"Deciding what to say
Tryin' to chase my fear away
But every time I look into your eyes
Nerves begin to fray"
"Don't you ever do that to me again!"
The whisper cut through my ears like thunder, and her tears' damp on my shoulder was the rain. At the frailty of her voice I shuddered. I had no idea that my mere absence could be so devastating to anyone. But if anyone, it would be her. Her susceptibility to emotion was nearly equivalent to mine to sunburn. Next to her I was practically unscathed. What had I done?
I wanted to hold on, but I needed to let go.
"Diane," I began, pulling back and holding her at shoulder's length. Noticing the still-ajar door with a shadow-concealed blush, I reached past her to pull it shut. Just as it clicked back into place the familiar flimsy lightbulb ignited above our heads. I turned to look at her, her hand still retreating from pulling the cord. She looked broken. Shying away, hair fallen in front of her eyes, eyes cast down. The very sight of her made me despair.
It wasn't okay to see my source of strength ridden with such weakness.
"Di," I reached out before I could stop myself, taking her head in my hand so as to force her eyes into mine. Big mistake. As soon as I did I lost my nerve. She was crying. I hated it when she cried. Somehow the presence of tears on her face rendered me unable to function. The speech I had rehearsed in my head evaporated, leaving me frantically drawing blanks. I stood there desperately attempting to form words for what could have been anywhere from moments to minutes. Some rescue.
Then she gave me a lopsided smile and an eyebrow in the stratosphere.
"You could start with 'Sorry.'"
"Yes, that, I concur," I blurted, glad for an excuse to say something easy. Reddening again I moved my hand from the side of her face to her shoulder again, scrutinizing the corroding floor for an excuse to avoid her weeping eyes until the last possible moment. I looked up and spoke simultaneously.
"Diane Morgan Sullivan, I sincerely apologize for my dishonorable conduct." I burst in one breath.
She made a noise that seemed halfway between a laugh and a sob, so I took that as acceptance and let out a long breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding. I mentally collapsed, slumping forwards with hands on knees as if gravity had suddenly increased on my upper body. I felt like I had just ran for my life or became a father. My head came up of its own accord and I looked around without seeing anything as if in a daze. Pulling at my collar at the sudden heat, I ran my hands through my hair as I stared intently at nothing. It took me a while before I could say anything else.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever done." I stated truthfully.
Then she laughed. No doubt about it. The sudden noise drew my gaze to her, and before I could stop myself my sarcasm poured out in a subconscious attempt to bring things back into the natural order that I had so carelessly upset two days ago.
"How is that funny?!" I demanded, brows connecting and eyes glaring.
That did absolutely nothing to end her mirth. In fact, she doubled over giggling, as hysterical as she had been when we'd played our little practical joke on Dr. Po together. As if I weren't redder than Jupiter's Spot by now, I colored even further. But of course the man pride aforementioned by Sakura had to make one last attempt to reassert itself.
"It's not, in case you're still working on it!" I snapped again. If anything, her laughter reinvigorated at my further deprecation. She almost seemed all better, as she was splitting her sides with no adverse symptoms. But then she stood up straight again, brushing her hair behind her ear with one hand still on her ribs. The tears in her eyes had not yet vanished, but she was smiling again. I allowed myself to breathe.
"Arty, you're always funny," she declared. I scowled in chagrin, put it may have turned out more like some undefined uncomfortable face. "to the point where it hurts. Mostly because you never mean to or want to be, which adds a pathetic tinge in your case since you're already a toothpick. That's the best kind of humor right there, like Data in Star Trek."
"I'm going to pretend I don't know what you're talking about," I growled, kneading my temples as I tried to erase the comparison between myself and a socially awkward android from my mind. She punched me in the arm, which doubtless wasn't meant to hurt as much as it did.
"C'mon, don't pretend you don't know something that I do," she drawled sarcastically, raising her eyebrows at me again. When she began to imitate me she assumed a disgustingly overworked attempt at an Irish accent. "That's not the Arty I know. You should be like, 'How dare you be an idiot in my presence! I scoff in your general direction! Get out of my sight before I sick my pet gorilla on you!'"
"His name is Butler," I snarled, not taking kindly to a jab at my other closest friend. By now I was rubbing my shoulder, which was beginning to feel sore. "And if I ever said that, I wouldn't stop saying it until I went home!"
"But what if you're thinkin' it?" she speculated, clasping her hands behind her back and donning a sublimely smug expression. "'Cause I know you are. You probably think that Butler's a gorilla, too, but only because you're the size of a monkey."
"If I'm a monkey, you're only a capuchin next to him," I retorted, mentally kicking myself for want of a better thing to call her-perhaps something that fit into her vocabulary, for example. "by anyone's standards. My Butler is aptly trained in any and all forms of defense, death, and dismemberment. He's the most lethal gorilla you've ever met."
"You mean the most lethal gorilla I haven't met?" she replied, inclining her head and cocking one eyebrow. I opened my mouth, shut it again. It had just occurred to me that for being one of my closest friends, I had yet to introduce her to the only other one I possessed.
"You've never met Butler, have you?"
"Or been to my home?"
"But I've been to your house. And met your dogs."
"That's not okay."
"We could go right now."
"...let's do it."
"Thought you'd never say it, mate," she said with a spark in her eye and her most dangerous grin. The part of me that I normally used foretold potentially drastic consequences at my quick decision, but the rest of me was surprisingly vociferous in being okay with that. Brushing past me to get to the door, she put her ear to it with a faux intensity to her manner. Motioning an all-clear to me, she silently opened the door and poked her head out as covertly as she could manage. She only did so for a moment before she freely walked out with no inhibition. Switching the light off above, I followed her into the sunlight and shut the door behind me.
I squinted a little to readjust to the white sunlight streaming through the vaulted windows, but the illumination's effect on Diane was welcome. Her hair shone in ripples as she reached up to put it back. Her skin, halfway between American bronze and English ivory, seemed to glow with vitality. Turning to glance at me over her shoulder, her lip curled ever so slightly and her eye sparkled. Looking right back into those eyes of mercy, I couldn't help but smile. She had that effect on me when all was well. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed her.
But how could things be back to normal so easily?
Footsteps echoed down the hall like gunshots. They inspired me similarly. With a surge of energy the likes of which I had never experienced, my heart matched their tempo and I broke into a sudden sprint. As I passed Diane I seized her hand and looked her in the eye, and I'm sure that I must have looked as mad as a march hare when I told her,
To my eternal surprise it seemed that I was pulling her along for a couple strides. But with a wild whoop that was so Diane she seemed to regain her footing, and then it was the other way around as it should be. As we raced down the halls away from our half-imagined adversary, I was reminded of the first day we met as my footsteps became farther and fewer in between. As we rounded a corner I went wide and almost fell, but her relentless pace would have none of it. Heedless of my embarrassing lack of balance, she dragged me on, on towards the doors that awaited our return to reality with bated breath. As we got closer, my face gradually fell from exhilaration. We were getting very close to those doors now, and Diane was showing no signs of decelerating. If anything, she seemed to be increasing our pace. Those were very strong-looking doors. Very tall, thick doors, reinforced with wrought-iron and crafted from sturdy oak. So why weren't we slowing down? I would like to slow down. Diane, please. Diane!
"Di?!" I inquired finally, just before she leaped at the doors with one shoulder forward and the other firmly wrapped around me.
Rather than splintering or shattering her shoulder like the scenario my pessimistic and physics-oriented lobe expected, the doors gave before Diane's might and we were catapulted into thin air. Above us the sky was silver, shafts of sunlight daring to poke through the cloud shapes in the distance. Before us hills rolled infinitely, grass and trees billowing in slow-motion in an unfelt wind. Below us, stairs loomed, building into Irish green only after half a flight. The landing wasn't going to be pleasant.
Yet rather than allow Diane to save my sorry skin from a bruising as she believes is her duty, I twisted so as to break her fall and braced myself for impact with the marble.
It was worth it.
"The Hardest Thing" is copyright Joaftheloaf and Feather
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