“So, that happened.”
“We’re not particularly smart.”
Derek and Cindy were sitting on Derek’s bed in the morning, both of them having their backs against the headboard, staring blankly ahead and avoiding direct eye contact with each other. Because this was the aftermath of yet another bad decision. The second one that had let them to dealing with its consequences the following morning.
“But I gotta admit, this was—“ Derek spoke slowly, still staring into the void, but Cindy cut him off.
“If you say it was fun, Derek McCarter, so help me God,” she closed her eyes and leaned her head against the headboard, covering herself with the sheet, suddenly self-conscious.
But if the last time Derek had been pretty reluctant about bringing it up, second time with Cindy had been… Well, least to say eye-opening. He smirked and finally turned to face her.
“What?” he shrugged innocently, still grinning like an idiot. “It was.”
Cindy glared, but the playful glint in her eyes only encouraged Derek in his madness.
“Oh, come on,” he winked. “You can’t deny it.”
“That’s the problem, dumbass,” Cindy sighed, and a small smile played over her lips. “I really can’t.”
She got up from the bed and started to get dressed, leaving Derek gaping. A few seconds later, he shook his head and tried to bring himself out of his reverie. The dumb grin was back on his face, but Cindy was one step ahead and she turned to him, her eyes narrowed.
“And no, Derek, third time’s not gonna happen,” she said sharply, and was surprised to see Derek’s face fall a little. Well, who would’ve thought Derek McCarter, ladies’ man, could evolve from his one-night stand policy? Because this had already been a two-night stand and he seemed to be aiming for a three-night one. Interesting.
“Too bad,” he scratched the back of his head.
Cindy sighed again and pinched the bridge of the nose. Why the hell did she feel the need to explain herself to freakin’ Derek McCarter?
“Look, Derek,” she began, already fully dressed, so she assumed she could hold his attention now. “I’ll admit this was oddly fun, but let’s leave it at that. You already thought me to be some bimbo, and bimbos are easy to fool into bed, and I don’t wanna live up to those expectations.”
Derek got up from the bed, too and went to stand in front of her.
“Let’s say I’ve seen the error of my ways,” he teased. “I know you’re not some bimbo, Cindy. You’re smart and funny. I know I’ve misjudged you.”
She tilted her head and looked at him for a minute, before shooting a teasing smile in his direction.
“Good. So now that I’ve finally changed your mind about me, I’d rather it stayed this way. I won’t alter it anymore.” She kissed his cheek quickly, in the friendliest way possible, and she turned on her heels. “Bye, Derek.”
She walked out the door, leaving Derek standing in the middle of the room, lips pursed.
Well, this had been fun. Most fun he’d had in ages.
But he also had a feeling that this wasn’t over yet. This wasn’t the last he’d see of Cindy these days.
Two weeks had gone by, and Derek was starting to see he’d truly seen the last of Cindy. They hadn’t run into each other anymore, no more forgetting stuff at his place, no more driving her to interviews. It was like their whole thing, whatever it was, their whole fling had never happened.
So, naturally, he hadn’t mentioned a word to Ray. Why endure a whole lecture for something that was already over? He stood by his policy. What Ray didn’t know, couldn’t hurt him. And what Ray didn’t know kept him from hurting Derek, too.
Needless to say, Cindy hadn’t made an appearance at Ray’s library, either. She seemed to have finally gotten the message, so she kept her distance, and Derek hoped she was doing well in the process of moving on, what with her new job and everything.
He found himself thinking about her more often than not, which surprised him to no end. After all, as jerk as he may have been for thinking it and as harsh as it may have sounded, Cindy didn’t mean anything to him. Except two really, really memorable nights and some cute memories from a time when they were practically kids. But other than that, now that she was out of the picture, he had no reason whatsoever to keep remembering her randomly. He told himself it was because she had been the first girl to brush him off the way he always brushed off his flings.
He shook off these thoughts as he walked through the snow on that mid-December afternoon, and a few minutes later, he walked into the library where his best friend worked.
It was uncharacteristically quiet. Not that Ray was particularly loud, but there seemed to be some kind of tension in the air you could cut through with a knife. For a second, Derek worried that Ray might have found out about his little adventures with Cindy, but that would’ve been absurd. First of all, because there was no way he could find out, and secondly, because it was ridiculous to be scared of how Ray would react, after all. It was his bed, therefore, his decision with whom he was sharing it.
“Raymond,” he exclaimed, extending his arms and grinning like an idiot. “Long time no see, lad.”
Ray looked at him, but didn’t react much. He didn’t even complain about being called Raymond. Or the British wanna-be accent. Huh. This was odd.
“Wow,” Derek raised his eyebrows. “Who ruffled your feathers, my friend?”
Ray sighed. “No one. Good to see you around, finally. Thought you’d forgotten about lil’ old me.”
“Ah,” Derek snapped his fingers. “The silent treatment. I see. I’m getting the cold shoulder.”
“No, Derek, that’s… That’s not at all it.”
Ray ran a hand through his hair and rubbed his face. He looked tired, Derek noticed. And not the good kind of tired that involved losing sleep whenever Sky stayed over, but more like mentally exhausted, like he was burdened. Derek frowned. Last time he’d seen his best friend like this, it was when his father had just died.
“Ray, man, is everything okay?”
He forced a small smile.
“So all it takes is a pouty face to get you to stop calling me Raymond?”
Derek glared. “Dude, I’m serious. What’s wrong?”
Ray bit his lip and averted his gaze. How could he tell him? How could he make that decision? And truth be told, the decision was already made. All it took now was learning to live with it. And this was the most difficult part. Because he didn’t know how to live with chasing his dream if it involved leaving people behind. He wasn’t interested in climbing the mountain. All he wanted was to enjoy the view.
“I got an internship,” he spoke in a small voice, and Derek simply blinked at him.
“Are you serious, Raymond?” he shrieked. “You scared the crap out of me. I thought something really serious happened, to you, or to your family, or to Sky, and all that’s wrong with you is getting cold feet for a new job?”
Ray pursed his lips, not having it in him to correct him.
“Well?” Derek prompted.
“I got an internship, Derek. And it’s in New York.”
Seconds of silence followed, in which Derek didn’t say a word. And that was disconcerting. It wasn’t like Derek to stop talking. Derek was the guy who kept going just because his brain was a maze, an explosion of colors, and he felt the need to constantly let it out. People didn’t get that. People saw Derek as a guy who picked up chicks in bars and broke their hearts, a hyperactive prick with nothing good to say. But Derek was smart. Exceptionally smart. And Ray had known that ever since they were kids. Ray was always the one who got praised by teachers, always the one with straight A’s, valedictorian, first in his class, both high school and college. Derek was all B’s and C’s and failed classes because he talked back to teachers and forgot to do his assignments. But he was brilliant, and Ray had always been amazed by it. Hell, he’d known the guy for at least half his life. He’d come to learn that behind seemingly empty words, Derek spoke more than you’d realized, if you only knew how to listen. Ray wondered who could listen to Derek if he’d go away, and his heart shrunk a little.
“W-which one?” Derek asked eventually.
“What?” Ray frowned.
“Which New York?”
Ray rolled his eyes at the amount of denial in his best friend.
“There’s one in Texas, haven’t you heard?” Ray mocked.
“Well, it’s gotta be,” Derek laughed humorlessly. “’Cause there’s no way you’re referring to the one that’s all the way across the fucking country.”
“Derek—“ Ray began, but he didn’t know how to continue. What could he tell him?
“Wait, you’re serious?” Derek’s face fell. “You’re really moving to New York?”
“I haven’t given them an answer yet. The internship starts in March, so I wouldn’t have to leave until then. And God knows I want to, Derek, but I can’t just leave and not look back. I’ve got family here. Friends.”
Derek scratched the back of his head and started pacing, not talking for another few seconds.
“But, Ray—“ he spoke eventually, more serious than Ray had ever heard him. “Your dream job’s there. The career you’ve dreamed about ever since you were a kid. I think that weights a lot, too.”
“It does,” Ray admitted. “I can’t work as a librarian for the rest of my life. Not with all the sacrifices I’ve made to go through law school. But I can’t just choose to ignore everything else. I can’t go if it costs me the people I love.”
“Ray, come on, man,” Derek laughed humorlessly again. “I mean, it’s gonna suck, but it’s not gonna cost you the people you love. People keep caring even if you’re not there.”
Neither of them spoke for a few seconds, letting the words sink in. And then Ray cracked a smile.
“That was some deep shit, man,” he chuckled, and Derek laughed in return.
“Well, in all honesty, Raymond,” he said, and Ray saw the transition to the Derek he knew and loved. “You were always an awful wingman. At least now you’ll spare me the excruciating agony of watching you try to hook me up with ladies. I mean, Sky alone was a miracle, a gift from the gods. I’ve always wondered how many goats you’ve sacrificed in order to get that hottie.”
Ray threw his head back laughing, but it was visible to Derek, how the joy seemed to fade away second by second, as the words sank in. And he knew exactly what keyword had triggered it. Sky.
“How’d she take it, anyway?” he asked. “Sky? Did you tell her yet?”
“No, not yet. I only found out this morning. I think I’m gonna tell her tonight.”
He pursed his lips, and Derek waited for him to go on.
“It’s not fair, you know?” Ray threw his hands in the air exasperated. “I finally find this girl, and she’s amazing. And we have this amazing thing. And I’m finally getting past her defenses, and it finally starts to look as if we might be heading somewhere, and I have never felt like this about someone. It’s not fair that I have to give it up.”
Derek sighed and wrinkled his nose.
“I don’t know what to tell you, man. I get it. It’s really not fair. But don’t sweat it. Take it one step at a time. Tell her first, and go from there. She might surprise you.”
Ray nodded slightly and patted his friend on the back. Count on Derek to talk some sense into him. You’d think it was the other way around. But it never had been. Clear-headed Ray and buffoon Derek practically turned one into the other in times of crisis.
“Thanks, man,” Ray smiled. “Now, let’s move on. When were you gonna tell me you were sleeping with Cindy?”
Derek’s eyes widened and he opened and closed his mouth a few times.
“How the fuck did you know?” he shrieked, and Ray laughed.
“I’m your best friend, you moron. Did you really think you could keep things from me?”
“Okay, first of all, we’re not sleeping together. It only happened—“
Ray tried the door, but part of him knew he’d find it unlocked. It was the messed up way things usually are. The one night when he didn’t want to see Sky, when he’d want to postpone telling her about the internship as much as he could, of course he’d find her here early.
He dragged his feet to the kitchen and found her there, the cutest frown on her forehead, literally covered in flour.
When she spotted him, she smiled sheepishly. Ray couldn’t recall if she’d ever been sheepish with him before. It suited her, in contrast to her confident and smug and sexy as hell self.
“I swear it’s not what it looks like,” she shrugged and wrinkled her nose, and Ray wanted nothing more than to wrap her in his arms like a gift, to smooth down her hair and maybe, just maybe, kiss her hard enough that her gravity would find a way to keep him glued to her and he wouldn’t have to go away.
“That’s what a guilty person would say,” he forced a small smile. “See? Lawyered.”
Sky rolled her eyes, but chuckled nonetheless.
“I never said I wasn’t guilty, Ray of Sunshine. I’m guilty of trying to be romantic.”
She blushed, and it looked delicious on her. Not much embarrassed Sky, Ray thought. She was a free spirit, one who dared take chances and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, one who made demands and gave no explanations. There was beauty in her fearlessness and madness in how much he loved her.
“Care to elaborate?” he prompted, proceeding to shrug off his coat.
“I was trying to surprise you,” she came to stand in front of him, resting her hands on his chest, warm against his steady heartbeat that hummed at her touch. “I wanted to make a simple dinner for just the two of us. Turns out I’m a terrible cook.”
Ray chuckled in spite of himself, his heart shrinking nonetheless.
“I think I could’ve safely made that assumption,” he mocked her, and she slapped his arm playfully.
But in just an instant, she grew serious, and Ray could feel her scrutinizing gaze slipping past his walls like morning light through a thin window. Forcing your eyelids open, forcing you to admit you’re awake.
“Let it out, Ray of Sunshine. What’s wrong?”
He sighed, not bothering to hide it.
“What makes you think there’s something wrong?” he averted his gaze, but she placed a finger under his chin and met his eyes.
“You’re tense. And it’s clear your head is someplace else. Plus, every time you walk inside the apartment and I’m here, your eyes do this thing. They shine a little brighter for just a second. A little greener. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s there, and I’ll admit I’m proud to know I put it there. So what took it away?”
Ray felt his chest tighten. He’d had no idea Sky was as receptive as him as he was of her. Their short-lived bond ran deep, but given the news he carried now, it also cut deep as a knife. A dull knife. One that cuts painfully, brutally, slaughtering flesh, meant to cause pain rather than to kill. Sharp knives provide the luxury of a clean break, and this was anything but it.
“I need to say something,” he began, and Sky frowned. “I don’t think you’ll be fond of hearing it, but I just need to say it. Just once. And you need to hear it just once.”
Ray saw it in her eyes that she was anticipating it, and her sapphire eyes darkened a little.
“Let me say it,” he closed his eyes and clasped her hands in his. “Just once.”
She didn’t speak, didn’t move, didn’t breathe, staying still in his arms, unspoken words floating between them like wild butterflies waiting to be caught. But butterflies aren’t meant to be caught.
“I love you.”
Butterflies are meant to be set free. Because once you catch them, they end up dead inside an insectary. And all that’s left for you to do is watch them and live with remembering how beautifully they used to surround your body in flight.
“Ray—“ she tried again.
“I love you,” he cut her off, and his shoulders dropped slightly, as if one of the weights had been lifted. “God, I love you. And now that I’ve learned what loving you feels like, I have to let go of it.”
Sky frowned and shied away from his touch, surprised. “What?”
Ray let go of her and moved a few steps backwards, rubbing his face. His eyes were bloodshot and his hands were shaking a little.
“I got an internship in New York,” he blurted. “I leave in March.”
So the words were out. Their weight pushed and pulled and drew Ray’s eyelids closed and dragged Sky’s feet a few steps backwards and shoved sharp icicles straight through their hearts with every shaky heartbeat.
“Oh,” Sky murmured eventually, and she forced a broken smile. “Wow. Congratulations.”
She turned her back on him, and the words came back to Ray to rip his skin open and tear at his lungs, blocking out the air. Then his vision blurred. Then his hands started shaking. And more words started to claw their way out, those dug out from deep within that you always regret having let out, but can never put back into cage.
“Is that all you have to say?” he clenched his jaw.
He heard Sky draw in a sharp breath and for the briefest of seconds, it occurred to him that this couldn’t be too easy on her either. But the thought faded as soon as it came, and Ray was blinded by rage and by every feeling he’d pushed down deep within himself like he’d been drowning in a bottomless well.
Sky turned around, wearing the same polite smile that drove Ray completely over the edge.
“Well, it’s good news,” she defended. “You wanted the internship, so you got a great internship. What else do you want me to say?”
Ray moved forward and stood in front of her, nostrils flaring.
“I don’t want you to say anything, Sky,” he whispered, his tempered voice scarier than if he would’ve screamed. “I need you to say you wanna fight for this, dammit. For us. That we’re worth saving and that we can work this out. That we’re gonna make it.”
He was breathing hard, and she turned her back on him again, rubbing her temples. He let her have her space and waited for a few minutes in utter silence, and when she turned around this time, her smile was broken, a broken piece of a precious porcelain doll. Her eyes held the glory and the beauty of a falling star, yet they also held the same sadness and tragedy of it. And Ray knew that the bets were off, and so were the masks. They were looking at a ‘Game Over’ burning-red screen as the sky was falling down, gray as never before.
“But truth is, Ray, we’re not,” she spoke, letting her arms fall by her body. “We’re not gonna make it. It’s gonna end, and it’s not gonna be pretty.”
Ray let out a heavy sigh and turned his back on her, unable to deal with that kind of burden right now. And it was unfair on her behalf to drop it on him like that. What surprised him, however, was feeling her stand behind him and they both breathed in and out in perfect sync for a few seconds, before she put her arms around his torso and resting her head on his shoulder blades. It felt more intimate than anything they’d ever done, more personal and intense, and Ray found himself once again unable to breathe. Because of both bliss and agony.
“We won’t make it, Ray,” she whispered again, and Ray’s heart shrank. “But we don’t have to deal with that just yet.”
Ray frowned and the spell was broken. He unwrapped her gently from around himself and turned around to face her.
“You said you don’t have to leave until March,” she shrugged one shoulder sheepishly.
“Sky—“ Ray began, but she cut him off.
“No, listen to me, Ray. That’s three months. Three months is all we have left. And it’s better than nothing.”
He waited for her to go on, seeing her point, but failing to understand where she was going with it. But despite himself, he caught glimpse of a small hope glimmering like a beacon beneath the line of their horizon.
“We’ve got three months to be whoever we want to be, Ray of Sunshine,” she continued. “We’ll take this time and do exactly that. We’ll be someone else every day. We’ll make them the best we’ve ever had because it’ll be the best we’ll ever get. And then you’ll go chase your future and I’ll proudly wear the crown of your past. For now, I’m happy with being your present.”
Ray looked at her dumbstruck, and he realized he would’ve done anything she asked of him. Now, and anytime. She was so toxic in his bloodstream, and he was so addicted to her. So when she extended her hand to him, he didn’t hesitate a second before taking it.
“Do we have a deal?” she asked, looking at their intertwined fingers and offering a tentative half-smile.
“Lead the way,” Ray returned her smile, offering the same chorus they’d been singing for a while now.
And the words were like a prayer, the kind you say every time, the kind you keep repeating until your lips go numb and your knees go sore. The words, they’d all been sung, and their hearts knew them all, kept them hidden within the rhythms they beat with. So Sky’s smile widened and she let go of the choreographed words, allowing them to seal the agreement.
As if, Ray thought. Like there could be a different answer.