For the rest of the day, Ryan's brother was on River's mind. She just couldn't stop thinking about him. Even during Chemistry, which she found an interesting and diverting subject, he lingered at the corner of her mind like a cobweb supernaturally clinging to walls.
When Tom drove her home from school, she couldn't stand the bizarreness of it all anymore.
"Tom, is there anyone you can never stop thinking about, no matter how hard you try?"
Tom looked amused.
"There's one person like that. But you probably know who that is."
"John?" she guessed.
River's brow wrinkled in confusion.
"But you and John are going out. Why should I think about a person non-stop?"
Tom's smile faded. River didn't understand why.
"Who is it?" he asked quietly.
"Oh, he's someone's brother. I went out to town today - you know, because it's a sixth form privilege - and he works in a new store called ‘Rock it'. His name's Ni-Dominic."
"Well," Tom said softly, "you generally can't stop thinking about someone if you like them a lot. Or if they made a big impression on you. It's usually a sign you fancy them."
"No way," River whispered, shocked. "I fancy someone?!"
"It sounds like it," he said cautiously. "Listen, River, if you start meeting up with this guy, you'll tell me, right? Don't sneak off with strangers, especially not guys. The world's a dangerous place."
"Oh, I know that," she replied, blushing a little. As if she would be that reckless! It was as if her brother thought she was a child, sometimes. In fact, it was like everyone thought she was a child. She wondered why they thought that.
Tom nodded. "That's good.
"And ... River," he said hesitantly.
"You know you can tell a guy ‘no', right? If they ever upset you, or hurt you, or make you feel uncomfortable."
"Of course I know that!" she exclaimed.
Tom sighed slightly.
"Just remember. I care about you, all right?"
"Thanks, Tom," she murmured. "I'm lucky to have a brother like you."
After dinner, Tom was sitting on the sofa with John. John was in one of his favourite positions: lying with his head on Tom's lap. His eyes were closed, he was smiling, and his whole body radiated contentment as Tom absently stroked his hair, staring out into space, thinking.
"I think River's found a guy she likes," he murmured, to no one in particular.
"Hm, really?" John asked. Tom knew that he wasn't really bothered by such a thing but that he was willing to listen if his boyfriend wanted to talk.
"Yeah," Tom replied. "She was talking about not being able to stop thinking about someone in the car."
John chuckled. "She told you."
"Sh," Tom said. "She's open like that - you know."
"I do know, but still, that must have been pretty funny."
"Yeah, okay," Tom admitted.
"Did she say who?"
"It was a guy from a new store in town. ‘Rock It'. His name's Dominic. I might go and check him out."
John chuckled. "Tom on the case."
Tom smiled. "Yes."
John grinned. "Well, hopefully, he's an okay guy. Then there'll be someone else to take care of her while you spend more time with me."
"Cheeky," Tom laughed.
"Yup, that's me."
Tom frowned. "I wonder how old he is. If he has a store."
"Oh, I'm sure your sister wouldn't be attracted to anyone older than 21," John said. "It wouldn't be like her."
"21?" Tom asked, even more worried now. "That's too old."
"Relax. If he is 21, he won't go for her. You know she's like a child."
"Hmm, I guess," Tom replied.
He lapsed into silence. John didn't say anything either.
A few minutes later, Tom broke the silence.
"John, I'm worried. River's the kind of girl who could get hurt easily."
John opened his eyes and sat up. He put his arm on Tom's shoulder and gazed into his eyes. Tom sighed slightly as those blue depths met his: they always made him feel calm.
"You'll do everything to protect her. You're that type of person. Everything's going to be okay, Tom. Don't stress out so much."
"Can I have some help with that?" Tom murmured, making himself look a bit like a puppy by widening his eyes.
John smiled and leant in to kiss him.
Tom wrapped his arms around John and kissed back. Yes, he would protect River. He'd been protecting her, since he'd been old enough to know what protecting was. That wouldn't change when she got a boyfriend. He'd always be there for her.