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How like a winter hath my absence been

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She's slicing tomatoes and cheese in the dorm kitchen, thinking about how to revise the third sestina in her application portfolio, when the knife goes straight into the fleshy part of her thumb.

There is no pain. She stands there dumbly staring at the two white edges of the cut, dark blood welling up between them. There is no sense of time passing, either -- just the blood beginning to run down toward her palm.

"Vicky!" Adam's strong warm hand closes around her wrist, guiding her carefully away from the cutting board and over to the sink.

That shakes her out of the fugue. "Wow, that was clumsy. Guess I was woolgathering."

He turns the water on, letting it run while he clears dirty dishes and cups from the sink -- a sign on the kitchen door from the resident assistants has sternly warned people all semester to clean up after themselves, but it's exam time now -- then tests the temperature of the stream. "It's lukewarm. Here."

She lets him guide her thumb beneath the faucet. The cut begins to sting after a moment, and she sucks in a breath. "There's a first aid kit in that cupboard next to the refrigerator." She points with her free hand.

"Okay, you sit there and I'll patch you up."

She settles onto the stool next to the table with the food. The tomatoes are leaking their guts onto the white plastic cutting board. Adam comes back and bends over her hand, swabbing with iodine -- the sensation feels more like stabbing, really -- not even glancing up at her hiss of pain. And then his careful, competent fingers are wrapping a thick bandage around her thumb.

"I thought you were all the way upstairs." She speaks to the side of his head, his light brown hair grown shaggy for the winter, half covering his ear.

"I was," he says, without explaining.

When he lets her hand go her thumb feels clumsy and club-like, throbbing beneath the gauze -- luckily it's only her left thumb, but she can already picture herself attempting to type out her portfolio later, like a demented monkey failing at Shakespeare. At least she's finished with her exams and papers; this is her last task before winter break.

"I'll do it for you," Adam says. And he could be talking about that, or he could be talking about the grilled cheese sandwiches, as he wipes off the knife and makes quick work of the rest of the cheese. Both things, maybe. His comfort with their connection has varied over time, dependent on factors including how long it's been between visits and how rigorously scientific he's feeling.

The stove ticks on, blue gas flames blossoming up, and she watches as he fries the sandwiches open-faced in the pan, broad shoulders shifting beneath his fleece sweater as he wields the spatula. "Here I was trying to be a good hostess," she jokes. "Now you're cooking for me."

"You're lucky -- grilled cheese sandwiches are about fifty percent of my food intake at Berkeley. The other fifty percent being ramen, of course. It's an undergrad's balanced diet."

Vicky pulls a face. "You must be glad to be home for the holidays, then."

"Yah, only neither of my parents are great in the kitchen. We usually go out -- luckily we never have to worry about a lack of restaurants in New York."

But he isn't home for the holidays, not really. He had been -- working dutifully on PhD applications in his parents' Upper West Side apartment, contemplating possible futures studying marine biology in Massachusetts, or Florida, or California again, or perhaps even Alaska or Hawaii -- until his presence just a couple of commuter trains away pulled her inexorably to the phone. Until the weight of all their time apart -- both during his years at Berkeley, and whatever is approaching in the future -- finally became too much to bear. They had had vague plans to see each other in Thornhill over Christmas when he came to visit his Aunt Serena, but suddenly she couldn't wait any longer.

She had called him, and he had come.

"Well," she says lightly, "I'm glad my college at least has a decent meal plan. I don't think I could stand three and a half more years of a diet like yours."

"You're right, I could have sworn you said something about a dining hall with endless buffets? And yet--" he gestures with the spatula at the sandwiches in the pan "--here we are."

"We'll go for dinner when we're both done with our applications. I promised you'd be able to work too, remember?"

They trap the sandwiches between two plates to keep them warm for the trek upstairs. The dorm is an old, drafty, mid-1800s monstrosity constructed of weathered Pennsylvania stone. Freshmen, being the lowest on the totem pole, populate the top floor, while the upperclassmen get the floors requiring fewer staircases. She and Adam pass a few students as they make their way up, all lugging suitcases. It's the last week of exams, and the dorm is steadily emptying out for winter break.

Her roommate has already gone home, leaving Vicky in their boxy, wood-floored room with its sloping ceiling and gable windows. Vicky was in love with it from the first -- I can sort of pretend I'm a poet in a garret, she wrote to Adam, in the first of too few letters (because she had resolved to only write or call him as often as he did the same for her). But Tara, a far more sociable creature, only ever uses it to sleep. And not every night, either.

Adam has set up camp at Tara's largely unused desk, his grad school applications spread over its entire surface and also the floor surrounding the chair; Vicky's desk is just as messy. His overnight bag still sits, conspicuously, by the door. Vicky avoids looking at it as she perches on the edge of her bed, as Adam joins her and passes her a plate with a sandwich.

"Not bad," she judges after her first bite, wiping a melty strand of cheese from her lip. It's comfort food, good hearty winter food. All they're missing is a piping hot bowl of tomato soup.

"Faint praise. I blame the unfamiliar surroundings -- I'm a pro at these, trust me."

He wolfs his sandwich down in a third of the time it takes her, setting his plate aside and stretching out long, jean-clad legs to rest his heels on the braided rug that used to live in her Grandfather's house. She hasn't noticed him walking around shoeless, but apparently he has been: his socks look as thick and woolly as his sweater.

He's certainly gotten cozy enough in her surroundings in just the space of half a day. But that's Adam, of course. She's seen pictures of him as a young boy at his Aunt Serena's house, but could never discern in them any sign of an awkward stage. It seemed to her then and seems to her now that Adam has been solidly, confidently self-assured his entire life, as comfortable doing cartwheels on a beach as he is in a windy garret dorm room in Pennsylvania.

By contrast, Vicky stills finds it absurdly difficult, even now as a proper college student on her way to adulthood, to relinquish her old self-image of a skinny, gawky teenage girl. She is constantly reminding herself that all the things she has been through -- Grandfather's death, Binnie, the dolphins, Antarctica -- should diminish the import of those social anxieties, any notion that the currency of attractiveness is at all valuable. But the roots of such insecurities nevertheless reach deep.

Her gaze finds his overnight bag again. She had dialed his parents' number with a thundering heart, but when they spoke on the phone she was proud of how very natural and relaxed she sounded. She had framed the invitation as a chance for him to see an old chum's new stomping grounds, to escape the distractions of the city. Nothing more or less.

When she met him at the train station, at the bottom of campus, he had dropped a quick kiss to the corner of her mouth, just a whisper of warm breath against the cold winter air. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a tiny snowflake wafting up to catch in his eyebrow. "You look good," he said, pulling away without anything more, and she echoed the sentiment back to him with some inanity. And then they climbed the hill to her dormitory, without touching, climbed the stairs to her room, and he looked around and said, "It's exactly like I pictured it." And she realized she had no idea what his living quarters at Berkeley were like; he had never bothered to tell her.

She glances at Adam over the last quarter of her sandwich. She still isn't quite used to him actually being here, in this room where she has thought of him since almost the first moment she arrived, where she has written him letters he takes too long to answer, where her desk phone hardly ever has his voice on the line, where she has not written a single poem about him.

He meets her eyes and nods at her thumb. "How's that doing now?"

It's still throbbing. "Fine. Thanks again; you have a future as a doctor or a nurse if you ever get bored of cetaceans."

"Not possible." He smiles, and that inner light of his comes on, that bright sensation of sunlight rippling from underwater. She hasn't seen it all day, not even when they first laid eyes on each other at the train station.

"So how are your applications going?"

"Good. I should have quite a stack of envelopes ready for the post office tomorrow. I meant what I said, by the way. About helping with your portfolio."

He hasn't talked to her about grad school except to run through a quick list of the programs he's interested in, always quickly moving on to a tangential topic. She's pieced together the geographical implications on her own: three and a half more years for her on this gray stone and green hill campus, and for Adam, anywhere near the ocean, anywhere that might be.

She tucks the last bite of sandwich into her mouth and reaches for her own application form. She's applying for a poetry course in the spring, a workshop-style seminar with a big name, award-winning writer. The application requires a portfolio of five original poems, each typed up separately, due on the day exams officially end. Only twelve students will be accepted to the course.

An opportunity, Vicky supposes, to truly test the mettle of her pen.

"Okay," she says. "But you finish yours first. I have some revising to do."

They work in silence for a couple more hours. It's been too long since she and Adam shared close quarters by themselves. She's distracted by the small noises he makes: his steady breathing, the occasional hummed note and cleared throat. Her sestina requires concentration: the structure of it is circular, repetitive, each line a thread she must hold loosely but deftly, ready to be braided into the full poem at just the required moment. But Adam's presence is like a gust of wind threatening to tear the strands from her fingers.

She doesn't think she's been projecting, but after the seventh crossed out word he says, "I should call my parents, let them know I arrived all right. Is there a public phone for the hall, so I don't bother you?"

"Yes, in the stairwell."

"Okay. Back in a bit." His hand rests, all too briefly, on her shoulder, and then silence and stillness descends.

After that she gets lost in the words, tentative at first, still self-conscious, but finally tipping over the edge into that dazzling darkness where creation occurs almost without thinking. She's barely aware of the pen in her hand, the paper beneath. The poem unfurls from her fist, smooth as water.

When she looks up, she realizes most of the afternoon light has gone. And Adam still hasn't come back.

The poem is in a good place now. She sets it in order with the others, arranging them for theme and maximum impact. Then she gathers the dirty plates.

Something tells her to put on her scarf, hat, coat and gloves, and to tuck Adam's winter things beneath her arm as well, hooking his shoes with her fingers. He isn't in the stairwell, or anywhere on the hall. Normally the freshmen doors all stand open -- it's the sociable way to be if you're not in class, sleeping or sleeping with someone -- but there's only one other person left on her hall, and the whiteboard on his door declares: STUDYING IN LIBRARY. SEND EXCAVATION CREW IF NOT SPOTTED BY NEXT SEMESTER.

Vicky smiles. Nate's been giving her some attention lately, but he also gives a lot of girls attention. It seems to be the way of college, heat and yearning directed generally rather than specifically, but she's still been embarrassingly surprised and grateful to get anything at all. Small wonder, perhaps, given the vacuum of that sort of anything with a certain someone else in her life.

She finds Adam finally in the big, open atrium on the ground floor, where there are student mailboxes and sofas and even a grand piano. He's studying one of the corkboards on the wall, which has flyers and advertisements in all kinds of colors and crazy fonts, as well as a growing collage of photographs of dorm residents.

"Here you are," she says.

"And here you are." He points to a spot on the collage, and then another. And yes, there she is, during Orientation Week, still tan from the summer, and then just a month ago, pale-skinned again before Thanksgiving break. In each photo she's with a couple of friends from the dorm, a mixed company of male and female. In the Orientation one she's holding a telltale red plastic cup. "Looks fun," Adam remarks, his tone completely normal.

They had talked, once, about being as old-fashioned as her brother John. And she had been fifteen, and could count the boys who had kissed her on one hand. "It is fun. It's just fun."

"I actually kind of envy you. I've had to cram in so many classes during my four years, I often feel like I've missed out."

"Really? I can't imagine you being much of a partier."

"Growing up in New York? Trust me, I didn't always bury my head in books."

"Yeah, well, I study too, you know."

She doesn't know why she's bristling. The arch of his raised eyebrow makes it worse. But he says only, "It's snowing pretty heavily now. Want to come out and build a snowman?"

She doesn't wait for him to put on his shoes and winter things, but heads straight outside. The afternoon is dying, buried under the falling snow. Her boots shush through the new powder as she makes her way to the beginning of the hill's downward slope and starts scooping together snow.

After a moment Adam comes up, his long legs carrying him around her easily as he gathers more snow in a widening circle, the raw energy and vitality he radiates doing as much to wake her from the writing haze as the cold. He's got a moss-colored toque crammed over his shaggy hair, and a matching scarf which brings out the luminous sea-grey of his eyes.

It hadn't actually snowed while they were in Antarctica, but the packed ice had stretched on farther than her brain could really comprehend; the cold had been different there, harsher, harder. It had made her cling to him a little, she supposed. And maybe it had made him let her.

"I miss the beach," Adam says suddenly. His voice has that hushed, roughened quality of sound waves bouncing against snow. "Truthfully, even though I grew up with snow every winter, I've finally admitted to myself I'm not a cold weather person. I'm a sun and sand person. Best times of my life."

"I could live by the ocean forever." She's trying not to read too much into his words during this visit, but the thing about Adam is that he's never careless with words. And so they're really the best she has. "But I'd still want there to be seasons."

"So a northern coastline?"

"Or a southern coastline in the southern hemisphere. I'm not picky."

"South America was a bit testy. We could always try Africa, or Australia."

We. She can't control the wild leap of her heart, but she can control her outward reaction. "I could go cage diving with great white sharks," she says lightly. "Scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef." She bends over the snowman, so she can't tempt herself with his outward reaction.

"Write sonnets to the stingrays? Odes to the octopi?"

"And pantoums to the penguins. Exactly." She's smiling now, the kind of smile that can't be helped, so she allows herself to look up at him.

The light in his eyes, the smile he returns, makes her breath catch. And then he says, his gaze fixed on hers: "Someday."

And really, what else can she read in that? But she remembers the long, long stretches of uncertain quiet between points of contact which have constituted their entire relationship to date, and she can't see anything but the same until that eventual someday.

"Come on," she says, gesturing to the snowman. "Let's finish this, then grab some dinner."

It comes out lopsided and leaning on a tree branch simply to support itself, which Adam declares its cane. They christen the snowman "Geezer," and leave him to collect more snow as they trot over to the dining hall.

The building is huge and cavernous, but enough people have gathered and enough food is being heated in the buffet kiosks that it's quite warm. Vicky leads Adam to her favorite table, near one of the windows with a view of the big stone bell tower.

"That architecture's terrific." Adam nods at it. "A different style to the one at Berkeley. Did I mention I also envy you getting to go to a school which has such an old, historic feel? It feels like there's a story in every stone here. It must be inspiring."

"It is."

They chat easily enough about the state of the cuisine compared to the barracks on Seven Bay Island, and about her classes: the various distribution requirements which make it necessary for her to get science and math credits, and how she's actually been quite enjoying her political science class.

"It helps to have a professor who's not only really intelligent and renowned in his field, but also just passionate about teaching. He makes even the driest subjects seem fresh and new, and he encourages discussions with the Socratic method, but he's not intimidating about it at all. I always leave class feeling like my brain is buzzing."

"That's how a lot of the best scientists teach as well," Adam says. "My parents, Doc Didymus, the O'Keefes." Vicky remembers him talking her through his theories about death and unconscious knowledge with a series of questions; he must have learned the method from those mentors.

Then they talk about her family: John beginning his astrophysics doctorate, the colleges and pre-med programs Suzy is already thinking about, and Rob's worries about Mr. Rochester's frail health.

"Vicky?"

She looks up, and there is Nate carrying a full tray, and behind him another guy and girl, Ryan and Vani, who Vicky recognizes from their freshman composition course.

"Mind if we join you?" Nate asks.

"Not at all." As she and Adam clear some space, she has that same sensation of appearing very natural and relaxed, and proud of her ability to seem so, but also scarily prone to clumsiness or nervous blithering.

Nate sits next to her, the others settling into empty chairs of their own. She makes the introductions to Adam as they start tucking into their food.

"I'm actually from the Bay Area," Nate says, when he learns that Adam's a senior at Berkeley. "Can't wait to get back for Christmas."

Adam responds in his usual friendly but reticent manner, and they make small talk about their favorite places in northern California. It strikes her, watching them, how Adam is so clearly older than everyone else at the table. It isn't just that he has the advantage of chronological age or three extra years of undergraduate studies. It's the weight of his experiences, the life lessons he's received -- on top of the person he was to begin with -- that have given him such a grounded, unshakeable sense of self. In comparison, the others are like loud young puppies; they haven't been knocked around by life yet, not truly.

She's taking a sip of her water when Vani asks, deceptively casual, "So how long have you two been together?" Vicky doesn't miss the little nudge she gives Nate.

"Um," Vicky begins, once she's swallowed her water.

But Adam says, before she can continue stumbling: "Vicky and I are friends." And that's that.

"Sorry," Vani says politely. "You just seem really close. Longtime friends?"

"Yah. In some ways beyond time itself."

She's reminded suddenly of Suzy calling Adam a square -- she can tell from Vani's unexpressed puzzlement that if Adam weren't so conventionally attractive, he would never have gotten away with such a quirky statement.

Vicky doesn't look directly at him for the rest of the meal, but she holds up her end of the conversation well, even joining the appalled teasing when Ryan declares his intention to eat a soft-serve ice cream cone on the way back to the library, in the falling snow. Then they're all standing, bundling up again, pushing out into the night.

"Knock on my door before you leave for the holidays, Vic," Nate says in her ear, before following the others, and she nods automatically.

The darkness, and the snow which hits her face and melts there, ought to be good camouflage. But Adam takes one look at her as they pass under a lamppost and says, "I'm sorry."

She can't contain it anymore. "Do you know why I asked you here?"

He looks like he knows, but he says anyway: "Tell me."

"Because I thought you might want to give me that answer, the one you just gave to my friends, to me personally. In private."

She's still walking, climbing up the big hill once more with him beside her. Only this time all the hope that had been irrepressibly rising in her chest has been punctured and deflated by five small words. Vicky and I are friends. It's only because she's made this same uphill trek several times a day since September that she can even tell where she's going; otherwise, she's basically in a blind haze.

Or rage, perhaps?

"I'm sorry," Adam says again. "You're right."

She rounds on him as they step into the light cast by another lamppost. "That's all you have to say? Adam, we weren't just friends in Antarctica. And if you could be honest with me, you'd admit we weren't just friends that first summer either."

He starts to respond, but now that she's started, she makes herself keep going.

"And I know you warned me that I was too young, and our futures were up in the air, and that you're a horrible correspondent. And everything you said is probably still true -- although I should point out I'm now almost as old as you were that summer. But the one thing that's never been up in the air is my feelings. Those have been clear since practically the moment we met."

It's as eloquent as a planned speech, perhaps because she's been saving some form of it for almost two years now. She can feel her throat wanting to close on her words, her breath refusing to deliver her voice. She forces herself to hold his gaze. But why should chronological age matter anyway? After everything we've been through, we're older than the calendar says.

"It's not age, exactly," he says at last. He always responds to her out loud: with words, with actions. "It's context. You've just begun what will be four of the most formative years of your life. You don't know who you'll meet. How you'll feel. What kinds of chances you'll have to be close to people."

She tries to read between his words. "Have you met someone? Had...chances?"

The wound in her thumb clamors again while she waits for him to give a slow shake of his head. "No one serious."

"Well, me neither. And I don't see how anyone else could be serious for me."

A stricken expression crosses his face, and now, finally, for once, she receives a sense of what he's feeling without him having to actually express it; the transmission is involuntary, intense. He is thrilled, and anxious. And guilty.

Well. A part of her, especially during those long silent stretches, had never really expected him to live like a monk until some high school girl grew up enough. And it's not like she's stayed completely away from other boys.

But oh, it hurts her pride, and it is only pride that makes her want -- need -- to say the rest of it, to be brave enough at long last: "Adam...I don't care. We never made any declarations. We never owed each other anything and we don't own each other. But the thing is." She stops to gather her breath. "I'm not sure the problem was ever whether I was ready."

She stands there, waiting in the pool of light from the lamppost for him to speak, caught outside of time the way she had been earlier as the blood welled from the cut. But then that same wound brings her back into herself again, stingingly physical, and he still hasn't spoken. The look on his face is beseeching her to understand, to let it go; the emotion he's projecting is the same.

She turns around in the snow and starts walking back to the dorm again.

Two years, she thinks. It's not about chronological age, but how much time does any one person really deserve from another? Especially when they never actually asked for it or offered anything in return; when it was freely, stupidly given.

By the time she reaches her room again, her winter things are already damp with melting snow. And as she hangs up her coat and scarf on the hooks on the back of the door, she can feel herself softening along with the snowflakes. It's not forgiveness or acquiescence, but understanding. Adam has never been perfect -- he arrived in her life with his heart already broken. Perhaps he truly isn't capable of putting it back together.

Students aren't allowed to cook in their rooms, but they can have plug-in kettles for things like tea, coffee and ramen. Vicky brews a big mug of Earl Grey and settles at her desk to work on her portfolio, but just then Adam lets himself in. He's taken off the toque and scarf, and his coat is unbuttoned. His hair is matted down, and he pushes it back from his eyes as she regards him from her chair.

"In a way," he says finally, "I guess I did hide behind your age. I mean, I have been hiding. Even today, talking about someday. It's been easier to tell myself that now isn't the time. That I don't have to commit just yet. That it'll be a long while before I have to be...vulnerable."

"You once said to John that my vulnerability was one of the nicest things about me, because it meant I was alive."

"And I meant it."

Vicky nods. "You're dripping on my Grandfather's rug, by the way."

He grimaces and hangs his things over hers, then comes to perch on the edge of her desk. She's only turned on her desk lamp, so the room is washed in warm amber, blurring his lean features and haggard expression. "It's not fair to you," he says, "to keep you waiting. To always be the one putting on the brakes."

"So don't."

"Yah, but it's not that simple. It never is."

Vicky sighs. She looks down and notices that Adam's socks are wet. "Here, take those off before you catch cold. Put on a dry pair. And have some tea." She motions to her mug. "I'll go make another."

She has to go all the way downstairs to the kitchen to get a second mug, and it takes her a bit longer than usual to wash one up, not wanting to get her bandage wet. When she comes back into her room, Adam is still leaning against her desk, and he's got the first poem in her portfolio in his hand, reading.

She busies herself with re-boiling the kettle and unwrapping another teabag. Then she takes the steaming mug over to him to look at the poem over his shoulder.

It's a villanelle. She had written it during the hustle and bustle of Orientation Week, which had in fact been quite disorienting, when she was caught up in a sudden frustrated melancholy, missing her family, missing Grandfather, and truth be told, missing Adam. Unlike the tricky sestina, she hasn't revised it much.

Each arriving means a leaving,
transfusion of body and place,
both a greeting and a grieving.

Old makes way for new receiving.
Memory alone sees a distant face.
Each arriving means a leaving.

A truth of movement, unrelieving.
Cycle of change that leaves its trace,
both a greeting and a grieving.

Let us end all this deceiving,
embrace the law of time and space:
each arriving means a leaving.

Youth are rash and disbelieving.
From here to there always a race,
both a greeting and a grieving.

Death will be a new conceiving.
Let us not leave life lacking grace.
Each arriving means a leaving,
both a greeting and a grieving.

"You haven't lost your flare," Adam says. He puts the poem down, then takes the mug from her gently and puts that down as well. Even leaning against her desk, he's still several inches taller than her. As he takes her hands and draws her closer, she has to tilt her head back to look up at him. "I guess I do keep coming in and out of your life."

Vicky raises her eyebrows. "Who says that was about you?"

"I'm not interpreting or assuming. Just...thinking out loud."

"Okay. Don't let me stop you."

"I shouldn't have said anything about the future. At least, not without making it clear what's going on in the present."

"Are you clear?"

His body is warm where she's touching him: knees, thighs, clasping fingers. He pulls her closer, hips and torsos meeting, and lets go of her hands to circle his arms around her waist. "Yes."

"And?" she presses.

"And you're it, Vicky. Thunder and lightning and electricity. You always have been. And that's not likely to ever change for me."

She searches his calm grey eyes in the golden light of her room. Calm, but lit from within like the sunlight reflected in clear water: Adam at his most Adam. She's always felt the most Vicky around him -- also not likely to ever change. But what's important is that she can feel what he's saying to her beyond the spoken words; that he's communicating with her the way they first learned to with each other, that first summer; that he's set aside the rigid tenets of observation-hypothesis-prediction-experiment, in favor of unabashed communion. That he isn't hiding anymore.

"Oh," she says, and she's surrounded by such a wave of joy and exhilaration that she gasps against his mouth when he kisses her. "Oh," she says, sending the wave back to him, and receiving it again.

Later, long after the tea has grown cold, the dawn light and the lamp light coalesce into a pale, tinted gauze which enters her dreams and recalls the sensation of floating on her back in the gentle swell of the ocean. She's awakened by Adam reaching across her to turn off the switch.

He smiles down at her as she stretches against him, both of them rumpled and happy. And she realizes that this moment, this hushed sharing of the hazy time between sleep and the start of a new day, is something else that is new and precious and intimate, and only the first such moment of many.

"Good morning, sweetie," Adam whispers. "What will we do today? Build a snowlady friend for Geezer? Try my other culinary specialty of adding hot water to instant noodles?"

She leans up to kiss him, and laughs when he rolls them so that she's draped across his chest, her hair falling in a curtain around his face. "All of the above," she says. "And anything else we want."