"She doesn't hate you.  You know?"

The words barely reached my ears then fell away.

Away.

Away.

How could she not?

My index finger circles the glass of whiskey in front of me and I breathe out.  I breathe out and suck in the stale bar room air that's been circulating in my lungs for far too long.  It's a sound of questioning, panic, understanding but most of all resignation.

"How the hell do you know?"  There's a quiver in my voice that wasn't ever allowed to be there before.  It's the sweet liquor weighing down my vocal cords like an anchor and I feel like I'm drowning in it all.

It seems as though she's gauging my question and trying to decide if she should answer or not.  I can feel the struggle going on in her brain without even giving a glance in her direction. 

"Ash.  Don't do this."  I whisper.  "Don't let me not be allowed to feel it, all of it, and know what I've done, what I've lost thus far."

"God, Laurel, do you hear yourself?  Do you have any idea what you sound like?  You just need to give her time.  You'll be friends again, you'll..."

"No."

I guess I said that a bit too loud because I notice that the noise in the bar drops off a few decibels.  There's a strain in my voice, a desperation and need that I don't think I can explain.  It's like I need to know how much she hates me.  I need to feel it coursing through my veins and pumping into my heart because I know, I know I deserve it all and so much more.

"It'll never be the same.  It all fades away until there's nothing left."  I rest my head on my arm and sigh again.

"Goddamn melodramatic writers."  Ash wryly comments and sits down on the stool next to me.

I raise my head up just enough so I can look at her with one eye.  I try to convey all the self-loathing and disgust and contempt I have for myself through that one eye, but I think the meaning is lost on her.

"Fucking psych majors." I mutter to myself.  "Think they've discovered the key to the human mind when they decide to do their dissertation on Oedipus' guilt about wanting to have sex with his mother."  She looks at me shocked and I know I have her attention.  "Tell me psych major, have you hit the chapter with pavlovian responses yet?  Or how about Jung's theories on sexuality?"

"Fuck you, Laurel!  Jesus, don't you know how to not bite the hand that feeds you? I'm trying to help here."

I grin bitterly.  "Bite the hand that feeds me?  I guess you have hit the chapter on Pavlov.  Tell me, Ash, what are you gonna use to condition me not to do that anymore?  A little bell?  Or perhaps a buzzer or a whistle?"  I slug back the rest of my whiskey and motion to the bartender to hit me with another.  He tops me off and I notice she's still there.  Still staring at me with shock set in her eyes.

"What?"  I bite out.  "You're still here?"

"Yes, Lau I'm not going anywhere.  When have I ever?"  She smirks.  "No matter how insulting or drunk or philosophical you get I'm still here.  When are you gonna learn to accept that?"

I shake my head.  "You're either a glutton for punishment or using me as a case study.  I'm not entirely preferential to the outcome of either."  I finish off my whiskey and motion for another.  "Go home, Ash.  Go home and leave me to drown."

She studies me for a moment and I look away.  I can't let her see me like this one more time over her.  I just can't.  I'm the one that's a glutton for punishment, not her.  It's as if I ask for this.  Ask for my heart to be ripped out of my chest and my soul to be yanked haphazardly from the vessel that holds it.  "Don't, Ash.  Just Don't."

"What?"  She holds her hands up in resignation.  "I didn't say anything."

"Yeah but you were about to."  I slug back my last whiskey and grab for my worn brushed-leather jacket.  "Besides, I'm about to go throw my life away and I'd ask you to come join me but you've been there yourself before and you know what a pretty picture it doesn't make.  I have to call her, I have to…" Before she's able to answer I slip out the door into the night.

Ash shakes her head.  "I hate it when she does that.  Drunk as a skunk and still can give me the slip."  With a heavy sigh she walks out the door and looks up and down the street knowing full well that it's already too late.

I reach the door and pull out my keys.  I know she's there without even thinking about it twice.  I know she's not fifteen feet away, waiting.  The lights are off and there's a small fire growling in the hearth.  She has her back to me and the minute I walk in I can tell she went ridged as the door opened and light from the hall invaded her shield of darkness.  "You're here."  It's more of a statement to myself than to her.  I feel the need to reassure myself she really is there and it's not just my imagination.

"Yeah."  She responds with barely a whisper.  I can tell she's been crying.

She gets up and slowly makes her way over to me.  I put my hand up when she's barely five feet away.  "Don't."  I shake my head.  "Just don't.  Please."

"Laurel, I…" She loses her thought.  It's as if it crept right back inside her head, nice and cozy where it belonged.  Where it knew it wouldn't be given validation.  It wasn't quite ready and neither was she.  "Are you okay?"

"Fine."  I grit my teeth and it comes out a little too harsh. I shrug and clear my throat trying to reel my emotions in,  "I'm a little drunk, but fine.  You?"  I cock my head to one side and my eyes meet hers for the first time.  Funny.  It wasn't supposed to be like this.  It wasn't supposed to be at all, but who am I to question anything at this point?  It was supposed to be good and she was supposed to be smiling when she greeted me in my little world, not frowning with worry lining her brow.  None of this was supposed to happen.  Not this way.

She steps forward and I step back.  "Laurel, can we not?"  She pleads with me with her words and her eyes.  "Can we not have this be so…melodramatic?  Cause frankly I'm sick of it.  I'm sick of all the drama."

Damn it.  I could get lost in those eyes forever if given half the chance.  I could swim in those bright blue pools of everything I gave my heart to.  "No.  I think we really can."  I bite out.  "What did you expect, Li?  A warm hug?  A kiss maybe?  What the hell are you doing here anyway?  And how did you get in?"

"Key under the mat."  She whispers, deflated from my interrogation.  "You told me about it once.  Remember?"

{"I put a key under the mat a few days ago.  I really didn't give it much thought, you know?  It was like – like it was the most logical thing in the world to do."  I can practically see her smile through the phone.

"How do you figure?"

"Well, you've managed to get inside my head, and my heart.  Why not give you full access to my place too?"  I shrug as if she could see the gesture across the miles.

She laughs.  "I see.  So what?  You think that I'll just show up on your doorstep one day without checking if you're there first?  Like that would be the most logical thing in the world to do?"

I laugh.  "Yeah, something like that."}

I smile bitterly.  "Yeah, I remember, Li – I remember."

She sighs heavily.  "Laurel, I've always been right here.  Always.  You were the one that shut me out.  You're the one that stopped calling, writing, communicating.  What the hell happened to you?"

I laugh bitterly.  "You're kidding right?"

She looks me squarely in the eyes, "Not really, no."

I run my hand through my hair for lack of something better to do, or even anything to say.  The seconds tick away and a full minute passes.  We're still standing there in that awkward silence of giving up or giving in.  Neither of us is sure which way we'll lean.

"Laurel."  She's pleading with those eyes again: those beautiful liquid blue eyes.  "Don't shut me out."

I close my eyes and sigh.  Almost imperceptibly, I whisper.  "No.  You're the one that shut me out.  You're the one that moved on while I was still here, waiting for you."

"Jesse?"  The name rolls off her tongue and falls from her lips and I can't help but cringe.  "This is about Jesse, isn't it?"

"Hasn't it always been?"  Is my answer to her question.  "I was there first.  I was there when things were shit and your parents were the self righteous pompous asses they've always aspired to being.  I was the one you called and cried to and begged to make it better.  In some ways, I'd like to think I did make it better but in the end it's always been about Jesse."

Quickly, indignation flashes in her eyes and the rage comes.  "All about Jesse?  You were there first?  God, Laurel, what fucking grade are you living in anyway?  You put her there!  You said it was a good idea!"

"You think I wanted this?"  I scream and she cringes.  "That I wanted to think about you meeting other people and maybe falling in love with someone else that's not me?  I didn't!  I said it for you, for your sanity and loneliness and company and well-being.  I said it because it was the only way I could figure out how to make you happy without actually packing up my fucking life and going there to live it with you!"  I storm towards the fireplace.  On the mantle in a box I picked up on one of my trips to the country, is the spare pack of cigarettes I always keep for emergencies.  This seems as good a time as any to light one up.  Plus, she hates it when I smoke.

"Laurel, please."  She's begging now and she knows if the tears come I'll never be able to resist them falling – just like she did for me.

"No.  There is no 'please Laurel' this time."  I respond in defeat.

"Laurel."  She gulps out in the moment before the tears come.  "I'm losing you."

"You could never lose me, Li."  I whisper low enough so she can still hear me.  I turn and finally look at her.  She looks tired.  Tired and meek and so small in the grandiose scheme of my living space.  Everything is hardwood and squared off and everything belongs somewhere.  My books are lining the shelves in alphabetical order, my magazines are stacked nicely on the oak coffee table it took me three weeks to build.  And then there's her.  "I'm always in your heart, if not your life."  She's meek and small and too soft in the hard-boxed order of my world.

She approaches me slowly as if I'm going to bolt out the door like a scared bunny any moment or quite possibly disappear in a puff of smoke before her very eyes.  "How long has it been?"

I smile sadly.  "A year.  One very long and lonely year."

She's a breath away now, again.  So close, that if my eye twitched she'd catch the breeze from it.  "A year isn't so long, Lau."  She cups my face with those small hands of hers; Small delicate hands that I've dreamed about for what feels like my entire life.  "It's only,"

"Once around the sun, I know."  I smile and inhale sharply.  "I was ready to lose you, you know.  Just…not so much of you all at once."  I feel the gooseflesh rise all over my body.  She's so close.  Thisclose after all this time.

"I adore you, Lau."  The tears are falling freely now.  More free than I've ever known her to allow them to be.  "I adore you and I love you and isn't that still enough?" 

I reach up and wipe away the glistening trails they leave knowing I'm just making room for more.  It's futile.  "Always."  I respond firmly then soften a bit.  "I couldn't stay, Li.  You know I couldn't stay.  What we had-"

"Have." She corrects me.

"Yes, have.  What we have it's the most beautiful thing that's ever happened to me.  That's why I left.  Not because I wanted to, but because I didn't.  Do you get that at all?"  She casts her eyes downward and I know what she's thinking.  She's thinking that I left and she let me.  "Don't.  Don't do that to yourself."
            She furrows her brow.  "What?"

I smile despite myself.  "Play the blame game.  You know there's no one to blame for this.  Things turned out the way they turned out and there's not a damn thing we could have done about it."

"I could have not given up.  I could have stopped you from walking away but I was too weak.  God Laurel, I can't believe I was weak enough to stand there and just let you go."

I shake my head and hold her hands in front of me.  "No.  Don't you see?  You were strong enough to stand there and let me go.  Weakness has nothing to do with it.  Even though that logical head of yours told you it was the right thing to do, your soul knew I was never that far away.  And your heart, well, your heart knew it was for the best."

She sighs heavily.  "You said something to me once and I'll never forget it.  You said that a part of you not walking away and giving up and giving in, is me not letting you.  Can you forgive me, Laurel?  Can you forgive me for forgetting to not let you go?"

"I never gave up on you.  I never gave up and I never gave in but," I sigh and curse myself.  The tears are coming and I can't stop them.  I never could when it came to her.  "I did let you go a little.  Just enough so you could be free but still stay in here."  I put her hand over my heart.  I know it's there, still taping out a rhythm.  I can hear the beats faintly over the breaking.

"Tell me what to do."  She whispers as she leans her forehead against mine.  "You always know the right thing to do."
            Without a word, I lead her to the front of the couch.  I toss the big pillows onto the floor and gently guide her down in front of the fireplace with me.  She sits in front of me an I wrap my arms around her much in the same way I did so long ago.  For what seems like hours, we sit there lost in the flames.  "How long?"  I whisper into her hair.

"A week."  She responds just as quietly.

I gasp inwardly, or maybe not so much because she turns around and looks at me with that trademark quizzical smirk.  "What?"

She touches my face and I can't help but close my eyes.  "Did you really think I'd come all the way here an not stay?"

I dip my head down suddenly embarrassed.  "I half expected you to not come at all."

"And the other half?"  She urges.

"Dreamt of holding you like this.  Like I did such a long time ago."  I look at her now and nothing prepares me for how her eyes reach into my soul and clench it desperately.  "God, Li.  You're so beautiful."

She presses her forehead to mine again and sighs.  "Know what brought me here?"  I shake my head and she continues.  "I remembered my wall."

I look at her confused and she smiles.  She smiles that smile and I wonder exactly how many times a person can be damned to live in a smile like that.

"In my old room when we'd talk, I'd roll over an face my wall.  I'd close my eyes and hear your voice and it was like you were right there with me."

"I remember that."  I smile.  Finally I look at her and she's crying again.  "What?"

"It hurt so much back then.  All I wanted was for you to take it away."  She wipes the tears away and sighs.

"I'm sorry I failed you."  I say in resignation.

"God, Laurel.  Don't you get it?  You didn't fail me.  You did take it all away.  You took away the pain and confusion and fear."  She turns fully around now, kneeling in front of me.  Cupping my face in her hands she gently coaxes me to look at her.  "Even if it was only for that little while.  Just hearing your voice and knowing you were there took it all away."

"I knew, Li.  I knew it wasn't gonna work back then.  I knew we wouldn't last.  Can you forgive me?"  I manage to choke out.

"Forgive you?"  She shakes her head and smiles.  "I knew it too.  I knew even before I admitted how I felt.  But it didn't stop me.  It didn't make me pause or second guess my love for you.  You said it yourself.  Anything you were willing to give me was enough because the truth is that it could have been nothing at all."

I sigh heavily.  How does she always know exactly what to say?  There's a small change in my face.  A fraction of an inch for half a fraction of a second.  Anyone else wouldn't notice it, but. . .

"No."

"What?" I arch my eyebrows as if I have no idea what she's talking about.

"The answer is no.  I don't regret one second of anything.  Of us."  She pulls back slightly and smiles, running her hand along my cheek gently she whispers, "You have my soul."

That's all I needed to hear.  I pull her close and wrap my arms around her.  Burying my face in the nape of her neck, I inhale deeply.  It's her alright.  There's a scent to her that's unique and inexplicable and since the day I left her such a long time ago I've never smelled anything like it since.  Mostly out of disbelief that she's really here, and fear that I'm going to wake up any moment with my face buried in my pillow, I squeeze her a little bit tighter and allow myself to feel again.

"One favor.  That's all I ask."  She whispers in my ear.

I inhale again, reveling in the fact that she's in my arms.  Whispering back, "Anything." I kiss that special place beneath her earlobe.

Her breathe hitches slightly from my boldness and she whispers back, "Don't let go."

"Even after everything that's happened, with all the people we've been with and loved and lost and been hurt by, there's one thing you can always count on.  Me loving you.  That will never change.  In what ever capacity you're willing to give yourself to me, that's how I'll take you.  I need you like I need to breathe."  I look in her eyes again and a strangeness creeps across her face.  It's something I never thought I'd see again.  She believes me.

"I adore you."  She whispers and settles into my arms again.  She's a perfect fit.

"I love you too."  I smile and close my eyes.