SKOW Prompt: All he asked for was one perfect day before the inevitable happened.

Choices
By Nara Merald
Warnings: Possible Triggers. Rape, Assault.

Choices

He shouldn't have chosen to get involved with her- he should have walked away. He should have turned his back on those gasping breaths, should have ignored the scraping sounds as she tried to crawl forward. But he had to make a choice, and he couldn't live with himself if he'd left her there.
He shouldn't have fallen in love with her, but that wasn't a choice.

He knew from the start he was asking for trouble- him a stranger and her a victim of some unspeakable act. He knew the words for what had happened to her, he just couldn't bring himself to say them out loud, to be that callous. She never spoke of it.

He wished it had been raining, wished there was a storm, because it should have been a night of rain, hail and frost. Instead it was a balmy summer night, cloying in its humidity. There was no sound to cover her sobs, the near-hysteric whimpering as she clawed her way forward. He saw her before she saw him- in an instant he took in the eyes so fogged up with tears she could barely see. He took in her torn clothes, her top intact but everything else in shreds.

In his dreams, he remembered the blood; her scraped knees, her fingernails that had broken as she clawed her attacker's face, the split lip that matched her black eye. In his dreams, like in real life, she cowers from him, stumbling back and exacerbating her injuries. In his dreams, he can never manage to calm her down and nothing he says can reassure her. He wakes breathing heavily, agonised.

He should have chosen to stop seeing her. He knew he confused her at first- her reactions torn between feelings of relief and safety to her rescuer, her fear and revulsion of him as a man. Her therapist told him if he could, he should keep seeing her and he made that choice. Hopefully, one day her relief would overcome her revulsion and she could begin to heal from the trauma.

He denied the counselling she offered him as well, chose to deny it and wished he hadn't but couldn't bring himself to accept. If he'd gotten there sooner… but he said nothing, trying to appear stable, encouraging and non-threatening. The first meetings were awkward- in the hospital cafeteria under the distant supervision of the therapist. Conversation was stilted and he had no idea of what to say.
In the end, with a nervous laugh, she talked about her dreams, but he noticed she used past tense. Perhaps she didn't have any aspirations anymore.

The first time she touched him, it was an unconscious reflex. A man came over to ask her a question, cheerfully insensitive, unable to read the signs of her apprehension. He bent forward and unconsciously, she moved away, backing into him. He was more surprised than she when she clung to him, unwilling to take her eyes from the new threatening male. Shaking himself a little, he defused the situation, gave some non-committal answer and made it clear that the other male could leave. That was the first time he really looked into her face, and the first time he realised she'd been looking for a while, sizing him up.
"I'm sorry," she said, embarrassed, and her pink lips were pinched with tension.
"It's okay," he replied, without any particular emotion, almost confused himself with what to feel. The lines furrowing her eyebrows relaxed slightly as she took in his bemusement, and she almost cracked a smile. Then her eyes followed the other man's departure, and the moment was lost. He went home, and shut his front door, and sat for an hour, trying not to detail the exact colour of her irises, the way her eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks when she closed her eyes. He felt sick as he recalled a thrill at her hands clenching his shirt. He had a shower, but it still didn't wash away the revulsion that he'd found her pretty even in her fear.

They continued meeting up, and the therapist was encouraging. She was making progress and they were making friends. The first time she laughed, she was telling him about her dog getting into her underwear drawer. He chuckled along, until she froze and it took him a moment to work out why. He changed the subject abruptly, to something far more innocent than ladies underwear, and eventually, she was able to participate in the conversation again. She told him about her friends, though he hadn't met them, he knew that the redhead was the meek one and the brunette had the temper to watch for. She told him about her promotion, and her fears that she wasn't up for the job, and he stiltedly replied that she would do well. She chuckled over his awkwardness and let him buy her a smoothie. She never drank alcohol after that night. He chose not to drink around her, and later, unconsciously, chose to stop drinking altogether.

The first time he stared at her for too long, she skittered away, getting up and telling him in a rushed voice about plans she'd forgotten and how late she was, garbling her words in an effort to find safe ground and escape. He didn't push her. When he remained the same for their next meetings, her caution relaxed and they regained a measure of the conversation they had before. But something had changed; she was still wary, but now she was aware of him. She had hair-trigger reactions, but she watched him too.

That night he made his choice- and he told the therapist he didn't want to see her again.

She rang him at work.
"I'm sorry, I'm fucked up I know…. I just… please don't… I want…" He couldn't stand to hear her beg. Accepting he was going to hell, he reassured her as he had done before, and they continued to meet. There was no easy friendship, but a sense of heightened awareness on both their parts. He watched her nervous movements and felt terrible, she watched him closely, afraid of him walking away. He could see the attraction and revulsion, the pushing and pulling sensations as she battled her discomfort and quickly reached her arms around him. He froze.
Her arms were tight- too tight- around his middle and he could feel the tension in her frame. He couldn't react, didn't dare move.
Suddenly, she released him and stepped back, plenty of space between them.
"I…" he couldn't find the words. He blinked, and she fidgeted, tension knotting her body.
"Thank you. I never said thank you… for everything…" She choked out.
"Uh…" he felt his throat start to close over. He wished more than anything that he was anywhere but there. He didn't want her thanks- he hadn't saved her, he wasn't the hero. He was someone who arrived too late. He wished he'd made different choices that night… wished with all of his heart. But he couldn't turn back time.

One night they went for a walk in the park, at her behest. He was nervous, recognising the growing influence she was in his life. He watched other women and thought of her, occasionally asked his female co-workers' advice when trying to work out the right thing to do or say. His two closest female co-workers thought it was both cute and terribly sad. They were hopeful that her story could have a happy ending, and loved the romance of the whole story.
Their shining eyes and positivity left a bitter taste in his mouth as he remembered the horrible whimpers and sound of skin dragging across asphalt.
He dragged his mind back to the present and waited for her to speak her mind. He wondered why they weren't in the customary coffee shop and she began to talk, haltingly, words that would stay with him for the rest of his life. "I was drunk that night, you know," She began, voice casual, fingers twisting her rings in her anxiety. She did that when she was nervous. A rising feeling of unease started in the pit of his stomach, but he remained silent, motionless.
"I can't get a conviction for the… for that… person who attacked me. I don't remember his face. If I knew who he was, I could have gotten a match, but the samples only last for 2 years and I think I've run out of time. I'll never catch him now," she finished on a whisper and he could practically hear her self-recriminations. He couldn't bring himself to say anything; didn't know what he could have said.
"I should never have let myself get so drunk… I should never have been… defenceless…" she shivered, and cautiously, slowly, he removed his jacket and movements clear, placed it on her shoulders. She gave him a sad little smile and slid minutely towards him, another unprecedented move.
"Is there…" He cleared his throat and tried again. "Is there any chance at all to catch him?" He dared to ask the burning question for the first time.
"I remember his ring. He had this… this horrible gold ring with a huge spider, ruby eyes. I've never seen a ring like that before. I'd recognise it again," she said lowly, and he understood. Not many people wore spider rings, that he'd seen anyway.
"It wasn't your fault," he chose to take the step, refused to dance around the issue for the first time. She jerked back, looked into his eyes searchingly.
"I shouldn't have been so drunk," She almost hissed out the words. Reaching his hand carefully towards her, he gently took her chin and turned her face towards him. She was breathing heavily, from nerves, fear or apprehension, he didn't know.
"It wasn't your fault," he repeated insistently, looking into her eyes as she absorbed his words. After a few moments, he let her go, and they moved to lighter topics.

The next time they met for coffee, their hands touched and their eyes met. He felt a fierce gladness in his chest when she didn't pull away. He moved his hand so as not to overwhelm her, but kept eye contact. Her eyes, so dark brown they were almost black, stared into his as if they were being far more intimate than enjoying coffee. He didn't even register his voice dropping lower, and he knew he should have left earlier than 1:00am when the coffee shop closed but he didn't. He didn't even care that he was tired the next day at work; that he'd slipped up and gotten a few odd looks. He'd made his choice and she was worth it.

He couldn't deny the giddy feeling when she asked to catch up with him outside of their normal sessions, that first time they went to the movie and she teasingly held her popcorn out of his reach. He was past the point of being careful- now he was considerate but it felt natural. They knew each other, they were friends… and he realised… she wanted to be more than friends too. She kissed his cheek at the end of the movie, the touch of her lips was over lightning fast and he hadn't even realised what was happening. Then she blushed and mumbled something and started walking quickly ahead of him, yelling at him to hurry up. A slow grin reached up his face and he almost skipped after her, taking her scolding in good humour and hurrying on.

Her therapist contacted him. She couldn't disclose confidential information, but she did, by way of casual conversation, offer some advice for dating someone who had been raped. His heart beat quickly in his chest as he brushed aside the now familiar guilt and worry about her, and how she would react.
He'd have to be patient, the therapist told him. He'd be patient, he could wait.
He couldn't push things, she said, and he wouldn't.
He should let her initiate any sexual contact, and he would.
Finally, the therapist told him he made her happy, and he felt like his chest was going to explode. A tiny voice inside his head told him it was going too well, it was all going to turn sour. But if that were to happen, if it were inevitable, he'd savour these moments, push those negative feelings to the side and care for her as best he could. He'd make the best choices that he could from now on.

One kiss turned into two, two turned into a French kiss. They had a small setback, where she ran her hands on him, but freaked out slightly, and reluctantly, he pulled back. They went to a pond, they fed ducks, she asked him if they were dating.
He said yes.
The feeling was closing in on him, like he was running out of time. All he asked for was one perfect day before the inevitable happened.

Their one month official anniversary, she'd dressed differently. Her dress was slightly revealing, her hair and makeup more… daring. They had lunch in a nice restaurant and then they went to a dancing class. Her eyes lit up with laughter as he stepped on her toes and then apologised awkwardly, realising he hadn't thought the dance class through very well. It wasn't the best choice as he was terrible at dancing. When he pulled her up from a slightly awkward drip, she whispered in his ear that she wanted to go home with him. He almost dropped her.
"You don't have to do this, we don't need to…" He began awkwardly and honestly believed it. He enjoyed her presence, and he'd rather she was happy and comfortable. He wasn't one of those men who demanded. He refused to be one of those men.

They went back to his apartment and he was horrified to find he was sweating. He was nervous like he'd never been before, his hands shaking as they sat there awkwardly in the taxi, both frightened like teenagers on their first time.
Finally, as they got awkwardly out of the taxi, she threw her hands in the air and said "We don't need to be like this…" and before he could help it, he giggled. He giggled. He might even have been embarrassed about it, had she not been giggling too, and like that, the tension was broken.

It was because of this, he didn't think much of it when his door was unlocked. Because of the relief, he didn't notice the tiny signs that someone else was in his house, like the coffee being in a different place. Because he was delighted with everything about her, he didn't realise their chance together had ended before it had properly begun.

He saw the man in his kitchen a second before she did and stepped back onto her toes, accidentally.
"Ouch, get off!" She smacked his arm, before her eyes caught on to the man in his house and her hand changed to a claw grip.
"What are you doing here?" He asked the intruder harshly.
"Dude, I'm sorry, I didn't know you had a chick..." The interloper looked curiously at her, and uneasy, she stepped back behind him. He cursed.
"Get out," He ordered, reaching his arm behind him to reassure her. He could feel the goose bumps on her arms but she said nothing, probably too frightened to tell him not to worry about a friend being over.
"Hey man… I-"
"GET OUT!" he roared at the unwelcome visitor, who raised his hands as if to say "I'm not armed", unwittingly reflecting light off of his golden spider ring. He turned to look at her to find she'd frozen, her eyes on the ring.

It was too late.
It had been too late when they'd begun.

"I…" he began, eyes darting to her, his friend not understanding what was happening.
"I…" he tried to clear his throat, to explain- to have some way to make her understand.
Her skin was ashen as she looked between him and his friend, swallowing heavily as if trying to force herself to accept a truth she didn't want to see and he didn't want her to find out. She looked at him as if he were a monster she was seeing for the first time.
"I…" He couldn't get the words out- I didn't want my best friend to go to jail. I couldn't leave you there. I felt sorry for you.
She opened her mouth, and his friend muttered "Hey, I'll just go then…" and she took one step back. He knew before she did that she was going to run.
"I…" I'm sorry that I didn't tell you… that I waited until the evidence expired. I'm sorry that I lied to you.
She took one more step, whirled around and ran from them before his friend could even ask what the hell was going on, what kind of weird chick he'd picked up. He heard her footsteps echoing frantically down his stairs and half-heartedly reached a hand in the direction she'd been.
His friend didn't even recognise her.

His choices tasted like ash in his mouth.

Fin.