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“What do you want?” you ask, from across the small table at the coffee shop where Recluse always took her tea, and to which she’d invited you (you).

“From this,” you clarify, gesturing between yourself and her, trying to make the gesture effortless (failing).

“A friend, Stalker,” she says with a small smile, the gentlest you’d seen on those ruby lips (you like her lipstick) (did she know?). “A friend.”

You try to keep your laugh cynical (not delighted) (not wishing for more).

“Friends always turn on you, eventually,” you say, finally. You catch a strange movement of her lips. A slight buzz makes its way to your ear. Flies.

You continue. “It’s human nature. Animal nature.”

“Animal?” she enquires, her voice once more controlled and melodic, her smile no longer so gentle (your heart sinks).

“There are predators,” you say. “They see prey in everyone else. There’s parasites. Symbiotes. Some are prickly, not letting people too close. And some are protectors. Like you.”

Your analogy had gained depth. You’re a bit proud (more than a bit), but then, you always had been. You’re pleased you now saw yourself as something above even a predator, if you can fit yourself into such a simplistic analogy. Someone who protected those whom she saw worthy (worthy). (Protector). (Not prickly).

Recluse laughs. And you know she’s laughing at you. Fine, maybe you are prickly, but not as prickly as you used to— it’s an analogy, Sophia, don’t overthink it.

“You make us all sound so… beastly, S- Stalker,” she says, her voice catching slightly. She smiles widely. “That analogy isn’t new, you know. But you missed a bit. A category. A big one. The biggest, one might say.”

“Oh?” you say.

“Human,” Recluse says. “For we are above the Beast, as we are able to choose to be more. If we are predator, if we are prey, parasite or symbiotic, prickly—” she smiles slightly “—or protector, we are so because we choose to be… or because we lack the tools not to be.”

Her voice cut off slightly at the end. Perhaps she had been about to qualify it, adding an ‘I suppose’ or ‘I guess.’

“Tools?” you ask.

“Analogy stretching thin,” she admits. Just a bit. “But humans are toolmakers. And if one of us lacks a tool, another with sufficient humanity can pitch in.”

There was something odd about her voice, and her lips twitched after, and you wonder if she said something she hadn’t meant to say. Something she felt bad about having said.

“Sufficient humanity?”

You think (hope), for a moment, she will elaborate.

She doesn’t.

“You know what I do?” she had asked, her voice careful to sound casual, effortless. You’d been able to tell she had been taking care (you could only tell, you know, because she was taking care to allow it).

You’d mentioned, obliquely, that you’d had things you were trying to think through.

Maybe you’d not been so oblique. Maybe you’d rambled. Said some things (not said some things). She’d listened to what you said (she’d listened to what you hadn’t). She’d understood (understood) (accepted). Her hand had briefly raised (would you have taken it?).

“I write it down,” she’d continued, not bothering fully swallow her bite of muffin. “Don’t know what you’re thinking until you write it.”

A small snort had left you. “Then you read it later?” you challenge. Her lips had tugged upwards, and you did your best not to sigh (why do you challenge?).

“Never said anything about reading, did I?”

You doubt writing would help. Doubt there was anywhere you could write that wouldn’t be found. Perhaps, though, it would be better if it were found (would be right).

This would all be easier if you had never met her.

Your analogy had only been an analogy. A tool. Not a way of thinking, or an ideology.

But now, you weren’t so sure. There were things you’d done. You wouldn’t say you felt bad about them (couldn’t say so). You’d never been good at being honest with yourself.

Your chest collapses upon itself at the admission, even if it is only to yourself. You’re glad she’s not here to see it.

Here. Home, if you could call it that.

Would you be honest with yourself if you wrote? Would you feel the guilt (you can’t)? Would you admit what you’d excused as actions towards one who was weak (that’s not what it was— it was high school, it was (fear) (you) (you are weak)).

You punch. Just before your punch hits the wall, you stop. You let out a strangled scream.

You can hear yourself telling yourself not to think about it, and you can’t stand the cowardice.

Recluse wouldn’t cry (that’s a lie) (and it isn’t) (but it is). But you’re not Recluse (and neither is she) (not all the time).

And so you do.