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"I don't know why you put up with me," Spencer huffs, crossing her arms around her chest to fend off the cold.

Gods. They must have had this conversation at least a hundred times, and she still hasn't gotten her answers in the run of all of them. Well, at least not ones she was happy with and willing to accept.

"You amuse me." The reply is simple, blunt. It makes her turn instantly, disbelief spreading over her face as she glares at him in indignation. "It's the only reason I put up with anyone."

"What?" she snaps in annoyance. "Only because they amuse you? Not because you have any sort of actual affection for them?"

"Of course I do." It is his turn to sound indignant. "They're my friends."

"But—You just said—"

"You know what I meant." He nods to himself slowly, then adds, "Besides, I need them."

She blinks, not sure if she fully understands him. "You need them?"

"They amuse me; they're fun. I need them," he repeats, acting as though the explanation answered everything, instead of nothing.

Gods, he's annoying, she thinks mutinously, grimacing.

"Ri-ight." She sighs and shakes her head tiredly. "So, why do you need me?" She has a feeling that she'll regret asking in the long run, but the question needed to be asked at some point.

Better sooner than later, she figures.

He contemplates this for a minute, letting the silence settle over them uncomfortably for a while. Then slowly he answers, "You live in a rough situation." His voice is soft as he voices the words.

She notices how his voice had tapered off. It meant his monologue wasn't over. In allowance for him to keep going she tilts her head to the side expressing, "Go on, I'm waiting," with a look, because she cannot find her voice — it fades in a puff of hot breath that turns into an icy mist.

He sighs; it is a restless action which he follows by running a hand over his face and through his hair, mussing it more than it already is. "I've always had one friend in a tough spot. Always. It's my job to help them out of it."

"What!" The word is almost a scream.

Oh, oh! How did she know that she would regret asking? How. Did. She. Know.

"If that's the only reason—" she snaps, suddenly angry. "Then leave. I don't need your pity, and I don't want it." Venom seethes from her lips as she presses out the words.

"Spencer, I need to fix things for my friends. Make things right. It's my job," he rationalizes, putting his hands up before him guiltily.

"Oh?" She draws herself towards him, livid. "So now I'm broken, is that it?" She practically spits the words at him, anger constricting her voice, causing it to sound thready.

"That's not what I said." His voice is gentle.

To hell with him, she decides.

"If something needs to be fixed, it has to be broken," she quips, glaring at him. "I'm not broken. Find someone else to fill the damned role."

"Spencer." He sighs in quiet resignation. "That's not how I meant it, and you know it." His voice is smooth, calm; but she can sense his agitation bubbling to the surface.

"The hell I do," she denies, shaking her head. "I don't want your pity, Chase. If that's why you're here — go. I don't need it." Her voice is shaking now, and not just in cold, or out of anger.

Damn.

Silence falls between them again — not companionable or comfortable, but humming with tension — and the wind picks up. She shifts against the wind but makes no other move. Damned if she's going to let this go.

Damn him, and damn it all.

Gravel crunches as he moves towards her. She flinches as though she's been slapped. After a moment she can feel him standing solidly behind her, see his midnight's shadow towering over hers. She bristles nervously, digging her nails into her still-crossed arms more tightly, carving perfect half moons into her skin.

"Turn around." The words are a command, but his voice is soft. Not really a command so much as a request. She holds her ground, unmoved.

"Why?" Her tone is smooth, even calm. Good. She lets her hands fall to her sides then and sighs, a visible wave of tension rippling off of her as she relaxes.

"Just turn around, Spencer," he repeats. His tone is still less than commanding, she notes. But even his patience has a limit, and damned if she did not intend to push it.

"No." She shakes her head defiantly, voice steely.

There is another resounding crunch of gravel as he takes another step towards her, closing the distance between them in the space of a few heartbeats.

"You need to look at a person when you're apologizing," he says lightly, stopping just behind her.

She can feel him like a warm line of energy along her back; solid, comforting. But she remains turned away from him. Her voice is thick when she says, "There's nothing to apologize for, Chase."

"Spencer, look at me." It is the most demanding his voice has been all evening.

"No — Why?" She spins on her heel sending a wash of gravel spraying into the closed garage door they are standing alongside. Her voice in unsteady so she takes a moment to collect herself, calm her voice. Then she repeats, flatly, "You have nothing to apologize for, Chase. It doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does."

Before she can stop him, he circles his arms around her and draws her into his chest, swaying slowly back and forth on the balls of his feet and making her move with him despite her attempt to remain statuesque in his arms.

"I upset you, Spencer. I upset you, and that matters. You're hurt and that makes me sad. I'm sorry."

She shakes her head stubbornly. She does so not want to hear this.

"Bull crap," she mumbles dryly, squeezing her eyes shut. After a minute she pushes herself out of his embrace. It is a struggle to meet his eyes, but she manages. "Besides," she shrugs, "if you really think what you said upset me… you're more naïve than I thought."

The look in his eyes is so utterly wounded, so pained, that it hurts her very soul to look into them. As they are, they are bottomless; drowning deep pools of ocean water that can suck anyone into their bottomless depths. She can't stand it, turns her back, looks away.

"I don't think that, even you, Spencer, are that good an actor," he says gently, shoving his hands into the warm confines of his jean's pockets.

"Whatever." Her voice is as cold as she is. Numbly, she runs her hands over her arms to chase off the goose bumps that have marched over them.

He sighs then, an anguished sound. "Whatever, Spencer." He shakes his head in what could be resignation, and when he speaks, his voice is low. Hurt? "Whatever." Then he turns to go, taking his warm presence with him and sending a cold rush of air prickling along her neck.

The resounding tones of gravel crunching underfoot tell her that he's walking away. Leaving. And with the crunch of gravel something inside her breaks.

She wants to be strong; wants to let him walk away. But it hurts. Positively aches deep in her soul to see him go. She won't ever admit it to him, but it burns a hole straight through her heart.

She should let him go, but… But…

"Chase, wait!"

She just can't let him leave. Not like this.

"Chase, I'm sorry—"

"Whatever." The tone is indifferent, and he doesn't so much as turn to look back at her.

"No. Chase, look—" She rushes to him, making her voice come out breathily, and hesitantly she reaches for him. "I know, okay? I know."

His head is hung, eyes firmly downcast. A mess of auburn curls veil his face. He cannot, or will not, look at her. Can't bring himself to meet her eyes.

She steps around him tentatively, placing a hand lightly against his chest. She bites her lip; gnaws on it for a contemplative moment.

"Look," she starts thickly, still fishing through her vocabulary for the right words, "I appreciate it, I really do — But… I just…" She stops, her voice suddenly wavering with an emotion she isn't prepared to face him with. She shakes her head abruptly. "Nothing. Nevermind."

"What?" he prompts gently, raising his eyes to her. Noticing her reluctance to speak, he pulls her into the tight circle of his arms again, holding her firmly against his chest. A security blanket of sorts.

"I just…" She shakes her head, pressing herself against him for some quick reassurance.

She finds it in the calm, steady beating of his heart, the easy rhythm of his warm breath against her hair, the faint musk of wood smoke lingering on his clothes. Then he pulls out of his arms and turns. She doesn't step away, doesn't widen the distance between them. Just turns away to gather her thoughts.

"It's just that," she tries again. "You have no reason to deal with me. All I do is cause you problems, and make you mad." A dry laugh rolls off of her lips and she shrugs noncommittally.

He rests his chin on the top of her head, touching nothing more, nothing less. There is a smile in his voice when he speaks — she knows without having to look at him.

"Not true. You've only ever caused me one problem." There is a teasing lilt in his voice that makes her roll her eyes and smile.

"You know what I mean," she huffs good-naturedly. But just as suddenly as the teasing mood had set upon her it is replaced with one of utter seriousness. "But seriously, I always make you mad. If you… If you wanted to walk away, you'd have every right."

She feels his chin shift atop her head.

So, she'd made him uncomfortable, had she?

"You know, Chase, I've had a lot of people walk out of my life. You wouldn't be the first. You won't be the last." She tries to make the statement sound indifferent but can't entirely manage it.

He shakes his head, and his hair brushes her cheeks. "I won't walk out."

And empty laugh follows the statement, and it is a bitter, disbelieving sound.

"Ri-ight." She shakes her head. "Chase, you're almost twenty." She says the last as though it should explain everything — as though it should hold the very key to immortality.

He graces her with a puzzled, "So?"

"So?" she harrumphs in exasperation, expelling a low breath that causes his hair to dance around her face in silky chestnut waves."So," she repeats again. "Soon you'll be a full-fledged adult. And what will I be? A naïve seventeen-year-old high school student. A child. You'll want nothing to do with me."

"That's not true," he denies with a bob of his head. "And you know it."

"Bull crap," she fires back, almost too fast to be sincere.

Almost.

"Why don't you believe me?" He sounds at least a little hurt, but it is tinged with weariness.

"Oh, face it, Chase!" she practically explodes, her voice edging up an octave.

She crosses her arms around her protectively again, defensively. Though, despite the once again rising tensions between them, she makes no move to step farther away from him and widen the distance. He doesn't either. Which should serve to tell her something of the truth in his earlier words, but she is adamant. Damn it.

"What, Spencer?" he hedges, anger bubbling in his own voice. "What? Tell me."

"Chase, come on!" She is utterly exasperated. "Even if we are talking now — even if we are friends—" She chooses not to stop to dwell on the possibility that he did not think of her as one, "—This time next year, when I'm ready to graduate, we won't be talking anymore."

"Yes, we will," he assures her.

"No, we won't," she shoots back, not giving so much as an inch.

"What makes you say that?" he asks, sincere curiosity trickling into his voice. His hands move to rest on her shoulders; a feather-light touch.

"I don't' know," she snaps, sarcasm oozing from the words. "Except maybe — just maybe — the fact that it always happens to everyone. Friendships after high school never last." There is something like sadness in her voice and mentally, she cringes.

Why was she making so much of this? Did she regret? Hell.

At her latest insight he falls silent. In fact, if not for the silhouette of his shadow eclipsing her, and the warm pressure of his hands on her shoulders, she could have thought he had actually vanished.

Once the silence has gone on for a few more minutes she becomes worried. What has, up until a very short while ago, been a companionable silence, is now disquieting. She shifts on her feet and readjusts her arms. Just as she is about to ask about his muted status, he breaks the heavy silence:

"Why do you discount yourself so much?" he asks haltingly, as though his is not sure he should be asking; not sure he has the right to.

"What d'you mean?"

He shrugs and pulls away from her, leaving warms spots on her shoulders where his hands had been. Then he turns and walks across the driveway to lean against his truck. He hadn't said to, but she feels compelled to follow him. So she trails his steps and settles beside him.

"Well?" She pokes him in the side, eliciting a very non-masculine sound and a heavy, dirty look.

He softens his gaze quickly, and the look makes her squirm. "You try so, so hard to be unhappy. You're alone, and living in a crappy situation…"

She shakes her head, like she can't believe she's hearing him say this. "Why do you care?" She expects anger for her quip — probably deserved anger — but only a brief flare of it runs through him before he answers her.

His voice is smooth, not strained in an attempt to stave off rage, which she takes as a good sign. If anything, he sounds sad; pained, as he whispers a soul-felt:

"Spencer… You need someone who makes you happy — makes you feel deserved." Then he breaks off, sounding, for the first time that evening, awkward. "I want to see you smile. I want to see you happy…"

She smiles at this; not a full-fledged smile, but something that pulls the corner of her lip up just a bit. Just enough to acknowledge the sincerity in his words.

"Chase," she begins when he falls into an uncomfortable silence. There is pity in her voice and her eyes watch him clouded over in sadness. "Don't make offers you can't close on."

He blinks at her through his hair, the auburn mess of curls hiding most of his face from her view. "What d'you mean, Spencer?"

But there is no curious lilt to the statement. He isn't asking for an answer — not truly anyway, because he already knows the answer.

Because this is an age-old routine and neither can see a way to changing the inevitable. So they just go on, marionettes stuck in a constant, ever-recurring cycle, no end in sight, no stop to the spiral of pain.

Her voice is tinged in sadness, a sincere, palpable sadness as she gives him his non-answer: "Don't say such things — Don't. Because we both know that you aren't making an offer to be that person."

He sighs and his voice is hopeful. "What if — this time?"

She shakes her head and can feel the tears threatening, burning behind her closed eyelids. This isn't a new development either — just more rehearsed, rehashed, parroting.

But it doesn't make it any easier. Ever.

And it doesn't make the pain go away.

"There is no 'this time,' Chase." The words are less than a whisper. A mere breath of wind.

He nods, resigned, and turns from her. "I know…" And there, too, is regret in each syllable.

The crunch of gravel makes her open her eyes and find him in the darkness. More of the same. Just more of the same. And, he's walking away. And she's staring after him. Just more of the same…

And she says, "so do I."

And he replies without a glance back, "I'm sorry."

And she nods and lets the tears come, because he cannot see, will not look, and says, "I know."

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L. Kantenseter
3-18-08