay?" he asked softly, gingerly holding her injured palms. "What can I do to make you feel better?"

"My…mom would always kiss my cuts and scratches," she supplied shyly, feeling safe in Eli's warm hands. "But you don't have to-"

He brought her injuries to his lips, placing little butterfly kisses on where she must have been hurting. His kisses her tender and gentle, extremely different to the way he treated the other boy. He was very sweet in that way, very loving and caring. He would never admit himself as the kind of gentlemen he was, but Clare liked that.

Eli would go to great lengths for her, there was no doubt about it.

-x-

December arrived along with the bitter cold, and it snowed in Toronto like it never had before. Clare's family was busily preparing for the holiday season by decorating the staircase with pretty twinkly lights and dressing up in festival red pyjamas. All decked out in the brand-new flannels her grandma had sent her from Christmas, Clare slid down the hallway in her socks, colliding against the front door with a loud bang.

"Clare! What was that?" her mother called from the kitchen.

"Nothing mom," she winced, rubbing her sore bum. The impact had definitely taken a toll on one of her cheeks.

It was only four in the afternoon, but colder than it had been the previous night. The heater was on full-blast, and Helen was bustling about making dinner. The frosty air was enough to make her toes and nose numb, but the hot chocolate her mom was making served as a good enough distraction. Clare jumped about in excitement for the coming sweet beverage, twirling and prancing about. Her father would be home soon, and they'd eat a wonderful holiday supper together soon.

Just then, the doorbell rang, and Clare raced to open the door. Daddy must have come home early, she thought happily.

"Honey, who is it- oh, Eli. What are you doing here by yourself?" Helen frowned, wiping her hands with a cloth as she entered the foyer.

Scrawny, shivering Eli stood at the porch steps, arms wrapped around his poorly-dressed body. He wore only a thin fall jacket in a minus fifteen degrees temperature, and he was shuddering out of his mind. Neither a pair of mittens on his hands, nor a pair of suitable winter boots on his feet. The poor boy was extremely underdressed. He must have been freezing.

"Eli!" Clare exclaimed, pulling him inside. Her mother closed the door quickly to trap in their heat. "Wha are you doing here?"

"And where are you parents, dear? It's not safe for you to be out on your own," her mother clicked her tongue, looking concerned.

Eli's chattering teeth would not stop, and so he could not speak. Clare gave her mother a look.

"Clare, can you run upstairs and get a blanket from the closet?"

"Mom, can you do it? I can't reach the top shelf," she fibbed, preferring to stay with Eli. There were many questions floating around in her head, and she knew there was a better chance of getting him to talk when it was just the two of them.

"S-s-s-s," he chattered, trying to get out a word. His entire face was frozen and ruddy.

"Let's sit by the fireplace," Clare instructed, leading him over and seating him on the brick ledge. Another shiver rippled down his spine, and Clare took it upon herself to hug him tightly. It would warm him up quicker.

His muscles unclenched at her touch, and he relaxed against her.

"Eli, take off your coat and put this on instead," Helen insisted, coming down with a thick, woolly quilt. Eli obeyed, trembling as he peeled off his inadequate jacket. He groaned as the blanket was wrapped him, but did not let Clare let go of him. Instead, he threw it over the two of them, and continued to embrace her tightly.

"My m-m-mom and dad a-are not home," he said, looking up at Clare's mom. "I woke up t-this morning, and they were gone. I waited f-for them to come back, but they never did."

"Oh, you poor thing!" she cried, clamping a hand over her mouth. "You must have been so afraid!"

"Oh Eli, Clare murmured, eyes shining with tears. It was not fair that his parents left him like that, without telling him or anything. She knew that if it had been her, she wouldn't not have been as strong as Eli had been. She wouldn't have been able to muster up the courage to leave her house, it'd be terrifying.

"Do you know their number, dear? Maybe you could call them," Helen suggested.

Eli shook his head. "No, I don't. I'm sorry."

"There's nothing to be sorry about, Eli," she scolded, pursing her lips. "How could they just leave without their son like that? It's incredibly irresponsible of them…tell you what: why don't you stay for dinner? Then after, we can go over to your house and see if they're home?"

"Can you, Eli?" Clare says hopefully, gazing at him.

"That'd be great," he half-smiled, holding Clare tighter. "Thank you Mrs. Edwards."

"Yay!" she cheered, grinning. She turned to face Eli as Helen went to go fix another hot chocolate, excitement surging through her body.

But Eli didn't look so excited. On the contrary he let out a sad sigh, and hugged Clare even tighter. He gently pushed her head so that it rested on his shoulder, sitting up straighter so that he would be taller than her. He even fixed the blanket so that it covered her more.

"I don't think my mom and dad want me around anymore, Clare," he said miserably, twiddling his thumbs.

"You don't know that," she said softly. "Please…please don't cry."

A thin film of tears threatened to fall from his eyes, and it shattered her heart to see the boy who had never cried before, come so close to breaking down. He was deeply affected by his parents' absence, but only Clare could see how deep the wound was. She knew him better than anyone else.

"This is why no one can love me Clare," he said hoarsely, rubbing his eyes. "My own parents don't. How can I expect anyone else to?"

"You still don't think I love you?"

He shook his head, sniffling. "You can't love me. No one can."

On that grim note, circumstances would eventually lighten up… but only for a little while. After a wonderful supper filled with wonderful Christmas-type food and a bright-eyed Eli who had never seen such a lovely home-caked meal before, it was time to go home. As Randal and Eli suited up at the door, Clare had begged her mom to allow her to come allow. The night had been so much fun, and she wasn't ready for it to end quite yet. Eli didn't want to leave either; but being the guest, and being ever-so grateful for the joyous evening the Edwards had given him, he did not want to make himself anymore of a burden.

"I'll see you soon, Clare," he promised, patting her shoulder with the mittens she had lent him. "It'll be Sunday before you know it!"

"I guess," she sniffed, rubbing her sad eyes. "I just don't want you to go yet."

Eli looked at her, wishing that he could somehow alleviate the disappointment she was feeling. He didn't want to leave her feeling so upset.

"Maybe we can do that thing people do when they leave," he said, hoping to cheer her up. "I saw it on TV, There was this guy who put his lips on this other girl-"

"You mean a kiss?"? Randal asked, looking instantly uneasy.

"Yeah!" he said enthusiastically, grinning at Clare. "People do it all the time," he added intelligently.

"I've never kissed anyone before," Clare mused. "How does it work?"

"Clare, I'm afraid it's time for Eli to go home now," Randal said quickly, gesturing the boy towards the door. "It's getting late."

"But daddy, we need to figure out how this kissing thing works!" Clare exclaimed, furrowing her brows.

"There's logic behind it," Eli said helpfully. "You're supposed to tilt your head to this side- like this!" He cocked his head so that his ear was rested on his shoulder, and urged Clare to do this same.

"Like this?" She mirrored him.

"No, no, the other way."

"Oh Randal, give them a break," Helen chided, looking amused. "Let them figure it out first."

"Then what?" she pressed, letting go of her mother and walking towards Eli.

"They're supposed to touch."

"What's supposed to touch?"

"Our lips," he said, keeping his eyes on Clare. His cheeks glowed with a bit of a red tinge.

"You're going to have to lead, Eli," Clare said nervously. "I don't know how to start."

"Come closer," he said, beckoning her over. She obeyed, and took a few more steps towards him. They were now inches apart, Clare barely having to crane her neck to meet his eyes; he wasn't that much taller than her. She stood on her tippy-toes so that their lips were aligned, clutching onto Eli's shoulders for balance, and hesitated. The two took a deep breath, squeezed their eyes shut- maybe with more force than necessary- and leaned forward. Eli clenched his fists very hard at his sides, unsure of what to do with them.

They puckered up their plump lips and kissed each other on the mouth.

"Okay, it's time to go now," Randall urged desperately, grasping Eli's arm and practically towing him to the door. The little boy staggered a bit to follow in disorientation, staring at Clare. "Say bye to Eli, Clare."

"Wow," Eli breathed in amazement, just as Clare blinked in astonishment. Flustered, he was eventually dragged out the door without saying his good-bye. He wasn't given enough time to recover from the kiss he had just shared with his best friend in the whole world.

"Wow," Clare said airily. "Eli and I kissed each other!"

"How do you feel, honey?" Helen asked fondly, knowing there was no harm when they were oh-so-young. So innocent, so pure, a little kiss wouldn't taint that.

Clare, with the same amazed expression, inhaled sharply. "I want to do that again someday."

But they never did. Because that was the last time she had seen Eli Goldsworthy in the flesh.