Stacey's eyes watered as another sharp gust of wind sent blossoms scattering across the street, little pink petals catching in her hair like confetti. The coffee shop on the corner shone like a beacon beneath the cloudy promise of rain, the windows rattling whenever the wind funnelled down the street.
Robert was waiting for her, his jacket slung over the chair he had saved for her, a cup of coffee already in front of him. He grinned when he saw her, stood up so she could step into his arms and squeeze him tightly.
"Hi," Stacey breathed happily.
"Hey, Toots." His mouth brushed her cold cheek. "You okay?"
"Fine." She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply against his shoulder, letting go of him slowly, her nervousness dissolving into nothing.
He smiled at her, a move which still made a shiver pass down her spine, and plucked blossoms out of her hair. "You want something to eat?"
"No, just tea." She sat opposite him and unwound her scarf as he motioned the waitress over. "It's so cold out," Stacey complained. "It's like winter all over again out there."
"Did you get my birthday card?" Robert asked suddenly.
"Uh-huh." Stacey smiled at him. "Thanks. I'll try to remember yours this year."
He raised both eyebrows and leaned back in his chair. "Fourteen years we've known each other, Stace," he said. "And you've remembered my birthday three times."
"Four!" she argued.
He laughed and rested his folded arms against the table, leaning towards her. He waited until her tea had been set down in front of her, watched her breathe in the ripe scent of it. "So what's up?" he asked.
Stacey gave him a fleeting smile and shook her head. "Nothing's wrong," she said. "I'm okay. I just wanted to ask you something."
"And you couldn't ask over the phone?" he asked.
"Not really," Stacey said. "I mean, I could." She glanced up at him. "But it's been ages since I saw you. So I called, and you said were free and you could meet for coffee..." She shrugged.
Robert pushed his coffee aside and reached for her hand. "Spill it, McGill."
"It's nothing bad," she insisted. "Not really. And you can say no, because... Because it might be weird."
He lowered his voice, tugging her hands closer. "Do you want me to service you sexually?"
"Oh, God," Stacey said, pulling her hands free. She tried to give him a look of disgust, but ended up giggling instead.
He grinned at her again and she laughed and swept her hair back. "No, that's not what I want," she said. "It's – Laine is getting married."
"Yeah," Robert murmured, catching her hands again. "I heard about that."
Stacey glanced at him. "I need a date..." The last word was a croak, and she looked away for a moment, embarrassed.
Robert opened his mouth, and then closed it again.
"You can say no," Stacey said, rushing to excuse his imminent refusal. "I know it might be weird, going to a wedding with me, after what happened..." She trailed off, focusing instead on holding his hands, her fingers nestled in the warmth of his palms.
Robert hesitated. "It might be weird," he agreed.
"That's okay," Stacey said hastily. "I'll find someone else. I just thought – I mean, I don't really want to go. And I just thought it'd be easier if I had someone... Like you..." The words felt awkward and she cleared her throat, swallowed hard.
"It's just..." Robert thought for a moment, looking down at their hands. "Everyone we know will be there," he said carefully.
"I know," Stacey said, wishing she'd never asked, guilt roiling hot in her stomach.
"Mike's only just stopped calling about poker nights," Robert said tiredly. "Seeing him again will just start it up again."
"Is poker really that bad?" Stacey asked.
"No, it's just... too much, being friends with people I shared with you." He glanced at her, looking guilty. "I give in now and then. Paul and I catch a basketball game when we can. I keep an overnight bag in the trunk of my car for when I get stuck in the city."
"I don't see them much anymore, either," Stacey said.
"Why not?" Robert asked in surprise. "They were your friends first."
"Yeah, but..." She shrugged. "I'm alone now. Angela has Paul and Jennifer has Mike, and Laine comes and goes with different guys, and I'm not with you, and it's... hard. And they'll all be at the wedding, so I just thought..."
He looked up at her and she felt a twinge in her chest when she saw the look in his eyes. "I'm just not sure it's a good idea," he said softly.
"Yeah," Stacey agreed. "Sorry. Forget I asked."
Robert's thumb traced a line on the palm of her hand. "When is it?" he asked. "Laine's wedding."
"The first Saturday in May," Stacey said. She let go of his hand and rummaged in her purse, pulling out the invitation, all silver card and loopy font. "She makes a big deal of it being a millennium wedding."
"Would I have to wear a futuristic silver spacesuit?" Robert asked, looking it over with a concentrated furrow in his brow.
Stacey laughed and pulled her tea towards her again. "I don't think so." She narrowed her eyes at him over her cup. "It'd be hard to look good in one of those."
"I dunno, I think I could pull it off," Robert said. "Who's this guy she's marrying? When we were together," he glanced at Stacey, "she was with that Ben guy."
Stacey shrugged. "I've never met him. Jennifer said his father owns a chain of hotels."
"Typical," Robert muttered. He passed the invitation back.
"So I'll – I'll find someone else," Stacey said, suddenly unsure. "I just thought – you know. Maybe if you came with me they wouldn't ask about you, they'd just... I don't know." She shrugged and shook her head. "It'll just be weird with everyone else there, and me being there with someone who isn't you."
Robert's fingers grazed against her wrist. "You won't have any trouble getting a date."
"Getting one I like might be a bit of a problem," Stacey admitted. Her pulse jumped, and she sandwiched Robert's hand between her own, stilling the light strokes he was making against her skin. Her mouth was dry. "Are you seeing anyone?" she asked hesitantly.
"No." He ran his free hand through his dark hair, and Stacey had to stop herself from reaching over and combing it back into place with her fingers.
"We're friends, aren't we?" Stacey asked desperately. "We could just go as friends."
"Could we?" He raised his eyebrow slightly, a wry smile on his face. "Does this feel like friendship?" He motioned between them.
Stacey let go of his hand, sliding her fingers over his palm until they were curled at the edge of the table, her tea cooling rapidly in front of her. "I don't know," she admitted.
He rubbed his hand against his jaw and leaned his elbow against the table, resting his chin in his palm and looking at her. "Let me think about it," he said eventually. "No promises."
Stacey stepped back from the bathroom mirror, blinking at her reflection, before she ran to answer the knock at the door, stockinged feet sliding on the floorboards. "Hi."
Robert glanced her up and down, eyes lingering on the bare skin revealed by her loosely-belted bathrobe. "We haven't even been out yet, and I still get to see you in your underwear," he said, stepping in and closing the door behind him.
"Shut up," Stacey said, swatting his arm. She tugged the robe back up over her shoulder and padded back to the bathroom. "I'll only be a minute. I just want to check my blood sugar."
"And get dressed," Robert said, helpfully.
"And get dressed," she answered, fingertips electric, nerves buzzing. She checked her sugar quickly, and was satisfied to see it was right where it should have been. She stepped in front of the mirror again and finished her make up – just a light dusting of powder and a sweep of mascara, a touch of coloured gloss on her lips.
She stepped into her dress and hitched it up around her shoulders, pacing back into the living room. "Zip me up?"
Robert's fingers brushed bare skin between her shoulder blades as he closed the zip. "New dress?"
She looked at him over her shoulder. "Uh-huh."
His fingertips slid over the material, smooth and silk-like under his touch, and Stacey shivered. He laughed and took a step back.
"Behave yourself," Stacey said.
He put his hands in his pockets and nodded to the painting on the wall. "This is different," he said.
"Benefits of having Ms. Kishi as a best friend," Stacey said. "Constantly changing artworks on my walls." She watched him for a moment, noting the way his eyes searched her apartment, looking for other differences she'd made since his last visit.
She cleared her throat softly. "I'll be back in a second." She left him again for the bedroom, where she rummaged through her jewellery box for earrings. She stepped into a pair of black pumps, checking her reflection again. Her dress was fitted and blue, the silky material boasting a peacock sheen under the warm lights of her bedroom, fine black lace edging the hem and forming the cap sleeves. She swallowed, and stepped back into the living room, noticing another loaded glance from Robert.
"How do I look?" she asked, striking a pose, attempting to banish the awkward lump in her throat with a joke.
He didn't joke back; his smile was sad. "Beautiful," he said softly.
Stacey watched Laine walk past them down the aisle, her dress gleaming white, trimmed in silver, deliberate curls bouncing dark against the back of her neck. Stacey felt a twinge in her stomach as she noted the look on Laine's face, her smile wide and her eyes shining as she approached the man she was about to marry.
With a rustle and a murmur of appreciation, the crowd sat. A microphone crackled and failed, the faint murmur of voices drifting back to where Stacey was crammed against Robert in a narrow pew. She watched the bridesmaids, unable to see the bride, saw them wipe away tears as the bride and groom declared their love.
"Are you okay?" Robert asked in a low whisper, his breath brushing her ear.
Stacey looked up at him in surprise, and he twitched his thumb against hers. She looked down and noticed her knuckles were white. She forced her fingers open again, noting the angry marks she'd left on his skin, and nodded silently.
"Stacey, you made it!" Laine was breathless, her smile wide and gleaming.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Stacey said. She hugged Laine gingerly. "Congratulations."
"And Robert!" Laine said excitedly. "I wasn't going to believe it until I actually saw you with my own two eyes..." She let go of Stacey and presented her cheek for a kiss.
"Congratulations, Laine," Robert said, obliging her by brushing his lips against her skin. "You look beautiful."
Laine took Stacey's left hand, her thumb glancing over Stacey's bare finger, but someone else hugged her from behind and started up a conversation before she could speak. Stacey pulled free and took the opportunity to escape.
"That could have been worse," Robert said, following her.
Stacey raised an eyebrow at him, hugging herself. "I guess."
"Come on, she's going to be so busy all night we won't see her again. There are 400 other people here she has to mingle with; she has no time to quiz us on our relationship."
Stacey smoothed her palms over her hips. "You're probably right." She looked up at him, suddenly feeling guilty. "I didn't really think this through," she admitted.
"I didn't think you had." He grinned at her, moving closer to let someone pass, squeals and loud adoration following the bride as she moved away, drawn on by further faces and smiles.
"Well," Stacey said, shrugging slightly, "I thought coming alone would be terrible. I didn't really think about the consequences for you, if you agreed to come..." She bit her lip and glanced around.
"I'm sure we'll survive," Robert said.
Stacey caught sight of a short brunette weaving determinedly through the crowd towards them. She swallowed dryly. "You said that too soon."
Jennifer hugged them both at once, sandwiching them together awkwardly. "Stacey McGill and Robert Brewster!"
"Hi, Jen," Robert said, catching her hand and squeezing it, rather than returning the clumsy embrace she'd given him.
Stacey felt a twist in her stomach. Sweat broke out on her palms as she tried to prepare herself for the questions Jennifer would inevitably ask.
"So you're back together?" Jennifer asked excitedly. "Are you engaged again? You should both come over for dinner next week. Mike's organised a poker night with a few of the guys from the firm, you could both –"
"I'm on night shift next week," Robert said, sounding sincerely apologetic. "Maybe another time."
"Shoot," Jennifer said, pouting in disappointment. "Well, give us a call when you're free. Have you set a date yet?"
"Um, no," Robert said, faltering for a moment. He glanced at Stacey, and she opened her mouth wordlessly, and closed it again. Panic forced a familiar old guilt up inside her.
She caught sight of an open door out onto the balcony, and gave Jennifer an apologetic smile, motioning as though she'd seen someone else, before she slipped away. Robert would hate her – hate her for leaving him alone like that, fumbling for defences and excuses, but she left him anyway, escaping out into the golden light of the setting sun.
The air was slightly bitter with cigarettes and busy with the hum of excited voices. Stacey glanced around, recognising none of the faces, and stole herself a corner of railing, letting the wind whip her carefully-pinned hair into stray ribbons.
He would hate her. She should go back. She looked back through the doors, but the crowd had closed behind her, blocking Robert and Jennifer from view. She wondered what answers he would give; what he would say about her, and bit her lip when she realised he was entitled to say a lot of unflattering things about her, but would never. (She didn't think.)
He found her ten minutes later, and his jaw was tight. "You've got some nerve, McGill."
"I'm sorry," she said. She reached for him, but he kept his hands in his pockets. She closed her fingers around his wrist. "I am, Robert. I'm sorry."
He shook his head, his eyes looking everywhere but her, searching the shadows cast by the late sunlight. "I don't know why I keep answering your calls," he said eventually, and it was like driving ice right through her chest.
"Because I want..." He frowned and swallowed.
Stacey drew his hand out of his pocket and gripped it hard. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I won't do that again." She reached up and kissed his cheek softly, running careful fingertips through his dark hair.
"Did you ask me here for some particular reason?" he asked, still annoyed. "Was it for that? To be the distraction while you run away and hide?"
"No," Stacey said, miserably. She leaned her cheek against his shoulder, not caring about smudging her make up off onto the dark charcoal of his suit. "I don't know. When I got the invitation, I had all these images in my head of everyone looking at me and just..." She blew a sigh and closed her eyes, leaning her weight against him. "I hate weddings," she said in a small voice. "I just thought it'd be easier with you here."
"How, exactly?" Robert asked, his mouth against the top of her head.
Stacey swallowed. "I don't know. I guess I thought... I don't know. There's no reason it'd be easier. I just wanted you here."
He sighed. "This is officially the last favour I'm ever giving you."
"Okay." She tilted her head and looked up at him, relieved when she saw his eyes were soft. "Do you hate me?" she asked.
"Sometimes," he said, and the ice twisted in her heart. "Not right now."
She combed her fingers through his hair again, and he closed his eyes. "What did you say to Jennifer?" she asked.
"Nothing, much. I asked her a lot of questions and hoped she wouldn't realise I hadn't given her any answers."
"Is that a cop trick?"
"Cop trick," he confirmed. His hands flattened out over the small of her back, his touch warm through the thin silk of her dress. "I'm not expecting to avoid her for much longer, though. She'll hunt us down."
His fingers curled against her hip, tracing thrills through her dress to her skin. "I'm slightly disappointed to learn you still hate weddings," he said after a moment, his mouth brushing her brow.
"Did you really think that would change?" Stacey asked. "After..."
"I guess not." His hold tightened on her just slightly, and she closed her eyes. "I don't like weddings as much as I used to."
"Sorry," Stacey whispered.
He laughed, though it didn't sound natural. His hands cupped her hips, thumbs stroking circles. "Do you think our wedding would have been like this?"
"No," Stacey retorted immediately. "I have better taste than this."
"Explain," Robert demanded, his voice against her hair.
"It would have been much smaller, for a start," Stacey said, swaying with him gently. "Laine's invited people she can't have seen in fifteen years. There's no way I'd want to get married in front of a crowd like this."
"Me either," Robert agreed. "Where would we have the ceremony?"
"Somewhere outside," Stacey said, closing her eyes, conjuring up a scene she'd imagined a thousand times, rolling green lawns and fall foliage. "Somewhere upstate, maybe."
"I hear the policemen are pretty good looking up around Poughkeepsie," Stacey said, and she rested her mouth against the hollow of Robert's throat, smiling when he laughed.
"Maybe we wouldn't even tell people we were getting married," she said. "Maybe they'd think it was a birthday party, and they'd arrive and we'd surprise them with a ceremony."
"Your birthday party?" Robert asked. "So all the presents would be for you, and I'd get nothing."
"You'd get a wife," Stacey said indignantly.
He laughed again and pulled back, tucking a loose strand of smooth hair behind her ear, his thumb tracing the swell of her cheek. "Don't you dare leave me alone like that again," he said softly. "Answering the questions you don't want to."
"I won't," she said meekly.
"I mean it, Stace. That's not fair."
"I know," she said. "I won't. I'm sorry." She held his palm against her cheek. "I panicked."
He leaned in, and for a moment she thought he was going to kiss her. Her stomach swooped and she felt her knees give a little, following the movement just slightly to sway against him.
"Why'd you bring me?" he asked again. "Why not some other guy? Don't tell me you couldn't find someone else to be your date..."
She looked up at him helplessly and shrugged. "I didn't want some other guy," she whispered. "You could have said no."
"Right," he said, and he shook his head. "Because I say 'no' to you all the time."
She rested her head against his shoulder again and closed her eyes against the ripe beams of the dying sun, listened to the chaotic chords of the band striking up a song. "If it helps," she said, "everyone always takes your side. I'm not the one that gets the sympathy or the pity."
"I don't really want sympathy or pity," he mumbled. He swayed her again, half in time to the music bleeding over the murmur of the crowd around them. His palm slipped over her back. "It's nobody else's business," he added.
"That doesn't stop them commenting on it," Stacey said miserably. She shuffled her feet and kept her face hidden against his shoulder. "I guess I imagined it'd be easier if you were here. Like people would just comment to themselves about us being here together and not actually say anything. Like maybe it'd hold them all at bay, just seeing you didn't hate me..."
"They think I hate you?" he asked.
Stacey looked up at him. "I tell them we're still friends, but they don't see it. And they don't believe it, either, because how could you still be friends with me after I broke your heart."
"You're giving yourself a little too much credit," Robert said.
His thumb slipped under the sleeve of her dress, and he didn't answer her.
"We're due in late November." Angela patted her stomach, her eyes sparkling. "We're only just starting to tell people."
"Congratulations, Angela," Stacey said, smiling warmly. She sent a glance to Robert, but he had his back to her, a glass of something in his hand, and Paul's hand was on his shoulder, the conversation peppering rapidly. Jennifer was standing beside him, but watching Stacey shrewdly.
Angela followed Stacey's eyes, and turned back to her, the smile on her face a little unsure now. "So you and Robert are back together?" she asked.
"Not – not really," Stacey said. "But we both know Laine, and..." She shrugged. "He's just my date tonight."
"It wouldn't be the end of the world if you reconciled, you know," Angela teased. "Paul's been missing all those long talks about the NBA."
"So I see," Stacey said, a smile twitching the corners of her mouth. "But we're just friends."
It was exhausting, Stacey realised, being friends with so many couples. Angela and Paul were expecting their first baby, and Jen and Mike were saving for a house somewhere outside the city so they could start a family. Stacey was still trying to catch a promotion at the brokerage, her sights set more on decorating her apartment than starting a family; dinner dates with Claudia rather than potential husbands.
"What do you think of Laine's dress?" Angela asked.
Stacey shrugged slightly and smiled. "She looks gorgeous."
Angela glanced her up and down. "You'd need something more fitted," she said. "Strapless would suit you. Or something like what you're wearing now." She touched the shoulder of Stacey's dress. "Is this silk?"
"I'm not – we're not getting married," Stacey insisted.
"But he'll ask again, right?" Angela asked. "I bet he still has the ring."
Stacey jumped as Robert caught her hand. "Come and dance," he insisted. He pulled her after him, not waiting for an answer.
"Hey, Robert?" Stacey asked against his ear.
"Do you think we could just leave?"
He looked down at her in surprise. "Now?"
Stacey shrugged and looked around. "We've both seen Laine. She's still caught up trying to talk to everyone; I doubt she'll notice if we leave early. At least she knows we came. And whenever we step off the dance floor, Angela and Jennifer corner me and ask about our wedding." She tightened her arms around his shoulders. "And my feet hurt too much to keep using it as an escape."
"It's still early."
"I don't care." She brushed her lips against his throat. "Take me home?"
Stacey kicked her shoes off as soon as she'd crossed the threshold into her apartment, groaning with relief as she curled her stockinged toes against the floorboards.
"Better?" Robert asked. He pulled his tie loose and popped a couple of buttons on his shirt, opening the collar.
"Yeah," Stacey sighed. She rubbed her eyes. "Just let me – I need something to eat," she said. "Do you want anything?"
Robert shook his head. "I should probably just – just go," he said.
Stacey stopped, halfway between the door and the fridge, her heart in her throat. She looked back at him. "Why?"
"Well, why not?" he asked, sounding annoyed. "What's supposed to happen now, Stacey?"
She shrugged wordlessly, eyes wide.
"You know," he said, leaning his back against the door, "you were right when you said people pitied me. But it's not because you gave the engagement ring back. It's because everyone expects I'll keep trying to put it back on your finger. Like I'm stuck chasing after you for the rest of my life. And I guess tonight I proved everyone right, because why else would I subject myself to that." He grimaced and shook his head. "I can't do anything like that again, Stacey."
She paced towards him and caught hold of his sleeve. "Don't go," she blurted.
"Why can't you just let me," he whispered. His eyes were dark and gleaming.
"It's not fair," Stacey croaked, suddenly fighting tears. "I gave the ring back and I'm the bitch – but you're the one that left." She swiped a fist over her cheek, smearing wet tears across her skin. "I didn't want to get married, Robert, but I didn't want to break up."
His fingers twitched at his sides, grasping at nothing.
"We're still friends," Stacey croaked. "We talk all the time." She swallowed and took another step towards him. Her voice was small and pathetic."You still call me Toots."
"I forget," Robert said roughly, "how it feels to be with you. And my life is pretty good. I like my job and I've got a nice place, you know? I've got friends that don't know you – friends that are just mine, who like me because I'm Robert. And then you call and I hear your voice and those things don't matter anymore. Only you matter."
She brushed her thumb against his lashes, felt moisture against her skin.
"I hate that," he admitted. His voice was hard, his throat locked against a gasp she was sure he needed but dared not take. "I hate that you matter so much more to me than I do to you."
"You do matter to me," Stacey said, hating that she was crying, because it seemed like a ploy for sympathy. "Robert, I just didn't want to get married. We were 22 when you gave me that ring, and I was so scared. All I could think about was how much my mom and dad hate each other now, and they were in love, once. Enough to get married. Now they can't even be in the same room together."
"You really think you and I will finish up like that?"
She wiped her eyes. "We're like this now," she said, clinging to him with one hand. "Do you hate me now? Right this minute?"
"No," he said patiently. "But I'm wondering if it would be easier if I did."
"Please stay," Stacey said. "Just for a little while. I don't want to fight with you and have you leave." She curled her fingers at the open neck of his shirt.
He sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. "You need to have something to eat," he said. "I've got an overnight bag in the car. It's in the parking garage down the street. I'll go and get it."
Stacey shoved her feet back into her shoes and gripped his hand. "I'm coming."
She looked up at him, and he sighed tiredly and led her out of the apartment again, waiting as she grabbed her keys and pulled the door closed.
Stacey's heels clacked on the cement floor of the garage. She felt strangely light-headed, and knew she really did need have something to eat, something more than a plateful of bland-tasting canapés. Crying had left her feeling off-balance and stupid, but it had been something that had built up ever since receiving the wedding invitation in the mail.
Laine was married. Stacey and Robert were supposed to be married.
She wondered if regret felt like this – light and strange.
"You okay?" Robert asked. He popped the trunk of his car and hauled his bag out with one hand, his other still caught in Stacey's fingers.
"Just tired, I think," she said. "It's been a long day."
"Right." He closed the trunk, and they turned and walked back the way they'd come, the garage silent and dark around them. "Did the wedding make you feel weird, too?"
"Yeah," she admitted quietly. "I was – I kept thinking about us."
She nodded, remembering his arms around her as they'd swayed on the rooftop, her descriptions of their imaginary ceremony seeming foolish and crass now.
They emerged back onto the sidewalk, and Stacey shivered a little and gripped Robert's hand. "I'm sorry I asked you to come," she said after a moment. "You drove all the way here and then had a really shit time."
"It hasn't been completely shit." He looked down at her and hefted the bag on his shoulder. "I got to see you in your underwear."
She smiled and punched his shoulder.
"And you look beautiful," he added. "Right now, I mean."
"Not right now," she said, fingers fluttering at the swollen skin around her eyes, her nose still watery.
"Right now," he insisted. He glance down at her again and his pace slowed a little, his shoes scuffing the ground. "Did you really want to stay together?" he asked, the words running together thickly. "You just didn't want the ring?"
Stacey shrugged uncomfortably and watched a cab pass by them, bouncing slightly over an uneven patch in the street. "I don't know. I didn't want to get married, but I didn't want you to leave, either. I thought getting married would cause you to leave, eventually. I thought saying no would somehow save us from a mistake and an eventual divorce. But it didn't save us at all."
"Stacey," Robert said, exasperated, "the first time I kissed you, we were in middle school. It was ten years after that I proposed to you. Five years after that, and now look where we are." He held up their joined hands and shrugged. "Are we ever really gonna be broken up? Really? Completely separated?"
"I don't know," she said, confused. "This is – we're not together. We've just spent a whole evening explaining to people we're not together."
"Why aren't we together?" he asked, his voice demanding, his eyes dark under the streetlight.
She pulled her hand out of his and folded her arms across her chest. "I don't know," she said. "Because you wanted to get married, and I didn't."
"I only want to get married to you," he said. "And if you still don't want to get married, I guess settling for a life with you and no rings on our fingers is the next best thing."
She stared at him, but before she could say anything he frowned at her and grabbed her hand again.
"Come on," he said. "You're pale. You need to eat something."
Stacey fixed herself a plate of carrot sticks and pretzels, and sank onto the couch beside Robert, forcing herself to eat. "Are you still mad?" she asked.
He looked at her tiredly. "About tonight?"
"Just in general."
He shook his head, slumping down on the couch a little. "Just tired."
Stacey felt guilty for wanting him to stay. She stared at him for a long moment.
"Something else is different," he said, looking around her apartment. "Have you painted?"
"No. I don't think that armchair was here last time you visited."
"No, that's not it..." He looked around and shrugged. "It's weird only coming by here every few months. Little things shift around."
Stacey tucked her legs up under her. "I've never been to your place."
"Yeah." He reached over and took a carrot stick off her plate. "It's nothing special."
She tried to picture it in her head. Robert's place, all full of him, nothing of her. She looked around her apartment and realised she still half-thought of it as his. Memories of him were shadowed in every corner; the bathroom cabinet still held a half-empty bottle of aftershave she couldn't seem to throw out.
"Hey," he said suddenly, "I know you accuse me of thinking with my stomach, you know, but the food at that wedding was really terrible, wasn't it?"
She laughed. "Yeah." She held her plate towards him and he took a pretzel with a grin.
"We should've just stayed in," Robert sighed.
"No, I like getting dressed up," Stacey said. She unfolded her legs and pressed her feet against his knee. "And the dancing was nice."
"Yeah," he agreed quietly. His hand found her ankle and his thumb stroked over the silken web of her stocking slowly.
"And we found out Angela and Paul are having a baby," Stacey added. "I didn't know that."
"No, me either," Robert said. "Good for them."
Stacey nodded, but the silence kept settling around them, awkward and sad.
"You feel better?" Robert asked, looking over once she'd finished her snack.
"Yeah." She reached over and put the empty plate on the coffee table, and when she curled up on the couch again, it was close to him, by his side, and her head found his shoulder. "I know I asked a lot of you tonight," she admitted. "It means a lot to me that you came and held my hand and made my night not as terrible as it might have been." She looked up at him.
His lips brushed the end of her nose. "Don't ask me to do it again."
He smiled, and she smiled back helplessly, unable to stop herself.
"Hey, can I ask you something?" she asked softly.
"At the wedding, I asked if you hated me," she said. "You said sometimes." She blinked up at him. "Do you love me? Ever?"
His hand curled over her thigh, fingers sliding for the lace hem of her dress. "All the time," he whispered. "Even when I hate you, I love you."
"Do you still want to marry me?"
He swallowed, but his gaze was steady. "Yes." His hand curled over the edge of her dress, and stilled. "But even if you said yes, right now, I wouldn't."
Stacey felt her heart sink, a sharp pain striking her chest. "Why not?"
"Because you don't really want to. It'd make you unhappy."
"I was just scared," Stacey said breathlessly. She closed her eyes when Robert's fingers slipped against her knee. "I don't want to end up like my parents."
"You really think we would?" He reached up with his other hand and brushed her hair back. "Why wouldn't we end up like my parents?"
"Because it's me," she said. "I'd screw it up."
"I wouldn't let you," he said.
She pressed her cheek against his arm. "You left."
"I thought you wanted me to!" he argued. "You never told me not to. You never told me you wanted me to stay." He shifted on the couch, turning his body to face her. "And," he said, "that was five years ago. And a lot has happened since then."
"Yeah." Stacey rubbed her eye with the heel of her hand, smearing mascara on her skin. "We're different people now."
"Not so different." He rubbed a tear into her skin with his thumb.
Stacey leaned into his touch, curling her legs up under her and kneeling over him, her fingertips against his face. "I'd say yes, if you asked," she whispered. "If you asked now."
"But I'm not asking."
"But if you did. I'd say yes."
Stacey emerged from the bathroom, hair unpinned, face free of make up. Robert was by the window in the living room, feet bare and cuffs loose against his wrists.
"Everything okay?" He looked over at her, his voice soft in the dark.
"Yeah." She raked her hands through her hair and stood beside him, looking down into the street.
"I'll take the couch," he said.
She leaned up against his chest, fists tight against the open neck of his shirt, and kissed him. He didn't hesitate, like she thought he would. He didn't pull away and tell her it was a mistake. Instead, his hands settled on her hips and he pulled her close, ducked his head to meet her, opened his mouth against hers.
She pulled his shirt out of his pants and touched his skin, hands against his waist. His fingers skated up the smooth silk of her dress, catching for a moment between her shoulder blades before he peeled it open, his palm sliding down the arch of her spine.
He broke the kiss and gasped a soft laugh against her cheek. "And what happens tomorrow, Stace?"
She didn't know, really. She didn't want him to leave – ever – but things couldn't be as simple to fix as that. She didn't really believe he could forgive her for what had happened, and after tonight...
"I don't know," she whispered.
"I should have just said no," he murmured, his eyes closed, his breath warm on her skin. "That day in the coffee shop when you asked me to be your date. I should've just said no."
"I'm sorry I asked you," she said. "I ask a lot of you sometimes. Especially after how I've treated you."
He rocked against her, hands sliding over the loose silk of her dress to pull her closer. "I still love you," he groaned. "I hate that I still love you so much. I don't want to love you anymore, Stacey."
She felt tears fall. She pressed against his neck, leaning against him on her toes, one arm around his shoulders to support her own weight, the other up under his shirt, knuckles brushing the small of his back. "I never wanted you to leave me," she said in a small voice. "I gave the ring back because I thought things were good the way they were. And then you left and I thought maybe it was just meant to be that way. But I should have explained everything back then, and I'm sorry. I was just scared. I thought there was something wrong with me; I thought you'd be better off going to find someone who did want to marry you."
"But I only want you," he whispered. He looked down at her, the tip of his nose brushing hers, his lashes low. "And if I asked you now..."
"I'd say yes," she whispered. She waited, hoping.
"And then what?"
She faltered, but held his gaze. "And then..."
"Where would we live?"
"I – I don't know." Her heart started racing. It wasn't that she hadn't thought about it, just that she didn't have an answer. She hastened to say something; Robert's grasp on her had loosened and she snuggled closer to him. "You could get a job here again," she said. "You can do your job in more places than I can do mine; my job keeps me here in the city. But I don't want our kids to grow up in an apartment building, either, I want our kids to have a yard and a place to ride bikes..." She looked up at him. "I don't know, but we can figure it out, Robert."
He cupped her face in his hand and she leaned into his palm.
"Don't go," she said softly. "I miss you. I love you."
He stroked his thumb down her nose. "You don't say that very often," he said. "I say it more than you do."
She blinked. "I do, though. I love you. And what you said before – about not marrying me but living with me anyway, because that was better than not being with me at all – I'd marry you to keep you, Robert. And I'd be happy. Just afraid."
"Of what?" he asked, sounding slightly exasperated. "Marriage is supposed to mean the opposite of the end, Toots."
She smiled at the nickname and pulled him down to kiss her. "I know."
He kissed her back, light kisses, soft and dry on her mouth, her cheek. "This is it, then," he whispered. "Are we starting again?"
"Please?" Stacey asked. She hooked her fingers into his belt and tugged his hips to her. "I love you Robert; I do. You're not the only one that got heartbroken by all this. There's been nobody since you. And I tried, because everyone said I should, but I never stopped loving you and I know it was a mistake, giving you that ring back. I ended up creating the situation I wanted to avoid."
"So let's start again," he said, and his fingers trailed a determined path down to the small of her back. "And let's take it slow and figure out exactly what we want."
"Okay," Stacey breathed in relief. "Okay."
Stacey felt the mattress shift beside her, and she rolled over in a panic, eyes flying open. "Oh," she breathed in relief, spotting Robert.
He raised his eyebrows. "Expecting someone else?"
She fell back into her pillow and laughed. "No." She curled her fingers into the hair on his chest and closed her eyes. "Hi," she mumbled.
"Good morning." His hand caught hers, his thumb pressing gently against her palm. "You know what I've been thinking about?"
"Do I want to know?" She slid across the sheets and rested her head against his shoulder with a sigh.
"Well, I'll clean it up a little, if you want. Make it suitable for sensitive ears."
He laughed, which started her laughing. She curled her arms around his neck and hugged him tightly, suddenly afraid that she'd wake up for real and find him gone; that what was happening was all just a dream.
"No," he mumbled against the crown of her head, "I was thinking that we spent a lot of time at Laine's wedding trying to explain our relationship. And our answers today are different to what they were yesterday."
"I don't think they believed our answers last night anyway," Stacey said. She breathed a sigh. "When do you have to go home?"
"No particular time. So long as I show up for work tomorrow."
"Good." She looked up at him, one golden thread of hair falling across her face. "Can I come to your place sometime?"
"Uh – you'd better wait until I clean up a little first." His palmed his hand over her back.
"Do you just have porn magazines everywhere?" she asked, putting a knowing tone into her voice.
"Place is wallpapered with it." He rolled her over and laughed, grinning down at her, and her stomach flipped over at the happiness on his face.
"What do you want for breakfast?" she asked, knowing she had to eat soon.
"Whatever you're having," he mumbled against her skin. "Just four times as much."
She laughed. "I love you," she said. "I'm not scared anymore. I'd marry you tomorrow."
"Yeah," she said. "If you still want me."
Robert marked her skin lightly with his teeth. "I'm working tomorrow," he said, "so it might be kind of difficult." He brushed her hair from her face with his fingers, his weight against her chest. "But I still want you," he said. "Always will."