"How can you do this to me?"
Unwittingly tightening his grip on the handle of his coffee mug, Brandon Reilly winced and held his breath. This conversation wasn't meant for his ears, he knew but flattened himself against the wall adjacent to the bathroom door anyway.
"I can't go back to the way things were," Kathryn continued, her voice muffled as it drifted out into the hallway. "I can't pretend that what we had was nothing, that I don't have all of these feelings for you. You're an important part of my life, Justin—you always have been—and I don't want to lose you. I just don't understand how you can walk away from this so easily."
Brandon swallowed hard. She had been crying. Her words were strained and punctuated, affecting him more strongly than he would have liked. Heavy with guilt, his heart sank. Had he just entertained hope, slight and fleeting as it was? He couldn't be sure, but he was certain that he didn't need to hear this. This wasn't any of his business. He shouldn't have even been there. He had a hearing in the morning. Why wasn't he at home preparing for it, going over his arguments one last time, getting some much-needed sleep? Why was he at this party instead, with all of these people he neither really knew nor liked, standing outside of his best friend's bathroom and wishing he were anywhere else in the world?
He knew why. Of course he knew why. Everyone who'd ever crossed paths with him knew why. Everyone except Kathryn, that was.
Justin's reply was curt. "What happened between us was a mistake, Kat. You know that as well as I do."
Brandon heard her choke and knew it was an attempt to hold back another onslaught of tears. He didn't need to imagine how deeply Justin's words had wounded her. He knew, knew the sinking feeling that was taking hold of her, the fear, the indignation, the desolation—the complete and utter desolation that dulled his normally bright eyes whenever he looked at her, whenever he was near her, whenever he thought of her.
"I'm sorry you feel that way," she whispered. "I really am."
Justin sighed, slow and deliberate as though annoyed, as though she had become nothing more than an insignificant pest to him. "I never meant to hurt you, you know? I never meant for any of this to happen. We're—you and I—we've always been friends, right? It's not too late—"
"Stop." She sniffled, swallowing audibly, gathering her strength. "Please."
Brandon tipped his head back and cringed as it connected with the wall, loudly enough that anybody standing on the other side of it would be able to hear. He inhaled sharply and loosened his grip on the coffee mug, nearly dropping it to the floor.
In the bathroom, silence fell, and Brandon's body grew inconceivably still. A chill ran up his spine, raising the hairs on his arms and legs. He'd been caught. Justin would peek outside, spot him standing there, eavesdropping, and everything would suddenly become even more complicated than it already was. Justin would know. He would know and disapprove and that would be the end of their friendship; twenty-two years of trust and loyalty down the drain. Just like that.
Cautiously releasing the breath he'd been inadvertently holding in, he turned and faced the bathroom door—and knocked loudly. "Whoever's in there, open up! I really gotta go!"
The silence continued for several more seconds. Then, he heard the handle turn. "Damn it, Brandon!" Justin whispered sharply, poking his blond head into the hall but barely cracking the door open. "Could ya hold on a minute? I'm in the middle of something."
Brandon tried to glance past him, to see what kind of state Kathryn was in, but the only thing he could discern, besides Justin's flustered face, was the glaring light above the medicine cabinet behind him. "Well, hurry it up," he mumbled, then turned and hurried back to the living room, where somebody had finally hooked up the sound system and an incoherent song was reverberating off of the walls of Justin's ritzy loft. He'd been there when his friend had signed the lease forms, had examined the rooms and deemed them inhabitable, if not nice, and had looked forward to watching the game on Justin's new flat screen television—a treat to himself for winning his first real case as a prosecutor. But now everything looked trashed. The T.V., sitting in the middle of the room, was on and several of his acquaintances were gathered around it, cheering loudly and swearing all at once. Beer cans and paper cups were strewn across the carpeted floor and two obviously drunk men he'd never seen before were attempting to remove one of the Van Gogh reprints from the wall. He grimaced, wondering how stupid they must have been to think that the painting was even worth the price of its frame, as he moved farther into the room.
Climbing over the rearranged furniture to get to the front door, he deposited his coffee mug on an end table nearby and rummaged through the hall closet for his jacket. It was almost eleven o'clock. If he left now, he'd be home in half an hour and in bed before twelve and awake by seven, with an hour to spare before the trial began. He found his jacket hiding behind an old and dirty pea coat and nearly gagged as the smell of tobacco invaded his nostrils. Batting at the jacket as though hitting it would rid it of its disgusting stink, he turned and returned to the living room, kicking the door to the hall closet shut.
He tossed on his jacket just in time to see a woman in a flowing skirt disappear out of the front door, the lingering scent of her perfume even more overwhelming than the smell of tobacco clinging to his coat—at least to him.
He suddenly glanced about the room in search of Justin, and before long, found him sitting on the bottom of the winding staircase that led to the gallery overlooking the first floor of the loft, talking with a curly-haired woman and laughing as he took a swig from a bottle of beer, laughing as though he and his girlfriend—ex-girlfriend—had not just permanently ended their relationship—and possibly their friendship, a friendship that had begun in college, blossomed after graduation, and withered before either's thirtieth birthday.
Shaking his head, Brandon turned and opened the door.
It was raining outside—fat, icy droplets that smacked loudly against the pavement. Brandon stood inside the lobby and peered out into the dimly lit parking lot through the glass doors, fishing through his pockets for his keys and searching for any sign of Kathryn. She must've been long gone by now, he quietly reasoned to himself, but couldn't help looking anyway.
Pushing open the door, he stepped outside and immediately shuddered as the wind whipping the cold rain about slapped his face. The sky had been clear when he'd turned onto Justin's street earlier that evening and as all of the good parking spots had been taken, he'd been forced to leave his car in the space farthest from the front entrance.
"Goddamn it," he mumbled as he raced across the empty parking lot, his shoes hitting puddles and getting soaked through. If he got sick and couldn't make it to the courthouse in the morning, his neck would be on the line. There was no way the judge would grant him another continuance.
He was halfway to his car, irritated with both himself and his best friend, when, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted her. She was leaning against the lamppost in front of the parking lot entrance and although an umbrella was in her hand, he could tell by her quivering shoulders that she was completely drenched. He watched her for a moment, her back to him, her petite figure outlined by shadows, and his breath caught in his throat. But only briefly. He at length found the voice to shout her name.
His feet were already carrying him nearer to her when she swung around to face him, her long, black hair matted to her damp skin and her dark eyes widened in surprise. In the poor lighting, Brandon was unable to tell whether she was crying or not, although her cheeks appeared wet, the rain just as likely as Justin to be the culprit.
"Brandon?" she said quietly and took a quick step forward to close the gap between them, holding her umbrella higher up to accommodate him. "What are you doing here? Did you just come from—" He heard her shaky intake of air and was suddenly struck with the notion that she now found it difficult to say his best friend's name. "Did you just come from the party?"
He nodded and quickly posed a question of his own, "Why are you standing out here?" He'd moved closer to her as he'd spoken, and could now feel her trembling. "Where's your car?"
"At the inspector's," she wheezed and took her quivering lip into her mouth, her eyes alighting on anything and everything but his face. "I—I'm waiting for Zoë. She said she'd pick me up, but—but I guess she's still at the office." She draped one arm across her chest and turned her attention to the puddle pooling at her feet.
"Why aren't you waiting in the lobby?" he asked, putting a hand on her upper arm. He felt her stiffen at his touch, then relax as her eyes finally found their way to his face. She was crying—she had been crying; he had not a doubt of it now. His throat constricted and he wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms and kiss her cold lips.
She stared at him, her gaze piercing and her voice tiny as she said suddenly, "You heard everything, didn't you? You were standing outside of the bathroom. I saw you—your reflection in the mirror."
Brandon released a shuddery breath. He couldn't lie to her, not when she was looking at him with so much pain in her expression. "I—I didn't mean to."
She began sobbing then, loud cries that accompanied the tears that were already streaming down her face, and before he even knew what was happening, she'd wrapped her arms about his torso and pressed her cheek to his chest, the umbrella that'd been in her hand rolling around on the pavement, slightly upturned and gathering pools of rain. "I'm so stupid," she murmured against the lapel of his jacket. "God, I'm so fucking stupid."
Brandon swallowed loudly—difficultly. "No, you're not," he whispered, unsure of what else to say or if she was even listening. He placed one hand on her back and the other on her hair, pulling her closer to him. "He's the stupid one," he added, the words barely audible above the gusting wind, and rested his chin atop her head, nestling her soaked hair.
He didn't know how long they stayed like that, the significant difference in their heights making it awkward to stand, entwined, but after what seemed like an eternity—in which pain and confusion ripped through him like a knife, reopening wounds that were in the process of healing and creating new ones that he was sure would never heal, at least not while her heart belonged to another—he lifted her chin and said, "Why don't you let me take you home, okay?"
Without speaking, she followed him to his car and mechanically climbed into the passenger seat. He shut the door behind her and stood for a second with his forearm resting atop the roof of the vehicle, his eyes closed and his fingers buried in his slick hair. Damn it, why do I always do this to myself? Why couldn't he free himself of her? Why did he insist on being the shoulder she cried on?
"'Cause you're a fucking idiot, that's why," he thought aloud, thankful that she was safe inside the car and out of earshot.
When he finally slid into the driver seat, she had taken off her coat and was leaning against the misty window, her eyes trained on an unknown point in the distance, perhaps a raindrop clinging to the glass. He removed his own jacket and tossed it into the back, daring a glimpse of her face as he started the engine.
How vulnerable she looked, with her tear-stained cheeks and puffy eyes, so unlike the confident and spirited woman she'd been when Justin had first introduced them to each other, and yet, so much the specter of his dreams and thoughts.
Suddenly fearful that she would tilt her head at any moment and catch him staring, he quickly returned his attention to the windshield wipers, and secretly studied her out of the corner of his eye as he tried to recall to himself the precise moment he'd fallen in love with her, knowing, all the while, that he could never exactly pinpoint it. It had merely happened, quite unexpectedly, quite swiftly, and that was the best explanation he could give. It had merely happened, and now that her world was crumbling, he had only a future full of uncertainty to look forward to.
"Your trial starts at eight, doesn't it?" she murmured as he pulled out of the parking lot.
"You should be in bed." Hugging herself, she shut her eyes and pressed her cheek to the headrest, reveling in the warm air that was streaming from the heater, her voice distant as she asked, "It's my fault you're not, isn't it?"
When he didn't answer, she yawned and whispered, "I'm sorry."
"Yeah—I know," he said to no one in particular; "I'm sorry, too."
Kathryn had fallen asleep.