"This is worse." she said. "Worse than being single."

He reached across the table, lifted her trembling fingers from the tea-stained saucer and clutched them firmly in his hands. His mouth was dry as he watched her crumble in front of him. Her eyes were glorious stained pink from a sudden torrent of emotion. They blazed with an intense green, like a dragon in some fantasy adventure.

"Because..because I know there's that person over there who wants to be with me and who I want to be with. Only I can't." She slipped her hand from his and curled it in her lap, absently running her thumbnail over the pad of her index finger. Her eyes were fixated on the table top, she couldn't raise them to look at him.

She felt guilty. She was being one of those girls. The ones that talk about their hurts, the guys they loved, with the one friend who could potentially be hurt by it. But she couldn't stop herself. The words just kept coming out one after another.

"Before I just didn't think anyone wanted to be with me and I accepted that." She felt the stillness within her at those words, words that once would have brought forth more tears.

It had stung knowing for so long that no one was interested. That not once in twenty three years had a guy's head turned to get more than a passing glance. That never had a guy felt compelled to ask her for her number because he was so attracted to her personality that her physical failings didn't matter any longer. In her youth her mother had insisted she was pretty with as much emphasis as her brother had insisted she was ugly. Too bad her brother's opinion had meant more.

When she got older her friends would insist she was cute. Oh, but you're so pretty! Look at how pretty your eyes are. False statements uttered to halt self-pity.

Finally she'd had enough. She had discovered talents and interests that made her happy. She didn't care anymore. And when her confidence would dip a little and her friends would gather around her to comfort her and tell her how wonderful she was, she halted their false statements. She'd look at them and say, If I was beautiful, I'd know it. That she had something of worth, even if it was just the ability to make someone laugh, made it easier to accept her failings. She didn't care how she looked after that. She became her talents.

"I used to have walls around me, protecting me. My brother said I'd be lonely forever that way, but I needed it. I'd been hurt too many times to let people in. To let them see me." Her hands were tugging at a wrinkle in her skirt, her palms sweating a little.

Even this little bit of opening up was hard still.

"Which is how I came to be so independent. But over the past year I've started being needy. And now I need people. I need my friends. I need him."

She'd cringed at the word needy. She hated depending on others for things. Made her feel weak. Realistically she knew she'd always needed people. Her independence had been an illusion she'd weaved around herself. It had been comforting to think that should someone choose to walk out of her life, it would roll on as it always had. That had never once been the case, though, in the instances when someone had chosen to walk away.

"And sometimes I hate that I need people."

He watched her mouth pull down at the corners, the little wrinkle form between her eyebrows and felt his own features mimicking them. "Never hate needing people. It's part of being human."

It was the first time he'd said anything all afternoon. He'd simply sat there, silently listening to her as she let out her pain. He didn't mind, he considered her one of his closest friends. 'You as much as anyone, if not more.' he'd once said to her. And he'd meant it.

"I know." She whispered. "It's just...I've never had to choose between being with friends...or going somewhere else to be with one person."

She looked at him then and he could see the turmoil in her eyes. She wanted so many things and didn't know which to reach for first. Her heart was tugging her in two different directions. Part wanted to stay, to never be parted from everything she knew and loved. Part, the larger part, wanted to go. Wanted to be with that person she thought about all day. Wanted to take a chance, to allow herself to hope that she wouldn't end up crawling back with her tail between her legs.

It was a no win situation. She'd have to give up something either way.

"How do I choose?" She closed her eyes as she whispered the question. It was almost more plea than question. Make the choice for me, it screamed. Tell me to go. Tell me to stay.

He watched her rub her eyes, watched the moisture roll over the edges of her fingers and drip down their length. Not much was visible of her face as she hid behind her hands, but he could see her chin. It was wobbling. Whether she was upset about the relationship, the choices or the fact that she was showing some perceived weakness to him he wasn't sure. Maybe all three.

He was silent, considering what he knew about her, what he wished for her and wished for himself. Then...

"Remember that fortune you got, the one you said you were going to make into a t-shirt some day?"

She looked up at him through watery eyes, trying to silence the thoughts pressing into her mind long enough to dredge up the old memory. "Something...something about nature.."

He smiled and stared at the spoon he was turning end to end against the table. The clinking was disruptive, loud and obnoxious in the moment, but he needed it to distract him. To keep his thoughts from wandering astray. "To fall in love we must abandon ourselves to nature."

He dropped the spoon and looked up at her. She was still now, tears still formed at her eyes but even that had slowed. "That's what it said," he continued, "do you remember?"

She nodded. "I think you need to do just that. You need to abandon yourself, let yourself go. Free yourself from these burdens you've piled upon yourself and go."

She opened her mouth to say something, to contradict him that she had no burdens, but no sound came out. She had made her dreams into burdens. Her cares into chains. Excuses to keep her from taking a chance.

He smiled a little then, when he saw her eyes widen with discovery. "Please take care. I'll miss you."

I can't choose for you. The thought filled his mind, driving out coherent thoughts. How could he make such a decision? He'd never been able to make decisions like this for himself, or even recognise when they needed to be made. He'd listened to everything she'd said. Some words had soothed him. Others had stung, but he knew that if she realised this, she'd also know he wanted to hear them anyway. She could have said anything, and he would have listened. But what she had said tonight had not been just anything. He had wanted to pour out to her all the ways that being single could be worse than her own predicament, but he knew that her situation was more important to him, because it was hers. And he hoped she knew, as he sat, silent, watching her beautiful face look so sad and worried, that he would never walk away. Never let her be lonely. As she'd spoken of her need for others, his own need tore at his heart. A need for her, not as anything, but simply her presence, her self. She had been a piece that fitted into the jigsaw, but he hadn't seen the picture she made until later.

He wouldn't praise her beauty now. He knew, from being told he was 'cute' by people who never called, never wrote, that those precious words could be devalued. If he had ever had a poetic spirit of his own, he had long since let it be poisoned by the banalities of his life. Everything flowed from others, and he knew he would feel a fraud, even at a better time, mimicking her own grace to praise it. Such a friend deserved something original. He wanted to talk for hours about her, to convince her that she was a goddess on earth. Not solely for her beauty, though he wished he could convince her she was so lovely. It was the mind that shone behind those green eyes, and the passionate heart inside the shapely form, that drew him to her. He wanted to listen to her talk about her interests, so different to his own, and so important. Whenever he did, he couldn't stop his own stupid mouth from supplying some spurious parallel. And her feelings for others were true, and he adored her for them, too. If she had failings, he wasn't interested in them.

She was relying on him, all but demanding an answer to a question he felt he barely understood. Treacherous voices offered unreasonable answers, answers that would hurt her and ruin him. He'd given her instead a truth that kept him sane, the reassurance that needing others was a strength, that at times it was all that seemed to be keeping him human. A truth that made him something like whole, and that let him hold his head up to her, whose gaze would destroy him otherwise. And he knew. He knew that he could never win, except by letting her win. He had to wish for her what he wished for himself, even though the one denied the other. A stray memory, tinged with an irony that was sad but could not hurt him, was the key.

Damn. Why do I do things like this, fiddling with this spoon? I look as disorganised as I feel. And he gave the answer, which would give her the chance which he still waited for. It isn't often you can give what you don't have yourself, much less have more after it than before.

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