The Long Way Home

She felt unbearably fragile.

The words hung in the air between them, and she couldn’t bear to look up and see him. Or let him see her.

They were true, she knew, the words she had spoken. And so it shouldn’t have mattered what he replied, because that truth came with a numbness, a protection of its own. She waited longingly for that numbness to come, but it didn’t. For the first time, it didn’t. She couldn’t escape what that meant.

He could hurt her. Even now, by just leaving, he could hurt her. Because she needed him. And she had rejected him with her words that were true.

“I can’t. I know you want me to be brave again, but I can’t.”

She had to make him understand. Before he gave her more than she could ever return. Before it became more unfair to him than it already was. She owed him the truth.

It must have been only a few seconds, but his silence seemed to stretch through the night. She turned her head, away from him, towards the empty street and the sidewalk she would have to walk alone later. The city lights glowed on the pavement. She felt cold.

Then his hands were on her face, turning her back to him. Gently.

“Hey,” he said, his tone as tender as his touch. One fingertip traced the trail of moisture from the teardrop she had tried to hide from him. Slowly, hesitantly, she met his gaze.

His eyes were direct, intense. His voice was low, but clear and compelling in the cold air. “You don’t have to be anything you don’t want to be. Not for me.”

The words slammed into her heart, pounded on the walls that had been necessary for so long. She couldn’t say anything past the tightness in her throat.

“Come on,” he said after a few moments. He was smiling. “I’ll walk you home.”

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