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cannot help giving

Marten dropped her off at her door like a gentleman. They had made out against the big oak tree in a shaded corner of her house's cul de sac for so long Claire was pretty sure her face was just one big tomato. He kept kissing her, letting her move the pace along, completely respectful of her boundaries even when she wasn't sure where they were. She'd just started to get turned on and comfortable enough to stop restraining all the noises she could feel trying to escape when a neighbor dragging the trash out to the curb startled them apart.

Marten was smiling, his mouth red and some of her lip gloss under his nose. She couldn't remember seeing him smile as much as he had since he'd asked her out. It made her feel nervous.

He held her hand and walked her back to her house, and they chatted quietly about the next day and what movie they might want to see on Sunday. She fumbled with the door handle as she watched him walk away, and somehow her heart was beating faster now that he was leaving.

Claire leaned against the front door once she'd closed it behind her, looking into the shadows of the corridor, lined with family pictures.

She'd never asked her mother to take down the ones from before she'd told them who she really was, but occasionally one would disappear and another, less male gendered photo would be in its place. She'd worried that Marten would see them, that first morning when he came over for breakfast. Anxiety had fixed her in place, imagining Marten's face when he saw her before, a little boy in an angel costume, then looking back at her and being uncomfortable.

He'd just smiled at her and followed her into the kitchen. He didn't even have to go through the hallway to get to the bathroom; he went through the den.

Claire blew out a breath, running a hand over the small, frizzy curls that always escaped from whatever neat ponytail she put them in. It didn't matter how much product she used, even when it wasn't hot and humid outside a red halo of curl would pop out and frame her face. She'd hated that, when she was in high school. It was just one more thing she couldn't control.

She put her keys on her hook, toed off her shoes, and picked them up to carry them upstairs to her room. The house was quiet, but not asleep. Her mom retired to the master suite early in the evening, leaving Claire and Clinton their privacy. It was one of the ways they'd made living together work, with Claire in the library science program nearby and Clinton in school at UMASS. She skipped the squeaky stair, noticing that Clinton's room was still dark as she went into her own. Still at the computer lab, then.

As Claire changed, she carefully checked her body to see if she'd missed a spot and burned. She tried to reup at least twice a day, even if she was going to be inside. It was just too easy to get a strip of red in some random place and be itching constantly as it healed. She put her dress in the hamper and changed quickly from her sweaty underwear to clean shorts and a t-shirt. She had her own bathroom, and she pulled her hair out of the hair-tie as she went in.

She caught her own reflection in the mirror. No sunburn on her nose, thank god, but the flush was still riding high on her cheeks. She was glad she'd missed everyone coming in to the house. It was too embarrassing, and they'd probably read her like a book at breakfast anyway. Better that she not look like she'd just been kissed.

No, made out with. She kept having firsts with Marten, and expecting them to be rough, or awkward. But they just...weren't. It was weirdly anti-climactic, after so many years daydreaming and freaking out and daydreaming about it again. He just seemed to...get her. Not just get her, but like her. Claire shuddered, and she wasn't sure if it was because of the thrill that ran through her at the thought of a boy knowing who she was for real, or the air conditioner kicking in through the high vent.

Claire had never thought that she'd just...meet a boy. Get asked out on a date, and kiss someone. It had always seemed so monumental, like there was going to be a big sweeping effort made to connect with someone, always preceded by The Talk. She'd steeled herself, built strong defenses to protect her heart, off the foundation of knowing what it felt like to be rejected, to have someone walk away. She knew that all guys weren't like her father, screwing around and leaving. But he had left, and with all the horror stories out there of girls andwomen, who'd had The Talk with their dates and boyfriends, she knew it was a possibility. A pretty likely one at that.

She grabbed her Kindle from her desk, clicked on her fan, and got into bed. She was too worked up to read immediately, but she knew her mind would eventually turn to her waiting bookmark in Code Name Verity.

Right now, though, Marten was the only thing she could see when she closed her eyes. His funny smile, his crazy hair. The way he kept dressing up, even when they were just working at the library. She had no idea he even owned a shirt with buttons until they started appearing that one day, when she wore the pink dress she'd found and altered from Goodwill.

Every time she doubted that they were...happening, that it was real and she wasn't just being tolerated until a pretty girl who didn't have to talk about anything other than where to go on a date, Marten did something wonderful. He'd make her tell him what random Dewey Decimal numbers referred to. Once, he teased her into quoting nearly half of "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," giggling into his beer when she got emphatic with the rhyming couplets. He slid his arm around her waist as they walked downtown, not ruffled at all when she stiffened, wondering what he could feel under her t-shirt, patiently talking about some weird customer at Coffee of Doom while she relaxed, inch by inch, into the touch. She put her arm around his waist, too. She even tucked her thumb into his back pocket, grinning when he jumped slightly and hung his mouth open in surprise.

Claire threw her hands over her face, grinning helplessly at the memory. Her face still felt hot, and she could see all the tiny freckles that had appeared on her hands since the summer started.

Tomorrow, she'd meet Marten at the coffee shop and he'd probably hand her an iced mocha, beating her there no matter how many times she tried to get there first. They'd walk to work, spending the day reshelving and fixing damaged books and sorting out the new acquisitions. They'd meet up in the evening for dinner or a drink or ice cream and just talk, until Marten, or maybe Claire this time, would start a kiss that wouldn't really end, even as their ice cream was melting.

They'd do that the next day, too. And each time Claire would freak out a little less; she knew that about herself. She'd know that he was honest with her, that it was a mutual attraction, and even with her inexperience and her hesitance he wanted to be there.

She'd always disdained the romance novel cliché, the female protagonist floridly proclaiming that she'd found herself when she found her bodice-ripper. But it was true, in a way, for her. She'd wondered for years what she would be like if she met someone, if she dated someone for the first time. And each day with Marten was like uncovering some hidden part of herself, waiting to be cracked open.

Claire pulled her hands from her face and gulped down the water on her nightstand. She picked up her Kindle and started tapping to get back to her book. Outside the crickets hummed with the night, and inside, Claire pressed her lips together and remembered pressing them to Marten's.