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It's not until she starts snoring softly that you realize your predicament. She's sleeping, you can't leave without waking her.

You look down at her, down at your-

…pet doesn't feel right, anymore. There's a few other titles you're coming to consider, but all of them have a degree of fondness and closeness that frightens you.

(She frightens you.)

(Not because you're afraid, per se. It's more because she's led to some unfortunate realizations in these last few weeks that have become…a touch startling to you.)

But you look down at her, down at her sleeping face, her mussed hair, her hands folded close to her chest. You look down at her, and you smile. Immediately you fight that smile to the best of your abilities, even though there's no one to see.

Somehow, this girl has wormed her way past your guard. She's inched her way inside and has made a nest for herself in your ribcage. Lately, every time you're together, you feel her weight; you feel the way she sits like a stone in your chest.

This heaviness had started with her apology.

Most people don't apologize to you, those who do usually apologize out of fear. There are very few who apologize because they realize their actions hurt you and want to amend things.

And she was one of those people. She called you a monster, you didn't like it, she learned that, and she apologized.

An inch taken.

And then she had made you laugh in a way that hadn't been heard by anyone, not even your girls, in…a very long time. A stupid joke involving your name that was so dumb that you had to laugh.

Another inch taken.

And she had offered to learn Romanian for the sole reason that the absence of the language made you sad. She hadn't taken to it well, but she had tried her best. Her best had charmed you.

Yet another inch taken.

And she had washed you, combed your hair, done things for you for the sole reason that she felt like it and thought you would appreciate it.

It had been then that you had realized what she was doing. Before, she might've been doing it unconsciously, but in that moment you realized…the poor girl had gone and fallen in love with you.

And in that moment, you had realized…you had started falling for her as well.

An inch reclaimed. You had left after that, spooked by that realization.

And then you had given an inch freely by pampering her today. And maybe it was more than an inch, maybe it was several--an inch with each thing you did for her until she was curled up inside your ribs with a comfort and ease that came from thinking she belonged there.

Your love had never come easy. Your girls, your darlings, your trio of sparkling stars--they had earned your love by the fact that they were strong and resilient and cunning. You loved your girls with all your heart, but that love had been won--not given. It's feeling now that your love had been snuck away from you and put on like a piece of jewelry, and you had only realized it had been taken when you saw it on someone else.

She wore it well. She wore it like a second skin, like something she had been wearing for all her life. She wore it with effortless grace; she didn’t flaunt it--indeed, she may not have even realized she had it to begin with.

With each little action--knowing or not--it had been that much easier for her to settle in your chest.

Perhaps, you find yourself thinking, perhaps she hadn't inched her way in at all. Perhaps today you had gotten tired of the game, and perhaps you had pried your ribs open and she had settled amongst your guts and your innards as an invited guest.

You had let her get close. You had indulged her, cared for her, allowed her inside.

You were the only one to blame for the stone in your chest.

Maybe there's two, you find yourself thinking. Her, and this hard heart of mine.

Sentimentality didn't let you rid yourself of them. The two of them stayed, forever sitting in your chest, forever acting like yet another weight on you.

It felt like your stone heart was finally starting to crumble, and that she was waiting to take your raw beating heart in her hands. It was a sign from the crumbling of your stony exterior that your next thought was a hope that she would treat it gently.

You didn't think that she wouldn't. But there were parts of you she hadn't seen, parts that might frighten her. How would she react when she learned that it was things like you that went bump in the night? You were a figure of legend and fable that most should fear…and yet she didn't.

She had chosen to curl up inside your chest, and she was becoming more like you than she probably thought.

You had seen how she had taken to treating the maids as time had gone on. Never with outright cruelty, just with a casual indifference that had grown colder.

Perhaps she would fit in just fine, then. Your daughters hadn't liked her to start, but you were sure that if you made an effort to introduce them in a setting where they had to behave, they would get along fine. Your girls were clingy, and you knew that the reason they didn't like her was because she took your attention from them. If you put the four of them in an environment where the attention was equal--or perhaps absent but monitored--perhaps then they would see their similarities.

Your attention is brought down to her as she presses close to you, desiring your company even in her sleep. She looks peaceful while she rests like this.

So it's decided. She'll stay curled in your ribs among your innards for as long as she wants.

You let your eyes slip closed, and you relax.

She snores softly in your arms.

You can't move without waking her.

You'll be here all night.