Sarah. He couldn’t believe it was Sarah.

“Oh,” she said. “Um, hi. Uh …” She looked at her mom, eyebrows raised.

Nancy stood. “Hey, sweetie. This young man says he’s a friend of yours.”

Sarah stared at Michael, the confusion obvious on her face. “Okay. Do I know you from …” She stopped, and a curious expression came over her.

Does she know somehow? Michael wondered. There was a lot of explaining to do, but maybe this would go smoothly. He dreaded every second of it.

“Is he your friend?” Gerard asked, fingering the gun. “After all the ruckus of late, I’m not taking any chances.”

Sarah stayed quiet, and Michael rushed to fill the silence.

“It’s me, Sarah. It—it’s Michael,” he stammered. “I know it’s crazy that I just showed up like this, but I can explain everything. I had to see you. I was worried that if I tried to give you a heads-up it’d all fall apart on me before it could happen. Stupid, I know. But I’m here and I just need to talk to you. In … private?” He could barely ask—he knew her parents would never go for it.

Gerard confirmed his suspicion. “Anything you want to say to my daughter can be said to us.”

Sarah finally found her voice, rock-steady. “Mom, Dad, this will be easy. There’s no way anybody could fake being Michael. If this guy is telling the truth, I’ll know in three minutes, tops. But we really need to be alone.”

Michael almost blushed at that, though it was true. Everything they had to talk about would freak her parents out. And she was probably dying to know what had happened after she’d been virtually killed by the lava.

Gerard and Nancy exchanged looks, understandably wary. “I’m almost eighteen,” Sarah said. “If you can’t trust me by now, then you never will. If he’s my friend, I want to be alone to talk. If he’s not, what can he do in three minutes?” She gave him a once-over that seemed to say, Look at him; the kid couldn’t hurt a fly.

Gerard stood up and moved next to Michael, leaned toward him until it seemed certain he’d topple into Michael’s lap. He wore a musky cologne.

“Stand,” he commanded.

Michael did as he was told, and then, using his free hand, Gerard patted him down like a seasoned cop.

“Dad,” Sarah groaned.

Gerard finished up and took a step back. “All right, then. We’ll be in the kitchen. One peep from my daughter and I’ll be back in here faster than you can blink.” He sniffed, then took his wife by the hand. He stopped right before he left the room and looked back. He seemed to be stifling a smile when he added, “And … nice to meet you.”

Michael released a big breath. The man was softening.

Sarah quickly walked forward until she was only inches away from Michael.

“Okay,” she said. “Convince me.”

They sat on the couch, turned to face each other. Sarah pulled her legs up under her, one arm draped over her ankles as she solemnly stared at Michael. So many emotions bubbled inside him, but mostly he just felt an overwhelming sense of how surreal things had become. This girl was his best friend—one of two, anyway—and yet they’d just seen each other for the first time. And for him, the first time since becoming a human.

“I … It’s hard to know where to start,” he said.

“Wherever you need to,” she replied, green eyes blazing. “I need to know it’s you, Michael.”

He nodded. “Yeah, okay. Well, I was with you when you got killed on the Path. The lava. I wanted to die and come back to the Wake with you, but … you made me promise to finish. And I did. I guess.”

“Not good enough, moron. Kaine was watching everything we did. You could’ve been told what to say. Or seen it yourself.”

Michael sighed. He’d suddenly lost all patience for proving himself, because he had something much bigger to say that would nail her jaw to the floor in shock. But how did he get there?

“We met at Dan the Man Deli,” he began. “You and I love bleu chips, Bryson hates them. He says they smell like feet. On a troll. Lifeblood is your favorite game. You tried hard to match my Experience Points, but I was always a little ahead. Bryson didn’t care as much, as long as he was close. We have a fort programmed on the outskirts. No one knows about that. Only the three of us.”

A smile grew on Sarah’s face as he talked, but she didn’t show any sign of wanting to stop him. Maybe she enjoyed seeing him struggle a bit.

“One time we couldn’t find Bryson and we had a joint mission in Lifeblood. We searched all over. We finally found him at the Gorgon Nests making out with that alien chick. We never did find out if she was a Tangent or not.”

Sarah made a noise that might’ve been classified as a snicker.

Michael kept going, the memories pouring out of him in a rush. He didn’t have to dig deep; they were all there, close to the surface, most of them pleasant, fun to talk about. Hacking into places they shouldn’t have been. Being chased by VNS agents before such things had literally become life or death. Gaming stories, good and bad. Sharing it all made him feel warm inside—not just remembering all the good times they’d had, but knowing that the Mortality Doctrine process had truly transferred everything that made him … him.

“Okay, you can stop now,” Sarah said. “I believe you.”

Michael was in the middle of a story about a game called Deceit and Destruction, but he happily shut up midsentence. His face was warm, almost hot. She knew it was him; he’d stopped worrying about that almost from the get-go. But now he felt like a heavy chunk of steel had been placed on his heart. He had to tell her the truth: that the friend she knew as Michael was trapped inside a guy once named Jackson Porter.

The HoloProj continued on the wall, showing news story after news story. Michael had almost forgotten about it, the noise drowned out by his hammering thoughts. He stared at the images for a minute, needing the distraction, then looked at Sarah. She could tell something was wrong.

“Why do I get the feeling there’s something you’re holding back?” she asked. “And not just about what happened on the Path after I died.”

Michael sighed. It was now or never. It had to be now. “You’re right. I haven’t told you all of it by a long shot. I don’t even know if you’re going to believe it. I wish you could just read my mind.”